Anatolij Shvebig

Published september 21, 2010

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Childhood

 I was born on October 30, 1914 in St. Petersburg, during the First World War. My father was a junior officer [Poruchik, roughly a lieutenant’s rank – Transl.] with the General Staff, he was working as a clerk in a hospital in Orenbaum. In 1918, life in St. Petersburg became very difficult – the Russian Civil War had begun, and everything was in total chaos – and so we moved to a town called Vol’sk in the Saratov gubernija [pre-revolutionary term for a county or a district – Transl.]. My father worked there as an inspector; in 1921 – during the period of hunger in the district – he caught cholera and died within a day. I was seven then, with a brother and two sisters. How did we get by? Luckily, my cousin was with the Red Army in Posada (guarding a monastery), he helped place me into a “cadet” unit. However, in 1922 an order came down to send all “cadets” home, or to a state shelter if they didn’t have a home to go back to. And so I returned to Vol’sk, and with my brother wound up in a state shelter in Saratov. We were right in the town center, our shelter founded the “Podlipki” park. But the place really didn’t have enough resources like bedclothes or food, so in the summer the kids would leave to scavenge for themselves, going up and down the Volga on the steamers. We weren’t good for any heavy labor, of course, and so we wound up vagabonding, begging, stealing whatever was easy to steal – but never taking more than we needed to feed ourselves. When we had to steal something I teamed up with my brother – the rest of the time, we were each doing our own thing, there weren’t really any groups or gangs. By pure luck we ran into our mother down in Tsaritsyno, now Volgograd [also known as Stalingrad – Transl.]. She had been visiting the market there to buy some goods for resale up at Vol’sk – that’s how she made a living at the time. When she saw us – two vagabonds in rags – she said: “Enough is enough, I’m taking you out of the shelter.” That year, in 1924, I was lucky enough to visit the Crimea, the cities of Simferopol’ and Sevastopol’. We had a relative named Golovanov in Sevastopol’ – a former sailor, he was the city council chair at the time. That city is where I had seen my first ships and hydroplanes. After returning to Vol’sk, I entered third grade. The schoolhouse was brand new, we used to call it “the school palace”. All the classrooms were completely kitted out. The students were a pretty diverse crowd – some were younger, some older. We were all in the same class because many did not go to school during the Civil War.

In 1930 I completed 7 grades of school, though my marks weren’t very high owing to my lack of preparatory education. I had planned to attend the agricultural technical college in Balakovo (it’s a well-known city today, but back then it was just a village), about 20 kilometers from Vol’sk. But then when I took the entrance exam, I completely blew the one in Physics and had to go back home. Everyone, including my mother, were telling me to go back to school and complete another two grades so that I could get into the hydrological institute in Saratov. But things didn’t turn out that way.

The FZO school

Right around that time the FZO school [Factory Worker Education – Transl.] was established, and they were accepting people with a seven-grade education. I entered the school, and right then and there became a member of the Komsomol. I don’t know whether it had mattered to Komsomol that my father was an officer in the Tsarist army – most likely it didn’t. First, because my father had worked in the district inspection department after the Revolution, and second, because we had an electoral permit. This was critical, as those officers who were under suspicion or deemed “unreliable” had been excluded from elections – my mother, on the other hand, had a voter’s permit, and besides that she had become a member of the local collective farm, which was also a plus. The collective farm, by the way, gave us our own plot of about one and a half hectares; we planted mostly potatoes, which gave us enough food for the winter and even a little surplus which we could sell in the market (potatoes cost 5 kopeks per kilogram back then).

My first year at the FZO school was spent in study groups. A study group has five people, everyone studied separately but only one member of the group would take each exam. His grade became the grade for the group. The study groups didn’t really take very well, and so they came back to the old system after that one year.

While I was at the FZO school in 1930, the army was conducting maneuvers around Vol’sk. That’s when the first tanks rode through our town. They were moving very slowly, only 5 kilometers per hour, and so the boys followed them through the town. The maneuvers were observed by Kliment Voroshilov, by the way. So we ran after the tanks through the entire town, and then I declared that I am going to be a tanker.

Working life

After my graduation from the FZO school, I was placed at the chemical plant in Berezniki on the Kama river (the plant manufactured various acids: sulfuric, nitric, etc.). I was a metalworker 4th class. My foreman was a German, we called him Karl.

It was hard. We weren’t even eighteen yet, and the job went in three shifts. The graveyard shift, from midnight until morning, was especially hard: by 4 AM all you wanted was to go to sleep. Sometimes, Karl would let me doze off for an hour or so. He taught me a lot of things – first, how to work the sanding machine. The metal was very hard and you had to be very exact to sand off some small fraction without having an acid leak or something.

In the summer of 1932, my mother fell ill and I had to return to Vol’sk. I managed to find a job as a metalworker at the “Red Metallist” factory, and also began going to the factory’s night school. My mother’s dream was for my brother and I to become engineers, and I was going to night school to prepare for university entrance exams. In general, I attended the FZO school and kept studying afterwards so that I would have at least some prospects for the future, so that I could make a decent living and support my mother. That was the main thing that drove me.

The army

In 1932, a friend of mine who worked at the army’s local draft board suggested to me that there is a chance for me to join up. At the time, the draft kicked in at the age of twenty one, but you could volunteer for service once you turned eighteen. He told me to go talk to one of the commissioners. During the medical exam, they asked me:

- What arm of service do you want to join?

I told them:

- I want to be a tanker.

The board then explained to me that they could only assign me to a training school for tank mechanics, since I already completed primary education – which many recruits at the time had not – and since I should have already been drafted a year ago. I agreed.

And so, on December 5, 1932, I was officially drafted and sent to the Tsugulov Rifle Division in the Trans-Baikal Military District. I was to serve for six months in the infantry, and then a nother six months in the tank arm. After my six months in the Tsugulov division, I was transferred to a mechanized regiment of a very famous cavalry division garrisoned in Daurija on the Manchurian border. The divisional commander was Rokossovsky. Upon my arrival at the regiment, I was made a tank gunner. At first we had the T-26 tanks, and, later on, BT-2s and BT-7s – all of them with a single turret. The T-26 had a 45mm main gun and a single machine gun. The BTs were fast tanks, with M-17 aviation engines, and they also had the 45mm main gun and a single machine gun.

I remained with the division until September of 1933.

While I was in Daurija, the regiment’s tankers were all receiving aviation rations - which was a considerable perk. We also had leather uniforms – boots, overalls, helmets. We got up at 7 in the morning, while the cavalrymen had to get up at 3 AM because they had to feed their horses. They were jealous of us, of course, and were always after our sugar ration (which they used for horse treats). Yes, back in those days, our tankers were treated very well.

Tank mechanic school

In September of 1933 I was sent to a school for tank mechanics in Leningrad. The school was right in the center of the city, near the circus – right where the sports arena stands today. We had a tank park – the school generally had a very good equipment base. While at the school, we also got to do “internships” at all the major tank factories – Kirov, Khar’kov, etc.

Our studies were mainly directed at mastering the T-35 tank. This was a tank with five turrets, the central one with a 76mm gun, two with front- and rear-facing 45mm guns and two mini-turrets with machine guns. In all, the tank had 3 main guns and 6 machine guns. The crew consisted of 10 soldiers, 9 in the tank itself plus one mechanic.

Bike tours

In 1935, the school’s director (at the time, ranked as a divisional commander – we didn’t have generals back then) called me into his office and told me that we needed to put together a platoon of bike riders. A major bike tour was going to be held, and our school was going to participate in it. They wound up selecting seven of us, organized as a single platoon. We began training – I had already been a decent rider, as back at Vol’sk the kids lent bikes to each other all the time. The bike tour had about 50 riders in all, from all military districts. The goal was to test the reliability and ruggedness of three types of bikes – from Moscow, Penza and Khar’kov. Our platoon of seven got the bikes from Moscow.

The tour started in June from the Uritsk Square in Leningrad. The route was as follows: Leningrad-Moscow-Nizhnij Novgorod-Kazan’-Bahchisaraj-Perm’-Kurgan-Zolotoust-Sverdlovsk-Cheljabinsk-Orenburg. Then the next leg was Volgograd-Elista-Nal’chik-Tbilisi, then up the Black Sea Coast to Suhumi, then to Rostov-on-the-Don, then to Kiev, then to Minsk – and back to Moscow. The entire route was about 14,500 kilometers – we made it in three and a half months. The bikes from Moscow proved to be the best – not without flaws, mind you, the chains and the tires had to be changed fairly frequently. But they were the best of the three types – the bikes from Penza, for example, had very fragile frames.

We had a pretty good reception when we got back to Moscow. Ordzhonikidze himself awarded each rider a new bike. Not one of us dropped out during the tour, and we even set a world record for a single day’s stage length (sometimes we rode for up to 250 kilometers in a single day).

After the bike tour, I became involved in competitive sports for a time. When they had the first Soviet bike tour for 2.5 thousand kilometers, I took 7th place, i.e. made it into the top ten in the nation. I also tried to do an All-Ukraine tour, but didn’t finish: just before Nikolaevo I was riding downhill towards a bridge, when a horsedrawn cart rode on from the other end. I swerved and fell on the rocks and scratched myself up a bit, even had to spend some time in the hospital.

The 5th Heavy Tank Brigade and the academy

Upon my graduation from the tank mechanic school I was promoted to Military Technical Specialist 2nd Class and sent to the 5th Heavy Tank Brigade. The brigade, based on Holodnaja Gora in Khar’kov, was at the time the only one in the army equipped with heavy tanks, and so every year one of our battalions would drive up to Moscow to participate in the military parade there.

I eventually rose to command the Service & Repair platoon of the brigade’s training battalion. The battalion was commanded by then-major Shtymenko.

In 1938 I applied to the military academies. Back then, the entrant evaluation process was quite strict – first, you had to get past the screening commission in the military district itself, and only then were you allowed to take the entrance exams, which themselves spanned 11 different subjects.

I ultimately selected to go to the Academy of the Motorization and Mechanization of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (now the Armored Forces Academy). My commander, Shtymenko, went to the General Staff Academy instead. We still met occasionally during our studies in Moscow, however.

The head of my Academy at the time was Divisional Commander Lebedev. When we arrived for our entrance exams, he had us fall in and said:

- Comrade officers, you are not facing a competition here, - an important point, since during 1938 the Academy’s engineering department began to accept civilian applicants as well. – If you manage to score Cs or better on your exams, you’ll get in.

Of course, the exams were still quite difficult, and even one failure – say, on the Army Regulations Exam – meant an immediate rejection. There were a lot of good officers who didn’t make it in – and some of them had come from as far as the Far East. There were five people from my own brigade, and I was the only one who made it in – just barely.

That was in 1938. Of course, the war began shortly after that, in 1941, and so our studies had to be cut short. Classes were graduated ahead of schedule, the training programs were accelerated, and students were allowed to take the final examinations without completing their degree thesis. The order about my own accelerated graduation came out on October 7, 1941.

When we were at the Academy, both ourselves and our instructors believed that war with Germany was inevitable – at least, that’s how our discussions developed. Later on, during my meetings with Shtymenko, I found out that the General Staff was of the same opinion – that war was coming very, very soon.

All of our efforts were directed into preparing for war. On May 1, 1941, the draft was expanded to fully staff the existing units and expand the army to 5 million men. That must certainly have meant something. Subsequent to this, all 7 mechanized corps and aviation units were shifted to the Western border. Our mechanized corps were still at peacetime strength, and were supposed to be brought to full combat readiness only by autumn. Everything was leading towards a confrontation – either the Germans get us, or we get them. Of course, there was no talk of attacking first, as we believed that we just weren’t ready for preemptive action.

Of course, when the Germans broke through our defenses and captured Minsk and other cities, we couldn’t understand why the 7 mechanized corps and the front aviation were shifted so close to the border in the first place: they would have been more useful defending a deeper line. As it were, we lost a lot of our forces on the first day alone…

Well, we’ve had a number of conversations along those lines back then. And then, there was the infantry – my brother had just turned eighteen at the time of the May 1 order, and went straight into the army. The war began in June – he didn’t even know yet how to shoot, how to maintain his weapon, when all of a sudden the German force crashed into him from the air, from the ground. Sirens, tanks, fully-equipped German infantry. And the guy winds up having to surrender, and he is far from being the only one. The May recruits should have been held in reserve, while the defenses should have been manned by fully trained units.

Back at the Academy, we had already been focusing on studying German tactics. Of course, both the students and the instructors had some doubts about the whole thing…We knew, of course, that Stalin was paying a lot of attention to the modernization of the army. The Red Army changed a great deal between 1939, when the Second World War began, and 1941. A universal draft law replaced territorial draft. The armaments factories began to pay attention to equipment characteristics. Stalin personally inspected the aviation and the T-34 prototypes.

