Military history


The German Capture of Orel

By the time Grossman and Troyanovsky returned to Orel, it too was in danger. Operation Typhoon, the Wehrmacht drive on Moscow, began on 30 September with Guderian’s assault against the Bryansk Front commanded by General Yeremenko. General Petrov’s 50th Army, which Grossman had so recently visited, was cut off by the German 2nd Army. Orel itself was threatened by Guderian’s XXIV Panzer Corps.

Grossman’s account, beginning on 2 October, partly contradicts the usual version of the capture of Orel. This claims that the German tanks raced with total surprise into the city in the late afternoon of 3 October, overtaking trams in the street. Even though the military authorities were astonishingly complacent, his descriptions indicate that large numbers of civilians were well aware of the danger and were attempting to flee before the German panzer troops arrived.

Orel, Orel once again. There are aircraft over it. Trucks. People carry children in their arms. Children sitting on bundles. [There is a constant] rattling noise during the night: the city is on the move. We are in a hotel once again. It is a normal provincial hotel, but now it seems an extremely nice one after all the travelling, because it is such an ordinary, such a peaceful one.

There is a school map of Europe. We go to look at it. We are terrified at how far we have retreated. I am approached in the corridor by a photo-journalist called Redkin whom I’d met at front headquarters. He looks alarmed. ‘The Germans are rushing straight for Orel. There are hundreds of tanks. I had a narrow escape under fire. We must leave immediately, otherwise they’ll catch us here.’ And he tells us how he was sitting in a very quiet rear headquarters having dinner, when suddenly they heard a noice. They looked out the window and saw an NKVD man running past. He was covered in flour. It turned out that he had been driving along a few kilometres away, completely unaware of how close the Germans were, when suddenly a tank turned its turret and fired, hitting the truck in which he was carrying sacks of flour. ‘Tanks are everywhere!’ Redkin got into a car and rushed to Orel. German tanks were advancing along the same road, and there was no resistance. Redkin tells us this news in a frightened, hissing whisper.

I go to the room where two officers I know are staying: a bearded major and a captain from the operations department. I ask whether they know anything about the German breakthrough. They look at me, their eyes filled with a pig-headed, self-confident stupidity. ‘That’s nonsense,’ they say and continue drinking.

The city is rumbling all night long, vehicles and carts move without stopping. In the morning the city is gripped by horror and agony, almost like typhus. There’s weeping and commotion in our hotel. I try to pay for my room. No one wants to take the money, but I force the woman on duty to take seven roubles, I don’t know why. People with sacks and suitcases are running past in the street, some carrying children. The major, ‘the great strategist’, and the captain scurry past me, their faces sheepish. We go to the headquarters of the military district, but they won’t let us in without passes. Clerks and lower-ranking officials are completely calm. We are told that passes can be issued only after 10 a.m. We have to wait for an hour, and the chiefs will not turn up before 11. Oh, how I know this unshakeable calmness that originates from ignorance and which can in no time turn into a hysterical fear and panic. I have seen all this before – in Gomel, Bezhitsk, Shchors, Mena, Chernigov, Glukhov.

We come across a colonel we know. ‘Is it possible to get to Front headquarters by the Bryansk highway?’

‘Maybe,’ he says, ‘but most likely German tanks have already reached that sector.’

After that we visit the banya [for a steam bath] and then set off on the Bryansk highway. Never say die! A female military doctor of Georgian origin comes with us. She also needs to reach the rear echelon of Front headquarters. She sings love songs all the way in an extremely artificial voice. She recently arrived from the rear areas and hasn’t the slightest idea of the danger we are in. All of us, her audience, are all the time looking over to the left, as if twisted. The road is empty, there isn’t a single vehicle, not a single pedestrian, no peasant carts, everything is dead! There is a dreadful air about these deserted roads along which our last units have just passed and the first enemy ones may appear at any minute. The empty road is like an abandoned no man’s land between our lines and the Germans.

We make it safely [to] Bryansk forest, which seems to us almost like the family home. German tanks were following us on the very same highway just two hours behind. The Germans entered Orel at six in the evening by the Kromy road [from the south]. Perhaps they washed in the same banya which had been heated for us that morning.

