I was born in 1923 and at the age of 16 I became an automobile technikum (technical secondary school) freshman in the city of Ivanovo. However, next year I stopped my studies – there wasn’t a livelihood for continuing my education. Our family felt a food and money shortage – there were seven children, and I was the oldest son. There was in our village a weaving worker’s cooperative where I succeeded in getting a job as a warehouse manager. I don’t remember what my salary was in rubles but I firmly remember – it was very low.
On Sunday 22 June 1941 my father and I worked in a forest where our family had a piece of woodland. It was a warm sunny day. During our lunchtime we walked to a village in some two or three kilometers. When we bumped into a group of local people they asked us: “Do you know that the war began?” The war began! There wasn’t a radio in the village, so, probably, the orderlies of the district’s military registration and enlistment office (18 kilometers apart) arrived.
I wasn’t 18 years of age yet. And our father was drafted right away and directed to the Nizhnii Novgorod area. I became the older man in our family. Nevertheless, soon all our pre-conscripts, including me, were mobilized for so-called labor front. We dug antitank ditches on the Volga River’s western bank. We also chopped down trees in the forest, then took them across the river where blindages and antitank escarpments were constructed. I worked there about four months until the military registration and enlistment office summoned me. At that time some of our villagers already received statements about their close relatives’ deaths in actions…
I was drafted on 2 February 1942 and dispatched to the Moscow Machinegun-Mortar Military College that was temporarily relocated to the city of Kazan’ because the Germans still were not so far from Moscow.
On 8 March I received a telegram about my mom’s death. I showed it the training battalion commander. And such a vermin didn’t let me off to the funeral. I told him: “There is nobody there to bury her.” The captain retorted: “Are you the only one in that situation? Do you know how many families are perishing now on the West?” His refusal was firm, damn him. If it happened at the front, I’d have shot him, such an evil person! Those like he clung to their service in the rear with their hands and feet. This captain’s ugly face is still on my mind. Why not to release me for nothing but three days? It was so close – just some 430 kilometers from home!
My father was released from the army as the only parent of six small children. He returned home after the funeral.
We stayed in Kazan' some two months. By April, when the Red Army forced the Germans a little more back, our college was relocated to the railroad station of Khlebnikovo near Moscow. There the college occupied two buildings: the mortarmen building was near the station and the machine gunner building was located directly near the Moscow Canal. When we, the mortar men, first entered our casern, we saw walls, windows, doors and nothing more. Work orders for equipping the casern started. We fished out floating logs from the canal, dragged them to the power-saw bench where the planking was made. And so we equipped our caserne with plank beds. A room for our future studies was also furnished. We did a lot of hard work.
The cadets were provided with a primitive quilted uniform: just jackets and trousers. Although there was quite cold weather we weren't even provided with mittens.
At the same time we suffered from malnutrition. A watery pea soup was the breakfast. A pea soup and a tablespoon of cooked peas as a second course were our dinner. We had peas for supper again! Because of such nutrition I became a bag of bones.
I can’t forget the graduation day in November 1942, when we were ready to leave the college. It was 5 p. m. The college “business figures” tried to make good at our expense: not to feed us the third time. All of us declared that we refused to leave until receiving the dry rations. They had no choice and fed us and gave the packed meals. There were 300 graduates – do you understand how much easy money they tried to profit that day!
There was accelerated training for the mortarmen cadets. It lasted six months, 14 hours of training daily. We mastered the 50-mm company mortar. There were also the 82-mm battalion mortars, however I studied the 50-mm one.
