- I was born in November 1918 in the town of Akhtyrka of Sumy oblast (province). There were six of us children in the family: four sisters and two brothers.
In 1933 I began working: we lived in poverty and I had to help out my parents.
In 1938 the boys my age were drafted into the army and I went to the Military Commissariat many times asking the Military Commissar to help draft me. In 1938 there was no general conscription for the RAWP (Red Army of Workers and Peasants); instead there were rigid selection criteria and evidently quotas for drafting a certain number of conscripts from each region. I had dreamt of serving in the Red Army. I told the Military Commissar: “My health is as strong as that of three men, I am a Komsomol member (The Communist League of the Youth), a worker, and I want to go into Military Service!"
On the 9th of November 1938 I was inducted into the ranks of the RAWP. The new recruits were taken to the village of Borovukha-1 near the city of Polotsk. There the 25th Tank Brigade under the Belorussian Special Military District was deployed. First I finished with distinction the School of Drivers-Mechanics and then I was assigned to the 2nd company under the 1st Battalion of the Brigade. The brigade was armed with T-26 tanks. In the summer of 1939 I was transferred to the 1st Company under the 139th Detached Tank Battalion (DTB), where I already was a senior driver-mechanic. The battalion was commanded by Major Chechin, the Battalion political commissar’s name was Nesterov, and the Battalion Staff Executive Officer’s surname was like mine, Maslov. My company was commanded by Captain Permyakov, decorated with two orders, who had been at the war in Spain. There were three companies in the battalion with seventeen tanks in each.
- What is your opinion about the Red Army of the “pre-war organization”?
- The Army was excellent; everything was high grade, without exaggeration.
The iron discipline. Heedful attitude towards private Red Army servicemen. We were required to be well up on our combatant specialty and equipment and, which is important, we were taught how to make independent decisions in combat. There was no atmosphere of dull drill in our brigade. This is when I got myself accustomed to being flexible and earnest in any business.
Before the war the tankers' military service lasted three years. All they were well equipped, trained and fed. We were perfectly well fed; the daily ration included meat and butter. By the way, driver-mechanics were given a double ration of butter.
I was fond of sports and even played football for the united team of the tank armed forces at the district army competitions. By the summer of 1941 I had the rank of senior sergeant and I was preparing for demobilization. I was paid 230 rubles of salary and I was saving money to buy civilian clothes, however returning home in 1941 was not my destiny. The war broke out…
- Did your 25th Tank Brigade go to Poland for the “liberating campaign”?
- Yes, in late summer of 1939 we were transferred to the border with Western Belorussia and shortly we were given the “Go forward!” command. There were no particular battles, however, I had to witness and take part in repelling the attack of Polish cavalry against our tank battalion. And this is not a joke. And when the Polish cavalrymen "avalanche" being with bare sabres charged against our tanks, we thought that those Polish uhlans or hussars had gone completely mad.
We quickly suppressed and shot them off. The Poles abandoned their horses and weapons and dispersed: some as our captives and others back to their houses to the West. And then the captured Poles told us that before the attack they had been told that all the Russian tanks were made of plywood and were not of any danger at all …
- How did the “Westerners” meet the Red Army?
- During the whole "Polish campaign" there was only one case of open hostility, or “undermining activity”. We had stopped in some small town. One of our tankers had gone to a hairdressing salon located in an opposite building. We obtained the order to continue movement, but the tanker still had not showed up. We rushed to search for him, and presently found his corpse in a backyard. Some "Westerners” had killed our comrade. We crushed that house with a tank …
We reached Vilnius. We were accommodated in the old barracks built back in times of the Tsar Nikolas II. We stayed there through November, 1939. In November two battalions of the brigade were returned to Polotsk for maintenance of the machines and one battalion remained in Lithuania. There were many of my countrymen and fellow conscripts in the battalion. The full complement of that "Vilnius" battalion perished at the very beginning of the war.
- How did the dispatching of the 25th Tank Brigade to the Soviet-Finish war happen?
- In December 1939 based on our brigade, the 25th Tank Regiment, under the command of Major Georgy Semenovich Rodin, was formed. I was appointed to the tank commander’s position. Three companies of the regiment were at war in the Petrozavodsk area. The conditions for tank combat were very difficult. There were woods all around, hills and countless lakes covered with thin ice. We often had to saw down woods and "lay corduroy roads" for the machines to pass. Even on the night stays and in encampments we had to warm up the engines every half an hour. The frosts were down to minus fifty centigrade. And the Finns were excellent combatants, fine fighters.
- How well were the tankers prepared for war in such severe conditions?
- We were dressed very appropriately: all wore felt boots, hat liners and wadded trousers. We were perfectly supplied, fed with such rich borsches (vegetable-meat soups), that a layer of grease would form on a finger tip if stuck in. The tankers were given salted pork fat, sausages and daily spirit rations. We had no problems with receiving makhorka tobacco and cigarettes. In short, we were supplied extremely well.
- How would you describe the heat of battle in the Karelian forests?
- The battles were very intense. Many men remained lying there for good … The Finish snipers, so-called “cuckoos,” (sitting in trees) caused us a lot of trouble. Once, at a crossing of forest roads, we were ambushed. We had the latest model tanks, with "antiaircraft" machine guns installed on turrets. I brought down three "cuckoos" from the tree tops with a machine gun. The Finns operated well in our rear. They would pass on skis through the woods and set up for us bloody "concerts". Once a camp bath house was arranged for soldiers in the woods. It consisted of a big canvas tent, which was heated inside, where the soldiers would come to wash themselves. Three Finns with submachine guns jumped out on skis from behind a hillock and killed a few of our soldiers washing themselves in such a "camp bath". The war was intense …
- What casualties did your unit incur in those battles?
- Once the entire our second company was killed. That place, I think, was called Sujarvi. We came up to the previously prepared fortified line of Finnish pillboxes. And each pillbox there was as good as a fortress. Thick concrete, "resilient" overlappings. Only a heavy howitzer could destroy such a pillbox. As usual, the infantry accompanied us. The tanks formed a line and charged forward. The second company ran into a minefield and all perished there. Those who escaped tripping the mines were finished off by gun fire from the Finnish artillery. All seventeen of the company’s tanks were destroyed. None of the crew members of those tanks survived. The casualties in our 1st company were relatively moderate.
