I was born in 1925. My father then was 62 years old. It was his second marriage. At the time of my birth my mother was only 26 years old. My father, Lazar Degen, worked as a medical attendant. He was a brilliant specialist, and many certified doctors would come to adopt his methods. My dad died in 1928.
We lived in Mogilev-Podolsky, a town in Vinnitsa oblast (province), located at the old State Border. My mother used to work as a nurse in a hospital. I remember well the famine of 1933.
At the age of 12, I went to work as an assistant blacksmith. The smith, Uncle Feodor, a man, who had only finished two grades in school, knew several languages and treated me like real father. My childhood was one of hunger: my mother's nurse salary was scarcely enough for living.
I was fond of zoology, botany, and literature. At the young naturalists’ club I was allotted three land plots, 10 square meters each, where I grew rubber plants. I was growing into a young fanatic, utterly devoted to the Communism.
We, the youngsters, used to haunt the territory of the local 21st Border Guard Detachment. At the age of 16, I was able to shoot all types of firearms, including the Degtyaryouv hand-held machine gun; I was a good horse rider and had a good knowledge of hand grenades. The 130th Rifle Division commanded by Major General Vizhgilin was also stationed in our town. In short, when the war broke out I was already a well trained soldier.
On June 15, I finished the ninth grade and immediately went to work as a youth leader in the summer camp which was located next to the railway bridge over the Dniester River. Overnight on June 21- 22, as the youth leader on duty I saw a heavily laden railroad train pass across the bridge to Germany. Early in the morning people began muttering: "The war has broken out!"
In the afternoon our town was bombed for the first time. Policemen fired revolvers at the German bombers. Pretty pictures ... I ran to the town committee of the Komsomol (Communist League of the Youth), and from there to the military commissariat, but nobody wanted to talk to me there. I wasted my breath shouting about the duty of a Komsomol member, about protecting the Motherland, about the heroes of the Civil War. I poured out the slogans, with which I had been stuffed like a potato dumpling. The answer was short: "We don’t draft children into the army."
But on the tenth day of the war at the town Komsomol Committee a volunteer destroyer battalion was organized from ninth and tenth grade students of the town schools. Our platoon consisted of ninth graders, almost all born in 1924, and only three born in 1925. There were thirty one persons in the platoon, including twenty seven Jews.
Two days later, we were issued standard army uniforms and all the volunteer fighters joined the ranks of the regular rifle companies under the 130th Rifle Division. We did not take the military oath. We were issued rifles, 100 rounds of ammunition and four hand grenades each. The platoon had a heavy "Maxim" machine gun, which I had mastered quickly and was assigned as a number one (a lead gunner) in a machine gun crew.
We did not receive Red Army soldier military identity papers. The only document proving my identity was my Komsomol card, which I carried wrapped in waxed paper throughout all the entanglements of 1941. I still remember its number, # 12800789. We were baptized by fire around a place named Vapniarka.
- What do you particularly remember about the summer of 1941?
- A terrible time. Continuous fighting. Even while repelling all the German attacks, for some reason, we were retreating. The rifle companies were melting away before our eyes, and not only due to the heavy combat casualties. Total desertion began.
Incessant German air bombing; in those days the sky was in hands of the Germans. Just once I witnessed a tragic combat involving our airmen. Nine our Polikarpov I-16 fighter aircraft were shot down by two enemy Messerschmitt fighters. By the second week of fighting the supply of ammunition and food was stopped. The field kitchen and the sergeant major did not show up at our positions.
We were scantily reinforced with Red Army soldiers- recruits and regular army soldiers arriving from defeated units. The commanding staff had run away. I had not seen a single company commander or political officer. I was elected platoon commander. The regular army soldiers did not mind.
My classmates, seventeen year old boys, were being killed all around. For me it was a shock. I could barely hold back the tears as we buried our dead comrades. In early August, our platoon set on fire two German tanks with grenades and “Molotov cocktails”.
Between Uman and Khristinovka our division was encircled. Then the most terrible events began. There was a feeling of helplessness. The reservist soldiers dispersed to the surrounding villages.
But we, the remnants of the destroyer battalion, were determined to break out to the east. The seriously wounded were being carried along. But presently we, seeing the condition of two our comrades, were forced to leave them with some collective farmers, who seemed to us to be reliable people. After the war, I tried to find out the fate of those boys. But no traces of them were found.
We constantly attacked small groups of Germans. Several times it came to hand-to-hand combat or as it is said in Russian “A wall against a wall”. In one such fight, I struck the helmet of a German sergeant with the butt of my rifle. Soon he came to senses. A burly German, he put on airs, acting like a winner, blatantly staring at us. He looked at us as if he had taken us prisoner, not the other way around. We began to interrogate him, but the German was silent. And then he shouted: "Verfluchten Juden!" (Accursed Jews) - I shot him right there. Anyway, we had nowhere to take the prisoner to as we were on our way to break out of the encirclement. I took as a "keepsake" from him his “Parabellum” pistol.
The remnants of our company were stubbornly making their way towards the territory we still occupied. All had fought using captured German weapons, but I continued dragging the heavy "Maxim" machine gun along. In one fine evening there were only two of us out of the entire platoon who had survived: Sasha (Alexander) Seufferman and I. We were thriftily (saving every round) firing back at the advancing Germans. Suddenly, I felt a heavy blow to my leg. I looked and saw that the wound was bleeding. The bullet went right through the soft tissue in my thigh. Sasha bandaged my wound. We could already hear shooting behind us. We were out of ammunition. Empty machinegun belts lay around us. We sank the machinegun’s bolt in a cesspit and crawled to the east. For nineteen days, with fanatical persistence, Sasha and I went together out of the encirclement. We walked at nights, did not enter villages. We knew that under no circumstances we would surrender. We ate green apples and wheat; sometimes we picked up something from abandoned kitchen gardens. On the third day my wound festered. Sasha would cut moss, sprinkle it with ashes and apply it to my wound. Only three times within those weeks was I able to wash the bandages. My leg was swollen and wouldn’t bend. We began to lose track of time. I made a stick, but my primary support when walking was still Sasha’s shoulder. Somewhere around the city of Kremenchug we reached the Dnieper. The river there was very wide. We descended a steep slope. A fine rain was drizzling. It was a quiet evening. We dropped our weapons into the water and took off our boots. We realized that with such a burden we wouldn’t be able to swim across the Dnieper. I was sorry to part with the captured pistol ... The left river bank - our salvation, looked like a black stripe against the background of the rapidly darkening sky. We swam silently, slowly, primarily on our backs, trying to save our strength. In the water the pain in my wounded leg subsided. A strong current drifted us over. In the middle of the river my leg got cramped. I was ready for it. A safety pin was fastened to the pocket flap of my service shirt. I proceeded with pricking my leg and the cramp let me go. I looked back. Sasha was not there. Forgetting about stealthiness, in a panic and in despair, I cried out: "Sasha." But the river was silent ... I realized that Seufferman had drowned. With great difficulty I got ashore and exhausted, sprawled myself out on the wet sand. I was not able to take a single step. Shivering, I decided to wait for dawn. But suddenly, against the background of the night sky I saw two silhouettes with helmets on their heads and heard German speech. I lurked, pushing myself into the sand ... The Germans walked to the north, against the Dnieper flow, a few meters away from me not noticing my presence.
And then I began to weep: neither pain, nor losses nor fear were the cause of those tears. I wept from my awareness of the tragedy of the retreat which I had witnessed and in which I had taken part, I wept from the terrible thought that all our sacrifices had been in vain ... I wept because I had not even a grenade to blow myself up with the Germans. I wept from the very thought that the Germans were already on the left bank of the Dnieper.
How could this happen? Where is the front? Is the war still being waged? Why do I exist while my army and my country have collapsed? All the time we had been told that on the third day of the war we would break into Berlin, where we would be greeted with flowers and tears of happiness by the German proletariat. I did not know how I could find the strength to crawl along the path in direction where the Germans had come from. Through the reeds I saw the edge of the village. I got to the nearest house. As it turned out, Feodor and Praskovya Grigoruk – the people, to whom I owe my life, lived in that house. They undressed me, washed my wounds. They realized that I was a Jew. There was a German garrison in that village and all the villagers had been warned that for harboring Jews and communists they would be shot. The Grigoruks fed me meat and potatoes. Feodor cut me a huge hunk of bread. I had not eaten anything more delicious in my life.
Where the frontline was, they had not any idea. The rumors were circulating in the village that the Germans had already captured Poltava. Nobody really knew anything. They said that a few Red Army deserters had returned to the village who alleged that the Germans had released them from captivity. Praskovya baked a large onion in the oven, cut it into halves and applied them to my wounds, attaching the halves with a white clean cloth. I was taken to the attic. I slept there for almost two days. A couple more days later the Grigoruks dressed me in civilian clothes, put me on a cart and took me to a nearby village to their relatives. There I was again hidden in a peasant's house and the next morning transferred to another cart. Such a "relay race" was repeated four more times. The good Ukrainian people were saving my life. Once I did not even notice that a driver transported me across the front line. Soon I was in a hospital in Poltava. In the summer of 1949 I went to that village to thank the Grigoruks for my salvation. But in place of the village there were only ruins, overgrown with weeds...
- How many people from your volunteer ninth graders’ platoon had survived?
- Only four of us had survived the war. All were disabled. After the war I met Yakov Roitberg. After being heavily wounded he had a defect in his temporal bone and an ununited (asymphytous) gunshot fracture of the right shoulder. Now Yakov is a professor of mathematics.
But the most unexpected encounter took place in June of 1945. On crutches with an attending soldier assigned to me I was discharged home from the hospital in Kirov. Before even reaching Kiev we had to change trains twice. In Kiev, before boarding the train assigned for the wounded, the conductor had let me inside. I reserved the berth for my attendant by putting my crutches on it.
I looked out through the window and was stunned. On the platform on crutches, with one leg, there was my classmate Sasha Seufferman, with whom we had been making our way out of the damned encirclement in 1941. For all those years Seufferman thought that I had drowned during our crossing of the Dnieper. Unlike me, he had made his way out of the encirclement on his own.
In 1942 in the battle of Stalingrad, Sasha had lost his leg.
- What were the sensations of the sixteen year old boy Ion Degen, when he was killing his first enemy in action?
- Joy. When I saw that after my shot a dead German was down, I was very happy! After that I had to kill them quite often. I did it calmly, without unnecessary emotions and sentiments. It was a war to the death, and there was no room in that war for either doubt or pity before pulling the trigger.
And such a strong joyful emotion I also had to feel just one more time – in the summer of 1944. A large crowd of Germans in disarray was running away from my tank down the gentle slope of a hill. We could easily get them by firing the tank machine guns. But for some reason I ordered switching from a shrapnel round to a canister shot. About thirty men were blown to pieces. At that moment, I found myself thinking that I was feeling that most unforgettable sensation that I had felt in the beginning of the war, when I had shot my first German.
- Personally for you, was 1941 the most difficult period of the war?
- No. For me, the worst part of the war was our retreat in the Caucasus. Even though I still cannot fully comprehend the catastrophe of 1941, then I had the huge country and the entire Red Army behind me and the faith in our victory had left me only once, when I was lying wounded on the Dnieper bank.
But in the Caucasus, I had repeatedly witnessed the mass exodus of our soldiers from the battlefield. The frontline was completely unmanned. One day, when the armored train of the battalion where I was in command of a reconnaissance squad, stopped at some small station of the North-Caucasian Railroad and I saw a sign post: "Rostov-on-Don - 647 kilometers," I felt uneasy. .. 647 km to Rostov, and how many kilometers from Rostov back to Berlin? I clearly realized that that was the edge of the abyss, and for a moment despair seized me ...
- How long were you in the hospital?
- Nearly five months. Back in Poltava the surgeon of the 3rd rank, a Georgian, having examined me told me right away: "the leg must be immediately amputated." I flatly refused. The prospect of becoming a legless invalid at the age of 16 was unacceptable to me. I was afraid that I might be doped with sleeping pills and taken to the operating room where my leg would be cut off. I was afraid that the sleeping pills would be added to my food; therefore I was swapping the food with my neighbor!
But nothing had happened. Soon, I was sent to the rear, in Saratov, and then by boat to Kuibyshev. Next I was sent to a hospital in the Urals, in the south of the Chelyabinsk region. In the hospitals, they treated me - a sixteen-year old kid, very respectfully. On the 7th of November 1941, the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, the wounded were given 100 grams of vodka. I tasted it for the first time in my life. I terribly disliked vodka then. On January 21, 1942, I was discharged from the hospital.
They said to me: "Wait for the draft." There were frosts of minus 50 degrees Celsius. As not to die of winter frost in an old secondhand overcoat and in similar canvas boots, I headed south to warmer climes. In Aktobe, at the railway station food supply point, I was called by name by a frontier guard captain. It was Alexander Gagua, who before the war, used to be a frontier guard in Mogilev-Podolsky and remembered me well since then. Hearing out my "adventures", he straight off told me that I should go to Georgia, to his native village of Shroma in the Makharadze district. There at the station he wrote letters to his father Samuel Gagua and to Mikhako Oragvelidze, the village of Shroma’s collective farm manager.
On February 16, I walked the 13 kilometers from the Natanebi station to Shrom. Samuel Gagua was already 76 years old. He learned from me about his son for the first time, as he hadn’t heard from him since the beginning of the war. In the village I was given a very warm welcome. In those days, I fell in love with Georgia and the Georgian people for the rest of my life.
I began working as a STZ-NATI tractor driver, plowing the fields. On June 15, 1942, having heard the news that an armored train had stopped at Natanebi, I again walked the 13 kilometers to the station. Thank goodness, by that time my leg was almost healthy. The Georgians gave me a fancy dagger as a keepsake. There were "The Siberian" and "The Railroader of Kuzbass" armored trains at the station. I found out where the staff railcar was and soon I was talking to Major Arkusha - the commander of the 42nd detached battalion of armored trains, a man of medium height, dressed in a tanker’s uniform. I told him about myself and asked for admission to his unit. Arkusha asked: "Can you read a map?" Hearing my affirmative answer, he had me chart a not very complicated situation on a kilometric grid map, which I immediately dictated. He looked at the map and said, "Well done, lad! I’ll take you to be my aide." I replied that if I had wanted to be an adjutant, I would have easily waited for the draft. The Major smiled, "So what do you want?" - "I want to fight". Arkusha replied indignantly: "And I, in your opinion, do not fight?" To this my response: "I have never seen majors in battle" - the battalion commander Arkusha smiled and said, "You’ll be in a reconnaissance squad!"
