Nikolai Safonov

Published september 28, 2010

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I was born on 8 December 1923 in the village of Leonovo, Iznosov District, Kaluga Oblast’. We were a big family: mom delivered sixteen children, I was the fifteenth one. However, only seven of them survived – there was next to nothing for medical institutions in the rural area in the 1920s and early 1930s. In our family any newborn was given the previous name of a late toddler…

Our parents were very ordinary peasants, both completely illiterate. Nevertheless, my father was a true jack-of-all-trades. He knew how to build a house, to set a stove, to make shoes, and to mat wool into felt valenki (a kind of Russian winter boots). In general, he could make everything…

The population of our village consisted of 108 peasant families and we had only an elementary school in Leonovo. Therefore I continued my middle school education in the school of the neighboring village of Veshki. In early June 1941 I completed the 8th grade.

I began spending my summer vacation in Moscow, where two my oldest brothers lived and worked. On 22 June all of us heard by radio that the war began. I wanted to go home immediately but no trains to the city of Kaluga were available. In order to reach Leonovo I took my brother’s bicycle, somewhat mastered cycling and the next day I set off for the 180 kilometers-long journey. I didn’t know the traffic regulations and with difficulty got out of Moscow – the traffic-controllers stopped me several times. Everything changed when I finally reached the Warsaw highway: no controllers, no traffic at all, no troops and no refugees. I arrived home the same day.

All four of my older brothers participated in the Great Patriotic War. The oldest, Ivan, was killed in action in 1941. Dmitrii served in the army when the war began. He was seriously injured and became an invalid of war. Vasilii, born in 1916, was a professional builder. He served at the front as an officer of the engineering troops. Mikhail, born in 1920, who lived with our parents, was called up on the second day of the war. He fought as an infantryman, was seriously wounded, but came through the war.

After returning home, I visited our district voenkomat (the military registration and enlistment office) asking to be drafted. However, they refused referring to my age which was not yet 18. Therefore, on 1 September I went to the 9th grade of my school. Actually, our study was very short: we were directed in the collective farm’s field for gleaning ears left by the reaping machine.

At these days the front was already not far from Leonovo, some Red Army troops passed us and I being a Komsomol member tried to help the soldiers as I could: I gave them some bread, potato, milk (the collective farm’s cattle had been driven to the rear beforehand). I visited the voenkomat one more time and tried to persuade them to enlist me: “Enlist me – the Germans will come here soon.” However they didn’t enlist me… Under German Occupation

Meanwhile in early October our village was already under occupation. There wasn’t a permanent German garrison there, so initially we didn’t feel the change of the rule. The Germans didn’t trouble themselves with any reforms. They appointed our collective farm’s chairman Vasilii Vasil’evich Niunenkov to be the village headman. He was a decent man and didn’t harm anybody. However Niunenkov made a serious mistake before the Germans came to Leonovo. That summer our collective farm had a large harvest of the wheat. Why didn’t he distribute the harvest among the villagers? Later, when the occupiers came, they just burnt the stacks of wheat. So, Niunenkov didn’t benefit, either. (After the Red Army liberated us, the Niunenkovs big family had been arrested. Soon all of them except Vasilii Vasil’evich were released)…

Besides the village headman two former collective farm’s brigade-leaders were appointed as the village’s brigade-leaders. They fulfilled different tasks that the Germans gave. For example, if a need of food for German soldiers came about, both visited villagers and gathered foodstuff. They weren’t even arrested when the Soviet rule returned: everybody understood – they hadn’t another choice. We hadn’t a policeman in the village...

All of our villagers already knew that the Germans expropriate cattle from everybody. Therefore, everybody slaughtered almost all of their cows and pigs beforehand and kept everything that could be taken off out of sight.

One more danger existed for local youth – to be driven into Germany as gastarbeiters (guest workers) or, in fact, as slaves. For example, all youth of the neighboring village of Vorsobino had been driven to Germany and they returned only after the war. Our village headman had to prepare a list of teens who should be driven to Germany. Some villagers asked him not doing that, other even threatened him with a terrible requital. I said him: “Anyway our rule will return and you would be hanged for your collaboration with the Nazis.” Niunenkov swore to annihilate the list. Actually none of our villagers had been driven away. Maybe the point was that the Germans just hadn’t have time to complete their intentions? Who knows?

