Nikolai Shishkin

Published september 26, 2010

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In 1939 I finished high school with high marks in the Kazakhstan city of Petropavlovsk and applied to three colleges: Moscow Aircraft Construction, Moscow Architectural and Sverdlovsk Polytechnic.After being admitted into all three (they admitted the best students without exams), I decided to study at Sverdlovsk Polytechnic in the metallurgical department. Within two months after I started my studies and at the same time of the start of the Finnish War, they announced a voluntary call for students for the war service. I didn’t have to go into the army, but we were all patriotic. Practically the entire class decided to volunteer for the defense of the Motherland, same as the guys from all our neighboring universities. We thought that they would immediately transfer us to the West, however, it turned out we were sent to the city of Achinsk. Snow already lay on the ground by the start of November. We arrived at our transit point, where we cleaned up and changed into army uniform—which so changed our appearance that we at first could not recognize one another. They formed us up on the parade ground in two ranks, along which “buyers” walked and picked out soldiers for their sub-units. I and some other men found ourselves in the artillery unit of an infantry regiment. That’s how I became a gun-layer of a 76mm gun Model 1927. With that gun I went through both the Finnish War and the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. The commander of our platoon was Lieutenant Orel, while the commander of my gun was Semin—who would receive the star of the Hero of the Soviet Union for fighting in the Karelian Isthmus. This is how he received it: the Finns broke through to the headquarters of our regiment, and even though our gun was in disrepair—the counter recoil did not work—we swung it about and opened fire on them, counter recoiling the gun with our hands. That’s how we saved our regiment headquarters, and Semin was rewarded and later became a captain only to die in a stupid way…

They taught us well at Achinsk, but for too brief a period of time. We did not have live fire exercises — we only trained to load our guns with a wooden dummy shell, and already by the middle of November they sent us to the front. [Translator’s note:The war began on 30 November 1939, so it appears that Shishkin is off by one month so the dates he gives in November ought to be understood as December]As we went, Lieutenant Orel conducted exercises with us. I remember he forced us to work blind-folded, feeling the movement of mechanical part only by touch to set the deflection and elevation for our guns. We learned to place the deflection precisely, and we placed the elevation with error of not more than 2-3 hundredths off the mark.

They unloaded us at the Dno station. Through snow we dragged our guns to the firing range and fired live ammo for the first time, getting the taste of the gunpowder. It must be pointed out that we left for the exercises at 10 or 11 in the morning, but the field kitchens forced their way through the snow only by the evening. We were hungry the entire day! And imagine—the cooks forgot the salt! They made pea soup, but how could you eat it without salt?! Lieutenant Orel said, “Pour in sugar—the taste will be the same.” We poured it in, but it became completely impossible to eat it.

From there, from the Dno Station, as part of the 613th Rifle Regiment of the 91st Rifle Division, I ended up going to the Vyborg sector. Heavy battles raged there. In the month of December the snow was waist deep. It was true for us that Siberia had prepared and equipped us well. We were dressed in sheepskin coats, hats that covered our ears, and mittens to our elbows. I can’t say that 40 degrees below zero was nothing to us, but we didn’t feel it so severely. We could and did lie in the snow for several days. They taught it to us in Siberia, and they also taught us to run in the snow. The platoon leader, thanks to him, trained us. For example, we would bring our gun out to the position to shoot wooden dummy shells. Then he would give the command: “Target: machine gun, reference point one, left 20, 2 shells. Fire!” And then he would yell: “To cover!” That meant we had to run 200 meters in half-meter deep snow to get to shelter. You’d run that distance and then just collapse. We would catch our breath for a little bit, and then already the command: “Detachment, to your gun!” So you’d run the same 100-200 meters back to the gun. That’s how he trained us and saved us from the frost. On the Karelian Isthmus that helped us a lot. We could quickly open fire, then run to seek cover from either an artillery or mortar bombardment. After all, through the whole war, we were able to use indirect fire only several times, otherwise the whole time we dragged our guns with our hands behind the infantry, always using direct fire. We’d capture a ridge, advance 100 meters and spend a week in one place, then advance another 100 meters and again stop. That’s how we were breaking through the Mannerheim Line. And even though I think that the command of the regiment was competent, the regiment received replacements more than once until we reached Vyborg.

A.D.: What is your opinion of the cause of the heavy casualties?

The command underestimated the enemy. I think the soldiers are not to blame. They fulfilled the task that they were given. The defense of the Finns was competent, with concrete bunkers, flanking fire, and of course, if you advanced into this defense without reconnaissance, without preparation, and without reliable suppression of enemy weapons emplacement—this happened more than once—then losses would be great and unjustified. In our section of the front there were concrete bunkers called “millionaires” in which there were two or three machine or even an artillery piece. To capture such a bunker, we probably had to roll out a 203mm howitzers and put several rounds into the bunker’s gun-port, or drag up to a ton of blasting charges. The war was very hard, but if it had not been for it—the Great Patriotic War would have been even worse for us than it was. The Finnish War—it was the schooling that came with much blood.

