The Finns were men of iron, hardy, used to savage winters, born skiers. They attacked at night from all directions and gave the Russians no peace: they shot anyone foolish enough to light a cigarette in plain view, conducted five-minute mortar barrages at irregular intervals, and carried out periodic raids to cut the laagered division into even smaller pieces that were easier to destroy. Another division, the 154th, was only a few kilometers away. Sometimes at night, when the Finns left them alone, Rozenkrijtz could hear the 154ths death agony: satchel charges exploding, sharp bursts of machine gun fire, thin screams that quickly died away, carried off by the constant, bitter wind.
It wasnt supposed to be this way. The109th Rifle Division had been transferred from Lvov in November, 1939, to a new, top-secret base at Uhkta, in the Karelian ASSR along the Murmansk railroad. The cadre, including Semyon, had been amazed by the quantities of supplies and equipment that awaited when they arrived. There were trucks, GAZ-AAs, enough to partially mechanize the division. A new artillery regiment, its 122 mm field pieces towed by trucks, had been formed to be added to the divisions strength. There were even BA-10 armored vehicles for shock troops. For one giddy moment, Rozenkrijtz almost had some faith in the Red Army and the Communist system. He would finally be part of a modern army!
Komdiv Morozov, overwhelmed by the bounty showered upon him and the division, staged a lavish banquet for the officers to celebrate their good fortune in his private railway car. Junior officers came in shifts after duty and only the worst staff wolves stayed the whole night, but, capacious as it was, the old French wagons-lit from tsarist days was crowded. Officers fell off the red plush seats onto the Brussels carpet; the air was foul with cigar smoke and spilled vodka.
As an otlichnik, one of the divisions star officers, Semyon was trapped, the center of attention at the table with Morozov with no choice but to match toast after drunken, slurred toast (as usual at parties, however, hed switched to white wine at the beginning). He was one of the few that night who remembered clearly when Morozov staggered to his feet, a half-empty bottle in one hand. Medals awry, gymnastiorka buttons undone, wax sweating freely from his enormous handlebar mustaches, he bellowed:
Hell, lads, theres no reason why you shouldnt know it: Were going to attack Finland in the middle! Those reactionary capitalist sons-of-bitches will never suspect were coming. Stalins built a secret road we can use to sneak up on the Finns and given us all the equipment in the world to blow them to hell if they dont give in to his demands.
Well march on Oulu, their rail connection with Sweden, and cut their postage stamp country in two. This will be easier than Poland. At least the Poles had some soldiers to surrender; the Finns have nothing, two battalions at the most. Well send them to whatever pagan heaven Lapps go to after they die and then the Vozhd will decide how much of Finland to carve off to protect Leningrad. Da, zdrazviute Tovarish Stalin!
Da, zdrazviute Tovarish Stalin! shouted all the officers in unison.
Each downed yet another brimming glass of vodka. Morozov led by example by guzzling his bottle of vodka in one draft. The Komdiv smashed the bottle onto the floor, followed by the officers tumblers. He danced a legzinka amid the broken glass accompanied on accordion while the other officers clapped and sang along. Everyone agreed that Morozov was wonderfully spry for a man his age and that the campaign against the Finns would be short and glorious. When called upon by Morozov, Rozenkrijtz clapped and sang and capered like a fool as well. Yet, he was the lone officer in the wagons-lit who had serious doubts about the whole proposed campaign, qualms that, as usual, he sensibly kept to himself.
They had some of the materiel needed for a modern motorized infantry division, but the division had to train with the new equipment. They had to learn how to use artillery, armor, infantry and air support in a coordinated manner, a point which seemed to completely escape senior commanders such as Morozov. Ordnance stocks also were absurdly low. When he asked the quartermasters about it, they told him that they had laid in only 12 days supply because that was how long the Leningrad Military District figured the campaign against the Finns would last. A furtive check of the stores while they chatted revealed they had almost nothing in the way of boots or rations.
Tanks and armored vehicles werent whitewashed, although they were headed for a winter forest environment where khaki-colored vehicles would stand out prominently. No snowsuits were supplied. The new field guns, with their straight trajectories, were useless in heavy forest. What was needed was howitzers, cannons with a high trajectory that could shoot over trees, but these hadnt been issued.
Other supplies, however, were provided. Wind instruments, sheet music, and uniforms for several complete brass bands had been carefully packed into several trucks to be taken into battle, presumably for propaganda purposes, even though the 109th couldnt muster sufficient musicians to man one band. There were ski manuals, one for each man in the division, even though the division had no skis. The manuals still warranted study, not because they were useful, but because they featured absurd diagrams of Red Army men engaged in physically impossible skiing feats (bayoneting the enemy and tossing hand grenades being only two examples).
