A fragment from an unpublished book "Nachalo voiny" (Beginning of the War)
The Vyritsa train stations was about 50 km from Leningrad on the Vitebsk Railroad. That's where the biological station of the Leningrad A. I. Gertsen Pedagogical Institute was located.
Professor V. I. Arnold-Aliabiev was managing summer practice for the students of the Geography Department. I worked as a laboratory assistant for him - ensured the equipment's readiness for classes, helped conduct practical training, managed students' shifts at the meteorological station.
It was the third week of the practice. In the afternoon of June 22 rumors of war came from somewhere. Vyritsa was not that far from Leningrad, but neither the biostation nor surrounding houses had a radio, or a broadcast listening station, or a telephone. Only late at night did an idea come to find something out in a resort several kilometers from our base.
A group of students went to the resort. I went with them. The gates of the resort were locked, the guard announced categorically: "What war - everyone's asleep already!" The guys climbed over the fence. After some time sleep was interrupted, a radio was turned on, people assembled around the loudspeaker... War!
Several days passed. Our group decreased by more than half. Students were disappearing one after another: some at the summons of a military commissariat, others volunteered, not waiting for the summons.
We set up 24 hour duty shifts at the biostation, near the phone connected to a temporary line laid there. I was put on the duty roster because I was considered to be part of the station's staff. During the daytime, instead of classes, we dug holes for cover against possible bombings. Then we received an order to halt the practice and close the base.
Everything was familiar from the 1939-40 period in the city. Strips of paper were glued crosswise to the windows of buildings. People with gas masks were on duty at every building entrance. There was no question of black-outs yet - you could see everything during a white night even without light. Otherwise, the city was calm. Many walked with gas masks, but public transportation was working precisely, stores were full of merchandise, there was brisk trade in carbonated water with various syrups at every street corner - a heat wave began on June 22, it was the first really hot day in Leningrad during that summer.
My mom and brother, who were in Bolshaya Izhora on June 22, told us about what had happened during the first night of the war. They had a good view of Kronstadt (main naval port in the Baltic - trans.) from there. They saw the air raid, saw anti-aircraft fire from the ships and forts of Kronstatdt, but they thought those were exercises.
In the first half of June my brother and I, as a part of a group organized, as far as I remember, by our School No.245, went to dig trenches. We rode in commuter cars pulled by a steam locomotive, but without a schedule, as a "special train". We unloaded at the Veymarn station, near Kingisepp. Then we walked for about an hour. Our job was to dig an anti-tank ditch. Work schedule - dig for 8 hours, then rest for 4 (right there on the ground), food (bread and canned meat), then 8 hours of work again, and so on.
People digging trenches. An anti-tank ditch
construction in the area of Ivanovskoe to the
south of the village of Kingisepp.
Middle of July 1941. Drawing from memory.
The ditch was approximately 6 meters wide and 3 meters deep, triangular in cross-section. Templates had been made from boards to check its dimensions. There were a lot of people assembled, but work was progressing slowly - no one had any experience. Apparently, one of the teachers escorting our group was in the army sometimes in the past - he was dressed in a semi-military uniform without any insignia. People were constantly asking him various questions because of that, demanding his advice. He waved them away saying that he wasn't in the military, he was a fireman. This caused doubts and suspicion...
On July 14, my birthday, in the middle of the day, an order was passed along the line of diggers from somewhere on the left: "Everyone is to assemble immediately and go toward the railroad." People, initially with distrust, then faster and faster, started to collect things strewn about, started walking...
A long line of people was stretching toward the station, my brother and I were also walking with everyone, but knowing about possible air raids, about what low-flying air attack was, tried to walk separately from the crowd, not on the road but parallel to it, through the brush and woods. Our things were packed not into suitcases and bags, like the majority of people, but into a traveling-bag with shoulder straps - backpacks were still pretty rare in those days. Possibly, our behavior and the way we looked attracted everybody's attention. We were asked to show our papers. It's a good thing brother had his passport with him, because I didn't have a passport yet due to my age, I only became sixteen on that day.
We encountered soldiers running through an unharvested wheat field in a column one after another. They waved at us, gesturing that we should walk faster, and ran in the opposite direction themselves. A group of our SB aircraft flew in the same direction above us. One of them, flying at a low altitude, suddenly broke apart in the air, its wing separated. The plane and its wing fell separately, reaching the ground almost simultaneously. Explosion! I didn't see the cause: maybe Germans were shooting from the ground, or their fighter passed unseen by us... That was the first aircraft downed in front of my eyes. Some of the people who saw it maintained that the plane was German, mainly reassuring themselves, but I knew aircraft silhouettes pretty well and was sure it was an SB.
The train station appeared in the distance, but it was too risky to approach it: locomitives parked there were sounding an air raid alarm with short and frequent whistles. Only late in the evening of July 14 did the uncoordinated groups of "diggers", my brother and I among them, start to make their way to the station. We found a two axle platform coupled to a locomotive there. Aircraft technicians were using it to bring several aircraft engines closer to Leningrad. We rode this platform to a place where transportation system was still working. We got home only in the middle of the day of July 15 to the great joy of our mother and all the relatives. They had been worried about us, and it wasn't without cause. There were losses among "diggers" and, as I found out after the war, one of my classmates, Liusia Afansieva, was captured by the Germans in a similar situation and was liberated only at the end of the war in Hamburg by the Allies.
We also had to ride out to defense line construction around Strelna after our trip to Veymarn. That was really close to Leningrad, and now is inside the city limits.
We spent nights taking shifts being on duty in our 245th School on the Griboyedov Canal. The school's military training teacher Fiodor Grigorievich Ivanov was in charge of this. He was a reserve officer, tall, somewhat round-shouldered, with a strange gait: when walking he turned his soles outward. Possibly, it was the result of some disease or old wounds. He wasn't young, might've been a participant of the Civil War, and probably this was why he was still not taken into the army in the field. Ivanov gave out "arms" to the students on duty - a pneumatic rifle. Periodically we would walk around the school building, from the side of the street and the yard. Our main task was not to allow light signals from windows in case of an air raid. But there hadn't been a single air raid yet.
When I wasn't on duty at the school, I was on duty on the roof of our building, where a local air defense group was also created. Lone German planes started appearing. They didn't bomb, but our AA gunners fired at them, and shell fragments sometimes fell on our roof. The roof was made of metal sheets, but couldn't protect against them. I found an old cast-iron plate and decided to fix it under the roof beams. I barely had enough strength to lift it to its place and affix it with metal spikes - now I had a place to hide if the metal "rain" became dangerous.
During the long periods of attic duty I recalled my mom's, her borthers' and sisters', stories about the times of the Civil War, about how it was "tough" with food and warmth. An idea came that the approaching winter would also be hard. Air raids became frequent and I had to spend a lot of time in the attic. So that I wouldn't be wasting that time I started making a metal stove - "burzhuyka" - out of the remains of roof metal sheets left over from past repairs. The first ever experience of metal work convinced me of the truth in the proverb: "The eyes are afraid, but the hands just do it."
At first I was ashamed of the low quality and feared accusations of alarmism, so I didn't let anyone see my work. But when I did haul it home, I was pleasantly surprised by the approval of the entire family. This "burzhuyka" faithfully served us through the entire winter of the siege.
The "burzhuyka" metal stove that faithfully
served us through the winter of the siege,
1941-42. My first attempt at metal work.
I wasn't a KOMSOMOL member yet, but I was given a task to participate in the examination of residential buildings through the school's KOMSOMOL organization. This work was conducted by the district VLKSM committees on the order of the people in charge of the city's defense. Our task was to get a realistic picture of free or sparsely populated residential space in order to have a reserve for relocation from houses destroyed during bombings. The residential registration data in possession couldn't serve for this. First of all, many of those who left for the summer hadn't returned to the city yet, and second, many people already had relatives and friends who ran away from the western areas of the country living with them.
A group of five people, including me, was allocated a house on the corner of Ekateringof Avenue and Kriukov Canal, between the Mariinskiy Theater and the garden of the Nikolskiy Cathedral. It was a huge house of glum, dark grey, almost black color, with a multitude of entrances. We walked through all apartments in turn, recording. We were greeted differently. Some feared the reduction of their quarters, grumbled, tried to pass their condition as more difficult than it really was. But I don't remember a single case when anyone tried to bar our checks - our mandates worked. But still the majority of residents willingly showed us their apartments and told us of how many people they could accept if the need arose. We submitted the collected data to the October District KOMSOMOL Commitee, located in a building on the corner of Sadovaya Street and Voznesenskiy Avenue. In the same building, after almost 50 years, I was given a document about the right to receive a "Citizen of the Besieged Leningrad" badge.
I had regularly attended the Leningrad Pioneers' Palace for almost four years prior to the war, where a meteorological station was set up in the geophysics sector. The classes were conducted by the already mentioned V. I. Arnold-Aliabiev. The second month of the war was coming to an end, but schoolchildren were still taking shifts at the station; like before, they came to make observations, recorded readings from the instruments. Sometimes I would run by and take a duty shift. Although, previously impossible cases of observers not coming to their shifts appeared. Then our laboratory assistant Iraida Aleksandrovna Martynova would take the shift instead.
I remember well that artillery shells were the first to start exploding in Leningrad, and bombs came later. Approximately in the middle of August, a rumor about a shell falling somewhere in the area of the Moscow Railway Station circulated. I "detoured" there while returning from the Pioneers' Palace and saw a hole in the wall of a large building on the Basseynaya Street, around the third floor, approximately 20-25 square meters in size. You could see the inside of a room mutilated by the explosion through it. The few passers-by were exchanging comments. The majority, as if they were experts, maintained that it was a bomb from a plane, although the nature of the hole spoke differently. People didn't realize yet how close the Germans approached the city. I didn't know that either, but I knew that during the First World War, Germans shelled Paris from the distance of 120 km. That's why, even supposing that the Germans were still far, I wasn't surprised by the bombardment - guns with the range of 200 km could've appeared by this time. I had no idea that the enemy was significantly closer. Their real range needed to be only 20 km.
September came. The talk of our continuing to go to the 10th grade dropped as something obvious. Tolia went to work at the A.Marti Factory, where our father worked, and learned the profession of a lathe operator in a short amount of time, and I applied to the Hydrological and Meteorological Service Directorate, since I had a qualification as a technician hydro-meteo-observer from the classes at the Pioneers' Palace. Some time passed while the question of my appointment was being decided.
Despite the white nights effect being unnoticeable in September, I remember that two or three nights in the beginning of September were strangely light. Possibly, these were far flashes of the Aurora Borealis. It's hard to say who benefited more from this. On the one hand, the city was visible despite the black-outs, but on the other hand, an aircraft was also visible in the light sky. But these nights were calm.
Literature says that the first bombs fell on the city on September 6. I didn't know about it then, and always thought that the first bombing occurred on September 8. Here's how it was.