A.D.: What kind of missions did the regimental artillery fulfill?

Supported the infantry. You could say that a regimental gun had double subordination. Before the battle, the commander of the battery, who was next to the a rifle battalion commander, gave the orders. He received the missions from the battalion commander and passed them on to the gun commanders through the commanders of the platoons, who were always next to him. The platoon commander would come running from the battalion observation post and give the command to two of his own guns (there was often not more than 100 meters to them): “Reference point two, right 200, machine gun emplacement. As soon as we advance to attack, start pushing the gun after, do not fall behind more than 250 meters.” As soon as the battle started, the command of our operations passed over to the infantry. For example, let’s assume a rifle platoon advances toward some hill. In the platoon there may be 30 men or maybe only 15. In the hands of every fighter is a rifle and one to two machine guns per platoon, if they were intact. The task for the commander of the guns was to observe the weapon emplacements of the enemy, who might be located in the first trench or in deeper defenses. Well, my task as gun layer was to suppress these weapon emplacements. We all lay in the snow, or later in the Great Patriotic War on the ground, or behind the gun’s shield—bullets whistling, the enemy about 400-800 meters away. The commander would observe events though binoculars—it was difficult for him as he had to poke himself out of the cover. The infantry runs for 20 meters and lies down seeking cover. At that time we would open fire on the flashes we had just spotted. At the signal the infantry would again get up to attack. And again we look to see from where they were shooting and fire our gun there. Let’s assume we took the first trench. The enemy retreated to the second that was located 200-300 meters away. We moved the guns 100-200 meters forward and fired over the heads of our infantry. Then we would wait for command from the infantry—they had to indicate the target, or the commander of the gun himself picked them out if he spotted any. What kind of communications did we have with the infantry? From the commander of the company or platoon came a messenger running with an order to suppress some weapon emplacement—that was all the communications we had. Wire communications were down to the level of the company commander, and below that it was all by voice, whistles, and rocket signals. For example, a red rocket showed the direction of the movement, green—for attack. Well, and then you just had to look and see – what the neighbors were doing, the infantry.

 

 

A.D.: What were the norms for ammo expenditure?

The ammo load of a regimental gun consisted of 80 rounds, but during any given day we were allowed to fire no more than 20 or 40. We sparingly used the shells, especially during the Great Patriotic War under the siege of Leningrad, where every round was worth its weight in gold. I must say that there were always limits on expenditure of ammunition. The limit was defined for the whole mission. For example, two ammo loads would be allocated—one ammo load used for carrying out the immediate mission, while a half or even a quarter of an ammo load for reaching the next objective. This was the case in both the Finnish and Great Patriotic War, only in the second half of the Great Patriotic War the expenditure of shells for the fulfillment of a typical task was increased. There were such battles where they allowed us to use unlimited quantities of ammunition. If in strained circumstances for similar tasks where they normally allocated two ammo loads, then they might assign three or four.Of course, we had to take into account that guns also wear out. You could use it up so badly in one day, that it wouldn’t even fire the next day. We had to observe the regimen of firing, cleaning, and lubricating. So you had to use your head when firing. As to the expenditure of shells for fulfilling a concrete tactical task, there were established standards. For example, from the distance of 800 meters, a well-trained crew was supposed to hit a gun-port the size of 50 by 50 centimeters with at most the third round. Before the Great Patriotic War,during the competition for direct fire against a moving tank from the distance of 800 to 1000 meters, my crew was able to land all three shells in a square 50x50cm and receive the highest mark.That’s how well-trained we were!

A.D.: Did you understand the reason for waging war against the Finns?

The political instruction work during both the Finnish and the Great Patriotic wars was conducted very well. I think that the commissars and later the political officers [zampolit – deputy commander for political work, replaced commissars in 1942] worked well. These were people who did not spare themselves, who did not think of themselves. They conversed well with the soldiers, often making small talk about life, asking who was writing from home, how we were fed, and they never crammed agitprop “party of Lenin-Stalin” stuff into us. I, for example, never heard the cry “For Stalin!” during battle—obscene cursing was heard more often. Perhaps there was someone in the platoon or the company who raised the cry: “For Stalin! For the Motherland!” when going on the attack. But, overall, this was not the case. As regards to our battery, the circumstances turned out during the Finnish War that we never assembled for the commissar to talk with us. There wasn’t the opportunity—we were all with our own guns within the combat formations of the rifle battalions.

A.D.: Did they give you vodka during the Finnish War?

All the time. In the morning a company could have 100 men, in the evening—20, but there would be a full canister of vodka for the entire complement. You could drink as much as you wanted. But it wouldn’t have an effect on you because of the frost. The ground was like steel—we could not even dig out a shelter. So you’d lie behind a dead body, piercing a tin can with a knife to open it. What vodka?! The whole of three months we were in the snow. We made a rampart of it, lying down in the center layer and covering ourselves with snow. If we stopped for 2-3 nights, then we made tents out of pine branches. In the day we’d light a campfire, but in the night—it was not allowed—we were afraid of planes seeing us.

