Arsenij Nikolaevich Zonov was born in 1925 in a peasant family living in the village of Balezinschina in the Bakhtinskij (now Kirovskij) District of the Kirovskaja County. Upon his graduation from the Factory Worker School No. 42 in the city of Kirov, from winter of 1942 until the summer of 1943 he worked as a machinist in a repair shop at a factory. In the summer of 1943, he was drafted into the Red Army; after graduating from the 32nd Tank School in Kirov, he served as a SU-76 gunlayer in the 1201st Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment, a T-34 loader in the same regiment, and a motorcycle section commander in the 94th Separate “Hingan” Motorcycle Battalion of the 7th Mechanized Corps. In total, he fought in the Ukraine, Rumania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and China. He was decorated with the Order of Lenin, Order of Glory III Class, two Medals of Valor (“Za Otvagu” – Transl.), the Combat Achievements Medal (“Za Boevye Zaslugi” – Transl.) and the Order of Honor. In 1950 he became employed at the “Krin” factory, where he works through the present day and where he earned the honorific of “Expert Machine-builder of the Russian Federal Socialist Republic”.
A.B.: At the tank school did they immediately begin to train you as a loader?
No, I was being trained as a gunlayer, and successfully completed that course. Then we started to drive out to practice shoots at a firing range near the Bahta village – and the problem was that I was too short. I was a good student in the classroom, but in the vehicle itself I had to stand on my tiptoes just to try and reach the gunsight. The shoots were early in the morning, too, I didn’t really see the target at all – sent all my three practice shells into the empty sky (laughs – A.B.). The assault gun commander was a veteran tanker, fought in T-70s, came to us straight from the hospital. When I finished, he nearly cried, and told me: “son, what am I going to do with you once we get to the front? The assault gun exists to fire at tanks over open sights – if we can’t shoot, we’ll just be a practice target for them.” I was very disappointed too – it was a bad practice shoot. But then, during my first battle, near Odessa, we ran straight into German forces and I was right on the leading edge. In my first combat I destroyed an armoured transporter, one gun and a lot of enemy infantry. The Germans and the Rumanians were retreating, and we formed up right in their path – that’s the kind of battle that was. For that fight I was awarded the Medal of Valor – the first in my regiment!
How did I manage to fire the gun? Before that first fight we did have some run-ins with the Germans, some long-range firing but nothing more substantial. During that time I rigged up an empty ammo crate to serve as a platform on which I could stand while firing the gun. The regiment’s commander later nicknamed me “gunner with a lectern”.
I got my second Medal of Valor – for destroying a German tank – in another battle later on. We were behind the Dniester River, when that bridgehead was already somewhat enlarged. The assault guns were standing in prepared positions, then the infantry told us that there are German tanks in such and such a place. We moved out, I let off a few shots and hit him in the side, I think. Then I heard shouts “he’s burning up!” It’s like this – you move out, then you start maneuvering. The assault gun commander moved us forward, I fired my shots and he immediately moved us back and to the side as he knew that the Germans would aim at the spot from which we had opened fire. In any case, I was credited with a kill – meanwhile, I’m still not really sure whether it was my target that was burning back there.
A.B.: How many shells did you fire?
I can’t say exactly. It’s like this – typically, you start by firing a few aiming shots with high explosive shells – once you’ve zeroed in on the target, then you hit it with an armor piercing round. You have to fire aiming shots first though. On the other hand, if you’re firing over open sights and can actually see the target in front of you, then you can use an armor piercing shell straight away. We were also issued specially made sub-caliber shells, 5 per combat load. I only ever got to fire one of those, for some reason they all had to be accounted for. Now regular high explosive or armor piercing rounds – they gave us lots of those.
A.B.: Were you trained in indirect fire from the start?
Well, you see – on the firing range we took practice shots after gunnery classes mainly to get used to the sound of the gun firing. I mean, that’s how I understood it at the time – everything was different at the front. At the front, you’re firing on a live target. Artillery is an interesting and fairly simple discipline. They did train us in both direct and indirect fire, how to use the various instruments. Indirect fire training was fairly simple: you have your observer, but you yourself can’t see the target. So you aim the gun and fire, then the observer gives you a correction: “too short”. But then at the front, I never had a chance to fire at something indirectly, from fixed positions. When you’re right on the leading edge, you’re always firing over open sights – that’s the only kind of targets you get. That’s precisely what small caliber artillery is intended for. The 45mm guns are anti-tank weapons, while assault guns are used to engage the enemy forces directly. War is war, and different equipment serves different purposes.
A.B.: How were your assault guns used tactically?
An assault gun isn’t meant to go in with the main attack like the T-34 tank – the tanks have armor, while our guns are completely open from the rear. This one time, at the village of Grigor’evka near Odessa, HQ ordered us to go in with the tanks. Fortunately, my battery didn’t participate in that attack – a lot of the assault guns from my regiment burned up. Just imagine – a SU-76 has two engines working on high-grade aviation gasoline. That thing could blow up from the tiniest spark, which is what happened near Dniester when I almost burned up. That was the one instance of when we went into the attack like that, and several people burned up. Seems that’s how HQ wanted the attack to be conducted.
The Dniester was forced in May, and we wound up on a small bridgehead about one kilometer deep and half a kilometer wide. If you can picture the steep shore of the Vjatka River – that’s how it was at the bridgehead, with a serpentine road leading up from the river. So 6 of the 21 assault guns in my regiment went up the serpentine and deployed to defend the bridgehead. Of course, the Germans tried to push us back into the river, but the will of our soldiers was stronger than the Germans.
A.B.: What other shortcomings did the SU-76 have, in your opinion?
It was open-topped, for one. When you’re in a T-34, you feel protected. Not in the SU-76. Of course, the fact that it lacked an enclosed crew compartment could be a good thing – one time, an explosion threw me clear of the vehicle. If it hadn’t, I might have died then and there – as it were, my greatcoat was cinged and my face burned all over, but I got clear. The assault gun just continued to burn and eventually the shells inside detonated and blew it apart. And after all that I had to come back to the vehicle…Actually, it was an interesting event. I did a very dumb thing – well, maybe I did the right thing, who knows. The SU-76 gunner serves as the machine’s second-in-command and has the right to issue orders to the driver independently of the crew commander, because sometimes the commander might not notice something important. You issued orders through a visual intercom system. The system had three lights – white, green and red. Certain combinations of lights, for example if you pressed red and green, translated into different commands for the driver: “start the engines”, “forward”, “back”. An assault gun is more limited than a tank, which can rotate its turret 360 degrees. A tank can point its body in one direction while firing entirely elsewhere, while an assault gun’s main weapon can move 15 degrees right or left, no more than 30 degrees up, if I remember correctly, and 5 degrees down. Very limited.