In my crew (for I had already become a tank commander) we had a perfect driver-mechanic, Sasha (Alexander) Vorontsov from the city of Ivanovo. He used to say: “Screw that bitch mother!” He saved the lives of the crew a few times.
- Was it scary those days?
- I personally was not scared. I did not think of death. I believed in destiny and was not afraid to be killed. I did my job the way I had to and as I had been taught and did not get obsessed with "silly thoughts". Everything has always depended on a human character. As a young kid I used to be bold. Wherever any fight was brewing I was always there ready to take an active part in it. Therefore I had acquired a killer instinct. And prior to any attack I felt a drive and wish to show those •••••• who was worth what in a battle
- Did your regiment stay in Karelia after the Finish campaign?
- No, but we were not returned to Belorussia, either. At first the regiment was withdrawn to a small Karelian town named Shuya. There we trimmed up ourselves and our machines. We didn’t get a lot of decoration. The senior technical quartermaster was decorated with the Order of the Red Star, one platoon commanding lieutenant was decorated with the medal “For Courage” and that’s it … Our regiment commander major Rodin was promoted to colonel, skipping the lieutenant-colonel’s rank.
In May 1940 we were loaded on a troop train and sent out to Azerbaijan. We arrived at Kirovabad. There was a large garrison there, but before our arrival there had not been any tank units. A new tank regiment named the 24th Special Tank Regiment was being formed there based on the former 24 Cavalry Division and our 25th “Finish” tank regiment. After severe Finish frosts we found ourselves in paradise. Warm climate and fruits were all around. We were drilled heavily. The tankers even had to cover on foot the marathon distance of 41 km wearing boots and carrying individual firearms and gas masks. I took second place in that marathon in the division. And then the command staff was changed out. A new regiment commander, a certain Colonel Lebedenko, a former military academy lecturer, arrived. He was incredibly stupid and a complete “zero”, both as commander and human. Later on he would bring our regiment down quickly without hesitation.
Suddenly a platoon commander, a lieutenant named Plesakov, disappeared from the regiment. Different rumors were circulating; some said that he had allegedly defected to Iran, others that he had been recruited by the intelligence service for some assignment. Unexpectedly our staff commander Sadulsky was taken away from us. Some people said that he had been arrested, but nobody knew the details. The environment was unnerving.
I was getting ready for demobilization, being transferred to the position of training machine instructor. I was training the tankers on it, teaching the conscripts and “old” crews firing and driving. There I had a good opportunity to practice firing the tank gun and gained a certain expertise in it. Later on at the front, that ability in marksmanship would save my life.
- What was happening to your tank regiment after the news of breakout of the war had been announced?
- As early as the late June 1941 our regiment was transferred to Stepanakert. We were reinforced with “reservists” from the Transcaucasian republics. We had stayed in a forest for a week and then we were loaded on the troop train and taken to the border with Iran. And when the order for intrusion into Iran arrived we crossed the Zulfa River and reached the town of Ardebil. But we did not face a determined resistance. The cavalry had gone to the mountains. My tank was first to advance. When we had just passed the town we were attacked by three aircraft, which fired at us with machine guns and even knocked down a tank antenna with a fire burst. We moved further and on the right saw two motor-vehicles with trailers. We turned to them and fired two gun shots. The drivers abandoned their vehicles and ran away. We drove up and saw watermelons in the trailers. That is about all of our actions in Iran.
We reached Tabriz and later would stand in the suburbs of Tehran. A joint parade of the British and Soviet troops was organized in Tehran. The tank commander Kovalev and I were selected to take part in that parade on behalf of our unit. The parade took place in a stadium near the Iranian shah palace. The Red Army representatives passed in columns easily, but the British troops were stoned by the locals. As our Azerbaijanis and Armenians had begun deserting to their local relatives, our contacts with the local populace were restricted. Therefore, I can tell you nothing about adventures in the bazaars or other local color.
We were returned from Tehran to Georgia. We had our machines refurbished in the Tbilisi 13th tank maintenance factory and then we were transferred to Novorossiysk.
In late December we proceeded to prepare for landing in Feodosiya (in Crimea). The tanks were loaded onto barges and on the night of the 31st of January 1941, instead of Feodosiya we were put ashore in Kerch. The landing went on under continuous enemy fire. This is how personally for me the war against the Germans began.
- What was your morale when you were landing in Kerch?
- The morale of the tanker crews was high. Don’t forget that we were a regular unit and as such had always had higher morale than those formed of “reservists ". Personally I was so eager to kick the Germans’ ass and thrash them quickly. I also wanted to help my brother. My younger brother Vladimir, born in 1921, was a seaman of the Black Sea Fleet and during the siege of Sevastopol he was in the ranks of the Marine Brigade. Volodya (Vladimir) was lucky to survive and on the last days of the city siege he, seriously wounded, was evacuated from the dying city by sea. Vladimir returned from the war disabled, walking with crutches. It was appalling to look at his stomach: there was a complete mess of scars …
- What was the most memorable of the battles in Crimea?
- We, advancing with battles, pretty quickly reached the vicinity of Pervomaysk and Semikolodzi. We reached the village of Vladislavovka, which was 15 kilometers from Feodosiya. There had been a heavy night battle, from which we disengaged at dawn. Breakfast was brought to us and the guys decided to wash it down with Crimean wine, which was issued to us instead of the usual vodka ration. So, we drank it. Out of the blue, our “warlord”, comrade Lebedenko showed up and urged us to return to battle. Our colonel wanted to distinguish himself and displayed his voluntary initiative. But we all were drunk. He was asked to postpone the attack by one hour, but no way. We charged. I couldn’t even set up the gun sight correctly: my coordination was disturbed and I could hardly find the bearings. At that moment I vowed to myself: that If I survived that day, I would never take any alcohol before battle. We lost 50% of the tanks in that attack. On that awful day some very good guys were killed. But Lebedenko got away with it. He had always thought of himself as a strategist and eventually even became a brigade commander, but, as a matter of fact, he was a complete mediocrity and displayed the worst part of his. Once we were being bombed by German aircraft. But he was shooting at them with his pistol, one hell of a sniper. Nobody was held accountable for unjustified losses then. Nobody would ask: “How did you, comrade regiment (or brigade) commander manage to lose all of your tanks?”
