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Not even Napoleon has stabbed as deeply into Russia as the German army had by August of 1942.
Adolf Hitler's forces plunged one thousand miles across the vast and hostile plains of Russia to the banks of the Volga River. It was by far the deepest penetration into this Asian land of any foreign legion in history.
The German plan was simple: place Moscow under siege to tie up precious Russian defenses, then race south into the Caucasus region and conquer the strategic oil fields there. Once in control of the Caucasus, Hitler could fashion a peace on his terms and divide Russia in half, enslaving the western portion of the huge nation for his dream of Aryan world expansion and "one thousand years of Nazi rule."
Late in July of 1942, Hitler called for a temporary shift in the Schwerpunkt, or main weight, of his Russian invasion, away from the southern oil fields to drive eastward, to neutralize a potential canker on his left flank. The city of Stalingrad, an industrial center responsible for almost half of Russia's steel and tractor production, a metropolis of over 500,000 residents, lay on the banks of a crescent in the Volga. Hitler sensed an important, and easy, victory.
The legacy of that decision was written thereafter in more blood and destruction than any other battle in history. The Red forces, under strict instructions from Stalin (for whom the city, formerly Tsaritsyn, was named in 1925 in gratitude for his role in defending it from the White forces during the Russian civil war) to take "not a step backward," put up an unexpected and vicious fight.
Stalingrad's five-month trial by fire began on August 23, 1942, when the first panzer grenadiers of the German Sixth Army reached the Volga on the city's northern outskirts. The German forces were under General Friedrich Paulus. He and his Russian counterpart, General Vasily Chuikov, commander of the Red Army's Sixty-second Army, presided over a terrible battlefield. The city, subjected to intense firebombings in late August, became a smoking charnel house. Soldiers fought and died in cellars, hallways, alleys, and the massive labyrinths of the wrecked factories smoldering beside the river. For months, the fighting was house to house and hand to hand, and the front lines swayed with each new clash, the rewards of which were measured in meters at a time. German foot soldiers called the fighting Rattenkrieg: War of the Rats.
The Sixth Army kept its strength inside the city at close to a hundred thousand troops, drawing on reserves of over a million men from German, Italian, Hungarian, and Rumanian divisions positioned on the great steppe outside Stalingrad. The Red force inside the city never exceeded sixty thousand soldiers and at times was as low as twenty thousand men desperately surviving until reinforcements could be ferried across the Volga. The two armies ground against each other with an incredible will, killing and maiming soldiers in unprecedented thousands.
By mid-October the Russians had their backs literally to the river. In some places they hunkered no more than a hundred yards from the Volga cliffs. Somehow they held out until finally, on November 19, 1942, the Red Army sprang its "November surprise." The Russians executed a sudden and immense flanking action that leaped out from both the north and south to close with terrifying speed behind the Germans and their allies, encircling them with a million and a half vengeful men. Hitler called his surrounded Sixth Army "Fortress Stalingrad" and told the world these men would stay in place and fight to the death. His encircled troops, freezing, starving, bedeviled by lice, and under constant threat of Russian attack, called their position der Kessel, "the Cauldron." Of the quarter of a million soldiers surrounded on the steppe in mid-November, less than a hundred thousand were alive to surrender two and a half months later.
The city's ordeal ended on January 31, 1943, when Paulus, a starved wraith of a man with a facial tic and a dead army, walked out of the battered Univermag department store in the decimated center of the city and surrendered.
The final toll on both armies was an estimated 1,109,000 deaths, the high-water mark of human destruction in the annals of combat. The Red Army reported 750,000 killed, wounded, or missing. German casualties were 400,000 men. The Italians suffered a loss of 130,000 out of their original force of 200,000. The Hungarians saw 120,000 killed, the Rumanians 200,000. Out of a prewar population in Stalingrad numbering more than 500,000, only 1,500 civilians were alive there after the battle.
For both armies, the outcome of Stalingrad was pivotal. Never before had an entire German army disappeared in battle. The Nazi myth of invincibility was broken. The Reds now had a major victory; Russia had withstood Hitler's best punch, and returned to him a death blow. Stalingrad was as far as the Nazis got; the Germans fought a rearguard action for the remainder of the war. Two years later Red forces were celebrating in the streets of Berlin.
Into the midst of this awful carnage, played out on this pivotal stage, strode two men: Russian Chief Master Sergeant Vasily Zaitsev and German SS Colonel Heinz Thorvald.
Each was reputed within his own army as its most skillful killer, a master sniper of extraordinary abilities. Both were assigned to find and destroy the other. Each knew his nemesis was looking for him in the colossal maze of ruin and death that was Stalingrad.
