I encountered the war on Hanko peninsula at the age of eighteen and a half. How did I find myself there? My father’s aunt lived in Leningrad and our family stayed with her living from hand to mouth. Not long ago we wandered over the country – our father searched for a place where he can get both habitation and at least an acceptable salary. We had temporary residences in the northern region and in the Leningrad neighborhood (Nevdubstroy). Finally, in 1940 an opportunity appeared to work at Hanko and father (who actually was a reserve officer) signed a contract as a civilian. Soon father and my younger brother Fedia moved to Hanko. Father’s wife, who was Fedia’s and my stepmother, remained in Leningrad with her sick mother.
I joined father and Fedia in October 1940. I came to Hanko on board the “Molotov” turboliner (of the same kind as the turboliner “Stalin” was). A wonderful turboliner!
Hanko is a name of both the peninsula (nineteen by twelve kilometers) and the town. We lived at Hanko as a union of three men. We had there a small but very comfortable Finnish house with an orchard in the backyard. I remember how hares came running and gnawed the bark of trees in winter. Our house was on the outskirts of the town, near an artillery battery (we received foodstuff from their larder). Fedia and I went to school, he was in the eighth grade and I was in the tenth.
Shortly before the 1941 New Year, our father put in a written request to be enlisted in Marines cadres. In the Civil War years he was an international battalion commander in Siberia. At that time his Red Army officer’s badge of rank was one rectangle nicknamed a shpala (a railroad tie). In connection with father’s application quite soon he was summoned to Tallinn, so Fedia and I remained without anybody. We had both to go to school and to serve ourselves (to cook, to launder, to saw and chop firewood etc.)
I remember the first day of the war, 22 June 1941, in detail. Father wasn’t at Hanko. It was a sunny serene day. I had a date with a girl for 1 p. m. but at 12:00 it was declared that the war began. (Of course, the girl didn’t come – this is just an interesting petty detail). Shortly after the evacuation of local servicemen’s families began. The turboliner stood in port. I remember that sometimes suitcases dropped from ship’s ladder. Those were our typical people, so, everything was possible…
At six p. m. German bombers performed the first raid at Hanko. I remember, as if it was just now, – the sky was marked with numerous white spots of explosions, and loud clicks were heard from above. Simultaneously plop-plop sounds were heard – fragments of exploded anti-aircraft shells were falling on the water. I told Fedia: “Come home! God forbid, they could hurt.”
And now, the turboliner departed. What should we do? My plan was to dispatch Fedia to Leningrad or Tallinn while I would remain here because I was the school’s Komsomol organization secretary. Generally, all of us grew up as the USSR’s patriots. The defense of the native land was a real sacred imperative, not just a written slogan.
While preparing my brother’s departure, I thought what should we put into the two suitcases available? I remember that I gave him a lot of underwear and bed linen. And our wonderful book collection (father liked to collect books) along with the portable gramophone with a collection of records – all of that remained there.
On the 1st July was the first fighting when the Finns tried to seize Hanko with a rush. That day a roar of combat was heard.
The Shchelmetskiis, our father’s acquaintances, helped to dispatch my brother. It happened on 6 July. All ships had already left Hanko. Only a crane ship remained. On that ship Fedia and a few more people were evacuated. Where? At that time I didn’t know…
I remained all-alone and visited the personnel department of the 8th Separate Rifle Brigade. I explained to them my situation and asked to take me for military service. I was directed to the 821st Mobile Hospital. The hospital was already shifted from the city into forest, so they gave me direction how to reach it. I got to the hospital keeping to a narrow dirt road and introduced myself. Then in some pantry I changed my clothes and shoes – they gave me a complete military uniform, and my life in the hospital started. There were different assignments of duty such as a sentry. One night I was on duty in the ward. Akhmedov was the medical attendant on duty, and I was his medical orderly. Of course – hand in, bring, give a drink, take away. We ran in such a way all night long. The injured patients – some slept, others sleepless; some suffered from pain, some cried… That was my duty in the ward.
