2

But the penal battalion was not fated to attack that
particular day. At one o'clock, sixty minutes before the
gulag rats were scheduled to go in once more, Vulf,
running into the farm kitchen where the colonel was
studying the map for a last time, cried out, 'Comrade
c o l o n e l . . . comrade c o l o n e l . . . it's him!'
The colonel swung round to stare at a red-faced,
wildly excited Vulf. ' W h o ? ' he demanded.
'The marshal. . . . The commander of the First Belo-
russian Front!'
'Marshal Rokossovsky!' the colonel, exclaimed. 'What
in three devils' name is he doing so far forward? Doesn't
he know that people get killed up here?'
'I don't know, comrade colonel,' Vulf answered,
raising his voice above the noise of vehicles driving into
the entrance of the little Polish farmyard. 'But here he
is!'
The colonel flung a glance through the dirty, fly-
blown window. It was Rokossovsky, all right. There
was no mistaking that paLe, cynical face with the inevi-
table cigarette stuck in the side of his broad, humorous
mouth. He sat there in the back of his open Mercedes
next to a plump blonde pigeon, who wore the earth-
brown tunic of a member of the Red Army - obviously
his current mistress.
The colonel grabbed his cap and snapped, 'Come on,
you little intellectual shit, let us go and greet the great
man!'
As the Mercedes came to a halt and the staff cars filled
with officers and guards swung to left and right, watched
17

repeating the old phrase over and over again. no sign of recognition on his face. urged on by the knouts of the Cossack guards. amused. you gulag r a t ! ' h e cried. The colonel sprang forward and opened it for him. gulag rat. his arms extended. 'Arrogant swine.that. pressing warm kisses on their hard soldiers' faces. 'Colonel.. Marshal Rokossovsky deigned not to notice him. : They wiped their eyes and looked at each other. . At the door the marshal waited.' He waved a white. Dismiss . the colonel snapped to attention. The marshal let him wait as he dismissed his staff and gave the body- guard their instructions.er . masterly stride and remembering the times when the two of them had trudged wearily through the deep snow. slapping one another's back in sheer delight.' the colonel told himself. 'But then the marshal has always been an arrogant swine. Finally he was ready. The colonel dropped his arm and waited. The colonel closed the door behind him. their progress marked by the bloody shit of dysentery that dripped down their legs. . Now what. Suddenly Rokossovsky turned round.. Instead he popped another sticky chocolate into the open mouth of his mistress and then pressed his lips to her plump white hand. well-manicured hand at Vulf. followed the marshal towards his H Q . 'I must speak with you privately. Only then did the marshal proceed. The colonel advanced on him and they hugged each other. trying to assess the toll extracted by the years since they 18 .' Finally Rokossovsky raised his right h'and in a languid salute.by bemused gulag rats. he wondered. at a suitable distance. The colonel did so and then. a huge grin on his face.' he said with cold formality as if they had never shovelled shit together back in '38 or washed each other's footrags when one or other of them had been sick with typhus. hand raised to his cap in an immaculate salute. 'Come to me. 'gulag rat . noting Rokossov- sky's purposeful.

licked it off and then downed their vodka with a swift 'Nastrovya pan!' For a while the two of them chatted about old times when they had been brigade commanders in the Far East Army before they had been arrested and sent to the camps. The marshal beamed. *Red Army nickname for the Soviet dictator. Out there. I carry out my heavy tasks for Mother Russia and forget that I am keeping Old Leather Face in power. poured one for each of them before handing the marshal the salt-cellar.' ' Brother T 'Brother. 'All right.' He indicated through the window to where the horizon burnt once more with the Fritz barrage. his pale face a little flushed with the alcohol now. We're moving further north. little brother. 'Of course. little brother. to be released only when 'Old Leather Face' had needed them. I live for the day. comrade marshal .' Abruptly Rokossovsky put down his glass.had both entered the camps as 'traitors' to the Soviet cause.' 'Exactly. 19 . 'I prefer no longer to think of such things.' the colonel responded and fetching a bottle of pepper-vodka and two glasses. sitting on the edge of the rough kitchen table.* 'Have you a little water for me. brother? This. but businesslike again. I have a mission for your gulag rats. Stalin. brother?' Rokossovsky asked. Rokossovsky shook his head.' He shrugged. 'What else can one d o ? ' The colonel nodded. In silence the two of them put salt on the 'V of skin made by extending their thumbs and forefingers.' 'Warsaw?' the colonel guessed crudely. T no longer dream of the stars. do my duty as a Russian soldier and hope that all will come out right in the end. Then the marshal sighed and said. 'Let Konev's infantry take care of that little problem. the reason for my visit. 'You haven't lost your cunning.' 'We have one.

