G.K. – Grigory Yefimovich, you are one of the very few survivors of the Defense of Sevastopol 1941-42 still alive. Nowadays there is almost noone left to narrate the tragedy and heroism of the city defenders. I do realize that recalling those Sevastopol battles is very painful and heavy... Still... Would you tell something that you believe is worth telling...
G. Z. – Okay, let’s try...
G.K. How did you join the Navy? How did the war begin personally for you?
G.Z. – I was born in 1920 in Odessa. After finishing the standard ten-year school, I entered a medical institute, but Kliment Voroshilov’s famous draft order interrupted my study. In 1939, I was drafted into the Navy and sent to a training detachment for radio operator’s courses. Tall and healthy guys with a minimum eight grade education and only the members of Komsomol (Communist League of the Youth) were eligible for the Navy. I had spent half a year in the training detachment when I was sent for further service on the Boyky Destroyer. It was a brand-new destroyer of Project 7, a beautiful ship. Our ship commander, Georgy Godlevsky, pride of the Navy, matched the ship in the best way.
On the 20th of June 1941 in the evening, we returned from the naval training maneuvers and harbored in the Southern Bay. On Saturday almost the entire crew left the ship, only I stayed on board. Lieutenant Duchovner, a signal senior officer, asked for my help with a radio set repair. The crew returned aboard by evening as general quarters alert had been announced. At three o’clock in the morning Sevastopol was bombed. This is how the war began personally for me.
G.K. – You left the ship and joined the Naval Infantry unit as a volunteer. What was the selection procedure like for such units and were there any selection criteria?
G.Z. – In late July, the Romanians broke the Southern Front and approached Odessa. Enlistment of volunteers for Naval Infantry was announced on the ships to help Odessa hold out.
Each service branch (of a ship) could only assign 3 servicemen maximum. Only the artillery unit was permitted to assign 10 of its seamen. About 30 servicemen on our ship had come from Odessa and they all requested be sent to defend their native city. Our commander Godlevsky looked through the volunteers’ list and said: “if all you guys go, who will help me operate the ship in warfare?” and authorized only half of the list to go, including me. Before the war, our ship had been only manned for two thirds of the required staff strength.
We were dressed in new uniforms, gathered for a farewell rally, hugged our comrades and left the ship. Our positions on the ship were filled by reservists. All the men discharged ashore embarked on a transport vessel and two days later we arrived in Odessa. My ship was one of very few surface ships of the Black Sea Navy Fleet that was destined to survive the war. Later, when fighting in Sevastopol I saw my beloved destroyer moored at a quay twice, but didn’t get a chance to go aboard to see my comrades.
Four thousand sailor-volunteers for the Naval Infantry unit were assembled in Sevastopol. Only 50% of them could be armed with Mosin-Nagant rifles, barely swept together from all possible sources. We were told that the weapon would be provided once we’re at the front, but this promise turned out to be futile. Many of us had to pick up the weapon from the wounded or even dead ones. Anyway, this is how it happened… I wanted to stop by and see my parents, but didn’t get permission... We arrived in the vicinity of Ilichevsk. We were very proud of our unit’s title “The 1st Naval Infantry Regiment”. We did not have machine guns or pieces of ordinance of our own. Machine gunners of the 25thVasilyChapayevRifle Division were assigned to join our unit. In the beginning we made fun of them, calling them “footmen” and “peasants”.
So, did we begin waging war. I still remember our first charge. We walked in thick charging ranks, shoulder to shoulder, standing upright. A sailor advancing in the second rank was playing a concertina, apparently impressed by the film “We are from Kronstadt” (1936), which contained such a scene. Romanian artillery fired at us, but we walked as if we were on parade. Presently, the Romanian machine gunners opened their fire too. I saw my comrades around dropping dead.
It had rained a day before, so the ground all around was muddy. We should have better taken to the ground, but begrudged soiling our new uniforms. This is what I thought about that moment... Then death seemed to me as something unreal.
One week later, the command of the Regiment was taken by Colonel YakovOsipov, a legendary seaman of the Russian Civil War, former revolutionary red sailor. He wore an old-fashioned papakha and a holster with Mauser C96 pistol as if it were still 1919. The man had great authority and power of persuasion. He could say the right words to the seamen before a battle, so that following his encouragement speech we feared absolutely nothing. Though, Osipov was not an outstanding orator, political and propagandist officers were not as good as him in inspiring the sailor masses. He would just come up to us and say: “Brothers! Your Motherland is expecting your feat!”, and we were ready to go to tear our enemies to pieces for our commander. We loved and respected him...
We fought the Romanians. There were almost no Germans on the Odessa front! In our defense sector, we fought the Germans only once and they gave us a lesson on how to fight. As for Romanians, they were not the bravest warriors. We nicknamed them “Mamaliga eaters”. Though, they were sharp shooters and should be given a credit for that.
Ammunition rounds were in short supply. 2 hand grenades were issued per squad with instructions that they be spared and only be used against enemy tanks. Time passed by and we learned by our own blood, how to fight on the ground. Nobody had taught us how to dig foxholes and so on... We were positioned near a fishery farm called “Setchavka”. So, three nights in a row we went for bayonet assaults. Can you imagine, a night where we, in black sailor jackets, stealthy approaching the Romanian positions and falling upon them in a bayonet charge with blood curdling yells? That is why we were nicknamed “the Black Death”. We would walk around and flaunt our bravery, our disregard of threats to life. But it was not complacency or a manifestation of immaturity. We consciously went to fight and die for our country. Every one of us was a volunteer and realized when leaving the ship, what future was in store for us... It was not only a lack of ammunition that threw us into the bayonet assaults, we just could not yet fight any other way. In 1942 the Germans rarely gave us a chance to approach them at bayonet assault distance. Then among us there was a popular phrase: “I did look into the eyes of Germans”. It meant that the person took part in a bayonet assault. Whenever two belligerent parties would come to face each other in hand to hand combat, it was a natural moment when everybody would pick out a target and there were certain seconds before the parties would mix it up, - everybody would stop and stare with hatred into the enemy faces. One confronting the other... If someone looked away, he was as good as dead... There is another detail. Not everyone is capable of stabbing a human, even an enemy, with a bayonet...
During the Odessa defense, there was one soldier- a former longshoreman Yakov Begelfer, a burly young guy with heavy fists, who used to live on the same street as I and was a shade older than me. In one hand to hand combat he stabbed with a bayonet, killed with a rifle butt and with his bare hands 22 (twenty-two) Romanian soldiers. He would kill humans with fist punches.
