Walking Out of War wraps up the trilogy



The long-awaited final volume in the trilogy recounting the wartime experiences of my father-in-law launches in e-book form on Wednesday,  February 22. You can pre-order it now from Amazon at a special discounted price.
Cover-WOOW-500x800 (1)

Walking Out of War follows up on Army of Worn Soles (2014) and Under the Nazi Heel (2016).

What’s it about?

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.

Maurice has determined his only way out of this hell is to survive until Nazi Germany dies, and then move home to Canada. But to do that, he’ll have to not only walk out of war, but elude Stalin’s dreaded secret police.

Pre-order for less

Walking Out of War will officially be available on Amazon on February 22 for just $2.99 for the Kindle edition. But if you order before midnight at the end of February 21, you’ll be able to get it for just $1.99.

Get it for free

If you’re willing to write an honest review (tell the world exactly what you think—no influence from me), I’ll send you an advance review copy (ARC). Just email contact@writtenword.ca and put “Walking Out of War – ARC” in the subject line, and I’ll fire back a copy as soon as I can. The only thing I ask is that you post your review on Amazon as soon as possible, and if you have a chance, post the same review on the Goodreads page.

 

Happy Mother’s Day: A mother in wartime Ukraine



The third book in the series that began with Army of Worn Soles and continued in Under the Nazi Heel launches February 22, 2017. Read the conclusion of Maurice’s story in Walking Out of War.

Creative Commons archive

Today’s post is a Mother’s Day tribute to a mother out of history: Tekla Kuritsa, the mother of my father-in-law, Maurice Bury. This is an excerpt for Army of Worn Soles, the story of Maurice’s conscription into the Red Army in 1941, his experience fighting the German invasion called Operation Barbarossa, his capture as a prisoner of war and his escape. At the end, he finds how his mother, a diminutive yet very strong woman, fights the war in her own way.

Out of uniform, out of the army, out of prison, Maurice was now under the command of his mother. Tekla Kuritsa did not allow her son to do anything but rest for a whole month. The harvest over, she paid young local boys to do what remained: manuring fields and fixing fences.

Day by day, Maurice regained weight and strength. At first, he sat in the kitchen, drinking tea and reading newspapers.

Nothing but German-approved propaganda. This paper actually says we Ukrainians are happy to be occupied by Germany.

Idleness quickly lost its allure. Maurice decided to make sure the farm was ready for winter. He started with chopping firewood. Just a half-hour a day, relishing in his ability to split logs with a single blow, chopping and sawing harder, and lasting longer each day.

One evening, Tekla took Maurice to the shed beside the barn for a chore he would find much more enjoyable.

“Is that a still?” he asked. “Mama, are you making vodka?”

“It’s not very good, but the German officers like it,” she said. She set him to work.

Maurice liked the opportunity to concentrate on a task, drawing a spoonful of clear liquor, carefully closing the valve then setting fire to the spoon. If the liquor burned with a blue flame, it was “proof,” good enough for sale.

One evening, Maurice filled six four-litre jugs and put them on a small wagon.

“Good boy,” Tekla said and buttoned her coat. “I’ll take this to the village.”

“Why?”

“To sell to anyone who wants it, of course. But mostly it goes to German officers.”

“It’s getting too late to go out, Mama,” Maurice said. “It’s almost curfew.”

“That’s the time men want to buy vodka,” she said, buttoning her coat.

“It’s too dangerous for a woman out in the evening. Let me go.”

She shook her head. “Maurice, you strong men don’t know how things work in wartime,” she said, patting his cheek. “An old lady out in the evening is much safer than a man. What would the patrols do if they caught you out after curfew?”

“Throw me in jail.”

“They would probably shoot you on the spot, sweetie. But they see an old lady struggling with a heavy wagon, they think of their own mothers.”

“Some of these bastards would just as soon shoot their own mothers.”

“That’s when I sell them some vodka.” She smiled and kissed him.

Maurice watched her pull the wagon to the road until she vanished into the evening gloom. He did not realize he was smiling as he shook his head.