In the middle of the day I, as always, climbed to the roof at the signal of the air raid alarm. Incidentally, I want to note the difference between Leningrad and Moscow in the alarm. As far as I know, in Moscow they announced: "Citizens, air raid!" We had a siren and then words: "Air raid!" As if this was designed to underscore the absence of differences between the military personnel and civilians. After all, it would seem strange if AA gunners' or a warship's alarm signal began with the word "citizens".
We had a good view in the southern direction from our six-story wing. The northern side was blocked by the seven-story facade part of our building. There, in the south, heavy AA fire started. Aircraft appeared between white clouds of explosions covering the sky. Not single planes like before, but a whole formation of them - tens of aircraft from the look of it. They flew at a low altitude - you could clearly see their engines, shining disks of spinning propellers, details of their tails. The aircraft dropped their bomb loads on the southern side of the city, and proceeded north without changing direction, as if on parade. Where the bombs fell a wall of dust and smoke appeared, rising higher and higher. The smoke didn't settle, didn't dissolve when the planes left, on the contrary, it grew thicker and thicker. When it started to get dark, the lower part of the smoke cloud became colored red, becoming brighter as the darkness arrived. Finally, tongues of flame appeared between the buildings' silhouettes.
The fires continued through the night, and there was smoke above that area even the next day, although considerably thinner. It became known later that Badaev storehouses with food reserves were burning that night. Judging by the width of fire and smoke, not only the storehouses were burning, but the nearby residential and industrial city blocks, right up to the commercial port.
I'll repeat again: as far as I know that was the first bombing in Leningrad. Regular raids started after that, usually at night. A massive daylight air raid was repeated only in the spring of 1942, in April. But I'll talk about that in its own time.
Fire at the Badaev storehouses. September of 1941.
View from an MPVO (Local Air Defense) fire post on the roof of
146 Griboyedov Canal. Drawing based on a 1941 sketch.
On September 9 a heavy bomb hit a residential building on the corner of the Maklin Avenue and the Griboyedov Canal. The house had been built by the A.Marti Factory and its residents had moved in not long before the war. A five story wing overlooked the canal with its side wall, and the building facade of 16 windows looked at the Maklin Avenue. The bomb pierced all floors of the building's end farthest from the canal and turned the range of 4 windows in the facade into a pile of bricks. Walls covered in wallpaper of various colors with rugs, pictures, photographs could be seen in the remaining part of the building... The distance between our house and the point of impact was 300 meters in a straight line. The explosion shook us hard, but all windows remained intact. Some scribblers aiming to present all actions of the Soviet government in black light ridicule the recommendation to glue strips of paper over windows. They only display their incompetence with this. Of course, paper strips would not protect during a nearby explosion, but still the radius of damage to glass would lessen significantly.
On September 11, when it was already completely dark, I was on the roof during the latest air raid and the heavy AA fire, and saw a shadow of some object descending with a parachute flash nearby. The parachute could be seen with sky illuminated by searchlights as background, and only for several seconds at that, until it disappeared behind some buildings. I decided that it was a pilot of a downed German plane and immediately dived into the attic window to sound an alarm. But I didn't even have time to let go of the window frame when our house shook, somethig crashed...
When we returned home after the "All clear" signal (all of us had our posts), we found that the shock wave threw the kitchen window open and a large pot of water standing on the wide window-sill fell to the floor. But the windows' glass remained intact again. It's fortunate that I wasn't on the roof any longer during the explosion, or I could've been thrown off to the ground. I inspected the place of the explosion in the morning a realized what had occurred.
A house on the corner of the Malkin Avenue
and Griboyedov Canal. This is how it looked
2 days after it had been hit by a bomb
during a night air raid of September 9-10 1941.
Drawing based on a 1941 sketch.
A naval mine dropped with a parachute missed the Neva River and fell pretty far from it, on the embankment of the Griboyedov Canal, in the center of a semicircular plaza at the intersection of the canal with Lermontov Avenue. All three buildings with facades looking at the plaza were completely destroyed, and the wooden Mogilev Bridge over the canal was damaged and became accessible only to pedestrians. Later, in 1942, it was taken apart for firewood by a decision of the district council. It was rebuilt only in 1954.
The start of the air raids on the city gave rise to fears of a possible chemical attack. The Air Defense Headquarters required a way to determine the possibility of the spread of chemical substances through the city depending on wind's direction and velocity. A worker of the Leningrad Institute for Experimental Meteorology David Lvovich Leihtman proposed to experimentally determine the dependency of air currents in the city streets on the direction and velocity of wind measured in two or three base points of the city. But this experiment required simulteaneous measurements of wind at base points and at a large number of points in different parts of the city over a significant period of time. The work itself was not complicated, but required a large number of trained personnel. The Meteorological Service could not provide them, and D. Leihtman, who also taught meteorology at the Pioneers' Palace before the war, asked us to participate. Instruments needed were also found, besides the Meteorology Institute, at the Pioneers' Palace and V.I.Arnold's department at the Pedagogical Institute.
In practice, this work consisted of taking readings of the wind's direction and velocity in a multitude of points throughout the city every 15 minutes. The duration of this wind measurement was supposed to be just enough to cover all most likely wind variations at the base points.
The general view of the Pioneers' Palace building.
The left dome of the main wing is marked
by an arrow. An aerometrics observation post
was located there in the autumn of 1941.
In 1941 trams still ran in the Nevsky Avenue.
As a rule, we were on duty in pairs, and served shifts alone only in the most conveniently located points. I got a post on the roof of the main building of the Pioneers' Palace (former Anichkov Palace), at the intersection of the Fontanka River with Nevsky Avenue. The left wing of this building had the geophysics sector premises, V.I.Arnold's office, and there was an exit to the roof in the small dome, inside a wooden booth. Every fifteen minutes I had to raise an anemometer on a two meter pole, turn it on for 60 seconds, simultaneously determining the wind's direction from a pennant or a weather-vane, take readings, calculate the wind's velocity in m/sec from the anemometer's reading, and communicate the results to the center over the phone line laid to the roof. On the very first day it turned out that during strong winds it was very hard to hold the pole with the anemometer with one hand and manipulate the on and off wires with the other. I came with tools and materials - nails and wire - to my second shift. Now the pole could be put into a special stand, and both on and off wires were fixed to hooks with "Start" and "Stop" captions. The work became easier and more comfortable. First optimization!
Many, myself initially included, thought that a post in a spot so high and open from all sides was more dangerous than others - after all, the city was being shelled and bombed. But it turned out differently. Only a shell that hit the dome directly was dangerous. If a shell fell short or overshot - it exploded somewhere far below, and the person on top of the roof was safe. But on the ground - that was different.
I observed many bombings and shellings from my high position. I saw how shells exploded on the Nevsky Avenue, on the Fontanka. I saw the explosions of heavy bombs in various parts of the city, both near and far. You can only be amazed at the miracle that none of our guys were hit by the fragments. Once Faya Samsonova and Garik Slavkin, who had been on duty somewhere on the Petrogradsaya Side, came back all bruised from brick fragments, with their clothes brown from brick dust. A bomb destroyed a house on the opposite side of the street from their post. Nevertheless, they held out to the end of their shift.
After the war I returned to Leningrad on vacation and found out that Slavkin had been drafted in 1943 and died in combat. Samsonova lived in Leningrad through all the days of the siege and survived. She worked on the fire crew of the conservatoire building during the war time.
I remember that the air raids and shellings caused some difficulties with getting to my post by the start of my shift. All movement in the streets was stopped at the signal of an air raid alert, police and Local Air Defense volunteers herded pedestrians into bomb shelters, under cover, under arches. Many times I had to cross the Anichkov Bridge by running despite the whistles and yells of a policeman so I wouldn't be late for my shift.
Late fall, when darkness fell early and it became colder, the necessary data had been recorded and wind measurement were stopped. I didn't work for some time after that and only concerned myself with keeping watch on the roof and the attic and some house work.
Bombings occurred almost every night in October, and air raid alerts were announced 10-11 times during some days. If the signal caught me at home, I had to get up to the roof every time.
Soon I was offered a temporary job as a laboratory assistant at a school for reserve officers of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. Practical meteorology training at that school was conducted by V.I.Arnold-Aliabiev, the founder and leader of the geophysics sector at the Pioneers' Palace. The classes were based in our sector and used our instruments, so it's natural that one of the sector's students was chosen as the laboratory assistant. This school worked until severe frosts began in the end of November.
By that time malnutrition started to affect me noticeably. It became harder and harder to walk to work and back, it was 5 kilometers from our house to the Palace, where the classes were conducted. Initially after rationing was instituted, the rations were large enough, but gradually they started to decrease without any announcements - store shelves simply emptied and there was nowhere to receive what you were due.
We spent our shifts in attics and on roofs like
this during cold autumn and winter nights,
waiting for the "All clear" signal, which would
be heard over the city's broadcast network
as the sound of fanfare.
Drawing based on a 1941 sketch.
My first sign of malnutrition was that it became harder to climb out of the attic window to the roof during air raids. I could manage it in one hop during the summer or the fall, only slightly pushing against the window frame with my hands. Now I had to even make a special stand out of bricks or other attic rubbish to get out the window. Soon it became noticeably harder to climb the steep back stairs from the apartment to the attic, two floors higher. Of course, I had to dress warmer and that played a role. Daylight duty shifts were given to thsoe who didn't have a job at that time, including me. Spending my time on the roof during daylight, I knew all the entrances and passageways from one wing to another and even to neighboring buildings better than those who were there only in the dark of night.
I was on the roof of the southern six story wing during one of the night raids, and my father was on duty on the northern, seven storied one. Germans usually dropped incendiary bombs in large packages of hundreds of units, covering a large area. The bombs were small, weighing 1 kg each, cylindrical in shape with a blunt nose and a stabilizer at the tail. The were made of a flammable metal called "elektron" - an alloy of magnesium, aluminum, and zinc. If the detonator worked the bomb would burn out completely at high temperature that could melt metal. When such bombs fell from a large height and in large quantities, a sound could be heard that was similar to loud rustling and dull whistling at the same time.
That day, or rather that night, a cloud of incendiaries descended on our block. Rustling, hissing, whistling ended with frequent bangs on the metal roofs, loud pops of bursting incendiaries, and blinding bluish-white flashes. The bombs didn't touch our building if you don't count the ones that fell in the yard - they were handled by the watchers below. But an incendiary was flaring up with a bright flame on the neighboring house No. 144, it's side wing. A little more and a hole would be burned in the roof, the beams would catch fire... No watchers could be seen on the roof of No. 144. Father crossed from our facade wing to the neighboring one, but didn't know how to descend to the side one, which was one story lower. I knew that several wooden slats, which could be used as steps, were nailed to the brick wall. I ran there over the roofs and in the darkness and haste caught my foot on a support cable of an antenna mast. I fell with my open mouth onto another cable and bit it so hard that I tore the corners of my mouth and broke four teeth. A shovel that I held in my hands slipped from my grasp and fell down from the seventh floor. I got up somehow, dragged myself to the firewall, climbed over it, feeling for the slat with my foot. Father handed me special fire tongs. Having descended to the side wing, I threw the flaming incendiary down into the dark well of the yard, turned down the burned through metal sheets of the roof, put out the flames in the frame starting to catch fire.