And such episodes during the city defense were not rare. But it did not go so easy when we fought German; sometimes they would withstand bayonet attacks readily and provided stubborn resistance.
So, we did advance, “black targets” in the open field. Army green uniforms were delivered for us, but all refused to change. We perceived such act of supply officers as an encroachment on the honor of the Navy... But in Sevastopol many of us changed to the army green uniforms, leaving only tyelnashkas on visible at unbuttoned collars and put on sailor caps when going on the attack. The war there was a totally different ball game... I do remember only one armored attack. A sailor from our battalion whose name was Khmelevsky had hit two tanks with incendiary bottles (Molotov cocktails).
In late August, shell-shocked I was taken to the city hospital where I spent two weeks and then returned to the frontline again near Berezovka. And there it went again…. In late September, the former ship signalmen were assembled together and assigned to the city air defense service. We and our enemies were not tough on the POWs. I remember a ceasefire at the defense sector of our Regiment arranged between us and the Romanians to collect the dead and wounded from the field. A Romanian officer with a white flag came to us, stayed in our command center for about 5 minutes and that was it. The hatchet was buried for the whole day. No Special department servicemen or execution squads were sent over to reprise us for such cooperation with the enemy thereafter. We did not believe that Odessa would be surrendered. Therefore, many of us were perplexed, when we received the order to relinquish our defense positions, surrender it and embark on ships. The city could still be held on to. Leaflets were scattered by Luftwaffe over the city with the text: “We have come to avenge Stalin’s Commissars and Yids (Jews)”. Many people stayed in the city believing that everything would be alright...
We were walking towards the port and I stopped by my old yard. My parents by that time had left the city. In our house lived one old Jewish tailor. I stopped by his place to say good-bye. He was weeping... After the war, I found out that the day after the fall of the city drunken neighbors had hung him from a tree branch!... Three locals, servicemen from our air-defense company, deserted. Before we left we were paraded and read out the order condemning those three deserters to execution by a firing squad in absentia. In 1947 walking on crutches in Odessa I came across one of them. I told him: “Why aren’t you hiding, Peter? You had been sentenced to execution in absentia!”. And the reply followed: -" Don’t worry about me, I had atoned for my guilt in 1944 in a penal company”. Sometimes such examples of cowardice on the part of Red Navy sailors also occurred...
15 October, we embarked into the holds of steamship Armenia ship and arrived in Crimea.
G.K. – How did the Defense of Sevastopol (1941-1942) begin personally for you? What was going on in the battlefront during the first enemy offensive?
G.Z. – If I start telling the truth about developments of autumn 1941 in Crimea, some people may accuse me of “defaming the heroes and fouling their cherished memory”… Or do you prefer that the “truth” of historical books prevail? I really don’t feel like to tell many things...
In late October, a Naval Infantry battalion was formed from our ranks. We were put on a train and taken to Simferopol. We were given ammo and driven towards Dzhankoy. All Crimean Tatar divisions defending the isthmus had stampeded away. Armed with rifles and only thirty cartridge rounds per person, we could not make a difference. Our belief in victory alone wouldn’t stop the advancing Germans... There was an outrageous episode. Once we saw a Soviet Kliment Voroshilov tank running through the steppe. As the tank seemed friendly to us, we relaxed and continued smoking. The tank approached, stopped about 50 meters away from us and just began shooting at us! It was manned by Germans! They had captured it at the isthmus as a prize and immediately made use of it... About hundred our men remained lying there for good...
We were ruthlessly bombed on the bleak steppe,. The flank infantry did not even try to form a defensive line and give a fight. God only knows, where our artillery was those days. So, we began retreating, following the line: Qarasuvbazar, Simeiz, Yalta. We counterattacked the Germans all the time, but there was not too much use.
Our army was simply defeated by the Luftwaffe... Following heavy bombing The Separate Coastal Army split up. The troops partially went to Feodosiya and partially retreated to Sevastopol. Then I lost touch and sight of my friend Yefim Mittlemann who went towards the city of Kerch. We reunited only after the war. It’s hard to recount, what Yefim had to undergo during The Kerch-Feodosiya landing operation. The landing operation was so bloody and tragic.... Retreating, in Yalta I came across the guys of Colonel Yakov Osipov’s Regiment. They told me the story of Yakov Osipov’s death. Germans had captured a Soviet field hospital where a woman whom Yakov Osipov loved was a doctor. He gathered seventy volunteers and went on a sortie to recapture the medical staff from the Germans. The entire team was lost and nobody returned. I wonder if in other memoirs there’s any information about Osipov’s fate!
We approached Massandra. Fleeing infantry killed those of the Red Army guarding the wine cellars and a Bacchanlia began. All drunken, people would drown in wine and skirmish. Trucks were heading to the frontline with fuel and ammunition. The drivers seeing the plundering of the wine cellars would stop and join the chaos! Ammunition boxes and fuel barrels were immediately discarded from truck bodies and wine barrels loaded instead! Any defense of Crimea was out of the question...
All this was going on right in front of our eyes. Some of our sailors were apparently willing to claim their share of alcohol. I was a Komsomol leader of the company. The political officer and I approached our men and addressed them with a speech about integrity and military duty. It worked.
At routes of approach to the city (Sevastopol) we stood fast. I remember the episode when almost all of the battleship crews were released from their primary duties and assigned to our trenches as reinforcement. At the same time a Naval Infantry Brigade arrived from Novorossiysk. In early November, we were loaded into trucks and transferred to plug a gap in the defenses.
As for the ‘famous’ valor of the political officer Nikolai Filchenkov, I don’t remember it! I am sorry, but on the 7 November I was near Duvankoy, and our company was positioned right behind the Naval Infantry Battalion commanded by Chernousov. There were no Wehrmacht panzers! The panzers had headed towards the defensive positions of the composite cadets’ battalion of the Lenin Komsomol Coastal Defense Academy. The battalion took up defenses near Bakhchisaray. You can find in Russia two former cadets, Reutburg and Israilevich. They are still alive. Let them tell you about how 1,200 mariners of the Battalion with training rifles heroically defended Sevastopol with their bodies and almost all of them lost their lives.