There was this one battle when we were in the Dniester bridgehead. Our assault guns were deployed in a fan formation, it’s a kind of artillery tactic. All our vehicles were fairly close to the river bank, and positioned close together so that the firing sectors of neighboring assault guns overlapped. All dug in, that was mandatory. That’s the main thing – we were in dug in positions. When we dug out an emplacement, we always left a small cell under the vehicle to rest in. There is no place in the vehicle itself to rest when you’re in defensive positions. So as the gunner, I would keep watch, the driver would be in his seat, and the rest of the crew would crawl into this cell.
It was May 4, around 4 o’clock in the morning. It was still dark, but the Germans lit up some houses. Someone brought me a map of the area after the war, and I couldn’t find the village where all this took place. I kept looking for something named Sherpen’, but the actual name of that village was Sherpeny, a neighbor of mine was from Moldavia and she set me straight. Anyway, the Germans open fire and commenced an attack from the village graveyard. I decided to get our SU-76 out of its emplacement, since we couldn’t fire at the Germans from where we were. Just as I got it out and tried to turn it around, the thing got stuck. All the other crews were in a basement of a half-ruined hovel, only the men on watch were in the assault guns. So when the shooting started, they ran to their vehicles but the commander of a neighboring assault gun mistook my SU-76 for his own. Just at this time my commander jumped out, and a German shell or a mine went off right on top of my vehicle, my teeth clacked from the explosion. So the other commander helped me bandage ours up. Meanwhile, the shrapnel knocked off my gunsight, and my commander is signing to me – run, it’s no use, the assault gun is stuck where it is and the Germans are already advancing.
I started to jump out of the vehicle, there was a pair of small doors in the back for that. All I’ve got is a revolver. A gunner is supposed to have a revolver, the loader gets an SMG and the driver and commander each get a revolver. So three revolvers and an SMG, plus a few grenades. So first I went to grab a grenade from an ammo storage compartment, put in my pocket, grabbed my revolver – it was attached by a chord to my arm – and started to jump out. Just as I grabbed the doors, I was blown clear by the explosion. What happened? When my commander told me to get out, I thought to tell the driver. When I bent down towards his station, I saw his hatch was open and he’d already split. That’s when a shell hit us and blew up. The assault gun has ventilation grilles on top of the engines, flames burst through those and burned my face. I shut my eyes, turned around, grabbed the doors and that’s when the assault gun exploded. I was thrown clear for maybe five meters. Somehow I managed to turn to avoid getting hurt by the fall, and still had the revolver in my hand, although its chord was torn. At first I didn’t feel anything from the adrenaline rush, and meanwhile the place is covered by a net of tracer rounds, and enemy shells are exploding everywhere.
Then I saw some soldiers running behind the hovels – if these were Germans, I would have run straight into their hands. But these were ours. I was completely disoriented, but finally got to a hovel where our soldiers gathered.
My greatcoat was all cinged, my neck and face were burned. I saw my commander there, we went down to the river and I took him to the medical station. He was a good commander – Lieutenant Aleksej Ivanovich Dylev. He was my second commander, actually, the first was Aleksej Ivanovich Dernov. Both were “Aleksej Ivanovich”, and both from Saratov. Dernov was wounded in the arm, while Dylev got it in the cheek.
The German attack was repelled in the end, but there was only one assault gun left out of the six that were there. When I got my commander to the medical station the sun began to rise, and our IL-2 Shturmoviks began to arrive. I decided I had to go back to my assault gun – I had no right to leave the frontline. I thought – if I were to go back to the rear areas, they’d ask me what was I doing there. So I went back to my assault gun.
My vehicle had completely fallen apart, I only remember the gearbox; it had been thrown clear and was burning with a blue flame. Our assault gun was on one side of the street, while right across from it stood a German tank. With a tanker half-fallen out of one of the hatches. My crew told me: we were standing right there, the German tank came up and got hit right in the side at point blank range, at most from 10 meters away. So that’s what happened in the Dniester bridgehead.
There was this one episode I want to talk about. On the white wall of one ruined hovel someone wrote with a charcoal: “Tankers and assault gunners, don’t let us take you prisoner, we’ll cut you to pieces while you’re still alive.” And right nearby we found the bodies an assault gun commander, Lieutenant Rjazantsev, his gunner Karataev – a kid from Vjatka, we were in the tank school together – and his driver, forgot what the guy’s name was. The commander had a star carved into his forehead, the arms were broken, his eyes were gouged out and his member was cut off and stuffed into his mouth. Karataev was stabbed to death with a bayonet, while the driver was apparently shot execution-style. Don’t know what happened to the loader. They were all from the same crew – we buried them in the nearby orchard under an apple tree and made an oath to avenge them. And we kept that oath.
A.B.: Do you think it was the Germans or Vlasov’s men? [Russian soldiers fighting on the German side – Transl.]
Vlasov’s men, they were at the place around that the time.
A.B.: Did you see any of them?
We didn’t see them since the whole thing happened at night. Plus you have shells exploding, all sorts of noise. [Laughs – A.B.] During combat, during heavy fighting, you can never tell who is who.
A.B.: When you were in a SU-76, what was your most frequent opponent – infantry, artillery or tanks?
You know, since I was a tanker I had to view enemy tanks as an obvious threat. Later on, when I was a scout, all threats were equally dangerous – when you’re on patrol, you are not protected from anything, not bullets, not shells, not bombs. But when you were in a tank, you didn’t care about, say, a machine gun burst, or someone advancing towards you. It’s when you’re outside, you might as well be naked, and you have to work to make yourself invulnerable.
A.B.: What happened after your assault gun unit was destroyed?
Well, my face was all burned. Our regiment’s commander, a man named Makatsuba, he was a good man – a frontline soldier, wounded many times. Well, he left the regiment soon afterwards, and his replacement was our chief of staff Dobretsov. His name really did describe the man. [The root word of Dobretsov is dobro or kindness – Transl.] So Dobretsov ordered that I am not sent to some hospital, but rather that the medics would treat me while I remaind with the regiment. “The only decorated crewman in the regiment” and so forth. And that’s how I managed to stay with my regiment.
