8th of September 1942
The moon shone brightly in the night’s sky its cold light illuminating the now ruined city. Piles of debris and half destroyed buildings cast heavy shadows across the bleak landscape. It was the bombers from the Luftwaffe that had reduced Stalingrad to such a sorry state on the 23rd August 1942. The threat had not ceased and danger from further bombing continued. The bodies of fallen German and Russian soldiers lay scattered on the streets. Their faces lifeless and grey like the city itself, a macabre reminder of those that had already given their lives in the battle of Stalingrad. In the background gunfire cracked and echoed off the crumbled buildings and interrupted the otherwise dead atmosphere.
Amongst the rubble stood a factory that had not yet been destroyed that was once responsible for producing T-34 tanks. Black marks dirtied the outside walls where fires had previously burned during the firestorm caused by the heavy bombing. Scattered at its base lay broken glass from the small windows that ran most of the way along the factory wall, only a few of which where still in tact. In places sat various parts once used in the process of building tanks, which now only contributed to the piles of rubble. From its windows a low light shone through, voices of both men and woman heard from inside. The factory had become a barracks for soldiers and those aiding the red army’s war effort. Within its walls was the 13th guards rifle division who had seen heavy action earlier that day.
A door on the east side of the factory creaked open and out stepped a soldier. He was a tall man with dark brown hair dressed in a dark green uniform. His attire was worn and had seen better days. Over his shoulder was slung a Mosin Nagant rifle. He looked tired and rather distant as though something was playing on his mind. Walking slowly forward he looked up into the sky and exhaled loudly as if letting off steam. He was heading across the street to a line of sandbags, as he did so he carefully scanned his surroundings. Moments later another man stepped out from the same door. He was somewhat shorter than the first with black hair and wore a similar uniform but it was in much better condition, though not without the odd scuff. The emblems on his jacket identified him as a lieutenant. He looked over to the first man who was stood at the sandbags and then made his way towards him. As he walked he carefully took a packet of cigarettes from his front jacket pocket. The man by the sandbags turned round to see the officer approaching.
“Sir!” the man said abruptly and saluted to the officer with his right hand.
“At ease Kupetsky, it is I who should be saluting you after your efforts today,” said the officer as he offered the open pack of cigarettes to Kupetsky.
“Thank you sir,” replied Kupetsky as he plucked a cigarette from the packet.
The officer took a box of matches from his back pocket. He carefully opened them and struck one against the side of the box. He held the match in his right hand and shielding the flame with his left he reached out and lit Kupetsky’s cigarette and then his own.
“Nickolai Kupetsky isn’t it?” the officer asked in a friendly manner.
“Yes sir it is.”
“I owe you my life Nickolai. After that sniper shot dead our sergeant I thought I was surely next. If it wasn’t for your quick shooting I don’t think I would be standing smoking here with you now,” the officer explained in an appreciating manner.
“Just doing my duty sir.”
“Please call me Mikhail, its Mikhail Ovsianikov,” he said in a pleasant tone.
“Thank you Mikhail,” replied Nickolai looking far more relaxed.
“After today I’ll be looking for a new sergeant Nickolai. Stalin needs more men like you in his army and after your bravery in combat I think you would serve well as our new sergeant.”
“ Honored of course sir,” responded Nickolai, trying to look pleased about being promoted.
“Excellent well I’ll complete the necessary papers tonight. In the meantime let’s join our comrades and tell them of how you bettered that German sniper.”
Mikhail put his arm around Nickolai’s shoulder in a friendly manner and they walked back towards the beaten up old factory.
The inside of the factory was damp and poorly lit. There was a cocktail of strong smells that filled the air made from the combination of dried blood, sweat, oil and dampness. The factory had been adapted to accommodate numerous soldiers and roll mats lined the floor with soldiers fast asleep after days of vicious fighting. There were some that had been injured and lay there groaning while they were treated by medics and nurses. The constant clatter of type writers, as women sent and received battle plans via telegram, added to the general noise. Tucked into corners were tables also occupied by soldiers, many of them reminiscing past events. Those that were lucky enough to possess a set would sit and play cards. All this crammed among the machinery used to build the tanks.
Shortly after joining their comrades Mikhail, Nickolai and some other men from the 13th guards rifles division were sat round one of the tables. The table was lit by the orange glow of a kerosene lamp. Also standing round the table were some of the 62nd rifle division that had just come back from a night assault to recapture a building from the Germans. They laughed and chatted about the day’s events and listened to Nickolai as he recounted his skilful shot.
