- Natalia Nikitichna, did you have a feeling that the war was coming soon?
- You know, when you are 17 you think more about romance than about politics. Sure, we were fooled by our propaganda. No, my generation didn't have any apprehension that the war would start soon.
- When did you leave for war?
- I left for war on July 6,1941. I had just graduated from school. We had a traditional ceremony and walked on Red Square. The war began the next day. Well, I regarded myself as no less than Joan of Arc, so I immediately ran to a regional office of the KOMSOMOL (Young Communists League) committee and they sent me to a group of medics. This group was located in our school. We learned how to put on bandages and splints, how to make injections, etc.We were even taught to crawl flat on the ground in our school auditorium. At that time the militia units (DNO) were being formed in Moscow. I was sent to a rifle company of a DNO division as a medic ("saninstructor"). Many of my schoolmates one grade younger were also there. My male classmates were sent to regular units. My duty was to bring the wounded from the battlefield and provide them with primary medical care. But the main thing was just to bring them out. In the end of July, in August, they were still teaching us a little about the military arts, but, as you understand, there were practically no specialists, only at the top. So all that was pretty much theoretical.
- What were you armed with?
- We had three line rifles. Those machine guns that we received later, they didn't shoot at all. They broke when they got water or sand in them. We were equipped very badly. The regular army units differed a lot. Their weapons were better. They were better trained in war science. And then, our clothing: even officers were poorly dressed, dressed uncomfortably. We wore puttees, those heavy kirza boots (a high boot using an impregnated tarpaulin fabric in lieu of leather) came only in the end of '42. We received these boots in the spring, when our "valenki" felt boots were so soaked with water that you couldn't move. We were starving. When we stayed near Moscow, our daily ration for three months consisted of pea flour (pea flour was stored in the form of bricks and used for making soup or puree)
and a piece of horse sausage.
- Do you remember your first battle?
- On October 3 the German troops attacked. (Operation Typhoon started October 2nd. German units organized into 3 infantry armies (9th, 4th, and 2nd), 3 Panzer groups (3rd Hoth, 2nd Guderian, 4th Hoephner), with air cover, were opposed by 80 rifle, 2 motorized rifle, 1 tank, 9 cavalry divisions, whose average strength did not exceed 5-7 thousand men, 13 tank brigades and 12 divisions DNO. Comment by Artem Drabkin). It was very unexpected and we were confused. We had been staying in Smolensk Region near a village, I don't remember its name, and were allowed to sleep in a house sometimes. I left some of my things there, we didn't have time to return. That is where my first battle was. Many were killed there and many went missing in action. And then for a long time, until the end of November, we were in encirclement and ambled somewhere taking direction from the sun, without a slightest idea of where our troops were and where the Germans were. There was no food. Well, we dug up frost-bitten potatoes somewhere, ate something... And one time we happened upon a truck broken to pieces, in which there were sacks of cookies soaked in gasoline leaking out from the tanks; so my girlfriend, Ninochka Etman, ate those cookies out of hunger - we barely saved her. Speaking of the puttees: we had two carts. Sometimes I was allowed to ride in one of them. Once I fell asleep in it and the second horse, which was as hungry as we, ate the cloth off my boot. I had to walk with one puttee for a month.
- Do you remember when you first saw a German?
- It was near that village in Smolensk Region. He was a pilot. He bailed out when his plane was hit. When we saw him landing we all ran to him. He realized that we would capture him and shot himself in the head. There was a medical assistant from the city of Velikie Luki with us. She didn't understand that it was all over. She tried to treat his wound and said, "Hold on, dear, be patient." She had problems with the officers from Special Department afterwards ("How could she say that to an enemy!") That was the first time we saw a German uniform. It looked like it was for marching in parades!
We got out of encirclement at Tula, and that's where they put us into a filtration camp. We had no bread, but we received several large tins of jam. We ate this jam and drank water, that was all we had.I was sent as a medic to an infantry unit. At first I was a company sansinstructor. Then all the girls from the companies were sent to a medical department of our regiment. My duty was to accompany the wounded soldiers from the front line to the field hospital. Once accompanied some wounded soldiers in a truck to our hospital, which was located in a house. A surgeon asked me to assist him in an emergency operation. A few moments later a bomb hit that house. I had a severe injury to the head. The surgeon, both assistants and two hospital attendants were killed. I was unconscious for a few days. As soon as I came to, I returned to the regiment.