Then they analyzed the results of the Russo-Finnish War. That war revealed a great many deficiencies in the army, especially during the assault on the Mannerheim Line. The deficiencies were noted, and solutions were being implemented.

At the Academy we were already studying the new T-34 and KV tanks before they had even entered serial production. That’s why when we graduated in 1941 we were already prepared for operations with these machines.

After graduation, I was made the technical chief (with a rank of Engineer Captain) of a tank regiment in the 28th Tank Brigade that was being formed in Narofominsk. We were taken to Narofominsk by bus right after the October 7 order about our graduation.

The enemy was approaching Moscow at the time. From Narofominsk, we were taken to the Gorodetsk camps, where the brigade was formally constituted on October 22. From there, the brigade drove to the tank proving grounds at Kubinka. We had 16 T-34 tanks, 5 KV heavy tanks and 16 T-60 light tanks – we were supposed to have T-34s instead of T-60s, but there just weren’t enough T-34s at the time and all the factories had just been evacuated to the rear and so couldn’t ramp production to where we needed it. The whole brigade, in fact, was basically at battalion strength.

We were subordinated to the Western Front and received an order attaching us to Rokossovsky’s 16th Army and directing us to reach Volokolamsk by October 25.

On October 23, we moved out. Our wheeled vehicles went through Moscow, while the tanks were supposed to drive through Kubinka to Zvenigorod, and then to the Volokolamsk highway and onwards to Novopetrovsk.

On the night of October 25, we arrived in Novopetrovsk and met up some militia. They were led by a constable on a horse, and were generally armed with whatever they could get their hands on. Our scouts reported that the Germans were at Rozhdestvenno, about 5-6 kilometers away.

Based on this report, the brigade commander, Lieutenant Colonel Malygin, concluded that if we didn’t stop the German advance now, they would have broken through to the Volokolamsk-Moscow highway and would then reach Moscow and encircle the 16th Army at Volokolamsk within a matter of days. A decision was immediately made: the tank battalion will take positions in the Novorozhdestvenskij Forest near Novopetrovsk, while the motor rifle battalion will remain in Novopetrovsk itself and cover the way to the Volokolamsk highway. We then informed Rokossovsky and Front HQ. The headquarters replied: “Remain where you are and await further orders.”

Baptism of fire

On the 26th we received the order to launch an attack on the morning of the 27th on a large grouping of Germans in the village of Shkirmanovo. Prior to the attack, the brigade was reinforced by detachments of artillery and Katyusha launchers as well as an armored train.

At around 0900 hours on October 27, following an artillery preparation, we began our advance on Shkirmanovo. There was some high ground in front of the village, and we had to attack these heights first before assaulting Shkirmanovo itself. We sent our heavy tanks in first, followed by medium tanks and then by the militia and our motor rifle battalion.

As soon as we crested the heights, we came under intense fire from the enemy. The battle lasted roughly three hours. We failed to take Shkirmanovo and eventually fell back towards our jump-off points. During the battle we lost our battalion commander and commissar as well as approximately five tanks, while taking out eight German machines. We were expecting the Germans to launch a counterattack, but for some reason they never did.

This was my baptism of fire, my first battle. As the brigade’s technical chief, during the fight I was in the so-called observation-and-control outpost, a point close enough to the battlefield to allow us to spot and quickly evacuate any of our tanks that were knocked out. The battalion commander had left us a KV heavy tank with which to tow any knocked out machines to the rear before the Germans could finish them off. In all, five of our tanks were total write-offs, while almost all of the rest were knocked out by enemy fire and had to be towed to the rear during the battle.

Repairing knocked out tanks

When a tank was a total write-off – burned out, for instance – it was sent off to be melted down as scrap metal. This was generally done at the Front level. Of course, during the Moscow battles we didn’t have any assistance from the Front and had to cut up and ship off the burned out tanks ourselves. Later on, in 1943, this was all done by special Front detachments. When we sent off a burned out tank we also attached a report detailing things like where the tank was destroyed, how, etc.

If a damaged tank could be towed back to our lines, the repairs began immediately. Any minor repairs would be done on site and typically enabled the tank to return to service very quickly. Most frequently these involved something with the machine’s motive system – a torn track, cracked roadwheels, etc. Some tanks had dents in their armor from shots that failed to penetrate. Of course, when the armor was penetrated there wasn’t anything that could be done on site. Either the shell would hit the fighting compartment and the tank would burn out, rendering it a total write-off, or else it would penetrate into the engine compartment and we’d have to send it back to the factory for major repairs.

The repairs were done by the brigade’s Repair & Rebuilding Company. We had a “Flying Truck Type A” with all our instruments, which allowed us to do quick on-site repairs, and a “Flying Truck Type B” with heavy equipment like welding rigs, which we used as a mobile workshop for rebuilding certain parts or repairing armor. We also had a mobile generator as well as a compressor with several air tanks.

Our company was lucky in that we were allocated five “Voroshilovets” tractors. These had aviation engines and were considered quite powerful at the time. We used these to tow damaged tanks from the battlefield. Unfortunately, by the middle of the war we had lost these tractors and didn’t really have any comparable substitute.

How did the tanks tend to break down? Well, let’s take a KV. The first thing that broke on that model was always the clutch, since it was a very heavy vehicle and the system just couldn’t handle the load. Next, the transmission and the gears themselves – again, because of very high loads (46 tons is a lot). The torsion system also tended to fail frequently. There was some minor stuff, too – one time, I remember one KV tank where the fuel pump broke down and I had to rebuild it myself because we didn’t have any specialists in the field.

The KV tanks had diesel engines while others used gasoline. During the winter, the tiniest malfunction of the radiator led to a breakdown. Also, the carburetors tended to clog up frequently.

The T-34 was a different story. The rubber coating on the roadwheel rims tended to tear. The main source of problems was the fuel injection system. Sometimes the electrical components broke down. The transmission boxes actually didn’t break down very often, although later on, when we had to drive through mud, the loads would cause first gear to break. The myth that the early-model T-34s couldn’t go for a hundred kilometers before breaking down is sheer nonsense. My own brigade drove for a hundred kilometers from Kubinka to Novopetrovsk without any problems.

The T-35’s armor was only designed to be bullet-resistant. All light tanks had very weak armor protection, though they did get up to 10mm of armor. The 76mm gun was a short-barrel howitzer, very low striking power. And we had to use high explosive shells, too – there just wasn’t any armor-piercing ammunition available.

We didn’t really pay much attention to which factory we got our tanks from. Of course, the best tanks were made at the Khar’kov factory – before it was captured. After that, the Leningrad factory was the only one making KVs. So far as T-34s go, the Tagil factory was the best, the Cheljabinsk was so-so, Omsk had the worst quality. When we received new tanks we would examine them top to bottom. You’d see things like parts that weren’t oiled, motive system defects. We’d have to get the tanks “up to code” ourselves, at least when we had the time.

Quality did improve during the war. In 1941 the main emphasis was on production speed, and most of the factories had to evacuate and then restart the production lines someplace else, so there were a lot of defects.

We did have quality control though. The factories feared it mightily. We had to put together reports on every tank that we accepted from the factories. There were never enough defects to warrant sending the tank back to the factory, but we did have engine replacement claim forms that we’d sent to the factories.

German POWs

On November 8 I was going to the 28th Tank Battalion, then based in a clearing near the village of Andreevka. I was in a civilian car, a ZIS-110; most of the civilian vehicles, especially near Moscow, had been abandoned during the German advance. We found the ZIS-110 near the city, repaired it, and as they say it came in handy.

By this point in time, I had been promoted to the brigade’s second-in-command. The previous 2iC was named Shalagin. One day, I drove to the brigade HQ in Novopetrovsk, and there was a German air raid just after I went into the house with our technical section. I ran outside into the courtyard when the house was hit. It disappeared, in fact, and we found Shalagin wounded in both legs. He died on his way to the hospital, and so I was promoted to the 2iC post on the spot.

In any case, the ZIS-110 was a very comfortable vehicle, and the road was in good condition, so we were moving along at a very high speed. About one kilometer before we got to the battalion we had to stop – the road was blocked by a deep ditch dug for who knows what purpose, and there wasn’t any way around it as the road was flanked on both sides by woods. I left the driver in the car and began to walk towards the battalion, but about halfway there I spotted two Germans in winter camouflage and helmets hiding in some bushes. Each was wearing a belt with a knife on the left and a grenade on the right. They moved towards me, and I dropped to the ground loosing a few shots from my sidearm, hoping to attract the attention of the battalion and my driver.

My driver ran up and drove the Germans deeper into the woods with SMG fire. When he found out about the firefight, the battalion commander Captain Agopov immediately sent search parties after them. They were caught inside a half hour. During the questioning, they acted with considerable arrogance, saying only that “Moscow is kaput” and that their capture was a temporary mishap.

Nowhere to retreat

We really did not have any room to retreat. If we pulled back, the Germans would have broken through to the highway. We had to fight where we stood, to the death, as they say. Of course, Rokossovsky was already pulling back from Volokolamsk, but he was only avoiding an encirclement.

On November 16, the Germans reached the highway. We had nothing left by this point – I had just two operational tanks. Most of the brigade was ordered to pull out towards the Istra River so that it could evacuate and repair its damaged vehicles. That’s when the Germans started to bomb us pretty heavily. I decided to rejoin the brigade by taking a shortcut through the woods to avoid the German aircraft. When we entered the woods, we unexpectedly caught up to a T-34 column in a clearing. I stopped my tanks, and then suddenly heard German speech – so I drove right back into the woods. The Germans were afraid of going into the woods, they knew that it’s be “kaput”. I set course for the Istra reservoir and eventually caught up to the brigade.

On November 20, we were forced to disengage from the battle. They redeployed us to the Podlipki district, we bivouacked right in the “Podlipki” resort. We received some reinforcements – now we had 8 KVs, 22 T-34s and 34 T-60 light tanks.

We kept fighting until April 20 in the so-called Olenino Ring, somewhat east of Rzhev. There was a small bridgehead there across the Volga, and we were defending it. The Rzhev battles were very hard, truly terrible. Our side had very large losses. All we had in the narrow bridgehead was two or three rifle divisions, and they ordered us to widen it. That just couldn’t be done – you throw in a brigade, or a division, but the German defenses are too strong – we never managed to widen anything. Later on, we pulled back to the Volga and threw a rope bridge over the river. That’s how we were evacuating wounded and transporting food and spare parts back into the bridgehead. It wasn’t too bad, and we managed to hold…

Then we were taken out of the bridgehead, and that’s how the Battle of Moscow ended for our brigade.

When we fought the Germans in 1941, we weren’t thinking whether they had superior forces than us. Our view was – we had to hold our defense line no matter what. We didn’t even know how many tanks the Germans had, it didn’t really matter.

When several of our armies were encircled near Moscow, there were no forces left to cover Volokolamsk or the highway to Moscow. We had to take stop-gap measures, like moving my brigade to Novopetrovsk – anything to stop the Germans from reaching the highway. It is to the credit of our encircled troops, who kept fighting to the last, that the Germans were held up long enough. They held the Germans up for a long time, if not for them, the Germans would probably have reached Moscow. With a mindset like that, you can’t really discuss force superiority – we didn’t “feel” the Germans facing us.

The Germans had their problems. I remember May 1 near Rzhev – spring rains, mud. We had zero rations left. The Germans kept dropping leaflets on us saying that the Red Army had abandoned us, that we’re going to starve to death. Between our lines and the Germans were fields of potatoes – we used them to bake little cakes. But our soldiers weren’t the only ones sneaking forward to dig up some half-frozen potatoes – the Germans were doing the same! So who was superior to whom?

Later on, our depots were shifted from Kalinin a little closer to the frontline. The supplies still had to be hauled through the woods, however. I had one tank towing vehicle, and I had to send it to get the food from the depots. There were plenty of supplies, just no way of getting them to the front. That’s how we were celebrating May Day [May 1, International Labor Solidarity Day – Transl.] – and neither the Germans nor ourselves were doing any shooting. Everyone just wanted to survive…

The Rzhev battles

Afterwards, we were moved closer to Rzhev. In the summer, the Stalingrad battle began and so we launched a very large offensive of our own. We had a slogan: “A German killed near Rzhev won’t be fighting at Stalingrad!”

In 1942 our brigade was ordered into the first echelon with the 379th Rifle Division and tasked with breaking through the enemy defenses east of Rzhev with the view of reaching the Volga. The terrain was very swampy and completely covered with brush. The assault on the German positions began at 0800 hours on July 30. The fighting was very heavy. We couldn’t attain the element of surprise since the tanks could only move very slowly through the mud, and kept getting stuck and having to tow each other out. There was no other place to attack, however – everywhere else were swamps, and the nearby Dobryj stream had overflowed and became impassable.

The operation was commanded by Zhukov. By the end of August 15, when it seemed that victory was almost within our grasp, that one last effort would get us on the eastern outskirts of Rzhev, the brigade had only three T-60 light tanks left in service.