Later they designated me to another task. The hospital had a few trucks to transport the injured patients. The trucks had to be serviced: filling, lubricating, keeping the fuel and lubricants. Volodia Laskin and I carried out these assignments. Sometimes we also helped to maintain he hospital’s small electric power station. All of that was the main matter of my service at Hanko.
Our shelter was a summer barrack furnished with two-tiered beds. We slept dressed at night, with a rifle beside. If an alarm – everything is nearby.
With the expectation of next winter, the battalions built many dugouts covered with three layers of thick logs.
Later, yet in October we patrolled the seaboard because it was possible that the Finns could make a landing on the southern shore where we were.
One more detail: one of the railroad branch lines ran not far from the hospital. There was a heavy gun on a specially equipped open flatcar connected to a locomotive. It accomplished the counter-artillery-fighting. As soon as the Finns started firing at our airdrome, the mobile artillery mount opened its fire at the enemy’s battery position. After firing several shots the mount left for some other branch line. At the same time the Finns began to fire at our neighborhood. Some Finnish shells blew up on the hospital’s territory.
At that period I was in correspondence with the girl who still lived in Leningrad. I don’t remember, maybe the military censorship had blackened some words, but here, at Hanko, we didn’t know a single word about the Leningrad Blockade and starvation.
By the end of August 1941 the Red Army left Tallinn and my father was repositioned to Kronstadt. Coincidentally the crane ship with my brother on board arrived to Kronstadt as well.
After the fall of Tallinn to keep a big garrison on Hanko peninsula was no longer necessary. In October an order for evacuation was issued, and the first battalion left Hanko. In early November the minelayer “Ural” arrived and the hospital boarded it. Everything suitable for loading on to the ship had been loaded, and everything suitable for sinking had been sunk. I remember how a locomotive was driven into the water, not to mention trucks etc.
We were already on the “Ural” but the minesweepers didn’t come yet. Since there were a lot of underwater mines in the Baltic Sea, to go without minesweepers was equal to a suicide. So, we disembarked and returned to our dugouts. On 22 November we were awakened by the alarm signal, went to the port and aboard boats that reached the “Ural.” All of the islands’ garrisons reached “Ural” aboard cutters. Some Estonians who served in the Red Army embarked to the “Ural,” too. I know it because several Estonian girls joined our hospital’s staff. (Later, when the war was already finished, some of them married Russian servicemen).
On the minelayer we, the hospital staff and patients, plunged into its spacious hold. The only way for contact with the outer world – the ladder and the hatch. The vessel sailed but we didn’t see or hear anything. Short from the Gogland island a turmoil happened – everybody felt a blow to the ship’s side and heard some strange sound. Shortly after it turned out that our paravane cut the cable of a moored underwater mine and, besides, we struck against a sandbank. All of us calmed down. We reached Gogland and stood there for two days. It was possible to sail only by night – otherwise we may be drown by the German bombers at any moment. I was on the deck guarding boxes with food when we approached Kronstadt. At that time the Germans fired at us from Peterhof but, thank God, they missed, and the “Ural” was approaching Leningrad. We had to enter Neva River. It was a dark night, nothing was visible distinctly. I remember the magnitude of buildings and empty eye sockets of the window openings. On the whole it resembled some skeleton, not a city. Shortly after the dawn, a pilot embayed us in the Neva River. The “Ural” moored to the Red Fleet quay, near Lieutenant Schmidt bridge. My father met me there – can you imagine what a joy it was! That was the end of my Hanko odyssey…
In Leningrad our hospital was placed in the International Avenue across the Technological Institute. Before the war an artillery military college occupied this building. Now we shared it with another military unit. We lived there until March. Our 8th Brigade had been re-formed into the 163rd Rifle Division of the 23rd Army, General Simoniak was our division commander…
Everybody experienced a terrible starvation here. We reached Leningrad being not hungry – we were fed normally at Hanko. And here the daily ration of bread was 300 grams! It was the recently enlarged ration for Leningrad residents after the Road of Life came into service. We, the soldiers, received these 300 grams and some watery soup two times daily.
