I was born on July 21, 1925 in Kazan, as my father was a military serviceman at that time and taught at the Tatar-Bashkir military school. Everything about me turned out to be so weird: my name is French, surname is Belorussian, I was born in Tatarstan, and my ethnicity is Russian.
And for the fact that I was named in honor of Jean-Paul Marat - "a friend of the Soviet nation" and one of the heroes of the French Revolution, I have to give credit to my father. He was born on the outskirts of Belarus, in the town of Rudnia to an ordinary peasant family, but later on he was caught in a whirlpool of revolutionary events, participated in the Civil War, and in the battle of Perekop he was wounded. He joined the Komsomol (the Communist League of the Youth) immediately after its establishment in 1918, and in 1920 he joined the Communist Party.
All his life he served in the army as a party official, and being a staunch communist, he chose for me a "revolutionary" name.
My mother originated from a family of Moscow workers. Her family lived on the Little Georgian Street. Her father worked as a calligraphist, and she also in her youth used to work as a type setter in the printing works. But after she got married, she engaged in looking after the house alone. After all, there were eight children in our family, of whom I was the eldest.
- Tell us about life of your family before the war. Where did you study? Did you think about who and what you wanted to become in the future?
My father's service often caused him to move from one place to another, so I had to study in schools of different cities. I went to the first grade in a school in the town of Engels, then I studied in Leningrad, Kuibyshev, and in Karachev, and when the war broke out I was already in Konotop, where my father served as a commissar in a Military Aviation School.
Back in school I already had a dream of becoming a historian, and, for example, during the Spanish Civil War, I followed closely the press releases of the hostilities and even drew maps. And as a child I read a lot. For example, I still keep my father's three-volume "History of the Civil War ", which in spite of everything, I kept with me through the evacuation. We also used to have the books from "The Officer’s Library" series and after the war my father greatly regretted that I could not save them. But how could I think of them when my mother and I were carrying five children, and suitcases. But my mom managed to keep a "Singer" sewing machine, which we still keep as an heirloom.
- Did you go for sports?
Of course, I especially liked bicycling. For some time I went for soccer, playing as a goalkeeper, but once in the field I had my eyes heavily sanded up and I decided to quit soccer.
- Your father was a professional military serviceman. Didn’t he anyhow get affected by political repressions?
Starting 1934, we lived in Leningrad for four years since my father studied at the Lenin Military Political Academy where he was qualified as an aircraft observer. I remember that some supervisory personnel of the Academy were arrested. For example, we lived in a communal apartment with the same entryway as the head of the Academy, who was first sent to serve somewhere in Central Asia and later on he was arrested there. My father probably knew about that, but we found out about it later when one night that man’s apartment was searched. Above us lived the Academy’s Chief of Staff and he was arrested also before our eyes, but my father was not affected.
By the way, I saw Sergey Kirov alive. When Voinov Street was being paved, my fellow kids and I saw that a crowd of people had gathered together. We ran up and saw people gathered around one person, who, as we found out later, was Sergey Mironovich Kirov. When he was assassinated, I happened to see the members of our government, including Stalin in person, because we lived on Slutskaya Street, near the Suvorov museum, which was very close to the Tauride Palace, in the hall of which Kirov’s coffin laid in state for people to bid farewell to him. But the fact that those people were Stalin, Voroshilov and our other famous leaders, we found out later.
M. A. Kalinenok with parents and younger brother
- Did you personally have any premonition of the imminent outbreak of the war? Maybe you talked on this subject with your father?
Of course, there was a general premonition, because our whole country, and our youth in particular, were gradually prepared to defend the Motherland and the socialist gains. All of those patriotic movies, songs, military training, all this, of course, turned everybody into a fighting mood. But we, the teenagers, had no that particular feeling that the war was close by.
At the time we did not give serious thought to such things, and I did not talk on such subjects with my father either. In this respect he was stingy with us and did not share his thoughts.
- How did you hear about outbreak of the war?
As I said, we lived then in Konotop because my father served there as Deputy Chief of the Aviation School on political affairs. At 4 o’clock in the morning he was urgently summoned to the school, and half an hour later he phoned us and said: "War! ", although, this news was not officially announced on the radio until 12 o’clock in the afternoon. The first thing the boys thought was "Now our army is going to give them a thrashing!" When on June 23 German planes bombed the aviation school airfield, we climbed onto the roof of our four storey building to see how the Germans would be shot down. But as the bombs rained down, and we in panic rolled off the roof ... we realized that the war was not a picnic ... But we all had one common desire - to go to the front.
In early August, the school began to prepare for evacuation. But it was decided to first send the families of the commanders to the rear, so my father stayed in school, and my mother and five of my younger brothers and sisters, about a week before the downfall of Kiev, went to Bashkiria. It took us twenty days to get there.
- How well was the evacuation organized?
It was organized fairly well, although, of course, we had to see a lot of unpleasant things. However, in the train we didn’t come across anything like that, except for that at one of the stations near Kuibyshev we saw high ranking officials stampeding from Moscow. Near a train consisting of passenger cars, there were standing sentries. As we found out later in the train were “dignitaries“, who had stampeded and been arrested there...
So, what else can I tell you? 3 to 4 families boarded each boxcar and I must tell you, there was not a lot of baggage because almost all the possessions the military servicemen had belonged to the government, so we rode that way.
M. A. Kalinenok (third from the right in the top row)
during study in school in Kuibyshev
- Was your train bombed on its way?
Anyway, somehow we arrived in Beloretsk. There I got enrolled in school, but on the second day we were mobilized to work on a collective farm (kolkhoz). I was given a horse-cart, and I transported potatoes in it from the farm to the city.
But it turned out that the aviation school had been moved to Grozny, so two months later a sergeant major arrived who took the Krassovsky family and us through Stalingrad to the south. Just a week before the downfall of Rostov we managed to slip through the junction station of Tikhoretskaia and on the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution (November 7) we were already in Grozny.
On the eve of the anniversary a solemn assembly was organized at the city theater and after a break, even a small concert was given. And I especially remember that representatives of the newly formed Chechen Division, which we then called the "Savage", attended the assembly. They were so immaculately dressed: in hats with peaks, with submachine guns. In general, those good-lookers greeted us and that very night they revolted and all fled to the mountains ... So different parts of that revolt had to be suppressed over the next 22 days.
- At that very difficult period for our country, didn’t you cast a thought that we could lose the war?
I’ll give you a prompt answer – never at all! While the adults did not talk to us on such topics, we, the boys were adamant that we still would defeat the Germans. All my peers wanted to get to the front. For example, my future fellow cadet at the Tank School, Lel Valuyev, even though born in 1926, still volunteered. I do not know what the reason for that was, maybe because I was still very young, and just did not understand many things, but believe me; during the whole war I had never had any doubt in our Victory, and neither had many others. For example, I have remembered my whole life the poem written by a tanker Sergey Orlov back in November, 1941, which we read somewhere during the war:
In the vehicle it’s dark and tight.
The driver clutches the controls ...
Daylight, like a narrow line
Has barely broken through an eye slit at all.
It might have already been the fifth hour
That the driver has not averted his eyes from the eye slit.
Its edges are black and the slit is narrow;
Though sand and clay get inside through it,
But through this slit there are seen
The suburbs of Vienna and Berlin.
This shows what a huge faith our people had from the very beginning of the war that they wrote such poems about our Victory!
- How long did you live in Grozny and what did you do while there?
I lived In Grozny for almost a year; however, during that time nothing special or interesting happened to me. By the way, it was evident that the Germans did not bomb Grozny, apparently, to keep the oil fields intact for themselves.
At the end of 1941 my father went to the front. During the holiday time after the 2nd quarter, like many of our guys, I got a call-up notice for study in a factory apprenticeship school. For about four months I was trained there to be a metal turner, and having been conferred the 4th qualification level, began to work at the "Red Hammer" factory which produced shells for the 82 mm mortars. Did you know how people worked during the war? Almost sixteen hours a work shift, so we did not even go home and slept near our machines. So apart from my work, I almost did not see anything. But even though we did not have enough food or sleep, and were dead tired, we still worked very well. For example, my friend and I had made an efficiency suggestion, the details of which I do not remember now, but it made possible to increase shell production by more than 100 percent. We were given a large cash prize for that.
In August 1942, I received a call-up notice from the military commissariat (recruiting office) and even resigned from my job, but for some reason I was not conscripted, but allowed to finish my studies in the 9th grade. But just at that period, the Germans attacked Grozny, and it was decided to evacuate the aviation school in the heartland. For such a case my father had agreed in advance with the command of the school, and our family, along with the school was sent to Central Asia. We went there through Makhachkala and Baku. I remember how for a couple of weeks we waited for a steamboat at the station of Alyaty. Moreover, all that while we lived in the open and lay on the bare sand, because the local people refused to let us into their houses: "The Germans will come and will kill you, and they will kill us"...
Finally the steamboat arrived, but it was so awfully overcrowded. Fortunately, the captain turned out to be a decent man. When he saw a woman with children, one smaller than the next, he took my mother on the bridge, but he told: "You are quite an adult. Go on the deck and stay with all the others."
Further from Krasnovodsk we went by train. Can you imagine, my brothers and a sister were very little, and there was no water, it was only brought in the morning and evening. However, the school administration did what they could, trying to help.