A. D. – How did you start fighting at the front?
N. Ch. – Being in a lieutenant rank I was appointed to the 77th Guards Rifle Regiment of the 26th Guards Rifle Division as a mortar platoon commander. This division mainly acted in break-through missions. Only occasionally and no longer than a day or two did it take part in defensive fightings. The division usually pierced enemy’s defense and, if it was possible, continued advancing. Otherwise, another division replaced it, while the 26th division was shifted to the rear for reinforcements. Running many steps forward, I remember how we were stopped near Briansk. A hemp field was the no man’s land. In the middle of it was a potato bunker. Both the Germans and we visited it in turn for potatoes. This situation lasted less than a day, and then we continued the offensive…
In several days after my arrival in the unit, more precisely in late November 1942, our regiment was directed to attack the enemy. We forced a crossing over a frozen river and continued moving in the usual battalion column of march: 1st company, 2nd company, 3rd company and so on. We entered the battlefield as a marching column. It was my first combat, it was my baptism of fire that I can’t forget and will never forget. That wasn’t a war, it was a real crime. It was an ignorant and criminal play at fighting! For such guidance the command deserved death by shooting. Was it an organized offensive? Absolutely not! No usual preliminary artillery bombardment of the enemy’s trenches. That combat was a genuine crime. Being not a military man you barely can imagine it. How could they direct a close column into fighting? Not to disperse it at least by platoons or squads if not in line? I was a platoon commander but didn’t know either enemy’s position or the direction of our attack. I’m sure that the Germans never entered a fight as a column of march. They never acted that way.
Let’s remember some details of that terrible combat. When we just approached the river I saw an injured horse standing. Although I was completely inexperienced I understood that the enemy was not so far ahead. Nevertheless, we were marching as a column. Then we crossed the river. The opposite bank was somewhat steep. When we ascended it, I saw a regimental 76-mm field gun standing in its emplacement. Although I wasn’t experienced, I knew that the position of a regimental gun couldn’t be farther than the third line of trenches. No farther! Thus, the enemy was somewhere nearby. We continued moving and passed the second line of trenches. Nevertheless, we kept on marching almost as if with a marching song. At the left of us I saw our tanks burned out in some one kilometer or less: one the turret blew up, the second, the third… A combat had taken place. We passed the first line of our trenches. The enemy’s shooting was already heard. As soon as we entered the no man’s land – all of a sudden they shot at us with all sorts of their weapon, they mowed us down! It was a true slaughter. A living flesh was turning into dead one. That was our start… Rifle platoon commander – killed. Deputy battalion commander for political affairs lost his leg… However, I remembered my duty and knew that we had to advance. I ordered my soldiers: “Ahead!” A small haystack and a group of bushes were at the center of the no man’s land. I explained to my subordinates that we will take our position in the middle of the bushes and we started running there by short rushes. Screams and groans were heard all around us – a true horror.
We took our position in the bushes and were preparing for fire. However, the Germans already noticed us, and their machine guns began to fire at our position. At the left of the haystack I saw a group of Uzbeks or Tajiks shouting loudly in their language (they had such a rule: if something unusual happened – they gathered and began shouting).
As soon as we emplaced our mortars, a salvo of shells fell at our position. I had been injured in my right side. It wasn’t a serious wound but a shell’s fragment pierced the short fur coat, the quilted trousers and got stuck in my thigh. What should I do? Where was the company commander, the battalion commander? Nobody was there! I didn’t know who were our neighboring detachments at the left and at the right! I didn’t know where the enemy was! I didn’t know what was our goal! I didn’t know anything! My commanders should settle on both our immediate and following missions. We should be informed who were our neighbors at both sides, who would support us. However, nothing had been done…
Being injured I told my deputy: “You have to act for me and I will make my way to the regimental medical company. Let them clear away my wound and so on.” I went alone and still don’t believe how I managed to reach our rear under the intense fire. Perhaps the Germans weren’t interested in one-man targets as I was. In our medical battalion a doctor and a nurse cleansed my wound. Then I was evacuated to a rear hospital where I underwent the treatment for some 15 days or less. After the treatment – again at the front, again in my regiment of the same division.
