In March 1943 my friend and I fled the school classes and headed for the battlefront. We managed to get into a freight train loaded with pressed hay. Everything seemed to us to go fine, but at one of the stations we were discovered and sent back to Moscow.
On the way back I fled for the front again to find my father who was a deputy commander of a mechanized corps. I’ve been down so many roads on foot, by hitchhiking: Once in Nezhin I came across with one wounded tankman, a serviceman from my father’s unit. From him I found out that my father had received from my mother the news about my “heroic” deed and was ready to give me thrashing once he got hold of me.
This circumstance had changed my plans dramatically. Without a moment’s hesitation I fell in alongside the tankmen heading to the rear for remarshalling I told them that my father was a tankman too and fibbed that I had lost my mum in a refugee flow and was all alone. They believed me and took me into their unit as a foster-boy of the 50th Regiment under the 11th Tank Corps. Thus at the age of twelve I became a soldier.
I went out scouting behind enemy lines twice, both times successfully. But to tell the truth, I nearly gave away our contact radio man to whom I carried batteries for a radio set. The rendezvous was arranged at cemetery. Duck quacking was a calling signal. It happened that I reached the cemetery by night. The picture was horrifying: the graves upheaved by shells: Apparently, it was more fear than actual situation that made me start quacking. I quacked so diligently that didn’t notice the radioman behind who had crawled up to me, covered my mouth with his hand and whispered: “Have you lost your mind, where have you ever seen ducks quacking at night? They sleep!” I still accomplished the mission. After a number of successful marches behind the enemy lines I deserved respect and was dubbed – Alexander Alexandrovich.
In June 1944 the 1st Belorussian Front was getting ready for an offensive. I was summoned to the corps intelligence department where I was introduced to an air force lieutenant colonel. The ace looked at me with great skepticism. The intelligence officer intercepted his look and assured him that I was “a wise old bird” and could be trusted.
The air force lieutenant colonel was laconic. Near Minsk the Germans were preparing a strong defensive firewall. They continuously shipped combat equipment by railroad toward the frontline which they offloaded at a disguised rail spur somewhere in the forest, 60 km away from the frontline. That rail spur had to be destroyed. Paratrooper scouts had not returned from the mission to the area. Air reconnaissance could not detect that spur too because of its flawless disguise. My mission was to find that secret rail spur within three days and mark the area of its location with an old bed linen hung over the trees.
I was disguised in civilian clothes and given a package of bed linen. I was turned into a vagrant youth striving to exchange the bed linen for food. A team of reconnaissance scouts and I crossed the frontline at night. They had a mission of their own, so presently we broke up. I walked in the forest along the main rail track. Every 300-400 meters there were German patrols of two. Exhausted I fell asleep in the afternoon and nearly got caught. I woke up of a strong kick. Two Hilfpolizei searched me through and shook the whole bed linen package. They found a few potatoes, a piece of bread and salo and immediately took them away from me. They also seized a few pillowcases and towels with Belorussian embroidery. For a parting shot they blessed me with words: “Hit the road, lad, before we gun you down!”
So I did get off very cheaply. Fortunately, the Polizists did not turn out my pockets or they would have found a topographic map with railroad station locations printed on the inner lining of my jacket pocket.
On the third day I stumbled upon the bodies of the paratroopers of whom the air force lieutenant colonel had told me.
Presently, I ran up against barbed wire. The security zone began. I walked along the barbed wire for a few kilometers until I reached the main railway line. I was in luck: a military train fully loaded with tanks slowly turned off the main rail line and hid behind the trees. Here you are, the mysterious rail spur!
The Hitlerites had meticulously disguised it. Besides, the train was traveling backwards with its steam locomotive located behind. So, the impression was made like the locomotive was smoking still on the main railway line.
At night I climbed on top of the tree growing at the rail spur junction with the main railway line and hung a first bedsheet there. By dawn I had hung bed linen in three more locations. The last location I marked with my own shirt which I tied up with its sleeves. Now it was fluttering like a flag.
I was sitting in the tree until the morning. It was very scary, but most of all I had a fear a falling asleep and missing the reconnaissance airplane. The Lavochkin-5 showed up on time. The Nazis did not shoot at it for fear of being exposed. The plane cruised around at some distance for a long time and then passed over me turned around toward the front line and waved with its wings. It was the code signal: “The spur is exposed, leave – we’re going to bomb it!”
I untied the shirt and descended to the ground. As I walked about two kilometers away I heard the roar of Soviet bombers and presently in the area of the secret enemy spur explosions flared. Their echo accompanied me the whole way back toward the frontline.
The next day I reached the Sluch River. I didn’t have any impromptu floating means to cross the river. Besides, across the river there was a guard building. About one kilometer northwards there loomed an old wooden bridge with only one rail track. I made up my mind to cross the river over that bridge in a German train: by hooking to it somehow at the brake platform. I had already done it before quite a few times. Both on the bridge and along the rail track there were sentries. I decided to try my luck at a crossing where the trains would usually stop letting the approaching ones pass. I crawled hiding in bushes refreshing myself with wild strawberries. All of a sudden I saw a jackboot in front of me! I thought it was a German, but then heard a quiet report: “Comrade Captain, one more military train is passing!”
I felt very much relieved. I pulled on the captain’s jackboot, which scared him a lot. We recognized each other as we had crossed the frontline together. Seeing the drawn faces of the scouts I realized that they had been at the bridge for a few days already, but could do nothing to destroy that river crossing. The military train that approached was unordinary: the railcars sealed and secured by the SS troops. No doubt, they carried ammunition! The train stopped, letting an approaching ambulance train pass. All of the guard submachine gunners, following the flocking instinct, crossed the track to the opposite side from where we were- to check and see if there might be somebody they knew among the wounded.
