GUARDS DIVISION GENERAL ALEXANDER RODIMTSEV

When the battle of Stalingrad began, Vasily Chuikov had yet to make a name for himself. This was in contrast to the lower-ranking and five-year-younger Alexander Rodimtsev, who was already a highly decorated war hero. Like Chuikov, Rodimtsev stemmed from a peasant family and a childhood shaped by poverty before entering the Red Army at the age of twenty-two and joining the party two years later. Rodimtsev followed an officer’s career path and rose quickly through the ranks. In 1936 he was sent to train the International Brigades in Spain. Under his command, the troops scored multiple victories over fascist forces, though he was unable to prevent the collapse of the Spanish Republic and the rise of Franco. On returning from Spain, Rodimtsev received the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest distinction in the Soviet Union.

In 1939 Rodimtsev delivered the welcoming address at the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist party. (That a thirty-four-year-old colonel was selected to give this talk testifies to the large swath that Stalin’s purges had cleared among the generals in the previous two years.) In September 1939 Rodimtsev took part in the Soviet invasion of Poland and then in the Winter War in Finland. In the war against Germany he commanded an airborne brigade that broke free from a Wehrmacht encirclement near Kiev. In November 1941 the brigade was expanded into the 87th Rifle Division and received Guards status in January 1942, becoming the 13th Guards Rifle Division.

On September 9, 1942, the division was removed from reserve status and arrived at the Stalingrad Front on September 14. The first battalions of the 10,000-man division crossed the Volga late on the 14th and early on the 15th. They became embroiled in fighting with the Germans as soon as they reached the western banks.55 By the end of the next week Vasily Grossman had written an article on the 13th Guards Division in Stalingrad. The battle would decide “the fate of the world” and answer the “question of all questions.” Grossman portrayed Rodimtsev, since promoted to major general, as the battle’s linchpin: “Temperament, strong will, composure, quick reaction, the ability to advance when no one else would even dream of an attack, tactical experience and caution combined with tactical and personal fearlessness—these are the traits of a young general’s military character. And the general’s character became the character of his division.” Grossman asked Rodimtsev whether “he was exhausted by the round-the-clock tension of combat, the round-the-clock thunder of the hundreds of German attacks that had taken place last day, last night, and would continue tomorrow. ‘I am calm,’ he said, ‘this is the way it has to be. I have probably seen it all: how my command post was pounded by a German tank and then a German machine gunner threw in a grenade just to be sure. I threw it out. So here I am, fighting, and will go on fighting till the last hour of the war.’ He said it calmly, in a low voice. Then he began asking about Moscow. We actually talked about the current theater season.”56

Just as Grossman described him, Rodimtsev shows restraint in his interview with the Moscow historians (unlike the hot-tempered Chuikov). He talks cautiously and primarily keeps to the events of the battle, spending most of his time on the September attempt to take Mamayev Kurgan and the storming of the German-fortified “L-shaped house” in early December. Rodimtsev emphasizes the importance of the careful planning and coordination between his regiments for their success and stresses his own military skill. He makes no secret of the heavy losses sustained by his division. By early October, over four thousand men were dead or injured. He mentions that when he ordered the storming of the L-shaped house some of his soldiers—all Uzbeks, he notes—remained on the ground and afterward were shot for their cowardice.

Rodimtsev does not address the defense of the so-called Pavlov House. Only years later did Soviet politicians hype this episode as a grand story of the spirit of Soviet internationalism.57 Led by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov and Lieutenant Ivan Afanassyev, two dozen Red Army soldiers entrenched themselves in a four-story residential building set off from the street. The soldiers represented up to eleven different Soviet ethnic groups (the accounts vary)—Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Kalmyks, and others. For almost two months they staved off the German onslaught before troops from the Soviet counteroffensive came to their aid on November 24.58 In his memoir, published in 1969, Rodimtsev devoted an entire chapter to the Pavlov House; the storming of the L-shaped house received only two pages. The memoir vaunts the soldiers’ heroism and the harmonious relations and omits the violence among the ranks and the losses they sustained in combat.59

After Stalingrad the 13th Guards Division fought ceaselessly. As before, the division had the task of building bridgeheads, first crossing the Dnieper, then the Vistula, the Oder, and the Neisse. After traversing the Oder in January 1945, Rodimtsev (by then a lieutenant general) was honored as Hero of the Soviet Union for the second time. After the war he worked as a general inspector of Soviet forces and was elected deputy of the Supreme Soviet. Rodimtsev died in Moscow in 1977. Today his daughter Natalya directs a school museum in Moscow devoted to the Great Patriotic War.

