On January 14, 1944 Pavel Elkinson, machine gun platoon commander in the 172nd infantry regiment, 61st division, 3rd Guards Army, was crouching in a narrow trench on the right bank of the Dnieper River. Elkinson, a Jewish man born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, was in the company of his two “Maxim” gun platoon soldiers, a Russian and a Siberian. They had been transferred to this area along the 4th Ukrainian Front on December 25, 1943, following Stalin’s resolution earlier that month to ‘clear the Soviet land’ of Nazi occupation, and retake territory at least up to the 1939 border in a winter campaign. In nearby Bolshiye Rogachiki the Germans were holding on to their last fortified positions along the Dnieper River; territory to the north and to the south had already been liberated.
Elkinson’s commander informed the group that the following morning, January 15, they would launch an attack. The news was a welcome relief. They had been in a restricted, motionless state for 20 days, as any movement whatsoever, especially in day-time, was suicidal. The enemy enjoyed a height advantage from a strongly fortified bridgehead, and a mere stir attracted sniper fire.
On the eve of the attack, food was delivered to the platoon, and after eating, each soldier withdrew into private reflection. Naturally, anticipation of battle was at the top of everyone’s minds.
“Of course it was very frightening,” Elkinson later wrote. “When you’re 20, you really don’t want to die. But there was no escaping the battle, only individual luck decided your fate.”
In addition, Elkinson was aware that he was located in close proximity of Zaporozhye, his home. He had not seen his family since August 8, 1941, when he was mobilized. He knew that his father, mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle did not evacuate from Zaporozhye.
Morning came, shedding light on a perfectly clear, lightly frosted day. Smoke, fire and thunder enveloped the area as the Soviets launched an artillery barrage in advance of deploying the infantry troops.
Elkinson’s platoon had the additional challenge of carrying their machine gun. Two men dragged the gun, and one man carried ammunition. The extra weight rendered maneuvering nearly impossible, but onward they pushed. Wounded and dead were left behind, helpless. After 200 meters (650 feet), the group set up their gun, the “Maxim,” and fired, until a direct hit from a 45 mm enemy gun terminated their weapon.
Elkinson reached the first line of enemy trenches. His mate who had carried the ammunition did not. Of 35 soldiers, only 18 made it. The surviving men were ordered to continue attacking, and a bullet pierced Elkinson’s leg minutes later.
A few months after, as Elkinson was transferred from one hospital to another, the train stopped in Zaporozhye for a few hours.
Elkinson recovered and returned to the front and served in the 245th artillery regiment, as the reconnaissance division commander. On August 8, 1944, Elkinson’s unit was preparing to move across the Soviet border into Romania, as the total expulsion of Nazi occupation from Soviet territory was achieved. That day, Elkinson began to keep a journal, briefly recording his war path which continued into Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and finally Austria where he celebrated the capitulation of Nazi Germany. Elkinson’s fascinating journal is an exciting topic for another post. Stay tuned.