Lieutenant Colonel Malygin called me in:

- Anatolij Petrovich, - he said quietly, - you know the situation. What are we going to do?

- Attack Rzhev eastern outskirts, take the airfield.

- Attack with what? – he looked at me with very tired eyes. – My only hope is that your mechanics will pull us through…

About two hours later, the brigade’s operational strength was 3 KV tanks, 5 T-34s, 2 T-70s and 4 T-60s. During the fighting from July 20 to August 23, our technical company repaired a total of 10 KVs, 28 T-34s and one T-60 light tank.

The summer and autumn operations near Rzhev, especially the summer 1942 offensive, were essentially designed to distract the Germans from the Stalingrad axis. Nevertheless, there were considerable forces involved – in addition to the troops near Rzhev, there were the units attacking from the Vjaz’ma direction and from other places. As the Germans carried out a powerful counterstroke, even Getman’s division – I mean, Getman’s corps – became involved. But the main goal for us was always to fix the German forces and not let them shift any reserves to Stalingrad. We didn’t have any objectives to go after. Just hold on to Rzhev – and, before that, capture Rzhev – and continue engaging whatever enemy troops could be found locally so that they couldn’t escape.

My view on the offensive’s lack of success and large losses? By the time we launched it, the Germans strengthened their defenses considerably. After the battles near Moscow, they realized that they had to have strong defenses to contain us. And now they had strongpoints, concrete bunkers, deep trenches, things we hadn’t encountered before – and besides that, the terrain was very bad for the attacker. Very swampy, and the rains had just turned the streams into rivers.

The Germans were building extensive minefields. We had to make improvised minesweeping equipment. How did we do it? We took the roadwheels from a KV tank, welded metal spikes to them, attached them to something resembling a sleigh and the whole contraption was hooked up to the front of a T-34. The tank then moved through a minefield ahead of everyone else, exploding the mines – the KV roadwheels were very sturdy, and there was practically no damage to the tank itself. That’s how we cleared lanes in the German minefields for our tanks.

We also had to do some T-34 flame thrower conversions. Our brigade received five conversion kits from Moscow and we had to install them with whatever resources were on hand. The flame thrower weapon replaced the main gun, with a high-pressure fuel drum inside the tank. Effective range was roughly 100 meters, and we used these tanks to burn the Germans out of their bunkers. This was the first time we had to do a conversion job like this – they just gave us the kits, and we figured out how to install them.

My main battles

I left my brigade in March, when I was promoted to the Technical Chief of Armored and Mechanized Forces in the 39th Army, basically the officer in charge of equipment, logistics and repairs. The 39th Army was a combined-arms army fighting near Rzhev. She had been inside the “Olenino Loop” but was never fully encircled, which was the problem. My brigade’s mission had been to widen our bridgehead and free the 39th Army’s flanks, but we never succeeded in this. So by the time I arrived at the Army in 1943, it had already been almost completely reconstituted.

In April I was called back to Moscow. I was received by Fedorenko – the Red Army’s Commander of the Armored Forces. He offered me the Technical Chief post in the 16th Tank Corps, which at the time was in the Fatizh district near Kursk. I accepted.

I arrived at the Corps at the end of April, and was with it when we went into action during the Kursk Defensive Operations. The 16th Tank Corps was a part of the 2nd Tank Army, and conducted that army’s main thrust on Ol’hovatka. The Army’s second tank corps, the 3rd, was attacking around Ponyri.

We were operating in the sector of the 13th Army commanded by Puhov. Basically, we withstood the German assault. By July 12, we stabilized the situation in our sector. Later, we were transferred to a different part of the front and we began to advance towards Kromy. Our combat operations were completed on August 23, and the 2nd Tank Army was withdrawn into Stavka reserve near L’vov where we remained through the end of December. In December of 1943, we received orders to relocate to the Svjatoshino district west of Kiev, and from there we transferred to Belaja Tserkov’, where we received our vehicles.

On January 20 the enemy mounted a powerful counterstroke from the direction of Vinnitsa and broke through our defenses. Our 2nd Tank Army, still without all of its vehicles, was sent to seal off this breakthrough. We stopped the Germans in the Lipovets-Oratov district northeast of Fastow.

Next, on February 4 the Korsun-Shevchenkovskij pocket was sealed off. The Germans were trying to break through to their encircled units in the Lysjanka region. Our 16th Tank Corps received orders to redeploy 120 kilometers towards the German thrust. The weather was rainy and the roads turned to mud – the tanks had to crawl forward in first and second gear. However, we completed the redeployment by February 5 and attacked the enemy. There was heavy combat – sometimes we were attacking, sometimes defending. Some villages changed hands many times…

Then the Germans finally broke through in the 6th Tank Army sector, and both ourselves and the 6th TA began launching counterattacks. Eventually, we recaptured Lysjanka, and on February 17, the Korsun-Shevchenkovskij operation was over.

On March 5, the Uman’-Botashan operation began. We were a part of the 2nd Ukranian Front’s main thrust towards Uman’. The 2nd Tank Army’s mission was to capture Uman’ and break through to the Dniester River. We reached Uman’ on March 9 and became heavily engaged with the Germans. By the night of March 10, a tank company commander named Dankov drove around the town through a gulley and entered it from the northeast. The 11th Tank Brigade broke into Uman’ from the north, our Corps from the northwest, and the 3rd Tank Corps also moved up from the northeast. Later in the day on March 10, we liberated the city of Minsk.

We thought that we’d be given a rest after all that, but on the morning of March 11 we were sent in pursuit of the enemy, and by March 12 we approached the Bug River near Dzhulivka and captured a bridgehead on the opposite shore. All the crossings had been dynamited, and we had to send the first seven tanks across underwater. We then reached the Dniester River. The Germans had blown the bridge, and while the motor rifle units got across on makeshift rafts and managed to establish a bridgehead near Soroka, the tanks had to wait until a new bridge could be built.

The offensive continued. We reached the Prut River, on the pre-war USSR border. We carried on fighting in the mountains of Rumania until June 12, when we were withdrawn into the High Command Reserve and shifted into the Koll’ region, just in time for the Belorussia operation. During this offensive, we attacked towards Ljublin, then Deblen, and finally approached Prague from the opposite bank of the Visla River.

During our battles near Deblen I was wounded – shrapnel hit my back, my right leg, and even nicked my neck a little. It happened like this. The Corps commander called me in and said:

- We just took Deblen, and we need to get across the Visla. There is only one rail bridge left, can the tanks make it across?

Questions like this were my area of responsibility. Theoretically, the tanks could get stuck cold on the narrow rails, but not on this particular bridge. And so I told him the tanks could pass, and just as the first tank column approached the bridge, the Germans bombers blew it up. I was wounded then, but not very seriously, and so was able to get back to duty straight from the dressing station.

At this time, our Corps received orders to move into the Magnushev bridgehead in support of Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army. The Germans were launching heavy attacks against the bridgehead, and Chuikov was afraid his army wouldn’t be able to hold on unsupported. Of course, before we could offer any support, we had to cross the Visla River into the bridgehead itself. It was autumn, and there were no specialized tank crossings in the beginning. The sappers had to improvise – rafts, etc. We got the first few tanks across in this fashion, and only later did we throw a proper tank bridge. We remained in the Magnushev bridgehead until January 15.

On January 15, the Visla-Order Operation commensed. We were supposed to surge through a hole in the German defenses opened up by the 5th Army. But the planned breakthrough was never effected, and we had to complete the “breaking” process ourselves. Then we succeeded in forcing the Pirlitsa River on the move – the river was deep, tanks kept bogging down. We wound up chaining them to each other in a column, that way if a tank got stuck, we could pull it out towards the nearest shore. Just as the crossing got underway, commander Bogdanov drove up and said:

- Well done! Give the guys who thought this up medals.

At any rate, we got across Pirlitsa pretty quickly, and then reached Schnaimedun. Then, during the Pomeranian offensive, we reached Stettin and circled back to Kustrin, where we began to take replacements. On April 16, we went forward again as part of the Berlin offensive. We were sent in during the first day of the operation. The plan had been to wait until the infantry could tear us a hole to surge through, but again, the breakthrough never materialized on time. We had to launch seven or eight attacks ourselves on that first day alone to break through the enemy defense line, and for all that effort only managed to advance 3-4 kilometers. The breakthrough did come on the second day though.

The first objective that Zhukov had assigned to our Corps was to enter Berlin 24 hours after the offensive began. It took us six days just to get to Berlin suburbs, with heavy fighting. As I recall, we reached Berlin on the 20th, and then began the assault on the city itself on the 21st.

Our Corps and the 16th Tank Corps passed the 2nd Tank Corps from the north, then pulled back a little. The 3rd Corps brought up the rear – those were the units that hit the city from the south while we stormed the center. We crossed the Unterderlinden Strasse towards the Brandenburg Gate – our last battles were near the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten. Then the 8th Guards Army came in from the east, and it was all over. Combat ceased in our sector at 0200 hours on May 2, in the park near the gates.

We suffered heavy losses in Berlin, primarily from the “fausters” [Panzerfaust-armed infantry – Transl.]. Our combat formation during the city battles was as follows – first the sappers, then the tanks, then SMG infantry behind the tanks. The sappers defused mines, while the tanks shot up the buildings from which the Germans were firing with HE shells, and the infantry mopped up. But the “fausters” hid a lot, waiting for a chance to ambush a tank.

The German artillery was second to the “fausters” but still bothersome. The Germans had converted every sewer manhole into a gun pit and mined the streets around them. So it was difficult to move forward, the attack progressed very slowly. Think about it – we were fighting in Berlin from April 21 to May 5. That’s when we had the idea to rig up nets out of bedsprings on our tanks. I held a meeting of the brigade technical chiefs, and that’s where the suggestion was brought up, seeing as there were a lot of bedsprings around.

- Why not try, Comrade Lieutenant Colonel, - they said to me. I agreed.

That’s how we began to weld bedsprings to tanks. The tanks just looked…well, the Germans were very baffled – what sort of a tank is this? But, when a Panzerfaust rocket hit one of these nets, it would be deflected.

Day-to-day

When we got to Moldavia [now Moldova – Transl.], we were still in felt boots, winter coats, fur hats – and the weather turned to +25 degrees Celsius! The lice were atrocious. Whenever I took off my coat, it literally stirred – that’s how many lice were in there. You couldn’t sleep. We used to take a rag, wrap it around the neck, wait until a bunch of lice crawl on it – then toss it off and repeat this with another rag. What else could we do? We were marching nonstop, day after day. Later on, when we were in Rumania and finally got to rest a bit, we had time to roast our clothing over a fire to get the lice out.

The senior officers were generally on good terms with each other. All the orders were carried out without any politicking. Of course, sometimes someone would get yelled at, but generally speaking everything was quite polite.

The SMERSH [army counterintelligence – Transl.] representative didn’t really bother us – he was a swell guy. One time, when we were in the Magnushev bridgehead, he came up to me and asked: “you want me to show you something funny?” So he took me to this small hut with some benches. A bunch of old men came in and sat down, and we grabbed a couple of seats in the front row. And then, right in front of this audience, some couple had sex – for real! I later found out that all these old men had taken young wives – after the “show” they would go home and repeat what they’d seen.

You know, back when I was in the brigade equipped with T-35 tanks, two men were purged. The public consensus was that they were purged for a reason – that they were enemies of the people. We didn’t really know anything back then. These two guys were great officers – one of them, a battalion commander, was very thorough. And there weren’t any complaints about the second guy - the battalion’s technical chief, a man named Vagner – either, he was very knowledgeable, in fact. Of course, I can’t really say that their absence hurt the brigade, in fact, I don’t think it really had any impact on the brigade’s performance.

There was a lot of personnel work, including disciplinary actions. We didn’t send anything to the shtrafbat [penal battalion – Transl.] – only a judge could do that. Our Corps had its own tribunal, comprised of a chairman, a judge and a prosecutor. We could refer a case to the tribunal, if circumstances warranted it. This did happen sometimes. One instance took place when I was serving near Moscow. When we reached Shkirmanovo, the brigade commander ordered a company of SMG infantry to conduct a combat reconnaissance of the enemy. They were supposed to engage, draw as much enemy fire as possible and somehow map out the forward edge of the enemy defenses. Instead, they spent the night in some gulley, and, of course, didn’t scout out anything. This was, of course, a very gross violation – they were executed before the brigade. Of course, as a technical chief, I never had to impose punishments this harsh.