We received that bread in the morning. A loaf should be separated into several parts. So someone received a tiny bit more or less. Then you are free to deal with your portion as you want. I halved my portion of bread: the first piece I ate in the morning, the other one – in the evening.
Once I had occasion to ride along with another soldier to a bread-baking plant. We went at night and loaded there many loafs of bread on our truck. We felt a real smell of bread despite that the bread contained a lot of inedible ingredients. We dreamed of eating bread. What do you think now? We departed the same as we arrived. We just smelled bread – that’s all. Severe, extremely strong measures regarding bread were in effect at that time.
I remember how we were on duty guarding the truck loaded with bread. It was in December already, frost! But we wore thermal clothes: quilted trousers and jackets, short fur coats, sheepskin coats and valenki (kind of felt boots). So you looked as a Santa Claus pacing back and forth with a rifle in his hand. And all your thoughts were only about something edible. Daydreams were – smoked sausages and hams…
Once, shortly after our arrival to Leningrad, I went by a streetcar to the Udel’naia suburban settlement to see my stepmother and my brother Fedia. I hadn’t seen him since his departure from Hanko. They lived there in a two-storied loghouse without any conveniences: no water-pipe, no toilet. I had in my knapsack a loaf of bread, a can of condensed milk and a can of stewed pork. I entered their apartment, and Fedia and I hugged one another – good Lord! And I thought: “Oh God, I see him for the last time.” I had such a foreboding. Soon our father arrived and a kind of a “frugal family feast” took place.
Not so long before our meeting Fedia was in hospital. Oh God! He was fed there just with macaroni-water, that’s all. Skinny! Unfortunately our stepmother lost their monthly ration cards – luckily our father somehow managed to help them at least a little with food.
In a couple of weeks both the stepmother and Fedia were evacuated down the Road of Life. Their destination was the city of Armavir, North Caucasus. My younger brother caught a cold there and died at the age of sixteen. So I lost my only brother and it was a fatal consequence of the Leningrad Blockade starvation. I got to know that dramatic news much later, just in March when we already moved to Pargolovo…
Let me return to our life in Leningrad in January and February 1942. My inseparable friend Volodia Laskin was older than I by a couple of years and had already some working experience before the war. His appearance resembled a Gypsy. Volodia often suffered from a toothache but he always kept being resilient.
We slept on the floor two together. First we spread on the floor one waterproof cape and covered it with one military greatcoat. Two gas-masks were our pillows, and the second cape and greatcoat was our two-ply common blanket.
Shortly after our arrival to Leningrad we were dispatched to the post for the full sanitary processing that was situated in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra at that time. There we underwent some disinfecting procedure while our clothes had been steamed thoroughly. Then in the end of December 1941 we went to the bathhouse in some Red Army Street. A spacious hall, a few bulbs gave a dim light. Somebody told us to wash ourselves only in the nearby corner of the hall and warned us not to approach and even not to look at the farther corner where women were washing themselves. These days we were still in a good health but we had to restrain ourselves. We completed the wash and left…
Because of our sleep on the floor and starvation we became lice-ridden for some two months until we moved to Pargolovo.
The division HQ and rear detachments as well as our hospital were situated in Pargolovo. Two or three loghouses that stood along the road were intended for us. First of all we carried the dead out from the houses. There was no place to bury them because the ground was deep-frozen. So we just laid them together in the forest until the ground thaws. Meanwhile, the girls warmed up water and poured hot water on walls, ceilings, floors – that was the only possible way to disinfect the room and to get rid of the ineradicable putrid smell… Then the same life went on – duties, duties, duties. The division acted just a little. The Finns also stopped after reaching the Sestra River. I don’t know if they didn’t want to or couldn’t cross. However, I remember that we had numerous patients.