- What was the detached battalion of armored trains like as a combat unit?
- The battalion was composed of volunteer railway men. The majority of the personnel were former tankers, who had taken part in the battles of Khassan and Khalkin-Gol (against the Japanese troops). The battalion had begun its fighting activities in autumn of 1941 near Moscow. The battalion strength included two armored trains, "The Siberian" and "The Railroader of Kuzbass" and a staff train made of five passenger railcars. The combat mission of the battalion in autumn of 1942 was to block the enemy advance towards Mozdok and Beslan. In January of 1943, the 42nd detached battalion was redeployed to Iran and was no longer involved in active fighting.
- What did an armored train look like?
- An armor clad steam locomotive with armored platforms on both ends, armored cars with rotating turrets, where 76 mm guns were fitted. There were 4 tank machine guns (taken from tanks) on each armored platform, two on each side. On both ends of the armored train there were conventional flatcars with 37 mm anti-aircraft guns and DShK machine guns. Each armored platform was manned by a crew of 16 men. There was a crew of 80 to 90 men on each armored train.
- What was being in a reconnaissance squad under the battalion of armored trains like? Please tell us as many details as you can about its personnel, tasks and weapons!
- When I arrived at the reconnaissance squad, there were 12 servicemen. All were armed with PPD and PPSh submachine guns, Finish knives or daggers, and everybody had already captured German pistols. The unit formally reported to the battalion headquarters. Departing for their missions the reconnaissance scouts took three extra pan magazines and four F-1 hand grenades.
The scouts wore standard uniforms, but sometimes they put on tanker overalls. The scouts had two major tasks: reconnaissance in the German rear and gunfire spotting for the armored train artillery platforms. We were not given the tasks of capturing “tongues” (prisoners for interrogation) and were not required to engage in battles in the German rear. Once, the scouts were assigned to a special task in the German rear - to get to the station of Murtazovo with a female radio operator and to get in contact with our underground raiding party. But in autumn 1942 a grave situation had developed at the mountain passes, and the battalion’s reconnaissance scouts were the very hard core of the scratched together force, which had delayed the German advance in our area.
There were great guys in our reconnaissance unit, the Siberians: Stepan Lagutin, George Kulikov, Kolya (Nikolai) Trubitsyn, Kolya (Nikolai) Guteyev and others. I looked at those, my friends, with admiration and astonishment. They could accomplish anything. Climbing a telephone pole and tapping into the line to communicate with the battalion, having prearranged with them, which wires would be engaged. They were capable of doing any railway man’s work – starting with the rail switcher’s and car coupler’s work all the way through the locomotive engineer’s; they were able to defuse and lay mines. They could quickly change out an armored car’s wheels with the railway ones and fight on in the converted rail track armored car. These guys could accomplish anything!
Within a few weeks I had to master their skills. But there was one thing that I could never learn from my friends - the hunting skills they had inherited. They even instinctively had managed to learn the armored train artillery fire spotting, and my intelligence - so I thought - was not necessary to them. And the fact that I was able to earn the love and respect of such wonderful guys for me was the most important award of the war. I am proud that I had to fight shoulder to shoulder with those people!
Lagutin was like a father to me. Six feet tall wearing size 46 boots, silent Lagutin, a former hunter who went to the army from the town of Biysk in Altai, was a real Russian hero. He could easily drink two liters of vodka per day and look completely sober with eyes as clear as "a piece of glass." Even with his weight of a hundred and thirty kilos and his enormous height he could silently pass over twigs.
In July 1942, the battalion was engaged in a battle near Armavir. The reconnaissance unit commander was killed there. And I, because of my "literacy", was appointed as commander to replace him. Everybody else could spot gunfire based on hits, but I also could spot gunfire per azimuth. We had no radios, and all the gunfire adjustments were communicated by telephone only. Along the railway there were poles with wires. So, the telephone wires were spliced on two such wires, and the armored trains were connected to the same wires.
- What did you have to endure during the battles in the Caucasus?
- Those were the most difficult battles in which I had to participate. Many dozens of German panzers were pushing forward like a ram towards our armored train, left without infantry and aircraft cover. From morning till night a fiendish German "Frame" (Russian nick-name for the German Focke-Wulf Fw189 reconnaissance aircraft) was hanging in the sky above our heads, directing to us groups of six Ju-87 diving bomber aircraft, which would incessantly dive down at us. The air raids inflicted heavy casualties on armored train crews. We rarely managed to shoot a German diving bomber down. I witnessed how an antiaircraft gunner from the "Siberian" managed somehow to knock down a Ju-88 aircraft with his 37 mm anti-aircraft gun and almost immediately died. We were bombed all the time!
Four 76 mm artillery pieces and the Order "Not a step back!" were scant resources to stop the advance of the German panzers. Good men – the steam locomotive engineers! They were always great at maneuvering. One solid shot, fired by a German panzer, hit the steam dome of the locomotive. Technician Lieutenant Tyrtychko, burning himself, drove a wooden beam into the hole. Tank battles broke out near the railway station of Prokhladnaya. We extensively used the "lend-lease" tanks, throwing them into counterattacks for certain destruction. Quite a few times I saw the T-34 tanks. I saw the quite successful attempts to stop the German panzers using trained dogs with anti-tank mines attached to their backs. I saw our aircraft only once, not in the air but on the ground. A shot down IL-2 ground attack aircraft armed with rocket projectiles had crash landed not far from us. The pilot, a young boy in a rank of lieutenant, was standing nearby and cursing everyone in the whole world and their mothers.
We gradually fell back to Chechnya. The local people treated us in a very unfriendly way. We had nothing to eat, so we took foodstuffs from the locals, sometimes at gunpoint. In Grozny, still on the way to the front, I, sitting on the first platform, was approached by an elderly Chechen, who said, "Soldier, sell me a submachine gun, I’ll pay you seventy-five thousand". I turned him down. Every reconnaissance sally in the Caucasus was extremely difficult.
In early September, the situation became critical. We arrived at the station of Dokshukino. I do not remember now, whether it was southeast of Kabardino-Balkaria or northwest of North Ossetia. We had to provide gunfire support to our infantry units. But at the station and around it there was not a single infantryman. A terrible silence. An absolute one. The calm before the German attack, which we had not a single chance to withstand. Even now I do not understand how we had managed to survive that day. The Germans bypassed the station. While on the platform, we got under the fire of our "Katyusha" rocket launchers. We took cover on the floor of the station latrine. Can you imagine what a station latrine was like during the war? We had to take off all our clothing. Wearing just underwear, but still with weapons, we walked towards our positions near the Terek river. For a few days it seemed that we would never wash that awful stench off ourselves.
In September 1942 a composite unit of the armored trains’ battalion, 44 people, was thrown to the defense of the mountain pass, at a height of 3,000 meters above sea level. The sound from a gunshot would start an avalanche. We had only fired sniper shots, but in response the Germans would cover us with mortar shells. For some time we were left behind at the pass without any support. We had run out of food. Famine began. Within just three days, I completely chewed up a tank helmet strap, and for the next two days I hadn’t had a single piece of food in my mouth. When down from the pass to the valley, for a long time I inflicted myself with the thought of, why I had not eaten the second strap of the tank helmet which I could have if I had just cut a metal buckle from it.
The Germans opposing us were from the division of "Edelweiss", and they had found themselves in a similar situation; they also had nothing to eat. But the Germans were not used to this. On the fifth day, about a company of Germans led by a captain came to us to surrender. This kind of occurrence in 1942 was very rare, but hunger drives a wolf out of the woods. The captured Germans carried themselves with dignity.
And we succeeded to hold that pass. When our relief– a rifle company commanded by Senior Lieutenant Tskhovrebov, arrived at the pass, only 19 men from our composite unit had survived. I asked Tskhovrebov for some sugar. The company commander replied that we would be fed down in the valley, while they would have to stay up there for some more time, till Kingdom come.
- Did you get any recognition for your fighting at the pass?
- I was decorated with the medal "For Courage", but I had it to shine on my service shirt just for two days.
- Why only two days?
- It’s a long story. Okay, listen up.
Even though in every way I strived to look like my elder comrade-scouts and I even learned how to drink alcohol on an equal footing with them, I still remained a teenage sweet tooth. The battalion was out of the fight, and we were taken for formation to Beslan. Someone once said that next to the railway station there was a molasses factory, which was going to be blown up before the anticipated arrival of the Germans. There were tanks of molasses, which looked and tasted like the white honey. First the battalion commissar and his orderly went to the factory and brought from there two buckets full of molasses. Lagutin and I went there once also. We brought for the guys a bucket of molasses. We decided to make another trip.
We went without weapons, because the Germans were 15 kilometers away. We exited the factory into the deserted street through the checkpoint. A woman came up to us and offered to exchange a bucket of molasses for a bottle of araka (alcoholic drink). Lagutin asked for another bottle. Suddenly there appeared a short Caucasian clad in a cloak, paramilitary cap and kid leather boots. His face was arrogant and smug. "Are you bartering here?" - He shouted with a Caucasian accent.
It seemed to me that that kind of overbearing rear rat had hinted at my ethnicity. I flared up and lashed him across his face with back of my hand. He had just swung to the side and immediately pulled a TT pistol from beneath of his cloak. Lagutin responded immediately and slammed the Caucasian with his huge fist. The Caucasian sprawled still on the sidewalk.
I picked up the TT pistol that had fallen from his hand. The Caucasian’s cloak flung open and we saw over the left pocket of his tunic the Order of Lenin and the Supreme Soviet deputy’s (parliament member’s) badge. We anxiously looked at each other and began to help the fallen deputy, who was now coming back to his senses, get up from the ground. We returned his pistol to him, without a magazine.
The deputy immediately pulled from the depths of his cloak a spare magazine, drove it into the pistol and shouted shrilly: "Vedyashkin! Get them!" A short and thick junior lieutenant with a PPD submachine gun hanging around his neck emerged from behind the corner. Two more submachine gunners were next to him. We were loaded into the back of an old "jeep". The deputy got into the cab and Vedyashkin and his team settled themselves next to us. We were taken to the village of Brutus. The deputy and Vedyashkin entered a stone building and ten minutes later we were taken into a spacious room.
A huge and burly fellow, almost as tall as Stepan, was standing at the table. He wore a wool sweater, blue riding breeches and gleaming calf leather boots. His jacket hung on the back of a chair. The collar insignia was adorned with blue piping and three "cubes." We immediately realized where we were. Then that rank was called the Sergeant of the NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The fellow came up to Stepan and began scrutinizing him, as if wondering how in the world there might be someone bigger than himself. And then he suddenly hit Lagutin on his head. Stepan bounced off to the wall. The NKVD man began yelling: "So! Is bartering not enough for you?! You laid your hands on the first secretary of the regional party committee! It’s okay, the court martial will lean you two against the wall quickly! Ooh, pigs, I would even begrudge wasting bullets on you, without any court martial I would strangle you with my own hands!"
They took us to another room. They gutted our pockets, took away identity papers and tobacco pouches, removed our straps and ripped off our collar insignia. Someone's deft hand plucked the medal from my service shirt. Near the entrance a soldier was sitting and cleaning his pistol. A shot rang out. Someone said, "What are you, ... oh snap!, shooting into the floor? Damn you! There people down there in the basement". The soldier said: "Stop it… Those people.. They’re all already as good as dead. And I didn’t mean it. It was an accident, you know!"
We were shoved into the basement, six steps down. There was the stench of unwashed bodies and rotten footcloths. Hungry, gray, emaciated faces. And there we were told that we were on the premises of the Special Department of the 60th Infantry Brigade. In the basement there were 21 men sentenced to death awaiting execution. In the morning for breakfast we were given a tiny piece of bread and a tin of thin glop for three. Many of the men sitting in the basement had lost the air of being human. Stepan and I did not touch the glop. And then they began pulling per one person at a time for execution by firing squad. On that day ten men were executed. We heard shots and heart rending cries. The people were executed, behind a latrine on a site overgrown with weeds near a stone wall. It seemed to me that those shots rang out right above my ear, and a wild animal fear paralyzed my heart.
The next morning the guard opened the basement door and called out: "The men, who are here from the 42nd battalion of armored trains, come out!" Those were the words with which the men were summoned for execution the other day ... Stepan and I silently nodded to the men staying in the basement. I remember with what difficulty, with what incredible strain of will, I pulled up my feet off the dirty straw and took the six steps up the stairs. Next to the burly NKVD man the Special department (NKVD) man from our battalion was standing. He surreptitiously winked at us, and at that moment the sensation was as if multi-ton shackles had instantly fallen from our feet onto the ground. Our Special department man shook hands with his counterpart from the 60th Infantry Brigade and in a terrible voice promised that he would severely punish us, the scoundrels. We climbed into the back of the truck, and only when the village had disappeared behind the curve of the road, the Special department man spoke to us: "Well, you have given us a lot of troubles. We had to reach our Army commander to scratch you out of here." I asked him: "Did they return my medal?" The Special department man swore: "What a fool you are! Be thankful for your luck of being brought back from such trouble alive, and don’t care about the medal!" Four days later I was badly wounded in a night reconnaissance. I was in the hospital in Ordzhonikidze and strived to forget the terrible day and two nights spent in the stinking "death" basement. In the underworld ...
- What were the people sitting in the basement sentenced to death for?
- One of those executed was a senior politruk (political officer), who on the way out of the encirclement had ripped off the commissar's star chevron from the sleeve of his tunic.
There also was a Junior Lieutenant, commanding a machine-gun company. His men had retreated, leaving four machine guns at the abandoned firing emplacements.
I remember Lieutenant Ismail Sadykov from Kirovabad. During the August battles he, shell shocked, fell into German captivity. He escaped to his countrymen at the first opportunity. Upon return from the captivity, he was accused of treason and sentenced by court martial to death. In my very first night in the basement Sadykov sat down beside me and said, "You're not one of our brigade service men, you are here by accident, and most likely you won’t be executed. I'm not afraid of death, I was dying so many times that I'm not scared. But if my father is told that his son is a traitor it will kill him. And the court martial wouldn’t even listen to me. In the name of Allah, if you get out of here alive, please write to my father about how everything really happened!" Several times he repeated to me the address of his father. The next day he was summoned for the tenth execution...
I had attempted to write to Sadykov’s father several times, but was not able to start writing. How should I have started: "Dear Comrade Sadykov" or "Dear father of Ismail. Your son was executed ..".? But I remembered my promise. From the hospital in Ordzhonikidze I was taken further to the rear and I happened to find myself right in Kirovabad. The Sadykov house was not far from the hospital. I found Sadykov’s father and told him about the tragic fate of his son. The old Sadykov heard me out courageously. When parting, he said: "Thank you, son. Maybe when you become a father yourself, you will realize what a great thing you have just done. May Allah bless you!"