As for the Filchenkov team’s ‘valor’ when five men had allegedly hit ten tanks, had such episode happened, on the same day it would have been widely known all over Sevastopol... There were more than enough political department propagandists and newsmen around.
During the first offensive against the city I don’t think I killed a single German. I shot at them, saw the hits, but cannot tell for sure, whether I wounded or killed them. We were positioned in the second line of defense. In mid-November, former ship gunners, signalmen and anti-aircraft gunners were singled out from the general troop personnel and sent back to Sevastopol for the formation of coastal and anti-aircraft defenses of SDA (Sevastopol Defensive Area). The Navy Commander had issued an order requiring that the professionals only be used in accordance with their recorded military branches. I ended up in a signal platoon of an anti-aircraft searchlight company.
G.K. For your taking part in actions of repelling the enemy offensive against Sevastopol in December you were honored with the Medal “For Courage”. Medals awarded in 1941 are extraordinary and worth a lot, because they were given to common soldiers and sailors only on very rare occasions. What exactly were you decorated for?
G.Z. - In late December the Germans captured the Mackenzie Mountains and closely approached the anti-aircraft artillery battery #365 commanded by Vorobyov. The Germans nicknamed the battery as "The Stalin's Fort". The situation was precarious. A combined force was formed of volunteer-sailors to save the battery and I was one of those volunteers. For two days we fought the Wehrmacht infantry at approaches to the battery. It was hand to hand fighting in barbed-wire entanglements... It was really hot there; many volunteers of our force were killed... I got my shoulder stabbed with a bayonet, but I did not go to the field hospital. On the 31st of December those who survived on our side returned to their units. The medal was awarded to me for the eight Germans, including officers that I personally killed. I captured a Parabellum pistol from one of the slain officers. In April 1942 I was summoned to the command center of the defense sector and Commissar Axelrod handed me the medal personally.
During the period between January and late May 1942 the frontline activities around the city ground down to a standstill. The Wehrmacht did not undertake any more attempts for a full-scale offensive. The frontline actions went on, but we, the anti-aircraft and coastline defense gunners were continuously decimated by air assaults only. We were no more assigned to the infantry. Let's put it this way, my active part in the Sevastopol was over, I did not fight with a rifle at the frontline anymore.
G.K. How effective was the performance of the anti-aircraft search-lighters? Which personnel constituted your company?
G.Z. - I was located at an observation post as a telephone operator signalman, 3 km away from the location of the searchlights and about 1 km away from the frontline. Every 30 minutes we were supposed to report: "Sector such and such, no aircraft is detected". If the approach of Luftwaffe aircraft was detected we would immediately report to the command center and the searchlights would begin their work, catching the German planes in their rays and blinding their pilots. The anti-aircraft gunners were always grateful to us. All the company's nine searchlights were deployed in truck bodies. The first thing the Germans strove to do was to suppress our searchlights and only then attack the anti-aircraft gunners. We were very busy; the night air raids were routine events in our Sevastopol reality. Well, the daytime airstrikes were more than enough on our plate ... We sustained casualties all the time and they were very heavy. Our work was really needed. I can give you an example. On the last day of the year 1941 when we disengaged from a battle around the Vorobyov's battery, our comrades gave us a gift. Two searchlights blinded the pilot of a German bomber which then crashed into the ground! Our anti-aircraft gunners did not even get to open fire at the German. The company consisted of about one hundred men, half of which were former seamen of the Black Sea Navy Fleet, earlier discharged from ships for the Naval Infantry. The rest were recruited from infantry units and reserves. 70 % of the listed staff of the company were Odessa residents. Generally speaking, many thousands of Odessa residents took part in the defense of Sevastopol. The Separate Coastal Army in major part was formed and reinforced by Odessa residents. The company was deployed in the Northern Bay. Senior Lieutenant Nikolai Mikhailovich Simanovsky, a former electrician in the Baku Akhundov's Theater, was the company commander.
All the soldiers were patriots of their Motherland. When the Wehrmacht launched the Third Offensive, a joint Communist Party and Komsomol members rally was conducted where unanimous commitment was made, that "We would die in battle, but will never surrender our city to the enemy!" This was our sincere state of mind and emotional attitude.
G.K. - What were the food rations like in the besieged city? How were the living conditions of the seamen organized?
G.Z. - Our feeding rations were not bad, complying with the navy provisioning standards. Brown biscuits were always available, even when interruptions in food supply were in the city. Sometimes we got hold of tins of meat. But, to be honest, the sense of hunger accompanied us all the time. Half of the company wore black sailor jackets and marine uniforms, while the others wore field military uniforms. The winter of 1941 was very cold and we were freezing. The living conditions were most primitive, as we couldn’t expect anything better during the war time...
G.K. - The third German offensive was the most tragic for the city defenders. How did it begin personally for you? How did you survive in the Sevastopol inferno?
G.Z. - Following the defeat of the Soviet troops on the Kerch Peninsula, we realized that soon the Wehrmacht would fall with all its might upon Sevastopol. Starting from the 1st of June, Germans continuously bombed and shelled us with heavy artillery around the clock, and sometime around the 5th of June we saw almost no more Soviet aircraft in the air. The sky was black with Luftwaffe planes. I do remember my reports during those bitter days: "Sector 18 - I see a hundred Germans, sector 22 - I see seventy German bombers". They simply pressed us into the ground. People literary went mad from that bombing. It caused an eerie effect. The whole city flared with fires, the skyline sank in smoke. Those few our soldiers who were wounded during the early days of the storming "drew a lucky winning ticket", they got a chance to be evacuated and I met one of those survivors after the war. Leaflets printed for some reason on large red paper sheets were dropped from airplanes, which urged us "to kill the Jewish political officers and surrender". Along the frontline the Germans set up loudspeakers and from dawn ‘til dusk read aloud the lists of the soldiers they had taken prisoner with reference to the numbers of military units of those poor fellows. Then the floor would be given to the prisoners prone to treason. They "invited" us to join in. According to them, our lives in prison would be "a paradise with vodka, herring and without collective farms", otherwise, "you all would be drowned in the sea, like newborn kittens"... In Simferopol brothels were organized for Germans where girls voluntarily worked. So, did the Germans bring to the frontline those prostitutes who in pathetic voices through the loudspeakers would whine "Ivan, come to me, I need you alive". And a harmonica would accompany their performances.... Such propaganda had certain depressive effect on many people.
