I was born on the19th of October in 1921, a year of famine, in the town of Demidov of Smolensk oblast. My father, Andrei Yegorovich Otroschenkov, had grown in the village of Bolshaya Chervonnaya of Krasnensk county in the Smolensk area also. He was a professional soldier. He did his military service in the tsarist army as a staff captain of artillery. Retiring before the Revolution, father went to work as a guard in the city prison and after a while became its director. But in 1923 he, as a former tsarist officer, was asked to resign.
My mother, Praskovia Vasilyevna , was born in the same village as my father. She didn’t get a chance to receive any education. She was busy looking after the house and us children. There were seven of us, five brothers and two sisters. However, one sister had died at the age of two before I was born. I was the youngest. I remember my grandfather, Yegor Andreyevich, he had lived to the age of 102. He was illiterate and all his life worked as a herder. He had begun his working life back in the times of serfdom, herding the cattle of his landlord. Thereafter he herded the common cattle, and after the revolution, those of the collective farm. My grandfather lived alone in his farmstead. I remember him well. Long grey beard. Very strict. God forbid anyone in his presence should say a word at the dinner table! He had a club, a stick with which he walked. He would catch an offender’s neck with his club and turn him out from the table. After the meal everybody had to make a sign of the cross and only then could we talk. He did not take alcohol, but did smoke a pipe. He always ate buckwheat porridge and milk. It was his favorite meal. Grandfather disapproved of transport. When he saw a car he spat, like it was an evil spirit. At the age of 100 he walked enormous distances to visit us in Demidov and to his other son in Smolensk. The distance between us and his farmstead was 70 kilometers! When grandfather died all his teeth were intact and white like garlic, even though, he had never cleaned them.
Family: (from left to right, at top) Mother Praskovia Vasiliyevna, Boris, Father Andrei Yegorovich. (below) Ivan, Nikolai. Demidov. July 20, 1915
We lived in our small house with a kitchen garden and a bathhouse. We lived neither richly, nor poorly, like many other people did. During the NEP (new economic policy) people lived fairly well. Whatever opinions may exist, Lenin had managed to establish a decent life standard after the Civil War. Nobody can convince me now that life under Lenin was bad. We had a cow, a horse and other minor live stock. I remember abundance of goods in shops and stores. But in the early 30s the nepmen (entrepreneurs under the NEP) started being imprisoned and collectivization broke out. When collective farms (kolkhozes) started being established in our vicinity my father had to give up all our live stock. Everything had to be given up. The “blue blousers” (this is the way we called policewomen wearing blue blouses, berets and revolver handguns on their sides) would come house to house. If they saw that someone had a piglet they ordered it fed to gain a certain weight and then given up. Nobody cared what the people themselves would eat. Refusal was not an option; it was a sure way to be sent to the prison camps.
In 1932 interruptions to bread supply began. People went to the shops to take a place in a queue at two o’clock in the morning. We baked domestic bread with potatoes. We would peel a couple of buckets of potatoes, grate them and squeeze the whole mess until it was dry, letting all the fluid and starch escape. Then the starch was dried out and pancakes were made of it to cut into noodles. The noodles were used for making soup. The cake that was remained after squeezing was mixed with a little bit of flour, just enough for it to stick together, and bread was baked from it.
In 1933 a terrible famine broke out. We dug kitchen gardens and went afield a number of times a day hoping to find a potato. We chewed grass. My grandfather Yegor Andreyevich swelled up and died of hunger. My father was also swelling up, but fortunately he survived.
After finishing the 9th grade in school in 1938 I went to Leningrad to find a job. I entered a three-month training course, finished it and found a job in the Marty Shipbuilding yard. I worked as a driller at the northern building berth. Ship hulls were not welded then, but were riveted. So I drilled the holes for those rivets. Other workers called us “bell-ringers” because of the terrible rumbling noise that we produced. A ship hull was like an enormous iron bell and we chiseled it! We had to wear earmuffs.
Of course, at a young age people want to try everything. I decided to be qualified as a driver. At that time very few people had driving licenses. Having one was very prestigious.
During the day I worked and in the evenings I went for driver’s training, blessed that the course was free of charge. When I was qualified as a driver I wanted to work as one right away. I found a job as a driver at the Mikoyan meat processing factory. I delivered sausages to shops. Getting fed at the factory was amazing! Everybody knew me; female cooks would fill my plate wholeheartedly. I remember meat hotchpotch. After eating it I was full the whole day. Soon we couldn’t stand the sight of sausage. This is how much we were spoiled.
At that time all the young without exception went out for sports. There was a strong emphasis on physical culture and sport. Clubs of different sports were operating at full strength. Wrestling, swimming, shooting, football, whatever anyone liked. Everything was free of charge. I was fond of boxing, spent my spare time going for it and even gained the first amateur boxing rank. I was very proud of my GTO badge (Russian abbreviation for ‘ready for labor and defense’) of the second level. Many people had GTO badges of the first level, but gaining the one of the second level was not so easy.
In the spring of 1940 I was drafted for service into the Red Army of Workers and Peasants. I was on active military duty in the town of Guive near Zhitomir. I did my military service in the 40th Tank Division, 79th Tank Regiment. By the time the war started I had the rank of junior sergeant and was a driver-mechanic of the light T-26 tank. Later, after the battles in Stalingrad, the 79th Regiment was reformed into the 20th Guards Tank Brigade.
I did enjoy the service. We woke up at 6 o’clock and went to bed at 2300 hours. Plus one and a half hours were taken for daytime rest. The rest of the time there were combat training, maneuvers, range-practicing. Much time was dedicated to the physical training of the Red Army men. If someone had difficulties with performing some exercise on the horizontal bar, then he would tackle practicing it for long hours. A sergeant would give that man a wet shirt. Feeding in the army was perfect; besides, the tank crews were given supplementary rations: double rations of sugar, butter and other foodstuffs. Firing exercises were conducted, but more often using a machine gun. It would be only after the war when plenty of ammunition had accumulated that it wouldn’t be grudged for tankers’ training, but back then the gun rounds were being conserved. There were three to four live rounds allotted per tank a year.
We did not have rifle cartridge adapting tubes either. And even if we had them, where would we insert them? The T-26 tank gun caliber was only 45 millimeters.
We practiced in maneuvers. A tank on the offensive, a tank in defense, a platoon in defense, and so on, according to plan, in company and battalion scale. At year’s end there were regimental maneuvers. The defense tactic was in general effective. A firing area was determined for each crew, reference points were recorded. An emphasis was then placed on the establishment of company defense areas where the main stake was placed on infantry while the tanks were given just a supportive role. The theory of independent dispatching of battle missions by tank arms would be born at the end of the war thanks to marshal Rotmistrov. As far as the attack is concerned, I think that we were not taught what we really needed, but I will touch on this subject later.
After all, the military career did not attract me. I had plans of returning after the demobilization to Leningrad, to the Shipbuilding yard and getting qualified there. I was already looking forward to my demobilization when the war broke out.
On Saturday evening June 21, the contingent of the regiment was brought to a stadium. The unit was being prepared for a sports festival. We practiced in performing exercises and were flourishing arms. And the next morning the Germans ‘bugled’ us a wakeup. A bomb landed right into a courtyard of a brick-built, three-storey U-shaped building of our barracks. It shivered all of the window panes right away. The Germans finished their bombing and many soldiers got wounded or killed before even waking up, let alone fighting. Can you imagine how that hurt the morale of the 18-19 year old boys?
The carelessness of our superiors was awful! Evidently not much time had passed since the Finnish Campaign was over and we had liberated Bessarabia, the Western Ukraine and Belorussia. Everybody knew that the border was near and that the war was brewing as the rumors were circulating. But we were soldiers and had no time for figuring out on political matters. We believed in whatever a commissar (political officer) told us in the barracks. And the combat readiness was disgusting. The tanks were half-disassembled. The batteries were stored in a battery room, firing and guidance units were stored in another location, and machine guns were stored in a third location. All that stuff had to be brought together and installed. Each battery weighed 62 kg (28 lb). There were four of them in a tank. The turret gunner (gun loader) Safarov and I went four times to fetch them. I was in the crew of a platoon commander’s tank. A lieutenant, the tank commander, lived in a flat in Zhitomir, which was 11 kilometers away from Guive where we were based. The Germans had begun bombing us at half past four in the morning and it was already one o’clock in the afternoon when I saw the first officer in our quarters. When we set out for the frontline it was already late night and dark.
Not long before the beginning of the war thirty T-34 tanks had arrived at our regiment. They were surrounded with a three meter high wire fence and guard posts. We, the tankers, were not allowed to look at them! Such secrecy was maintained! So, we left without them. Later on they caught up with us and fought the Germans, but for the most part they had perished absurdly after bogging down in a swamp.
Advancing west we passed by the town of Novograd-Volynsky on the outskirts of which was an airfield. We witnessed how seven German Junker aircraft flew up and proceeded to bomb it. Only one Soviet Polikarpov I-15 (Seagull) biplane aircraft managed to take off. In those years the men in the army were very strong physically and morally. Many of them were prepared to face death for the right cause. The men of this sort are rarely seen now. So that snub-nose “Seagull” stuck to the tails of the bombers and managed to force one of them to file out of the formation and land on our airfield. I witnessed the whole affair of how the Junker landed. I don’t know what happened there next, as we moved forward. There were refugees on the road and the Germans were bombing them. A cow was running in the field. A German aircraft was flying over it and firing at it with a machine gun! As the cow would rush aside, the German would turn around and fire again, but not at it, only to near miss it to amuse himself, chasing the cow around the field. There was so much rage in our hearts that had we gotten hold of that pilot we would have torn him to pieces.
Our first battle happened on the 26th of June. Later on, after gaining combat experience I came to an understanding of the tragic mistakes of that battle and those of many other battles at the beginning of the war. We were not real soldiers then yet, but were irrational cannon fodder.