While being in our medical battalion I got to know that our regiment had a substantial number of casualties in that “offensive,” which I don’t like to remember. Actually, I became fuming each time I remember that awful combat. [Translator’s note: N. Ch. uses foul language]. How could it happen?! Did the regiment commander really not know where the enemy’s positions were? If he knew, why didn’t the battalion commanders know? Where was the division commander? General Korzhanevskii was an educated and intelligent general. Why then was everything organized so badly? Certainly, there were some individual culprits. If our battalion column had been dispersed beforehand in a line or at least by squads our losses wouldn’t have been so numerous…
I'm continuing my narrative on the memorable episodes of my combat past. Our regiment was in trenches when I returned from the hospital in March 1943. Suddenly a nightly reconnaissance attack was launched. However it was so badly organized! Just two Katiusha's salvos at the enemy's first line of defense and we rushed ahead. Which way? A ditch full of wate ran along the no man's land. It turned out to be quite deep. I dashed into water up to the waist and jumped out righ away. We continued our movement and reached a damaged truck in the middle of the no man's land. At that moment a command to return came in. Nobody knew whether the mission was successful, was a “tongue” seized or not. We returned to our trenches and foxholes. It was night, so all of us fell down as we were. I woke up in morning – wet through and covered in mud all over. I thought – that’s all: I’ll fall sick of cold or pneumonia. However nothing happened: no catarrh, no sneezing. My young constitution was perfectly prepared for such difficulties: no medicine, no tablets. Hot tea was a sufficient remedy…
Next memorable episode happened during our advance. I saw in a German foxhole an abandoned MG-34 machine gun along with three cans of cartridges. My platoon continued to advance but I stopped and charged the MG-34. A German column was neatly visible at a distance of 300-400 meters. They just began retreating toward a forest. At that very moment I gave a long burst of fire at the column. all of a sudden. While firing I saw the Germans dashing aside in the column – a good evidence that I hit them. I remember that two cans of cartridges were used up. I fired until the machine gan began to “spit” and its barrel got red-hot. I left everything on the spot for the “trophy command” that usually followed us and began catching up with my soldiers. Now I’m thinking (at that time I still wasn’t experienced enough) that the enemy took note of me, perhaps a sniper. It wasn’t similar to a stray bullet. A weak bullet, probably from a long distance, hit me. It pierced my quilted trousers, the boot, soft tissues of my leg and fell out. I keep it as a reminder of my second injury. Although no bones were hit, it was difficult to go and I stopped. Two medical orderlies helped me to reach our rear. Here the wound was cut a little, cleansed and sealed. Then I was evacuated to a hospital. I was treated there less than a half of a month. I was young, so the wound had healed quickly. I think that I deserved to be decorated for what I did with the MG-34 but my injury ruined the opportunity.
I need to digress for a while to complete two topics mentioned above. The first one concerns the machine gun MG-34. Up to me, the German light armament was better than ours, especially the submachine guns and machine guns. Evidently the barrel of the MG-34 was perfectly designed and as a result the MG-34’s grouping of shots was much better than our machine gun's. Also the setting of MG-34’s cartridge belt was easy. There wasn’t a problem to master operation of the MG-34 as well.
Now let me return to the decorating topic. There was in 1943 another combat when I deserved an award – that time I saved the battalion’s commissar with my mortar. At that time our offensive was stopped about 150 meters from a German trench which extended along an edge of a forest. We assembled our mortar in a shell-hole. Helmets of German soldiers were visible running along the trench. Unexpectedly I saw our commissar, a man at the age of around fifty, going toward German position (there wasn’t a complete front line yet) and they wanted to capture him. To rescue him I opened intense fire at the German trench – I was well trained in fire control. Finally the Germans dispersed in the forest and our commissar survived. I wasn’t awarded for that combat episode as well. Nevertheless, I was decorated with the order of the Red Star and with the medal “For Combat Merits.” Sorry, I don’t remember which year that happened.
After the treatment in the hospital I was directed back in my division which was at that time near the city of Serpeisk, Smolensk Oblast' (province). Our battalion was situated in a small village, where both the reinforcements and the training took place. The division command chose a special ground for tactical training. It resembled the sector of the front where our break-through was assumed. In contrast to the 1942 experience, there was a wise attitude toward training the troops for combat. Do you remember that in 1942 the recruits from the Central-Asian region didn't even know how to use a rifle? When I remember these facts I don't want to live more...
