I was born in 1924 in a small country town of Perovka, Samara region.
By the time the war broke out, I completed seventh grade of secondary school and commenced my studies as mechanical fitter at the regional TAFE in the town of Borskoye.
In a fall of 1941, all of the students were sent to the German settlements in Volga region to harvest crops. Within a short while, the Germans were relocated to Siberia and we were left on our own. In a month and a half time the refugees arrived which had been evacuated from Ukraine and White Russia, they usually occupied the dwellings abandoned by Germans and we returned to Borskoye.
I completed the short course in a local TAFE as mechanical fitter (agricultural fleet) and together with the other two graduates was assigned a job of mechanic in a country service station. The wages were low and food was scarce, we received bare 600 grams of bread a day.
While money lasted, we used to go shopping to a local market and bought potatoes and milk, until we ran out of funds. I said to my mates: ‘Boys, we’ll kick a bucket going like that. We have to piss off soon’. The three of us took off and headed to our own country town straight, passing remote villages which had not seen a war yet and where there were no refuges. We would knock at the door.
“Where are you from? The trenches or what?”
“You poor souls!”
Our clothing looked bad and untidy, we were bitten by frost a bit, and it was about minus 20-25 C at the time.
“Up the oven you go, get some warmth”
We would get some food, and move on in the morning. When we arrived home, I got a job of mechanical fitter with a local service station and was promoted to a tractor operator by the time the spring came.
In a fall of 1941, I was called for service.
“What’s your job?”
“Will go to a tank operator school”
In all honesty, I did not want to go to war and fight, and if I had a choice I would not, I would not do any favors to Soviets. Surprised? Do you think everyone was creaming “Hurrah-Hurrah!” at the time?
In 1941, my uncle was arrested. I knew it in the school that he died in action somewhere up North. I was all upset about whole situation. I was thinking deserting the school, however later decided that the Kremlin bastards come and go, but Motherland stays forever. One simple though that already Germans got to river Volga gave me strong feeling of grieve. What the heck!? Needed to kick their arse. That is to say, I was defending my country not the Soviets.
Well then, I was firstly assigned to Sysran tank school and from there transferred into Ulyanovck School. At school we learned how the gear works, battlefield tactics of a tank unit by itself and as integral part of a tank platoon. We were taught firearms and heavy ammunition, our own as well as German to be familiar with both. We had also separate classes on communications and elementary coding systems. However, frankly, we never used any ciphers but simplistic ones like Boxes-Tanks, Pencils-Infantry, Nuts-Shells. We had, of course some field experience in driving and shootouts. Everything we would need at the front and politics of course. We had to study “Short Course in Communist Party History”.
We specifically concentrated on HQ orders, which we had to takes notes of, however these were in abundance so that we never had enough time to finish them all. And the Drill of course. We spent just about a month mucking around with T-34, and after that entire squad were transferred to learn KV tank.
The school was awarded a “Special Guard” title in 1943. There was a funny story related to this award.
Second in charge, there was Colonel Naumov, he had been in action, grumpy looking middle-aged bloke, and he would not let any student pass by without having a go. Looks like everything is fine: outfit as per, boots are shining. Not but: “Have you got a needle in your cap? No? 5 days of lock up. Yet will add: “You’re twit”. After the School had been awarded that “Special Guard” title, he stopped a student and said:
“Not good again you chicken”
“No way Special Guard Comrade Colonel, not a chicken!”
“How do you mean?”
“Special Guard Chicken, Comrade Colonel!”
“You son of a bitch, made me laugh you bastard. Piss off!”
In 1943, we completed the 8-month military programme at the school and went to Chelyabinsk Kirov manufacturing Plant to receive our tanks. We stayed at the plant until January 1944.
The plant had already ceased production of KV tanks, and was in a process of adjusting production facilities to be able to produce JSs. Within a few months, in a local reserve, a large number of officers in the ranks from lieutenant to captain, which were arriving from not only schools but hospitals and frontline as well, assembled. At the beginning, we had been fed at level three, however after our numbers increased, we had been fed as reservists. However, people were arriving at fast rate. Those who were after T-34 would arrive, have a sleep, receive their tanks and leave next day, we would just sit there and wait. Our team, being young and inexperienced, kept quiet, however those from the front, a bit older and having been around, started winging:
“Why the hell we are kept here hungry as? Send us to the front now!”
Reserve Regiment Commander and his right hand man arrived:
“What is the problem boys, why the brawl?”
“What do you think you are doing keeping us hungry here? Send us to the front! Sick of sitting here sucking fingers!”
“Does not depend on us boys. We shall consult Headquarters.”
Shortly after, they split us into some groups of 25 people and sent to Moscow, as BTMB reserve. That was where Fedorenko played a trick when he called reserve regiment with which we had arrived a training squad. In addition, training squad means ninth level food supply.