Our defenses stood fast until approximately the 15th of June. And then.. The artillery shut up, ran out of ammunition. But the German cannon fire went on and on. We had no tanks, while the Wehrmacht had many panzers. I saw craters from German shells up to 15 meters deep... Many people were demoralized and spiritually broken. The right words can hardly be found to describe what was going on there! When rare moments of lull would set in we couldn't believe that we were no longer bombed and shelled! Then there would be again and again: bombs, bombs and bombs... It seemed that soon our eardrums would burst. Our heads were "breaking apart" from the howl of German bombs... When on the 17th of June the Germans captured the 30th Battery and approached Inkerman and Mount Sapun across the third sector of defense it became clear that it was the end. From then on, they could easily reach us with mortars and, even with machine gun fire. By that time, all our anti-aircraft guns had been destroyed On the night of the 19th of June we received the order that we should leave the Northern side and move to the Southern Bay where a combined infantry brigade was being formed of the service-support units of the Navy.. There the Crimean War fortifications still stood. One of our commanders got drunk and refused to go with others. He was scared to leave a dug-out. Simanovsky just spit towards him... Our company was deployed in the old Navy workshops, a mortar shelling began and I was wounded with eight mortar projectile splinters.
The guys took me out on a martial cloak. I found myself in a hospital in the Kamyshovaya Bay deployed in old hangars of hydroplanes of the Black Sea Navy Fleet. A comrade of mine, Isaak Litinetsky, found himself in Inkerman. He and I would work together in the same hospital after the war. This is what he told me about his wartime hospital experiences: He was taken to the 47th field hospital in the Inkerman limestone mining galleries then owned by ChampagneWineStroy (wine storage facilities construction trust). What he saw there may only be compared to the underworld, the hell without any exaggeration... Thousands of crippled wounded soldiers in half-light... A horrible din. People were dying in terrible agony, stench, screams, groans, curses... Up to three men were laid on one bed. The stench was indescribable and no hope. There was no drinking water. A bottle of champagne wine from the Inkerman wine cellars, two biscuits and a tin of canned fish were given per three wounded men a day... . He was one of those last wounded men who were lucky to get embarked on "Tashkent" Destroyer Leader. Stretcher case heavily wounded men were normally placed in ship holds, while walking case wounded men - on decks. Someone asked the crew sailors where such a wounded men allocation procedure had come from. The answer that followed was extremely clear: "If the ship should be sunk, the heavily wounded wouldn't have a chance to be rescued, while the lightly wounded men would grab a board or something, but still would get a chance to stay afloat until the rescue is there". Such were the realities... I had hip and pelvic bones fractured and was going mad over unbearable pain as the hospital ran out of anesthetics.... Valentine Solomonovich Kauffmann, the Senior Surgeon of the Separate Coastal Army, who would come for consultation visits, examined me several times. He told me that if I were operated on field hospital conditions, I wouldn't survive. On the 26th of June during his examination round the doctor ordered that I should be prepared for evacuation. Thousands of wounded men were lying on stretchers around the old hangars territory. "Tashkent" Destroyer Leader arrived and pulled up along a quay wall. The arriving reinforcements got ashore and shortly evacuation of the wounded began. But, simultaneously the Germans began bombing the bay. About a half an hour later "Tashkent" cast off the lines and went to sea. Laying in a truck body we could only swear and some of us - railed against the whole world suffering from their helplessness and their bitter fate... Our truck's driver either was killed by bombing or ran away. None of us could even crawl! The bombing raid was resumed and one of the wounded was hit with an aircraft machine-gun fire burst. He was unconscious until his very last moment of life, so his death was easy. We shouted for help. Two sailors ran up to us and asked: "Who left you here, brothers?" One of them sat in driver's seat, but the engine wouldn’t start up for a long time. He took us back to the hospital and saved us from impending death. There was no more room inside. We were laid down outside, near hundreds of other our fellows in misery. Nobody attended us or even dressed our wounds anymore. Heavy bombing took place twice. Bombs were exploding in the thick of people, raising up in the air stretchers with people... Then an artillery shelling followed... One cannot see anything like that in a nightmare! Those wounded who could walk tottered towards the sea. But we... On the 29th of June Kauffmann was walking along the rows of stretchers with the wounded men and was giving instructions pointing out at to whom of the wounded men were to be evacuated. He came up to me, and immediately ordered that I be sent away. Those of us of clear mind were lifted up in spirit immediately. What happened? Had the Soviet ships broken through the blockage to Sevastopol?!? Trucks, about twenty vehicles, arrived. But we were not taken to the port, but to an airfield in Chersonesus, in the Southern sector of defense. The airfield at Kulikovo Field had already kicked the bucket. While on the way we were bombed again. And I was laying on stretchers again, looking up into the sky packed with Luftwaffe dive bombers and waited for the moment when I would be blown to pieces by a bomb... We reached the airfield in Chersonesus and my heart broke apart with terrible sorrow and despair. Multiple numbers of wounded were lying around on the landing area! They had been there for a few days already, without water, food or any medical attendance... That was it... Kaput... The landing field was meticulously shelled during the daytime with Wehrmacht artillery. The corpses would be taken aside, shell craters would be backfilled. This way we were lying and waiting for our deaths. Maggots were crawling out of my wounds... I was grasping in my hands a pouch with my documents, medal medal and a captured "Parabellum" pistol inside. I was aware, that if the Germans should break through to Chersonesus, I would have to shoot myself; a Jew wouldn't survive in captivity... I had no more life force to live on. Apathy came down that made man perceive his life with full indifference. Drunken orderlies were walking along the field, nearby, all the others around the Chersonesus wine cellars - were drinking alcohol too, waiting for the inevitable tragic ending. An airman - political officer was walking between the rows of stretchers and spoke out loud: "Hold on, guys! Your Motherland won't leave you alone in trouble!"... Some people believed him until their very last moments. My comrade next to me passed away and I covered him with a sailor jacket... So, did that guy, “cast off his lines from his last berth”. I don't feel like continuing to tell you about those bitter days.. Let's have a break for a while...
G.K. - How did you personally manage to break out of the besieged city?