In the end, the school was brought to the station of Usatevskaya, which was 120 kilometers away from Tashkent. We were accommodated at someone’s house and I got a job as a freight forwarder at the aviation school. But then a tragedy happened: two my younger brothers Sasha and Volodya died within one week, one four and the other one years old ... Apparently, it was some kind of infection...
And at that difficult time, I told my mother: "That’s it, I’ll go to the front." I received an invitation from the aviation school: "Come to us," but I refused: "I don’t want to fly." I just had had enough of seeing the cadets’ crashing ... It was, of course, a rare occasion, still it was perceived as a huge tragedy, so the sky did not attract me anymore.
- Didn’t your mother reproach you for virtually leaving her all alone? Still, you were the eldest of the children and helped her around.
No, I don’t remember such talks. Anyway, when I found out that there was a tank training school in the town of Marry I made up my mind to enter it. The Konotop aviation school supervisor wrote me a reference letter but when I arrived it turned out that they did not admit volunteers. But I went on insisting and reasoning: "My father is at the front, my two brothers died. I want to be at the front as well”, so finally I was admitted. It was March, 1943.
Since I was the first to be admitted I was appointed a quarantine section supervisor. And then all of a sudden there was a surprise: my friend Igor Chumachev arrived. His father was a chief of the medical service in the aviation school. Back in Konotop and later on in Grozny he and I used to be classmates. But when I got a call-up notice for study in the factory apprenticeship school he was allowed to finish his studies in the 9th grade. He turned out to be a volunteer also. "I want to be a tanker!", - he said. So in our training platoon there were many such volunteers: Lel Valuyev, Vladimir Sergievsky , Nikolai Krivets , Alexander Motorin . Our good friend and joker Rachiah or Rachik Kaplanyan, after the war awarded with the title of “People’s artist of the USSR”, was there also. In general, our whole diverse caboodle was united in one common desire to go to the front.
We were supposed to be through with our studies in six months at most and be released for the battle at the Kursk Bulge, but right before our being dispatched to the front the new T-34- 85 tanks arrived at our training school, so we all were left in the school and given additional training to fight in them. That is why we were only released at the beginning of 1944. The rank of Junior Lieutenant was conferred on us and we were sent to the front.
M.A. Kalinenok during his studies
in the training school in1943
- I would like to hear a more detailed account of the time you spent in tank training school. After all, you had been there for a year. How did you live and study there, what were the students and teachers like? Were you given good food, and the most important thing – were you given good training there?
In my opinion, the training we were given was very good. And even though all our instructors were exclusively battlefront veterans, I wouldn’t say that once at the front we were fully trained soldiers. No academic knowledge could ever substitute for fighting experience, which was being acquired during direct combat engagements only. But in terms of technical knowledge of the equipment and thorough cross-training on all the other tank crew member skills, we had a very good background.
We could act as gunners, radio operators, let alone the tank driving. I remember one episode which happened when we were already at the front. We went out at night, but the tank was somehow wagging so much that it made me wonder. And when the driver-mechanic of my first crew Serafim V. Fevralev admitted that he could barely see anything in the dark due to his night blindness, it was no problem for me to relieve him at the controls. Later on I would often sit at the controls also. Interchangeability in our crew was absolute; anyone could substitute for the other.
Among the cadets there were both soldiers with combat experience arriving from hospitals and yesterday's schoolboys. Anyway, remembering them, I can say that there were very different guys and a full patchwork of ethnicities. For example, among my fellow cadets were the Armenians Rachiah Kaplanyan and Artem Zakharyan. The latter was the first of our graduating class to be killed ... Alexander Strebkov from the Urals, Nikolai Krivets from Kazakhstan, Alexander Motorin from Tashkent, a former orphan - vagrant boy, Simon Hodzhash of the Crimean Tatars, Vladimir Sergievsky from Moscow, Lel Valuyev from Belarus. Ivan Kutsenko, a Ukrainian, our Komsomol organization secretary Sergei Medvedev from Moldova, Behkaturov, a Kazakh. But the most ones of course were the Slavs.
As for feeding, you gave me a few interviews from your site to read in which veterans described the horrors of cadet life in training schools and that they starved almost like the besieged in Leningrad. I can only speak for myself. In my opinion, feeding in our training school was fairly normal, given the huge training load we had, which was really heavy. And as we were very young guys, the feeding seemed to us not enough. So we would walk around half-starved and all were so eager to pull duty in the kitchen and pilfered grapes from the fields at night.
- Did you go A.W.O.L., by the way?
We went both for warranted leaves and absent without leave. By the way, I’ve remembered one funny episode. In addition to our training school a number of other military training schools were deployed in Marry. I positively remember an artillery school, a border guard school, and some aviation academy. Therefore, in the city park on the dance floor there was a lot of competition for the girls, even scuffles occurred. One day we went for the garrison bath, and on the bridge over the Murghab River we met some aviation cadets. There were just a few of us while their pack was much greater. "We are in the sky, and you crawl on the ground", they said and threw us from the bridge into the river...
But this bathing was something we did not mind because the Turkmen heat was something that I will never forget ... When we were taken out for summer field training, we did our exercises at night only, because the daytime heat was 40 to 50 degrees Celsius. The tank armor heated up to the point that it was simply impossible to touch. Therefore, the classes in tanks were held at night only. Do you know how we had dinner in such heat? When the food was delivered, we would get undressed and plunge right into irrigation ditches to chest level with mess tins in hand and ate there... Raw eggs slightly buried in sand cooked in 5 minutes and could be eaten... In the hour of the afternoon siesta water was poured on tents and we rolled ourselves in wet sheets, but after 15 minutes everything was absolutely dry.
What else can I tell you? In the very beginning of our studies our Komsomol organization secretary Medvedev said: "Guys, are any of you good at taking dictation?" I said: "I am" - "Then you will listen to the morning Soviet Information Bureau news bulletin. When you write it down you’ll take it to the female typist and after she has typed it up, you’ll deliver the news bulletins to all four battalions." So, I did this work in addition to my studies.
- Was your training school large?
There were 4 companies in each battalion, and each company was comprised of about 100 men. I do remember that there were 450 officers released from our two training battalions.
Anyway, in the early spring of 1944 the rank of Junior Lieutenant was conferred on us and we were dispatched to fetch our tanks. But before leaving, I asked permission from the command to see my relatives. By that time my father had been transferred to the Chkalov Flight School, so I left in Tashkent the address of my relatives in Orenburg, caught a passenger train and went forward, but I was given a stern warning: "Watch out, lad" But indeed, everything turned out so opportunely, while waiting for the train with my fellows to arrive, I spent three days with my family.
From Orenburg half of our team was sent for the tanks in Nizhny Tagil, and we were sent to the "Krasnoye Sormovo" Factory in Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod). There in the reserve regiment we got the new T-34-85 tanks, formed crews and conducted month long additional exercises, shooting practice and teamwork training of crews.
At the front I made short records on some scraps of paper, generally speaking, kept a sort of diary, so I still have the names of the members of my first crew and all sorts of other details. For example, here is such a record:
"Today, May 25, 1944 at factory number 112 we’ve got a armored vehicle number 4090260. We’ll be at the front soon. According to rumors we would be sent to Ukraine."
The members of my first crew were: The driver-mechanic Seraphim V. Fevralev, born in 1908 in Buryatiya. Later on he would be wounded and I had been in correspondence with him until he died. The gunner: Nikolai Vedischev, born in 1920. The gun loader Pavel Delenda from Altai, born in 1924, still lives in the Kemerovo region. Radio operator-gunner was Kriventsov. When forming crews we certainly did not really care whether a person was pleasant or unpleasant to others, whether or not somebody liked or disliked another. We all had to fight together and that was that.
We were dispatched through Moscow not to the south as we had expected, but to the west. Our entire company became part of the 86th Reconnaissance Battalion under the 1st Tank Corps. Prior to that, reconnaissance battalions under tank corps had never had tanks because of the lack of tanks. There only were motorcyclists, motorized infantry and the like. Our party was the very first one to have tanks.
- Were you pleased or upset of becoming a serviceman in a reconnaissance battalion?
Frankly, I didn’t really care. Besides, by that time I had clearly learned the fact that the army was not about arguing or judging, but about obeying orders
M. A. Kalinenok’s crew in February, 1945
(Seven stars are seen at the gun barrel)
- Do you remember your baptism by fire?
I do not remember the first battle as such, but I can tell you about the most memorable assignment of that period. The platoon commander Ivan Dubovik was advancing first, followed by Vladimir Sergievsky, and I was advancing third. We received a signal: "There are Germans ahead in the village of Ozeravtsy." We bristled out our guns right away: one forward, the other two to the left and to the right. We went on along a country road and the dust that rose was just terrible. Suddenly we lost our platoon commander. We could not see his tank.
It turned out that the platoon commander’s tank had fallen on its side in the water from a 10 meter long bridge over the rivulet, and Vladimir trying to catch up with him, picked up speed and slipped over his tank as if it were a bridge and at only the end of the village triggered three anti-tank mines at a time, got damaged though not very heavily. It turned out that in a small trench were the Germans who dragged the mines with ropes under the tank.
Popov of the 2nd platoon caught up with me and communicated the order: "We need to go ahead and perform the task." I crossed the rivulet near the bridge and rushed forward. After covering about one kilometer we fired at an anti-tank gun, and crushed a second one with tracks, but there was a marshy terrain and Popov’s tank got badly bogged down in the swamp. I proceeded with pulling him out under gunfire but got bogged down myself...
