Part I. Panzerknacker
Vladimir Zimakov, May 9 1945,
(From V.Zimakov's archive)
I understood that the war had begun when the planes started bombing the city of Smolensk, where we lived at that time. It happened on June 22 or 23. Our family was evacuated. I was drafted in 1943, when I was 18. First we were sent to the town of Morshansk, Tambov Region. Then we were sent for military training at Melikess camps in Ulyanovsk Region. We received new underwear, but our uniforms were old. I guess the uniforms were taken from our dead soldiers. They had carefully mended traces of the bullets and shell fragments.
Boy, it was cold! We were lucky to have long coats, wool and cotton underwear, and boots with warm puttees. Once some Uzbeks were sent to our camp. Oh, they were poor things! They were allowed to wear a "khalat" [a kind of quilted gown] under their coats. Actually, you didn't get cold, there was so much training and running. Once in every ten days' period we had to march 20 kilometers. They would put 16 kilograms [36 lb.] of sand into your backpack, you took your rifle and went ahead.
It went this way from January to March. In March they lined us up and ordered: "Those who have 7 grades of school and more-take 3 steps off the line." I stepped off the line, because I had 8 grades. In general, most of our fellow soldiers were country boys. Some of them had 5 to 6 grades, the others were not educated at all. About a hundred were chosen and sent to an officers school. "Take your things and move out." What things did we have then?! A pair of underwear, a piece of black soap and a towel. Nobody even had a toothbrush--it was not regulation! Look into a German soldier's backpack. There was a neat toothbrush, toothpowder, a piece of "ersatz" soap. Everything was nice, German-style. This ersatz soap was harsh, perhaps contained sand or something else. It lasted a long time.
It took us three days to go from Melikess to the town of Kinel, near Samara. We were ordered to go to the 3rd Kuybyshev infantry school. The school was located about 130 kilometers from the Volga River. We looked just like military students before the war: woolen shirts, cotton trousers, high leather boots. After six months of studying we were supposed to go to the front and receive the rank of lieutenant there. How many of these lieutenants were killed in the front! Man, just a few of them survived. As soon as one of them arrived at the front, he bumped into a German sniper. We never bothered to shield a man. Officers had a different kind of a shirt than enlisted men, and they wore a cap with a peak. German snipers shot well.
We had been studying for two months when we received the order for the senior class to go to the front. No problem, except that the uniforms for them weren't delivered in time. That is why we had to take off our uniforms and the senior class put them on. We were given our old clothes, but in the meantime our boots had disappeared, so we got bast shoes with white puttees. We wore them for two months until our new uniforms were delivered.
We had been studying for three months in all when the school was closed. We were sent to Inza, where we became sergeants. That was a large camp in the middle of a pine forest. There were high bunks built in three levels and big rats, the size of horses [laughs]. Our brigade consisted of regiments which specialized in machine guns, artillery, tanks and PTR-rifles . I was sent to the PTR-rifles regiment. They taught us well. We learned a lot about how to shoot with rifles, SMGs and, of course, with Degtiarev and Simonov ATR. The Degtiarev kicks hard to the shoulder. The Simonov's recoil is smaller and it has 5 bullets in its magazine and semi-automatic feed. We shot with the PTR at a moving plywood replica of a tank. Where to aim? When it drives toward you, aim at its visor or under its turret, to make it immovable. Fire at its visor! Go, target it 500 meters from the tank. Some managed it, but I didn't. Well, you can break its tracks apart with a bullet, if you are lucky. That makes the tank stop and either the PTR-riflemen or artillery men will destroy it. If a tank shows you its side, then you can aim at its ammunition. It's fine! That makes such a great explosion! Fireworks! The tank goes to pieces, its turret with the cannon flies apart. Marvelous! The soldiers are shouting, jumping, throwing their caps in the air. That is how we got our "Ferdinand," but that is a special story.
They taught us for three months, gave us the rank of sergeant, and sent us to the front. We rode by train for 2 months. On our way to the front about 20-30 of us were killed by mines. All the ground along the rails was littered with mines. One sailor disconnected a "frog" mine. How had he managed to do this? What a fool! Some young soldiers stood around and peered. He said, "Look, it jumps. I'll catch it and it won't explode." It jumped and exploded. He got his arm torn away and his guts blown out. Another soldier was killed and three others were wounded.
We arrived in the city of Stariy Oskol and found that the bridge had been blown up; so we were trapped. The Battle of Kursk had ended just two weeks before. While our train was waiting, we were ordered to bury the corpses. We carried the remains of the tankists out of the tanks, both ours and the Germans. The smell of corpses! We got used to it after a while, but in the beginning it was nauseating. We had no choice. Man, there were an awful lot of exploded tanks! Some of them had clinched together and stood rear up. Whose tanks were more? We didn't count. Maybe, the German ones.
