I was born in the Don River region but in the prewar years I lived in the Nikiforovskii District, Tambov Oblast’ (province). I completed my 10th-grade education there. I was anxious to be a military man as all the boys were. It was a dream of any boy. Especially after the fact that six of my classmates became cadets of a military college last year. I couldn’t follow them because I was just a 16-year-old teen at that time. I tried to enroll in the Aeroklub (Flying training Club) but wasn’t accepted because of my chronic catarrh. Then I decided to enroll in the Frunze Highest Navy College in the city of Leningrad to become a seaman. After receiving the certificate granting leave from high school I submitted all of the required papers and left for Leningrad. I was enrolled and that was summer of 1941. The war had already started. At that time the nemets? (Nemets in Russian means a German, singular. But in a colloquial speech the same word could mean a great number of Germans as the interviewee did here. Trans) was successfully advancing toward Leningrad, therefore all our cadets who were 18-year-old or older were dispatched in a marine detachment. Those who were younger than 18, as I was, had been ordered to return home at the local military registration and enlistment office’s disposal. (At the same time another opportunity – to enroll in the Navy Quartermaster College – was offered me. Now, most likely, I’d accept it. But then I refused). And I left for my hometown. The way through Moscow was forbidden, so I went through roundabout lines. It took seven days to reach the city of Michurinsk. There were 11 transfers by the way. I had to use freight trains, a raft, and wagons drawn by horses. It was July.
While at home, I started beating down different doors to become a military man. No result! Nevertheless, an opportunity was seized. My brother was the secretary of the local District Komsomol Committee. He received a demand for two Komsomol members who deserved to be recommended in a SouthWestern Front’s special training school. The school prepared its cadets for action in the enemy’s rear: both reconnaissance and sabotage activity. I was recommended as well as someone named Nikolai who had served his time before the war started.
Handing of Guards Banner,
Why did they accept me? First of all I wasn’t a weak teen. I was a good marksman, especially in shooting with a rifle (not only was I awarded with the badge “Voroshilov’s Marksman” but I also took part in the shooting competitions). Being a good runner and skier I had the badge “Be Ready for Labor and Defense” as well. It was very prestigious to have these badges. Moreover, being a student in the 8th to 10th grades I attended my school that was at a distance of 12 kilometers. I think that a 24 kilometer hike each day was good evidence of my physical endurance. And the ability to find my bearings on the ground was also pretty good. All these features contributed to enlisting me in the school.
What was this special school in fact? Three weeks of round-the-clock intense studies and training. The school consisted of several groups. Everyone existed under some assumed name. The students weren’t familiar with each other. Everything was made strictly clandestine. The main subjects of training were collecting military information and explosives training for sabotage. I was better in the reconnaissance.
After three weeks of studies both Nikolai and I were directed to the 1st Guards Rifle Division. (As soon as we joined the division we became guardsmen and were provided with doubled monthly wages while all commissioned officers earned sesquialteral monthly wages. To tell you the truth, I addressed all my wages the Defense Fund. It was not a big sum, some three or four hundred of rubles. I didn’t mail home money orders because my older brother had sent a money attestat (Our parents regularly received the monthly sum that was fixed in the money attestat.) to our parents. Nikolai and I came in the division during its combat at the Yel’nia area. Our initial duty was to guide the recon groups through the front-line no-man’s field as well as to help them on their way back. We were on the list of the “Osobyi Otdel” (Special Department) and wore civilian clothes. At the same time we were placed on the allowance of the regimental reconnaissance company. We managed to guide two recon groups, then our regiment was released from this kind of duty.
On 20 September our division arrived in the city of Voronezh for rest and reinforcement. One more regiment joined the division here, its name was the 4th Voronezh Volunteer Communist Regiment. (It fought as a part of our division until the end of the war).
What was the volunteer communist regiment? An assistant professor of a teacher’s training institute, a Ph. D., was a machine gun platoon commander. A professor of a university, a Ph. D., had the rank of senior sergeant. Actually, both were moved to more proper positions shortly after – such highly educated persons. One of them was moved in the Party office, the other – in the HQ. Moreover, Misha Zubashchenko, a nearsighted man was a machine gun platoon commander! I made friends with him and we fought together up to the end of the war. He died in Voronezh about six years ago…
We stayed in Voronezh only two days, then we returned to the trenches and continued to fight until early November when our division went in the Kursk Oblast’ for rest and reinforcement. At that period the division joined the SouthWestern Front (Marshal of the Soviet Union Timoshenko was the Front Commander).