- Did people suffer from disease at the front?
- There was typhus during the hard battles near Kursk. Until then, most of the people were quite healthy. That was rather strange, because there was no particular sanitation program. Lice were awfully widespread. We used the breaks between the battles to clean our clothes with heat in self-made saunas. On the bank of the Ugra River, I vaccinated our soldiers against diphtheria and tetanus. I just went through the trenches and vaccinated everybody, one by one. Once I figured that I was on the front for three years and three months. I doubt whether we slept under a roof for one year of the whole time. All winters - spruce branches to sleep on and a fire, but sometimes we couldn't even build a fire, then it was just spruce. I sometimes try to recall how we washed ourselves or our clothes, for example. I don't remember...
Medic N.N.Peshkova. Political-education
meeting before battle. 954th rifle regiment,
194th rifle division. Moscow Region, 1942.
I was wounded for the second time during the Kursk Operation. Then I was sent to Tula. At the time the 3rd Guards Tank Army was being formed in Tula. That was the army that had recently liberated Kharkov. I don't know why but they picked me to be the chief of the Young Communist League unit in a tank brigade. I had to teach patriotism and explain politics to young soldiers. After that (1943) I wasn't a medic any more, but an officer of the regular army. I received a rank of lieutenant and rode by tank.
Then I was wounded for the third time. Well, it wasn't too serious. We stopped in a village and the Germans found us. They fired at me from a signal pistol and a part of the bullet lodged in my neck.
About heroism? I am thinking about our battalion chief accountant. Once a month he had to visit every unit to fill out the forms so the soldiers could send money to their relatives. Of course, nobody touched the money, but we could send it home. That man, he was an awful coward, he was trembling from fear-- but he never missed the day. He kept himself together and crawled there to fill out the papers. Isn't it heroism?
- How did the people regard the Party, Stalin, patriotism?
- I became a member of the Party when I was 17. It was easy; you were a candidate for three months and then became a member. I must say that during the war most Communists behaved with dignity. Before being enrolled into the Party, a person had to fill a cunning questionnaire. One of the questions read, "What class did you descend from?" I was very smart and wrote honestly, "From the nobility."(Natalia Nikitichna is a member of the Assembly of Nobles. Comment by Artem Drabkin). Out of the blue, I received an order to report to the chief of the political department of our division. As I stood up in front of his clear eyes, he asked me, "Girl, do you understand what you have written? Are you out of your mind?" I was highly educated and answered that Lenin was a nobleman himself. Anyway, he didn't make me rewrite that questionnaire.
Patriotism was a real thing, it isn't exaggeration. Every one of us fought for our Motherland. I never heard that anybody cried "Long live Stalin!"or even "Hurrah!" during the battles. Many people carried a cross. Some people wore icons in pouches around their necks. The army consisted mostly of peasants. People tried to find ways to escape enlisting, maybe not the youth, but their parents who understood that the front means death.
- Did you have romance on the front?
- I should say that I have a very high opinion of the men. They never cursed when I was near. They stopped swearing when I appeared. They were just privates, not intelligentsia. There were no romances, much less harassment. I escaped all this, nobody even tried to court me.
I served as a chief of the KOMSOMOL of the battalion which waded the Dnieper River and defended the Bukrin bridgehead (Around Bukrin, Dnieper was forced by a mech brigade of the 3rd GTA on September 22, 1943. By September 24 the bridgehead was widened to 20 kilometers. Units of the 40th, 27th, and 3rd Tank Armies crossed there. They were opposed by up to 10 German divisions. Comment by Artem Drabkin). It was very frightening there. We were just left on our own, without any food or help from the outside. We were used to decoy some of the German troops so that our main forces could liberate Kiev by November 7.
