Ivan Shelepov

Published september 28, 2010

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- Ivan Ignatievich, could you shortly tell about when you were enrolled and where you went?

- I got my notice right in the middle of my workday. They called me to the office, I came, they gave me the notice, saying, get your things packed, Shelepov, tomorrow morning go to the address mentioned on the slip. That was August 1941. I do not remember the date... That was quite a surprise after the weekend.

- Where did you go then?

- First I went to the military school. That time I lived in Kineshma, a small town near Ivanovo. What a landscape! Volga! They collected us all and took us to Ivanovo, to the school.

- It was the infantry academy, right?

- Yeah. First we were told that the course would last three months, but the Germans apparently broke through, so after two weeks we all armed and went to the railway station by trucks. From the station we went directly to the front.

- To what place?

- Near Smolensk. Our 161st Rifle Division was incorporated in the 2nd Rifle Corps (The Corps had two rifle divisions - the 161st and the 100th. On September 18, 1941 both divisions became on of the first Guards units of the Red Army for its exemplary bravery, courage and stoicism - Valeri). By the nightfall we received our dry tack, and in the morning our regiment assaulted the German positions without any artillery support.

Ivan Shelepov at the battalion medic point

right after the battle. November 1942.

- Was it only your regiment?

- I don't know - it seemed like it was the whole division. It was quite a feeling - just an hour ago I was a civilian, and now I have a rifle in my hands. I knew war was scary, but I could never imagine such an all-embracing horror. I am wasting my time telling you about it - it is impossible to describe. The feeling was that you lived your whole life without any past or future. For some time I could not even move from shock, I swear! Of course, we were warned that at the dawn we would attack. The company commanders walked around and warned us. But it all happened in a very strange way. I do not remember that fight in detail. I don't know why - some of the engagements stand in my memory as if they happened yesterday, but my first battle experiences are very vague. I always confuse them.

Squads stayed together in shallow trenches. We covered ourselves with branches so that the Germans would not spot us. I thought that there will be a cry "Forward!", we would shout "Hurra!" and attack. Everything was quite different though. Our company commander told us quietly "Lets go, guys!" and climbed on to the parapet. I did the same. I followed him purely automatically, not realizing, what I was doing. We quietly stood up, and just walked forward. We did not even run - just walked. No "Hurra!", no noise, no shouting. We just stood up and went ahead. It was still dark, there was a fog over the field. It was a dead silence around - just quiet rattling of our weapons. I do not remember how, but the scene changed, and it turned out that they were firing like crazy at us. First rifles, then two machine-guns. Or was it machine-guns right away? Damn it - don't remember. Then we all ran, bending, I ran behind a guy, I don't know his name. From the whole assault I only remember his back with a bag-pack. I don't remember anything else.

I ran as fast as I could. Where I ran - I do not know. A cry "Forward" rang in my head, but I think I did not shout really. I do not know how long I ran - a second or an hour, the time stopped for me. Suddenly something hit me from the side, I thought I even flew through the air and fell down to the ground. I jumped up and fell again, this time from pain. My foot!!! My foot was twisted with pain. I tried to turn and see what happened to my foot, but I couldn't. I crept forward, but then I thought: "Wait! Why do I creep forward? I need to go back to the medical unit." For a long time I could not realize where the "back" and "forward" were. Smoke was all over, explosions, shooting, crash. The whole battlefield was littered with people convulsing from pain and some objects (I did not elaborate, WHAT kind of objects those were - Valeri). I found my bearings and crept back. I thought in desperation that I would never make it back to our lines. Somebody grabbed my foot and pulled. I think I even blacked out from pain. I do not know how I ended up in the trench. The commissar was right there! What the hell, he said, are you doing here? Coward! I said I was not a coward, I was wounded in my foot. Where is the wound??? - he shouted. I could not find it myself. A medic rushed to the stage, touched my foot and laughed loudly. It is a dislocation, he said, I am now going to pull your foot and heal you! He grabbed my foot - before I could say "mama" - and pulled it! The commissar just shook his head - so strong was my curse. I did not know myself, that I could curse so strongly.

- Did he order an investigation?

- Oh no! Why would he need me? He just asked which unit I came from and left me alone. The medic, after he learnt that I was from the third Company, that unloaded the night before, thawed and said that the companies were coming back. "Again we came to nothing, damn it! So many people are lost in vain." You creep to your friends, he said, and look out, because the Germans are going to send their air force now. You, he said, were really lucky today, remember this day! All your friends are going to be dead now, he said.