A.D.: Did they feed you well?

We never experienced constant hunger. Though, it happened sometimes that the field kitchen would fall behind. And under the siege of Leningrad in ’42, yes, there was hunger.

A.D.: Did you ever happen to meet the Finish “cuckoos?”

Personally, I didn’t, but there was much talk that the Finnish snipers organized ambushes up in the trees. I had no basis not to believe them, so far as it seemed to me that such a tactical method in the surrounding areas seemed fully justified.

A.D.: Did you ever rub shoulders with the Finns?

No. I saw them only through the gun sight. It’s true, though, that this situation happened in our battery. Our cook was a big man, the merry fellow Vania Chechurin. The kitchen rarely succeeded in dragging up to the forward positions—either the snipers would prevent them or the snow had piled up—so food carriers would set out to the positions with thermoses that contained enough food for 20. If there appeared to be a lull in the fighting action, then the kitchen came up close the positions of the battery. And so, one time the battery members lined up with mess tins. When another soldier came up to Vania, who was giving out food, Vania looked at him: “And you? Who are you? Maybe you’re a Finn?!” And he whacked him on the head with his own ladle.It turned out that this was a real Finn. The Finn was so insolent that he came to our kitchen to receive a mess-tin of hot soup. For his vigilance Vania Chechurin was awarded the medal “For Bravery.”

The last fight of the regiment they ordered us to Vyborg. During the assault we got delayed. Our neighbors succeeded in breaking through, while the Finns pressed our infantry to the ground under barbed wire obstacles with flanking machine-gun fire. And it was only 400 meters to the city! The commander of the regiment gathered all who remained, grabbing half of the personnel of the battery, and led everyone to the barbed wire. He himself raised the men to attack. And even though we lost a lot of men, we burst into the outskirts of Vyborg. On the night of the 12th, when it was already known that tomorrow there would be an armistice, all of our artillery fired on the Finns. There were forests with small clearings there, so our guns stood next to each other three meters apart, and all night we chiseled away at the Finns, not sparing any shells.

In the summer of 1940 they transferred us to the Hanko peninsula, having already created the 8th Separate Rifle Brigade from our division. There we had to set up the state border. A special demarcation commission was established. I had to accompany it, dragging along the artillery director. The chairman of the commission was General Kriukov, besides him there was also the commander of a battalion from our regiment Captain Sukach, who had been decorated for his fighting on the Karelian Isthmus with the Order of the Red Banner. On the Finnish side a unit that had fought against us on the isthmus was quartered. When one of the Finns realized this he said to the captain: “We were enemies there, but here we are making a peaceful border.” I was a witness to this meeting. Besides that, the garrison of the peninsula also traded with the Finns, who provided us with milk, butter, and vegetables.

The regiment took up the defensive positions on the Petrovsky opening, through which, according to legend, Peter the Great had pulled through ships from one of the gulfs to another one on a different sea, and by June of 1941 was thoroughly entrenched.

 

 

Up to the 17th of June our regiment had only six dummy shells per gun with which we trained in loading, but on this day the order came to take up defensive positions, and instead of imitation rounds we received 200 real ones. The pillbox for our gun was still not finished: it had two lateral walls and a breastwork that screened the gun from the front so that only the barrel stuck up from it. We put channel bars above it and brought in and placed rocks on top, and later we buried this whole construction with dirt. We created a large hill, and even though we camouflaged it, it stood out distinctly against the terrain. A ditch was dug in front of it, and at the bottom of it were built three lines of electrified barbed wire obstacles. Two machine gun pillboxes for flanking fire were built in front of the ditch.Everything was mined. The engineer of our regiment was Lieutenant Repnev—a professional in his work and a big inventor. He installed not only mines, but also remotely detonated charges and rock throwers (in the ground we dug out conical holes, in which we put gunpowder charges, and on top of them placed sacks of rocks). So they told us that something would happen and gave us our mission—do not let the enemy pass. We could only shoot in response to the attack of the enemy because there were strict orders not to shoot, so as not to provoke a war. There was even this incident: The driver of the “Komsomolets” tractor attached to us, Emel’ian Gnesin, while cleaning his machine gun accidentally gave a burst of fire. They took him away to the special department, as a provocateur of war, but within some time let him go. We asked him, “Well, Emel’ian, how are you?” He answered, “They told me to be quiet.” Such was the gag… 22nd of June—war! But it was all quiet in our sector, nothing was happening. Only on the night of the first of July we came under artillery bombardment, which lasted for two hours, after which the Finns descended on our pillbox.

Interview:Artem Drabkin
Translated by:Mary Schwarz
Editing:Oleg Sheremet


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