Tuesday's Tales - "Only Tanya is Left" - a true-life tale of the Second World War

Last Friday, 23 January, would have been the 85th birthday of Tanya Savicheva … had she lived.   Instead she died near Leningrad at the age of 14, another young victim of the Second World War.  Outside of Russia, she is virtually unknown … there is no mention of her in history lessons, no book has been written about her.  But, like the other, more recognisable, young victim of the war – Anne Frank – she also left behind a diary, a small, almost inconsequential diary, a diary that contained only 9 entries.

Tanya, aged 6

Tatyana Nikolayevna Savicheva was born on January 23 1930, the youngest of 5; her father, Nikolay Rodionovich Savichev, was a baker, and her mother, Mariya Ignatievna Savicheva, a seamstress.  She had 2 sisters, Nina and Zhenya (Yevgenia), and 2 brothers, Mikhail and Leka (Leonid).  The family were gifted musically; the 2 brothers played the guitar, mandolin and banjo, while the girls sang.

When Tanya was 6, her father died, leaving her mother to raise 5 children on her own.  But her job as a seamstress in a Leningrad house of fashion paid well.

The family had planned to spend the summer of 1941 in the countryside, but the German invasion disrupted their plans.  The oldest boy, Mikhail, had already left the city, but the rest of the family decided to stay in Leningrad.  In September 1941, the German army began their bombardment of the city, cutting off supplies in an attempt to ‘wipe it off the map’.  So began the Siege of Leningrad that would last for 900 days; the family, like all the other inhabitants, were trapped, unable to leave.

On 12 September 1941, the largest food warehouse was bombed and destroyed.  3,000 tonnes of flour, thousands of tons of grain, meat, butter, sugar burned.  “The streets that night ran with melted chocolate,” said one witness, “and the air was rich and sticky with the smell of burning sugar.”  What had been a severe situation was quickly becoming a critical one.

Winter approached, temperatures plummeted … To the east of the city, Lake Ladoga froze, and became an unlikely ‘Road of Life’.  Drivers braved thin ice and enemy bombardment to bring in supplies of food, fuel and medicine in convoys of trucks.  As crucial as these supplies were, they were only a fraction of what was desperately needed.

As winter progressed, hunger stalked the city.  Whatever could be eaten was consumed – livestock, pets, birds, vermin … Whatever could be burnt was used for firewood, and that included Tanya’s thick diary.  Along with every other book in the house, it was used for fuel.

The people of Leningrad, young and old, worked to help bolster the city’s defences.  All the Savichevs, except for the grandmother, worked – Mariya sewed uniforms; Nina helped with the construction of city defences; Zhenya worked at the munitions factory; Leka, unable to join the army because of his bad eyesight, worked at the Admiralty Plant; and 2 uncles – Vasya and Lesha – served in the anti-aircraft defence.  Tanya, 11 years old, dug trenches and helped put out firebombs.

One day, 24-year-old Nina failed to return home.  The family believed she had succumbed to the cold and hunger and died, like so many had already done.  Mariya gave Tanya a small notebook that had belonged to Nina, one that had been saved from the fire, so she would have something of her older sister’s. 

The first entry was dated December 28, and was about Zhenya.  Having worked 2 shifts in a row, she went to donate blood, but her body wasn’t strong enough.  She died at midday … Tanya wrote: ‘Zhenya died on 28th Dec. at 12.00 PM 1941’

Almost a month later, Tanya’s grandmother, Yevdokiya Grigorievna, died: ‘Grandma died on 25th Jan. 3 PM 1942’

The rest of the entries are equally spare, adding to their poignancy:

‘Leka died on 17th March at 5 AM 1942’

‘Uncle Vasya died on 13th Apr. at 2 o’clock after midnight 1942’

‘Uncle Lesha on 10th May at 4 PM 1942’

‘Mum on 13th May at 7.30 AM 1942’

‘Savichevs died.’

‘Everyone died.’

‘Only Tanya is left.’