There it began in earnest. They fired at us from three directions. But while Popov’s tank was intact, the rear side of my tank received five shells right away and the tank caught fire. As it turned out later, a German assault gun "Ferdinand" had fired at us.
We pulled out machine guns and took all round defenses. And when by evening they began surrounding us, we decided to retreat through a rye field. Before I knew it my crew disappeared in the tall rye, and I was behind them with a revolver in my hand. You know that the TT pistols were not issued for tankers, but the revolvers were, because through the plugged slit in the turret only the barrel of a revolver pistol could be pushed. I came to the village and found my crew lounging around by the fire, drinking teak. "Well done guys!” – I said to them – “You retreated and left your commander behind." The next day, the Germans withdrew, and we pulled our armored vehicles out and sent them away for repair. That was my first major clash with the Germans. In general, in those days, we were in reconnaissance all the time.
Presently I was transferred to the 3rd Battalion of the 89th Armored Brigade, and again I found myself in a reconnaissance platoon. Our task was to find out where the frontline of the Germans was, so we went ahead and the rest of the brigade and the others followed us.
- How good was visibility from the tank, especially when on the move?
There, of course, certain skills were required, but to be honest with you, one could not see a damn shit from the tank. Therefore, we had to do our reconnaissance this way, to open the hatch, and standing on one’s haunches on the seat to look through binoculars. Of course, it was dangerous because one could get a shot in the head, and such things really happened, but visibility in such cases was much better. I remember in one of the reconnaissance raids somewhere in East Prussia my crew advanced first. Everything was fine, but suddenly we got a hit in the side. I immediately ordered to the gunner: "Cannon right. Fire!" Simultaneously I commanded to the driver: "Short stop!" We received a second shot, and then a third one. We managed to destroy the German gun anyway, but our tank began smoking.
My crew and I rushed towards a homestead, and my platoon commander, seeing my tank smoking, immediately drove up to that homestead to use it as cover and went on firing his gun from there. Then he said to me: "Let's go towards your tank, it is not burning" - "It is burning, Vanya”, I said, “I feel it." We crawled toward the tank and as we took off the tarp from the engine compartment, it immediately flashed ... "Well” - I said, - “Can you see? It’s burning"
- In which cases were you allowed to abandon the tank, and in which situations did you have to stay and keep firing from it?
If the tank was damaged, but it was not on fire and still could move, we stayed inside. But if the tank could not move, we immediately bailed out. However, the only repair we could do during battle on our own was fixing the tracks, as for other repairs, it was out of question.
Anyway, with joint efforts we suppressed the gun battery that had burned my tank, but the rest of our forces still did not arrive. It turned out that they realized that there was a German defensive screen in the area and bypassed it. Dubovik said to me: "We have to get out of here." His driver-mechanic was wounded, so I sat down at the controls. At high speed we rushed onto a first class highway, but I could not turn around and having rushed at high speed to the other side we went towards our troops. Then a German plane showed up and started firing at us. Ivan commanded: "Let's go into the woods." I rushed over a ditch and both our tracks went off. Thanks goodness, the plane flew away. It took us a while to pull the tracks back in place and only after ten kilometers did we manage to catch up with our brigade.
- By the way, have you lost many tanks to the Luftwaffe?
I don’t think so. I do not know exactly, but I think that in our brigade only one tank was knocked out by the Luftwaffe. We were really afraid of the enemy’s heavy self-propelled guns because the range of a direct shot they could fire was much greater and they did not allow us to approach them so easily. Even the Tiger panzers were not as scary to us as were those Ferdinand self-propelled guns. We also feared the Panzerfausts as those were very dangerous. In one of the German towns one such thing was launched at my tank at a range of about thirty meters. Luckily, it only broke an idle wheel off that caused the track go off. The tank spun in its place, and only the radio operator was wounded by armor fragments.
- Didn’t you build up any screens, meshes on the armor or clad the tanks with some weights as a protection against the Panzerfausts?
No, we did not do anything like that. Here you asked about aircraft attack, and I suddenly remembered one episode when we got it from our friendly Ilyushin IL-2 ground attack aircraft. In a breakthrough near Konigsberg, we broke 40 kilometers away from all the other units of the front. Suddenly, while we were on the move, our friendly aircraft fell upon us, apparently taking us for fleeing Germans, even though our people had a chance to give them the signal, and strafed us. I think that one of our tanks was burned and its crew killed. We certainly raged about that. But what else could we do? ...
- Didn’t you happen to shoot friendly fire yourself?
Who the hell knows, but I don’t remember anything like this happening. When on the 9th of May we all heard the news about our Victory, everybody began shooting upwards with all kinds of weapons, including cannons, people were wounded and even killed. The news arrived at night, and there were plenty of troops all around. What a shooting went off, words cannot convey it... There was pandemonium until morning, because someone else would always join that shooting. I remember that some infantrymen had a quadruple machine gun unit mounted on a truck, so when they fired it there was such a roar...
After some time, the brigade commander ordered the officers to go to the units and have their personnel stop shooting. Those infantrymen were stopped also: "Stop the shooting! Get the guns sheathed! Take the unit to the base!" They did stop, but drove a little further, unsheathed the guns and resumed shooting...
And then the reports about wounded and dead started coming from different places, but this is not something that somebody likes to write about ... It was bitter and painful to realize that people died after the war was over...
- How did you personally hear the news of the Victory?
At the storming of Konigsberg our brigade lost its remaining equipment, so in anticipation of new armored vehicles (tanks) we were withdrawn to Gumbinė. During the night of 8th, I was on duty at the battalion, and then our radio operator shouted: "Lieutenant, Victory!"
I ran into the room of an intact house in which we lived and grabbed a German rifle which I had under my bed. Other people asked me: "What are you doing?" - "Victory!" – I said. My battalion commander Victor Kozhikhin as he was in his underpants, just flung his overcoat on his shoulders and ordered: "Take the box of bullets outside!" He sat down outside and went on shooting...
- Was the fighting in East Prussia so heavy that your brigade lost all its tanks?
When in the middle of January 1945 we went on the offensive in East Prussia, our corps was at full strength, but after 10 days of the offensive on our reaching the suburbs of Konigsberg, there were only 27 tanks out of 180 that survived... We detached very far forward from the other advancing troops, and when we broke into the suburbs of Konigsberg, it turned out that the Germans had not expected us there: the lights in houses were on, and music played...
Then a dozen tanks were scratched together from all over the corps for our brigade and we went towards Pillau. We rushed forward with very good speed, and stopped just outside Fischhausen. There even was a rumor that Chernyakhovsky allegedly had asked: "Where do those Butkovite bandits think they’re going with the poor remnants of their tanks?" I was right in charge of radio communication in the brigade commander’s tank at the moment when General Chernyakhovsky made contact and asked to speak on the radio to the Corps Commander Vasily Butkov or our Brigade Commander Andrei Sommer. What he had told them, I do not know, but after that we received the command to go back to Siedlung.
In Konigsberg itself there were three days of heavy fighting. And it was not at all a matter of street fighting, but a matter of having to capture a strongly fortified fortress. In those battles we operated as support to infantry assault forces, suppressing enemy firing points. A brigade complement of tanks had actually survived in our entire corps and we were lucky that in March our brigade had received a supplementary tank column "Lembitu", 37 tanks built from the donations of the Estonian people.
M.A. Kalinenok’s crew in April, 1945 near Konigsberg (from left to right:
Sergeant Lukin, Sergeant Major Yeremin, Jr.Lt. Kalinenok, Company
Commander Sr.Lt Biratov and Sr. Sergeant Sposobov)
- Since we're talking about losses, I would like to ask one of the most important questions of our project. During the war, didn’t you have a feeling that the war on our part was being waged with unreasonably high casualties, and that the people were not spared?
This is a provocative question and for me it is difficult to answer objectively. Just judge for yourself. When the war ended, I was not yet twenty years old. So what could I know and understand in this matter? As a common tank commander I could see and know very little beyond my competence. So how can I assess this subject? I can only say that we dependably went into battles and fought well. We would lose our fellow soldiers, so many of them were killed ... But how can I blame someone? How could I, just a kid, know whether our senior commanders were right or wrong? Did I have the necessary experience and knowledge for that? I can only make a judgment about something that I personally saw. And do I really have the right to judge someone?
I saw only my immediate commanders, and I can tell you that they were the same soldiers as we were. Battalion commanders were in battles alongside us, and the brigade commander Sommer sometimes even went on the attack in his Willis MB. Still they had their own assignments and tasks that they had to fulfill quickly and accurately.
And the thing I would like to add. You had given me to read an interview with Ion Degen, with whom we apparently had fought almost in parallel. We both were born in the summer of 1925 and both from Ukraine came to the Caucasus and from there to Central Asia. But he had finished the Tank Training School in Chirchik, and I did in Marry. He had to advance in the area of Vitebsk-Polotsk, so did I. He fought in Lithuania and in East Prussia and I was near. His was dubbed “Lucky”, so was I. Do you see how much we have in common, but for some reason our perception of those events is absolutely different. His interview draws a very bleak picture that everything was allegedly so bad; everybody retreated and fled. Everything is in black tones, especially about the communist regime ... Then we did not even know such words. I am convinced that memories must be written as memories, but not as hindsight analysis.
