I was almost nineteen when the war started. At that time I was a repair mechanic at a big Moscow motor-transport depot. Soon some fellow-propagandist of the district Komsomol committee came and said: “Guys, you are young, aren’t you? So, you could enlist yourselves in the Red Army as volunteers.” And almost all of us, at the head of our foreman, Ivan Kutuzov went to enlist.
We were enlisted in the Separate Tank Company of the 8th Moscow Rifle Division of People’s Militia of the Krasnaia Presnia District (later the division was renamed to 8th Rifle Division). The company commander was Patsenko Boris Kazimirovich, the former second or third secretary of the Krasnaia Presnia District Communist Party Committee (his wife served with the same company as a medical instructor). The political deputy company commander was Iudovich, a Jew.
The armament of the company consisted of 17 T-27 tankettes (small tanks). The T-27 was rather a true plaything: the weight – only 1.5 metric tons; both the armor and the engine – very weak. The entrance of T-27 was trough a hatch in the roof. With my height, I hardly squeezed myself into the tankette. After entering the tankette you should let the hatch cover sink down to close. (T-40 – Patsenko’s tankette was somewhat roomier).
The T-27 crew consisted of two members – a machine gunner and a driver. The latter was supposed to be the tankette commander, but actually they were as equals. In my crew I was the driver and Yurka Sharf was the machine gunner. Our armament was the DT machine gun with just three magazines. Do you think the ammunition was too scanty? There was even a rifle shortage at that time! I heard that an order was issued: to undress killed soldiers before burying them and to give their uniform to the living ones…
By the beginning of September our division went by train to the front. We were lucky: as soon as our train raced past the Viaz’ma railroad station, the Germans ran a huge bombing raid on the station. Everything was destroyed and mixed with the earth there…
Our initial mission at the front was to liquidate a quite numerous German airborne landing detachment that had landed not far from the city of Viaz’ma. Part of it had scattered, and we annihilated the other part. Then we were shifted to the town of Yel’nia area. Our mission was to liberate the town. Just before the attack Patsenko addressed all of us: “Fellows, we must show our worth! Each of you will be awarded with the Order of the Red Banner!” It was so tempting to all of the young crewmen!
We liberated Yel’nia on 8 October 1941 almost without losses – only one tankette had been put out of action. And on 17 October (I remember this date exactly – it was my 19th birthday) our division was smashed violently. My tankette had been hit. It was a direct hit from the Yurka’s side and a shell fragment ripped open his belly and his bowels tumbled on the engine. Another fragment brushed my head just on the rebound and flowing blood covered my eyes. At first I thought that I was killed but in a moment everything had been changed. I rubbed my eyes and saw Yurka dying. To get out of the tankette I began raising myself a little and suddenly a male voice sounded in Russian: “Rus, surrender!” Through the open space between the roof and the hatch cower I saw that I was at rifle point. And I was unarmed – two grenades were at my feet but to take one I needed to stoop – a perfect signal to the German to pull the trigger. I was in a stalemate position! I still pray for this German… Why did he not fire? I lifted the hatch up and scrambled out of the tankette. So I was taken prisoner. They gathered about 15 of us and drove to the Roslavl’ prisoner-of-war camp.
Ordinary soldiers, not the SS policemen, guarded us in the truck. We saw there a few boxes with Soviet strong papirosses (a kind of cigarettes) “Belomor” and with tinned stewed meat. Of course, these boxes were robbed from somewhere. Our guards were generous: each of us was given a can of stewed meat and five packs of “Belomor.” No brutality, no killing prisoners – I have no claims against how they treated us. And I feel only gratitude to those who took me prisoner. Otherwise I could have been finished off many years ago. That German needed only to press the trigger…
What was the camp? A spacious field enclosed with a barbed wire, a wooden watchtower with a weak searchlight, and a barn – the shelter for the German sentries. And ours, prisoners’ position was just earth, although it was October already with its wet weather and snowfalls. Can you imagine it? All – dead, living, injured – all were gathered at random.
I didn’t see any search for the “commissars” and Jews. Every day an employer came, he tried to hire metal turners, metalworkers and repair mechanics. Standing on an elevated place, he called: “Those who don’t want to kick the bucket, can work for the Reich!” Many prisoners offered themselves and were driven deeper behind the German lines. Since my fellows and I were patriots, none of us did.
How the Germans fed us? Three wagons arrived with a huge tube on each. The food in the tubes was half-cooked potato. The feeders dumped out the potato on the earth and people snatched it away some by hand, others – with empty cans. Don’t wonder at them. If unfed – you’d pounce on the food like a wild animal.