At that time the division was a part of the 11th Guards Army. The Army Commander was General-Major I. Kh. Bagramian. Our division was at the northern leg of the Kursk Arc. What happened at the Kursk Arc in summer 1943 was, of course, an outstanding battle. It was actually organized in the right way. First, a strategic defense was organized there. The Red Army wore the attacking Germans down to such extent that they had no choice but to stop their offensive. Meanwhile a huge amount of guns, mortars, tanks and aircraft had been concentrated, and our troops launched a powerful counter-offensive. It started with extremely strong artillery bombardment. Our division was in the second echelon, so we started with the pursuit of the retreating enemy. All our troops were beating its heels.
Actions of our low-flying attack aircraft were especially effective. Our attack planes the IL-2 were armed with missiles (“small Katiushas”). They performed their low-flying attacks by surges. The first surge finished, in a half of a minute – the second surge started, then – the third! It was nice to observe! And it was easy to advance, there was a high enthusiasm! The Germans fled, they abandoned everything, even trucks with their engines on. If at present, almost anyone could drive a truck or car but at that time a driver was a rarity. We put our mortars on German bicycles and continued pursuing the enemy. We also saw several short columns of German prisoners who were escorted by guards.
Soon our battalion commander informed that the battalion was ordered to seize a small valley ahead of us. We had to dislodge the enemy, its strength was about one battalion. We approached the very edge of the valley and began installing our 82-mm mortars. My deputy, a senior sergeant of Smolensk, a robust and a very nice man stood ahead of me. Suddenly a heavy shell blew up behind him. He fell, and at that very moment a fragment hit me in the temple and got stuck there, while a second one pierced my neck, got into my mouth and I spat it out. The senior sergeant saved me with his body: it reduced the strength of the fragments that hit me. Soon it came to light that our regiment commander ordered the supporting 152-mm battalion to bombard German position at the edge of the valley. As ill luck would have it, the Germans had abandoned their trenches beforehand and the bombardment started just when we were occupying empty enemy’s position. So my third injury was a result of a “friendly fire,” and this time I can’t blame somebody for what happened to me. In any case I can’t say that it was done knowingly.
Because of the injury I didn’t see how our offensive developed. Nevertheless, the Kursk battle demonstrated how much our power had gained – in tanks, artillery, aircraft. And our warriors changed as well, they became much more experienced already.
After being treated in a hospital I returned in the division when the city of Orel was liberated. I remember burnt buildings in the city and a burnt German self-propelled gun “Ferdinand” on the Orel’s outskirts.
After the Kursk battle our division took part in the successful “Bagration” operation in the Minsk direction. At that time we chased the enemy for about 300 kilometers. It was a substantial success.
Like my first and second injuries, my fourth one was a result of an actual crime. It happened by the end of July 1944. I remember that the rye in the field was still green but already high. Our division was in the second echelon and we marched in columns along an asphalt road Moscow – Minsk. We saw on the left of us a fire in the city of Orsha. Unexpectedly a regiment commander’s order arrived: our battalion had to cross a field and reach the branch of the road, where we will meet the enemy. Nevertheless, the battalion continued to march in columns. The battalion HQ chief led the column. Being young and impatient I mended my pace and soon came up to the HQ chief. I told him: “We are in a combat situation although we don’t see the Germans. Why not to organize a patrol to know what is going on in front of us?” Using the foul language, the HQ chief tried to convince me that the Germans were retreating. I insisted: “Why not direct just an advanced patrol of two – a sergeant with a soldier? It would be quite enough.” I was unable to make him change his mind, the road was open and we continued marching. Soon we saw a knoll overgrown with shrubs on our way. When we were skirting it, the branch of the Moscow – Minsk road became visible. We saw there five “Tigers” moving toward Orsha with a company of submachine gunners on them. As soon as about a half of our leading company went out close to the road, the tanks stopped and turned round the turrets, while the submachine gunners leaped down into a roadside ditch and opened fire at our soldiers. Thank God that only a part of the first company was at the open land and all other detachments remained behind the knoll. My company was the last one, so I went into the middle of the shrubs. A terrible fire! Bullets targeted the shrubs, too. Suddenly a shell blew up somewhere beside me, and a fragment pierced my hucklebone. At first I was able to go and I decided to return where my company waited for me. I managed to overpass the knoll and see my soldiers but I fell down there unable to go. The injury was too serious. It was my last combat in the war.
