I am a native of Lepel', a modest Belorussian town lying in the western part of Vitebsk oblast. My grandfather was born in a nearby village but shortly after 1861, when the serfdom in Russian Empire was abolished, he moved to Lepel'. Both my father and I were born there.
Until the summer of 1939, about 25 kilometers outside the town, passed the border of the USSR and Poland. Therefore many military units were located in and around Lepel' (including the settlements of Borovka and Zaslonovo), and the town itself was a “closed” one. Thus, you may enter our town only by a permit or a written invitation.
In Zaslonovo a cavalry division named after Marshal Budenny was quartered (Zaslonovo inhabitants saw the Marshal several times). In Borovka a border guard unit had its base. There was an artillery-mortary college in the town before the war. Also the famous 79th Rifle Regiment with its cavalry squadron was quartered in Lepel’. Literally one month before the war started the regiment had been relocated westward closer to the new border. We bade warm farewell to all of them, waving at their parting. We knew that it is uneasy at the border but didn’t think that a war was imminent…
After West Belorusia was joined to the USSR in September 1939, Lepel’ was no more a border town: the border stepped westward to the city of Brest. As I remember a lot of refugees appeared in our town at that time. We welcomed them and fed some. Several refugees stayed in Lepel’ for some time but the majority continued their way eastward. Generally, there were very many Jews among them.
In 1941 I was a tenth-grader of the local high school. At that time special attention was paid to a patriotic upbringing of the Soviet youth in all Soviet educational institutions. So, we, the boys, as we were completing our high school education, were afraid of being condemned by the enlistment commission of the voenkomat (military registration and enlistment office). To be condemned was a shame.
After the graduation from the school, a traditional party was set on 22 June, but the war broke everything. And on 24 June the first bombardment of Lepel' occurred. The voenkomat, militia office, and some stores were destroyed. On 3 July, when the Germans already approached the outskirts of the town, a group of five teens, including myself, gathered and started out eastward.
We reached Vitebsk afoot, then through Smolensk we got to Viazma. There we boarded a freight train and journeyed as refugees for three weeks to Cheliabinsk. During that travel we asked many passing military units to enlist us but no one took us. In the Cheliabinsk voenkomat they told us: “When the time comes – we will take you.”
All of us were dispatched to gather ripened crops. There were many young men similar to us there. After some time passed, and we were called up.
I found myself near city of Tikhvin as a rifleman. There were fierce combats there, the city had changed hands several times. In this fighting I was injured; fortunately the wound was not too serious.
After that I was in a hospital for almost two months. When I was released from the hospital, as a person who completed his high school education, I was dispatched in the Tiumen' Military Infantry College. However I had studied there only for four months. Unexpectedly an alarm sounded at night. All the cadets boarded a train that made its way to an unknown destination. We detrained at the Mga station near Leningrad.
Thus, we ended up in the Volkhov Front. At our parting in Tiumen’ the Military College Command told that we would be given the officer’s ranks later, at the front. However, it didn’t happen (therefore, according to my documents, I am still a cadet of the military college!)
Here I was already a commander of an 82-mm mortar crew. During six weeks at the front line I managed to take part in head-to-head skirmishes two times. Besides, it fell to my lot to cross the front line and capture a prisoner for interrogation (a “tongue”) together with a friend.
I’ll start with the head-to-head fighting. The Germans forced their way to our mortar emplacements. Instantly we all, setting aside the mortars, entered into a scuffle. I had luck to come through it. But it was a horror to see how the enemy pierced my friend with bayonet! We managed to hold our positions. Did I kill somebody? I think so. As he fell on me, I struck him with my rifle butt. He fell as if being knocked out, and I ran farther. Who knows, did I kill him or not? Besides, everyone fired endlessly: was it my bullet or someone else’s? Who knows?
I can't remember why two mortarists were dispatched to catch a “tongue.” Nevertheless, my friend and I set off for “special loot.” It took more than 24 hours to stealthily make our risky way about three kilometers deep over the front line. We reached the location of some German unit. Knowing many manners and habits of Germans, we sought out a place where was possible to catch a “tongue.” Our ambush was near the bank of a rivulet. The bank was flat there; the sand was fine and clean. They liked to bathe there but usually several men at one time. Then unexpectedly a pair came. One of them bathed hurriedly and left, as the other calmly finished his bath. At that moment we caught him. Then we found a place for an overnight stay. Next day we dragged him along through the swamps. We spent more than three days to complete our mission and we delivered the “tongue.” Both of us were rewarded with medals “For the Courage.”
A. D. – How did the half-educated cadets fight in a rifle detachment?
V. K. – When we arrived from the military college we had more knowledge than our company commander here. Generally [we] pushed our way through even if there was an opportunity to outflank the enemy or to wait. But you couldn't say anything to your commander. There were many unnecessary casualties with such a command. To take a pillbox you sometimes had to almost blind it with corpses. Also our ammunition service often put us in a spot: sometimes we were even short in cartridges. In 1942 we fought almost barehanded.
А. D. How were you fed in the Volkhov Front?
V. K. – We even received the 100 grams of vodka ration. There were permanent difficulties, however. The area where we fought was a real marshland all around. Sometime when you walk along the trench – you are knee-deep in water. If a wounded soldier would fall into the trench – without someone’s help he could drown in a minute. Naturally, there weren’t routs through the marshland with easy access for transportation. So, we always tried to get something edible by ourselves. Friends told me a story. Once a horse entered the neutral strip and was shot there. A couple of soldiers crawled up to the corpse and dressed the body. The horse-flesh was good. However, we generally ate different food concentrates and some hardtacks and dried-up very hard slices of bread.
A. D. – Why did you fight in the Volkhov Front only six weeks?
V. K. – I was seriously injured, then with my fractured thigh. I “journeyed“ through several military hospitals of our, as they said, great motherland. First I had been treated in the city of Rybinsk. Next were hospitals in the Kirov oblast. I was there for nine months, and underwent four surgeries. Once the hospital officials visited me in the ward:
- We are going to discharge you from hospital. You will be borne home because we don't know when your wounds would heal up.
- I don’t have a place where to go. I don’t know where my parents are, they don’t know where I am.
- Excuse us, we will think over what to do.
In some ten days they returned:
- Here is an authorization to the Disable Veterans of the Great Patriotic War Home for you. You will be sent there.
I agreed, they gave me two accompanying nurses, and with crutches I took a train to the city of Kirov. From there we went by the Viatka River to the city of Sovietsk, former Kukarka. My nurses managed to arrange a wagon for me there, and after passing about 7 kilometers we found ourselves in the Disable Veterans of the Great Patriotic War Home on the outskirts of Sovietsk.
I was there for a certain time. Then I began thinking that I should do something: I have a complete high school education after all. I fetched textbooks and started my preparation for entering some institute. The Briansk Forestry-Economic Institute was evacuated to Sovietsk at that time. I decided to enter it. I was accepted and started my studies. I finished learning in 4 years and was directed first to the Sverdlovsk oblast’, later to the Stalingrad Oblast’. That was a period of planting forest shelter-belts. (You may remember “the Stalin’s Plan of Reforming Nature”).
Later, when my wounds got worse, I managed to be released of my duty and returned to Lepel’.
|Russian text and translation:||Isaak Kobylyanskiy|