The Soviet propaganda had worked perfectly. To some extent it did play a low-down trick with the Red Army at the beginning of the war. “And in the enemy land, the enemy will be thrashed…” – we had sung before the war, anticipating that the upcoming war on our part would be offensive-dominated only. Many people believed then that learning and getting to know the enemy better was not needed, the enemy only had to be hammered and after the first good onrush the enemy would run for his life. Even the maneuvers, in our regiment at least, were like this: “The enemy took up defenses on that hill. Let’s force him out of there. Forward, Hurrah!” And we would rush forward overtaking each other. Once during a field firing exercise someone had socked a live shell at a turret of a tank which had taken the lead. Thank God, the shell was the fragmentation type, so no one got hurt, only the tank’s headlights were damaged. So, this is the way we fought in 1941. However, there was a great difference between rushing forward while shouting “hurrah” along the firing range, which had been run up and down, and a real battle.
Later on, our generation of young tanker-officers at a heavy cost of many lives would create effective tank combat tactics. We studied the structure of the enemy troops, their tactics and armaments. All this stuff must be known for successful fighting. On receiving intelligence, a competent commander, judging by the name of the enemy unit, should determine with what armaments the enemy would face him with and how to fight the enemy successfully with minor losses. But that would be later.
In the meantime we approached the town of Dubno and took up defenses in front of the town. A small town. On fire. The Germans were leaving Dubno in columns, still not noticing us. Instead of better preparation for facing the enemy our daring commanders decided to be done with the enemy by a dashing, cavalry-like onslaught: "Hurrah! For Motherland! For Stalin!” The engines roared up and the regiment charged forward fast. We were burned down there. The Germans stopped and we saw how they having unleashed their artillery quickly, gave us a plastering! They picked us off as if it were in a firing range. About seventy of those midgets, light Т-26, Т-70 tanks, had charged and only about twenty survived. Even heavy machine gun fire might pierce the side of a Т-26 tank. Was it a real armor – 15 millimeters thick?! My tank was knocked down also. A shell knocked out a track suspension trolley. Facing a more or less determined resistance in that area the Germans stopped their advance and set up defenses. During the night we repaired our tank with our own resources. Our crew was ready to fight again.
In June and July we fought continuously. Usually we were ordered to take up defenses at certain line. So we did take them up and waited for the Germans. Sometimes when they charged us we fought them, sometimes the Germans outflanked our defenses in other locations, and then we had to retreat to avoid encirclement. We retreated on order only. Not a single time did the Germans either break through or smash the defenses of our regiment. Presently our tank was knocked down and we had to abandon it. The tank was on fire on the 9th or the 10th of July in the vicinity of Novograd-Volynsky. None of us even noticed where that solid shot had come from. We received a hit into the side and the tank was set on fire. We bailed out near a railway crossing, my overalls were on fire. A ditch with dirty, marshy water was nearby. I dashed into it to beat the fire out.
Also in July a troop train with reinforcements for our regiment arrived at a station named Feodorovka. It brought in seven BT- 7 tanks. At night “horseless” tankers (without machines), including our crew, to whom the tanks were allotted, went to unload the train. There were no special devices for off-loading of tanks from flatcars. We decided just to jump them off the flatcars. The tank engine was powerful, the undercarriage was reliable, so all the tanks succeeded in jumping off onto an embankment. We had to fight in the BT-7 tank about three days. The Germans knocked us down In the next attack, the crew evacuated.
We were retreating across Novograd-Volyndsky. What I saw there I couldn’t forgive the Germans for my whole life. We passed by the crew of a 45 millimeter anti-tank gun. Furthermore, there was a young woman killed by a German air-raid lying there and a small child was crawling and crying near her dead body. The infant was probably slightly older than one year. So we wondered where to take that kid? We went knocking on the doors of the nearest houses, one after another, but nobody was at home. Then we found an old lady who took the boy. After that episode I hated the Germans so deeply that only quite recently the word “German” stopped evoking wrath in me. Then one idea was set in my mind: the German is an enemy, which must be destroyed! And up through the end of the war we didn’t capture prisoners of war without particular necessity.
Now my daughter lives in Kaliningrad oblast and in her work she deals with Germans a lot. She wonders: “Dad, why don’t you still like them?” How can I explain it to her?
Our light tanks presently one by one were all knocked out. 3 to 4 tanks would be sent to a charge, and they were gone.
The majority of tank units were established from cavalry corps. Many commanders were former cavalrymen and commanded then as they were accustomed: “Speedy gallop and go forward as fast as you can.” But a tank was not a horse. It was easy to get it stuck in a brook, a ravine or a marsh, where immobilized it would become easy prey for enemy tanks and artillery. Such hasty catch-up games impaired the effectiveness of tank units. The tank’s main resource, its gun and submachine gun would become useless. So half of all the stock of T-34 tanks which had arrived from Zhitomir, during one of the first attacks, were driven to an impasse in a marsh and abandoned there. What a pity. At the beginning of the war the T-34 tank was a powerful weapon which the Germans had to take seriously.
The Т-34 tanks were passing by regally. There was one such tank left in the regiment and it was commanded by a captain. I don’t remember his name; such a cheerful man he was. He would close all the hatches and drive his tank onto a hill, an open site. The Germans would bang at his tank but couldn’t pierce the armor. He just looked around and wherever he noticed a target he sent a round there and nobody moved, nobody would approach his tank. Later on in 1943 the German “Tigers” would fight this way. They had a powerful 88 mm gun, far ranging, and perfect optics. But we still would catch those “Tigers”. Back then in 1941 I was gratified by looking at the T-34 tank. After the battle I approached him:
- Did you get seriously hit, comrade captain!?
- So, what hitting? Do you see, everything bounces off, just count!
We proceeded counting and counted forty-four hits! But no shell holes, just dimples.
- Well, tankers, have you signed up for the infantry?
Apparently, we had. Our tank had been burned down. They gave us just rifles and that’s damned all, no entrenching tools to dig ourselves in with. We fought in the infantry. But we did not run! The men held fast. The Germans would outflank us somewhere else and we were given the command to retreat. So we did retreat at night. But we never did once we took up a position. We even set out for a night manhunt. One enemy mortar battery had annoyed us. The Colonel, the regiment commander Vladimir Isidorovich Zhivlyuk, with four ‘bars’ in collar insignia, tasked us: “You need to locate that battery and destroy it!"
At the beginning of the war the Germans were pretty heedless. They believed that they had been done with the Russians and that the war would be over just within the next few weeks. So, at night we got into position of that battery, killed the mortar gunners; did not spare anyone. We took all the mortars which were there along. The mortars were the company ones, 50 mm, small like toys. We picked them up and took them to our positions, reported to the regiment commander. Later we played around with those mortars, even tried to fire at Germans with them. They worked just fine.
Once we captured some “hen-looters”. When the Germans occupied that village they didn’t stay there for night, instead they preferred to secure themselves in their dugouts. At night we heard hens squawking in the village. Three of us went to check it out. One German was standing on guard near a fence and another one was in the yard catching hens. One of our guys cut the guard’s throat with a knife, zap and it was done! The second Fritz (German) was walking backwards carrying a sack of spoils. Lyoshka (Alexei) Kurov and I cast a rucksack upon his head and pulled a string around his neck. So we pulled that Fritz with his weapon and all his stuff with a string to our captivity.
Alexei Kurov and I both were drafted from Leningrad, had become acquainted back in the recruiting center and found ourselves in one company. He was a worker, like me. We got along well and became friends. We did military service in one regiment, but Lyosha was not a tanker and before the burning of my tank we hadn’t seen each other a lot. But once in the infantry we became inseparable friends. We slept on one martial cloak spread out on the ground and covered ourselves with the other one. By then we were out of our greatcoats. In summer we had discarded greatcoat rolls as excess weight. We also discarded our gas masks keeping just their bags. Those bags were very handy for keeping our stuff. The things that we never discarded were weapons and entrenching tools. The entrenching tool was a salvation. At war if someone didn’t dig in on flat ground he was sure to be killed, a shell fragment was sure to find him. There was a chance to survive in a trench. Nobody discarded entrenching tools; people carried them along, either pioneer spades, or big garden shovels with which kitchen gardens were dug. Once a regiment stopped everybody begantrenches. Nobody forced anybody to do that, everybody worked conscientiously. We, the tankers, were not issued any entrenching tools, therefore in all the villages that we passed the soldiers were sure to look for shovels to appropriate. In our crew there was one farm shovel for three of us. We dug, relieving each other, and pretty soon would excavate trenches for ourselves.
My friend, a nice fellow, Lyosha Kurov was killed near a place named Gorshik. He was killed due to his boyish folly. We stood in defense, everything was quiet. Lyoshka ascended a railroad embankment and went heckling the Germans exposing his naked buttocks to them. The Germans fired at him with a cannon and killed him.
It was approximately at the same time when we captured a German Lieutenant Colonel, a director of staff of an infantry division, with all his documents.
Right across our trenches there was a railroad passing to Ovruch. In front of us on a hill there was a village called Gorshik. On the right flank the locale was marsh-logged, further west in parallel to our defense line there was a small grove and a frontage highway. At night we crossed the marsh and went for a night manhunt towards the road. It is worth mentioning that a manhunt was not a common reconnaissance sally; a significant number of soldiers participated there. It may be compared perhaps with reconnaissance in force. Our group was commanded by Lieutenant Oskin. There was another officer, a junior-lieutenant, whose name I unfortunately don’t remember. For his good temper we called him a clown. He had never been in a low mood. If he saw somebody feeling down, he would come up to that person and tell a joke to make him laugh. Later on he would leave due to a wound.
Having reached the road safely we split up. Two groups went to cover the flanks; ours, the central one, lurked in ambush. Presently the roar of an engine was heard and a car without any guard showed up. There were a driver and two officers in it. Someone tossed a hand grenade under the wheels and a few short shots rang. The driver was killed on the spot. One of the officers, a captain, holding a wounded knee, jumped out of the car; we pulled out the other one, a lieutenant colonel. We hit him on his head, cast a sack over it and took him across the marsh to our command center. We had to shoot the wounded captain.