What can I say on this fight? Generally, the rifle battalion HQ chief was an important figure at the war. Why then that man didn’t organize his battalion movement according to the combat regulations? It was enough to appoint an advancing patrol in proper time – we would have no losses. Our 45-mm antitank guns could shoot down these tanks.
I don’t know results of that combat (particularly, whether the tanks left their positions or not) because right away I was taken into a wagon and delivered to a hospital.
In that hospital I heard that the 77th Guard Rifle Regiment fought there not so long before our arrival and failed. During that combat the Germans captured sergeant Smirnov, born in the city of Orekhovo-Zuevo. They questioned him but Smirnov refused to answer. Then the Germans crucified him like Christ – they nailed him to the wall of the dugout. Smirnov was posthumously awarded with the highest honorary title of Hero of the Soviet Union...
I'd like to return to the cause of our losses near Orsha. I consider that it wasn't a mistake, actually it was absolutely plain crime. If you now ask the battalion HQ chief regarding his action, the answer would be: Chistiakov is wrong. Of course, negligence, indifference, and boasting of an easy victory were common at that time and exist to the present day. However, in 1944 we already had a wide combat experience. Even my view on how to perform military operations underwent substantial changes. By that time we had many experienced commander and soldiers, especially, among the mortar men, who were less liable to fall out than the riflemen. Some of them reached Berlin.
You could see also a noticeable improvement in the quantity and quality of our armament and equipment. Remember for example the 40-50-minute-long artillery cannonades before our attacks at the Kursk Arc or near Minsk. It was pleasant to see how everything on the abandoned German positions was destroyed when we advanced after these cannonades.
Can you compare this to our 1942 actions when nobody even knows where our enemy was? Was it a real war at that time? No!
A. D. – What can you say about the hospitals?
N. Ch. – I was treated in hospitals four times. After my last injury I was treated for five months. In general, the treatment was wonderful! It is hardly to believe that so many injured warriors were healed in such short terms.
I was twice treated in the city of Pushkino and one time in the city of Dmitrov, Ul’yanov Oblast’. These hospitals were situated in former school buildings. The treatment was perfect and the nourishment – wonderful.
Why did my fourth treatment last five months? As you may remember, my hucklebone had been broken. In the hospital I underwent a surgery and initially everything looked healed, however, shortly after a fistula arose and some muck began dripping out from it. The second surgery was performed on me, again they cleansed all around. Alas, the muck continued dripping out. And I was directed to the mud care in the city of Serov, not far from the city of Kuibyshev. It was a sanatorium above a lake, and a small pond with the mud rich in mineral ingredients. A drastic mud. It sucked out all the muck, and it healed me. I remember a group of poisoned children arrived there from Moscow – all of them were cured. People walking on crutches came there and left the sanatorium walking well. I was discharged from there in December 1944. My bones never ached after that treatment. I even won the first category in skiing!
Let me digress for a while to my previous treatment in hospitals. Each time when I was being discharged from a hospital I asked them to direct me back to my division, to my regiment. Only after my second injury the disharging commission refused and I was directed to the 18th Guards Division where I served in the division officers reserve. Once, in spring 1943, during division re-deployment to another front by a train, we had a stop at some railroad station. All of us left the train and took a lunch sitting at the roadside. Suddenly, a column of march headed by a brass orchestra approached us. Some of the bandsmen looked familiar. I asked them and they confirmed that was my 77th Guards Regiment. I found my company, all soldiers were glad at the meeting. I asked the company commander Alexander Skukin: “What do you think if I return to my company on my own?” He didn’t mind and accompanied me to the regiment commander Colonel Manoyko. I asked him: “Comrade Colonel, my situation is so and so. Take me back. I fought in the regiment more than a year, was injured two times.” Colonel was short-spoken: “Go to your company. We’ll do everything.” Although I was given that assurance I was uneasy about the lawfulness of my status and during the next halt I visited the regimental HQ. They told me: “Everything is normal. Don’t worry, we are enlisting you in the officer staff.” Soon I took part in the Kursk battle and was injured. After being healed in the hospital I was directed back to my unit. Everything was legal, however, my comrades-officers told me: “The counterespionage group began worrying about you.” “Why?” – I asked. – “They classify you as a deserter. Nevertheless, after you shed your blood in action, any fault was forgiven.”
