Ivan Garshtia

Published september 27, 2010

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I was born in 1926 in a Moldavian village of Bul'boka, Orgeiev District, Kingdom of Romania. We were a family of eight: the parents, four daughters and two sons. Like the majority of Moldavian peasants we had a hard life. Since our family had a small piece of land, we didn't belong to the poor peasant category. The family didn't starve but at the same time we experienced serious difficulties in regard to clothes and footwear. Therefore we had to earn additional money as hired men.

I completed four grades at the local elementary school and the next three grades at the secondary school in a neighboring village. Although the elementary and secondary education was free, our parents couldn't afford to educate all of their children - my sisters didn't attend school at all. I was eager to continue my education and in 1938 my father even rode me in the city of Kishinev. I passed the entrance examinations in a high school successfully but the tuition exceeded our means.

N. Ch. - How did your family and neighbors feel when Moldavia since 28 June 1940 became a part of the USSR? What had been changed after that? Did people feel that the war was around the corner?

I. G. - Not only our family but almost all of our landsmen were waiting for such an event. Therefore we welcomed the Red Army cheerfully. As I remember it, since 1938 it was rumored that Moldavia would enter in the USSR but these talks were punishable. There were also rumors of a "Soviet landing commando" which supposedly was acting in Moldavia:

Our village was rather poor. There were only four prosperous families that owned more land than the others. There was also in the district one major landlord. He and the mentioned families left for Romania.

There weren't memorable changes after Moldavia became a Soviet republic. First of all you should consider that in the next June the war started. There wasn't enough time to organize the collective farms, however such plans already existed. All peasants were told to finish sowing. Several men were drafted for military service in the Red Army. Our village didn't experience the dispossession of the kulaks (comparatively wealthy peasants who employed hired men labor). Nevertheless, four of our men were arrested and we never heard a word regarding them. Their families, however, weren't affected by any further oppression. Among the four arrested was the father of my future wife. Like most of our inhabitants, that family was of scanty means. For example, the floor in their house was earthen. We suppose that the cause of his arrest was the conflict between him and the head of the village administration. After the war we tried to ascertain his fate but nothing, absolutely nothing became clear:

You asked me if the villagers felt that the war was imminent. Don't forget that we were common peasants who didn't read the newspapers, and there was no radio in the village. For example, I remember what an emotional shock our villagers experienced when they saw for the first time in their life a movie, namely the Soviet movie "Peter I." There was neither a spacious room nor a screen, so the movie had been projected on a whitewashed outdoor wall of a house. After the end of the movie many of our peasants approached the house and touched the wall: So you can make sure that we knew few things and understood little. Nevertheless, I remember that my parents stocked up salt, matches and kerosene. Moreover, before the war started almost all of our Jewish villagers left the village. Only four of the poorest families remained. Their fate was tragic: all of them were shot on the outskirts of our village. My father along with our local priest and a few villagers went to the Romanians and begged them to release at least the children, promised that these children will be baptized. Alas, everything was in vain. The soldiers snatched the unhappy children from the hands of their parents:

N. Ch. - Please describe the life in your village under Romanian occupation. How the occupation came to the end?

I. G. - Our village was occupied at the very beginning of the war. Therefore none of villagers were mobilized for the Red Army. There weren't combats or skirmishes in the vicinity of our village. We also managed without a permanent Romanian garrison. In 1943 and 1944 so-called Armata Neagre (black army) existed. It was a kind of a labor army: mobilized people were setting up a defensive line for the Romanian army.

In all other aspects the life of the landsmen had changed just a little - people worked hard as before. Most likely the taxes had increased. I vividly remember piles of belongings near the village administration house. These things had belonged to people who didn't deposit the tax total by the due date. If the owner wouldn't pay the tax by the final due date, his/her things was to be sold. Where could a poor peasant find money?

Not many our landsmen were drafted for the king's army. My father was born in 1887, so he wasn't drafted either for the Romanian army or the Red Army. And in general, Romanian rulers didn't give credit to Moldavanians. Even the primar (headman) of our village was directed from Romania. To tell you the truth, I don't remember any special facts of oppression in our village during occupation period. Nevertheless, people still looked forward to being liberated.