In August 1942, special nursing brigades searching the city rescued about 140 children, including Tanya, and took them to the village of Krasny Bor.  Most, if not all, of the children survived.  But Tanya was too ill and weak, and she was taken to Shatkovsky Hospital.  She hung on for 2 years until she finally succumbed and died of tuberculosis on 1 July 1944, aged 14.

Tanya died wrongly believing she was the last Savichev left, for her brother and sister had both survived.  Though severely wounded, Mikhail was still alive.  Nina, unbeknownst to her family, had been whisked away to Lake Ladoga and hurriedly evacuated out of the city, with no chance to inform her family that she was being taken to safety.  After the war, she returned to Leningrad, to the family home.  There, amongst the rubble, she found the notebook, Tanya’s little diary.  She gave it to a journalist.  Today, it is on display in St. Petersburg, in the Museum of Leningrad History.

I don’t think it should matter that Tanya’s diary was not a carefully kept journal, or that it was not published.  I think it should be more widely known.  For me, those few stark entries speak volumes in conveying the horrors of war suffered by one family, and the civilian population as a whole.  As interested in history as I am, I have to admit that I am not as familiar with the way the war played out in Russia.  I was not aware just how long the Siege of Leningrad was, the suffering endured by the people still 'living' there … what it must have been like for a child growing up in such a place.

I cannot begin to imagine how Nina must have felt, finding the diary, and discovering the fate of her family, conveyed in the hand of her little sister.  As a mother, my heart goes out to that little girl, watching each member of her family die, watching her mother die … Tanya was alone, without her family, for almost 3 months before she was rescued.  I wonder if she lost the will to live, believing that “only Tanya is left.”

Tuesday's Tales - A True Love Story

My favourite love story, dedicated to my parents on the eve of their wedding anniversary …

Penzance, 1950s

Once upon a time, in Malaya where the days are hot and the nights not much cooler, there lived a young girl.  She was the second child, the eldest daughter, in a family of six – 3 boys and 3 girls.  Her parents, having travelled from Ceylon, had decided to settle and raise a family in this place of opportunity.

Her father came from a family of, mostly, men, and he longed for a daughter.  His first-born was a son … When his wife was expecting their second child, he was so convinced it would be a girl, he had already chosen her name before she was born.  A doting, loving father, nothing was too good for his daughter; he would order her clothes from Europe, and buy gold clips for her hair, no matter that she kept losing them.

Then her father was taken ill.  On the advice of the doctors, he returned to his homeland to live by the sea.  So his wife would not be raising their children on her own, he wrote to her brother for help; he left his life in their homeland to join his sister so she would not be alone.

The young girl never saw her father again.  About two years later, when she was eight, their father passed away.  Their mother, only in her 30s, was left a widow with six young children to care for, the youngest still a baby.  

Life was hard for the young widow and her family.  Being the 1930s, she did not have many options open to her.  And yet, whatever else they had to do without, the widow made sure the family were never short of food.  Neither would she turn anyone away who asked her for food.  She would say, “They can only eat this much, why deprive them?”

The girls’ school that the young girl went to in her early teens was next to a boys’ boarding school.  To get to their playground, the boarders had to pass through that of the girls’ school.  And the young boys did enjoy teasing the girls … One of them would usually pull the young girl’s pigtails.

That pigtail-pulling boy grew to a young man who began working in the railways after leaving school.  Settled in his new job, he answered the call for volunteers to join the Railway Operating and Maintenance Company (ROMC).  There he met the young girl’s older brother, and they became the best of friends.

The war that engulfed the world broke out.  Abandoned by their colonial masters, the country was taken over and occupied by another.  Under their new masters, the people endeavoured to continue with their lives as best they could.

The young man, allowed to carry on working in the railways, knew the young girl, now a young woman, but only as the sister of his best friend, and he was attracted to her.  Having seen him in the company of her brother, the young woman was secretly attracted to him also.  When the young man asked his best friend for his sister’s hand in marriage, his best friend was overjoyed. 