And then a great idea struck through my mind! I snatched the explosive from a soldier’s hands and without waiting for permission dashed toward the embankment. I creeped underneath a railcar, struck a match. At that movement the wheels started rolling and a jackboot of an SS-man hung over a foot board. There was no chance to get out from beneath the railcar. What would I do? While the railcar was rolling I opened a coal store box, a so-called “dog carrier” and resided there with the explosive in hand. When the wheels thumped over the bridge surface I struck a match again to light the Bickford fuse.
I was just a few seconds away from the explosion. I was looking at the burning fuse and thinking that now I would be blown to pieces! I got out of the box, slipped through between the sentries and jumped from the bridge into the river! Diving again and again I drifted with the stream. The gunshots of sentries resonated with submachine gun bursts from the military train SS-men. The railcars with ammunition started exploding one after another in a chain reaction. The firestorm devoured the bridge, the train and the guards.
Despite all my efforts to swim as far as I could, a Nazi guard motor boat caught up with me and fished me out of water. By the time we landed near the guard building I had already been beaten senseless. The frenzied Hitlerites crucified me: nailed my hands and feet to the wall at the entrance. I was rescued by our scouts. They saw my surviving the explosion and falling into the guards hands. With a surprise attack the Red Army soldiers recaptured me from the Germans. I regained consciousness under a stove in a burned down Belorussian village. I found out that the scouts had released me from the wall, wrapped me in a martial cloak and carried me in their arms toward the frontline. On the way they fell into an enemy ambush. In the hit-and-run combat many of them were killed. A wounded sergeant had picked me up and carried me out of that hell. He hid me, left with me his submachine gun and left to fetch some water to tend to my wounds. But he was never to come back...
I don’t know how long I was in my shelter. I would black out, come back to my senses and again fall into oblivion. Suddenly I heard tanks running, which sounded like the Russian ones. I called out, but with such loud track clinking, nobody could hear me. Because of overstraining I fainted again. When I came back to my senses again I heard Russian speech. Supposed that it might be the Hilfpolizei. Only when I made sure that they were Soviets did I call out for help. I was extracted from underneath the stove and taken to a field hospital. Then I was taken to a Front-level hospital, to an ambulance train and finally to a hospital in far Novosibirsk. I was in that hospital for about five months. I didn’t finish the whole treatment and fled with tankmen being discharged. I convinced an old nurse to bring me some old clothes “to stroll around the city”.
I caught up with my regiment in Poland near Warsaw. I was assigned as a member of a tank crew. During the crossing of the Vistula River our crew was “baptized” in cold water. A shell hit, rolled the ferry and a T-34 tank dived down the river bed. Despite all efforts, the turret hatch under water pressure wouldn’t open. The water was slowly filling the tank. Presently it reached my neck level...
Finally, the hatch was opened. The guys pushed me out first. Then they would dive one after another to attach the cable to hooks. Two other T-34 tanks with great effort pulled the sunken machine out. During that “adventure” on the ferry I met the air force lieutenant colonel who had sent me for the mission to find that secret rail spur. He was so happy to see me: “I’ve been looking for you for six months! I vowed, if you’re alive, I’m sure to find you” – this is what he said.
The tankmen gave me a 24 hour leave to go to the air force regiment. I met there with the airmen who had bombed that secret rail spur. They loaded me with chocolate, gave a ride on the U-2 biplane. Then the whole regiment paraded and with ceremony I was handed the Order of Glory of 3rd Class.
On 16 April 1945 at the Seelow Heights I had an occasion to kill a Hitlerite Tiger Panzer. The two tanks faced head-on at the road intersection. I was a gunner, and first to fire an armor-piercing round and hit the “Tiger” under its turret. The heaviest armored “hood” bounced off like a light ball.
Later that day our tank was hit too. Fortunately, the crew survived. We changed machines and continued fighting. From that tank, second in succession, only three of us survived.
As of 29 April I was the only one left in the fifth tank. Out of the entire crew I was only one rescued. A Panzerfaust projectile exploded in the engine compartment of our combat vehicle. I was sitting in the gunner’s seat. The driver grabbed my legs and threw me out through the frontal hatch. Then he started escaping himself. But he was short of just a few seconds: the ammunition rack rounds stared exploding and the driver was killed.
I came back to my senses in hospital on 8 May. The hospital was located in Karlshorst, right opposite the building where the German Instrument of Surrender was signed. None of us will ever forget that day. Disregarding the doctors, nurses and our own wounds the wounded jumped, danced, and hugged each other. Laid on a bedsheet I was carried to the window to see Marshal Zhukov coming out of the building after signing the Instrument of Surrender. Later, Keitel and his downcast entourage were taken out too.
I returned to Moscow in summer 1945. I was hesitant to enter my house in Beregovaya Street for a long time. I had not written a letter to my mother for more than two years for the fear that she would pull me from the battlefront. Our upcoming reunion was my worst fear of the whole war. I realized how many troubles I had given her! I entered stealthy like I was taught at reconnaissance. But the mother’s intuition was subtler. She turned around abruptly, jerked up her head and for a long time stared at me, my tunic and my decorations.
- Do you smoke? –finally she asked.
- Yep! – I lied to hide my confusion and not to expose my tears.
Many years later I visited the place where the bridge had been exploded. Ashore I found the guard building. It was dilapidated – only ruins were there. I walked around, looked at the new bridge. There was nothing to remind anyone of that awful tragedy that broke out there during the war. Only I was in a very deep melancholy...
P.S. Alexander Alexandrovich Kolesnikov died in 2001. A film based on his wartime biography “It Happened on Scouting” (1968) was shot in the Soviet Union.
|Translated by:||Nikolai Kulinich|
|Translation review by:||Charles G. Powers|