TRANSCRIPT

of interview conducted with Major General Alexander Ilyich RODIMTSEV Commander of the 13th Guards Rifle Division

January 7, 1943

Stalingrad

Interview conducted by scientific secretary A. A. Belkin

Recorded by stenographer A. I. Shamshina60

I was born on March 8, 1905, in the village of Sharlyk,61 in the Chkalov region—formerly the Orenburg region—to a family of poor peasants. Three of my sisters are there now. The youngest of them is forty, the middle one’s fifty, and the oldest is sixty. I’m the youngest. Our father died in 1919, our mother in 1929. I was raised mostly by my mother, and then I took care of myself.

I went to the parish school until 1917, then to the upper primary school for two years, until 1919. We had a small patch of land. Then I apprenticed as a shoemaker. One of my sisters went to school, the others got married. Me, my sister, and my mother lived with my sister’s husband. I made shoes from 1921 to 1922. 1921 was the year of the famine,62 and when there was nothing left to eat I started driving a cart.

My mother always said I would come to a bad end. I got into a lot of mischief. She was always crying because I couldn’t keep from misbehaving at school. Our teacher kicked me out seven times. I was strong, and I beat up the other kids. We lived right next door to some kulaks,63 and I was always fighting with the boys. First they’d send out the little ones, then the ones with beards. But these were all clean fights—if they hadn’t been, we’d have been up before the community court.

Me and my sister went to school together. She was a serious student. The second she got home she’d be doing her homework. I paid attention in class, but that was it. Never got around to buying slates. The school was around four kilometers away from our street, which was called Otorvanka. It’s strange to think, but I didn’t have any proper shoes. I never wore boots or anything like that, I just had my bast shoes. Those things wear out quickly. I can remember my teacher always giving me twenty or thirty kopeks so I could buy new ones.

I did all right at school. When I got home, I usually played checkers. We were also very serious about horse riding. I rode horses from a young age, spent fourteen years in the cavalry, then served as a paratrooper, and then I was in the air force.

This one time I was invited to a Komsomol meeting, but when I got there it was just middle peasants and kulaks. This girl ran me out of there and I never went back. I’m extremely sensitive—someone picks on me and I’m not showing up again. It was only after I was in the army that I became a Komsomol member.

In 1921 I started to learn tailoring, shoemaking. In short, I was an apprentice. We had someone from the village, a wealthy man named Lapshin. He had five or six workers, and I also worked for him. I learned the trades, and I got only a scrap of bread, nothing more, no wages of any kind. That went on until 1927. In 1927 I was drafted into the army. Strangely enough, before 1927 I’d never seen a railroad, couldn’t even imagine what it was like. I’d heard people talk about it. My brother-in-law, an old soldier, talked about his time in the army, told me how big Moscow was, how there was a Kremlin, and the tsar-bell, the tsarcannon. It came as quite a shock when I ended up at the Kremlin myself for three years of training.

In 1927 I was drafted into the army and sent to an escort unit in Saratov. I was a regular soldier at first, then a junior officer. This is where I joined the Komsomol. I was chosen by the leader of the company Komsomol organization. Then, as soon as I finished training as a junior officer, I went to the Federal Military Academy at the Kremlin.64 I was very disappointed at not getting into the cavalry because I loved horses. That was all I cared about. But for some reason the commission didn’t take me. Later, after I’d been serving for some time, I wanted to fulfil my dream, to do what I wanted to do.

I was at the academy from early 1929 to late 1931—three years. They took us to Khodynka65 for the first time, where we were examined. I got an A in math but a D in Russian, because of our unusual dialect. When I went home in 1937 they said something like: “Our Sanka’s come home!” Because the dialect was so ingrained I ended up making mistakes when I wrote. I got B’s in all my other subjects. I liked gymnastics—the horizontal bar, parallel bars, the pommel horse. I was an amateur athlete, and since I was in good shape I did pretty well. Also did well with military subjects. For three years I stood watch at Lenin’s Tomb, the Borovitsky Gates, the Spassky Gates.66 Then I was admitted to the cavalry school. When we started doing horsemanship drills and jumping, I showed the class what I could do, but the commission decided that my Russian language scores weren’t good enough. I said that was nonsense, I was doing just fine. The squadron commander went to them and said: This guy knows how to ride a horse. I’d started pasturing horses at night by six or seven, and I’d been racing them since I was ten. There was this kulak who had good horses, and they’d put kids in the races, and whoever’s horse won would get a sheep.

