Early in the German offensive for 1942 the city of Voronezh had stood in the path of the Wehrmacht advance. The greater part of it had been captured after intense battles in July but it had remained under contention, a strategic position on the route to the south. By the middle of September the Soviets had recaptured parts of the city and reconnaissance suggested that a more substantial attack was imminent. It was a battleground almost as fiercely contested as Stalingrad.
Hans Roth, fighting with an anti tank unit, found himself in Voronezh on the 16th September:
Everywhere, for as far as the eye can see are ruins and more ruins! The once booming city, with its 450,000 inhabitants, is now a dead city, reigned by terror and death. And yet, it was still worth taking this city, despite the great sacrifices, and to defend it despite the even higher number of casualties. This was the cardinal point and pillar of the front, which had to cover the deployment and attack of the southern armies.
Here in particular lies the prerequisite for the success of the operations against Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Stalin, who is well aware of this, is deploying rifle division after rifle division and tank brigade after tank brigade. His goal is to break down this diversionary front. Up until now, we have been able to withstand his enormous pressure, and will continue to do so no matter what happens!
Mangled cables are hanging from the telegraph posts. Swarms of flies buzz over the cadavers of dead horses, which are lying everywhere. One could write volumes about this plague of flies, these shimmering blue-green pests. The penetrating stench of the cadavers attacks one’s senses relentlessly, but our nose and eyes are already used to this symphony coming from the ghostly city.
The one thing that we are unable to get used to though, is the nasty flies. They are drawn to all the dying corpses under the rubble, and have multiplied to form large swarms too countless to grasp. Birds are also circling over the battlefield; thousands of crows screech above the ruins and fields of death. Again and again, they dive into the depths of the rubble when they see the horrific harvest of death.
Our tired and sweating unit stumbles along the pockmarked asphalt of Revolution Prospekt Boulevard, one of the most splendid in Woronesh. Here stand the palatial buildings from the time of the czars alongside the concrete buildings of the Judeo-Bolshevik period – or perhaps better said, used to stand. Through the burned out windows escapes the terror of senseless destruction.
On the inside, we are burned out; on the outside, beaten. There used to be a time when hours of fighting were followed by hours of quiet. That time is over. Sun, moon, and blazing fire all share in illuminating this work of destruction and the slaughtering of people. At times you eat whatever you have, carry your ammunition, or rest for a moment on the ground in the cover of a crater. Our faces have become black and haggard. These days, they are never plump and round, allowing the drudgery of the 24-hour days to be seen in them. Our eyes are red from the smoke and the nightly watches, but our teeth are white from the hard bread. I can’t imagine that you could earn your daily bread in a way any more difficult than this.
The Soviet Army was soon to return to Voronezh in force in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Stalingrad.