Soviet trench warfare on the Eastern front

A soviet casualty being evacuated on a dogsled.

A soviet casualty being evacuated on a dogsled.

Soviet troops in trench somewhere in Russia.

Soviet troops in a trench somewhere in Russia.

In Russia the front was becoming increasingly static as the weather forced both sides to consolidate their positions. In much of the line both sides were now digging in for the winter. In some areas the Germans had pulled back to prepared static positions where trenches and bunkers had been built for them. In other areas on the 1000 mile long front this was how it had been all year.

Petr Mikhin was officer with a Red Army artillery unit. In general the Soviet Army coped much better with the cold, there were very few cases of frostbite compared with the Germans. Yet the life he describes during this period shows how primitive their living conditions really were:

Life on the defense follows its own pattern: keeping an eye on the enemy, patrolling, security, artillery barrages, and short spells in the dugouts. Casualties from mortar rounds and artillery shells, machine—gun fire and sniper fire are much lower than when on the attack. Our main task was to know what the Germans were doing and permit them no rest either day or night.

At any moment you had to be ready to rush out of the dugouts into the trench to engage the enemy. Therefore, at night, the greatest luxury we could take was to loosen our belts and remove our felt boots.

Machine guns were manned around the clock, the gunners jumping up and down in place to try to keep themselves warm. A stereoscope for the artillerymen had been set up next to the breastwork, through which the forward observers could monitor the enemy’s defenses, keeping watch for the appearance of any possible target. If they spotted a group of soldiers, a cart or a vehicle, they called in fire immediately. Shells flew overhead and exploded on the Germans’ positions.

Our trench was laid out in zigzags, so that a bullet or shell splinter couldn’t fly down the length of the trench line, and so one could take advantage of dead angles. The trench was 1.5 meters deep, plus the breastwork of the excavated earth. Standing, one could see the enemy and fire from the breastwork. But one had to move around in the trench at a stoop.

A lid from an ammo box in the wall of the trench – a door – marked the entry into a dugout. In summertime, a combat cape hanging at the entry would serve as the door. The roof of the dugout was made of sticks, branches, and scraps of metal from a downed plane, covered with several inches of earth. It was crucial that the roof of a dugout merged with the surrounding terrain, or else the Germans would spot it immediately and plaster it with mortar rounds.

Dugouts were normally 4 meters square and 1.3 meters high, though in swampy terrain they could be as low as a half-meter. Boots were removed and left in a depression by the entrance, and hay or straw covered by capes served as the bedding on the floor. Rucksacks served as our pillows. There was enough room for six or seven men to lay down side by side, covered by their overcoats. Or they could sit in a crouch with their heads against the ceiling.

In the rear, at the headquarters and political departments, dugouts were built deep enough for a person to stand up in, and they were covered with three layers of logs so they could withstand a direct hit by an artillery shell — even though they were normally well out of artillery range.

To the right in a wall would be a niche for a lamp fashioned from a small-caliber shell casing, flattened at the top. A wick made from a strip of wool from an overcoat would be inserted into it. Petrol and salt would be poured into a drilled hole in the casing — the salt prevented the petrol from detonating.

There was also a larger niche in the dugout for a small stove, with a small hole carved into the ceiling above it. At night-time, when it was possible to build a small fire in the stove from scraps of ammo boxes, a tin pipe would be inserted in the hole to vent the stove. A stove like this provided heat to the dugout, and enabled us to warm water from melted snow in a canteen.

On the left in the corner there were two Thermoses: one with porridge and one with sweet black tea. In the same corner would be five loaves of bread and a bottle of vodka, which contained our ‘front-line’ ration of 100 grams of vodka each. Personal belongings — canteens, towels, tobacco – would be in our rucksacks; spoons and razors – strapped behind our bootlegs. Rations were delivered to artillerymen by couriers, while the infantry’s rations were delivered on sleds.

See Petr Mikhin: Guns Against the Reich: Memoirs of an Artillery Officer on the Eastern Front

German Panzer IV tanks on the move in Russia, December 1943.

German Panzer IV tanks on the move in Russia, December 1943.

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