In this regiment, they re-trained us for T-34 equipment and relocated to city of Gorky.
In Gorky, I was assigned to a battalion and given a tank crew. Battalion Commander said to the crew introducing myself:
“Here is your driver-mechanic, his name is Alexander Ivatulin, and he has some discipline problems. If anything, give him a squeeze.”
The blokes smiled:
“Comrade Senior Lieutenant, we’ll find some common grounds, no need to beat him up.”
Within a short while, we went to Sormovo, where we received our tanks. At the training grounds near railway station Kosino, they were putting battalions together, conducted tactical assignments with shootouts. That is how I became a tank Commander.
They loaded us up onto the train and sent to the front. However, some smarties hooked a platform up to our train with vodka (two 500 l beer barrels). After a while, one morning I noticed my gun layer Gabidullin hardly ever managed to get on to the platform. I asked him to explain. He was playing a fool for a while and then admitted:
“Comrade Lieutenant, I had just about full mess-tin of vodka”
“Where did you get it from? Are you nuts or what?”
“There is a platform at the end of the train, and there is plenty there. If you find a container, the expediter will pour you some”
It turns out they gave a mess-tin full of vodka. On his way back he ran into a train director:
“What you’ve got there?”
“Water, comrade Lieutenant”
The other, however had a different thought:
“Empty it now!”
“This is not water, it’s vodka.”
“Then have as much as you can, get rid of what’s left”
He grudged the contents and drank the whole lot, poured out some for the sake of appearance.
“Get in the tank, lay back on the ammunition and keep quiet, I’ll be in trouble with authorities otherwise.”
Meantime I got a twelve-liter tank bucket and headed towards the platform. I then filled some three-liter water barrels using this bucket (reserve stock), and half the bucket for current needs.
Arrived to Rzhev. There we found our train next to the infantry troops train. It turned out that there was a younger brother of our platoon leader, whose name was Ivan Chugunov. What do you do? Have to have a youngster with us! We approached the infantry train commander, made up some bullshit paper and put down three liters of vodka for him and three to the superintendent. That is how Vasiliy got in touch with his brother and they fought together.
Senior Chugunov got a promotion to a company commander, and when we broke out the encirclement in the fall of 1944, he distinguished himself and was awarded a Hero. After the war, we would always remind Vasiliy:
“Remember how we bought you out for three liters of vodka?”
We arrived at Vitebsk outskirts Bychiha station round about 20th of May 1944 and joined the 89th tank brigade of 1st tank corps. The corps contained the 89th, 117th, 159th tank brigades and 44th mechanized brigade. The corps also had artillery regiments, a “katiusha” regiment and self-propelled artillery regiment equipped with Su-76 that we called “canvas Ferdinand’s”.
At this time a “Bagration” offensive was being planned. We were involved in reconnaissance, usually disguised ourselves as infantry, so that the Germans would not get suspicious.
On the 21st day of June we assembled in the woods, some 15 to 20 kilometers away from the frontline. Strong showers were pouring that night. In the morning we opened artillery fire, and later on the penal battalion attacked. However long the frontline had been stable here for, the Germans did not have in depth defensive zone constructed, and penal battalion broke (dashed) through quick. In the morning we did not attack, but went on by road as a march column. The roads were all like thick mud and almost impassable after last night showers. Our tanks crawled on their bellies, hardly ever sticking to the hard surface, leaving a glossy track of pressed mud behind.
Germans did not show a lot of resistance, we suffered more from our own battle planes; we had however a battle plane coordinator in our squad, but by the time he’d transmit coordinates, and some messing around the battle plane take off, we would reach the probable enemy locations. The battle planes would bomb us instead. What the hell, we are in a tank! The infantry however is on the armouroutside. We had to stop, scatter around and hide. Nowhere to hide though, swamp is everywhere, wet and muddy. To cut it short, my impressions of the first day offensive were like that: tanks in march columns, battle planes attack, Germans run and we are after them.
We did not have any casualties in our company in the beginning. However, on the second or third day of the offensive one of the gun commanders died. One of the tank caterpillars tore up, we hooked it up by a steel rope, and attempted to tow the tank with another tank to the woods. All of a sudden, the Germans fell upon us and started bombing. Under this nervous circumstance that gun commander who was at the time right behind damaged tank tower was pushed against the tower by another tank’s gun and had his pelvis crashed. He died about half an hour later.
Before we entered Vetrino, platoon Commander’s tank broke, the friction mechanism pulled off. Commander changed over to my machine, and left me with his own damaged one. We worked all night with no result, could not get it fixed. By the morning, the service unit rocked up, and managed to get it right.