Army of Worn Soles cover

Army of Worn Soles

My mother. After all I’ve been through, she’s going to sell cheap liquor to the Germans. She’s the bravest person I’ve ever seen.

About 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?

Available on Amazon.

Army of Worn Soles is the first book in the Walking Out of War trilogy. You can find the other two books on Amazon in e-book or print form.

Book launch: Under the Nazi Heel



IMG_0020.jpg

It’s book launch day for the follow-up to Army of Worn Soles: Under the Nazi Heel tells the true story of Maurice Bury, the Canadian drafted into the Soviet Red Army in 1941, as he joins the struggle for Ukrainian independence.

The book has a terrific cover designed by David C. Cassidy and was edited by the matchless Gary Henry and proofread by the Typo Detective, Joy Lorton. Thanks for all the help!

What’s it about?

Under the Nazi Heel

Walking Out of War, Book 2

For Ukrainians in 1942, the occupying Germans were not the only enemy.

Maurice Bury was drafted into the Red Army just in time to be thrown against the invading Germans in 1941. Captured and starved in a POW camp, he escaped and made his way home to western Ukraine, where the Nazi occupiers pursued a policy of starving the locals to make more “living space” for Germans.

To protect his family, Maurice joins the secret resistance. He soon finds Ukraine faces multiple threats. Maurice and his men are up against Soviet spies, the Polish Home Army and enemies even closer to home.

Experience this seldom seen phase of World War 2 through the eyes of a man who fought and survived Under the Nazi Heel.

It’s available on Amazon for just $2.99. And if you buy it by March 5, send me an email and I’ll send you a bonus e-book, Jet: Stealth.

Get previews

Want to read a few preview? Some very gracious book bloggers are hosting excerpts.

Preview: Under the Nazi Heel



The sequel to Army of Worn Soles is nearly ready to publish. I have been going through edits and corrections made by the excellent Gary Henry and Joy Lorton, and all I need now is a final cover. So I thought that I would share another preview. Since winter has finally arrived in my part of the world, I thought I would present a wintry, snowy episode from a January, 73 years ago.

Subscribe to get Written Words in your email today, and I’ll send you a free e-copy of Army of Worn Soles so that you can read it before the sequel comes out.

Trondheim forest preview

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Chapter 11: Meeting in the Snow

January, 1943

The winter of 1943 was not as cold as 1942, when oil froze in Panzer engines, but January nights were bitter. Driving a single-horse sleigh through the forest at night, Maurice pulled his fur hat lower on his head and the collar of his coat higher.

He was returning by horse-cart from a village called Prosova, in the eastern part of his range. He had left a little before sunset. No one would want to be out on such a cold night, and the Germans had long before learned not to venture at night into the countryside. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army lived deep in the forests and swamps, supported by willing donations of locals. And then there was the rival OUN-B, the nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, who had no mercy for soldiers, agents, spies and collaborators of either Nazi Germany or the USSR.

The snow beside the sleigh tracks was deep and the setting sun turned the clear, distant sky a vivid yellow in the west. When he looked back over his shoulder, he could see white stars against the deep purple-blue sky.

Maurice shivered under his thick fleece blankets and flicked the reins to urge the horse to go a little faster. He steered toward trees, keeping to the paths known to the locals. Still, Maurice knew that their security depended on adherence to the rules of secrecy and stealth. They worked in separate units, communicated only in the stefetka code and used only code names. Maurice did not even know the real name, nor the face of his superior officer, and he had never met most of the agents who reported to him.

Every move was fraught with multiple risks: risks of being observed by one of the enemies; of their intelligence being faked; of being killed by the Germans, the Communists or by mistake by partisans. Maurice shivered again.

Maurice’s heart began to pound when he saw a slim shape on a big, black horse coming straight toward him through the trees, along a path that crossed his. Maurice took his pistol from its holster and held it under the blanket, then chucked the reins to speed up his horse so that he would reach the path intersection before the rider.