When the Red Army began nearing the Moldavian border the intensiveness of building the defensive line not far from our village increased. Our landsmen including me had to dig trenches and set the wire entanglement every night. As the front line neared to our village tightly the Romanians forced all inhabitants to evacuate to the rear village of Tabere, about ten kilometers from Bul'boka. I still remember that sunny day when a long column of our villagers left their homes for Tabere. By that we were spread before the eyes of the Red Army troops but they didn't fire at us. Only a few old men bluntly refused to leave their houses. It didn't help, however. Romanian soldiers took every valuable thing that they managed to find in the abandoned houses. Moreover, they broke and destroyed many household goods.

We returned to our village the same day and began putting our homes in order.

N. Ch. - Ivan Antonovich, how can you explain the fact that you and all of your neighbors greeted the return of the Soviet rule? Why were you happy to participate in the war even not knowing the Russian language and after a very short experience of life under the Soviet rule?

I. G. - While living in Romania, we, the common peasants, had no prospects; we were doomed to work for the well-to-do all our life long. We couldn't attain either an adequate education or a good profession. The tuition was beyond even our, not a poor family's strength. What can we talk about if we had insoluble problems regarding clothes and, especially, footwear? When Soviet rule first came to us in 1940, different wares such as fabric, clothes and footwear were delivered in the village right away at prices that were acceptable even for poor peasants. And people saw that it is possible to live in a different way. They saw the most important difference - totally another treatment of citizens. People supported Soviet rule and were ready to fight for it because of its humane treatment of common people as well as of the opportunity to attain a good education and prospects in their life.

 

 

N. Ch. - How did you start your military service?

I. G. - Literally on the third day after the liberation of Bul'boka, a Red Army captain already appeared in the village. He spoke Romanian a little and loudly summoned all men to gather by the village administration office. All men ages 18 to 50 underwent to the draft, only blindness could be the reason for not to being drafted. Altogether about 500 men were enlisted. We, the youth, rushed to be enlisted first. We were young and foolish, didn't know what is the real life, and didn't see what is the war:

At that day I wasn't 18 years of age yet. Moreover, I was a short teen nicknamed as "Vania-the-short." Therefore the captain told my father (who served in Russian army many years ago and knew the Russian language) that they have no right to enlist me, but if I insist then let me write an application.

There were among draftees 18 guys who were born in 1926, we were a united company and decided to hold together. Therefore, I had signed the application. Some old villagers blamed my father: "What are you doing? While others don't know how to save their children from the army, you helped your son to be enlisted." He answered: "What can I do if he want to?"

We were warned to take with us only the most necessary things along with food for a few days. In some three days all of us, a column of about 500 men left on foot for Kishinev. A lame villager played garmonika (a primitive accordion) at parting. Relatives followed the column some time. My father, sisters and the younger brother saw me off but mother remained at home. Everyone cried and I said to them: "Don't cry, go home." Less than half of us came through the war and only six of my eighteen contemporaries returned home.

We spent only one night in Kishinev, underwent a disinfecting procedure and then boarded a train for the city of Zhitomir where our destination - the reserve regiment (a unit for recruits' preliminary training) was located. We reached it the fifth day. Only there we changed our clothes. Everyone received high shoes, puttees and secondhand uniform which was darned or spotted with traces of blood here and there.

We spent about six weeks of intense training in the reserve regiment. The main emphasis was on tactical exercises. After taking breakfast we were led out from the city to the exercise ground and we returned to the garrison only by supper. Of course, it wasn't enough food to become satisfied. All of our instructors were experienced officers but the main difficulty lay in the absence of a translator - no one of us knew the Russian language. We didn't even know how the word spoon sounds in Russian. It wasn't easy for the officers, too. Gradually, however, we mastered the language. For example, I began to comprehend what was said very soon and the officers began using me as an interpreter. They issued an order, I translated it into Moldavian and my fellows fulfilled it correctly. However, I couldn't speak Russian absolutely. I mastered the spoken Russian much later thanks to reading. I tried to read more, mainly the newspapers.

Before leaving for the front we were given one rifle for six soldiers, first-aid individual kits and new English military overcoats with glittering buttons (for camouflage we had to sew each button round with a piece of fabric).