For my first battles and this episode I was decorated with my first medal “For Courage”. Two other guys were decorated also: one with the medal “For Courage”, and the other one with the Order of the Red Star. The battalion commissar (political officer) was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner. The regiment commander was not decorated at all. Decorations then were not distributed generously. I highly prize that, my first decoration. Being decorated with the medal “For Courage” in 1941 was absolutely a different thing from being decorated with it in 1945.
More than two months we had been at war as infantrymen. There was not a single intact soldier among us. All were wounded. I was also wounded in the leg but had a bandage dressed on my wound right on the scene and continued fighting. Novograd-Volynsky, Feodorovka, Ovruch and through Chernobyl.
In Chernobyl we were put on trucks and taken across Chernigov to Nezhin. There was a Headquarters of the Southwestern front. The front was commanded then by Simeon Mikhailovich Budyonny. There were about thirty of us horseless tankers (without machines). We were appointed to secure the Headquarters, which was situated in a former Young Pioneers’ camp.
At night in groups of two we were lying in secret posts and saw a general coming out on a porch. He was fairly loaded, sang mangled words of the popular song: “Three tankers, each drank three hundred grams of vodka, and the turret-gunner drank a full mess tin”. It made me so angry with him that I really wanted to come out and punch his face. “Other people are shedding their blood out there, while you are boozing here” – I thought to myself. I don’t know, maybe I was wrong letting such a daring thought towards a high ranking officer to run through my mind.
Then we were loaded onto a troop train and sent to Kotelnikovo. At the approach to the station of Bakhmach the train stopped and we were ordered to get off the train and disperse in the field quickly. We rushed out and took cover on the ground. The village was being bombed by the Germans. German ground attack aircraft were flying very low and bombed out Bakhmach heavily. The station was in flames. The torn apart tracks were rebuilt by night time only and only then could the troop trains pass. We passed further. It was getting to be autumn. When we stopped at stations on the way local women would toss watermelons into our heated freight cars. Ragged, dirty and wounded we reached Kotelnikovo. There, outside the town, the regiment strength began digging earth huts (dugouts). One earth hut was designated for a company of fifty men. Our regiment was reformed into a motorized rifle one. It was reinforced with mariners. Mariners, good-looking strong men, came in. Seven heavy KV (Kliment Voroshilov) tanks arrived. A tank battalion was formed as well as a few artillery batteries. In Kotelnikovo for some time the tankers were practicing a tank combat tactics. And we, the “horseless ones” walked with them “in a tank way” (on foot imitating as if were in a tank). A commander would cry out a command and we, as a crew of 4, ran forward together, turned around on the command and reformed. After the classes we would swing by a watermelon field, eat a watermelon and go back home.
Presently our regiment was loaded onto a troop train and taken to Bataisk. From there the guys went to Rostov for the front, and we, the tankers without machines, were sent to the 29th Reserve Tank Regiment in Stalingrad. There we were also given classes. We studied the T-34 tank theoretically. There were no tanks; all had gone to the front. We practiced driving in a tankette. A crew of 2 men; a driver to the right and a machine gunner to the left and a GAZ* engine between them (*of Gorky Automobile Plant). One lever; if pushed forward turned it right and if pushed back, turned it left. We were admonished that we shouldn’t overheat the engine; otherwise it would catch fire without the enemy’s assistance. I laughed at such a technique, calling it a “communal grave for two”.
Since the very beginning of the war I had not had any news from home. My native town of Demidov had been occupied by the Germans back in July. My father and mother, my younger sister Ekaterina and my elder brother Boris with his family remained under occupation. Before the war Boris was a teacher in a village school in Maximovo. As I found out later, under the Germans Borya (Boris) had left to become a partisan and he fought in the Smolensk area. My brother Nikolai used to work as an agronomist. In 1940 he was drafted into the army. He did his military service in the Baltics and in 1941 during a retreat he was killed on Estonian ground. Andrei did his service in the Far East. My other brother Ivan was a self-willed guy. At the age of 17 he was at odds with father and left home. At first he had worked as a miner. Later he wrote a letter to Mikhail Kalinin requesting that he help him to enter an institute and his request was granted. Ivan had finished his studies and began to work as a design engineer at a gear cutting machine factory in Saratov. He started a family. When the war broke out my brother Ivan was drafted into the army. He did his service in the 2nd Shock Army, which in 1942 was commanded by general Vlasov. And I, the youngest one, also was in the army.
Soldiers of the 170th Tank Brigade front row from left to right: P. I. Dudin, O. F. Maksimova, unknown signalwoman, N. Levchenko, G. I. Negrul, P. I. Novikov, unknown signalwoman. upper row from left to right: Chizhyk, Erkes, unknown man, S.I. Saltykov, Y. Klaustin, M.S. Samokhvalov, A. Tsvirkun, G. Konopelchenko, S.Zadorozhny, А.А.Kalugin, L.F. Buyanov.
Meanwhile a representative of the Stalingrad Tank Training School, Captain Ogorodnikov, arrived at our reserve regiment. All who had a secondary education were called for an interview with him. I came in. He saw the medal and asked what I had been decorated for. I told him. He said: “We invite you to join the Stalingrad Tank Training School”. That was exactly what he said: “invite”.
I answered him: “I don’t want to join your tank training school. I am already a tanker. Now we are going to get a new tank and we will go straight to the front”.
- “There is Stalin’s order to send men like you for training”.
There could be no objections. About fifty men like me were collected. We were trained day and night. Anyway, we were not complete freshmen in the subject as we had already had some service experience in tanks. Feeding in the training school was fine. The most important thing was that there was iron discipline. A squad commander, a deputy platoon commander and a sergeant major were great superiors and authorities to us. We also did our studies conscientiously. We did realize that our lives depended on it. Finally we felt the tanks firsthand. We had classes on driving and firing. We studied the T-34 tank, its F-34gun (later ZIS guns would be fitted in it). The TMFD gun sight was not very convenient. Working with it was complicated. Before the war our light tanks had perfect gun sights, which were far ahead of their time. Those could be verified by guidance units. The commander had a guidance unit PT-4-7 as well as the TMFD gun sight, which the gunner also had. The commander could operate both simultaneously. Range to the distance could be read easily. Later on those devices were simplified and were no longer fitted into T-34 tanks. Anyway, we were trained well. I seldom fired at one target twice. Other men called me a marksman. We, the cadets, often participated in assembly of tanks at the Stalingrad Tank Factory. Craftsmen told us what to do and we followed their instructions. Work on the assembly line contributed a lot to our learning of the tank’s configuration.
So while we were busy with our studies and work winter had passed. The summer of 1942 set in. The training school was relocated to summer camps in the countryside, to be closer to the firing range. When the news came that the Germans had crossed the Don river and launched an offensive the training school was urgently loaded into troop trains and evacuated to Kurgan city. The fifty best cadets, including myself, were selected. We were relieved of all housekeeping work and duties and we were trained in an accelerated manner without weekends in preparation for graduation.
I can say without exaggeration that after all those training sessions I knew the T-34 tank down to all its nuts and bolts. For example I can tell you of an episode which occurred during a practical training class. My tank stopped. The driver-mechanic cried out: “We are down, there is no pressure; the pressure gauge indicates no oil circulation. We may wreck the engine”.
I was a cadet, but my mechanic was a professional. I told him:
- “Unscrew that the bell-shaped cap over there and press the valve, if the oil splashes, then everything is alright and we will go further”.
- “How do you know?”
- “Do what I say, I am the tank commander”.
He did what I had said: unscrewed, pressed and oil splashed right into his face.
- “You see” - I said, - “the pressure is present, the system is running, the pressure gauge is the only thing that failed”.
When later that episode was reported to the supervisor he approved my decision:
- “The commander did it right, the tank was in serviceable condition, there was no point in outage”.
That was a very valuable experience.
In August we were paraded and read out the order about conferring officers’ ranks on us. Based on our success in training the rank of junior-lieutenant and lieutenant were conferred. The rank of lieutenant was conferred on me and for excellent study I also was awarded 500 bonus rubles. Right there in front of our ranks the shoulder straps and money were handed to me. Then we went to Nizhny Tagil to pick up tanks. A reserve regiment was there. We spent September and early October in Tagil helping with assembling tanks and building crews. A crew was also assigned to me. The driver-mechanic Lyosha (Alexei) Orlov was an excellent mechanic. The radio operator- machine gunner Stepan Petrovich Skudny was a blacksmith from Kuzbas, an elder man, but he was extremely bright and pushy. The gun loader Ivan Fedotovich Feodorov was a guy from Belgorod. I was lucky to get such a good crew. Later they proved themselves to be good fighters.
On the 14th of October we were loaded into a troop train and taken to the Tatischevo camps near Saratov. There was a song in my heart when we arrived there. The 17th and 18th Tank Corps were being formed. General Chernyakhovsky used to command the 18th Corp but by the time we arrived it was already commanded by Bakharev. By that time the 18th Corp and our 170th Tank Brigade had been through glorious fights, having stopped the Germans near Voronezh. After the war I met with many guys from the brigade; they were nice, clever and smart combat officers and soldiers. Well, when we looked at so many machines and pieces of equipment we realized that some serious business was brewing. In late November we were loaded and transferred to Uryupinks.
My crew and I were billeted in an apartment of local residents. Kids from the neighborhood were hanging around the tankers, being interested in tanks and weapons. We didn’t turn them away; instead we told them everything we could. There was one of them named Sashka (Alexander) Burtsev. He followed in my wake and asked: “Sir, take me with you to the front!” And in 1944 when I was already a battalion commander, a junior-lieutenant Alexander Burtesev arrived at my battalion from the tank training school as a reinforcement. That was him. What an exciting coincidence. Now Alexander is still alive and we are friends. He had finished his service as a Lieutenant Colonel.