Leonovo was under the occupation only four months, moreover, the Germans weren’t in the village constantly. So, they just hadn’t enough time to do “mischief.” There weren’t demonstrative executions there, nobody had been killed. At the same time we went through these four month like in a vacuum: no radio, no news from the front…

The most memorable episode of that period happened in late October. A shot down Soviet plane landed not far from Leonovo and we, of course, rushed to it. The pilot was mortally wounded but managed to land the plane. One of our villagers who reached the plane in advance of all took away from the dead pilot his documents as well as the pocket-pistol. He had time to hide everything before the Germans arrived. The man explained to the Germans: “There were some military Germans here already, they took away something from the pilot.” They, however, didn’t have faith in him and arrested this man. Quite soon he was released though. After the Red Army liberated us, the man was arrested anew – I think they suspected him of being recruited by Germans. Later, when the Soviet security services finally released him, the man told us that they tortured him brutally but he didn’t plead guilty. His son, who was a friend of mine, served with some Red Army tank unit but didn’t fight at the front, probably as a son of “the enemy of the Soviet people.” Nevertheless, later my friend became the head of the Leonovo Village Council. Some villagers remembered who his father was though…

The copilot wasn’t in the cockpit, so Volodia Khokhlov and I after shortly weighing our options decided to go to the neighboring forest. Actually, we found him there. The copilot was injured but managed to drop by parachute. We couldn’t decide what should we do and where to put him, and made our way to our Russian language teacher Vera Alexandrovna Dobrokhotova. After our explanation of the situation, she warned: “Kolia and Volodia – not a word to anybody!” Vera Alexandrovna took the man in and treated him. At the same time the Germans searched for the copilot, too. When they entered her house for inspecting she warned them in German that the man is her relative and he is ill with typhus. After we were liberated he seemingly wrote a report somewhere. Soon Vera Alexandrovna was decorated with the Order of the Red Star.

I wanted to be decorated with the medal “For the Defense of Moscow” and recently sent my request to the Minister of Defense Serdiukov – in fact, I helped our soldiers and I found that pilot. However, I suppose that nobody in his administration had even read my request.

Soon after the 1942 New Year the Red Army troops were already not so far from Leonovo. At that time some German artillery battery was emplaced in the village. It was an important target of the Soviet artillery and we underwent several bombardments. Many houses were destroyed and there were casualties, too.

These days I was afraid of two things. First, I don’t want to perish not being a warrior at the front. Second, I was under the threat of being driven into Germany as a slave. For both reasons I disguised myself as a woman and dirtied my face with soot. Since the day when the German artillerymen appeared in the village I spent nights in a barn behind our house and it lasted a whole week. There was a very frosty January, so I could bear to be there no later than up to 2-3 a. m. when I quietly entered the house and climbed the Russian stove-bench to get warm beside other members of the family. Once a German who stayed in our house nearly caught me.

The last day of the occupation, probably 30 January 1942, was the most terrible one. The Germans gathered almost all residents of our part of Leonovo and locked them in a house with an intention to burn it down. At these hours the German incendiary command already went through the village setting houses on fire. In order to save our house I suggested father to bring the pistol that we once stole from injured German soldier. Mom feared that I could be shot in the street and gave an emotional shout: “Stand here! Better to let everything perish!” So the house along with all our belongings had been burnt down. As well as our poor cow that was burnt alive: the Germans intentionally propped the door of the cowshed to prevent her from breaking away from the enclosure.

Thanks to the Red Army offensive, the German troops retreated hastily. Although almost all of the houses were burnt, they hadn’t time to burn us with them.

An Infantryman at the Front

On 7 March 1942 I was drafted and directed to serve with the 183rd Reserved Regiment of the 33rd Army. The regiment was situated in the city of Borovsk. It was manned with recently liberated men. During the combat training we fired different infantry armament including even machine guns.

As a well educated soldier (eight plus grades of high school!) I was enrolled in the regimental school that was preparing the squad commanders. We were studying and training there in a strict accordance with the combat regulations but almost none of it proved useful at the front.

