We felt the approach of the war in the spring of 1941. At that time I was serving as a chief of the Infantry College in Zhitomir, Ukraine. At the end of March, a number of military colleges, including ours, were moved from western Ukraine to cities located far to the east of the Dniepr River. The graduation of the officers, which used to be on September 1, was moved to June 1. I couldn't follow my college to the new place because I had to become the Commander of the 200th Infantry Division under the order of the Narkom of Defense. This division was being formed on the base of the former Belokorovich Military College. The division became a part of the 31st Infantry Corps, which was commanded directly from the District Headquarters. In May the head of the corps came to Ukraine from the East and established itself in the city of Korosten. We used to have the annual officers training after the end of harvest time--in August-September. In 1941 this rule was broken. The training took place in the period from May 15 to July 1. The transformation meant that the training was to be one of the methods of reinforcing the troops on the frontier.
While at the headquarters of the 36th Corps in May, I got the report that we had a corps located in Zhitomir and in the forests southwest of the city. It wasn't quiet across the border at that time. We were informed by District Headquarters that German infantry divisions, as well as their ordnance troops and corps and armies headquarters, were constantly arriving in southeastern Poland. The building of roads, aerodomes and warehouses had also been hastened there. All this revealed the approaching war.
On June 16 the commanders of the 2nd lane divisions of Kiev Military District arrived from Ovruch, Korosten, Zhitomir, Berdichev and Vinnitza at the headquarters of the 36th Infantry Corps which had located in the city of Zhitomir. Next day the military district authorities planned to have tactical training with this group of officers. The high officers of the troops located on the border had just finished their training, but we hadn't any training. Instead, the head of the operotdel of headquarters, Colonel Rogachevsky, sent for the division commanders in the afternoon and told everybody that the training had been canceled because the district authorities, together with the generals and other officers in charge of the training, ought to go to Kiev. The commander of the district, M..P. Kirponos, ordered all the division commanders to return to their troops. The moment we returned, headquarters should send us essential instructions.
Col. Ragochevsky and I were old friends. I knew him from the times when we both studied at Odessa Infantry College. In 1923-1924 he was the senior officer of a platoon and I was a military student. When the division commanders left the map room, I remained behind for a private talk with him. I said, "You are close to the authorities. How do they view the situation? I think it is getting very dangerous. I guess we are on the eve of war."
"Don't you trust the official report of TASS of June 14?"asked Rogchevsky in his turn. "They refute the possibility of Hitler Germany's assault of the USSR and explain that the concentration of German troops near the Soviet borders has nothing to do with Soviet-German relations."
I answered that the report can be left by itself, and that I am concerned by the real situation. The Germans have not concentrated their troops in Poland just to give them a rest after the victorious marches through the Balkans. One might suggest quite the opposite thing. We looked at the map with recent data from District Headquarters' reconnaissance. The heavy concentration of troops in the vicinity of Lublin, Zamostie along the Kovel direction and Zamostie, Peremyshl along the Lvov direction told its own story. Rogachevsky said that the authorities didn't reveal anything officially about the possibility of imminent war, but it was felt in private talk. That was the end of our meeting. Rogachevsky told me to hurry to my division where orders were probably waiting for me.
I returned home about 8 p.m. My wife and children told me the news: two hours ago the officers left the house very suddenly, some of them took their bags, uniform coats and rain sheets with them. I didn't want to disturb my family and answered that perhaps they left for a night field training. The next moment, the head of division headquarters rang me up and reported that a very important document had been received and I must become acquainted with it immediately. In a couple of minutes I arrived at headquarters and read the document that ordered the whole 200th Infantry Division to leave at 20:00 on June 18, follow the route Belokorovichi, Zhurbovichi, Zubkovichi, Zabira, Berezno, Stapan', Povarok, and by the morning of June 28 be concentrated in the forest 10-15 km northeast of the city of Kovel. The route was about 300 km long. The march was ordered to be done quickly and only by night, at a speed of 40 km a night. It was recommended to hide the head of the column before the beginning of every march. The ends of the columns should arrive by morning so "casual" (i.e. reconnaissance) German aircraft wouldn't notice the troop movement. It should be mentioned that in the first half of June, German military aircraft flew over our territory as far to the east as the Dniepr River without meeting any obstacles from our side. That was the reason for these precautions. There was also a special administrative order to take all the organic weaponry and equipment. Mobilization stocks should be left where they were, but the mobilization papers must be taken by the proper transport and escort.
