Combats at the Volkhov and Leningrad Fronts
In 1941, before the war started, I was a student of an industry vocational school that was at the Petrogradskaia Storona, near the Sitnyi Rynok. When the war began and the Germans were advancing toward Leningrad, we, the students, took part in fortifying the city. We were also preparing for action in case of a German burst into the city. There were bottles filled with a flammable liquid prepared in advance on the roof of our school’s five-storied building. Besides, six of our Komsomol (communist organization for youth) members had rifles.
On 8 September, when the blockade ring round Leningrad became locked, the fascists accomplished a huge bombing air raid on the city. The Badayev foodstuff storehouses burned; the Botanical Gardens burned; living trees in our district burned. We took part in extinguishing the fire in a wide area.
In November the District Komsomol Committee suggested that our school select five volunteers among our Komsomol members for enlistment. Although I was the secretary of our Komsomol organization, I expressed my wish to be one of these five.
After we became trained a little (how to handle the armament, bayonet fighting, and grenade throwing), in January or February 1942 we were shifted through the Ladoga Lake to the Volkhov Front. I was enlisted into 286th Rifle Division.
This division turned out to be a very good one for those times. It fought nearby a settlement of Mga, about 50 kilometers from Leningrad, and as it is written in the division’s historical reference, didn’t retreat for a step neither before the blockade’s break through nor up to the day the blockade of the city was ultimately raised in January 1944.
I served with a reserve (training) battalion of this division, however, only up to September 1941. Nevertheless, for that period I became a squad leader, an assistant of a reconnaissance platoon commander. Actually I was a commander of this platoon. We didn’t accomplish training as such. More precisely, our training was the real action. Any night, any day didn’t pass without a fight. If the commanders accomplished a combat reconnaissance (almost an actual offensive), our platoon took part in it. In a lull period, our recons formed the combat guard. Our place was ahead of the riflemen’s trenches – the no-man’s-land. Our main goal was to prevent German recons from getting secretly into our positions. At the same time we had an unofficial instruction from our counterespionage officers: to prevent our soldiers from deserting to the Germans.
These officers often importuned me: “You should discover those who want to leave.” I wasn’t agreeing with them and my response was: “We don’t have those. All our soldiers are honest-minded people.” After that they suggested: “You can provoke somebody talking him ‘let us desert together’.” – “How can I say so? After that, you see, he’d report my words to another counterespionage officer. No, I will never act by such means, and never use provocations.”
After I became the reconnaissance platoon commander we accomplished different missions – night searches, hunting for a “tongue” (a prisoner for interrogation). There were successful missions and failures.
In September 1942 our unit was preparing for the so-called Siniavino operation, and seizing a “tongue” was an urgent matter. Two officers were controlling our mission, both in the major rank, – the division’s deputy commander for political affairs and the chief of division’s reconnaissance. The mission turned out to be a failure and, to be honest, both of the majors were a party to it. After they had let us out and we crawled away, it came to light that one recon remained behind the group. The majors let him out to catch up with us. As ill luck would have it, the man crawled over a land mine and the sound of the explosion thundered. The Germans took alarm and discovered us. When we returned these two were beside themselves with rage: the highest command charged them with that mission. They asked me: “Why did you return?” I answered: “It was transferred along the file of recons – fall back.” As soon as Germans discovered us, each of the crawling recons conveyed this command to his in front comrade. In advance of all were two sappers, I followed them as the commander, after me crawled the head of the seizing group a sergeant (Kustovskii or so was his name). They asked me: “Who gave you the fall back command?” –“I received it from behind.” The sergeant was immediately withdrawn and directed to a penal company. And I received an order – perform the mission again. However, it started dawning, everything became visible, and the Germans were alarmed. So we had to act as if to stop at nothing. One of the majors, an Armenian, aimed his pistol at my chest: “If you’ll return with nothing, we’d shoot you in the trench as a filthy dog.”