We detrained in Western Belarus at night. An artillery cannonade was heard. We stood in a field and saw several "buyers" approaching our formation. All of us were "purchased" by the "buyers" of the 2nd Rifle Division. The commander of our training company, Senior Lieutenant Zairov, who was accompanying us, transferred the group by deed and said "Good-by!" warmly. I also remember that during that procedure, a few recons with two German prisoners passed our formation. They stopped nearby for a while in order to show the fresh soldiers what the enemy looks like.

Our division belonged to the 50th Army and had an informal name "the Moldavian Division" because a lot of Moldavians served in it. I was taken in the 1st Assault Company of the 1st Battalion of the 200th Rifle Regiment as an ordinary submachine gunner.

Of course, we knew that the war wasn't the same for different combat arms. The riflemen and members of tank crews suffered most. It seems to me that I preferred artillery, especially to be a member of a "Katiusha" crew, but nobody asked us what we wanted.

N. Ch. - Do you remember facts of desertion, avoiding the front line or betrayal? What kind of punishment followed these facts?

I. G. - There were several very troublesome events starting when we were yet in the reserve regiment. Some recruits tried to desert during our field training exercises. Any way, all of them were ultimately arrested. The day before our departure to the front we were drawn up in formation. A deserter, a tall guy, was convoyed before the formation. The sentence was announced - the capital punishment. Then they took him away; he wasn't shot before the formation. In general I never saw, just heard about demonstrative capital executions.

The second sad episode happened when we were on our way to the front by train. One guy put his palm on the rail and his fingers were cut. He was arrested immediately but I don't know what happened to him later.

While being at the front we experienced another episode. It took place in Poland, in early November 1944. We stopped for a night in some hamlet. It came to light in the morning that our sentry disappeared. I remember that soldier; he was an educated man, a Latvian, Lepa by name. Our platoon commander with two soldiers followed Lepa's footprints over a thin blanket of snow. They caught up with the deserter in a Polish house where Lepa rested and dried his footclothes. I heard that he was shot but we didn't see the execution. I think that these men's actions were just stupidly: at that time the punishment was inevitable and drastic.

As you definitely know, there was an anti-Soviet military unit, General Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army that fought on the German side. We called its soldiers vlasovtsy. I heard that they fought against us in Konigsberg but I don't know whether this rumor was true.

Shortly after the end of the war, from about 20 May up to mid July 1945, our division was directed in the Baltic area for clearing it from the "forest brothers" (kind of guerillas). All day long we searched localities but a skirmish happened only once, in the neighboring battalion's sector. Our battalion experienced only one episode. We stopped for a halt near the bank of some river. Our soldiers began washing their underwear and bathing. At that moment a soldier of my mortar crew, who was in an outpost group, discovered two armed men running out the forest toward a rye field where we were. As our loud alarm was given they momentarily ran away back in the forest. While searching the field, we found a machine gun that the couple had left. It is terrible to imagine what these two machine gunners could have caused: almost 300 our men were relaxing on the bank!

I remember also two men who joined our company after being released from "penal companies." (The "penal detachments" consisted of service men that either didn't carry out a combat order or became a panic-monger in action etc. These detachments were always placed on the most dangerous sectors of a combat. One could be released from a "penal detachment" only after proving his courage in action or being injured). One of the mentioned two men was sergeant major Pustozvonov, former NCO of the Air Force. It seems to me that he told us why he was sentenced to fight in the "penal company" but I don't remember his case. Both of them fought along with us quite well.

By the way, we considered ourselves as a "penal company" because our company always fought in the hottest sectors of combat...

 

Let me continue narrating about my initial service at the front. We were accepted very kindly. In that 1st assault company only twenty men remained intact when we arrived. Usually the company's command tried to select the best soldiers: experienced, strong, and enterprising. However it depended on what kind of fresh soldiers came. When we were distributed our united group had been scattered: only twenty Moldavians found themselves in the assault company. There were just three of my compatriots along with me in the platoon. These numbers remained, however, only until the first combat. We were initially in the second echelon, so our combat training was lasting. Next week the regiment was shifted to the first echelon.

On the second day of our presence in the forefront trenches the regiment made an attempt to seize some small town. After an artillery preparation we rushed to the attack but the enemy's fire brought it to a standstill. A few more efforts were unsuccessful as well and our casualties were notable. In three days we were shifted for re-forming. By that time our company numbered about fifty men out of ninety originally.