G.Z. - The wounded were being evacuated by only two Douglas transport aircraft squadrons of the civil aviation regiment. They would arrive at night. An aircraft was capable of taking twenty-five men. Airmen would walk along the field accompanied by young Armenian soldiers from the airfield support battalion. A pilot would point with a finger to those who were to be boarded on the plane. So many thousands eyes with hope and pain were staring at the airmen... You cannot fathom that... They had already passed me by and, suddenly the pilot turned around and pointing with his hand at me, said: "That mariner in tyelnyashka over there, take him, yep, that one" Is he talking about me?! When they carried me in stretcher towards the plane, the young soldiers-carriers were weeping. They did realize that they had no chance to break out of that inferno. 26 stretcher-case wounded and ten more of those capable of walking were boarded on the plane. But due to overloading it wouldn't climb up. Then everything that could be rid of: boxes, stretchers, backpacks were thrown away. Took off... A course was set for Novorossiysk. We approached the city where we witnessed a battle of Soviet anti-aircraft guns against Luftwaffe Junkers aircraft. Luckily we were not hit. I was lying near a gunner’s seat, who gave me a chocolate bar from his inflight food kit. It was the first time over the last five days that I had something to eat. As a keepsake and a token of gratitude I presented him my pistol. We landed in the Cossack village of Kornovskaya. Cossacks gave a hospitable welcome to us, the Sevastopol defenders. We were carried out of the plane. I was lying on the ground and sobbed silently. The strains of all those from my last dire cruel days in Sevastopol were unbearable... After the nightmare we had been through... The villagers took us into their houses. They washed us, the dirty, shaggy, and exhausted by starvation and wounds. And two months later they would give the same hospitable welcome to Germans. Does that make any sense!?... Then we were moved through Pyatigorsk to Makhachkala and from there by sea to Baku. There we were placed in the Central Marine Hospital. I was a patient there for more than a year. And those evacuated by the last voyages of the "Tashkent" Destroyer Leader were primarily delivered to the marine evacuation hospital in Tbilisi and to the army hospital in Sochi.
For the first three weeks I was in oblivion as I was shot with morphine all the time. Professor Frankenberg operated on me. Mortar projectile splinters were extracted from my body. One of them weighted 73 grams. After the war the splinters and my Komsomol membership card were displayed in the Sevastopol Defense Museum.
I underwent five surgeries. My bones were malunited. I had fistulas, osteomyelitis... in late 1943 I was discharged from the hospital on crutches, reached Kazakhstan, where my parents had gone as refugees. Did you see my photo? Shortly before my being discharged from the hospital a Caspian Sea sailor had lent me his uniform for a photo session. I sent this picture to my parents alleging that everything was fine. When on crutches I limped up to the house where my parents lived, when my mother saw me she wept for a long time... In autumn 1944 I returned to Odessa, resumed my studies in the medical institute. After the war I underwent three more surgeries and only in 1953 could walk without crutches or a cane. Our famous Sevastopol surgeon Kauffmann had been executed by the Germans in captivity as a Jew. He had an opportunity to leave the city by air. He had a boarding pass for one of the last airplanes leaving Sevastopol. However, he bestowed the pass on the field hospital nurse Kononova, who was a mother of little child. She was saved, while the army doctor of first class professor Kauffmann voluntarily stayed with the wounded men and shared their tragic fate...
G.K. - Had anyone else from your company survived?
G.Z. - Besides me, four more Odessa residents had survived. Though, one of them had been wounded before the Third Offensive against Sevastopol. He had his hand severed and was evacuated from the city. The other one wounded in leg was evacuated in mid-June. Those were Monya Sterenberg and Boris Spinner. Our sailor Iliya Volk was wounded at the anti-aircraft artillery battery #365 and evacuated by sea in January 1942. The fourth one, a Ukrainian Vassili Kravets, was captured as a POW and survived. He'd never told anybody details of his capture and what he had been through in German prison camps. After the war we often got together, drank some alcohol and recalled the past. Someone else might have made it too, I'm not sure. Hopefully, someone else did survive..
Our commander, Nikolai Simanovsky, had stayed alive too. While in the hospital in Baku I asked a nurse to stop by the local theater and find my company commander's wife. She came to visit me in my ward and I told her that as of the 20th of June her husband was alive and very passionate about how we, his men, loved and respected him. In late August she received a letter from him. In the very last days of the city defense my company was fighting together with the seamen commanded by Gorpischenko. Simanovsky was wounded there and by a lucky chance was evacuated in a submarine. The wounded men were placed in hold compartments where aviation gasoline had been hauled before. During the voyage a few men had choked on the gasoline vapors. Simanovsky survived. He wrote about the heroic deaths of our company's political officer Trachtenberg, a sailor Gryzin, senior lieutenant Reuzman, our paramedic Sima Borscher and other dear to my heart and never to be forgotten comrades-in-arms. Nikolai Simanovsky continued fighting in the infantry and was killed near Warsaw in January 1945...
G.K. - Tell me, please, did you know then about the scale of the Sevastopol disaster? Did the wounded seamen discuss the tragedy that had happened or did they keep mum?
G.Z. - We knew nothing. We thought that the guys from Sevastopol had been rescued. I had been unconscious after my first surgery for a long time. It turned out that during that period the hospital's political commissar and Special department officer had asked, I emphasize again, asked, not ordered, the wounded Sevastopol survivors not to distribute negative information about the last days of the city defense. By mid-August a few more dozen seamen rescued by ship and submarines in early July were delivered from Novorossiysk. We heard from them the truth about the agony of the Sevastopol garrison... It was terribly painful and dreadful to realize that all my friends were killed or taken prisoner. And this pain stays with me whole my life... Still nobody accused General Ivan Petrov or Vice-Admiral Philipp Oktyabrsky there. We could not even imagine that such beloved and highly respected by all in Sevastopol men could abandon their soldiers. How could we, common sailors, possibly know, what had really happened?.. Not until 1961 when about two thousand of the Sevastopol defense veterans were rallied together did I learn such appalling details!!! So that now I cannot forgive Philipp Oktyabrsky his deed. In my opinion, he had betrayed us... Ninety thousand men were left behind for German carnage!... Thirty thousand wounded were abandoned!. The Soviet people who had shed their own blood in battles were abandoned... I used to like the song with the lyrics “The last sailor left Sevastopol” (Cherished stone)... How many sailors were left ashore for the enemy carnage?! Philipp Oktyabrsky for me, until 1961, had been the symbol of Navy and a model of courage.