We buried the soldiers in collective graves. Of course, we always searched in their pockets for documents. If we found money or, say, a locket, we sent it to the relatives. Sometimes we found letters written in case of death. Many people had nothing, no papers. The tankists looked like burnt out toys. How could we find out their names? I don't understand why, but they didn't smell. We buried the Russians and the Germans together, just wrote above the graves, "Here buried that number of Russians and that number of Germans."
Up until 1944 our 22nd Infantry Division of the 55th Army hadn't taken part in any battles. We were sent to the vicinity of the city of Korsun-Schevchenko. We were on foot, doing some 70 kilometers through the long January night. It took us about 2 weeks. We felt drowsy all the time. It was a warm January. The roads became swampy. You are walking along Ukranian black earth and it sticks to your boots and puttees by the ton. You clean it off and it is all the same in a dozen steps. Oh, we did walk a lot [laughs].
I was serving in a PTR company. I had an aide, his name was Malyshev. He was a tall man from Siberia, born in 1925. We had a PTRS. First, we carried it assembled, then our commander allowed us to disassemble it. Imagine, it weights 22 kg. Besides that, we have 200 cartridges for it, that makes another 28 kg. I also had a Nagan pistol (#1 had a pistol and #2 had a submachine gun). Malyshev carried a PPSh with three magazines of cartridges, rations and underwear. We had to carry it all by ourselves!
"Halt!" All right. Reconnaissance reported, "The Germans are near." We receive the order to dig trenches at the edge of the village. What's its name? "Komarovka." Big deal, "Komarovka!" ["Gnats"]. In Ukranian it's Komarivka. OK, which way to dig the trenches? This way, to the village. We dig the trenches. Our own trench is below the mill, horse-shoe shaped. What's the time? It's 3 o'clock. We dig a bit more, but the water starts seeping into the trench and we stop.
Well, we did have trouble that time! It had never been like this during the whole war. It happened that at this time the Germans were sitting quietly in a ravine behind the village. As our infantry dug the trenches and relaxed, they started firing like hell with mortars at the direction of the village. They had a heavy machine gun just above our trench, on that very mill. And they were firing it into the village. Our trench was within 5 meters, why didn't they throw a grenade? Perhaps, they didn't have one? Malyshev waited a little while and said, "Volodka, I'm going to climb up there. I'll shoot them," he says. "Give me your pistol." I give him my pistol and he climbs out. After a while, I hear everybody shooting, the Germans and Malyshev. "Malyshev is dead," I think. Nothing of the kind! He is getting out of there. Killed both of them who were sitting there. "It's over," he says, "I have shot them dead."
AT-riflemen of the 186th Rifle Division. Karelian front. 1942.
Then the nightmare began. Boy, I didn't see any officers that night! We started firing with our rifle . Which way to fire, then? It's as black as ink! We shot in the direction of the flashes, used about 20 or 30 cartridges this way. It turned out afterwards that there were only 500 Germans. We were 2 battalions in the trenches against them. Besides that, we had one reserve battalion. We were greenhorns, you know, but those who were experienced had been confused also. Then we saw one senior lieutenant. He shouts, "Fall back, boys. Remove the lock and throw your away." We did as he told us. We took it apart and hid it in the trench. Malyshev put the lock into his pocket and covered the rifle with his telogreika. This officer had both his legs wounded. We took him under his arms and ran together. The Germans kept firing mortars. The rest of our units were withdrawing. The soldiers fell, fell. And the Germans continued to fire. Most of our soldiers turned in to a dell to hide from the bullets. The officer says, "Run straight up the hill! Up the hill! Don't you turn to this dell, there's going to be slaughter in there right now!" It was true. The Germans directed the mortar fire that way, it was awful. Imagine? So, we have passed the top of the hill. We had to sit down and rest. He says, "Let's stop for a moment, I have my heart in my throat." He looked young, but both his legs were wounded. Fortunately, the bones weren't hit, just the flesh.
Aha. It's dawning. You know, we are sitting this way in high, dry grass and there are two Germans passing by. The lieutenant sees them first. "Silence," he says, "it is the Germans. Lay down. I'll shoot them, you might miss." He cocks his TT pistol and aims. Snap. The second German fires back at once. The Germans were trained to fire to the direction of the shot. The lieutenant shoots the other one too. That offhand. An experienced guy. We were scared to death. I thought it was the end. Actually, everything was for the first time for us.
Well, we fell back. Unlike us, our reserve battalion came forward, mopped up the German troops, took the village and went further on. And we two battalions had run away. That's it. Half of the soldiers who ran into the dell were killed. To cut the story short, we had only one battalion of the two left. A battalion has five hundred soldiers. A company consists of 125 soldiers. So, we had three companies and platoons of machine guns, submachine guns and mortars.