We were fed poorly in that reserved regiment, everyone felt hunger. 200 grams of flinders and crumbs of sukhari (dried flat slices of bread) and a half-liter scoop of watery soup for a whole day – it is clear as a noonday that such a ration isn’t enough. I was happy when Mikhail’s wife, my sister-in-law, sometimes visited me and gave something edible. In general, I was hungry constantly. What do you want? I was an 18 something-year-old and 186-centimeter-tall guy, whose constitution needed a lot of energy… To help ourselves we went to the kitchen of the officers’ canteen for picking up potato peelings, slightly rotten cabbage etc. – we cooked it and ate… None of us died from the malnutrition. Moreover, our spirit was high and we sang different marching songs gladly…


After a two-months-long training at the school I was given the rank of senior sergeant and directed to the front line.

When I arrived at the first-line detachment there was even a shortage of rifles there. I was outraged and asked my commander to take appropriate measures. His answer was quiet: “Don’t worry. After a five-minute-long attack a half of our men would be killed. You’d have enough rifles to spare.”

Soon I was shifted to the Separate Training Battalion of the 110th Rifle Division of the same army. I was an instructor there and trained future sergeants. There were 1200 men in the battalion – a real regiment. Later we stood in the first trench as a separate unit.

It was a trench war there but the Germans didn’t permit us to “relax”: they shelled us round-the-clock and dive-bombed so hard that I led out my soldiers to no-man’s-land, closer to the German trenches. The company commander asked me: “What are you doing?” And my answer was: “All of you will be destroyed by the bombing soon but my squad would remain alive.”

On 13 August 1942 I participated in the first attack in my life. We advanced in an open field without any artillery support and managed to seize the Germans’ first trench. Shortly after I was injured in the right leg. You can’t fight as an infantryman for a long time – you’d be either killed or wounded… I said goodbye to my soldiers and hobbled to our medical company. They suggested me to be directed to a far rear hospital, however I stood up against that suggestion emotionally: “Extract the bullet and don’t dispatch me anywhere. My native village is just four kilometers from here.” They operated on my leg and I was at home until November when I returned to the same 183rd Reserved Regiment. The “buyers” from different units visited that regiment regularly, and one summer day of 1943 I was “bought” as a squad commander by a representative of the 692nd Rifle Regiment of the 125th Separate Rifle Brigade.

We took part in the Kursk battle near the settlements of Nizhneie Ashkovo, Verkhneie Ashkovo and Poliushki. Then our brigade was disbanded and our 692nd Rifle Regiment became a part of the 212th Rifle Division of the 61st Army which I fought up to the end of the war with.

Two episodes of that period remained in my memory. Once it turned out that a German military food supply storehouse was in the no-man’s-land and some of our hungry soldiers got there crawling. The second episode was more dangerous: a group of German scouts threw many hand grenades at the HQ of our 2nd battalion. Fortunately it was almost empty at that moment and nobody suffered.

After the Kursk battle we participated in a position war in Byelorussia lasting about ten months. We performed there several combat reconnaissance actions. Then we were shifted to my native Kaluga Oblast’ for the next re-forming and the arrival of reinforcements.

After the re-forming our regiment took part in the liberation of Byelorussia: we advanced through the Pinsk marshes and liberated the city of Bobruysk and city of Krichev near the Sozh River. For these successful actions our regiment was conferred the honorary title Krichevskii.

Then our 61st Army was temporary shifted to the Baltic Front where we took part in the Riga operation after which we returned to Byelorussia. Soon we advanced into Poland and liberated Warsaw. Although our meetings with Polish civilians were rare, I didn’t notice their special hospitality. Moreover, we were warned to be on the alert and to not walk alone. We had no losses in Poland except combat casualties.

During the Visla-Oder operation our regimen commander summoned me and ordered to collect and record all data of our battalion’s losses from 13 till 29 January. Nikolai Kizub was ordered to work as my partner. We had to draw a small topographic map with a mark of burial place for each of the perished. Initially I tried to refuse because of the combat situation that was a true “mess”: some Germans were ahead, others – behind, while the regiment was advancing. So we the two would sit here abandoned to the mercy of fate. The regiment commander ordered the attachment of a reconnaissance platoon of 15 men as a guard. We completed our task quite soon and were ready to start catching up with the regiment. Alas, the recons were already “under the weather” and set out without us. So now we began catching up with our “guard.” There wasn’t any success in this chase because our wagon was drawn by two weak horses. Soon the battalion commander’s orderly along with the radio operator Prokhorov passed us without stopping…

Things were heading toward the sunset, and we began searching for something edible in a settlement. At that time we noticed an armored train on the railroad track. Shortly after the orderly and Prokhorov appeared shouting “Germans!” What the hell? Germans? And our armored train is here? Oh, in a moment we realized that it was the German armored train! We rushed backward but the train opened a direct fire against us. Our horses were killed, and all of us were wounded before any cover was reached. I got a little, too: a couple of fragments brushed my face and spine. I counted 41 holes in my greatcoat... Later somebody told me that Prokhorov was wounded in both hands and a local Pole saved him from the Germans.

