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For what it's worth, here is Major Kampov's account featured in Alexander Werth's
It was at Rotmistrovka that I first met Major Kampov. He looked pale and physically – though not mentally – tired; his uniform was grubby, and the mud was splashed right up to his army boots. For three years he had been at it; in the grim autumn of 1941 he had broken out of an encirclement in the Kalinin Province after losing most of his men; he had taken part under Konev in the heartbreaking Rzhev offensive in 1942; but now he had eight months of continuous victories behind him. He was slim, dark, and had grey laughing eyes with a quietly humorous expression. Maxim Gorki, in his youth, must have looked a little like him (except that one of his eyes was half closed as a result of shell-shock).
“You couldn’t have come at a better moment,” he said, “do you know what happened today? Our troops have already crossed the Bug.” This was great news. The Bug, on the way to Odessa and Rumania, was said to be one of the most heavily fortified German lines. (In practice, as I later learned, it was nothing of the kind, since before reaching the Bug the Germans had lost all their heavy equipment).
The “Mud Offensive” was in full swing. It was one of the most extraordinary things that had happened; it was contrary to all rules of warfare. Barely three weeks after the liquidation of the Germans trapped at Korsun, Konev had struck out at a time when the Germans had least expected it. So deep and impassable was the Ukrainian mud.
During that week in the Ukraine I was to hear – and indeed see – a great deal of the “Little Stalingrad” of Korsun. Since then I have read both Russian and German accounts of the operation, and whereas, by and large, the Russian and German versions of what happened at Stalingrad coincide, there are some major differences in the two versions of Korsun.
According to the official Russian History, the German troops still in the bag after a fortnight’s heavy fighting, and after the failure of the Germans to break through from the outside, made a final bid to break out of the encirclement on the night of February 16-17. Despite a violent blizzard, they were heavily attacked, first by artillery and mortar fire and by “light bomber planes”, and then by machine-gun fire, and Russian tanks and cavalry.
Only a small group of enemy tanks and armoured cars, carrying the generals and senior officers, succeeded, thanks to the blizzard, in breaking out of the encirclement in the Lisyanka area, leaving their troops to their fate. Before that, they had succeeded in evacuating 2,000 to 3,000 officers and soldiers by air. The whole operation ended in the liquidation of ten enemy divisions and one brigade. 55,000 Nazi officers and soldiers were killed or wounded, and 18,000 taken prisoner. The enemy also lost all his equipment, all of which had a highly demoralising effect on other units of the German Army in the Ukraine.
German writers, on the other hand, have tried to minimise the disaster. According to Manstein, only six divisions and one brigade were encircled, totalling 54,000 men – a figure which the Russians challenge on the strength of German army documents captured at the time. Other German historians, such as Philippi and Heim, while (as usual) putting the whole blame on Hitler for trying to hang on to the “utterly useless” Korsun salient at all, claim that when the 50,000 encircled troops still left there attempted their desperate breakthrough on February 17, 30,000 got out, and some 20,000 “were lost”, besides the entire equipment of all the divisions that had been encircled.
What is certain is that the breakthrough of February 17 – unsuccessful according to the Russians, partially successful according to the Germans – was very costly for the Germans.
In view of the conflicting post-war versions, it may be interesting to quote Major Kampov’s very dramatic eye-witness account given to me at the time.
After describing how the Vatutin and Konev troops had formed their ring round the salient on February 3, Kampov said:
“Having broken through with our tanks and mobile infantry, we now had to face both ways in the ‘ring’ – and, for a time, this was very hard. We were shelled from both sides, and we had to attack unceasingly to widen our ‘ring’ – which, at first, was only some two miles wide. Of course, we suffered very heavy losses. Even so, after six days, we had managed to widen the ring to nearly twenty miles at its narrowest point.
“At the beginning of the encirclement the area of the ‘bag’ was almost 240 square miles, and for a long time we had to fight not only the troops inside, but also those outside – and these amounted to no fewer than eight Panzer divisions [footnote: Seven, according to Philippi and Heim]. They were under the command of General Hube. Inside the ring there were ten divisions, including a tank division, plus the Belgian SS Wallonia Brigade. Degrelle, the Belgian top Nazi, was among them but, along with several German generals, he escaped by plane. Pity; it would have been interesting to ‘interview’ him. The Belgian SS were all underworld thugs and adventurers of the worst kind.