The deputy chief of the mechanical unit explained to me where my brigade was operating and showed on the map, and rolled away. However, he explained location correctly but indicated wrong road. We got lost and decided to come back. My mechanical controller was driving. The road went downhill, and at the end turned right sharp, circling around the swamp. Mechanic did not have enough experience and could not keep our tank on the road and let it go off into the swamp at high speed, where it got stuck up the knuckles. We managed to get it out with enormous efforts using a tree log. How do you think this self-pullout happens? A tree log is placed under both tracks and hooked up to them with a thin steel rope. When moving backwards, the log stays, and tank moves forward by a body length. The log then is released and procedure goes repeatedly until the tank reaches hard surface. If there is anything around to hook the rope up to, a tree or something, then the other end is attached to a track, to be wound up on it, however we did not have that luxury.
We pulled the tank out, careless enough to break the oil line, oil was pumping out. Absolute misfortune! Somehow managed to get back to where we were yesterday. Went to sleep. Deputy chief of mechanical unit rocked up in the morning:
“Whose tank is that?”
“What’s happening? Why had not arrived to destination?”
“You’d given me wrong route to follow.”
“All right, all right, keep moving, here’s the road.”
All in all, while playing lost and found, Vetrino got taken, and my unit where platoon commander had been hit by a shell or a mine, loader’s periscope damaged, loader’s dead and tank hatch tore off. Gun-sight went off its rear bracket and was kept in place by a front bracket only.
Sedov, Battalion HQ Superintendent met me:
“Your unit damaged altogether, get on the trophy bike and go to the lost HQ vehicle, and fetch the maps, already ran out.” I did not have any sleep for a couple of nights, however had no choice as to accept an order and went. My gun commander stayed with the tank, the others were re-located to different machines. I found the vehicle, rolled up the maps and came back on a bike.
They cannibalized the tank while I was away, took away all the tools, whacked in almost dead battery, poured fuel out and dismantled the tower motor drive unit, I could roll the tower freely by hand, left just bare bone machine.
I asked my gun layer:
“Why would not you stand by our tank?”
“Battalion commander ordered.”
“Here are the maps. Catch up with battalion using passing transport, give them all to HQ Chief and come back. Get something to eat.”
Off he went, a maintenance tradesman and I stayed with the tank. I climbed under the tank, dead tired. Hardly caught a sleep, heard the tradesman:
“What Germans, where from?”
“Coming here next to railway line. Come out quick. Need to do something”
We looked around: whether Germans or not, did not know. God knows! What do we do? No fuel and all. Found a couple of containers with gas oil, which we used to clean the grease from shells and a bottle of trophy champagne, knocked a bottom off and made a funnel. No filter though. Had to prime straight. The batteries were just about dead; luckily, we had some air, started engine up.
Approached the village, parked. Some time passed, refueller goes by.
“Listen mate, give us 100 liters or so of reserve fuel. Have to get back, will get more fuel at HQ”
“One not supposed to, you are not from our unit”
“Are you from a collective farm or what? We all the same here, same tasks. There is no fuel in the tank and you compromising our military objective. I will record you number and report, you’ll end up in penal lock-up at least.”
“All right, get some.”
We had about 100 liters. Hungry though. Walked in a peasant’s hut, asked a mistress:
“Dear, could we get hold of some food here?”
“There are some rabbits around. Catch a few, and here you go.”
Catch with what? I got my gun out and shot one. The mistress boiled it. We got on moving and at a turn near the swamp track broke down, there was not enough just two of us to put it back. The tradesman said:
“No point for me staying here, I am going back to battalion”.
“How can you leave me alone here? All right, off you go”.
Some time later I saw our battalion’s refueller, Kostin go by. Kostin was an old stager, had been at Stalingrad, with a KV regiment. In an assemble area that Kostin got together youngsters never seen the battle and was telling them his Stalingrad experiences:
“You know, KV armor’s great! Once the Germans shot us with a blank, I see it red crawling in through the armor. I got a sledge-hammer and hit it big time, it went off!”
Young blokes listened carefully, did not know much about front. I went aside, laughed. Then I said:
“Kostin, knock it off, fuel me”.
“Let’s do it then, no difference to me who to prime”.
Started pumping with a hand driven pump. When finished I asked him to advise battalion what circumstances I found myself in.
Kostin went away, I was on my own. Night fell. The tank was open, no hatch on the tower. What do I do? Anybody can come over and choke me asleep. However spent the night, got up in the morning and saw an old woman come by. However, in all honesty she might not be old at all: could be about 40, however, for a youngster like me she seemed old. She stopped by my tank, started talking:
“Where are you going?”
“My son got killed being with Partisans. Looking for his grave. Household got ransacked, not even horse there to work the land.”
“You know mother, come back tomorrow, I will find you a horse.”
The thing was, that during our offensive, not only Germans fell back, but Russians as well. The offensive was very fast and they could not flee far away and come back. Soon I saw a carriage with one horse yoked in, the other was on a leash behind.
I stopped them:
“Give me one horse.”
They obeyed unquestioningly, and I let the horse to graze around.
The other woman comes back next day:
“Here is a horse, you can have it and use.”
