2. The March on the Crimea

After the fall of Romodan the Reds only defended Poltava, and the Zaporozhian Division took it in the last days of March. The Bolsheviks fled Poltava toward Kharkiv and strongly fortified the western and northern suburbs of that city, putting a particularly strong force in the vicinity of the Lubotyn railroad station. Helped by German artillery, the Zaporozhians captured Kharkiv on April 6. In Lubotyn we found many bodies of sailors of the Black Sea Fleet who had taken part in the defense of Kharkiv. Finally the horrible days of Kharkiv were behind us.

It was very interesting that when Commander Natiyev announced that he would accept volunteers into his Division, only about twenty officers applied, but as usual, a large number of Cossacks joined (former soldiers of the Russian Army, of Ukrainian nationality, will be referred to by the Ukrainian designation "Cossacks"), All officers of Russian nationality who were still alive, were extremely hostile to the idea of Ukrainian independence, in spite of the fact that they sought asylum in Ukraine from the Bolsheviks. They did not, however, consider it their duty to defend Ukraine, preferring to work as waiters in restaurants, ostentatiously wearing their uniforms and medals: whom would they impress by this foolish demonstration? The same phenomenon could be observed again in November and December, even on a larger scale.

Due to the great influx of volunteers, the Germans having prohibited mobilization, the Zaporozhian Division was enlarged into a Corps, and when we were leaving Kharkiv for the South it took two days for the Corps to embark aboard railroad cars. I mention railroad cars advisedly because at that time warfare was conducted along rail lines, and only cavalry (the Haydamak Cavalry Regiment under the command of Col. V. Petriv, and the Mountain Artillery Mounted Division under Col. S. Almazov) could effect cross-country marches.

Thus, after two days, we reached the station of Lozova, and part of our Corps under the command of Commander P. Bolbochan was formed into the so-called Crimean group which marched on the Crimea through Oleksandrivske and Melitopil, while the other part marched via Kupiansk and Yuzivka to capture the Donbas industrial region. On orders of Commander Bolbochan, at Lozova station I constructed an improvised armored train from steel coal-hoppers cars, which we lined with pressed straw on the inside, and mounted behind steel plates, also reinforced in back with pressed straw, four machine guns and a three-inch cannon, plus two machine guns in reserve. One machine gun was in front of the train and on one flat car we carried my armored car Polubotok to be used on plain roads in case of need. The crew of the armored train consisted of four officers and a number of men, one of the officers being Lieut. S. Han, a member of the Central Rada who would rather fight than play politics. The base of our armored train was to be a troop-train consisting of one infantry battalion, one artillery battery, and one machine gun company under the command of my brother. On April 12 after a forced movement forward I reached Oleksandrivske, dispersing the Reds who offered resistance at every station and mined the tracks. Fortunately they were so inept at mine-laying and my train came at such high speed that the mines exploded behind us. Only once did we hit a pyroxylin charge which twisted the rails; we fixed the damage in a few hours, however, and the train went on. At that time I found out about the misunderstandings between our troops and the Germans who wanted to treat Ukraine as an occupied country, immediately requisitioning all goods on trains and at stations and shipping them back to Germany, and wanted to issued orders to our armed forces.

At the station of Oleksandrivske we made our first encounter with Austrian troops, they were the Ukrainian Sitch Riflemen (USS) under the command of Archduke Wilhelm Hapsburg, the Ukrainianized Colonel Vasyl Vyshyvany,1 but we did not have time to tarry long with them. Toward the evening, as my armored train was nearing Melitopil, looking through my field glasses I saw a barricade and people on the track ahead. Presuming that they were Bolsheviks, I ordered my men to open fire, but thereupon the old Russian tri-color flag was raised over the barricade. We got close and found out that this was a White Guard Russian detachment of Colonel Drozdovsky, fighting its way toward the Don, where a Cossack State of the Don had been established. That state had also been taken over by the Bolsheviks, in spite of the Cossacks' stiff resistance under the leadership of General Kaledin, The Volunteer Army of General Kornilov was supposed to come to Kaledin's aid marching from the Kuban, and the Don Cossacks also expected German help. Colonel Drozdovsky would not let us enter the Melitopil station, of which I informed my commander, Otaman Bolbochan. Drozdovsky's and our parliamentarians finally agreed that Drozdovsky's troops would leave Melitopil the next morning. When we entered Melitopil, we found out that the depot with all surrounding tracks as well as the streets of the city were covered with mountains of corpses: those were not only of Bolshevik soldiers, but all suspected of aiding them, and particularly Jews.

I was called to report to Otaman Bolbochan at the Melitopil depot. He briefed me on the situation and told me what to do. It appeared that in spite of the protests of the Central Rada and his own, the Germans present here were set on reaching Sevastopol as soon as possible. They wanted to capture its port and docks, as well as the warships based there and we would not allow this, even if we had to use force. Therefore, I would have to accommodate one company of infantry with machine guns on my armored train immediately and set out across the Crimean Isthmus (Perekop), possibly ahead of the Germans who also had an armored train and were reported to be defending the crossing north of Dzhankoy. I was then to proceed to Simferopil and then to Sevastopol where Ukrainian sailors, who had already made contact with us, would help us, and with our appearance again hoist Ukrainian flags over the fort and warships. In order that the sailors know that we were Ukrainian troops, Otaman Bolbochan gave me two Ukrainian flags and ordered them displayed on the armored train.