I would not blame Petrov, may he rest in peace; he was an infantry man, had done his best and nobody had expected anything extraordinary from him. He was a good soldier and decent general. We were proud of the fact that we were commanded by Petrov. But now I am not talking about the service in battle of a particular person, but about absolutely different things. There is such a thing as an officer’s ethics... There is still a code of honor... General Petrov still had only cared about evacuation of his own son, an aide-de- camp. When Sch-209 (Schuka series) submarine was surfaced waiting for the Petrov’s son in a rowboat being put across from the shore, the crew members were beating with pole hooks and boots on the hands and heads of the wounded sailors who had reached the submarine by swimming in their last hopes and attempts to get into the submarine to get rescued. They would be thrown back into the water – for the fear that the submarine would be overloaded. I wonder if Petrov on his deathbed recalled the heroes of Sevastopol who were drowning before his eyes? He had witnessed everything standing in the conning tower. There was one officer in the submarine crew who thirty years ago had given a detailed description of that night in his notes... Do you want the names of witnesses? I can give them. Including the names of those who heard this story the very next day from the mouths of the crew members.. A submariner from D-4 submarine lives nearby. He and Joseph Chvertkin, a former commander of “Svobodny” destroyer that perished in Sevastopol, wrote about this episode and, in general, the truth about the war on the Black Sea. But who will ever publish his book?
Vladimir Karpov in his book portrayed Petrov as nothing less than a great army commander, well, let it be so... Unfortunately, in recent years my eyesight has deteriorated and I cannot read anymore. So, my folks have read aloud to me all the chapters of that book. Each person has his own opinion of those events...Again, I don’t blame Petrov... But, Oktyabrsky!... He was a naval officer! He had no right to leave the city! A captain would not leave a sinking ship. He should have stayed... We did believe in him... There is such a holly concept as navy brotherhood, the navy traditions.
In hospital I was told that from the 30th of June on each transport aircraft in the Chersonesus airfield was stormed with shooting and hand to hand combat: all fended for themselves to save their own souls, nobody cared anymore about loading the wounded. A few wounded men were lucky enough to get on the last flights. But, the Vice-Admiral and the Navy Commander Philipp Oktyabrsky did fly away... Who can ever tell of what thousands of hungry and wounded soldiers on cliffs of Chersonesus experienced when the Germans dropped down grenades and urinated on their heads? You cannot fathom the depth of their despair and black unnerving sorrows of the people left in at the deep end by their commanders and doomed for death and captivity.
The Navy Political Commissar Nikolai Kulakov, our ideological mentor, recognized and approached me at a post-war reunion. He had known me since the Odessa battles. We, the seamen, who had distinguished ourselves in attacks, were introduced to him in person. “Hi, the Komsomol leader” – he said to me. But, seeing my countenance, got uneasy, looked at his wristwatch: “It’s lunch time” and hit the road. I can remember many other political commissars who with rifles in hand charged alongside us on attacks and didn’t bow to bullets.
The Admiral though did not hesitate to attach a Hero of the Soviet Union’s star on his tunic after the war...
I would have understood and forgiven those “commanders” if they had prepared in advance an evacuation plan for the city defenders and the Wehrmacht, say, broke its implementation. The war could change any plans.... But then it occurred to us, the former Sevastopol defenders, that nobody had even thought and cared about saving us!... – how could we look otherwise at those “personalities” wearing uniforms embroidered in gold? As of the 20th of June we had already realized that there were no more chances for the city to hold out. Our bayonets and heroic bloodshed alone wouldn’t stop the German machinery... Then, at the reunion in 1961, the people would rise from their seats and ask the former defense leaders sitting at a long table on the stage: - “Why did you betray us? Why did you leave us?".
Oktyabrsky from the pulpit: -"Calm down, comrades. We had received an order from Joseph Stalin and Semyon Budyonny to leave the city in order to organize the sea evacuation of the remaining city defenders to the Caucasus". So they did evacuate the political police and political department personnel... high brass, the decision makers. I don’t mean to blame anybody. Everyone has his own truth, but in general, who cares nowadays about the truth? I don’t mean to impose my personal opinion on anybody. Oktyabrksy still may be someone’s hero, but not mine... At the post-war reunions we did discuss the Oktyabrsky deed in July 1942. Someone would argue that “the Navy Commander was right when he departed for Navy Command Headquarters in Poti where he belonged as he had nothing else to do in the besieged city”... Okay, as the phrase goes, “say nothing but good of the dead”.
So were we sitting at the reunion, many of us in shabby outfits, jackets worn to the thread, down at the heel boots. Many of us had been through captivity and our fate was not good as the attitude towards former POWs then was not very positive... Seeing the state of our clothing, Oktyabrksy ordered that full-dress uniforms and substantial money gifts be issued to us. Many men accepted that, while the others blatantly said - "We’re not whores for playing around with and don’t need any handouts or charity. You, Comrade Admiral, should have better cared about the evacuation ships in 1942, then we wouldn’t have worn such cast-off clothing now". May nobody tell you that there were neither ships nor chances for saving the Sevastopol garrison. They might have given us a hand. There were the ships both in the Taman Peninsula and in the Black Sea. There were also little fishery ships, so-called “Dunkirk fleet”. Had they put their minds to it they would have found even aircraft for covering the evacuation from the air.
Alright, let us stay away from discussing individuals. Otherwise, I may be blamed for speaking out hatred and tainting the good memory and reputations of the city defense leadership. There’s one thing I know. The Wehrmacht Generals in Stalingrad also had chances for air evacuation, but preferred to stay with their soldiers. They had different ideas of officer’s honor.... Even the Nazis had it... In 1944 the Wehrmacht did evacuate from Sevastopol almost all its soldiers. Only eight thousand were captured.
Let’s change this subject at least for a while.
G.K. - What would happen to the sailors discharged from the hospital? Were they sent back to the Navy ships or to the Naval Infantry?
I remember the return to the hospital for the second time of the guys, former Sevastopol defenders, who had fought in the Naval Infantry regiment, commanded by Colonel Kharichev, I believe, this was his name. Many men ended up in the battalion of the famous Caesar Kunnikov. There were two more Naval Infantry brigades in formation in Baku and Taman. So, some of the recovered guys after discharge from the hospital were enrolled in those brigades... In February 1943, forty amputees, the soldiers of the Kunnikov’s battalion, arrived. They had laid on a battlefield almost without medical attendance for a few days until they could be evacuated. About half of them were the former Sevastopol defenders... A well-known reconnaissance scout Semyon Freedman, after the hospital ended up in a rifle division in Stalingrad. There were twenty other Sevastopol veterans. Their entire regiment fell in the battles for the defense of the Stalingrad Tractor Plant, including the wounded ones, who didn’t get a chance to be evacuated across the Volga. But for Freedman, there were only five other soldiers who survived... He was the only seaman who survived.
