GENERAL ARTICLES

Conquest at Odessa

RAYMOND ARTHUR DAVIES June 1 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

Conquest at Odessa

RAYMOND ARTHUR DAVIES June 1 1944

Conquest at Odessa

GENERAL ARTICLES

RAYMOND ARTHUR DAVIES

"Nothing could stop the Russians at Odessa... the Aryan 'supermen' who goose-stepped unchallenged through Europe are gone " — Davies

MOSCOW (Via Wireless)—Below us, outlined in the brilliant sunlight of the Ukrainian spring, stretched the waters of Tilingulsk Liman, a narrow, bitter lake separated from the Black Sea only by a thin strip of land. The American-made Douglas aircraft in which we correspondents were flying to Odessa now sped over white salt beds, now rushed across the rosy banks of the Liman, now passed over the still reddish fields of last year’s grass and now hurtled across seemingly endless yellow-green expanses of young winter wheat.

AH far as I could see, signs of war disfigured the landscape. Looking sharp and clear and tortured from the air were the trenches, breastworks, tiring points, bomb pits, tank traps and barriers. Tracks in the

soil showed where tank trap had stopped tank and where self-propelled cannon had hunted German Ferdinands, Tigers, and Panthers. Whenever the plane dipped we could see unburied bodies and carcasses of horses and cows lying along the pitch-black roads, which even from above seemed muddy and impassable.

Here Soviet troops had advanced head-on toward Odessa. Here they had dealt the enemy the final murderous, frontal blows in the battle for the city.

Here a furious Black Sea spring snowstorm had lashed at the advancing troops with its final winter blows. Here the roads had disappeared and become part of the landscape, merging with the land to become as deep as they were wide. And yet guns,

tanks, supply trucks and men moved relentlessly onward toward Odessa and the Dnestr.

Airplanes had brought supplies from the distant rear almost to the front line of battle. Trucks had then tried to take over. But the trucks had mired down and men—tired, sleepless, muddy men—had picked up where the machines gave out and carried dismounted cannon, shell cases, cartridges and food forward on their backs. Infantrymen, when attacking, usually depend upon artillerymen for support. Here, however, infantry and artillery had become one.

When asked how he was able to carry such a load, one soldier, bending low under the weight of a gun wheel, quoted an old Russian saying: “Bread is no burden. It carries itself.”

And still there were times when even men could not get the guns up. Then the infantry attacked without artillery support. The enemy, dazed by the determination of the Russians, gave way.

The battle, or rather the battles for Odessa, was explained to us by our guide and host, Maj.-Gen. Alexander Semyonovich Rogov, assistant chief of staff to General Malinovsky, commander of the Third Ukrainian Front. Only 43, slightly grey, brown-eyed, natty in a caracul hat and red-striped blue breeches, lively, intelligent, General Rogov was the epitome of incisiveness.

“Examine this map of the Odessa region,” he said, taking out his military map case as we approached the city. “You can see that all the approaches from Nikolaev along the seacoast are cut by numerous marshy lakes. Each was used by the Germans for defense and at each they hoped to hold us. The first is called Berezansky and is separated from the Black Sea by a causeway two and a half miles long and only a few yards wide. Here the Germans prepared a bloody trap for us. But they were fooled and instead we trapped the Germans themselves. They thought we would be forced to wait for our heavy artillery before attempting a crossing. But our soldiers refused to rest and demanded battle despite cruel days of fighting through mud, snow and rain without rest and without relief.

“The Germans fought with the fury of which they are capable when cornered. They counted in vain on the waters of the lake to save them. We didn’t wait for pontoons. Our men swam over, holding to logs or bags filled with straw; to rafts made of cottage roofs, of boards and branches. Soaking wet they threw themselves against the enemy. A desperate battle was fought on shore, in the water and on the causeway, and though facing a hurricane of massed machine-gun fire our men beat the enemy by using our most feared weapons night and flank attacks. After two days and nights of bitter fighting the Germans lost their first marshy lake.”