At night we came into a village. A Russian guy, who earlier was driven into Germany, gave us some food and a bedding to sleep. In the morning we found horses in abandoned yard and soon caught up with the regiment.

In April 1945 started the hardest battle that I took part in. For four days running we stormed the Zeelow Heights and it was something fearful! It turned out during our attacks that the German weapon emplacements weren’t neutralized and the enemy directed its full might against us. Later some experienced soldiers affirmed that it was more fearful than in Stalingrad. Our rifle company lost about 100 its men out of 120… Up to me, all infantrymen who fought at the Zeelow Heights deserved to be conferred the honorary title of the Hero of the Soviet Union. I have no words for what was going on there…

Then we advanced into Germany but not toward Berlin, we rounded it somewhat northward and on 28 April we reached the Elba River. That meant the end of the war for our unit.

In ten days Victory came. Of course, we celebrated it enthusiastically. There was a shooting-upward salute and plenty of drinks and food. Instead of sitting at a giant common table, all detachments celebrated separately. With a true bitterness I remember a few casualties of the improvised salute.

Across the river the Americans stood and we repeatedly met them and fraternized with each other. Our relations were friendly, many of both sides presented some souvenirs to each other. There were also various acts of mutual aid in case of need. For example, once they gave us gas…

Miscellaneous

INTERRELATIONS AT THE FRONT

I had quite many good companions at the front but there wasn’t enough time for infantrymen to make friends – they became casualties too quickly. Only Vasia Prokushev, a Siberia native, was my close friend, we fought together for a few months. Unfortunately, he was seriously wounded: his right hand was torn. I bandaged him, we said goodbye to each other and he was dispatched to the rear. I still don’t know whether Vasia is alive – we didn’t exchange addresses.


Soldiers and officers of our battalion represented different nationalities, so you can say it was a battalion of multi-ethnic composition. Since we were a common infantry our reinforcements mainly were ineffective, semi-literate or illiterate and untrained men; some of them couldn’t even speak Russian. However, there weren’t any signs of shunning or hostility among us. All newcomers who came through the first days accustomed themselves to the war very soon.

A memorable occasion happened when we fought in Germany. A Moldavian soldier, who barely spoke Russian, once disappeared. We looked for him without success. As it turned out later, he stepped not far away for urinating and two German soldiers took him prisoner. Soon, when both of them looked aside, he snatched his digging tool off, banged their heads and delivered the Germans to our HQ. That guy was awarded with the Order of the Red Star.

In 1945 the majority of our battalion were natives of recently liberated areas, especially Moldavians. And all our soldiers and officers fought well regardless of their nationality: Moldavians, Caucasians, Jews and all others. No conflicts occurred among us owing to ethnic origin.

Let me devote several paragraphs to my commanders. In general, I was fortunate to have them. There wasn’t among my commanders such a person who threatened: “If you wouldn’t carry out my order, I’d shoot you.”

I’d like to start with our regiment commander Podberezin Il’ia Mikhailovich – a very brave, active and competent officer, with two military academy degrees. Twice he joined the Communist Party and both times became expelled for his excessive excitability: it happened that Podberezin lashed some officers for their negligence and/or cowardice in combat. We knew that his “victims” always received what they deserved, the same way as he fairly awarded his subordinates. Soldiers respected him, and he knew many soldiers in person.

Podberezin’s guards were submachine gunners. He never retreated in action, even Germans knew that. Also, I remember that our regiment commander often used extracts from different poems in his speeches.

My battalion commander and his deputy were Tseluiev and Prygunov respectively. Both left the ranks after being injured.