By the end of September we reached Dnepr. Our infantry waded to the right bank of the river without heavy weapons, because we didn't have pontoons. We were lucky. We had a chance to dig trenches in a steep slope, and that saved our lives. When we expanded the bridgehead, we found poppy seeds stored in a shed and ate it, because we were very hungry. It was an ugly story. We fell asleep and when the Germans attacked some people couldn't wake up. At Bukrin the first internal security units appeared. They were large and well equipped. There we first saw "Katiushas" which we'd heard so much about. We dug in on the floor of a valley while these deadly rockets spewed above our heads with terrible thunder and fire. We were shelled day after day, the sky looked black because of abundant German war planes. Our air forces? We first saw them at the end of the war. It is strange, but when you see a bomb falling, you feel like it is directed right at you. Actually, it is falling above you but can land anywhere. Most people lay face downwards and hid their head in hands. I always lay belly up; I had to watch what was going on. It seemed safer to me.
Lots of people were killed at Bukrin bridgehead. I had a friend in a neighboring battalion. They had 280 graduates from a military college. After the battle at Bukrin, only 16 of them were alive. Bear in mind, they had been trained. Our recruits after the battle were the boys of 16 and older from the nearby villages. They knew nothing and were scared of everything. These were our fresh forces.
At Fastov I was considered MIA for three days. That happened at a big railway switching station in the town of Popelna. We kicked the Germans out of the station and celebrated the November 7 holiday. Some people slept and some drank moonshine. At night the German tanks arrived by train at the station and started to fire. It was useless to resist because those were heavy "Panther" tanks. We'd never seen them before. The order was to mount the tanks and get away. I helped the people to embark, because I was a KOMSOMOL unit chief. I made a mistake while counting our tanks and finally had no tank for myself to leave the station. I had a girl-friend, Galya Tchaikovskaya . She was from Kiev and lived in Popelna in the same log house as I. We decided to run together. Our troops had already gone, we ran alone across a wide field. When we heard the German tanks just behind us, we thought that it was impossible to escape and hid ourselves in a rick in the middle of the field. You'd never believe it, but one of the tanks stopped right near the rick! We even heard the tank troops speaking. We thought it was the end. It is true that you can see all your life running in front of your eyes in such moments. You can recall odd things. We were lucky the tanks went back and we hurried to a neighboring village, to Galya's godmother. The locals were scared to death that we 'd be found in their home and quickly sent us further. They disguised us as peasants. I bent my party card to my shoulder. I couldn't get rid of the pistol, because I'd have been obviously sentenced to death for it by our chiefs. So I tossed my Parabellum into my pocket. The same night the German came to the village and set the guards around it, but they didn't check us, two girls in rugged clothes. We crossed that big field again and, when it seemed that we were out of sight from the village, burst out running.
We ran without knowing where we were going. Then we bumped into a partisan; we guessed it by his clothes. He led us to his small band. I don't remember how we managed to find our unit.
-What did you do with the captives?
- Having cleared Fastovo, we went further and found a big group of Italian soldiers. In general, Italians weren't good warriors. In addition, these didn't have weapons. But we were in a hard situation ourselves, nearly surrounded, so our officers decided to shoot them. I didn't watch it, of course. It was a hard experience for everybody, we were just getting back to normal, when the Germans hit us again. Those boys who performed the execution told that the captives offered watches and other expensive things not to kill them. It was terrible, but it was impossible to leave them alive...
- What was your own weapon?
- I received a "Parabellum" as an award. As I recall it wasn't given for any definite operation, perhaps it came together with the Order of the Red Star. I also had some other pistols and even a machine gun. Of course, I fired but, you know, I don't remember whether I killed anyone. During the war we didn't see the enemy close enough. Either we or they retreated. Both sides equally scared.
Actually, there was a situation once when we didn't fall back in time. I found myself face to face with a German, at the opposite corners of a log house. Each one was afraid to show first. I guess, he was trembling like me. I always wore trousers; perhaps, he didn't recognize that his rival was a girl. I was extremely frightened, I never saw a person who could kill me so near. How was it resolved? In such a moment you are thinking only about your own life! I don't remember.
Certificate. Given to Peshkova, Natalia Nikitichna, to certify that
she has been wounded twice: first, a light wound in the region
of the left buttock (fragment wound), and second, a heavy wound
with damage to the base of the skull: fragment wound
in the temple bone region. 9.8.44 Dr. Guards Captain Orlov.