Tilingulsk Liman (lake) came next. A windstorm was howling as the Russians approached, and the snow was so thick the water could scarcely be seen. No boats or rafts could cross in such a storm. Again the Germans hoped to hold the Russian offensive—and again they failed. The Red Army stormed across the shallows connecting the lake with the sea and, groping through icy water up to their necks, forced the Germans back despite concentrated guns—one every 50 yards along the narrow front.

Jaliksky and Kuyalnitsky lakes followed. The Russians fought around and by-passed these. Odessa lay straight ahead.

Meanwhile battles of even greater fury went on north and west of the city. During the last week in March armies of the Third Ukrainian Front rammed through enemy fortifications along the southern Bug River and crossed to the west bank. Because of distances and mud the main burden here fell to the Soviet Cossack cavalry and motorized infantry. Aiming at cutting off the enemy’s retreat these units abandoned roads and drove across the fields, demoralizing whole German and Romanian divisions. The powerful and rapid advance of the Red Army did not give the enemy a chance to fortify himself by using

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whatever natural barriers were available.

Falling back to Odessa through hostile country, the Germans were forced time and time again to abandon tanks, self-propelled guns, trucks and cars. We saw hundreds of these as we toured the battlefields.

The first sizeable town taken en route from Nikolaev to Odessa was Berezovka, an important rail and highway junction about 50 miles north of Odessa. The Germans had heavily fortified Berezovka and when, on March 31, Soviet troops broke through the enemy counterattacked repeatedly. These counterattacks proved disastrous and so weakened the Germans that at the end of the first day’s battle they were forced to retreat to a wooded grove near the town where they were

decimated. Thus fell the main German defense positions north of Odessa and during that 24 hours, Red Army units advanced more than 20 miles.

Tilingulsk Lake was crossed on April 5. Reeling backward the Germans tried again to hold the Soviet offensive but without success.

Now the main Soviet objective became clear. That was to break through to the Dnestr’s mouth, cutting off all forces in and around Odessa. General Malinovsky sent cavalry, tanks and motorized infantry far into the enemy’s rear, cutting communications and preventing the evacuation of weapons, supplies and Russian civilians.

On April 4 Soviet cavalry and tanks caught up with a strong German column between Berezovka and Odessa. The Germans tried to hold on with part of their forces while dispatching their main group to the west. But j Soviet tanks quickly broke the deI

fernes, forded another marshy lake j and forced the enemy to a nearby lake j where other Soviet units waited in i ambush. Thousands of Germans and Romanians were annihilated in the bloody slaughter which followed.

Detachments of Kuban Cossacks roamed the countryside. A Cossack patrolled by Sgt.-Maj. Fyedor Sotnikov broke into an enemy-held railway station, in broad daylight, where German soldiers were loading freight trains in preparation for flight. When the Cossacks galloped into the settlement, baring their sabres and uttering wild Cossack yells, the Germans did not even attempt to defend their trains and abandoned them. Wherever the Russians showed themselves they spread fear and disorganization— with reason, it must be admitted.

General Rogov told us that after battles with Soviet cavalry many Germans were found with their hands cut off. He said this occurs when enemy soldiers, terror-stricken by the charge, raise their hands at the last moment and the Cossacks, their sabres swinging, are unable to hold their mounts and ride willy-nilly into groups of Germans and Romanians who acted too late to save their lives. The General said Cossacks never cut off heads, because neck muscles are very strong and resist even the most furious sabre blows.

At one railway station enemy troops counterattacked 12 times in one day. The Russians held firm and when the last German attack ended they hit the enemy with all the strength they had. Few Germans remained alive and the Russians seized an entire freight train loaded with 25 tanks in perfect working condition.

Northwest of Odessa, a major junction in the rail route to Romania is Razdelnaya. While some divisions under General Malinovsky continued moving southward toward Odessa, others cut across the Steppes to the junction and seized it. As the capture of Rerezovka had opened the road to Odessa from the north, the seizure of Razdelnaya cut the Germans off from all exits to Romania by land and enclosed them within an iron vise.

Rut the Germans were far frojn giving up. They tried to break through to Tiraspol by road. The attempt failed and after three days and nights of fighting more than 7,000 enemy corpses were left on the fields and 3,200 prisoners and thousands of vehicles were taken.