The young woman’s brother excitedly spoke to his mother about this possible match.  She, however, was filled with doubt and worry.  The young man was Indian, she said; they were Ceylonese.  But her son refused to entertain that sort of attitude.  All that mattered was that his friend was a decent, upright man who would care for his wife and family.  When his mother said that the local Ceylonese community would not be happy with such a union, he angrily said that it was not their place to say anything; none of them had offered the family any help when their father had died.  If anyone had a problem with how the family managed their own affairs, he said, they should speak to him and he would set them straight.  His mother knew none would for they were afraid of her son and his sharp tongue.

When the widow met her future son-in-law, her misgivings soon vanished; each took to the other quickly, and a mutually respectful and loving relationship came into being that would last until the widow’s death almost forty years later.

The young man married the young woman on 10 December 1942.  Because of the increased expenses of living in such times, there were no wedding invitations.  Instead the young woman’s brother put up a notice announcing the wedding, and stating that whoever wished to attend could do so.  After heavy rains, come the day of the wedding, the town was flooded.  The biggest question turned out to be, how to get to the temple.  The answer – by boat!  And people did come to the wedding … more out of curiosity than anything else.

(1946)

In 1943, six months after the wedding, the young woman’s brother was taken ill with cerebral malaria.  His mother was in the hospital with a foot injury at the same time, and she visited him every day in the men’s ward.  One night, he sang one of his mother’s favourite songs to her; his voice was so beautiful, it enchanted the entire ward.  The next day, only 22 years old, he died.  The widow was heartbroken; for many mornings afterwards, she would wake crying and calling for him.

Even though her other two sons were still in school, they managed to get jobs to help look after their mother and sisters.  After a while, the widow and her family moved in with the young woman and her husband; it was his pay that provided the main support for the family.

Life was not easy for the newly-weds; just as they were starting their life together, they had the added responsibility of a whole other family.  But the young man continued to do the right thing by his best friend’s family, even after he had a family of his own.  He looked after his wife’s siblings until they were married.  And he cared for his mother-in-law as if she were his own mother.

(1950s)

In time, life got better, easier.  The young man worked hard and earned his promotions.  Having started as a parcel clerk when he first joined the railways, he made his way up to the position of Assistant Traffic Manager, the highest position a non-Malay can hold in the railways.  After retiring from the railways, he then worked for a private cement company.  He raised his family of four girls, making sure they were protected and educated.  He weathered the heart-stopping scare of almost losing his wife to a brain tumour.  As he got older and his responsibilities eased, he enjoyed a more relaxed relationship with his children and grandchildren.

The marriage had its ups and downs, but the ‘downs’ were never anything that could not be put right.  He was proud of his wife, an independent-minded, strong yet feminine woman, ahead of her time in her outlook.  Outwardly, she was the ‘quiet’, dutiful wife who never disagreed with her husband.  Yet he never expected her to be anything other than who she was; he knew she wasn’t the sort to agree with everything he said, that she spoke her mind, and he was glad of that.  She always read the newspapers from cover to cover, and was well-informed on current matters, be it politics, entertainment or sports.

(early 1990s)

(Aug 1993)

 The young man and young woman, my beautiful parents, celebrated their 50th anniversary in Aug 1993, surrounded by family and good friends, their love for one another as strong as when they were newly married.  When my Papa died, aged 80, they had been married for 57 years.  Not wanting to face time without him, still my dear Mummy lived another 7 years before she passed.  And, in that time, she showed her children, her grandchildren and those around her, how to live a dignified life despite profound grief and debilitating illness, which left her bed-ridden and without speech.

It’s taken me long enough to realise, but I know now, she also showed me that, no matter the opinions of those around you, it is possible to be strong and to stay strong, regardless of what lies ahead … to look life in the eye, and face it with head held high.

Tuesday's Tales - The Victoria Cross in the First World War

What is it that makes a man, finding himself in a nightmare situation the like of which he’s never experienced, go beyond his stated duty and act in a way that will, almost certainly, cost him his life? 

The Victoria Cross, the VC, is the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy”.  It is awarded to members of the armed forces of Britain and Commonwealth countries, including territories that were previously part of the British Empire.  It may also be awarded to civilians under military command.