Shortcomings and flaws went unremarked by Rozenkrijtz or anyone else. The 154th Rifle Division set off in early December down the secret road Stalin had hacked out of the wilderness by slave labor. It took days to unsnarl the traffic jam. Mechanized columns, with no convoy experience, jammed bumper to bumper. Vehicles pitched off the road left and right only to be stranded in snowdrifts, bogs, and weeds. After several days, they untangled themselves and were at last headed for their objective, over 300 kilometers to the west. The officers of the 109th cursed their bad luck. Theyd drawn the short straw and had to follow the 154th. Every officer was convinced that the war would be over momentarily and cheat the 109th of any chance at glory.
News from the front disabused them of such notions. At first, they were told that the 154th was having some difficulty making headway, not because of Finnish resistance, which was minimal, but because of severe weather. This claim was supported by the slow trickle back of ambulances bearing frostbitten men, their hands and feet blackened and useless. The 109th was subsequently informed that their sister division had encountered a few pockets of resistance which were holding up the advance, but that these should be eliminated quickly. No troops, wounded or otherwise, came back anymore. Men looked down the road where the 154th had gone and saw nothing but howling wilderness.
They finally learned what was really up when Morozov called an emergency briefing one evening. Only battalion and regiment commanders were summoned, but Shkurev brought him along; hed quit pretending long ago that Rozenkrijtz wasnt his chief support. Morozovs uniform was buttoned correctly, his mustache neatly waxed, and if hed been drinking, you couldnt tell, but it was apparent to everyone he was about to collapse from strain. In a nervous, stammering voice, with constant pauses for long drinks of water, he told his subordinates that the 154th had gotten hopelessly bogged down. The Finns had trapped the divisions three regiments on two different roads and were slowly cutting them to pieces.
What was to be expected? demanded Morozov rhetorically. Leningrad grabs civilians off the street, shoves rifles in their hands and orders them to conquer Finland. What did they think the result would be? And now we have to pull their chestnuts from the fire!
There were shocked intakes of breath and indignant hisses at this on the part of the many sycophants in the 109th officer cadre, a display that never failed to sicken Rozenkrijtz.
So, lads, theres nothing for it except to go out and rescue the sons-of-bitches. We start tomorrow at 0400. Have everything packed and ready.
Four days later, the 109th Rifle Division left the rail debarkation point in exactly the same manner as the 154th, a confused jumble that took two more days to sort out. Reconnaissance troops and armored cars led the column, then forward infantry elements supported by armor, followed by support troops: medics, quartermasters, and sappers.
The main body of armor, infantry, and cannon, including the 303rd Battalion, formed the columns bloated middle with a rear-guard detachment dragged along at the end, all strung out on one road (Stalin in his wisdom hadnt seen fit to build flanking roads). The snow on the sides of the road was so thick, it was impossible to put out infantry flankers, that is, if the idea had even occurred to someone other than Rozenkrijtz. Just before their departure, however, thousands of brand new pairs of skis arrived. Hardly anyone in the division knew how to ski, despite the manuals.
The secret road soon gave out. The division was forced to dig a path, often through snow drifts six meters high into trackless forest, endless stands of black-green pines, so different from the Russian woods. Whole battalions had to form ranks with arms linked to trample down the snow. The men had thin overcoats to protect them; no real winter gear had been issued. After the obligatory free vodka, Rozenkrijtz learned from Serzhant Slepin the quartermaster that over 1500 men were reported unfit for duty because of frostbite, almost ten percent of the division, after nine days on the march.
Suicides occurred with shocking frequency as more and more reservists and extended second-year men despaired of ever returning home. They either shot themselves with their Nagants or wandered off into the forest, never to be seen again. They crossed the border into Finland on the fourth day of the march and then advanced for days more without a sight or sound of anything human. Morozovs solution to these tactical and logistical difficulties was to drink ever more heavily, a coping technique emulated by a large number of his subordinates.
The division advanced slowly westward on the Raate road where two regiments of the 154th were trapped. On the 11th day, sounds of combat were heard by reconnaissance elements. The noise grew steadily louder as they moved closer, especially during the long nights when the 109th went into laager. Radio contact was established. Frantic pleas to hurry were received from Vinogradov, the 154ths commanding general. Despite this, Morozov continued to advance cautiously. He made no attempt to conduct a long-range reconnaissance or to establish contact with elements of the 154th.
About 1400 on the 14th day of the march, a Chetverg, Semyon later recalled for some reason, the Arctic sun began to set. What little color had subsisted under the iron-gray sky leeched seamlessly into stark black and white. Rozenkrijtz and most of first company were trying to push a field kitchen through a bog when they heard a distinct, brisk staccato rattle of mortar fire, much closer than anything heard before. As abruptly as it had started, the shelling stopped only to be succeeded by a series of deafeningly loud explosions. Rozenkrijtz looked up above the looming pines. He saw at least a dozen black pillars of smoke ascend into the fading sky, up ahead where the advance guard was.
There were more explosions and the muffed noise of distant rifle and machine-gun fire in the rear to the southeast. Certain they would soon be attacked, Shkurev ordered the battalion to take defensive positions. Panicked men fired indiscriminately into the woods without orders. It took time before the officers could bring things under control. Several hours passed in tense silence. Shkurev sent a runner up to regimental headquarters to find out if they knew anything about the situation. A nervous, sleepless night passed during which no one got any rest and little food. It wasnt until morning that Shkurev learned something of what had happened, information he passed on to Semyon.