On the 13th of March, 1942 my tank was knocked down. During the attack, right near the front enemy trench line, a German shell hit the tank engine compartment. I got out of the tank and took cover near the knocked-down machine. The Germans wanted to capture me alive as a prisoner. I shot five of them dead with my pistol. I was lucky … One of the Germans’ bullets hit my right hand. I broke out having one last bullet in my pistol. I fell on the ground in “no man’s land” too exhausted to crawl any further. A lieutenant- medical assistant pulled me out of the battlefield. I was evacuated by motorboat to Novorossiysk and from there I was taken to a hospital in Kislovodsk. I was discharged from the hospital during the first ten-day period of May. I returned to Taman peninsula and having crossed the gulf to Kerch I went towards the front line to look for my tank battalion. But ours were running in panic everywhere.
The surrounding situation was one of disgust. Stampede was all around, burning machines. Panic … The Germans broke through the defenses of our 44th Army and then the neighboring units were dislodged from their positions. The battalions with “Slavic backbone” held fast, but the others…. there were many unreliable units formed of Central Asian ethnic minority men, Caucasians and Crimean Tatars… those units were the first to flee. One such “warrior” would swallow a piece of soap, or another, cause a self-inflicted wound in the hand. And ten his fellow villagers would carry him on a martial cloak to the rear – with moaning, screeching and screaming …
I don’t mean to denounce anybody by ethnic attribute, but this is what was happening those days in Crimea. In villages populated by Crimean Tatars nobody would open doors to us and they didn’t even give us water to drink … I rushed along the frontline trying to find my battalion, but all in vain. I came across with a retreat-blocking detachment. The retreat-blockers’ commander stopped the stampeding Red Army men and ordered them to “take up defenses!”. I reported to him: “Comrade commander, I am a professional tanker, let me have a tank. I have fired a rifle just a few times in my life”. - "Tanker?” – He responded – “Then step aside, you will stay with us”. So, I spent a few days in that retreat-blocking detachment. And what I happened to see and experience during those days I don’t want to tell you even now, though 65 years have passed since that awful May of 1942. I have no moral strength to render what was happening there… I can’t pick up the words …
It was a real catastrophe. Tragedy … once I even saw a forsaken general, who was all alone making a raft for himself on the Crimean shore …
I can tell you the way in which the gulf crossing was going … Under continuous mortar fire and incessant air bombing, soldiers tried to reach the eastern coast using rafts, vehicle tires or just by swimming. The current was strong; almost all were pulled into the sea. There was such a terrible mess … All fended for themselves. There was no inkling of organized evacuation to the Taman’ shore. Believe me; you’d be better off not to know it… I’ve been through very many troubles at the front, but there is nothing scarier in my memory than those days in May.
- How did you manage to survive in Crimea?
- On the 21st of May 1942 I decided to get across the gulf to our shore by swimming. One moment when I thought that that would be it, deep-six, I managed to grab the side of the last motor boat leaving the Kerchian shore. The motor boat was overloaded and the crew didn’t even want to take me aboard at first …
In Kuban all the survivors were sorted out by armed forces. The tankers were gathered together separately and sent away to some collective farm for recuperation. Once there we were helping the collective farmers scything grass and while eating the collective farm food and drinking newly drawn milk were getting fat trying to get away from the experiences which we had been through during the Crimean defeat. The 125th Special Tank Battalion was formed from us. In addition to T-26 tanks, the new T-34 tanks also started being supplied to the battalion. We came to know those machines within twenty-four hours.
Young lieutenants, snap training course graduates, were sent to us. I looked at them and wondered what those kids might have been taught with six months of a snap course in training school? Just for a driver-mechanic I had been trained for almost a year. But those immature lieutenants without any front combat experience were assigned right away to command platoons and companies … Presently our battalion was transferred to the Don River.
- But the situation in summer 1942 near the Don River was no easier than that in spring in Crimea.
I wouldn’t say so! Our resistance in the Don steppes was more tenacious. Yes, we did incur enormous casualties, but the troops did fight. Once, after a number of our unsuccessful and bloody attacks, the remainder of our battalion came over to the Don river crossing near the Cossack village named Morozovskaya. There was an avalanche of advancing German tanks and other vehicles. The whole sky was swarming with German aircraft. It was to us as if the landing gear of diving German aircraft brushed against the turrets of our tanks. Our infantry proceeded to retreat in disorder. The battalion commander major Danilov ordered us to recede from the crossing without fighting. He realized that none and nothing of us would exist in a minute. We went retreating across the Cossack farmsteads and saw there that the locals were already laying white cloths on the tables and setting out food and drink, preparing a warm welcome for the Germans… We socked those tables with machine gun fire and saw chips and splinters spewing about …
We held out on positions near the town of Zimovniky, which is in Rostov oblast (province). We were positioned on a hill. Columns of German troops and machines in a continuous stream were passing by day and night towards Stalingrad, just a few kilometers away from us. But we were not given the order for the attack. The defenses we had there were a complete sieve. Once in the morning I heard a cry: “Comrade commander, Germans!” A group of motorcyclists and an armored personnel carrier were advancing straight towards us. I had always shot with confidence. I hit the target accurately, none escaped. The next day two armored personnel carriers, a long car and a panel truck showed up on the same road. I brought down fire from my tank gun on the entire column. A security squad and I went to check out what was there. We captured in the car an alive German general, a corps staff commander, along with a bunch of operation maps and important staff documents. Can you imagine what it meant to capture a German general in 1942? I hear there is a list of generals who were captured by our troops. You may check with it the name of the one captured near the town of Zimovniky. Presently a high-ranking company from the intelligence department and staff headquarters of the Army arrived. They shook my hand and promised that the title of a Hero of the Soviet Union would be bestowed on me. Some congratulated me in advance for this highest decoration. But I did not believe them and was right.