The putting out of an incendiary bomb on the roof of a
residential building. A bomb would be grabbed by special
tongs and thrown down to the pavement where it wasn't
dangerous. Below, it would be put out with water or sand
only for the purposes of maintaining the black-out.
(To put it out with water, it would be thrown into a barrel).
I couldn't risk to use this improvised ladder to get back - I was afraid I wouldn't have enough strength left. I got back through the attic, down then up again, to my apartment. I came in with my face bloody, all dirty and covered with soot. It turned out that my appearance was such that father didn't recognize me when he handed me the tongs on the roof.
I drew a practical conclusion from what happened already on the next day. I climbed to the roof and used a thin wire to tie strips of white cloth made out of an old bedsheet to all wires, support cables, antennas, and other similar things, which made them noticeable in the dark.
The situation with food became worse and worse. The city public transportation stopped in September, I think. But even prior to the complete shutdown trams and trolleys often stood still because of breaks in wires and damaged rails during shellings. By that time artillery shellings became more frequent and more ordinary than aircraft bombings. It was easy to see that the enemy was close, since not only the shells from heavy long range guns exploded in the streets, but also field artillery 105 mm or less in caliber. You could see the traces of shrapnel on the walls of one of the buildings on Griboyedov Canal (No. 156 or 158) even after the war - the shelling's purpose was not the destruction of some target, but the killing of people in the streets.
At that time ration cards were not yet "attached" to any specific store, searching for food demanded some running around the city. I had easier time walking than the others, and I got to be in different parts of the city during such trips.
Despite all the hardships, despite shellings, bombings, starvation that had already started, the great holiday of the October Revolution was not forgotten. There were red flags on residential and commercial buildings, there was the broadcast of Comrade Stalin's address at a celebratory meeting in Moscow and his speech at the Red Square during the parade. And there was an order of the City Council's executive committee about distribution of 200 grams of wine from remaining city stores to all citizens through their ration cards.
We received a large bottle of Massandra rose muscat for our family of four. We assembled around the "burzhuyka" on the holiday eve, had a celebratory supper where my brother and I tasted wine for the first time in our lives. The muscat was great.
It's strange that despite the already noticeable weakness I didn't feel inebriation but only pleasant warmth and sweet taste in my mouth. As if to spite the Fritzes, the holiday took place in our country, and in our city, and in our family.
We gradually adapted and got used to the living conditions dictated by the siege. All life in our large apartment concentrated in one central room. Since autumn, the windows of all rooms were covered with paper shields made of many layers of newspapers glued together. These shields, which didn't let any light through, were made to fit each window and were nailed or pinned directly to window frames, which allowed us to open each window if the need arose. This black-out system had been "developed" by us even prior to the Finnish war of 1939-40, during the Air Defense exercises that had been regularly conducted in the city. When the cold weather arrived, these paper shields significantly decreased the drain of the remainder of heat through the windows. The "burzhuyka" stood on a stand of bricks, it's pipe fed straight into the stove's chimney (we had stoves for heating in those times). All our housekeeping stuff was nearby on the table - dishes and illumination devices. First we had a kerosene lamp, then after the supply of kerosene dried up we started using candle-ends lying around, even those from a christmas tree, but later it came to a small peasant torch. During the day, when it was light, we would take the paper shield off one of the windows. While we still had power, we had to reattach the paper very securely so that not a slightest ray of light could escape. But now, when a candle-end barely lit the room, holes were not dangerous anymore in that respect.
Of course, we could not succeed in maintaining normal temperature in the room with our "burzhuyka". You would have to stoke it continuosly for that, but we ran out of firewood pretty fast. Obviously, we couldn't make the usual stores of firewood for winter that year. That's why we kept up the fire only for cooking. We burned pieces of wood picked up on the street, wood chips, paper, some books, furniture. The cutting up for firewood of our old bent "Vienese" chairs turned out to be difficult. A pair of us could barely manage to cut off a piece of a leg with a hand saw. The difficulties at the fuel front were made worse by the fact that the winter of 1941-42 was unusually cold for Leningrad. Frosts were rather severe, and there wasn't a ingle thaw, usual for this place, throughout the entire winter. As the result, the temperature in the room fell below freezing, the water inside the bucket and the kettle would be ice covered in the morning.
It wasn't easy to get water either. Running water disappeared the same time public transportation stopped working - there was no power, but you couldn't keep normal pressure in the pipes anyway because of constant damage due to bombs and shells. The residents of areas close to Neva used the river water. Our house stood on the embankment of the Griboyedov Canal, but no one would risk taking water from there since Leningrad canals are polluted even today, and in those days the water was almost not transparent. Although, toward the spring of 1942 the water in them cleared noticeably in a natural way as the result of industrial enterprises not working. That's why in areas far removed from the Neva the residents looked for different sources of water supply. Most often they were bomb craters that broke water mains. These craters were filled with water that kept coming under low pressure from punctured pipes. One of such improvised water fountains closest to us was on the Turgenev Square, about one kilometer from our house. It seems like not far, but we needed no less than one hour to bring back 4-5 liters of water - we didn't have the strength to get more. Sewage froze and became clogged due to lack of water. All waste was taken outside and froze into tall snow drifts, or was dumped in the canals, which of course also made it impossible to get water from there even for technical purposes.
There is a lot of information about the food situation in literature, the most trustworthy of which is what was published closer in time to the war years.
I would also like to note some details about what I saw and know from my personal experience. Bread ration cards were not attached to any specific store. They gave their holder the right to buy bread at any bakery in the city. The coupons on a card were dated, and you could only receive bread for the current day and one day ahead. Coupons from a past day became invalid. Of course, bread was only sold by weight, not in units. Food ration cards - separate for meat, cereals, sugar, fats - were also "free" at first, but later they were attached to specific stores according to the place of residence. Because of significant population losses, and also to guard against German attempts to disrupt food supply by distributing fake ration cards, re-registration of all cards was conducted two or three times a month. When eating at a factory cafeteria, a ration card gave the right to receive dinner without regard to where it was attached. The needed quantity of coupons for cereals, fat, meat was cut out of it upon the receipt of the meal. In the late autumn, when even a meager supply of food was not set up over the Ladoga route yet, the declared rations could not be provided, and many Leningradians still have ration cards with unused coupons as a reminder.
The most difficult period for bread supply occurred already after the first increase of bread rations, which happened on 25 December 1941. In the first half of January, due to reasons not connected with lack of flour, but because of short supply of fuel for baking and interruptions in water supply, bread deliveries to stores were disrupted, there were shortages of it, and long lines stood in the freezing cold, not dispersing even after close explosions of shells - people simply fell and pressed themselves close to building walls. You could say that people didn't stand in lines, they laid in them. Those that left the line for any reasons lost the right to return to it, and no amount of begging could help.
A street in the besieged Leningrad. This is how store windows
were coverd with boards and earth, how water was carried
from the bomb craters that punctured water mains,
how the fallen were carried away to their final resting places...
The drawing, based on 1942 sketch, shows a building
on the corner of the Malkin Avenue and the Sadovaya Street.
Bread was delivered to stores from bakeries in sleds which had to be pulled and pushed by two-three people. Interruptions with bread supply didn't go on for long - not more than one week in our district. Still, even these days proved too much for some, and the number of victims of starvation started to increase during that time. More and more often in the streets you could encounter people pulling sleds with bodies of those that died tied to them, barely wrapped in some rags. You could also often see dead bodies in the streets.
In the beginning of 1942 clear allocation and notification was set up with food-stuffs supply. Announcements of the Trade Directorate of the Leningrad City Executive Committee that in the course of certain days a coupon of a ration card (the coupon number was given) could get you such and such amount of such and such product were broadcast and later, when newspaper publishing was reestablished, were also printed. Even if the product quantity was minimal it was available in all stores according to the number of people attached to them, and anyone could get what he was due without any difficulties. Of course, this saved the strength of starving people, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it saved the lives of many. The city's Party organization, the City Council, did everything possible to save the lives of the citizens.
Besides bread, various cereals, fats (most often plant oil: sunflower, mustard, walnut, coconut, flax oil), powdered eggs, sugar, meat, salt were distributed through ration cars, although in small quantities. As far as I remember, there was no defined monthly norm of food-stuffs distribution, it was based only on the possibilities of supply.
Besides the food received through ration cards, different surrogates were in use, pets were eaten, and I must say that a roast cat doesn't differ much from a rabbit, so no explanations are required here. But I should mention carpenter's glue. The bars of carpeneter's glue were soaked in water for about a day beforehand, then they were boiled in water until they completely dissolved (one bar per 2-3 liters of water). To mask the noticeable smell of glue bay leaves, pepper were added - many housewives kept these spices since before the war. You could eat it both hot, as a soup, or after it cooled, as a jelly, especially if you could get some mustard for it.
Something similar was also made out of rawhide, but I must say it was less edible.
For some time after rationing was instituted you could buy surrogate coffee in stores, sometimes even natural unfried coffee beans, and also various spices including mustard powder. We made some attempts to bake flat cakes out of mustard or coffee grounds - mixed it up, and fried the resulting "pancakes" right on top of the hot "burzhuyka" or in a dry pan. It was terribly bitter, but some feeling of satiety remained.
When the frosts came and the half-starved life began there was another source where you could get something to eat - before deep snows fell. The city dwellers made their way to the area of Sredniaya Rogatka and other near suburbs and looked for remains of frozen potatoes or cabbage-stalks in already harvested vegetable gardens. It was risky business because the front line was very close. On the one side you risked to get hit by stray German bullet, on the other - the risk of being arrested for violating the regulations. But if you were lucky you could make decent schi (traditional Russian soup - trans.).
I think that the prohibition of such excursions was well founded. It kept people away from danger, and at the same time was necessary for the rear area's security.
Sometimes we found something unexpectedly pleasant and useful. On the eve of the New Year we decided to raise our spirits by somehow decorating our room and dug out the box with christmas tree decorations. We found that some of them were made of some sweetly edible substance and immediately used them according to their purpose. We always had small stores for light repairs in our house, and we found natural flax paint among them. It turned out that it could serve for cooking.
Of course, as I already mentioned, pets were used as food. Our family had neither a dog nor a cat before the war. But in the late autumn or winter we were able to get cats twice. Father, who had lived in Siberia in his youth and had some experience hunting, took upon himself the difficult task of turning that game into meat that could cooked. It was also difficult because we had little physical strength left, and because we had no tools save for a small crowbar/nail puller. To tell you the whole truth I must also mention that we used not only meat but even scraped the fat off the skin - not a bit was wasted.