“We were pinned by a panzer tank and a German machine gun group was in the process of trying to out flank us. Lieutenant Ovsianikov gave the order to advance behind a wall that stood between the panzer and us. From there we would have a chance to make a dash between two buildings and outsmart the machine guns and avoid direct fire from the tank. Sergeant Lantzeff, our good Lieutenant and I made a break for it. With the rest of the group to shortly follow in threes. As we advanced on the wall trying to keep low, a church spire came into view from around the corner of a building. It had a hole blasted in its side from previous bombing.” Nickolai paused and reached for a canteen of water sat in front of him and took a drink.
“Don’t stop there!” cried one of the soldiers.
“Alright, alright I’m just taking a drink,” said Nickolai laughing. He placed the canteen back on the table. He smiled and deliberately took a little more of a pause before continuing his tale.
“Suddenly there was a loud bang and the sound echoed through the square. Sergeant Lantzeff’s lifeless body flopped to the ground with a thud. Then a second shot clearly from the spire accompanied by a muzzle flash. The horrifying sound rang in my ears and I flinched momentarily expecting my death. The bullet struck the ground at Lt. Ovsianikov’s feet, violently kicking up the dirt. I quickly aimed for where I had seen the flash and fired a single shot. At that point I saw the silhouette a rifle slide out from the hole in the spire and fall towards the ground. I then ran for the wall and Lt. Ovsianikov,” Nickolai explained trying to look as modest as he could.
“A toast to poor Sgt. Lantzeff!” shouted Mikhail lifting his glass into the air. The rest followed suite in remembrance of their fallen comrade, taking a moments silence.
“To our hero and new Sergeant Nickolai Kupetsky!” Mikhail called once again. Their unit and some from the 62nd cheered and joined the toast.
As the men continued talking Nickolai glanced across the room to a group of tables where the women were sat typing. There was one that particularly caught his eye. She was a beautiful woman with a fair complexion. Her long auburn hair fell just beyond shoulder length and partly covered her left eye. He watched her as she stood up from the table. She too looked across the room and noticed Nickolai watching her. Their eyes met and they smiled at each other. It was as if she recognised his face but could not recollect where she had seen him before.
“Excuse me,” muttered Nickolai as he stood up from the table.
He looked down and straightened off his shirt before he began to make his way across the room towards the woman. She too had begun walking towards Nickolai. When they met there was a kind of awkward silence as though they were both waiting for each other to speak. To the pair of them it must have felt like eternity.
“Ania isn’t it, you used to stay in the house next to my grandfathers farm,” Nickolai said managing to break the silence.
“It is you Nickolai! I can’t remember the last time we saw each other. We must both have only been about ten years old,” Ania replied with a smile.
“It’s good to see you again Ania, I did not expect to see you here though it’s nice to see a familiar face again.”
“I recently thought about you, you know. I was wondering if you were still alive amongst all this chaos. I even hoped that we would run into each other,” Ania explained with an air of enthusiasm.
“Well it looks like your hoping paid off. It certainly is nice to see you again, it brings back happy memories. Something I have been without for a long while. Though it interests me to know why you were so eager to see me again?”
“I too remember the happy times we had together as children. You used to make me laugh and I always enjoyed your company. I felt sad when your grandfather died and you and your father moved away. The feeling gives me hope in these dark times.”
Meanwhile across the room one of the other typists had brought a piece of paper to Lt. Ovsianikov. He read over it and as he did so the expression on his face changed. He began to look slightly more worried. It was almost as though he had forgotten there was a war on.
“Right listen up 13th, orders in from Major General Aleksandr Rodimstev state that we are to meet with more troops from our regiment just north of here under the command of Captain Andrick Zhukov. There at six am, we are to re take an old asylum that the Germans have overrun close to Tsaritsa Gorge. So get some sleep because it’s going to be a long day tomorrow,” ordered Mikhail in a loud voice.
There was a look of disappointment on Ania’s face as she knew that she would again have to say goodbye to Nickolai. It was just luck that they had met again and after fifteen long years. She broke eye contact with Nickolai and looked down with an air of sadness.
“Leaving so soon,” she said quietly.
“I’ll come back, we’re posted here for a few days at least. There will be plenty of chance to catch up on old times,” Nickolai said with confidence trying to inspire hope.
The two of them embraced and wished each other goodnight. Ania returned to her work and Nickolai lay down on his roll mat next to some of the other soldiers and tried to get some sleep.