We were withdrawn to the rear for reconstitution, and that’s where we were given T-34 tanks. We also got a new regiment commander, Colonel Muhin. Also a very good man, very good to the soldiers. Somehow I’ve always been lucky in life with meeting good people, having good friends. My wife always told me “you know Arsenij, it’s just a pleasure when your friends come over.” And come to think of it, I never had any bad ones – always people with whom you could have a decent conversation. Colonel Muhin was like that, a very good man.
A.B.: What was the most memorable part of the Jassy-Kishinev Operation for you?
Here’s why it was interesting. The defense lines were practically on the Romanian border. Stalin launched ten big offensive, and so this was number eight. We, soldiers, didn’t really know all that much, but I think our commander was Tolbuhin. The mission was to break through the defense line in a couple of places, link up behind enemy lines and create a cauldron – that was the point of the whole thing. We went in south of Bendery, practically in the enemy’s rear area. We were driving forward while the fighting was still going on behind us – our mobile units like tanks and assault guns just tore forward.
A.B.: At the start of the offensive did your regiment go in as a separate unit or were the SU batteries detached in support of other troops?
No, it was like this. First, you had the antitank minefields – they were mostly cleared by sappers, but the terrain didn’t allow them to get at most of the anti-personnel mines. So the order came down – as soon as the tanks and assault guns go through, the infantry will follow in their tracks. The shrapnel didn’t really do anything to these vehicles, the mines just exploded harmlessly. Now, after the infantry went through the minefield, it could begin its attack and so was left behind while we surged forward. We broke through the defense line quite easily, actually, there was virtually no resistance. The artillery preparation must have lasted at least an hour – a veritable curtain of fire from all sorts of guns. Our jump-off point was in a clearing of some wood, and so by the time we drove out in the open space we just saw the “Katyushas” firing on enemy positions. It was quite a spectacle. The Germans hunted them, tried to figure out their firing positions as soon as the first salvo landed. “Katyusha” units had to fall back to the rear as soon as they finished firing, because the Germans would start to pound their position with mortars and artillery, even with aircraft.
This one time, when we were marching along the main roads, we ran into a German column. These were reinforcements moving up to the front, either didn’t have radio contact with anyone or just got lost or some such. We caught them completely by surprise, took several thousand prisoners and left them with our supporting infantry. The Germans didn’t expect us at all. I remember, we grabbed one of their officers near the Parizhi village, the guards fell asleep and he escaped, but before he did he told us that from the German perspective the offensive was very sudden and unexpected, like a bolt of lightning.
When I got transferred to the T-34 I became the loader, while the tank commander worked the gun. I spent the entire the Jassy-Kishinev operation on the T-34. Of course, I didn’t have any combats where I got to fire the gun, like I did on the SU-76. Our entire regiment, in fact, didn’t really run into any heavy resistance, so my tank commander, named Isaev, also didn’t get to do any shooting. Interestingly, they didn’t change the regiment’s name even though it had T-34s at that point. When we were holding the line near the Dniester we got the honorific “Ismailovskij” – you know where Suvorov fought? [Generalissimo A.S. Suvorov had famously captured the impregnable Turkish fortress of Ismail in Bessarabia towards the end of 1790 – Transl.] I actually got to visit Ismail after I got out of the hospital, but I won’t bore you with all of my biographical minutia.
I became a scout after I got out of the hospital. Since I had been a tanker, when I got to the 94th Separate Motorcycle Battalion I was in full tanker uniform, including the helmet. The battalion had some T-34s, and I told the CO that I’m a tanker and wanted to serve in a tank. And he then says to me:
- All of our tank crews are at full strength. If that ever changes, we’ll look you up, but until then you’ll be a tank rider.
Well, then I guess I’ll be a tank rider. This was in December of 1944, in a Hungarian town of Bichki. So – instead of staying a tanker I wound up in a scout unit. We actually didn’t have any motorcycles at that point, so we were basically general infantry. I was a sergeant then; one day, they call me into the HQ in a village named Chabli and told me:
- Sergeant, take this soldier, - mind you, this was about two or three o’clock in the morning. Half the village was German, half – ours. – Take this soldier and get him to the forward edge, you know the way. Get the password and a written pass, and take a prisoner.
- Yes sir, - I said, and went off on my way.
At that point I didn’t really know anything about being a scout – in the reserve regiment near Slobodskoe all they trained us in was infantry tactics: defend a position, fire at the target. How to attack: short step, long step, run forward, crawl forward. That’s it. Plus, I used to be a tanker – completely separate from the whole infantry business. Later on I understood that this particular mission was a test, of sorts. They were trying to see what I could do, what I was capable of. So – I got to the forward edge, right to the sentry post, and told them – “we’re going to get a prisoner”. They looked at us as if I said something absurd – some teenage small fry going after a “tongue” (laughs – A.B.). The other soldier was also pretty small, Vlasenko was his name. So me and Vlasenko crossed into no man’s land without really knowing where the Germans were, where anything was.
It was night. I said to Vlasenko: “You know, we have no idea what’s here or here the forward edge is – let’s just go this way.” So we went down a gulley – it was wintertime and there was a lot of snow on the ground – towards a nearby grape orchard, these usually had bunkers converted out of wine cellars. We saw something on the ground near the bunker and figured that maybe it was a German, though I said to Vlasenko: “Maybe he’s just dead…I mean, how are we going to snatch anyone if we don’t even know where the Germans’ forward edge is?” In any case, we crawled towards the bunker past what we thought was a hostel – turned out it was just a big heap of straw. The bunker’s door was half-open; I started to open it with my SMG barrel, and it squeaked – if anyone had been inside, they would surely have started shooting. So I said: “Cover me, just in case.” Opened the door and went in – I didn’t go in firing though, so as not to “light up” as a target. Vlasenko went in after me. I told him to shut the door, and then I lit a match – there were some steps leading down for a couple of meters, and a body of a dead German. I thought: “Well, he probably went up to the door and got shot, then tumbled back down the stairs.” Then I told Vlasenko to give me some light and searched the German’s pockets – he had some matches on him, a handkerchief, a torn newspaper and something resembling a letter. He also had an automatic cigarette maker, it’s like a little box, you put in some tobacco and cigarette paper and a cigarette comes out the other end. Anyhow, I grabbed all his stuff, figuring that even if we didn’t get a live prisoner, at least we had proof of some contact with the Germans. When we came back out of the bunker, the sun was already starting to come up. I told Vlasenko: “Listen, if we just crawl back to where we’d left our pass, we’re not going to make it before dawn. It’s almost half a kilometer. Let’s just walk normally, there don’t seem to be any Germans around anyway.” And so we went, but a patrol noticed us before we could pick up our pass.