Morozov had foolishly put an antitank battalion at the head of the advance guard, even though antitank guns were useless since the Finns had no armor. The battalion had run into a roadblock between two lakes that couldnt be easily flanked. While the battalions officers were debating what to do, Finnish soldiers had attacked the battalions transport company in the flank. Dozens of men and horses were shot down where they stood. The Finns melted back into the forest before the survivors of the raid even had a chance to respond. Similar attacks on the rear of the column had knocked out a tank, several trucks and a field kitchen. As serious as the physical damage was, it was paltry compared to the psychological effect of the raid on Morozov. That stopped the division cold.
Theres no reason for us to lose the initiative, Shkurev said in a low tone, carefully checking to see that Yeshev, the battalion poltitruk (political officer), couldnt overhear.
Weve got plenty of artillery; we could just blast our way through the roadblock between the two lakes up ahead, then link up with the 154th. Morozov wont hear of it. Hes fallen completely apart, just sits in a tent drinking vodka. When his adjutants ask him for orders, he just waves them off and mumbles something about a general offensive in a few days.
Still, weve still got thousands of men, and tanks and cannon. Even with Morozov having a nervous breakdown, we can still hold off the Finns indefinitely until more help arrives or the Mannerheim Line breaks and the Finns are forced to surrender.
Rozenkrijtz watched the miserable troops walk endlessly back and forth to keep from freezing, arms crossed, bare hands balled and tucked deeply into their armpits.
The men cant last much longer, Olechka, he said, I dont think were getting out of this one.
Watch what you say, man! hissed Shkurev. If Yeshev hears you, hell have you shot in a heartbeat for defeatism.
Im surprised at you, he continued, just because weve taken a few casualties and lost some materiel, Semich, is no reason to conclude alls lost.
I knew we were headed into a debacle before we started. Morozov is a military idiot. Only dumb luck and his Party connections have concealed that fact up to now. His lucks run out. Theres no General Secretary he can run to in these woods. Were going to be chewed to pieces just like the 154th, said Rozenkrijtz evenly, as if he were discussing the latest Dinamo football game.
As far as Im concerned, you didnt say that, said Shkurev curtly, in an official tone. This conversation is at an end. Dont let anyone hear you speak like this again.
I wont have to. Youll see, said Rozenkrijtz, instantly regretting his rare indiscretion.
Shut up, snarled Shkurev, his temper, already stretched thin, flayed raw by the maddeningly superior lejtenant .
The next day, Pyatnitsa, the 303rds companies gathered for their evening meal around their field- kitchens: huge, cumbersome horse-drawn wagons with distinctive high-hat stovepipe chimneys. Rozenkrijtz, hated by his soldiers as an unyielding martinet, wouldnt permit the first company to mob their field kitchen like the other companies. They had to get their food by squads instead with an open interval of at least two meters between each man. The rest of the company had to wait in the trenches. The men salivated like dogs as they waited for the cook to sling some food into their mess-tins. Hot food was the only thing they had to look forward to, even if it was thin cabbage soup with a piece of fatty sausage and hardtack.
A short, sharp crack rang out. A commotion broke out by second companys field kitchen, a confused milling. A man slumped to the ground, Federenko, the second company commander, shot by a Finnish cuckoo.
TAKE COVER, Rozenkrijtz shouted, WERE UNDER ATTACK. PUT OUT THOSE COOK-FIRES! GET AWAY FROM THE FIELD KITCHENS AND ASSUME DEFENSIVE POSITIONS. NOW, SEICHAS-ZHE!
The men sluggishly responded to Semyons orders. A vicious lead rain of mortar shells and machine-gun fire tore into the 305th Battalion, also eating supper, only four-hundred meters from third companys trenches. A mortar shell hit a field kitchen. It burst into flames. Maxim bullets ripped through shallow trenches and tore Red Army mens flesh to pieces. The 303rd fired wildly in all directions with everything they had: rifles, heavy machine guns, even wheeling up an antitank gun.
CEASE FIRING! CEASE FIRE. DONT SHOOT UNTIL YOU SEE SOMETHING! Rozenkrijtz yelled pointlessly in the din. He signaled Jungai by hand to run the length of the first company trenches and personally make each man cease fire. Semyon then ran over in a crouch to the leaderless second company and brought them under control. He was about to look for Shkurev when the Finnish barrage suddenly shifted. Mortar fire fell closer and closer to the third company. The men instinctively pulled back. Volskij was nowhere in sight. Sensing something was up, Rozenkrijtz pulled his pistol and ran toward the third company.
HOLD FAST! HOLD FAST!