Our divisions had been completed according to wartime standards, and had all the essential weapons. We were lacking in ordnance horses, though. That's why we couldn't move all the division ordnance at once. When I reported this situation to corps commander Maj. Gen. A.I. Lopatin, he advised me to ask the head of area headquarters, Lt. Gen. M.A. Purkaev. The lines were in bad shape by that time, and it wasn't easy for a division commander to call the head of area headquarters. Anyway, I got a chance to report to Comrade Purkaev that the division didn't have enough horses to move all the material of our two ordnance regiments. The answer was, "to take all the ordnance anyway and in case of a shortage of horses, move the ordnance by leapfrog." I said that the horses couldn't bear it. In spite of this, I was told again to follow the order and take all the ordnance.
I decided to send all the horses to the ordnance regiments, including the riding ones. It wasn't much use, because the division had been made up of horses which weren't accustomed to going in team. Another thing that worried me a lot was that we didn't have enough communications equipment, especially radios, or weapons. The flak and anti-tank divisions' material and communications were under-equipped. Its personnel started the march equipped only with rifles. Neither the order of area headquarters nor the commander of the corps gave us data on the situation. All the commanders, politrabotniks, and all other rank and file worked hard to prepare for the march for two days. By 16:00 on June 18, the troops of the division were ready to start the march.
At 19:30 all the citizens of Belokorovichi, including the wives, children and other relatives, came to the outskirts of the town to see us off. The personnel started its long and hard trek, marching in columns and singing songs.
Night freshness helped the march. The first passage went very quickly and successfully. The division stopped to rest near the railway stations of Zhuzhel, Malayay Glumcha, Kochechen and the surrounding forests.
In the middle of the day on June 19, I returned to our town and gave a thorough briefing to the catering officers. In the afternoon I returned to division headquarters. The officer in charge made a situation report about the preparations for the next leg. On the third nocturnal segment, we could see the defects of the physical conditions of the horses sent to ordnance regiments. They were getting tired and had wounds from the gear which they weren't accustomed to. Some batteries began losing. It was decided then that a part of the ordnance should be left in place by batteries and after a certain time run down their troops. On the night of June 22 the division was doing its fourth leg. There had been a thunderstorm at the line of departure and along the route. The low clouds and fog in the forests allowed us to leave about 16:00 and not wait until dark. We were planning to complete the leg earlier, feed the horses, and give them rest until daylight of June 22.
By evening the head of the division's column approached the village Stepan' on the bank of the River Goryn'. The soldiers had already become accustomed to marching. Jolly laughing and songs could be heard in many batteries on the halts. The soldiers played accordions, sang and danced.
About midnight the commissar of the division V.M. Praynishnikov, the commander of the division ordnance Col. Leonov, the officer in charge of ordnance at headquarters Maj. Rudenko, the head of the division engineer service, and I went together ahead to the place where we planned to quarter the division in the daytime to rest, west of the River Styr' near the town of Staryi Chartoryisk. Along the way we were going to study conditions for wading across the Styr'. A bridge across the Styr' near Mayunichi wasn't sufficient to let the division pass quickly. We decided to reinforce the support group with the forward group of the division--an infantry battalion and an engineer platoon. While waiting for the troops, we took a place near the bridge. We made tea and talked about hunting and hunters. About 3 a.m. on June 22, we heard the gradually intensifying noise of aircraft. In the darkness we couldn't determine if they were ours or not. Someone remarked that our planes are also flying at night. But why are planes flying from west to east? And the noise is a bit too howling, not like our TB-3s. These aircraft sound heavy. And again, why are they going eastwards?
At 3:30 the head column of the main part of the division approached the bridge. That was the end of that leg of the march, but the soldiers had already become accustomed to marching and besides, it was a cold and fresh morning, so they didn't feel tired.
At 3:40 we heard the gradually intensifying sound of aircraft from the west again. It was getting lighter. In five minutes we could define a group of 19 planes 2-3 km to the north. Now we saw that the planes were German. I looked through my field glasses and identified U-88 bombers with yellow and black crosses on them. They passed us by. Either they hadn't seen us, or had a target far behind us in the rear. About 4 o'clock we heard the sound of the heavy bombardment in the vicinity of Staryi Chartoryisk. Major Rudenko oriented a map and found that they were going to Kolki. Some five minutes later, a group of nine aircraft were bombing a column of our 661st regiment. A narrow fork of a road in the forest on a foggy morning was a difficult target for the bombers, so the shells fell about 200 meters off. We didn't have any casualties during this first ride, but anyway, it was a sign. The war had begun and after that everything should be done battle-like. The troops received an operational order: take anti-aircraft defense measures, dig the splits, disguise the material, and put the general quarters, don't fire at the aircraft until the special fire order has been received (there was an administrative order from the area headquarters about this). Speaking of flak, our division had only machine guns.