In 1854, after almost 40 years of peace, Britain found itself at war with Russia in the Crimean War.  Modern reporting brought home and made public many acts of bravery by British servicemen that were going unrewarded.  Both, the public and the Royal Court, wanted these gallant acts recognised.  A new award came into being which would recognise acts of valour on its own merit, without being influenced by a man’s lengthy or admirable service; neither class nor birth would be recognised.

The medal was intended to be a simple decoration that would be highly prized.  To this end, Queen Victoria, guided by Prince Albert, vetoed the initial name for the award – ‘The Military Order of Victoria’ – and, instead, suggested, ‘Victoria Cross’.  The VC was introduced on 29 January 1856.  The original warrant stated that it would only be awarded to soldiers who have served in the presence of the enemy and had performed some signal act of valour or devotion.

The award is a bronze cross, bearing the crown of St Edward, surmounted by a lion, and the inscription ‘FOR VALOUR’.  The first ceremony was held on 26 June 1857, in Hyde Park, where Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients.

In the First World War, the first VC awarded to a British Army officer was to Maurice James Dease – it was awarded posthumously.

Born on 28 September 1889 in Ireland, Maurice Dease was educated at Stonyhurst College, and the Army Department of Wimbledon College; he then attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.  At the outbreak of war, he was 24 years old, and already a lieutenant in the 4th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers.

18 days after Britain declared war, on 22 August, Lt. Dease led his men to Belgium.  Marching through the city of Mons, the Royal Fusiliers headed to the canal at Nimy, spanned by a railway bridge. 

A Company, 4th Royal Fusiliers in the market square of Mons on 22 Aug 1914, the day before the Battle of Mons. Soon after this photograph was taken the battalion moved up to the Mons Canal line at Nimy

Lt. Dease set up his two machineguns on this bridge, not knowing when, or from which direction the enemy would appear.  23 August – the Germans approached, and when some were shot, they regrouped and appeared in lines from different directions.

Nimy Bridge

Amidst intense gunfire and heavy casualties, Lt. Dease was wounded in the leg and neck.  Despite this, he climbed out of his command trench and took over the machinegun of a dead soldier.  Then the second gun jammed.  He crawled down the embankment, got it working, and climbed back to carry on firing. 

In his book, ‘The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War’, HC O’Neill wrote: “The machine gun crews were constantly being knocked out. So cramped was their position that when a man was hit he had to be removed before another could take his place. The approach from the trench was across the open, and whenever a gun stopped Lieutenant Maurice Dease … went up to see what was wrong. To do this once called for no ordinary courage. To repeat it several times could only be done with real heroism. Dease was badly wounded on these journeys, but insisted on remaining at duty as long as one of his crew could fire. The third wound proved fatal, and a well deserved VC was awarded him posthumously. By this time both guns had ceased firing, and all the crew had been knocked out …

The citation for Lt. Dease’s VC: “Though two or three times badly wounded he continued to control the fire of his machine guns at Mons on 23rd August until all his men were shot. He died of his wounds.

Lt. Maurice Dease is buried at St. Symphorien Cemetery.

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He is remembered with a plaque under the Nimy Bridge, Mons; in Westminster Cathedral; on a cross in Stroud, Gloucestershire; and a cross at Exton, Rutland.  There is also a plaque in St Martin’s Church in Culmullen, County Meath, Ireland.  His VC is displayed at the Royal Fusiliers Museum in the Tower of London.

The first VC awarded to a private soldier in the First World War was to Sidney Frank Godley.

Sidney Godley was born on 14 August 1889 in East Grinstead, West Sussex.  After leaving school, he worked in an ironmonger’s store from the age of 14 to 20.  In December 1909, he joined The Royal Fusiliers as a private.

A private in the 4th Battalion, Godley was one of Lt. Dease’s men who marched with him to Nimy, and fought with him at the Battle of Mons.  When Lt. Dease had been killed, the order to retreat was given.  Private Godley volunteered to defend the Nimy Bridge, giving the rest of the section the chance to retreat.  He held the bridge while coming under heavy fire and being wounded twice – shrapnel entered his back when an explosion went off near him, and he was shot in the head.