My cousin, Lieutenant Israel Weisser, was wounded at the Georgy Alexander’s Maxim Gorky Coastal Battery (#30) during the second Wehrmacht offensive on the city. During the sea evacuation the transport ship with the wounded was sunk and he was floating in the sea for twenty-four hours (!) having grabbed onto some log. Can you imagine what the Black Sea water is like in January? He survived despite all the deaths, and after a hospital stay ended up in the Naval Infantry in Novorossiysk, was a company commander and decorated with the Order of the Red Banner. I do remember the late autumn of 1942 when I was taken for a bandage redressing. While I was having my bandage changed, a few newly arrived wounded were rolled into the medical treatment room. I looked closer and saw that one of them was my cousin! Three months later he was discharged from the hospital and got onto the Malaya Zemlya. A few more weeks later wounded, he arrived at our hospital for treatment again. Only after three times being wounded was he returned to the Navy, the Black Sea Navy Fleet Emergency Rescue Service. His occupation was a Naval Engineer. That heroic man died in 1961...
No, nobody gathered the former Sevastopol defenders in separate units and nobody cared about keeping them alive. The war was still raging. The men fought wherever they ended up.
For instance, after relinquishing Odessa, a battalion of Naval Infantry was sent to the north for the defense of Murmansk! I met the men from that battalion after the war.
Even when the Battle of the Caucasus was in full swing and the human resources were on the wane, former ship crew members, assigned to the Naval Infantry, were fielded to fight in the central parts of the battlefront. Leo Aeriv, a former sailor of The Parizhskaya Kommuna (Paris Commune) Battleship, used to tell me, that in late summer of 1942, he among 250 volunteer seamen got ashore to fight as infantry men. They were sent to the area of Staraya Russa in the Northwestern Front as a part of the 253rd Rifle Division where almost all of them fell on the battlefield... Michael Porter, our former fellow-soldier in Odessa and Sevastopol, was decorated with the Order of Lenin for capturing two Wehrmacht Generals and 14 senior officers in Stalingrad on 31 January 1943.
The fate of war took men to so many different locations!
As far as I know, not until 1944 was a decree issued, according to which the former seamen were supposed to be returned to the Navy. This decree only applied to naval officers and former cadets of naval academies.
If you are interested to know this information in detail, it may be provided by a former defender of the town of Baissak now living in Sevastopol. He is a chairman of the Public Organization of the Naval Infantry Veterans and has full information about hundreds of fates of the former Sevastopol seamen. The full information is certainly available in the Sevastopol Defense Museum. The Museum employees in early 60-s went to Odessa where they recorded the memoirs of all the former Sevastopol defenders they could find.
G.Z. – I don’t remember anything about penal units in Sevastopol of 1942. Those who committed offences from the SDA were just sent to the frontline in the Naval Infantry brigades. There were absolutely no retreat-blocking units!
As for the Special department servicemen, I can give you two examples illustrating their contribution to the city defense.
In the beginning of the war the Germans dropped a paratrooper sabotage team over Sevastopol whose members were coordinating the activity of the Luftwaffe bombing aircraft in their raids on the city. Our Special department officers rose to the occasion. On certain day a secret order was issued, in which the entire Navy personnel were changed to the white color #2 uniforms. Well, among those walking around the Promorsky Boulevard in black bell-bottom trousers the enemy paratroopers were quickly identified. So, the counter-intelligence officers were very smart. Here is a completely different example.
In Poti, there was a battalion formed of the residents of mountainous regions of the Caucasus who refused to embark a transport ship departing for the besieged Sevastopol. Some of them were afraid of the sea, while others yelled that they would rather stay to defend Caucasus from Germans and had nothing to do in Crimea.
The Special department servicemen came over, paraded the battalion and asked the question: “Who does not want to go to Sevastopol?” A few men fell out. Before the eyes of other soldiers they were immediately stood up against a wall and executed. There were no more escapists. What else could they do?
Without particularly serious reasons Special department servicemen preferred not to mess with the seamen. I do remember episodes when entire naval companies brandishing arms would come to the Special departments and simply take away their fellows arrested by the Special departments for petty reasons. The naval team spirit and solidarity were not merely empty words. However, we had respect for discipline and did not resemble the anarchist sailors of the Russian Civil War. After retreating from the mainland of Crimea we approached Sevastopol. The “reception committee” represented by the NKVD officers when seeing that the seamen were coming, just stepped aside without stopping us and asking any questions, even though, among us there were some who had lost their weapons and so on... I do remember one funny episode that happened during the Odessa battles. A militia rifle regiment was formed of the local police officers in Odessa. The policemen were marching across the Moldovanka district and all the people around were laughing, whistling, harassing them in their wake, and so on. Odessa has always been a criminal city, and there were the policemen marching in columns of four... So, the policemen implored their supervisors to issue them soldiers’ uniforms ASAP.
I don’t remember that the Special department servicemen committed any particular “atrocities”.
I can give another illustrative example. Georgy Alexander, the commander of the Coastal Artillery Battery #30 and a hero of the city defense, was not a Jew, as sometimes it’s written and published, but a Russified German. Still, nobody suspended him from the Artillery Battery command.
The fact that Alexander ethnically was a German was known all over Sevastopol.
G.K. – Can you tell of any episode in the history of the city defense that has never been mentioned in memoirs or historiography before?
G.Z. – I’m not a great fan of memoirs literature. Perhaps, the episode with a German submarine has never been addressed anywhere before.
In early 1942 a midget German submarine, the equivalent of the Soviet Malyutka-class submarines, had sneaked into the Southern Bay, but it was trapped. The bay inlet booms and nets were locked and depth charge bombing began. The Germans couldn’t stand it and emerged. When our seamen approached the submarine to capture the crew, inside the submarine hull they heard gun shots. The entire German crew, 21 men, committed suicide, as not to yield themselves prisoner...
Please, don’t tell me that the Germans allegedly had no submarines in the Black Sea combat theater! That submarine was extracted from the water and exhibited at Graftskaya Pier for general public of the city defenders and residents. Those Sevastopol residents who are still alive should remember this episode.