She brought me some food out of gratitude, a tin full of scrambled eggs, two bottles of distillate and some bread.
I said to her:
“What’s that for? You are in trouble yourself. It is not for food I got you that horse.”
“Don’t mention it. Take the food and eat. There is a small river ahead, a tank had blown the bridge across it. There are you tank troops, busy doing something.”
She left. I got on my bike and headed there. It was true that Ivan Bedayev sank his tank attempting to cross the river over that bridge. They had been pulled out already and were putting themselves together on the ground. I made a deal with them to tow my tank over to the riverbank, it was very awkward to pull the track over the wheels in the swamp. We hooked tank up with some steel ropes, attached the track. Pulled it up there, fixed the track. I said:
“For what you’ve done for us, I’ll treat you right.”
“What you’ve got though, looks like you’re hungry yourself.”
“I am not hungry. Treat you with some homebrew.”
“How come you’ve got any?”
“There are good people around still.”
We sat down, had a few drinks and went off. We had caught up with our brigade, I handed the tank over to repair shop and got another one. I had my old mechanic Ivatulin back with me, the rest of the crew all newcomers.
The offensive went on. July happened to be very hot, the roads dried out. Need to say, T-34 would generate an awful lot of dust clouds over these country roads, having its exhaust pipes look downwards. We suffered from the impassable mud before, now we could not see a thing through the dust clouds. Sometime around 12th or 15th of July 1944 we were moving along the road, expecting an encounter with “Tigers” as we have been told. I was following my commander Chugunov tank, however very soon I said to my driver:
“Can’t see Jack shit through that dust. Turn over down to that depression.”
We went down into that hollow and followed our battalion moving along. We got under the fire, however shells were flying over us. No worries! The hollow opened up into a wide gully, on the opposite side of which one could see a little farmstead. In front of the house, there was a huge pile of rocks collected from the fields, and there was a knoll right behind it. Our tanks went leftward up there following the road, I went straight ahead to the farm. All of a sudden, a machine-gun opened fire from that pile of rocks. We had chucked a few splinter shells in there and shut it down. We went up the gully slope, which was covered with rye, and approached the rocks. About 15 Germans scattered around in all directions from these rocks.
Slightly to the left there was a wooden farmhouse with a plinth made of a wild stone. God knows where these Germans disappeared! German tanks and artillery were most important things for us, where as infantry seemed immaterial. Nothing of that kind here at the farmstead.
As I said before there was a knoll about 50 meters ahead. Two helmets were hanging out from there. We fired a couple of bursts and shells over there. Everything’s quiet, nobody’s leaning out. However, something is burning on the road. I thought:
“Bloody hell, it might have been our tanks. Then, it looks like “Tigers” are hitting them.”
I said to Ivatulin:
“Up that hill quick. Need to give our boys a hand.”
“Junior (he used to call me junior), if we show ourselves, they will plaster us around.”
He was right, however something needed to be done! I knew we were alone here.
“All right, stay put.”
I grabbed a couple of grenades and sprang out of the tank. I jumped down in the rye and laid there. God knows why I did that! Ivatulin goes:
“Junior, where are you going?”
I thought I would crawl up the hill and work it all out there. Pulled my handgun out and crept up. All of a sudden, there was a German in front of me! He laid there cuddled down to the ground and had a machine-gun in his hand.
Battle near the farm
Probably did not hear me coming, or was deafened or was scared shitless so that could not think straight. I killed him on the spot, got his gun and crept ahead. Reached the corner of the house, looked out and saw some Germans in a shallow trench! I slashed few rounds over them and hid back behind house corner. They shouted. I looked out again and knew they were dispirited. There was not much time left for me to do something, or else be killed. Threw a couple of grenades there, killed a few and wounded a couple. One of the Germans rushed out of the rocks and ran towards the woods about 200 meters behind the farmhouse. I wanted to chop him down with my gun, however ran out of bullets by then. Dropped machine-gun, got my handgun out, shot twice at him and missed.
“Hell with you, keep running.”
There was a pit on this knoll, probably used as a clay-pit before, had a couple of Germans captivated there.
What happened to them? God knows. They were all a bit dosed. They could have easily had me killed with no effort then. By that time my crew arrived, and two or three tanks as well. Began the search of this place. There was a door in a plinth, I was thinking about putting a couple of shells in there before, however forgot about it. The boys picked up some posts and pushed this door open from aside. Door opened, then closed slowly. They lit a bunch of straw, opened the door with a post and threw burning straw inside. The Germans, which were there, about 10 people, clamored and got out.
As I knew later there was a powerful transmitter station at this farmhouse manned with personnel inexperienced in action, signalmen. I was lucky then, if they happened to be seasoned action personnel, it would have turned out badly for me. Our Commissar Ganapolskii, farther of Matvei Ganapolskii by the way, used to make a joke out of it later, that one could let Rodkin fight a German company by himself armed with a hand-gun only.