A few months later my tank was knocked down. The crew survived. All of us were standing near the knocked-down tank: the driver-mechanic Nesterenko, the gun loader Ivan Babenko, born somewhere near Kiev, the radio operator, now I don’t remember his name, and I. Suddenly Babenko suggested to all of us: “Let’s break up and get out of here. We cannot defeat the Germans anyway!” I was about to shoot him right away, but contained myself. I told him: “You, son of a bitch, will walk next to me. If you make a step out of line, I will shoot you, bastard, off-hand!” I ordered that the machine guns and pan magazines were removed from the tank and taken away with us.
Nowhere around us were there any organized Red Army troops. Chaos … So, we headed east towards our lines through the waterless and uninhabited Kalmyk steppes. When we got out we were sent for reformation. And as late as November 1942 after getting off the train at the station of Kalach my battalion and I took part in our offensive around Stalingrad. Then I was commissioned an officer with the rank of lieutenant. Company commander Firsov and politruk (political officer) Kabzarev summoned me and announced that the rank of lieutenant had been conferred on me “for valor in battle”. After that I commanded a tank platoon.
And once everything was over we were transferred in the direction of Kharkov, in the South-West Front, near Barvenkovo, to help out the 3rd Tank Army, which had been in the second encirclement near Kharkov where tens of thousands of the Red Army had been killed. Our losses of just tanks were more than seven hundred. But we couldn’t break through the encirclement of the armies.
By the way, we had to engage in great tank battles against Germans where we would charge each other head-on. We were stuck there around Kharkov for a half a year. All the time we tried to break through the German defenses. Historians prefer to be silent about it. The battles there were very heavy. The Germans would cast us off all the time.
I remember once in spring near the town of Izium we were fighting the Vlasovites (followers of the infamous Soviet renegade general Vlasov) who were holding out the defenses at high ground 181.1. We charged, but a half of our tank strength was burned down by the Vlasovites on the approach. After our failure an entire rifle division was thrown onto that high ground. After two hours there was nothing left of that division… And again we were sent to attack that accursed high ground. Unsuccessfully, again … And it happened often. We would start off from Chuguev to reach Malinovka or the Kharkov Tractor Plant and again we would roll back.
On the 28th of August my tank was knocked down in a battle near the village of Malaya Kamyshevakha. A big shell splinter penetrated the right side of my chest and got stuck in a lung. I managed to get out of the tank by myself and then was evacuated from the battlefield. I found myself in hospital # 3185 in Pyatigorsk. Surgeons did not dare to do an operation, so I still carry that splinter inside of me. As a consequence of that I had to quit smoking. I spent almost three months in the hospital. The doctors wanted to discharge me from the army, but I refused. They found me unqualified for troop duty and assigned me to Ryazan as a training tank platoon commander of the 28th training tank regiment where the tankers for the 2nd Ukrainian Front were being trained. My memories of my stay in that regiment were the most unpleasant and disgusting.
- Once there I looked around and saw gaunt and meager officers wearing mended and patched breeches. Luck of food. Among the command staff there were many mediocre and dubious humans, who were just hiding in the training regiment from the war. I loathed being there. A number of times I asked the regiment commander to allow me to leave for the front, but every time he would decline my requests. I was particularly angry with our training battalion commander major Feoktistov - a naggy, stupid and career-minded person, who got under my skin by his never-ending finding of trifle faults with me. A couple of times I spoke my mind of what I thought about him, but the next time I couldn’t stand it and punched that major in the face. At once a rumor was circulated that I allegedly would be assigned to a penal frontline unit. The regiment commander summoned me and started dressing me down: “Well, I will send you to the penal battalion! I will send you to the frontline!” - “Send me wherever you like, either to a penal battalion, or to hell and gone – I answered to him – “that will be my great pleasure, as long as I will be away from all of you rear-echelon mother-figures!” The regiment commander looked at me and asked: “Maslov, are you seriously tired of living? Do you want to get dead quickly? Don’t you understand that in our regiment your survival is guaranteed?” – “But I don’t want to survive, I want to fight!” The regiment commander acted decently and settled the issue of my court-marshalling and allowed me to leave the regiment.
From the front reserve of the Armored and Motorized Troops I was assigned to a marching company. But I failed to reach the front that time. At one of the railway stations in Vinnitsa oblast our troop train, loaded with tanks, was bombed. I was on a flat-car near a tank. Fragments of the bomb got into my right leg, broke my thigh bone and both shin bones. I was taken to a hospital in the town of Uman. Doctors told me that the leg had to be amputated quickly. I consented for the amputation. But once on the operating table I visualized myself on crutches and decided that I wouldn’t give up so easy and rejected the operation. I signed the paper stating that if I should die the doctors wouldn’t be the ones to blame. I was loaded onto a hospital train and taken to the hinterland. Presently I found myself in Orsk, in hospital # 3640. I was there from spring through November 1944.
Later in the autumn I was discharged from the hospital and given a ticket to the Moscow Officers’ Reserve Regiment of Armored Tank Troops, which was based near Sokol (falcon) Metro Station. On the first day of my stay in that Regiment, when a greatcoat was stolen from me, I prayed to God: “Oh, My God! May I get to the front quicker! At least there are more honest and decent men there!” In early December I arrived at the 3rd Tank Army and was assigned to the position of the 1st Company commander under the 1st Battalion of the 52nd Tank Brigade. The Banner of the Brigade was decorated with five orders.
- How were you received in the new unit?
- I was received very warmly and respectfully. Do you know why? By 1945 the frontline almost had run out of “specialists” from the professional pre-war school with great combat experience. And when I arrived at the brigade the news circulated quickly that an experienced professional combatant of the old stock, who had begun the war career as early as the Polish and Finish Campaigns, had come to them. Men like me were looked at with mouth open and pointed at with a finger (were looked at with affection and piety). You know, by that time almost all the “professionals” had perished in action, and the rare lucky ones who had survived the slaughter of the first war years, then were serving in staff headquarters and auxiliary units. Other people wanted to save them and they themselves had had enough of the war. And when such a pro old sweat, skilful and experienced, who had been in tank fires five times, showed up at the frontline battalion the attitude towards him was extremely respectful.
