Red Army attack on the retreating German army

A Red Army 45mm gun crew firing under cover of a smokescreen.

A Red Army 45mm gun crew firing under cover of a smokescreen.

On the Eastern Front the Red Army was now in pursuit of the Germans as they retreated to the Dnieper River. With them was Nikolai Litvin who was serving with a light Artillery unit armed with three 45mm guns.

Litvin was travelling with a small attack force that was moving from village to village. They were accompanied by SMERSH counter-intelligence officers who were gathering information as they re-occupied each village, mainly on which of the residents had co-operated with the Germans.

On the 16th September they were supposed to advance until they caught up with a forward reconnaissance cavalry unit. Instead they reached the small town of Gaivoron late in the day, without contacting the cavalry. Approaching villagers on the outskirts they were told that there were 400 German supply wagons in the centre of town. An overnight attack surprised the Germans but by the middle of the next day they were preparing a counterattack.

Around 100 German infantry attacked from a ditch about five hundred yards away. The Russians had a good supply of fragmentation shells for their guns but were low on ammunition for the mortars that they would normally have used against infantry:

The Germans came on, not firing, with submachine guns in their hands and grenades strapped to their bootlegs. Our battery commander Nishchakov himself sat behind the gun’s sights and directed its fire. He waited until the Germans had advanced fifty meters from the ditch. He opened fire and with the first shot killed a German officer.

The German submachine gunners, turning at the sound of the shell explosion, seemed bewildered: there was smoke, but no crater nor officer. The shell had struck the officer in the chest and blown him to pieces, but left no crater on the ground.

Nevertheless, the Germans continued to press their attack. Nishchakov fired three more rounds. They exploded at both ends and in the center of the line of Germans. Up to ten Germans fell dead. The battery commander selected a compact bunch of Germans, aimed at the man in the middle, and fired a shell that hit him in the chest. The explosion struck all those bunched around him.

After these three explosions, the German submachine gunners began to run forward in a crouch and opened fire. We increased the pace of our fire. The Germans began to disperse. Under the explosions of our shells, the submachine gunners ran forward for another thirty seconds or so. We managed to fire twenty-five rounds at them.

The Germans dropped to the earth. Nishchakov began shooting at clusters of them, and we fired another twenty shells. When there were no longer any noticeable lines of Germans, we ceased fire. Then the mortar men kicked into action and laid down a sheaf of fire, up to three shells per tube. The field of battle began to darken.

After the mortar attack, five to seven minutes passed, and then the Germans once again rushed forward, although their numbers were now fewer. One German constantly kept turning back to the advancing line, waving his pistol and shouting something. Nishchakov took careful aim, and the leader fell. The others dropped to the ground again.

They were now about 300 meters short of our position. They fired their submachine guns, but I didn’t hear the bullets, probably because I was paying no attention to them. I brought up ammunition chests and prepared the shells for firing. Goriachikh loaded the gun and kept watch over the recoil. Battery commander Nishchakov aimed the gun and fired it.

The Germans lay in their current positions around ten minutes, and our cannon fell silent. They, perhaps, thought that we had exhausted our ammunition and began to gather in small groups of two to three men, in order to gather up the wounded and carry them to cover back in the ditch. When a half dozen of such groups had appeared, we again opened fire and broke up five of them.

The remaining uninjured Germans dropped the wounded and began to pick their way to the haystack, behind which we had hid the day before when we were moving toward Gaivoron. Approximately fifteen submachine gunners took cover behind the haystack. We couldn’t take them out there, so we fired a few incendiary rounds at the haystack, but the stack refused to catch fire.

Suddenly we saw a German motorcyclist emerge from the village and move toward the haystack. Since the battery commander wasn’t aiming at him, he managed to reach the haystack safely and hid behind it. Nishchakov ordered the gun to be loaded with armor-piercing rounds, and fired at the haystack. Then, with fragmentation rounds, we at last managed to torch the haystack.

Nikolai Litvin: 800 Days on the Eastern Front: A Russian Soldier Remembers World War II

Images courtesy of , a Russian site, automatic translation is available if you use Chrome.

Soviet engineers prepare a bridge for the crossing of the Dniepr

Soviet engineers prepare a bridge for the crossing of the Dniepr

The crossing of the Dnieper under fire, autumn 1943.

The crossing of the Dnieper under fire, autumn 1943.

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