That was 1927. After that we started training. I finished near the top of my class. I was the deputy cadet commander. Each platoon was led by a cadet commander. I was his assistant for the combat unit, since I’d always been one of the top students. I did well in science: math, physics. History too, and political science. I could quote pages of Lenin word for word, and I still haven’t lost all that much. Fiction didn’t really interest me. I only developed an interest in that after finishing school. It was only then that I started to read. I was an avid reader of Tolstoy. I’ve read War and Peace three times. I’ve read Anna KareninaResurrection. In Anna Karenina, when Vronsky falls from his horse, I thought: I’ve raced at the hippodrome. And when there’s that obstacle, and his horse falls—I feel for him, and I’ve come to love the story so much more because I’m a cavalryman too. In War and Peace I enjoy reading about the people themselves. But if you look at the way things are now, of course, it’s all completely different. Any one of our men is a lot better than heroes from back then. Suvorov was a good man for his time. He had a personal heroism: he picked up his blade and his lance and went forward. Now there’s plenty of people like that, and even that’s not enough: we’ve got to organize the battle. Back then there wasn’t any kind of coordination. The job of their highest leader was the same as that of a commander of a platoon, a company, a battalion. And now you’ve even got to be yelling at battalion commanders. [ . . . ]

[Left out is a longer description of Rodimtsev’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War. “That’s where I first got a chance to shoot fascists.”]

But I was still homesick for Russia when I was in Spain. When I crossed the frontier, I stood on my native soil and said: Yes, now I am in Russia. I never thought I’d be leaving. It was extremely difficult there. We’re in a difficult situation now, of course, but the equipment is all the same. There were Messerschmitts. Madrid was destroyed. Not like Stalingrad, of course, but it was still bad. You could see shells landing in the streets. It’s true the population didn’t get evacuated. In the morning everyone would move out to the field, into dugouts and holes. The people there played a very active role. It was all very democratic. Our people think: Oh, maybe I’ll just stay here.

I’m very much against changing into civilian clothing. There was a general who changed out of his uniform and left the encirclement. When he came back, they gave him his army. The instinct for self-preservation is so strong that it supersedes everything. There is nothing else. But there was none of that in my division. One time when I found myself surrounded, the secretary of the party commission changed clothes, and so did the head of operations. I kicked them out of my division right then, brought the brigade together, and announced that these people were no longer with us. There was some criticism over this. They said there might come a time when I would have to do that, but I said that so long as I have any self-respect I would not get down on my knees for anyone, nor would I change out of uniform. It’s disgraceful for a military man. I wrote an article about Russian honor—it’s going to be in Red Star—about the honor of war, about how a warrior should behave, regardless of the situation.67

I got back from Spain in 1937 and took some time to relax. I’d been traveling for twenty-five days. I went to the Paris Exposition,68 saw the delights of Paris, saw how the people lived, what sorts of theaters they had, how the girls behaved. The Moscow Art Theater was there with its actors—the people were interested in this too, to see what it was like. Paris is a nice, very cheerful place. The exposition was there, all lit up. It was extraordinary. Night was like day. I only spent a day in Berlin. Paris is cleaner. Berlin has a sort of dark look to it, all factories and gloom, covered in soot, like Leningrad, especially in the industrial areas. [ . . . ]

After my time off I was made the commander of the 61st Regiment, where I’d started out as a platoon commander. The previous commander was shot in 1937. Whether he was an enemy or not, I’m not entirely sure. By the time I got to the division nearly everyone had been removed. I started leading the regiment. I was in command for about eight months before leaving for the Frunze Academy.69 I graduated with perfect scores, a colonel. I’d been a colonel since 1937. I graduated in 1940, after which I was appointed deputy commander of the 36th Division, the same division as my regiment. For about eight months I was a deputy divisional commander on the Finnish Front. The divisional commander often went away—he got sick—so I was often the de facto commander of the division. There I found myself in combat. The cavalry corps had just got there, and on the 12th we were meant to attack Helsinki, cross the Gulf of Finland, and then all of a sudden there was peace.

Before the war they started recruiting for the air forces. Officers and generals were taken from large divisions and sent to the operations faculty. They needed skilled personnel, officers that were not only good pilots but also good tacticians. [ . . . ] I started flying U-2s. Then we were brought into the airborne forces, and I was made commander of the 5th Airborne Brigade, then the 6th Airborne Brigade. Before the war we were in Pervomaysk,70 where we were renamed the 3rd Airborne Corps.