Being completely reinforced and armed we arrived in the area of the city of Yelets on 28 November. Shortly after Nemets burst through the defense lines, seized Yelets and moved toward my hometown Zadonsk. He was already less than 15 kilometers from Zadonsk. Our division was immediately shifted there to do away with that break-trough and counterattack the enemy. There was 28 days of stubborn fighting. We advanced as far as 150 kilometers. During these fights the division showed its best, and many soldiers and officers were decorated. Besides, all of us were awarded the medal “For the Defense of Moscow.” However, four weeks of persistent offensive combat exhausted our troops, and we were shifted to the rear for the next re-forming. Again we had to start from nothing. And again we found ourselves in the Kursk Oblast’.
Here Nikolai and I were transferred to the recon company and became soldiers of the Foot Reconnaissance Platoon of the 355th Rifle Regiment’s Reconnaissance Company. (There was also a mounted reconnaissance platoon in the company).
Since the end of December 1941 through March 1942 I fought in that company. A lot of casualties, rough going, and risk fell to us in full measure. Don’t wonder – we were the 1st Guards Rifle Division (the first one!) and the Command shifted it from one section of the front to another for “corking” holes in our defense.
A. D. – What was your role in the reconnaissance company? What kind of missions did the company perform? What types of armament did you use?
G. M. – We performed a mission for seizing a “tongue” (prisoner for interrogation) by two groups of recons: the seizing group and the so-called supporting group. Our seizing group consisted of sturdy Siberian guys. They were able to bring down a bear not just a man. I was quite good in shooting and was always a member of the supporting group.
Guards banner of the 1st Guards Rifle Devision
My preferred weapon was the five-cartridge carbine while most recons liked submachine guns (SMGs): German “Shmaissers” or our PPSh, PPD. The SMG maid a lot of noise but it wasn’t a good weapon for hitting the mark. With my carbine – just shoot and “Yes! Hit!” Once I had our rifle “Mosinka” but with my commander’s permission I used the carbine in all recon actions. Besides, we took hand grenades “limonka” and knives while preparing to a recon mission.
How did we act in a mission for seizing a “tongue”? Sometimes we failed to perform the mission noiselessly, and the Germans organized a pursuit. In that case two guys of the seizing group were leading the “tongue,” and the rest of us made covering fire for the withdrawal. It was a great success to hit one or two pursuers: the Germans would lay down and we took that moment to leave quickly.
We undertook seizing operations on rare occasions because of their complexity. I remember some cases when members of a group were scattered while withdrawing and they had to reach their trenches one at a time.
Once Nikolai and I during such an operation, somehow broke off from the main part of the group. Then at night I lost him somewhere although it happened in winter and it wasn’t too dark out. Ultimately, I reached a neighboring regiment’s trenches. (At that time I still wore civilian clothes, therefore they initially had taken me for a spy but soon everything turned out OK for me). But Nikolai disappeared. Either he perished or the Germans had seized him. Three nights running we were seeking him on hands and knees. I managed to find the place where we had lost each other, so, the circle of the search was shortened substantially. Alas, we found neither him nor his corpse. We also questioned neighboring peasants – they didn’t hear about Nikolai. Thus far I don’t know what happened to him.
Recons never leave their fellow soldier to the mercy of fate, even his corpse. Fortunately, when I took part in the reconnaissance operations nobody in the group was killed. We did have injured, we did have losses. Only a handful of my Foot Reconnaissance Platoon’s members had come through the war…
(By the way, to seize a “tongue” wasn’t a big problem in summer and fall of 1941 because the Germans were absolutely arrogant and impudent at that time).
Shortly after that unsuccessful operation I stopped wearing civilian clothes and wore the uniform. Usually we wore camouflage overalls.
The infantry reconnaissance has many duties but its main mission is to know everything about the enemy. While in defense, we conducted an uninterrupted round-the-clock lookout from our trenches and O.P.
Starting a mission into the enemy’s rear we always were absolutely sober. A rigid taboo: no tobacco, no alcohol. Our company commander, Captain Astapenko, was a very strict man. At the same time he was careful – a true “Batia” (Daddy). Before a group’s departure he examined every one of us: no item of your munitions could make a noise. And you should have the reserve ammunition and dry rations.
Sometimes we performed long missions into the enemy’s rear when we would have to spend a day or more there. To clear up the situation we went by night and questioned local residents. Usually they helped us but some feared to give direct answers or answered unwillingly. We understood their fear, it was natural. At the same time none of our groups were betrayed.
Usually the regimental command spared us, avoided using scouts as common infantrymen. Nevertheless, sometimes we had occasion to repulse attacks. Below is an instance of such a situation.
Once I saw what the “psych-attack” was. It happened in late November 1943, shortly after our arrival in the Yelets area. The Germans were drunk and attacked us in rank with their SMG rattling. All of our wagon train men momentarily skedaddled sitting in their wagons but we remained in the trenches. I shot my rifle killing at least five Germans and I didn’t feel any pity for them. To shoot – was welcome. However, I was unable to stab with a dagger or to strike a blow with a bayonet. Most likely that was the reason for expelling me from the reconnaissance platoon which happened in April 1943.