On the fifth day being in the camp seven of us came together: “What would we do, guys? We may kick the bucket here.” Since we were young and fervent, our decision was resolute – to escape. The distance between the camp and the forest was about one kilometer. At night we quietly squeezed under the wire entanglement and continued crawling… Fools! We should have crawled farther but we couldn’t bear it any longer and rose to our full height. In a moment the German machine gun began shooting at us from the watchtower. The runaways scattered in all directions. Three of us reached the forest together. Maybe others reached it, too. However, I didn’t see them anymore.
Since the day when I was captured the German troops advanced almost to the border of Moscow oblast’ (province); they seized the towns of Kozel’sk and Odoev. In short, it meant that we had to beat our long way through their garrisons…
We escaped on 22 October and got out of the encirclement on 22 December. The odyssey lasted two months! I still hardly believe in its reality. How could we survive and be out of the Germans’ eyes?
Our main food was the horseflesh. We found a frozen dead body of a horse and cut off a piece. Then it was boiled in a can for about an hour and a half, while the broth foamed. Anyway, the meal remained almost unchewable. Sometimes we managed to find a village that was free of Germans. The villagers always gave us some food.
We passed Kozel’sk, there was a village of Khoten’ (or maybe Khoten’ka) near the town, and the Germans were situated in it. We lodged in a wooden bathhouse at the bank of a river in some 500 meters from the village.
At night we heard a rifle, machine gun and cannons fire not far off. Before dawn suddenly a hubbub and a sledge’s creak from the road was heard. One of us left the bathhouse to see what is going on around us. In a minute he returned and said: “Guys, it is dark outdoors but it seemed to me that they spoke Russian and used Russian foul language.” We decided to wait until dawn – otherwise we could bump into Germans. When the day began dawning we left our shelter and saw a wagon train. The wagon drivers were urging their horses in the Russian manner – and we approached the train. All of these servicemen were dressed in white short fur coats. We asked them:
- Who are you?
- We are cavalrymen of the General Belov’s 1st Guards Cavalry Corps!
Then their commander asked us:
- And who are you?
- We just returned from the encirclement. Enlist us right now!
- On no account! You should go to Odoev. Find the Western Front’s Special Department there. You will tell them everything, then you would be directed to the proper place.
The next day we came to Odoev. Each of us told about himself. I produced the only document that I kept under the insole of my shoe – the reference that voenkomat (the military registration and enlistment office) gave me when I was enlisted. They ordered us to go to our local voenkomat in Moscow. We went to the city of Tula on foot and boarded a train for Moscow there.
We looked terrible – ragged and lousy. It was warm in the train and lice revived. While sitting on a berth we scratched ourselves continuously, and other passengers dashed aside.
I already narrated how before the battle for Yel’nia Patsenko, our tank company commander, promised the crewmen Orders of the Red Banner. I knew where they lived in Moscow. So, on the first day in Moscow after putting myself somewhat in order, I decided to visit him just for a while. I found Patsenko home. How did he survive? I don’t know. There was such a mess during the battle for Yel’nia! Nevertheless, during my visit he was sitting decorated with the Order of the Red Banner, and his wife, our former medical instructor, wore the Order of the Red Star. And I wore just ragged overalls… Much later I was “granted” awards – the medal “For Combat Merit” and the Third Class Order of Glory.
Then, according to instructions, I came in the voenkomat. They directed me to some school building. A moderate formation of those, who managed to tear themselves from the encirclement, stood there before some naval officer. He asked: “Who want to became a marine?” and I raised my hand. I was a sturdily built guy, and he chose me along with ten other lads. The officer asked if I could ski. I wondered why a marine should ski, and he said that we would see there. The officer appointed me the squad leader, and our squad was directed to the Khamovniki Casernes where the 64th Naval Rifle Brigade had been formed. There I presented our group and became a private again.
Our brigade was a unit of the First Assault Army and started fighting in the Dmitrov area. The fight near Belyi Rast was a slaughter-house: marines in their black naval uniform perfectly contrasted with the blanket of snow, and a lot of them lay down there. Corpses blackened the snow blanket. (Later all of those who survived received gray uniforms).
These man-of-war’s men attacked in their special manner. Instead of our traditional Hurrah their war cry was Polundra. Despite the crossfire of two or three machine guns they continued running ahead. To be honest, with my frontline experience, I didn’t run so fast and tried to crawl more. Nevertheless, I still don’t know how I could come through…
Ultimately the enemy was driven out and after the war a monument to us was erected there. Our brigade suffered substantial losses near Belyi Rast.