And my platoon commanders – how many of them had taken turns during the war! I always was the squad commander but many times often I had substituted my platoon commanders because they perished even more often than ordinary riflemen. As to myself, the commanders held on to me as to a very experienced or you can say an irreplaceable soldier. They didn’t want to let me be transferred to some another detachment, even to the noncommissioned officers (NCO) school.

At the same time these commanders tried to get rid of negligent and apprehensive soldiers as well as of those who didn’t know Russian language at all. There was one way to get rid of a soldier – to transfer him to some rear detachment. On the other hand, not all rear detachments were safe. Even our wagon drivers weren’t considered as “rear rats” (a popular Russian nickname for men serving in the rear) – they just didn’t take part in attacks but were situated not so far from our trenches. Divisional and army HQs – they’re quite another matter.

In general, the officers treated their subordinates well, as it was in our battalion. Otherwise a cruel commander could receive a bullet in his back during an attack. As I remember it, a group of soldiers of a neighboring battalion (seemingly, they were Byelorussians), killed their commanders and deserted to the Germans.

Our highest commanders didn’t consider the losses and their subordinates were stuck to the hard rule: any combat order has to be carried out at any price. Therefore many of them didn’t spare their soldiers. Many years later Zhukov acknowledged his guilt for the enormous losses at the Zeelow Heights…

What can I say about the political workers? I consider them as a useful group of officers. While in trenches, we didn’t know what was going on at the front as well as in the world. And they gave us some information, made many subjects clear to us. I joined the Communist Party in 1943. There were many Jews among the political workers, they took part in our battles, never sat behind our backs. So I can say that all our political workers set examples for us in word and deed.

During periods when our unit was temporary shifted to the rear, the divisional political department managed to organize concerts for the troops. I remember that guest actors performed different entertaining tricks. However, there weren’t books to read…

One more thing to notice: although we were patriots of the USSR, we never shouted in our attacks “For Stalin!” Just “Hurrah!” and some foul language, especially, if we were attacking after 100 grams of vodka…

Now I’ll tell you a few words about the osobists. (Osobist was a nickname for an officer of the regimental “Osobyi Otdel” [“Special Department” – a small group of officers who managed the counterespionage matters, exposed political suspects and prevented desertion in the unit]). Our osobists always persuaded us to inform them about everyone who said or did something suspicious. They talked to me as well and even gave me a pseudonym “Leonov” (made of the name of my place of birth – Leonovo). Later they always rebuked me: “Why don’t you want to share what you know with us? Why don’t you write a report for us?” What would I write in a report if there weren’t traitors among us? Should I write some fiction?

After the war one of our soldiers, my friend Gorin had shot himself. He came from some liberated area. So, I surmise that he felt a danger that some of his bad deeds done during the occupation would be revealed.

A few times I watched demonstrative executions of deserters and traitors before the unit’s formation. One Byelorussian of our regiment occasionally remained behind the column, and the osobists cooked up a charge against him as if he was a deserter. So he was shot for nothing. He knelt and begged to have the case examined, to have mercy on him but nothing helped…

By the way, once I got in a similar situation but with a happy end. While seizing the city of Riga, we didn’t sleep for more than three days. The next night a long march began. When our column stopped for a halt I fell dead asleep and didn’t hear how the battalion gathered and departed. Fortunately somebody pointed me at the right direction and I caught up my battalion. So everything turned out all right…

Many people asked me about women at the front. Yes, there were the PPZhs (Russian abbreviation for “campaign wives”) in our troops. However, there weren’t women in our battalion. Actually, once a female medical instructor was directed to the battalion, but right away our battalion commander took her as his personal PPZh.

SUPERSTITIONS AND FATE

While fighting, I didn’t sense any special feeling. I definitely knew that I would be killed or at least wounded – it was an infantryman’s lot. Any attack meant for us almost a certain death… Many soldiers began making their farewells and hugging each other; some wrote farewell letters shortly before the attack. I told them: “What are you writing these foolish letters for? We have to live and to be victorious!” According to a superstition, I also recommended my companions-in-arms not to fill out the identifying certificate that every soldier should have in his pocket. “Anyway, if you’d get killed, your relatives would have been informed…”

Looking back at my combat past I still can’t understand how could I come through. It was impossible to remain alive in the hell where I was time and again. I experienced such messes and many times I was within a hair’s breadth of the death but anyway I remained alive.