We also had other problems besides the hunger and cold, among which was lice infestation. Before the war we knew about that only from books about the Civil or the First World War. In the beginning we couldn't even understand the cause of the constant urge to scratch ourselves. Cold, emaciation, constant nervous tension were not conducive to us taking off our clothes and underwear, and what would we have been able to see under the dim light of a torch?
Where did lice come from? Apparently, we brought them from public transportaion, from lines, from bomb shelters. We managed to fight off this plague only in the spring, with the arrival of warmth and light.
We all became gradually weaker, our strength was leaving us. Mother held out longer than anyone. Father used his last strength to leave for the factory, and we never knew if he would come back. Brother took to bed in the end of December and couldn't even move around the room. Probably our family woudn't have avoided casualties if it wasn't for mom's sister, Aunt Galia. She was a doctor and worked at a hospital. Not getting enough to eat herself, she shared some bits of her military ration with us, bringing once every one or two weeks several rusks or two-three pieces of sugar. Heavy human losses caused special centers for help to the most emaciated people to be organized at the factories and other companies. These centers were called "statsionars". Of course, it was almost impossible to find additional rations for people that were put there. But on the other hand, the accommodations where they were deployed were warm, you could wash and rest there, but most importantly - even though the diet was meager, it was regular. Many people died because they couldn't correctly allocate all food throughtout the period before the following rations were given out, ate everything in the first days, and were left completely without food. Their weakened organism couldn't take it. Without a doubt, statsionars saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Father was also put in the factory statsionar toward the end of winter. He spent two weeks there. This helped him a lot, he came back significantly stronger and it was obvious that the main danger was past. I was also put out of commission for a while in February - took to bed. The weakness was such that it was hard to turn from one side to the other while lying in bed, painful bedsores appeared because of that. In general, Leningradians' thinness and emaciation were such that even several months after the winter of starvation, after rations had been increased significantly, many people who had desk jobs carried specially sewn pillows with them, without which they couldn't sit - bare bones on a hard chair.
As far as I remember, there were very few air raids on the city in the winter months - they were replaced by artillery shelling. Possibly, winter difficulties with landing strips were responsible, fuel shortages, or heavy fighting on other fronts, near Moscow in particular, but the air raid alerts became rare.
Spring was approaching, and the threat of an epidemic hung over the city. Despite all our efforts, there could be corpses in the streets under the snow. All snow drifts had waste poured on them, which could become a source of infection after melting. This could not be allowed to happen, the city could die otherwise.
The city's defense leaders Zhdanov, Popkov, Kuznetsov called on all Leningradians to come out to clean the city. Weak, emaciated people came out, crawled out into the streets and performed a miracle - the city cleansed itself, freshened, and it became apparent that it didn't break. All reserves of fuel were used up, power was given to the tram network, city cargo trams drove out into the streets. People manually shovelled snow mixed with dirt and garbage into them, to be driven away and dumped into the Neva, into canals, from where spring floods would carry it away to the sea. An unusual quiet settled over the city in those times. Factories, not even all of them, barely worked, there were no cars in the streets. Sound carried far in that silence. For example, when cargo trams drove in the Ogorodnikov Avenue, we, at the Griboyedov Canal, could very well hear their bells and the screeching of their wheels against the rails when turning. And the distance was no less than three kilometers. The city cleanup was not limited to this huge effort. The city streets were kept clean better than before the war, and despite the destruction and boarded up windows, the city looked majestic and solemn.
Air raids were renewed in the spring. I remember well a big raid in April. Germans thought to use the fact that ships on the Neva were not yet free of ice, didn't have the ability to maneuver, and tried to destroy our navy. The raid happened during the day. My brother, who wasn't yet recovered from extreme emaciation, and I were home. We could only see the sky completely covered with the white foam of explosions. But the din of the large number of AA machine guns installed on ships and some buildings was deafening. These machine guns decided the fate of the raid. Aiming to hit the ships, the Germans attacked from low altitude, dived toward the ships, but were hit with dense fire at point blank range, couldn't get out of a dive, crashed into ice, water, ground. The navy didn't suffer any serious losses, all damage was quickly repaired by the city's shipbuilding factories. But the losses to German aviation on that day amounted to tens of aircraft.
Spring quickly took control. The city was reanimating. During the winter there had been centers created in many stores, where you could get a glass of hot boiled water, warm yourself. They even tried to make those places somehow cozy, despite the semi-darkness due to the windows being covered with special contraptions made of boards and filled with sand. These protective contraptions reliably protected from bomb fragments, same as the boiled water saved from frosts and helped out many citizens.
Winter starvation caused scurvy to appear in the city. And so, in the same centers that supplied boiled water in the winter, posters appeared with instructions on how to make vitamin tincture from pine needles, and also how to cook various dishes with spring grass - nettles, goose-foot, and others. Soon this healing draught was made available there, free like the boiling water.
Thanks to the spring warmth, light, the city gradually reanimated, its people reanimated, us included. Soon brother was already going to work at the mechanical section of a shipbuilding factory, where he made mine casings on a lathe. I also got to work at a factory.
Preparation for winter started in the city as early as the summer. Medical commissions conducted physicals on people, directed them to be evacuated. In July I went through a medical examination by a commission. The commission's conclusion was that I was a third category invalid for the next 6 months. The doctors made the same determination for all the other members of my family, and in August 1942 we were evacuated.
I rode to Vistula's left bank over a just laid pontoon bridge, to that piece of ground which would later become known as the Sandomierz bridgehead. Rode, not walked, because, out of some mysterious considerations, they didn't let pedestrians onto the bridge, and loaded them into passing cars, even if they had to get off right past the bridge on the other side.
Not having a slightest idea of what was going on there, knowing only the name of the little farm or an estate that was my destination, I decided to get a bite to eat. I tried to find out in a local village where I could boil some kasha from my own supplies, for which I needed a pot and a stove. A scared elderly woman who, naturally, didn't understand Russian, couldn't understand my explanations with getstures either, and kept mumbling something I couldn't understand as well. Only when a tank with its hatches sealed drove past us and, after climbing the neareast hillock, fired its gun, I realized that it would've been more judicious to wait with dinner.
I managed to find the command post of the 1645th Regiment by certain signs pointed out to me at the crossing and was immediately handed from one person to another and finally to the battery commander Senior Lieutenant Yatsuk. After brief introductions, he wouldn't even look at my papers, which I tried to pull out of my field bag, he sent me, escorted by his messenger, to take charge of the second fire platoon deployed in its position.
My predecessor had been killed in recent fighting, and the platoon was commanded by a gun commander Sergeant Shahbazian under supervision of the first platoon's commander, a lieutenant whose name I forgot. Only the names of the regiment commander Guards Major Zatserkovny, the previously mentioned Yatsuk and Shahbazian, and also a gunner of one of my guns Kochetkov remained in my memory from this, first in my life, fighting regiment. Probably, first impressions of the combat environment, of what was going on in the bridgehead at that time, were not conductive to memorization of last names.
The guns, to which I was led by the runner, stood on the gently sloping side of a hill facing the enemy to the west, and were so well camouflaged that I couldn't immediately figure out where they were. The guns stood in shallow circular ditches in a harvested wheat field covered by rows of large haystacks. Similar haystacks covered each gun's shield and carriage. The barrels, lowered to ground level, and mounts were covered with layers of straw.
A firing position at the Sandomierz bridgehead. Moments of calm before battle.
Drawing based on a 1944 sketch. In reality, a gun would be camouflaged more thoroughly,
but if you show how it really was, there would be nothing but straw in the picture.
It became immediately apparent that the ditch differed significantly from those we traced and dug during practices at school. My new comrades in arms soon explained to me the nature and purpose of these differences. Making use of the hours of calm, Shahbazian showed me the German positions, the positions of our infantry (as much as could be seen from the artillery ditch), and also the positions of the neiboring guns of our battery and the entire regiment. As I found out from him, our IPTAP (Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment) did not have battalions, but consisted of six batteries directly subordinated to the regiment commander. I can't say if it was a typical organization of all IPTAPs, but that's the way it was in the 1645th. One battery out of six was deployed in relative depth around the regiment's command post and HQ, but the other five, 20 guns, were in the forward positions, almost behind the backs of our own infantry. There was only one task - hold the bridgehead, don't let the Germans throw our forces into the Vistula. There was non-stop fighting from the moment we forced it because the Germans understood the threat that was posed to them by our bridgehead. They attacked almost uninterruptedly, with large quantities of tanks, so there was enough work for IPTAPs. The commander of the first platoon, who had been informed about my arrival by phone, ran over to intorduce himself, hastily explained the situation that Shahbazian had just been talking about, and gave a practical piece of advice - don't shoot until the last moment, until the attacking tanks come really close. Very soon I understood the sense in this advice.
Fortunately, the guns turned out to be 76mm ZIS-3, familiar from school. An excellent gun, but in 1944 it was becoming somewhat weak to fight the new German armor. It's armor piercing shell couldn't penetrate the front armor of the Pz.VI tank (Tiger) even at almost point blank range. Only the scarce subcaliber shell could help there. And even subcaliber shells couldn't penetrate the Ferdinand self-propelled gun from the front. We were left to hope that there would be less Tigers than main German AFVs, Pz.IV's. Out of thirty cases of ammunition, only two were with subcaliber shells, eight - armor piercing, and the rest - fragmentation/high explosive grenades. There was also a certain quantity of grape-shot, for self-defense against infanty, which gave us a feeling of confidence, but, fortunately, I never had to fire it. (For those unfamiliar with artillery I have to explain that, if a medium machine gun, when beating back an attack, fires practically around 250 rounds per minute, a single gun, firing grape-shot, can create a density 25-50 times greater, and a four gun battery - 100-200 times; moreover, the bullets spread evenly across the front, not leaving any dead ground. Attacking such battery is a hopeless proposition.) The Germans didn't give me any time to get acquainted with my new regiment. Unbroken attacks continued through the entire month of August, and only in the beginning of September, after realizing their attacks' futility and having spent all their strength, the Germans slackened their onslaught. The bridgehead remained in our hands and played a very important role later.
Of course, not only artillery participated in the fighting for the bridgehead, and representatives of other branches of military service, other military specializations, saw everything that went on differently, from different points of view. To me and, as I can judge from converstaions with comrades, to the soldiers of my regiment the scheme of the fighting was the following: After short but powerful artillery raids the Germans would attack with their armor. Heavy AFVs, Tigers and Ferdinands, ascended hills deep inside the German positions and stopped 1-1.5 kilometers from our own positions. The lighter and more maneuverable Pz.IV's continued to advance together with small numbers of infantry. It made little sense for us to fire at the AFVs deployed in the rear. Even in case of a direct hit the shell couldn't cause serious damage at such range. But German tankers waited until our anti-tank battery was forced to open fire at the tanks advancing in the front. A gun that opened fire, exposed itself, immediately fell victim to a well aimed shot from the stationary heavy AFVs. It must be noted that Tigers had very precise sights and very accurate 88mm guns. This explains the advice that I received about not opening fire until the last moment. When opening fire from a "pistol shot range" you could expect to hit with the first or, in an extreme case, the second shell, and then, even if the gun was destroyed, you could still get an "exchange of figures" disadvantageous to the Germans - a tank for a light gun. But if you exposed your position prematurely the gun most probably would've been lost in vain.