- Did you attack again that day?

- No. There was nobody left to attack with. The company was reduced to 10-12 soldiers together with lieutenant. The sergeant major was killed. I still remember his last name - Chumilin. Why should I - but I still do. I feel so sorry for him now! He was just 20 years old, but his hair was already gray, and he was missing a finger. I don't know anything about him.

- So, you didn't participate in the attacks later, did you?

- Why not? Of course I did. Twice.

- Twice??? You were really lucky!

- (interrupting me) Hey! All who survived the war were lucky! They all had an unusual fate. Those, who had the usual fate died without even firing a shot, without even seeing the Germans.

Reading the divisional newspaper.

Apparently summer-autumn 1943.

- When did you attack again?

- Two days later we received reinforcements from a factory, they were big and strong guys! Their hands were like pincers. I was 18 then, and all those workers were in their forties. The next day we attacked again. We even got artillery support. We sat in a small gully, smoking and listening how our artillery was howling over our heads. I got used to that, it was no longer depressing me so much, although the noise was horrible. Then we again received the order "forward!" and we all climbed out of the gully. Alex Kotov, Felix - the Armenian guy and me were supposed to cover one of our guns. We had several 45 mm guns there, and we were ordered to cover one of them. We even received a DP (Degtyarev) light machine-gun and a couple of drum magazines for it.

- Ivan Ignatievich, Vasil Bykov mentions DP LMG in a very negative way, saying, it was heavy and low on accuracy...

- (interrupting me) Yes, I did read that stuff! Who is Bykov? He is with artillery! That's it! The machine-gun was good. He is criticizing our machine-gun, but the German 34th (MG-34 - Valeri) was even heavier! It weighted 12 kilos, and if on tripod - it was just impossible to lift! Our machine gun was good, he should shut up! The Germans got the 42nd MG (MG-42 - Valeri) later, that one was also quite heavy, but it had good rate of fire. Germans, however, used their 34th till the end of the war.

DP was a light machine-gun. We had a lot of them, in every platoon. Did Germans have a lot of them? We had enough machine-guns for defense. In the early days we were sometimes short on ammo, so many people died in vain because of that!

- How were you supposed to cover the artillerists?

- How? First of all, say, if the Germans counterattack, we were supposed to prevent them from getting close to the gun. The artillerists had small arms as well, even some machine guns, but nevertheless. We always protected our guns in the first place. Our company commander always told us: "Don't forget what you are here for!" We wouldn't have held without those guns. Everybody criticizes those guns now, saying that they were inefficient, but I want to tell you this: if we did not have those guns, we would not have held. Against German machine-guns, mechanized infantry (Panzergrenadiers - transl.), half-tracks - our baby was just the right thing! Germans had the same guns, by the way.

- Could it efficiently engage enemy tanks?

- Yes, it could! We fought the tank all together. It was either the artillery or us who destroyed them. However, the Germans did not always have tanks, but Panzergrenadiers and half-tracks were always there! We burnt their tanks quite easily! The primary task of the machine-gunners was to cut the infantry off tanks. That was the hardest thing, as the tanks always tried to destroy MGs first. If we managed to cut the infantry off, we would burn all their tanks. A tank does not see anything near it, you can get close to it and try to either burn it or damage the track.

- We had few of those AT-guns, and sometimes we had the guns, but not the ammo. We even had to use the German guns sometimes, as there was ammo available for them.

- Was it often?

- No, not really. But sometimes we managed to find a little gun with an allocation of ammo. Then we would pick it up.

- Were 50 mm company mortars any good?

- The company mortar was, of course, weaker than the battalion one (82 mm mortar - Valeri), but it was lighter. It could be carried by two men. A battalion one could carry by three men: one soldier carried the tube, the other - the tripod and the third - the plate. The battalion mortar had a rather heavier, sometimes it took two soldiers to carry it's plate. You try it yourself - carry this stuff 10 km without a rest, run in the bushes from the planes with this piece of iron, and then engage the enemy without any break! Then we'll see good you would be! Also, during the combat you could quickly change firing positions with the company mortar, but you would not always make it with the battalion one! You could not abandon it or lose - you would have been executed. If it broke - you had to turn it in to the company commander or the sergeant major. Otherwise the "godfather" ("godfather" - NKVD of SMERSH officer - Valeri) would scrutinize you.

