Today, June 22, is the anniversary of the launch of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, and of Operation Bagration in 1944.
The first was Hitler’s Germany’s invasion of the USSR, the largest land invasion in history. Three years later, Stalin’s Soviet Union answered that with Operation Bagration, a massive assault on the German Army Group Centre in Byelorussia (now Belarus), destroying 28 out of 34 divisions. It was the biggest military defeat in German military history, and the beginning of the end of the fight on the Eastern Front.
Bagration was the implementation of the Soviet strategies of maskirovka, or deception, and deep battle, where they found weak spots in the enemy line, quickly exploited breakthroughs and penetrated into strategic depths—with heavy losses.
The following sample is a description of that type of assault, through the eyes of my father-in-law, Maurice, who was there. This is from the third volume of the Eastern Front trilogy, Walking Out of War.
Latvia, June 1944
Nothing could have prepared him for the Red Army’s assault on the German invaders in 1944. The line of planes hitting the enemy stretched in both directions as far as he could see, and explosions lit up the western horizon with a hellish light. They felt the earth vibrating, felt the heat on their faces.
As the sun’s first rays lit up the field, Maurice saw the artillery raise their barrels and begin firing: mortars and cannons, long-range artillery pieces and something new: the Guards Mortars, the innovative rocket launchers that became known as the Katyusha. They looked like the pipes of a church organ mounted on cantilevered assembly on the back of one of the now-ubiquitous Studebaker trucks. Maurice watched a crew load 14 metre-long rockets onto the rails. The rails rose, pointing at an upward angle toward the enemy. Then with an unbearably loud but almost musical sound, they fired. Rows of multiple rocket launchers sent a volley of thousands of shells toward the Germans. Nothing could survive that, Maurice thought.
Then the shock armies raced westward. First came tanks and armoured cars, all carrying men with a grim but confident air. Looking at them, Maurice knew they had no illusions that some of them were going to die, but they were going to destroy the enemy.
Hundreds of vehicles poured past Maurice’s position. The Germans returned fire, but that did not slow the shock troops. As the day brightened, the men could see the German positions in the town of Valga, about two kilometres to the west. Smoke billowed up from dozens of spots. Buildings crumbled as shells from Soviet tanks and cannon struck.
Successive lines of Soviet tanks, trucks, guns and men moved across the fields toward the first buildings of the town. Men fell, trucks burst into smoke and fire but the shock troops kept moving forward.
And then, the returning fire stopped. Maurice could see the Red Army moving fast down a road away from him, like a sink draining. Another wave of planes screeched past overhead, flying past the town and bombing the distance.
“Ahead, boys!” Sergeant Nikolaev called. Maurice and the men picked up their automatic rifles. Four pulled the Pulemyot Maxima machine gun. Although the lieutenant and the men called it the “Maxim,” it was actually a Russian-made variant of the original Maxim heavy machine gun. Mounted on a two-wheeled carriage, it had a high shield and a special cap for water to cool it. It required at least two to operate it: one to load the belts of ammunition, and one to aim and fire. It was mostly used for defending against counter-attacks.
Ahead, Maurice saw Red Army men jump up and climb on the decks of the T-34s, squat behind the turret and aim their rifles, but he stayed on the ground, thinking of the lieutenant’s warning that the tanks would be the Germans’ main targets.
When they reached the burned forest, they had to follow the road. A single tank led three odalenyes. Taking his turn to help pull the Maxim, Maurice felt vulnerable, squeezed among so many men concentrated onto the road. One shell would kill this whole unit. But no shells fell. They could hear explosions and fighting ahead of them. They passed a metal sign, bent and punctured by bullets, reading Valga. Other than the grinding and clanking of the tanks and the sound of marching feet, the morning was now quiet.
Walking Out of War
Book 3 in the Eastern Front trilogy
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.
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“Full of heart and indomitable spirit”—Joy Lorton, reader and reviewer
“Walking Out of War is a well-written and powerful read, and a difficult one. The violence and war crimes are startling, and Bury, being a master at his craft, effectively paints mental pictures. He doesn’t linger on vile acts, however; he isn’t gratuitous. But he is a vivid writer and skilled at choosing the right verbs and adjectives to bring his prose to life, where the reader can visualize scenes as if watching them on film. “—Elise Stokes, Goodreads reviewer
“A very compelling read.”—Frederick Brooke, Goodreads reviewer