A wonderful poem of yours is dedicated to the fighting in the Caucasus:
The air shuddered.
A Shot. Smoke.
The branches of old trees blasted off.
But I'm still alive and unscathed.
- Wasn’t there in those days, even a minor hope for survival?
- You may find it hard to imagine what was going on there in those days, and what I had to witness first hand. The front was crumbling before our eyes. People were completely demoralized. I even had to see with my own eyes how the General Staff representative personally executed a rifle company commander for the fact that his company had wandered around and plundered the villages for three days, instead of taking the defensive line. And many men just took flight without looking back.
Here's an example. Four reconnaissance scouts had carried two their wounded comrades into the road. They tried to stop any vehicle heading to the rear, to quickly send their bleeding comrades to the hospital. All of the vehicles passed them by. At gun point, a ZIS-5 truck stopped. A logistical service colonel was sitting next to the driver. In the truck’s body were his campaign wife, bags, bundles, boxes, and a tub of a potted ficus! A "dear comrade big chief" was saving his skin, rushing towards the rear with his eyes round with fear. When asked to give a lift to the wounded the colonel burst out with foul language and " righteous authoritative anger", shouting “how dare you pulling me over?” and a full set of “F…. off” and “F… you” and attempted to reach the holster on his ass. The colonel was immediately shot and his campaign wife fled to the mountains. The ficus and the bags were thrown away from the truck’s body, and the wounded comrades put there instead. They looked at the driver’s identity papers and said to him, "Now we know who you are and what you do. If you babble to anybody what you have just seen, we'll hunt you down wherever you are and kill you! Understood? Then go to the medical aid battalion quickly". I even remember the date when it happened, and the names of those three comrades, who were next to me at that moment ...
- When were you wounded?
- On the night of the15th of October when returning from a reconnaissance sally behind the German lines. The purpose of that sally was to pinpoint the location of the German reserves and to prepare firing coordinates for our battalion. Four of us went: Lagutin, Guteyev, the radio operator Luba, I don’t remember her surname, and I. We passed behind enemy lines relatively easily.
But getting back through to the frontline of our troops the next night was impossible. The whole valley, adjacent to the Terek river, was full of German machinery. For us to slip through along the water’s edge two enemy sentries had to be "carried off". Lagutin and I crawled up to the Germans and simultaneously rushed towards them. It was the first time that I had to kill somebody with a knife and due to my inexperience I stabbed my knife down on the collar bone of the sentry. A fountain of sticky blood splashed into my face. I was sick and vomited ... Lagutin left his already lifeless German and covered my mouth with his huge palm. But it was too late; the Germans had already heard someone barfing, and called out to us. We were walking along the river when they opened fire and began to illuminate the frontline with flares. A bullet hit my leg, and when we were on our way to our trench I had gotten shell fragments all over my body. The wounded Lagutin carried me and the dead radio operator over. But the body of Guteyev had to be left behind ... Stepan saved my life that night.
- What happened to Lagutin?
- Nobody knew anything about his fate. He was in another hospital. After the war Stepan did not return to Biysk. We did not know whether or not he had survived...
In 1946 I ran into a former sergeant major Philip Solovchuk, who used to be a deputy politruk (political instructor) of our armored trains battalion operations platoon. He was the only one of the political officers of the 42nd detached battalion of armored trains who had personally been in combat. He told me that in December, the 42nd Battalion had been removed from the front and in January 1943 transferred to Iran, and that Lagutin after being wounded had never returned to them. He described how the scout boys had been waiting for my return, kept my clothes and weapons, and how our Battalion Commissar Lebedev, an incredible bitch and shit, had stolen from my personal belongings the dagger bestowed on me back in Shrom.
- Where did you go after the hospital?
- I was discharged from the hospital on the 31st of December 1942. On new year’s eve I was all alone, jolting along in a train going to Tbilisi. I was assigned to the 21st Tank Training Regiment – the 21st TTR, which was based in the provincial Georgian town of Shulaveri. This regiment was "whipping up" tank crews for replacement tank companies. The staff of the regiment was mixed: veterans coming from hospitals and recruits. There were tanks of all types. Patriotism and a desire to get engaged in battle with the enemy, the sooner the better, were encouraged in that TTR in a very sadistic way: we had almost no food! Only a concoction of moldy corn was given to us. The men in the regiment half starved.
A few days later I was summoned to the headquarters of the regiment, and it was announced that I would be sent to military school. I refused. But they immediately got my "mind right ", abruptly explaining that orders in the army were not subject of discussion but of execution!
A team of future cadets was assembled - 150 ex-frontline combatants, who were given travel rations - salty vimba (fish) without any bread, and sent out from the regiment.
We were transported across the Caspian Sea on a big steamboat, which we literally had to take by storm. The steamboat was packed with almost four thousand people. We sailed along the Caspian Sea for three days. The weather was stormy with cold, wet snow. Many men got seasick. My friend and I rested up under a tarp in a lifeboat. A large group of wounded sailors was travelling along with us, the tankers. Two large barrels of port wine were standing under guard on the deck. We had an engagement with the sentry, tied him up, and proceeded with active consumption of the contents of the barrels. On the Turkmen coast "the red carpet" meeting by the representatives of the NKVD troops was in store for us. But when the "greeters" saw that they would have to deal with tankers and wounded sailors, they just moved away from the ladder ... No one dared to mess around with us. In Krasnovodsk a bath was organized; three pots of water per person were given for washing. We received rations for further journey: millet in briquettes. Those briquettes were immediately gnawed dry. We arrived at the 1st Kharkov Tank Training School, stationed in Chirchik. The eleventh cadet company staffed by frontline veterans was established. We had expected that our training would last just half a year, but actually our study was thirteen months long.
- Did study in the training school leave any trace in your memory?
- Of course it did. After all, an entire year of my young life was spent within the walls of the 1st Kharkov Tank Training School. The training school was large -16 training companies, 125 trainees in a company. But for some reason now I`m not willing to talk very long and in detail about my life in the school. We were trained to operate the old BT and T-34 tanks, but in early 1944, just before our release, the new T-34-85 tanks arrived at the school. We practiced driving BT-7 tanks. One such vehicle was assigned to each platoon. During the whole time of my study in the training school I practiced firing a tank gun only three times. There was strict discipline and drill, although our 11th veterans’ company had certain privileges in terms of discipline. We were often given leave warrants to go out to the city.
We were fed the 9th (lowest) grade of mess which was reserved for cadets, as the saying goes "pilaf in engine oil" was the main course, but I cannot say that we suffered from hunger. Judging by the fact that by evening, after intensive training, many trainees still had some energy, desire and time for going for boxing and weight lifting sports, the conclusion can be made that our feeding was not so bad. Sometimes we went to the surrounding gardens and orchards where we collected grapes and melons, which made up our “additional rations”.
We conducted most of our training out in the field. The heat was wild, and we just could not get used to it. Shirts resembled maps because of the streaks of salt leaching out at the back. In the morning, before going to classes in the desert everybody would receive a flask of water and in the evening the sergeant major would check it: God forbid that anybody should even take a sip.
A good guy, Lieutenant. Osipov, was in command of our platoon. The company was commanded by Captain Fedin, a strict, very button down duty officer and a drill machine, who was very reserved and kept us at a distance, but commanded our respect and trust. The battalion was commanded by a Major with a typical Jewish surname, which I do not remember now. In the summer of 1943 he left training school for the front. I met him in 1945 by chance in a synagogue in Chernovtsy where I arrived on the holy day of Judgment. The Major had lost his arm at the front and had the empty sleeve of his shirt tucked in his belt. He immediately recognized me. Technician Lieutenant Koval and Colonel Kuzmichev, who had taught us tactics, were excellent teachers.
Some good guys had drawn themselves together in our company: my close friend Mikhail Strebkov, Vladimir Vovk, Alexander Goloborodko and Vasya Yubkin were nice guys. In our company we also had Rostislav Armashov, an intelligent guy and a former engineer, who had come to the training school from civilian life. He immediately became a target of hatred from our company sergeant major Gradilenko, a man, who had only finished two grades in school, hating anyone smarter or luckier than him. He pretended to be a tough war veteran, though a few students knew the sergeant major’s background at the front, where he used to serve at a fuel depot. Gradilenko had bucked his superiors in a masterly fashion and, despite complete ignorance, managed to get on the list of those selected to enter the training school, and when in Chirchik he was appointed the company sergeant major. He was a typical misanthrope, a former regular soldier, an envious dumb bastard and a scoundrel. Gradilenko hated Armashov and loudly announced to him: "I'll knock some intelligent out of you." It took a quite while until Gradilenko was finally forced to "calm down":
In early spring of 1944, we passed our final exams at the training school. The exams included tactics, topography, equipment and tank weaponry and driving. The fire training examination was theoretical. We got the shoulder straps of junior lieutenants. I was handed a "Graduated with honors" certificate, and presently I was already in Nizhny Tagil, where I had to get my tank and form my crew.
- How long had you been waiting for your tank to be released from the assembly line?
- It took about ten days. We were involved in the assembly of our machines.
Women and teenagers, almost children, had selflessly worked on the assembly line. They gave me a T-34-85 tank, a tank commander’s clock and a six-bladed clasp knife. A crew of four men was assigned to me. A few days later, in late May 1944, we were ordered to load the tanks onto flatcars, to get ammunition and then our march company of 30 tanks in a single troop train started off for the front. Two powerful steam locomotives were coupled to the flatcars.
On our arrival in the brigade, personal firearms were handed to us.
- Who were the members of your first crew?
- The entire crew consisted of new-to-war soldiers; none of the guys had been to the front before. Vasily Kharin was the gunner. He was killed in one of the first battles. Vasily Osipov, a guy from the Urals, was the gun commander. Both Vasilies were nice guys. After being wounded, Osipov found himself in another battalion of the brigade and I do not know whether he had survived to the end of the war. The driver-mechanic Boris Makarov was also wounded in one of the first battles and on returning to the brigade after hospital again was assigned to my crew.
While he was in hospital, I had lost two crews. After returning to the battalion Boris had always been with me. A true friend to me, he was killed at the end of January 1945. Alexander Belov, a Cossack from Kuban, was another member of my crew. He had lived for several months under German occupation and had a certain idea of the war. Belov burned in a tank. All the boys were of age19 to 20.
- How do you assess the level of capability of the crew for fighting?
- I can only give one estimate mark - zero. In the TTR (tank training regiment) the crew had been badly starved but taught little. I had nothing to hold against the gun commander; he could fire his gun. The driver had only eight hours of the tank driving practice. But it was not even a matter of professional training - the crew was emaciated. I was looking with regret at the turret gunner and wondered how that goner would be able in action, in indescribable confinedness, on the move, to load 15 kg tank gun shells, where he would get the strength to lift a shell out of the ammo case? I kept thinking of how to feed the crew.
Before boarding the train we found an empty replacement fuel tank on the trestle. We picked that tank up and filled it with gasoil. The gasoil distribution taps were not locked or guarded. We hid the tank under the tarp, dubbing it with the brand name "kerosene". And thanks to that "kerosene" my crew finally got fattened up. All the way up to the front, we would exchange the gasoil for sour cream, curds, milk and bread. The guys came to life and they retrieved their zest for life.
Within four days our train had made its way to Moscow, and then the train went to Smolensk. There we were unloaded and in a marching tank company column under its own power, we went towards the town of Bogushevsk. For several days we wandered, following the receding frontline and during that time I was able to pull the crew up in terms of battle training. All the way we practiced. The mechanic augmented his hours of practical driving. Before dispatching the crew to the front we had a tactical training and field firing exercise, where we shot well, and I was pleased with my crew.
- In which brigade did you arrive?
- We arrived in the 2nd detached Guards Tank Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Yefim Yevseyevich Duchovny. The brigade had been one of the famous ones at the front. It was under operational control of the Front Headquarters and did not belong to any particular Tank Corps. The brigade was comprised of 65 tanks in three tank battalions, a mechanized rifle battalion, a battery of antitank guns, a signal company, scouts, a medical aid platoon and many other smaller units. The brigade was only used for breakthroughs and in each offensive it suffered tremendous losses. In fact, it was a brigade of doomed die-hards, and for an average tanker surviving two offensives was something unreal. After I had survived the summer offensive in Belorussia and Lithuania, all in the battalion called me ‘Lucky’ for my survival luck. But the newcomers in the brigade had not been told of what a "funny" unit they were in. Unnecessarily discouraging people was not needed ... It was later that the newcomers realized that their fate was in hands of two People’s Commissariats (Ministries): the People’s Commissariat for Soil Management and the People’s Commissariat for Healthcare ...
- How were the newcomers received in the brigade? Did they get any detailed induction and indoctrination?
- Ten crews from our march company had arrived at the 2nd detached Guards Tank Brigade. Many crews were immediately reshuffled. Company commanders would come and recruit the "newcomers" for their veteran crews. They could easily “swap”, exchange an old tank for a new one. There were no strict rules in that respect. Some were short of a radio operator; the mechanic of another was killed in action. The redundant "horseless" tankers were assigned to the "foot reserve" of the battalion. There were also the "horseless" ones who returned to the battalion from hospitals and had not been yet assigned to other crews.
You know how it happened with tankers? More often the tanks were on fire in summer, and the tank crews disabled in winter. So in summertime there was a shortage of tanks, and in wintertime shortage of tank crews. However, on arrival in the brigade my crew was not broken up and "dismantled for parts". I went to the platoon commanded by Lieutenant Borodulin, who was seriously wounded a few days later. Induction for the new reinforcement was always superficial. Basically two common phrases were used, the first: "The war will teach you", and another one just before the battle: "Do as I do!"
- What was the numerical strength of your battalion?
- The battalion was comprised of two tank companies with ten tanks each along with the 21st tank of the battalion commander. One hundred and five people were in crews and approximately 30-35 persons were in logistical support and maintenance units of the battalion.
- What was the officer corps of the battalion?
- My tank battalion was commanded by Major Dorosh. A nice guy. Friendly and pleasant person, a Ukrainian from the city of Dnepropetrovsk, always self-possessed, ironic and patronizing. Dorosh almost never went in tank attacks himself, and his 21st tank was considered to be our reserve.
