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Myth Versus Reality: The "White-Gloved" General Chuikov

Pictured: Lieutenant-General V.I. Chuikov with one of his hands wrapped in a bandage, 1943; personal letter to military doctor A. M. Krupchitsky from Chuikov, with this text:


Dear Alexander Matveevich! 


I send greetings from the front, where we are mercilessly beating the Germans. 

My health is not bad, but I still have to wrap my hands in preventative measures. I ask you, Alexander Matveevich, to send me a supply of this kilo-2 “WICKELSON” and NAFTHALAN ointment. I can’t get it here, for which I will be very grateful. 


The promised book 62nd Army in the fight for Stalingrad has not yet been published, but I remember that I am in debt. 


My most cordial greetings to your wife, your assistants and Comrade Alyavdin. 


GUARD COLONEL-GENERAL V. CHUIKOV, YOUR RESPECTER 

4 December 1943

 

In my exploration of Marshal Chuikov's life, I frequently come across the portrayal of him as a general who "fought in white gloves." However, the reality is that Vasily Ivanovich struggled with a painful case of weeping eczema, triggered and worsened by the stresses of battle. The prevalence of this affliction is evident in numerous photographs depicting his consistently bandaged hands during the Battle for Stalingrad and beyond. I recently discovered a personal letter dated 4 December 1943 which was a request for medication from a doctor to treat this pervasive condition. Considering this letter, I began researching the events leading up to the request.


Following the pivotal victory in the Battle for Stalingrad, Chuikov's 8th Guards continued their military campaigns through Moldova, Ukraine, and Poland, ultimately achieving the conquest of Berlin in May 1945. Chuikov was an active and engaged general, facing perilous situations constantly. An excerpt from In Battles for Ukraine reveals one such precarious scenario during the autumn of 1943 in events leading up to the assault on the city of Zaporozhye, which was planned for the night of 13-14 October:


“On 12 October, at 8.00, artillery preparation began against targets recorded during the night. After half an hour of artillery barrage, at 8.30 the infantry with thinned support tanks again went on the attack, gnawing through the enemy defenses. […] In the morning, the enemy fought back with powerful artillery fire, then began counterattacks. Our troops destroyed the counterattackers.


At noon it was determined that the counterattacks were running out of steam. A certain invisible, but still perceptible for those who followed the battle, turning point was established. One more effort must be made—and the enemy will be broken.


R. Ya. Malinovsky and member of the Military Council A. S. Zheltov were at my command post one and a half kilometers west of the village of Chervonoarmeysky. We saw this change in the enemy's condition. About two hundred meters ahead of us, also on a mound, was the observation post of the commander of the 27th Guards Rifle Division, Major General V. S. Glebov.


Our troops fought intense battles for the third day, the soldiers and officers were tired. They could have overlooked that the enemy was hesitating, that his position had become unstable, and missed the moment for a decisive breakthrough. To push the units of the 27th division to make this breakthrough, I and my adjutant went to the observation post of V.S. Glebov. After talking with him personally, and by phone with the regiment commanders, setting them a specific task based on the current situation, I went back the same way. Probably, the enemy side discovered some movement on our mounds, maybe they decided that we were changing the command post. In a word, they opened hurricane artillery fire on the high-rise buildings and along the road between the mounds. 


The adjutant and I found ourselves just halfway between the mounds and seemed to be caught in a ring of fire. Shells exploded from all sides. And no shelter. Only a lonely, miraculously surviving telegraph pole. We fell near this pillar, me on one side, the adjutant on the other. The fire was carried out randomly, and it was impossible to guess where the next shell would fall, on the place where we lay down, or on the place where we would try to crawl away. We lay with our heads pressed against the post. I saw the adjutant’s open mouth, he was saying something to me, but it was impossible to hear because of the roar of exploding shells. Suddenly the adjutant’s face distorted and horror was reflected in his eyes. A second later I realized that he had been hit by a shrapnel and was losing consciousness from pain.


Then I jumped up, threw the adjutant into my arms and ran towards the mound. It was as if I didn’t even feel the weight of the burden. Waiting for a shell to hit my head without resisting fate in any way turned out to be not in my character.”


It was decided to pursue a night attack on Zaporizhye, which turned out to be a successful undertaking, Chuikov continued:


“A night offensive by the entire army? People are exhausted, and such an offensive must be prepared in advance. Our transport can hardly cope with the supply of ammunition. However, at night it is not necessary and, perhaps, even pointless to conduct a full artillery barrage. It is enough to strike at pre-selected targets. The enemy will wait for the assault groups to appear, and we will attack him with all our firepower.


After some deliberation, we at the Army Military Council decided to conduct a night battle. […] Only battered infantry units and artillery remained in the first positions. Therefore, night close combat could somehow compensate for the lack of shells. At night, enemy tanks could not conduct aimed fire.


At 23.00, the entire army's artillery launched a massive, powerful artillery raid on precisely reconnoitered targets, which lasted only ten minutes. At 23.10 the tanks went on the attack, covering the infantry following them.


Naturally, it was impossible to observe the progress of the battle. The battle could only be controlled using telephones and radio communications. After some time, reports began to arrive. On the radio, I listened to all conversations between the commanders of corps, divisions and regiments. It became obvious that the blow had been struck at the right time. The enemy resistance forces, as expected back in the day, were running out.”


Although the night battle for Zaporizhye was successful, the events of the days, weeks, and months leading up to this offensive took their toll. Vasily Ivanovich shared that the Front Commander sent him to take a short leave of absence from the 8th Guards Army:


“At the insistence of the front commander R.Ya. Malinovsky and the representative of the Supreme High Command Headquarters A.M. Vasilevsky, on 15 October, I went to Moscow for treatment at the hospital. Colonel General I.I. Maslennikov took temporary command of the 8th Guards Army. I returned from the hospital immediately after the November holidays, and on 12 November I again took command of the army.”


After Vasily Ivanovich returned to his position, a new offensive was planned. The task before the 8th Guards Army was to seize control of Nikopol at the earliest opportunity to cut off the German industry's access to essential manganese. Depriving the enemy of this crucial resource would impede the production of aircraft in Germany. Within a few days, Chuikov composed his letter to Krupchitsky seeking topical medications for his persistent skin condition, referring to his health status in light of his recent hospitalization. The letter exhibits stylistic, spelling, and punctuation errors, which suggest that Vasily Ivanovich personally typed the letter without the assistance of secretaries or clerks.

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