In the morning we came to our division headquarters. We brought our lieutenant to the medical unit and reported what had happened in the dell. They promised to send medics with horse carts to bring out the living. The lieutenant says, "The boys saved my life, they must be rewarded." We answer, "He himself saved our lives." Everybody's laughing, "Inexperienced boys." He was taken to the operating table at once. They treated all his wounds very carefully, though without anaesthesia. He was very patient. Brave fellow! Aha. Where are we to go now?
- Where is your weapon?
- Here it is.
- What are you?
- We are PTR-riflemen.
- Where is your PTR then?
- We left it there.
- Go back and get it!
Well, we went back. It was colder in the morning and the road was less swampy. We went and heard the moans from the dell! It was awful! Devil! Nobody was on the road, we were going along alone. So, we returned and found our PTR where we left it. We entered the village--there was nobody alive. One old man appeared out of a shed then. Aha. I say, "Dad, how did you manage to stay alive?" "I don't know, boys. Your fellows were shooting back at the Germans from inside that house all night." We came nearer. They were our regiment reconnaissance. All of them were killed. That's it. That was our first battle.
A. D. - Did you ever fire at the infantry with a PTR ?
Sometimes we did, but usually we saved the cartridges for tanks. By the way, there was a case. It was one of our first days on the front. I guess the Germans decided to test how we'd behave ourselves under the fire. So they started artillery and mortar bombardment. The fire was strong, we were hiding from the shells in the bottom of the trench. Apparently, a shell hit the next trench. Some soldiers were killed. One Uzbek was "contused." He jumped out of the trench, turned around and ran towards the Germans. Here our battalion commander is running, yelling, "Shoot him! Shoot him!" He came running to us, shoved Malyshev aside, aimed at that soldier with our PTR and snapped him right in the back of the head. Then we ran to counter-attack, turned him face up--his face was absent, blown off. Heck, the bullet weighted 70 grams.
Afterwards, we were in trenches around Korsun for a week. That is where we, Malyshev and I, got the Ferdinand. [Russians soldiers called every German SPG "Ferdinand."] Our position was very unsuitable. The Germans stayed on a ridge and we were in a hollow. There were about 200 meters between us. There was a village on that ridge. And behind the corner of one of the houses was hidden their SPG . Just the cannon stuck out. Their observer was probably there too, because as they found our position, this vehicle crept from behind the house and shot precisely. Our people were just slaughtered. And our 45 mm cannons located behind us, on the hilltop. Look, they had chosen such a bad position, the most unsheltered one. By that time, none of the artillery men were alive. When we got there, we saw two cannons and dead soldiers next to them. And they had already been covered with snow, those soldiers. There was nobody to bury them. Five T-34 tanks were set on fire in front of our eyes. One shot and it is over. Then another one. Bloody Germans, they were smart and strong warriors. There wasn't anybody stronger then they, except us fools. We have always fought with our fists, running straight into danger without looking before we leapt.
The commander of the company had already sent three pairs of men, none of them came back. Either a sniper shot them, or they were hiding under other tanks and were shot by SPG, I don't know. He said, "Go ahead, boys, crawl underneath the first tank, don't be scared." My Malyshev was a brave man. Boy, he was a real hunter, a Siberian! Though I was #1, he always shot with the PTR . I was a bit gutless [laughs]. Well, he says, "Volodja, don't worry. We'll target it." And through the night we went crawling. We hid under a tank that had managed to move up, and fired, mostly close to the Germans. It was about 150 meters to that hut.
AT-riflemen. (Photo courtesy of SOR website)
In the morning we started shooting from time to time. We hit either its tube or the tracks, because we didn't see anything else. Then she found us and fired. My, what a fury! Our turret was blown away! Fortunately, it didn't hit underneath the tank, or it would have been the end of us. I lost my hearing. She crept from around the corner to finish us off. I thought, "It is over, they will smash us." But Malyshev didn't lose his nerve. While she was showing us her side, he pointed the PTR from under the track and hurled 5 bullets into her side, one after another. That was an explosion! Our Ferdinand blew to pieces - its turret, everything!
On our way back, the Germans hit us with mortar fire. We were already close to our trenches by that time. The shells were exploding nearby. Short hit. Overshot. I say, "Malyshev, let's run!" Why he was reluctant? I don't know. He either was wounded or had lost his hearing. I'm jerking his leg, "Come on!" I don't remember what happened next. I came to consciousness in the trench when the fire had already ceased. The boys said, "A shell exploded on you both. I wore a cuirass under my telogreika and coat. You know, all the coat had been pulled apart, but I had no scratch on me. Malyshev had his right leg torn away. Why didn't we wait until night? The commander told us, "Do our task and get away at once. Otherwise, you are dead. The Germans will crawl up and kill you." We had a PTR , a Nagan pistol and a submachine gun with just one magazine. Malyshev didn't take more, he was sure that everything would be all right. I received an award at the end of the war, the medal "For Bravery," for this kill. Actually, those soldiers who targeted the tank should have been given an award of 500 rubles and The Order of the Red Star. Well, the first and the best award was "For Bravery" and after that The Order of Glory.
When the dust had settled, most of the soldiers of our company were dead. At the beginning, we had 60 soldiers, i.e. 30 rifles (a regiment's company of PTR). Now we had only about 10 pairs left. The commander of the platoon was killed. A week passed and we received fresh forces from the local people, born 1926-1927. Everybody was drafted and shipped to the front. We called them "black shirts," because they wore dark clothes and gray military coats. They didn't receive uniforms.
Then we went further and inhabited the dugouts that had been made by sappers. They did their best, the dugouts had two or three layers of logs. That is where I got "contused." When I regained consciousness, there was nobody in the dugout and one corner of it had collapsed. I didn't report to the medical unit. I didn't understand whether it was a bombardment, or what. The Germans were supposed to have run out of shells by that time. Perhaps, it was a bomb?
We went further. It is a night march again. The moon is shining. The German reconnaissance planes are flying. Well, when this "frame" appears, we receive the order, "Halt!" When the Germans have flown away, we continue marching. I had another aide by that time. We kept on going this way until we fell into a crater. It was full of water, level with the road, and so deep, that my head plunged under the water. We barely got out of there and were sent then to the medical unit. They checked my aide, his temperature and all, and released him. I was retained. "Contused." I had an earache and, besides that, couldn't speak well. I was taken to the hospital and lay there for two weeks. Then the boys started talking, "Why should we stay here? Let's catch up with our unit. There is much fun." There were six of us. We tricked our nurse into returning our uniforms. Then we said, "Good bye, Masha!" "Where are you boys going?" "To the front, to catch up with our unit" "I'll report you!" "Go on."
|Interview:||Artem Drabkin, Anton Kravchenko|
|Translated by:||Anton Kravchenko|
|Proofreading:||Claire Fuller Martin|
Part II. Scout
It was Easter. We kept marching and one day found ourselves in a village. The housewife of the house where we stayed had cooked a lot of goodies for the holiday: fried potatoes, mamalyga [grits of boiled corn, Moldavian recipe]. She had also put on the table ham, salt fat, all sorts of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes. And she had brought a bottle of gorilka [Ukrainian word for moonshine]. My! That was a holiday! We hadn't seen such a nice picture for years! We took just a little gulp of their pretty good Ukrainian gorilka and slept for two days.
Vladimir Zimakov (right), March 1945 Budapest
Then it was time to go further. Four of our fellow soldiers seemed to have cooked up some plan. They told us, "Go ahead, we'll follow you in a while." We two men left the house and stood waiting for them on the road, because we didn't know which way to choose. We waited and waited, but our fellows didn't show up. Then here comes a character in German high boots, a German machine gun hangs on his neck. He asks,
- Well, boys, which division are you from?
- Ah, "the fall-back division!" Let's go to the 180th and join our
- How is that? We are anti-tank rifle men!
- To hell with it! Stop shooting at tanks! Join our reconnaissance, we have
lots of fun there!
That is how I got into the 90th special reconnaissance platoon of the 180th division. I reported to the commander of the platoon that I'd come from the platoon of anti-tank rifles of the 645th infantry regiment, 202nd division. He promised to report to them that I had started serving for their unit from this moment. That simple.
The Germans were trying to break through our lines in the region of Pochaevcy-Shurzhency and our 202nd and 180th divisions were having a hard time. But we gave the Germans a run for their money.
Oh! When we finished the Korsun-Schevchenkovsky operation, there were an awful lot of corpses of soldiers and horses. It was a nightmare! Especially in one ravine. Awful! "Katushas" had come that way, fired two or three times and made a mess of everything down there!
In the spring of 1944 the Germans broke down our advance near Yassy (Iasi). We scouts had already been in the outskirts of Yassy but the Germans kicked us out with their tanks. Where had they gotten those tanks? They seemed to have left all their vehicles in the city of Uman and in the outskirts?! Look, they hadn't been stopped by swampy roads! We had been stopped by the mud, but not they! Or, maybe they had fresh forces? Anyway, they had pulled us 15 to 25 km away from Yassy with their tanks. We had to stop there until August.
We used to go on reconnaissance raids every other day: one day we went on foot, the other day we rode by horse. We wore vatniks [short quilted coat] and quilted pants all the year long, whether it was summer or winter. They protected us from small shell fragments very well. When a shel fragment flies more than 100 meters, it can just pierce the wadding, nothing more. If the shell explodes as far as 30 meters from you, it may just touch your skin, nothing more. Sure, when it explodes near you--Boy, nothing will save you! It will make a sieve of you, whatever you've put on. We had cuirasses. They weren't heavy and they were only 1.5 millimeter thick. I had one when I was serving in the anti-tank rifles platoon. Well, it was more an illusion than any real protection. We didn't have any camouflage, just the usual field uniform. The Germans wore camouflage ground sheets. I didn't see anything like this in our Army. So we wore German camouflage. Sometimes, when we were returning from a raid, we heard our soldiers shouting, "Germans!" We answered, "Look again, fools! It's us! We just passed this way!" We were to return to the same place of the front line where we had crossed it, so as not to be shot by our own troops.
The German scouts weren't fools, either, and often kidnaped our soldiers to get information about our troops. Our reconnaissance learned a lot from the Germans. I mean their camouflage, art of war, some special tips. They are very accurate people, never shoot more cartridges than necessary. Only without fail! On the other hand, when they happen to find out us in neutral territory, they don't care about the number of the cartridges and grenades. As soon as they started firing, we tried to crawl in all directions before they killed everybody.
Once we bumped into a German ambush. We had been crawling this way: one soldier ahead of the group and two others on both sides. And the first one bumped into this ambush. He was killed. We didn't think twice and ended that ambush to hell! Immediately, they started firing with launchers to us. Oh! Good heavens! It is awful when they start firing to the same point from all directions. Nowhere to escape! You are looking for any small pit to save your head in it. But we managed to get out of there, anyhow. Two of our fellows had been wounded in this case, but we had brought them with us. We had never left the wounded and dead on the battlefield.
There were very good boys chosen for the reconnaissance! I was short and couldn't cope with a German, so I always served in the security screen of the reconnaissance. But there were tall soldiers among our scouts! For example, there were two fellows from one regimental reconnaissance platoon, Fomichev and Alexandrov. They were very smart boys. They could go together and kidnap a German! There was a story. [Once we went on a raid.] We had been crawling silently for a while, and at last saw two German guards walking in the trench, to and fro. They stopped from time to time to have a look out of the trench. Then they continued walking. They had a shelter and a machine gun. And here were our Fomichev and Alexandrov, who had always been sent together with us into especially difficult raids. They say, "We take this one, without any noise. Who will take the other?" Well, we also had boys of that kind. Once the guards separated, our boys took care of them in a moment! He-he! [Laughs]
A.D. - Did you undergo any training in your spare time?
When we were in defense we had one coach, a well built lieutenant, of about 25 years old. He gave us some lessons of ju-jitsu: holds, back heels, how to make a person fall. He taught us how to use a knife and how to take a knife off an enemy. I also learned horseback riding there: how to mount, how to slash willow sticks [a cavalry exercise for learning how to handle a saber].
Our platoon was under the command of one staff sergeant. We nicknamed him Kochubey [the famous hero of Russian Civil War] behind his back, because of his picturesque wheat color moustache and his forelock. He wore traditional Kazak clothes and a kubanka [a round, brimless hat of cheap fur] with a red top. The commander of the division used to tell him, "Why are you walking around like a rooster? Put on a uniform. We don't have Kazaks here!" But Kochubey didn't listen to him Then he got lost somewhere and we received another commander, a Lieutenant Petr Domozhir, from the city of Nizhniy Tagil, my contemporary, born in 1925. He had served in the reconnaissance for the whole war. He was awarded with three military Orders of the Red Banner and the Order of Lenin. He was seriously wounded in one of the raids then and didn't return to the unit after he left the hospital. We were told that he had got an award--the Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union and was sent to study in Moscow.
A.D. - How far did you go across the front line?
Not very far. We went along the front and behind it, no more than 8 km.
A.D. - What weapon did you have when you went on raids?
A submachine gun and grenades, "lemons." (AKA "pineapples" - trans.) We took plenty of "lemons" with us: three attached to the waist belt and about ten in a backpack. And we took as many cartridges as possible. We had to carry a lot of ammunition with us.
A.D. - Did you have knives?
Of course, we did. First, I had an ordinary knife. It was roughly made but sharp. Then we advanced. I see, here lies a German--a long, huge, red haired fellow. Well, the bullet hits everybody alike, it doesn't care if you are tall or short. I see that he has a good knife and I cut it off his belt together with the sheath. When you throw that knife, it always flies with its point ahead. It was so sharp, you could shave yourself with it!
A.D. - How many German soldiers did you kill yourself?
I used to kill them, but didn't keep count. Look, you shoot him during a battle and see that he has fallen. But how'd you know if is he dead or just hiding? Sure, sometimes you see that you have hit him.
I did have good eyesight. When we went on raids I served as a lookout. "Volodka, look sharp." I saw in the night, like a cat. The main thing was to find landmines. The strings from the mines were located very low in the grass. As the Germans launch a flare, you ought to stand still and look. Oh! here it is, a pretty little string, just ahead of you!
A.D. - How did the Germans behave, when you captured them?
They resisted, of course. Physical strength of a person multiplies threefold in moments of hazard. But there wasn't a German who could escape such wolves as our Fomichev and Alexandrov! Nobody! No way! And it didn't matter how strong the Germans were. How did we bind them? Usual style--hands behind the back, the head taken by the hair and bent backwards, to make the German lose consciousness just for a moment. The main thing was to keep his hands away from his gun and knife.
A.D. - Didn't the Germans shave their soldiers bald?
No, they usually wore hair long enough, sometimes short. Actually, the Germans are accurate and cautious people. But sometimes we took them by surprise. I remember how we exploded one shelter. We had managed to approach silently. Their guards were asleep. We tied their hands, clapped their mouths, and threw them both out of the trench. Then our sapper accurately made a way and we threw grenades inside a shelter. After that two of us entered the shelter and fired with machine guns along the leveled beds. Maybe some of the Germans survived this, I don't know. When we were on the way to our trenches, the Germans began to fire with mortars, machine guns and "launchers" (They had a kind of grenade that could be attached to the rifle barrel and launched with the power of a blank cartridge. We also used this method. The grenade could be launched this way as far as 50 meters). We had barely escaped. I got a shell in my foot that time. I was lucky to have quilted pants on.
Actually, I was wounded three times and contused once. In spite of all this, I don't have any certificate to prove my wounds, because all of the wounds were minor and our platoon had its own medic who treated us. He was from Osetia (a region of Caucasus) and called Sasha Gevorkov, if I remember his name correctly. He served also as an interpreter, because he spoke German very well. He treated us. First I was wounded in the leg. My buddies cut and threw away the high boot. Sasha took the shell out of the leg and washed the wound with a solution of Rivanol. He said, "Volodka, go guard the horses [because it was an easy job]. You stumble like this for a couple of weeks and the leg will cure itself. " Then I got a bullet in my heel bone. It pierced the sole, flesh and stopped in the bone. He said,"If it hurts very much, it means the bone is split. I have taken the bullet away. In case the foot festers, I'll make a cut and clean it." But everything ended well, it cured itself like a dog's wound.
He was killed then. We returned to our trenches after one raid. Where is Sasha? A commander says, "Here, two of you guys go and get him." The Germans had stopped firing by that time. When the boys brought him, he was already dead. We couldn't find his wound at first. Then someone unfastened his belt and a whole clot of blood fell from under his shirt. It turned out that a grenade shell had cut the artery in his left armpit. We were so sorry for him, he was such a good boy, born in 1920.
I remember the reconnaissance raid before the advance very well. We went twice. Our first attempt failed, but the second one was successful. It all happened on August 15-16, near the city of Yassy. When we went the first time, our platoon commander was scared. He didn't lead us far and we returned between german divisions. Anyway, he reported that we went here and there in such-and-such time [though we didn't]. He reported that all the objectives were guarded. Well, he was dismissed and sent to an unknown destination. It was a dark case. Such cases were resolved by SMERSH. After this failed raid the Germans became more watchful. They guarded the points between their divisions with patrols and ambushes. There wasn't a hole to enter! We were already planning to be sent by air. Then one regimental scout reported that he had found a place where we could cross the front.
And we really crossed easily, without any noise. Had we made any noise, the Germans wouldn't have let us pass, that was for sure. We came to a German division headquarters that same night. They were so careless: in their rear they behaved like they had everything under control. They even slept naked. Let alone the rear, they slept naked on the front line! We raided many times. As we started firing, we saw the Germans getting out and running to their guns with nothing but underwear on. They lived on the front like civilized people! We slept with full uniform on. Some fellows took off their high boots, but many didn't. You know, you are sitting like this in an ambush or in a trench. Sometimes it is possible to have a little nap, but usually you are shivering from the cold, especially in winter. Sometimes two soldiers are sleeping and keeping observation in turn. In winter you'll never get to sleep, because it's very cold. Besides, fleas bite and don't let you fall asleep.
Well, we were 16 scouts. Four of us were taken to another operation. So, twelve of us left. Well, our Fomichev and Alexandrov killed the guard, threw grenades and thus wiped out the headquarters' platoon. They put all the important papers in a backpack, restrained the German general, took him on their shoulders and got away carrying all this. Aha. You see, we did make a noise! The Germans started to the place from the nearest villages. We left the village [where the German headquarters had taken place] and ran around a maize field. Our platoon's commander was a very smart fellow. He gave us a kind of a powder to work in our clothes and boots. Having worked in the powder, we went back across the field, lay down there and were laying for three days. We could neither eat nor smoke. Boy, it was deadly hot! We were thirsty, though we had a small supply of water. And we had to urinate where we lay. One can stand such a situation only when he is young. If we had left the place, we would have been captured somewhere. Well, three days passed and our officer led us and we came to that very point where we had crossed the front line. Perhaps, we should have tried it a bit to the right or left. The Germans were waiting for us right there. The officer orders me and Pavel Fedorenko, "You boys go ahead, we will stop the Germans awhile." They gave us the backpack with the papers. The general was left with them. Anyway, how could we bring him? What did they do with him? They stabbed him to death, I guess. There was one Pavljuk, he didn't care who he cut--a hen or a man, let alone a German soldier. Well, we both survived. Pavel had his arm and leg wounded on the way to our trenches. I don't know what happened to the rest of the boys. I didn't see any of them afterwards. People said that Fomichev and Alexandrov returned to the unit and I believe it, because they were cunning, smart boys, didn't lose heart anywhere. But I haven't seen them since, because I served at the divisional headquarters, so to say, and they were in the regiment which went ahead of us. That was a successful operation, because we brought back a whole bunch of important documents just before the advance started.
When our troops advanced, Pavlik and I were ordered to escort the captured Germans. We escorted them to our rear, about 70 persons at a time. They walked and obeyed like young calves. We would stop in a village and people gave us [me, Pavlik and the captives] some food. None of the captives had ever escaped me. Well, except once. I was nearly sent to a penitential battalion when it happened. I served in the unit's headquarters that time. One day Pavlik and I were ordered to come together, but he was sent somewhere else then.
The commander of the unit's reconnaissance told me, "Zimakov, you'll have to escort four captives to the corps' headquarters. They are very dangerous people--God help you if you lose them!" It was in the fall and it was already afternoon. The officer told me the way. I could either escort them along the trunk road, which was 15 km long, or we could go along a path and it'd have been 7 to 8 km. I've chosen the latter way. Well, I think: here is my submachine gun, they won't get away from me. Besides, I was riding a horse. They had been searched, no weapons. Their hands and legs were left unbound.
Well, I had been escorting them like this and then we entered a sunflower field. You know, people grew very tall sunflowers in those places! And suddenly one of the captives turns and shoots at me with a pistol! My horse jerked as he turned, thank God. I fired back at him with my sub. And the rest of the captives burst out in all directions: one to the left and the other two to the right. I shot and killed the one on the left. Then I shot at those two men. The corn is whooshing, their heads are turning up and down through it. And it is getting dark. Well, I think that I should ride along their trail. The one who fired lies dead and the other fellow who ran to the left is dead too. Haven't run far. I'm riding further. Then I've found the third one. I climbed down the horse to touch his pulse. Dead. Still warm, but dead. I went further on, leading my horse by the rein. My submachine gun hangs on my neck, ready. (Our Shpagin SMG is a heavy thing and has a disc-shaped magazine that always bangs into the back when you carry it. I used to shoulder a German submachine gun until it was forbidden. But we always used them on raids, because they never failed. The PPS is also a good thing, light and easy to use.)
German POW near Minsk 1944<
So, I keep following the trail and suddenly hear someone shouting at me "Stop!"
- "I am standing," I answer, but keep my hand on my gun.
- Who are you?!
- I have been convoying captives. Made two of them lie down and the other one lies near behind me. One of them shot at me, but my horse saved me.
- We have just found one in the potato field, he was trying to hide--lay covered with potato bushes .
Those were the men from the internal security unit. They took the wounded German with them and gave me a paper that said I had had to liquidate the captives. The internal security units ("zagradotrjad") were the special forces that belonged to the People's Commissariat of Internal Affaires [1935 to 1945, then renamed]. They were looking for the deserters, so called "soldiers of the 5th Ukrainian Front," those who were wandering after leaving the hospital in the rear, drinking moonshine in the villages, that kind of people.
Once we robbed a peasant's wife. It was in the Ukraine. Our mess was far behind us and we were very hungry. And this old woman says, "Boys, I have a good colt, it is only two years old. The Germans took it away from me but the Red Army has returned it." "Where is the colt?" "It is here, in the shed." That night our two robbers stole the horse, led it out of the village, shot it and boiled the meat. The woman did cry! Well, we gave her another horse when we were leaving that village.
Well, I wasn't punished for those four captives. I returned to the division headquarters and gave them the paper.
- Why couldn't you watch the captives better ?!
- Why did you give me such people, then?! (Why they weren't searched properly for weapon, especially if you knew that they were so dangerous?) You should have sent two soldiers to escort them! I was lucky that my horse jerked, otherwise they would have killed me and escaped.
- Too bad you lost them, anyway! he frowned.
On the 20th of August we broke the German front and advanced. All the reconnaissance advanced 30 km ahead of the division. That was the time when Romania capitulated. I should say that Romanians hated the Germans. The Hungarians liked the Germans, but the Romanians didn't, like we Russians. The Romanians were poor people, very poor. Near Budapest we went on a reconnaissance raid together with the commander of the division. And on the way we were bombed by a group of Yu-87s. There I was wounded for the last time. I was treated in a hospital located in a monastery near the city of Kiskunfelegyhaza.
Three weeks afterwards, we were formed into a platoon and sent to the vicinity of Budapest. The city had already been surrounded. We were a special assault brigade. We were given cannons, submachine and machine guns, nothing else. And we used to be sent into the weakest points of our circle around Budapest. As our fresh forces arrived, we were moved to another point, then to another one. In March the Germans made an attempt to break out of Budapest through the sewer system under the city. The German troops were coming like an avalanche. They were approaching without shooting, but we kept firing at them. Then they started to throw their guns on the ground. I don't know exactly, but the number of dead Germans was enormous. We had a rest and went further. We saw piles of dead Germans in the forest, five soldiers in a pile. There were mortal battles in Budapest, there wasn't one undamaged building to be found in the whole city. Everything had been destroyed, absolutely everything! When we were having a rest in Pest we looked around the city--it was absolutely ruined! Everything! It's like a nightmare. Just a hair stands upward, did we do that? Yes, we did it, because the Germans resisted. I met my friend from the artillery reconnaissance then. He says,
- Your reconnaissance has been killed in the city's underground, in the sewers. The commander of the division ordered them to take a building and they bumped into the Germans. They wiped out the Germans but perished themselves too.
- Yes, even the soldiers from the combat trains.
In Austria, not far from the German city of Munich we met American and English troops. First we were drinking together for 3 or 4 days, then there was an incident: our soldiers were fist fighting with them for a Negro. One of them [an American or an Englishman ] kicked a Negro, our soldiers saw it and stood up for the Negro. Then our commander in charge of the city sent his platoon, quieted both sides, and built a fence between the foreign troops. We had to leave the town and set our camp in a forest.
In the Alps our troops had captured a great amount of the Germans who were hurrying to capitulate to the Aliens. Gosh! We had been searching for those Germans for a week! Stayed and searched them! We took all the weapons and jewelry, every German soldier was allowed to keep just one gold ring. Then we were searched by our troops.
A.D. - Did you send parcels home?
- I had shipped a parcel from the city of Galatz (Galati). It contained a small lady's watch and a bracelet. I had also sent a length of multicolored material. I had found it, so to speak. Nothing of these was received [by my relatives]. Near Wien, I came down with malaria and went into the hospital. At that time the war ended.
A.D. - What was the worst thing in the front?
- To survive the bombing. You never know where it will explode. You can hide yourself in some slit trench, but a bomb targets you and all your pretty arms, legs and guts got scattered all around. We were bombed a lot of times. The main thing was that they chose the moments when our planes were absent. You are thinking,"Where are ours? Were they all lost?" And in the meantime the German planes are diving and bombing and bombing, again and again. The ground is trembling! They worked this way 10 to 15 minutes and got away. Well, our attack planes did give them trouble, too. When I came to our observation point I could see our ground attack planes diving and firing with rockets right above the German trenches. Explosion, explosion--Or, say, that "Vanusha," a six-tube mortar! As it starts howling, everybody knows what is gonna happen next and hides himself deeply in a trench.
A.D. - How did you wash yourselves and your clothes?
- No, I don't remember us washing in the winter. In the summer--yes, in the summer we did wash ourselves. We made saunas. I recall how we were staying on the bank of the river named Zhizha ("Slush")[The correct name of the river is Jijia]. I served in the reconnaissance then. Its water was a yellow color, but the river had a clear branch. Our boys used to make a dam across the branch and we would bath in that pond. Speaking of washing, we used the following method. We took a big metal drum, poured 3 to 4 buckets of water into it and placed a grate with our clothes above the water. Then we covered the drum with a lid or an old fur coat and made a fire under the drum. Not a flea survived that heat! Then you could put your clothes on again and walk for another couple of months.
A.D. - Were you ill in the front?
- Sure, sometimes we were, though rarely. People used to catch cold from time to time. Well, a sick person stayed in bed for 3 or 4 days and then here he is, alive again. A medic sometimes asked, "Is there somebody ill?" That's all. Well, when you are young you are always healthy.
A.D. - What did your rations consist of?
- Pea concentrate. That is a kind of small brick, that can be made into soup when you add boiling water. We also had buckwheat bricks, they contained fat or margarine. You add boiling water to it and the meal is ready. Some soldiers ate it dry, didn't bother to boil it. It isn't bad to have a ration, by any means. Sometimes we had nothing at all and no possible way to deliver us any food, since there was bombardment and fire all around! And if your first sergeant is a bit too cowardly, you will stay hungry! Actually, at night we always received some food. When we were on the front line, we got a hot meal at least once a day.
A.D. - Did you have a telescopic sight attached to your anti-tank rifles in the unit?
- No, we didn't. Actually, those kinds of rifles aren't very good at a long distance. It is good to fire from the distance of, say, 200-300 meters, maybe even from 500 meters. You can see a tank: you spit on it and make a hole in it! But when the distance is longer, the bullet won't pierce a tank's armor.
A.D. - Where there any superstitions at the front?
- I don't know. Some people carried pouches, I had nothing of the kind. But when the situation became really hard, I kept saying in my mind, "God save me! God help me!" That's it!
|Interview:||Artem Drabkin, Anton Kravchenko|
|Translated by:||Anton Kravchenko|
|Proofreading:||Claire Fuller Martin|