It was dark. Inky black. Icy cold. The stars shone weakly in the night sky, a myriad of pinpricks of light, blurred by clouds threatening snow.
Balierev’s men of the 454th picked their way carefully towards the second ford. Last thing he wanted was to be splattered by one of his own tanks. Up ahead in the darkness the 14th Tank Regiment had crossed the ford and were holed up in the trees nearby. He needed to support them in the defense of the ford and secure the flanks. Already troops for the GD had attempted to thrust at them with a Marder. He piled men across the western ford as fast as he could and had two platoons helping recently arrived AT guns get into place.
Behind him he heard the familiar sound of mortar illumination rounds going off into the dark sky. He turned to see the slow descent of the illum round. It looked so peaceful as it drifted gracefully to the ground.
The Illumination rounds made running up the steep slopes towards the cemetery easier thought Dimitri. But the zing of bullets and crack of rifles kept his head down. He slithered over hard frozen ground. A Cemetery. I am running to a cemetery. Dear God this is insane.
The distant memory of the unbearable heat of the factory, the sweat, grime and dirt all felt endurable now as another fragment of bullet, stone or dirt smashed into him. That was close, he thought to himself. Blood trickled from a cut below his eye.
He stopped, zigged back the way he had come. From behind he heard that Devil dressed as a fool in a NKVD uniform screaming at him and others, as he marched up the hill in a straight line, pistol in hand. Bastard thought Dimitri, what a bastard. 2 of us dead already and both were killed by this prick. “SHIT” He shouted, as bullets tore up where he previously was. He dove for a piece of fencing! At last we are here. He shivered despite the exertion. His feet were wet, his body cold to the bone. Sloshing thru the water at river edge would see the loss of toes he knew.
“Now we must attack the Cemetery”. He thought. Disturbing the souls of some rich bastard who could be afforded a proper burial. Breathing hard he fumbled for a grenade. Fingers aching, burning in the cold. Others around him did the same. They waited for the fire to slacken ahead of them as their support fire overwhelmed the Pioneers. Surely this time they could take the small hill up from the river. He needed a fire to dry, and food to eat. They had marched all day to be here, only to make a late water crossing on makeshift rafts.
It was time. They threw their grenades, and charged. Men fell around him on both sides. He was unhurt. He and the remnants of the platoon charged in, little fire was coming from the enemy in the cemetery. Hahaha, just ghost bullets he laughed. It felt good to laugh.
“Forward comrades, Forward” he yelled.
He looked around, firstly for enemies, then for friends. Shapes flitted thru the trees; mausoleums cast long shadows in the dim light. The headstones, and statues made it hard to distinguish man from marble.
Dimitri knelt. There was one, he paused, sighted, and shot. Missing. Quickly he chambered another round, and readied to fire again. Three men ran past him, one fell screaming with a round in the leg. Poor bastard. The two others who had passed him were killed instantly by a grenade. Where did that come from he wondered? Perhaps they have more men than we think?
Fear knotted his gut. Now more rounds thudding all around. Lots of them, and the chatter of a MG. He began crawling forward with 5 or 6 others. Shit, half a squad he thought. Where was the rest of the platoon? They all paused, taking cover around headstones, looking at each other. One signaled with his hand to wait.
Out of the darkness it came. First he saw was the flash of light, then the silhouette of a man in a uniform. One of ours! Dimitri saw the barrel of the unmistakable T-33 , pointing straight at the man who had signaled to Dimitri wait come into view. That man now lay limp, in repose against the headstone of some long forgotten person. Followed by the crashing roar of the pistol at close range. Behind the barrel was the Devil. The Devil in the NKVD officer’s hat. Passing by him came another squad of men, at the run, fear in their eyes.
Dimitri started to rise and join them. “Traitor” Screamed the Officer. He shot Dimitri in the face.
The rest of the men scrambled forward to finish the job they had started.
None looked back.