Mortars were actually quite good in defense! If Germans were pinned down during the attack, we would chase them with mortar fire right under our MGs fire! The Germans did the same trick! That is why it is so dangerous to duck for cover during the attack. It was not so easy to get up again! If you attack, you should run till the end, and never duck for cover! If you lay down - you will never lift your ass from the ground again. You can also get a bullet from the company commander. He had this right. It was his duty to get you attacking, and neither the battalion nor the regiment commander would have charged him if he shot someone. Our company commander warned us right away, that if we lay down, he shoots all of us. He really did shoot some. After that we'll never tried to lie down again.

- Would you often attack?

- Well, how can I put this? We did. But the attacks can be different! The best one was when the German attack broke down, they started to retreat and then came "bayonets on!" and forward! We would disembowel the German bellies, and jump in their trenches. We would start digging in right away. You could check your watch: in half an hour they would come to their senses and launch a counterattack. If you have not got a foothold, then they throw you back! You don't have your guns in place yet, and it is good news for their Panzergrenadiers. But if you managed to get at least a single gun in place, then they would not be able to do anything! Then they need tanks and artillery, and where do you get those things? It is just in the modern movies (he said that with a neglecting countenance - Valeri) that Germans have masses of tanks in every assault. In reality it was quite different! Of course, Germans had tanks, but not in all places! Often they would send a couple of tanks, which would fire from a safe distance and repel our infantry, and that was it! They would not go any further! They also did not want to die, why should they put themselves under fire of our guns? They would engage us to spot our guns and try to suppress them with all they had - air force, artillery and mortars. This is why our artillery was so fast in changing positions. They are digging their trenches behind your back now, and in an hour they are gone!

I was wrong when I said that it is easy to burn a tank. Not at all! Before your company burns a single tank you get to sweat a lot. It would also kill half of the company with MGs or with squash them with tracks. If the Germans succeeded in destroying our AT-artillery, they would turn their tanks along the trenches and squish everybody. But that was later, when we started to dig trenches.

- What did you did earlier?

- In 1941 we would not dig trenches. We would dig one- or two-man foxholes, digging in platoon formations.

At ruins of the German pillbox. July 1944.

- What were the advantages and the disadvantages?

- The disadvantage was that you could be buried there, if it collapsed. That's one thing. And then... it was complete isolation! It is war; crash all around, you can neither hear nor see the orders, the leadership and command was very poor in those days. How can you lead troops, if everyone is in his own foxhole? Install a phone in every foxhole or what??? How would you feel if you sat in a hole in the middle of a field? You also did not know where the others were. Probably they are already dead or retreat and you are the only person alive? Then it seems that enemies all are shooting just at you. A horrible feeling! (The same was mentioned in Rokossovsky's memoirs. He wrote that was one of the major reason of disorganized retreat and it prevent of proper management of your troops on a battlefield - Valeri)

However, our officers have quickly learnt this lesson and taught us to dig trenches in full depth and half-depth. That was a whole science in itself! You could not dig those trenches everywhere! You dig here and get stones, you dig there and get water. Sometimes we would fight knee-deep in water. It was because we did not have time to dig trenches in other places, or because of "tactical considerations". Then we dug trenches half-depth, in order not to stand in the water. But those trenches easily collapsed, and after an hour of heated battle you would not tell that there was a defensive position there.

Ivan Ignatievich participated in fighting around Balaton lake

 

- Ivan Ignatievich, could you tell about the battle in greater detail, at the "grass root" level, so to say?

