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.


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.