Major Smirnov, our deputy battalion commander on political affairs, was a rare rascal and a booty looter, with his chest down to his waist full of decorations. Nobody ever saw Smirnov in battle. All the tankers hated the political deputy commander, almost to his face calling him briefly and clearly, “Dungy shit”. I will talk about that remarkable example of the human race in more detail a bit later.
A good man was in the position of Battalion Chief of Staff, a senior aide. Whenever he had to order the "horseless" tankers, who had just lost their machines, to take up other tanks he had a sense of guilt. He sympathized with us ...
The battalion was also comprised of a deputy commander on drill, a maintenance quartermaster, a logistics supervisor (a food quartermaster), an ammunition quartermaster, and so on.
- When did you get into your first battle as a serviceman of the tank brigade?
- In the very beginning of the Belarusian offensive. It was a breakthrough between Vitebsk and Orsha. We had reached the starting lines to the west of Borisov. Our rear units had fallen far behind the Berezina River and we were out of fuel and ammunition. And when the brigade was given the order to turn towards Vilnius, the peeled and scratched remnants of shells and fuel of the bled-white brigade only sufficed to equip one tank platoon of three tanks. It was the platoon which I had to command, representing our brigade in the July fighting for Vilnius.
I was provided with "an opportunity to distinguish myself". Senior Lieutenant Varivoda, the Battalion party organizer, volunteered to go with us as a liaison officer. Though a political officer, he was a decent man, the complete opposite to fool and coward Smirnov. We covered over two hundred kilometers with no rest stops on dirt roads and sandy lanes, burning the rubber tires of the rollers and knocking the tar out of the diesel engines and crews.
We stopped by the rifle corps headquarters, located in a Lithuanian manor six kilometers away from Vilnius. The party organizer and I went to the headquarters. Being my senior in rank, Varivoda reported the arrival of the vanguard of the 2nd Guards Tank Brigade of three tanks to the corps commander, a Lieutenant-General. The Lieutenant General - I think his name was Krylov - critically looked at me up and down and pointing at me with his chin, said, "And is this the renowned 2nd Guards Brigade, which is to ensure that I capture the city?" We remained silent. The General continued with a smile: "Well, let it be this brigade, as I have no other choice. Relax guys. Sleep on it. Tomorrow is another day! You can watch a movie in headquarters." Meanwhile, down in Vilnius a battle was rumbling. Varivoda and I looked at each other in confusion and could not understand anything.
- Can I hear from you the details of the battles for Vilnius?
- On the morning of 8 July, I received orders to proceed at the disposal of the commander of one of the regiments of the 144th Rifle Division. We drove past the cemetery and in the area of the railway station we found a command post. I was ushered to the regimental commander. That Lieutenant Colonel with a warlord’s manners alleged that the enemy was holding his defenses with only about a hundred infantrymen, a couple of panzers and one or two artillery pieces. It sounded like an easy task to me, which I had to accomplish with my hands down, scaring the Germans with my sight alone.
So we, the three tanks, split up and crawled through the streets out of sight of each other. The two German artillery pieces, promised by the lieutenant colonel, apparently had reproduced asexually by fragmentation. The artillery pieces began firing at us from everywhere. We barely managed to destroy them. Our right track was knocked out. The driver switched into the reverse gear, and the tank drew a short arc, leaving a broken caterpillar ahead, crawled back into a front garden, and by sheer luck stopped in a very comfortable position. A shell had mangled the idler and the front roller. As we couldn’t accomplish the repairs of such damage with our own resources I ordered the crew to stay with the machine and wait for a maintenance party. I went to look for the other tanks. One of the tanks of my platoon had clung to a high rise building with no signs of life. The crew was in its place, and I got into that tank. I ordered the tank commander go to my knocked down machine to make an all around defense and wait for the arrival of the maintenance party.
In addition to the Soviet troops, the Germans were actively fought by the Poles who wore red and white armbands on their sleeves (subjects of the Polish government in London) and a large Jewish guerilla formation. The latter wore red armbands on their sleeves. A group of Poles came up to the tank. I descended to them and asked: "Do you need any help?" Their commander, who I think was a Colonel, almost in tears, shook my hand and pointed out me a school, from which the most intensive German gunfire was coming at them. As it turns out, the day before they had been left alone with the Germans without any support. That was why the Lieutenant General was so good to us ... At that moment, the lieutenant, whom I had earlier seen in the headquarters of the regiment, ran up to me and delivered the commander’s request to support his battalion in the same direction, which had just been pointed out to me by the Poles.
I found in a semi-basement the battalion commander’s observation point. The battalion commander acquainted me with the situation and set us to the task. His battalion was comprised of 17 survivors ... I smiled: “Well, since the three tanks are considered to be a tank brigade, why cannot the 17 men be a battalion?”... One 76 mm gun was attached to the battalion. The gun crew had only two armor-piercing shells remaining. That was all the ammunition. A young Lieutenant was in command of the gun. The artillerymen certainly could not provide any gunfire support to the battalion. Only one thought possessed them: what would they do if German panzers should appear in the street?
I found the third tank of my platoon, commanded by my friend and fellow trainee Ivan Solovyov. Vanya was supporting the assault of the adjacent battalion. The next day Solovyov burned in the tank along with his crew. We buried him right in the same street. In the seventies, Alexei Klopov, one of the tanker veterans of our battalion, became the military commissar of the city. He had fought as a turret gunner in the adjacent tank company, but after being wounded he continued his service in battalion headquarters. Lieutenant Colonel Klopov helped me look for the burial place of Solovyov’s crew. We did not find the grave. But, thanks to Klopov, the names of the Guards Junior Lieutenant Ivan Solovyov’s crew were carved on the monument to the soldiers who had died for the liberation of Vilnius.
Starting from July 9, my tank did not leave the battlefield for three days. We had completely lost our orientation in space and time. No shells were delivered to me and I had to think a thousand times before allowing myself to fire another shot with the tank gun. I primarily supported the infantry with the fire of my two machine guns and with the strength of my tank tracks. We had no contact with the brigade or even with Varivoda.
The street fights were a nightmare. It was the kind of horror that the human mind cannot fully comprehend. Crumbling buildings. Corpses on the pavement. Heartrending cries of the wounded. Fragments of soldier speech peppered with dirty language. And casualties, wild and terrible casualties. All that you heard all around was, "Come on, you f• • • • r! If you don’t take this f• • • ing house in twenty minutes, I will shoot you to f• • • ing hell." On the second day in the battalion to which we were assigned, no one survived. Men from the regimental rear units, clerks, cooks, messengers and horse team drivers were driven over to the battalion. Those were the people who, in the end, had captured Vilnius.
On 12 July, I was about to bid farewell to my life. We crushed an anti-aircraft gun, but before we did so it fired a shot at us. Fortunately, the shell just grazed the turret. We rushed to another crossroad to get away from the fire of the neighboring anti-aircraft gun set up at point blank range, but got lost in the maze of streets. Normally I wouldn’t close the rear flap of my hatch. To open it, I had to pull down with one hand on the strap which was attached to the two latches, and with the other hand to push up a pretty heavy hatch. But in the city, where you were shot from above, the hatch could not be left open. In order not to trap ourselves, I used a strap to hold the latches open. Thus, the hatch was just closed, not locked. I mention this in such detail because through the roar of diesel and rumble of tracks I heard that something was scraping the roof of the turret. Two Germans had climbed up in the stern and were attempting to open the hatch. I grabbed the strap and ordered Vasily to cut it. So I found myself in a position that is not very pleasant for a tanker. I do not know how long we were running through the streets. And then I saw the church, our old landmark. We ran perpendicular to the place where our only 76 mm gun with two remaining shells was set up. The gunners, with feverish speed, began deploying their gun against our tank! When the distance to the gun was forty meters, Boris stopped the tank, opened his hatch and uttered an obscene tirade that probably caused all the streets of Vilnius to blush from shame and embarrassment. The gunners immediately realized that our tank was friendly. When we arrived, the Germans on the stern were already dead. Infantrymen from the neighboring house had shot them. We rushed to embrace with these gunners.
On July 13 fighting in the city stopped. The Germans were surrendering in groups. Do you remember, how many Germans the Lieutenant Colonel mentioned to me? One hundred. As it turned out, there were ‘only’ five thousand Germans taken prisoner. Fortunately, the two tanks he mentioned were not there.
For some reason the soldiers brought me a German tanker officer with the rank of Hauptsturmfuhrer of the SS Division’s Panzer Battalion. No one had given me the authority to interrogate that German, but having mobilized all my "extensive" knowledge of the German language, I began to converse with my "counterpart in arms". The captive officer said that he was an Austrian and that he used to be a student at the University of Vienna. He was one of the first Austrian National Socialists. He had some prestigious decorations on his uniform. He carried himself proudly, with dignity and was not even scared to offer his opinion, that there was no difference between the ideas of the National Socialism and Communism, and that we, by and large, were cut from the same cloth, no matter what color of the symbol would be - red or brown. He added that there would be no room for honest people or Jews under either regime, either communist or fascist. From time to time I would reach for my pistol. But the Austrian just smiled condescendingly. I’m guilty and must confess that a kind of feeling of fellowship with him arose in me. I did not shoot him. I ordered him taken to regimental headquarters. Already after a few steps, he stopped and said, "Lieutenant! Here is something for you from me as a souvenir.” - And he gave me a fountain pen of great beauty: a red one interspersed with mother of pearl, with a delicate golden nib, with a golden ring around its cap and a similar holder. That pen became my talisman. On the morning before my last attack I lost my pen. What a heavy feeling! I knew what was in store for me.
- Veterans of the 184th Rifle Division remember one battle in late July 1944, which happened on the way to the Prussian-Lithuanian border. In that battle, the Germans lost thirty of their tanks. And the actions of one tank platoon of the 2nd Guards Tank Brigade were decisive to the outcome of that battle. And that platoon was commanded by you. Can you tell me about that unique battle?
- Over the Niemen, near Germanishki-Zhverzhdaytsy, the battalion had sustained a severe night fight, which ended very unsuccessfully for us. It was just carnage. We had fallen into a tank ambush. We could not see the Germans and blindly fired at the enemy tanks – towards the flashes of their guns. The German infantry had come close to the tanks of our battalion and the infantrymen pointed out the targets to their "Panther" panzers by launching illumination flares. The “Panther” panzers nailed our flare lit T-34 tanks one after another with solid shots. I was lucky in that battle. It occurred to me to outflank the Germans in the darkness and I burned two "Panthers" in their sides. Against the background of our burning tanks the silhouettes of the "Panthers" were the easy targets. But after that terrible fight only three serviceable tanks of our battalion survived. The three T-34 tanks, commanded by lieutenants Serdechnev, Feoktistov and me, found shelter in a dilapidated manor. With great difficulty the tank crews were coming back to their senses.
In the morning our senior battalion adjutant arrived on a motorcycle and told us the good news: the brigade would be pulled out of the fighting and reformed. We could not believe that for a while the war for us would be over, we would get a letup and have a chance to live in this world a little longer. We began having breakfast and drinking some alcohol together with remnants of the tank mounted infantry – the soldiers of a penal battalion who had long ago replaced our dead "regular" mechanized riflemen.
Suddenly my turret gunner said, "Lieutenant, can’t you hear me? The Panzers!" We looked at the forest, from which the sound of the twanging whining of German engines could be heard. The panzers appeared at the forest edge. Thirty "Panthers" in an uneven line crept onto the field and, firing at short stops, went on towards the battery of our 76 mm guns, which had entrenched to the right of the manor and behind it. A thick wall of dust rose behind the tanks, clouding the forest edge. That field was not the defense area of our tank platoon or our responsibility. And in general, we looked at the event which was unfolding as observers, as our brigade had already been pulled out of the fight!
The gunners opened fire, but their shells could do nothing to the frontal armor of the "Panther" tanks at such a range. The gunners wavered. The gun crews began fleeing from their guns. And so it happened, even in the fourth year of the war. Instead of acting as they had been taught, which was firing at the tracks, throwing grenades at the tanks, fighting and dying with honor down to the last living soul in the battery, the gunners rushed to the rear. The divisional commander, Major General Gorodovikov, rushed onto the field in his machinegun carrying cart. An eccentric Kalmyk. At that time none of other generals travelled in carts. In addition, the brave Gorodovikov was said to have personally led the regiments into attacks, which had never been done by any other chiefs of his rank even back in 1941. Shells exploded around his cart. The divisional commander drove his cart around the field chasing the stampeding gunners, lashing them with a whip, trying to return them to the abandoned firing positions.
But it did not help. The divisional commander’s machinegun carrying cart raced at breakneck speed to our manor. Gorodovikov hopped up towards us. His eyes were full of tears of despair. He shouted - "Brothers! Tankers! Help out! Stop the tanks! I will recommend all of you for the title of a Hero of the Soviet Union!" And even though I had wanted to answer the General that our brigade was no longer at war, and in no way was it the area of our responsibility, that we did not want any Hero’s Stars but wanted to live on, and that our three T-34 tanks stood no chance in fighting such a pack of German panzers, and that he should go and sort out the issues with his cowardly gunners himself, and many other things I had wanted to say, I just cried out to my men: "Aboard! Fire from stationary position!" - And added a few strong words. The Germans were running in the field, exposing the sides of their "Panthers", like a target in the tank firing range. We fired from behind the high stone fence wall of the manor. Only the tank turrets were sticking up over the wall. And so it began. When our gunners saw the burning German tanks, and that the surviving ones had turned around and began retreating to the woods, they returned to their guns. The rear armor of the "Panther" panzers was a nut that they could crack. The outcome of the fight: we had burned 18 German tanks – six "Panthers" by each crew, the gunners knocked out six more.
There was another extraordinary event during that battle. The crews of six "Panthers", seeing how the tanks of their comrades lit up one after the other, abandoned their intact machines and ran into the woods. The infantrymen instantly "straddled" the abandoned tanks that just a few minutes before had instilled animal fear in them; laid straws around the tanks and began setting them on fire. From the German side nobody even fired at us! Apparently, all there were stunned with what they saw also. I drove my tank up to the infantrymen and managed to salvage one “Panther” from them. We rode that trophy all day long with the risk of catching an armor-piercing shell from our countrymen. Shortly after the battle, Gorodovikov arrived in his cart again. He hugged and kissed us.
- Why has this battle remained little-known fact of heroism of the Soviet tank crews, another "blank page" in the war history? I had been told about it by veterans of the 184th Rifle Divisions long before I met you. But why, in your opinion, has such an outstanding combat achievement been overlooked in the "tank" historical literature?