This also explained the additional changes introduced to a typical structure of an artillery ditch. Two holes were made to the left and right of a gun's wheels - one for the gunner, the other for the loader. Practically, ZIS-3 guns didn't require simultaneous presence of the entire crew near the gun. Moreover, it was usually enough for only one person to be present. The gunner, after firing, could hide himself in his hole while the loader would drive the next shell into the barrel. Now the gunner could take his place, aim, and fire, and the loader would be taking cover at that time. Even after a direct hit into the gun at least one of the two had a chance to survive. The other crew members were spread out through the holes, side "pockets" of the trench. Practical experience, which was being accumulated in this regiment starting as far back as the Batttle of the Kursk Salient, allowed to minimize casualties. Over the one and a half months of fighting in the bridgehead, the regiment replaced its equipment three times, getting new and repaired guns to replace damaged and destroyed ones, and kept its fighting efficiency while getting almost no replacements in men.
No matter how much I tried to assemble everything that remained in memory about the fighting in the bridgehead into a connected, sequential chain of events, nothing came of it. Separate episodes, separate moments, not connected to each other, maybe not even in chronological order, like pieces of a torn film... That's how they'll have to be written down.
...A quiet August morning. The western side of the sky is still noticeably darker than the eastern side. I stand in the artillery ditch and look westward, toward the enemy. I see how, in a pretty wide sector of the horizon, maybe thirty degrees, small sparkling dots quickly take off and disappear in the ligher sky above, as if a flock of luminescent birds is taking flight. A thought of the Moscow salute flashes, which I have never seen and imagined only by a color panel in the Lenin room of my school, made by an amateur painter. Sergeant Shahbazian, having noticed my glance, also looks westward and suddenly gives a hard shove to my shoulder, so that I fall down. He falls next to me and I hear his voice: "Stay down! Vaniusha's playing!" In several seconds, there is thunder of explosions around us, whistling of fragments, chunks of falling soil plop, sharp smell of burned explosives. Well, it's starting! Crews run to their places without command, get ready for battle. This was my first acquaintance with "Vaniusha" - German analog of our "Katiusha". I can testify, based on personal experience, that the German six-barreled mortar was significantly inferior to our BM-13. Later, during the fighting in Silesia, in March 1945, we were hit by an accidental salvo of BM-13, and I can judge.
...We're in the middle of a battle against tanks. The guns that Germans approached closely are already responding. My platoon is silent. The first platoon's commander runs over from the right flank, ducking, jumps down into the trench: "Do you have anti-tank grenades?" I nod affirmatively and dive under a thin overhead cover, into the gun "pocket" - eight meter long ditch which the gun is rolled into for camouflage and defense. The "pocket" is empty now, the gun stands in its position. There, in the pocket's depth, several grenades are lying together with my greatcoat, knapsack, and field bag. I grope for them in the semi-darkness and as if fall through to somewhere... I regain consciousness from smoke suffocating me. Something lies on top of me, pressing me to the ground, tongues of flame can be seen on top. I climb out pushing the collapsed stakes from the cover aside, branches, straw. The straw on top of the "pocket's" cover is in flames. First impression is as if I'm in a silent film. There, close to us, a shell explodes. Here, in about hundred meters from us, a gun fires, I can feel the earth shake, but there isn't a slightest sound except ringing in my ears. I look around - there is a hole next to me, half filled with earth moved due to proximity with the explosion. There's still smoke coming out of the crater next to it. The lieutenant lies buried in this hole - only his head and one arm are on the surface. I see that he's yelling something, opening his mouth wide, but all I hear is silence. I pull him by the collar of his greatcoat. (A thought flashes: "Why did he wear his greatcoat, it's not cold?") I throw the loose soil aside with my hands. Finally, I help him get out. The lieutenant ducks, moves while bent at the waist, I walk at my full height. I don't hear shooting, explosions - I'm not scared. Only after several hours passed did some sounds start to get through, I start hearing everything in several days, although the ringing in my ears doesn't stop. And so it remains, although almost fifty years have passed. Doctors say: "If it was treated immediately..." The lieutenant said that our position was hit by the artillery raid, a shell hit the cover of the gun pocket and collapsed it, exploding somewhere above my head, in the straw and stakes of the cover, a second one almost buried him in the hole. According to him, about two minutes passed before I came to and crawled out, but in his condition time dragged slowly, probably everything happened faster...
...Latest German attack. The regimental intelligence would later say that up to 120 German tanks were counted in the sector of our regiment. Two or three dozens of them remained there, hit by the guns of our batteries. There is a small farm -- a house and a shed -- to the left of our position, about hundred meters away. Someone from the retreating infantry, apparently to justify their flight, waves his had: "There is tank behind the house..." My gun is pointed in another direction. I show the direction to Shahbazian, the guys turn the gun in concert 90 degrees to the left. We wait. But nothing happens, nothing can be heard. I take an anti-tank grenade, crawl toward the house. Empty! Damn you!... Was I scared? Maybe, but I was really afraid that the men would see my fear. It seems they didn't, but looked at me with respect.
Soldiers' native wit (three guns pulled by one truck).
...After the latest engagement, after an "exchange of guns for tanks" with the attacking Fritzes, the regiment is pulled back a little to the rear. I am sent to the artillery supply depot to get new guns. I need to get three guns, but they give me one Studebaker. The experienced driver reassures me: "It's OK, we'll manage!" I'm not sure about that, but trust in his wit and experience. We arrive at the depot in the evening, it turns out that our turn will come the next morning. The driver drives the Studebaker into a ravine, where several other trucks have already stopped for the night, takes out a shovel, and starts digging: He cuts into the side of the ravine to make cover for at least the front of the truck, for the engine. Estimating the time needed, I decide that even if both of us dig until the morning, we'll barely put the car in place by dawn. But in the morning we'll have to get out to the depot anyway. The driver objects: Fritz won't come bombing at night anyway, but we can expect "guests" in the morning. The depot is an attractive spot for them. Looking at us, drivers of the other trucks also take out their shovels... In the morning the driver backs the truck in the depot, parks it with rear wheels in a side ditch, opens the rear like a walkway, and both of us - here's where the shool training helped - roll one gun onto the platform. The barrel sticks out over the cabin, like on a tank. We attach the second ZIS to a hook in the rear of the truck. The driver looks for a piece of cable to attach the third gun. An idea comes - hook the third gun's mounts around the second gun's muzzle brake. The two of us can't do it, we have to ask for help - after all, it would only take a minute. Hooray, it works! We're "home" by dinnertime, the guns leave for positions, where they will be deployed after dark. We can sleep for a couple of hours...
...Another day of heavy fighting. After paying, as always, a high price in tanks, the Germans drive a wedge into our defense, they advance faster than our infantry and artillery can retreat. Everything is mixed up, a "layered cake" has formed. Ahead of us, and to our rear - both our troops and the enemy. Everything hangs by a thread, a little more and the Germans will reach the crossings... The commander calls for air support. IL-2 ground attack aircraft literally "walk on our heads", slam everything, and there are both our soldiers and Fritzes in one ravine, at its different ends, hiding from bombs and rockets from above. Tanks that weren't destroyed by our guns are burning, skirmishes flare up between our infantry and wedged in Fritzes. Having lost their armor, the Fritzes withdraw hastily. The situation is restored. Of course, some of us were also killed by our own ILs, but there was no other way to save the bridgehead. I found out from memoir literature that those were the aircraft of one of the first five Heroes of the Soviet Union, N. I. Kamanin, working above us, and among them - one of the first cosmonauts G. Beregovoy.
...In the heat of battle, a messenger from the battery commander runs by. We're ordered to roll the guns to the right, closer to the first platoon's positions. I command "All clear!", the gun is in marching configuration, we set out. First we're going to deploy the first gun in the new place, then the other. It's fortunate that we have to roll downhill, it's fast and easy. Upon hearing the whistling of shells, we fall, crawl to the side ditches. The raid is over. One glance is enough to realize that we won't get to shoot - the recuperator is punctured by a fragment. The other crew catches up to us from uphill. The gun's commander holds the two pud (pud = 16 kg) wedgelike breech block in his arms, like a baby. He yells: "Direct hit! I barely got the breech block out." I assemble the men, we retreat in the direction of a grove, which should be occupied by our forces. We have to cross a field which has a huge haystack in the middle, between us and the grove, maybe 5 meters high and dozens of meters long. The Germans can fire at the field from the left with machine guns, and we can get from the side ditch to the haystack only by crawling in a deep furrow for about two hundred meters...
I let my men ahead of me one after another - first of all, the commander retreats last, like the captain of a sinking ship, and second, I'm not as strong and adroit as the majority of my soldiers, and I would be holding them up. Everyone crawled away, now it's my turn. The soldier creeping before me freezes, pressing himself into the ground. The fire became very dense. I yell at him to take off his submachine gun. He pulls the sling of the PPSh hanging on his back over his head. The stock has already been hit by a bullet. The fire subsides. Apparently, I guessed it right: the SMG sticking over the crawling soldier's back was visible to a machine gunner. It's easier for me - I only have a TT. We crawl forward. I run into a drum magazine from an SMG, filled with ammo. I take it with me. We assemble behind the haystack and look where to move next. The owner of the magazine picked up by me turns up: "Here, look, mine is marked, there's a scratch from a fragment!" Soon I hear how the sergeant reprimands him: "Bungler! Must the lieutenant pick everything up behind you?" Although I'm not a lieutenant yet, it still feels nice... Soon the Germans set the haystack on fire with a shell, and that works for us: we leave into the forest using the smoke as cover...
...We bury our killed comrades in the evening. The bodies wrapped in ground sheets are placed in a half filled and slightly straightened trench. Comrades-in-arms, with whom we didn't have time to get acquainted. Two short speeches. The earth falls with a dull sound. Flashes of officers' handguns in the darkness. I salute with everyone... The grave is marked on the commander's map, but there is no marker here. Who knows who will be in possession of this land tomorrow, or the day after.
...There is a wide hollow before the gun, covering it from the front. There is a tank on the other side of the hollow, conveniently showing its side to us. The gunner catches it in the crosshairs. The tank is not heavy, and it's showing its flank at that - the armor piercing shell loaded into the gun will be enough here. A machine gunner next to us (there was a light or medium machine gun for each gun in the IPTAP) suddenly sees how the front of a heavy AFV appears from the hollow right in front of the gun, a long barrel with a characteristic knob of the muzzle brake. A Tiger! The gunner doesn't see it yet in the field of view of his gun sight. And the machine gunner fires a burst at the tank, like a shotgun against an elephant, to attract the gunner's attention. The gun's barrel is lowered immediately, a shot, and the armor piercing shell ricochets off the front armor. And it was only fifty meters! "Subcaliber!" - the gunner yells desperately. The breech block clanks, swallowing the round. Fortunately, both the tank's gun and its driver look upward while the tank hasn't got out of the hollow. The subcaliber shell hits the bottom of the turret at almost point blank range. Apparently, something burst inside, a blue light flashed from all of the AFV's holes. The AFV doesn't burst into flames, but the crew tries to bail out through the hatches. A machine gun burst finishes the business...