In Pervomaysk—when we were still an airborne brigade—we were deployed to Kiev. The enemy had broken through and was threatening Kiev. We got there by train, disembarked, and spent fifteen to twenty days in the area of Darnitsa and Brovary. Then my brigade was moved to Ivankovo. The 5th Army and 26th Corps were there. The enemy broke through. It hadn’t yet been decided to use us as infantry. We were all outfitted with automatic weapons—small arms suited to fighting behind enemy lines.

When the enemy got to Stalinka71 and broke through the front line, Stalin gave us an order: Do not lose Kiev. Our brigades were sent in unit by unit. When I got to Kiev, the 6th and 12th Brigades were already fighting. We joined the battle on August 8, 1941. In fifteen days we pushed them back fifteen kilometers. We fought there for another ten days or so. We were thanked by the government and by the Ukrainian Council of People’s Commissars. The Ukrainians had reason to be grateful to me. [ . . . ]

I was marching on Kharkov. We stopped four kilometers out. The whole division came out, but we took a beating at Peremoga. Then I fought with the 62nd [Army] at the Don. I went in September, on the 14th. I went with this division, though they were already at full strength. All the commanders were still there. That was the 87th Rifle Division. Later they were named the 13th Guards. Their anniversary’s on January 19. Things went well for me there too. I had exceptionally good people, all of them from the academies. They all came out as mid-ranking officers. I had ten thousand men under my command. A decent division, with exceptional people, all of them trained. Golikov,72 the deputy commander of the Western Front, watched as I led my division.

I got my artillery before the 13th [of September]. On September 13 we got our other weapons right on this spot.73 Front commander Yeryomenko really helped me out there. There were only about two thousand submachine guns. The division was fitted out for the most part. The enemy was already here on the night of the 14th. If I’d been a day later, there wouldn’t be a Stalingrad. [ . . . ]

I’ve been in worse conditions than in Stalingrad. Here I stayed in a bunker inside a tunnel. There was so little oxygen that matches wouldn’t stay lit, but I stayed in that bunker. They threw grenades at our command post, but I figured they wouldn’t get to me in my bunker. But back at Konotop, out in the field, when that tank started coming right for my bunker—that’s a whole different thing. After that I was at the command post in a forest. This plane attacked us twenty-seven times, always attacking my command post. All the trees were gone, and there were only two of us left from the bunker. Most of the commanders didn’t make it. They were literally jumping out from under tanks, firing as they tried to run away. When I returned to the battalion still alive, I got back to organizing my troops.

It was the same in Kazatskaya, when a secretary of the divisional party committee changed his clothes. I was walking in some bushes, and there was an enemy tank nearby, but it couldn’t get me with either its main gun or machine gun. I lay down on the ground when they started throwing grenades. I was with my adjutant and the Special Department representative. They ran off and then came back to me. The men were fighting in an organized manner. The enemy had us surrounded and wanted to take us alive. But an airborne soldier is like this: you give him the order, and he fights. Tanks without people don’t do anything, and our infantry was cut off. We were a hair’s breadth from being killed. I got myself and my men out of there. That was the one time I was in the encirclement.

And then—Stalingrad.

The enemy was headed straight for the city. Then, when they were taking heavy losses and realized they couldn’t get past us, they turned from Orlovka and moved on the factories. It was difficult there as well. My situation improved when we began to bring in fresh divisions.

On September 10 I was already in Kamyshkin when I got an order saying we were going to be trucked over to Srednyaya Akhtuba. Our division still hadn’t been equipped, but we were supposed to get weapons soon. I objected, said I wouldn’t go without weapons. There were times when my men had been unarmed, and we had had to take weapons off deserters. I was called to the direct line. I had a talk with Vasilievsky. He ordered me go there first and then get my weapons. Stalingrad, he said, was in a difficult situation. We arrived in Srednyaya Akhtuba on the 12th. The weapons still hadn’t arrived. We’d been issued some of them, but more than half of my men were still unarmed. On the 12th I reported my situation to front commander Yeryomenko. When I told him all we had was six hundred rifles, he was outraged.

“We need you in Stalingrad right away, right this second. The enemy had broken through and small groups have already entered the city.”

I said: “I can’t, my men need guns.”

“What do you need?”

“Submachine guns.”

He gave me 450 (?) submachine guns, twenty heavy machine guns, fifty light machine guns, and about forty antitank rifles. I got all of this on the 12th, got it to the men, and by the night of the 13th the rest of our weapons arrived. On the 13th we were all armed, but we still hadn’t been given cartridges or ammunition. We already had our artillery, but that was to stay on the east side of the river. It was impossible to bring it over. There were no tanks.