There were no burials for peasants and traitors.
Balck was worried. He paced around his office. Bad news was coming in fast. The Soviets had not eased the tempo at all. Not a good sign. How the hell were they fighting in this cold? He was chilled to the bone from the Scout car ride from Travino.
The Soviets had breached the mines at the Travino bridge, and were across the river at several points. The Cemetery outside of town had been lost as well. Arty could not assist at this point. It was too dark, and he could only make matters worse by poor friendly fire.
1-Pioneer from the 110th continues holding off a battalion or more of Soviets firing incessantly into the woods across the river, and fighting off two assaults! His men were good, but the incessant cycle would eventually take its toll
In Noviki T-34s were blazing thru the streets like maniacs. The support he had sent to help rally Noviki ( 7-II-GD ) was now dug in , but under severe duress. They were shell shocked and paralyzed by the Soviet tactics. They were holding, but barely.
As he looked at his maps Balck had a realization that he may have over committed by sending I Battalion to Smolkovo and digging in. He was very thin on the ground around Vasil’stova. If the Russians kept this up all night he might lose Goncharova, Noviki, Vasil’tsova & Travino.
2100 A lull descends upon the battlefield. The Soviets are bone weary and cold. Most of the officers call for troops to secure their current locations and wait for dawn barrages.
Soviet Central Command begins to develop operations for the AM. In the meantime small firefights peter out, as units who are engaged attempt tactical withdrawal. In Noviki the Germans are hit hard again and again by withering fire from all directions. The Guard Pioneers crack, and flee, the 7-II-GD attempts to sneak thru the woods to escape. Russian Tanks roam the battlefield; some lost, some holding fords as ordered to do. However they do it in isolation, with no support. Chaos reigns as men and machinery fight the cold and each other. Too closely positioned for either side to stand down sporaidc fire carries on into the early morningin hours.
2300 Balck and Horhein confer. They agree that Travino needs help. The 8-II-GD, some MGs and a Marder head to Travino.
Will they make it in time? This leaves Vasil’tsova with just the 6th company and one platoon from the 7th plus infantry guns and 9th heavy weapons company to hold the bridge.
2400 With sporadic fighting still occurring, messages arrive that 1-Pio from the 110th has surrendered as they were caught in the open fleeing the Cemetary. The order is given to abandon Noviki and Goncharova.
The 216+252 and 2 Pioneer 186 will form a perimeter around Titov. The tension in Balck office is palpable. If the Soviet 454 and Guards units attempt to cross the river East of Vasil’stova they were in a world of hurt. Or if they swing back to Vasil’stova, one and a ½ companies was not going to last long.
But if we can hold Travino the threat to supplies is always there to Soviets. Balck makes a decision and bets on the drive straight ahead tactics that have been the case for the last year.
He had enough troops to fight the Russians at the moment. But not enough to cover everywhere they could be. At 0300 stragglers had been coming in from the east and were sent to replace lost men across the I-GD.
The temperatures dropped to there coldest at 0400 hours.
By now the Germans had finished their retreat from Noviki. Sporadic fire continued over and around the Travino Bridge, as Soviets vainly attempted to repair the bridge.
30th of November
Suddenly the first feeble rays of sunlight glinted off the icy landscape. Refusing to be warmed the ground absorbed the light and the heat the distant sun shed. Balck had barely slept, but he was shaved and in a fresh uniform on the move in a scout car assessing enemy dispositions.
As he approached Vasil’stova he heard the first terrible shriek of passing missiles headed to Smolkovo. The barrage lasted 40+ minutes. Thru his field glasses he could see troops picking their way thru the abandoned minefields west of Vasil’tsova.
He spoke to Horhein “as soon as you finish pound the shit out of the 1319 in Travino we are going to need some support here. It looks like remnants of the 452nd approaching. But I don’t see any tank support.”