The men reluctantly stayed put. What happened next occurred in only a few minutes, but it seemed to Rozenkrijtz like a slow-motion nightmare. Shadowy white figures ran silently out of the forest from both sides. Creatures of black and white, more like ghosts than men, they fell upon the 305th Battalion. Foxholes, trucks, and field kitchens were raked with automatic fire and grenades. Demolition teams slung satchel charges into trucks and armored vehicles. They detonated spectacularly, spewing jagged molten shrapnel that further added to the Russian death toll.
Suppressive fire from mortars and machine guns pinned down the third company of the 303rd battalion, making it impossible for them to assist the 305th. Never more determined than when their backs were to the wall, the Red Army men fought stubbornly. They leaped from their foxholes and fought the Finns with bayonets, pistols, rifle butts and bare hands. Khaki-clad Red Army men struggled with snow-suited Finns, but the ferocity of the Finns surprise attack was overwhelming. The 305th Battalion was essentially destroyed. More Finns from the forest poured into the breach.
OVER THERE, BY THE WOODS, OPEN FIRE, Rozenkrijtz screamed.
The barrage had subsided somewhat, probably because the Finns had to ration their ammunition. Third company rose from its shallow trenches for a few moments. A ragged fusillade brought down a few attackers. The Finns took no notice, however, and continued for the breach. Combat engineers placed shaped explosive charges on mighty 200-year-old pines. The charges exploded. With great groans of pain and protest, the trees fell into the road, instant ramparts for Finnish soldiers. Rozenkrijtz watched the Finns drag wrecked Soviet trucks and other vehicles ant-like and roll them over behind the fallen trees, further reinforcing and strengthening the barricade. Other soldiers dug earthworks to seal off the breach at both ends. The barrage on the third company tapered off as the Finns secured their perimeter. The Finns road-cutting raid had accomplished its mission: to punch a 400-meter wide hole in the 109th Rifle Division in less than half-an-hour.
Rozenkrijtz ordered third company to deepen their trenches until they were chest-high. Volskij chose that moment to show up, once the worst of the danger was past, smelling of vodka with a sheepish look on his face. Rozenkrijtz merely walked past him, looking for Shkurev, not even bothering to give Volskij a contemptuous glance. He found Shkurev in a small tent that functioned as a first-aid station, having shrapnel removed from his left shoulder by the light of a kerosene lamp. Deathly pale; Shkurevs ascetic face was racked with pain. Rozenkrijtz was struck by how unsuited Shkurev was for military life. He wondered how long he was going to last.
Report, he hissed as an inept sanitar fished with a probe in the raw meat of his shoulder.
Federenkos dead, shot by a cuckoo. There are more casualties, but no other fatalities. The Finns attacked the 305th and wiped them out. Theyve cut the road next to third company where the 305th used to be. Were cut off from the division up ahead. I ordered third company to deepen their trenches. We should probably deploy Degtyarevs in their area and set up interlocking fields of fire to cover the Finns breach.
Tell Volskij to do it.
Tak tochno, Tovarish Starshij Lejtenant, Rozenkrijtz answered, wondering whether to brief Shkurev on Volskijs professional shortcomings later when other ranks werent present.
Also, tell the junior commander of the second company hes in command for now.
Ladno. And wed better have the men build some real bunkers, Semyon noted.
We have no orders to do so, said Shkurev automatically.
Tovarish Starshij Lejtenant, said Rozenkrijtz, no hint of exasperation in his voice at having to endlessly finesse superior officers whod been purposely trained to lack initiative. The Finns have us in a bag.
We wont have a moments peace from now on. Cuckoos will pot-shot at us. Therell be harassment and interdiction mortar fire at odd intervals. Theyll probably try our defenses in strength soon to decide whether were weak enough to destroy or should just be left to freeze and starve. If the 303rd is to survive in any real sense of the term, weve got to dig in and do it now, without waiting for Gusev to remember us by some odd chance.
Were on our own, Olya, he continued in a tone so low that only Shkurev could hear, its up to us to save ourselves if we can.
There was silence except for the occasional groans of wounded men. Shkurev hesitated, obviously in agony over the decision he had to make. At last he looked Rozenkrijtz in the eye and curtly nodded.
Wed better start, said Rozenkrijtz.
He left the first-aid point and went to first companys bivouac. Hed already determined that bunkers were needed some time before and discussed plans with Sergei and Jungai, his two most trusted men. All he had to do was give the order. There wasnt much problem either with second company. Margolis, the junior commander, a short, thin Jew from Moscow, was a bright fellow who listened intently as Rozenkrijtz explained what he wanted and then diligently went to work. Volskij would be a problem; thats why Semyon saved him for last. When he came up to third companys positions he was infuriatated to find that the men had stopped digging and were instead about to light an enormous bonfire made from cut up pine trees.
Put that fire out, Rozenkrijtz growled.
Mladshij Lejtenant Volskij said we could, said one men.
Thatll be a great consolation when a cuckoo puts a bullet through your thick skull. Get back to digging if you want to stay warm. You, efrejtor, take me to Mladshij Lejtenant Volskij, seichas-zhe!
Volskij was in a trench, well to the rear of the third companys forward perimeter, eating soup from an enlisted mans billy.
