The destination for history

Borodino Field: 1812 & 1941


On 10 October 1941 a black locomotive, emblazoned with a distinctive Soviet red star, puffed into the busy station siding encased in swirling steam. As it came to a squealing, grinding halt, the flatcars behind clanked and buffeted each other to a standstill. It was becoming dark. A chorus of urgent directives and shouted commands rang out amid the bustle of ramps pushed up against flatcar sides. Wedges were hammered out and knocked clear amid the rattle of collapsing chains. Russian soldiers jumped down as vehicle engines aboard began to whine and turn over before firing into life, raising clouds of grey exhaust smoke. Soldiers were not allowed to speak to inquisitive civilians looking on. The priority was to get the reconnaissance vehicles off, followed by tanks and armoured vehicles.

Colonel Victor Polosukhin’s car was escorted from these sidings at Dorokhovo railway station, 60 miles west of Moscow. German Luftwaffe air raids had wrecked the main Mozhaisk station, 11 miles further down the track. Gangs of labourers were industriously filling bomb craters and re-laying twisted and contorted rail track further west to enable a more efficient unloading operation. The colonel wanted to reach Borodino some 25 miles to the west, about a thirty-six-minute drive by car. In so doing he was driving against the main flow of refugees choking the roads heading east to Moscow. Polosukhin needed to see the rapidly developing situation up front for himself, and left the busy rail yard behind. The leading echelons of his command, the 32nd Rifle Division, were already unloading vehicles from stationary flatcars.

Local civilians realised such urgent activity did not bode well. Historian Dr Peter Miller, who commented on everyday life in Moscow, wrote in his diary three days before that ‘there is a feeling of approaching catastrophe in the air and endless rumours’. Shops were empty, ‘Orel has been surrendered, Vyazma has been surrendered, and the Germans have got to Maloyaroslavets’.1

These place names had an eerie atmospheric Napoleonic ring to them. Polosukhin had only a sketchy idea of what was going on. His division had entrained from the Leningrad reserve further north, after arriving earlier that summer. As his small staff group drove westward, the front grumbled intermittently 70 miles away in the distance. Unbeknown to him, three German tank groups or Panzergruppen had torn a 300-mile gap in the Moscow outer defence line. Five to six Russian armies were surrounded at Vyazma on the Smolensk to Moscow road ahead and another three further south at Bryansk. Although the news was disturbing, Polosukhin had yet to fully comprehend how catastrophic it was. Rumours abounded that German advance forces were nearing Gzhatsk (present-day Gagarin), just 114 miles from Moscow.

The colonel appreciated history. Place names like Vyazma, Gzhatsk, Maloyaroslavets and Borodino were the 1812 milestones that signposted Napoleon’s Grande Armée approach route to Moscow, now seemingly replicated by Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Polosukhin’s 32nd Rifle Division was one of the oldest in the Red Army and was descended from one of the first regiments of the Petrograd (now Leningrad) Workers in 1917. The division was not tainted by the opprobrium of the earlier Soviet defeats along the frontier that accompanied the opening of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. It was an undeclared war, breaking the former Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact, signed barely two years before. Polosukhin’s division had, by contrast, recently distinguished itself during intense fighting against the Japanese at Lake Khasan in 1938, for which it was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. The 32nd Division was at high pre-war strength standards, common among the Far Eastern forces, where they had been stationed the past ten years. When alerted for action in late September 1941, the division was already fully mobilised with its 14,500 men, 872 vehicles, 444 machine guns and 286 artillery and heavy mortar pieces. Labelled a ‘Siberian’ division, it was formed from the Volga Military District in 1922, primarily recruiting soldiers from the north-east, which included the Western Siberian Oblasts (or Districts).

Polosukhin sought to get as far forward at Borodino as possible, to view his sector of the so-called ‘Mozhaisk defensive line’. This fortified zone followed an arc from the small city of Volkalamsk in the north, crossed the 1812 Borodino battlefield west of Mozhaisk and extended south to the confluence of the Ugra and Oka rivers. It was about 143 miles wide and between 38 to 50 miles deep, but only 40 per cent of its foreseen bunkers and firing positions had been completed. Due to be manned by 150 battalions, only about forty-five were in situ. The Mozhaisk defensive line was the innermost of three shielding Moscow. The first at Vyazma and Bryansk had already been breached. Behind Mozhaisk was the Moscow Control Zone, comprising urban sectors prepared for the defence of then city itself. Some 200,000 of its residents were compulsorily called out and brought forward to build the Mozhaisk line, and had laboured for the past two months. The plan was that each defending battalion would be provided with four pillboxes housing 45mm guns, two with 76mm guns and twelve for machine guns, all able to fire on fixed lines. Sir John Russell, a member of the British Embassy staff, recalled the sheer extent of the effort, observing: ‘This great tank trap they were digging outside Moscow, and one saw what looked like ants moving around, in fact the entire civil population of Moscow, every man, woman and child was out there digging.’2

Trainloads of Moscow militia, factory workers and residents came out to Borodino, not as they did before the war to enjoy a traditional Sunday picnic, but to dig. Most of them were women. Seamstress Antonia Savina was conscripted several times to dig anti-tank ditches, sustained by a sausage and one small bread roll each day. She and the others slept in local clubs at nights and had to provide their own blankets and cushions. It was not long before she and they were infested with lice. Vasili Pronin, the Chairman of the Moscow City Council, remembered looking inside an anti-tank ditch on one occasion, where ‘in glutinous mud, we saw about 50 wet figures’. Sliding down to talk with them, he discovered they were professional artists and workers from the Bolshoi and other Moscow theatres, with ‘faces tired and wet’. They gathered around and ‘all asked one thing only: What’s happening at the front?’ Sympathising with their plight, he offered to replace them with other more menial workers, but their indignant response was: ‘Do you take us for deserters? It’s worse at the front!’ They assured him they were prepared to ‘put up with everything, so long as our people can hold Moscow’.3