Meanwhile the Soviet commander Smirnov, lay in his cot in Karskaya. Out cold. An empty bottle lay at his side. He had fallen asleep in his uniform, partly from exhaustion, mostly from the fear gripping his gut. 0700 had come and gone. His men near Goncharova awaited orders.
He did not hear the shrill ring of the field phone. The ringing was halted by the local political officer who answered the call. He had heard the early morning barrage of Goncharova and knew they should be headed to the front line to exhort the men for the glory of the Motherland. Instead they were waiting for this fool to sober up. He snapped to attention when he realized who he spoke to. “Da” were the only words he used for the next 45 seconds. Then he hung up. “Follow me” he said to 2 junior officers as he drew his side arm.
By the time the shelling had ended the 445th had finally shaken off the cold, had a brief meal and wearily headed to the edge of the forest near the 2nd ford. Balierev was tired. This meant his men were exhausted.
He knew that they needed to cross this open ground south of the Luchessa. The situation was difficult. He knew the slopes on the north side of the river had spotters. He knew that in those intervening snow drifts between him and the small hamlet just 400m away were men waiting silently to stop him. Where was the snow when he needed it?
He would order his men to prepare to attack across the flat crusty terrain, once he had those dam AT guns in some position where they could help. 1 company of men he sent south to flank. He would go forward thru the field to find his future with the rest of the Battalion. By 0840 his men would be in position. They charge across the icy ground, bringing effective fire to bear on 2-Pioneers of the 186. Then melee and kill them to a man. Halfway there thought Balierev.
The German artillery co-ordination officer Ranckle was busy. Between the various Battalions of arty there was a seemingly endless supply of requests for urgent support fire missions coming to them.
He needed to prioritize his artillery effectively. He smoothly shuffled thru the list of fire requests. He would need to allocate fire across Battalions and bring some serious firepower to bear in Travino. Messages went out. Fire for effect in 20 minutes.
After adjustments, messages came back from the target area that the Russians were pulling back from the River near Travino but still held the outskirts of village. The 105mm rounds had destroyed men in the woods and in the open. Destroyed, battered, fragmented. All subjective terms.
Ranckle silently shook his head. His was a clinical world. Yet the he had seen the results of his handiwork before. He shuddered to think what the forest and ground would look like. Pieces of body smoking lying on the ground cooling in the frigid air. Men trying to hold their torn bodies together. The fear of those left alive. Scampering in a daze for cover. Chaos. Mayhem.
(8 step losses inflicted)
In Travino those that had not yet received the order to pull back were vainly trying to cross the river one more time. The 2nd platoon of 1-2-1319, made it across and engaged dug in units. They died to a man in hail of machine gun fire.
There was little heart left for the fight.
Travino was pummeled again. The fire inching its way up the corridor along the river dealing death and destruction with pin point accuracy and classic German efficiency was taking its toll on the Russians. A German Marder, the ski 110 and 8-II-GD platoon 3 attacked the last unit in the minefield. The men of 3-3-1319 fled back across the river. Another surrenders.
The Germans kick up their counterattack a notch with the reinforcements from the 8-II.
The outskirts of Travino are secured, the Marder overruns; 1-1-1319 drop weapons and run, all are killed in the ensuing rout.
The troops attempting to close on Vasil’stova also took fire. The 6-II-GD lays down withering fire, the Russians slow there advance and hug the ground.
The threat from attack dissipates.
Targeted specific fire continues to rain on the 1319 thru 0920. 3 MG squads are caught (Str 72 col -2) and just blown to pieces. The last of the 1319 are killed with their backs to the river. The 8-II-GD show the Russians why they are to be feared, their firepower, training and execution are flawless.
With snow falling since 0900 the 445th now moves from the fords and attempts to close up on its objective. Balierev urged his men forward. Before the others can move he is already in a culvert, as he hears, no! Feels the incoming artillery fire. His men are torn to pieces.