We changed direction there and headed towards Dvinsk. We did not attack. It was very rare that we had to advance in a classical manner against organized defense lines. The Germans usually arranged some ambush, where they used “ArtStorms”, sort of self-propelled artillery equipped with 75 mm guns. They moved quietly, had low-profile construction and easily disguised, were extremely hard to detect. We advanced in a march column order, as an advance point, a few tanks in front, the others at some distance. If the Germans arranged an ambush that meant that advance point would be knocked out surely. Those alive would get out, remaining tanks would open fire. However where to shoot? God knows! Germans already disappeared. After some shooting, we would fold up into a march column again and be after them. Once caught up with the enemy we would annihilate them.
Once we came across such an ambush. Two tanks, which were ahead of us, were burnt, the third one was retreating firing back. They stuck a billet right under the turret bed and it caught fire. Meantime we turned away from the road, the engines died, ran out of fuel. That is why we heard people scream inside the burning machine.
I got down to the tank gun and kept firing towards the enemy, I could not see them, however tried to scare them a bit, my crew ran up to the burning tank equipped with fire extinguishers to help. We opened the hatch. Tank commander jumped out wounded, it appeared that in that feverish haste he did not realize he was wounded, and fell down next to the tank. We pulled the tank-driver and the gunman with a broken leg out, signalman and gun-loader died. The tank-driver remained unconscious and did not make it to the hospital, died on the road.
After that ambush we stopped to have some sleep. We locked ourselves up inside at night and went to sleep. The infantry would usually guard us from the Germans. Woke up in the morning, sat down to breakfast. Ivatulin, though Russified, was a Tatar by origin. He was extremely foolhardy, nothing could ever scare him. He was considered a trophy man, he would always bring either a captured truck or a tank. He always had a German rifle on him, used to shoot German planes. This time around he bagged a piglet somewhere. The boys cooked it up in a laundry bucket, sat down and started eating. At about 100 meters away from us there was a dead horse on the ground, its carcass all inflated and all legs spread wide open. The gun layer, Zhdanov, deceased now, said to him:
“Listen, Sasha, you can not eat this pork.”
“Why is that?”
“You are a sort of a Muslim, you Allah had some horse-flesh cooked up for you. Over there, see that fatty horse sent by Allah? Leave the pork alone, have some fatty horse-flesh instead.”
Sasha pulled his Parabellum and shot. The gas relieved and carcass blew off.
“No thanks, too skinny of a horse…What are you offering then?”
After breakfast we went further ahead, though changed direction. Stretched into a column, all of a sudden our advance point disappeared. We did not know what happened to either people or machines. Battalion Commander stayed in between those little trees, while our company advanced up about one kilometer and a half ahead. Position that we held was not good, in a centre of a swampy depression covered with short shrubs and trees. There was a settlement about one kilometer ahead, and to the right there was a road leading to it. When I was watching the settlement I noticed a “Tiger” in between the dwellings and the plantings, however could not aim at it properly, the line of fire was obstructed by tree branches. I then approached my Platoon Leader Lieutenant Velikov, to try to swap the German of his tank. His tank stood somewhat at an angle to that village in an open spot. Velikov slept in a tank. I climbed up his turret, there was his tank-driver Sergeant Moiseenko there. We woke Velikov up. I said:
“Have a look over these houses, there is a “Tiger” there.”
“No, that can not be. It looks like a barn.”
“No, there is a square there, and something black in the middle.”
We looked up once again through binoculars, seemed like a tank. Decided to smack it with a shell.
As soon as Velikov started to turn the turret around I saw a flash and shouted to Sergeant:
I myself jumped off behind the tank, and Moiseenko fell off the other side facing the enemy. The billet hit the side of the tank, rebounded and took his scull off. The German second shot hit the ball machine-gun turret, and the third shell struck the turret itself, however did not breach the amour. Velikov jumped out of the tank:
“Need to withdraw, where is the driver?”
“Lies over there.”
More to our troubles German planes turned up. They did not have any bombs, however they circled above, firing their machine-guns at us. I got back to my tank. Ivatulin got a place next to it, holding his rifle and was scorching the planes. One could hear machine-gun fire around us and bullets whistling. It was time to knick off. I said to the gun-layer:
“Go see what’s happening over there behind those bushes.”
He was just a youngster:
“Lieutenant, how could sent me there, I’d get shot.”
“All right. Ivatulin, enough fun, get down to the levers, need to go now.”
He tried turning the tank around and got a bit bogged down in the swamp. Here and there, we found that we were alone, all other tanks slipped away.
Battle near the swamp
One of them decided to go off across the road and retreat behind the road embankment. That was a good decision in principle, since there was an empty space before the woods we were heading towards. However it did not have time to make this plan and was hit by a “Tiger”. I could only see a few puffs of black smoke, the boys got knocked out. It turned out later that the billet hit the second fuel tank. The spilled over fuel burst into flames, but then it went out burning itself off and the boys did not get hurt. They did however race through over the road at a high speed and buried themselves just about up the turret in a thick turf swamp. They sat there as they were until pulled out.