When Colonel Polosukhin reached the western end of the Borodino battlefield he observed the progress that these pressed labour gangs had made on the watercourses that ran broadly north to south. The Kolocha river, the Kamenka and Semenovska streams and the Voina and Stonets had their slopes steepened to create precipitous anti-tank traps. Hillocks and woods that had witnessed Napoleon’s battle in 1812 had again been transformed into defence lines, this time with concrete bunkers as well as earth emplacements. Traversing the ground with binoculars from left to right, he picked out likely German approach routes. Some fifty-three concrete pillboxes, barbed-wire entanglements, seven minefields and 9 miles of anti-tank ditches had been erected to interdict and canalise these potential lines of advance.

It seemed likely that the Germans would approach his position in much the same way the French had done in 1812. Vulnerable points and gaps were identified from his map reconnaissance, in particular battalion areas labelled 8 to 14, from the village of Kovalyovo to the north of the Mozhaisk road, to Elnya straddling the Minsk highway to Moscow further south. There were no significant natural obstacles between battalion areas 28 and 29, around the villages of Artyomki and Tatarinovo, that might impede a panzer advance. Polosukhin had 23,000 men at his disposal, 14,500 from his own division and others from attached units, to hold a line that conventionally needed five more divisions to man. He accepted he could not cover all the defence zones, and concentrated on the main roads traversing the old Napoleonic battlefield. These were the Mozhaisk and Minsk highways and other likely tank approach routes.

John Russell, from the British Embassy, observing the defence preparations,
remarked: ‘I think they did tap every emotional resource that was available to them. I remember for instance a lot of churches being opened again, which had been shut for a long time.’

The Tsarist Russian commander Kututzov had similarly sought to inspire his men when he paraded the Icon of the Black Virgin from Smolensk before his assembled troops, to fire up religious fervour prior to battle in 1812. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the typical Red Army soldier was more prepared to fight for ‘Mother Russia’ than Comrade Premier Joseph Stalin. Polosukhin visited a concrete pillbox at the foot of the Raevsky redoubt where Tolstoy’s fictional Pierre Bezukhov had witnessed bloody French assaults in September 1812. Grigouri Tokati, an Ossetian aeronautical engineer, summed up what likely went through the division commander’s mind in October 1941, after so many military defeats: ‘In that very situation something else appeared among us, the tradition of Borodino. Borodino is the place where Napoleon was defeated, this suddenly released feelings appearing from nowhere that helped to unite people.’4

In 1812 about 130,000 Frenchmen and their allies with 587 artillery pieces faced perhaps 150,000 Russians with 624 guns along a 2½- to 5-mile front in a climactic ‘Battle of the Giants’. It is estimated that 100 artillery rounds boomed and 2,330 musket shots spat out each minute for up to ten hours. Men fell at the rate of 6,500 per hour, or about 108 men struck each minute. Three to four cannon and seventy-seven muskets fired each second to create an unbelievable level of noise. Figures are inconclusive, but available data suggests that 239 local village houses were destroyed during the battle and, in the summer of 1813, records show 52,048 corpses and 41,700 horse carcasses were recovered for burial.5

Napoleon attacked the Russian centre, despite identifying a weakness on the left. Colonel Polosukhin also had an exposed left; his right, as in 1812, was protected by the steep banks of the Kolocha river, freshly fortified with concrete bunkers. All he could do in 1941 was cover the two main roads approaching from the west, the same that Napoleon used.

Although they favoured an armoured approach, the woods that screened the front of his fortified zone would canalise the panzers. A further changewas the railway line, constructed in the 1860s, which traversed the middle of Borodino field, just off centre from Napoleon’s original line of attack in 1812. The railway track ran over embankments, through shallow cuttings and across swampy areas, mostly screened by trees, which tended to impede any north–south passage of armour.

After his initial reconnaissance, the commander of the 32nd Rifle Division likely appreciated that, like Kututzov in 1812, he was also fighting to bar the gates of Moscow to a western invader. The Germans were coming from broadly the same direction and the Russian defence would need to be conducted from similar locations. The forty memorial monuments and plinths erected, dedicated to units and individuals that fought in 1812, indicated as much. The historical Borodino Field Park established by the Tsar in 1912, which he was surveying, covered nearly 70 square miles.

Colonel Polosukhin also took the opportunity to stop by the old Borodino museum building, which had been opened by the Tsar during the first centenary celebration. He was probably the final formal visitor before its subsequent destruction. Museum staff were bustling about, urgently packing exhibits into cases, which were earmarked for transportation well to the rear at Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan. Staff regarded the grim-faced senior Red Army officer with some trepidation. He wrote something in the visitor’s book before leaving. Curious, they checked the ledger and found, under the column ‘Purpose of Visit’, he had written: ‘I have come to defend the battlefield.’6

Extracted from Borodino Field 1812 & 1941 by Robert Kershaw

[1] R. Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, Profile Books, 2006, p.224.

[2] J. Russell, TV interview, The World at War. ‘Barbarossa’, Thames TV, 1973.

[3] Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, pp. 129-30, 133.

[4] Russell and Tokati, interviews, World at War.

[5] Figures from A. Mikaberidze, The Battle of Borodino, Pen and Sword, 2010, p.218.

[6] Braithwaite, Moscow 1941, p.232.

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