In early summer we helped our nurses to wash used bandages and, after processing, to roll them. Besides this – we just had duties as guards of buildings and storehouses. I remember how being one starlit night on duty I saw a raid of German bombers at Leningrad. It was so fearful! Everything burned, everything droned… I felt a hearty compassion. I was young but compassionate.
What else remained in my memory? Once our driver Visina, a Ukrainian, was on duty as a guard of the food storehouse. Definitely, it was the devil’s work – Visina couldn’t control himself and entered the storehouse. He took from there bread, butter, condensed milk, and canned stewed pork… These details were discovered later. The time was savage – he was sent to a military tribunal.
All of the personnel who weren’t on duty, had been lined in a clearing in two ranks. A grave was already dug. Both the battalion commander and the battalion commissar arrived. Then that Visina was brought, and the osobniak arrived. (Osobniak was a nickname for an officer of the “Osobyi Otdel” [“Special Department” – a small group of officers who managed the counterespionage matters, exposed political suspects and prevented desertion in the unit]). The tribunal’s verdict was read out: for so and so – to sentence to be shot. The osobniak took his pistol out and put it to Visina’s back of the head – one! Visina fell and osobniak shot him again at the head – two! So Visina’s life came to the end – for a loaf…
We stood in Pargolovo until August or September 1942 when the division was shifted to the left bank of the Neva River near the Ust’- Tosno River for an attempt to break through the German defense (there were several such attempts there). Our medical battalion had a lot of work because of numerous casualties. Trucks arrived literally one by one, and we had to unload them taking the injured patients on stretchers and carry them to nurses at the dressing ward. At that situation it turned out that our commissar was not a bad person, so to say. Discovering that all of us already are close to the breaking point, he invited us into his tent. We entered and saw a table with alcohol (in a teakettle!) and sandwiches on it. Our commissar offered: “Guys, charge your glasses and have it with sandwiches. You’ll feel relieved.” We drank and ate, then – again to work. Our feeling was as if we had taken some exciting drug.
What else was on these days? The war continued but the life was going on, too. You should understand: we were fillies and young guys. Not far from the tents on a hillock an awning was constructed for storing hay. So towards evenings guys and girls stole into it. But the commissar was on the alert. After his recent injury he limped slightly and walked with a cane. So he approached the awning and threatened us with the cane: “You, imps! Get out of there!”
There were in the medical battalion several girls graduated from the Red Cross nurse school. They were thin as a rake and I would say they looked like a picked bone. One of them brought a patephone (portable gramophone) and organized a dancing. We danced one evening – what’s bad, good Lord? Nevertheless, our commissar didn’t permit to dance again: “What are you doing here? The country is at war, and you do the dance-shmance here?” We had one night of dancing – that’s something at least. I was a quite good dancer, and one joyful girl, so to say, breathed uneasy at me. OK, all of that had passed…
In these Ust’- Tosno operation our 342nd Regiment had been completely battered, and shortly after I was placed permanently on duty with a commandant platoon of the division HQ – it meant: farewell my medical battalion. The commandant platoon had much to do: the HQ overall services including guarding, supply, firewood… I remember that before breaking through the blockade we stood in the Novosaratovskaia settlement. We had to stoke furnaces but there was no firewood. So we hooked beams from the Neva River but they were stony hard. When we sawed the beams two of us were sharpening the saws constantly.
Once General Simoniak’s command post turned out to be in danger. At that time the Germans were leaving Shlisselburg and they moved toward that command post. Our platoon with one machine gun was delivered to the post by truck. The all-round defense was organized. When the Germans came into view we opened fire at them. However, they didn’t attack us, they were rather anxious to run away. For this action the platoon commander was decorated with the order of the Red Star and the machine gunner received the medal “For the Bravery.”