Meantime we somehow managed to get to the sealed ground. Ivatulin revved up, apparently thought that I would manage to jump on the transmission, however it was a dangerous thing to do at this time, machine-gunners could take me down. I should have gone inside through the tank driver’s hatch, but tank accelerated sharply when it turned out of the swamp. I happened to be at its side and ran under its cover. I ran and ran, however tank was faster and when it reached the road it got into the 3rd gear and reved-up even more and rushed along, I fell down in the ditch.
When I caught my breath back I jumped over to other side of the road. There was another tank whose commander was totally confused. I said to him:
“We are retreating, keep moving to the woods.”
Shortly after our HQ Commander, Gladkov met me:
“Why did you make such a panic and mess ?”
It turned out that Ivatulin slipped through Battalion orders and rushed back in the rear.
“My tank was the last one retreating, I did not make it with it myself, did not have time.”
I got to my tank, gave Ivatulin good scolding for leaving his Commander behind and rushing God knows where.
Some time later Platoon Leader Velikov arrived.
“Received a radiogram from the Brigade Commander, he needs some tanks. Take Liubertsev with you and go back to the rears.”
All right. We took off and as everybody does I sat down on the tank wing next to tank driver’s hatch. Velikov says:
“You’d better sit inside the turret, just in case.”
He might have known the circumstances there however did not tell me anything. We went by a few kilometers, got up the next hillock, and suddenly I saw a tank across the road about 500 meters ahead, firing towards the woods, to our left. What the hell was that? I stopped. There was some dwelling on the right side of the road, behind which hid two or three other tanks. The one on the road, which was firing, caught fire as I was looking at it. I approached tanks behind the dwelling.../p>
Battle with SPGs
“What’s happening boys?”
They already had some men wounded, bandaged each other.
“There are some Tigers or self-propelled guns it appears.”
“And what is the tank burnt on the road?”
I got back, climbed up the amour and looked around through the binos, saw these ArtStorms in the woods about 800 meters ahead. Ivatulin described later:
“They kept firing at our tank, and my Commander got up the turret and watched them through his binos!”
I needed to know the disposition though. They ceased fire. I felt that I had been taken to aim, but they hesitated to fire. What should I do?
“Zhdanov, as soon as Ivatulin takes off, you turn the gun around and fire. Ivatulin, you go around and hide behind this dwelling.”
We had hardly managed to turn around when they hit us in the side. Tank caught fire and we all jumped off into the right, farthest from the enemy ditch. Lost view of Zhdanov at this moment. Started looking for him, could not find in our ditch. Crawled over on the other side. Our tank in flames, shells are firing, however no detonation. Started searching the ditch and found Zhdanov dead, his clothes all burnt. We retreated and I reported to Battalion Commander that I lost the machine burnt and Zhdanov dead.
We had stayed for a couple of days next to that spot where our tank got burnt. We did not have our tank anymore and saved ourselves from bombing and shellfire, which happened to be quite often, under our Company Leader Chugunov. All of a sudden three ArtStorms appeared at a distance, apparently those that smashed us before and started moving up the roads towards us. By that time we already had three or four tanks of our own. Two of the three self-propelled machines stopped behind the knoll, the third one moved forward. There were about 15 of the German marines on it. We gave it a sharp blow and it stopped. It was understood later that the billet blew off the top of the turret, and its debris hacked the crew and marines into pieces.
Ivatulin and I went to see what happened to the Art Storm. There were dead bodies lying on the amour, and some chopped off around the machine. We could see half of the corps, or other part, it was terrible, and we threw all of the dead from above to the ground. I looked inside, dead Germans were sitting there. Radio station was on. I said:
“Ivatulin, get in.”
He got in, pushed away dead Germans (there was no desire to pull them out exactly), cranked it up and we went off to our locations. That is how we got ourselves a tank. A bit earlier Chugunov crew captured a German amphibian truck. There was no place to swim, so we would turn on the impeller and get on at a full speed towards nearest woods. Puffs of dust behind us, creates an illusion that march column advances and Germans would open gunfire.
We had a warning from Battalion Commander that it might not end any good for us playing with fire like that, however we kept entertaining ourselves.
That is how we have come into possession of that amphibian and an ArtStorm. In the evening the shower developed. Battalion Commander arrived, apparently under orders to break the encirclement in which we found ourselves. I asked him what I should do, since I had this amphibian and ArtStorm.
“Stop dreaming, drop everything and get on with it.”