- It is better to start the story from the rumor that circulated shortly before those Hungarian events. The rumor was that they were selecting all soldiers with three and more wounds (Ivan Ignatievich was wounded four times in the war). They said that there was going to be a war against the United States, and they needed experienced personnel. The number of wounds was kind of a trademark, a guarantee of our experience. The rumor proved to be true - a major arrived at our battalion, we all were drawn up and he selected several soldiers from the list, including me. We were put on the truck and left the battalion for junior lieutenants' basic training. However, I only spent a month there, as far as I remember. All of a sudden they drew us up, gave out the weapons, put on the trucks and took us somewhere. We were unloaded on a field and received an order to dig trenches. Except rifles and hand grenades we had nothing. Just two light machine-guns for the whole company. Where we were, where other units were, what was in the rear, where was the artillery - we knew nothing. It was obvious from the strong rumble and near explosions that we were very close to the frontline. The company commander was running around and shouting that we should dig like crazy. We did not make it anyway! Before we could dig anything, "Messers" (Russian calling of German Bf-109's - Valeri) flew over us at a low altitude, followed by "Shtuckas" (Russian calling of German Ju-87's - Valeri). They did not attack us, but flew towards some small town that lay to our right. There they were intercepted by our fighters and a furious battle commenced.

The sounds of explosions drew closer, and it seemed to me that I heard the roar of engines - TANKS!!! Our defense was on the backside of a large hill. I constantly looked at the ridge. I saw our forward security appearing at the ridge and running towards us. They ran to the company commander, explained something to him and we received the order: "prepare for the tank attack!" - although we all knew what was happening - there were no "greens" among us. We hid ourselves in our half-trenches, half-ditches, trying to camouflage ourselves with branches, sod, and all things we could find.

Of course, we knew we were almost doomed - we had no AT-guns, no machine-guns - we were almost hopeless against the tanks. We had the grenades, but it is very hard to knock out a tank with a hand grenade!

- What is the problem?

- The problem is that a tank is made of steel, and you are not. It fires its main gun and machine-guns at you. It can also squash you. It is very hard to knock out a tank in general, but it is especially hard to knock it out with a hand grenade. If the crew is "green", then you still have a chance, but if there are vets in the tank, it is utterly impossible. Unfortunately, you only learn this when the tank suddenly turns and squashes you. Or kills you with a machine-gun. By the way, what do you mean - to knock out? We had the anti-tank grenades, but they were useless against heavy tanks. It is not every grenade that sets tank on fire! It takes training, coolness and experience. You do not have many chances to get close to a tank, but you have even fewer chances to get away from the tank if you failed to knock it out. In most of the cases we would try to damage the tracks. Then you could try the satchel charge. The crew does not necessarily abandon the immobilized tank, it can stay and continue to fight. You should always burn the tank.

- That time we did not even have the bottles ("Molotov Cocktails" - Valeri). We only had hand grenades, and most of them were "pineapples". At that moment some people appeared on the ridge - they were running towards us as fast as their legs would carry them. That meant that our defenses were completely broken and avalanche of tanks and Panzergrenadiers was about to descend on us.

- Why Panzergrenadiers?

- Germans would often do it that way - their tanks were followed by Panzergrenadiers. That is why their blows were so powerful.

- What happened next?

- The German tanks appeared on the ridge. Some ten of them at once - they rolled forward at a relatively high speed and fired machine-guns at our fleeing infantry. I remember that stupid thought - "this is IT!" - that passed through my mind. That was really terrifying - a tank assault! They even fired their main guns non-stop. This has a very strong effect on the inexperienced soldiers, although it is almost impossible to fire accurately on the move. But the psychological effect is devastating! I also wavered, although I had experienced this kind of attacks before. I knew the main thing was not to flee, although my legs wanted to run themselves. We had to let the tanks pass through our positions and stop the Panzergrenadiers. But the tanks turned and rolled along our defensive line, merely squashing us. I saw one of the tanks detonating a land mine...

- Where did the mines come from?

- The engineer platoon made it to plant mines on the road. Two tanks were knocked out by those mines, one of them burnt out and the other one, with smashed up road wheels, had been firing for a long time, before it was surrounded and burnt. I want to tell you one thing - this might all sound heroic, but there was nothing heroic in that fight. I just saw a German Panther with red tracks. They were red with blood, but I realized that much later. I do not remember what I was thinking about during that fight. I remember the fight itself quite vaguely. They said I knocked out one tank, but I am not sure if it was really "my tank". Most likely, the leadership needed living heroes, not dead ones. This is why in the hospital (that was Ivan Ignatievich's last wound - he lost his leg in that battle - Valeri) I received the Order of Glory.

I visited there later one time (Hungarian town Komarno - Valeri). In 1985 they took us there for the Victory Day. I visited the cemetery. All the graves there had the same date engraved - February 19, 1945. That's the way it is.

Interview:Valeri Potapov
Translated by:Bair Irincheev


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