Army of Worn Soles: Battle of Poltava



On this day, September 18, 1941, the German forces invading the USSR captured the city of Poltava, Ukraine. My father-in-law, Maurice Bury, was in that battle. I wrote what he saw and experienced in Chapter 10 of Army of Worn Soles, the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy. Here’s a sample. 

 

Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 10: Panzers

Kyiv was gone.

The rumours arrived well before the official news. On September 17, 1941, Stalin finally gave permission to General Kirponov, head of the Soviet 5th Army, to withdraw from Kyiv. Once the orders went out to withdraw behind the Dnipro River, the Germans pounced and took control of the city in less than twenty-four hours.

But the withdrawal order had come too late. “Hurrying Heinz” Guderian, the great Panzer general, had already crossed the Dnipro in Belorussia in late August and had penetrated far east of the Ukrainian capital, to the area around Romny. General Ewald von Kleist blasted past the Dnipro south of Kyiv by September 10. On the September 14, the two generals shook hands a hundred miles east of Kyiv—having trapped five Soviet armies, more than half a million men, in the huge pocket between their forces.

It had not been the first time, nor would it be the last. The Soviet 6th and 12th armies had been encircled and trapped near Uman in mid-August. And after the Wehrmacht’s capture of Minsk in July, they had captured another five Soviet armies.

General Kirponos had fought hard against the encirclement in September, but a landmine killed him. Only a few in his army managed to break out.

Part of the 38th Army under newly appointed Major-General Vladimir Tsiganov managed to escape the Kyiv encirclement. Maurice and his men joined the retreat, heading southeast to defend the bridgeheads between Cherkassy and Kremenchuk. The Germans sent more Panzer divisions, and in October, the remnants of the Red Army pulled back another one hundred kilometres. Soldiers dug into the eastern banks of the shallow Psyol River to protect Poltava, where Marshall Timoshenko had his headquarters.

Maurice’s unit took shelter in trenches built by the locals, but there were no bunkers this time. Food delivery became sporadic and the men griped continually about the autumn rain. The soft soil of the trench walls crumbled. The food was bad or there wasn’t enough. But they could not complain for long. The Panzers kept coming.

They stayed awake all night, squinting west across the Psyol River to the invisible, continuous rumble of heavy vehicles. Some of the men prayed. Commissars and officers moved up and down the lines, inspecting and admonishing the soldiers to vigilance and readiness. “At the first sign of the Germans, we counterattack,” they said.

Maurice doubted it.

That first sign came at dawn. As the sky greyed behind the Soviets, the early light picked out German tanks advancing along the roads, cautious yet swift.

Maurice’s fingers tingled as the rising sun revealed columns of armoured vehicles and marching men, officers’ staff cars and motorized cannons. The lines stretched for miles. The German army moved in unison, fast, alert and fearless like a predator.

Two Panzers ventured onto a small wooden bridge. They weren’t even fazed when the bridge collapsed under their weight. The water didn’t reach over the tops of their treads. The drivers down-shifted and continued on.

An officer shouted to Maurice’s right and anti-tank guns fired. Shells burst on the lead Panzer and flames erupted around the turret, but didn’t damage the tank. Its machine gun fired and then its cannon barked. Maurice saw Red soldiers’ bodies fling up out of destroyed trenches.

“Fire!” Andrei and Orest pulled their triggers and the kick-back of the rifles geysered dirt into the air. Damn, Maurice thought. If that doesn’t draw the Germans’ attention, nothing will.

The shells went wide.

“Reload.”

Machine guns erupted from behind and a German armoured car carrying dozens of soldiers exploded, throwing bodies high into the air.

Maurice’s men fired again, and this time one shell hit a tank front-on. The shell stuck, burned into the metal plate and burst, but did not penetrate the armour. The tank reversed gears and drew back from the riverbank. The Panzers halted on the west bank, waiting.

All at once, shells began falling behind the Soviet lines, bursting and burning among the men. The Germans had turned their heavy artillery guns on the Red Army.

“Down, boys,” Maurice said, pulling his helmet as low as he could. It’s hopeless. If a shell doesn’t land in this trench and kill us all, it’ll only be sheer luck.

Soviet guns answered, sporadic and uncoordinated. They were aimed generally westward, in contrast to the German shells, which seemed demonically guided to Red Army targets.