I addressed to the recons: “Did you all hear everything? Let’s go.” We crawled ahead and gathered on the no-man’s-land, then cut the wire entanglement. It seemed to be noiseless. Our usual plan was: the seizing group rushes into the German trench to seize the “tongue” and two parts of the covering group act on the right and on the left from the seizing group to prevent enemy’s counteraction. At my command we rushed ahead but the Germans met us with both machine gun and submachine gun (SMG) rapid fire. Of course, most of the group perished. How did I come through? Maybe because I was in the front file of recons and as soon as German soldiers began leaping out from their trenches to captured us I was firing off with my SMG.
We crawled back to the no-man’s-land and gathered there. The mission failed. I began thinking what should I do. To return – the death sentence threatens, to go ahead – I can’t give myself up, first as an ethnic Jew, and second as a staunch anti-fascist. So we unhurriedly picked up the injured recons and in about two hours brought them to our trenches. I was the last, and these two majors told me: “You know, sergeant, you are a brave man!” –“What a brave man am I if I ruined my entire group?” –“No, in any case you are a brave man. You brought all of your injured soldiers. Your mission failed – what could you do?”
The next day our mission had been a subject of review at the division HQ. They said literally the following: “These two majors are recommending you to receive the medal ‘For the Combat Merits,` but you deserve an award not of that sort. Now you have to collect a new group and to perform the mission again. We promise you the Red Banner Order. You’d receive the ‘order ration` and a business trip to Leningrad.” (There was at that time a rule in our division – along with such a decoration to hand over to the person a liter of vodka, a loaf of bread and a can of the very popular American tinned stewed pork). I didn’t discuss what they said, I agreed with everything.
Two or three days passed, I didn’t collect a single member of the new group yet, and our troops assumed the offensive. Unexpectedly, on the very first day of the offensive the company commander shouted: “Sergeant Spindler! I received an order to dispatch you to the training for officer courses.”
So I found myself in Sias’stroi settlement as a cadet of the training for officer courses of the 8th Army. We were taught and trained there for four months. I must say that during these four months we fought more than studied – for all that, we stayed just in a nearby rear, not in a hinterland. We were shifted now here, now there. For that entire period I was a cadet platoon commander there. In the 1943 New Year Eve night we were awakened: an urgent graduation of 20 officers. I was ranked a lieutenant, all others became junior lieutenants. I received the highest position – the chief of the battalion HQ, the others – 9 deputy company commanders and 10 platoon commanders.
I was directed to the 73rd Marine Brigade and since January 1943 served with it as a deputy chief of the separate rifle battalion of that brigade. The matter was that the separate marine battalion had the status of an infantry regiment. “What was your combat position before the courses,” – they asked. – “I was a scout.” – “OK, you’ll be the HQ chief’s assistant for reconnaissance affairs.”
In January 1943 the Volkhov Front forces accomplished an effort to break through the blockade. Many troops participated in it: our army, the 2nd Shock Army and others. And the Leningrad Front attacked toward us. By 18 January the Leningrad blockade had been broken through. At that moment our brigade kept its defensive position by the Siniavino Heights and even had been temporary shifted to the “Nevskii Patch” (we substituted other units).
In September 1943 there were some successes at the Volkhov Front, and our brigade was disbanded. The real seamen were sent to serve in the navy, and those like me – in the infantry. So I found myself in the 124th Rifle Division were I was the 406th Rifle Regiment HQ chief’s assistant for reconnaissance affairs.
The regiment held its position from the Neva River’s bank along the Siniavino Height, but we stood on the swamp as the Germans were at the height. Close to the riverbank my listening-in radio station was deployed. Two men served with it – an operator and a translator. Suddenly, one day a German conversation was intercepted and recorded: a “Tiger” tank successfully passed the bridge across the Mga River. The bridge endured the tank that was moving toward the front line. (By the way, this bridge stands on its place thus far without being repaired either in prewar or postwar years).