We advanced from Uryupinks to the Lower Mamon, into the central Don River bend. It was damn cold. In winter it was colder in tank than outside, because it was armor. We were not furry clad; but wore greatcoats. Later during the battles we came to ignore the uniform. Whoever could find a fur coat wore it to warm up. Vodka rations were issued, but I very seldom drank it. I would take a shot after a battle if I had to relieve stress. But one who went into battle had to be sober. A drunk in battle was as good as dead. While at rest I gave out my entire vodka ration to my crew. My father had five of us sons in the family; I was the youngest one, but none of us at home dared to take alcohol, to smoke or to swear. It was out of question.
The brigade crossed the Don River without a battle and engaged into a breakthrough. On the opposite river bank our troops were already fighting the Romanians on the high grounds. Then we entered the plain. I had never before seen such a show, such a great number of tanks. As far as the eye could see the entire field was full of T-34 tanks! The first village liberated by our brigade was Verbyakovka. Before the attack the company commissar (political officer), a lieutenant, had gotten into my tank: “Let me go with you as a gun loader!?”
- “Well, go ahead, if you can!”
He was a good loader. Our platoon charged the high ground where one half of the village was located; the other tanks ran further along the plain bypassing the high ground. Behind a small river there was a church and the second half of the village. I told the commissar: “We must get the tank-mounted party off the tank and have them follow us!” He: - “Well, no, go forward!” The enemy started shooting at us and killed some of the tank-mounted party. I stuck out and cried out: “Get off the tank, now!” But they didn’t and kept sitting, seizing the turret. We rushed into the village. In there was Romanian infantry. The Romanians did not run away; they were shooting back from behind houses. Our tank-mounted party was in trouble; the Romanians were taking pot-shots at them with rifles at a range of 10 to 15 meters. I heard shouts, cursing – our infantry came up. The Romanians were shot off and crushed by tracks; but, our tank mounted party incurred casualties also. I personally managed to knock down a Panzer III tank and crush an antitank gun. My tank was knocked down also. A shell hit above the final drive; the braking drum and braking belt were broken. At first we didn’t feel it, but later when I told the mechanic to turn left the tank wouldn’t go.
The tanks that had charged across the river liberated the other part of the village right away also. However, the river appeared to be insidious and deep. Five or six tanks ran into it to drive across its bed, but did so unsuccessfully and sank.
There was a session of the Komsomol organization (Communist League of the Youth) where the battle was analyzed. I took the floor and said that a tank had fire power which should be utilized. To approach the enemy, to suppress the firing points and to move further. They laughed at me there, calling me some expert.
“Why did you rush in there right away?” – I told them, “You had a gun, machine guns, you should have used them. The tank-mounted party must be spared also”.
The brigade moved further and we got stuck in Verbyakovka for three days, while the maintenance technicians were digging around in the machine. Some general showed up who ordered me to move my tank to the outskirts for a watch “to prevent any bloody one to break in”. The tank was knocked down, but as a firing point it was quite effective.
When we got repaired we caught up with our troops. We arrived in the area; I will never forget the Cossack hamlet Khlebny. 3 km from there was another hamlet named Petrovsky. It was also occupied by Soviet tanks, but not those of our brigade. Between those two hamlets, which lay on hills, there was lowland. Early in the morning the 8th Italian army was passing along that lowland in an enormous thick crowd saving itself from the encirclement. When the Italian vanguard units aligned with us we heard the command being distributed along our columns: “Go forward! Crush them!" Then we tore into them from both flanks! I have never seen a mess as that one. We literally ground the Italian army into the soil. You should have looked into our eyes to see how much anger and hatred we had then! So we were squashing those Italians like bugs. It was winter; our tanks were painted in white color. When we disengaged from the battle the tanks below the turrets were red as if had floated in blood. I looked at the tracks: hands and fragments of skulls were stuck here and there. The spectacle was appalling. We captured crowds of POWs that day. After that elimination the 8th Italian army literally ceased to exist. At least, I never saw a single Italian at the front after that.
We advanced further toward Boguchar, captured it and then moved to Millerovo. We stumbled around there for about 2 weeks. To the left of Millerovo there was a small village occupied by the Germans. In front of the village on our side there was high ground, which for some reason had been abandoned by the Germans. A T-70 tank from our brigade had rushed onto that high ground and bombarded that village for about twenty four hours until it was knocked down itself. At night the Т-70 tank managed to set a vehicle loaded with some rockets on fire and we watched the resulting fireworks. I took up a position near a railway crossing. That position was the most comfortable for firing as it was not easy for the enemy to detect me. After a while the Germans left the village. The tank of Captain Mukhin, the company commander, drove over and I reported the situation to him.
“Can we pass across this place behind Millerovo?” – he asked. – “We can sweep there” – I answered.
Six tanks with mounted parties passed along the cart road toward the German rear. I always remember with gratitude our tank-mounted submachine gunners. They were brave guys. They certainly never ran along with tanks on attack or rode the tanks under gun fire as shown in movies. They were common living humans. They would hide and shoot here and there. But without them at nights we were as good as blind. They guarded us at nights.
A German regiment, one of the Millerovo garrison, was retreating from the town. The Germans were moving in an organized manner, in columns. Infantry and artillery were moving along the road. We let the Germans come very close, so we could get them with machine guns, and opened up fire. We swept off the head of the column with the first shots. The lead vehicles were carrying a military orchestra and the banner. All their passengers, about thirty men, were killed right away. We worked well with the others too. We eliminated the entire column; none escaped. Some of them were later taken prisoners by our riflemen who had captured Millerovo by then. During the battle the Germans managed to sock a shell into my engine compartment. According to standards, boarding and getting the crew out took eight seconds.
We were left behind to have our tank repaired while the rest of the brigade went forward and fell into an ambush at the station of Chebotovka. They broke in without reconnaissance. Among those who were killed were the brigade commander Durnev, the regiment commissar colonel Lysenko, who was the brother of the famous Soviet plant-breeder; our battalion commander was killed also. We lost good men and seven tanks.
After the Chebotovka tragedy our motorized rifle brigade arrived to help us out. They slew all the Germans who had settled in the village. I was not in that battle, when we caught up with our unit everything was over, but I did see the piles of dead bodies of Germans lying in the streets. My crew and I attended the funeral of our comrades and we fired a tank gun volley.
After that we traveled about fifteen kilometers. There was a small river and a Ukrainian village. The Germans then almost did not resist. We captured the village quickly. But my tank, the last one in the battalion, was knocked down and burned. I reported to the battalion commander Isayev that the tank had burned down while the crew had survived. He was glad to hear it and said with relief: “Well, the war is over for you for now, we’ll go home.”
We didn’t get a long rest though. There had been battles going on near Izium and Barvenkovo for more than a half a year. Sometime in February we had to take part in those battles. The brigade, which was far from being fully supplied, was sent toward Barvenkovo. The Germans were spreading leaflets to us “We are in the crux as you are, but who will end up swimming in the Donets river?” with a big question mark. Well, we didn’t swim there, but later they pushed us behind the Donets.
There was a battle in the town. Half of it was occupied by the Germans and we had held the other half for a couple of days when we were ordered to abandon Barvenkovo and to retreat towards Bannoye, Svyatogorsk. We were retreating at night. About twenty-one infantrymen straddled my tank! I counted them on purpose. And the battalion commander got into my tank. A muscovite, Captain Alexander Ivanovich Isayev was a new commander to my battalion. My tank was moving first; we were followed by a few vehicles carrying infantry and munitions. The road crossed the village of Smeonovka, but we knew that there were Germans in it. Isayev said: “Let’s go, Sergei, across the village, otherwise we will talk ourselves out detouring around it.”
“- But there are Germans in it!”
“- So what? It is night now, switch on the lights and we’ll slip through it (as if we were the Germans)!”
So we did. Indeed, we entered Semeonovka and saw a German with a bucket walking towards us. When he saw us, he opened his mouth and dropped the bucket, stood and stared, not knowing what to do. So we slipped through the village and none of the Germans fired a shot at us. We approached in Bannoye, the Svyatogorsk monastery and went towards the Donets river. A few tanks of our brigade joined us on the way.
We took up defenses near the Donets river. Later we got hold of two motorcycles: the German patrol had run against our security outpost. Our guys had knocked down an armored personnel carrier, letting the motorcyclists pass through, who arrived right at our village where we caught them. We were young, so we went riding those motorcycles around the village! The locale on that bank of the Donets river was not very appropriate for defense. We were given an order to cross over to our bank and to take up defenses there. Winter in that area was warm and indeed March had already set in, but the river had frozen a little during the night. We were cutting vines for we had no other vegetation around to make a corduroy road on the ice to reduce pressure on it. I volunteered my tank to cross the river first at my own risk. The crew stayed ashore, only the mechanic got into the tank. He started his way onto the thin ice slowly, in first gear with steady acceleration. The driver was driving the machine smoothly, without jerks, and a few minutes later the 36 ton T-34 tank found itself on the other bank. I still cannot understand how my tank had done it, for a truck which followed in its wake fell into water right away. Later we were in defense; my tank was taken away from me and handed over to another battalion and our battalion was disengaged from the battle. The battalion commander took me along. Whenever the tanks were handed over, battalion commanders strived to keep their old crews. The superiors did not mind if they had somebody to replace them with. In those later days I had a sore eye and my head was bandaged. Either a dirt particle or armor scale had gotten into my eye; it was inflamed. A doctor had removed that rubbish from the eye; the inflammation subsided but the eye still could not see well.
The brigade was taken back for recuperation and reinforcement to the Voronezh oblast (province), center of a rural district named Olkhovatka. The new tanks arrived and I was assigned to command a platoon of three tanks. As a first priority we organized ourselves to go to the bathhouse. I mounted my platoon on the tanks and we started off. When arrived at the bathhouse we saw our officers and tankers sitting on the porch and flirting with some local girls.
“-Well, - I asked, - is the bathhouse working?”
“- It is working, but it is out of water.”