On the 14th we got the order to cross the Volga and join the 62nd Army, which was under the command of General Chuikov and Military Council member Gurov. We didn’t know what the situation was. They gave me a task: I had to send one regiment over at crossing no. 62, and the other two at the central crossing. The first regiment—the 39th—was to take Hill 102, and the other two—the 42nd and 34th—were to cross at the central crossing and clear out the area along the Tsaritsa. One battalion was turned over to the commander of the 62nd Army.

What was the point of giving him that battalion? I think it was to provide security for their headquarters, which was also inside the enemy encirclement.

Yeryomenko had everyone cross to the other side at night, including me and my staff. I had absolutely no idea of the real situation. I had no idea that the enemy had already reached the riverbank. But in the first two waves 1st and 2nd Battalions had to be left to establish a beachhead. We heard that the enemy was on the shore, that the battalion had already engaged them, fighting from the moment they reached dry land. I realized we had to move faster. We were literally giving out ammunition on the barges. The 42nd Regiment embarked right away, around 1,500 men. The engineer started turning some lever back and forth—nothing. The enemy was already shooting at us, with machine guns and artillery. The engineer lost his nerve. We had to shoot him and put someone else in his place. We got back under way. The commander of the 42nd Regiment, Colonel Yelin, made it across. He was the first to lead his regiment in battle.

In the morning I could see that we needed to get the entire division across. I called to get permission from Yeryomenko. That day our headquarters staff made the crossing aboard a cutter. That was about 10:00 A.M. We came under heavy enemy fire, and Colonel Uzky, the chief of our engineering team, was wounded by a mortar. But we got across. The Stalingrad regional NKVD had some men there. They had a tunnel. I put my command post there because they had a direct line with Yeryomenko. We had no contact of any kind with Chuikov. That day another barge tried to cross after mine but was hit by enemy fire and sank.

A boat full

A boat full of Red Army soldiers sinks in the Volga, Stalingrad, 1942.

We had aircraft, but they weren’t doing very much. Then I crossed, got a sense of the situation, gave the regiments their orders, and went into the attack. Throughout the 14th and most of the 15th I had no contact with Chuikov. Toward the end of the day on the 15th I got to the railroad and took the train station with some losses. Chuikov summoned me. I reached him around 5:00 P.M. On my way there I got a lot of trouble from the planes. I got there, reported that our men had made it, explained our current position. He gave me my objective, and from that moment on we stayed in touch. From then on we remained in contact with high command. [ . . . ]

The enemy launched a counterattack on the morning of the 17th. After heavy preparation from the air, some forty tanks and about two thousand infantry attacked Hill 102. All those attacks were repelled, and Mamayev Kurgan remained ours through the 17th. The regiment withstood more than eight hundred German air attacks. Dolgov was the regimental commander. I wasn’t in contact with that regiment. They were in contact with Chuikov’s deputy at the command post at Crossing no. 62 and were getting their orders independently.

The 17th saw still fiercer fighting. There was no question of us organizing any serious attack, of allocating specific forces toward a specific objective. Throughout the 17th we simply swapped the same streets and buildings back and forth. This continued through the 18th, 19th, and 20th.

On the 20th I got a report saying that the enemy had set the train station on fire. The men we had there had given it up and moved to the Communist Grove by Station Square, where they dug in. I can’t remember the exact date, but at some point the 92nd Brigade arrived. They were sent to the left flank toward the grain elevator. They were tasked with clearing out the small groups of Germans who had infiltrated the area, and to reinforce their positions there. [ . . . ]

This building belongs to us, then it’s theirs, then it’s ours again—it’s impossible to say exactly where the front lines are. We lacked any experience with urban warfare. Our weak point, at the very beginning, was our failure to grasp that the enemy had already occupied Stalingrad. We should have prepared ourselves better for urban warfare. We should have assigned specific streets and buildings to specific groups, rather than task them with engaging some division along some line. The Germans were, at this time, in a stronger position. They had been quick to take the House of Specialists and the State bank, and they were still holding on to them. Our men were only thirty meters away, but no matter what I did, I just couldn’t retake these buildings. I could have done it at the very beginning, but I didn’t want to incur unnecessary losses. I thought I’d get to the railroad and cut them off, then I’d get my reinforcements as scheduled, and then I’d establish a base that would make it impossible for them to hold out. But it all went topsy-turvy. When things got difficult for them, the units to my left retreated to the east bank. That division’s commander and commissar were shot.74 So my left flank, my immediate neighbor, was the enemy.

