Six tanks with mounted parties passed along the cart road toward the German rear. I always remember with gratitude our tank-mounted submachine gunners. They were brave guys. They certainly never ran along with tanks on attack or rode the tanks under gun fire as shown in movies. They were common living humans. They would hide and shoot here and there. But without them at nights we were as good as blind. They guarded us at nights.
And then I began to weep: neither pain, nor losses nor fear were the cause of those tears. I wept from my awareness of the tragedy of the retreat which I had witnessed and in which I had taken part, I wept from the terrible thought that all our sacrifices had been in vain ... I wept because I had not even a grenade to blow myself up with the Germans. I wept from the very thought that the Germans were already on the left bank of the Dnieper.
The battles were very intense. Many men remained lying there for good … The Finish snipers, so-called “cuckoos,” (sitting in trees) caused us a lot of trouble. Once, at a crossing of forest roads, we were ambushed. We had the latest model tanks, with "antiaircraft" machine guns installed on turrets. I brought down three "cuckoos" from the tree tops with a machine gun. The Finns operated well in our rear. They would pass on skis through the woods and set up for us bloody "concerts". Once a camp bath house was arranged for soldiers in the woods. It consisted of a big canvas tent, which was heated inside, where the soldiers would come to wash themselves. Three Finns with submachine guns jumped out on skis from behind a hillock and killed a few of our soldiers washing themselves in such a "camp bath". The war was intense …
I commanded to the driver-mechanic Semiletov: “Vasya, at low speed move a little forward, for a tree standing in front of us prevents me from firing at the enemy head-on”. After two days of battles we had forged a good friendship and the crew read my mind at half word. Having improved our position I saw the enemy tank. Without waiting for the driver to bring the tank to stop, I fired the first sub-caliber round at the head tank, which was already at a distance of fifty meters from us. An instantaneous flash at the frontal part of the enemy tank and, all of a sudden, it burst into flames illuminating the whole column. The driver-mechanic cried out: “Commander, damn! Why did you fire? I haven’t closed the hatch yet! Now the gases made me blind”. I had forgotten about everything that moment but the enemy tanks.
I remember when we rushed towards Konigsberg; our battalion travelled in a marching column on a highway. There was a slope on one side and a swampy depression on the other, and suddenly we ran into an ambush. German artillery pieces knocked out the lead and last vehicles from the mound, but we began to disperse and fire back. I rolled to the right, and then my tank was pierced through, but because of the short range all the crew members survived.... Then out of ten vehicles, I think, we lost four. When we seized the German positions we found that the gunners were chained to their guns...
I was a good student in the classroom, but in the vehicle itself I had to stand on my tiptoes just to try and reach the gunsight. The shoots were early in the morning, too, I didn’t really see the target at all – sent all my three practice shells into the empty sky. The assault gun commander was a veteran tanker, fought in T-70s, came to us straight from the hospital. When I finished, he nearly cried, and told me: “son, what am I going to do with you once we get to the front? The assault gun exists to fire at tanks over open sights – if we can’t shoot, we’ll just be a practice target for them.”
My duties as a technical specialist included examining German tanks. During the Kursk battles, we held our first seminar with all our tank crews on the vulnerabilities of German tanks, including the Tiger and Panther models. These seminars were one of the technical unit’s responsibilities. By this time we had fairly decent data on these tanks. Basically, you had to hit them in the flank or in the tracks, since the front was pretty well-armored. You could also get them from the rear, but that was a difficult shot to make, you basically had to wait until the target tank turned around.
They sent in 5 T-34 tanks with mine-clearing attachments ahead of us. The mine-clearing tanks are pretty slow, and the Germans immediately destroyed three of them…seeing this, we all rushed forward, hoping to get lucky…the minefield was made up of massive anti-tank mines, each with 100-200 kilograms of explosives. Any crew that drove over one of these went straight to heaven, their assault guns just disintegrated. A third of our assault guns blew up then and there…After fifteen minutes we reached the now-empty German village. Aside from those who died in the minefields, we had no losses. Most of the crews dismounted and began scavenging for “trophies”, but my guys stayed in the assault gun. I always thought it was a bad omen to take something that doesn’t belong to you. All of a sudden I saw a friend of mine named Topkasov carrying a new pair of leather boots, and instantly got the feeling that something bad was about to happen…
In the battle of Prokhorovka our corps, in the beginning, was in the second echelon supporting the engagement of other corps and only then did we move forward. The distance between tanks was no more than one hundred meters, the only thing they could do was fidgeting, no maneuvering. It was not war, but tank slaughter. They crawled and fired. Everything was on fire. An inexpressible stench was in the air of the battlefield. Everything was so covered with smoke, dust and fire that it seemed that twilight had fallen. The air force bombed all. Tanks and vehicles were on fire. Communications did not work.
Some time later I saw our battalion’s refueller, Kostin go by. Kostin was an old stager, had been at Stalingrad, with a KV regiment. In an assemble area that Kostin got together youngsters never seen the battle and was telling them his Stalingrad experiences:
“You know, KV armor’s great! Once the Germans shot us with a blank, I see it red crawling in through the armor. I got a sledge-hammer and hit it big time, it went off!”
Young blokes listened carefully, did not know much about front. I went aside, laughed. Then I said:
“Kostin, knock it off, fuel me”.
In the afternoon my platoon, consisting of five T-26 tanks, entered the village, and we split up. I went with three tanks along the main street, while my deputy platoon commander Tereshchenko went with two tanks along a parallel street. And then it began. They fired at us from everywhere. One of our vehicles was burned, and the other was only knocked down, but the crew was killed. Somehow I managed to make it on foot to the tank of Tereshchenko and pick up from his dead, bloodstained hands a map case with the map where the coordinates of the German guns were plotted... God protected us; three tanks left the village and went back to our lines.
The ground was like steel—we could not even dig out a shelter. So you’d lie behind a dead body, piercing a tin can with a knife to open it. What vodka?! The whole of three months we were in the snow. We made a rampart of it, lying down in the center layer and covering ourselves with snow. If we stopped for 2-3 nights, then we made tents out of pine branches. In the day we’d light a campfire, but in the night—it was not allowed—we were afraid of planes seeing us.
Then there was some lack of clarity. I knew that there would be enemy panzers that I had to knock out, to move forward and do everything to win. I remember how I knocked out an enemy self-propelled gun: I hit it at short range... We liberated the towns of Volokhov, Karachev and Bryansk. When Bryansk was liberated, we were withdrawn for reformation to the Bryansk forests where we stayed a very long time.
Meanwhile, command decided to mount a new attack using so-called “infantry tanks” specially manufactured for this purpose. You know what they called an “infantry tank”? Each “tank” was a plate of 12 millimeter armor with a firing slit for the rifle (the Red Army did not have SMGs then), which doubled as the vision slit for the soldier behind the plate. The entire contraption was mounted on skis and weighed over 80 kilograms.
At the same time I turned the tank left-right, for I could get so carried away that I could miss a hit in the side. The commander yells: “Go forward!” I shoot, shoot more. I also had a SMG. I drove over the trench, rode over the mortars, squishing them, the Germans were fleeing. I pressed on the gas, stuck out of the hatch showing half of my body and fired a whole ammo clip from my SMG.