At that time the tanks of this model only just appeared at the front line. They were notably bigger than our T-26 and T-34. Therefore, the intercepted information was very important for our sector of the front. We reported it immediately to the command of our division and to the army's HQ, all were informed. Our beforehand report was extremeley timely. First, for not affecting our soldiers with panic if the “Tiger” appears and attacks us. Second, for making ready all our anti-tank means – anti-tank hand grenades and PTRs (anti-tank rifles). As a result, when one fine day the “Tiger” appeared before our position, it became under fire of different kind of weapon and couldn’t approach our trenches. The tank was knocked out on the no-man-land. The next night the Germans towed it to their rear. That was the end of German failed attempt to use the “Tiger” against us. This tank could spread panic among our soldiers. Instead, all of them were waiting for it like for a guest. Our listening-in radio station made a good contribution to that victory.
There were more different missions while we fought nearby Siniavino until 21 January 1944. On this day we seized Mga and that was considered as the end of the blockade of Leningrad. That evening Moscow fired a traditional artillery salute, and we sensed the taste of a victory.
What preceded that victory? Several fights of local significance that were performed by one battalion from each regiment or one company of each battalion. We attacked and the Germans fought off. We, the recons, prompted our regimental commanders that the Germans were on the alert and launched flares frequently by night while in the daytime they lost their watchfulness and relaxed. Knowing these details, we decided to accomplish a surprise reconnaissance action. A group of some twenty selected recons kept quiet in our trench while listening keenly to sounds being heard from the German side. When a noise of soldiers’ mess kits began to sound we knew: they are taking dinner. With that we jumped out of the trench, rushed through the no-man’s-land (we knew a narrow path without land mines) and burst into the German front trench. There was only one soldier, an observer there. We seized him and brought the “tongue” alive. Our mission was completed without casualties. In contrast to the failed attempt in September 1942, this mission was a big success.
On 14 January 1944 the 2nd Shock Army strongly struck the Germans from the Oranienbaum area, and the enemy retreated (it took place at the shore of Gulf of Finland, quite far from us).
At night 19 January we went for an almost regular night reconnaissance mission. That time I accompanied our recons. To our surprise, the Germans didn’t launch flares as they usually did. After we crawled into their first trench, it turned out that there were no Germans there. While reaching the second trench we made sure that it was empty, too. Then I returned in our first trench and reported by phone to the regiment commander that the Germans had retreated. He couldn’t believe it. Some recons returned and told me that our soldiers already walked there in their full height like in peacetime. Then I ran to the regiment commander and began proving furiously that the enemy retreated. He started questioning battalion and company commanders who confirmed my information. Only then he ordered – ahead! We left the swamp and advanced toward Mga. While retreating, the Germans fired back but not as hard, they just concealed their retreat. Getting over German resistance we liberated Mga. Short of it I was wounded (the fragment is still inside me) but didn’t leave the division. I was decorated with the Order of the Red Star, and the regiment commander received the Order of the Red Banner. He deserved it for raising our regiment to attack Mga and we really were the first who entered it. The army commander handed the order to our regiment commander directly on the combat field short of Mga. Our regiment was decorated as well. A ribbon of the Order of the Red Banner was fastened to the regimental banner. In such a way our division was renamed to Mginskaia, Order of the Red Banner Division.
After losing Mga the Germans mostly aligned their defense line without showing a strong resistance. In contrast, we kept up our offensive outbursts and dislodged them from their new positions.
Those days the enemy performed a landing mission behind Mga. The paratroopers wore Red Army uniforms. It turned out that all of them were former Soviet soldiers, who once had been taken prisoners and then collaborated with the Nazis. Nevertheless, some of them shortly after landing began giving themselves up. So we learned soon that the landing group consisted of one hundred men. Our counterespionage troops caught all of these paratroopers.
Advancing along the Moscow-Leningrad railroad we entered Tosno by 25 January. The Germans' resistance was not a serious one – they had no more power any more. We remained a rifle battalion for the commandant service in Tosno. The rest of the regiment advanced toward Vyritsa. We seized there several hundred prisoners and many trophies. To cut a long story short, there were so many spoils that we became unable to continue the offensive – we should first “swallow” all of it.