When the heavy fire relented, Maurice chanced a look over the trench. The German tanks were advancing again. Somewhere, a heavy anti-tank gun fired, hitting the lead Panzer square on. The explosion blew its treads off and it lurched sideways into the river, crippled, smoke pouring from its front plate.

But more Panzers splashed through the river. Behind them came soldiers, running from cover to cover, firing their fast submachine guns. As they climbed onto the near bank, some hit landmines and fell, crippled, but more Panzers drove around them.

To his right, eastward, came a deep rumble. Maurice saw hulking Soviet KV heavy tanks, looking twice as high as a man, crawled forward on their wide treads, firing cannons and machine guns.

Why are they moving so slowly, he wondered. He saw their tracks moving, churning the earth and sinking into it. They’re too heavy for the soft ground. They were impervious to enemy fire unless it was point-blank on, but they were soon immobile. The Panzers just went around them.

“Pull back,” Maurice yelled, and the boys picked up the guns and ammunition and ran, crouching low as they could to the next trench, where they joined several other odalenje. Maurice’s boys hurriedly set up the guns and aimed at the Panzers.

They were too late.

The tanks swept past them, crushing wounded men under their treads. Andrei and Nikolai swung their gun around. “Aim at its back,” Maurice said. “FIRE!”

The gun whooshed and the shell hit the Panzer’s cylindrical fuel tank, oddly exposed on its rear deck behind the turret. The tank’s rear end lifted high and Maurice thought it would flip over. Shards of metal flew in every direction and the tank’s hull split and burned. The explosion rang in Maurice’s ears for minutes.

“Let’s get them, Lieutenant,” Orest said. He stood to pick up the gun, and Viktor, his loader, looked at Maurice wide-eyed. “We killed one tank. Let’s get more of the bastards.”

Big Eugene stood too, submachine gun at the ready. “Get down,” Maurice said. He grabbed Orest’s uniform and pulled him to the ground. Big Eugene dropped as a shell burst thirty metres away. Maurice saw him crawl back to the trench, flat on his belly.

Army of Worn Soles

A Canadian is drafted into the Soviet Red Army during World War 2, just in time to be thrown against Nazi Germany’s invasion in Operation Barbarossa. Caught in the vise of the Nazi and Communist forces, Maurice Bury concentrates on keeping his men alive as they retreat across Ukraine from the German juggernaut. Now the question is: will they escape from the hell of the POW camp before they starve to death?

Army of Worn Soles is the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy, which tells the true story of Maurice Bury’s experiences in the Second World War.

Find it on Amazon.

Sample Sunday: The Red Army takes Estonia from the Nazis



Today in the history of the Second World War on the Eastern Front

1944: The Red Army breaks through near Narva, Estonia. — World War II Database 

A description of the following events from Walking Out of War.

From Walking Out of War: Book 3 in the Eastern Front trilogy

Battle of Narva, 1944 Image source: Wikiwand http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Battle_of_Narva_(1944)

When the train passed a station with a sign that read Narva, Maurice realized they had reached Estonia, which the Germans called Ostland. Its history was complex. Home to a sizable German elite minority for centuries, Estonia had been independent after the fall of the Russian Empire during the Great War. In 1939, the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact ceded the Baltic states to the Soviet “sphere of influence,” and Germany evacuated tens of thousands of ethnic Germans from Estonia and Latvia before the Soviets took over. The Soviets deported thousands of Estonians to Siberia and killed thousands more.

When Germany invaded in 1941, many Estonians saw it as a liberator from Stalin, as many had in Ukraine. And as in Ukraine, the hopes for independence were soon proven to be lies. Germany set up Reichskommissariat Ostland, a huge buffer zone between “greater Germany” and the occupied areas of the USSR. Nazi Germany confiscated all the state property that the Soviets had confiscated a year earlier and imprisoned or killed the Estonian political, intellectual and commercial leaders that had not escaped. The German Reich minister for the occupied eastern territories began “germanizing” Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Nazis set up concentration camps and murdered tens of thousands of Estonians, including over 4,000 Jews. By the end of 1944, the Reichskommissar could declare Ostland “Jew-free.” The Nazis exploited Estonia’s resources for their war effort and used Estonians as slave labour.