Our battalion was equipped with the T-34's tanks. The tankists themselves regarded these machines very highly. At the end of 1943 we received English tanks, "Matildas". Our tankists called them "candles," because they burned easily and usually didn't return from the first battle. You know, it is hundred times better to sit upon the tank than inside it! I was inside a tank once, it was pure horror! I have an especially high regard for tankists. They had a higher level of education than the infantry. They perished awfully. If a tank was crushed (and it happened often) it meant death because one, or sometimes two, of the tankists could make their way out of the tank but the third one obviously couldn't stay alive because of combustion. That was the worst thing, burning of more than 60 percent of the body surface was lethal that time.
I served in that battalion for quite a long time, until I was promoted and became a KOMSOMOL assistant to the political department chief of our brigade. Well, it was farther from the front line. That' s it.
|Translated by:||Anton Kravchenko|
|Proofreading:||Claire Fuller Martin|
|Photos from the archive of N.N.Peshkova|
Honor and Glory to the Courageous*
The offensive battles lasted for several days. The malicious enemy counterattacked repeatedly. But Comrade Osinov's fighters and commanders steadfastly deflected the thrust of the drunken Germans. The courageous soldiers realized that it was the fight for their native Dnieper, and that inspired them to heroic feats.
But then the despairing enemy threw a several times stronger force of infantry with tanks and Ferdinands at the detachment. In one place enemy tanks managed to break through to the rear of our detachments. They rushed at the trenches and started "ironing" them. But our fighters, sergeants, and officers didn't waver. Like lions fought Dedov, Skliarevich, Khripushkin, Karas'kin, Musienko, Skrypnikov, and many others. They obliterated enemy infantry, disabled vehicles, by personal example they led the fighters to heroic deeds, without hesitation they gave lives to their beloved Motherland.
The detachment's komsorg (KOMSOMOL organizer - trans.) Natasha Peshkova earned for herself a special love and glory. The brave and courageous girl, the loyal daughter of the nation, in the difficult minutes of combat always appeared where an impassioned word was needed, where the personal example of fearlessness could abruptly change the situation, lead the fighters, inspire them to repulse the enemy. And where Natasha Peshkova appeared, the enemy met destructive fire and unbreakable steadfastness of the fighters. Under the adversary's fire the warrior girl ran over to the almost faltering soldiers and with an upsurge of strong will, with the voice of heart itself, stopped those falling back, inspired them with her steadfastness and bravery, and returned them to the battle formation.
Honor and glory to the steadfast, courageous fighters holding the heights on Slavuta-Dnieper's right bank.
Comments by Natalia Peshkova
*... I saw all these articles already after the war. Even this corps newspaper of ours didn't reach us, and if it did, it was immediately left for hand-rolled cigarettes. There was no paper, and the newspaper was a valuable which no one was going to distribute.
The Tribe of Victors
The young soldiers and komsomoltsy (Communist Union of Youth members - trans.) of our unit will fittingly celebrate the glorious anniversary of VLKSM (All-Union Lenin's Communist Union of Youth - trans.). In the bitter struggle against the fascist invaders on Dnieper's right bank komsomoltsy showed themselves as courageous soldiers, to the end devoted to their Motherland.
Fearlessly and selflessly fights the Stalin's tribe for the honor and freedom of the native land. In one battle Sergeant Ivan Vovk from Comrade Khramov's detachment wiped out 3 machine guns of the adversary, a "nomad" mortar, and up to 25 Hitlerites. Komsorg (KOMSOMOL organizer - trans.) Babak wiped out 20 Germans. Komsomolets Private Mikhail Farafonov (Comrade Kornilov's detachment) with a cry of "We'll die, but not retreat!" together with other fighters hurled back the superior forces of the counterattacking enemy. Natasha Peshkova fearlessly fights the enemy, leading the fighters by personal example to heroic deeds.
The whole staff knows the feat of komsomolets Aleksandr Shitikov. With bravery and resourcefulness at the decisive moment he managed to halt the thrust of the German infantry and tanks, and then push them back, inflicting severe losses on the enemy.
