Five days after Kyiv had fallen to the enemy, residents of the Ukrainian city were ordered to report to a depot on Prorizna Street near the main post office to register, and turn in hunting rifles and radios.
Fifteen minutes later, the Grand Hotel, where top enemy officers were quartered, blew up. Blasts also hit the Hotel Continental.
It was September 1941. Adolf Hitler had launched the World War II invasion of the Soviet Union in June, and the Germans surrounded Kyiv on Sept. 16. Three days later the city fell.
The blasts in the city were caused by bombs planted by Russian secret police before the Germans arrived.
Now, Kyiv faces another invader — this time the Russians, whose rockets are slamming the city as Nazi dive bombers did in 1941.
“We will break them soon,” Hitler had said of the Russians in 1941. “It is only a question of time.”
“Circumstances require us to act resolutely,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said of his attack on Ukraine.
The Battle of Kyiv in 1941 was a catastrophe for the Russians and their Soviet empire.
As the German army gradually encircled the area around Kyiv, the Russian forces were forbidden to retreat.
And when two pincers of the German army linked up at Lokhvitsa, 130 miles east of Kyiv, a huge Russian force was trapped in a giant pocket. That evening the German general, Franz Halder, noted in his diary, “The ... ring is closed.”
For the besieged Russians in one area, loudspeakers were reportedly set up to blare recorded speeches of the dictator Joseph Stalin, according to author Alan Clark’s 1965 book “Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45.”
Clark cited the Italian war correspondent Curzio Malaparte, who pitied the Russian soldiers “who died so terribly lonely a death on this battlefield amid the deafening roar of the cannon and the ceaseless braying of the loudspeaker.”
The fighting was savage. One German soldier reported seeing a truckload of corpses.
“It was just ghastly,” he wrote, according to historian David Stahel’s 2012 book, “Kiev 1941.”
“And those were only a few from our immediate area,” the soldier wrote. “Blood was literally running down the side from the floorboards of the truck, and the driver ... was white as a sheet.”
“Shells were still flying about, but we were ordered to get ready to march, not for retreat, but en route to Kiev,” he wrote.
The weather was awful. It seemed to rain constantly. “Soaked to the skin we dig in and our slit trenches fill quickly with water,” another German wrote. “The rain continues to pour down. … We are lying in water and yet we are thirsty.”
There was wreckage everywhere, and many German graves. A German chaplain wrote: “Many of us won’t see our families [again, and] are doomed to spend our eternal rest far from the fatherland.”
German Max Kuhnert recalled: “Pain, hunger and thirst took second place now, with the ice-cold breath of death brushing our cheeks and sending shivers down our spines. The dream of glory diminished as survival became the only thing that mattered.”
Kyiv became a key target of the German air force, which aimed to reduce the city to “rubble and ashes,” Stahel wrote. The city was attacked by German Stuka dive bombers, airplanes often equipped with sirens. The air raids spread panic and despair, he wrote.
Some Germans exulted: “There ought to be some newsreel men here,” one soldier wrote in his diary. “There would be incomparable picture material!”
For the Russians, the battle was a bloody rout.
“All around, wherever you look there are German tanks, submachine guns or machine gun nests,” a Russian officer wrote. “Our unit has already been defending on all sides for four days within this circle of fire. At night the surrounding ring is clear to see, illuminated by fire that lights up the horizon.”
Neither side was inclined to take prisoners. Some were killed and mutilated.
On another battlefield in Ukraine, Stahel wrote, 100 dead German soldiers were found hanging by their hands from trees. Their feet had been soaked in gasoline and set afire. It was a gruesome method of killing the Germans called wearing “Stalin’s socks.”
The next day, in retaliation, the Nazis executed 4,000 Russian prisoners.
As the Germans closed in on Kyiv, residents dug tank traps, built bunkers and planted mines.
It was a futile effort.
On Sept. 19, 1941, German Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau’s 6th Army fought its way into Kyiv. By noon, the Germans had seized the old citadel and raised the Nazi flag, the swastika.
In the end, 665,000 Russian soldiers were taken prisoner in the Kyiv pocket, historian and retired U.S. Army Col. David M. Glantz wrote in his 1995 book “When Titans Clashed.”
Many of them would die of starvation, on death marches, and in labor and concentration camps. Of the 3.3 million Russians captured in 1941, roughly 2 million would be dead by the next year, Stahel wrote.
“The Battle of Kiev was undoubtedly a great tactical victory,” German Gen. Heinz Guderian, a key architect of the Nazi triumph, wrote after the war.
Hitler called it “the biggest battle in the history of the world.”
In Kyiv, the fires started by the building explosions took five days to put out. Hundreds of German soldiers were killed. It’s not clear how many residents died, but as many as 25,000 were made homeless, Stahel wrote.
The Germans quickly blamed Kyiv’s Jews.
On Sept. 29 and 30, 1941, German troops and Ukrainian police rounded up 33,000 local Jews, herded them to a ravine outside town called Babyn Yar, or Babi Yar, and executed them.
Kyiv would suffer Nazi occupation for 779 days.
During that time, an estimated 100,000 people — Jews, Roma (Gypsies), communists and Russian prisoners of war — were murdered at Babyn Yar, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Before Kyiv was retaken by the Russians in a ferocious battle in 1943, Babyn Yar would become one of the largest individual mass murder sites of World War II, the museum says.
This week, a Russian missile struck near Babyn Yar, now within Kyiv’s city limits, adding five more people to the notorious death toll.