Here’s one incident - this one time near Kursk we were joined by one Rokossovsky’s representatives. Can’t remember his name now. He basically observed everything, corrected things. Right around that time, the commander of the 107th Tank Brigade became heavily engaged with the Germans; he was defending near Ponyri and ran into a counter-attack by 50 German tanks, half of them Tigers. Almost the entire brigade was knocked out. The commander’s own tank was hit and brewed up, but he somehow managed to bail out. He then made it back to Corps HQ and reported that his brigade was gone. Fortunately, I had some spare machines in reserve, so we were able to quickly reconstitute the brigade. But before the man could go back to the front, Rokossovsky’s representative ordered him arrested and tried before the tribunal for cowardice. When I heard of this, I personally went to the Corps commander:

- Comrade General, I was there myself, observing with the brigade’s technical chief Major Karakoza. We saw everything. The commander’s tank was knocked out, he barely made it out alive.

The Corps commander told me to go on, and I said to him:

- What, you don’t believe me? The Corps second-in-command saw the whole thing too. The tank was knocked out, it brewed up, what more proof do you need?

And so the brigade commander, a man named Chelikov, was released. Just before the Berlin operation, he became the Corps commander – that’s when he was wounded.

Generally speaking, we were on good terms with our political officers. Of course, there were exceptions. One time I got into a spat with the Corps chief political officer. He had requisitioned a Dodge 3/4 truck from a technical support company while I was wounded, and loaded it up with his war “trophies” [loot – Transl.]. When I got back to the Cops, I told him that he had to give the truck back, since under regulations he was only allotted one vehicle – a “Willis” Jeep. He got testy, and we really went at each other. I still had a limp from my wounds, and swung at him with my walking stick. He tried to tell the Corps commander, but the man was very principled and told the political officer to give the truck back. I thought the story had blown over, but then later on, when I came to Moscow as head of the Technical Department’s Combat Preparedness division, the head of our department’s Party committee came to me and said:

- Anatolij Petrovich, did you know that there is a strict censure on your Party record?

- No clue whatsoever, - I replied.

- Well, here it is. We need to find a way to get it off.

Thus, without my even knowing it, the Corps’ Party committee had censured me.

German tanks

At first, we didn’t have a lot of tank recovery vehicles. What were they? Well, basically we took a knocked out tank, or one with a damaged turret, took the turret off and turned into a tank recovery vehicle. We made a lot of these, but during the first period of the war our combat losses weren’t high enough, and there wasn’t any time to tow back damaged tanks from the battlefield – the battles were very see-saw. We had to leave damaged machines on the frontline, there was just no way to get them back to our lines.

We didn’t really use any German tanks. Cars and trucks – definitely, but not tanks. The Germans only ever left us machines that were burned out, and in any case we didn’t have any spare parts for them. Maybe some of the other tank corps used captured tanks, but not us.

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.

In 1943, just before the Kursk operation, we received our first sub-caliber ammunition. These had no problem penetrating the armor of Tiger and Panther tanks. Before, we only had high explosive shells and solid shot.

The German tanks were well-armed. They had the 88-millimeter gun, after all. We did start receiving 85-millimeter guns at Kursk in 1943, but these were a little inferior to the German weapon. Besides good armament, the German machines weren’t anything special.

The Tiger tank also had very poor mobility. They couldn’t use it like we used our heavy tanks – at the point of attack. Instead, with the Germans, the medium tanks went in front while the heavy tanks supported. The Tiger wasn’t a badly designed machine, it just lost out in terms of mobility and maneuverability. The Panther, on the other hand, was much more mobile, and more compact – not like the unwieldy Tiger.

Our tanks

Our brigade was the only one in the Red Army that had a company of radio-controlled tanks. This was classified, of course. And the radio controls weren’t perfect – you generally lost reception if you descended into a gulley – but it worked well enough at short range.

When we got the new T-34-85 tanks, we found that the part that broke down most frequently was the gun’s firing pin. It wasn’t sturdy enough, and so had to be replaced after firing off two or three combat loads. Otherwise, the shells would start denting or damaging the gun barrel, and we basically had to cut the barrel down, rebalance everything, etc. We tested the repaired guns ourselves – each time was pretty stressful, you sat there guessing if the gun will fire properly or if the shell will explode in the barrel.

My main task as the brigade’s Technical Chief was to ensure our tanks were combat-ready. Before every battle, the technical crews checked every machine – like an aircraft mechanic checking a plane before it takes off, same principle – machinery, combat loads, etc. Each company’s technical chief looks everything over himself, and also interviews the crews – if they tell him that something isn’t right with the tank, he has to make a call whether to send the machine into combat. This was a big responsibility, and for the tank crew as well. There were instances when crews disabled their own tanks. We observed the action with the company technical chiefs from special observation posts, and sometimes we would see a crew bail out without any sign that it was hit. This happened especially often in Rumania, towards the end of the war. The terrain was mountainous, the crew would bail out and send the tank rolling downhill, where it would burn up. They didn’t think anyone would see, but the whole thing would take place in plain view of our observation posts. Crews like that were, of course, given over to SMERSH. There were also cases where the crew would cause some technical malfunction – weaken a few bolts here and there or something – and then report to the company technical chief and request that the tank be repaired before being sent into battle. These cases were difficult to prove, but, fortunately, they were pretty rare. Especially since all the maintenance work was done in plain sight of other crews. In general, the crews fought honestly.

If a tank fell behind, we’d leave a “squad” of mechanics with it to get it back into service. That was our task – to make sure that every broken down tank was repaired and returned to its unit. Sometimes this was a fairly complicated exercise – for instance, during and after the Uman’ battles, our tanks moved 50-60 kilometers a day. A broken down tank could fall 100 kilometers behind by the time it was repaired, and it didn’t even have enough gas to catch up. We had to set up a chain of impromptu gas stations as we advanced. There were many other things involved, of course. Every damaged tank had to be carefully examined and the results entered into a report, the tanks needing factory work had to be sorted out and evacuated to the rear, etc. Every burned out tank had to be looked over, and a report had to be filed detailing the cause, where the fire started, etc. Later on, we had instituted so-called “control commissions” – each had a mechanic, a SMERSH representative and a combat officer. These three men would finalize and sign off on the report for each burned-out tank.

Everything was very tightly controlled – from burned out tanks to new deliveries from the factories. For instance, we once received replacement tanks at Belaja Tserkov’ – in the dead of winter. The accumulators had been removed, to get the engines started we had to either find oil or diesel for the heaters – and we wound up siphoning it off from the trains that had delivered the tanks in the first place. Then, when we got the accumulators from Cheljabinsk, they were all out of charge, and we had to recharge and test every one of them. This other time, in Manevichi near Kovel’, during the Belorussia operation, we received tanks with time to spare before the next offensive. We knew that we were going to be sent through the swampy region near Kovel’, and so we rigged tree logs on every tank (without any camouflage paint) and trained the crews in getting the tanks across the swamps. Then, when we made a 50-kilometer march, the fuel pumps broke down on all the fuel tanks. We telegraphed Cheljabinsk, they sent a team out and fixed the problem – turned out to be a plunger defect.

At that point, we had T-34 and IS-2 tanks, the latter as replacements for the KV series. The IS-2 was a good tank, with a 122-millimeter gun.

Tank camouflage was also one of my responsibilities. For instance, painting the tanks white in wintertime. During the Moscow and Rzhev battles we used ground chalk – later on, we didn’t have the resources anymore, all the tanks stayed green regardless of the season. The mechanics were also responsible for camouflage nets, and for making tank decoys. These decoys fooled the Germans a number of times. I don’t remember ever encountering any German-made decoys though.

The main source of tank losses was German artillery. Losses to aircraft were fairly small – maybe 10%. The tank could only be knocked out with a direct hit, otherwise the bomb fragments would just bounce off harmlessly. During the Kursk battles, 76% of our losses were due to enemy guns, the rest due to mines and aircraft. When we first ran into the “fausters” during the Visla-Oder offensive, they didn’t account for more than 10% of our losses.

Our replacement companies generally arrived at the front with three months of training. They had good basic skills, of course, but weren’t really ready for combat. During the battle, these crews would charge forward very courageously but without regard for terrain, battle conditions, etc. A veteran driver would instead steer the tank towards some cover, coordinate with his tank commander or the company CO on when to open fire. It generally took two-three battles for a novice tank driver to become a veteran – at first, they would just charge straight ahead, thinking they were invincible. Some would drive straight into a swamp. You had to tell them over and over in the beginning to take things like terrain into account. Also, they could drive the tank but weren’t really prepared for maintenance work. Maybe they knew how to check the oil, but you had to teach them everything else. How to prepare a tank for winter, for example – you had to change the oil, add antifreeze to the cooling system, give a coat of winter grease to everything. The same with preparing a tank for storage – after the war, I mean – you had to change the oil, hermetically seal the tank, etc. Even the officers weren’t really up to speed on all that stuff.

The German populace

In the beginning, the people of Berlin hid from us. When they saw that we weren’t causing them any harm, they began to come out. We were even a little surprised when they appeared – while we were still fighting for the city, it seemed that there was a shooter at every window, in every attic. Then, when we finally captured Berlin – everything just stopped. They really understood that it was over. [By the way, here’s something that happened to me during the Visla-Oder offensive. The Corps was advancing very rapidly, and I fell a bit behind while organizing the repair units. So I wound up taking a “Willis” Jeep to catch up to the Corps – I had my driver with me, as well as an adjutant and an orderly. This one stretch of the road ran through a narrow gap between a lake and a river. Just as we reached a clearing, we saw a group of Germans. Our troops were far ahead of this place, we couldn’t call for help – so I ordered everyone to take up defensive positions and sent the adjutant on ahead to see if the Germans would surrender. It wasn’t the easiest decision, of course, but we couldn’t really retreat at that point. So we went prone while the adjutant went forward – and then, suddenly, the Germans all put their hands up. There were about 60 of them there! We handed them over to the first motor rifle unit we came across. It was a very frightful episode, but we survived it.]

There weren’t any incidents with the civilians in Berlin while we were there. Later on, there were some issues with the occupational authorities. There was a separate commander assigned to every town, the locals would go to him with any complaints – but there were never any complaints about us. Nor did anyone ever complained to me about anything specific, even though I was one of the commanding officers. Of course, people would come to me if they were afraid, and I would calm them down. One time, a ballet dancer from the state theater company came to me and said: “Comrade Colonel, I am afraid.” I offered to let her stay in our HQ hut, which was always under guard, she was very grateful.

I remember there was a lot of money (Reichsmarks) just dumped everywhere. We never took any of it – of course, when I think about that today, maybe we should have taken some. There were bags of it everywhere, from some local banks. We did have war trophies, of course, but these were mostly cars, tanks. And we would have to give them up after a while. Everything was very well organized – the food warehouses, for instance, were put into place almost immediately. No-one stole or looted anything – what for? Where would you hide the loot?

We stayed in Germany until 1948, setting the place back in order. The Germans treated us well, I remember we used to buy their early vegetable crop – tomatoes, cucumbers. I myself had to work especially closely with the local population, since we had to exchange our old tanks for new ones but didn’t have any spare parts like headlights and had to order them locally from German mechanics.

At first, there were a lot of “confiscated” passenger cars, but then after a while they all had to be registered. There was an agreement signed in Karlchrest, there was a specially formed commission that took inventory and issued owner permits. The permit was in the name of an officer, who was then allocated space to ship things back to Russia. For instance, I, as colonel, was allocated one freight car and one flatbed car. I loaded the freight car with furniture and the flatbed with a civilian Mercedes, which I wound up selling some time later. The point is, all “trophy” cars were issued owner permits. The customs service was very thorough, they even inventoried all the furniture in my freight car.

Wives

We did have instances of “field wives” – for instance, Vitruk, the Cops commander, had one. They got married after the war. His chief of operations also had one, but then went back to his legal wife after the war ended.

Generally, during the war there were hardly any instances of officers bringing their wives to the front for a visit. This one exception was when we were in Podlipki and I arranged for my wife to come down from Moscow for the New Year. We had just gotten married, on September 6, 1941, in Moscow’s Pervomai District – basically went to the municipal offices and got a marriage license. So I brought her in for New Year’s. That’s about the only time I remember anyone doing this.

Later on, when the war had ended, the Corps commander instructed me to escort three wives from the USSR – his own, his second-in-command’s, and mine. There was an Air Corps near Stecken at the time, commanded by Vasja Stalin. We had met fairly often – they were our supporting air corps – and he told me there’d be a plane coming in from Moscow. So I flew into Moscow in October of 1945, but we still didn’t have official permission to bring our spouses to Germany. So we got some papers together saying they were signals officers, dressed them in military uniform. I told them what to say, where they served, etc., and brought them to the plane. The pilot was Kokinaki, the brother of the famous air ace. We got through customs, boarded, and flew off – though we had to make an emergency landing in Poland first, because of bad weather over Berlin. The Poles received us well, arranged for our hotel rooms. In the morning, we arrived I nerlin.

Interview conducted by: Artem Drabkin
Editing:Maksim Sviridov
Translation:Gene Ostrovsky, taladryel@yahoo.com

 

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.