Well, I'll continue the narrative about myself. In March 1942 our regiment was shifted to the Khar'kov area. There was a hard situation there. Our predecessors defended a small bridgehead on the opposite bank of the Severskii Donets River. While taking their place we were under enemy’s fire. Our regiment fought there for six weeks running. There was the hardest and bloodiest combat there. The nemets tried to push us into the river. It came to a situation when the rifle companies lost almost all of their enlisted men. To fill up these losses, at least partly, many soldiers of other regimental detachments were transferred to rifle companies at the very beginning of April. And I was shifted to a rifle company, too.
Initially I became a Degtiarev machine gunner. It was not complicated but it lasted a short time. The battalion received 50-mm mortars and the mortar company’s commander, a guy of Voronezh Oblast’, Pavel Roshev by name, invited me to pass on to him. At first I refused because I felt that I already became no stranger to the rifle company. But he insisted and ultimately I agreed. So I turned into a mortar man.
My new commander was a sergeant-major in a rifle company before the war. When the commander of that company was killed in action, Pavel became a rifle company commander. After the regiment was completed with 50-mm mortars Roshev was appointed mortar company commander. Running a few paragraphs forward, I should tell you that shortly after I became Roshev’s subordinate we were rearmed with 82-mm mortars. Simultaneously a mortar battalion was formed in our 16th Guards Rifle Regiment of the 1st Lenin Order Guards Rifle Division. That was completely another matter – a good mortar. At first I was the charger, then I became the corrections setter, and my next position was the mortar crew commander. However, as soon as the regiment starts on its march – everything would be on your shoulders (sometimes only two men per mortar remained).
In battalions and companies of a rifle division you had to carry everything yourself while marching. As long as I became a mortar man, everything – mortar barrel, mortar tripod and base plate, shells, the rifle, cartridges, the knapsack, the gas mask, etceteras, etceteras – everything on your hump. And our rush marches were up to 100 kilometers long. We started on our march just before dusk at 3 something p. m., it happened in winter, and marched all through the night. Halt. What is halt? Straight away we threw ourselves on the snow and fell asleep. Then commanders started shaking us: “Hey, rise to your feet!” And the march continued. It was so hard! I must confess that once I had thrown everything but my weapon. Even my own knapsack. It was very difficult to go, and the command put up with such occurrences. As we were given anti-tank grenades – some time passed and nobody carried them. They gave those to us again, and we justified their loss: ”There was a bombardment…”
To make our life easier we tried to get a horse somewhere. You could encounter an ownerless horse in fields either lightly wounded or of some collective farm.
A. D. – Please tell more about your new mortars and their usage in actions.
G. M. – The main advantage of the 82-mm mortars was the curved trajectory of its shell (firing angles – from 45 to 85 degrees). It was able to reach the target everywhere. Usually we fired from a covered position, 300-500 meters behind our infantrymen's trenches. In special cases our positions were nearby the trenches. Our observers took their positions at the very front line, sometimes even ahead of riflemen's trenches, and corrected the fire by phone.
We always tried to place our mortars so that they would be invisible to the enemy. When the front line became stock-still besides the main mortar position we always prepared both reserve and dummy ones. All of them were camouflaged.
After the main position was dug out we performed zeroing the mortar, while our observers corrected the results. All readings were recorded by the numbers of targets. Then we sat and waited for a next order.
Usually we fired in salvoes – fired a shot and quiet down. If needed, we corrected the readings by our observers’ instructions (somewhat farther or nearer). You can’t fire shells one after another. First – the barrel would glow. Second – as time passes, you would have to correct the readings slightly.
There was in late summer 1942 one more reason to restrict spending mortar shells. The Red Army tried to store up enough ammunition for the defense of Stalingrad, and we were ordered to use the mortar shells sparingly. Rifle cartridges – as many as you want but not the mortar shells! Our company experienced a troublesome situation on that subject in spring 1942.
Once the Germans launched a battle reconnaissance with a force of a battalion or more. They attacked only our regiment. To repulse the attack our mortar company commander spent some 300 shells. Can you imagine: they wanted to prosecute Pavel Rochev! He was rescued only by the fact that the attacking Germans had been hit by the hail of our mortar shells and returned to their trenches. Fortunately, in several following months the situation changed and we always had an ammunition allowance.
Well, I’ll continue describing our mortar company’s missions. At the very beginning of enemy’s attack we started neutralizing its weapon positions according to the numbers of targets and the data that our commander enumerated. Then, as the enemy started advancing we shorten the distance readings according to our observers’ instructions. In offensives we usually didn’t fire during air raids and artillery preparation. As soon as the bombardment stopped, our mummy-infantry went forward and simultaneously the Germans abandoned their cover from fire, we began working more actively. When two or three German trenches became ours, the mortars should be moved ahead, and we disassembled them in a moment for carrying in three parts. You put the barrel on your shoulder – that’s all; the base plate is heavy but the tripod is the least comfortable part. We took our new emplacements. At the same time our observers took a new OP and the signalmen lay the wire. Then we performed a new zeroing and became ready to fire again.
Let’s return to spring 1942. We stayed at the bridgehead until 19 April – my 18th birthday. By the way, I still didn’t drink vodka before and during the war. Just a teen! Didn’t drink in the right way until 1944. However, at this time as we were shifted from the bridgehead and I survived with my life, the company commander said: “Go, take just a sip!” and I did. Then I walked about the new regiment’s location and boasted that it is my birthday today.
After a brief period of rest and reinforcement – again in action. We were shifted to the Yelets area again. By summer 1942 both German and our positions were gripped firmly. Three rows of wire entanglement, land mines, antitank mines, communication trenches… At our section of the front nemets didn’t show his activity for a quite long time until we found out his unexpected local shifts. It seemed suspicious. Maybe the enemy tried to test our vigilance? To clear up enemy’s intention our Command called for a “tongue.” Both the regimental and divisional reconnaissance detachments maid several attempts to seize a “tongue” but they were unsuccessful. Finally the Command formed a group of volunteers to solve the problem. Somebody reminded them that I was a former scout and they invited me to take part in this mission.
The head of the group was the reconnaissance platoon commander but his subordinates – machine gunners, mortar men, riflemen, and a combat engineer. Strange composition! On the other hand, however, we permanently had our observation post.
Our preparation and training lasted four days, then we set out in search. There was a waterlogged ground adjacent to a narrow rivulet amid the no man’s land. The opposite bank was a little higher then ours, and a little way away we saw a ruinous village with a nearby well that Germans often visited to take on water. Our plan was to make an ambush near the well.
During the short summer night our combat engineer made a passageway through the obstacles and we reached the planned place. We were already lying in wait when two Germans approached the well. One was stabbed straight away and we seized the other silently. As soon as the group moved away just a little they discovered us and opened a drumfire from machine guns and mortars. Flares brightened the area. We were ready for such course of events. We knew each small rise and recess on the surface there. So we continued to crawl slowly. When we reached the rivulet a hail of mortar shells covered us and wounded one of the two scouts who led the seized German. Somebody heedlessly lay the “tongue” face down into water, and a gurgling was heard. Fortunately we reacted in a moment – we had to deliver him alive! Just bringing his papers – that would not do. (Much later I had read somewhere that a recon might be punished for delivering a dead “tongue.” I think it was just a made-up story). If you deliver a live “tongue” you would be awarded. That was one of my reasons for joining the group voluntarily. Our mission was a full success. All of us returned. And I received the “For Combat Merits” medal for it.
In November our division was shifted from the front line. We boarded a train and rode to Saratov Oblast'. Our route passed close to my home and I performed a short unauthorized absence to see both my mother and sister. I managed to catch up with our unit in the Tambov railroad station. I got away with my absence because I was a veteran in the regiment (only rare soldiers and NCOs started their service in the regiment as long ago as in 1941). Our Chief of regimental HQ knew that fact and was kind to me.
Finally we found ourselves in the city of Atkarsk, Saratov Oblast’. Here our rifle division had been turned into a mechanized corps. That was quite another matter! A miracle! A fairy tale! Since then – everything had been carried by trucks: ammunition, mortars, mortar men. Our trucks were domestic ZISs and since 1944 – Studebakers.
Our corps consisted of three mechanized brigades. Each of them included a rifle regiment, a tank regiment, a “Katiusha” battalion, an anti-aircraft battalion, and two artillery regiments. I was in the third brigade.
After the new formation had been brought up to strength and fully supplied we were shifted to Stalingrad and took part in the battle for this city.
We had no significant casualties while encircling the German army, and our victorious westward march was as long as some 300 kilometers, up to the Morozovskaia station. The Germans waited for us there and sent their bombers at our formation. It was manslaughter. Something terrible! Out of 85 mortar men only 17 came off unhurt. We barely assembled five mortars. Moreover, there was an artillery battery in our regiment. Only four men remained after that bombardment. Four men and two guns!
Because of the losses we were taken out for re-forming. Then – again into the Khar’kov area, to the Severskii Donets River’s bridgehead. Once there, our company seized two German field guns. Some our soldiers knew how to operate them. They turned the guns round and started shelling the enemy well until all the shells were spent. The only kind of German light armament that our soldiers liked to use were their CMG.
We caught it hot there in the late December 1942. I received my share there – a bit wounded and shellshocked. Generally, the Lord spared me. For the whole war I was only once lightly wounded and once shellshocked – couldn't speak for two days, just mooed. Nevertheless, I refused to be hospitalized, came to myself in he regiment. I always feared being dropping behind my unit.
In summer 1943 we took part in the liberation of Donbas area and Zaporozhie Oblast’. Then near Krivoi Rog Nemets struck us a little. It is natural – a war is the war! You can’t only advance by marching. At one moment we are striking him, at another – vice versa (but not so hard as we did).
After all of that we were shifted to the city of Poltava. What do you think: how long did we stay in the city? A year! There were battles everywhere, our armies were thrashing the enemy, and we were staying in Poltava. There were rumors that Markov, the former Chief of the Corps’ HQ, who became the Red Army Armored Troops Commander, tried to save us. Those were just rumors, however.
Actually our unit had been remanned gradually. Who were the enforcements? Most came from the liberated territory: former prisoners of war and the so-called okruzhentsy (men who were in a “pocket” and managed to stay there as local civilians). Many of them were permanent inhabitants of western region of Ukraine, rare okruzhentsy were from its central part. Some joined guerilla commandos. Some just joined a local family. When all of them had been called up they wore their civilian dark-colored outer clothing. Therefore they were nicknamed “chernorubashechniki” (men who wear black shirts). Initially the general attitude toward those newcomers was somewhat unkind. Not hostile one but a bit slighting: “You were sitting here, eating galushki (Ukrainian small dumplings), while we were fighting against Germans.” Later, while in action, they fought no worse than others.
Our armament and equipment came in gradually, too. American Sherman tanks as a part of the lend-lease program were among them.
We had plenty of training during that period, both shooting and tactical. In spite of the fact that I was a veteran of the regiment, I underwent all kinds of training, including the break in by tanks, on a level with the recent recruits. (I have to confess: during the practices with the tanks, as I definitely knew that this was a friendly tank and there was just a training ground, not a front line, anyway my heart sank. Some couldn’t take a hold on themselves and leapt out of the foxhole. Anyway, they should return to the training.)
While staying in Poltava we also rendered assistance to neighboring collective farms in-between times.
An uncommon event happened to me when we still stayed in Poltava. I was summoned to the Chief of the Regimental HQ, Lieutenant-Colonel Serafim Ivanovich He told me fatherly:
“We want to direct you to the Saratov Tank College. You’ll go there, then some six months of training. You should understand that meanwhile much water would flow under the bridge. And the main thing – you’d be still alive.”
I refused and Serafim Ivanovich got angry. He summoned for his deputy and ordered him to send all my documents to the Saratov Tank College.
Before leaving the HQ I asked:
- “Comrade Lieutenant-Colonel, please keep me in my mortar company. I don't want to leave it. ”
Actually, by that time I was an old-timer in the regiment already. Most in my surroundings were respectful to me. Recruits and newcomers asked me a lot of questions, and I explained everything to them conscientiously. I felt that I was a competent person in their opinion.
Meanwhile, all papers for my departure were prepared. What might they do: an order is the order. However, after reaching the Khar’kov railroad station I returned to my unit. Let be whatever should be. They forgave me! Another guy was dispatched. At that time Lieutenant-Colonel said:
- “Why did you act as a lightheaded boy? We just wanted to do the best for you.” And I was pleased to remain for the whole wartime in the same unit. It was a great experience…
I parted with our mortars, however, in fall 1944, before our departure from Poltava. I was shifted to the control company and became one of liaison officers.
A. D. – Where did you fight after Poltava? Can you mention some memorable facts of that period? What can you say about Wehrmacht and armies of Germany’s allies?
G. M. – We started fighting in Hungary and completed our operations in Austria. Initially our troops in southeastern Hungary advanced quite well but in March 1945 the Germans managed to strike us powerfully and forced us back from the Szekesfehervar up to the Danube (Duna) River.
You asked me whether it was a retreat or “drap-march” (a rout). My answer has a single meaning: it was an organized retreat. By order only!
Let me tell you what I think about the “drap-marches” on the base of my own experience. Of course, it takes all kinds to make this world. However, most often men of the rear services initiated our routs. As soon as something alarming happened – their wagons and trucks were already rushing at full speed. In contrast to them a battle-tried unit would retreat, not flee, only if its ranks are dispersed.
I experienced a rout in February 1942 not far from the city of Shchigry. I served in the reconnaissance company at that time, and our group was on its way back after some mission. I don't remember why I reached our trenches while other recons were still on their way. Being in the trench I started to disassemble and lubricate my sensitive PPD SMG. At that very moment Nemets pressed hard: air bombardment and artillery preparation, then tanks and infantry that followed them. Our ranks wavered and a real rout began.
I rushed through a thick layer of snow and … ate up a loaf of bread on the move. Maybe because of the fear?
Very soon we restarted our offensive actions and pressed the enemy again. So we entered Austria and, while getting over hard resistance, advanced toward Vienna. After Vienna had been seized, we fought only a few days in the second half of April 1945, then a great event happened, while Berlin still resisted Red Army’s offensive, – our corps and an American unit had united there in Austria! We stopped fighting forever! That’s it!
What can I say about German soldiers? First of all, I’d like to remind that Germans are Germans – the most organized people. You don’t need to repeat an order or commission you once gave them. In 1941 they surpassed us in both being provided with armament and battle experience: Germany fought since 1939 and occupied most European countries. It had many satellites and almost the whole of Europe worked for Germany.
In 1941 German soldiers were confident in their victory, they were arrogant. And they considered us as uncivilized human beings.
Initially they were both haughty and impudent. You brought a “tongue,” who doesn’t want to say a word but “Hail Hitler!” Nevertheless, as soon as you deliver a good blow to his side he becomes talkative.
Germans’ arrogance began evaporating during the battle for Moscow (November -December 1941) that ended in an important Red Army’s victory. Besides, the Germans weren’t ready to bear the severe frosts of that winter. They warmed their leather boots with large “bast shoes” maid of a braiding straw and tied a shawl round their ears. All of them tried to sit snug in settlements. That was very apropos for us, reconnaissance men. (At the same time we were provided with short fur coats, winter caps with earflaps over a thermal lining, mittens, and valenki (kind of felt boots. That was absolutely another matter).
In general the Germans were good warriors, they fought to the bitter end. As I remember, they never surrendered collectively as a group or detachment. Even shortly before the end of the war. It might seem – Vienna’s neighborhood, April 1945, – that’s all, completed kaput! Nevertheless, we had to take houses by storm as panzerfausts flew out of them.
Now a few lines about Germany's allies. Romanians aren't fighters at all! They were absolutely different from Germans. They had to fight for the sake of Germans. After being struck they walked out with “Hitler kaput!” and gave up by the hundreds. Magyars were worse than Germans – harsh men and good warriors. We had some troubles from an Italian aircraft unit near Stalingrad. And I never heard about Finns at the central fronts.
A. D. – Please tell us more about the Soviet soldiers’ mood during the war. Did it change by 1945 in comparison with 1941-42? What do you know about samostrels (men with self-inflicted wounds), deserters, and traitors in your regiment? Did you fight against Vlasov’s anti-Soviet fighters?
G. M. – First of all I can say that there weren’t overt pessimists and defeatists in my direct environment even in 1941 and 1942. Well, some soldiers could be affected by the enemy’s propaganda that “the colossus on loamy feet” was just about to crash down. However, most of us had been in a fume and felt a strong desire to take revenge on the occupiers.
At that time the ranks didn’t know the plain truth about our losses. (For example, only recently I got to know that four of our armies were encircled during the German offensive toward Moscow in 1941). Our military political workers and Soviet propaganda “worked” well and we received just a restricted portion of the actual information. Usually it was dim, too. I believe that our propagandists did a proper job that supported soldier’s spirit. Of course, everyone was worried regarding our losses, and questions ran through our minds: “What next? What do our leaders think?” Nevertheless, our patriotism was high! And our belief in the ultimate victory was strong. The successful battle near Yel’nia was a good stimulus for us. At that time we struck the Germans properly.
Your next question concerns samostrels. Yes, we had those. There was a good guy, a sharp-sighted observer in our mortar company, a Kazakh by origin. I was thunderstruck when it came to light that he shot his own arm through. It is easily recognizable. That’s all – military tribunal and death by shooting. As a rule, the execution was performed before eyes of the regiment’s formation.
There was another episode in the regiment. Several soldiers formed a circle and one of them threw a grenade in the center to wound everyone in the leg. They weren’t executed the same day. Maybe they were dispatched to a hospital first.
I heard about one more way to evade participating in combats – to raise your hand over the parapet of the trench. However, I never witnessed that stratagem.
Yes, our hearts were heavy because of the endless retreat. Of course, this fact isn’t an excuse for samostrels but…
Football team of the 1st GMC, Austria 1945
Everyone wanted to come through. Regarding myself, the very last days of the war were uneasiest ones. You knew that the war was quite possibly coming to the end tomorrow and at the same time you knew that you could be killed shortly before. By my personal experience – I was afraid. I asked my fate to let my life last longer…
During the battle near Budapesht the Chief of our regimental HQ, Colonel Zernov, executed the artillery battery commander by shooting for non-fulfillment of a combat order and skedaddle. I think that Colonel Zernov’s action was justified. However, his deputy had been investigated but escaped serious penalty (he was just temporary arrested and in five days released from custody).
What was the special group in our regiment that prevented deserts and revealed the samostrels? Its name was Osobyi Otdel (Special Department) and its staff numbered some five men whom we called osobisty. Everybody tried to be somewhat farther away from them. We also knew that there were unrevealed Osobyi Otdel’s informers in all of the regimental detachments. I can’t contend that osobisty took part in executions – I never saw them among members of the shooting command.
The last part of your question concerns the traitors and Vlasov’s anti-Soviet fighters. Here are several my accounts on that topic.
After the battle for Stalingrad we seized a traitor in some village. We thrashed him well but he was not executed.
Near Budapesht we captured a member of Vlasov’s unit. The end of the war was yet around the corner, we were liberating a half of Europe – and the Vlasov’s unit was still fighting sharply! We disdained the Vlasov’s men – they fought together with the Germans against their nationals.
We treated that Vlasov’s guy as he deserved. No execution – we just put him into a center of a narrow circle of our men. Each of us punched him once or twice. Of course, later we were somewhat scolded for such a behavior.
Back in summer 1942, when we were holding the line, three or four our men deserted to the Germans. Most of them were inhabitants of Ukraine who had relatives in the occupied territory.
Later a group of three had been unveiled – they plotted to desert. As it was said, they planned to slaughter our outpost initially and then to desert carrying both the captured soldiers and their personal armament. Somehow it became known and all of the three were arrested. Startlingly the ringleader of the group escaped, the military tribunal sentenced two others.
A. D. – Please tell us in details about bloodless aspects of your life at the front.
G. M. – I want to start with the sanitation, hygiene and medical treatment. All of the following accounts are based only on my personal experience.
To wash oneself at least the upper part of the body and the head was a hard problem for each of our infantrymen in winter 1941-1942. Our dugouts were dug in a hurry. So, only during a relatively long rest in a hut you could wash yourself somehow. The lousiness was complete and utter. In a frosty morning you scramble out from the dugout, take off your military blouse and underskirt. Then you shake out and throw down the lice.
To tell you the truth, all of local residents were lousy, especially the inhabitants of recently liberated villages. All buildings were ruined there including the bathhouses if any. Nevertheless, thanks to our medical company none in the regiment fell sick of typhus.
Only during our three-month-long trench warfare in spring 1942, were we able to make ourselves almost comfortable. Each platoon had a separate dugout. Each brigade had a bath-tent with casks and boiling water; a room for disinfecting underclothes. We had one bath-day per week. Later, after our victory in the battle for Stalingrad, we found a lot of underclothes among other captured material.
The Germans were cleaner and neater than we during few initial months of the war, they didn't suffer from the lousiness as well. While in defense, they made themselves comfortable: their dugouts were tidy, even (owing to the loot) decorated like palaces. However, by winter 1941-1942 when they had already experience a series of telling blows and their spirit visibly lowered, the Germans became lousy as well. Morale and mood of the troops were of great importance. Our guys fought regardless of their own lives. Of course, everyone had the instinct of self-preservation, but we went forward for the sake of Victory!
Regarding the everyday medical treatment, i.e. not during the combat time, I can say that none of our soldiers suffered from catarrhal sicknesses, common cold or pneumonia. You can only wonder! It is winter and you are in the open air for two weeks running – and no sicknesses! You lie down on the snow and fall asleep in a moment. Somebody wakes you in an hour so you do not become frozen and you begin dancing. While you are warming up, another soldier falls asleep on the snow… And again – no sicknesses! I think it could be explained only by our strong mental exertion.
(In fact, I had contracted benign malaria in 1944 when we were staying in Poltava. I wasn’t hospitalized and recovered successfully with quinine).
Just a little about our nutrition. In general, we were fed quite well. Nevertheless, in hard situations anything was possible, especially in winter. Sometimes they delivered to the trenches frozen bread and some cold liquid resembling a soup. We had to saw that bread.
No doubt, a very important item of our provision was the vodka ration – 100 grams daily while at the front line. As soon as the regiment was shifted to the second echelon, – Good-buy, vodka!
I never drank vodka at the front, and a friend of mine, Misha Zubashchenko, drank it with pleasure. So, we organized an exchange: I received Misha's tobacco in return for my vodka ration. (I want to explain that a sergeant-major of any company always kept in reserve some kind of provisions, especially, vodka. How could that reserve appear? Each morning the sergeant-major gave the HQ a so-called formation note in which he stated his company's number of personnel. Very often that number diminished essentially during the day but the size of provision would be shortened only since next morning. That was a usual source of sergeant-major's reserve).
Sometimes our recons committed thefts of foodstuff. It must be admitted that in 1941, when I still was serving in the reconnaissance company, we were sometimes involved in thievish adventures. At that time we received the dry rations but it wasn’t enough for young men. Therefore we liked to rummage in others’ wagons and share our spoils with the sergeant-major. Once a rear services officer caught me in a wagon. He snapped his pistol off and aimed it at me: ”I will shoot you at once!”
Sometimes we grabbed a little in villages. There were in our mortar company two inseparable friends, who grew up in an orphanage. Both were among the best mortar men. A case of taking from civilians happened in some village of the Kursk Oblast’. At that time all of its inhabitants were down-and-out. The pair found in the house where we stayed a “treasure” – some hidden lard and grabbed it. Later we heard the voice of the mistress, who couldn’t find the lard. She complained to her older daughter: “Such a misfortune! Such a misfortune! I wanted to treat our guests and now I have nothing to give them.” Soon the guys furtively put the lard back. (Both perished in the Stalingrad area. They were good guys. What a pity!)
I think that I should mention one more side of our frontline reality which was related to inevitable consequences of the war – the burial. There was a special burial platoon in each regiment. As a rule we tried to bury our lost comrades and sometimes we did it by ourselves. Usually the place of the burial was a nearby settlement, so the comrade's family would know the address of the burial place. Unfortunately, more often we were unable to bury our comrades, especially while in an encirclement or during a fast retreat. Sometimes we retook that place, then our burial platoon did its job.
A. D. – What were the interrelations in your regiment? How did you treat the fresh soldiers, the warriors of different ethnicities, the women, who served in your regiment? What about your commanders and leaders of the USSR?
G. М. – As a rule, our reinforcement took place when we were at a second echelon or somewhere at the rest. I don’t remember a fresh soldier being untrained. Nevertheless, when they came to the company special studies were organized and all of us willingly helped them to get used to our life. There wasn’t a case of a bad treatment of any newcomer.
The multinational composition of our troops was rather a positive feature. Only some natives of Central-Asian republics, especially poorly educated peasants, notably distinguished themselves: they didn’t know the Russian language and often gathered separately speaking in their native language. We treated them indulgently as if they were our younger brothers, and never despised them.
All of us loved Ukrainians (their nickname was khokhly) for their songs. At the first opportunity they began singing. Usually these songs had raised our mood. Although I had never sung, I always took pleasure in hearing Ukrainian songs.
By the way, sometimes we heard German songs. They turned their loudspeakers on and addressed us: “Rus, give up! Rus kaput!” Shortly after we heard their songs, mostly marches.
Now about our female combat friends. There was in each brigade a medical company and medical platoons. Their main personnel were women. We also had several female typists. All of soldiers and officers treated these women warmly, with deference and loving care. I can’t remember a case of some improper behavior toward women. There were intimate relations but exclusively by mutual consent. Our 4th Deputy Chief of regimental HQ married his subordinate a young woman-typist although he had a family somewhere in Rostov Oblast’. One more friend of mine also married a typist. Another woman of our brigade became pregnant and left for her home. I don’t know who her lover was.
You wanted me to tell about our attitude toward commanders and leaders. I can say only kind words on my direct commanders. I experienced their good treatment during the whole war.
You could hear talks at the front that Voroshilov and Budionny, the Civil War heroes, aren’t proper Front Commanders in a modern war. Nevertheless we liked them in the old manner. We liked also Molotov and believed in Stalin.
A.D. – What can you say about the relations between Red Army troops and foreign civilians?
G. M. – As you remember, we stopped fighting in Austria after uniting with Americans by the end of April 1945. Our regiment was shifted to a village of Marisdorf, where we stayed with local inhabitants. Three soldiers and I stayed with a family of six – father and mother; older daughter and two of her children, and younger daughter around 18-year-old. Later we got to know that they had also a son, who was a soldier and fought somewhere against the Red Army. There was nothing special, however! Although the war didn’t come to the end yet, both sides didn’t feel any love but no hostility as well. That family treated us with caution, they feared us.
Regarding pillage and rape by Red Army troops – I don't know about facts of rape at least concerning our and local women where we fought or stayed.
There was no need to plunder – we seized a lot of trophies. I didn't take any spoil: how to carry it by myself? At that time we were allowed to send home small parcels. My older brother, an artillerist, stayed after the war in Germany. He managed to send home several parcels. No extraordinariness – just soap bars and fabric.
By the end of the interview I‘d like to share with you a short story about my personal trophy that fell to my lot, but not for long. It was a wonderful motorcycle “Gillet” made in France or in Belgium. The motorcycle was with a sidecar that I smashed quite soon. I managed to journey across the Alps. I saw the sights of Alpine castles. Beauty! Extraordinary sights!
Then an order “Deliver all spoils!” arrived, however I wasn’t in a hurry to deliver my “Gillet.” Unfortunately, they took strong measures for non-compliance with the order. As a result, they put me in the guardroom and took away my wonderful motorcycle. In fact, that guardroom was a kind of sanatorium. After all we already were the victors. I was under arrest in a common house, my brothers-in-arms guarded me. In a couple of days I was released.
|Finally edited the Russian text and translated it:||I. Kobylyanskiy|
|Edited the English text:||T. Marvin|