In our izba that night, I suddenly remember the interrogation, by the light of a wick lamp, of the Austrian in the luxurious leather coat. It was these very tanks that he had been talking about!

Grossman, on this evening of 3 October 1941, still did not know that one of Guderian’s panzer columns was cutting off General Yeremenko’s Bryansk Front from the rear and that they were far from safe where they were in the forest. Within two days the Bryansk Front was virtually demolished. Yeremenko spent most of the night of 5 October waiting for a telephone call from Stalin authorising a more ‘mobile defence’ – a euphemism for withdrawal. And in the early hours of 6 October, his own headquarters realised that it too was under threat. The Germans had nearly sealed the last escape route.

The staff commissar summoned us and said: ‘At 4 a.m., not a minute later, you must set off on the following route.’ He didn’t bother to give us any explanation, but it wasn’t necessary anyway. It was all clear, particularly after we looked at the map. Our headquarters was caught in a sack. Germans were advancing on the right to Sukhinichi and on the left to Bolkhov from Orel, and we were sitting in a forest near Bryansk. We went back to our lodge and started packing: mattresses, chairs, lamp, sacks. Thrifty Petlyura even fetched a supply of cranberries from the attic. We loaded everything on to the truck given to us by General Yeremenko and set off precisely at 4 a.m. under a clear cold sky by the light of autumn stars. We were in a race. Either we had to get out of the sack first, or the Germans would tie it up while we were still inside.

The 50th Army, with whom Grossman had been earlier, tried to fight its way out of the Bryansk forest. Brigade Commissar Shlyapin, like General Petrov, was caught in the encirclement. Petrov died from gangrene in a woodcutter’s hut deep in the forest near Belev. The manner of Shlyapin’s death remains unclear, which is no doubt why Grossman wanted to include him in The People Immortal. On 4 October, Grossman and his companions found themselves far from alone in their determination to escape.

I thought I’d seen retreat, but I’ve never seen anything like what I am seeing now, and could never even imagine anything of the kind. Exodus! Biblical exodus! Vehicles are moving in eight lanes, there’s the violent roaring of dozens of trucks trying simultaneously to tear their wheels out of the mud. Huge herds of sheep and cows are driven through the fields. They are followed by trains of horse-driven carts, there are thousands of wagons covered with coloured sackcloth, veneer, tin. In them are refugees from Ukraine. There are also crowds of pedestrians with sacks, bundles, suitcases.

This isn’t a flood, this isn’t a river, it’s the slow movement of a flowing ocean, this flow is hundreds of metres wide. Children’s heads, fair and dark, are looking out from under the improvised tents covering the carts, as well as the biblical beards of Jewish elders, shawls of peasant women, hats of Ukrainian uncles, and the black-haired heads of Jewish girls and women. What silence is in their eyes, what wise sorrow, what sensation of fate, of a universal catastrophe!

In the evening, the sun comes out from the multilayered blue, black and grey clouds. Its rays are wide, stretching from the sky down to the ground, as in Doré’s paintings depicting those frightening biblical scenes when celestial forces strike the Earth. This movement of elders, of women carrying babies in their arms, of herds of sheep and of warriors seems in these broad yellow sunrays so majestic and so tragic. There are moments when I feel with complete vividness as if we have been transported back in time to the era of biblical catastrophes.

Everyone keeps looking up into the sky, but not because they are waiting for the Messiah. They are watching out for German bombers. Suddenly there are shouts: ‘Here they are! They’re coming, they are coming straight for us!’

Dozens of aerial boats are gliding in the sky, slowly and smoothly, in triangular ranks. They are moving towards us. Dozens, hundreds of people climb over the sides of trucks, jump out of cabins, run towards the forest. Everyone is infected with panic, the running crowd is growing bigger every minute. And then everyone hears the shrill voice of a woman: ‘Cowards, cowards, they are just cranes flying over!’ Confusion.

Staying the night in Komarichi. Some of the staff have arrived. The colonel advises us not to go to sleep and to visit him every hour. He himself knows absolutely nothing, he has no means of communication, and with whom, anyway, would he communicate? Troyanovsky had said he would keep visiting the colonel, but suddenly he disappears, we are furious, then alarmed: the lad has disappeared, and there’s no sign of him. Lysov and I take turns to go and see the colonel, and in the pauses we keep looking out of the window and develop dozens of theories for Troyanovsky’s disappearance. I go out into the yard and suddenly hear some muffled noises coming from our Emka automobile. I open the door. Our missing youth is there enjoying the company of our landlady’s niece. I embarrassed them and they embarrassed me. I removed Troyanovsky from the car and he received a severe reprimand from us in the house. ‘Do you realise what sort of situation we are all in, you young fool, how dare you!’