Truly, in the beginning of the war there was a lot of bad, even terrible, but no mass desertion. The army did not run, but retreated. Moldova, for example, was defended for almost a month, and the army only retreated upon the proper order. Didn’t our border guards fight heroically? Didn’t the Brest Fortress hold fast? Didn’t the besieged Leningrad hold fast? Where was an exodus? Reading his interview creates the impression that there was nobody to defend the Motherland. Someone still held the front. If everybody stampeded, why did the Germans fail in capturing the Caucasus and Stalingrad? But in his interview everything is so dark and black...
There were hundreds of thousands, if not millions of volunteers. Was it all because of the fear of the communist regime, under pain of death? About five hundred people repeated the feat of Alexander Matrosov (who had blocked a German pillbox slit with his body). About six hundred air rams were committed, and how many people repeated the feat of Nikolai Gastello (a pilot, who had committed a suicide attack by his burning aircraft on a ground target)... Was that all because of the fear of Stalin? There certainly were a lot of bad and ugly deeds, and I'm not disregarding that. Personally, I wouldn’t have had the heart to do a hindsight analysis of those events. It would have been very dangerous and fundamentally wrong.
- But you, for example, did you feel at the front as a person who was sure to be killed?
What do you mean by that? For all the time I was at the forefront I lost seven tanks: four were destroyed and three burned down. For instance, in the short time from January till April of 1945, I had changed out five armored vehicles and changed even more crews. But I always thought that I would stay alive. For some reason I had such a strong belief. As a proof of this I can recite the lines of poetry, which Ivan Popov and I wrote in a rare moment of relaxation in November of 1944.
And when the cannonades die out,
And the happy days come to the world
Again we’ll be sitting together,
Recalling the days of fighting we fought.
We believed that we would stay alive and wrote about it. Although, the pilots and tankers at war had a very heavy, if not the heaviest, lot. Of course, millions of infantrymen were killed, but in percentage ratio, more than that were killed of our tankers and pilots. Sometimes our tanks were called by nicknames like - BM-5, i.e. “bratskaya mogila - 5” ("communal grave of five ..."). But somehow we did not think of death, but rather thought of the soonest opportunity to get engaged in battle to have that war finished quickly...
I’ve just remembered one more thing. Just recently I saw a television program where one former tanker said that advanced guard point tankers were sure to be killed. It literally blew me away out of anger. I am outraged because it is fundamentally wrong. I personally did my full time service in reconnaissance and survived. And not only me, but my platoon commander Ivan Dubovik also fought in reconnaissance all the time, though, he was slightly injured, but remained in the unit and did not go to the field hospital. Vladimir Sergievsky only at Konigsberg, when he popped out of the hatch, got a shot, which tangentially touched his temple, passed under the eye and broke his nose. Then he had to spend long six months in the hospital. And what about Ivan Popov, Lel Valuyev and Kutuz Valetov, who also survived? If we were sure to be killed, who then fought and won? No, we never thought that we would certainly be killed.
- What were you afraid of most of all at the forefront? Captivity, for example, or being crippled?
I do not remember that. Even though, I got a few minor injuries, scratches, and light contusions, I did not leave for the field hospital and for some reason did not fear injuries. I just thought, if I should get wounded, let it be so. I did not feel trembling in my knees because I was a very young boy. And we all were basically like that. As for captivity, I did not even think about it because I was not going to get there. I thought that if I should get into a desperate situation that would be it "goodbye mother Russia "...
I don’t remember that a sensation of fear ever overwhelmed me so greatly, as well as I don’t remember that any of our guys admitted that they were afraid. If someone was caught by jitters he should better not to go into battle.
Actually, there was one occasion when I suddenly was really scared. I think it happened during a very heavy battle at Dobel, though I may be confused. In one of the battles it turned out this way.
On our left there was a slope, and I heard right behind it a battle was starting. I ordered the mechanic to move forward. Once on the slope we fired a shot at the German gun battery, and again hid behind the mound. Then we did that again, came out of the mound and fired another shot. But when we attempted to do that for the third time, four or five shells were slapped at us right away ... The tank began to smoke, and we, of course, immediately began bailing out. But I hesitated for a moment as I could not disconnect the headset from the radio unit. But when I was finally out my crew had already gone. Actually I was always amazed that I had always been the last to bail out of the tank.
Once out, I hid under a roller wheel waiting for the battle to subside. The dead body of a lieutenant, a commander of tank mounted infantry was lying near the tank. According to procedure, I picked up his identity papers. But in that battle we were surrounded and we could break out only a few days later. We established all round defenses and fended off the German attacks for three days. During those fights, because of a slight concussion, I lost my hearing ability, and by the way, that was the only time at war when I had to shoot small firearms.
So when we finally broke out of the encirclement and I returned to the battalion, I still remember how Ivan Dubovik, who was the first to meet me, almost stuttering asked: "Are you alive?" - "I’m in trouble." - "A notice of your death has already been sent out" ... As far as I understood they had taken me for the body of that killed lieutenant, which was lying near the tank, and reported to headquarters that I was allegedly dead. And at that moment for the first time at war I was really daunted. I dreadfully visualized what would happen to my sick mother, who had already lost two her other sons during the evacuation, if she received a notice of my death. I was afraid that that news would simply kill her. So I sat down and wrote a letter to my parents that I was alive and well and clearly put down the date. And as it turned out later, my letter and the death notice were delivered at home within a day of each other.
Generally, there were three men in our battalion who were called "lucky": a company commander Nikolai Gordeyev, Ivan Dubovik and me, as since we arrived at the front replacement personnel had come a number of times, while none of us was even seriously wounded.
- Why, do you think, you have survived: due to luck or experience?
I guess, still due to experience. Someone prompted me on some things, while I began realizing some other things myself.
- It is said that people at the forefront appeal to the God more often.
To be honest, I do not remember. Maybe somehow silently in his heart somebody did it, but I do not remember.
- Did you have any foreboding signs? Maybe you paid attention to the numbers drawn on the tank turrets?
No, that was all nonsense and superstitions, I personally never had anything like that, and, as far as I know, neither had the others. I had tanks with different numbers, I often changed the tanks, but I remember that the last one I had carried the number 300 and the inscription "Bagration". Just because Bagration was one of the historical figures of our country but more often our tanks carried the inscription "For Motherland!"
- You’ve mentioned that you had lost seven tanks.
Yes, for a year of my stay at the front seven of my tanks were destroyed or burned. As for the crews, I changed them even more. For example, in late February in heavy fighting in East Prussia our corps suffered heavy casualties. In those days, German troops made desperate attempts to unblock their forces surrounded in and around Konigsberg, so we had to fight heavy defensive battles. Every day we had to repulse 6 to 9, and once even 11 (!) attacks. And in those fights my tanks were destroyed for five days in a row: one tank burned and other four were knocked out.
So, by their own traction or pulled by a tractor they were evacuated to our FRF (field repair facilities) and while the tank was being repaired I was assigned to another armored vehicle with a new crew. Slightly injured, stunned and with a lot of bruises I still remained on duty. But within those five days 13 men in my crews were killed and 6 wounded...
And the technical quartermaster of our corps, Colonel Shpitanov, the next time when he saw me at the FRF, he could not resist saying: "Again? You’re son of a bitch!" He walked with a stick. So he took a swing with it and chased me. I hid under the tank. “Come out!” – He said. I crawled towards the rear, he was after me. I crawled back to the middle, be he stuck his stick between the rollers. Then the driver-mechanic came up to defend me: "Well, we got a little hit. But we have some captured canned food from Tilsit to share" - "Come out!" When at the post-war reunion I reminded him of that episode he laughed.
- Many veterans say that there were some commanders, who without hesitation would apply their fist or even a stick to their subordinates.
Well, it’s not a big deal. Except for the slap in the face I personally got I never saw anyone get hit at the front, although I heard that even some front commanders allowed themselves to do so.
- What was the slap in the face for?
In early January of 1945 in the town of Gumbinė (now the town of Gusev of Kaliningrad region – Note by N.Ch.) the Germans struck with a strong counterattack, broke through our defenses and advanced 15-20 kilometers. In those days we had a respite before our offensive in East Prussia. But on the 4th of January, two our battalions commanded by Victor Kozhikhin and Alexander Udovichenko, were roused by the alarm and given the task of helping to rectify the situation.
By the time we moved up to the area of breakthrough night had fallen, because it gets dark early in winter. We could see nothing and it was not clear where to go next.
Suddenly in the darkness some clanking sounds of tank tracks, some noise and single shots were heard. And then at a distance of half a kilometer a red stoplight flashed. We immediately realized that there were the Germans, because our tanks had no stoplights, as such were immediately broken or removed. Several artillery pieces immediately fired at that stoplight and the inflamed panzer lit up the other German machinery. The tanks of both battalions immediately opened aimed fire, while staying in the dark invisible to the Germans.
In the morning we tallied 41 destroyed pieces of German armored machinery, while our losses were zero, except for a minor injury to company commander Biragov, who was scratched with armor fragments.
But the situation had to be rectified, so we moved forward. In that pursuit my crew destroyed one panzer and one self-propelled gun. And then Kozhikhin said to me: "Your platoon – as I was temporarily acting platoon commander - will be in my reserve. And on my command you will come to us following our tracks in the snow.