For example, once a German shell had hit our dugout, penetrated the cover but … didn’t explode. My luck – what can you say? Another example – once after I finished defecating at the edge of a forest I discovered that an anti-tank mine was exactly under my buttocks. My hair had stood on end…

Yes, I was a “lucky beggar” but the overwhelming majority of infantrymen at the front weren’t. How can you guess where fate is waiting for you? I remember our company commander Blinov. Once we fell under German fire and Blinov lay down behind a massive stone. The next blast wave shifted the stone, which weighted him down to death… Another accidental occurrence happened when several soldiers including myself were quietly eating our lunch. We sat just on the grass and continued our talk when suddenly German shrapnel exploded and one of us lost his leg…

I had never thought that I’d remain alive. At the present time I often remember the war and analyze my past. I understand that I mustn’t survive with a probability of 99.99 percent.

In general I wasn’t superstitious but when I was healing my first wounds at home, my mom gave me some printed “Divine Letter,” on some 5-6 pages. Since our soldiers military blouses were without breastpockets, I sewed two small pockets to the inside of my blouse, one – for the Communist Party member’s card, the second – for the “Divine Letter.” I carried both up to the end of the war. When I returned home, I said: “Mom, your letter helped.”

While at the front, I received letters from two girls, Maria and Shura, both were my former schoolmates. After Shura recognized that I definitely gave preference to Maria, she wrote me in 1944: “I want you to be killed in order that my rival not get you…” How could one to write such words, even on account of jealousy, to a soldier who fought at the front? After the war when I already married Maria, I met Shura but she didn’t apologize… So, to spite her and fate I’m still alive. However I always remember that I came through just by chance…

FOOD, DRINKS, UNIFORM ETC.

Of course, while in trenches, we were fed better than in the rear – at least 700 grams of bread daily. However, very often the field-kitchen with warm meals was unable to reach our trenches. And the dry rations became eaten in a moment – nobody could restrain oneself. In 1945 everything went to the better, especially when we fought in Germany. The houses were empty and we could find plenty of food and home-canned foodstuff as well as drinks there. Actually, we didn’t need our field-kitchen in Germany. We ate well on our own.

As I remember it, during a combat period we received 100 grams of vodka daily. Our well-aged soldiers took it before the attack. In contrast to them I drank my vodka only after attack was completed, and I advised my subordinates to follow that way. On the other hand, these 100 grams weren’t too much for an adult constitution and they helped to easy the tremendous nervous tension that everybody experienced before the attack.

During the battle for the city of Brest a tank car full of methyl alcohol was discovered at the railroad station. We were warned beforehand that drinking this liquid was extremely dangerous. Therefore I was running from one place to another shouting: “Don’t drink! Don’t drink!” Nevertheless, a lot of soldiers gathered there. Most filled their mess kits or flasks with that alcohol, others drank while repeating: “Anyway we’ll perish while fighting…” In our company alone some ten soldiers died, and in the battalion, I think, some fifty passed away. Nevermore did such fatal incidents happen in our unit…

Our uniform, especially, the padded trousers and jackets, were, I can say, quite comfortable. Most of us didn’t wear helmets that were of a little use – they protected only from spent fragments. (However, some soldiers wore them, anyway).

Up to the very end of the war our footwear was the soldier’s high shoe. Later we were given boots. In shoes you feel more comfortable but booted you look prettier.

Because of the combat situation we couldn’t wash ourselves regularly. Moreover, we even couldn’t take our uniform off, we always slept dressed. As a result, we often were infested with lice. Some managed to find an opportunity to wash themselves or to change their underwear. Also we had a special metal cask fitted for high-temperature lice killing. That procedure was effective, but sometimes the clothes perished along with lice.

Every one of our servicemen received the money allowance monthly. As a squad commander I received some 125 rubles. However I never saw the money – according to my instruction my whole allowance had been transferred to the Defense Fund.

DECORATION MATTERS

I was decorated with six awards altogether. Initially I received one after another two medals “For Bravery.” There weren’t emphasized in the recommendations of some special combat missions that I took part in, – I was given these medals for just participation in the bloody fighting. I was awarded with the Order of the Red Star for raising our platoon to attack after the platoon commander was killed. And I received the 3rd Class Order of Glory for the hard battles in Germany when I was injured but continued fighting. (It was said at that time that I was recommended for the Order of the Red Banner but ultimately received the Order of Glory). I was also decorated with medals “For the Victory over Germany” and “For the Liberation of Warsaw.”