What do I remember? Of course, first of all - our heavy casualties. At the same time, do you know, I didn't experience a special fear. Our platoon commander taught us: "Don't fear while in action," and his words affected me. Don't forget also - I barely was eighteen at that time. The only thing that I was afraid of - to be taken a prisoner. I always kept one hand grenade "for myself," we knew that Germans tortured prisoners.

Why did we suffer such heavy casualties? Of course, there were our headquarters' miscalculations and defects. However, I see that the main reason of our misfortunes lay in weak trained troops. What could we master in some six weeks? It is a too short period for complete training. Nevertheless, some elementary rules were mastered. (For example, yet in the reserve regiment we were taught: while attacking, you should advance by short rushes: 3 - 5 meters ahead, then fall and crawl away for a couple of meters instantly. Unfortunately, not all of us followed this rule). A lot of soldiers suffered from their combat unreadiness. During the period that I had fought, i. e. from October 1944 till May 1945, we were shifted for re-forming four or five times.

It is impossible to get used to the deaths of your fellow-soldiers. It is completely different from a death of some elderly person. Here, at the front, you see the death of a young man who just a moment before rubbed shoulders or socialized with you and you understand that you could be in his place: I remember what did we feel when our platoon commander, a Kazakh Derzhizhabov was killed. He used different ways to support us, young soldiers. Derzhizhabov encouraged, taught and took care of us. We cried when he was dying before our eyes, when we saw his entrails on the snow:

N. Ch. - You, a Moldavian, barely knew Russian language. Was it a hindrance in action? Did you encounter other ethnic minorities among Soviet troops? In your opinion, was the multiethnic composition of the Red Army a positive or negative feature?

I. G. - While training in the reserve regiment, we, Moldavians, didn't socialize with numerous recruits of the Baltic Republics origin: both sides didn't know Russian language. At the front we couldn't socialize with reinforcements from the Caucasus region because they knew not a word in Russian. The same situation took place when reinforcements from the Central Asian republics arrived. These, in addition, were absolutely untrained. Our platoon commander was of Kazakh origin and we held him in high respect and even liked him because of his professionalism and humanness. I didn't rub shoulders with soldiers of Jewish origin. However I do remember a few officers who were Jews: the company commander Bartev, Major Kogan of the rear supply service, and Major Kamskii, the regiment's deputy commander for political affairs.

Yes, there was at the front a blend of different ethnicities and languages. Nevertheless, nothing special happened. All of us fought, all rushed to the attack, all carried out orders. There were at that time "levers" for making people, like it or not, to fight without deception or fraud. The main thing was soldiers' combat readiness and their nationality wasn't important - all fought! I remember neither facts of scornful attitude toward soldiers of some ethnicity nor, all the more, conflicts owing to ethnicities. At the front line all of us were like brothers, we permanently were nearby the death, there was nothing to divide among us.

Ivan Garshtia (sitting first from the left) among

his brothers in arms. 1945

In November 1944 when we had already fought in Poland the regimental HQ summoned some one hundred soldiers including myself. We underwent in the rear a two-week-long training to master the machine gunner profession. On the one hand I was pleased - my commanders gave me by that their vote of confidence. On the other hand, however, we already knew that a machine gun was the number one target on the battlefield, and Germans literally hunted them. I was appointed a "Maxim" machine gun crew commander, and by the end of the war I acted as a commander of a machine gun platoon because no commissioned officer came to our company.

"Maxim" was a good machine gun except that it was heavy, hard to carry it. We had no transportation, so everything was on ourselves. As a crew commander I didn't carry the "Maxim's" parts but I had quite enough with myself: SMG, pistol, flare pistol:

We used only cartridge belts of canvas. In a combat period there was at the position a permanent stock of four cartridge boxes i. e. 1000 cartridges altogether. We never experienced an ammunition shortage. We had also occasions to fire tracer and explosive cartridges. As I remember it, we had never prepared a reserve position for our machine gun.

Although we permanently used the machine gun shield, in most cases it didn't save soldiers of the crew. During the half-yearly period our crew changed its personnel perhaps a few times. Almost regularly I had to act as the number one machine gunner because no replenishments arrived.