I knew you were the man I needed. when I heard it was you who was in charge of the 333rd Penal Battalion.' 'Exactly.' 'First?' the colonel queried puzzled. they've got to keep Warsaw. 'You are no fool. Pilsudski managed to hang on to Warsaw and that was the end of our hopes of ever conquering Poland. I know Old Leather Face and have absolutely no trust in him.' 'You forget.'the fat •Polish marshal who beat the Red Army when it invaded the new state of Poland at that time. We are expected to achieve our objective between the fifth and eighth of August and begin seizing bridgeheads on the western bank of the river.he spat contemptuously on the floor . After all that's where the Red Army failed in 1920.' he exclaimed.' 'I can see Old Leather Face's reasoning. 20 . his face serious now. no waster of men.' the colonel said thoughtfully.' Rokossovsky answered. 'Yes.what has all this got to do with me and my gulag rats?' 'Something like that. when we were both young captains down here. Today he tells me that I shall have the honour of leading the drive of the Red Army to the Vistula. first. If anyone can get to Praga first it will be you and your gulag rats. Rokossovsky laughed cynically. Tomorrow in order to spur me on he'll tell that so-called Marshal Konev' . 'The vital traffic arteries running north-south and east-west cross Warsaw. 'Marshal Stalin has ordered me and the First Belorussian Front to attack towards Praga on the opposite side of the River Vistula to Warsaw.' 'To do what?' 'To lead the drive for Praga.'* He cleared his throat. 'You'd make a good general. little brother. no glory hunter. If the Fritzes are going to keep control of the Eastern Front.' Rokossovsky ignored the comment. 'Now I can imagine you are asking yourself . I was one .little brother.longer than you.' 'Well.

' Rokossovsky lowered his voice and looked quickly to left and right in case he was being over- heard.swine. I want you to avoid combat as much as possible. here is your transport coming in now. 'But how did you know I would accept the mission. And if my ancient ears don't deceive me. there will be a reckoning with that pock-faced swine in the Kremlin and I. brother. motor transport to lead an advance of that kind!' Rokossovsky grinned. as more and more of the American trucks braked to a stop. N K V D .* 'For one day. Setting one man against another. I could have sent you back to the gulag if T h e feared head of the secret police. brother?' the colonel stuttered.' 'But we are infantry. those who have won victories will command great power. 'We need armoured support. The colonel told himself that even a marshal of the Soviet Uunion with over half a million men under his command was still afraid of the long arm of Beria. brother. as the first dust-covered American lease-lend truck eased its way into the farmyard. You were! A battalion of the latest T-34s is on its way to help you. 'You were.' the colonel objected. Sneak your way through the Fritz line if you can. 'When this war is successfully concluded.' He raised his voice. half-amused. then said. 21 . eyebrows wrinkled as if he were giving the question serious consideration. half-serious. 1 want to be one of those who wield the power within the Red Army. Rokossovsky. Rokossovsky smiled. little brother. have a few old debts from the days of the camps to repay.' He gestured to the window and the colonel stared in open-mouthed amazement. little brother. Besides. to take his First Ukrainian Front and drive for the Vistula too. for one. But enough of that. 'I trusted you as a fellow gulag rat. knowing that marshals run wars as if it were a matter of personal glory. 'This is what I want you to do.' 'Is it?' the colonel queried. It will be Stalin's usual tactic.

you know? It's still full of field-grade officers. too.' the colonel urged.or worse ' . little brother. 'And if you fail. little brother. fighting for themselves and the Fritzes. 'Remember. ' G o on. it's bandit country out there on the road to Warsaw. but there are Ukrainian renegades. There are the Fritzes. intrigued by this sudden mission which had been thrust upon his gulag rats after their miserable failure of the morning. 'You bastard.you refused. There are Poles of all shades of opinion.' he hesitated momentarily.' Now it was the colonel's turn to grin.' The marshal's grin vanished and he placed his big hand on the colonel's shoulder in a mixture of affection and alarm. our Poles. the Fritzes' Poles and their own Poles. he gave the marshal the full benefit of his stainless steel teeth. . Every man's hand will be against you and . 'That's why I'm a marshal of the Soviet Union again and you're still a colonel commanding a bunch of prison scum after three years of war. you haven't changed!' he exclaimed. Old Leather Face will have you sent back to the Gulag Archipelago . almost of sadness. . The cynical light had vanished from Marshal Rokos- sovsky's eyes to be replaced by a look of concern.