Up to the 22nd this back-and-forth fighting went on day and night: this building or street is theirs, then it’s ours. So assault groups were set up and sent out methodically, so we knew who was supposed to go where. We managed the battle by giving each unit its own street.

[ . . . ] On the morning of the 20th, at around ten o’clock, the enemy went on the offensive, crushed our forward line, knocked out six guns, and captured the Ninth of January Square. There they took out a few antitank rifles and moved onto Artillery Street. Our soldiers, while losing many men, took out forty-two enemy tanks during this fight and killed around 1,500 Germans, thereby stopping their attack. They were unable to advance farther. Panikhin was there, his command post in a sewer pipe. It was a difficult situation. Several enemy tanks had broken through to the Volga, they were moving toward Panikihin, but with heavy artillery fire and antitank weaponry we send them back, disabling some, destroying others. The enemy’s attack lost momentum, and they had to fall back.

Soldiers from Rodimtsev’s

Soldiers from Rodimtsev’s Guards division preparing an attack. Stalingrad, September 1942. Photographer: S. Loskutov

General Rodimtsev pictured

General Rodimtsev pictured with soldiers from his division. Stalingrad, September 26, 1942.

On the 23rd the Germans tried to improve their position, attacking with a number of small groups. I received modest reinforcements, around five hundred men, and I launched a counterattack, but this achieved no successes in terms of territory because the enemy forces were three to four times the size of our own. I then decided to switch to an active defense while more reserves were brought over. After that, and in coordination with other divisions, I would launch a decisive attack. I was always in contact with Chuikov. He ordered me at that time to move to some sector and defend it. Lieutenant Fedoseyev’s 1st Battalion was cut off when our left flank was exposed and an enemy group broke through from the right and surrounded them. By the 2nd that battalion was wiped out. We couldn’t reestablish communication with them. Everything we know of their actions comes from reports, from their commander, who was wounded and got out, and a medical orderly. The report said: “Unless the enemy is walking over my dead body, none of us is going to leave.” So this battalion stayed to the last man, dying heroically on that spot.

The fighting was already taking on a different, more local character. There was fighting in every building. The enemy was regrouping his forces. When they saw that they were meeting considerable resistance—and they’d deployed about seventy tanks and a thousand infantry—and that that they weren’t going to win here, the enemy moved to the north, to Orlovka, the factory district, by moving around to my right.

Until the 1st things were relatively quiet for us. Then I asked the commander to give me the 39th Regiment, since a new division, Batyuk’s 284th, had arrived. On the night of October 1st this regiment was relieved, and I put them on the left flank with the task of protecting the central crossing, Penzenskaya Street, and Smolensk Street, and to prevent the enemy from breaking through to the Volga.

When the regiment was relieved they came here, and the very next day these brave troops withdrew from Mamayev Kurgan, which was then taken by the Germans. From there they could fire on nearly the entire Volga, and they remain in possession of Hill 102 to this day.

I had nothing left. One battalion was wiped out, and the 34th was in a bad way. I lost some four thousand men here. That’s not an easy thing to accept. One of our guns took out three tanks. Then the guy manning it was badly wounded, but he didn’t take one step back right until a fourth German tank ran over and crushed him. No one retreated or surrendered. Men died, but they did not retreat.

On the 2nd the enemy took the whole of Mamayev Kurgan, putting the entire crossing under enemy fire. [ . . . ]

Then came our counterattacks to the north. I was ordered to dig in where we were, to hold the line and the streets we’d taken, and switch to a tough, unwavering defense. This was because we were running low on manpower. Any more active operations were out of the question—the units to my left had already retreated to the east bank. I had to make sure the north was secure and prevent the enemy from breaking through our right flank, from reaching the crossing and taking the Volga. There were no more offensive operations. In my sector the enemy was doing the same thing: building a solid defense. Through October, November, and December we improved our positions to keep the enemy from firing on the Volga. We took the L-shaped building and the railway workers building, and there the fighting took on a local character.75

Soldiers of the

Soldiers of the 13th Guards Rifle Division storming the L-shaped building. November 1942. Photographer: Georgy Zelma