Now all roads to Odessa were open.

Three immediate defense lines had been constructed by the Germans at the outskirts of the city. The first line was based on the defensive positions of the marshy lakes en route to Nikolaev. The second made use of the natural contours of the Telegulsky marsh. The third line was established in the suburbs utilizing factory and other buildings.

We stood with General Rogov on a j small demined strip along the Rlack ! Sea at the very foot of this third I defense line. A few hundred yards to the north were the ruined factory buildings. Not far away was the Odessa power station, twisted, wrecked and burned. Moskovskaya Street, which we had followed from the city to this point, was a collection of ruins. The whole seashore was still covered with barbed-wire entanglements and General Rogov told us that practically every square foot was heavily mined. The Germans and Romanians had expected landings from the sea and had taken appropriate precautions. As it turned out, this was a complete waste of time and materials.

“You can see how well all this could have been defended,” said the General,

pointing to the barbed wire, tank traps, dragon’s-teeth trenches and other fortifications. “The Germans had the sea to their right, a high mountain to their left and marshes ahead of them. The whole passable sector was only a few hundred yards wide and this was fully covered by machine guns so placed as to permit intensive cross fire. It was not easy to break through here.”

Soviet infantry, he told us, assisted by tanks and artillery, finally broke through this point on April 9. Then Soviet tanks, followed by sharpshooter detachments, stormed into the city, passing through trenches, barbed wire and antitank ditches, and crushing to death panic-stricken Germans and Romanians. In bitter battles they cleared the enemy from the whole of the station’s marshalling yards and from a whole suburb known as “Soldatskaya Sloboda — “Soldier’s Ward.” The enemy troops began running toward the western exits of the city and toward the port where they had concentrated scores of boats and landing barges.

But it was too late. Thousands of German and Romanian soldiers jammed the port. Shipping was overcrowded in a matter of minutes. In many parts of the harbor battles began between the Germans and the Romanians with the Germans throwing the Romanians into the water to make room for themselves. Hundreds of Romanians drowned in the incredible panic.

Soviet aircraft hung over Odessa and bombed the whole port area, destroying ships, barges and long columns of motor transport. The most powerful blow was delivered during the night of April 9, when Soviet aircraft set afire a number of heavily loaded trains in the harbor area. I saw some of these trains when I walked through the port. One had been loaded with airplane parts, which had melted under the terrific heat of a fire caused by the direct hits of Soviet bombs. Frozen rivulets of aluminum seemed to run along the ground and down the wheels and axles of stalled cars, and everywhere was the characteristic dust left by burning magnesium.

While trying to escape by sea the Germans also tried to evacuate as many soldiers as they could, along with their motor park and supplies, to the Ovidiopol station on the Dnestr Gulf, which is linked by railway to Bessarabia and to Romania by a train ferry. But they failed in this attempt also because the Soviet Air Force heavily bombed the railway station just west of Odessa and blocked all rail exit. The scene at this station defied description. I saw hundreds upon hundreds of railway cars, oil tanks, platforms with supplies, and tanks and airplanes nearby. Some cars were filled with German apple juice, which at the time of my stay in Odessa was being served to hotel guests.

Not only the railway had been blocked to the Germans—the road to Ovidiopol had also been made unusable. The Germans had been unable to evacuate many hundreds of their most valued vehicles and had set them on fire. Nearly 10 blocks of streets near the western exits of Odessa were filled with burned-out infantry carriers, Volkswagen trucks, munitions carriers, water tanks, oil trucks, staff cars - all reduced to piles of reddish steel. It was curious to see tens of thousands of cans of tinned food that had been cooked in the heat of the fire and destroyed. The canned goods had exploded when the steam pressure inside became too great. Like the freight cars these pitiful remnants of motor vehicles bore marks of manufacturers from all over Europe. Some

were marked Renault, some German Ford, others Isotta Fraschini.

On the nights of April 9 and 10, Red Army troops, commanded by Lieut.Gen. Tsvetaev, occupied Odessa. After two years and six months, less five days, of occupation by the Romanians and Germans, Odessa again became a Soviet city.