Nu, Rozenkrijtz, what have you come to bother me about this time? said Volskij nonchalantly.
Rozenkrijtz sent the private back so they could be alone. In the darkness Volskij couldnt see Semyons face, white with cold rage. Rozenkrijtz grabbed the billy from Volskij and dumped hot soup in his lap. Scalded and indignant, Volskij leaped up screaming only to catch a hard fist right in the mouth. The blow knocked him back into the trench. Rozenkrijtz knelt down and clapped an iron hand over Volskijs mouth.
Say one word, you stinking cunt on wheels, and Ill shoot you dead and then claim a cuckoo did it. Nobody will believe me, but nobody will do anything about it, because everyone hates you, you weak, miserable excuse for an officer. Do you understand me, wretch?
Utterly cowed by now, Volskij frantically nodded assent. Rozenkrijtz took his hand away. In a low voice brimming with contempt, he briefed him on his duties. He left once hed finished, pausing only to say:
I didnt tell Shkurev about your cowardice under fire tonight, but your men all know it. Everyone has to hack it here, you cant make excuses like you did back in garrison. Fuck up again and Ill have your guts!
He left Volskij muttering curses under his breath, already freezing in his soaking-wet uniform. For the next two days and nights, Rozenkrijtz was the terror of the 303rd, harassing them far worse than the Finns did, at least to the enlisted mens minds. He drove them like slaves. Field kitchens stayed cold. Federenko had taught Semyon that they were too tempting a target for cuckoos. Rations were eaten cold until the bunkers were built, a fact that, as Semyon pointedly noted when the men complained, should provide just that much more incentive to work harder. The troops hacked with shovel and spade at the rock-like frozen earth; trenches were deepened and pits dug for bunkers on the mottis perimeter. They were shelled periodically by mortars. Snipers pecked away. Again, Semyon learned from the first encounter and put the men under strict orders not to pointlessly fire back in all directions and waste precious ammunition.
Once the pits were ready, three for each company, one for each platoon, cut logs were manhandled into place by the exhausted, half-frozen Red Army men to form the bunkers walls. Loopholes were cut in strategic places for machine guns and rifles. The bunkers were roofed over with logs and then covered with several more layers of logs and earth. Earth and heavy stones were banked against the walls of the bunker, providing the men at last with shelter from bad weather and Finnish snipers.
Rozenkrijtz took further pains. He had a second company squad reconnoiter the rear to see if they could contact other units and find out how big the motti was where the Finns had trapped them. Margolis reported back in his usual excited manner that the road had been cut about six kilometers to the rear, just past the Purasjoki river, confirming that the battalion was indeed trapped. They were stuck in one of several mottis on the Raate road, strung like sausages on a link, waiting to be devoured by the Finns. Several other units were trapped with them, including a company from the artillery regiment, with three batteries of 122 mm field pieces.
Keenly interested to learn that artillery was available, Semyon suggested to Shkurev that he, as highest-ranking officer in the motti, should order the mladshij lejtenant who commanded the company to move his guns to the mottis approximate center. Shkurev predictably balked, loath to exert authority over anyone outside his normal chain of command, until Rozenkrijtz pointed out that the guns fire could be directed from the center to any point on the perimeter where the enemy might attack. At close range, the flat trajectories of the field guns made no difference since they could be fired point-blank at the enemy. Shkurev agreed reluctantly but was mollified when he learned that Gloivov, the artillery company commander, thought the idea excellent and instantly deployed his guns as ordered. Barbed wire, strand and concertina, was strung in several rings around the perimeter. Mines were laid also. Once these steps were taken, Rozenkrijtz had done about as much as he could do defensively, given the situation.
This doesnt mean, however, that the situation resembled a peachtree. The cold was miserable. The only warmth came from crude wood-burning stoves in the corners of the bunkers. Days stretched into weeks. Already meager rations grew predictably thin. By January 2, they were exhausted. At last, the Red Army men were reduced to slaughtering the horses. They killed the poor beasts, half-starved themselves and almost frozen so that a bullet in the head was a mercy. The meat was boiled in the bunkers (Rozenkrijtz allowed no open fires, again for fear of cuckoos) and eaten partly-cooked which made everyone violently ill.
Frostbite was more and more of a problem. Fingers and toes, then whole hands and feet, blackened and grew gangrenous until there was nothing the sanitar could do but administer morphine. The wounded and the weak died off at an astronomical rate. Rozenkrijtz rotated men in and out of the bunkers on an exact schedule, but it was little help. There was simply no adequate shelter.
Yet the worst of it was the Finns, shadowy tormentors the Red Army men never saw. They were there, patrolling on skis, resting in warm dugouts, every day steadily tightening the noose around the 303rd. By day they shelled the battalion; cuckoos picked off targets of opportunity. They only assaulted the battalion at night. The Finns would probe for points on the perimeter where the defenses seemed weakest and strike. More and more, the men of the battalion felt they were on their own, abandoned by the Red Army to freeze, starve, or be shot. While there was some outside contact, it was dismayingly ineffectual and did little to improve the situation or even raise morale. Red Air Force planes strafed and bombed the forest surrounding the motti, but only by day. Rozenkrijtz knew the sorties were useless. The Finns sat safely in their dugouts, laughing at the inept, clownish Russians, and waited for night so they could kill more of them.