We rolled back behind a mound. Dawn broke. We were standing and smoking. A sudden roar of engines went off. The 2nd battalion with our brigade commander Andrey I. Sommer in his car in the column head arrived. He gave me the command: "Lieutenant, there's a German panzer fleeing. Destroy it." I switched to the sight: "Comrade Colonel, that tank is friendly." - "How come friendly?" But it really turned out to be a friendly tank. - "Belay that."
The guys in the arriving battalion were very exhausted, so they had gone to sleep on their armored vehicles. Sommer then gave me an order: "Go forward!" I was trying to explain to him that I was in reserve, waiting for the order of my battalion commander Kozhikhin and that I had nothing to do with the 2nd battalion" But he whopped me a slap in the face, and even pulled out a revolver: "Forward!" My guys, seeing him in anger with the pistol, started up the engines right away. But where we were supposed to go forward, we had no idea ... There was nothing to be done about it. So we moved 500 meters forward. Sommer, meanwhile, roused the 2nd battalion and they followed me.
There was a fine highway and when we reached it, the driver-mechanic asked me: "Shall we go right or left?" I did not even have a map of that area, but I figured, and said: "Turn left." So we moved, and the driver mechanic was even glad that the tank was “flying” along that fine road and increased speed.
We covered about two kilometers or so until suddenly were stopped by three friendly self-propelled guns: "Do you have shells?" - "Yes, we do!" - "The Germans are yonder on the run. Give them a bloody nose as we’ve run out of shells.” We ascended a hill with our three tanks and behind it there really were a German self-propelled gun and some other panzer heading away. We set them on fire quickly and rolled down further over the hill. There were no more targets. What to do next was not clear. But the 2nd battalion still did not show up. We waited for half an hour, an hour, but they still did not arrive. Finally, the sound of engines was heard. They were all coming led by the brigade commander.
It turned out that they had moved on that road to the right, and it took time for him (the brigade commander) to catch up with them and turn back. Sommer looked at the map and said: "In order to rectify the situation, we need to capture these three homesteads here and gain a foothold before the arrival of our infantry." He pointed us to them and said to the 2nd battalion commander: "Udovychenko, this platoon will be temporarily attached to you."
A sly man, Udovychenko tasked his men to capture two nearest homesteads and the attached platoon to capture the farthest. At a post-war reunion I made mention of this episode to him, but he was so offended at me that denied remembering it. "It never happened." – He said.
I said to my men: "No problem, it is only a kilometer and a half. At high speed we’ll cover this distance quickly.” We did cover it, though under gun fire. Later on when leaving that homestead we noticed an enemy self-propelled gun. We knocked it out and I took from it a map for me to use. I am telling this story in such detail because of the development that followed.
Structures in that area were built as follows: on the east side walls were one meter thick and on the west side much thinner. So we stationed ourselves in that homestead and then we heard and saw that a friendly Katyusha rocket launcher had opened fire on us. I got a chance to give the command to disperse, but one of our gunners in the second tank was wounded. Three hours later we heard the enemy suddenly open fire. It turned out that our brigade commander in his Willis MB was heading towards us through the field.
I reported to him, said that our task was accomplished, that we had destroyed another enemy self-propelled and seized a German map. Sommer looked at me and said: "Son!” – (He used to call all of us “sons”) - “Was it you, whom I slapped on the ear?" - "Yes sir, me!" - "Sorry mate, I got overreacted. Here's for you the Order of the "Red Star"; later I’ll have all the commendation paperwork completed. Thank you!" So, there was such an episode.
- How many decorations all together did you get and what for were they handed to you?
I got two Orders of the "Red Star", two Orders of the “Patriotic War” and the medals "For the capture of Konigsberg" and "For the Victory over Germany". About one Order of the Red Star I have already told you, but about the others I do not even know what to say. As a rule, we were summoned to brigade headquarters and decorations were handed to us, but nobody would say for sure what for. For an accumulation of meritorious acts, I guess. Andrei I. Sommer personally handed decorations to us. There was always a traditionally laid table, but he would depart for his office saying: "Sorry, guys, I’ve got a lot of work to do, so celebrate without me."
Of course, the decorations were handed out for something. But sometimes I think to myself and wonder how I could be decorated with four Orders within six months. What kind of cronyism was it all about as I had fought alongside all the others? Why me and not others? Why wasn’t a platoon commander, but a common tank commander like me decorated? Had I been in favor with someone? I still have some questions myself.
But we never had any hard feelings because of decorations. The general perception was like this: “Well, I have been decorated, so now I will fight even better!” If any one of my comrades was decorated, I was sincerely happy for him. Someone might have envied the others, as I have read in other memoirs, but I do not remember anything like this in our environment. Sergei Orlov, whom I’ve mentioned before, wrote very good lines about the tankers’ friendship:
It begins in narrow tank,
Where everything is shared among the crew,
Like brown bread, red wine and song,
And everything that soldiers together do.
Believe me we were all like one family. Did you see the film "The War is War" (A la guerre come a la guerre)? The main character, lieutenant Malyeshkin, was my replica. As young and green as me, and he had the same relationship with the crew. There was another good and truthful film about tankers “The Fifth Stroke”, but for some reason it has not been shown for a long time.
- What is your personal score of enemy tanks destroyed?
An article in our Corps newspaper "For Motherland" says that my killing score was: 11 German panzers, 7 artillery pieces, 12 machine gun nests and more than 150 fascists. In fact I might have destroyed even more than that, but I have never done in depth study. There in headquarters someone might have kept tallies, but we had no time for that. I just know that accounting was conducted very accurately and evidence was required, but I didn’t really care about those figures. For example, I still do not know how the credit was distributed for those 41 German armored vehicles destroyed in that night battle. Honestly, I don’t even remember the first enemy tank I destroyed as I did not focus my attention on such moments. We did not even have any particular post fight discussions. Yes, I knew that there were a few Heroes of the Soviet Union in our battalion: Chugunov, Udovichenko Malov and others, but somehow I do not remember us comparing notes on who had destroyed more enemy equipment.
- Did you argue about who got the credit for destroying enemy tanks?
Why argue? No, I don’t remember any such arguments. We were a coherent team like a fist. We had nothing to quarrel about as we went into battles alongside each other and lived in one dugout.
- Were you paid bonuses for destroyed tanks?
I do not remember such things. We did paint symbolic stars on gun barrels but were paid no money.
- Did you fire your tank guns on the move or at stops only?
At short stops. I would give a command to the driver: "Short stop", fire the gun and immediately resume forward movement. We did not fire the tank gun while on the move because on the move we could see nothing from the tank. Therefore, we usually had one mission: to break into the enemy defensive positions and to fire the gun, to crush the enemy and to support the advancing infantry.
- What is your opinion about the T-34 tank?
It was the best tank ever. The main thing was that its gun had been enhanced. We were really afraid to get inside the British and American tanks. They were delivered to our Corps twice, but apparently someone from our command refused to accept them. I sat in one "Sherman": It was soft and comfortable inside, one would not hurt his head, but fighting in it was out of question.
I also had a chance to see the heavy JS-2 (Joseph Stalin) tanks in combat. They were sent to us near Riga to be tested in battle. They participated in the battles for a month, and not a single tank was lost. But I still liked our T-34 more. If I were to be assigned to fight in a heavy tank, I might have liked that but for this to happen I would have had to master it in depth. But I must tell you that basically we gained all such skills with experience. Still, theory is one thing while practice is quite different. For example, in tank training school the emphasis was placed on thorough learning about the equipment and being capable of troubleshooting without outside assistance. As for a lot of the other things required in battle, we learned them at the front.
I can tell you that there was nothing special about the German tanks. For example, the vaunted "Tigers" only had the most formidable frontal armor. As for the gun, it was the same as ours. By the way, in the list of my victories I have one “Tiger” panzer. But the "Ferdinand" self propelled gun was really something. We really feared that beast. Because in terms of the power of that artillery piece it far outmatched us, we just could not reach them. But our heavy self propelled guns were no worse. Not really agile and maneuverable, of course, but their gunfire was very effective. However, once I witnessed one SU-152 self-propelled heavy howitzer explode as it triggered a landmine and its ammunition detonated. What a terrible thing...
The ammunition in our old T-34-76 tanks also detonated at a direct hit, and that's why a lot of the crews were killed. But this did not happen anymore with the T-34-85 tanks, because their shells were absolutely different.
- Can you identify any deficiencies in the T-34?
Tracks, idle wheel. Almost any hit by a shell or a solid shot would blow them off. The side armor was not very good either. The radio set was OK, better than that of the T-34-76. The transmission was OK also; I never had any problems with it.
- Many former tankers speak of the less than successful design of the hatch on the commander’s tank.
Yes, I can confirm that. That's why while in combat I did not lock the latch of the hatch door, just because I wouldn’t be able to open it if wounded. It had to be done with two hands actually, a double action. It was not easy to do it in battle within seconds. So our guys would break those latches off and did not lock the hatches. We were asked: "What will you do if you are in an enemy encirclement and there is the threat of captivity?" - “But that "if" may never happen”- we would answer.
And because of that hatch design my crew members would bail out of the tank faster than me. When I gave the command: "All out", by the time I got out of the tank, they all were already there standing next to it. And I wondered why it was so. Okay, loader and driver had their hatches, but the gunner-radio operator had none. Still how did the gun commander manage to get out before me? By the way, for all my time at the front, we never used the bottom escape hatch.
Leaving the tank was constantly practiced during our rest time: "Aboard", "All out". Automation of actions was attained. I remember once I jumped out, and the guys were looking at me bewildered. It turned out that my quilted trousers had been torn by splinters between the legs. I took them off, but the uniforms trousers were intact.