I remember, for example, my number two gunner Georgii Loginov, my Moldavian compatriot. He was a robust man. Being at the age of forty, Loginov appeared to me as an elderly person. A few years ago he served in Romanian army. As an experienced soldier he patronized me in every way. I still remember his permanent shouts: "Vania, bend down your head!" When the war ended only two of us remained in the crew:

Now I'd like to continue describing my combat experience. Our hardest battles were the breakthrough of the German defense lines in Poland and the seizing of Konigsberg. When we were taking by storm the first line of the German defense I received an order to "cork" one particular pillbox at any price. What to do? I advanced toward the pillbox as close as possible, fired at it and silenced its machine gun. Another time I covered with my fire a group of six combat engineers who were mining a fortification.

 

 

It is considered that our regiment was the first that had burst into the city. I remember the first attempt to do it: our assault company boarded tanks and - ahead! Who created that brilliant idea? We were comfortable targets, you know! The Germans fired at us in such a way that our company's remainders barely numbered twenty soldiers. (Later some General shouted at our battalion commander for killing a lot of men). There were bloody street skirmishes in Konigsberg. I even took part in man-to-man fighting:

For my action in the battle for Konigsberg I was decorated with the third Class Order of Glory. I received it shortly after the end of the war. Our regiment commander handed the awards to several soldiers before a solemn regimental formation.

N. Ch. - What can you say about your commanders?

I. G. - Naturally, the closest relations were with the platoon and company commanders. Both were always with us. We lost three platoon commanders and one company commander, the other, Sovetov by name, came trough the war alive.

During any re-formation, however, we also saw our higher commanders: the battalion commander Captain Evlampiev, the HQ's chief Senior Lieutenant Shaidulin, the regiment commander Lieutenant Colonel Tarasov, and the division commander, as it seems to me, - Perevoznikov. I even saw the 3rd Baltic Front Commander Cherniakhovskii in our trenches. It happened at night, so I couldn't discern his appearance but I distinctly heard some questions that he asked us. In some four days Cherniakhovskii had been fatally injured. They said he was both a kind person and a talented commander:

I never heard about senior commanders who didn't treat soldiers as human beings and permitted themselves to strike a soldier with a stick.

N. Ch. - What can you tell about the military political workers and the "Special Department's" officers?

I. G. - Our political workers were well informed men. Every day they read aloud the communiques of the "Sovinformbiuro" (Soviet Information Bureau) and explained to us some issues. They were held in respect among us because many of them were common soldiers before they had been promoted to their present posts. The political workers of lower ranks fought along with us and perished, too.

During the war I had no dealings with our regimental "Special Department" (a small group of officers who managed the counterespionage matters, exposures political suspects and prevented the desertion in the regiment). Nevertheless, after the war they sent a letter of inquiry to Moldavia: what did I do in our village during Romanian occupation.

I had one more unpleasant situation in Kamchatka where I served up to 1951. Captain Kotliarenko before leaving for a new place of his service sold me his radio receiver for 800 rubles. At that time I served in a division mortar battery as a sergeant-major and I had a pantry. Sometimes we listened to radio broadcasts there. Unexpectedly an officer of the local "Special Department," who became interested in this matter, built up a case against our unallowed radio listening so actively that I could have been arrested. At the same time I had a wonderful reputation in the unit. There was ideal order in my battery. So only the regiment commander's interference helped to suppress the case.

N. Ch. - Please describe the conditions of nourishment, hygiene and cultural leisure during the war.

I. G. - Usually at the front line we received our daily food once at night. During an offensive it happened even more rarely because our kitchen became detached from advanced lines. Generally, we dreamed of higher rations.

Everything changed in East Prussia, where we were able to eat up. You could find in abandoned houses something edible. We managed to taste there the home-canned food as well as liqueurs. Once we found two cases of French wine in a house. At that time we were warned that retreated Germans had poisoned the foodstuff and liquors before leaving it for us to find. Therefore our sergeant prohibited us uncorking and tasting the wine. A bit later we saw him drinking it. He explained: "If I came through, you'd be allowed to drink, too." We carried the cases in our company's position and arranged a "festival." No one in our regiment was poisoned. (And our 100 grams of vodka, as I remember it, we received at that time rarely, only on holidays).

Regarding the hygiene matters, - our sanitary inspectors thoroughly examined us. They arranged a bath for us regularly, and we never experienced lice.