Just as the last daylight faded, Maurice reined in so that his sleigh blocked the intersecting path. The rider stopped when he could actually see his face. It was a young boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. “Good evening, sir,” he said in a shaky voice.

“You’re out late tonight,” Maurice said, and he knew he did not sound friendly. He was nervous, himself. Why was a young boy out after curfews? “Where are you going?”

“To see my uncle,” said the boy, trembling. Maurice became more curious. Why was this boy being evasive? Why was he so afraid? He must have been able to tell that Maurice was not a German officer.

“Where does your uncle live?”

The boy hesitated. “In … in Mykulynci.” The town was about five kilometres away, but still, why was a young boy traveling alone at night? Maurice started to get the feeling that the boy thought he was doing something heroic.

“You had better tell me what you’re doing,” Maurice said in a softer tone. Not friendly, but not unfriendly, either.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, tell me the real reason you’re travelling at night when there are strict curfews. It’s not safe.”

“I’m not afraid,” said the boy, looking around. But the only way forward was blocked by Maurice’s sleigh, and the snow was too deep for the horse to pass around it.

“Why are you going to Mykulynci?” Maurice asked again.

“I told you, to see my uncle.”

“What’s his name?”

“I don’t see why I should be telling you anything. I don’t even know who you are!”

“You don’t need to know who I am. But I know who you are,” Maurice lied. “And I know you’re much too young to be doing what you’re trying to do. Who are you going to see?”

“I’m not too young to love my country!”

“This is not a game.” Maurice leaned close to the boy, his voice a growl. “This is a war between grown-up men, and children who get involved always get killed.” Maurice decided to change tactics. “Listen, my friend, I know what you’re trying to do. But think how your mother would feel if you were hurt — or worse. And what if you fell into German hands?”

“I’m not afraid of the Germans! We rule the night!”

“‘We’? Who are ‘we’?”

map of Ternopyl Oblast

Ternopyl Oblast, Ukraine, today. Maurice’s territory was south of Ternopyl city.

The boy’s eyes widened and he looked around again. He realized he had made a serious mistake.

Maurice leaned close. “Which unit are you with?” he whispered. When the boy hesitated, he said “Come on, you can trust me. I’m a Ukrainian, not a German. I love my country, too.”

“Can I really trust you?”

“Oh, yes. I’m friendly to … our side.” Maurice wished he could say more, but the less the boy knew, the safer he would be.

The boy leaned closer and whispered “I’m bringing a message to Mr. Stefaniuk in Mykulynci. It’s from a man named … ‘Half-Moon.’”

“Half-Moon” was the code name of one of Maurice’s agents, one of the few he knew personally. Maxim Tanshysyn was a lazy old bureaucrat who was never on time, nor were his reports ever complete. Now he was sending children to do his work for him. “What sort of message?”

“I don’t know. I was told to put the message directly into the hands of Mr. Stefaniuk.” The boy pulled a slip of paper from a pocket, but held it close to his chest.

“I know Mr. Stefaniuk myself. I’ll get the message to him. I know all the people involved in this. I’m a friend of … our organization. Your duty is to look after your family and not to endanger any of your comrades. And someone your age, out here, is going to draw a lot of attention from the enemy. If you get caught, you’ll endanger everyone that you know. Is that what you want?”

Maurice could see that the boy was thinking about it, and that he was a lot more scared than he had been at first. He suddenly thrust the paper to Maurice. “I’m trusting you.” Without another word, he turned the horse around carefully and retreated down the path. In seconds, his shadow had melted into the forest.

Maurice opened the note. In the dim moonlight, he could barely make out rows of numbers. It was the stefetka code, all right. Half-Moon was going to get it. But now, he had to make another detour before returning home, to bring the message to Stefaniuk in Mykulinci.

About Under the Nazi Heel

For Ukrainians in 1942, the occupying Germans were not the only enemy.