...The soldiers that survived the severe battle assemble in a grove, the battery commander Yatsuk sits on a tree stump. Some papers are in front of him on an empty ammo box. He looks through them one after another and signs them. I approach from behind, look over his shoulder. The senior lieutenant is about to sign the prepared notice of my death - a "pohoronka". I clap him on the shoulder, he turns around: "Ah, you're alive!" - the "pohoronka" is crumpled and thrown to the side... Had I appeared one minute later, the notice would've been sent to the addressee. Although, which addressee? The regiment doesn't have my papers, they weren't accepted yet and have already burned up somewhere... My soldiers call to me: "Comrade lieutenant!" They stubbornly don't acknowledge the word "junior". What's that? A sign of respect or are they accustomed to the rank of my dead predecessor? "Comrade lieutenant! Please eat!" A large basket of raw eggs. There is nothing else: no bread, no salt, - but I swallow a dozen, one after another, raw, throwing the empty shells aside. If I had an ear for music, I could sing at an opera. What can you do, you don't know when you'll manage to "fill up" the next time.
...The tension of the summer fighting has already slackened, our defense became solid, and maybe that's why caution and attention weakened. I got hit by a random shot. The feeling was as if my leg was hit by something hard simultaneously form two sides. I didn't immediately understand what happened. I rashly pulled the boot off myself, probably it would've had to be cut off later anyway -- the joint was punctured, and there was strong pain during an attempt to move the foot. There already were soldiers next to me, but, remembering Artamonov's lessons, I took my belt off and made a tourniquet. I gave the holster with my sidearm to the gunner Kochetkov - the sidearm was my "own", unaccounted for, and it didn't have to be passed on officially. They helped me get to, or rather carried me in their arms, to that bridge where our regimental medical car - a trophy of French origin, of Renault make - could arrive. The driver, a huge man, loaded me into the back alone, raised me in his arms like a child, and when I asked if I was heavy, he laughed and told me that when there turned out to be several claimants to this trophy car, he pulled one of them out the same way, and the rest chose to retreat. He also refused help in the medical battalion of some divison and dragged me into the operating room on his own. There were several operating tables in the large tent penetrated by the sun's rays, several wounded were undergoing surgery at the same time, and while they were getting ready to take care of me, I could observe everything that went on in front of me: pulled up sleeves of bloodied gowns, shining instruments... The nurse clumsily tried to take off the apparently unfamiliar to her tourniquet made with a belt. I showed her: "Here's how!" "Well, well, one more time!" I tightened and released the tourniquet one more time. "That's great!" Meanwhile, a large syringe was prepared, they injected half a glass of some drug into my leg around the joint, the leg swelled and went numb because of it. The surgeon made two crosswise cuts in my leg around the entry wound, spread the edges, and, apparently to distract me, advised me to memorize: "A cut 9 by 6 centimeters." "Now hold on, you'll have to bear this!" They wrapped a bandage soaked in something around some kind of a rod, and they used this instrument to clean the bullet hole, sticking it right through. Probably the local anestesia didn't really work on the joint, my eyes popped out, sweat ran down my face and forehead, but I sat with my teeth tightly closed, grabbing at the table's edges with my hands so that finger joints became white. Finally, dressing, a cast, and evacuation to an army hospital.
Comments to Part 2
- What kinds of AFV's did you encounter most often -- tanks or self-propelled guns?
There were more tanks at the Sandomierz bridgehead. They were mainly Pz.IV and VI, no Panthers. There were also SPG's based on tank chassis. We saw equal quantities of tanks and SPG's in Silesia.
- Did the Germans use APC's in their attacks? Were their tanks supported by infantry?
- APC's did not participate in combat -- apparently, they were used only for transportation. Germans didn't use tank riders and their tanks were not supported by infantry. They attacked at high speed, I think no less than 15-20 km/h.
- Did the Germans have air support?
- German air support was insignificant. We had air superiority and I don't remember their armored attacks being supported from the air. They conducted reconnaissance, and also dropped bombs, but only from single aircraft.
- Did our air force help you?
- Yes. They used mainly IL-2's -- terrible things -- they mixed everything with earth. They worked very effectively. Their cannons could penetrate the top armor of tanks without any problems.
- What was the role of a platoon commander in an IPTAP?
- Almost none. Just watch over the general course of action. If the crews were trained there was generally nothing to do. Well, maybe look for some targets for the machine gunner.
- What was your attitude toward the enemy?
We had one goal -- do as much damage to them as possible. We did not feel enmity toward prisoners, although we treated Vlasovites simply -- they did not arrive to the prisoner collection points. I saw almost no German civilians. We entered empty towns in the part of Silesia where I was. Germans led the population away to their rear, leaving practically empty territory for us.
- What was your attitude toward the allies and Lend Lease?
- Of Lend Lease, I remember the "second front" tushonka and trucks, of course. Trucks were very good, especially Studebaker, Dodge, Chevrolet, but a GMC was worse than a Studebaker in all parameters. We thought of the allies with distrust most of the time. Although, when it was announced that the second front had been opened we felt joy, of course -- now it would be easier for us. But later they got stuck, we even had to help them out. So our attitude was not very benevolent.
- What strengths and weaknesses of German guns can you point out?
- When combat qualities are concerned, the 88mm guns installed on Tigers and Ferdinands were very accurate. Although, I don't know if that was connected with the gun itself or the sight, since their optics were excellent. But their field artillery was too complicated. There were very many various devices on a gun. This seemed like a shortcoming to me. It also couldn't be transported conveniently: all our guns had tires made of elastic resin. A gun wasn't as shaken during transportation, and its mechanisms were not upset. But Germans had either metal wheels, or those made of tight resin that absorbed shock badly. You had to recheck all sights after it got jolted during movements. Plus, their guns were heavier. As to the strengths, I would note excellent sights with illumination. The design of their guns even included a place for an accumulator. But it was difficult to work with ours in the darkness.
- How did you choose the position for an AT gun?
- A gun's position was chosen by trying to predict possible routes enemy vehicles would take so that they would present their sides to us, and also so that we could camouflage ourselves. Some placed their guns next to an already existing crater. Personally, I thought that choosing the position next to a crater was a superstition, and we never did that. In general, the guns of an AT battery were placed singly, and sometimes the distances between them reached 300 meters. So, if a tank advanced at one gun with its front armor, another would be able to hit its side.
- What were the difficulties in fighting Tigers?
- You could only shoot at a Tiger's glacis from about 100 meters, and only with a subcaliber shell. An armor piercing shell couldn't do it. But out of 150 rounds we only had 10 subcalibers. But, in general, we didn't need many, it was more likely that you would be hit before expending all ammunition during a serious action.
- How many tanks did you destroy?
- I don't know how many. If there were 5 kills per platoon -- that would be a lot.
- Did you try to finish off a tank so it would burn?
If a tank stopped after a direct hit and continued to fire -- then it had to be finished off. But if there was a successful hit against the side armor, the crew couldn't take and bailed out. So we didn't try to finish it off if there was no need.
- What did you try to hit?
- We tried to shoot at the sides. Although it seems to me that a gunner would shoot at the tank as a whole.
Evgenii Monyushko, 1944
The battery to which the messenger had led me was deployed in an indirect firing position near a small farm. The 76mm ZIS-3 guns were dug in, but they were not sufficiently camouflaged from an IPTAP (anti-tank artillery regiment) soldier's point of view. On the other hand, indirect fire was not the same as fire over open sights. My first PNP (forward observation post) which, like all the subsequent ones, had the call sign of "Dolina-1" ("Valley-1") was located on the northern side of a gently sloping hill 188.1, about 100 meters from the top. A dug-out shelter had been constructed there, cutting into the side of an irrigation ditch, which had a depth of around two meters. Water flowed at the bottom, so you could move only along a narrow path beaten right near the water's edge. Movement was allowed only in the darkness because the ditch was perpendicular to the front line and could be observed by the enemy. Shallow trenches of our infantry ran next to our dug-out and passed to the left, to the top of the hill 188.1 occupied by us, and to the right, to the edge of the town of Dankwitz, still occupied by the Fritzes. The hill was not in the sector of the rifle detachment to which the battery was attached. Apparently, the PNP was not deployed on the slopes of the hill for that reason, although if we were located there, with a good field of view, we could perform our tasks better in the interest of "our" infantry. The presence of my PNP in the infantry combat formations was basically a formality. I couldn't direct the battery's fire myself because I didn't have a map and didn't know the coordinates of the firing positions. But, of course, thanks to the presence of communications, I could always report the situation to the battery commander, call for fire, even communicate with the entire artillery battalion. I could also correct the fire, but only through the battery commander, transmitting the deviation of explosions from the target in meters and directions. The battery commander was supposed to convert them to the required settings for the guns. The main thing was that the artillery men were next to infantry, as required by the field manual.
Our dug-out was small, approximately 2x2 meters, its height -- about 1 meter -- allowed us only to lie, which is easily explained: we couldn't build a tall roof taking the requirements of camouflage into account, and we didn't have any materials for that either. But the water running through the ditch did not allow us to dig deeper. The roof was only boards, straw, and a thin layer of dirt. There was no layer of logs on top. A ground sheet substituted for the door, it was rolled up during daylight for illumination. During the nights we had "telephone illumination" -- a piece of PTF-7 telephone cable, which had cotton insulation soaked in resin that would burn with a dim smoky flame, was hung from stakes driven into the walls of the dug-out along its entire perimeter. In the evening the cable would be lit from one end, in several hours it would burn through to the other. Faces, hands, clothes would be black with soot in the morning. On rare occasion we would get trophy candles -- lampions. We conducted our observation through the "Scout" type periscope, which was stuck right through the boards of the roof. No movement could be seen inside the German positions, same as ours, during daylight. Two burned out tanks stood between our trenches and the edge of Dankwitz. They had been destroyed before our arrival to the PNP. The infantrymen said they had both been destroyed by mines.
The 2nd Battery 9th Art. Regiment forward NP near the town
of Dankvic, on the northern slope of Hill 188.1. February 1945.
Author's drawing, February 1945.
Food was brought to us twice daily: before dawn and after the dark settled. Remembering the German surprise with the cold bath, we constantly monitored the water level in the ditch. A corpse laid in the water near the entrance to the dug-out. A small purling current of water flowed through its back sticking out of the water and left a line of bubbles on the greatcoat. When the water level fell, his line could be seen for some time above the water level. If it rose, there was no distance between the bubbles and water. This alarmed us: 10-15 centimeters more, and we would have to bail out of the dug-out, very probably right under the enemy fire...
