Eastern Front Tour Report
Tour Guide Bob Kershaw writes:
We arrived on the 3rd May and being Sunday missed the worse of the traffic and travelled past some very impressive architecture, including Stalin's gothic 'wedding cake' government and hotel buildings to our sumptuous and comfortable hotel.
The Moscow part of the tour tells the story of how amazingly close the German panzer spearheads got to the Kremlin in the winter of 1941. We began at 'Borodino Field', site of the famous Napoleonic battle in 1812 and where the SS Division Das Reich struck the Mozhaisk line, the second line of defence before Moscow, in October 1941. After bypassing the huge encirclement of the Russian armies at Vyazma and Briansk just down the road towards Smolensk, Das Reich supported by the 10th Panzer Division assaulted Borodino. We followed this seven-day battle where amazingly Russian bunkers follow the same line of the Kolotchy River that the Kutzov defended with the Tsars army in 1812. There are battle scarred 1941 Russian bunkers next to the area of the fleches, the culminating point of Napoleon's 1812 assault against the centre of the Russian line. A local girl in a summer dress, unconcerned by a bitingly cold east wind, conducted us around the fleches and bunkers. It appears she regularly breaks the ice for a swim in the frozen lakes during the winter! There were lots of bunker photo opportunities and a T-34 tank sited where the SS Panzer Grenadier Division supported by 10th Panzer broke through, despite savage counter attacks by the Soviet 32nd Rifle Division.
After skirting the northwest outskirts of Moscow we followed the trail of Hoth and Hoepner's Panzergruppen 3 and 4 trying to break into the Moscow Defense Zone. After passing one amazing local museum on the Moscow road, complete with a Panzer 1 and T-34s seemingly strewn in the woods, including a Tiger 1, seemingly later used by the Soviets for target practice we arrived at the Volga-Moskva canal. Here we covered the story of the momentary bridgehead thrown across it by the 7th Panzer Division in the early days of December 1941, from the monument on the high ground that towers above it. Afterward we travelled to Chimki , right next to the present day Moscow ring, the motorway that surrounds Moscow. There is another marvelous photo opportunity at this point, a huge tank barrier formed of Czech 'hedgehogs' that commemorates the nearest point the Nazis got to the city, 8 kilometers from the suburbs and 20 from the Kremlin. A short tram ride, a point from which the city's spires would have been visible to the approaching German troops. There was a considerable delay getting back to the hotel, because of the nighttime rehearsal for the huge VE Day military parade on Red square!
We flew from Moscow to Volgograd's historic Gumrak airport, to cover the next decisive battle on the Eastern Front, the epic struggle for Stalingrad. This has always proved to be an evocative highlight of the tour and we start at the Mamyev Kurgan hill, with its epic statue of mother Russia overlooking the Volga River, a mile wide in places. The figure is 170 feet high and held in place by its own weight of 5,500 tons of concrete and 2,400 tons of metal. It provides a majestic focal point for the memorial gardens and Hall of Valor situated around it, and a dramatic photo opportunity. The 95-foot stainless steel sword held aloft has an aperture cut within it to reduce wind resistance. This is of course the prime place to describe the outline of the battle, and also why with its breathtaking views, it was so bitterly fought over. Neither side completely owned it until Paulus’ Sixth Army finally capitulated in February 1942. The city was more than 40 miles long and five miles wide, the factory district to the north still spews red smoke across the Volga whilst to the right and south, the scenic parklands of central Volgograd are clearly in view.
The famous monument immortalized in newsreel of the statue of the children playing 'ring of roses' around a crocodile, while Stalingrad central railway station burns in the background, was restored by President Putin last year. It is an evocative reminder that the station exchanged hands fifteen times in one day, at the height of the fighting. The group also visited the famous grain silo, still there, and in use to the south of the city. One particularly interesting sight is a brief glimpse of steppe land outside the city, the 'Soldier's Field', which Paulus's Sixth Army traversed on its way to Stalingrad and where many perished in blizzards on the open steppe after the Soviet encirclement was complete. The climax of the day is a boat trip on the Volga, reliving the experience of the Soviet troops approaching the city, crossing the Volga from the east to the crucible of the west bank.
By now the group was gelling well, with many jokes about the more bizarre consequences of being British, Scottish or American, with the added excitement of the General Election results coming through from home; a long, long way away. The security clamp down that occurred around our hotel enabled us fortuitously to watch both the night-time and day dress rehearsal for the very impressive VE Day military march past in Volgograd, along the Lenin Prospect, right in front of our hotel. Led by a T-34 tank flying the red banner a number of World War II vintage armored and other vehicles drove past with dozens of tanks, self propelled guns and other armored vehicles following with geometric military precision. There were militia and soldiers marching past in World War II era infantry and tank uniforms. The Cultural Experience has yet to receive the final bill for this extravaganza they laid on! The crowds were interested in our presence and extraordinarily friendly, and touched when they realized we had travelled so far just to visit their battlefields. Our American guests were a great hit; constantly quizzed by the youngsters about how many movie stars they knew!
We flew back to Moscow in time to catch the night train to Kursk, where we arrived a little crumpled and set off to follow the 'Death Ride' of the Fourth Panzer Army to Prokhorovka. During this first day we covered the southern salient, retracing the fortunes of the SS Panzer Grenadier Division 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' all the way along the railway embankment to Prokhorovka, where it clashed with the 650 tanks of Rotmistrov's Fifth Guards Tank Army. The next day we were on Model's Central Army Group failed advance from the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient, which involved the epic battle for Ponyri the 'little Stalingrad' of Kursk. We followed the German units to their furthest limit of advance. Having relived both the German penetration and the Soviet defense, poring over bunkers, original and restored trenches and tank scrapes, there was time for a few beers. Always dangerous because another adjunct to this tour might well be the publication of a booklet covering loos we have visited on famous Russian battlefields!
Having mastered the three turning points of the war on the Eastern Front, it was back on the train to Moscow, after popping into a number of iconic Orthodox monasteries and churches en route. Now was the time to spy out some of the famous Museum depictions we had covered on the ground, including the Great Patriotic War museum, The Central Armed Forces Museum and the tank museum at Kubinka, a worthy foil to the Bovington Tank Museum. We saw every tank type we had talked about and more, including the only existing German 'Maus' the biggest armored monolith ever produced during the war and the tracked 'Karl' class howitzer that had bombarded Sevastopol in 1942 and Warsaw in 1944. There was even time to wander Red Square, still being restored after the VE Day march past the day before.
The tour was 'full on' and provided an interesting reflection on how the Russians viewed the 70th Anniversary of the ending of a war that cost them an estimated 26 million dead. Unlike sombre and reflective western events the Russians appear to 'party'. After the formal military parades came an exuberant procession of placards of deceased family members, which was more about a celebration of their lives rather than death.
Everyone had a good time and learnt a great deal on this trip. We saw alot of unusual history, drank good wine and beer and enjoyed local food with some splendid company. This trip is always interesting, enjoyable and a pleasure to lead. We all look forward to the next one.
View details of this tour - The Eastern Front