Red Road To Stalingrad
An account of the extreme conditions endured by Red Army soldiers at Stalingrad
In late 1942 Mansur Abdulin was fighting in the ranks of the Red Army at Stalingrad. The nineteen-year-old former gold miner from central Siberia had only been on the frontline for just over a month. He would later fight at Kursk, before his war ended when he was wounded during fighting in Ukraine in late 1943.
His vivid recollection of episodes from the war were not published until 1998 and not in English until 2004. Red Road from Stalingrad: Recollections of a Soviet Infantryman is not a recent publication - but its relative rarity as an account from someone who fought in the front line on the Soviet side deserves wider attention.
The following excerpt covers his experiences in the last days of 1942:
On 28 December 1942, we learned from a German prisoner (captured by our regimental scouts, led by Andrei Bogdanov) that the Nazis were planning to send us ‘season’s greetings’ at midnight, New Year’s Eve. Consequently, our chiefs ordered us to move into new firing positions, so we could make a pre-emptive strike against the enemy batteries. This order came after a hard but successful fight, in which we seized a comfortable ravine from the Germans.
We had just dug ourselves in, and were preparing, finally, to get some rest for the night, when our company commander, gave the order: ‘Company! Load the mortars!’ We were exhausted, worn out, broken-hearted. But a command is a command. Cursing the whole world, we obeyed him and began packing.
Our firing line sounded like a troubled beehive. From every direction I heard foul language and malicious cries: ‘Boys! This is treason or at the very least downright humiliation!’ Someone else screamed: ‘Shut up! Things are bad enough without you yelling!’ I was on the verge of tears when a vile thought crossed my mind: ‘It’s better to die than to suffer this way!’
And if I, a nineteen-year-old miner used to hard labour since childhood, couldn’t take it any longer, what about those who had just finished ninth or tenth grade? [Boys of seventeen and eighteen years of age - editor’s note.] Or those who were unused to manual labour?
At last our company, headed by the CO, began climbing the steep slope of the ravine, up onto the steppe, and into the teeth of a ferocious hurricane. If we had not been so heavily laden with equip ment, we would have been swept away like leaves of grass to God knows where!
Sand, dust, and grains of ice blinded us, filled our noses and mouths, and even penetrated our clothes. It was minus thirty, and the frost bored deep into our bones. I felt like I was totally naked. Facing the wind, bent double, my nose almost touching the ground, I struggled after the CO with my last scrap of strength.
Then, I suddenly fell face down on the frozen ground, as if someone had stabbed me in the back with a ramrod, right under my left shoulder blade, and pierced my heart. A thought flashed through my brain: ‘Well, Mansur, that’s it!’ The shooting pain was so bad I could hardly breathe, let alone move. And so I lay paralysed with pain - a kind of neuralgia - until at length, the sensation began to ebb away, as if the ‘ramrod’ were being slowly withdrawn.
I drew in a deep breath, got up, and prepared to push on. But first, I looked up at the sky: there was a cold, round moon, and black, ragged clouds, rushing south wards like herds of wild Mongolian horses without riders.
After an agonising half-hour march, our CO made a gesture with his hand, bidding us lie flat, like walruses on a block of ice. Then he, together with his liaison man, disappeared into the darkness, bound for the rifle company in order to check our position. Fifteen minutes later they returned, and the CO ordered us to dig in. I glanced at my pocket watch: it was 1.00 am, no less than eight hours before daybreak ...
The first to begin is my comrade, Pavel Suvorov. He has a captured artillery pick in his hands. The shaft is made of oak, nearly 1m long [almost 40 inches - editor’s note], and the ends are curved, with longitudinal ribs to make them stronger. One end is like a pike, the other like a chisel. Thanks to this pick, our gun crew is always the first to dig in.
But Suvorov looks gloomy and depressed. He just stands there, his head sunk on his chest, leaning with both hands on the shaft. Then he raises the pick, and with a roar, smashes the ground with all his strength. But when I hear the clunk of the Swedish steel, and see the red sparks fly from the spot where his blow fell, I realize that we’re finished.
Everyone else thinks the same. Fuat, who rarely speaks, yells in my ear: ‘It’s the end for our company!’ He walks away and freezes into a stone statue with a sad Mongolian face. If Suvorov, a professional miner, has failed, it seems useless for anyone else to try.