I sent a sergeant major to check it out. He returned: - “Comrade lieutenant, they’ve run out of water and firewood and when those will be resupplied is not known.”
I remounted the platoon on the tank and took them to the river. I said: “We shall bathe here!” The water was cold! Anyway we washed up in the cold water and started off for the camp in the forest.
A Lieutenant Colonel named Secunda (it means ‘second’ in Russian) was appointed our new brigade commander. We joked that his command over us had lasted just one second. After just a few weeks he was replaced with Kazakov. While still in command Secunda had sent us, about seven men, back to the fields of our old battles to register and document the enemy tanks that our brigade had knocked down. Our party included a technician and the others were the temporarily horseless (without machines) combat officers. We stopped by Petrovsky hamlet where we had crushed the Italians. We could not breathe there. Such a bad stench was in the air! Everything was thawing and rotting. Vehicles were allotted and local residents were helping to haul the corpses out. The Cossacks said: “Daily we carry five hundred bodies away for burial, but the end of the task is yet not in sight.” That was how many of them we had killed.
Every battle was difficult for me. Every battle meant somebody’s death. A commander sitting in a command center at a map might say: “It was an easy victory here, which I had attained with the available forces and a more difficult victory there.” I couldn’t say it this way because I was the one who went into the attack and in every battle a solid shot was aimed at my head. During the war I had to just bail out of burning tanks nine times. And it was not like a drill at a firing range where one just could get out of a tank, to light up a cigarette and walk away. Instead, we had to do it under enemy fire. Therefore any battle, even the commonest one, was difficult. But the great tank battle of Prokhorovka was the most impressive one.
We were based in Olkhovatka in the process of forming the 5th Tank Army. By then our industry was producing so many tanks that full tank armies could be formed. On the 5th of July after the beginning of the German Offensive Operation ‘Citadel’ we were alerted and sent forward. On the 5th of July we started off and on the 11th we neared Prokhorovka, to the northeast. During the battle, Prokhorovka was in our rear. Our 18th Corps was deployed with its left wing towards the railroad line leading to Prokhorovka and with its right wing towards the Pseol river. Our corps was in full complement; three tank brigades and a motorized rifle brigade with its own tank battalion – all together about 350 tanks. In addition, behind us there were the 4th and the 7th mechanized corps. In that breakthrough the Germans attacked with three panzer divisions. Our task was not attacking and driving them out, but attacking and stopping their advance.
By now many accounts of the battle of Prokhorovka have been written and different figures and data have been provided. One should realize that then I was a tank platoon commander and I couldn’t see or even fathom the entire picture of the battle. Certainly nobody had revealed the strategic intents of the command to me. What I saw was just my small area of that battle and I shall tell you about what I saw and experienced myself. What it is to be a tank platoon commander. A three tank platoon. The platoon commander set the pattern of what to do: “Do as I do and that’s it!”
My platoon and I were positioned at the left wing, closer to the railroad line. On the 12th of July at about 6 o’clock in the morning the command was given to “move forward!”, so we moved. A trench defended by our motorized riflemen was ahead of us. We passed across the trench and saw that the Germans were already in it. They had forced our infantry out, who were dispersed in the nearest ravines. The Germans had held out in those trenchеs behind us and didn’t let our infantry break back in. We even had to turn some of our machines around to dislodge them from there.
Ahead to the left of us there was a small grove. A German Panzer-IV tank sprang out and moved towards us from behind the edge of that grove. Apparently it was stunned seeing such a great mass of tanks. As a result I knocked it down firing a pot-shot head-on. The distance to it was about one hundred and fifty meters. And then a terrible encounter battle broke out. The Germans primarily attacked with ‘Tigers’ and Panzer-IV tanks, however, there were also Panzer-III tanks and ‘Ferdinand’ self-propelled assault guns; their frontal armor was 220 mm thick. What would we pierce it with? We had 76 mm guns then. A comrade of mine, the second platoon commander of our company Alexei Drozdov, the guy from Novorossiysk, had rushed with his tank forward. His tank was set on fire right away. Lyosha (Alexei), wounded with two shell fragments in his leg, managed to get out of the tank but couldn’t walk and was lying there. Then the German infantry began retreating from the entrenchment and saw him. A fascist pulled a rifle bolt and fired at his head. Lyosha covered his head with his hand. The bullet grazed against his forehead, pierced his cheek and crumbled his little finger. His face was in blood. The German thought that he had killed him, spat and walked further. I met Alexei later in hospital where he told me about this episode.
I fired and they fired at me. The tank had already received a few impacts but was not on fire. In the heat of the fight one sometimes doesn’t notice his tank getting hit. Except perhaps when a heavy mortar shell would burst near the tank and a solid shot would “whistle” against the armor. Armor fragments posed a higher danger to the crew. Except that the armor itself was fairy tensile and reliable, but roughly made armor plate welds and scale on interior works when impacted by shells produced plenty of minor fragments, which often were ruinous for the crew. But I can tell you straight, the T-34 tank was made conscientiously and with care. The crew felt secure in it. A different matter is that artillery was continuously being improved, so impregnable tanks did not exist.
In that battle I managed to knock down another German tank, the ‘Tiger’. It stood with its side to me firing at other tanks along the line of our attack. I socked it with two sub-caliber rounds, then two armor-piercing rounds and only then the tank was set on fire. And when its crew began evacuating I fired a splinter round at its turret. They were spread-eagled.
Everything got mixed up. The Germans and ours were ahead and back. The Germans were decent warriors. I saw at a distance of five meters from us a wounded Fritz (German) sitting and firing with a short rifle at our infantry, paying no attention to our tank. I couldn’t reach him for he was in the blind zone; my machine gunner couldn’t see him. We had to turn the tank around and crush him with our tracks. I saw in movies how our and German tankers bailed out of burnt down tanks in flames, fighting, putting out fires on their bodies in the river. So, it was real. It happened exactly that way. The whole field was beclouded with smoke and dust. Visibility was pitiful. I had lost the tanks of my platoon long before. Communications did not work. All the crews fended for themselves. I cracked opened the hatch and stuck my head out to look around. A mortar shell burst nearby and its fragments wounded me on the right side of my neck. My arm stopped functioning well right away. The next hit to our tank caused the mechanic’s hand to be torn off; the turret gunner was wounded with armor fragments in the groin. The fuel line was broken. A large spillage of gas-oil (light oil) was on the rounds rack. We bailed out of the tank and I saw about 60 meters from us a wounded and bandaged German standing in a breastworks and firing in our direction with a rifle. I was on the turret hanging by the laryngophones as the plug had stuck in the socket. The tank mud-guard had broken off; my feet couldn’t reach the track. Bullets were banging on the armor nearby. I took out a pistol from my coveralls and from the ‘hanging’ position fired at the German. I killed him at first shot. Later I went over to see; the bullet had hit right in his forehead. I guess, I wouldn’t have shot so sharply these days, but I did then.
S. A. Otroschenkov, second from left, in 1945.
Our tank still didn’t catch fire. Later a technician came over and found the engine in serviceable condition despite seven severe impacts on the tank. Without rush it was pulled out from the battle field for repair, while all we, the wounded, were taken to the hospital. This occurred at about 4 PM when the battle was still ongoing.
In a forest hospital in Chernyanka my wound was found to be a tangential one with injury to the right arm brachial plexus. The arm didn’t function. Much later after the war it turned out that there was actually a shell fragment inside me, one and a half millimeters from the carotid artery. Professor Schteffer, the neurosurgeon who had examined me, told me that I should have been dismissed from service back in 1943. Had that shell fragment moved up one and a half millimeters no doctor could have helped me. That metal chunk of 0.8 x 0.2 centimeter in size was removed from my body as late as 1968. I still keep that X-ray photograph. I was unlucky on the 12th day of the month. In 1941 I was wounded in August, at battle of Prokhorovka I was wounded on the 12th of July and later I was again wounded on the 12th.
After the battle only 4 or 5 battered tanks that called for repair remained in the battalion. All the rest turned into smoke; all burned down. One month later when Alexei and I were returning from the hospital we visited the former battlefield. The whole field was an uninterrupted line of burnt down tanks. Predominantly those were T-34 tanks. It must be admitted that our casualties were higher. Many men ended up dead. However, the burnt down German tanks were also standing there in great numbers. I also found the tanks which my crew and I had knocked down: Panzer IV and the ‘Tiger’. We spat at them and went further. For four days we traveled to our brigade by catching rides. Then we came across with one tank from our brigade, which was returning from repairs, and it gave us a lift to the place. We arrived at Bogodukhov. Back in hospital when we were being discharged a record was made in our discharge papers: “to assign a two week vacation in vicinity of the service unit.” This kind of record was common those days. Well, what kind of vacation actually might there have been at the front? The brigade commander Kazakov told us: “First of all, we are all on vacation at the moment. And second, both of you have been conferred the rank of senior-lieutenant.” So, without any parades he issued to us the senior-lieutenant’s shoulder straps. He handed to Alexei the Order of the Red Banner and to me the Order of the Patriotic War of the First Class. He congratulated us and for the time being sent us to the rear. For some time we had travelled as passengers in a captured enemy Hanomag (SdKfz 250) half-track. There were two front seats and one broad seat in the back of it. So, three of us were riding it for a week; one was sitting at the front next to the driver, while the other was sleeping on the couch behind. Seryozha (Sergei) Ivanov, an honest and hard-working man, was a driver of the Hanomag. He had been in the brigade since it was established. He was fond of machines and knew the ropes. Later, during the Korsun-Shevchenko operation Sergei would be killed. He was repairing a captured enemy vehicle in a farmyard when a stray shell flew in and Sergei was gone.