Maurice Bury was drafted into the Red Army just in time to be thrown against the invading Germans in 1941. Captured and starved in a POW camp, he escaped and made his way home to western Ukraine, where the Nazi occupiers pursued a policy of starving the locals to make more “living space” for Germans.

To protect his family, Maurice joins the secret resistance. He soon finds the country faces multiple threats. Maurice and his men are up against Soviet spies, the Polish Home Army and enemies even closer to home.

Experience this seldom seen phase of World War 2 through the eyes of a man who fought and survived Under the Nazi Heel.

Find it on Amazon.

First look: My new novel, Army of Worn Soles



A Red Army anti-tank squad in World War II
Photo source: WWII in color http://www.ww2incolor.com/soviet-union/sovietatsquad.html

I’m very excited because my third book is getting closer to publishing! 

I’ve settled on a title: Army of Worn Soles. Thanks to my good friend Martin Champoux for suggestions that led me to this.

I’ve just received the second editing pass by my editor, none other than the renowned Rebecca Tsaros-Dickson. So while this may be a little premature, I think the first chapter is pretty close to being done. So, here it is. Let me know what you think in the Comments.

Chapter 1: Prisoner of War

Kharkiv, October 1941

Maurice sat on the ground, put the bottle beside him and took off his shirt. Spreading the officers uniform on the smoothest piece of ground he could find, he lay the bottle near the collar then pushed down and rolled it over the shirt. The lice cracked under the glass. He rolled the bottle back and forth, feeling a dull satisfaction at his first pathetic victory in more than half a year.
Crunch, crunch.
The effort was exhausting. He stopped. His stomach ached and his throat burned with thirst.
He slumped back until he leaned against the barracks. Men in grey uniforms stood or walked across the cobbled courtyard of the ancient castle. One came toward him, a slim man with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He stopped in front of Maurice and leaned down.
Maurice? Is it you? he said.
Breathing required effort. So did looking up. Maurice had not eaten in days, but he still trusted his sight. He knew the man with the light-brown hair and hazel eyes, even in a Wehrmacht uniform. 
Maurice?” the young man said again. “What are you doing here?
He couldnt swallow. His mouth held no moisture. Dying. Im starving to death, Bohdan. Maurice closed his eyes and hung his head.
Bohdan crouched beside him. You got drafted?
Maurice made the effort to look up again at his old friend. The Red Army made me a lieutenant. What the hell are you doing here in a German uniform, Bohdan?
The Germans kicked the Russians out, something we couldnt do. Why shouldnt I join the winning side? And it’s Daniel now, not Bohdan. He looked around to make sure no one noticed him, a Wehrmacht officer, talking to a prisoner of war. Im glad you survived, that you were captured instead of killed. The Germans killed a lot of Red soldiers.
I know. I was there.
Bohdan looked around again to make sure no officers were watching him talk with a prisoner. “How did you get here?
Like you said, we were captured, the whole army, outside Kharkiv. They brought us here.
Bohdan shook his head. Are you all right? Ill see if I can bring you anything, but I have to be careful.
Maurice looked into his friends eyes. Get me out of here.
Set a prisoner free? Are you crazy?
Bohdansorry, Daniel, youre my best friend. Or you were. If I ever meant anything to you, get me out.
DanielBohdan, looked left and right again. I cannot let Red soldiers go, he whispered.
Maurice took a dry breath. His strength was almost gone. Daniel, youre an officer in a victorious army. You have the power. You can get me out, me and my boys. You have the power to get us out of here.