Our cultural leisure was several concerts performed by a divisional entertainment group. Moreover, once in Poland we even saw a movie. It took place at night in a forest, obeyingly the "black-out rules".

N. Ch. - What about women at the front?

I.G. - Wherefrom could they appear in our trenches? All of them served somewhere in the rear. The only woman whom we could see was our company sanitary instructor (nurse). She was a skilled and physically strong woman who perfectly performed her job and was held in respect in the company.

We took no interest in some officers' love affairs at the front.

N. Ch. - What is your opinion of German soldiers?

I. G. - They were better prepared for combat but at the same time not as enduring as we. Moreover, our spirit was higher than theirs. For example, they tried to keep off the man-to-man skirmishes with us.

Do you know, I didn't feel some special hatred to German soldiers. Mainly they were dependent people who had no choice but carry out an order. Once, when our village still was occupied and the Red Army already approached Moldavia, I came home and saw a German soldier lying on the bed, his face covered with handkerchief, and crying:

There were different personalities among them. Of course, they had taken possession of our foodstuff (especially their favorite eggs). I don't remember their special dealings that could arouse my desire to revenge or kill them.

Our treatment of German POWs was usual. I never saw and don't remember occasions of harsh treatment or violence regarding them.

 

 

N. Ch. - Where you were on the Victory Day 9 May 1945?

I. G. - We stopped fighting in the war on 10 April 1945, the day when Konigsberg fell. After that we stayed in the city of Pillau, relaxed a little and a routine began. On the Victory Day everybody felt a true elation. There was a spontaneous shooting at the sky and solemn formation. On 22 June we took part in the solemn parade of the Konigsberg garrison.

45 years later, on 9 May 2000, as a member of the Moldavian 15-men delegation I participated in the Victory Parade on the Red Square in Moscow. We spent ten unforgettable days in Moscow. Everything was organized by the highest standards.

N. Ch. - A few final questions to summarize the interview. What were your and your comrades' feelings in the war? In your opinion, what was the most fearful and most terrible situation in the war? Did you or your fellow-soldiers pray for coming through a combat? What about superstitions and amulets? How often do you remember the war now?

I. G. - Let me start with describing my personal feeling and my personal facts exclusively. Of course, there were different feelings at the front: fear, excitement, heat, but I was in the firm belief that I will survive in the war. Do you know, maybe I thought that way because I was young and inexperienced. In spite of the blood and death around me, I was confident that nothing bad happened to me. Now, while remembering the war, I still can't understand how I came through such battles. Perhaps I had luck:

I believe the attack and the man-to-man skirmish were the two most fearful situations at the front. The bombardment and gunfire were less fearful because you always have some chance to survive. You experience absolutely another feeling when you see the enemy firing at you:

Unforgettable horrors were also our long marches. When our division was transferred from the 2nd Belorusian Front to the 3rd Baltic Front we marched to our new position seven nights running. Knee-deep snow, everything on your shoulders - I have not even the slightest wish to remember it:

What can I tell you regarding dreams that come true, prayers, superstitions, amulets? I believed in God and when I was called up, my grandmother gave me a small book "The Mother of God's Dream." There was a statement in the book that a person who carries it would be kept from harm by the Mother of God. Actually, I came through such dangers! Still can't believe:

I carried that book in my breast pocked together with my Komsomol-membership card. Once, while in Poland, it dropped out but our sergeant major Turchin found the book and returned it to me. Unfortunately, I had lost it after the war:

I don't remember any dreams, including predictive ones, because we were regularly so exhausted that always slept deeply.

Regarding praying I remember that our Moldavian senior compatriots, while in Zhitomir, still prayed occasionally, but no longer. However, before the attack or under a bombardment all of us, no matter of their ethnicity and religion, whispered "Lord, save me! Lord, help me!"

I do remember the war now. There was plenty of duties and enough to worry about when I was younger, so I barely remembered the war at that time. And now almost daily I see it as clearly as if in reality. I see my comrades, remember our attacks. However, the most frequent image is a field and numerous corpses of our killed comrades on it. As if trees in a forest were cut down now here, now there. As if stumps stuck out...

Interviewed, recorded and initially edited the Russian text by:N. Chobanu
Finally edited the Russian text and translated it into English by:I. Kobylyanskiy
Edited the English text by:T. Marvin


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