- Who goes there?
- What friendlies?
- And where’s your pass?
Pass, what pass, we just came back from a reconnaissance. So they sent us back to their HQ under guard. When we got there, we told them we were scouts from such and such unit, they called our own HQ and verified that two scouts were in fact sent forward on a snatch-and-grab. That’s when they finally let us go.
A.B.: Did you ever carry any identification on a mission?
No, of course not. You had to leave all that at the HQ, even your medals. Physical evidence. And at that point, there weren’t even Red Army IDs like we have today, they just gave out a written document saying that I serve in such and such unit. Anyhow, after that patrol, I reported to HQ, gave them everything I found on that German, and went back to quarters. A couple of days later they called me back in, and ordered myself and two other men to go forward and verify where our forward edge is. So we went along all our sentry posts, making sure they were where the map said they should be. Finally, we – myself, Vlasenko again and another soldier whose name I forget – got to the street where we were picked up the other night, it was right at the edge of the village, and very well covered by the Germans’ mortars and machine guns. It was dawning again, and so I said to Vlasenko:
- I’ll make the first run, then you follow. – So I ran across, then waited for Vlasenko. He ran up to me and I asked him:
- Where’s the other guy?
- He ain’t there.
- What do you mean he ain’t there? Why not?
- He was there one minute and wasn’t there the next.
- All right, wait here, I’ll be back, - and I ran back across the street, looking for this other soldier. I mean, I couldn’t get back to HQ without finding out what happened to him – they’d ask me what happened, and I’d be held responsible as his commander. So I’m looking for him, calling out his name, and then I hear a muffled “I’m down here” coming from something that looked like a brick doghouse built next to a hut.
- What are you doing in there?
- I’m afraid! – He was fairly young, too.
- What are you afraid of?! Run!
Meanwhile, mortars and shells are bursting all over the place – of course the kid was afraid. Vlasenko and me – we were veterans, we knew that if you could hear a shell, then it’s not meant for you. You never hear the one meant for you, if you can hear it, you can always dodge away or drop into cover. So I told him: “Come on, don’t worry – just watch how I run across, then do the same.” Then I ran across, and he followed.
When I reported back to HQ, I didn’t mention this incident. Why knock on a guy for getting a little scared? And after that, I finally began to feel like a real scout. Then we went after a “tongue” for real. Here’s how it’s done – first you have the observation team root around for about three days, figure out where the enemy is, what his patterns are, where his weakest link is. Then you send forward a capture team and a covering team.
A.B.: Which team were you on that time?
I was on the observation team, we watched the German positions through binoculars. The village was split in two – our positions were on one side of the village hostel, the Germans were on the other. We crawled up into an attic and watched them from there. I think they’ve managed to spot us somehow. There were three of us – myself, Victor Jacenko and another guy. We’d move the shingles aside and watch. There was this knocked out German medium tank next to one of the houses on their side of the village. All of a sudden, a German with a Panzerfaust came out, leaned against the side of that tank and aimed straight at us. We were gone in an instant, I mean, he blew half the shingles off the roof. [Laughs – A.B.] Clearly we gave ourselves away somehow, and then had to find another position.
A.B.: Later on, did you ever go on a prisoner capture mission behind enemy lines? Did they give you special training as a scout?
No, no special training. Usually, during a break in the fighting our commander would just march us out of our positions and tell us – let’s say the enemy is deployed over there, go capture a prisoner. That was all the scout training we had. We had that in Hungary a few times, but it was a real joke, we didn’t even use training rounds, just whatever live ammunition we had on us.
Remember that guy I didn’t report for getting scared under fire? Well, here’s what happened to me and him one time. There is a town called Sekeshfehervar in Hungary, the Germans kicked us out of it twice after we’d captured it. And there was a canal connecting Lake Balaton and Lake Velency. It was January 18, 1945, 20 degrees Celsius below zero, and we were falling back from the town. HQ gave the order to our sappers to wait until all the heavy vehicles had crossed the canal, then blow the bridges. The sappers, of course, went across first and then blew the bridges without waiting for anyone – leaving all of our heavy equipment on the wrong side of the canal.
So I wound up having to swim across. By the time I got across I had to ditch my SMG and my greatcoat, and I still couldn’t lift myself out of the canal. Suddenly that very soldier turns up and shouts: “Zonov – give me your hand!” I gave him my hand, he pulled me out, I was shivering badly (shows just how badly – A.B.), but when I looked up literally a few seconds later he was gone. To this day it’s a mystery to me – the place was completely open, no cover around at all, where could he have gone?
A.B.: What was the most terrifying moment or incident for you in the war?
The whole war was terrifying. I guess my test for toughness was that canal and what happened afterwards. After I got across, I walked for about 5-7 kilometers down the main road. At the time, we were moving fresh reserves to Sekeshfehervar, units from the Karelian Front. When the fighting in Karelia ended, they reformed those units and threw them to help our forces near Budapesht. Anyway, I walked up to a hamlet where we had either a field hospital or a medical station – I saw wounded being carried out of the huts and loaded on carts. The Germans were advancing, so the wounded were being evacuated. It was very cold, and I didn’t have my greatcoat – so I asked them for one. They told me they didn’t even have enough for all the wounded. So I went back to the main road, and that’s when a “Willis” jeep and a couple of supply carts drove up. We always called these things “hoofers”, basically horses pulling peasant carts with rations or ammunition. So the “Willis” pulled up to me and stopped, a colonel came out in a fur coat and hat and asked me:
- Where are you coming from, Sergeant? – And I was just dying from the cold at that point.
- From the other shore.
- What other shore, - he asked?
- Just keep driving down this way, Comrade Colonel, and you’ll see for yourself! – The colonel then called a soldier over.