One week later the tanks arrived. Kazakov summoned me and said: “Here you are, seven tanks. You will be a company commander.” Alexei Drozdov was appointed deputy battalion staff commander. Then he became the staff commander and later he was taken up to work in the brigade operations department. Alexei was a man of strong willpower. Back in hospital he was burning with desire to return to the brigade. It seemed that if his arms and legs had been cut off of him he would have fought the Germans with his teeth. Around Belogorie near the station of Yama, Drozdov received another very severe injury. A narrow ten centimeter long shell fragment pierced the middle of his chest like a bayonet. Just a small part of the metal chunk was sticking out. Later Alexei told me how in the hospital doctor had told the medical orderly: “Why have you brought a dead man here? Take him back!” Alexei was conscious, though couldn’t say a word. Alexei was angry and reached to take out his revolver. Luckily the holster was empty. Otherwise he might have shot the doctor for adding him to the dead list prematurely.
After that injury Alexei Drozdov returned to the brigade and from that point remained in the war through its end. After the Victory his severe wounds made themselves felt and the doctors couldn’t help him. Alexei died in the military hospital in Vienna. By then he had the rank of Major.
I remembered one episode which had occurred back in that area. We were prepared for attack. An artillery bombardment was ongoing. Up in the sky there was a dogfight between two fighter aircraft. A German Messerschmitt (Bf 109) and our Lavochkin La-5 were spinning around overhead spitting at each other with machine guns and cannons. We were watching them peeping out from the tank. It was interesting, though unsafe. Tracer streaks of their bursts every now and then were raking the ground near us and banged on the tank armor. The aircraft would close in and bank apart, but none could take an upper hand. At the end they found themselves in a head on encounter. The pilots in a head on attack continued firing at each other. After a few seconds a clap rang out and a heap of burning metal fell to the ground. Neither of them had veered aside and both died. For a few seconds none of us could say a word. We were deeply impressed.
Having been reinforced and supplied with tanks we started off for Kharkov. We passed through Dergachi, which is on the outskirts of Kharkov, approached Merefa, Korotich and surrounded Kharkov. It’s difficult to retell a battle; it’s easier to see one in a film. Some patchy episodes are held in memory. We had a good fight there; all our tanks burned down. The brigade commander Kazakov was killed in a battle for a place named Kazachiya Lopan. We were withdrawn for re-marshalling. We received new tanks – the British Mk-II, Mk-VI and Mk-VII Valentines. I had a Mk-VII with a 40 mm cannon and a coaxial machine gun. The traversing gear was hand driven; the elevation gear was shoulder driven. There were armor piercing rounds only, no splinter ones. Zing! And a ‘bullet’ is sent, like a spit. Damn it! The things that I liked in the Valentines were: an epicyclic traversing gear. It could turn at any speed, like driving a car. In our T-34 we had to slow down, squeeze the lever and speed it up for friction couplings to work. The British also had a good interior works.
S. A. Otroschenkov in 1943.
In late September of 1943 we cut across the Dnepr river in the Valentines to the south of the city of Kremenchug near the village named Mishurin Rog. Our left river bank was flat while the opposite right bank was steep. Anyway our infantry quickly forced the Germans out and the village virtually stayed intact. The engineers constructed a floating bridge. We passed across the river and went into the breakthrough. After 3 to 4 kilometers we engaged into dragged-out battles for big villages named Popelnastoye, Zelyonoye (Green) and Zhyoltoye (Yellow). The Germans had built strongholds there! The season of broken (impassible) roads and mine fields prevented effective tank maneuvering. The sappers worked on mine sweeping around the clock. Still we suffered heavy casualties from anti-tank mines. The Germans successfully used the ‘Tiger’ tanks in defense. They would set their tank on high ground with good overview (vantage points), which flailed at us at a range of one and a half to two kilometers. Our cannons couldn’t reach them at such a distance. We had attempted to attack on Popelnastoye for two days, but all in vain. In the end we decided to capture the village at night in a headlong onslaught. We broke into the village in darkness and proceeded with a fight of attrition. After the close quarter combat the Germans abandoned the village. The brigade moved further. Having liberated the villages of Zelyonoye and Zholtoye we approached the town of Pavlovsk. The Germans pinned us down there. In addition, it turned out that that the Fascists again seized the villages that we had liberated. Due to the threat of encirclement we were withdrawn back and we had to force the Germans out of Zholtoye and Zelyonoe again. Then we took up defenses. Such leapfrog regularly recurred during further battles through the end of the war. Do you know how we had fought in 1941? When the enemy with fast moving tank rushes took the rear of our units ours would fling into retreat to join the parent formations. Or they just surrendered. Panic, fear and failure to act wisely were the enemies worse than the Germans. Indeed, there were some rare exceptions. For example, the corps commanded by Popov had entered the encirclement near Moscow and fought there attracting significant enemy forces from other areas. Henceforth the fast-moving break-throughs and taking the enemy rear were our tactics. It was great that psychology of our soldiers and commanders had changed. We realized that we could beat the Germans and the main thing was that we knew how to do it. We had gained a certain experience and acquired confidence in our abilities. After 1943 we were no longer afraid of fighting in the encirclement and often deliberately broke through into the German rear as deep as we could.
I was promoted, became the deputy battalion commander. I was not supposed to have a tank. We used to put it this way: “What is to be a deputy commander? The one who walks with a candle and waits for when the commander is killed to take up his position”. I usually went along with service units. I had the experience. For example, a young tank platoon commander was sent with his three-tank platoon for some mission to go somewhere to do something. Looking at him I saw that he was shaking in his boots; no surprise, the guy was young, had not been under fire. I would pat him on the back of his head and say: “OK, I will go with you.” Then I would give him a piece of advice on what position to take and how to do the task. After one such guidance where he saw how and what to do he would become “mature”. Men at war matured quickly. One had to mature, for death was near. All the newcomers were interviewed. We were already good judges of character and looking at men for the first time could tell who was worthy what and who had to be replaced with someone else. Many newcomers already had combat experience. Of course experienced officers were added to the young crews. There were times when platoon commanders were replaced. Sometimes a mechanic was good for nothing, couldn’t look after his machine. Then he would be replaced with an experienced one who had his machine burned down in action. The first one would be assigned to reserve where after hanging around the old mechanics he would smarten up, gain some experience and after a while could be assigned to a crew.
S. A. Otroschenkov far left, in 1945.
But everyone makes mistakes. Once the whole strength of our battalion was hunting a ‘Tiger’. The battalion had occupied half of the village named Dmitriyevka. The village was big and divided by a river into two parts. We were on one bank; the Germans were on the other. To the south of the village on our bank there was an abandoned MTS (machine and tractor station) where there was a reserve of fuel. We would refuel our tanks during the day. Near the station there was a small bridge across the river. At night a German ‘Tiger’ tank came to the MTS across that bridge, refueled and headed back home. Nights in Ukraine were as dark as pitch. Besides, it was a late autumn and the soil was black. The ‘Tiger’ had lost its bearings and arrived at our part of the village instead of on the German bank. It passed along the main street and the defense line behind our front line tanks. On the left flank there was a battery of SU-85 self-propelled assault guns assigned to our brigade, but they didn’t see it. Furthermore there was our battalion. A soldier ran into our house and reported to the battalion commander Rodin: “Comrade battalion commander, a German tank is coming to us from the MTS!” We tumbled out; without hurry it passed by us along the street towards the brigade headquarters. The brigade headquarters was located at the furthermost end of the village from the MTS. The brigade reconnaissance service supervisor named Godin was the officer on duty at headquarters that night. The battalion commander telephoned him: “Godin, this is Rodin. A ‘Tiger’ has just headed from us to you.”
– “What ‘Tiger’? How come?”
- “Just come out and see, it may be already there!”
Godin ran out and indeed saw the German tank near the brigade headquarters. It drove into the headquarters house wall and stopped, launched an illumination flare, realized that it had strayed, turned around and headed back down the same road it had come from.
At that time one SU-85 self-propelled assault gun had set off from the left flank after the German, i.e. by then to face it. None of them had turned their lights on. The assault gun passed by our house and side by side with the ‘Tiger’. They even grazed each other’s sides. It was pitch black! A ‘Valentine’ tank was parked between ours and the neighboring house facing the street. I tumbled into it in the gunner’s seat and was prepared to fire at the battalion commander’s command. I could not see anything myself. When the ‘Tiger’ had come abreast with me Ivan commanded and I fired. What could that 40 mm “bullet” do? It just spewed sparks from the ‘Tiger’s turret and it went further as if nothing had happened. While I was loading another round the German passed behind the corner of the house and no driver-mechanic appeared to be at his seat. I fired, but missed. So, the ‘Tiger’ left for home with no trouble. Thereafter there were many jokes circulating in the brigade about how we had failed to hunt down a tiger with the strength of the whole brigade. It seemed to have been an easy target, just come and get it. A human is not a robot and sometimes is prone to error.
Now I don’t remember the name of the village which we were assigned to capture. There was a ‘Tiger’ tank hiding behind its houses. The self-propelled assault gunners had destroyed it and early in the morning we entered that village. The battalion commander immediately set a tank of lieutenant Popov at the outskirts through which we had entered to cover our rear for we had no our troops behind us. Suddenly there was noise, clamor and gun firing. Our submachine gunners were escorting six Germans. They had captured them sleeping and shot somebody down. All the soldiers were humans, starved of sleep. Sometimes such carelessness was in both our and their soldiers, so that time they had missed us. Again, the Germans were decent and smart warriors and I would say that it was our luck to catch them so by surprise. The position in that village was not good, an uncomfortable one. On the other side of the village there was a hill and we ascended it. From there we saw that about five kilometers away there was a battle for a neighboring big village going on. The village was defended by German SP (self-propelled) guns. Altogether we had 6 to 7 tanks and we set most of them at that high ground. We ourselves went back to the village and entered a house. There was a battle in the neighboring village but where we were everything was quiet. Some men started eating. Ivan began washing his feet in a basin. I found a panzerfaust and began playing with it. The house lady entered and said: “There are Germans out there!”
