The action begins in July 1942 with retreat under Oskol. The Germans came to Voronezh, and from the newly defended fortifications the regiment departs without a single shot, and the first battalion led by battalion commander Shiryaev remains for cover. The main character of the narrative, Lieutenant Kerzhentsev, remains to help the battalion commander. After lying down for two days, the first battalion is also removed. Along the way they meet unexpectedly cohesive headquarters and other Kerzhentsev chemist Igorya Sviderskogo with the news that the regiment is broken, it is necessary to change the route and go for a connection to it, and the Germans just ten kilometers. They go another day, until they are located in dilapidated sheds. There they are found by the Germans. The battalion is defensive. Lots of losses. Shiryaev with fourteen fighters leaves, and Kerzhentsev with the orderly Valega, Igor, Sedykh and the liaison staff of Lazarenko remain to cover them. Lazarenko is killed, and the rest safely leave the shed and catch up with their own. This is not difficult, since parts of the retreating in the disorder are stretching along the way. They are trying to find their own: a regiment, a division, an army, but this is impossible. Retreat. Crossing the Don. So they reach Stalingrad.
In Stalingrad, they stop at Marya Kuzminichny, the sister of the former Igor’s company commander in a reserve regiment, and heal a long-forgotten peaceful life. Conversations with the hostess and her husband Nikolai Nikolaevich, tea with jam, walks with neighbor girl Lucey, which reminds Yuri Kerzhentsev about his beloved, also Luce, bathing in the Volga, library – all this is a real peaceful life. Igor pretends to be a sapper and, along with Kerzhentsev, falls into the reserve, a special purpose group. Their job is to prepare for the explosion industrial facilities of the city. But the peaceful life is suddenly interrupted by air alarm and a two-hour bombing – the German began an offensive against Stalingrad.
Sapers are sent to a tractor plant near Stalingrad. There is a long, laborious preparation of the plant for the explosion. Several times a day, it is necessary to repair the chain, which was torn during the next shelling. Between the hours of duty, Igor is arguing with Georgy Akimovich, an electrical engineer at the Thermal Power Plant. Georgi Akimovich is outraged by the inability of the Russians to fight: “The Germans drove from Berlin to Stalingrad, and we are in jackets and garters in the trenches lying with a three-line model of the ninety-first year.” Georgy Akimovich believes that only a miracle can save the Russians. Kerzhentsev recalled the soldiers’ recent conversation about their land, “greasy, like butter, about breads covering your head”. He does not know what to call it. Tolstoy called it “the latent warmth of patriotism.” “Perhaps this is the miracle,
The city has been bombed for ten days, probably, nothing has left of it, and the order for the explosion is not there. So without waiting for the order for the explosion, reserve engineers are sent for a new assignment – to the front headquarters, to the engineering department, to the other side of the Volga. At the headquarters they get appointments, and Kerzhentsev has to part with Igor. He is sent to the 184th division. He meets his first battalion and crosses him to the other side. The shore is covered with flames.
The battalion immediately gets involved in the battle. The battalion kills, and Kerzhentsev takes command of the battalion. At his disposal, the fourth and fifth companies and a platoon of foot scouts under the command of foreman Chumak. His position is the factory “Metiz”. Here they stay for a long time. The day begins with the morning cannonade. Then “Sabantuy” or attack. September is passing, October begins.
The battalion is transferred to more shooting positions between “Metiz” and the end of the ravine on Mamaev. The commander of the regiment, Major Borodin, attracted Kerzhentsev for sapper work and construction of a dugout to help his sapper lieutenant Lisagor. There are only thirty-six people in the battalion instead of four hundred, and a sector small for a normal battalion poses a serious problem. Soldiers begin to dig trenches, sappers install mines. But then it turns... out that the position must be changed: the commander comes to the command post, the colonel, and orders to occupy the hill where the enemy’s machine guns are located. The scouts will give help, and Chuikov promised “corn”. Time before the attack is slow. Kerzhentsev exposes KP with those who came with the check of political prisoners and unexpectedly for himself goes on the attack.
Sopka was taken, and it was not very difficult: twelve of the fourteen fighters were still alive. They are sitting in the German dugout with the comrade Karnaukhov and reconnaissance commander Chumak, Kerzhentsev’s recent opponent, and discussing the battle. But then it turns out that they are cut off from the battalion. They occupy a circular defense. Suddenly, the lieutenant Kerzhentsev Valega appears on the dugout, staying on the KP, as he twisted his leg three days before the attack. He brings a stew and a note from the senior adjutant Kharlamov: the attack must be at 4.00.
The attack fails. More and more people are dying – from wounds and direct hit. Hope to survive, but their still break through to them. Kerzhentsev was attacked by Shiryaev, who was assigned a battalion commander instead of Kerzhentsev. Kerzhentsev hands over the battalion and moves to Lisagor. At first they sit back, go to visit Chumak, Shiryaev, Karnaukhov. For the first time in a month and a half, Kerzhentsev’s acquaintance speaks of life from the faction of his former battalion Farber. This type of intellectual in the war, an intellectual who is not very good at commanding a company entrusted to him, but feels responsible for everything he has not learned to do on time.
Nineteenth of November Kerzhentsev birthday. A holiday is planned, but it breaks down due to a general offensive along the whole front. Having prepared the command post for Major Borodin, Kerzhentsev released the sappers with Lisagor ashore, and himself, on the orders of the major, went to his former battalion. Shiryaev figured out how to take the message, and the major agrees with military cunning that will save people. But the commander-in-chief, Captain Abrosimov, insists on an attack “on the forehead.” He is on the KP Shiryaev after Kerzhentsev and sends the battalion to the attack, not listening to arguments.
Kerzhentsev goes on the attack along with the soldiers. They immediately fall under the bullets and lie in the funnels. After nine hours spent in the funnel, Kerzhentsev manages to get to his. The battalion lost twenty-six men, almost half. Karnaukhov died. Wounded, gets into the medical battalion Shiryaev. The command of the battalion is taken by Farber. He was the only commander who did not take part in the attack. Abrosimov left him with him.
The next day the trial of Abrosimov took place. Major Borodin said at the trial that he trusted his chief of staff, but he deceived the regimental commander, “he exceeded power, and people died.” Then they say a few more people. Abrosimov believes that he was right, only a massive attack could take the tanks. “The cooperatives protect people, that’s why they do not like attacks.” Bucky could only be attacked, and it’s not his fault that people reacted in bad faith to this, they were cowardly. ” And then Farber rises. He does not know how to speak, but he knows that those who died in this attack did not quail. “Courage is not to go with a bare breast to the machine gun” … The order was “not to attack, but to take possession.” Invented by Shiryaev, the reception would save people, but now they are not…
Abrosimova was demoted to the penal battalion, and he leaves without saying good-bye to anyone. And for Farbera Kerzhentsev now calm. At night come the long-awaited tanks. Kerzhentsev tries to catch up on the lost birthday, but again offensive. He runs out of the medical battalion Shiryaev, now the chief of staff, the battle begins. In this battle, Kerzhentsev is wounded, and he ends up in the medical battalion. From the medical battalion, he returns to Stalingrad, “home”, meets Sedykh, learns that Igor is alive, going to him in the evening and again does not have time: they are transferred for battles with the Northern grouping. There is an offensive.