- Come here soldier! – The soldier came over. – Stand guard over this one – I’m going to drive up to the head of the column, line everyone up and have him shot for panicking.
- You know, Comrade Colonel, - I said, - you can shoot me right now if you want. I’m not going to just stand here and freeze.
He got back into his “Willis”, but just as he was driving off some German aircraft appeared and blasted everything to bits. His car was flipped over, his carts were smashed, the horses were running wild. So I just kept going. Understand, I was walking and counting my steps, waiting for a shot in the back. I was under guard, you see. But at one point I looked back at my guard, and saw him leaning against a cart casually holding his carbine. [Laughs wryly – A.B.] So I managed to walk away. By that point, it started to get dark. I was walking across a wood in some gulley when I saw a man approach wearing a captain’s insignia.
- Who goes there?
- Friendlies, - I answered. He came up and looked me over – and I had nothing, no coat, no weapon. He then said:
- Listen, sergeant, don’t waste time talking, go past the wood and there’ll be some sheds. Go through the furthest door in the shed at the end, we’ve got a bakery there. Tell them captain so-and-so, - I forget his name, - directed you to them, they’ll warm you up.
I did what he told me. There were some men sitting inside the bakery, I remember one of them, a red-haired soldier with a moustache, said to me:
- Oh, sonny, looks like you’re gonna be a real live one! - not quite sure why he said that. All my clothes were completely frozen. I wanted to take a leak, but couldn’t get my hands to work and so wound up wetting my pants. When I got inside the shed, towards the warmth, pain shot through my hands and arms – that’s how you know you’re starting to warm up. They told me to take off my uniform – but I couldn’t. So they did it for me, and it was so frozen up that it came off looking like a church bell. They hung my clothes above the stove and they began to steam. So – they undressed me, put me in a warm place, gave me some hot milk and fresh bred. Then, after they’d caught a hare, they gave me some of that. Long story short – I woke up in the morning, dried out my clothes, got dressed, then saw some commotion. I asked them what happened, they told me – during the night, a few more half-drowned soldiers showed up, and they’d stolen their last greatcoat as well as their carbine. Probably lost their own gear just like I did. So – I tucked my uniform into my trousers, put on a hat and went outside. Right into the morning frost, it was so cold! As soon as I came outside, I immediately wanted to go back inside (laughs – A.B.). But then I thought – what am I going to do here, I need to find my unit. I asked them:
- Did you get bombed here?
- Don’t know, could be bombs, could be heavy artillery. Lots of explosions, but everything missed the shed.
I went out on the road and decided to go back to the other end of the gulley. Then I came upon a big village with some troops inside. I couldn’t tell whether these were “ours” or the Germans, at first, but then I saw a tracked APC and figured out these were friendlies. As I came up to the village, I heard some soldiers shout:
- Zonov, good thing you showed up. The CO is in that house there. – You know, my heart almost stopped when I heard that. The other day a colonel nearly had me shot, and here I show up at HQ without my weapon. Our scout battalion was Captain Kravchenko. I went into the house, and saw Kravchenko and some others sitting at the dinner table with a pitcher of wine and a big pan of fried potatoes. In Hungary, there was as much wine around as we had kvas back home. [Kvas – a popular low-alcoholic Russian beverage made of fermented bread – Transl.]
- Comrade Captain, - I reported, - sergeant Zonov reporting for duty. Was forced to ditch my SMG and greatcoat in the canal.
- Don’t worry about it, I’ll give you so much “iron” to carry around you won’t be able to move. Lukashenko, didn’t you have a spare greatcoat in your APC? – Now this name I do remember. – Go get it, would you? – They brought be a big greatcoat and the captain said to me: Good thing that you made it out alive, sergeant. I need a machine-gun loader, so you’re with me from now on.
But I never got to be a machine-gun loader, because our unit wound up being encircled. We spent the entire night wandering around, trying to get to our lines. I remember those days very clearly, January 18 to January 22, 1945. After that episode, we got to this big village of Djomry near Budapesht – there’s also a town called Kishhunhalash nearby – and that’s where we got our motorcycles, “Harleys”. These got us to Prague and then back east, to the Great Hingan in Manchuria. We had either 104 or 114 Harley Davidson motorcycles in all. We also had a mobile recon element – a tank company with 10 tanks, two APC companies. One company was on American wheeled APCs, and the other was on half-tracks, with rubber tracks. Plus we had an anti-tank battery of 4 guns. That was the 94th “Hingan” Separate Motorcycle Battalion. Even though it was on motorcycles, it served as the reconnaissance unit for the 7th Mechanized Corps. The Corps commander was General Katkov. Our unit was fairly strong, we could even engage small enemy groups. We could also engage enemy aircraft, our half-tracks – M17s, if I remember right – had turrets each with four 14mm AA machine-guns. I commanded a motorcycle section, 4 motorcycles with sidecars. A platoon had 4 sections, each sidecar had a Degtjarev machine-gun. I think each company had two platoons, plus a 12 RP radio. These were small, mobile units, while the half-tracks had really powerful radios, very good communication.
A.B.: What can you say about your motorcycles? Were they good?
They were great, except for one flaw – the engine was too loud. It was very noticeable on the move, you can’t say the same about the M72. We got the M72s in China. The Harley is a good, reliable machine, a V-type engine protected by a fender, chain transmission. But the wheel is just stuck to the axle like with a bicycle, no shock absorbers whatsoever. The M72 had shock absorbers, etc. But then, the Harley had a leather seat on springs, that dampened a lot of the hits. The sidecars were all ours, of course; Harleys were shipped as stand-alone motorcycles.
A.B.: Could you use German gasoline in your bikes?
We never had to try. I must say – by that late in the war, there was an abundance of weapons and supplies. I remembered recently a conversation I had with the guys about this. SMG rounds came in black tar-paper boxes, probably 500 each. And you know, you take the rounds, load up the magazines and then just dump the box in the trench. No reason to carry it around anymore. We had plenty of fuel for our vehicles, too, the supply services were very good.
A.B.: What tactics did your scout battalion use?
One of the most dangerous tactical ploys was the so-called combat reconnaissance. They used it when they didn’t know where the enemy’s weapons and firing nests were, what strength did the enemy have. So they would send a group of infantry and vehicles towards the enemy positions as live bait, to get him to open fire on a live target.
A.B.: First, the motorcycles and then the tank company?