- Since the war there are still so many blank pages remaining, that it is beyond words. Well, let's admit that the deeds of valor of tankers of the company commanded by Kolobanov under Spiller’s battalion or those of individual tank crews commanded by Konovalov and Pavlov – have become well known and are reflected in the historical and memoir literature. But who knows about Lukanin who in the JS -2 (Joseph Stalin) tank together with his partner, at Sandomierz, had burned 17 German panzers? Who ever heard of a self-propelled gunner Zinoviy Zusmanovsky, who in one battle knocked down seven German "Tiger" and "Panther" panzers near Caushi in 1945?
In 1942, in the battle near Prokhladnaya, I personally witnessed how a crew of the T-34 tank destroyed seventeen German panzers. After the war, it turned out that nobody had ever heard of that heroic tank battle ... Even in war all depended on public relations ... In 1994, when a friend of mine, now deceased, Arkady Timor, the editor of "The Voice of the Disabled War Veteran" Magazine, who had fought as a self-propelled gun regiment commander, brought me from the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense in Moscow the photocopies of my commendation lists and for the first time I saw the commendation list for that battle and the description of the battle, I suddenly realized that, most likely, all the tanks that my platoon had destroyed, were simply “spread” out for the entire brigade, to make sure that not only the three crews, but everybody else, would get decorations. My commendation list featured just three tanks instead of six, which I knocked down, and those tanks were "scattered" on different days of the week. Why do I waste my breath, here is the copy, just read for yourself.
- So did Gorodovikov keep his word or not? Were you recommended for the title of a Hero of the Soviet Union for that battle?
- For that battle, according to the commendation list, I was recommended for decoration with the Order of the Red Star, but actually was decorated with the medal "For Courage". Believe me, I really do not care now. And whether the divisional commander recommended me for the Hero’s title or not, I do not know. Basically, our tank crews were recommended for decorations by rifle corps headquarters, to which our detached brigade was attached. As for the promises of Gorodovikov ... It was the only time when "encouragement with decorations" on the battlefield was in question, and I do not know what was going on later in that "heroic issue."
In our brigade no decorations were ever promised in advance. But whenever commendation papers were being filled out directly in the brigade, the brigade staff clerks - knowledgeable people - just would whisper in your ear, who was recommended and for which decoration, and what was going on about that. For example, when the battalion commander, Guards Major Dorosh had hinted at brigade headquarters, that lieutenant Degen for the battle of Vilnius deserved the Hero’s star, and he, the battalion commander, asked for permission to fill out the commendation list for conferring on me the title of a Hero of the Soviet Union, the clerk told me at once that our deputy commander on political affairs Smirnov had "strongly thwarted" that to prevent such recommendation from being issued, and he even involved the entire political department of the brigade to the" heroic struggle for the purity of heroic ranks from Degen and his ilk”. But in this particular episode no further information followed, just rumors.
- But I was told by your former fellow students from your medical institute that in 1948, the National Radio of the Soviet Union in a program about tankers had broadcasted a long story about a Hero of the Soviet Union: Lieutenant Degen.
- On the Tanker’s day of September 8, 1948 I went to the institute. A friend of mine, classmate Simeon Reznik (now he is a professor and surgeon, lives in Ramat Gan, in Israeli, like me) said that in the morning radio program he had heard a story of tankers about their fallen comrade, a Hero of the Soviet Union, Guards Lieutenant Ion Degen. Knowing Simeon’s being fond of hoaxes and pranks, I did not pay attention to his talk. Returning home I found a telegram from my nephew with an invitation to a telephone call station for a long-distance call. My nephew started the conversation by saying: "Modesty, of course, is a credit to a person, but how could you conceal from your relatives that you're a Hero .." .. I explained to him that it was a mistake.
The next day a friend of mine and classmate Zahar Kogan, also a former tank commander, a lieutenant, dragged me into the regional military commissariat. The Commissar - a colonel and a Hero of the Soviet Union, a very nice man - said that he had heard that program on the radio the day before and that he had already sent a query to the Awards and Decorations department under Supreme Council of the USSR. About one month later, during a chance meeting in the street, he said that he had received the answer which read: "Wait for a decree from the Presidium of the Supreme Council!" But no decree followed. However in 1965, on the 20th anniversary of the Victory Day the Kiev regional military commissariat again sent the query to the Awards and Decorations department. The answer received read: “Since I.L. Degen has been awarded with so many decorations, it is believed to be unnecessary to confer on him the title of a Hero of the Soviet Union.” The text I’ve just conveyed is approximate, but the meaning is accurate.
- Did the tanks of the 2nd detached Tank Brigade carry their individual code markings and numbering?
- Yes. A white circle was painted on the turret; atop of which there was a star and from its lower beams two lines went down forming a Roman numeral II. In my company the crews had tanks with even numbers: 26, 28, 30 and so on. Calling signals for communication were frequently changed; they might be either "Tulip", or "Rose". The only combat interaction signals remained unchanged, for example the signal "111" meant "Attack! Forward!”
- Did the tanks of the Brigade open fire on the move?
- There was almost no use of firing on the move. We continuously practices in firing at a shortstop. The tank commander would give the command: "Short". The driver would stop the machine exactly for two seconds, during which making a more or less aimed shot was possible. And without waiting for further commander’s instructions to continue the movement the mechanic would pull the machine away. That maneuver was practiced until it became second nature. In any event, even in frontal attacks we would not open fire until reaching the range of 500 meters.
- How did the tankers treat their combat machines? - "Who cares? It will burn anyway" or as to a living and a loved one?
- The crews treated their tanks with love, they looked after them. I never heard anybody say: "blast it all! It will be destroyed anyway!”
- Was the hierarchy among the crew members observed strictly?
- No. The distance between the commanding officer and the tank crew sergeants was not observed strictly. The crews lived together, as a family, autonomously, although the commanders were respected. But, frankly speaking, we almost did not have crews who had fought together for more than 2 to 3 months. All were killed or wounded.
Despite all its strengths, the T-34 tank was quite vulnerable, and in the competition between the gunnery and the tank, we were often unlucky. The German 88 mm gun would penetrate all the way through the frontal armor of the T-34 tank. "Staff turnover" due to battle casualties was terribly high. The crews came to know each other really only in defense or during reformations.
- Did you do "minor repairs" of the tank on the battlefield?
- Caterpillar track replacement was always carried out on the battlefield. During our crossing of the Neman River a German shell had smashed the caterpillar of my tank, so all the repairs were made under German fire, but we were well covered by gunfire from our infantry and the other tanks of my company.
- When was ammunition replenished?
- Only after battles. The ammunition allotment for the old T-34 (T-34-76) was comprised of 101 rounds, that of the T-34-85 - 55 rounds: 15 in the turret and 40 in "ammo cases." That was enough, the tankers of our brigade did not take any rounds over the standard allotment, and nobody compiled emergency reserves. I always watched over the ammunition stores to ensure that in addition to armor-piercing rounds, we always had five sub-caliber (hardcore) rounds and five shrapnel rounds in the tank.
- When you went on the attack, how many fuel tanks did you take along?
- We went into battle with only two onboard fuel tanks - that was enough for 250 kilometers of travel. Each tank was also supplied with three "spare" fuel tanks with capacity 270 liters of fuel, but we never took the spare fuel tanks along into battle.
- Was the T-34-85 tank much more comfortable than the old plain T-34-76?
- No, it was the same "tin can", but for five. It is hard to imagine how we, as an entire crew, managed to sleep in its indescribable narrowness. You should not think that, except for its larger caliber gun, the T-34-85 tank was more comfortable, or something better than the “old" T-34-76. Even though they had fitted fans into the new tank, those fans didn’t make any difference: we still choked terribly on the gunpowder fumes. All cursed the commander's seat on springs. Any slight lifting away from it and it immediately kicked your ass. And the commander's cupola hatch! Some idiot must have designed it.
- What kind of observation devices did the tankers use?
- Well, you amaze me ... Observation devices ... We used the commander’s binoculars and that was the only "device" ...
We did not have rangefinders. Through the slits we could hardly see what was happening just around the tank. The commander’s periscope was a little better. The TMFD-7 sight was coupled with the gun. We always went on the attack with the commander hatch’s rear flap open but the driver-mechanics in our brigade did not open their hatches even a palm’s width. Instead the mechanics would lean with the forehead pad of their tank helmets cushioning them against the front armor and through their periscopes would see what was going on in the battlefield a little better than newborn kittens. Only in urban combats did all the hatches of the tank have to be buttoned down. And it was dangerous. The rear hatch flap of the commander's cupola was locked by two latches linked with a strap. If you got wounded, you wouldn’t be able to open it – you wouldn’t have enough strength. Therefore, the strap would be tightened, but the latches would not be locked. I have already given the characteristics of the design of that hatch.
- What personal weapons did the tank crew have?
- In this respect, as it is said, they varied. No one really controlled which personal weapons the crews took into battle. I had a “Parabellum” pistol; the rest of the crew had "revolvers". There were one Soviet PPSh and two captured German submachine guns in the tank. We would always amass a lot of F-1 grenades. However, the PPS submachine guns were not issued to the tank crews of our Brigade.
- Was the communication discipline strictly observed?
- Yes. We had a communication connection with the company command, and they had a further one with the battalion command. For example, I did not know what radio channels the brigade headquarters used, as all the radio reports were communicated through the battalion commander. Radio silence would be imposed before an offensive. Once just before an attack a solid shot hit the turret of my tank and took the radio out, and my tank was supposed to lead the attack of nine others. At the time when the shell struck the turret, we were inside eating. I asked for permission to check the radio. But I was not allowed to. Then I went on the attack without any radio communication.
- How were the tanks crews dressed? Did you freeze at night?
- We had no reasons to complaint. For winter the crews were issued quilted jackets and felt boots, but in the afternoon we had to change into jackboots. In addition, fur vests were issued to the officers. Commanders in the brigade used to wear cotton uniforms, but later on all were issued new uniforms made of British cloth. We certainly would tend to freeze inside the tank in winter. The crew always carried along a stove. During longstanding parking it was set up under the tank to keep the temperature of oil at 25 degrees Celsius. The diesel engine was cooled with antifreeze. Well, the tankers, of course, would warm themselves with alcohol.
- How were the tankers of the 2nd Guards Brigade fed?
- Not bad! And much better than the infantry. In fact we were a bit spoilt. Once our senior quartermaster Captain Baranovsky fed us with porridge and stewed pork, so we became indignant, almost rebellious. The infantry was fed with gruel. I do not believe the stories that the infantry was allegedly fed with nourishing meat soups and cereal with lard. The infantry ate largely thanks to the captured foodstuffs. But on the defense ... 800 grams of bread a day per person were rationed for the infantry, and they would eat it right away in the morning, and then would only tighten their belts. But we, the tankers, were always looking for additional foodstuffs. Before the offensives we were issued emergency rations - bacon, biscuits, etc. But those emergency rations were immediately consumed.
I remember, in Lithuania in some abandoned farm we had "commandeered” a pig. I fired nine bullets of my “Parabellum” pistol into it (I always had a ninth round in the chamber), but it wouldn’t die. We finished the pig off with a knife. We tied its legs, stuck a pole over it and with difficulty carried it away. We cut out the ham, coated it with clay, buried it in a hole and set up a fire over it. Then the order arrived: "Aboard! Mount up!" And away we went. We put the raw ham wrapped in tarp on the stern. The whole operation (fire pit –interruption- tarp wrapping) was repeated two more times. The ham appeared to have been perfectly cooked.
Captured enemy foodstuffs were often helpful. We had high respect for German canned food, schnapps and chocolate, but the German bread, though tasty, caused many people severe heartburn.
- How was leisure time organized for the tankers during lulls at the front?
- We had no organized leisure. No performing artists or frontline ensembles ever came to us. I do not remember that any writers or correspondents from national newspapers ever came to our brigade.
Immediately after the capture of Vilnius at a distance of twenty meters I saw my idol in those years, the famous writer and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg. I was approached by his assistant, who had the rank of captain, who said, "Junior Lieutenant, comrade Ehrenburg would like to talk to you." But before that I had indulged in a good amount of drinking, I reeked alcohol a mile away, so I hesitated to come up to Ehrenburg. I made up an excuse saying that I had been summoned to go to the brigade immediately. Later on I terribly regretted that stupidity of mine. Ehrenburg was adored by all the soldiers at war.
The brigade had its own field cinema equipment, and several times I had the occasion to watch cinema. A few hours before the start of our January offensive in Prussia, we were shown the film "Sun Valley Serenade." Before the screening of the film our tanker Sasha Malygin recited for our guys the obscene poem "Luke Mudischev." I liked that.
But to be honest with you, we did not have a lot of free time. During the lulls we were busy with our machines, training, and studied the area of operations, and so on. All sorts of political officers would also pop up on us, conducting countless useless party and Komsomol meetings. Commissions from the Political Department, from the Headquarters of Armored & Mechanized Forces and all other maintenance, technical and other services would arrive. We didn’t have a lot of time for rest. And when I had off hours, I would always be alone, and read or write poetry.
- Did the men in the Brigade drink a lot of alcohol?
- We drank a lot, but usually only after battles... We commemorated our fallen comrades. We relieved with alcohol our terrible mental stress. It was the psychology of the doomed, what else could we do? ... But sometimes we also drank before the fight, especially in winter.
I went on my last attack in January 21, 1945, after I had done a lot of drinking. It happened on the ninth day after the beginning of a general offensive. I do not remember myself eating anything during the first eight days of the continuous offensive in Prussia in January 1945. I might have eaten a few pieces of crisp bread in all those days. I do not remember ... We were on the verge of complete physical exhaustion. The only wish we had was to sleep. On the night before my last fight it was very cold. We were freezing to death. At dawn the battalion commander Dorosh summoned me. At the moment when he personally poured me a 200 gram glass of vodka, I immediately realized that some really bad thing was in store for me. He gave me the task of leading a composite tank company, to break through and block the Gumbinė-Insterburg highway, set up defenses and hold out until the rest of our troops arrived. I realized that I was drinking for the last time in my life. And after that, when in the morning I realized that I had lost my talisman pen, there was no more doubt that great trouble would happen that day ...
That task was suicidal, if not criminal. Without the support of artillery, without infantry, without any interaction with the neighbors - all depended on chance ... And that Major Dorosh, while pouring me the glass of vodka, hid his eyes. I did not bother him with questions. It was all clear without questions. I went to my crew. I was passing by the kitchen, and then our chef offered me a glass of vodka and a burger. I drank another 200 grams. Two glasses of vodka warmed me, eased the pain in my left arm wounded by shrapnel the day before. The crew had already had breakfast and the frontal gunner, having laid a tarp over the ammo cases, served us food. We had vodka not only from rations supplies. Our mechanic poured vodka for all from a "captured flask”. I drank 200 grams more. When I was wounded in the face, my blood stank badly of vodka. I thought then that if I survived, I would never drink that stuff again.