As I remember it, in April 1943 I was transferred to the 3rd SMG company of the 192nd Guards Rifle Regiment. The company commander was Lieutenant Karaulov and the platoon commander was Senior Sergeant Lisitskii. As a soldier of this company I took part in fighting near Arbuzovo village (this area is known as “Nevskii Five-kopeck Coin”). A short belt along the river was ours but the Germans held the 8th GRES (the State District Electric Power Station) in the village. We were ordered to attack and seize Arbuzovo.
It is remarkable that in 1933 I had been living with my father exactly at the same locality: the Nevdubstroy and the 8th GRES. There were concrete industrial buildings there and loghouses behind them. We lived in one of them. And now, ten years later, I had occasion to fight there. The locality around Arbuzuvo – the peatbog. Some time my brother and I went there to pick cloudberries. You are lying, eating plenty of berries and face the blue… And today – such a contrast: bombs and the like instead of cloudberries…
While being in reserve before the beginning of our offensive, we built in the peat bog a log-path for our anti-tank 45mm guns. We worked at night and carried short sections of the future path – collections of several logs fastened together.
I remember one episode of that period. Both the Germans and ours held their positions in a field at a distance of 200 meters. That night a thick fog covered the field, and the Germans launched flares one after another. As usual, it was silent all around before dawn. Suddenly a groan in Russian was heard: “Help me! Help me!” Everybody feared to crawl there. But the groan was gradually nearing – the man was crawling to us. Finally he reached us crawlingly – pale as a blank sheet of paper. The day before when a penal company executed a reconnaissance mission this soldier was blown up on a land mine – his leg had been cut off. I don’t know how the guy managed with it – perhaps he tied his thigh with a belt. His first words were “I’m eager to smoke! Guys, give me a cigarette!” I don’t know what happened to him later because our unit had been taken away very soon.
For some reasons we were shifted to the Mga area for several days and I remember how thirsty we were – it was July, extreme heat. Vodka – to your heart content, I had a full flask! However, I didn’t drink vodka at all, I gave up it to my companions in arms. And I was absolutely parched with thirst! We walked down a road and I saw a puddle and a killed German soldier lying by it. In order to drink water from the puddle you should lean your elbows on the corpse. So we did. Do you imagine what kind of water we drank? Nevertheless, we were young and our strong constitutions filtered everything.
Before these days I was appointed to a company commanders orderly. Also I was elected the company Komsomol organizer. I don’t remember what the reason was but I still fought as a common soldier. So the next day at the new area I was a member of a flank-safeguarding group. We went in the empty German trench. Small planks were stuck into ground with a warning “Minen!” written in the Gothic type. Thus the flank direction was protected and we were focused on the front direction. A defective German tank stood there on a hillock and as soon as it began darkening the tank’s crew crawled into it and started fire at our trench. The first evening they failed.
My fellow soldier was a Jew, Volodia Ul’makher by name, already two times injured. He was a sniper and had both an SMG and a sniper rifle. To squeeze ourselves into the trench we extended it a little. All night long you stand upright, without sleeping.
The next afternoon these Germans entered their tank and again fired at us. This time they were exact: first time – short, second – over, and the next – bang! The flame and sand in the air… I rubbed my eyes – Lord be praised! – I was untouched. I looked around: and where is Volodia? He isn’t here. His rifle is but he isn’t. That was a direct hit and Volodia was completely shattered. When another couple of guards came to relieve us, I took his rifle and delivered it to our commander. Before leaving I looked in for a while under the awning where five or six injured soldiers waited for their evacuation. And in a half an hour a mortar shell hit there. Can you imagine? That day I came through alive twice!
I remember a German attack there. Their first line was formed of the hand grenade throwers, we saw robust guys – that was a short distance between us. However, our SMG platoon with two Maxim machine guns opened such dense fire that not a single grenade reached our trench. Soon we reached our previous position near Arbuzovo.