No – the key was to make it seem like there is a real breakthrough, a real offensive. For instance, if they know that somewhere in a certain direction there is German artillery. The Germans keep firing at our forward edge – a few shells, then nothing, then a massive bombardment, basically wears you out – and our guys can’t get their exact coordinates. So a decision is made to get the guns to reveal their positions by sending a combat reconnaissance. You don’t send the troops straight at where you think the guns are – a bit to the side. So our infantry and vehicles move forward, and oftentimes it’s not just our battalion, we’d be reinforced by other scout units or even regular army forces.
A.B.: What other missions did you carry out?
Other missions? I’d say that reconnaissance units didn’t have complex tactical missions – but I can’t really say for sure, since I wasn’t in the HQ. My company’s missions varied – reconnoiter a road, find a side road. They’d look at a map and say – we need to verify that this side road branches out here, and whether heavy vehicles can pass. Or there could be a river, and we’d have to find out if there was a ford, if there were bridges, what load could those bridges take.
A.B.: How would you determine that if there weren’t any signs near the bridge?
Well, I wasn’t the one who made that call, but it seems pretty clear that if a bridge is built for carts or pedestrians, it probably won’t take heavy tanks. Most of the time we just looked for a ford, because then you know – all the vehicles can pass across. And that was more for sapper units, anyway – the scouts’ job was to get there and get across, while the sappers handled the actual logistics like building crossings and getting other units through them.
A.B.: What were you feeling when you went off to war?
When I worked at the factory, most of the time you just felt the cold and the hunger. Even though my ration was 800 grams of bread a day, and that was the biggest ration category. My sisters, with whom I was living at the time, also got that ration, but we worked for 12 or more hours a day, and on occasion we didn’t leave the factory floor for days at a time. You know, when they’d say “Everything for the Front! Everything for Victory!”, and let the machines run non-stop. I was a repairman, and we kept a log where you’d write down which machine came offline, when, for how long, what work was performed. God help you if you were slacking off, everything and everyone had to work at maximum capacity all the time. Plus you have the hunger and all that. So there were a lot of volunteers for the army, and when I got in I thought: “Thank God!” Because life in the rear areas was very hard. I mean, I did volunteer for the army because it was my duty, but it’s a fact that soldiers were fed a little better. And then, when I finished my training to become a tanker-gunlayer, and got into a combat vehicle, I felt that I was clad in armor, that I was invincible.
My second disappointment was when I got to the forward edge and saw the wrecked vehicles, the whole meat grinder, complete with explosions. Then I felt like all that armor was nothing more than some plywood or a sheet of paper. The third disappointment was this – when all you see around you are dead bodies, blown up vehicles, destroyed houses, when all you hear are screaming bombs and shells, machine-gun bursts and all sorts of gunfire, you think to yourself – this is Hell on Earth. You want to run away from it, but you can’t. Sometimes you look up at the clouds in the sky and think – “if only I could lie down and float away like that.” For some reason, they always flew n the right direction, to the east, to where home was. Or sometimes you saw birds – also flying away from the front, to the east. And you think to yourself – “if I were a bird, I’d fly away from here.” Those feelings passed after about a month. Fortunately, there wasn’t any heavy fighting at first, I got to the front in February but combat operations didn’t really get underway until March-April. For the first couple of months, the body just couldn’t get used to war. It was very hard, there was just this strange feeing of dread. But – and I’ve always said this, then and now – I was very afraid to show any fear. If someone had called me a coward, I think I would have shot myself right then and there, I swear to God. That’s how I was. However bad things got, I always tried to carry myself as if I weren’t afraid. You’re really afraid, but you look like you’re not. That’s the sort of thing that you dealt with on the inside.
A.B.: What did you feel during combat – fear, excitement?
I’ll tell you this. There is such a thing as, if it’s the right way to call it, “battle-lust”. When you’re in combat, you’re not really controlling anything, you’re not really feeling anything – not even fear. You just start shooting, doing your job – sometimes you have to stand up and expose yourself, but you’ve got a job to do so you ignore the danger. After it’s over, then you ask yourself: “why did I do that?” I had put myself in grave danger. Battle-lust dulls the self-preservation instinct, you lose control over yourself. I wasn’t the only one who felt it, and maybe someone else can describe it more accurately – but this is my subjective definition.
A.B.: Why did you fight?
For the Motherland.
A.B.: What does that mean?
It means a lot. It means that I live in this land, that I have loved ones who must feel peace and calm and not have to suffer the horrors that I am going through. Maybe it sounds brash, but I think every one of us was a true patriot and felt that it was his duty to fight. Some yelled: “For the Motherland! For Stalin” during battle – I wasn’t in the infantry, never fought hand-to-hand, so never heard anyone shout these things. There weren’t any slogans on our tanks, but you saw them on other tanks, gun barrels. It truly was the Great Patriotic War; when we were in the rear, the slogan was: “Everything for the Front! Everything for Victory!” Consequently, we fought to win. That’s it.
A.B.: When you were escaping from the encirclement near Balaton, was your faith in Victory shaken?
We would not have won without faith in Victory. We strove to break out and survive, and if you manage to survive then you must strike back at the enemy. And that’s it.
A.B.: How did you view the Germans?
Maybe it’s just my own philosophy, but I felt that the Germans were people like us. Many of them didn’t have a choice in fighting us. I was very negative towards the Germans that committed atrocities – all of us hated those. But even though some of them were like that, most were treated just like regular human beings. I’ll tell you this. After the war was over, we were near Prague. We, the scouts, were detailed to guard the German prisoners. There were some German colonists who had lived in Czechoslovakia, families, children. The Czechs threw them all out of their houses, called them “Schwabs”. Effectively, these people were living like refugees in occupied territories, even though the war was over. We saw these women and children, and went to local bakeries asking for bread. The Czechs asked us: “Bread for whom? The Schwabs?” We told them no, it was for us. Our units are quartered here and here. But really, it was for these kids, we would bring the bread and hand it over. Our feeling was: it’s not the women’s fault, it’s not the children’s fault. When we had to march them all off to some place, you could see their bodies on the roadside. I was driving along on the motorcycle, and there was this red-haired German standing by the road, I remember his face as if it were yesterday. He was there on his knees, signing that he was hungry. I tell my driver – a Bashkir named Juldashev, “hey, stop the bike. See that German there is asking for some food.” I had bread and other foodstuffs in the sidecar. So I took about half a loaf of bread, came over and gave it to him. Juldashev said to me: “We ought to just shoot him!” And I told him: “What, you haven’t done enough shooting yet? Shoot him for what? Let him eat!”