Daniel shook his head and stood. Stalin’s going to surrender within six months, and then all the prisoners will be freed. Hitler has promised freedom for all nations. Well all be free. Ukraine will be free.
Maurice looked at the ground between his splayed legs. He could no longer lift his head. I cant wait six months. I cant wait two days. If you wait, youll find a corpse. Well all be dead. You have to get us out now.
Daniel, the Ukrainian man in a German uniform, hesitated. He looked around the camp again, but no one paid attention. So the Reds made you an officer, did they? Where are your men? All dead?
Somewhere, Maurice found the strength to stand up again. He staggered to the barracks door, went in and called his odalenye, the unit he commanded. Step over here, boys.
Daniel followed Maurice inside, and Maurice wondered if he wasnt breaking some regulation by entering prisoners quarters unaccompanied by at least one guard. Maurice scanned the room, taking in the injured, starving and defeated men. He realized when they saw Daniel, they saw their captor. 
Daniel stepped out of the barracks and waited for his friend outside the door. Ill see what I can do, Maurice. But youre on the wrong fucking side. He left.
Maurice picked up the bottle on the ground beside him and returned to crushing the lice out of his uniform shirt. It was the only thing he could do to reduce his misery.
He thought about the last time he had seen Bohdan, before he was Daniel. It was in the gymnasium, the pre-university school in Peremyshl. What used to be Poland.

Wikimedia Commons


Watch for Army of Worn Soles on June 1!

Sample Sunday — An excerpt from Army of Worn Soles: Battle at Poltava



Here is a sample from my work-in-progress, Army of Worn Soles, based on the true story of my father-in-law, who was drafted into the Red Army in 1941, just before the Germans invaded. He fought across Ukraine, was captured, escaped a POW camp and made his way home.

This chapter, “Battle at Poltava,” is based on his descriptions of fighting as well as historical research. 

Let me know what you think.

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.

The Panzers halted and the Soviet infantry charged, advancing in a line and shooting as they ran. German machine guns cut them down by the dozen.

One Red soldier, bent almost double with rifle held low, ran across the field from the opposite side. Maurice marvelled the Germans did not notice him. He got to the closest Panzer and leapt onto its deck. Without breaking stride, he jammed a grenade under the turret and leapt off again, running and diving onto the ground.

Maurice watched the explosion tear off the turret. Two Germans climbed out of the remains of the tank and fell to Soviet fire.

Smoke filled the battlefield, from explosions and gunfire, burning tanks, cars and trucks, trees and grass. Behind the black clouds, the sun rose red. Maurice could no longer see the brave Russian grenadier.

Another wave of Red soldiers charged forward and was cut down in turn. A third wave came forward, tripping over the corpses of their comrades. Time after time, the Red Army charged, men with obsolete rifles against the unmatched German machine guns that fired rounds at triple the rate of the Soviet models.

Only then did Maurice realize how much faster the German guns were. While the Soviet heavy machine guns chattered, the sound of the Germans’ was an almost continuous buzz, like a hornet.

“Rifles ready, boys,” he said, but he wouldn’t order them to charge before he absolutely had to. Let the commissar threaten me with a pistol, first.

Soldiers fell like wheat before invisible scythes. But they kept charging. A few stopped for a moment to fling grenades or Molotov cocktails, which burst and flamed on the Panzers. It didn’t look like much, but gasoline burning on the outer armour makes the inside of the tank too hot to tolerate. The crews threw open the hatches and tried to escape, dying as Maurice’s men emptied their magazines.

Panzer machine guns strafed the Soviet lines. Then the German infantry arrived, charging across the Psyol River on foot or on speedy armoured cars. The soldiers hid behind anything they could find, fired to cover their comrades ahead or behind them, leapfrogging toward the Soviet lines. They jumped into the first line of trenches the Soviets had abandoned minutes earlier and set up machine guns to add to the fire.

That was when the Cossacks charged. It was like something out of a movie. Men on horses, capes flapping behind them, swung curved sabres or fired machine guns. When they reached the German infantry, they slashed them, killing until they tumbled over their horses’ necks as the invaders shot the mounts dead, or until fire blew the horsemen out of their saddles.

“Fire whenever you have them in your sights,” Maurice said to the gunners. The corporals fired as quickly as the loaders could put ammunition in the breaches, and then ducked low as they became the focus of German machine-gun fire.

A commissar appeared among them and ordered a unit of riflemen to Maurice’s right to charge the Germans. Maurice saw the fear on the faces of the soldiers. None of them were even twenty years old. They cradled their rifles and stared wide-eyed at the carnage on the fields.