Things finally grew so desperate that Shkurev called a conference of all officers to discuss what might be done, in the day when there was less risk of a Finnish attack. Cautiously, hunkered low to make the smallest target possible, the officers traveled singly to the second company bunker that Shkurev had designated for the meeting. Despite their officer status, they looked no different from the other ranks: filthy, starved, sub-human. Even distinctions of rank had been torn off long ago, once they realized that pips made prime targets for cuckoos. Shkurev started the meeting by having Rozenkrijtz give a situation report. Semyon outlined their desperate predicament quickly, without embellishment.
To sum up, the battalion has no food rations to speak of other than negligible quantities of horse meat and several bags of hardtack some scout planes successfully dropped off two days ago. On quarter-rations this means that we can feed the troops for one or two more days.
All right. Thank you for the briefing, Tovarish Lejtenant Rozenkrijtz, said Shkurev.
There it is, he generally remarked.
Lets not dance around it, were in a pretty bad way. Not that the rest of the divisions having a holiday, but weve almost completely lost contact with them. If anythings done, weve got to do it. Any suggestions?
There was a prolonged, painful silence after this. Each officer sneaked glances at his colleagues, hoping desperately that someone other than himself would say something. No one spoke. The stupid, mooncalf expressions on their faces drove Rozenkrijtz half-mad. His whole life had been a continuous conditioning to keep his mouth shut, to never stick out from the crowd by voicing an original opinion or a fresh thought. It had been the correct thing to do in the past, but he knew that he was the only man in the bunker who understood the situation. If he didnt try to do something, the motti was doomed to annihilation like the 305th. At last, he couldnt stand it any more and blurted out:
Its fairly obvious, isnt it?
Then why dont you spell it out for us? snapped Shkurev.
Rozenkrijtz said nothing. He instead crouched down and traced lines with his fingertip on the dirt floor of the bunker.
This is the Raate road where were trapped, he said, indicating a long, meandering diagonal. He bisected it with a somewhat vertical line.
Heres the Purasjoki River.
He drew an oval on the Raate road that encompassed the Purasjoki.
Were here. Currently, our perimeter extends just to the east of the river. We still control the bridge across it.
Semyon drew one more line, a semi-arc, to the right of the Purasjoki line and above the line of the Raate road (hed given up using the hopelessly inaccurate maps division HQ had provided a long time ago).
Heres the border between the Soviet Union and Finland, a 100 kilometers away in a straight line.
Just what are you driving at, Rozenkrijtz? demanded Volskij, impudent when others were around.
Cant you see, Volskij, said the good-humored Gloivov, if the Finns cut the Purasjoki bridge, were trapped. Theres no real way for us to escape if that happens, not in one piece.
This stark fact, graphically demonstrated by Semyons diagram, reduced everyone to silence again until Margolis said:
Nu, Tovarish Lejtenant Rozenkrijtz, what is to be done?
We have to break out, immediately while weve still got a chance!
And go where? asked Gloivov. Theres no point in trying to go back on the Raate road. Its jammed full of other Red Army units in the same predicament as us. Wed never get anywhere. The Finns would simply chew us to pieces trying to move rather than staying put.
Theres another way. We can cut straight through the woods instead, said Rozenkrijtz, eager by now to spell his plan out, to win the other officers over.
Every Red Army unit north of Lake Ladoga, us, the 154th, everyone, has stuck to the roads since the campaign began. The Finns have counted on this and based their tactics on it; they run rings around us in the forest while we perish on the roads. We have to do the contrary of what they expect from us.
How can we? The snows up to your waist in the woods. Wed never get far, complained Shkurev.
We dont have to go too far, a hundred kilometers. Ive checked among the men. Some of them know how to ski. We can send them ahead to scout out the best route for us. If the men break up into platoons, theyll be small enough to avoid detection and still have enough mass to push through the snow if they have to.
It wont be easy, said Shkurev. Semyon could tell, however, he was more than half-convinced.
Retreats never are. Well have to conduct some kind of feint to the west to persuade them were trying to link up with our forward elements. That can be done with an artillery barrage and a probe of the barricade by a platoon. Our other elements will already be in position for the breakout beforehand. While they concentrate on the western end of the perimeter, we can simultaneously punch through the eastern end.
I dont want to minimize how dangerous this operation will be. Wed undoubtedly lose half our current strength or more. Still, its better than all of us dying here.
Rozenkrijtz knew hed won. It was plain from their faces that Shkurev, Gloivov, and Margolis liked the idea. Even Volskij, desperate to save his life, had nothing to say against the plan. Despite the desperate situation, Semyon looked forward with keen anticipation to the complex planning and calculation such an operation required. He even gave way to an uncharacteristic moment of fantasy and pictured himself at the head of the battalion, the Order of the Red Banner pinned to his chest, a citation for his valor and ingenuity being read by Shkurev when a harsh, pedantic voice said:
What you propose, Lejtenant Rozenkrijtz, is completely unacceptable.
