Their uniforms became encrusted with layers of powdery concrete blanketing them as they descended the stairs. Across their weary faces, black soot smeared in strange wavy patterns created by the channels of sweat dripping from their chins. They had just completed a sweep of the upper stories of the fortress-like grain elevator and silo. Just like the first floor, they found several bodies. Most were wearing the standard olive drab of the Soviet Army. A distinct few wore the black uniforms of Navy sailors, whose appearance seemed all too strange in a city like this; where Hell would have been too kind a name to christen.

This was Stalingrad, where the ‘Rattenkrieg’ (War of The Rats) raged. Here, after three days of brutal fighting, German soldiers realized that perhaps no more than 40-50 men almost succeeded in preventing thousands of their Panzer division infantry from taking this vital structure…The blame (or triumph), rested on this small group of slain Russian soldiers. These intrepid fighters had piled up German bodies by the hundreds and disabled their armor as it attempted to provide support.

The sheer tenacity of this place soon veered toward these men in black. Perhaps they were the ones who motivated the others to fight so hard. The Germans had already encountered them before – every time knowing that the men wearing these distinct uniforms would fight like beasts; proving it to be almost too costly to try to dislodge them from any position they set their boots in. Now, as they exited the structure into the smoldering wasteland around them, the soldiers began relaxing and thinking over the day’s events. Some tried garnering satisfaction in knowing that it was unlikely that any of the elite sailors escaped.

One lucky sailor managed to beat the odds. Just before the position fell, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Andrey Khozyaynov, managed to escape back to the Russian line. He told them the story of how he and 17 of his detachment reinforced and helped thirty Red Army soldiers hold off an insurmountable assault for over three days starting on the 18th of September, 1942. By this stage of the campaign on the Eastern Front, the appearance of men like him on the battlefield was often causing concern far out of proportion to their numbers.

The Germans considered them among the best of the Soviet fighting man – those who often fought with such motivation and eagerness, that even when annihilated, unlike many in the Red Army units that suffered the same fate, they tended to take much more of the enemy with them. So much so that Germans nicknamed them the ‘Black Death’ for their black, formal-like uniforms. To their countrymen, they were known as the Naval Infantry of the Soviet Union.

Their history in the Second World War is unique for the fact that these units were never considered elite when they were first created. The Soviet Union was hard pressed for men during the initial stages of the 1941 German invasion and the services were called of just about anybody fit to carry a rifle. Many sailors received army training and equipment before being assigned to one of 37 brigade-sized infantry (some were called rifle) detachments. They would guard seaports or be used to augment Red army defenses with the hopes of engaging in amphibious landings should an offensive require it in the future.

Soon after their combat debut on the defensive, they began developing a reputation as fearsome warriors, not because of their tactics, but because of their spirit. This ‘never say die’ sense of honor and duty to overcome impossible odds often contrasted with other Soviet units who carried a resigned and fatalistic view that they were doomed no matter what. This special élan led some to achieve incredible feats; one of them being the aforementioned story of the heroic effort to hold the grain elevator in Stalingrad.

Another, even more incredible, act of bravery took place in and around an uphill outpost called Malaya Zemlya (Minor Land) at Cape Myskhako, the southern part of the city of Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea.