Semion Chumanov

Probably, there is no injustice more bitter than death of a comrade on the first day of peace. Here it is - the spring of victory. Sunshine. Our "Katiushas" stand covered up, having finished firing at Konigsberg (Kaliningrad). On May 9, when the final victory over fascist Germany was announced, our 3rd Battery of the 12th Guards Mortar Brigade, where I served as a gunner, was having a holiday banquet. Obviously: 100 grams of vodka, victory salute into the sky. Ever smiling lad from Moscow, cook Volodya, was pouring holiday slop from the field kitchen into soldiers' mess-tins. And a stray bullet of the improvised salute hit him in the temple. Volodya became 32nd among the soldiers of our brigade who died over the years of the war.

- Semyon Akimovich, maybe you confused the number? Because at the frontline soldiers died not in tens - in thousands. Or are you trying to say that guards mortars always fired from under cover, behind the backs of the infantry?

- Nothing like that. Later, in the beginning of 1944, when we received UK-31U units with a range of 12 kilometers, installed on Studebakers, the ability to fire at the enemy from afar appeared. But before that the range of our rockets was two and a half kilometers. We manually carried rockets weighing 120 kilograms each, parts of the 240 kilogram launch frame. Polutorka, in whose trunk all this was transported, stopped about two kilometers from the frontline. And so at night we hauled this heavy weaponry through the infantry ranks. Assembled and installed launch frame, loaded the rockets, aimed. The squad pulled back, to the waiting position, but the commander remained in a foxhole, squeezing the firing mechanism, in fact a mini-generator, in his hands. At the signal he turned the handle - the fuses fired - and four rockets were launched at the target, another turn - and another four rockets cut the morning sky with an awful "UUHHHHH!" sound. Imagine the power of the salvo if a battery has 12 of such weapons systems. Or sometimes the entire brigade fired simultaneously at the enemy - more than a 100 guards mortars! This happened during the liberation of Novgorod (the brigade received an honorary name "Novgorodskaya" for those battles), same occurred during the breaking of the siege of Leningrad. Just this January the 55 year anniversary of this breakthrough was marked. But not many remembered what role rocket artillery played at the fascists' crushing defeat on Siniaviskiye and Mginskiye Heights. At Leningrad the Germans built strongpoints practically impenetrable from above: up to 18 layers of closely spaced rails, with concrete poured on top. Even a heavy aircraft bomb would have trouble penetrating, and it would also have to manage to hit it. But our rockets shattered those monsters. Of course, our preparation has to be taken into account. While the defenders of the City on Neva in the beginning of the siege had a limit - two shells per gun and one per howitzer a day - and still they did not let the fascists capture the city, we did not spare ammunition. A salvo of a brigade's guards mortars fits a 14 second interval. And in these seconds a standard 60-car freight train worth of ammunition crashed down on adversaries' heads - more than 10 brigades were firing!

- Impressive, Semyon Akimovich. Basically, in the history of the Great Patriotic War very little space is allotted to rocket artillery - apparently due to it being classified.

- There was strict selection into these Guards units. Height - no less than 180 centimeters, appropriate health, education - 10 grades or a special college, "clean" background. Well, God did not pass me over with height and health, I did not lack for strength, even if I didn't bend any horseshoes. And the background... We were a large peasant family. Lived in Bashkiria, the village of Khalilovo. In '32 the entire family moved to Ishimbay, as they said in those times, "to oil". In the '30s people were sent "to oil" like in the '50s to virgin soil. We kids carried dinner bundles to our fathers at the bore-holes and ourselves wanted to become oil workers. In the August of '42 they brought us conscripts to Moscow. At the Izmailovo grove we made dug-outs and started training - 14 hours a day. Oh, did we suffer, especially in the first two weeks! In pairs we dragged 120 kg "pigs" to a distance of minimum two kilometers. Without rest stops, over broken terrain. Often at night. Or - four of us would manually transport a heavy frame. We were drained, and wanted to sleep all the time, so sometimes we dozed off while carrying a load and on the move. And in October or November we got to participate in battles to liberate Velikiye Luki. After kicking out the enemy we looked at the results of our work. Everything was plowed over, bored, nothing was whole, nothing alive: everything scorched, burned.

- Did you really fire with incendiary rockets?

- The rockets of our "Katiushas" were HE. But their power was murderous. So the fascists severely hated guards mortar crews. Shellings, bombings... I was lucky. In the beginning of '43 a shell exploded next to our "polutorka". Shell fragments made 12 holes in my greatcoat, and another hit my leg. Basically, just a scratch. Another time a carbine in my hands was cut in two by a mortar shell fragment. However, one time it was worse. During the night we were firing from a sparse grove, then the infantry advanced over the corridor laid by our fire. And I remained in a foxhole, next to a launch frame. So there I am, waiting until my battery lads arrive and send a guard to relieve me. Time drags on, my stomach seized from hunger, thirst: my water bottle is already empty. I come out to the edge of the wood and ... A fascist fighter is diving straight at me! He opened fire. Me - I'm running back to the grove, dodging. But he, the bastard, didn't grudge me a bomb. Explosion. I regained consciousness aready at the hospital. Got well after the shell shock, came back to my battery. We were like one family. We not only fought together, but also loved to sing, and some had "problems of the heart". In those times our youth played inside us: I hit eighteen already at the front. That's why the death of every comrade affected us deeply. Our brigade's path was not easy - from Velikiye Luki, through Staraya Russa, Novgorod and Tikhvin, to Leningrad and beyond, through Estonia and Latvia - into East Prussia. Of course, by those times we acquired experience and technique, covertly approached a target, fired a salvo - and in the space of a minute left the firing position. But Germans needed 3 minutes to determine our position, make calculations, and open counter fire. And they hit an already empty spot. Although, in the beginning the crewmen on Studebakers didn't feel themselves comfortable remembering that 40 kilograms of explosives are placed between the cabin and the launch frame so that the vehicle could be destroyed at the possibility of its capture by the enemy. Secrecy! Later, of course, we got used to it: death walked next to us anyway. A bullet, just as a bomb, is dumb. In the spring of '45 in Prussia the Germans detected us on the march, started bombing. We drove the vehicles under the trees, laid ourselves in the roadside ditches. The Germans finished bombing, flew away. I get up, shake my lieutenant, but he is lying face down. A bomb fragment entered the back of his head. It's true that infantry got to see more enemy blood, although their own too. We, however, almost always saw the blood of wounded and killed friends, although the damage from us to the enemy was also significant. I finished the war in the rank of corporal. I've also been decorated: Order of the Patriotic War 1st degree, medals "For Bravery", "For Defense of Leningrad". And after the war, having demobilized in '47, I did become an oil worker, like I dreamed in childhood, worked in the oil rigs of Bashkiria, and later, for more than one decade, in Prikamye.

Interview:Mikhail SMORODINOV
Translated by:Oleg SHEREMET


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