Three of the four principal characters in War of the Rats--Zaitsev, Thorvald, and the female sniper Tania Chernova--were actual combatants at Stalingrad. Their escapades and those of several of their comrades have been documented in a number of works of history, and this novel has been drawn from those works (see Bibliography). While Zaitsev's personal and family histories are recounted faithfully, I have presented the backgrounds of both Thorvald and Tania with some details imagined or altered for dramatic purposes. But the German sniper's and the female partisan's adventures and fates in Stalingrad have been left unchanged. The fourth character, Corporal Nikki Mond, is a composite German soldier who lives as authentic a life in Stalingrad as could be devised for him.
The dates, troop movements, and major battle details in War of the Rats are historical fact. In addition, most of the smaller vignettes, the personal struggles and interactions, are also fact, gleaned from interviews with survivors as well as written accounts. But like any novel, here--in the smaller, private moments--creep in the notions of accuracy and legitimacy. It is, of course, impossible to describe another's thoughts and unseen acts. It is possible, however, with study and understanding, to re-create what an individual might have done and how he or she might have gone about doing it in a manner that, while fictional, remains genuine.
Nikki Mond looked out of the trench into a smeared gray dawn.
The first light of the late October sky stayed clenched in a fist of smoke and dust. Fires from the night's bombing chattered in the rubble. Burned tanks and trucks smoldered on the front line four hundred meters away, pulsing greasy oil smoke. Brick and concrete dust put a dry, chalky taste on every breath.
Nikki laid down his rifle to stretch his back and legs. He opened his canteen; he did not swallow the first dram but rinsed the dust from his mouth. He hadn't touched the canteen in the night. Thirst helped keep him awake on watch.
"Let me have some of that." Private Pfizer walked up to start the new watch. "I feel like I've been breathing dry shit all night."
Nikki handed him the canteen.
Fifty meters away, Lieutenant Hofstetter came out of the officers' bunker shaking on his gray coat. He buttoned it casually while he walked to the two soldiers. Nikki and Pfizer stiffened at his approach.
He waved them off with a yawn.
"Too early for that."
"Yes, sir," Nikki answered.
"Anything to report, Corporal?
Well, the Reds never leave anything quiet for long. Let's see what we've got.
Hofstetter took Nikki's binoculars, then stepped onto a dirt riser. The officer raised his head slowly above the top of the breastwork and brought the binoculars to his eyes. Keeping his head level, he slowly surveyed the ruins of the Stalingrad Tractor Factory.
"Nothing," Hofstetter said. "Good. I think the Ivans took the night off."
Pfizer held the canteen up to the lieutenant. "Sir, have a drink on that."
Hofstetter lowered the binoculars. Turning broadside to the revetment, he raised the canteen and tilted his head back to take a long draught.
The lieutenant spasmed suddenly and threw the canteen into Pfizer's face. Water erupted from the officer's mouth, muffling a gurgled cry. His head whipped to the side; the canteen and binoculars fell from his rising hands. He tumbled.
The crack of a single, distant rifle flew past the trench. It circled over the morning like a buzzard, then was gone.
The lieutenant collapsed on Pfizer's legs. The private's face froze. He kicked the body off and scrambled to the opposite wall, ramming his back into the dirt.
Nikki snapped to his senses. He threw himself against the wall next to Pfizer, crouching low. He slid forward to lay his hand on the officer's back. There was no breath.
Nikki looked at the officer's helmet, still strapped under the chin. A red-rimmed hole gaped in front of the black eagle against a gold background, the emblem of the Third Reich. Blood leaked under the helmet to wet hair and ears, pooling on the Russian dirt. The lieutenant's left foot shivered once, quivering in the puddle spilling from the canteen.
"Fucking snipers," mumbled Pfizer. "We're half a kilometer from the front line. How can they hit us here?"
Nikki recovered his binoculars and canteen. He looked down on the lieutenant. Nikki had seen tides of death in the past two months. Death was part of the Stalingrad landscape; it was melted into the broken bricks and shattered skyline. He bore it on his back now like scars from a lashing.
Nikki put a hand under the private's arm. "Go get help moving the body."
Pfizer scrambled to his feet. Without looking back at the corpse, he bent low and hurried up the trench to bring back the punishment detail, soldiers who'd been caught drinking, fighting, or sleeping on watch and were given the duty of collecting bodies.
Nikki moved away from Hofstetter and sat. Dawn had taken hold. Green and red recognition flares lofted into and out of the sky to mark the German positions so that the Luftwaffe could avoid bombing their own men in the morning's opening sorties. Russian tracers flashed above, reaching for the screaming fighter planes. Flames danced in the decimated buildings while the constant flares exploded, flickered, and faded.