While they still held the L-shaped building and the railway workers building the Germans had been able to keep us from crossing the Volga and walking freely there. We were only able to get around in trenches. So the commander set us the task of taking those strongholds: the L-shaped building, the railway workers building, the air force building, and School no. 38. For this task I chose one battalion that was backed up by Panikhin’s 34th Regiment. His orders were to take the L-shaped building and School no. 38. The 42nd Regiment, reinforced with two additional battalions, was to take the railway workers building and School no. 38, and then take up position on the Ninth of January Square, where they would dig in. I went to see Yelin at the 42nd Regiment’s command post, which was in a mill. You could see a lot from there. The operation was exceptionally well planned. Every soldier knew where he was going and what he had to do. They knew all the angles, which firing points they had to take out, when they had to stop and start firing. I had the artillery put in a heavy ten-minute barrage, during which time our assault was to begin. There was about forty to fifty meters to get to the enemy in the L-shaped building and the railway workers building, and about one hundred meters to School no. 38. We had to run across the Ninth of January Square, which was well covered.76

After getting these orders, the men of the 34th and 42nd Regiments started extending their trenches forward, working day and night, until they ended up some twenty to thirty meters away from the enemy. They did most of the digging at night and kept themselves well out of sight during the day. They camouflaged their work by morning, and they got nearly all the way there. They did this over eight days, dug their way some sixty meters. It didn’t take that many men; they worked in shifts—two men at a time. They didn’t toss the dirt out of the trench but carried it down to the Volga. That was how we prepared for the attack. The attack itself was set for ten o’clock on the morning on December 3. I went to the observation post at 7th Company, 42nd Regiment. The regimental commander was there, while Commissar Vavilov stayed here. He went to the observation post in the pipe. I was able to observe the L-shaped building, the military supply store, and the Ninth of January Square. As for Panikhin, he had been ordered to launch a surprise attack without artillery preparation. He was to get into the L-shaped building at 6:00 A.M., secure it, and start attacking School no. 38 at 10:00 A.M. There was regular shelling that night until 4:00 A.M., when all of our artillery stopped. At 6:00 A.M. the 34th Regiment was to take the L-shaped building by storm. And the 42nd Regiment was to attack at 10:00 A.M. There was meant to be artillery preparation starting at 6:15, with regular shelling until 9:40, to destroy specific enemy firing points. We brought in guns to fire directly at the dispensary. We got a company of flamethrowers, twenty-eight men, and put ten of them with Pankhin at the L-shaped building and eighteen with the 42nd Regiment. Their job was to burn the Germans out of the basements as we were taking these strongholds.

There were many times previously when we’d tried to take these buildings but were unable to hold on to them because we weren’t determined enough. The Germans would launch a counterattack, and our men would either retreat to their trenches or die. We had to put together a group that would stay and secure the place after we took it.

The plan itself was well thought out. At 6:00 A.M. a group entered the L-shaped building without firing a single shot. We took control of the top floors at once. There were six of them. Our men went right in and started fighting in the rooms, on all floors. We had control of the top floor and they were down below, and also on the seventh [sic] floor. It was hand-to-hand fighting—literally stabbing and smashing. After the fighting was over, we had to take out the bodies, both ours and theirs. Now, though, it was a matter of getting the rest of the Germans out of the basement. Unless we did this, there’d be trouble later. But there were sixty men down there. In the end we captured seventeen machine guns, eighteen rifles, some submachine guns, flamethrowers, two antitank cannons, some mortars.

At ten o’clock, while I was there, we started the assault on the railroad building. We took it. The men took one prisoner, and the rest of the fascists were corpses. Some of our men were killed, and others went to School no. 38, where the enemy was launching a counterattack on the L-shaped building. I had told Zhukov, the acting commander of the battalion, to put together a proper fire plan. He did a good job organizing things before the attack. He set up the firing points and assault groups, gave the soldiers clear assignments so they knew who was going where and how. But he forgot about a “little detail” of central importance. The assault teams were not going to include heavy machine guns, which were to stay back in a supporting role. He didn’t bury them in the ground but hid them on the corners, one on the left and one on the right. When the infantry attacked, these guns were going to suppress the enemy firing points. But Zhukov didn’t put them in bunkers, which would have protected them from mortars. When the infantry attacked, the Germans went straight for our machine guns with their mortars. The first was taken out, then the second, but the infantry had already started. They were being cut down by German fire. Then Zhukov went out with his revolver, shouting, “For Stalin, for the motherland—forward!” But we couldn’t give him any supporting fire. I was there myself, just sixty meters away, and I immediately had them stop this mess. Eight men were killed there, twenty wounded. We suffered losses because we hadn’t weakened the enemy firing points enough, and ours got knocked out.