- Did the tankers of your brigade have some common rituals, superstitions or omens?
- There was, for example, the superstition that a woman should not touch the tank, otherwise som
ething irreparable might happen. And when I caught Makarov with a woman in our tank, I was immediately convinced that our machine had become unhappy, and that we wouldn’t get to fight in it much longer. Presently a solid shot really hit the turret of our tank and broke the radio. I had my personal superstitions. I was walking and I saw a smoldering cigarette butt. I kept walking without changing the pace or direction of my motion, and made a prediction to myself, if I should step on the butt with my left foot, then in the next battle I would knock down an artillery piece; if I should step on it with my right foot, then I would destroy a tank, and if I should not step on it at all, then an artillery piece or a tank would knock me down.
We had no "special" common rituals before battle. As for premonitions ... Many men unmistakably sensed that they would be killed that day. Before the final battle on January 21, 1945 when we poured vodka, my gun commander Zachariah Zagiddullin, a great joker, a funny fellow and drinker, suddenly covered his mug with his palm and said sternly, "I am a Muslim. I should not drink before my death." No one told him anything in response. We realized that he was serious and was not mistaken ...
- Did people believe in God at the front?
- Before an attack there were no atheists! All whispered prayers before battle. There is nothing worse than waiting at the starting position for the order to attack. Everything around you stops. A poignant, eerie, maddening silence ...
After the battle, you would ask: "Hey, Sasha, (or Peter), you prayed before the battle, didn’t you?" - Then all at once they would begin denying that, saying that nothing of the sort had happened. But indeed everybody had prayed ... In Lithuania, once we passed by a Crucifixion cross at the roadside. All the tank commanders were sitting on the left fender of their tanks. I saw, as if commanded, all were keeping their "eyes left". We stopped. I bothered all by asking if they had prayed. At first all denied it. But when I threatened that, if they did not admit it, their prayers wouldn’t be answered, all told just about the same thing: "Dear God, have a mercy and save me!"
- The front veteran poet Simeon Gudzenko wrote the line: "Still the worst hour in all combat is the hour of waiting for attack." How did you cope with fear and the infernal mental stress at those moments?
- I was able to control my emotions before an attack. And even when I was really scared, I knew how to skillfully conceal the fear that, God forbid, someone might suspect a Jew of being a coward. You're right, there's nothing more difficult than those last minutes before battle ... Sometimes to relieve the tension before battle one of us would joke: "General Rodin’s tank has triggered a land mine." Everybody laughed.
- What had Major General Georgy Simeonovich Rodin done to displease the tankers?
- The tankers of our brigade had nothing against Georgy Simeonovich Rodin. Nonetheless we talked about Colonel General Alexey Grigorievich Rodin, the Commander of Armored & Mechanized Forces of the 3rd Belorussian Front. People used to say that he was the all-time worst redneck and petty tyrant in the entire Red Army. He plucked stars from colonels’ shoulder straps loudly announcing in selective obscenities that they were demoted to the ranks of major or lieutenant colonel. He would just rip the shoulder straps off. He would badmouth any general in the presence of his subordinates. He would strike any officer, not to mention the rank and file men. In short, what a "good" man he was, "a real Soviet" general. The baboon faced and presentable Rodin had the reputation of being a beast. So he was. He could remember all those whom he once encountered at war, from private to general. His memory was exceptional.
His "brilliant innovations" impressed many with their idiocy ... In defense the tanks were supposed to be set in dug trenches, at the bottom of which two logs were placed. A canvas roof and walls were constructed. The open end of that kind of "garage" was closed with straw mat, with a door cut into it. So, General Rodin ordered the dirt carefully picked out from each caterpillar track, the track washed with gasoil to a full gloss and then wiped dry. Returning after each drive, being dead on our feet from exhaustion, we, using knives, screwdrivers and bayonets, picked out the dirt from the tracks, washed, rubbed and slowly, centimeter after centimeter, rolled the tank down into the trench on the logs.
In late November 1944, Rodin arrived at our brigade. His Excellency was guarded by a full-blooded infantry company in APC’s (armored personnel carriers). Can you imagine it, a full company of idlers, while at the frontline junior officers had no idea where to get at least one more soldier to patch the next hole in the defensive line? The first thing Rodin did was to arrive at our battalion, which was considered to be a shock one. The General appeared before the tanks of my platoon and ordered: "Remove the mats!" We removed them. Rodin came up to my tank, took out his handkerchief and wiped the track. Thank God, the handkerchief remained clean. We were ready for that. But the thunderstorm was still to erupt. He ordered my driver-mechanic Boris Makarov to unbutton his overalls. Then a cheap show began. "Where is the Order of the Red Star? I had signed the decoration decree a month ago!" - shouted the Commander of Armored & Mechanized Forces. "I have not received it yet, Comrade Colonel General" - replied Makarov. Rodin glared at the Brigade Commander, who was standing upright at attention, and growled, "Why didn’t he get it?" The Brigade Commander answered: "The Brigade still has not received their decorations." And there came the climax from comrade Rodin: "Has not received? You f • • ker! Do you expect me, like Suvorov, to carry the decorations with me? You’re a shit, not a Colonel! Take off the order from your chest and give it to Makarov!" Then the scorched, brand new greatcoat of a young infantryman caught the General’s eyes. The slacker infantryman had allowed a bonfire to burn a hole in his greatcoat. Rodin’s finger beckoned the soldier: "Come on, son, come up here. Where did you come from to this shitty brigade?" The soldier replied: "From the hospital, Comrade Colonel General" Rodin did not let up, "And where did you fight before hospital?" - "In the 120th Tank Brigade, Comrade Colonel General." Rodin continued: "You, my son, go back to the 120th Brigade, since nobody cares for you here! This shitty brigade commander does not care that you've got a hole in your greatcoat. How will he take care of you in a battle? Go on, son. Tell them that Rodin has sent you." The soldier hesitated a few seconds on the ground, and as soon as he disappeared behind the nearest "garage", one of the tankers immediately thrashed him for catching the eye of a high commander in his holey greatcoat.
Meanwhile General Rodin continued to rage: "Combat alert!" - He shouted. Engines roared up. Rodin poked his finger into my chest: "Why don’t you start off, you a so-and-so?" I answered: "I still need ten minutes, Comrade Colonel General. The oil temperature should rise to 55 degrees." General glanced towards an engineer colonel standing next to him. The latter slightly nodded. Eight minutes later we drove out of the trench. The tanks stretched into a column on a dirt road. The commanders ascended the hill.
Rodin decided to conduct a reconnaissance. He turned to one of the tank commanders of my platoon, Lieutenant Volodya Ivanov, a tall and handsome blond man: "Report what you see," - he said to the lieutenant. We knew the surrounding area inside out, as we had been stuck there for weeks. Each of us, without even looking at the map, could talk about any details of the area between the dirt road and the battlefront, the distance to which was eleven kilometers. Volodya pulled out a map case and began: "On the left, in the southwest, is the forest of Shtalupenen." General Rodin growled: "What the f• • ck, forest? Are you f• • king blind? It’s the grove of Shtalupenen, not the forest!" - Rodin pointed his finger to his map.
I do not know what had got into me, but after an hour of the General’s showboating to us and our Brigade Commander, the resentment of all those who were insulted and humiliated overwhelmed me and broke out. I said, "Permission to speak, Comrade Colonel General?" - "Well, go ahead!" - "What is the year of your map?" The general looked at his map-case, "Well, it is of 1891." - "In fifty three years a grove might have turned into a forest" - I said. "What!" - The general's cry shook the frosty air, "You worm! You are a • • • • •. F• • • out of here to f • • •ing hell!" I clearly put my hand to the arc of my tank helmet and with the full strength of a well-trained commanding voice shouted: "Yes, Sir going to f• • • ing hell" - and a little more quietly added, "after the general who knows how to get there." Measuring out my pace, I passed by the stunned officers. Rodin yelled behind my back, and stamped his feet. Everybody caught it: the Brigade Commander and the Battalion Commander, but I did not see it, only heard the General's obscene language stunning the surroundings. For a long while in that specific language Rodin was explaining to the Brigade Commander, what he and his subordinates were ... The Battalion Commander Dorosh asked me later: "why did you ask for trouble?" Everybody waited for the dire consequences. But they did not follow, except for one thing: I was not decorated with the Order for which I had been recommended. But it was not a big deal.
Presently I had to meet the Commander of Armored & Mechanized Forces of the Front again. A couple of weeks later, all of a sudden the tank drivers and tank commanders from several brigades, which were under the operational control of Front Headquarters, were gathered in a big hall of the German Officers' Club. Several hundred people. None of us knew the reason for the rally. General Rodin entered the hall. Everyone stood up. I was standing just to the left of the aisle through which Rodin was marching. He saw me and stopped. Looking at me contemptuously, Rodin said: "I have not had you shot yet. You’re going to be of some use to me yet. Anyway you will end up dead. I’ll have you atone for your guilt with your blood. But for now, you won’t be seeing the decoration for your last battle." Rodin took the stage and stood in front of the closed curtain. Next General Rodin made the following speech: "All of you bastards have been instructed that now we have the new antifreeze, ethylene glycol. All of you sons of bitches have been warned that this is a strong poison. But some assholes still believe that this is just a threat, that this antifreeze is the same as alcohol, glycerin and water, which you had lapped like pigs, adding water instead of antifreeze to the engines, freezing them up. Now, sons of bitches, you will see a live demonstration. I order every damned one of you to look at the stage and not to turn away, bastards, until I allow you to." The curtain was flung open. Five men lay on the stage, dying in agony, convulsing and revolving, and gradually fading away. A tank crew had poisoned themselves by drinking the antifreeze. I do not know how long the agony of the crew and our ordeal lasted, but General Rodin and his assistants personally made sure that no one turned away from the stage. What a “good” fellow that general was, comrade Rodin.
- But not all the generals were like that.
- Certainly not. I do not generalize. In 1941-1942, I never met any generals. And I was even surprised to learn from the newspapers that generals still existed somewhere. The first man of general’s rank I saw was the Chief of the 1st Kharkov Tank Training school, but as a trainee I didn’t get a chance to have a conversation with him. During the last year of the war for tankers at the front seeing a general from a distance was nothing extraordinary.
I had three chances at the front to meet such a wonderful man and bright person as Army General Ivan Danilovich Chernyakhovsky. The first time during presentation of decorations to the brigade and two more times in Prussia. The last meeting with Chernyakhovsky occurred on the 12th of January 1945. By chance in the heat of battle two machines: my tank and a tank of lieutenant Feodorov – had found themselves behind the enemy lines. Our feats there were not the result of our heroism, but just the desire to get to our lines. For the finale, at the edge of the grove my crew had burned a German StuG III self-propelled gun. That was it. There were no more Germans ahead. Behind a long brick building (which turned out to be a stable, from which I would go for my last attack the next day) were our tanks. I got out of the tank, and then a spent fragment of German shrapnel hit my arm. At that moment I felt little pain. I saw a Staff Commander and other senior officers of our Brigade who were standing around a general. It was the Army General Chernyakhovsky. I went over to give my report. But Chernyakhovsky said to me to "Belay that!" - And ordered that my wound be dressed with a bandage. After it was dressed, I again turned to report: "Comrade General of the Army, may I address comrade Guards Colonel?" Chernyakhovsky said, "Report to me." I reported. Chernyakhovsky told someone in his circle with what decorations to reward both crews; got into his car and drove off with those accompanying him. Precisely a month later, while in hospital, I learned of the death of the Front Commander. My heart was very sad from such a heavy loss.
Thirty years later. Not long before I left for Israel, I decided to say goodbye to the places where my stepmother-homeland had feasted on my blood and sweat, and took my family to the Kaliningrad oblast. I wanted to show them “my grave”. In autumn of 1944 my tank was burned. The burial party pulled the mess out the burnt tank and buried it. They found my burned shoulder straps and thought that I was dead also. But those were my replacement straps ... Our repairmen made an obelisk and wrote on it the names of the crew. On the fourth day it turned out that I was alive. Fortunately, no "death notice" was sent over to my relatives, I just did not know where my mother was and whether she was alive, and no data on other relatives in my personal file was available. When I came across the long building of the stables, behind which I had reported to Chernyakhovskiy, I was just taken aback. How could it be? The distance from the forest edge, where we had burned the StuG III self-propelled gun to the stables was only three hundred meters. Can you imagine that the Front Commander was just three hundred meters away from the German positions? Many of the battalion commanders did not dare to be so close to the enemy, and there was the Commander of the Front! And that was not a demonstration of reckless courage to the subordinate personnel. Chernyakhovsky was just a truly heroic and honorable man, and this is why his hallowed image is stored with love in the memory of war veterans.
In the summer of 1944, I even had to talk with Marshal Vasilevsky. We got stuck on the east bank of the Berezina River, and a Captain, the deputy battalion commander, a petty man by nature, ordered me to find a crossing. That Captain’s selection of me was not accidental. Two days before that, he was interrogating a captured German officer and kicked him. I was translating for the Captain and saw it all. I broke down and muttered that the Germans should be beaten in battle, instead of sitting in the rear of the battalion as dear Comrade Captain liked to do, whom nobody had ever seen in battle. The Captain got angry, but knowing that I was a former scout, he preferred to remain silent and said nothing in response. And now it was a great opportunity for revenge. The mission was impossible. There were no ford paths across the Berezina, and the bridge crossings were carefully controlled, and who would have allowed me, a Junior Lieutenant, to break the crossing queue and order? I went to the bridge in Borisov. The most comprehensive vocabulary of any language would have been scarcely enough to describe what was happening at the approaches to the bridge. The highway was packed to the extreme. Fortunately for us the Luftwaffe did not show up over the bridge that day: even a single German plane would have made a massacre. But the tanks did not need highways. I reached the bridge along the side of the road and stopped about twenty meters away from the traffic controllers. The traffic at the bridge entrance was regulated by a traffic officer of the rank of colonel, not a girl with flags as usual - something that I had never seen before. Quickly summoning all of my skills to give the Colonel the most favorable impression, I went up to him and tried to explain that I had been sent to find a crossing for the urgent relocation of the brigade’s tanks to the western bank. But the highly-ranked regulator would not even talk to me: "Tanks? It was out of question until the highway was free of those crowds." And then a miracle happened. Marshal Vasilevsky appeared from the side. I recognized him, as he looked the same as in his pictures: chubby, with a forelock brushed to one side. Vasilevsky said, "What do you think, Colonel, are you going to liberate Belorussia with all those carts? How many tanks?" - He then asked me. I answered: "Twenty-one, Comrade Marshal of the Soviet Union". - "How much time do you need to get up to the bridge?" - "Forty minutes, Comrade Marshal of the Soviet Union". Vasilevsky smiled: "Let them pass immediately, Colonel." Then Vasilevsky gave me his hand to shake. Confused by such a surprise and due to the glow of feelings that overwhelmed me and joy of how fabulously and incredibly the problem with the crossing had been resolved, I squeezed the Marshal’s hand much stronger than I should have. Vasilevsky said: "Wow!" - And made a motion as if shaking off my grip, "Come on, Junior Lieutenant, drive your tanks over here." As I was returning to the battalion I still could not fully believe my luck, that I had personally shaken the hand of the Marshal.
