The action is confused and the narrative follows a variety of characters, German and Russian, but the overall course of events is easy enough to follow. A Russian attack falters, leaving a platoon isolated, but in turn isolating a German outpost. In the confusion officers on both sides are captured, while others try to desert or surrender. And there are aerial attacks and barrages from the rocket batteries, the Katyushas whose German nickname gives the novel its title. In the end nothing much is achieved except a lot of death and mayhem.
The action is restricted to a single day and the setting to an almost linear tableau that runs orthogonally across the front, from the Russian rear to a field dressing station, to a swamp the tanks can't cross and some barbed wire, to the outlying German outpost, along trenches to a road through the bushes, to a ruined pylon on a commanding hill under which an anti-tank suicide detachment waits, in the shelter of a railway embankment to battalion headquarters in Podrova, and then to the railhead at Emga.
This is presumably somewhere on the Leningrad front, where Ledig served during the war. In many ways, however, the static setting and the trench warfare of The Stalin Organ are more typical of the First World War than the Second, and Michael Hofmann's introduction suggests it is "a sort of riposte to Ernst Jünger, whose 1920 book, Storm of Steel, glorified the violence of World War One".
The German characters are referred to by their ranks, rather than named. A Runner, forced to do the exposed run backwards and forwards from the outpost to headquarters, is starting to lose his nerve. A Major who questions stupid orders is sent into the front line, where he and an NCO stiffen morale. A captured Captain cooperates a little too enthusiastically with his captors. A Judge Advocate holds a court-martial to sentence a Sergeant as a deserter, right in the middle of a confused retreat. The smaller number of Russian characters are named: captain Zostchenko, his lover Sonia, and lieutenant Trupikov. Despite their lack of names, all of these and even some of the minor characters are distinguished enough to be distinctive, people who suffer real pain and whose fates we care about.
Ledig's language is fast-paced, using short sentences and moving rapidly from scene to scene. There are a few flashbacks to civilian life, mostly Zostchenko's, and traces of less violent intervals on the front, but otherwise there is nothing to break up the action, which moves almost without pause from violence to violence.
Gory descriptions of death and destruction are presented in a matter-of-fact way, somewhat stylised or exaggerated, and not lingered on. And cowardice, bravery, fear, and loyalty are similarly rendered. The narration remains detached, staying calmly descriptive and never directing or leading, but rather leaving us to make our own emotional responses, whether in judging individual characters or in deciding how much comedy or farce we will find in the darkness.
Die Stalinorgel, originally translated as The Stalin Front, was a huge success when published in 1955 but was then largely forgotten for forty years. Despite renewed attention in Germany, this new translation into English doesn't seem to have attracted the publicity it deserves. This is one of the great war novels.