“We had very strong forces in our ‘ring’ and Hube’s troops didn’t make much progress. As for the ‘bag’, our policy was to slice it into bits, and deal with each bit separately. In this way we wiped out village after village in which the Germans had entrenched themselves – it was bloody murder. I’m afraid some of our own villagers perished, too, in the process: that’s one of the cruellest aspects of this kind of war.
“Anyway, four or five days before the end, the Germans had only an area of about six miles by seven and a half, with Korsun and Shanderovka as its main points. By this time the whole German ‘ring’ was under shell-fire, but they still held out, because they were waiting for the miracle to happen – the miracle of Hube’s breakthrough from outside. But all these German high hopes rapidly began to fade out. And then Korsun fell, and a tiny area around Shanderovka was all that was left.
“I remember the last fateful night of the 17th of February. A terrible blizzard was blowing. Konev himself was travelling in a tank through the shell-battered ‘corridor’. I rode on horseback from one point in the corridor to another, with a dispatch from the General; it was so dark that I could not see the horse’s ears. I mention this darkness and this blizzard because they are an important factor in what happened …
“It was during that night, or the evening before, that the encircled Germans, having abandoned all hope of ever being rescued by Hube, decided to make a last desperate effort to break out.
Shanderovka is a large Ukrainian village of about 500 houses, and here Stemmermann’s troops – he was the last general left in the ‘bag’, the others having fled – decided to spend their last night and to have a good night’s rest. Konev learned about those plans, and was determined to prevent them at any price from having a rest, and effecting an organised escape – or any kind of escape – the next morning. ‘I know this is a hell of a night, with this blizzard blowing, but we must get night bombers to deal with the situation,’ he said. He was told that, in weather like this, it was practically impossible to do anything with bombers, especially with so small a target as Shanderovka. But Konev said: ‘This is important, and I cannot accept these objections as final. I do not want to give any orders to the airmen, but get hold of a Komsomol air unit, and say I want volunteers for the job’. We got a unit composed mostly of Komsomols; all without exception volunteered. And this is how it was done. The U-2 played an immensely important part in this. Visibility was so bad that nothing but a slow low-flying plane like the U-2 could have achieved anything at first. The U-2s located Shanderovka in spite of the blizzard and the darkness. Not for a moment did the Germans expect them. They flew down the whole length of Shanderovka and dropped incendiaries. Many fires were started. The target was now clearly visible. Very soon afterwards – it was just after 2 a.m. – the bombers came over and the place was bombed and blasted for the next hour. Our artillery, which was only three miles away now, also concentrated its fire on Shanderovka. What made it particularly pleasant for us was our knowledge that the Germans had chased every inhabitant out of Shanderovka into the steppe. They had wanted the place all to themselves for their sound night’s rest. All the bombing and shelling compelled the Germans to abandon their warm huts, and to clear out.
“All that evening the Germans had been in a kind of hysterical condition. The few remaining cows in the village were slaughtered and eaten with a sort of cannibal frenzy. When a barrel of pickled cabbage was discovered in the hut, it led to wild scrambles. Altogether they had been very short of food ever since the encirclement; with the German army in constant retreat, they didn’t have large stores anywhere near the front line. So these troops at Korsun had been living mostly by looting the local population; they had done so even before the encirclement.
“They also had a lot to drink that night, but the fires started by the U-2s, and then the bombing and shelling sobered them up. Driven out of their warm huts they had to abandon Shanderovka. They flocked into the ravines near the village, and then took the desperate decision to break through early in the morning. They had almost no tanks left – they had all been lost or abandoned during the previous days’ fighting, and what few tanks they still had had no petrol. In the last few days the area were they were concentrated was so small that transport planes could no longer bring them anything. Even before, few of the transport planes reached them; and sometimes the cargoes of food and petrol and munitions were dropped on our lines.
“So that morning they formed themselves into two marching columns of about 14,000 each, and they marched in this way into Lysianka where the two ravines met. The German division on the other side were trying to batter their way eastward, but now the ‘corridor’ was so wide that they hadn’t much chance.
