Sunday, 21 August 2011

Volgograd voyage- Day Six- Steel Coffins

We travelled out west to a tiny village west of Volgograd called Kisilyov. There archaeologists had found an old soviet tank buried in the mud next to a pond. We arrived to see them dragging the nearly 70 year old hulk out of the mud and water. Crowds of locals gathered around.

A digger and a bulldozer heaved in turns on two long cables as the men around shouted and waved their arms. Eventually we saw the metal emerging from the mire. Once it was pulled out a team moved in to hose the tank off and peer inside it. There wasn’t much left except the chassis.

We found out from the local battle archaeologists that it was from the 20th division and, like the bodies of infantrymen we had seen excavated some days before was lost in a desperate battle trying to stop the Germans closing in on Stalingrad. The archives marked the vehicle as lost and most battle excavators thought they would never find it. But they literally stumbled upon it when they dug a trench through an old pond here. They found four T-34s, the famous and ubiquitous war winning tank, and this one, called a T-60, in this small rural valley. All were made in Stalingrad.

Thousands of T-60s were built between 1941 and 1942. It’s a tank that’s been largely forgotten since the war, but in 1942 there simply wasn’t time to switch round the machines that built them to producing more useful T-34s or other hardware. ‘Build something, anything,’ was the ethos as so many factories had been captured or evacuated east with the resulting disruption to output. However even before 1942 the T-60 had quickly become known as ‘the mass grave’ by its crews. It was a light tank, and even by the outbreak of war was dangerously inadequate for fighting against its Wehrmacht foes. Even some of the more powerful small arms rounds could penetrate its armour. The resulting tactics were to rush as many T-60s as possible forward, to try and swamp enemy defences. This in turn ended in the ‘mass grave’. Production was stopped in 1942.

I tried to picture the scene sixty nine years ago as the storm of war arrived at this peaceful corner of Russia. I couldn’t see any bodies in the tank, but I knew there would be many around. This was just a machine that we’d brought to the surface, but the evident chaos of its final moments gave us a stark window back into that maelstrom. The scars left by the grinding behemoths that are industrial systems at war, are not easily removed.

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