As an example: Out of twelve officers of the company only the commander of the 1st platoon, a Siberian Ivan Rusakov, and the second platoon commander lieutenant Arkady Vasiliev had been at war more than a year. All the other officers were recent graduates of tank training schools. And the combat training level those graduates had was far below the frontline standards and requirements.
I remember once five to seven such young lieutenants had arrived at the battalion as reinforcements and they were distributed among crews. After just one or two weeks they all were dead, burnt in tanks. Every available moment I would hammer into the heads of the company youth the subtleties of tank combat, and hopefully I succeeded in it. In 1945 the lowest casualties in the brigade were incurred in my company, which had even been through the hell of close-quarter combat in Berlin. I taught my guys how to fight, to win and to survive.
- You were wounded at the war six times, had been through tank fires a few times and escaped knocked down and mine-exploded tanks a few times. As early as autumn of 1943 you might have resigned to civil life due to physical disability. But you always wanted to return to the frontline, always to the 1st company under the 1st battalion, which, according to tradition in all tank brigades, had always been an assault one. It was the 1st company which had always been the advancing vanguard. Were you really not scared of death?
- Please, don’t take me as a hero or a super patriot. I can explain to you my attitude on this subject. I will answer you with extreme honesty. Every time when returning to the front I always hoped that I would survive. I did not believe in omens and superstitions, even though we had celebrated all religious holidays in our family. Even during the heaviest battles I tried not to take the name of God in vain and the first time that I marked myself with the sign of the cross was when my tank, after crossing Teltow Canal, was already in Berlin and at that moment I said aloud: “I’m in Berlin!”.
I believed in my destiny. I was convinced that knowledge and experience predetermined who would win in a tank battle. The experience I had I could share with others … I was never afraid of death, I knew: “what is to be, will be” I never kept tally of how many times I was knocked down and never thought of that … I treated the war as if it were my job, my trade and I had never troubled myself with bookish questions: “Whose fault is it?” and “What to do?” What I’m going to say now may sound like bragging to you, but I can proudly make a statement that I was a professional at war. Not something like the movie “Terminator”, but a specifically trained specialist in tank combat. My experience bound me to it.
I had never kept a tally of how many enemy tanks I knocked down, burnt and how many Germans I sent to the afterlife. Anyway, I knew that there was a huge cemetery of enemy soldiers, tanks and other equipment behind my back made by my hands, but I was squeamish of that bullshit like figuring out after a battle of who had knocked down what. It was a war, not a socialist competition. Every destroyed German tank was paid for with the lives of some of our fellows. There was nothing to be puffed up about. For instance, out of all that I had destroyed at war I have the two most “favorite” German tanks but it had never occurred to me to paint “stars” after every knocked down tank upon a barrel of my tank gun, like sometimes other people did. At Barut station two tanks: mine and another tank of my company destroyed almost a dozen tanks on flatcars. So what? Should I have painted “stars” on my tank’s rear? The barrel wouldn’t have enough space to fit all the “stars”, even though the T-34 tank had a long one.
I had never anticipated from anybody any rewards, complements, sops, rave opinions and acknowledgment. I had never been in favor with the staff and had never been a candy kid. I just fought, did my job at a high standard. I did destroy the Fascist invaders, enemies of my Motherland. After seven years spent in a tank you can feel it as if it were a live human. The tank becomes a part of you and you become a part of the tank. There is another nuance. I had developed a good scent for danger and ambushes. So, possession of such a quality also added to my resolution and confidence that I would survive despite all deaths, and if not, I would give my life in battle, not in vain. Don’t take it wrong, if I have just expressed myself bombastically, but I meant it.
- But, for instance, on the 26th of April 1945 in Berlin you were wounded, but on the 29th of April 1945 you fled from the medical battalion to return to your company and to continue taking part in Berlin battles.
- I had almost no such thoughts, since I had been at war as early as 1941 that I should be the first to reach the Reichstag. I just knew that I was needed by the fellows in my company and it depended on me, whether they would survive in the streets of Berlin or would all be burned down there. I might yet have disengaged from the battle on the 16th of April 1945. Sixty tanks of our brigade were crossing the Neisse river from the direction of Bunzlau. The Tank Army commander Pavel Rybalko witnessed how at a few meters from the crossing my tank tripped a mine. Rybalko was standing at the crossing with a group of brigade commanders at about one hundred meters from the site of mine explosion. I got out of the tank apparently intact, but heavily contused. A captain strode up to me and ordered me to “Immediately report to the Army commander!” Slightly teetering I approached and greeted Rybalko. – “Who is the tank commander?” – he asked – “I am, company commander senior-lieutenant Maslov!” - "Come on, Maslov, get into another tank. I need company commanders in Berlin ", - Rybalko said to me. I got into Tank# 217. I remember my crew, together with whom I was finishing the war in Berlin: The radio operator Tyurin. He was wounded in Berlin and Maxim Roslyakov came to me to replace him. After the war he would become a professional officer. The gun commander Ivan Movchan. He would be killed … The driver-mechanic Mikhail Lapin. Vanya (Ivan) Movchan was very worried and nervous in Berlin. He had buried himself in advance … He was killed on the 28th of April. I fled the medical battalion and returned to the crew, but Vanya was already gone … A few months later, when we were already in Czechoslovakia, a train stopped next to us. The train was taking ex “ostarbeiters”, who had been driven into Germany from the occupied eastern territories, back to the Motherland. A young lady, one of those being repatriated, came up to us and asked: “Are you the tankers, guys? Do you happen to know Ivan Movchan? He is a relative of mine.” I told her that the tanker Ivan Movchan was no longer alive. This is the kind of sad “coincidence” that happened…
In Berlin I was in command of an assault team. Five tanks, a submachine gunner platoon and a combat engineer platoon. We advanced slowly, sticking to house walls to save at least once side of tank from “panzerfausters” (grenade-launchers). The tanks that entered the middle of a street would be set on fire right away. We reached a small junction, and from behind the corner house there was a solid fire. Murderous. The infantry took cover on the ground. I just couldn’t arbitrarily send the tanks against panzerfausts and flak cannons. I took a submachine gun, got out of the tank and went for reconnaissance, and after that I charged with the infantry against the Germans to clear them out of the building. We forced them out of the ground floor and on the first floor a bullet pierced through my leg. It didn’t touch the bone. I was carried back, taken to some house and a bandage was dressed on my wound. One of ours said that it was the house where General Field Marshal Paulus used to live before the war. I took a two-day “sick leave” in the medical battalion and then toddled up back to the company without any lamentations, like, oh God, don’t let them kill me in the enemy’s lair, moments before the Victory. I had neither pity for myself, nor fear of death. And when we were thrown from Berlin to Prague I was riding the vanguard tank in the brigade. A Hero of the Soviet Union senior-lieutenant Krainov was supposed to advance in the vanguard. But I saw Krainov was nervous. I realized how difficult it was for him to take a death risk after Berlin, so I volunteered to go instead of him. And our onslaught to Prague was not a bloodless journey at all. All the roads were sown with mines and the Germans would bang at us all around. By some quirk of fate I survived those days of May 1945.