A. D. – Where were you directed after the treatment of your fourth injury?
N. Ch. – In December 1944 I was directed to Moscow, to be at the officer reserve disposal. After being lodged I was summoned for an interlocution. I thought: “I will ask them to direct me back to my 26th Guards Division.” In the office a major with a dark blue uniform cap on his head was sitting. While I tried to guess what kind of combat branch could be marked by that color, the major greeted me and stated the core of his offer: “We know that you had fought and were injured four times; that you have combat awards; that you are a member of Communist Party. We also know that you started but not completed your secondary technical studies in the Ivanovo Automobile Technikum. What would be your reaction if we take you in the KV NKVD?” (NKVD is an abbreviation of People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, while KV remained a riddle). A dialogue started.
- What does it mean? Where is it?
- Since you were a student of an automobile technikum, we want to appoint you the automobile company commander.
- I didn’t complete my study. I don’t know automobiles.
- You’ll learn everything there. What do you think?
I estimated: it is the end of 1944 now, and Germany is going kaput soon. Therefore my answer was “Agree.”
After me that major interviewed four more officers. All of them repeated my choice. One of them was a former battalion commander in a major rank. Others were just senior lieutenants as I was.
We were directed for the next interview to the HQ of the KV Division in the Podbel'skii Street. While waiting for a summon, each of us tried to guess what the KV meant. Maybe the cavalry? What else? At that moment a strange covered truck stopped nearby. A captain went out of the HQ building. We asked him about the truck. The captain explained that its nickname is voronok and they use such trucks for convoying prisoners. Finally we understood that KV means CONVOY! The captain asked: “Do you, guys, remain with us?” Our response was unanimous: “No! All of us want to fight at the front!”
In the diivision commander's office we stated: “Comrade General, we are front-line officers. We don’t want to serve with these troops. Direct us to the front. All of us are healthy and able-bodied.” The Major-General opposed in friendly manner: “Dear comrades, try to understand that the People’s Commissariat of Defense already handed over your files to us. Besides, you are members of the Communist Party, so you should respect its resolution. (It sounded like an order). Don’t become upset – you’ll feel here no worse than at the front. And now I’m giving you a 7-day leave to visit your homeland.” (Since all of us were from nearby localities, the offer sounded very tempting). OK, if so, we’ll have to agree. Anyway, our resistance was doomed to fail.
Then I was directed from Moscow to Leningrad where the Convoy Brigade was located. The brigade commander in the colonel rank stated that he appointed me the convoy company commander. What kind of such a company commander could I be? I couldn’t even imagine what the convoy troops were. The position of automobile company commander was already occupied by former tank company commander (it made sense). So I asked the colonel to appoint me initially as the deputy commander of a regular rifle company. The division commander said to the chief of the personnel department: “Let’s first appoint Chistiakov the deputy company commander. When he gains his experience we’ll appoint him the company commander.”
As a result, I found myself in the Riga Convoy Regiment as a deputy convoy company commander that served at the Kegum electric power station. The company guarded German POWs who were restoring the damaged station. The company commander was found to be a drunkard and in three months the command cleared him away. I was appointed the company commander.
A. D. – Since your frontline life came to the end, let’s discuss some general issues of your war experience. My first question concerns the faith in our victory.
N. Ch. – During several first days of the war the prewar confidence of the fast victory over the enemy had been strongly shaken, and when the Germans advanced almost to the Moscow outskirts it disappeared completely. However, after the battle for Moscow and especially when the enemy was driven away westward for some 200 kilometers, most people started thinking absolutely otherwise. The fact of the re-deployment of our military college from Kazan’ to Moscow in March 1942 evidenced our government’s confidence, although it was not so far to the front line. And naturally the Soviet people inherited this confidence. After Stalingrad and the Kursk battle one could notice the spiritual depression among German troops. By that time we already excelled past the Germans in armament, especially in tanks.