Smirnov stood blearily eyed, looking at this fine you man in his pressed uniform, clean shaven and spit polished boots. The zeal in his eye spelt trouble. Fortunately for Smirnov his guards at his quarters had prevented this young Commissar from gaining entry long enough for him to leave his cot. But not much else.
The boy was furious, his hand shaking that gripped the Tokarev pistol (TT33),
an imitation of the Browning at the very least, Smirno preferred his Fathers M1985 Nagent pistol. He was screaming at Smirnov, who had now turned his back and was washing his face. Ahh to have such energy, what a joy it must be he thought.
the vehment chastizement however made his head hurt. The 451 was on its way he knew that much. We were late but for the men to be effective they needed rest and food. Besides if they took the same losses as yesterday he would have no Battalions left! Even with replacements and reinforcements. This fool however cared for nothing else but what some pamphlet told him.
He had to tread carefully here. Having been told to execute him, the political officer was afraid. He had likely never fired gun.
Smirnov had had enough. “ Enough “ he roared. He spun quickly, and in two strides was in the boys face, he took the purple hand with the pistol in it and shoved it into his chest.
“Shoot boy, Shoot! Pull the trigger you fool” The boys eyes widened in fear, then realization. Smirnov felt the pistol move as the boy pulled on the trigger.
As Smirnov had suspected, the safety was on. He took the TT33 and smashed it across the face of the boy, blood sprayed onto the floor as he fell. He looked at his guards, and the two junior officers. He walked past them all into the fresh biting mid morning air, tossing the pistol to the ground as he left.
“Lets go kill some Germans” he said over his shoulder.
1100 The men of the 451 marched into Goncharova. Smirnov had messages relayed to HQ that he was now headed to Titov, and that they need a new political officer. Whatever orders teh boy had been asked to carry out he had failed, and shot himself due to the shame. Read the message he sent.
“Now shoot me , you bastards” said Smirnov to no one in particular.
The intermittent snow had lifted. Balierev and his men had started to angle towards the woods, when they ran into elements of 49th Guard. Shit operation boundaries being crossed was dangerous he thought. His men however flagged the Russian tanks down and sought to use them to corner the 7-II-GD cowering in the woods. They were hot for blood.
After being pounded for the last hour by artillery, they needed something to fight. Intense fire between the tanks and 7-II result in 2 tanks destroyed, and the death of the 7-II in the woods. With no where to go the hunkered down and fought a desperate battle in the sparse wooded area. Balierev was stunned at the carnage. In the Russo finnish war he had escaped a pocket and survived, but he had never faced such fierce barrages before. All about him, were dead and dying men. Insane. Insane, was all he could think.
The T-34s from 2-253 and German AT guns exchange fire, west of Smolkovo. The fresh snow made spotting increasingly difficult. The 50mm AT gunners frantically load and fire, taking fire they are struck. The 18-IV-GD position goes up in flames as does the 5-1.
A Marder is destroyed also.
The losses start to mount for the Germans. Pioneers of the GD have lost 6 platoons. The 7-II-252 and AT guns have been lost also.
The 49th Guard and co, advance down the trails and clear mines. The trails to Smolkovo are now open, but crowded with troops.
Wearily Balck looks at the reports. Travino held and the barrages had broken the back of the 1319. Elsewhere news was not so good. Despite the losses the Soviets are making headway. South of the River the Soviets seemed poised to begin a fresh assault. Though clearly they would need more battalions. His men were slowly being ground down. 7-I-GD was fresh and ready, but spread thin and across a wide frontage in and around Smolkovo. Things looked thin…mighty thin.
They had blown the Vasil’stova bridge too hastily. He could send men across to attack Starkhovo, but would not be able to hold it without AT guns. All he could be is a nuisance.
Maybe that would suffice, driving all new reinforcements in thru Karskaya versus the Travino area may just keep the Soviets bottled up and vulnerable to his artillery.
He began to pace his office again.