- There have been many accounts written in memoirs about capturing the station of Barut in the suburb of Berlin, including those of Marshal Zhukov. But the station was captured first-hand by you and the tanks of your company. What happened there?
- I didn’t capture the station. I was just the first with my vanguard patrol party to break into it and show the Germans a hard time. I wouldn’t have held out such a big station with my three tanks. Besides, I hadn’t been given such an order. There was our breakthrough in the vicinity of the Zossen fortified zone on the 20th of April 1945. Before that we had covered almost thirty kilometers without any contact with the enemy. We drove into the station and saw to the right of us a troop train pulling up to the station. At first I thought that it would be ours, but then it occurred to me: “what the hell”, the rail gauge there was different from ours. We turned the turrets around and socked at that train. There was infantry in the railcars. We were flailing them for a long while and killed very many Germans. How many of them did we bring down?! As if the Grim Reaper in person had passed… Hundreds of dead … Eight new German tanks were standing on the flatcars nearby. We tore them to pieces also. Apparently we had destroyed everything around. So, my vanguard patrol party went further. Later on the Germans managed to establish defense of the station and it was finally captured by the strength of two brigades: our 52nd Guards Tank Brigade and the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade commanded by general Arkhipov. There was a heavy battle, which lasted about two more hours.
- Why were not you given the title of a Hero of the Soviet Union for Barut?
- Why do you ask me this question at all? How do I know for sure why I was not? At first we were told that at least five men from my company, including me, were sure to get the Heroes’ golden stars – particularly for the battle in Barut and further close-quarter combat in Berlin. The commendation lists had been allegedly completed and sent out to Rybalko for approval. But later on nobody ever talked on that subject. Actually, we had never been informed about who was recommended for which decoration and what the further destiny of those recommendations was. For Berlin I was decorated with the Order of Alexander Nevskiy and, as the phrase goes, we must be thankful for small mercies … They might have easily forgotten that, which had happened quire often.
About thirty years after the war in the city of Grodno there was a reunion of the 3rd Tank Army veterans. There was everything, which seemed routine in those years: flowers, Young Pioneers and a meeting in a conference hall. Unexpectedly, one of the veterans of the other tank corps rose and asked our brigade commander Ludwig Kurist: “For what were you honored with the title of a Hero of the Soviet Union?” The brigade commander got confused, poor thing, not knowing how to answer, mumbled something, for lying wouldn’t work as there were many tankers from his brigade around. There was a pause. I rose and said: “Kurist doesn’t know what he was given the Hero’s title for the same reason that the tankers of my company don’t know why that title had not been given to them.” I don’t think that I was cruel saying that. Because the superiors got accustomed to making their careers and decorating their chests with orders at expense of blood of common tankers … I hope at least at that moment Kurist remembered his conscience …
- How did Kurist prove himself as a brigade commander?
- This question is not so easy to answer because I can compare him with the others … Lt. Colonel Kurist, an Estonian from Leningrad, but raised in the Urals, was a good staffer and organizer, but as a combat tank unit commander was mediocre. During the whole war he occupied brigade commander’s positions. Some of his deeds were to his credit, but as for a general impression of him – he was not the sharpest tool in the shed for catching shooting stars, but he did care about catching a Hero’s star to decorate his chest.
- Who among the tank unit commanders enjoyed good reputations with crews?
- No doubt, our Army Commander Rybalko, corps commander Mitrofanov, general Novikov and brigade commander Dragunsky did. A little note. Experienced tankers were very good at figuring out among tank unit commanders who was worth what and they could give a sober estimate to performance of their commanders… Anyway now I have to be silent about many things, believe me …
- Tell me about the officer corps of the brigade, about the officers of your battalion.
- As I have already told you, Ludwig Ivanovich Kurist was the brigade commander.
Mikhail Lukiyanovich Lesnoy was the deputy brigade commander for political affairs. I had nothing in connection with him to remember him well.
The brigade technical quartermaster Dikkiy, born in Kharkov, left a very good impression of himself. He knew his business very well.
Alexander Grigoievich Pivovarov was our brigade senior quartermaster. We had no complaints against him: we were always well fed, dressed and fully provisioned.
The fuel supply service supervisor Yegorov was a nice and smart guy.
Lt. Colonel Goldberg was the director of the brigade staff and after his death in late January of 1945 the position was taken up by Vasily Ivanovich Barontev, a very nice and educated man.
Major Bautin, deputy commander for marching drilling, was killed in Berlin.
I also remembered the staff officers: the deputy political department supervisor Skoptintsev and captain Sergei Argelander, a veteran of the brigade, who was attached to the brigade commander as an officer for liaison and special missions. We socialized with him a lot in Kharkov after the war.