I gave the German the bread, and he was crying. His tears were leaving tracks in the dust covering his face. He was trembling when he took the bread. I turned and walked away, and he was making the sign of the cross at me. He was still doing it when I drove away. That’s what it was like – the war was over. We fought until May 11, some general near Prague had refused to surrender. Then on May 13 my legs suddenly gave out, had to do with scouting operations, and I got a letter from my sister. She wrote me that my older brother had been killed, he was born in 1918. I was…I think, had we been guarding any Germans then, I would have taken an SMG and just executed them all right then and there. That’s what I felt – grief for my brother. But it all passed, it was just a moment, a flash almost. And later I thought – had I actually done that, I would have committed a great sin.
A.B.: Aside from the Germans, did you fight against any other nationalities?
Besides the Germans? Romanians, Magyars. When we crossed the Romanian border, they immediately came over to our side. Antonescu had ordered the Romanians to the Caucasus. I can’t say what the difference between Germans and Romanians was, we never really ran into any.
A.B.: How would you compare the vehicles on which you fought – assault gun, tank, motorcycle?
I wouldn’t compare them, really. I liked machines in general, and I knew that I wasn’t fighting on foot, that the machines would carry me around. Well, some of them also had powerful guns. So, in general, I always loved all sorts of machines, and will continue to love each in its own way.
A.B.: What were the diversions at the front?
Just imagine – there’s a lull in the fighting, and all the performers come out to liven up the scene. Not the state performers, just talented soldiers. Two or three of them would usually band together and say – ok, let’s do our act. They’d gather troops around, tell stories – not just about Vasja Terkin [A fictional soldier, the subject of a number of well-known humorous tales – Transl.], all sorts of stories. They’d sing some really bawdy couplets, tell jokes, tell war stories. It just helped everyone unwind a bit.
A.B.: What was the favorite activity? Sleep, food, singing, dancing?
To tell you the truth, sleep is what you wanted the most. These days, oftentimes I go to bed and can’t fall asleep at all, but back then, the moment you found any suitable place, you were out cold. This one time, when I was on an assault gun – before my commander was wounded – there was a two-day battle near the Dniester River. You were constantly on alert. This was after the bridgehead, when I got my second Medal of Valor. We were dug in, and as I’ve already told you there was this little space underneath the assault gun. I was dead tired after the battle, falling asleep while holding the gun. My commander told me: “Lie down and rest a bit, sonny!” That was in the evening, and so I literally fell into that little space and went into a deep sleep. Then, in the morning, I woke up from someone shaking my foot.
- Are you alive or not? – My greatcoat was covered over with earth. I wiggled my leg out of someone’s grasp, and they shouted:
- He’s alive!
- Why wouldn’t I be, - I asked.
- Just look around!
Apparently, a bomb went off about five meters away. The crater was almost big enough for our assault gun to fit into. And I slept through it. Then my commander said to me: “Hey, there’s something wet in the combat compartment, see what it is.” I crawled into the compartment, checked the gun, and saw that a piece of shrapnel went through the side armor and sliced right through the recoil mechanism, so all the hydraulic fluid leaked out.
Then, when I opened the breach, I saw that the gun barrel was bent. Another piece of shrapnel hit it from the side. Later on they told me that the entire vehicle almost flipped over, that the blast wave literally picked it up off the ground and dropped it back into the dugout. And I didn’t hear a thing. If I’d been up on top, I would at least have been shell-shocked. Now that’s some nap. But besides that – we didn’t have any films or any concerts. After the war we finally got a jazz orchestra. When we were in Mongolia, they’d always start with “The Waves of the Danube”; later on, when we passed the Great Hingan, they switched to the waltz “On the Hills of Manchuria”.
A.B.: What was the most difficult time of the year for you?
Winter, of course. I’ll tell you this – as scouts, we had to crawl all over no-man’s land for weeks on end, not an iota of warmth. In Hungary, you get a little bit of heat during the day, but then the nights are very cold, the climate as a whole is quite wet. Your feet are always freezing, you had to carry two sets of leg wraps. One set is around your body, so that when the ones you’ve got on your feet get cold or wet, you can switch them around. And then about a half hour later, your feet are freezing again. I thought to myself – if I survive this and get home, I’ll wear warm winter boots even in the middle of summer! [Laughs – A.B.] Yes, winter was the most difficult. When it’s raining or snowing, you have no place to warm yourself up, dry your clothes. I always dreamed of having some sort of a rubber cape, just to keep dry. Of course, in wartime any time of the year is difficult from a mental standpoint; but winter is the most physically challenging. So.
A.B.: How would you characterize your relationship with your senior commanders?
For some reason, I always lucked out with my superiors. After the war as well. Seriously.
A.B.: How would you define a “good” commander?
Well, first, a good commander treats you well and understands you. He has to be able to give you sensible orders, in a way that you can understand them. There were all sorts of commanders. Some were very flaky, though most of them were good people. Sometimes you even pitied a commander who had made a mistake. Our scout battalion CO was a man named Ivan Dmitrievich Lustin. When we fought in the West, he performed just fine, but then at the Great Hingan he made a mistake. The scout battalion must be at the head of the Corps. Lustin didn’t read either the map or the terrain correctly, and got the Corps a bit off track. It wasn’t bad, but Corps HQ figured out that he led us the foothills of the mountains instead of where he was supposed to lead us – and for that, he was relieved. That’s when we got another commander – Nikolaj Nikolaevich, don’t remember his last name – but we really felt for Lustin. He had replaced Kravchenko after we broke out of the encirclement near Balaton.
I’ll tell you this – when I was with the HQ as a “drafter”, I had to work very closely with my commanders. I’d go out on reconnaissance with them, draft the maps, track the battle as it developed. So I was lucky, everyone treated me well. It depends on discipline, I guess; if you’re self-disciplined enough, and carry out your orders, your commanders treat you well. It’s a two-way relationship. Just because he might have a higher rank than you doesn’t mean he’ll pull it on you every time. During exercises we were practically equals, within the bounds of unit subordination. Everyone had his place in the chain of command.