It was Yeshev, the battalion politruk. Bald, squat, bespectacled, the politruk had a dogmatic, steamroller manner that lesser men found intimidating.
You seem to forget, Rozenkrijtz, that Red Army doctrine provides that any enemy territory which falls into our hands becomes Russian soil forever. It is the duty of every Red Army man to defend Russian territory to the last man, to the last bullet. Your cowardly proposal flies squarely in the face of that requirement. It is disgraceful and scandalous that you even suggested it. I would never counter-sign such an order.
Semyon wasnt frightened of Yeshev, hed seen him fall apart too many times during mortar bombardments to be scared of him. His opinion, however, didnt matter. It was what the others thought, especially Shkurev. Yeshev could be overruled only if they sided with him. He was too much of a realist to think that would happen.
Yeshevs right, said Volskij, who had a keen Russian nose for the direction the political wind was blowing. Rozenkrijtz should be ashamed of himself for coming forward with such cowardly proposals.
When Shkurev made excuses, Semyon knew that his plan was doomed.
Tovarish Politruk Yeshev, you know better than any of us what a tremendous strain weve all been under. Tovarish Lejtenant Rozenkrijtz meant no disloyalty. Instead, as a dedicated officer, he was merely trying to think of every contingency. Disloyalty was the furthest thing from his mind.
Im aware of the circumstances, Yeshev coldly replied.
Im willing to overlook this whole incident as long as theres no further mention of such plans. We will hold out here until were relieved. Rest easy, comrades, Moscow hasnt forgotten us. A relief column will arrive soon; Im sure of it.
The ultimate decision, consequently, was to continue doing nothing. The officers returned to their posts. The rest of the day passed fairly uneventfully. The night was calm as well, at least initially, until Ignatiev caught a bullet in the gut from a cuckoo. A sanitar tried to make him as comfortable as he could without morphine. Hed just finished dictating a last letter to his mother, something almost every other Red Army man in the motti had done recently, pitiable, tear-stained missives to wives, families and lovers, primitively sealed with bits of black bread that the men chewed into paste. The other ranks had no illusions; they knew they were going to die.
At about 2200 hours, several large explosions were heard to the east. Semyon jumped out of the trench and ran in a crouch to the bunker where a field phone linked first company to battalion. He rang up Shkurev. It took some time before he finally got through; the other company commanders also wanted to know what was up. Shkurev told Rozenkrijtz what he had desperately hoped wasnt so.
The Finns must have been listening in on you earlier, he said, they just blew the Purasjoki bridge.
Semyon scowled. Being proved right by the Finns gave him no satisfaction. The destruction of the bridge meant that there was no way now for the 109th to get its vehicles out; the ice on the frozen river was too thin to support them. It also sealed the lions share of the 109th off from motorized reinforcements, putting paid to Yeshevs smug certainty that they would soon be relieved.
Youd better put everyone on the highest alert, Olich. Theyll probably start their big push against us tonight, he cautioned.
I agree, Shkurev replied. Double the watches. Order the guards to keep an even closer lookout than usual. Ill order Volskij and Margolis to do the same.
Nothing more happened, though, except for the death of Ignatiev, momentarily overlooked in the confusion following the destruction of the bridge. He was found instantly frozen, a common thing with badly wounded men in the extreme cold, his poor, thin young body contorted into a grotesque semblance of vigorous activity. Semyon took his Red Army token. They wrapped his body as best they could in his overcoat and threw it on a pile with the others; no one had the strength any more to dig graves.
The next day, January 6, passed uneventfully as well, but everyone knew it was just a lull before the final onslaught. The men were already defeated; Rozenkrijtz could see it in their faces. Prolonged combat, no food and warmth, and inept leadership had totally destroyed their morale and will to fight. The 303rd was, like Ignatiev, a corpse awaiting burial. Everyone dreaded the coming of darkness. That night, around 0200, all things being relatively quiet for the moment, Rozenkrijtz went to the bunker for kipiatok (hot water). Hed just taken a sip when the field phone rang.
Third company. Rozenkrijtz here.
Skhurev. Semka, third company observation point reports some unusual activity by the Finns in the breach. Go over there and see whats going on, then report back to me.
Rozenkrijtz knew better than to sarcastically inquire why Shkurev didnt have Volskij look into it. He tossed his water aside and left the bunker. Semyon had almost reached third companys positions when he heard the report of a large-caliber gun, followed by a piercing whine. He threw himself to the ground just as a shell landed directly on third companys middle bunker. Red-hot iron crashed through the heavy logs of the bunker like they were match sticks. The shell exploded and reduced the bunker to a lifeless wreck. Semyon got up and ran as fast as he could for third companys trenches, only a few meters away. He leaped into a trench just as another shell sailed into third companys left bunker, destroying it also.