In general, I should say that all frontline infantrymen deserved to be awarded but they became casualties very soon and right away their merits became forgotten. The company and platoon commanders usually became casualties as soon as the soldiers were. Who then was able to recommend the soldiers to be awarded? The officers were more decorated but when they left the ranks their merits also became forgotten soon…

THE GERMANS

The Germans were excellent fighters, it can’t be denied: disciplined, experienced. They fought very competently. At the same time, we hated them for their atrocious actions on our land. Not only those (including me) who experienced the German occupation but also everyone who took part in liberating our cities, towns and villages: we saw the terrible consequences of their occupation – blood, ashes, ruins…

Nevertheless, during the entire war I never saw a German prisoner being tortured or killed.

I know just a little about the Germans infantry armament. As I remember, someone of our battalion used a German handheld machine gun but I hadn't an opportunity to deal with it. We often used the “faust-patrons” – a handheld recoilless German anti-tank weapon. A very effective weapon but you should rise before using it. The Germans burnt a lot of our tanks with these “faust-patrons.”

Next topic – about our behavior in Germany. Although a strict prohibitive order was in effect, I should say that there were some facts of both the pillage and rape. I remember how one marauder was shot in front of the unit’s formation. Initially I consider this punishment as too severe. However, after I came to know that he not just robbed these civilians but also beat them unmercifully, I changed my mind.

There were also cases of raping German women. I remember a widely known fact of a group rape when 33 soldiers raped a German woman. There were talks that after that news reached General Kotikov, the chief of the Political Department of the 61st Army, he shook his head especially wondering at those who were at the tail end of the line of rapists. Nevertheless, that criminal case had been dropped.

In general, most German women were easy to make love with Soviet soldiers and officers. Those of us who were greedy for sexual “sweets” made use of that easiness regularly (despite being afraid of a sexually transmitted disease). I wasn’t interested in these affairs because I strictly kept my loyalty to my sweetheart Maria.

A company commander of our battalion, Degtiarev by name, held a 17-year-old German as his “campaign wife.” Many officers knew that fact but didn’t prevent him and he wasn’t punished. Only after the end of the war a strict order was introduced regarding such relations.

IN THE “CIVVY STREET”

I was demobilized in March 1947. After returning home I married Maria, then entered the three-year locomotive engineer school in Kaluga. I graduated from it in 1951 and was dispatched to Moldavia as an instructor of a local locomotive engineer school. Then I worked just as a locomotive engineer. After graduating from the Extramural Divison of the Dnepropetrovsk Institute of Railroad Engineers I worked many years as a railroad engineer.


I retired in 1978. We have two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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


See also


I remember their leader, an unshaven, sweaty redhead with a submachine gun on his shoulder. Having carefully taken aim, I shot at him at a range of 15-20 meters. Immediately, the entire ambush squalled with automatic fire.

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After one of these fights I almost lost my mind. I killed three Germans. And when the fight was over and I calmed down a bit I noticed that there were only two dead bodies of those whom I killed. I started to run in the trench: where is the third German??? Where?? I was turning german bodies and was looking for "my german", the red-haired one. As I was killing him I noticed that he was red-haired. I was worried that he survived and crawled away, in which case I should find him and kill this f.... bastard. I was like a wild beast. Anyway, usually, even if we would manage to...
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On 16 April 1945 at the Seelow Heights I had an occasion to kill a Hitlerite Tiger Panzer. The two tanks faced head-on at the road intersection. I was a gunner, and first to fire an armor-piercing round and hit the “Tiger” under its turret. The heaviest armored “hood” bounced off like a light ball.
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I went out scouting so many times and every time under my own name. I had always been taught: “Whenever asked give your own name and tell where you lived, don’t fib, otherwise, you’ll get confused and will be caught!” For our deep-cover agents really sophisticated cover stories were invented, but this was not my case. I told them about myself. They started taking me to people’s apartments where residents still lived. The people would answer: “Yes, we know him, saw him around!” The “grandpa” “recognized” me right away: “Yes, he’s mine; I’ve sent him to fetch some...
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