Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Building the Bridges That Won the War

"Have you ever thought about how much effort, skill and courage was demanded of bridge-builders during the war?" retired Major (and fellow pensioner) Mikhail Dobshits recently asked me. "I served the whole war in the railroad troops," he continued, "and I participated in the rebuilding of bridges that had been destroyed by the Germans across virtually every major river in Eastern Europe: the Volga, the Dnepr, the Vistula, the Oder. … I’m not even sure that I can remember them all."

These days, of course, bridge building is practically a science — everything is so highly automated and computerized. Back then everything was done practically by hand and workers were lucky to have even a crane to lift the heavy concrete blocks into place. "I remember how Marshal Grigory Zhukov ordered us to rebuild the Warsaw rail bridge over the Vistula in just 18 days so that it could be used in the January 1945 offensive," Dobshits continued. "We managed to build that 515-meter span in just 13 days. When Zhukov walked across it, he literally jumped with joy and could only keep repeating, 'Well done, boys. Well done.'"

Dobshits told me how difficult it was for them to keep the bridge open under the pressure of the ice-clogged river that winter. Several other bridges farther upstream had already been swept away. It took three days of round-the-clock work in the freezing water to secure the span’s pylons. But somehow, Dobshits’ bridge held fast, and it was on that very bridge that Zhukov, after the offensive, awarded Dobshits his "Meritorious Service" medal. This medal, Dobshits told me, is the most precious of his 20 wartime commendations.

Dobshits also has strong memories about the bridge he helped build over the Oder in the town of Kostrzyn (in present-day Poland), at the confluence of the Varta, the Oder and the Neise. The Germans, he told me, understood that Kostrzyn would be the launching point of the offensive against Berlin and so they devoted special effort to bombing the bridge while Dobshits’ men were rebuilding it. Luckily, the short, narrow bridge was a difficult target for high-altitude bombing, and Soviet anti-aircraft guns kept the Germans from approaching more closely.

"In desperation, some German pilots resorted to kamikaze techniques. I remember one morning hearing a Junker 88 coming over the horizon. You could tell by the strained sound of the engines that it was fully loaded with bombs. We didn’t even have time to yell 'Air raid!' before it skimmed just barely over the bridge and crashed into the water with a huge explosion."

But the bridge stood. And trains loaded with men and equipment continued streaming across it, on their way to Berlin and victory.

Vladislav Schnitzer is a freelance journalist and pensioner living in Moscow.