 

 

 

Childhood

 I was born on October 30, 1914 in St. Petersburg, during the First World War. My father was a junior officer [Poruchik, roughly a lieutenant’s rank – Transl.] with the General Staff, he was working as a clerk in a hospital in Orenbaum. In 1918, life in St. Petersburg became very difficult – the Russian Civil War had begun, and everything was in total chaos – and so we moved to a town called Vol’sk in the Saratov gubernija [pre-revolutionary term for a county or a district – Transl.]. My father worked there as an inspector; in 1921 – during the period of hunger in the district – he caught cholera and died within a day. I was seven then, with a brother and two sisters. How did we get by? Luckily, my cousin was with the Red Army in Posada (guarding a monastery), he helped place me into a “cadet” unit. However, in 1922 an order came down to send all “cadets” home, or to a state shelter if they didn’t have a home to go back to. And so I returned to Vol’sk, and with my brother wound up in a state shelter in Saratov. We were right in the town center, our shelter founded the “Podlipki” park. But the place really didn’t have enough resources like bedclothes or food, so in the summer the kids would leave to scavenge for themselves, going up and down the Volga on the steamers. We weren’t good for any heavy labor, of course, and so we wound up vagabonding, begging, stealing whatever was easy to steal – but never taking more than we needed to feed ourselves. When we had to steal something I teamed up with my brother – the rest of the time, we were each doing our own thing, there weren’t really any groups or gangs. By pure luck we ran into our mother down in Tsaritsyno, now Volgograd [also known as Stalingrad – Transl.]. She had been visiting the market there to buy some goods for resale up at Vol’sk – that’s how she made a living at the time. When she saw us – two vagabonds in rags – she said: “Enough is enough, I’m taking you out of the shelter.” That year, in 1924, I was lucky enough to visit the Crimea, the cities of Simferopol’ and Sevastopol’. We had a relative named Golovanov in Sevastopol’ – a former sailor, he was the city council chair at the time. That city is where I had seen my first ships and hydroplanes. After returning to Vol’sk, I entered third grade. The schoolhouse was brand new, we used to call it “the school palace”. All the classrooms were completely kitted out. The students were a pretty diverse crowd – some were younger, some older. We were all in the same class because many did not go to school during the Civil War.

In 1930 I completed 7 grades of school, though my marks weren’t very high owing to my lack of preparatory education. I had planned to attend the agricultural technical college in Balakovo (it’s a well-known city today, but back then it was just a village), about 20 kilometers from Vol’sk. But then when I took the entrance exam, I completely blew the one in Physics and had to go back home. Everyone, including my mother, were telling me to go back to school and complete another two grades so that I could get into the hydrological institute in Saratov. But things didn’t turn out that way.

The FZO school

Right around that time the FZO school [Factory Worker Education – Transl.] was established, and they were accepting people with a seven-grade education. I entered the school, and right then and there became a member of the Komsomol. I don’t know whether it had mattered to Komsomol that my father was an officer in the Tsarist army – most likely it didn’t. First, because my father had worked in the district inspection department after the Revolution, and second, because we had an electoral permit. This was critical, as those officers who were under suspicion or deemed “unreliable” had been excluded from elections – my mother, on the other hand, had a voter’s permit, and besides that she had become a member of the local collective farm, which was also a plus. The collective farm, by the way, gave us our own plot of about one and a half hectares; we planted mostly potatoes, which gave us enough food for the winter and even a little surplus which we could sell in the market (potatoes cost 5 kopeks per kilogram back then).

My first year at the FZO school was spent in study groups. A study group has five people, everyone studied separately but only one member of the group would take each exam. His grade became the grade for the group. The study groups didn’t really take very well, and so they came back to the old system after that one year.

While I was at the FZO school in 1930, the army was conducting maneuvers around Vol’sk. That’s when the first tanks rode through our town. They were moving very slowly, only 5 kilometers per hour, and so the boys followed them through the town. The maneuvers were observed by Kliment Voroshilov, by the way. So we ran after the tanks through the entire town, and then I declared that I am going to be a tanker.

Working life

After my graduation from the FZO school, I was placed at the chemical plant in Berezniki on the Kama river (the plant manufactured various acids: sulfuric, nitric, etc.). I was a metalworker 4th class. My foreman was a German, we called him Karl.

It was hard. We weren’t even eighteen yet, and the job went in three shifts. The graveyard shift, from midnight until morning, was especially hard: by 4 AM all you wanted was to go to sleep. Sometimes, Karl would let me doze off for an hour or so. He taught me a lot of things – first, how to work the sanding machine. The metal was very hard and you had to be very exact to sand off some small fraction without having an acid leak or something.

In the summer of 1932, my mother fell ill and I had to return to Vol’sk. I managed to find a job as a metalworker at the “Red Metallist” factory, and also began going to the factory’s night school. My mother’s dream was for my brother and I to become engineers, and I was going to night school to prepare for university entrance exams. In general, I attended the FZO school and kept studying afterwards so that I would have at least some prospects for the future, so that I could make a decent living and support my mother. That was the main thing that drove me.

The army

In 1932, a friend of mine who worked at the army’s local draft board suggested to me that there is a chance for me to join up. At the time, the draft kicked in at the age of twenty one, but you could volunteer for service once you turned eighteen. He told me to go talk to one of the commissioners. During the medical exam, they asked me:

- What arm of service do you want to join?

I told them:

- I want to be a tanker.

The board then explained to me that they could only assign me to a training school for tank mechanics, since I already completed primary education – which many recruits at the time had not – and since I should have already been drafted a year ago. I agreed.

And so, on December 5, 1932, I was officially drafted and sent to the Tsugulov Rifle Division in the Trans-Baikal Military District. I was to serve for six months in the infantry, and then a nother six months in the tank arm. After my six months in the Tsugulov division, I was transferred to a mechanized regiment of a very famous cavalry division garrisoned in Daurija on the Manchurian border. The divisional commander was Rokossovsky. Upon my arrival at the regiment, I was made a tank gunner. At first we had the T-26 tanks, and, later on, BT-2s and BT-7s – all of them with a single turret. The T-26 had a 45mm main gun and a single machine gun. The BTs were fast tanks, with M-17 aviation engines, and they also had the 45mm main gun and a single machine gun.

I remained with the division until September of 1933.

While I was in Daurija, the regiment’s tankers were all receiving aviation rations - which was a considerable perk. We also had leather uniforms – boots, overalls, helmets. We got up at 7 in the morning, while the cavalrymen had to get up at 3 AM because they had to feed their horses. They were jealous of us, of course, and were always after our sugar ration (which they used for horse treats). Yes, back in those days, our tankers were treated very well.

Tank mechanic school

In September of 1933 I was sent to a school for tank mechanics in Leningrad. The school was right in the center of the city, near the circus – right where the sports arena stands today. We had a tank park – the school generally had a very good equipment base. While at the school, we also got to do “internships” at all the major tank factories – Kirov, Khar’kov, etc.

Our studies were mainly directed at mastering the T-35 tank. This was a tank with five turrets, the central one with a 76mm gun, two with front- and rear-facing 45mm guns and two mini-turrets with machine guns. In all, the tank had 3 main guns and 6 machine guns. The crew consisted of 10 soldiers, 9 in the tank itself plus one mechanic.

Bike tours

In 1935, the school’s director (at the time, ranked as a divisional commander – we didn’t have generals back then) called me into his office and told me that we needed to put together a platoon of bike riders. A major bike tour was going to be held, and our school was going to participate in it. They wound up selecting seven of us, organized as a single platoon. We began training – I had already been a decent rider, as back at Vol’sk the kids lent bikes to each other all the time. The bike tour had about 50 riders in all, from all military districts. The goal was to test the reliability and ruggedness of three types of bikes – from Moscow, Penza and Khar’kov. Our platoon of seven got the bikes from Moscow.

The tour started in June from the Uritsk Square in Leningrad. The route was as follows: Leningrad-Moscow-Nizhnij Novgorod-Kazan’-Bahchisaraj-Perm’-Kurgan-Zolotoust-Sverdlovsk-Cheljabinsk-Orenburg. Then the next leg was Volgograd-Elista-Nal’chik-Tbilisi, then up the Black Sea Coast to Suhumi, then to Rostov-on-the-Don, then to Kiev, then to Minsk – and back to Moscow. The entire route was about 14,500 kilometers – we made it in three and a half months. The bikes from Moscow proved to be the best – not without flaws, mind you, the chains and the tires had to be changed fairly frequently. But they were the best of the three types – the bikes from Penza, for example, had very fragile frames.

We had a pretty good reception when we got back to Moscow. Ordzhonikidze himself awarded each rider a new bike. Not one of us dropped out during the tour, and we even set a world record for a single day’s stage length (sometimes we rode for up to 250 kilometers in a single day).

After the bike tour, I became involved in competitive sports for a time. When they had the first Soviet bike tour for 2.5 thousand kilometers, I took 7th place, i.e. made it into the top ten in the nation. I also tried to do an All-Ukraine tour, but didn’t finish: just before Nikolaevo I was riding downhill towards a bridge, when a horsedrawn cart rode on from the other end. I swerved and fell on the rocks and scratched myself up a bit, even had to spend some time in the hospital.

The 5th Heavy Tank Brigade and the academy

Upon my graduation from the tank mechanic school I was promoted to Military Technical Specialist 2nd Class and sent to the 5th Heavy Tank Brigade. The brigade, based on Holodnaja Gora in Khar’kov, was at the time the only one in the army equipped with heavy tanks, and so every year one of our battalions would drive up to Moscow to participate in the military parade there.

I eventually rose to command the Service & Repair platoon of the brigade’s training battalion. The battalion was commanded by then-major Shtymenko.

In 1938 I applied to the military academies. Back then, the entrant evaluation process was quite strict – first, you had to get past the screening commission in the military district itself, and only then were you allowed to take the entrance exams, which themselves spanned 11 different subjects.

I ultimately selected to go to the Academy of the Motorization and Mechanization of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (now the Armored Forces Academy). My commander, Shtymenko, went to the General Staff Academy instead. We still met occasionally during our studies in Moscow, however.

The head of my Academy at the time was Divisional Commander Lebedev. When we arrived for our entrance exams, he had us fall in and said:

- Comrade officers, you are not facing a competition here, - an important point, since during 1938 the Academy’s engineering department began to accept civilian applicants as well. – If you manage to score Cs or better on your exams, you’ll get in.

Of course, the exams were still quite difficult, and even one failure – say, on the Army Regulations Exam – meant an immediate rejection. There were a lot of good officers who didn’t make it in – and some of them had come from as far as the Far East. There were five people from my own brigade, and I was the only one who made it in – just barely.

That was in 1938. Of course, the war began shortly after that, in 1941, and so our studies had to be cut short. Classes were graduated ahead of schedule, the training programs were accelerated, and students were allowed to take the final examinations without completing their degree thesis. The order about my own accelerated graduation came out on October 7, 1941.

When we were at the Academy, both ourselves and our instructors believed that war with Germany was inevitable – at least, that’s how our discussions developed. Later on, during my meetings with Shtymenko, I found out that the General Staff was of the same opinion – that war was coming very, very soon.

All of our efforts were directed into preparing for war. On May 1, 1941, the draft was expanded to fully staff the existing units and expand the army to 5 million men. That must certainly have meant something. Subsequent to this, all 7 mechanized corps and aviation units were shifted to the Western border. Our mechanized corps were still at peacetime strength, and were supposed to be brought to full combat readiness only by autumn. Everything was leading towards a confrontation – either the Germans get us, or we get them. Of course, there was no talk of attacking first, as we believed that we just weren’t ready for preemptive action.

Of course, when the Germans broke through our defenses and captured Minsk and other cities, we couldn’t understand why the 7 mechanized corps and the front aviation were shifted so close to the border in the first place: they would have been more useful defending a deeper line. As it were, we lost a lot of our forces on the first day alone…

Well, we’ve had a number of conversations along those lines back then. And then, there was the infantry – my brother had just turned eighteen at the time of the May 1 order, and went straight into the army. The war began in June – he didn’t even know yet how to shoot, how to maintain his weapon, when all of a sudden the German force crashed into him from the air, from the ground. Sirens, tanks, fully-equipped German infantry. And the guy winds up having to surrender, and he is far from being the only one. The May recruits should have been held in reserve, while the defenses should have been manned by fully trained units.

Back at the Academy, we had already been focusing on studying German tactics. Of course, both the students and the instructors had some doubts about the whole thing…We knew, of course, that Stalin was paying a lot of attention to the modernization of the army. The Red Army changed a great deal between 1939, when the Second World War began, and 1941. A universal draft law replaced territorial draft. The armaments factories began to pay attention to equipment characteristics. Stalin personally inspected the aviation and the T-34 prototypes.