Which means the country is filled with partisans fighting both the USSR and Germany. Just like Ukraine.

As evening fell, the train stopped at an improvised army base, a muddy field in the midst of forests. The crops that had once grown there had been burned by war and churned by vehicles and marching feet. A few trees still held leaves, colourful in the fall, but most had been blackened and broken. Skeletal ruins of a town and farm buildings were grey against the red sunset.

Red Army soldiers in Riga, Latvia, 1944. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

“The Estonian-Latvian border is ten kilometres west of here,” said the earnest Lieutenant Vasilyev. “The Germans hold the border town of Valga. We’re going to take it in the morning.”

Maurice looked at Mykhailo. He was shaking. Old Stepan looked glum, as usual, and Young Olesh was pale even in the red sunset.

Maurice took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’ve been in action. I’ve been in far worse situations, when we were running from the Germans. I survived. I will survive tomorrow, too.

They camped, groups of three making little tents of their chenilles, or greatcoats: one on the ground, two draped over their rifles, propped up as poles. They would sleep alongside one another in shifts: every few hours, they would change around, so each of the three had a few hours in between the other two, and thus the warmest place in the tent.

The sergeants woke them quietly before dawn. They packed their gear, pulling on their greatcoats against the chill. Maurice tightened his helmet strap and checked his rifle magazine was full. The sergeant led them to their starting position. Groups of two odalenye, or twenty-four in total, would accompany a tank. “Let the tank do the hard work,” said Nikolaev. “Your job is to protect it from enemy infantry. The tank will be your protection, but remember that it’s also the target for Fritz’s artillery. In the town, watch the windows and don’t trust the civilians. A lot of partisans favour the Nazis and will kill any socialist comrade they can.”

Or maybe they just want to be free from both Germany and Russia, Maurice thought. “Keep low, boys, and keep your eyes focused ahead for Fritz in hiding places,” he told his comrades.

The Lieutenant stepped in front of them. “This is our first experience in carrying out deep operations. The shock army will hit as soon as there’s light. Keep your head down as the planes strike. The tanks will move fast, striking deep. We’re the second echelon,” he said, and Maurice thought he sounded disappointed. “When they’ve broken through, we follow into the breach and occupy the town, destroy any remaining resistance and take over their bases, ammunition, vehicles. Our regiment’s specific objective is the railroad station. When we get there, we’ll set up the Maxim as a defensive weapon. If the enemy counterattacks, follow your training. Fire in short bursts. Don’t waste ammunition.”

A colonel stepped up behind Lieutenant Vasileyev, his battle uniform perfect. “We’re going to liberate Valga today,” he said, catching each man’s eye in turn. “That means we are freeing Latvia from the Nazi tyrant, restoring the rule of the people of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia, and tomorrow, Lithuania as well. Other than partisans, this town is part of the Soviet Union. Stavka will not tolerate looting or abuse of the civilian population. Is that understood?” He did not wait for a reply, but walked away to repeat his message to the next group.

Sergeant Nikolaev summed it up. “Hands off the women and especially the girls.”

The sky lightened behind them, and then a line of planes buzzed past overhead. Maurice had faced the blitzkrieg in 1941. He knew what it was to be overwhelmed by a fast, unstoppable foe.

But nothing could have prepared him for the Red Army’s assault on the German invaders in 1944. The line of planes hitting the enemy stretched in both directions as far as he could see, and explosions lit up the western horizon with a hellish light. They felt the earth vibrating, felt the heat on their faces.

Katyusha rockets. Image source: World War II today.

As the sun’s first rays lit up the field, Maurice saw the artillery raise their barrels and begin firing: mortars and cannons, long-range artillery pieces and something new: the Guards Mortars, the innovative rocket launchers that became known as the Katyusha. They looked like the pipes of a church organ mounted on cantilevered assembly on the back of one of the now-ubiquitous Studebaker trucks. Maurice watched a crew load fourteen metre-long rockets onto the rails. The rails rose, pointing at an upward angle toward the enemy. Then with an unbearably loud but almost musical sound, they fired. Rows of multiple rocket launchers sent a volley of thousands of shells toward the Germans. Nothing could survive that, Maurice thought.

Then the shock armies raced westward. First came tanks and armoured cars, all carrying men with a grim but confident air. Looking at them, Maurice knew they had no illusions that some of them were going to die, but they were going to destroy the enemy.