Yes, he understands everything and agrees with everything. He is very sorry. There’s a sweet, pacified expression in his face. He is yawning, stretching. This is probably what makes us so angry. We haven’t had even half as good a time as he has. The niece comes back to the izba. Oh, there’s calmness and peace in her face. One could paint [pictures entitled] ‘Innocence’, ‘Purity’, ‘Morning’. This makes us furious. We have to move on again at dawn.

The race is continuing: who is faster, the Germans or us? We give a lift in our truck to the medical personnel from a regional hospital. The doctors aren’t used to walking. They are utterly exhausted. We give them a lift to Belev. The elderly doctor thanks us touchingly with lofty phrases like: ‘You’ve saved our lives.’ The old noblesse oblige.1 The ‘doctoresses’ don’t even say goodbye to us. They pick up their bundles and hurry to the platform of the railway station.

Belev, with a steep drive into the town, horrendous mud, narrow and not so narrow streets, is unable to receive the whole mass pouring in from village roads. Lots of mad rumours are circulating, ridiculous and absolutely panic-stricken. Suddenly, there is a mad storm of firing. It turns out that someone has switched on the street lights, and soldiers and officers opened rifle and pistol fire at the lamps in order to put them out. If only they had fired like this at the Germans. Those who don’t know the reason for this shooting flee in all directions. They think that the Germans have broken through. What else could it be?

We sleep in a monstrously poor room. Such terrible, black poverty is only possible in a town, in a slum. The landlady, a real mastodon with a husky voice, rattles, swears, hisses at children and objects. I thought – we all thought – her a fury, a spawn of hell, but then we see that she is kind, generous, caring. With what anxiety she makes us rag beds on the floor, and how she treats us to the food!

At night, in the darkness I hear someone sobbing. ‘Who’s that?’ The landlady replies in a husky whisper: ‘It’s me. I’ve got seven children, I am lamenting them.’ This poverty, this urban poverty is somehow worse than the village sort. It’s deeper and blacker, an all-embracing poverty, deprived even of air and light.

In an izba, there are peacetime newpapers pasted on the walls instead of wallpaper. We look at them and say: ‘Look, it’s all about peacetime.’ Yesterday we saw a house with wartime newpapers instead of wallpaper. If that house survives, people will one day remark: ‘Look at these wartime newspapers!’

We spend the night near Belev, in the house of a young teacher. She is very pretty and very silly, an absolute lamb. A girlfriend of hers is staying there for the night, too. She is also very young but not so pretty. They talk throughout the night in a whisper, arguing passionately. In the morning we learn that our teacher is going to abandon the house and move east, while her friend has decided to go west to join her relatives who are living on the other side of Belev. That means to return to [enemy] occupied territory.

Our teacher asks us to give her a lift. We agree. I call our one-and-a-half-ton truck the Noah’s Ark. It has already saved so many dozens of people from the flood that came from the west. The two friends’ eyes are red in the morning from weeping all night. These days everyone cries at night and is calm, indifferent and patient in the daytime. We pack our things, and our young landlady comes out to the truck with a tiny bundle. She does not want to take her mirror, her curtains, her perfume bottles, not even her dresses. ‘I don’t need anything,’ she says. I think I’ve underestimated the spiritual wisdom in this eighteen-year-old girl.

We try to persuade her friend to go with us. Her face is dead, the lips are pressed together tightly, she says nothing and does not look at us. The two friends say goodbye coldly, they don’t even shake hands.

‘Start the engine, let’s go!’ Yes, the problems these eighteen-year-old girls now have to resolve are no trifle. At the last minute, we go into the sweet little room of the girl who is already sitting in the truck. It is nobody’s room now. We polish our boots using face cream and white collars. I think we do that to emphasise to ourselves that life has been ruined.

1 In the original, blagorodnaya kost, literally ‘noble bone’.

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