A. D. – Could you please tell us about some bloodless aspects of your frontline routine?
N. Ch. – I think it would be a collection of separate reminiscences.
I’d like to start with the extremely long marches that our division performed when we were transferred from one front to another. Once it was 650 kilometers long and we marched for almost two weeks running. Sometimes we marched up to 55 kilometers per day!
Such tests are unforgettable.
Once you asked me about the frontline money allowance. Yes, every serviceman was due this allowance. However, most officers including myself never received the money: according to their applications the money was transferred to their families. I had six siblings and never felt the need for money at the front. We were provided with everything for day-to-day living, tobacco included, and our nutrition was quite enough. Do you remember that during my training at the military college I became a bag of bones? And in March 1943 I was photographed for the Communist Party-membership card: you see that I had already developed a round fat mug.
Another topic – about hygiene at the front. Until spring 1943 we didn't wash ourselves for months and became extremely lice-ridden. Do you remember the episode when I saved our commissar? After that, still sitting in the shell-hole together with the squad commander, we kindled a small campfire and got into some conversation. I remember that he inspected his medal and discovered lice under the band. Out of spite he threw the medal into fire. “What are you doing?” – I asked. “Lice made me enraged,” – was the answer.
In a couple of weeks our battered division was shifted to the city of Serpeisk for rest and reinforcements. Soon a field post for sanitary processing arrived to Serpeisk and began acting. It consisted of two rooms – a spacious “bath-house” with a shower in it and a small “lice-slaughter-house.” You should take off absolutely all of your uniform (including my green officer's military blouse) and underweare and put it for processing. Meanwhile we washed ourselves. The shower was good! The extermination of lice was a serious task of many specialists including medical doctors. We got rid of lice completely after the sanitary processing in Serpeisk.
I'll finish these recollection with several lines devoted to our “frontline female friends.” In regards to myself, I had a short romance with a young woman of Tatar origin who served in the launder battalion. It took place when the division was taking in reinforcements for almost three months. We just regularly danced together, nothing more serious happened. She gave me her home address. Much later when I was treated in a hospital for five months it became clear that I was in the hometown of the woman. I visited her and saw my former “female friend” pregnant. There were talks at that time that some servicewomen became pregnant purposely – to leave the frontline risks and difficulties.
In general, I treated women and with careful attention and respectfulness. A woman is a woman, especially at the front where she was in danger at any time.
While discussing the “frontline female friends” topic, we can’t pass over the PPZh – the Russian abbreviation for a “campaign wife.” Many of servicewomen were officer’s PPZh. The platoon commanders hadn’t PPZh. We slept in the same dugout where our soldiers slept. And a company commander had his individual dugout. So, the company commander and officers of higher posts had more favorable conditions to have a PPZh.
There was in our regiment such woman named Katia, a bracing woman. She was the regiment commander’s or the regimental HQ chief’s “campaign wife.” Usually a PPZh was decorated with the “For Combat Merits” medal. And this Katia had the orders of the Red Banner, of the Red Star and, of course, many medals. They hung on her so many decorations, though she actually didn’t know what the front meant.
Many years passed and as a participant of the battle at the Kursk Arc I was invited to visit the memorable places. A group of such visitors was brought to the Marshal Rokossovskii’s blindage (covered with nine layers of thick logs!) The local veterans told us that nearby the blindage a house stood where Marshal’s personal mistress lived at that time. Moreover, the veterans said, shortly after Rokossovskii’s visiting a bomb raid took place and a direct hit destroyed the house. There were also talks that the famous actress Serova was his love.
Up to me, Rokossovskii was the most handsome man among all our marshals and highest commanders, a noble, intellectual person.
A. D. – Could you tell us more about your service in the convoy troops? How did you treat the German POWs? Do you remember some cases of escape or sabotage?