After these fighting we were shifted to the settlement Rybatskoie for reinforcements. We stayed there for some two weeks. Then we fought near Narva where very hard fighting took place. At that time a shell fragment wounded me in my head. They cut the hair close to my skin and bandaged my head in our medical company. I never had a longing to be taken to the division medical battalion or to a hospital. At the Leningrad Front I was injured altogether three times but had never left my regiment.
People can have different notions of the same subject. There was an occasion during one of our attack. I saw my subordinate soldier, some Tajik or Kyrghyz, going toward rear and asked: “Where are you walking toward?” He pointed at his earlobe that was a bit bloodied and answered: “I’m injured, comrade commander.” You could meet a soldier who became happy after being injured: he would be carried to a hospital – a month or two, anyway it would be a breathing space. However, we had another sort of people who continued fighting even being injured. It depends on how somebody’s fate turned out…
The Germans wanted to fasten themselves near Narva in order to fire their long-range artillery at Leningrad – it was within the striking distance. They stood firm there. Once even a situation turned out when the banner of our regiment got threatened, and we had to stand up for it. We held our ground firm but suffered serious casualties. Soon we were shifted from there…
Combats at the Bay of Vyborg’s islands
From the Narva area our division was shifted to the islands of the Bay of Vyborg. Initially we just marched but finally some vessels delivered us. After the fighting near Narva the division was seriously understaffed. Instead of 10 000 men its staff amounted just about 5 000 soldiers, NCOs and officers. Later we received reinforcements and became a unit of the 59th Army. Besides our 124th Rifle Division and the 224th Rifle Division, the army consisted of the 260th Marine Brigade and several detachments of the Order of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. We arrived in Yohannes (now Sovietskii) on 2 July. By that time both the 224th Rifle Division and the 260th Marine Brigade fought vigorously for some islands. On 1 July, when we still marched from Yohannes to Trongzund they tried to land but failed. Since 4 July morning the 224th Division fought again for liberating the Teikarsaary island (its present name is Igrivyi) but they didn’t reach their goal although they had many armored boats right up to submarines. The fight failed: the armored boat with the HQ staff had been split in two by an explosion, either from an underwater mine or it was a direct hit. I learned this combat story from Bogdanov who took part in that attempted landing as a sea cadet.
Next morning the 59th Army commander Korovnikov ordered our division to shift a rifle regiment under his personal command, and our 406th regiment was selected. Since then neither division commander nor division HQ commanded the regiment. The former division commander, Colonel Papchenko, described the situation in his postwar memoirs. At 4 July afternoon Korovnikov observed the unhappy end of the 224th Division’s operation. After that he decided to use two rifle battalions and the reconnaissance platoon (it was under my command). Our platoon boarded an armored boat and both battalions were on tenders (auxilary ships). Just before our boat was unmoored the deputy regiment commander Major Taran boarded it. I still don’t know whether he did it voluntarily or the regiment commander directed him.
The navy officers knew how to select places for landing, but we, the footmen, didn’t know where we would land. We unmoored at Vysotsk and formed a column of ships and boats. Short about 10 kilometers of the Teikarsaary island the column re-formed into an abreast formation and stopped. After the previous failure, Korovnikov was furious. This time he used all of the means that were at his command: aircraft and artillery units. As soon as we stopped against the island, there was a powerful twenty-minute-long artillery bombardment and diving bombers attack. It was about 2 p.m., the sun shined and we were able to observe how our shells exploded, how our bombers dove. They destroyed everything possible. The explosions were visible over tops of trees. The bombardment also targeted the coastal zone in order to destroy both land and underwater mines. We knew that there was a forest and rocks at the island. The northern part of it was flat country, and some settlement was there.
As soon as the bombardment stopped, we sailed to the place of landing. At that time it became known that our platoon would be the first disembarking detachment and its main mission was to take a beachhead at the right flank. There was a bay to the left of us – the first battalion had to disembark there under our cover fire. Its mission was to traverse the island and then to turn round the line toward north. Beside, the other battalion had to land with a similar mission but they had to turn round toward south.