When we reached Odessa the Germans had already been thrown beyond the Dnestr. The front was more than 50 miles away. But fires were still visible from the dock area and the dull thud of exploding mines could be heard at all hours of the day and night. We walked through the streets of the liberated city. We examined blasted buildings and saw that not one large structure remained untouched. We spoke with Partisan leaders and city officials and interrogated prisoners. The most interesting stories concerned the relationship of the Germans to the Romanians and the decomposition of the Romanian Army which marched into Odessa on Oct. 16, 1941, only to leave it as a panic-stricken, disorganized, maddened mob on April 9, 1944. Much water had flowed under the bridges of Romanian history during this period.

“The first time troops which now make up the Third Ukrainian Front met Romanians in battle,” recalled General Rogov, “was at Stalingrad. Our troops surrounded and captured four Romanian divisions together with their staffs and commanding generals. That wiped out the Fourth Romanian Army. Now seven Romanian divisions in the Crimea are being destroyed and we estimate that since the battles for Nikolaev, we have never had more than three or four Romanian divisions against us. Altogether Romania has 28 divisions and we think most of these are in no position to oppose our advance into Romania itself.”

Historically, the General said, Romanians aren’t good soldiers and since the resistance of any Army depends upon its morale, it follows that the Romanian Army is very weak. Especially now, after these catastrophic defeats, Romanian morale is very low and can hardly be raised again.

Basically, he asserted, Romanian soldiers don’t want to fight and don’t understand what they’re fighting for. I had plenty of opportunity to prove the truth of the General’s assertion when I talked with Romanian prisoners. There wasn’t a man among them who wanted to fight and one of them said he had been a deserter for three years. One great hate seems to have seized Romanian soldiers now—hatred for the Germans. In prisoners’ camps, the General told us, Romanians must be segregated from the Germans.

On the other hand the Odessa battles have revealed great changes, too, in the German Army, where the new phenomenon of court-martialling divisional commanding officers after defeats— even though the defeats were quite inevitable—is being observed. Such a fate overtook Lieut.-Gen. Count von Schwerin, commander of the German 16th Motorized Infantry Division, who was court-martialled and removed from his command after his defeat near Nikopol. A colonel took his place, only to be defeated again near Krivoy Rog and he, too, was courtmartialled and removed. According to General Rogov such instances were unknown during the great German offensives or even during the whole period of Soviet offensive activity since Stalingrad.

The German Aryan “supermen”— blond and arrogant—who terrorized the whole world at the beginning of the war and goose-stepped unchallenged

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through the whole of Europe, are gone. ; The German Army may still be dangerous and vicious, but, if the prisoners I saw at Odessa are any indication of its composition, its 1 quality is deteriorating even if its quantity is not. German prisoners at j Odessa were anxious to wipe out any j idea we correspondents (or the General) j might have entertained that they were supermen. One and all they denied | they had ever partaken in any major | battles in Russia or that they had ever had any doubts about an Allied victory. One said he knew Germany would lose even in 1939. Another, an arrogant young doctor named Heintz Goebber, aged 28, from Hamburg, said his father had been a Communist and professed a desire to remain in Russia and practice his profession. ! Still another wanted to convince us that he himself was a Communist.

“Miserable liars,” General Rogov muttered when he heard this.

Whatever the truth might have been, it was perfectly obvious that all of the 50 prisoners we saw, from Hans Schreik, aged 20, who knew a few Russian words such as “eggs,” “hands,” “bread,” and “come here”—words learned with obvious Teutonic purposefulness — to Enrich Spielmann, aged 47, were poor soldier material: physically, mentally, and morally.

And Odessa was the proper place to see them for Odessa was the first city to stop, for any length of time, the onrushing German hordes in the fall of 1941. For 67 days the Red Army and the people of Odessa held the city under siege. More than 250,000 Germans and Romanians had been killed and wounded then. Now again ! Odessa claimed her due from the enemy | —only this time his losses were far I higher.

The battle for Odessa will go down I in history as one of the most decisive j battles of this war.