Then they analyzed the results of the Russo-Finnish War. That war revealed a great many deficiencies in the army, especially during the assault on the Mannerheim Line. The deficiencies were noted, and solutions were being implemented.

At the Academy we were already studying the new T-34 and KV tanks before they had even entered serial production. That’s why when we graduated in 1941 we were already prepared for operations with these machines.

After graduation, I was made the technical chief (with a rank of Engineer Captain) of a tank regiment in the 28th Tank Brigade that was being formed in Narofominsk. We were taken to Narofominsk by bus right after the October 7 order about our graduation.

The enemy was approaching Moscow at the time. From Narofominsk, we were taken to the Gorodetsk camps, where the brigade was formally constituted on October 22. From there, the brigade drove to the tank proving grounds at Kubinka. We had 16 T-34 tanks, 5 KV heavy tanks and 16 T-60 light tanks – we were supposed to have T-34s instead of T-60s, but there just weren’t enough T-34s at the time and all the factories had just been evacuated to the rear and so couldn’t ramp production to where we needed it. The whole brigade, in fact, was basically at battalion strength.

We were subordinated to the Western Front and received an order attaching us to Rokossovsky’s 16th Army and directing us to reach Volokolamsk by October 25.

On October 23, we moved out. Our wheeled vehicles went through Moscow, while the tanks were supposed to drive through Kubinka to Zvenigorod, and then to the Volokolamsk highway and onwards to Novopetrovsk.

On the night of October 25, we arrived in Novopetrovsk and met up some militia. They were led by a constable on a horse, and were generally armed with whatever they could get their hands on. Our scouts reported that the Germans were at Rozhdestvenno, about 5-6 kilometers away.

Based on this report, the brigade commander, Lieutenant Colonel Malygin, concluded that if we didn’t stop the German advance now, they would have broken through to the Volokolamsk-Moscow highway and would then reach Moscow and encircle the 16th Army at Volokolamsk within a matter of days. A decision was immediately made: the tank battalion will take positions in the Novorozhdestvenskij Forest near Novopetrovsk, while the motor rifle battalion will remain in Novopetrovsk itself and cover the way to the Volokolamsk highway. We then informed Rokossovsky and Front HQ. The headquarters replied: “Remain where you are and await further orders.”

Baptism of fire

On the 26th we received the order to launch an attack on the morning of the 27th on a large grouping of Germans in the village of Shkirmanovo. Prior to the attack, the brigade was reinforced by detachments of artillery and Katyusha launchers as well as an armored train.

At around 0900 hours on October 27, following an artillery preparation, we began our advance on Shkirmanovo. There was some high ground in front of the village, and we had to attack these heights first before assaulting Shkirmanovo itself. We sent our heavy tanks in first, followed by medium tanks and then by the militia and our motor rifle battalion.

As soon as we crested the heights, we came under intense fire from the enemy. The battle lasted roughly three hours. We failed to take Shkirmanovo and eventually fell back towards our jump-off points. During the battle we lost our battalion commander and commissar as well as approximately five tanks, while taking out eight German machines. We were expecting the Germans to launch a counterattack, but for some reason they never did.

This was my baptism of fire, my first battle. As the brigade’s technical chief, during the fight I was in the so-called observation-and-control outpost, a point close enough to the battlefield to allow us to spot and quickly evacuate any of our tanks that were knocked out. The battalion commander had left us a KV heavy tank with which to tow any knocked out machines to the rear before the Germans could finish them off. In all, five of our tanks were total write-offs, while almost all of the rest were knocked out by enemy fire and had to be towed to the rear during the battle.

Repairing knocked out tanks

When a tank was a total write-off – burned out, for instance – it was sent off to be melted down as scrap metal. This was generally done at the Front level. Of course, during the Moscow battles we didn’t have any assistance from the Front and had to cut up and ship off the burned out tanks ourselves. Later on, in 1943, this was all done by special Front detachments. When we sent off a burned out tank we also attached a report detailing things like where the tank was destroyed, how, etc.

If a damaged tank could be towed back to our lines, the repairs began immediately. Any minor repairs would be done on site and typically enabled the tank to return to service very quickly. Most frequently these involved something with the machine’s motive system – a torn track, cracked roadwheels, etc. Some tanks had dents in their armor from shots that failed to penetrate. Of course, when the armor was penetrated there wasn’t anything that could be done on site. Either the shell would hit the fighting compartment and the tank would burn out, rendering it a total write-off, or else it would penetrate into the engine compartment and we’d have to send it back to the factory for major repairs.

The repairs were done by the brigade’s Repair & Rebuilding Company. We had a “Flying Truck Type A” with all our instruments, which allowed us to do quick on-site repairs, and a “Flying Truck Type B” with heavy equipment like welding rigs, which we used as a mobile workshop for rebuilding certain parts or repairing armor. We also had a mobile generator as well as a compressor with several air tanks.

Our company was lucky in that we were allocated five “Voroshilovets” tractors. These had aviation engines and were considered quite powerful at the time. We used these to tow damaged tanks from the battlefield. Unfortunately, by the middle of the war we had lost these tractors and didn’t really have any comparable substitute.

How did the tanks tend to break down? Well, let’s take a KV. The first thing that broke on that model was always the clutch, since it was a very heavy vehicle and the system just couldn’t handle the load. Next, the transmission and the gears themselves – again, because of very high loads (46 tons is a lot). The torsion system also tended to fail frequently. There was some minor stuff, too – one time, I remember one KV tank where the fuel pump broke down and I had to rebuild it myself because we didn’t have any specialists in the field.

The KV tanks had diesel engines while others used gasoline. During the winter, the tiniest malfunction of the radiator led to a breakdown. Also, the carburetors tended to clog up frequently.

The T-34 was a different story. The rubber coating on the roadwheel rims tended to tear. The main source of problems was the fuel injection system. Sometimes the electrical components broke down. The transmission boxes actually didn’t break down very often, although later on, when we had to drive through mud, the loads would cause first gear to break. The myth that the early-model T-34s couldn’t go for a hundred kilometers before breaking down is sheer nonsense. My own brigade drove for a hundred kilometers from Kubinka to Novopetrovsk without any problems.

The T-35’s armor was only designed to be bullet-resistant. All light tanks had very weak armor protection, though they did get up to 10mm of armor. The 76mm gun was a short-barrel howitzer, very low striking power. And we had to use high explosive shells, too – there just wasn’t any armor-piercing ammunition available.

We didn’t really pay much attention to which factory we got our tanks from. Of course, the best tanks were made at the Khar’kov factory – before it was captured. After that, the Leningrad factory was the only one making KVs. So far as T-34s go, the Tagil factory was the best, the Cheljabinsk was so-so, Omsk had the worst quality. When we received new tanks we would examine them top to bottom. You’d see things like parts that weren’t oiled, motive system defects. We’d have to get the tanks “up to code” ourselves, at least when we had the time.

Quality did improve during the war. In 1941 the main emphasis was on production speed, and most of the factories had to evacuate and then restart the production lines someplace else, so there were a lot of defects.

We did have quality control though. The factories feared it mightily. We had to put together reports on every tank that we accepted from the factories. There were never enough defects to warrant sending the tank back to the factory, but we did have engine replacement claim forms that we’d sent to the factories.

German POWs

On November 8 I was going to the 28th Tank Battalion, then based in a clearing near the village of Andreevka. I was in a civilian car, a ZIS-110; most of the civilian vehicles, especially near Moscow, had been abandoned during the German advance. We found the ZIS-110 near the city, repaired it, and as they say it came in handy.

By this point in time, I had been promoted to the brigade’s second-in-command. The previous 2iC was named Shalagin. One day, I drove to the brigade HQ in Novopetrovsk, and there was a German air raid just after I went into the house with our technical section. I ran outside into the courtyard when the house was hit. It disappeared, in fact, and we found Shalagin wounded in both legs. He died on his way to the hospital, and so I was promoted to the 2iC post on the spot.

In any case, the ZIS-110 was a very comfortable vehicle, and the road was in good condition, so we were moving along at a very high speed. About one kilometer before we got to the battalion we had to stop – the road was blocked by a deep ditch dug for who knows what purpose, and there wasn’t any way around it as the road was flanked on both sides by woods. I left the driver in the car and began to walk towards the battalion, but about halfway there I spotted two Germans in winter camouflage and helmets hiding in some bushes. Each was wearing a belt with a knife on the left and a grenade on the right. They moved towards me, and I dropped to the ground loosing a few shots from my sidearm, hoping to attract the attention of the battalion and my driver.

My driver ran up and drove the Germans deeper into the woods with SMG fire. When he found out about the firefight, the battalion commander Captain Agopov immediately sent search parties after them. They were caught inside a half hour. During the questioning, they acted with considerable arrogance, saying only that “Moscow is kaput” and that their capture was a temporary mishap.

Nowhere to retreat

We really did not have any room to retreat. If we pulled back, the Germans would have broken through to the highway. We had to fight where we stood, to the death, as they say. Of course, Rokossovsky was already pulling back from Volokolamsk, but he was only avoiding an encirclement.

On November 16, the Germans reached the highway. We had nothing left by this point – I had just two operational tanks. Most of the brigade was ordered to pull out towards the Istra River so that it could evacuate and repair its damaged vehicles. That’s when the Germans started to bomb us pretty heavily. I decided to rejoin the brigade by taking a shortcut through the woods to avoid the German aircraft. When we entered the woods, we unexpectedly caught up to a T-34 column in a clearing. I stopped my tanks, and then suddenly heard German speech – so I drove right back into the woods. The Germans were afraid of going into the woods, they knew that it’s be “kaput”. I set course for the Istra reservoir and eventually caught up to the brigade.

On November 20, we were forced to disengage from the battle. They redeployed us to the Podlipki district, we bivouacked right in the “Podlipki” resort. We received some reinforcements – now we had 8 KVs, 22 T-34s and 34 T-60 light tanks.

We kept fighting until April 20 in the so-called Olenino Ring, somewhat east of Rzhev. There was a small bridgehead there across the Volga, and we were defending it. The Rzhev battles were very hard, truly terrible. Our side had very large losses. All we had in the narrow bridgehead was two or three rifle divisions, and they ordered us to widen it. That just couldn’t be done – you throw in a brigade, or a division, but the German defenses are too strong – we never managed to widen anything. Later on, we pulled back to the Volga and threw a rope bridge over the river. That’s how we were evacuating wounded and transporting food and spare parts back into the bridgehead. It wasn’t too bad, and we managed to hold…

Then we were taken out of the bridgehead, and that’s how the Battle of Moscow ended for our brigade.

When we fought the Germans in 1941, we weren’t thinking whether they had superior forces than us. Our view was – we had to hold our defense line no matter what. We didn’t even know how many tanks the Germans had, it didn’t really matter.

When several of our armies were encircled near Moscow, there were no forces left to cover Volokolamsk or the highway to Moscow. We had to take stop-gap measures, like moving my brigade to Novopetrovsk – anything to stop the Germans from reaching the highway. It is to the credit of our encircled troops, who kept fighting to the last, that the Germans were held up long enough. They held the Germans up for a long time, if not for them, the Germans would probably have reached Moscow. With a mindset like that, you can’t really discuss force superiority – we didn’t “feel” the Germans facing us.

The Germans had their problems. I remember May 1 near Rzhev – spring rains, mud. We had zero rations left. The Germans kept dropping leaflets on us saying that the Red Army had abandoned us, that we’re going to starve to death. Between our lines and the Germans were fields of potatoes – we used them to bake little cakes. But our soldiers weren’t the only ones sneaking forward to dig up some half-frozen potatoes – the Germans were doing the same! So who was superior to whom?

Later on, our depots were shifted from Kalinin a little closer to the frontline. The supplies still had to be hauled through the woods, however. I had one tank towing vehicle, and I had to send it to get the food from the depots. There were plenty of supplies, just no way of getting them to the front. That’s how we were celebrating May Day [May 1, International Labor Solidarity Day – Transl.] – and neither the Germans nor ourselves were doing any shooting. Everyone just wanted to survive…

The Rzhev battles

Afterwards, we were moved closer to Rzhev. In the summer, the Stalingrad battle began and so we launched a very large offensive of our own. We had a slogan: “A German killed near Rzhev won’t be fighting at Stalingrad!”

In 1942 our brigade was ordered into the first echelon with the 379th Rifle Division and tasked with breaking through the enemy defenses east of Rzhev with the view of reaching the Volga. The terrain was very swampy and completely covered with brush. The assault on the German positions began at 0800 hours on July 30. The fighting was very heavy. We couldn’t attain the element of surprise since the tanks could only move very slowly through the mud, and kept getting stuck and having to tow each other out. There was no other place to attack, however – everywhere else were swamps, and the nearby Dobryj stream had overflowed and became impassable.

The operation was commanded by Zhukov. By the end of August 15, when it seemed that victory was almost within our grasp, that one last effort would get us on the eastern outskirts of Rzhev, the brigade had only three T-60 light tanks left in service.