HC O’Neill in ‘The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War’: (continuing from the paragraph above):

“… By this time both guns had ceased firing, and all the crew had been knocked out. In response to an inquiry whether anyone else knew how to operate the guns Private Godley came forward. He cleared the emplacement under heavy fire and brought the gun into action. The water jackets of both guns were riddled with bullets, so that they were no longer of any use. Godley himself was badly wounded and later fell into the hands of the Germans.

For two hours, Godley defended the bridge until he ran out of ammunition.  Dismantling the gun and throwing the pieces in the canal, he tried to crawl to safety but was captured by German soldiers.  He was taken to a prisoner of war camp where his wounds were treated, and he remained there until the end of the war.

He had already been awarded the Victoria Cross, and received the actual medal from King George V on 15 February 1919.  The citation read: “For coolness and gallantry in fighting his machine gun under a hot fire for two hours after he had been wounded at Mons on 23rd August.

He got married in August 1919, and worked as a school caretaker in Tower Hamlets, London.  He died on 29 June 1957 and was buried with full military honours at Loughton, Essex, where he’d been living.

The first South Asian to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Khudadad Khan.

He was born on 20 October 1888 in the village of Dab in the Punjab, in what is now part of modern Pakistan.  A sepoy in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, British Indian Army (now the 11th Battalion The Baloch Regiment of Pakistan Army), he was part of the Indian Corps sent to France in 1914, aged 26.

In October 1914, almost immediately after arriving, the 129th Baluchis were among 20,000 Indian soldiers sent to the Western Front.  They were to help the exhausted British Expeditionary Force (BEF) prevent the advancing Germans from capturing the important ports of Boulogne (France) and Nieuwpoort (Belgium).  If these ports fell into German hands, the BEF would effectively be crippled as they would lose their supply lines.

This offensive to capture the ports, launched by the Germans, was the First Battle of Ypres.  On 31 October 1914, the 129th Baluchis were engaged in heavy fighting around the Belgian village of Hollebeke.  The conditions were horrific – waterlogged trenches, lack of hand grenades, and a severe lack of soldiers to man the defences; they were outnumbered five to one. 

Most of the Baluchis had been pushed back the day before.  But two machine gun crews remained.  One was Khudadad Khan’s team.  They continued to fight, keeping the Germans at bay.  The other machine gun was destroyed by a shell, its crew killed or wounded.  Khudadad’s team carried on.  The British officer, Captain Dill, was severely wounded.  Himself wounded, Khudadad Khan kept on firing the gun with the other men until they were overrun; all the gunners were shot or bayoneted.  All except Khudadad Khan, who was badly wounded.  Pretending to be dead, he waited until the Germans had moved on and, under cover of darkness, managed to make his way back to his regiment. 

Thanks to his bravery, and that of his fellow Baluchis, the Germans had been stopped long enough for Indian and British reinforcements to arrive.  The line was strengthened and the German army prevented from reaching the ports.

The 129th Baluchis fought in several other battles during the First World War; of the 4,447 men who served in the Regiment during the war, 3,585 were lost.

Sepoy Khudadad Khan was treated for his wounds and recovered.  Three months later, he was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V.  His citation reads: “On 31st October 1914, at Hollebeke, Belgium, the British Officer in charge of the detachment having been wounded, and the other gun put out of action by a shell, Sepoy Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed.

Khudadad Khan returned to the Punjab.  He died on 8 March 1971.  His VC is displayed at his ancestral house in Dab, Pakistan.

Khudadad Khan’s actions and that of his fellow Baluchis are, for me, real food for thought, especially with the ‘me-me’, selfish attitude that seems to pervade society in general, in most parts of the world.  Here were men, part of a colonised nation, dying for a king they had never seen, for a cause that had been thrust upon them … they were prepared to put their lives on the line unquestioningly.

In fact, all those who faced the enemy and died, who put their lives on the line, defending their fellow soldiers, ultimately giving their lives for their king and country, for the freedoms we take for granted today … Named and unnamed, they are true heroes.  It seems a shame that that freedom now, in a way, allows the existence of that ‘me-me’ attitude.