Apparently, the hill 188.1 was of interest to the Germans -- our rear could be seen from it to the distance of at least 2-3 kilometers. Once, during the day, the Germans suddenly broke through to the hill. It wasn't difficult with the extremely sparse infantry combat formations. The battalion commander immediately organized a counterattack and beat the Germans back.
This event alarmed the command, and that same day, when the dark settled, the battery commander Metelsky appeared at the PNP with the rest of my platoon. Several holes had been dug into the sides of the ditch next to our dug-out. A small number of replacements arrived to the infantry. During the night the Germans fired on us from a small caliber AA machine gun, installed on an APC. The sound of its engine could be heard very well, and long bursts of tracer shells flew from there to the slopes of the hill. The crackle of their explosions, the sounds of firing merged into one, so it seemed that we were fired upon form somewhere very near. Although, that probably was the case.
Our battery on the orders of Metelsky (the battery commander) started firing almost blindly since we didn't know the exact location of the target, and besides, the Germans fired while constantly changing their position. Still, after several salvos from the battery, the German fire ceased.
The general diagram of the combat area for the 9th Artillery Regiment in February-May 1945.
Scale 1:500,000. The numeralization of the grid corresponds to that customary in topographical
maps. City names are given as of 1945 when possible. In case the name changed, the modern
name is given in parantheses in the original transcription.
The next morning started with a new German attempt to capture the hill 188.1. This time -- after a rather sound artillery bombardment. Although, only the artillery pieces of caliber not higher than 105mm participated, but for no less than 15 minute the fire was so dense, that you almost couldn't tell the different explosions apart in the unbroken roar and wail of shells and fragments. Then the shelling was repeated more than once. The telephone communications were interrupted from the very beginning of the bombardment. Radio operators Ivanov and Burenkov, who had arrived with Metelsky the day before, immediately deployed their A7-A radio set and contacted the battery. As soon as the bombardment subsided a little, a telephone operator Sukhanov was sent on my order to check the line. Time passed, communications were not getting restored, although it was clear that the break was close to the NP (observation post) -- the Germans did not fire at our rear. Then Vania Skorogonov crawled to the line, quickly restored the connection and dragged Sukhanov back with him -- he was lying there alive and well. By that time Metelsky was already giving orders to Shutrik by radio. Nevertheless, as soon as the firing platoons' call sign "Bukhta" ("Bay") could be heard through the crackle and rustle of cables being connected, the battery commander abandoned radio and came over to the telephone operators. Either he, like many during that time, mistrusted radio communications or had an exaggerated impression of the capabilities of radio homing.
In order to finish the story about the hill 188.1, it must be noted that if the day before the Germans managed to capture it even for a short time, this time all their efforts, thanks to the timely efforts of our command, did not bring them even a short-lived success. But all artillery men not involved into directing the battery's fire participated in combat together with infantry to repulse the attack.
Several things about our communications have already been mentioned. I'll discuss this question in more detail.
There were radios of two types in the platoon: A7-A and RBM. The first had a short range: about 10-15 kilometers depending on the receive mode and the condition of its batteries. It worked using the principle of frequency modulation, thanks to which it was less affected by interference. We used the A7-A with a microphone, and in general radio operators preferred the microphone channel, since the majority of them didn't feel themselves too comfortable with the Morse code transmission.
Telephone operator in the dug-out shelter. Author's drawing, February 1945.
I want to emphasize again that the majority of officers considered telephone as the main type of communications. And it was so in reality. A cable phone wire was laid to an NP, PNP at the first opportunity, and if the disposition remained constant for a while, a "permanent" line was also laid. This word was used to call any phone line laid not with the regular telephone cable, but from improvised materials: pieces of various electric lines, many of which remained along roads, different pieces of wire, sometimes even barbed wire. Since such wiring usually didn't have insulation, it was installed on various supports, posts, drawn through the air between trees and ruins of buildings while also trying to establish parallel sectors for reliability and stability of communications. The name came from the similarity of some sectors of such line to permanent lines of "civilian" communications, installed on poles. First, the "permanent" line allowed us to roll up the regular cable before hand, and not spend any time doing that when changing our disposition. Obviously, in the proximity of NP, in areas observed by the enemy, the cable lines were not replaced by "permanent" ones. Second, the use of "permanent" lines allowed us to create better branching communications network. After all, the supplies of the regular cable in the battery were not large -- a total of 10-12 km.
But let's get back to reconnaissance. I can't even remember how many forward NP's Senior Sergeant Kolechko and I changed in a short period of time. As a rule, we were deployed among rifle companies, in the forward positions. It is interesting to compare the various definitions of "forward positions" that exist at different levels. If somewhere they considered the area where the command posts of regiments or even divisions of the first echelon were deployed as the forward positions, the infantry justly considered even the indirect firing positions of divisional artillery as deep in the rear. But I can say without boasting that our "Dolina-1" was in the forward positions from any point of view. I've already mentioned this, but I want to emphasize our limited capabilities at the forward NP again. All actions -- only through the battery commander. There was no map, the location of the firing positions wasn't always known. But still our appearance in the infantry trenches uplifted the spirits of company and platoon commanders, and even privates: after all, the artillery was nearby and would help out if anything happened.
Of course, besides direct involvement in the course of actions, our main task was reconnaissance and the transfer of information about everything to the battery commander and the battalion's chief of intelligence.
The time of the operation that came to be known as Upper Silesian in the history of the Great Patriotic War was coming closer and closer. (The reason the operation received that name is not understood. Maybe, to differentiate it from the just completed Lower Silesian Operation. The operation that began on March 15 was conducted on the territory of Oppelnskaya Silesia (in Polish, Opolskiy Shlionsk), and is called Opolskaya Operation in the Polish military-historical literature. The Upper Silesia itself had been liberated as far back as January 1945.)
The 2nd Battery 9th Artillery Regiment NP (PNP) movement diagram during the Upper Silesian
Operation 15-23 March 45. Scale 1:10000. City names are given as of 1945 when possible.
In case the name changed, the modern name is given in parantheses in the original transcription
Finally, in the night of March 15, somewhere to the right of us where the Grottkau-Neisse highway was, we could hear the rumble of tank engines and tracks, which could be recognized by scouts even in the dark as coming from T-34's. Tanks appeared, it would begin soon! March 15 arrived. The time to commence artillery bombardment came. During the very first salvos, the glow from gunshots and explosions completely blinded the eyes. Darkness and light replaced each other with enormous frequency. The roar was such that you couldn't hear not only speech, but also yelling. It became impossible to observe target destruction from the NP: the explosions blended into an unbroken line of fire, smoke, uplifted soil, various wreckage. Everything flew, flashed... The explosions were storming 300-400 meters from the NP. All unnecessary personnel had been pulled back about a hundred meters to the rear, toward the dug-outs, just in case. But no one wanted to hide -- they believed in the mastery of our artillery men, our equipment. Everybody wanted to see what was going on with their own eyes. Of course, you also had to beware German fire in response, but we didn't get that in our sector.
After the powerful initial bombardment which continued for what seemed like 10 minutes, the infantry reconnaissance detachments moved forward and found out that the Germans had left the first line of defense, leaving only covering forces.
We started to march forward behind the infantry and together with it. At first we tried to lay the telephone line, but then switched to radio, and laid the wire only during compulsory stops. The day of March 15 was sunny, warm, although the morning started gloomy. I remember how hard it was to run up some slope, and there was only one thought -- reach the crest faster, where the first soldiers were already lying, and lie down with them to rest a little. But those on top laid down not because of exhaustion, but because the Fritz was snapping back at us with fire from beyond the crest. We pulled up, established communications with the fire platoons. The battery commanders called for artillery fire... And again forward, further.
Another picture stands before my eyes. A highway passes through a wide hollow from an area already captured by us to the south, toward the Germans. It's hard to move through a soaked spring field for both infantry and vehicles -- everyone assembles on that road. Our group, the battery commander, me, and the bigger part of the HQ platoon (some signalers are at the lines and the firing positions), gradually drifts in the same direction together with the infantry we are attached to. In the hollow, at the lowest point in the road, there is a small ruined bridge over a stream. Next to the bridge a crossing was constructed out of its wreckage. Infantry runs over it, slipping in the mud, and a tank that left the highway inches forward through it. The logs wriggle under the T-34's tracks, one of them presses a mine lying on the ground with its end. The explosion was about 30 meters from us. Wounded, killed infantrymen fall. The tank moves on...
Running, we crossed the stream after the tank. Ahead of us, about 500-700 meters, there was a small town to the left of the road. That was Waldau. A small belltower could be seen over the houses. From there, from the direction of Waldau, several infantrymen had been downed by single shots. Everybody fell to the ground, opened rabid fire with their rifles, machine guns, although it's doubtful that anyone had time to see the sniper, there wasn't enough time for that, and it wasn't that close either. Nevertheless, no one shot at us after that, I don't think we killed the sniper, just scared him away, and the presence of the tank also contributed.
We passed Waldau. Metelsky was cautious and although he kept our group close to the infantry, but not in the common crowd, we were walking several dozens meters to the side of the road, on the left. A narrow strip of an apple orchard crossed our path approximately three kilometers beyond Valdau. The trees were still naked, of course, growing in straight rows. To the front and to the back, from the north and the south, the orchard was bracketed by deep ditches, filled with water. These ditches saved us: when we were already crossing the orchard, a salvo from "Katiushas" descended on it. We fell into the ice cold water, hid in the ditch. Fortunately, none of us were hit.
The second day of the offensive is on. Our tankers are suffering heavy losses. Burned out vehicles, with turrets torn off by explosions, remain in memory, charred bodies thrown out during an explosion, or maybe they had managed to bail out before being mowed down by a German machine gunner. When the fighting was over, in the relatively "quiet" period, I made pencil sketches. Fortunately, some of them still remain.
Winzenberg has just been cleared from Germans. Sparsely built houses, fenced gardens between them, sheds. Beyond a field stretching about one and a half kilometers -- a line of trees, pointed tile roofs can be seen between them. That's Gross-Briezen. Germans are there. Tankers' attempts to break through to it are unsuccessful. Apparently, there are tanks or SPG's entrenched there.
Fighting for Gross-Briezen, 15 March 1945.
An RBM radio set is deployed near a shed's wall on the edge of "our" Winzenberg. The artillery battalion commander Shliahov reports to someone "on top": "...we're fighting for Gross-Brizen. The combat is heavy, boxes (tanks) are burning..."
My spotters deploy the equipment, begin to search for targets. Shliahov enters the shed with some of the battalion's officers: it looks to him it would be better to observe from there through the holes and cracks in the wall. At that moment a shell fired from the edge of Gross-Brizen pierces both brick walls of the shed and with a squealing sound flies on toward our rear. Shliahov and the officer that followed him jump out of the shed, swearing furiously. Both are bruised, their tunics red with brick dust. Fortunately, the shell turned out to be a dud.
