Despite Hitler’s exhortations for no retreats the Wehrmacht was now falling back rapidly across the Soviet Union. In many places there was little or no resistance – by the end of the month the Red Army would reach Romania and Poland.
The Soviet Army in pursuit was by no means an overwhelming force. It may have been bolstered by Lend Lease supplies and equipment but for the conditions for the infantryman on the ground were very rudimentary. Platoon commander Evgeni Bessonov paints a rather grim picture of the progress that they made in the first few weeks of March, before they met with German resistance again:
At first our battalion did not encounter any resistance from the enemy The Germans were quickly abandoning their positions. In some places they would leave some outposts, but we would quickly defeat them.
The terrain was open, without trees, cut by ravines and with a large number of settlements.That year spring came early to the Ukraine, and spring rain showers washed away the earth roads, making them hardly passable even for tanks, not to mention the wheeled vehicles.
We had to walk on foot. That was where soldiers and officers suffered hellish pain — heavy mud stuck to our boots and we could barely drag our feet out of the sticky quagmire. Many soldiers carried machine—guns, boxes with ammo, mortars and mines.
It was at least good that the battalion commander had ordered that the gas masks be left behind and appointed an ofcer who was to turn them over to the Brigades warehouse. Seemingly, a gas mask did not weigh much, but if one had to march on foot from dawn till dusk or even till midnight or next dawn, doing some 16 hours of marching, even a needle would seem heavy.
Besides that, we could not always have a normal meal — the battalion kitchen was stuck in the dirt somewhere and could not catch up with us. It was impossible to find a dry spot during breaks, we had to sit down right in the dirt and immediately fell asleep for 10 or 15 minutes. Some soldiers even fell asleep while walking from exhaustion. One should not forget that most of the soldiers were just 18 years old.
We only survived on food provided by the population of the villages that we liberated from the Germans. At night and very rarely during the day we would make one-and-a—half- or two-hour stops in those villages to have a snack with what God had in store for us.
The population welcomed us warmly, regardless of how hard it was for them to provide food to soldiers; they always found some nice treats — some villagers boiled chicken, others boiled potatoes and cut lard (soldiers dubbed this kind of catering ‘a grandmother’s ration’).
However, such attitudes were common only in the Eastern Ukraine. As soon as we entered the Western Ukraine, that had passed to the Soviet Union from Poland in 1940, the attitude of the population was quite different — people hid from us in their houses, as they disliked and feared the Muscovites and Kastaps (a disparaging name for Russians in Ukraine – translators comment).
Besides that, those places were Bandera areas, where the nationalistic movement was quite strong. They were not very eager to give us food and they could hardly ‘find’ food for us: usually it was millet and potatoes. As a rule, they would say in Ukrainian: ‘We do not have anything, the Germans took it all.’
In some cases I had to act severely and took tough measures on the villagers in order to feed five or seven soldiers. I had a German hand-grenade with a long handle without a fuse; if the house owners refused to feed the soldiers, I would say something like this: ‘The Germans (Schwabs) destroyed our field kitchen, if you do not boil potatoes, the grenade explodes in an hour (or half an hour).’ This argument helped a lot!
Of course, now this behaviour does not look very humane, but I did not have any other choice. From my point of view this was the ‘middle way’ — we did not loot the villages, but on the other hand, soldiers did not starve.
However, the main problem was not exhaustion, not hard conditions, not even the absence of regular food (the battalion kitchen never showed up), but the fact that the battalion went into action with almost no ammo and grenades.This was a tragedy for us. Most of the ammo and grenades we spent in heavy fighting for Voitovtsy, Poidvolochinsk and Volochinsk.
A rifle without ammo is just a stick. It was the only time during the war, when I screwed up and my platoon was left without ammo — I never allowed this to happen again.