We tumbled out of the house and saw a German self-propelled gun. It had passed by our house and garden and stopped in the street about twenty meters away with its rear towards us. Then I was young and reckless. I had the panzerfaust in my hands and it occurred to me to give it a try. I aimed and fired. The device was of a very simple design. Our weapon designers later would copy it. Our anti-tank grenade launcher would closely resemble it. So I fired and hit right into a hatch at the back of the turret. The self-propelled gun burst into flames. All the crew members were dead except for the driver. He had his own hatch at the front, through which he escaped and ran but was shot down.
We started an investigation into how it had passed through our security cover – the tank which we had set in the outskirts near the road. We checked it out. The German self-propelled gunner appeared to have pierced its turret with a solid shot. The engine was intact and could be started up. But it could not fire for the instruments were broken and there was a hole in the turret. The worst thing was that the lieutenant Popov’s crew had run away. There was no blood inside, which suggested that when the shot was fired the tank was already unmanned. Here was an example of our carelessness. They had escaped without giving us notice. The counter-intelligence police was looking for them later, and I never saw them again. Right after that we were rerouted from that village to the neighboring one which had been defended by the German self-propelled guns. At that time in that area the frontline did not exist in the usual sense of the word. We would occupy a village and go further and the Germans would reenter it. So we would go around in circles
After the next re-marshalling the brigade took part in the Kirovograd operation. The beginning of the operation was unsuccessful for us. The artillery had launched a heavy softening up, but when we moved forward it appeared that the Germans had withdrawn their troops from the first line of defense. The artillery had fired at the unmanned trenches. The tanks charged and after a few kilometers the Germans faced us with well organized, intense gun fire. This occurred near the village named Plavny. We couldn’t break through the German defenses for a whole day. Both the battalion and the brigade incurred heavy casualties.
Later we captured Plavny and at night moved towards the village named Andreyevka. I had positioned myself at the commander’s seat in the tank and Ivan, tired of action of the previous day, lay behind the turret and rested. The tanks were advancing across a field. Suddenly shell fire broke out. When the tank was passing by a haystack, Ivan jumped off from the moving tank and hid behind the stack. But there happened to be Germans there who pot shot him. The brigade deputy commander on political affairs Negrul later brought his decorations and handed to me Rodin’s photograph blotted in blood. “Here is” – he said “a picture of your killed friend Ivan.” I had kept that photograph for long time until I handed it over to some museum. Now I regret that I hadn’t made a copy. Ivan Ivanovich Rodin was my true friend, a real front-line fellow. His death made me mad. The next day our battalion captured POWs. It never happened to me again and I forbade doing it to my subordinates but that day I flew off the handle. I personally executed the captured Germans. Later I was dressed down by the brigade deputy commander on political affairs Negrul but didn’t get any severe punishment. After the battalion commander’s death I began assuming his duties.
The political department supervisor Negrul was a good man. He had been with the brigade throughout the war from the first to the last shot. He certainly didn’t go on attacks. But he did maintain order, encouraged the men; some with a stick and others with a word. When the war ended he had the rank of Colonel and lived in Ukraine. I was in correspondence with him through the last days of his life. In general we had nothing to blame our political officers for. In my battalion there was a deputy political commander Postovalov. When on the march an advanced guard point, a tank platoon of three tanks, usually advanced ahead of the battalion. When it faced a German ambush the whole battalion didn’t get engaged in battle, but had time to respond based on the situation. So advancing in that advanced guard point was deadly. When Postovalov saw that a platoon commander was shaking in his boots he would get into his tank with a knotted stick in hand: “Here it is, son, I’ve got a guiding tool, which I call ‘zero-sixteen’, come on, go forward!” He would sit on the turret and ride on the lead tank. He took the risk deliberately. If a battle should begin he would jump off immediately. Even so, it was very risky.
I had parted with my old crew long before. They were nice guys, rose high. Stepan Skudny was commissioned the rank of junior-lieutenant and he became a tank commander. Feodorov was a battalion sergeant-major, he worked in housekeeping. Orlov after Prokhorovka, where he had lost his hand and become disabled, later wrote that he had become a teacher.
Standing from left to right: (the crew) senior sergeant Anatoly Suvorov, senior sergeant Mikhail Davydov, captain Sergei Otroschenkov. In the truck body on the left senior-lieutenant Alexander Chaschegorov, on the right sergeant-major Vasily Arinin.
My new crew was also good. The driver-mechanic Kozlov, a guy around thirty, was a former mechanic-instructor in a training school and very experienced. The gunner Misha (Mikhail) Davydov was a marksman, a nice and smart guy! Tolya (Anatoly) Suvorov was a radio operator- machine gunner. One more guy Vasya (Vasily) Arinin was the second radio operator, an orderly and gun loader all in one. I sat at the tank commander’s seat. Either Misha or I fired the tank gun. I think that Misha fired better than me. He never missed whenever I pointed out a target to him. He would fire just one round at a tank running at mad speed and it caught on fire. A virtuoso. I never came across such marksmen after that. Many times, thanks to Misha, we would come out of a battle intact. It was the matter of hitting first. He who hits first will survive. Once in Hungary I sent Misha and Tolya to the tank training school. A school quota letter arrived and I talked to them: “Listen, guys! Go to the training school and you will survive!” They went and later wrote letters and sent photographs to me. They became smart lieutenants. Later Kozlov departed due to his getting wounded.
After the war Tolya and Misha did their military service in Germany, in Berlin. In 1953 there was a riot. The Germans rose up. It came to bringing tanks into the city. As they told me later, Tolya Suvorov had stopped his tank in front of a crowd while he was sitting in the turret with open hatch. It was peace time, anyway. A shot was fired, either from the crowd or from the windows, it was not known, and Tolya was killed. Then the crew opened fire and dispersed the crowd. Mikhail Davydov was also killed during that unrest. After Hungary my crew members changed frequently. My tanks were on fire many times. Once in Austria I was in two tank fires a day.
After the liberation of Kirovograd the 18th Tank Corps was hastily redeployed to another area; the Korsun-Shevchenko operation was being prepared. At first our 170th Brigade was in the second echelon and then it went into a breakthrough towards Osytnyazhka and stood in defense covering the left flank of the 5th Army and infantry units advancing towards Shpoly. Our first tank battalion and an anti-tank artillery battery were deployed in the village of Rossokhvatka. The second battalion was in the village of Pterovka. The Germans attempting to cut off the communication routes of the 5th Army, which had rushed far forward, attacked us from the southwest with massed forces. For a week we, hiding behind houses, were repulsing the enemy tanks and infantry daily. There were about ten tanks remaining in each battalion, however the command issued us an order to attack to demonstrate to the enemy that massed forces ostensibly were in that area. There was a small river behind us and our village lay in a lowland valley, while the Germans were behind the hills, from which they sallied. The night before the attack, reconnoiters and I went to some high ground to look at Fritzes. They apparently still had enough tanks. At night, just in time, two marching T-34 tank companies arrived and deployed in a forest nearby. I met with the men and the next day they also took part in the battle. We launched the attack in the morning, fired many shots by the available forces thus giving the impression of a potent firepower.
Either due to our demonstration or due to their exhaustion, the Germans gave up further attacks against us. Meanwhile our troops continued arriving. Both infantry and artillery did. The Germans were around for couple of more days and then retreated.
After the Germans’ futile attempts to “cut off” our 5th Army and our surrounding of the enemy Korsun-Shevchenko Army Group, our brigade was set in defense at outer front of the surroundings near the village of Lysyanka. The enemy had attempted to break through to help out the surrounded forces. It was February in Ukraine. Fertile black soil had turned into bituminous and sticky black mud causing impassibility. If a tank stalled in such mud its extraction took supreme efforts. The tracks would spin, but with no results; the tank was prone on its belly and couldn’t be pulled out without a tractor. And when after major efforts the tank was finally pulled out onto solid ground, the place where its bottom had been would turn into an enormous crater filled with water. Passing by later one would see ducks already swimming in it. Hundreds kilograms of soil would stick to the tank bottom.
It is worth mentioning that the German tanks, especially the heavy ones, had even worse flotation ability than our T-34 tank had. And since the enemy couldn’t pass through the fields, and could only pass down the roads, we decided to spring ambushes. We set up the tanks near the road, camouflaged them in bushes, folds in the terrain, dug some of them in, designated areas of observation and fire for each. I told the guys that they should open fire at my command only. We had only 76 mm guns. There was no point in taking risks by ambushing from a distance. Rather, we assured a pointblank range by waiting for the enemy to come up closer to set him on fire with confidence. When the first tank approached at a range of 300 m I gave the command. Senior-lieutenant Seryozha (Sergei) Saltykov knocked it down, in fact, by pot shot. The following tanks attempted to overtake the knocked-down immobilized ‘Tiger’ tank but they would get stuck with their bottoms into mud. These tanks were immobilized, which meant that they were easy targets. We picked them off very quickly. About ten ‘flares’ were already blazing in that road before the rear tanks managed to turn around within the road and leave for home.
Presently the brigade received the order to attack Shenderovka, the last village where the surrounded German units remained. As we found out later the Germans had concentrated in Shenderovka up to 600 artillery guns. We attacked Shenderovka unsuccessfully; ran into dense fire and lost a few tanks. Our battalion commander was wounded and after the previous battles only 5 to 6 tanks in the battalion had survived. The army commander Rotmistrov, corps commander Polozkov and some other general arrived at the brigade. They assessed the situation and ordered us to occupy the neighboring village of Komarovka and the nearby high grounds to approach Shenderovka from the other side. The brigade commander ordered me to take up the remainder of the battalion and fulfill that task. We forced the Germans out of Komarovka and pushed them off the high grounds very quickly. Later Lieutenant Colonel Chunikhin praised me: “You did a good job knocking down that gun” I said: “It wasn’t me, some other tank fired. I don’t need other men’s credits.” In the morning we charged Shenderovka from the opposite direction and captured it. Then my appointment as the battalion commander was confirmed. After capturing of Shenderovka we were disengaged from battles and withdrawn to the village of Morintsy for a short rest.