Waiting for Pfizer to return, Nikki composed letters in his head. He wrote a lie to his father on the family dairy farm in Westphalia. He told the old man not to worry; the war in the East was nearing an end, the Russian resistance was buckling. To his older sister, a nurse in Berlin, he wrote the truth, for he knew she was seeing the broken remains of this campaign firsthand in her beds and wards. Finally he drafted a letter to himself, a twenty-year-old corporal of the Wehrmacht dug in on the Eastern Front, crouched only meters from a fresh corpse. In his own letter he could neither lie convincingly nor tell the truth completely.
Vasily Zaitsev pulled the bolt back fast. The smoking casing made no sound when it landed on the dirt beside him.
At his elbow, big Viktor Medvedev bore down through his telescopic sight. The first shot had been Zaitsev's; if a second target appeared above the German trench, Viktor would take it.
Zaitsev counted slowly under his breath to sixty. In one minute, whether or not Viktor pulled his trigger, they would move. That was the sniper's first rule of survival: pull the trigger, then pull out. Every shot can betray your position to eyes you cannot see but which are watching everywhere on the battlefield. Never stay in one shooting cell so long that it becomes your grave.
Zaitsev was sure his bullet had hit. The canteen was the first thing he'd seen, a round shape bobbing above the trench. He'd almost fired then: at a distance of 450 meters, it was hard to tell a canteen from a man's head. He'd increased his pressure on the trigger and waited. Five seconds later the head popped right into his crosshairs. Careless, stupid, dead German.
Viktor waited now for another target to move into his sights. On occasion a bullet blowing out the back of a man's skull would make the soldier next to him grab his rifle or his binoculars and search vengefully for the Russian sniper who had killed his officer or his friend, who had laid the silent crosshairs on him and snuffed his life with a single bullet fired from somewhere in the ruins. The shocked survivor sometimes vomited up one brave and loyal act for the still-shaking corpse beside him. Zaitsev and Viktor hunted courage as well as stupidity.
A minute passed. Zaitsev nudged Viktor.
Medvedev lowered his scope. He and Zaitsev crept backward from the pile of bricks they'd hidden behind since before sunup, only fifty meters from the front line in no-man's-land. In a shallow depression, the two pulled dirty muslin sacks from their backpacks. They slid their rifles inside the sacks and attached ropes, then slipped away into the surrounding debris without them. This close to the front line, the rifles jiggling on their backs could bring the two snipers unwanted attention.
It took them five minutes to slither thirty meters across an open boulevard, then into the shell of a building. They reeled in the sacks slowly to betray no motion in the rising light.
They sat in the building for an hour, in case a Nazi sniper had seen them enter and was waiting for them to leave. The wait would try the enemy's patience--make him wonder if he'd missed them--as well as probe his physical ability to stay focused through his crosshairs for sixty empty minutes.
Zaitsev reached into his pack for his sniper journal. He scribbled in it, then handed the worn notebook to Medvedev.
"Sign this, Viktor."
Medvedev read the record of the day's kill: 17/10/42. NE quadrant, Tractor Factory sector. German bunker. Forward observer. 450 meters. Head shot.
He signed. Spotter--Medvedev, V. A. Sgt. With a quick scrawl, Viktor sketched a pair of round ears, a snarling snout, and slitted, angry eyes. Under it he wrote "the Bear."
Master Sergeant Viktor Medvedev was a Siberian, a broad-shouldered, dark, and powerful man. His name came from medved, the word for "bear." His partner was another Siberian, Chief Master Sergeant Vasily Zaitsev. Zaitsev had the round, flat face of a Mongol. Smaller than Viktor, he was wiry, yellow-haired, and quick, a scrambler. His name sprang from zayats, "hare."
Zaitsev and Medvedev were the only members of their division's sniper unit who worked directly along the front line. The other dozen shooters stayed burrowed in the rubble a few hundred meters back. Working so close to the Germans called on all their skills as hunters, testing their nerves and cunning, but it enabled the two Siberians to shoot several hundred meters deeper into the German rear. Their crosshairs found not just infantry, machine gunners, and artillery spotters, the fodder of war, but unsuspecting officers.
Viktor dug from his pack a half-full bottle of vodka. He inclined the lip toward Zaitsev. "Nice shooting, Hare." He took a swallow, then put the bottle in Zaitsev's outstretched hand. Zaitsev tipped it.
Viktor laughed. "You've got more patience than me."
Zaitsev wiped his lips. "How so?"
The Bear laughed harder. "I would have shot that fucking canteen."
SS Colonel Heinz von Krupp Thorvald faced the applause.