The second group was led by battalion commander Andrianov. He’d dug in his machine guns. When the Germans began firing back, they could keep on shooting without trouble. The assault group went up, broke through, and began fighting inside the building. And so we managed to take the railroad building. One group went on to School no. 38 but didn’t have enough people to finish the job. We thought that they had twenty to thirty men, but it was a whole company there, seventy men.

When I found out that they were fighting at the L-shaped building, I told Panikhin that the building must be cleared out by any means, no matter the cost. Panikhin mobilized his men, organized them. Kutsarenko was his operations deputy. He was told to eliminate the enemy in the basement. There were a lot of them down there. In one basement we broke through the ceiling with crowbars and had at them with three flamethrowers. There were twenty of them there, all of them got burned up. In another cellar they put 250 kilograms of TNT on the floor above and detonated it, and that was the end of them. Then our guys could jump down and take care of the rest. A few of the Germans ran away.

The battle went on for twenty-six hours. By morning we’d completely cleared and secured the building. Now there were only thirty meters between us and the Germans. None of us were able to take School no. 38. This building was very important. You could see all of Stalingrad from there.

We found new ways of doing things. With a bit of thought you can find the right way. The basements were tough to get into, and they were safe from artillery. So we picked our way in with crowbars, broke through, and then had at them—we burned them out of their strongholds and then blew them up.

We dug a fifty-meter tunnel that ran under the railway workers building at a depth of five meters. We placed three tons of TNT in there. Then the assault group was put together. They were to attack just after the TNT was exploded. This didn’t go quite as intended. We’d been given reinforcements, but they wouldn’t move—they were Uzbeks, extremely bad soldiers. The whole bunch of them were shot. The order was for the assault group to storm the railway workers building immediately after the explosion, with supporting fire. There were Russians too, scouts and old soldiers who knew how to fight. The yell they let out was extraordinarily loud. There were three firing points, and thirty German soldiers and officers This was the end of them. After that it was time to storm the building. Dirt and rock was still in the air a minute and a half after the explosion, and the crater was sixty meters across. The assault groups were there, with twenty meters between them and the building. I’d calculated that they would stay put for ninety seconds after the explosion and then take sixty seconds to cover the ground. If they all rushed in as planned, there would be no problem getting in and taking the building. I gave them two and a half minutes for this. The explosion was on time, and everyone was ready. We even had sappers in place to cut wires and throw chunks of TNT into their embrasures. The sappers and scouts rushed over, cut wires, threw their explosives, but the main storming party didn’t move, they all just stayed put. The sappers and scouts were killed, a few were wounded. The platoon commander just lifted them up by their collars and shot them. The Siberians fought best of all.

I got my first decoration in Spain, for Studgorodok, the second was for Guadalajara, the third for Kiev, Kharkov, Tim,77 and for breaking out from the encirclement, and I got the Hero of the Soviet Union for everything in Spain.

[The Moscow historians interviewed three members of the 13th Guards Division—commander Rodimtsev, nurse Gurova (see the next interview), and a political officer from divisional headquarters, identified only as comrade Koren.78 The conversation is short and begins with Koren’s assessment:]

I was with comrade Rodimtsev for the entire war. He’s an open and direct man. That’s his most positive characteristic. He says what he thinks, no exceptions. He judges men only by how they fight. If you let him down or get scared, even once, you don’t exist anymore. He has a lot of experience. He won’t die because of something stupid.

When they were taking the L-shaped building, he was with the 42nd Regiment in the mill, and I was with him there. There was some danger, of course, because the mill was being shelled, but it was a calculated choice on his part: it was the safest place where he could still see everything and manage the battle. The day before, this deputy company commander was killed by a sniper. It was a stupid way to die. But Rodimtsev chose a place where he could see the battle progress and observe what was going on. It was a cold calculation. Though there were times he was beside himself, quite wild. There was this one time when I was working in the regiment. This was when we were headed to the Southwest Front, moving from the Don to the Volga. No one could say we were retreating, we were fighting our way out.

There was another time when we stopped at Olkhovatka79 and began counting tanks. After we’d got to sixty, we got tired and gave up. They were all German, coming our way. Rodimtsev just didn’t believe any of it, got on this horse and rode toward us.

“Where are the tanks, you sons of bitches?”

They were about three hundred meters out.

He said: “Don’t worry, they’re far away.”

There was no command post, just the platoon on the ground, the commander on his horse, just us and him. But we kept fighting inside the encirclement. We were under specific orders to keep fighting. I remember how he changed his uniform and put on medals and orders: “Let’s let these bastards see who they’re killing.” [ . . . ]

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