Lieutenant Colonel Malygin called me in:

- Anatolij Petrovich, - he said quietly, - you know the situation. What are we going to do?

- Attack Rzhev eastern outskirts, take the airfield.

- Attack with what? – he looked at me with very tired eyes. – My only hope is that your mechanics will pull us through…

About two hours later, the brigade’s operational strength was 3 KV tanks, 5 T-34s, 2 T-70s and 4 T-60s. During the fighting from July 20 to August 23, our technical company repaired a total of 10 KVs, 28 T-34s and one T-60 light tank.

The summer and autumn operations near Rzhev, especially the summer 1942 offensive, were essentially designed to distract the Germans from the Stalingrad axis. Nevertheless, there were considerable forces involved – in addition to the troops near Rzhev, there were the units attacking from the Vjaz’ma direction and from other places. As the Germans carried out a powerful counterstroke, even Getman’s division – I mean, Getman’s corps – became involved. But the main goal for us was always to fix the German forces and not let them shift any reserves to Stalingrad. We didn’t have any objectives to go after. Just hold on to Rzhev – and, before that, capture Rzhev – and continue engaging whatever enemy troops could be found locally so that they couldn’t escape.

My view on the offensive’s lack of success and large losses? By the time we launched it, the Germans strengthened their defenses considerably. After the battles near Moscow, they realized that they had to have strong defenses to contain us. And now they had strongpoints, concrete bunkers, deep trenches, things we hadn’t encountered before – and besides that, the terrain was very bad for the attacker. Very swampy, and the rains had just turned the streams into rivers.

The Germans were building extensive minefields. We had to make improvised minesweeping equipment. How did we do it? We took the roadwheels from a KV tank, welded metal spikes to them, attached them to something resembling a sleigh and the whole contraption was hooked up to the front of a T-34. The tank then moved through a minefield ahead of everyone else, exploding the mines – the KV roadwheels were very sturdy, and there was practically no damage to the tank itself. That’s how we cleared lanes in the German minefields for our tanks.

We also had to do some T-34 flame thrower conversions. Our brigade received five conversion kits from Moscow and we had to install them with whatever resources were on hand. The flame thrower weapon replaced the main gun, with a high-pressure fuel drum inside the tank. Effective range was roughly 100 meters, and we used these tanks to burn the Germans out of their bunkers. This was the first time we had to do a conversion job like this – they just gave us the kits, and we figured out how to install them.

My main battles

I left my brigade in March, when I was promoted to the Technical Chief of Armored and Mechanized Forces in the 39th Army, basically the officer in charge of equipment, logistics and repairs. The 39th Army was a combined-arms army fighting near Rzhev. She had been inside the “Olenino Loop” but was never fully encircled, which was the problem. My brigade’s mission had been to widen our bridgehead and free the 39th Army’s flanks, but we never succeeded in this. So by the time I arrived at the Army in 1943, it had already been almost completely reconstituted.

In April I was called back to Moscow. I was received by Fedorenko – the Red Army’s Commander of the Armored Forces. He offered me the Technical Chief post in the 16th Tank Corps, which at the time was in the Fatizh district near Kursk. I accepted.

I arrived at the Corps at the end of April, and was with it when we went into action during the Kursk Defensive Operations. The 16th Tank Corps was a part of the 2nd Tank Army, and conducted that army’s main thrust on Ol’hovatka. The Army’s second tank corps, the 3rd, was attacking around Ponyri.

We were operating in the sector of the 13th Army commanded by Puhov. Basically, we withstood the German assault. By July 12, we stabilized the situation in our sector. Later, we were transferred to a different part of the front and we began to advance towards Kromy. Our combat operations were completed on August 23, and the 2nd Tank Army was withdrawn into Stavka reserve near L’vov where we remained through the end of December. In December of 1943, we received orders to relocate to the Svjatoshino district west of Kiev, and from there we transferred to Belaja Tserkov’, where we received our vehicles.

On January 20 the enemy mounted a powerful counterstroke from the direction of Vinnitsa and broke through our defenses. Our 2nd Tank Army, still without all of its vehicles, was sent to seal off this breakthrough. We stopped the Germans in the Lipovets-Oratov district northeast of Fastow.

Next, on February 4 the Korsun-Shevchenkovskij pocket was sealed off. The Germans were trying to break through to their encircled units in the Lysjanka region. Our 16th Tank Corps received orders to redeploy 120 kilometers towards the German thrust. The weather was rainy and the roads turned to mud – the tanks had to crawl forward in first and second gear. However, we completed the redeployment by February 5 and attacked the enemy. There was heavy combat – sometimes we were attacking, sometimes defending. Some villages changed hands many times…

Then the Germans finally broke through in the 6th Tank Army sector, and both ourselves and the 6th TA began launching counterattacks. Eventually, we recaptured Lysjanka, and on February 17, the Korsun-Shevchenkovskij operation was over.

On March 5, the Uman’-Botashan operation began. We were a part of the 2nd Ukranian Front’s main thrust towards Uman’. The 2nd Tank Army’s mission was to capture Uman’ and break through to the Dniester River. We reached Uman’ on March 9 and became heavily engaged with the Germans. By the night of March 10, a tank company commander named Dankov drove around the town through a gulley and entered it from the northeast. The 11th Tank Brigade broke into Uman’ from the north, our Corps from the northwest, and the 3rd Tank Corps also moved up from the northeast. Later in the day on March 10, we liberated the city of Minsk.

We thought that we’d be given a rest after all that, but on the morning of March 11 we were sent in pursuit of the enemy, and by March 12 we approached the Bug River near Dzhulivka and captured a bridgehead on the opposite shore. All the crossings had been dynamited, and we had to send the first seven tanks across underwater. We then reached the Dniester River. The Germans had blown the bridge, and while the motor rifle units got across on makeshift rafts and managed to establish a bridgehead near Soroka, the tanks had to wait until a new bridge could be built.

The offensive continued. We reached the Prut River, on the pre-war USSR border. We carried on fighting in the mountains of Rumania until June 12, when we were withdrawn into the High Command Reserve and shifted into the Koll’ region, just in time for the Belorussia operation. During this offensive, we attacked towards Ljublin, then Deblen, and finally approached Prague from the opposite bank of the Visla River.

During our battles near Deblen I was wounded – shrapnel hit my back, my right leg, and even nicked my neck a little. It happened like this. The Corps commander called me in and said:

- We just took Deblen, and we need to get across the Visla. There is only one rail bridge left, can the tanks make it across?

Questions like this were my area of responsibility. Theoretically, the tanks could get stuck cold on the narrow rails, but not on this particular bridge. And so I told him the tanks could pass, and just as the first tank column approached the bridge, the Germans bombers blew it up. I was wounded then, but not very seriously, and so was able to get back to duty straight from the dressing station.

At this time, our Corps received orders to move into the Magnushev bridgehead in support of Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army. The Germans were launching heavy attacks against the bridgehead, and Chuikov was afraid his army wouldn’t be able to hold on unsupported. Of course, before we could offer any support, we had to cross the Visla River into the bridgehead itself. It was autumn, and there were no specialized tank crossings in the beginning. The sappers had to improvise – rafts, etc. We got the first few tanks across in this fashion, and only later did we throw a proper tank bridge. We remained in the Magnushev bridgehead until January 15.

On January 15, the Visla-Order Operation commensed. We were supposed to surge through a hole in the German defenses opened up by the 5th Army. But the planned breakthrough was never effected, and we had to complete the “breaking” process ourselves. Then we succeeded in forcing the Pirlitsa River on the move – the river was deep, tanks kept bogging down. We wound up chaining them to each other in a column, that way if a tank got stuck, we could pull it out towards the nearest shore. Just as the crossing got underway, commander Bogdanov drove up and said:

- Well done! Give the guys who thought this up medals.

At any rate, we got across Pirlitsa pretty quickly, and then reached Schnaimedun. Then, during the Pomeranian offensive, we reached Stettin and circled back to Kustrin, where we began to take replacements. On April 16, we went forward again as part of the Berlin offensive. We were sent in during the first day of the operation. The plan had been to wait until the infantry could tear us a hole to surge through, but again, the breakthrough never materialized on time. We had to launch seven or eight attacks ourselves on that first day alone to break through the enemy defense line, and for all that effort only managed to advance 3-4 kilometers. The breakthrough did come on the second day though.

The first objective that Zhukov had assigned to our Corps was to enter Berlin 24 hours after the offensive began. It took us six days just to get to Berlin suburbs, with heavy fighting. As I recall, we reached Berlin on the 20th, and then began the assault on the city itself on the 21st.

Our Corps and the 16th Tank Corps passed the 2nd Tank Corps from the north, then pulled back a little. The 3rd Corps brought up the rear – those were the units that hit the city from the south while we stormed the center. We crossed the Unterderlinden Strasse towards the Brandenburg Gate – our last battles were near the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten. Then the 8th Guards Army came in from the east, and it was all over. Combat ceased in our sector at 0200 hours on May 2, in the park near the gates.

We suffered heavy losses in Berlin, primarily from the “fausters” [Panzerfaust-armed infantry – Transl.]. Our combat formation during the city battles was as follows – first the sappers, then the tanks, then SMG infantry behind the tanks. The sappers defused mines, while the tanks shot up the buildings from which the Germans were firing with HE shells, and the infantry mopped up. But the “fausters” hid a lot, waiting for a chance to ambush a tank.

The German artillery was second to the “fausters” but still bothersome. The Germans had converted every sewer manhole into a gun pit and mined the streets around them. So it was difficult to move forward, the attack progressed very slowly. Think about it – we were fighting in Berlin from April 21 to May 5. That’s when we had the idea to rig up nets out of bedsprings on our tanks. I held a meeting of the brigade technical chiefs, and that’s where the suggestion was brought up, seeing as there were a lot of bedsprings around.

- Why not try, Comrade Lieutenant Colonel, - they said to me. I agreed.

That’s how we began to weld bedsprings to tanks. The tanks just looked…well, the Germans were very baffled – what sort of a tank is this? But, when a Panzerfaust rocket hit one of these nets, it would be deflected.

Day-to-day

When we got to Moldavia [now Moldova – Transl.], we were still in felt boots, winter coats, fur hats – and the weather turned to +25 degrees Celsius! The lice were atrocious. Whenever I took off my coat, it literally stirred – that’s how many lice were in there. You couldn’t sleep. We used to take a rag, wrap it around the neck, wait until a bunch of lice crawl on it – then toss it off and repeat this with another rag. What else could we do? We were marching nonstop, day after day. Later on, when we were in Rumania and finally got to rest a bit, we had time to roast our clothing over a fire to get the lice out.

The senior officers were generally on good terms with each other. All the orders were carried out without any politicking. Of course, sometimes someone would get yelled at, but generally speaking everything was quite polite.

The SMERSH [army counterintelligence – Transl.] representative didn’t really bother us – he was a swell guy. One time, when we were in the Magnushev bridgehead, he came up to me and asked: “you want me to show you something funny?” So he took me to this small hut with some benches. A bunch of old men came in and sat down, and we grabbed a couple of seats in the front row. And then, right in front of this audience, some couple had sex – for real! I later found out that all these old men had taken young wives – after the “show” they would go home and repeat what they’d seen.

You know, back when I was in the brigade equipped with T-35 tanks, two men were purged. The public consensus was that they were purged for a reason – that they were enemies of the people. We didn’t really know anything back then. These two guys were great officers – one of them, a battalion commander, was very thorough. And there weren’t any complaints about the second guy - the battalion’s technical chief, a man named Vagner – either, he was very knowledgeable, in fact. Of course, I can’t really say that their absence hurt the brigade, in fact, I don’t think it really had any impact on the brigade’s performance.

There was a lot of personnel work, including disciplinary actions. We didn’t send anything to the shtrafbat [penal battalion – Transl.] – only a judge could do that. Our Corps had its own tribunal, comprised of a chairman, a judge and a prosecutor. We could refer a case to the tribunal, if circumstances warranted it. This did happen sometimes. One instance took place when I was serving near Moscow. When we reached Shkirmanovo, the brigade commander ordered a company of SMG infantry to conduct a combat reconnaissance of the enemy. They were supposed to engage, draw as much enemy fire as possible and somehow map out the forward edge of the enemy defenses. Instead, they spent the night in some gulley, and, of course, didn’t scout out anything. This was, of course, a very gross violation – they were executed before the brigade. Of course, as a technical chief, I never had to impose punishments this harsh.