Semyon cautiously stood up. He peered over the edge of the trench through binoculars at the Finnish barricade. There was a sharp, orange-red flash, a characteristic muzzle-burst. Another shell smashed into the last third company bunker. By the noise of the report and the damage being caused, he knew it was a 120 mm gun. The Finns had brought a captured Red Army mortar up to the barricade and were using the gun to pulverize the 303rds bunkers. He had to notify Shkurev so Gloivovs artillery could return fire; it was the only possible way to retrieve the situation. The quickest way to do that was to use the field phone in his bunker. He got out of the trench and ran full-tilt into another man. It was Volskij, running away from his command again.
The Finns, theyve got a cannon, he screamed, plainly out of his mind with fear. Volskij didnt even know who Semyon was. What are we going to do?
Die, you pig! said Rozenkrijtz as he shoved him aside.
The rest of third company ran by, following their commanders example. Semyon debated whether to try to rally them but decided it was more important to take out the mortar. He ran back to the first companys positions, desperately hoping the bunkers were still there and that the Finns didnt fire on the bunker while he was in it. The bunkers were intact. Rozenkrijtz literally dived into the middle bunker head-first.
Get everyone out into the trenches! he shouted to Jungai. The Finns have a 120 mm mortar and theyre using it to blow the bunkers. Tell the men to expect an assault.
Tak tochno, Tovarish Lejtenant Rozenkrijtz, the Kalmyk said as he ran out, driving the other troops in the bunker before him.
Semyon never saw him again. Rozenkrijtz frantically cranked the field phone. There was no answer for a long time. Shkurev finally picked up the phone.
The Finns have one of our 120 mm mortars. Theyre shelling the bunkers. We need counterfire from Gloivov.
Gloivovs dead. A shell landed directly on his company, killing him and five others. They must have figured out exact coordinates for every asset we have beforehand.
What are we going to do, Rozenkrijtz blurted out, hating himself for his weakness the moment he said it.
Do? said Shkurev incredulously. Do? Why I suppose well all die soon—
An enormous weight of dirt and rocks avalanched onto Semyons head. Snapped like a twig by the shells impact, a rough-cut log crashed onto one shoulder and knocked him flat. Dazed, winded by the blows, his eyes, nose, and mouth choked with dust, Rozenkrijtz knew this was his last moment. A few seconds passed without incident, however, and he regained his composure. Hed been lucky. The Finns had fired a dud shell that had landed squarely on the bunker, but had failed to explode. He wiped the dust from his eyes and looked around him in the pitch darkness. Semyon saw a gray patch nearby, what was left of the bunkers entrance. He crawled to it and dragged himself outside.
Other Finnish mortars were firing now, little coughs in counterpoint to the deep belch of the 120 mm. There was also the constant snap of rifle fire as the Finns poured bullets into the 303rd. The motti was in flames. First companys trenches were empty. Out beyond the perimeter, he could see dark silhouettes against the snow and periodic bursts of flame as men fired their weapons wildly, without purpose. His troops had broken and run. Theyd undoubtedly killed Jungai; hed never have let them go otherwise. The 303rd had fallen apart. Hed lost his first command.
In the midst of chaos, Semyon wasted no time on regrets. He knew what he had to do. There was a wrecked field kitchen nearby whered he cached a long roll of canvas days before, in anticipation of a contingency like this. After a brief search he found it. Rozenkrijtz shouldered the roll and headed for the northern edge of the motti, where second companys positions were. Other than the dead and wounded close to death, he saw no one. Second company had also fled, so Margolis must also be dead. He hurried to the edge of the motti where he knelt down and unrolled the canvas to reveal a snowsuit hed stripped off a dead Finn a week ago, the Finns Suomi machine pistol, a bag of hardtack, and skis and poles that hed stolen from division supply before the battalion had been trapped. Rozenkrijtz pulled on the blood-stained snow suit, slung the Suomi over his shoulder, and rolled the canvas back up. Praying he wouldnt step on a mine, he ran zig-zag past the trenches, past the shattered barbed-wire, torn up by mortar fire, into the woods and the deep snow.
It was calm in the forest, quiet and peaceful. The mottis final destruction was muffled by the thick trees and seemed far away. The stillness made him realize: he was alone for the first time since hed joined the Red Army, a strange sensation. Semyon leaned against a tree where the snow wasnt too deep and strapped on the skis. Hed never used skis before, but hoped to figure them out enough on the way to get back to the Soviet Union. He tied the ends of the canvas roll together and slung it over his back. After orienting himself with a compass, he set off with much futile fumbling until he discovered he could make progress after a fashion by sliding one ski forward and then the other. He hoped he could find a place to cross the Purasjoki where the Finns werent watching, but was fairly confident they would concentrate on the roads. No time was wasted grieving for comrades left behind, brave and good men like Jungai, Shkurev, Sergei, and Margolis. He concentrated instead on devising a good lie to tell when he got back as to why it was that he, alone, had survived.