Surely, we could not just leave the amphibian there. We did hit the road, however did not have a chance to swim, died to swim in it, we were only kids then. We abandoned the ArtStorm, should have better burnt it off, however forgot all about it in that hurry. All the tanks stretched in a long column, we squeezed ourselves in a middle there on a truck. They would position their guns in a herringbone pattern and thrashed shells in all directions. We would get blind at every shooting, could not see a thing. We thought we would get stuck in there, however did not. The boat had a 4-wheel drive arrangement, she would press a tree down and would get over it. Somewhere at the turn tanks waded some mud, and we managed to get bogged down there, being blinded by the shootings. We happened to have a steel rope, asked:
“Boys, hook us up please.”
“Come on, no time, need to get out of encirclement quick. And you are here with your….”
“Pity to leave it here. Pull us out.”
While we were making a deal, the column took off. Those tanks, which were behind rolled over our boat and crushed it. We had to go up one of the tanks. That is how we failed to swim the boat. Right for that reason, breaking the encirclement, Battalion Commander and Chugunov were awarded the Hero of Soviet Union star. An order arrived to reward the three. Two people they found, however third one got missed.
I received my new tank with the new crew. Ivatulin asked me if he could be with us, but there was a driver already there, and I thought it to be unethical to bring a friend in. By that time we become friends, swapped two tanks over together. I said:
“As soon as I can I’ll get you in.”
On the 10th October we crossed German border. Captured Shipen, crossed a railway Memel-Tilsit and advanced towards Tilsit. On the 11th October I was wounded. On that day I was moving fourth as part of an advance unit. The Germans had a gun and something else in the ambush there. I saw the gun when I got out of the tank after it was hit in the right-hand side by a billet. At first I felt that something hit me in my hip and saw flames underneath. I got out and then knew I was wounded, some debris shot me in the hip and the anklebone. I ran off into the ditch on my right hand side. Together with me a gunner jumped out which I had in my crew in the place of a signalman-gunner, whom I did not have. The rest of the crew hid in a left-hand side ditch. I noticed the German trenches about 30 meters ahead of us.
Suddenly there was a German, apparently an officer who was popping out of the trench and shooting me with his handgun. I shot back. I called my driver Dima Spiridonov and asked him to throw me a grenade over. He did. I threw it towards the German, however missed, grenade detonated a few meters before the trench. The German popped up from the trench and threw a pineapple at me, missed too. I though:
“Hell with you. Sit there and shoot.”
My gunner pulled the boot off me, bandaged my wound. We started crawling towards our positions. There was a gunfire from both sides, Germans and Russians. There were mortars, German and our own “Katiushas”, roaring hard. We crawled about 200 meters, come across a sewerage pipe and got inside it, and sit there waiting for all this mess to stop. When it all calmed down, kept crawling further. I was getting tired, and it was very hard to move, I said to Dima:
“Keep going, I’ll manage on my own.”
He yelled at me:
“How good an officer you are then!”
“All right, all right, be quiet, I shall crawl then.”
We reached the intersection, needed to cross the road. He says to me:
“You go first, boss.”
I got over the road, he started crawling, Germans gave him a few bursts, however missed. The gunner followed, and got wounded. He came back to where he was and cried:
Drivers Alexander Ivatulin and
Dmitry Spiridonov 1945 г.
Tankers, do not leave me alone here, I am wounded.”
“Dima, need to save the bloke.”
“How do we do that?”
We said to him:
“You take care of yourself, we’ll send your own gunmen later to rescue as it gets darker. We ca not help you now.”
We reached where our tanks were resting, organized the gunmen to rescue their wounded friend. Then they got me in the truck and rushed to hospital.
I spent about two months in a hospital. I was still limping a bit, but because the hospital was relocating I was very scared to lose the trace of my unit. I approached the Chief Doctor and asked to be dismissed from the hospital. There was a few of us walking-wounded people, which were released before our time, and went to look for our units on our own. I returned to my battalion by mid December. Moreover, on the 13th January new offensive commenced. I happened indeed to be in reserve at his time and did not have a tank. Sometime around 18th January I took command of a platoon within the third battalion, and by midday we assumed our initial position. I managed to get in touch with a couple of officers there, junior Lieutenant Lyashenko and Lieutenant Levin. They asked me:
“What is best for us to do?”
“Hell knows. Do as I do.”
Our Battalion deployed and attacked the enemy. Shortly after Levin got hit from the left somewhere. All in all there was not much of a gunfire, we kept moving and moving…
Once got into a ditch and caught a bit of a dirt into a barrel, luckily I picked it up. Drove around behind a dwelling and cleaned the gun up. Then we kept moving and reached the main military disposition. By that time everything seemed like a big mess. Our Battalion Commander rushed somewhere forward and disappeared. We were under command of a neighboring Battalion’s Commander whose name was Udovichenko. He said to me:
“Do you see that knoll and the little house there to the left? Get over there, have a look around and make sure they can not hit us from there.”