Here’s one incident - this one time near Kursk we were joined by one Rokossovsky’s representatives. Can’t remember his name now. He basically observed everything, corrected things. Right around that time, the commander of the 107th Tank Brigade became heavily engaged with the Germans; he was defending near Ponyri and ran into a counter-attack by 50 German tanks, half of them Tigers. Almost the entire brigade was knocked out. The commander’s own tank was hit and brewed up, but he somehow managed to bail out. He then made it back to Corps HQ and reported that his brigade was gone. Fortunately, I had some spare machines in reserve, so we were able to quickly reconstitute the brigade. But before the man could go back to the front, Rokossovsky’s representative ordered him arrested and tried before the tribunal for cowardice. When I heard of this, I personally went to the Corps commander:

- Comrade General, I was there myself, observing with the brigade’s technical chief Major Karakoza. We saw everything. The commander’s tank was knocked out, he barely made it out alive.

The Corps commander told me to go on, and I said to him:

- What, you don’t believe me? The Corps second-in-command saw the whole thing too. The tank was knocked out, it brewed up, what more proof do you need?

And so the brigade commander, a man named Chelikov, was released. Just before the Berlin operation, he became the Corps commander – that’s when he was wounded.

Generally speaking, we were on good terms with our political officers. Of course, there were exceptions. One time I got into a spat with the Corps chief political officer. He had requisitioned a Dodge 3/4 truck from a technical support company while I was wounded, and loaded it up with his war “trophies” [loot – Transl.]. When I got back to the Cops, I told him that he had to give the truck back, since under regulations he was only allotted one vehicle – a “Willis” Jeep. He got testy, and we really went at each other. I still had a limp from my wounds, and swung at him with my walking stick. He tried to tell the Corps commander, but the man was very principled and told the political officer to give the truck back. I thought the story had blown over, but then later on, when I came to Moscow as head of the Technical Department’s Combat Preparedness division, the head of our department’s Party committee came to me and said:

- Anatolij Petrovich, did you know that there is a strict censure on your Party record?

- No clue whatsoever, - I replied.

- Well, here it is. We need to find a way to get it off.

Thus, without my even knowing it, the Corps’ Party committee had censured me.

German tanks

At first, we didn’t have a lot of tank recovery vehicles. What were they? Well, basically we took a knocked out tank, or one with a damaged turret, took the turret off and turned into a tank recovery vehicle. We made a lot of these, but during the first period of the war our combat losses weren’t high enough, and there wasn’t any time to tow back damaged tanks from the battlefield – the battles were very see-saw. We had to leave damaged machines on the frontline, there was just no way to get them back to our lines.

We didn’t really use any German tanks. Cars and trucks – definitely, but not tanks. The Germans only ever left us machines that were burned out, and in any case we didn’t have any spare parts for them. Maybe some of the other tank corps used captured tanks, but not us.

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.

In 1943, just before the Kursk operation, we received our first sub-caliber ammunition. These had no problem penetrating the armor of Tiger and Panther tanks. Before, we only had high explosive shells and solid shot.

The German tanks were well-armed. They had the 88-millimeter gun, after all. We did start receiving 85-millimeter guns at Kursk in 1943, but these were a little inferior to the German weapon. Besides good armament, the German machines weren’t anything special.

The Tiger tank also had very poor mobility. They couldn’t use it like we used our heavy tanks – at the point of attack. Instead, with the Germans, the medium tanks went in front while the heavy tanks supported. The Tiger wasn’t a badly designed machine, it just lost out in terms of mobility and maneuverability. The Panther, on the other hand, was much more mobile, and more compact – not like the unwieldy Tiger.

Our tanks

Our brigade was the only one in the Red Army that had a company of radio-controlled tanks. This was classified, of course. And the radio controls weren’t perfect – you generally lost reception if you descended into a gulley – but it worked well enough at short range.

When we got the new T-34-85 tanks, we found that the part that broke down most frequently was the gun’s firing pin. It wasn’t sturdy enough, and so had to be replaced after firing off two or three combat loads. Otherwise, the shells would start denting or damaging the gun barrel, and we basically had to cut the barrel down, rebalance everything, etc. We tested the repaired guns ourselves – each time was pretty stressful, you sat there guessing if the gun will fire properly or if the shell will explode in the barrel.

My main task as the brigade’s Technical Chief was to ensure our tanks were combat-ready. Before every battle, the technical crews checked every machine – like an aircraft mechanic checking a plane before it takes off, same principle – machinery, combat loads, etc. Each company’s technical chief looks everything over himself, and also interviews the crews – if they tell him that something isn’t right with the tank, he has to make a call whether to send the machine into combat. This was a big responsibility, and for the tank crew as well. There were instances when crews disabled their own tanks. We observed the action with the company technical chiefs from special observation posts, and sometimes we would see a crew bail out without any sign that it was hit. This happened especially often in Rumania, towards the end of the war. The terrain was mountainous, the crew would bail out and send the tank rolling downhill, where it would burn up. They didn’t think anyone would see, but the whole thing would take place in plain view of our observation posts. Crews like that were, of course, given over to SMERSH. There were also cases where the crew would cause some technical malfunction – weaken a few bolts here and there or something – and then report to the company technical chief and request that the tank be repaired before being sent into battle. These cases were difficult to prove, but, fortunately, they were pretty rare. Especially since all the maintenance work was done in plain sight of other crews. In general, the crews fought honestly.

If a tank fell behind, we’d leave a “squad” of mechanics with it to get it back into service. That was our task – to make sure that every broken down tank was repaired and returned to its unit. Sometimes this was a fairly complicated exercise – for instance, during and after the Uman’ battles, our tanks moved 50-60 kilometers a day. A broken down tank could fall 100 kilometers behind by the time it was repaired, and it didn’t even have enough gas to catch up. We had to set up a chain of impromptu gas stations as we advanced. There were many other things involved, of course. Every damaged tank had to be carefully examined and the results entered into a report, the tanks needing factory work had to be sorted out and evacuated to the rear, etc. Every burned out tank had to be looked over, and a report had to be filed detailing the cause, where the fire started, etc. Later on, we had instituted so-called “control commissions” – each had a mechanic, a SMERSH representative and a combat officer. These three men would finalize and sign off on the report for each burned-out tank.

Everything was very tightly controlled – from burned out tanks to new deliveries from the factories. For instance, we once received replacement tanks at Belaja Tserkov’ – in the dead of winter. The accumulators had been removed, to get the engines started we had to either find oil or diesel for the heaters – and we wound up siphoning it off from the trains that had delivered the tanks in the first place. Then, when we got the accumulators from Cheljabinsk, they were all out of charge, and we had to recharge and test every one of them. This other time, in Manevichi near Kovel’, during the Belorussia operation, we received tanks with time to spare before the next offensive. We knew that we were going to be sent through the swampy region near Kovel’, and so we rigged tree logs on every tank (without any camouflage paint) and trained the crews in getting the tanks across the swamps. Then, when we made a 50-kilometer march, the fuel pumps broke down on all the fuel tanks. We telegraphed Cheljabinsk, they sent a team out and fixed the problem – turned out to be a plunger defect.

At that point, we had T-34 and IS-2 tanks, the latter as replacements for the KV series. The IS-2 was a good tank, with a 122-millimeter gun.

Tank camouflage was also one of my responsibilities. For instance, painting the tanks white in wintertime. During the Moscow and Rzhev battles we used ground chalk – later on, we didn’t have the resources anymore, all the tanks stayed green regardless of the season. The mechanics were also responsible for camouflage nets, and for making tank decoys. These decoys fooled the Germans a number of times. I don’t remember ever encountering any German-made decoys though.

The main source of tank losses was German artillery. Losses to aircraft were fairly small – maybe 10%. The tank could only be knocked out with a direct hit, otherwise the bomb fragments would just bounce off harmlessly. During the Kursk battles, 76% of our losses were due to enemy guns, the rest due to mines and aircraft. When we first ran into the “fausters” during the Visla-Oder offensive, they didn’t account for more than 10% of our losses.

Our replacement companies generally arrived at the front with three months of training. They had good basic skills, of course, but weren’t really ready for combat. During the battle, these crews would charge forward very courageously but without regard for terrain, battle conditions, etc. A veteran driver would instead steer the tank towards some cover, coordinate with his tank commander or the company CO on when to open fire. It generally took two-three battles for a novice tank driver to become a veteran – at first, they would just charge straight ahead, thinking they were invincible. Some would drive straight into a swamp. You had to tell them over and over in the beginning to take things like terrain into account. Also, they could drive the tank but weren’t really prepared for maintenance work. Maybe they knew how to check the oil, but you had to teach them everything else. How to prepare a tank for winter, for example – you had to change the oil, add antifreeze to the cooling system, give a coat of winter grease to everything. The same with preparing a tank for storage – after the war, I mean – you had to change the oil, hermetically seal the tank, etc. Even the officers weren’t really up to speed on all that stuff.

The German populace

In the beginning, the people of Berlin hid from us. When they saw that we weren’t causing them any harm, they began to come out. We were even a little surprised when they appeared – while we were still fighting for the city, it seemed that there was a shooter at every window, in every attic. Then, when we finally captured Berlin – everything just stopped. They really understood that it was over. [By the way, here’s something that happened to me during the Visla-Oder offensive. The Corps was advancing very rapidly, and I fell a bit behind while organizing the repair units. So I wound up taking a “Willis” Jeep to catch up to the Corps – I had my driver with me, as well as an adjutant and an orderly. This one stretch of the road ran through a narrow gap between a lake and a river. Just as we reached a clearing, we saw a group of Germans. Our troops were far ahead of this place, we couldn’t call for help – so I ordered everyone to take up defensive positions and sent the adjutant on ahead to see if the Germans would surrender. It wasn’t the easiest decision, of course, but we couldn’t really retreat at that point. So we went prone while the adjutant went forward – and then, suddenly, the Germans all put their hands up. There were about 60 of them there! We handed them over to the first motor rifle unit we came across. It was a very frightful episode, but we survived it.]

There weren’t any incidents with the civilians in Berlin while we were there. Later on, there were some issues with the occupational authorities. There was a separate commander assigned to every town, the locals would go to him with any complaints – but there were never any complaints about us. Nor did anyone ever complained to me about anything specific, even though I was one of the commanding officers. Of course, people would come to me if they were afraid, and I would calm them down. One time, a ballet dancer from the state theater company came to me and said: “Comrade Colonel, I am afraid.” I offered to let her stay in our HQ hut, which was always under guard, she was very grateful.

I remember there was a lot of money (Reichsmarks) just dumped everywhere. We never took any of it – of course, when I think about that today, maybe we should have taken some. There were bags of it everywhere, from some local banks. We did have war trophies, of course, but these were mostly cars, tanks. And we would have to give them up after a while. Everything was very well organized – the food warehouses, for instance, were put into place almost immediately. No-one stole or looted anything – what for? Where would you hide the loot?

We stayed in Germany until 1948, setting the place back in order. The Germans treated us well, I remember we used to buy their early vegetable crop – tomatoes, cucumbers. I myself had to work especially closely with the local population, since we had to exchange our old tanks for new ones but didn’t have any spare parts like headlights and had to order them locally from German mechanics.

At first, there were a lot of “confiscated” passenger cars, but then after a while they all had to be registered. There was an agreement signed in Karlchrest, there was a specially formed commission that took inventory and issued owner permits. The permit was in the name of an officer, who was then allocated space to ship things back to Russia. For instance, I, as colonel, was allocated one freight car and one flatbed car. I loaded the freight car with furniture and the flatbed with a civilian Mercedes, which I wound up selling some time later. The point is, all “trophy” cars were issued owner permits. The customs service was very thorough, they even inventoried all the furniture in my freight car.

Wives

We did have instances of “field wives” – for instance, Vitruk, the Cops commander, had one. They got married after the war. His chief of operations also had one, but then went back to his legal wife after the war ended.

Generally, during the war there were hardly any instances of officers bringing their wives to the front for a visit. This one exception was when we were in Podlipki and I arranged for my wife to come down from Moscow for the New Year. We had just gotten married, on September 6, 1941, in Moscow’s Pervomai District – basically went to the municipal offices and got a marriage license. So I brought her in for New Year’s. That’s about the only time I remember anyone doing this.

Later on, when the war had ended, the Corps commander instructed me to escort three wives from the USSR – his own, his second-in-command’s, and mine. There was an Air Corps near Stecken at the time, commanded by Vasja Stalin. We had met fairly often – they were our supporting air corps – and he told me there’d be a plane coming in from Moscow. So I flew into Moscow in October of 1945, but we still didn’t have official permission to bring our spouses to Germany. So we got some papers together saying they were signals officers, dressed them in military uniform. I told them what to say, where they served, etc., and brought them to the plane. The pilot was Kokinaki, the brother of the famous air ace. We got through customs, boarded, and flew off – though we had to make an emergency landing in Poland first, because of bad weather over Berlin. The Poles received us well, arranged for our hotel rooms. In the morning, we arrived I nerlin.

Interview conducted by: Artem Drabkin
Editing:Maksim Sviridov
Translation:Gene Ostrovsky, taladryel@yahoo.com

 



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