“They were a strange sight, these two German columns that tried to break out of the encirclement. Each of them was like an enormous mob. The spearhead and the flanks were formed by the SS men of the Wallonia Brigade and the Viking Division in their pearl-grey uniforms. They were in a relatively good state of physique. Then, inside the triangle marched the rabble of the ordinary German infantry, very much more down-at-heel. Right in the middle of this, a small select nucleus was formed by the officers. These also looked relatively well fed. So they moved westward along two parallel ravines. They had started out after 4 a.m., when it was still completely dark. We knew the direction from which they were coming. We had prepared five lines – two lines of infantry, then a line or artillery, and then two more lines where the tanks and cavalry lay in wait … We let them pass through the first three line without firing a shot. The Germans, believing that they had dodged us and had now broken through all our defences, burst into frantic jubilation, screaming, firing their pistols and tommy-guns into the air as they marched on. The had now emerged from the ravines and reached open country.
“Then it happened. It was about six o’clock in the morning. Our tanks and our cavalry suddenly appeared and rushed straight into the thick of the two columns. What happened then is hard to describe. The Germans ran in all directions. And for the next four hours our tanks raced up and down the plain crushing them by the hundreds. Our cavalry, competing with the tanks, chased them through the ravines where it was hard for the tanks to pursue them. Most of the time the tanks were not using their guns lest they hit their own cavalry. Hundreds and hundreds of cavalry were hacking at them with their sabres, and massacred the Fritzes as no one had ever been massacred by cavalry before. There was no time to take prisoners. It was a carnage that nothing could stop till it was all over. In a small area over 20,000 Germans were killed. I had been in Stalingrad; but never had I seen such concentrated slaughter as in the fields and ravines of that small bit of country. By 9 a.m. it was all over. 8,000 prisoners surrendered that day and during the next few days. Nearly all of them had run a long distance away from the main scene of the slaughter; they had been hiding in the woods and ravines.
“Three days later at Djurzhantsy we found the body of General Stemmermann. Soon afterwards General Konev had a good laugh when the German radio announced, with all sort of details, how Hitler had personally handed him a high decoration. For General Stemmermann was dead, right enough. I saw his body as it lay there. Our people had laid him out on a rough wooden table in a barn. There he lay, complete with his orders and medals. He was a little old man, with grey hair; he must have been a Corpsstudent in his young days, judging from the big sabre scar on one cheek. For a moment we wondered whether it wasn’t all a fake; perhaps an ordinary soldier had been dressed up in a general’s uniform. But all Stemmermann’s papers were found on the body. They might have faked all the obvious papers, but they could scarcely have had the idea of forging a Black Forest gun licence, complete with the man’s picture, and issued in 1939 … We buried him decently. We can afford to bury a general decently. The rest we dumped in holes in the ground; if we started making individual graves – we don’t even do that for our own people – we would have needed an army of grave-diggers at Korsun … And there was no time to waste. The general is very particular about corpses – they must be cleared away in two days in summer, in three days in winter … But dead generals aren’t all that frequent, so we could give him a proper burial. Anyway, he was the only general there with any guts. All the rest of them had beat it by plane.
“Had he committed suicide?” I asked.
“No, a shell splinter got him in the back – but many of the SS men committed suicide, though hardly any of the others.
“Altogether, the Germans lost over 70,000 of their best troops in their attempt to hold the Korsun salient, 55,000 dead and 18,000 prisoners.”
“What had they done with their wounded? Is it true that they killed them off?
“Yes. And that no doubt contributed to the hysteria that marked their last night at Shanderovka. The order to kill the wounded was strictly carried out. They not only shot hundreds of them – shot them as they usually shoot Russians and Jews, through the back of the head, but in many cases they set fire to the ambulance vans, with the dead inside. One of the oddest sights were the charred skeletons in those burned-out vans with wide bracelets of plaster-of-Paris round their arms or legs. For plaster-of-Paris doesn’t burn …
“The Korsun debacle prepared the ground for our present spring offensive. It was psychologically immensely important. To some extent the Germans had forgotten Stalingrad; at any rate, the effect of Stalingrad had partly worn off. It was important to remind them. It’s going to heighten enormously their fear of encirclement in the future.”
I find it hard to say whether Kampov’s figures are any more correct than post-war Russian or German figures; and whether it is true, as appears from his account, that no Germans broke out at all; probably some did – particularly the generals. Or perhaps they left by air a few days before. But, unlike the dull “technical” tone of most of the post-war military literature, Kampov’s account – even allowing for a little romancing, especially about the cavalry – seems to give a striking and truthful picture of both the hysterical and desperate mood of the hardened Nazi troops as they found themselves trapped, and of a real ruthlessness – “no time to take prisoners” – among the Russian troops at the end of a fortnight’s extremely costly fighting against both sides of the “ring”.