The Motor-Rifle Battalion was commanded by major Kuzmin, a senior and respectful man.
The tank battalions were commanded by Golomidov, a Kharkovite, who wore on his chest four Orders of the Red Banner, and Shaparov, but I don’t remember them well.
And my 1st Battalion was commanded by Stepan Gusev, born somewhere in the North, who was speaking Russian with some strange accent. His commanding abilities, putting it lightly, left something to be desired, and the brigade commander had dreamt of getting rid of him. In spring 1945 the brigade commander farmed him out to a recuperation camp and never took him back into the brigade. Vanya (Ivan) Sobolev, a smart and brave officer, born in Belorussia, was assigned to Gusev’s position. There was another good and smart guy, a deputy battalion commander, who was killed at the very end of the war through folly. Ivan Kuzmich Pekh was the director of the battalion staff. And captain Drobotov was the deputy battalion political department supervisor. One of very few political officers, who were brave, competent, sincere and decent people.
- Except for Drobotov, did you happen to come across other good political officers during the war?
- Well, no. Evidently I did not have the luck to get along well with commissars (political officers). Very often I was at odds with them. Perhaps the reason was my straightforward nature. I always spoke up to people with everything I thought of them. I was not a good diplomat, wagging the tail in front of commissars was not my strong suit. I do remember my company political officer during my service in Iran. A semi-literate person named Berdnikov. He couldn’t give an explicit answer to any of our questions. Who would respect such a political officer?
I was joining the Communist party one hour before a battle near Stalingrad. But I knew fairly well without the party agitators what I fought for and I always believed in our Victory. Even during the most grisly days of 1942 I did believe! Back then in winter an incident between me and a deputy battalion political department supervisor occurred. Near the village of Pokrovskoye the battalion commander positioned my platoon in the rearguard. The commissar showed up and ordered to me to change our position and rearrange the tanks. I answered to him: “I cannot withdraw my tanks from the rearguard without the battalion commander’s order!". He began unleashing all of his obscene language at me, threatening me, took a pistol out of his holster and pointed it at me. I jumped down from the turret with a small crow bar in my hand and used it to knock at the commissar’s wrist. The pistol dropped in the snow. I took his weapon away and said: “Get the f ••• out of here, my dear comrade politruk (political officer) ". He ran away to complain to the battalion commander major Danilov. Major Danilov came to me in person to pick up the commissar’s pistol and said to me: “Well done, Maslov. You did everything right! "
Once a new deputy political department supervisor was assigned to us. He showed up during a lull:
- Maslov, we want to recommend you for decoration with an order.
- I fight not for decorations.
- So, stay without decorations.
- As long as you, comrade commissar, don’t forget to decorate your own chest with a new order.
- You, Maslov, don’t worry much about me.
Why should I have worried about him? He was decorated with his order while I, as if it were a mockery, was given a medal ‘For Battle Merit”. It begs the question: which one of the two of us went on attacks and was on fire in a tank, and who sat in a warm staff headquarters hut and shouted slogans? Judging by the conferred decorations, the commissar was the one who fought while I was playing the harmonica in the rear … Is it fair?
Or here is another incident, which happened near Kharkov. We were fighting in the Dvurechny rural district near the Soviet farm #10. One young lieutenant jumped out of a knocked down tank, apparently intact. So for his recuperation from shell-shock he was taken back to the rear of the battalion. Anyway, there were many ‘horseless’ tankers (without machines), much more than available vacancies in the crews. Whether it was his delusion or nervous breakdown, suddenly he started shouting: “Germans! Tanks!” A panic arose. Then our commissar showed up and began his “panic-mongers’ fighting”. He ordered that a firing squad commanded by a senior man Vorobyev shoot the tanker-lieutenant. So they did shoot him … Just for nothing. For no reason. For illustration purposes only. It was not a special department officer who ordered it, but our deputy political department supervisor who did…
So, how do you expect me to regard them after that case? I did fight fairly well without the stick of the overlooking commissars. I loved my Motherland and didn’t grudge my life for it.
- Did people in your brigade try to save lives of combat tankers – brigade veterans by sparing them from hazardous assignments?
- I cannot give an explicit answer. Neither “yes”, nor “no” will be correct … The experienced people were much needed in battle.
In the adjacent battalion there was a crew of Kuperstein-Grabsky, which was fully manned by Heroes of the Soviet Union, who had been honored with that title for capturing Kiev back in autumn of 1943. So, I think that the whole their crew stayed together through the end of the war. For example, we had a Hero of the Soviet Union driver-mechanic Matsak. An order was issued to transfer him to the position of driver of a mobile maintenance party vehicle in order to somehow give him a chance to survive.
- Did the tankers take alcohol before attacks?
- Not in my company. I forbade that and kept a strict watch over it. I had witnessed too many people die through folly due to alcohol. A drunken man cannot successfully fight in tank combat and if a crew was inexperienced they would be set on fire right away. I have already told you the story about the battle near the village of Vladislavovka in Crimea in early 1942. Wasn’t that a good illustration?
I was in hospital in Kislovodsk when I heard the news that my driver-mechanic Vanya (Ivan) Mikhailenko had been killed. He was a very young boy, under seventeen. A volunteer from Smolensk oblast (province). He was sent out to evacuate from the battlefield a knocked down tank. He took some alcohol to keep his spirit up. He had not even reached the tank when he was killed …
Since then I hated all those who drank before an attack. If someone before the fight was shaking in his boots, that bastard should better have gone aside and shot himself quietly, rather than warming himself up with vodka ... I understand, one can drink during unit reformation, at rest, but not before a battle …
- What was the attitude toward civilians in Germany?