At 6 o'clock division headquarters had established a link with the headquarters of the 31st Infantry Corps. I reported to its commander, Maj. Gen. A.I. Lopatin that the division had arrived at the designated area, and that the 661st infantry regiment had been shelled by the enemy west of Vorotinichi, with no casualties on our side.
General Lopatin said, "You don't have any casualties but some other troops of the corps do, including the communication service and ordnance of the corps.."
"What are we to do now?" I asked. The corps commander answered that the situation wasn't clear to him yet. The corps was to become part of the 5th Army, but communications with its commander had not been established. The division should be put on wartime alert until the next order was received. The corps commander repeated, firing at the airplanes is forbidden without special orders, the troops should be properly camouflaged, any change in the situation must be immediately reported.
The booming noise of the bombers was heard from time to time and the smoke of a large fire was seen west of division headquarters.
Yes, the war has begun. How large is its area then? Have the German troops attacked along the entire western border of the USSR? What are the main directions of their movement? Is there any declaration issued by the Soviet government? Has mobilization been declared? All these questions bothered us a great deal. There was lots of talk by telephone between division headquarters and corps headquarters, the division's politotdel and the corps' politotdel. I received a situation report from Maj. Gen. Lopatin late in the afternoon. It said:
"Today at four o'clock, the troops of Nazi Germany crossed our border along its entire length from the Baltic to the Carpathians. Enemy aviation bombed many aerodromes near the border and cities far in our rear. Heavy battles near the border continue. Our border troops heroically resisted the attacks of the Nazis. The situation is very difficult and unclear. The seriousness of the situation should be explained to the personnel. Mobilization is declared and its plan should be followed. . . ."
On the first day of the war, neither the corps nor the division received any operational orders. After my conversation with the corps commander, I reported the news to the officers at division headquarters, my assistants and politotdel. At the same time an administrative order, "Activating War Alert" was issued. There were meetings in the units at which the soldiers were advised of the difficult situation. I ordered the division headquarters to send the officers in charge of mobilization to winter quarters where they could receive everything they lacked. The officers that had to be transferred to other units were sent according to plan.
By the morning of June 24, the division had finished its night march and taken its position in the forest northwest of Staryi Chartoryisk. Here we could see old slumber-and-ground constructions--mute witnesses to World War I.
Over the next two days, the division was busy with the organization of defenses northwest of Kolka, along a line through Bolshaya Yablonka, Dolzhitza, and Gradie. The soldiers kept working all the time, with breaks only for meals. At about 17:00 on June 25, we saw a German U-88 bomber approaching our position from our rear. The flak units in charge of low flying aircraft started firing at it with machine guns and rifles. The bomber caught on fire and dropped. That was a burst of happiness! It was difficult to say who had hit the target, but it was our first battle and everybody learned that it is possible to burn such a large bomber with a bullet.
On June 26 we received an operational order from the commander of the 31st Corps. The division was to march at night along a route from Kolki to Sitnitza, to Susk, and during the night of June 27-28, switch with units of the 27th Infantry Corps, which was defending the east bank of the Styr'. Then we were to organize the defense of the vicinity of Nezvir, Valerianovka, Kivertzy, and Chetvernya. We were to establish a command post on the northern edge of the forest south of Peshevo.
As we marched through the night, we could see big fires and explosions in the vicinity of Kovel. The sound of ordnance and air bombing came from the direction of Lutzk. Enemy air forces were using flare bombs to keep constant observation of the movement of the Soviet troops. It meant that we were approaching the front line.
On the morning of June 27, the commissar, the head of the operotdel of division headquarters, and I arrived at the 27th Infantry Corps to introduce ourselves to the authorities and decided how to switch the units. The commander of corps headquarters reported on the battles in which the corps had been involved over the last several days. Then he defined the order to change the units.
The presence of troops of the first lane of the 5th Army allowed us to gradually get accustomed to battles. The main direction of the division's defense was along the line of Rozhische, Kivertzi and a railroad bridge across the River Styr'. The units of the 27th Infantry Corps were involved here in defensive battles. This part of the line would be replaced by the 648th Infantry Regiment under the command of the industrious and intelligent Maj. Aleksenkov.
Having given the orders of defense and mutual support to the units of the division, I left for Aleksenkov's regiment to see how the exchange of units was going on in close proximity to the enemy. I was ready to help Aleksenkov if needed.
