Rattenkrieg. No words better describe the horror and doom the soldier felt in Stalingrad in late 1942. To the beleaguered Soviets, the city represented both their hope of finally stopping the German tide (and their own individual doom), and sacrifice for the Rodina. Penned-in and nearly surrounded, the Russian troops of the 62nd Army found their own tactics superior to the invading Germans', who were better trained in open-ground warfare. City fighting - especially against so determined a foe - left the German troops, no matter how brave, at a disadvantage. In this environment the legend of the Russian sniper grew. Men of rural background, hunters, and outdoorsmen trained on the spot and filled with determination and skill took to the field in numbers to visit revenge upon the invaders. The snipers successes took their toll not only on the German soldiers fighting spirit, but on their numbers as well.
One such sniper, Chief Master Sergeant Vasily Gregorievich Zaitsev, a sailor from the Siberian outback, became legend. During the battles in and around Stalingrad, he personally killed 242 German soldiers. Over the period of his career his tally reached as high as 400. His story, too good to pass up, was spread far and wide by the political commissars and was recounted in propaganda newspapers sent to the front. This notoriety placed Zaitsev in the rather dubious position of being recognized by his foes as the individual most responsible for their fears - fears of being killed anonymously while eating, drinking, or sitting at their post. It is one thing to die for your country in battle, but it is another thing altogether to die while taking a leak 300 yards behind the front lines. Germany decided to do something about it. That something came in the person of one SS Colonel Heinz Thorvald. The resulting duel between him and Zaitsev became a prime example of counter-sniper tactics for the generations of snipers that followed.
War of the Rats, a novel released in May of 1999, chronicles the events that unfolded during the dying months of 1942. While technically a work of fiction, the author, David Robbins, has done his research and has successfully maintained the authenticity of the events described within the book. The events are real, as are the main characters. Only personal details and the thoughts of the individuals have been created for the sake of the novel. The details leading up to the battle between Zaitsev and Thorvald smack of truth, as does the sobering epilogue that chronicles the demise of the German sixth army. Both were derived from personal and written accounts of the events by people who were there.
When I read this book, I had no idea how gripping a tale this author could weave. I finished its 474 pages in just three days and found excuses to read it everywhere from the passenger seat of my wifes truck while heading out on a short vacation to hiding in the bathroom at work! The author creates a wonderful mix of fiction and reality in this work. He paints a vivid picture of life in Stalingrad that rivals such works as Cross of Iron and The Forgotten Soldier. He places you there, in this midst of the misery and uncertainty and makes you feel what it had to be like for the poor bastards dueling it out over useless real-estate, bleeding out their life blood for causes they themselves had little understanding of.
I have known of the duel between Zaitsev and Thorvald for as many as 20 years. Prior to the release of this book, the details were always sketchy, and in one instance dead wrong. The name of the German "super-sniper' has often been given simply as a Major Koenig or Konigs. The real man - according to Robbins, Heinz Thorvald - was a sniper instructor at Gnossen, outside of Berlin. His skill with a rifle was renown. The book details his life as best as can be expected, but much is still conjecture. The life of Zaitsev, on the other hand, is well documented. While some of it is propaganda, much can be salvaged from the chaff of the politically motivated commissars who wrote his tale.
Any sniper student will find accurate and faithful detail in the story. So many books just gloss over particulars or make up details to enhance the image of the characters. While no book can set a mental image without this convolution of fact, this author manages to do so without you ever realizing it. You know when something may have been glossed over or elaborated, but in this case it is done with so much skill it blends into the whole and leaves you wanting more. The story has an authentic and accurate feel from the first to the last page. In short, this is one of the best novels of WWII drama, fiction, and fact that I have read. Best of all, it details a legendary and apparently true story of a sniper versus sniper duel in a way that brings it to life and makes you know the characters very much as they may have been. Robbins puts you there and leaves you feeling like you were part of their world.
As a side note, shortly after writing this review a relative of Major Konigs wrote me to express the fact that Konigs was in fact killed, as far as he knew, by Zaitsev at Stalingrad. In other correspondence with individuals from several War museums, there was doubt expressed that any such duel took place either between Zaitsev and Konigs (or Zaitsev and Thorvald), as the factual records did not seem to appear in the unit histories of the 284th division, Zaitsevs parent division with in the 62nd Army. Whether or not the duel happened exactly as stated will always seem to have a cloud of uncertainty around it, but all the principles seemed to have been there and those who survived were able to at least in part corroborate portions of the tale. Some facts are known for sure: the love affair between Tania and Zaitsev was real, and the way Tania was wounded as described in the book, War of the Rats, has been documented. Zaitsev himself certainly took a toll on the invaders of his homeland and he certainly had a hand in MANY sniper-versus-sniper duels. While this story may never be fully told in perfect accuracy, it will remain one of the true epics of WWII drama in the trenches.
Needless to say, I highly recommend War of the Rats to anyone visiting Sniper Country.
As a final note, just to illustrate the fog of events, you will note that in my reviews of Enemy at the Gates (the book,) Enemy at the Gates (the movie), and War of the Rats, certain principle names appear with various spellings. The name Konig, Koenigs, and Konigs all represent the same individual, yet the name appears differently in several articles and works on the man. Likewise, Tanya sometimes appears as Tania Chernova, and Vassili as Vasely Zaitsev. I view these all as minor inconsistencies on account of translations between the Russian and German languages into English. One thing is certain: if you want to read the most about Zaitsev, Chernova, Kulikov, and the others, read War of the Rats. While sold as a fictional work, most of the individual events of import DID take place and are documented in that work. Of the books I have read thus far on the duel or the man, it is the only one to leave me feeling like I know a little more about the participants and their story.
The duel between Zaitsev and Thorvald (also refered to as Koenig in other reports) has long been contested as to its historical accuracy. One such comment is well worth repeating and I have agreed to add it to SC as it does have merit.
While researching for a book on sniping, I used some contacts at Russian museums to look into the veracity of the much reported fight between Zeitsev and Koenig [Thorvald]. Despite the fact that Russian company and regimental records were faithfully kept even throughout the worst days of the Stalingrad seige, nowhere is this duel reported in war diaries. This would seem to be an odd omission, particularly in the face of the cult of 'Sniperism' that the Soviet press were so keen to extoll.
I tend to agree with Anthony Beevor's opinion that the shooting match never actually happened and was the result of propoganda reporting by the press who were always keen to promote new 'Heroes of the Soviet Union'. Apparently Zeitsev himself never confirmed or denied the event, an odd attitude in view of its apparent historical importance.
The only light I can shed on your Thorvald/Koenig question is this: In an interview on the phone with me, I asked Zaitsev that question. He said he had always felt that the Germans claimed someone named Koenig had been shot in the duel and not Thorvald because the Germans didn't want to admit their ace was down. He opined that Koenig was very close to the German word for king, as in a chess analogy; you win the chess game when you take your opponent's king. Z was sure the papers he took from the body said Thorvald, and that's the way he wrote it in his memoirs. So, true or not, I went with it because the man told me so.