- Who did the combat tankers consider to be the "rear rats"?
- Those who were in the battalion ranks within the battalion rears were not considered to be the "rear rats", "morons", "hiders" and "other non-combatant scum". Our cook, the wheeled vehicle drivers, and repairers were considered to be our insiders and fellows in arms. But that definition was rather conventional. After all, the Deputy Battalion Commander on Political Affairs, the pathological coward Smirnov, and the Deputy Battalion Commander on drill, too, both were within the battalion, but they were not respected, and Major Smirnov was overtly despised.
We had a perfect attitude towards Captain Vikhrov, our ammunition quartermaster and the maintenance personnel, guys of amazing courage. Even our APDV (Assembly Point of Disabled Vehicles) repairmen, who might be, as far as five kilometers away from the front line, were also considered to be our combat fellows. Senior Lieutenant Ivan Pankov, the military paramedic of our battalion, was a courageous warrior, on whom we could rely, knowing that he would never leave us in trouble in a battle, but would pull us out of a burning tank. Our storekeeper and "food serviceman” sergeant major Karpukhin and clerk Klopov both were former tankers, who had taken "rear positions" on returning from hospital, after being severely wounded. Klopov used to be a turret gunner. Karpukhin had fought before being wounded as a machine gunner/radio operator. The latter was a unique man, a real phenomenon. He had earned the enduring reputation of being as stingy as they come, but he was still a decent man.
As for the brigade headquarters staff personnel, the attitude of ordinary tankers towards them was negative. The headquarters staff personnel seemed to have been on the opposite end of the earth from us; we did not see them and in all respects were far from them. These staff "idiots" who constituted the "core team" were related to real war as much as I was related to Chinese aviation. They were extremely rare visitors to the battalion ranks; only during lulls or battalion reformations. They were called - "ever living ": the staff personnel almost never died.
In our 2nd detached Guards Tank Brigade, initially the concept of “a veteran of the brigade” could not exist. We were the "brigade of breakthrough", suffered heavy casualties, and staying alive and unscathed longer than six months was something beyond the borders of fantasy. The concept of "old-timers" was applicable among the crews after the third tank attack. But in brigade headquarters such "veterans” were dime a dozen. When drunk, the staff personnel would sing "The 2nd Guards Brigade March ": "Lelyushenko is the tankers’ father" and felt in those moments, perhaps like the most heroic people at the entire Soviet-German front.
Among them was a junior lieutenant, a tank commander, who had been sticking around brigade headquarters for a second year, along with his crew, as guard of the brigade banner. He had never been in battle and in our environment the attitude towards him was terrible. During the winter offensive, when there was a lack of combat personnel, that lieutenant, a sort of "brigade veteran", was sent to me to join the composite company. We had to go through a mine sown highway and were not given time to wait for the sappers to come over. My tank went first along the very edge of the swamp. I ordered all other tanks to follow me right in my tracks. And that "banner bearer" sat down at the controls, saying that he could not trust his driver. And he deliberately drove his tank into the swamp. We lost valuable time while extracting him. I fetched that lieutenant, lucky for him I didn’t shoot him, and he, like a dog with its tail between its legs, ran to complain to Dorosh, and after him, to Colonel Duchovny himself. But the Brigade Commander Duchovny just sent a message through the battalion commander to the Lucky (me) that I had better preserve my temper for the war. The lieutenant after that episode remained with a black eye in brigade headquarters, but still evaded, the bastard, to go on the attack. After the war, I suppose, he was telling school children the fairytales about how he, allegedly, had spent two years in his tank, crushing the fascist scum with tracks of his tank...
- What caused the very negative attitude of most ordinary tankers towards political officers?
- Let's start with the fact that political officers were generally not needed in tank battalions. What were they good for? What use were they? What did they do? Indeed, after 1942, there were very few political officers and they rarely went on the attack as members of tank crews. I went to the front as a fanatic, who firmly believed in the just cause of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks. But I remember my shock when I for the first time faced the Commissar Lebedev of the Battalion of Armored Trains, and I could not understand how such a rotten creature could be a communist.
As I’ve mentioned, in the Tank Brigade there was a deputy commander on political affairs named Major Smirnov, a short, fat, roundish man, in all respects proper and good-looking, sparkling with kid leather boots and a carefully shaven face, who after each offensive of the brigade always "caught” the next Order of the Red Banner for his chest. A coward and a whistler. He was an example of one of the most "harmless" representatives of the Communist Party. I remember as two "dodge" vehicles were being fitted up for a trip to Smolensk to take former partisans, who had arrived to join us for reinforcement in Belorussia, for decoration with medals "Partisan of the Patriotic War." Why could not those medals be handed to them on the spot in the brigade? Smirnov's family lived in Smolensk. So he had started work on collecting a parcel for his family. He required of the entire battalion a tribute, and some crews had already delivered to the deputy commander on political affairs some captured clothes. He got some foodstuffs from the storekeeper, and the latter did not mind, knowing that many families in the rear were swollen from hunger. But then Smirnov outdid himself. Without permission or authorization, he began going through personal belongings of the tankers - living and dead – which were kept by the sergeant major, and appropriated anything he liked.
I saw the brigade deputy commander on political affairs at close range only once, before the winter offensive in Prussia. The brigade commander Duchovny and a Colonel, the deputy commander on political affairs, climbed up onto the tank turret. "Where the 2nd Guards Brigade will go, may the grass not grow for the next twenty years!" - The brigade commander told us. The political officer just stood silently on the tank next to the brigade commander. What a scene! ...
- Did the officers of the Special department of your Tank Brigade leave a trace in your memory?
- The crews tried not to talk about political subjects: they knew that it would be costly. People criticized the army chiefs, but did it only among their insiders within the crews. We came across different kinds of the Special department officers, but mainly the secret police was made up of rare scum; the others would not stay around for long.
One episode very firmly has stuck in my memory. It happened in October 1944. A crew from our company managed to escape from a destroyed tank. All five men safely left the battlefield for the battalion rear. Food was delivered to them. The crew sat under a tree, trying to recover from the battle stress which they had been through. The earlier surviving tankers looked at their comrades sympathetically. A battalion SMERSH (Special department) Captain showed up accompanied by two soldiers from his service. He stopped not far from that crew and sent one of his soldiers to the tank commander with the order, "Report immediately to the Captain!" His High Special Police Nobleness didn’t condescend to walk fifteen meters more. The tank commander said to the messenger, "I will come when we’re through with our meals! By statute, even a Marshal has no right to interrupt personnel during meals." The Special department man was not satisfied, and again sent the soldier with the same demand to the Lieutenant. Enraged, the Special department man asked the crew commander: "Why have all the others burned, but your entire crew is alive?" The Lieutenant replied calmly: "If you would go on the attack yourself just once, then you would understand it." The Captain took the TT pistol from his holster. That was his mistake. We, the witnesses of the event, attacked the Captain and gave him a good thrashing. The beaten one was carried away. I wouldn’t say that we were very much worried, in anticipation of the inevitable punishment. We felt doomed, anyway, so we did not really care about where we would be killed, whether it be in a tank attack, in our own brigade, or in a charging rifle formation as a part of a penal battalion. Then something incredible happened. No one said anything to us. We never saw that Captain again.
- How great were the casualties of the tank mounted infantrymen in the brigade?
- Those people were doomed: only injury gave them a chance to survive. In my last battle a squad of tank mounted infantrymen was mounted upon the tank armor: six men with a heavy "Maxim" machinegun, all of them were killed. Sometimes the servicemen of penal units were assigned to us as the tank mounted infantry. In autumn 1944, five or six penal battalion soldiers, former officers released from captivity, were mounted on the tanks. A female medical attendant was with them. She stared at us, the tankers and suddenly said, "Well, these men are in a penal formation, but why do you deserve such a lot in life?"
- What sensations did the tank crew experience when a shell hit the armor of their combat vehicle?
- It was frightening. Imagine that you are plugged in an empty iron barrel, and this barrel is hit with full force by a sledgehammer. And when you realize that this "hammer" could kill you, it becomes very uncomfortable. I'm not talking about how the armor scale can hurt after the armor is hit by a shell ... Or when you see how a neighboring tank, the "old" T-34, when hit by a shell, has its ammunition detonated and its turret blown off. The sensation is – it sucks. I cannot pick out any other words.
- Were there the cases when the tankers of your brigade displayed cowardice in battle?
- For the eight months of my military service in the tank brigade I never heard of such cases. None of our driver-mechanics deliberately exposed right sides of their tanks to the fire of German guns. But ... during my last attack I had to command a composite company scratched together from different tank units. Six T-34 tanks, four SAU-152 mm self-propelled guns, and two heavy JS-2 tanks. And to be honest with you, those tanks attached from the adjacent units, did not go on the attack to their imminent death ... They remained at their starting position.
- When were the tankers allowed to abandon their incapacitated combat vehicle? You personally had to get out of wrecked and burning machines four times, so the experience you have in that, though deadly, is huge.
- Back in training school we were constantly practicing how to abandon combat vehicles. The crew was supposed to bail out within six seconds. We were also trained in how to evacuate the wounded from damaged machines. Such exercises were conducted at the front also. We took them seriously, as our lives directly depended on them.
In battle the commander's order for evacuation from a burning tank was not required, as by then the commander might have been already killed or injured, and waiting for the command did not make sense. We jumped out of the tank intuitively. Because, if you didn’t ... you might end up like the charred commander of the adjacent battalion, who could only be identified by his Order of Alexander Nevsky. We often buried some embers instead of the crew. But, for example, the tank could not be abandoned if it only had its track knocked out. The crew had to fire their guns until their tank was destroyed.
- What was your attitude towards the Panzerfausts?
- We were afraid of them. If anyone ran into a Panzerfauster, he could give up all hope. At the beginning of the offensive in Prussia my tank, hiding from artillery fire, mistakenly broke into the yard of a German estate. We saw a Panzerfauster boy at the range of twenty meters from us. Luckily for us the boy turned out to be sluggish and we had time to machinegun him. That was luck.
- How does one interpret the phrase "tracks in the blood"? Literally or ...
- No, there were no actual "tracks in the blood"; rather, it is a figure of speech: the tank runs with its tracks on the ground, in the mud, so any blood on them gets wiped off quickly. But the tank stern covered with blood and pieces of human flesh was an everyday sight for the tankers. You can get used to anything. And even when we had to scrape out pieces of the charred bodies of our comrades from the burned tanks, it was done without hysterics. Everyone just thought about one thing: "Today, I might have been in their place." After one such burial, under the impression of that terrible sight, I wrote a poem “A hole is gaping in the thick frontal armor”. After reading it you will feel what emotions I had then. Or these lines will help you understand a lot:
It’s hard to save your sanity at the front,
Unless you learn how to forget at once.
We scraped out of the destroyed tanks
All that could be buried in the grave
- Did you have to participate in the tank attacks, as they say, "over the top of friendly infantry"? Some tankers told me about such their experience.
- God spared us from taking part in such things. We neither crushed friendly infantry, nor fired guns at them. We went on the attack through designated lanes, accompanied by our own motorized riflemen. No, there are no such scenes in my memory.
- During your participation in the battles as a serviceman of the 2nd detached Guards Tank Brigade your crew destroyed 12 German tanks and four self-propelled guns. How significant is such a combat score considered to be?
- I think this is considered to be very good. Especially taking into account the fact that dozens of tank crews perished before my eyes, not having even killed a single German tank before they died – that was the war ...
- Did your ethnicity somehow affect the attitude of your comrades in the Tank Brigade toward you?
- It didn’t much in the brigade and in the tank school. The tank units were mostly staffed by young boys, former city dwellers, who for the most part were not racially biased. And, I think, I gave the impression of a man who could well stand up for himself ...
In the hospital in 1945 I was in the officers' ward. Out of the 16 severely wounded occupants of the ward, just one half survived. And then a Junior Lieutenant Kononenko with a broken leg was placed into our ward. It was so strange that all the others lying in the ward were wounded and crippled officers, and he arrived with just a broken leg. So then Kononenko began yapping something about "the Jews". Incapable of walking yet, I only had the strength to toss a decanter of water at him, which crashed on the plaster cast on his leg. The Captain of infantry Ivanov, the eldest of our age group, born in Leningrad, said to Kononenko: 'Get out of the ward: If you don’t beat it from here by evening, we will strangle you at night ".
In our tank brigade ... Once the Battalion Commander Major Dorosh, while drunk, suddenly said: "Even though you are a Jew, you are a great guy". Then, seeing my purely formal attitude toward him, he tried to justify himself, he assured me that in the institute all his friends were Jews. I do not remember any anti-Semitic remarks addressed to me during my service in the battalion of armored trains. But my perpetual war against anti-Semitic prejudice always obliged me to be the first to accept any high-risk assignments. That notorious Jewish syndrome, the very thought, that someone might say: "the Jew is hiding", forced me to be fearless in battle. Even though I was just a coward like everyone else and wanted to survive the war.
In our tank brigade it was very difficult for the anti-Semites to open their filthy yaps and yell: "the Jews are sitting it out in Tashkent." The Brigade Commander was a Jew, the senior maintenance quartermaster was a Jew, the best company commander's name was Abraham Kogan, an Odessian Weinstock was one of the best driver-mechanics of the brigade, and in many crews, as the song goes: "the Jews are everywhere." And this list may be continued ... In my company, for example, was Anatoly Itskov, apparently - a Jew, but according to his identity papers - ethnically Slavic. But it never occurred to me then to ask him directly about his ethnicity. Anyway everybody at the front knew that at least a third of the Jews on the front lines were fighting under Russian names and with their "Slavic" ethnicity in their records and identity papers. I was very surprised after the war to find out that the famous partisan Dmitry Medvedev and a Hero of the Soviet Union Peter S. Prikhodko and a Hero of the Soviet Union and pilot Peter Danilovich Prosvetov, were actually all Jews. As the saying goes: "All the people are Jews, but not all have admitted that yet."