I had a verbal understanding with the boat commander that he would stop the vessel when the water becomes not deep enough. As our boat stopped he nodded his approval and I commanded my subordinates to jump into water. A few of them leaped down and … became thoroughly engulfed. I looked at he navy officer so angrily that he turned the engine on for a short while and stopped the boat at a distance of about 10 or 15 meters from the shore. All of us jumped down but were met with both machine gun and SMG fire from the shore. Only four men including me reached the coast unhurt, all others were either injured or killed. We reached the coast running from one small rock to another while holding the SMG high over water. As soon as all of us left the boat, it sailed away. Both tenders remained moored.
During our landing major Taran had been seriously injured, later he was delivered to the division medical battalion where he died from the wounds. Major Taran was buried near Yohannes.
When we, the four, got out of water four Finns approached us holding their hands up. They were the only ones who remained unhurt at this part of the island. We were lucky. First, I had prisoners already, and, second, no one could fire at us – it meant that we seized the beachhead.
In some half hour a half-bent soldier came running with a SMG in his hand and told me (I was the only officer at the coastal area): “The 1st Battalion commander Captain Marchenko ordered me to let you know that battalion reached the settlement and that the Finns are moving reinforcements there.” I replied automatically: “Tell your commander you should consolidate your grip and be ready to repel a possible Finnish counterattack.” The soldier ran away and silence set in as if the war came to an end. (Because both Marchenko and I had no means for wireless contact between us, he assumed that the orderly would meet Major Taran, who was a higher rank officer).
However, something strange happened to our prisoners after the Marchenko's orderly's visit. They became excited and began conversing with each other – a sign that they understood what the soldier told me. When I recently tried to interrogate them in Russian they pretendet not understanding my questions. And now they began worrying. I was able to understand why. If the Finns counterattack us and liberated them they would be questioned: “Why did you allow the landing? Why did you give up without any resistance?” There were among the prisoners one officer and one sergeant, and after my reflections I decided to separate them from each other. So we formed two even couple of prisoners each guarded by one of my three recons armed with SMGs.
Again silence all around, and sun was shining. Suddenly I saw – from the Trongzund direction the boat was approaching, the same boat that delivered us. To avoid possible fire from the island it was performing zigzag maneuvers. I rose to my full height and waved to the boat as if inviting it. The boat ended maneuvering and moored to the shore. Our division commander Colonel Papchenko arrived with the boat. The Army Commander directed him to us because the Army’s HQ had no information from the island. The boat also delivered the divisional recons and a radio station. As soon as the radio was ready to operate, Papchenko ordered to direct one more regiment to Igrivyi island. A little later one more battalion landed. Because of such a situation the Finns fled from the island. I have a quotation from a Swedish historian’s book. Actually, the Finns were fleeing at random: some boating, others swimming. Finnish and German ships began fall in back as well.
Officially we liberated the Igrivyi island on 5 July by 5 p.m., and the neighboring island Teikarsaary (now Kormovoi) – a little later on the same day. The next day we occupied all the islands between the southern part of he bay and the mainland. Only one small, about 600 meters in diameter, island named Lamasaary remained unoccupied. It was closer to the mainland than any other.
The 1st Assault Battalion was directed to seize the Lamasaary. In the late evening of 6 July its detachments embarked two tenders. They had to sail around the Mellansaary island and to land on the Lamasaary. After midnight Finns knocked out both tenders which sank. Then the chief of the Divisional Reconnaissance told me that nobody knows who was on the island at that moment. He said: “Here is a boat for you and three of your subordinates. Take with you a portable radio and ascertain who occupies the island. If the Finns – we would direct one more company there to land.” Still at night we, the four, boarded a four-oar boat and made our way toward the Lamasaary. It was dark, we were rowing and suddenly I saw a top of a rock came into view with several Red Army soldiers sitting on it just as the old man Mazai’s hares (Russian poet Nekrasov described in his short poem how an old man rescued hares during high water). They asked: “Comrade Senior Lieutenant! Pick us up!” I feared to come near because they could overload and turn over our small boat. I said: “We have to reach the island. What do you think, who occupies it?” –“We don’t know, take us, please!” –“I really can’t do it now. However, if everything on the island is OK, I would dispatch a boat to pick up all of you.” And we kept on our way. When we were at a distance of about 150 meters from the island, our boat became a target of a mortar fire from the island. Fountains of water gushed beside us but it was not a direct hit. We applied ourselves to the oars and reached the dry land with a rush. Some figures were seen! I shouted loudly: “Slavs!?” – and Russian speech was the answer.