We can list tens, hundreds more examples of bravery and courage of our komsomoltsy. The young soldiers know neither exhaustion nor fear in their fight against the enemy. They bravely go into battle and crush the adversary even when his forces are superior to them. This way one komsomolets Rozov destroyed a fascist tank, letting it go over his foxhole for this purpose. Komsomoltsy emerge victorious because they unreservedly love their Motherland and because in their hearts burns inextinguishable hatred of the enemy, who dared to infringe upon her freedom, honor, and independence.
The feeling of the sacred duty before the Motherland leads our young soldiers in combat. Fervent love and devotion to great Stalin inspires them to heroic deeds.
Sergeant Major Natasha Peshkova
Natasha Peshkova's glory was born in battles, in peril, in the lethal singing of tracer bullets and shells. The girl who dreamed of becoming a Soviet journalist put off her studies and came to a military unit. The young patriot, like the thousands of other girls her age, decided to rise to the defense of her Motherland with submachine gun in hands. That was during the days when the terrible peril hanged over the homeland, when the insidious enemy threatened the heart of our motherland - Moscow.
A new, rigorous life began. And if in the first days the experienced soldiers treated Natasha, as a fighter, with some distrust, now they speak of the warrior girl with sincere respect and love. The fighting qualities of Natasha Peshkova became especially apparent in the period of battles for the Dnieper, for Kiev, and in the subsequent advance westward. In the hottest skirmishes with the enemy Natasha Peshkova finds her place in the battle formations and by her courage multiplies the glory of Sr. Lieutenant Uglovskiy's* detachment. The fighters animatedly tell of many combat episodes with Peshkova as the main character. ...there was a difficult situation in one sector. The several times stronger German forces fell upon our battle formations. The fighters wavered. But then Natasha Peshkova appeared. Strict, decisive, resourceful, she halts the fighters, leads them after herself, helps to repulse the counterattack and restore the situation. Very recently, during a surprise raid of the fascist tanks at point P, in the night skirmish she fought with courage, helped the submachine gunners, strengthened their steadfastness with her personal fearlessness, under solid fire she got through with a report to the command post and returned to the detachment. Later, pursued by a German tank, she managed to deceive the fascists and get away from under the very tracks.
The commanders highly evaluated combat actions of Natasha Peshkova and awarded her the Order of the Red Star**. Honor and glory to the Soviet girl Sergeant Major Natasha Peshkova, who defends her beloved Motherland with arms. Honor and glory to the courageous patriot of our Motherland, the girl in a soldiers' coat.
Comments by Natalia Peshkova
* I was put into 3 GTA (3rd Guards Tank Army), whose 6th and 7th corps were armored, and our 9th was mechanized. I was appointed to an officer's post of komsorg (KOMSOMOL organizer) of the 3rd Battalion, 71st Brigade, although I was a sergeant at first. The battalion commander Uglovskiy gave me a hostile reception. You can understand him, even though he used to be a math teacher and not a career officer, he had been fighting for some time already and knew what it was all about, and they sent him a girl, and to such a post! Komsorg - that was the number 3 person in the battalion. He immediately said to my face: "Don't expect any advantages or indulgences." I felt terribly insulted and we never had a good relationship with him. I couldn't forgive him this suspicion that I would demand special treatment.
** It must be said that they started awarding us only after the Kursk Operation and the capture of Kiev. And then, they only gave us "The Star" (Order of the Red Star), "The Banner" (Order of the Red Banner), "For Fighting Merits", and "For Bravery", but only senior officers received other decorations. And all these "For capture" and "For defense" - those are general medals, badges, I have "For the Capture of Kiev" and "For the Defense of Moscow", but I don't have anything real besides the Red Star. Mainly the awards were given out according to distribution lists, and not for actions. There was an assignment to every unit for a defined quantity of such and such medals, such and such orders. Well, somebody is killed, a medal remains unclaimed and gets passed on to another. Our commander, Lieutenant Uglovskiy, when he was asked why he didn't recommend anyone for a decoration for such and such battles, replied: "Because I wasn't recommended. They remained alive and became heroes because I was in charge of them. I wasn't recommended and I'm not recommending anyone." He said that to the superiors in front of us.