First of all our commanders gave us a chance to have a good sleep. We found and got into several dugouts. Everyone fell dead asleep. Nearby a 120-mm mortar battery fired as loud as artillery guns – we heard nothing. Later our sergeants literally dragged us out: “Enough! That’s all!”
Soon a plane that resembled our U-2 flew over us. Nobody fired at it. The plane dropped leaflets that went down like snowflakes. I picked one up to read. There was a portrait of a Soviet lieutenant-general wearing glasses (later I got to know – it was Vlasov) and text: “Guards warriors! Come over to our side with the Russian Liberation Army. We will fight against the enemy together.” It was there a pass as well. However, right away political workers appeared and took away all of had been picked leaflets. I wanted to keep it just as a historical souvenir but failed. I don’t know if somebody else would go to Vlasov’s Army. Up to me – I’d refuse that invitation in any case.
Soon we returned to the riverbank near Arbuzovo. I received an order to take part in a reconnaissance mission next morning. I was told that I would act along with a junior lieutenant and a soldier. It was early morning, silence, birds were chirping – you couldn’t even think about the war. We gathered three together and set out. Initially we went along the trench up to the no-man’s-land. There was another trench there, where we met our advanced outpost. These guys were lying behind individual protective armored shields (it was a novelty in our division). The guys bade us: “Good luck!” According to the traditional superstition we replied: “Go to the devil!” (Otherwise, their wish would fail). There was there a communication trench to the German trenches and we went along it being bent down. Finally we smelled a puff of smoke – a sign that the German cooks got up. Initially I didn’t even know what we had to do during the mission. Then I understood that we should just throw hand grenades at Germans and we did so. What then went on! Such a roar developed! Guns, mortars – and they had zeroed that trench beforehand! We already completed our mission, so we ran back. I think we became the world record-holders after that race. When you are running away from your death, you don’t think on it. After reaching our trench we glanced back to see the junior lieutenant but we didn’t see him. We reported everything to the commander. In the trench I bumped into our battalion Komsomol organizer with a bandage on his head. He wondered: “Vargin! Are you still alive?”
The offensive started on 22 July, while we were in the second echelon. So we observed our artillery preparatory bombardment and its final Katiushas’ salvos. There were also single launchers of thick rockets that we called piglets. They flew just in their packing boxes. We saw a far distance puffs of smoke and a lot of different sorts of blown up pieces. It was a great show! In the evening we replaced some other unit in the first line of trenches. It was dark, so we came to know the particulars of the locality in the morning. There was a sparse forest before us and an embankment – it was impossible to dig in there because of water.
And at noon we rushed to the attack toward this Arbuzovo. I threw a hand grenade at a German while he shot at me with his pistol. I was injured, my hand had been shot through and was bleeding.
Usually, while attacking we bent down, but after being injured I went back to my full height, openly. I met our nurse, she bandaged my wound and explained to me how to reach our medical battalion. I went there right in the direct sun with a helmet on my head. I was hot and felt a strong desire to take the helmet off but something restrained me. When I reached the intersection, an ishak (a donkey – a Russian frontline nickname for the German portable six barrel rocket launcher) screamed: vzhzhzh-vzhzhzh-vzhzhzh and right away the bursts rattled stunningly: bang-bang-bang! A fragment of a shell cracked my helmet but it came just at a tangent. If I would have taken my helmet off – I’m not sure whether our interview takes place…
Finally I reached our medical battalion. The girls there didn’t forget me, they recognized me at first sight: “It’s ours!” I was re-bandaged and delivered to a hospital.
After being released from the hospital I served in the navy. It was the first Baltic Fleet crew. Then, during the assignment, I was directed to SKR-12 in the Ships Demagnetization Service.
I encountered the Victory Day in Tallinn.
|Interviewed, recorded and edited Russian text by||B. Irincheiev|
|Translated the Russian text into English by||I. Kobylyanskiy|
|Edited the English text by||T. Marvin|