After consulting my crew I decided to take the armored train across Perekop and through Dzhankoy at full speed, in order to surprise the enemy. To lessen the risk of wrecking the armored train and especially in order to protect the men, I ordered a motor trolley manned by a machine gun crew to precede us by about half a mile. This way we forced our way across Sivash Bay to Dzhankoy, firing heavily all around us. We had no losses, although we were under heavy fire near Dzhankoy. The next day, on the approaches to Simferopil, we encountered a calvary unit of Crimean Tatars who had taken up arms against the Bolsheviks. They told us that the bridge over the Salhir river near Simferopil was mined and that the depot was heavily manned by sailors who had an armored train and cannon on the track. I advised the Tatar commander to proceed north along the highway and he would meet the Cavalry Regiment of Colonel Petriv going along this highway. The Crimean Tatars, like all the other nations of the former Russian Empire, proclaimed their independence and had a Parliament (Kurultai) and Government, but the Bolsheviks liquidated them in their usual way. The native Tatar population of the Crimea constituted only 22-25% of the total, with about 40% Russians who were on the side of the Bolsheviks. The remaining population were Ukrainians, Greeks and Armenians. The Russian population of the Crimea wantonly killed the Tatars and plundered their property.

When our armored train was getting close to Simferopil, residents of buildings near the station shouted to us that the bridge across the Salhir was mined. Buildings obscured the view of the curve leading to the station for more than a mile, but we took a close look at the bridge and saw that surprisingly no one was defending it, nor were there any traces of mines. Observing the station from behind houses, we saw a real armored train under steam and people running around it. My artillery and machine gun crew were ready to open fire without orders, because if the Bolsheviks were ready to shoot, then the fate of our train could be decided in a fraction of a second. When our train cleared the curve so that our cannon could be aimed, we fired several rounds, but the red armored train did not reply. We continued forward, and then the red train left the station under full steam with sailors boarding it in motion. We stopped at the station for a few minutes and I left a platoon of Cossacks with two machine guns. Our train moved ahead, and although fired upon by red artillery from a distance, we reached the station of Bulhanak by nightfall. I posted guards on surrounding hills and we rested all night. I returned to Simferopil on the motor trolley and found it occupied by Col. Petriv's cavalry. The local population had given a warm welcome to our commander, Otaman Bolbochan and a present was left for the crew of our armored train by the Tatars, a barrel of "Isabella" wine. I was surprised when Otaman Bolbochan ordered me not to proceed any farther, but to let a German armored train pass and then come back to Simferopil. The German train passed us at dawn proceeding south, but it did not reach the station of Alma because of strong red artillery fire from their armored train and field positions. The Commander of the German armored train, Oberleutnant Schmidt (I met him again in 1944, when he was a Major in the reserve and German "Orts-Komandant" of the city of Skierniewice in Poland) requested help, I ordered my train forward and both our armored trains drove the Bolsheviks away and I returned to Simferopil. There I saw an extraordinary sight: the depot was in the hands of Ukrainian Cossacks manning machine guns and facing them in a circle around the depot were German troops, with machine guns, too.

The Commander of the German division, General Kosch, had demanded that Otaman Bolbochan withdraw our troops beyond Perekop, but Bolbochan refused to move without orders from our Government. Our orders to move north finally came that afternoon and the Germans began to take over the station. The city, however, was in our hands, as it would take Col. Petriv and Col. Almazov at least twenty-four hours to effect evacuation of their troops. In this confusion and this is a true story our Cossacks managed to remove breech-locks from two German machine guns, but Otaman Bolbochan ordered me to return them when we found out that the German machine gun crews would be court-martialled for their lack of vigilance and would face the firing squad.

On a siding in Simferopil we found two freight cars full of the finest tobacco in the world, made by the firms Stamboli and Mesaksoudi. Their specialty was the fine and expensive tobacco No. 40 and 60, and their highest grades No. 80, 120 and 140 were supplied to the Tsar's court. My boys brought me several boxes of No. 140 as war booty. I don't smoke myself, but I kept the tobacco in my compartment and offered smokes to my guests: it was the most wonderful aroma imaginable.

Following orders of the Government, the army group of Otaman Bolbochan proceeded to the city of Slavyansk near Kharkiv, in the rear of Col. Sikevych's Operational Group which had the task of clearing the Donbas of reds.

It should be noted that by early May 1918 all Ukraine had been cleared of Bolsheviks and part of our Zaporozhian Corps was stationed east of Starobilsk, while another held the frontier north of Chernihiv all along with German troops.

 

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[1] Certain Austro-Hungarian monarchial circles intended to proclaim Archduke Vasyl Vyshyvany - son of Archduke Stephen, a candidate for the Polish throne as king of Ukraine. Some Ukrainian circles had this intention, too.