The Germans occupied a position on the eastern bank of the Styr', east of Rozhische. The center of their position was the railroad bridge. According to the report from the 27th Infantry Corps headquarters, the Germans had there about a regiment of infantry and two ordnance divisions.
I arrived at the 648th Regiment at about 17:30. The commander was issuing operational orders and orders of mutual support to the infantry and ordnance. An officer from regimental headquarters in charge of communications reported from the battalion command post which held the line of defense in front of the German positions, "Two enemy infantry battalions attacked half an hour ago under the direct support of ordnance." The units of the regiment resisted, but eventually had to withdraw because of their small number.
We didn't dare switch the withdrawing units under such severe conditions. Instead, I decided to counterattack the Germans with Aleksenkov's regiment, maintain the status quo, and organize a defense. Having received the counterattack order, Maj. Aleksenkov quickly gave orders of mutual support to the battalion commanders. The regiment held a position on the edge of the forest east of Kliopochev, a station 305 km. Shortly afterwards, about two enemy infantry battalions appeared on the edge of the forest. They were approaching at a steady pace, firing submachine guns. They either had communication with the their ordnance or not, but the ordnance was silent.
When the distance between the first line of the enemy and our position became as short as 400-350 meters, our 461st Howitzer Regiment fired. Then, after the launching of signal rockets, the battalions of the 648th Regiment attacked quickly, without a single rifle shot. The Germans were overwhelmed by the heavy fire. When the line of the regiment approached as near as 200-150 meters they started getting up and running back. That was the signal for our regiment to burst into attack. The shouting of "Hurrah!"was heard all around the field. The distance between the Germans and our troops was getting short quickly. Our soldiers advanced out of the line and bayoneted the Nazis. A Lt. Stoliarov bayoneted seven German soldiers dead. He was injured three times, but didn't leave the line before the end of the battle. The fire of submachine guns caught the running Germans. About four platoons of the first lane of the enemy were annihilated during the 20 minutes of the battle. The second lane withdrew to positions on the River Styr'. The attack of the 648th Infantry Regiment was so quick that the Germans couldn't hold their positions. Most of the Germans were killed and only a small number of them could wade to the left bank of the Styr'. Afterwards another battle started and continued all night. The regiment had fulfilled its goal almost without casualties and thus enhanced the significance of our success. The other regiments of the division had changed units in less dangerous situations and had organized a defense. That was a remarkable baptism by fire for the 648th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers, sergeants, and officers learned that they could beat the enemy and make him withdraw.
Having returned to the division command post, I reported to the headquarters officers and politotdel about everything that I had seen in the 648th Regiment. I told them about the heroism of the soldiers and officers and ordered them to go to the other units and report to them about the first success of the 648th Regiment. All of the division rank and file cheerfully congratulated their friends on the first victory. I reported to the commanders and commissars of the regiment about Aleksenkov's counterattack and advised them to use this experience for the education of their personnel.
The division defended this line until July 7. The Nazis tried to attack our positions twice, but in vain. Then the division withdrew following an order from the commander of the 31st Infantry Corps, and held the defense at the phase lines. On the night of July 12, its units established a defense in the hardened area of Korosten.
On the next day, the enemy attacked after huge artillery and air bombing. Especially heavy battles took place in the vicinity of Korolevka and Simakovka. Korosten seemed to be the thrust line. This part was defended by the 661st Infantry Regiment under the command of Col. Titenko. The first attacks had been repelled. All day, the soldiers of the units fought successfully. Anyway, by the end of the day, the Germans, at the price of a large number of casualties, made our troops withdraw a little at one point of the defense line. The 642nd Regiment on the right flank had repelled all attacks. The second lane 548th Infantry Regiment defended the area of Ohatovka and Bondarevka. In this situation, I ordered regimental commander Aleksenkov to counterattack the Germans and rebuild the line at the site of the 661st Infantry Regiment. Both ordnance regiments of the division had to support the counterattack.
The regiment which had gotten experience in the first battles successfully counterattacked, restored the situation, and captured prisoners and trophies.
From July 12 to August 21, the 200th Infantry Division was involved in heavy defensive battles in the hardened area of Korosten. After forty days of battle, the division had only withdrawn 54 km.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the prepared entrance of the unit into its first battle and gaining the victory in this battle has a great meaning. The successful battles on the Styr', where our warriors got their first military experience, had a good influence on the education of the officers, sergeants and soldiers. They got confidence in their own power and weapons. They understood that they could beat the enemy. It had influence on the military qualities of the division and its subsequent actions.
|Translated by:||Anton Kravchenko|
|Proofreading:||Claire Fuller Martin|