It turned out that there were about ten our soldiers from the sunken tenders. Along with them we searched the island and made sure that no Finn was there. I reported this information to the command by radio and dispatch the boat to pick up the soldiers from the rock.
We had to wait for the promised company for three days. So we took some precautions but the Finns made no attempts to recapture the island. As I remember, on 9 July an order to stop all combat actions was received. That was the order of our Front Commander. After liberating the islands, the 59th Army intended to land on the mainland and then – a direct way toward Helsinki! However, Finland went out of the war and started peace negotiations. All of us – some alive, others killed – remained at these islands, the entire division including its artillery regiment.
On 10 July I returned from the island to Trongzund where our medical battalion was located. My appearance became a great surprise to many: “We had seen your corpse but you are alive!” It was a true miracle to come through there, to remain unhurt and not drowned (I wasn’t a good swimmer, too). Nevertheless, I remained safe and sound.
In combats for Bay of Vyborg’s islands our division suffered as many casualties as 1000 soldiers, NKOs and officers, mainly those who had served in our regiment.
The remains of the 224th Division were shifted to the islands to perform the garrison duties, and we re-deployed to the Vyborg area.
Later we fought not as long in Poland, then in Lithuania and finally we entered East Prussia. I fought there as a Chief of the 406th Regimental Reconnaissance with the rank of a Captain.
As soon as we found ourselves on the enemy’s land we wanted to take revenge on the Germans for the destruction, burning, and plundering of our cities and villages. Then we received an order not to destroy anything on our way and to be respectable, indulgent and tolerant to the locals. We didn’t settle scores with prisoners of war as well as with the civilians.
Here, in East Prussia I managed to organize and perform in February 1945 a successful mission for seizing a “tongue.”
Not far behind the first line of our defense a high windmill stood. I ascended it and saw through a chink enemy’s trenches. One spot attracted my attention: there was a dugout beside a weapon emplacement. It was occurred to me to seize a prisoner under a cover of a curtain-fire. I sent for the mortar platoon commander and, while looking through the chink, he carried out the zeroing his mortars at several selected targets. For not revealing our actual target we realize the zeroing procedure according to a smart plan. We launched five mortar shells at some spot of the German trench, then – one shell at the chosen place of planned mission, and after that – several shells at another section of the trench. We repeated this “disorganized” firing twice. While the mortar men repeated the firing, I thoroughly observed the second hand of my wristwatch and learned that the interval between the launch of a mortar shell and its explosion totaled sixty something seconds. At the same time it was settled that a long burst of machine gun fire would be a start signal for the mortar platoon.
We included into the seizing group an infantryman with a light machine gun and at night crawled to the no-man-land. I warned everybody that in some forty seconds after we burst into German trench, that place would be bombarded with “friendly mortar shells.” So we must act there no longer than forty seconds. No matter if we seize the “tongue” or not, anyway, just forty seconds – and back!
It was shortly before dawn, peace and quiet all around when we reached the appointed line. I ordered the machine gunner to fire a long burst. He fired a full cartridge-drum to force the awakened Germans to jump out from their dugout. Meanwhile, my recons didn't waste time: they jumped into the trench, grabbed a German, dragged him out and began leaving. And again – absolute silence! We delivered a prisoner without casualties. When the awakened Germans entered their trench, mortar shells began raining down on their heads. It was considered that the Germans lost about a platoon of infantrymen.
When we were already in our trench, the Germans in revenge started an artillery bombardment at our section of the front line close the windmill. Evidently they guessed wherefrom we came. It was too late, however. The basement of the mill was solid, and all of our men went down there when the bombardment started.