ending with. Now off you go. It was the usual collection of small Polish cottages grouped around an onion-towered church. there would be little in the way of organized Fritz resistance to stop them in their dash towards Praga. He studied it for a moment. watch your shit-feet!' The gulag rat muttered under his breath. half of the company. 23 . but he parted the bushes. 3 A summer-dry twig cracked underfoot. They'd have their lookouts up in the tower. Swiftly he made his dispositions. One by one. and the first cottages would be fortified. of course. And remember. Anyone who alarms those Fritzes before we reach the village will have to answer to me. and allowed Vassily to pass through. according to intelligence. 'that man. again according to Stavka* intelligence. 'Son-of-a-bitch!' Captain Vassily hissed angrily. Once the village was taken. He'd have to go in from the rear. by a company of over-age Fritzes from one of their stomach battalions. sneaked by under the light of the stars. led by the senior captain. 'And watch your shit feet. Ahead of them lay the village held. But Vassily told him- self bitterly that they had to capture the village first and ensure none of the Fritz cripples got away to spread the *Red Army HQ. the colonel has ordered that no one is to escape!' It had been the colonel's plan to attack just here at the Polish village. I'll have the nuts off'n him with a piece of broken glass. The tanks would need a road leading west and the village blocked the entry into a second-class country road which did just that. Vassily paused.

'Every shitting Polack village has them!' He sprang to his feet as the chatter of the geese was followed by the first hoarse cry of alarm in German. Must have plenty of them. until it sank to the ground like a falling angel and everything was dark again. But by that time he wanted to be in a position to rush the defenders from the rear. a flare hissed into the air. knowing that if the old men of the Fritz stomach battalion spotted them now.news of a breakthrough. The church disappeared into the silver gloom to their rear. Suddenly it happened. ' D a m n Polack geese!' he cried. somewhere off to the right. he knew. only a hundred metres from their gun muzzles. nostrils full of its warm summer odour. ready to open fire at the first sign that they had been spotted. dodging in and out of the trees that bordered the village. . Now the two files of men crept through the silver darkness.crawl F His men bent and started to crawl through the long grass at the edge of the village.' Now they were close enough to the little cottages to make out their outlines fairly clearly and Captain Vassily could smell that typical Fritz odour: a compound of black tobacco and Fritz sweat. Vassily led his men ever closer to the village. It could only be a matter of minutes now. startling them.' Vassily said to himself under his breath. Once. all right. The hectic. the geese cackling and 24 . hysterical gaggle of geese. the Fritzes. The place was occupied. before they were spotted. they would be done for. 'Crawl!' he whispered. to the attack/' 'Urrah!' the gulag rats burst into a roar as they raced forward into the village street. 'Nervous people. making their hearts thump like trip-hammers as they froze in its eerie white glare. 'Pass it on . 'Always firing off flares in the middle of the night. and yelled: 'Charge . fingers clutched nervously on the triggers of their weapons as they spread out on both flanks. taking their time. Everything was up to him and his half company of gulag rats. .

The German yelped and fell out of the window. dropped their weapons. clutching his shoulder with fingers through which the blood jetted in bright scarlet spurts. the first wild stabs of scarlet flame cutting the darkness. his hands clutching frantically at his ripped- open stomach.g. dressed only in his underwear. A machine-gun burred in high-pitched hysteria. i A knife hissed through the air. Vassily ducked and heard the shrapnel pattering down on his helmet like heavy summer rain on a tin roof.squawking at their running feet. It exploded with a flash of blinding white light. zipped through the darkness like a swarm of angry hornets. Vassily tried in vain to break his grip. A gulag rat fired. davoir Captain Vassily urged frantically as a fat German. Behind Vassily a man yelped and went down. It bore a Hitler-type moustache. An officer rushed at Vassily. hands clutching at the Russian's throat. Behind Vassily half a dozen gulag rats skidded to a stop. A German leaned out of an upstairs window. Vassily launched a kick at his guts - and missed. . A head rolled to a stop at his feet like a football abandoned by some careless child. his teeth bared in anger. red and white. Instinctively he presssed the trigger of his sub-machine-gun. Then they were in the cottages. Tracer. 'Davoi . . and hit the cobbles in a mess of twitching limbs. slaughtering the Fritzes. Heil Hitler/' he cried and ran on. He hit the ground like a sack of wet cement. The Fritz's sausage-fingers fastened on his neck. red and white stars exploding in front of his eyes. 'Save you bothering about stomach powder anymore. rifle clutched in fat hands. clad only in his underwear and jack- boots loomed up out of the darkness. Fritz!' Vassily roared heartlessly as he pelted by. The officer's garlic- 25 . He grabbed the grenade tucked down the side of his boot and flung it towards the m. The Fritz screamed. pit. Vassily didn't hesitate.