The greater part of the thousand mile line of the Eastern Front had not altered very much during 1942, with two opposing forces strung out very thinly in places. Huge battles had played out elsewhere and continued to play out in Stalingrad. Yet there were still intense and bloody encounters for position along the line. For the men involved the struggle was just as deadly as anywhere else.
Petr Mikhin, a forward observer for the Soviet artillery describes how the battle for the advantage of a small hill on his part of the line was to be especially costly in terms of lives lost:
The knoll was important, because it provided an excellent view of the German positions. It had already changed hands several times, but at the time it was in no-man’s-land between the lines.
The division had been so weakened by three months of the offensive, that it not only couldn’t capture a village, but even this low mound. One couldn’t even call it a hill.
Behind us were the ‘Grove of Death’ and the shattered ruins of the villages of Galakhovo and Polunino; in front of us was the city of Rzhev To be more precise, in front of us was this knoll, for which so many men on both sides had already fallen.
The swollen, decomposing bodies of German soldiers were all around, from which a heavy stench was emanating. Among them were also the corpses of our men, who had fallen there just recently. This wrinkled patch of ground, bristling with dense tussocks of blackened grass, was the lowest place around the knoll and the only place that offered even the slightest cover.
Each man had sought shelter in it, looking for anything that provided some concealment from the raking fire.
In order to capture the knoll, the regiment commander had swept the rear area in order to create a reinforced platoon of forty men. Barbers, cobblers, orderlies and other men from the rear, ranging in age from teenagers to forty years old, had been gathered in that platoon.
It was twice as frightening for these men to creep towards that hillock; it was frightening for any man to rise from the ground under fire, but these men also lacked any front-line experience.
But the men had tried to hide their fears. They didn’t want to appear any lesser than those men who in their own times had already bravely faced the enemy fire. A sense of guilt before those who had already fallen inspired an air of affected bravery in them. ‘Well,’ they were trying to cheer each other up, ‘it’s our turn now; you can’t spend the whole war in the rear…’
My observation post was at the platoon’s jumping-off position. When the Germans spotted them and the fire of dozens of machine guns sparkled along their trench line, I opened up with my howitzers.
But I had barely managed to knock out several machine-gun positions when two mortar rounds exploded next to our trench in succession. The shell fragments killed one of the spotters and severely wounded my signalman; the blasts hurled me against the rear trench wall and I struck my head with such force that I was knocked out.