An officer ordered “Charge!” and they scrambled over the lip of the trench. Maurice watched as boy after boy was hit by bullets and shrapnel. They clustered together, firing sporadically at anything that moved until a shell—German or Soviet, it was impossible to say—burst in their midst, killing at least six at once, including their sergeant.

Beyond them, Maurice could see a group of German soldiers creeping through the smoke. They lay on the ground, crawling on their bellies, until they stopped in a line, guns aimed at the odalenje that had climbed out of the trench.

Another German group crept closer just beyond the first, aiming their submachine guns, then halted until the first group crept past them. Alternately, they crawled closer and closer to the Soviet lines.

“Aim your rifles at Fritz over there,” Maurice said. But the Soviet unit ordered to charge was between them and the enemy. They crouched, stupidly, in the middle of the field, exposed to fire from all sides. While some fired their rifles occasionally, the rest appeared frozen. They had no idea what to do, and they didn’t see the enemy crawling toward them.

Someone shouted behind Maurice. A sergeant at a machine gun was trying to communicate with the young soldiers. “Get down. Get out of the way. You’re blocking my fire, you idiots.”

But the boys could not hear him over the roar of battle. Even if they had, Maurice doubted whether they’d have known where to go without their commander. “Get down,” the soldier yelled again. It was futile.

Maurice tried. “Get back to the trench.” But they remained where they were, shooting occasionally, frozen with fear. One by one, they caught bullets and fell, sometimes screaming.

The Germans kept coming and Maurice then saw their objective: a big M-45 anti-tank gun firing as fast as its crew could reload. It had been placed too close to the front line, and as the infantry had fallen back from the first trench to the second, it had been stranded. Still, it was taking a toll on the Panzers and armoured cars, and this group of German soldiers had been ordered to take it out. As they moved closer to the gun, the stranded group of Russian boys became ever more directly between them and the Soviet guns.

The sergeant behind Maurice screamed frantically at the boys to get out of the way. Maurice and all his men yelled too, but it was no use. Then two of the Germans raised themselves just enough to throw grenades.

Pop-pop-pop-pop. The machine gun behind Maurice fired. Bullets ripped up the grass between him and the crawling Germans, and one fell forward with a grenade in his hand. Seconds later, the incendiary exploded and he disappeared in a cloud of smoke and soil. The second grenadier flattened himself on the ground then twisted as the bullets tore into his body.

The remaining Germans turned their fire toward the machine gun, and incidentally on the company of young soldiers between them. Sick to his stomach, Maurice could only watch as fire from both sides tore the young men to pieces. He knew the machine gun sergeant could not wait anymore—saving the anti-tank gun meant saving a lot more lives than one odalenje which, exposed to fire from all sides, was fated to be cut down sooner or later.

In moments, the whole platoon lay dead, scattered on the ground like rag dolls. The battle continued around their bodies.

Without their comrades in the way, Maurice’s boys started shooting at the remaining German company. Orest and Viktor fired an antipersonnel shell that ripped the survivors to pieces. For a moment, Maurice let himself fantasize they might win this battle. Then he heard another roar and he realized the Panzers were moving again.

A commissar dropped into the trench, followed by two NKVD men in their distinctive green caps. “Fall back, comrade,” he said. “Regroup in the village.” He moved along the trench to the next platoon, ordering them to stay behind as a rear guard.
Both the commissar and the men he ordered knew it was a death sentence. The NKVD men were there to ensure they didn’t break and run. They knew it was a suicide mission for them, too.

Maurice’s boys took the guns apart, picked up the ammunition and scurried along a connecting trench to the next set of fortifications, and from there farther from the battle. Eventually, they reached the half-destroyed village, where most of the buildings were burning.

“Don’t leave anything behind,” an officer said. “Load the weapons onto wagons.” By noon, Maurice and his boys trudged through fields of high grain. Behind them, smoke billowed into the sky as the last Soviet defenders gave their lives to cover their comrades’ retreat.