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By Robert Beckhusen, War Is Boring
This piece was originally published in 2017.
The 2017 book When Eternities Met is an absorbing and heartbreaking story of several individuals during World War II, which writer Matt Rhode recounts from interviews and archival documents. I was particularly drawn to the story of Myroslaw, a young Ukrainian peasant living in Galicia, then part of Poland.
Myroslaw was in Galicia when the Soviet Union invaded from the east in 1939, when he was 19 years old, and again in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded from the west. Leaving home at night, he was arrested and sent to Germany as a rail laborer, and then conscripted into the 30th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, a mixed force of Eastern European volunteers and conscripts—disproportionately Belarusian.
The German military shipped the division to Vesoul, France in August 1944 to defend the strategic Belfort Gap near the Swiss and German borders from French partisans.
Rohde describes World War II not as a simple narrative but as a great cataclysm which swept up whole nations and countless individuals, including the men in Myroslaw’s Ukrainian battalion.
“Some took up the fight to resist Soviet occupation,” Rohde writes. “No doubt many were among those who initially welcomed the Germans. Others wore the Soviet uniform and fought against the Germans, ending up in a prison camp. It would not be unusual if some had done both.”
“So it is that the arriving Ukrainians hold a firmly ambiguous perspective as to which side of the Ostfront is the correct one to submit to. The only offerings for them are servitude and a short brutish existence with a likely violent death.”
Morale was terrible. The Ukrainian troops didn’t trust their German officers, who themselves loathed the Ukrainians, whom the Germans considered inferior. However, Myroslaw wasn’t aware that 26-year-old Maj. Lev Hloba and a group of co-conspirators within the battalion were clandestinely meeting with the French Resistance.
Hloba and his men planned to mutiny, and the timetable accelerated after the rebellion of a second Ukrainian battalion in the division nearby. The same day, the Germans ordered Hloba and Myroslaw’s battalion to march back to Vesoul—they had earlier traveled west away from the city—which led the Ukrainian officers to suspect the Germans caught wind of their plan and were intending to execute them.
A recruitment poster for the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division, which recruited Ukrainians and fought on the Eastern Front.
When Eternities Met describes the situation during the march back to Vesoul. The battalion’s column stretched nearly two miles—due to the wary German officers keeping the sections widely spaced—and showed the “surprising horse-dependency of the great German war machine,” Rohde writes.
“It was a spectacle, a cavalcade of a thousand men and three hundred wagons and carts pulled by the sweating and blowing horses.”
Up front was Hloba, riding a horse, and a section of Ukrainian soldiers. The Germans were in the middle along with the heavy weapons, hauled by horse-drawn wagons. Coming up from behind were more Ukrainians. The signal to begin the mutiny was a green flare, to be shot into the air when the column passed an intersection of the road and a railway.
Rohde retells the moment:
It was time.
With a nod of the head to an assistant, Hloba gave his order.
The rocket was launched, the flare darting up with a whistle. High above the column, it etched an arc of green fire and smoke against the deep-blue background.
There were Ukrainians holding weapons who knew what the signal meant. But no one dared to shoot. Nobody wanted to be the first.
In the grouping behind Hloba someone barked out an order.
“V dya-haj-te sho-lo-my!” (Helmets in place!)
The Ukrainian soldiers in the section followed the command as a matter of rote. They put their helmets on.
On a horse next to Lieutenant Hyrntchouk, who had given the order, was a German officer.
Obersturmfuhrer Bentz. He had not understood the words, but seeing the Ukrainian soldiers respond, he, too, started to put on his helmet.
Hryntchouk did not let that happen. He turned, raised his gun, and emptied the contents of its magazine into Bentz’s head.
The German tumbled off his horse.
The shot marked the beginning of the mutiny, which Rhode describes as rippling down the column like a conflagration. Ukrainian soldiers turned their weapons on German troops and shot them, or beat them to death with their bare hands.
A separate German company rushed to the scene after hearing the gunfire, and Hloba rode toward the soldiers, shouting to them that terrorists were attacking, baiting the company into running into Ukrainian gunfire.
By the end, the German dead numbered some 394, including nearly 100 officers—commissioned and non-commissioned. Ninety-nine of the dead were from the responding company which Hloba tricked into the ambush.
One Ukrainian soldier died, and 820 others—including Myroslaw—seized the battalion’s heavy weapons and ran into the woods to meet the Resistance … and in the maelstrom of World War II, soon engage Russian Cossacks still fighting in France under Axis command.