Behind the mill two bicycles stood leaning against the wall. I asked the prisoner with gestures whether he could cycle and received his affirmative nod. After that I let the air out of the front wheel of his bicycle and explained to him with gestures: “Follow me, don’t lose touch with me!” In addition I pointed at my pistol. We cycled toward the regimental HQ – I was in advance operating the normal bicycle and the prisoner hardly followed me. When we reached the HQ, they asked me: “What happened at your section? Why did the German artillery fire?” Ha-ha!
Another standout episode took place near the East Prussian town of Gol'dap (now Polish town Goudap), while the enemy continued retreating. Our reconnaissance group was searching the edges of forests for German detachments. Unexpectedly I saw – a big group of enemy soldiers was running to us from an opposite edge of another forest. All of them ran with their hands up and shouted in an unknown language some word that sounded resemblingly Bologna (the name of an Italian city). These soldiers happily yelded themselves prisoners. They quickly identified that I was the only officer among members of our group and began handing me some gifts such as watches, something else. However, I even didn’t want to look at these “gifts”: what do I need to own them for if I could be killed at any moment.
Using gestures we ordered them to fall in. I had a portable radio with me and reported to the HQ that at such-and-such square a hundred of Italians gave themselves up. I ordered two recons to guard the formation of prisoners to the HQ.
An hour or so passed and the HQ asked me by radio: “Where did you put seven Italians?” I couldn’t understand their question and asked in response: “What a seven?” The HQ explained: “You reported that you captured one hundred Italians. However, we re-counted the prisoners and there are just ninety-three of them. So, again, where did you put seven Italians?” I answered: “Who counted them? We only captured and delivered them to you.” HQ responded: “Well, you didn’t count prisoners but reported the number 100. This number had been reported to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief already. Where can we find seven more Italians now?” This curious event had no continuation…
While advancing in Konigsberg’s direction, we saw evidences that the peaceful inhabitants abandoned their homes not long before – even an omelet on the oven was still hot; everything in the rooms had been derelict.
These days we were informed that it was allowed to send packages home. One of my recons told me: “Comrade Captain, it is allowed to send the packages home. Do you have something available?” I replied briefly: “Absolutely nothing.” And my subordinate collected right now in the room three items (a tablecloth, court shoes, and some silver fox), bundled them and said: “It would be from you.” “What kind of package did you send me? First, the 38 size shoes didn’t fit anybody. I thought you hid some jewelry inside the fox and ripped its seams but nothing was found.” That was the case initiated by my recon. And generally we didn’t rob anybody, didn’t kill any civilian, and didn’t square accounts with local population.
In the war against Japan
Our last combat in East Prussia took place on 16 April 1945. For us it was the end of the war in Europe. In nine days, on 25 April, our division boarded military trains and set off to Russia. After Moscow was passed we were ordered to take off the “For the Defense of Leningrad” medals and to repaint all heavy armament without stopping. (The matter was that you could read some patriotic slogans, such as “Ahead, toward Konigsberg!” etc., on our heavy guns).
As soon as our trains crossed the Volga River, everybody understood that we were transported to fight against Japan. We also heard the same assumption from elderly people at the railroad stations. They told us sympathetically: “Boys, you are driven to the war against Japan.” And we gave them all of our spoils of war. Hungry children asked us: “Dear men, is our daddy among you? He fought against the Germans, too.”
In such a way we reached the city of Chita, then – the city of Ulan-Bator, the capital of Mongolia.
The next leg of our long way to the enemy’s position lay down an arid desert. We passed these 300 kilometers afoot with the temperature of 40 centigrade and higher. No trees, no grass, no water. Therefore every 30 kilometers a well had been dug. The heat was so high and the soil was so burning hot, that if you put an egg into the topsoil, it would be boiled in a short while.
During our stay in Mongolia we received a large-scale reinforcement of soldiers born in 1927. All of them had been drafted just six months ago and were suffering from hunger. We taught them how to handle the armament, how to act in combat. We also fed them up, especially because we had plenty of meat in Mongolia (the daily meat ration for a soldier amounted to 850 grams). In general, we had plenty of food and the only problem was water.