G.K. - You participated in two, so-called, military history conferences, in 1961 and 1966, dedicated to the city defense. There you met many former Sevastopol defenders, talked to them and now you possess a great deal of information which, in my opinion, is of great historic value. There are a few questions to which there are still no explicit and unambiguous answers. The first question: are there any known facts that any of the last city defenders succeeded in breaking through to the Crimean Mountains to join the partisans in July 1942?
The second question: what were the fates of those city defenders who were taken prisoner? In official resources there were very few publications about that. And the third question is about the fate of the 427th field hospital in the Inkerman limestone mining galleries?
G.Z. – I’ve never heard of any lucky ones who succeeded in breaking through towards the partisans in early July 1942. It was absolutely impossible. The Germans had control of every centimeter of the land to the North of Sevastopol. There was a rumor, that a group of five led by a military paramedic Braslavsky had allegedly made it, but it was just a rumor. You know, there were about two thousand men at those conferences whose participants were split into sections in accordance with arms. I had seen just a few of the Black Sea Navy Fleet seamen - former partisans, but they had all joined the partisans after their escape from captivity. There was another former city defender, but he was dropped into Crimea as a part of an airborne paratrooper unit. There was another seaman who with three other fellows had escaped from Sevastopol on a raft. Their raft was washed ashore near Yalta. That company had disguised themselves among the locals for a long time until they joined a partisan formation. According to Peter Sazhin’s book, the 7th Crimean Partisan Brigade commanded by Vikhman was allegedly composed of the former Sevastopol defenders, but this statement is not quite accurate. Lieutenant Leonid Vikhman, like me, used to fight in the Naval Infantry regiment commanded by Osipov, but he proceeded to guerilla operations back in autumn 1941 when he and his entire platoon were surrounded near Simferopol.
In general, the story of the Crimean partisans is also one of the most tragic pages of the war. In the summer of 1942 there were only three hundred Crimean partisans. They were dying of starvation; they had no ammunition, they were pursued and ruthlessly decimated both by the Wehrmacht and battalions made up of local collaborators – the Crimean Tatars. In a word, I have never seen a single person, who had made his way from Sevastopol to the partisans in July 1942.
As for those taken prisoner, a lot of stories were written and told about how they ended up in captivity.
What can I add?... I heard from one fellow his story of how he in a group of imprisoned seamen was moved to North Italy. Many people from that group survived. But, on the way in a train the Germans had crucified one seaman in each railcar!, for an escape attempt, having nailed their limbs to the railcar doors!
In the beginning of the Third Offensive the Germans wouldn’t leave the captured seamen alive. However, when in July tens of thousands of POWs fell into their hands, they did not apply summary executions to the men in sailor uniforms. Later on in POW camps, however, if the guards should happen to find a POW in telnyashka, they would often kill the former seaman. During the Sevastopol battles we had sent too many Germans to heaven and it made them mad... They would immediately execute Jews and those with ethnic facial features. Later on, in Bakhchysarai and in the Simferopol prison, the Germans conducted a secondary combing, revealing Jews and political officers. They assembled five thousand men.
They put them in a barbed-wired pen and gave them neither food nor water for two weeks. Then those still alive were finished off with submachine guns. None escaped...
I have seen only one Jew, a former artillery battery commander, who had been through captivity in those bitter and appalling days and survived. His orderly, by the way, a Crimean Tatar, had saved him. He crawled with a knife between the POWs lying on the bare ground, from one battery soldier to another, warning all: “Whoever discloses the commander to the enemy, will get his throat cut!” When the Germans ordered all to get completely undressed, looking for those who were circumcised, the soldiers managed to conceal the battery commander with their bodies. That battery commander had spent a year in captivity and then escaped and joined the partisans. Many Jews claimed to be Muslims. If the Germans had a doubt about that, i.e., whether or not a person was a Jew, they would pull them aside where three Muslim collaborators were standing, who tested the poor ones for the knowledge of, say, Uzbek or Tatar languages. The Jews stood no chance of surviving. There were many Jews in the Black Sea Navy Fleet. I can give a simple example. When I arrived at the ship in a group of 90 new sailors, 11 of those sailors were Jews. About 5 to 7 percent of the servicemen in the Osipov’s Naval Infantry regiment were Jews.
There were no summary executions of commanders. I conversed with the men who had been in a group of 1,200 Sevastopol commanders thrown by Germans into a concentration camp near Munich. Very few of them survived.
In the meeting in 1961 there was one former colonel who despite his rank and that his Communist Party membership was known to the Germans was spared.
Almost none of the wounded survived. The stretcher-case wounded were finished off by the Germans right away. The others were thrown into freight cars, sealed there and burned alive!. It’s an eerily fact, but such outrageous savage crimes really took place!
I heard from one man his story that he allegedly had been in a group of the wounded, about seven hundred men, all amputees, who were held in a camp near Nikolayev. Those men were killed only in early 1944.
As for the 427th field hospital, how would you react, if I told you that while exploding the naval artillery ammunition depot in Inkerman, accidently or intentionally, P. Sayenko blew up the hospital with three thousand wounded in the limestone mining galleries? I was not there and I have no facts, just the word of other fellows about that tragedy. These are just unsupported allegations. Do you need them? I heard that horribly violent explosions shook the whole of Sevastopol... Someday something will become clear about that explosion in the Inkerman limestone mining galleries...
I cannot continue talking anymore on this subject, as for me it’s very difficult to recall that pain... I am emotionally drained to visualize again, how my tormented comrades were dying... All of this information is available in the city defense museum, you may check with them.
Let us finish for today... In Sevastopol we had no room for retreat. Ahead of us there was death and behind us, the sea. We, the seamen, fought in a last ditch effort, without regard for our own lives. We were defending the Russian city of Sevastopol, dying for the Soviet land, for the beloved Motherland. And it is not our fault that the city was relinquished to the enemy. Many fine words could be said now about the courage of defenders and the Sevastopol tragedy. But, I want to say only one thing...
The most cherished days in my life are the days when with a rifle hands I charged against the Nazi enemy. I am proud of the fact that I did defend this city, the glory of Russia and the Navy.
P.S. The interview was posted for the first time on the Russian language iremember.ru site in 2006. For more information about the subject of Crimea and Sevastopol defense in 1941-1942 please follow the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_OuKwwzTvs
Interview and literary work by:
Translation review by:
|Charles G. Powers|