Here is one more thing I’ve just remembered and want to share with you. According to some interviews from your website which I’ve read, it turns out that our T-34 is a bad tank. The guns of the German heavy panzers allegedly pierced through it. But for all my time at the front I do not remember any such holes in the frontal armor. It would tear a piece of armor off but wouldn’t pierce it. It could pierce anywhere else: in the side, in the rear all the time, but not the frontal armor. I repeat, not a single case.
I remember when we rushed towards Konigsberg; our battalion travelled in a marching column on a highway. There was a slope on one side and a swampy depression on the other, and suddenly we ran into an ambush. German artillery pieces knocked out the lead and last vehicles from the mound, but we began to disperse and fire back. I rolled to the right, and then my tank was pierced through, but because of the short range all the crew members survived.... Then out of ten vehicles, I think, we lost four. When we seized the German positions we found that the gunners were chained to their guns...
So we usually tried to allow the Germans to approach up to shortest possible range, up to five hundred meters, which is fairly close. In heavy battles near Šiauliai I even allowed them to approach up to 300 meters. It certainly was risky, but I was not alone. Besides, we stood a much better chance of killing the target at the shortest range. For all the time at the front I had only two or three occasions to shoot in an ambush, but never had a head on tank engagement.
- Tell us please about those battles near Siauliai.
Well, what can I tell? One of the episodes was quite accurately described in the article about me in our Corps newspaper. Our platoon was given the task of blocking an armored approach route and to prevent potential counterattacks. We selected a very good place for an ambush. My tank was hidden behind a haystack four hundred meters away from the others. And when the German panzers did show up we allowed them to approach to the minimum possible range and opened fire. With two shots we managed to set the lead tank on fire and the second immediately turned back. We immediately changed our position and after a while three more German panzers showed up. Again we allowed them to approach to the range of about five hundred meters, and I destroyed one more enemy tank and the other two were destroyed by our other crews. Again we changed position, and when the Germans attempted to attack for a third time, I managed to destroy another tank. That was it.
- You’ve mentioned that you have in the list of your victories one "Tiger" panzer.
In one of the battles in East Prussia my tank was hit by an artillery piece, but I was able to detect it. I immediately ordered: "Short stop!" And with the third shell we destroyed that gun. We stopped at one homestead and there were two buildings almost adjacent to each other at right angles. We drove right into that corner, but almost immediately got a shell to our armored hood. Though, it was a grazing contact. As we found out later, it was a "Tiger" panzer. The artillery duel began. The “Tiger” and I fired shots at each other in succession and my mechanic maneuvered the whole time driving back and forth. Then we took another hit right at the towing hook near the driver-mechanic’s seat. The driver-mechanic’s arm got severed and he jumped out of the tank because of the pain. It was the third or fourth shot with which I finally got the “Tiger”, but at the same time we took another hit from the flank at the engine compartment which turned out to have come from a “Feodor” (Ferdinand self-propelled gun). Then Dubovik’s tank and one of friendly self-propelled guns came up, but the latter became prey to the "Ferdinand" and exploded right in front of our eyes ... Then our other tanks came up and an exchange of gunfire broke out, but when the Germans realized that the bulk of our brigade had bypassed them, they also withdrew and the battle subsided.
- Did you treat your tanks with care?
We nearly licked our tanks as a cat would lick its fur, because we knew that our lives depended on their condition.
- How strictly was the hierarchy in the crew observed? Did you personally participate in housekeeping work along with others? Were there any problems of familiarity?
The crew was like a family I’m telling you, lieutenant Maleshkin from the movie (“The war is war” referred to above) was just like me. But even though I was younger than all the others, there was no problem of familiarity, and I participated in housekeeping along with all others. My crew members addressed me either “commander” or “lieutenant”. I was rarely called “Marat”, mostly by the officers. I called my first driver-mechanic by his first name and patronymic “Seraphim Vasilievich” and called the other crew members by their first names. Indeed, there were 50 men in a tank company, so everyone knew each other well.
That is probably the reason why there was not a single act of cowardice. Still, unlike the infantry, our men were in a crew, and when people are all together, even the most awful moments are perceived much easier.
- What sensations did you have when you had to crush the enemy with your tracks?
Of course, we had to bump right into the columns of retreating Germans, and without looking around to crush everything, but such cases were rare and did not evoke any particular sensations. What sensations might be there when we were always goaded: "Come on! Go forward!"
- In their interviews on our site, some former tankers admitted that whenever it was not possible to send the captured Germans to the rear, they were just crushed...
We never had done anything like that. If the Germans were taken prisoner, we did not do any harm to them, but just handed them over to the rear. For example, my crew once seized a bunch of them. Once in a reconnaissance sally in a hut of one village we captured four or five Vlasovites. But I do not even remember that anybody beaten them. They were immediately handed over to the headquarters. Once near Minsk our sergeant major captured a German officer, but also did not do any harm to him.
When were we supposed to crush the captured Germans as we rapidly moved forward? Most often we did not even have time just to get out of the vehicle to take something for ourselves. We simply had no time for that. And you’re asking about crushing. I, for example, did not even have the commonest booty – a wristwatch, because the tank cabin clock sufficed me. When we stopped, then the most important thing was to fix up the vehicle, it was first and foremost. And if some problems occurred with the tank, then all the crew members had to help the driver-mechanic out, because he could not cope with them alone. For example, if there arose some problem in the engine, then to reach it we had to unload all the ammunition, and in fact we tried to reserve a double ammunition stock. And only after servicing the vehicle we could eat and drink the vodka rations we were due.
- What emotions did you personally experience towards the Germans at the front?
Honestly, I did not feel any anger or over-extreme hatred towards them. In battle, yes, I had anger and excitation. But personally I had not seen any particular atrocities, and therefore I did not feel any particular hatred. We saw prisoners walking and had no emotions about that.
When at the end of January of 1945 during the offensive, we broke forty kilometers away from the adjacent units and broke into the suburbs of Konigsberg, Siedlung or something; the Germans were inside their houses. Lights were on, radio played, though, they had already packed their bags. And did we abuse any one of them? No. They stayed in their houses as they were. We allowed our special forces following us to deal with them.
- How would you assess the Germans as soldiers?
They were true warriors, but we were better. Though, what could I, a 19 year old boy, understand and analyze especially then? For me there were two basic rules: "Love your crew, and then your guys will pull you even out of fire" And "Beat the enemy!" What else?
- Once you touched on the subject of booty, so I would like to ask if you took any of that. And is it true that many officers, especially senior officers abused the booty issue?
We did not have any booty, because we did not take prisoners. We pushed forward all the time, and had our infantry to deal with them. I’m telling you, I did not take anything, even a wristwatch, and therefore I did not send any parcels home. As for weapons, yes, almost all of us had: pistols and knives were captured from the enemy. But I do not remember any petty stuff. I cannot even recall the name of any one of our guys who had brought something home. I had visited many places and saw how people lived, and believe me, no one was well-to-do. After the war, I actively participated in the organization of war veterans of our Corps, so I had to communicate closely and came to visit the places of our brigade commander Butkov and our Corps commander Sommer, but I did not see any booty there either.
We did capture the foodstuffs, though. I remember one railway station that we had captured. So, there were fully laden cargo trains and warehouses, in which there was everything. So we loaded up our pockets there. But it was only the case because we were the first to break into that station and we were given order to rest there.
- Do you often remember your brigade commander Sommer, and did you happen to see your Corps commander Butkov at the front?
Vasily Vasilievich Butkov was a very harsh combat commander. He perpetrated such things there! One day I ran into him. Once somewhere on the Baltic Sea coast my platoon was guarding the Corps headquarters. After the battle one of my gunners, whose name I do not remember, was wounded. I sent him to the hospital, but three hours later he returned and said: "They did not admit me there." - "How come, why did not they admit you? Get into the car." So, we arrived at the medical battalion.
There was a long corridor, and a group of military men was walking along it, all in coveralls. There was an attempt to stop me: "Hold on, there is the Corps commander!" but I just shrugged and almost using swear words: "Who the hell is the corps commander?"
He turned to me, a tall man. Then, of course, I felt trepidation, but said: "Here I’ve brought a wounded tanker but they don’t want to admit him." - "How come, they don’t want to admit him? Now he will be admitted." In one of the post-war reunions I recalled this episode, but he did not remember it.
I can say only good things about both of them. I still remember one more fact that Andrei Sommer, who was one of the Russified Germans, used to fight during the World War 1 in East Prussia precisely in the area where we advanced in 1945. Later I was in correspondence with him until his death.
For various reasons after the war I communicated and met with them very often. This is because Vasily Vasilievich Butkov was elected chairman of the organization of veterans of our corps, and I was his deputy on the veterans’ search and liaison. I still keep in touch with Vasily Vasilievich’s son, who did and still does help us a lot.
- Did you have friends at the front? For example, whose death for you was the greatest loss?
I had good relationship with all, but Vladimir Sergievsky was my closest friend. Together we had studied in the factory apprenticeship school, and then served in the same platoon. I also developed a good relationship with our platoon commander Ivan Dubovik. What a nice man Alexander Bazhanov was, our senior maintenance technician.