An artillery bombardment of Gross-Briezen by all three batteries of the battalion follows in response...
We bypassed Gross-Briezen from the north together with the infantry and armor, and came to the Grottkau-Neisse highway. Fridewalde stretched in a long stripe across the highway going south. We passed through the western part of that town, and captured Mögwitz by the end of the third day of fighting, on March 17.
Unlike Friedewalde, that village stretched in a stripe not across the highway, but along, mostly to the left of it. In two-three houses on the southern end of Mögwitz, facing toward the enemy, a large number of NP's had concentrated in the attics: the artillery was there, and infantry, even the tankers. A market, not an NP. Vasiliy Kolechko was being loudly indignant that the basic rules of camouflage were not followed, but neither he nor I could do anything -- I was only a junior lieutenant. But shoulder straps with even two stripes (major to colonel) were not a rarity there...
Two incidents occurred in the morning of March 18. Germans were still holding Bözdorf -- about a kilometer and a half to the south. Our infantry hadn't yet advanced further than Mögwitz's edge. And suddenly a truck driving on the highway from our rear appeared. 10-12 people were standing in the back, many of them officers, judging by their caps. The truck was driving fast, because of the surprise no one had time to stop it in Mögwitz, it drove past the last houses where our observation posts were located. We started shooting behind the truck... Finally they understood -- started braking, turning around. Germans also opened fire, but they were too late.
We were still discussing what had just occurred, no more than half an hour had passed, when a German passenger commander's car -- a "fritzwillys", as Kolechko put it -- appeared, driving fast toward us. We hesitated in surprise, then ran downstairs grabbing our weapons, but someone from the infantry had already fired a burst. The light all-terrain vehicle flew into a side ditch. We took the driver alive, but the officer riding in the car had been killed on the spot. We found out from the driver that he had been a headquarters representative riding to restore order among the retreating units. He thought that the fighting was on the approaches to Friedewalde, that is 3-5 kilometers to the north. That happens when situation reports are late or outpace the events.
By that time the infantry had reached the line of a small separate house to the left of the Grottkau-Neisse highway, a little to the south of a small Hannsdorf village. We deployed our PNP in that house. For some reason we decided that it was the house of the road supervisor.
The sparse line of barely entrenched infantry stretched to the left starting from the house's walls, and a little to the right, intersecting the highway. Everything inside could be literally swept with fire through the windows with frames knocked out, holes in the walls, and not only by infantry weapons -- the door that separated a room from the kitchen had a circular, as if cut with a compass, hole from an armor piercing shell.
We established communications, deployed the periscope for observation.
The rifle company commander crawled to us for a visit, said that he had no more than 30 soldiers in the sector of about half a kilometer.
After reporting the situation to the battery commander, the NP's location, we received an order to continue observing, wait for further instructions. We stayed for two days there. I remembered some moments.
Three tankers in black coveralls and ribbed tank helmets made their way from the rear side of the house during the day. They declared that they had come to take a look at the road. They didn't pay attention to our warnings about the danger, and even responded somehow rudely to our offer to use our periscope. One of them got up the staircase from the basement, right near the door pierced by the shell, stood up and immediately fell in our and his comrades' arms. The bullet pierced him right through his chest. The tankers crawled away dragging their comrade with them. He either lost consciousness or was dead.
In the evening of May 4 Metelsky ordered me to secure the transfer of the battery NP from Marksdorf to the northern approaches to Tsobten, still occupied by the enemy. There wasn't much time left before dark, but we couldn't afford to wait until the darkness settled for a safe way out of Marksdorf -- we needed time to find an NP with a good view while there was still visibility. We grabbed our weapons and a surveying compass and, together with Kolechko, sometimes crawling, sometimes running, crossed the dangerous sector and set out toward the southern end of Rogau-Rozenau. On the way, despite the deficit of time, we spent a quarter of an hour to look at the visual demonstration of the new 100mm gun's merits -- a "sotka", as it was called. By the way, this was the first and only time I ever saw it in action. The "sotka" turned up here while passing through, as they say. A lone tracked tractor was pulling the single gun to somewhere along the front line. Infantry that was in their positions somewhere on the edge of a farm, had stopped the tractor, and the soldiers tried to talk the senior lieutenant into "scaring" a German tank which they had seen in a village at the distance of a kilometer and a half. The "senior" tried to wave them off, but then he got interested, looked. Kolechko and I also got interested and decided to see how it would end. The gun crew detached the gun on the senior lieutenant's order and rolled it to a convenient spot, assisted by the infantrymen. While they were preparing the gun for action, the tractor turned and backed toward the gun. They took a single shell out of the box, carefully aimed the gun, having determined the distance to set the sight by the map. A single shot -- the tracer shell pierced the armor and the tank burst into flames. And the "gunners", not wasting any time, were already attaching the gun to the tractor. I wished that we had such a gun in 1944 in our IPTAP (anti-tank artillery regiment) at the Sandomierz bridgehead.
Despite the unforeseen delay, we managed to find a spot when it was still light, or rather before complete darkness settled. There were earth walls raised between Rogau and Tsobten, apparently for protection against floods. We decided to cut the trench for the post into such a wall.
Evgenii Monyushko (on the left) and
The attack began after a very short -- about 10 minutes -- artillery bombardment. There were few tanks, there were only 2 or 3 vehicles in a rather wide sector that could be seen from the NP, but then they were the heavy JS-2's. They drove slowly, carefully, not outpacing the infantry, supporting it by the fire over their heads. Nevertheless, the infantry started to advance energetically, and Kolechko and I, as always, also had to move forward, so that we wouldn't lose "our" company in the city. A telephone operator started to lay his wire after us. We crossed almost the entire small town with the infantry. When we got to the south end we were stopped by heavy fire from the Germans entrenched in the last houses in the south. While we tried to throw them out of there, Germans bypassed the town from both flanks and entered it from both east and west, almost connecting in the center, and cut us off. At the same time those still in the city counterattacked.
Before my eyes a heavy machine gun crew, trying to take the position about 20-30 meters from our NP in the center of the town square, was destroyed by a direct hit of a shell fired along the street from the south end of the town.
I didn't have a direct link to the firing positions, the telephone line connected us only to the battery commander who, with the main part of the HQ platoon was in the northern end of Tsobten. Using the map that the battery commander had given me for that day, I was pointing out the sectors that needed to be fired upon, and Metelsky was preparing the data and passing the orders to the firing positions.
When it was found that the Germans that had oozed from the flanks appeared in the town's center between us and the battery commander, I requested fire on that area, which caused Metelsky's indignation, he even said that I couldn't read a map. With difficulty I convinced him that the problem was not in a topographical error, but in the changed situation, about which they didn't even suspect there in the main NP. After that the battery fired several salvos. Soon after the start of firing the connection was broken: either we broke the line ourselves, or the Germans, having found our telephone cable passing through an area already taken by them, cut it. After the communications were broken we had to join the infantry, since there could be no question of fixing the line. We retreated together with the infantry, sometimes crawling, sometimes running, making our way through holes in building walls and fences. I can't forget that if it wasn't for Kolechko, I could've been unable to get out of Tsobten alive. Having run through a small garden enclosed by two meter high walls, we ran into Germans who, apparently not noticing us, were combing the garden with bursts from their SMG's. They were firing explosive bullets, which were bursting in the dense brush, which made it seem as if there was shooting from all sides among the branches. We fell to the ground and started crawling in different directions along the fence, in order to find an exit faster. A dead end turned out to be on my side. I laid down, prepared my SMG, although I didn't have much hope for it. The thing was that the day before that foray into Tsobten SMG's were taken away from many artillery men, including me, to better arm the infantry -- after all, I wasn't supposed to have a sub-machine gun according to the TO&E. Of course, right after we entered Tsobten, I found an SMG which apparently remained from a wounded or killed soldier, but the PPSh turned out to be broken -- it only fired single shots. Because of this I was feeling unarmed and uncertain. Then I felt somebody pulling at my leg -- Vasiliy came back for me after finding a breach in the wall and reconnoitering our way further. After joining the infantry, I armed myself with a carbine instead of the broken PPSh. We fought our way through to the northern end, where we found two battery commanders -- Gavrilenko and Metelsky -- and all the signalers from both batteries prepared to retreat. It turned out that an order had been received to get out of the town to the initial positions and march to a different sector from there.
On the southern edge of the Forst Nonnen Busch forest, about 3 km from Freiburg we became witnesses, and to some degree participants of the last serious combat engagement. Everything that happened after, including in Czechoslovakia after May 9, didn't have such tension. When the advancing infantry, and us artillery men with it, reached the line of the forest's edge, a line of German assault guns started to advance toward us ascending a gentle slope from the edge of Freiburg -- no less than ten on a front of about a kilometer. Urgent communications with the fire platoons. To Malyshev's howitzer battery -- open fire, and the "gunners" -- immediately deploy for direct fire. But it was clear that the Germans would arrive first -- they were already on the move, about two kilometers remained, and our guns were farther, and they also had to take off their positions and deploy on the new spot on top of that... It seemed that it would get hot. And then SU-152's, one of which by accident had almost finished us before that, appeared from behind our backs right through the forest and deployed into a similar line.
The slaughter began after several minutes. Six inch shell of our SPG's literally tore German boxes to pieces, but their return fire couldn't pierce the front armor of SU-152's. The desperate attempt to defend Freiburg ended in ten smoky fires through the entire field.
Comments to Part 3
- Did you personally shoot at enemy soldiers?
There was only one time when no one except me was shooting, and I knocked out an enemy. It was either May 5 or 6 in Tsobton, Silesia. We were encircled and had to fight our way out of the town. We burst into a house, where a group of soldiers assembled, and started searching for where to run next. There was a fence on the opposite side of the street, about 100 meters away -- brick posts and bars between them. I looked out and saw either a German or a Vlasovite trying to climb over to our side. I had an SMG, but I couldn't be certain of a hit at such a distance. I pulled back and grabbed a carbine from a soldier, jumped out, aimed, and fired. I saw how he somersaulted backward, but we were leaving and I don't know what happened to him.
- Was the divisional artillery used to suppress enemy artillery?
Artillery suppression was done by army and corps artillery regiments. They made use of sound ranging and aerial reconnaissance. Divisional artillery took almost no part in that except for suppression of mortar batteries. Divisional artillery's task was the suppression of 1-3 lines of trenches and to support our infantry. They would sometimes give a map case with photos from aerial reconnaissance before an offensive, and that was it.
- Did you fire at specific targets, or by quadrants?
An artillery attack was never conducted simply by quadrants. We always fired at selected targets. Of course, if a group of targets could not be seen from an observation post, then areas where targets were located were suppressed. Everything had to be suppressed to the distance of 15 kilometers from our initial positions.
- What decorations do you have?
An Order of the Patriotic War, 1st degree and Order of Red Star.
|Translated by:||Oleg Sheremet|