During that battle I was injured – a fragment hit my buttock and I underwent a short treatment in our medical battalion. After my wound healed up, I was transferred to the 154th Naval Rifle Brigade. There I became the second in the “Maxim” machine gun crew. The first number of our crew was Vasia Tikhomirov. Soon we took part in the liberation of the city of Kalinin (now Tver’).
Later, in February 1942 I managed to pull down a “cuckoo” – a Finnish sniper whose barely visible position was among the branches of a high spruce. Vasia and I dragged our “Maxim” along a forest through a waist-deep snow. A knapsack with a strapped mess kit was on my back. Suddenly I heard something clinked at the mess kit. I quickly buried myself into snow even deeper, as a mole, and told my fellow soldier:
- Vasia, somebody hit me.
- Directly at you or what?
- As if he targeted my mess kit.
We crept to a tree and hid behind it. I cocked my SVT (Tokarev’s self-loading rifle) and asked Vasia to not stir. Meanwhile, I crawled a bit farther and started observing all around thoroughly. Suddenly a branch of a big spruce staggered. It was dangerous to fire: if I miss – my position would be revealed. Nevertheless, I shot twice successively. At first – nothing happened, but then something began stirring among branches and finally it tumbled – the “cuckoo” fell from the tree. Vasia shouted:
- Tolia, he fell!
- I’ll creep up to him. Maybe I’ll succeed in finding something. (At that time we were out of food and tobacco).
- Don’t creep! Another “cuckoo” might be sitting somewhere.
I crept. He was dead but still warm. I took his watch from the pocket. There was a knapsack under his overalls. I opened it but only oats were there – a definite sign that they also had nothing to eat. He was out of cigarettes as well. I killed that poor guy and I’m sorry for him. The same young boy as I was…
I fought until our brigade approached Staraia Russa, where I was injured. My right arm was shot through. Initially I was treated in a front hospital but soon they put me with my arm shoulder-belted in a medical train. Its destination was behind the Ural area, but the way lay through my homecity of Moscow. Since I had all my papers on me, I made up my mind to abandon the train: why should I go to Siberia, let me stay in Moscow.
Well, I came home. My parents were still in evacuation, my brother and I had fought at the front. On the upper floor of the building lived some local VIP, the Kazan’ railroad station commandant. It was said that the roof over his apartment began leaking and he had settled into one room of our three-room apartment. My old friend, a girl, occupied the second one, and the third one was sealed. I removed the seal, then entered the VIP’s room and asked him why was he there. Instead of an explanation I heard his shout: “You, the deserter!”
As soon as the girl and I began preparing to make love, somebody knocked at the door. It was a military patrol – of course, this was my unbidden neighbor’s doing. I explained to the patrol that I was injured but they insisted me to follow them to the militia office. At parting I notified the VIP: “When I return, I’ll throw all your things out of the window along with yourself!”
The patrol escorted me to the 19th Militia Office, where the local Military Commandant’s Office was situated.
Pointing at my shoulder-belted arm, I explained:
- I was going to go to the hospital in the morning.
- Why, then, did they call you as a deserter?
- I don’t know…
I spent the night there and was released. After returning to my apartment, I drove out the VIP and threw his furniture through a window. Then I went to the Navy Hospital on Bol'shaia Olen'ia street. I spent a month there but my arm remainad useless. To complete my recovery the hospital's chief medical officer directed me to the Khosta sanatorium. In Khosta the arm began healing but the fingers needed to be trained for a long time.
As a non-combatant I was directed to the Novorossiysk Naval Half-depot (the same as a reserve or training regiment in the infantry). We were situated in the settlement of Kabardinka and went every day to the Novorossiysk port, where we loaded ships. In early July 1942 the German dive bombers performed a terrible bombing raid against the Novorossiysk port. The destroyer “Tashkent” and two other destroyers foundered. At the beginning of the raid everybody ran into a huge concrete pipe that always served as our air-raid shelter. This time the pipe became overcrowded, and I found myself in about the middle of its length. The fateful bomb fell just before our shelter’s inlet. It was a tremendous explosion and I don’t remember anything more… The rescue party took out survivors. My nose and ears were bleeding. I couldn’t speak. My whole left side grew numb. However, I had luck – all of those who were close to the inlet perished. After that shock I was declared invalid for military service… I can only thank the Lord for remaining alive.
|Interviewed, recorded and initially edited the Russian text by:||A. Drabkin|
|Finally edited the Russian text and translated it into English by:||I. Kobylyanskiy|
|Edited the English text by:||T. Marvin|