A.B.: Are you familiar with terms like “REMF”, “HQ rat”, etc.?
You heard them in conversation. Soldiers felt that way about certain officers, but I personally never really encountered this. It happened, of course. I don’t know what the cause would be; I think I would have found it insulting to be referred to in this way.
A.B.: How would you appraise the role of alcohol at the front?
When I was in the scouts, and since I was still a kid, I did try wine. But I never indulged in any of the strong stuff. I was very negative towards that, and the army vodka ration was given out very rarely – on the founding anniversary of the Red Army, maybe, or the anniversary of the October Revolution. On holidays, in other words. They never distributed it to us as part of our daily ration, though there was plenty of hard drink around if you wanted any. But you know, when you’re out on a mission…they say – a drunk feels that the sea only comes up to his knees. You can easily lose control, and lose your head. A drunk can get too careless, and so I was very negative towards drink. And the rest of the guys, they weren’t really drinking much. From time to time, of course, but I didn’t see a single man drinking during combat.
They always gave us three days to rest between combat operations. You have refits, replacements, inventory of supplies and ammunition. We’d then usually be a few kilometers behind the front, and everyone starts to unwind. They find some alcohol, or even make some moonshine. Especially the older guys, from the Ukraine, we had a lot of them in our unit. A couple of days of this merriment go by, and then on the third day, the camp is quiet. Everyone becomes focused, gets himself ready for going back into battle. It’s very sudden – two days of hanging loose, and then everything gets serious again.
A.B.: Was it the same way in assault gun units?
Yeah, with everyone, with infantry as well…Well, assault guns weren’t really withdrawn to the rear that often. They still sent assault guns and tanks back for some R&R, just more rarely than other kinds of troops. But with scouts – you go on a mission, and then you always get a couple of days of rest.
A.B.: Do you believe in any omens or soldier superstitions?
I never really thought about these things, but I will tell you this: on May 9 we were approaching Prague and they said that the Germans had capitulated, we heard the announcement by Levitan [the wartime Soviet State Radio anchor – Transl.] over the APC radio. Cheers went up, and one soldier named Menchikov took out an accordion and began to play. And we had one soldier named Veselov [literally – “Cheerful-ov” – Transl.], a father, in his forties. He was with the HQ, mostly repairing boots making new pairs. When word of victory spread, he asked to be let off to be with us, soldiers, with his friends. So he just was sitting there in a motorcycle sidecar, while everyone else was up celebrating. I went up to him and called him by his name, I can’t remember it now:
- Listen, why are you just sitting there? You’ve got a cheerful last name, why don’t you have any cheer? – And he just sat there.
I went off to the side, but my heart told me – something is going to happen to him. I’ve always believed in premonition, things like that. Anyway, we moved on. The driver on Veselov’s bike was an NCO named Kasperskij, he was also from HQ, a master watch repairman. They were driving along, when they came up on a German heavy prime mover with a little crane in a field near the road. Kasperskij stopped the motorcycle and ran towards the prime mover, while Veselov stayed in the sidecar. Turned out there was a German officer still in the vehicle, according to another motorcyclist who was there. Kasperski went: “oooooh”, and the German just shot him dead, right in the forehead. Veselov opened fire with his SMG, but the German shot him too. Both shot dead. The other motorcyclist brought Veselov’s body to us but had to leave Kasperskij. And that’s how Veselov died.
There were a lot of omens and superstitions at the front, lots of talk about them. For instance, it was always a bad omen when a soldier began to get nervous. The enemy starts to bomb you or shell you (and I noticed this in myself, too), you’re lying in some piece of cover and it just seems that the ditch in front of you is a couple of centimeters deeper. You start thinking that you just have to make your way to that other ditch to survive. But I knew from veteran soldiers that under no circumstances should you break cover. You take cover where you can and stay down until it’s over; if you start looking for a better spot, you’ll just find your own death! In that first combat where I got my first Medal of Valor, they started to bomb us and we bailed out of the assault gun. I managed to roll into some small slit trench, but then curiosity almost got the better of me. I wanted to see how a bomb falls to the ground (laughs – A.B.). So I watched a bomb separate from the aircraft, and just then my commander screamed at me: “Get down!” Then I went prone. There was a saying at the front: when they’re bombing you, nail your arse to the ground. And it’s true, when a bomb explodes nearby, the earth shakes a little, you feel as though someone is pressing at your back. My CO told me afterwards not to stick my head out like that. Well, what can you do – I was still a kid. But yeah, we had omens.
A.B.: Were you religious during the war?
Yes. I always kept my faith. My mother and sister were very religious, they passed their faith on to me. I just believe, I don’t know a lot of prayers. I just believe that there is something there above us.
A.B.: Did you ever pray at the front?
A.B.: Did it help?
Probably. Who else could have prayed for me to survive the war and to live for all these years? Thank God he is still with me, and I’m still needed here. If not for God I’d already...that’s just how I feel.
A.B.: Do you recall the reaction back home when you returned from the war?
I have two brothers and two sisters. All my life before the war they were never rude to me, always treated me kindly. When I came back, my one brother had five children, the other – just one son and one daughter. I lived with my brother, he was our “elder”. Petr served in Stalingrad, among other places, had been wounded several times and demobilized from the army. He is a good smith, both my brothers are skilled workers.
Petr worked for a whole year, and got only 20 kilograms of grain. Everyone in the village said – your brother is about to come home from the army. In the olden days, I would have taken a plot of land for myself, something from my inheritance. But then, when I came back, I took a look at him, gave him my last greatcoat and said to him: “Petja, you have helped me so much in my life. Let me raise one of your sons for you, give me your eldest. I’ll take care of him.”
So I filled out the forms, as I’d already bought a house of my own, sent him to school and told him: “until you finish your 10 classes, I won’t let you get married.” He listened to me, finished school, got married, had a son of his own. Quite unfortunately, something was wrong with his lungs, and he died at the age of 29. I grieved as if he were my own son. In general, my brothers and I were very close. I did not know my father, and my mother died when I was 15.
When I came home, the first thing I did was go to my parents’ graves. I cried my eyes out, and then said: my brother made these two small crosses for you, and I’ll give you full headstones. I made them from metal, then replaced them with marble headstones. Then replaced them with new ones, and put up ones for my brothers and sisters – they’re all buried together. It’s good for me here.
|Gene Ostrovsky, firstname.lastname@example.org