Soviet infantry advance alongside T-34 tanks in the summer of 1944. Image source: World War II Today.

Hundreds of vehicles poured past Maurice’s position. The Germans returned fire, but that did not slow the shock troops. As the day brightened, the men could see the German positions in the town of Valga, about two kilometres to the west. Smoke billowed up from dozens of spots. Buildings crumbled as shells from Soviet tanks and cannon struck.

Successive lines of Soviet tanks, trucks, guns and men moved across the fields toward the first buildings of the town. Men fell, trucks burst into smoke and fire but the shock troops kept moving forward.

Walking Out of War: The Eastern Front, book 3

Ukraine, 1944: After the Soviets burned the Ukrainian city of Ternopyl to the ground to crush the stubborn Nazi occupiers, they rounded up every remaining Ukrainian man around for the Red Army’s final push on Germany. Maurice Bury, Canadian citizen, Ukrainian resistance fighter and intelligence officer, is thrust once again into the death struggle between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.

Fighting across the Baltics in the autumn of 1944 is tough and bloody. Then the Red Army enters Germany, where they’re no longer liberators—they’re the long-feared Communist horde, bent on destruction, rape and revenge. The Communists are determined to wipe Nazism from the face of the earth. And the soldiers want revenge for Germany’s brutal invasion and occupation.

Get it on Amazon.

Walking Out of War cover wins 1st place



I’m thrilled to announce that the cover of the third book in the Eastern Front trilogy, Walking Out of War, has won first place in the East Texas Writers Guild 2017 Blue Ribbon Book Cover Contest for Nonfiction/Memoir.

The contest drew entries from across the U.S.A., as well as from the U.K, Australia and Canada.

A team of artists and designers from the Dallas, Texas area judged the entries in five categories:

  • romance
  • mystery/thriller
  • science fiction/fantasy
  • historical fiction
  • nonfiction/memoir.

You can find all the winning entries on Caleb & Linda Pirtle’s blog, Here Comes a Mystery.

Walking Out of War’s cover won first place in the nonfiction/memoir category. It tells the story of my father-in-law’s experiences from 1944 to 1947, as he fought in the Soviet Red Army across the Baltic States, Poland and Germany, finally at the Battle of Berlin.

This award-winning cover was designed by David C. Cassidy, who also created the covers of the previous books in the Eastern Front trilogy, Army of Worn Soles and Under the Nazi Heel.

It depicts a Red Army soldier, walking calmly away from conflict and toward a brighter future. Meanwhile, the shadow of the Soviet Union reaches for him from behind. It’s an image that perfectly captures the main theme of the book.

 

David has also done covers for most of my other books, as well, including One Shade of Red, Torn Roots, Jet: Stealth, Palm Trees & Snowflakes, Dead Man Lying, Echoes and The Wife Line.

You can see all the covers on the Books by Scott Bury page.

David, of course, also designs covers and websites for a lot of authors and companies. He is also the author of excellent and truly scary horror novels, such as Velvet Rain and The Dark. Check out his work at his website.

I would like to thank David for his excellent work, and the East Texas Writers Guild for holding the contest that helps promote so many excellent authors and designers.

Live blogging from my event



 

 Here I am at the Coles The Book People location in the Billings Bridge plaza in Ottawa for my second-ever book signing event. On the table, I have the three paperbacks in my Eastern Front trilogy: Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War. 

Traffic isn’t all that heavy—it’s mid-day at the beginning of what looks like a beautiful long weekend. This might have worked better outdoors.  

It’s interesting to watch the shoppers go by. They seem to come in waves. The babies come in groups—one moment, the mall is quiet; the next, three squalling babies in a phalanx of strollers are crowding the mall in front of my table. 

Most people just walk by, not even looking. They’re not here for books. Some people slow down and look at the books on my table. Occasionally, one will stop and talk.

People seem delighted to meet authors, and eager to share what they know about either the war, history or even books. And a few buy books. One lady even bought the whole set, since I’m offering a special price for all three.

It’s a very different experience than marketing e-books online. I like talking with people interested in the subject, or history. And the tactile aspect of a paper book, rather than the virtuality of e-books, well, satisfying.

I may try this again some time.