But I took to heart the deaths of all who were killed, not only of the people who were close to me. Of course, I felt particularly bitter about deaths of Alexander Strebkov and Nikolai Krivets, as they were my friends. But you know something? During the battles we just did not have time for deep communication, and after the battles we were busy with our service duties. It was only after the war that we had free time to develop a true friendship. I knew all the members of Sergievsky’s family as well as the families of Dubovik and Bazhanov. We were in correspondence and met in person.
- I would like to ask a couple of questions about your everyday life. How did you spend your idle hours?
We did not have them. In fact we got idle hours only when we found ourselves without our tanks. And in the very rare idle moments we slept, wrote letters, played cards, sang songs, and Popov and I even wrote several poems. A couple of times, not at the forefront, of course, concert artists performed for us. Somewhere right before our storm of Konigsberg Lydia Ruslanova in person arrived and sang for us. I liked that. Once in Prussia even a mobile cinema unit was brought in for us.
Once we also “staged a concert” for the Germans. On the night of December 31 we had gathered to welcome the New Year. We were sitting comfortably in the warmth, but suddenly were raised directly from the table and sent to the battle front. We gave the Germans 15 minutes of fireworks and returned.
- How well were you fed at the front?
We never complained. Though, sometimes we crawled onto no man’s land to fetch some horsemeat. Everyone understood that during the battles some interruptions in food supply were possible.
Back in tank training school we used to love this dish - finely cut tripe with onions, all stewed in a big pot. It was so yummy that everybody ran straight into the kitchen.
- Did the lice infest you?
I don’t remember that we had any lice. I did not even know what they were.
- Did you consume your vodka ration?
Yes, I did. If I am not mistaken, vodka was issued to us constantly only in winter and during fighting. But we never consumed alcohol before battle and never went into battle drunk because being sober and under the influence of alcohol were two different sensations. We did drink after the fight, especially if the fight was successful, but none before. Neither did I see our men hanging around drunk, because we were rationed only 100 grams of vodka, and we had no other sources of alcohol. Only in East Prussia some booty began to emerge, and not before that. Where were we supposed to get it? Our technicians, I guess, might have allowed themselves some drinking, but I had never seen any tanker drunk. Nor I remember any alcohol related incidents. We also did not have any cases of poisoning by industrial alcohol.
I did not allow anybody to get drunk. I will repeat once again: until the tank was in order we were not allowed to get away from it anywhere. In peacetime, we would also spend half a day in the maintenance park tinkering at our armored vehicles to make them ready at any time to instantly start up and go forward. Like in aviation, our equipment for us was first and foremost! But unlike aviation, where an air technician was assigned to each aircraft, we had only one senior maintenance technician for the entire tank company.
I’ve just remembered one more thing. Recently in modern films about the war a very univocal characteristic is being given to the Special departments (counterintelligence services) personnel, which allegedly did not participate in war, but spied, executed people, consumed alcohol and womanized. But it's bullshit. In my opinion, now everything is rather exaggerated from what it really was. Yeah, maybe someone of them did booze, but I, for example, never saw anything like that.
Of course, I can only speak for myself. Believe me, in our unit no one committed ferocious acts of violence and there were no exhibition executions. For all the time at the front I almost had not communicated to the Special department officers, even though, I was familiar with them. For example, there was one such episode.
When, in January of 1945, we were preparing for the offensive in East Prussia the engine of my tank suddenly leaked. And it happened after a long idle time when we had nearly licked out our armored vehicle. We stopped immobilized. A mobile maintenance crew truck immediately arrived with one of the Special department officers in it. An investigation was started, and it turned out that there was a small crack in the shaft – a manufacturing defect. The Special department officer immediately hit the road. The engine was changed out overnight, and I quickly caught up with my unit. But the present day authors write and film about “summary executions” and immediate sending people to penal units. What nonsense! I do not remember that anyone from our brigade was sent to the penal battalion. We did not even see any penalized soldiers. For a full year at the front we were only once notified before battle that penalized soldiers were at the forefront ahead of us. But then we immediately moved forward and left them far behind.
In another case, which I think happened in a Baltic country or perhaps in Prussia, we were driving through one place and saw a group of people swarming around doing something about five hundred meters from the road. Later on we found out that two of our soldiers had raped a woman and were immediately shot on the spot ... Although I personally believe that this was unnecessarily and excessively cruel.
There was another case with Alexander Motorin. Once he was sent for a reconnaissance raid but having run into a tight enemy defense, returned. Then someone, I do not remember who exactly, maybe battalion commander Victor Kozhihin, burst into angry words and threatened him with a pistol, asking why he had come back. Alexander replied: "You go and see for yourself whether I could move any further or not."
So, in my opinion, in the new books and films about the war a lot of dirt and slander has been poured on the commanders and the Special department officers. Based on these "works" it appears that our army from top to bottom was infected with betrayal, thieves, cowards and scoundrels. But then there follows a legitimate question: how did we win? Apparently, the primary objective of these "authors" is to show that under the Soviet regime everything was so bad.
I’ve remembered another case. Once we carried the tank mounted infantry, and when they were jumping off, their commander was wounded in the hand by shot of his own PPSh submachine gun. A Special department officer immediately showed up, began his investigation “Ah, a self-inflicted wound” and was about to arrest him. But we knew what the PPSh submachine gun was like and I said to the Special department officer: "Take his submachine gun from him and you don’t even need to jump off the tank, but just hit its butt on the ground." He did so, and a shot went off. - "So, this is exactly what has happened. The lieutenant jumped off the tank accidently hit ground with the butt of his submachine gun." Then the Special department officer returned to the lieutenant his submachine gun and sent him to have his wound dressed. That's all about my relations with the Special department officers.
You know, the tank forces are isolated, relatively small units, and I don’t know what kind of person would overtly oppose the rest of the collective. Moreover, once we had one tragic accident based on which you can judge for yourself.
Once in a tent two crews were resting and one of the gun loaders, I think Bogdanov, was cleaning his crew commander’s pistol at our feet. So he cleaned and oiled the pistol and then tried pulling the trigger "click, click" when the shot went off. The bullet hit his friend lying next to me, who died the next day... But no retaliations followed, and he continued fighting alongside us, because everyone knew that it was a foolish tragic accident...
This was exactly the same as what happened to my dad before the war. We had an adjoining room, and behind the door in the other room there was a bed, on which two of my sisters and a brother were sitting. My father was at the table cleaning his revolver, while I was sitting next to him. Suddenly a shot rang out and a bullet flew right between the heads of my sisters. Of course, he was so frightened. He could not get a clue where that bullet in the drum had come from after he had just cleaned it.
- Were such accidents frequent?
Once I had a very unpleasant experience. One day after the fight, the men were busy with gunnery cleaning, fixing tanks and other things. Two tanks were standing nearby, only the gun of my tank was turned back. The distance between the armored vehicles was about five meters. I was standing with my back turned to my tank and talking to the driver-mechanic. Suddenly I heard a cry: "Lieutenant!" I turned around and saw the tank crawling towards me. My clothes were pinched and my body started being elevated and pressed against the open hatch of the driver-mechanic. I might have been crushed but I was saved only by the fact the track hit right on the track of the other tank, causing my tank to stall and roll back. The transmission gear had been engaged and when Pavel touched the starter he was at a loss as to what to do.
- As for the Special department officers, it is clear, but what was your attitude towards Communist party officials?
In fact I did not have a chance for much contact with them. As for the party organizer of our company, he was one of our officers – Junior Lieutenant Savushkin, who, by the way, wrote an article about me for the Corps newspaper. The party organizer of our battalion, Shinkarenko, was a good man. There were many people around the world and all of them were different, as in the institute, in the factory and in the army. But we did not have any rotten persons, not a single one! We all rejoiced in the success of others. If someone destroyed an enemy tank he was decorated and the glory was all his!
- When did you join the Communist party and what do you now think of Stalin?
I’ve been with the Party since 1946 and I’m still a Communist. My present attitude toward Stalin is the same as what was the attitude of the vast majority of our population. As for what is being written and told about him nowadays...
We must give him his due credit, as it is unlikely that we would have won the war without him. I assure you. And in any case, we should not forget that despite all the difficulties there were so many accomplishments under his rule: industrialization, collectivization, a qualitative leap in science, education and medicine. That’s true; the rationing system was in effect until the end of 1934, but after it was abolished, every year we felt that our lives were getting better and better.
As for the repressions and cruelty, personally I was not affected by them, and they generally did not affect the majority of people and our family in particular. Of course, there is resentment among those who were affected, and that's understandable. The same as nowadays. But there are very few such people in my memory. Well, as it is said, nobody is perfect. But who am I to do a judgment of Stalin in hindsight? You should have seen how literally all the people grieved when he died. Do you think that people do not understand and cannot assess their leader? No, people are well aware. The exposures made at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were particularly even a greater shock for us. Only after the war my father and I began touching on some subjects and conducting open discussions. Particularly after that Congress he revised some of his views about Stalin. He and I ardently argued on some subjects but he still remained a staunch Communist.
- Who else in your family were at war?
I figured out later all our relatives: in the lines of mother, father and wife, eighteen people were at the front. My mother's brother, uncle Sergei, was the first to be killed in the Battle of Moscow. Uncle Volodya (Vladimir) returned from the war, but died shortly afterwards. Uncle Kostya (Konstantin), like me, was a tanker and returned alive. My mom's sister Varvara went missing in 1942 and what happened to her and her fate are still unclear.