While marching down the desert, we reached the Khalkhin-Gol River area, where the famous battle between the Red Army troops and Japan army took place in 1939. On the night of 9 August 1945 we waded the river and marched toward the Khalun-Arshan mountain ridge. It was very difficult to wade the Khalkhin-Gol River because of its extremely fast and powerful stream. The river was there just 60 – 80 meters wide and 1 – 1,5 meters deep; however, as soon as a tractor or a loaded Studebaker entered the stream, it was overthrown or drifted. Our Mongolian friends along with their horses helped us to wade the river. A Mongol on horseback was slowly crossing the river, while we, the recons, accompanied them seizing the mane or each of horse’s legs. Later, when most of troops got across the river, a temporary bridge was built for the artillery etc.
After crossing the Khalkhin-Gol River, our mission was to advance down the old dried riverbed up to the paved road and seize the bridge before the Japanese can blow up it. As a chief of the regimental reconnaissance, I reported to the regiment commander by radio that we carried out the mission successfully. In response he ordered me to take over the post of 3rd Rifle Battalion commander. Since then on all our combat missions at the Khalun-Arshan mountain ridge and later down the flat country I acted as a battalion commander.
The battalion advanced in a secondary direction, so we mainly marched as a column. Six small 45-mm guns accompanied us. When the Japanese stopped us near their defense point, we quickly spread out, attacked and annihilated the enemy – the Japanese never surrendered to us.
For successful fulfillment the battalion’s combat missions in Manchuria I was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner. In this regard, I must to say that in the hard 1941-1942 period the decorations were uncommon things. We received most awards not so long before the end of the war. My previous award for the ultimate raising the Leningrad blockade, the Order of the Red Star, I received in 1944! And for the break-through of the blockade in 1943 we received nothing. It was, so to say, not fashionable at that time. Even later our chiefs often “forgot” to submit recommendations for decoration. For example, our successful mission of seizing a “tongue” in the East Prussia remained unnoticed although many deserved to be decorated. Also we weren’t awarded for bloody combats at the Bay of Vyborg’s islands because everything happened there in a hurry-scurry manner. I’d like to notice that I wasn’t too concerned with these awards – you survive with your life, what do you want more?
The war against Japan lasted not long. In three days we got over the Khalun-Arshan mountain ridge and were advancing toward the central part of Manchuria. On these rainy days everything got soaked, and we hardly advanced. Therefore other units left us behind.
On 16 August 1945 all our combat actions against Japanese came to the end. And nine days later, our unit was disbanded. Because of a great many of Japan prisoners the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) 431st Convoy Regiment was formed on the base of our former regiment.
B. I. – You had fought against Germans, Finns, and Japanese. Who of them was the most serious enemy?
V. S. – Germans were the worst enemy – their goal was to exterminate the Red Army, to seize our territory up to Ural area, and to enslave the Soviet people. They also planned to raze St. Petersburg to the ground and give it to their Finnish allies. The latter, however, grew wise and went out of the war opportunely. We know from the Soviet-Finland War and the WWII that the Finns were good warriors. In the wars we always outnumbered them, nevertheless, they were steadfast and skilful soldiers
Regarding the Japanese, before we started fighting against them, the Japan one-million-men Kvantun Army was well equipped and uniformed. While we, the troops that arrived from the West were so-so uniformed, the Japanese’s uniform looked spick-and-span.
In my opinion, the two nuclear bombs that were dropped over Japan on 6 and 7 August 1945, demoralized the Japanese. When in a day they discovered that the USSR with its military power declared the war on them – it became clear that they lost the war.
Initially the Kvantun Army Commander ordered his army to give up. Then the Emperor of Manchou-Go was captured and ordered the troops to give up, too. It was possible that some division or regiment continued to fight while other Japan units obeyed these orders. In short, a mess and hesitation. They had big losses by the end of the war. Almost all of Japanese warriors were kamikazes. When my battalion attacked their defense points, the Japanese showed resistance as long as one of them could fight.
|Interviewed, recorded and edited:||B. Irincheiev|
|Translated by:||I. Kobylyanskiy|