General Rodimtsev pictured with soldiers from his division. Stalingrad, September 26, 1942.
Soviet general Alexander Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division held a shrinking promontory of land in central Stalingrad, and as the Germans pushed along the Volga its position began to splinter. Wehrmacht troops flooded Rodimtsev’s HQ, located in a conduit pipe in the Volga embankment, and brought up their machine gunners to finish him off But Rodimtsev rallied his troops and repulsed the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting. At the end of the day, the 13th Guards were still holding on to the river embankment.
The Red Army had sustained massive casualties. Its losses on the entire Stalingrad front from July to November 1942- those classified as killed, taken prisoner or missing in action – amounted to 324,000 out of a total of 547,000 soldiers. The rate of attrition within the city was even worse. General Alexander Rodimtsev’s 10,000-strong 13th Guards Division suffered 30 per cent casualties in its first day of combat and 80 per cent by the end of its first week in Stalingrad. At the conclusion of the battle only 320 men were left. Yet the survivors found the will to carry on resisting – and fought with stupendous power.
‘All of us were on the same level,’ said Mark Slavin. ‘The commanders mingled with their men, ate with them, swapped jokes and even chopped wood with them. Everyone counted. We had no space to manoeuvre and the German bombardment was relentless, but we were determined to hold on to that narrow strip of land.’
When the battle of Stalingrad began, Vasily Chuikov had yet to make a name for himself. This was in contrast to the lower-ranking and five-year-younger Alexander Rodimtsev, who was already a highly decorated war hero. Like Chuikov, Rodimtsev stemmed from a peasant family and a childhood shaped by poverty before entering the Red Army at the age of twenty-two and joining the party two years later. Rodimtsev followed an officer’s career path and rose quickly through the ranks. In 1936 he was sent to train the International Brigades in Spain. Under his command, the troops scored multiple victories over fascist forces, though he was unable to prevent the collapse of the Spanish Republic and the rise of Franco. On returning from Spain, Rodimtsev received the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest distinction in the Soviet Union.
In 1939 Rodimtsev delivered the welcoming address at the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist party. (That a thirty-four-year-old colonel was selected to give this talk testifies to the large swath that Stalin’s purges had cleared among the generals in the previous two years.) In September 1939 Rodimtsev took part in the Soviet invasion of Poland and then in the Winter War in Finland. In the war against Germany he commanded an airborne brigade that broke free from a Wehrmacht encirclement near Kiev. In November 1941 the brigade was expanded into the 87th Rifle Division and received Guards status in January 1942, becoming the 13th Guards Rifle Division.
On September 9, 1942, the division was removed from reserve status and arrived at the Stalingrad Front on September 14. The first battalions of the 10,000-man division crossed the Volga late on the 14th and early on the 15th. They became embroiled in fighting with the Germans as soon as they reached the western banks. By the end of the next week Vasily Grossman had written an article on the 13th Guards Division in Stalingrad. The battle would decide “the fate of the world” and answer the “question of all questions.” Grossman portrayed Rodimtsev, since promoted to major general, as the battle’s linchpin: “Temperament, strong will, composure, quick reaction, the ability to advance when no one else would even dream of an attack, tactical experience and caution combined with tactical and personal fearlessness-these are the traits of a young general’s military character. And the general’s character became the char- acter of his division.” Grossman asked Rodimtsev whether “he was exhausted by the round-the-clock tension of combat, the round-the-clock thunder of the hundreds of German attacks that had taken place last day, last night, and would continue tomorrow. `I am calm,’ he said, `this is the way it has to be. I have probably seen it all: how my command post was pounded by a German tank and then a German machine gunner threw in a grenade just to be sure. I threw it out. So here I am, fighting, and will go on fighting till the last hour of the war.’ He said it calmly, in a low voice. Then he began asking about Moscow. We actually talked about the current theater season.”
Just as Grossman described him, Rodimtsev shows restraint in his interview with the Moscow historians (unlike the hot-tempered Chuikov). He talks cautiously and primarily keeps to the events of the battle, spending most of his time on the September attempt to take Mamayev Kurgan and the storming of the German-fortified “L-shaped house” in early December. Rodimtsev emphasizes the importance of the careful planning and coordination between his regiments for their success and stresses his own military skill. He makes no secret of the heavy losses sustained by his division. By early October, over four thousand men were dead or injured. He mentions that when he ordered the storming of the L-shaped house some of his soldiers-all Uzbeks, he notes-remained on the ground and afterward were shot for their cowardice.
Rodimtsev does not address the defense of the so-called Pavlov House. Only years later did Soviet politicians hype this episode as a grand story of the spirit of Soviet internationalism. Led by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov and Lieutenant Ivan Afanassyev, two dozen Red Army soldiers entrenched themselves in a four-story residential building set off from the street. The soldiers represented up to eleven different Soviet ethnic groups (the ac- counts vary)-Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Kalmyks, and others. For almost two months they staved off the German onslaught before troops from the Soviet counteroffensive came to their aid on November 24. In his memoir, published in 1969, Rodimtsev devoted an entire chapter to the Pavlov House; the storming of the L-shaped house received only two pages. The memoir vaunts the soldiers’ heroism and the harmonious relations and omits the violence among the ranks and the losses they sustained in combat.
After Stalingrad the 13th Guards Division fought ceaselessly. As before, the division had the task of building bridgeheads, first crossing the Dnieper, then the Vistula, the Oder, and the Neisse. After traversing the Oder in January 1945, Rodimtsev (by then a lieutenant general) was honored as Hero of the Soviet Union for the second time. After the war he worked as a general inspector of Soviet forces and was elected deputy of the Supreme Soviet. Rodimtsev died in Moscow in 1977. Today his daughter Natalya directs a school museum in Moscow devoted to the Great Patriotic War.