But our platoon commanders, Stukach and Isayev, encourage us to go on: ‘Come on, boys! Come on! Dig in!’ I should give a hand - after all, I am the partorg- but I just bob up and down like some machine, trying to keep warm. A blow! Another blow! Buteiko himself makes a series of them: but the hole he creates is only as big as a sparrow’s nest. One cannot even stick a pair of ammonite cartridges into it.
The other mortarmen crowd together, stamping their feet in a bid to keep warm. They have small entrenching shovels, which are useless against frozen earth. Meanwhile, barely able to move my numb feet, I circle round the group, like some shaman performing a sacred dance to ward off evil spirits.
I am frozen through to my bones; my brain is deadened with cold; my mind refuses to work. Only two cells remain active: one tries to convince me to lie on the ground and have a nice nap; while the other screams, ‘Don’t do that! If you go to sleep now, you’ll die!’ I keep walking. It takes an enormous effort to make a single stride.
Maybe this will be the final step of my life? My little brain cell continues to scream: ‘Hold on! Hold on! Keep going!’ I take one more tread. Suddenly, beneath my feet, I feel something like a cotton wool mattress. My legs fail me and I fall on my knees. A miracle. I have stumbled into a cesspit!
I automatically grab my entrenching shovel and furiously slice through the upper layer of the ‘mattress’ to the moist, warm, muck below. Almost instantly, I smell the bitter scent of ammonium chlo ride. I inhale it. I drink it in. My brain revives with each breath and eventually warmth enters my body. Blood returns to my fingers. Suddenly they began to ache! I call out to my comrades but cannot produce words, only some hissing sounds.
I call them mentally, my eyes wet with tears: ‘Boys! Fuat! Come over here now!’ It seems Fuat and the others hear my thoughts: ‘What’s wrong, Mansur? Did you call us?’ Fuat, seeing the vapour rising from the ground, guesses what I have found, and falling face down on the rotting dung, sticks his freezing arms right in up to the elbows. Suvorov and Latyp-aka also run up and embrace the warm manure. Suvorov jokes: ‘Mansur is lucky with shit! He was born under a lucky star!’
Other mortarmen hurry to join us, but Suvorov proposes they disperse to look for more heaps of musty old manure. Within the hour, all our mortarmen are snugly embedded in the warm Mother Earth, as if into a grand mother’s armpit.
Long before sunrise, we were ready for battle. Suddenly, we heard the boom of engines coming from the sky: German transports bringing holiday presents for the Fritzes. Immediately, we began shooting our captured flare pistols. Then, our anti-aircraft guns opened up, and minutes later, enormous parachutes carrying huge packages descended on our lines.
We ripped them open. Soon our trenches were full of Christmas presents. It would be impossible to name all the goods: sausage, butter, raisins, dried apricots, honey, chocolate, biscuits, brandy, Champagne, schnapps and many other things. There was also warm underwear, woollen socks, sleeping bags and thousands of sets of photos, showing naked beauties and boys, coupled together like the figures in a number 69.
At first, we could not work out what they were doing, but when we finally realized, we couldn’t believe our eyes! My Uzbek friend was so appalled, I had to calm him down by convincing him that the Germans did not use humans for these photos, but painted rubber dolls, just for fun. This is how I came to know about pornography [obscene or indecent images and literature were forbidden in the Soviet Union - editor’s note].
By daybreak, on 29 December, we had divided up the Christmas presents that fell from the sky. The front was quiet and we rested for two days.
Then, on 31 December, at 11.00 pm sharp, we opened up a volley fire against the Nazi artillery batteries, together with our divisional guns. Without sparing our shells, we continued our bombardment for half an hour. The German guns did not get the opportunity to reply.
Some minutes later, however, we heard the dreary howl of a forlorn six-barrel mortar coming from enemy lines. Six shells flew over our heads and exploded somewhere in the ravine that we had left behind
This excerpt from Red Road from Stalingrad: Recollections of a Soviet Infantryman appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.
The above image is one of hundreds contained in The War on the Eastern Front: The Soviet Union 1941-45 A Photographic History, which I featured earlier this year.