In the battalion there was Lieutenant Gabriel Urmanov, a holder of the Order of Lenin, who was considered to be an Uzbek. There were no more representatives of ethnic minorities in the battalion. After the war it occurred to me that he might have been a Jew from Bukhara, because an Uzbek just couldn’t be named Gabriel. One of my subordinates was a Jew, a tank commander Lieutenant Segal, who seemed to me much older than his thirty-plus years. Segal became a tanker after serving as a political officer, as a result of the political commissars’ retraining for combat positions, according to the order of 1943 which abolished the institution of political commissars in the Red Army. Segal's appearance did not have enough swaggers for me, and I, due to my young age and stupidity, repeatedly reprimanded him for that. All those tankers: Kogan, Weinstock, Segal, Itskov and Urmanov, were killed in 1944. A few other Jewish guys, whom I had met from our brigade and the adjacent 120th Tank Brigade, also burned in tanks.
But honestly, back then I did not divide people into Russians and Jews, Ukrainians and Tatars. For me there was only one criterion that mattered – whether a man went on the attack or not, and his ethnicity was of little interest to me. But what the anti-Semitism was, in a wide range of everyday life up to the public level, I have learned well enough the hard way since 1945. I suffered from the anti-Semites after the war, to the fullest, as they say, "up to the nostrils and above." But I would prefer to drop this subject now, or our interview will go on for another hour or two.
- Some of the tankers whom I have had the opportunity to meet, told me that during the raids behind the enemy lines all the captured Germans were executed then and there in different ways. But those tankers, by the way, all former tank drivers, refused to include these episodes in the texts of their interviews for publication. I can understand them. People did not want to leave such a memory of the war. But how did it happen in your brigade?
- How can I answer your question? You should not think that I'm any different from the tankers with whom you have already talked. I do not want to talk about such episodes openly either. My only advantage over those tankers is that our brigade did not go on such raids. As we were a “brigade of breakthrough”. As a rule, while on raids there was nowhere to take the prisoners to. The only thing they could do was to feed them and let them go home or back to their combat positions. Anything might happen ...
The gun barrel of the T-34-85 tank was long enough to hang a Vlasovite (a follower of the infamous Soviet renegade general Vlasov) from the barrel, to demonstrate the power of the man sitting in the tank at the gun hoisting gear controls. It was not a big deal - we had the right to get revenge. But we did not commit pre-planned deliberate atrocities against the captured soldiers of the Wehrmacht. There were no "set pieces". After a typical battle on the front lines the German prisoners were not maltreated at all. They could only be shaken down for valuables, but not shot.
One episode shook me to the core. In Belorussia we had captured a large group of Germans and Vlasovites. The Brigade Commander Duchovny arrived and passed along the ranks of the prisoners. Suddenly a German threw himself down on his knees and in perfect Russian began begging for mercy. Colonel Duchovny’s face whitened and he pulled out his pistol and shot him. The Brigade Commander turned to us and said: "In the battle of Lake Khasan (in 1938 against Japanese) I was a tank commander, and he was my driver-mechanic. During the Finnish War I commanded a tank company, and he was there in command of a tank platoon. When this war started, he was a company commander in my battalion, but in 1941, he was missing in action. He was a friend of mine, and I always worried about his fate. So, today I've met the traitor." We began to search for any Vlasovites among the other prisoners. Whomever we could find were executed. In the heat of the campaign the genuine Germans might have gotten it also... Generally at wartime the boundaries of the meaning of "humanity" were blurred.
- What was the attitude of the tankers towards "booty"? I do not mean captured foodstuffs and firearms.
- The crews did not even care about serious booty. The men looked only for something that they could eat or drink. I do not remember my having any booty except for German firearms, pens and an accordion. In Lithuania, in one of the German commandant’s offices, we found a box, 40x40x40 centimeters in size, filled with golden tsarist coins. I did not take any. Being young, I probably did not realize what the gold rubles were worth. My lieutenant's salary seemed to me a fortune. Why did I need heavy change, even if it was golden?
- Whom of your fallen fellows in arms do you remember often?
- I remember many of them ... I had lost so many friends during the war. All of us who survived the war live on like it is said in the song, "for ourselves and for that guy" ...
You cannot even imagine how hard it was for me in 1945 to come back to my home town and realize that almost all of my friends and classmates had been killed ...
I remember Stepan Lagutin, Ivan Solovyov and Nikolai Bukin, a friend of mine in tank training school, who was killed at the front in the 120th Tank Brigade. I remember my friend Peter Arzhanov, a wonderful guy, who seemed to me an old man in his thirties. Arzhanov burned before my eyes. I remember Senior Lieutenant Sergei Leventsov, a company commander, who was severely wounded, and probably had survived, I remember the dead lieutenant Anatoly Serdechnev and many other friends of mine, to whom we, the survivors, are indebted ...
I often think of my gunner Zachariah Zagiddullin. We fought together in one crew for less than three months, but had become close friends. He arrived in my platoon in early November 1944. He looked like a big bear with his incredibly large head, on top of which his tank helmet barely fit. He was our "Good Soldier Schweik" (The character of the humoristic novel “Good Soldier Schveik” by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek. Schweik was a hero of many funny episodes in the novel during the World War I where he was in the Austrian-Hungarian Army.) I remember his report on his arrival: "Comrade Guards Lieutenant, a valiant son of the Tatar nation, Guards Senior Sergeant Zachariah Kalimulovich Zagiddullin has arrived at your disposal for further active service! At ease!" He came to us from the reserve regiment, where he had come after being wounded and hospitalized. He was a phenomenal person. He fired the tank gun like a god. A sniper-virtuoso! Sometimes it was hard to believe that the tank gun was being fired by an ordinary man and not a magician or someone like that. Firing his first round he could hit a telephone pole at the range of 800 meters. He was a tireless inventor and storyteller, who would always finish telling his next story with the phrase: "Hey Slavs, can you give me a smoke?" or another duty tirade - "I will return to Atkarsk with a Hero’s Golden Star on my chest." On the 21st of January, 1945 my friend Zachariah was killed. He had knocked out a German StuG III self-propelled gun at the very moment that the StuG III released a solid shot at our tank. I do not know whether similar episodes had ever happened during the war. Fortunately, our tank did not catch fire. I was wounded in my head and face. Blood flooded my eyes. And then I heard a Zachariah’s faint voice: "Commander, I have had my legs blown off." With an effort I looked down. Zachariah somehow was still holding onto his seat. His guts were falling out of a large hole in his bloody jerkin (quilted jacket). There were no legs. I do not know whether he was still alive when, overcoming the great pain in my face, I was trying to pull him out of the hatch. A multiple-round submachine gun burst slashed us. Seven bullets dug into my hands, and I let go of my friend’s lifeless body, who had saved me from the rest of the bullets in the burst ... We were with him in one crew a little more than two months, and nine half days in continuous battle. A small period for those who do not know what time is like during war. But it was like an eternity for those who were allotted life by the second in our “shock tank brigade”. The death of Zachariah Zagiddulin is still a grievous loss for me...
- What happened to you in the January battles in Prussia? Tell us about your last battle.
- The offensive began on January 13, 1945. I had not seen such an artillery barrage during the whole war. For two hours nonstop five hundred artillery pieces, not taking into account mortars and "Katyusha" rocket launchers, had been softening up the two kilometers of the front where we were to breakthrough. We were just deaf. 21 minesweeper tanks were making paths through the minefields for us. And then the 65 tanks of our brigade and two heavy tank regiments: 42 JS-2 tanks and 42 more SAU-15 self propelled guns went on the attack.
The task set for such an armada was modest – by evening to capture Vilkupen and breaking 14 km forward. During the first day we were able to cover just two kilometers, but soon had to retreat one kilometer back. The Germans had set guns in the basements of stone houses. Bunkers with concrete walls two meters thick were positioned between the houses. There was intense gun fire. Additionally we were hit by the Volkssturm militia armed with Panzerfausts. We reached that Vilkupen on the fifth day, thanks only to the sapper-demolitionists. The tanks had blocked the slits of the bunkers; the sappers laid half a ton of explosives at a time and undermined the Germans.
But on the ninth day of the offensive out of our entire tank armada only six T-34 tanks, two JS-2 tanks and four self-propelled guns had survived. From my company only the crew of Lieutenant Feodorov had survived. So those twelve incompatible in any combination combat vehicles were driven together into a composite armored company, and I do not know for what sins, I was appointed to command those scratched together armored & mechanized forces. I was supposed to lead that company on a frontal tank attack without any support. I had some influence on the crews of the T-34 tanks as they were, even though from different battalions, still the men of our brigade, who knew me. But the commanders of the SAU self propelled guns followed in my wake and quoted the field manual, according to which they were supposed to be at least 400 meters behind the line of attacking tanks. On the morning of January 21 of 1945 at 8:00 am, I got the order to attack on the radio and copied it for the other crews. All twelve combat vehicles started up their engines, and the tank mounted infantry climbed up on the armored vehicles. In plain language I commanded: "Go forward!" But no one moved! I repeated the command, adding a dozen obscene words. But the armored vehicles with the diesel engines roaring were as if frozen to the ground. The Germans opened mortar fire. The tank mounted infantry jumped off of the machines and hid behind the wall of the stable. I just imagined for a moment what the battalion and brigade commanders, who, of course, heard everything that was going on by radio, and saw the starting positions of the composite company, were thinking of me. I grabbed a crowbar, jumped out of the turret and ran to the nearest tanks. All their hatches were buttoned up tight. I banged on the driver hatches with the crowbar, accompanying each blow with an obscene tirade. Between the intervals of mortar shell bursts I ran from one machine to another knocking with the useless crowbar on the armor. But there was no reaction. I went back into my tank, attached the tank helmet communication cord plug into the socket block, switched the radio on and commanded: "Do as I do!" My tank sprang forward. I had noticed that the Feodorov’s crew had also broken forward into the attack, but whether the other tanks followed, I could not see ...
Three hundred meters ahead, there was an "old" German 75 mm StuG III self-propelled gun. I intuitively sensed the danger ahead on the right and commanded: "The gun to the right! To the self-propelled gun! With the armor piercing! Fire!" I noticed the rollback of my gun, and then a terrible blow smashed my face. “Could it be that our own shell blew?” – I thought to myself. Could I have imagined then that something impossible had happened: that both opposing combat vehicles had fired at each other simultaneously?
My blood, smelling of vodka, poured over my face. A bloodied turret gunner lay on the "ammo cases". The frontal gunner was frozen on his seat with a bloody mess instead of a head. And in that moment, Zachariah groaned: "Lieutenant, I have my legs blown off." The hatch’s rear flap was open. With great effort I pulled back its front half. And when I had almost pushed Zachariah through the hatch upon the turret, a submachine gun burst reached us. My gunner fell down into the tank, and I fell on a dead infantryman on the stern. The submachine guns were firing about forty meters ahead of the tank. Not thinking about the pain, I jumped to the ground and fell into the snow next to the bloodied corpses of two infantrymen and a toppled heavy machine gun. I tried to crawl away, but my hands would not obey me. Three bullet holes on the right sleeve of my shirt and four on the left sleeve were bleeding. Mortar shells began exploding around the tank. And then I felt a blow to my legs and an insufferable pain in my right knee. “That’s it”, I thought to myself, “now I surely have had my legs blown off”. With difficulty I turned my head and saw my legs trailing behind me. They were not cut off, just smashed. Helpless and defenseless I was lying among the corpses of the tank mounted infantrymen next to the left tank track. I could distinctly hear German speech from the German trenches, forty meters ahead,... I imagined what future awaited me if I should get into the German hands. My pronounced appearance, decorations and the Guards badge on my chest and the Communist party membership card in my pocket. I decided to shoot myself. I had to turn somehow to my side, to push my right hand under the belly and pull the pistol out of my unbuttoned holster... Then with fingers numb from cold I had to relieve the safety lock of the pistol. Every movement was accompanied with unbearable pain in my head and face, crunching of bone fragments in my smashed arms and legs ... And then I remembered the hospital. Bed. Pillows and sheets. I had almost not slept for the nine preceding days. And if I should get to the hospital I would be able to sleep in a hospital bed ... Then I thought that I had lost consciousness ... But the guys told me that I had even waved a broken arm to command Feodorov’s tank, whose crew saved me. I remember vaguely how I got into the medical aid battalion. And then my hospital ordeal began.
- How long were you in hospital?
- Six months. At first I felt only one thing: a hideous pain throughout my entire wounded body, especially a wild facial pain. When out of the broken bones of my face the doctors put together my jaws again, I felt a little relief. And when in the spring of 1945, while in the hospital, I realized that I would live on, at one point I was taken over by despair. Completely encased in plaster, I was thinking about one thing all the time: what would I do after the war? – A disabled man with crutches, without education and profession. But seeing the noble deeds of the doctors who were saving the lives of wounded soldiers, I decided to become a doctor, too. And later on I never regretted my choice of profession.
In early summer of 1945 I was discharged from the hospital, I went home, and then was assigned to the detached regiment of the tank officers’ reserve in Moscow. There in the so-called 4th "motorized crutch” battalion tanker officers, the cripples, awaiting demobilization due to disability, were assembled.
After demobilization from the army I entered the medical institute in Chernovtsy, after graduation from which in 1951, I worked at the Kiev Institute of orthopedics, then in the city of Kustanai in the Kazakh steppe, and after that returned to Ukraine, Kiev. I worked as an orthopedic-trauma specialist, became a professor, Doctor of Medical Science, twice defending my thesis in Moscow. Since 1977 I have been living in Israel. But that's another part of my life that has no relation to our today’s discussion about the war.
- Let me finish the interview with you with the famous poem, "My comrade," which you wrote in late 1944. I believe that this is one of the best poems ever written about the war. And these wonderful, tragic and terrible eight lines, according to many true rank and file frontline soldiers, comprise the whole hard truth about the war.
My comrade is in death throes
Do not call your friends in vain.
Let me warm my palms
Over your steaming blood.
Don’t you cry and don’t groan, you're not a little kid,
You're not wounded, you’re just killed.
Let me take off your felt boots to remember you.
We still have to go on the attack
|Interview and literary work by:||G. Keuffman|
|Translated by:||N. Kulinich|
|Translation review by:||Charles G. Powers|