N. Ch. – We treated the prisoners truly, without any slightest wickedness. Who was the German soldier, who was the German NCO? They were subordinate people who had been forced to fight. And they fought although many of them had no wish for fighting. Nevertheless, during the war any German wearing the uniform was an enemy, he was a real target. It was quite another matter when we had to do with the German POWs in the camp. There is a well-known feature of Russian people – they forget the harm fast.
We, the officers and guard soldiers, perfectly understood everything. There were no insults, no instances of humiliation, and no complaints about the treatment in the camp. We allowed the prisoners even to play football outside the camp (of course under our observation).
Everyone could notice how good the discipline was among POWs. Even being in camps for the POWs they kept the proper order and respect to prisoners of higher rank as if they were serving in the real army. In general, the German POWs’ behavior and their contribution to the restoration of many plants and civil constructions deserved some respect.
POWs were fed quite normal. Somewhat worse than our servicemen, but there were no cases of dystrophy. The camp food guaranteed their vital functions and the ability to work. There were no complaints about the nutrition.
There were two or three instances of escape during my service in Kegum. The majority of our wards worked at the electric power station. They installed the electric and hydraulic equipment. At the same time a small group of prisoners, about 50 men, worked at our timber-felling site. The guarded prisoners sawed trees and delivered the timber to the station. It was easy to escape from there.
What it was – the escape of a German prisoner in Latvia? Latvians are close to Germans regarding both the history and culture. Most Latvians spoke fluently in German. So, if a German prisoner escaped in Latvia – it’s the end, he would never be found. The Latvians kept him. To tell you the truth, we didn’t attach special importance to these instances.
After Kegum I served in Riga, the Latvian capital. Here the POWs restored the damaged radio manufacturing plant. The next place of my service was a settlement on the bank of Lielupe River. There was a big brickworks before the war there. When the war began the works was closed. More than one thousand of prisoners were relocated there. It was the biggest and most important colony of POWs. The bricksworks with its six furnaces for baking bricks was restored very fast, and began manufacturing bricks. Can you imagine the amount of bricks needed for restoring destroyed Latvian cities and towns? I worked there with enthusiasm for a year or longer. There were no escapes there.
And there was no sabotage at all. Later five camps in Latvia were subordinate to me but nowhere happened something like a sabotage action.
In 1947 a calamity happened in my family: my young wife passed away. Our one-and-a-half-year-old son remained. I was unable to tend him, so I asked the command to transfer me to the city of Ivanovo, where my mother-in-law lived. I was transferred there as a company commander.
In the Ivanovo area I headed the armed guard of the camp where Generalfeldmarschall Paulus and his HQ chief Schmidt were the most famous prisoners. Being afraid of possible provocations of some German officers-prisoners, Paulus and Schmidt equipped a small table with a chess-board for themselves just under the watch-tower. In the morning after breakfast the two together came to the table and sat there at play and had the conversation up to dinner. The guard on the tower heard their talk but didn’t understand the language. As soon as Paulus became an anti-fascist he was transferred to the Moscow area. Only privates and officers remained in that camp…
In 1954 the return of POWs to Germany was coming to the end. They were transported by trains. Doors weren't shut and the order and discipline were outstanding.
A. D. – Did you have to do with the “forest brothers” after the war? Did you ever guard captured Vlasov's warriors?
N. Ch. – I had no contacts with the “forest brothers” but the NKVD internal troops actively combated with them. At that time my convoy company guarded the investigatory section of the jail in the Latvian city of Cesis. There were “forest brothers” among the prisoners. We knew who they were.
We didn’t guard Vlasov’s warriors either in Latvia or in Ivanovo Oblast’. We guarded only POWs and our convicts.
A. D. – Where were you on the Victory Day? How did your postwar career develop?
N. Ch. – On 9 May 1945 I was in Tallinn. It was a great holiday, especially pleasing for frontline soldiers and officers. All Tallinn residents went into streets. Beer and vodka flowed like water… People celebrated marvelously but I had to remember that the convoy company was subordinate to me and I should keep an eye on it.
My career was developing quite successfully. Gradually I reach the post of the regiment commander. Later I served in the Convoy Troops Central Board. I retired in 1983.
|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|