- There were no incidents with German civilians in our brigade. At least, I never heard of anything like that. This attitude toward Germans was correct. I still remember a picture in my eyes of a battlefield in a street of Berlin. There were civilians running before us and a woman with a child among them. I immediately ordered “Cease fire!” Our tanks stood silent, but the Germans continued firing along the street with it making no difference whether a ‘Russ Ivan’ was attacking or his dear ‘frau’ was running …
On the 1st of May 1945 the battle was abating. We stopped by a big air raid shelter divided into sections. We took submachine guns with us and with an interpreter descended into it. We were followed by some other guys from the assault team. At the entrance there was a two meter tall German with a handful of wristwatches, who said to us: “Bitte, Uhr!” (please, take the watches). I immediately ordered to the tankers and the accompanying infantry: “Don’t take the watches! Don’t touch the Germans!” And we went further into the battle.
- You said that you had a special scent for ambushes and potential danger. How can you explain that phenomenon?
- Surely, I didn’t possess any supernatural mystic abilities or foresight. It was very difficult to foresee where our major problem, a German self-propelled assault gun, had lurked in ambush. But I certainly had a scent for danger. Of course, my experience and quick reflexes helped me out also. And one more detail: in precarious situations one had to have the nerve to tell all the superiors to get off, take all the responsibility and act in accordance with his own scent and insight.
I can give you an example. At the approach to Berlin I was given an order by a deputy battalion commander Grunin: “Maslov, come on, push straight forward!” There was a marsh in front of me with some passage lanes, but something had alerted me that everything had been mined there. Behind the marsh there was a highway. Everything was apparently quiet and no Germans were to be seen. But my mind was uneasy. I sensed in my gut that we all would be burned down. I radioed to the battalion that I refused to follow the order and that I wouldn’t go straight forward. I turned the company aside, passed a few hundred meters to the left and without losses wedged into the flank of the Germans. We knocked down two ‘Panther’ (Panzer V) tanks by firing into their sides. The highway was defended by young Germans, first year cadets of military training school, a detachment of ‘panzerfausters’ - tank destroyers. They had not anticipated my company from the left flank. We ran over and killed them all. And what if I had gone straight forward? What of my company would have survived?
A tank unit commander must be capable of free maneuver, and be impromptu in carrying out a battle mission, ignoring the threats and barking of staff superiors. Even if his actions are guided by intuition only. I have seen an eyeful of so-called “headlongers”, who had moved forward blindly following perilous orders. They brought down themselves and their subordinates … Nobody cared for counting our losses …
- Can you give examples of such “impromptus”?
- No problem. Back there in Germany, during the spring offensive we broke through into the German rear. We had no infantry with us. The order was to move only forward without any delay. I saw before us a forest and a large settlement, which was not charted on the map. It was strange. I didn’t like it, something was wrong there. I had to make a decision, what to do next. Whether to go headlong or to send in a tank for a fighting reconnaissance? I lead my men to detour. We made a great diversion, outflanked the settlement from the rear and broke into it. In there was a secret German panzerfaust factory. We killed some of the guards, while others escaped. And the most exciting thing was that in front of the factory there were two batteries of flak cannons and one battery of field guns pointed directly at the direction from which we were supposed to come had we not brought ourselves to detour. The Germans didn’t get a chance to swing the guns around and we crushed them. The tank crews each socked 15 rounds at the factory and then, when we realized that that facility would never work again, we started off further west with a clear conscience.
- Have you sometimes asked yourself due to which miracle you survived at war? Two and a half years spent directly inside a tank at the frontline is almost a fantastic term for a tanker.
- I was lucky almost all the time … I had to change so many machines and crews …
On the second of May, when street fighting in Berlin had lulled, I was overwhelmed with a sense of joy and pride that I had survived into those days, that perhaps I was the only one of the entire 24th Tank Regiment who had survived the war and reached the German lair. And later on I asked myself: why did I, a tanker, survive in that slaughter, why did the destiny save me? I analyzed everything that had happened to me throughout all those years and came to a conclusion that the following factors allowed me survive. Now I am going to list them. It may sound dull, like a text from a leading article in “The Red Star” newspaper, but everything is exactly as it is. Before the war I was practicing combat training only, something that would be useful at war. I received very good firing training; I could fire quickly for effect. I could read maps and instantaneously calculate firing data; I was responsible and demanding of myself and my subordinates. And in addition –luck. Thanks only to this I did survive.
- I have met with many tankers, and in my opinion, you, in the proper sense of the words, may be qualified as a perfect tank unit commander. Why didn’t you stay in the army after the war?
- I was willing to stay. Shortly after the war, in spite of my incomplete secondary education, I was even offered to enter the Armored Tank Academy. I was not afraid of the exams, I might have prepared for them by an “accelerated method”. But I did realize that after six wounds I had no chance to pass the medical examination commission, which was required for entering the academy. Some of our guys had already tried to enter it, but they were “sieved out” at medical examination before even receiving a permit for exams.
I continued my service in tank units. But shortly after the war the army “decencies” drastically started changing and normal and plain frontline human relations between people were disappearing. Haughty rear-echelon lords wearing colonel shoulder-straps came to power, to who I didn’t want to give a false smile and cringe obsequiously. You know my nature …
What was I suited for after the war? I could command a company and a battalion, and I could kill the enemy well and ruthlessly. But I wanted to learn, to attain something else in life, I wanted to develop as a person. So I decided to demobilize. I went into civilian life.
After the war I graduated from two higher educational establishments and for “dessert” I finished the Higher Economic Courses under the Kharkov State University. My frontline commander’s stamina helped me out in peace life. For many years I had worked as a deputy director of a flour mill, and later as director of bread baking complex. I had more than fifteen hundred people under my command. My abilities in managing people, understanding their expectations and finding common language with workers in major part had been acquired back in the army.
- Does the war come back in your memory often?
- It does, especially in recent years. I remember my comrades who were killed at war. I remember those who departed out of this world over the last years. Our generation is gradually passing away … There are very few of us remaining …
And remembering the war, I often ask myself: whether I did everything right at war, whether my conscience is clear and whether my grandchildren will have to blush for me? And again I flash back through many combat episodes in my memory. And I realize one thing: I honestly did everything I could, everything I was capable for to draw our Victory closer.
|Interview and literary work by:||G. Keuffman|
|Translated by:||N. Kulinich|
|Translation review by:|| Charles G. Powers|