We took off. It turned out that there was an anti-tank ditch right in front of that knoll. I noticed it 5 or 7 meters before, however had my internal radio turned off, and I did not have enough time to warn the driver, and he noticed it only when our tank reached the edge of the ditch.
He pulled up sharp, the tank froze up, however front of the machine outbalanced the rear and it pecked down, drove into the dirt with its barrel. And we got stuck arse up just about vertically there.
I leaned out of the hatch. I noticed a German (Gerry) about 30 meters away from us holding a grenade launcher, popping out from behind a dwelling. I fired at him from my handgun, making sure he could not aim properly. He managed to make a shot, however the grenade blew off hitting the ditch parapet in front of the tank. I said to my crew:
“Get out, or else we’ll get burnt in here. All of us got out and scattered around quick. I had a warm German pants on me equipped with straps, which I wrapped around my waist. When I was getting out, I caught something on there and hung up on these straps, as a sausage.
“Well, I thought, I’m finished.”
Meantime the German jumped out from behind the house and ran towards our tank holding his grenade launcher, apparently thinking everybody scarpered. I got my handgun out and shot him. He fell and I shot him one more time to be sure. I twitched and twitched hanging on this straps, at last fell down in the snow. My boys disappeared, leaving me alone in actual fact. I could not however leave my tank by itself, it was still in good order. Sometime later I heard the tracks clacking. My crew brought two tanks with them, my former driver Dima Spiridonov was in one of them. We hooked up our tank by steel ropes and pulled it out. The gun barrel was clogged with the clay, all the teeth of the lifting gear got cut off clean. We caught up with our Battalion and got in line. The night was approaching fast.
We folded up in a marching column and went on the road, where The Germans were retreating. We ran over wagon trains, people, horses and the trucks. I have not seen anything like this mess ever in my life. In the morning we saw that all the sides and the wings were torn off. In the morning we drove our tank away to the maintenance and repair unit. The repair crew heated gun barrel up, cleaned up all the dirt and replaced the lifting gear unit. By midday I had been back to my unit already.
One evening I got into someone’s house. We walked in, and then we saw entire floor in a big room covered with German banknotes. We looked around, did not take anything and went off. Later when we stayed at Kenigsberg I went through hard times seeing these banknotes in circulation as well as Soviet notes! We would be issued Soviet banknotes and twice the amount with German notes! Bloody Hell, one could have become a moneybag there and then.
One night, a German came over. He was mumbling something, we could only understand that he was a Czech, not a thing more.
“Come on , speak Russian”
“Then go away.”
He went away and came back a little later with a carton box. He happened to be a truck driver and had the whole truck full of boxes, unused Christmas presents. The lads got a drift of it quick. They brought a few of these boxes in their tanks in portions.
There was about twenty plastic bags in each box, with biscuits, chocolate, mint chocolates, overall about a kilo a bag. We even stopped having our lunches, we would be full up with chocolate and bisques, just waiting for a cup of tea.
Next to Topiau my tank got burnt off again. We needed to cross over a high embankment, which was in a line of fire. The Company Leader ahead, I was behind him. Behind me was Levin, Lyashenko followed him. Kept moving. I noticed that the canvass covering transmission on the first tank went off. At that time I had some water frozen into ice inside my periscope and could not use it. I did not have time to look after it then. We did not even have time to eat, just had some chocolate. I kneeled on my seat and stuck my head up trying to recognize where they shooting from. There was a usual winter weather: cloudy and still air looked hazy with some hoarfrost. The Germans camouflaged in the woods and clearly saw us moving on the road against the sky background, they had all the options to pick and choose a target. I saw a black billet flashing by against white snow. I yelled to my driver:
“Get in the gear quick, we under fire.”
I looked back to see if Levin was hit by a billet and saw my own transmission in flames. I ordered my crew to jump out of the tank one by one. I knew that if we stop the road would be blocked. That is why I wanted to pull the tank down by the side of the embankment. I went on the side of the tank to show my driver what to do, but he could not understand me. We went up a little bit and he stopped the machine behind another smashed tank.
It looked like someone tried to slip through here and got burnt.
The driver cried:
“Our batteries are burning!”
“The whole tank is burning. Get on with it, crank it now, we’ve already blocked the road.”
“All right, get out.”
We went down the embankment. We were already coming back when I saw Levin rushing ahead on the road not knowing it was blocked. I wanted to warn him and yelled and waved my hands to him, however he did not see me kept looking forward. He collided with two tanks and when he attempted to turn around, he got burnt. He died and his gun commander with him. Lyashenko did not go then. And our Brigade went off in a different direction. Later on I received another tank platoon, and shortly after I took over Battalion Commander’s tank.
Somewhere in February 1945 all our tanks were destroyed and our Brigade and whole corps were withdrawn from action, there were no tanks. Later on these tanks, which were repaired, were formed into Battalion and sent into action to Zemlanski peninsula. I did not however take part in this action anymore.