My father’s side grandfather Vasily Trifonovich, who lived in Belarus in the town of Rudna, was shot dead by the Germans for refusing to provide a horse cart ... Two relatives of my wife died too. And, of course, I keep in my memory the fact that due to the extreme difficulties of our travel during evacuation to the east my two younger brothers died.
- What was your life after the war?
After capturing Konigsberg we ended up in Gumbinė repairing the remaining tanks and getting them ready for redeployment to the Far East. The first troop train was even loaded and sent out, but the order to return arrived and the train returned.
Shortly after the war, I asked for a leave, but instead was assigned to a "cushy" job. The job was as follows: In East Prussia, many Germans fled to the West, so the farms that they abandoned were distributed among our military units as subsidiary farms. The order was issued to sow the lands with crops and to look after them. So I was appointed an elder in our subsidiary farm, which was rather big: a farmstead, 150 cows,15 horses, 40 pigs and fields sown with potatoes, wheat, rye, cabbage, beets and carrots. Seven old Soviet soldiers, former peasants, were assigned to assist me.
Luckily, the old manager of that estate was still there. The owner and workers had escaped, but the manager stayed. Moreover, he understood a little bit of Russian and he began to teach me. Besides, 150 German women waiting for deportation to the mainland Germany were sent over as workforce. There I had a lot of communication with Germans. I remember how the manager drew my attention to one issue: "Look, Lieutenant. The girls don’t milk the cows long enough for the udders to be absolutely empty." - "What shall we do?" - "Learn for yourself how to control them." - "Teach me." So he taught me. I personally began following the girls in their morning cow milking, sat near a cow after milking and verified that really 150 to 200 grams of milk were undermilked from each cow. I started swearing at them in German: "Donnerwetter Noch Einmal!" It really scared the German girls -"Herr Lieutenant, you’d better swear in Russian." It turned out that it was the worst German cursing, which seemed to be translated so innocuously: "Bad weather again ..." When I was a 1st grade schoolboy, we lived in the Volga German Republic, and I learned that kind of cursing from the Germans there. In general, I spent six months of such country life and during that time I learned a lot. What drudgery was that! No fights, living in the lap of nature, doing useful work. No problems. We coped with that!
And then I literarily stole fifteen Soviet girls, those who had been deported to Germany. They used to work at the neighboring subsidiary farm of airmen but were dissatisfied with something. So, I suggested to them: "Come with us." and moved them away at night, for which my counterpart, of course, took great offense toward me. Those girls for the most part were from Central Russia: Ryazan, Bryansk, Voronezh, and they all, if I’m not mistaken, ended up married to Soviet soldiers and remained in Prussia. By the way, many of my fellow soldiers, about a hundred men, remained in the Kaliningrad Oblast also.
- Perhaps you lived frivolously in the women's collective?
No, I had no affairs with either the German or our girls, because while still at the front I had begun correspondence with five girls at a time, one of whom later became my wife.
- Please tell me this story if you can.
In 1944 a campaign was established - many Soviet newspapers published field post numbers for civilians to correspond with soldiers at war. Two members of my crew, Kapishnikov, whose parents lived in Orenburg, and Vedischev, wrote a letter to the "Orenburg Pravda" newspaper: "We tankers, want to correspond with girls." A month later full stacks of letters began to arrive, mainly from schoolgirls, girls, women and even pensioners, some were with photographs. Our crew read those letters, because they expressed tremendous gratitude to the soldiers, with warm words and wishes. At that time my parents also lived in Orenburg, and I asked the guys to share a few letters with me, to which responded favorably, "Lieutenant, you can choose any letter you like." In general, I started a long correspondence with four girls from Orenburg and one from Uralsk.
I started correspondence with my future wife, Nina Drobny, when she was a 9th grade schoolgirl, and in 1945 I decided to conduct a reconnaissance. I wrote to Nina: "... I have not received letters from my parents for a long time. Maybe you’d stop by to find out what's wrong." And she went to my parents’ place with her girlfriends. She met with my mother, younger brother and sister. And when in 1946 I came home for a leave my brother asked me: "Why don’t you go to visit that girl who came to visit us?" - "I don’t know." And I made up my mind to visit her only at the end of the leave. My brother accompanied me to their place as an escort, so I would not change my mind. I went up to their place, and her mother Claudia Afrikanovna replied: "Nina should be here shortly." We were sitting in their apartment for an hour or so but she wouldn’t come. Her little sister Nadia came up, met with us and ran back outside. As it turned out she had run towards her sister to notify her: "Nina, do you know who has come to see you?" As I had not notified her that I would come for a visit, she, embarrassed, didn’t come home but went to her girlfriend’s. When thinking that I had already gone, she came home and we finally met.
In 1947 I could not go to visit her, besides my family moved to Monino in the Moscow region. But in 1948 I promised her that I would come. When I arrived at home I was asked "Where is your suitcase?" - "I'm changing trains to go further" – I said and went to her. We spent about a fortnight together having a good time. In 1949 my father was transferred to Chisinau. When she learned that I would have to go to Chisinau that summer, she quit her undergraduate training and arrived in Moscow. We met and gave promises to wait for each other. She was supposed to graduate from a medical institute in 1950, and wrote to me: "The postgraduate work assignment for this year is as follows: Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic. No Central Russia ", and so pointedly added:" Whoever goes far away, my say, that’s the end of love." I went to the dean of the faculty and asked for a leave, because then a special permit was required to leave Moldova. The dean gave me a leave, but admonished: "Do not get married." On January 28, I arrived in Orenburg, on the 29th I went to the civil registration office to file an application for marriage, but was told, "The waiting period would be three months." I said: "I cannot wait, I'm a student and I only am on holiday until February 7" and my wants were met: "Come up on February 4." So we got married and lived together for 56 years until Nina died. We’ve raised a daughter and a son and have grandchildren.
- By the way, were you not supposed to take part in the Victory Parade in Moscow in 1945?
I could, but I was too short by two centimeters, I was 176 cm tall. Heroes of the Soviet Union were allowed to take part with less height. For example, Ivan Chugunov went there, though he was shorter than me. I think that seven Heroes of the Soviet Union headed by Vasily Butkov went there on behalf of our Corps. But I took part in the Parade on the 50th Anniversary of the Victory in Moscow, representing Moldova.
- What was your life like after the war?
I left military service in October 1948. I was willing and able to continue to serve and even began preparations to enter the Academy, but was found unfit for further service due to a stomach ulcer. I arrived in Monino where my parents lived and began thinking of what to do next. One of the options on my mind was entering law school, but to do so one had to finish a high school, but I by then had not yet finished the 9th grade. I had to put together the strength to finish the 9th and 10th grades within six months.
At that time, my father was transferred to Chisinau. In Chisinau there was a branch of the All-Union Correspondence Law Institute. However, when we arrived the entrance exams were already over. Our friends, who used to be our neighbors back in Engels, came to visit us from Bălți. In conversation they advised me to enter the University.
I came to file my application, but the chairman of the admission board Totrov, who was either an Ossetian or a Lezgian, refused to accept it: "You're late, the rector has already gone. Come back tomorrow." The next day was ditto. On the third day I put on all my war decorations, and as he saw the medal "For the Capture of Konigsberg" got excited and asked: "Did you capture Konigsberg?" - "Yes, I did" - "Do you remember a village named Seeralen?" - "Of course, I remember. We had very heavy fighting there in late March." - "And I was wounded there." And then he said to me: "Today, you will take three exams and three more tomorrow." So in this way I entered the historical-philological faculty.
After graduation I was assigned as a research assistant to the Department of Philosophy, but a month later was summoned to the City Party Committee Office and its official said to me: "There is a proposal to take you on in the City Party Committee as an instructor. What do you think about it?" Before that I had already been through interviews on this subject, but every time I refused. I was about to reiterate my opinion, but was told that this time I had no choice. So I worked for two years in the City Party Committee until in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev decided to downsize the party apparatus and I was recommended for the position of Secretary of Communist Party Organization at the City Renovation and Construction Trust ("Gorremstroytrest"). I worked there for a couple of months, but then ran into our University Rector, Viktor Sergeyevich Chepurnov. Back at the University we used to meet almost daily, because I was the secretary of the University Committee of Komsomol, the Chairman of Trade Union, and a member of the Communist Party Bureau. We talked, and he offered me a job at the Department of History of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union). After that I worked for 38 years in the departments of history at the Chisinau University and Teachers’ Training Institute. I completed postgraduate studies. In 1962 in Odessa I defended a PhD thesis and was certified as an Associate Professor. In 1985 the honorary title "Honored Worker of Higher School of MSSR" was conferred on me and besides that I’m an "Excellent Serviceman of the Public Education of the USSR."
During all that time I was actively involved in war veterans' activities and participated in the organization of reunions. I liaised with more than 650 veterans of our Corps, and now only twelve of us are still alive...
But the worst thing nowadays is that communication between us, the war veterans, and the youth has become very rare. They cannot even answer the simplest questions, and it's a shame. One gets the impression that it is to someone’s benefit to paint our great Victory black as well as all seventy years of Soviet life. That’s why many historical facts are deliberately distorted and slandered. The fact that the Western ideals are actively being imposed on the youth scares me. The young people almost absolutely don’t know their history and without historical memory of the past people cannot love their Motherland...
|Interview and literary work by:||N. Chobanu|
|Translated by:||N. Kulinich|
|Translation review by:||Charles G. Powers|