His students clapped, fifteen of them who'd gathered on the distance range to see their teacher, the headmaster of the SS's elite sniper school, win a bet.
Lieutenant Brechner strode forward, ten marks in his hand. He laid the money in his colonel's outstretched palm, then bowed in a theatrical burst.
Thorvald accepted the money and returned the bow. He reached out to the puffing private who'd run back from one thousand meters across the field with the paper target.
Thorvald held the target up to Brechner and stuck his index finger through the perforation in the center of the bull's-eye. He waggled the finger. "This is a worm," he said, "sticking out of a Russian's head."
The men laughed. The remarkable ability of their colonel to make such spectacularly long shots was useless as a military tactic, for at such a distance it was impossible to tell if a target deserved shooting. Nonetheless it was an impressive feat, one that Brechner at least was willing to wager ten marks to witness.
"That's just how I got them in Poland," Thorvald said, handing his Mauser Kar 98K with a 6X Zeiss scope to the private, his attendant. "Two hundred of them. Back in thirty-nine."
Part of Thorvald's teaching philosophy was that his students should aspire to be like him: confident, calm on the trigger. They need not emulate his flabbiness and bookish nature, but he desired to see intellect in their marksmanship. He wanted them to reason out their shots, replacing the body--the enemy of the sharpshooter, with all its distractions and throbbing motion--with the still, sharp focus of the mind. He desired to see them behave and shoot like Germans.
Daily, Thorvald told stories of his own exploits on the battlefield as part of their training here in Gnossen, just outside Berlin. This morning, after the early practice session and the bet by Brechner, he gathered his charges under a large oak and had coffee served. While they sipped and settled on the grass, Thorvald told this class of young, eager snipers the tale of the Polish cavalry charge.
Within forty-eight hours of Germany's invasion of Poland, begun September 1, 1939, Thorvald had been transferred as a sniper to the Fourteenth Army under General Heinz Guderian. It was Guderian and his staff who'd conceived the lightning strikes, the overwhelming blitzkrieg tactic combining waves of air and land bombardment with highly mobile tanks and armored infantry. In the opening days of the Polish invasion, Thorvald, then a captain, found himself on his first live battlefield with little to do while the German forces easily split the Poles into fragments. Above the front lines, the Luftwaffe's Ju-87 Stuka bombers perforated the enemy's lines with their low-level, screaming accuracy. Then came a flood of armored cars, motorcycles, and tanks. Next came the rumble of infantry and artillery. When weaknesses were found, the German infantry knifed through to fan out into the rear, cutting communications and surprising supply stations.
By the third morning, the Polish army had fallen into disarray. Isolated units fought hard to beat off frontal attacks in Thorvald's sector outside Krakow. Finally his assignment came from Command: his eight-man sniper squad was to creep up during lulls in the fighting and shoot into the Polish trenches and strongholds. Command wanted its snipers to drain the enemy's fighting spirit.
For four days Thorvald and his men crawled at dawn to within five hundred meters of the enemy. Thorvald collected seventy-one confirmed kills, more than the rest of his unit combined.
While the other snipers bragged at the evening meals and compared journals, Thorvald read books. The commander of his division came around and handed out tin tokens, one for each kill. These were to be redeemable at the end of the war for one hundred deutsche marks apiece, the army's equivalent of a bounty. Thorvald gave his tokens away.
During the invasion's second week, Thorvald's company encircled a large Polish force. One morning at dawn, he looked out of his shooting cell at the sound of trumpets and pounding hooves. He watched in disbelief as a brigade of Polish cavalry leaped over the parapets and galloped across the open plain. Through his scope, he gazed at the colorful mounted soldiers, their gloved hands holding pennants and lances high, trying to rally their comrades.
He lined up his first target at six hundred meters and fired. The rider fell. Before he could acquire a second mark, the booming of tanks erupted behind him, raising columns of dirt and flame on the plain. He watched through the crosshairs; in minutes the magnificent Polish cavalry charge became a scattered collage of dismembered men and horses.
"And what," he asked the assembled class at the end of this day's tale, "do you think is the moral?"
Thorvald smiled at the young men. No hands went up. They knew better than to speak during his stories, even to answer a question.
They are so ready, Thorvald thought, looking at the faces, the ease of confidence in their movements, the juice of youth in their veins; they're tugging at the reins to go off to battle to earn their own reputations, to move their crosshairs over the hearts of real men. I know how a man can kill. But I wonder how he can be so anxious to risk his life to go and do it.
"The lesson, my young, ignorant boys," he said, holding his hands out to them as if to show the breadth of his sizable wisdom, "is this: don't be a hero, on horseback or otherwise. Stay behind cover."