At night I went outside. The weather was disgusting; it was cold, muddy and snow was on the ground. I had thrown on a fur coat; I had a Magyar (Hungarian) one. Next to our headquarters hut there was a kitchen trailer. A sentry was standing alone rapidly stomping his feet on the ground, apparently freezing. He wore a ragged fur cap; nobody cared about their uniform in winter, all wore whatever warm stuff they could get. I asked him: “Is it cold?” He answered: “Cold, nicht verstehe”. (I don’t understand – German). I was taken aback. “Come up here!” – I said. I looked at him and saw that the guy was a German with a rifle on a strap behind his back! His teeth were chattering and his face turned blue from the cold. I took his rifle away from him and ushered him into the house. All ours: orderlies, headquarters staff were sleeping side by side; some on benches, some on straw on the floor. I dressed them down and nearly punched the staff commander’s ear in. “Who is guarding us?” – I asked.
- “There is a sentry out there.”
- “What sentry? Damn you! A German is guarding the headquarters!”
In short, I raised a fit. “What shall we do to the German?” – I asked. The staff commander suggested: “Let’s execute him!”
- “You capture the one for yourself first and then execute!” - I said – “Feed him, give him hot tea and give him a bed to sleep and in the morning we’ll figure out what to do.” After the battles all were dead tired and wanted to sleep. In the morning we interrogated the German. Back in school I used to learn some German, but like many others, not diligently. Just would mark time at class and go home. I wished I had known that I would need it. Somehow by combined efforts, using my scanty knowledge of German, halfway communicating with gestures we figured out that the German was a noncombatant soldier, an automotive maintenance technician. He didn’t want to fight, was hiding somewhere in the steppe; frozen, starved, in despair he came to the village and wanted to surrender. I asked him: “Hitler kaput? “ – “Kaput, kaput!” – He answered enthusiastically.
In the course of the Korsun-Shevchenko battles the brigade had captured many enemy vehicles: ‘Bussings’ and ‘MAN diesels’. Our technical quartermaster Sergiyenko had a good understanding of technique but he often struggled to repair the captured vehicles. We assigned our German technician to help him out. We dressed him in our uniform, just removed a star from the cap and shoulder straps from the greatcoat. “OK, “- I told him, “now we’ll call you Ivan!” So everybody nicknamed him ‘Ivan’. I don’t remember now what his real name was. He stayed with the battalion, worked on repairing of the captured enemy vehicles. And he went along with the battalion further. Once when we had already approached Romania I was out to inspect guards and sentries on posts. It was a normal practice for a battalion commander, a deputy battalion commander or staff officers to inspect guard posts. There had always been someone awake, who walked around on patrol. The day before, our quartermasters went to the captured enemy warehouse to take some foodstuffs and alcohol. Although the warehouses had been captured from the enemy, they were already being operated by our army; there were our guards, storekeepers, and store accountants. I was walking alo2013-06-16ng the battalion encampment area and suddenly heard someone said: “Halt!” (Stop – German). There was Ivan with a rifle in hands standing near a truck. I told him: “I’ll show you ‘halt’, damn it! What are you doing here with a weapon?” I opened the cab door. The battalion foodstuff quartermaster and logistics supervisor tumbled out of the cab, both drunken, out of senses. There was a vomit in the cab; they had overdone it with wine. I slapped them on their cheeks and sent them to sleep off their drunkenness. Just imagine! They had put an armed German on guard and gotten themselves loaded up!
Motorized riflemen of the 170th Tank Brigade in Hungary
Such delinquencies, off of the battlefield did happen but information of them was not communicated beyond the battalion limits. The guys were the battalion insiders; they knew and did their jobs just fine. Why should I have ruined their lives? If someone was guilty of some offense I would scold him, in the worse case, I would thrash him. I would tell some of them straightforward: “when they ladle out decorations for the operation I will not recommend you for any.” The men didn’t take offense; they realized that discipline must be in place.
Our Ivan was taken away from our battalion before the Jassy-Kishinev offensive operation. The brigade counterintelligence knew that we had him and at the first didn’t mind. He was a valuable craftsman. Then a counterintelligence agent came to me and said: “That’s it, Sergei, now the German must be sent to the rear. He cannot go with us further.”
An identity paper and a reference letter about his work with us in the brigade were made for him. Then he was assigned to the German antifascist group of Otto Grotewohl. What was Ivan’s further fate, I don’t know. I was preoccupied with other matters then. Now I wish I had written down his name and home address. It would be interesting for us to meet now and look at each other. Though, he may be not alive. The German then was older than me.
Then the brigade was engaged in the Uman offensive operation. In the beginning we were advancing towards the station of Talnyoye. On the way there we attacked the village of Sokolovichka. The Germans were going to retreat across the bridge, but I managed to outflank them and set a German tank on fire on its side right in the middle of the bridge. The river was small; one could leap over it, but its flood plain was swampy. The desperate Germans decided to drive across the river bed but their tanks got bogged down in the swamp. The crews got out and escaped. We captured 11 enemy ‘Panther’ (Panzer-V) tanks! When I reported this to the brigade commander he didn’t believe me at first. That very evening, having procured some paint from the technical quartermaster, we re-colored them and began organizing crews.
We pulled the knocked-down ‘Panther’ off the bridge and drove across the river. Talnyoye was only a few kilometers ahead, but nightfall was coming quickly. We came across a field with long haystacks. We decided to spend the night there. The kitchen arrived; we ate and went to bed into the hay. The tank was parked nearby. In the morning we were woken up by gun fire. We jumped up. There was one of our soldiers, the submachine gunner, escorting three Germans. They appeared to have come over at night to our haystack from somewhere and fell asleep peacefully on the opposite side of the stack. In the morning one of our infantrymen went to the opposite side, saw them and woke them up with bursts of fire. What if the Germans had woken up earlier?
We told him: “Why have you brought them here? Who will baby-sit with them? The offensive is ongoing.” The Germans were immediately executed.
The ‘Panther’ tanks required the high quality grade B-70 gasoline. We had no such fuel. Either due to that reason or another, the brigade commander ordered us to abandon the ‘Panthers’. We did not feel sorry about that. People all around were losing their lives, why should we have been sorry about metal?
I had been with the 170th Tank Brigade throughout the whole war, from Stalingrad to Austria. While I was there four brigade commanders had been changed out. Lieutenant Colonel Durnev had commanded near Stalingrad, Lieutenant Colonel Tarasov was killed in the battle of Prokhorovka; went on an attack and was burned. Kazakov was killed in the battles around Kazachiya Lopan and after him Chunikhin was appointed commander. Chunikhin was the one who commanded through the end of the war. He used to be the brigade staff chief. He was a knowledgeable, smart and reasonable officer with an academic education, and indeed, just a good human. He encouraged initiative. He didn’t apply pressure like some others: “Come on, come on”; instead he would assign a task and you would think how to accomplish it in the best way. I wouldn’t call him extremely brave, he was a cautious man. He didn’t put himself under shell fire. Why were his predecessors killed? Because they had thrown themselves forward, under gun fire. But Chunikhin remembered that his weapons were battalions, companies, batteries and platoons, the troops, in short, and that he had to command those troops. In his command he had 65 tanks, a submachine gunner battalion, artillery, flak artillery and he had to manage all that stuff. Had I been in his shoes I guess I wouldn’t have thrown myself where I shouldn’t be either. A battalion commander was a different matter. His due position was around 400 meters from the line of battle, if the terrain was favorable, to overlook the field. Otherwise, to be near the combat tanks. Sometimes during the offensive we would break away to tens of kilometers from the brigade command center.
- Where is the brigade commander?
- Don’t know, we cannot reach him on radio!
There were three tank battalions in the brigade. Sometimes the brigade acted in full complement, but more often each battalion was given an independent task and worked on accomplishing it. A tank battalion is an elementary self-contained tactical unit. If you were a battalion commander, theoretically you had at your disposal 21 tanks. In reality sometimes you had to fight with only 2 or 3 tanks, but let’s assume the average number – 15 machines. 1 or 2 batteries of SP artillery, a battery of antitank artillery, a battery of flak artillery, a company of tank-mounted infantry or submachine gunners, a detachment of field engineers, and a detachment of reconnoiters were attached to the battalion. A brigade commander assigned a task, when and where to go, which objective to reach, where to entrench and report of the accomplishment! Then you started working on it. Primarily, the war was the work; a heavy, bloody and meticulous work. Where the other battalions were and what they were doing, you didn’t know, unless there was some joint mission. Then you would coordinate interaction. Otherwise you pursed your task with available resources. If you needed it you requested support from the brigade commander. He had at his disposal heavy artillery and a battalion of Katyusha rocket launchers. You reported on which target you wanted killed. The brigade commander answered, when and what forces would deliver the strike. After the target was killed you went further. When the battalion was supported by aviation the airmen assigned their spotter to us. An airman, Captain Novoslobodsky often worked with me. A tank was attached to him; he had his own radio channel. Shturmoviks (ground-attack aircraft) were coming in and he paced them:
- Hunchback, hunchback (a nickname of Soviet IL-2 shturmovik), I am Novoslobodsky, do you see the grove?
- I do.
- Do you see the battery?
- I do.
- Work against it.
And the shturmoviks worked. They fired their rocket projectiles while they were still approaching. Plumes of smoke beautifully rushed from behind us towards the enemy. Then they began their bombing. Actually, once Novoslobodsky called the target, but an airman made a mistake and delivered a strike at our battalion. Luckily, nobody was hurt. The guilty pilot was badmouthed for his mistake and the spotting data verified. Such episodes at the front were quite common.
Radio stations were fitted to the tanks of platoon, company and battalion commanders. Combat tank radios only worked as receivers. I believe that it was right. If a combat tank commander talked on the air he would have occupied it and neither battalion, nor company commander would have been able to deliver a command. During a battle a matter of seconds determined whether you would survive or not. Communication with the brigade commander was periodic. We had agreed before the battle on the time of contact.
I can tell you of the tactical deployment of self-propelled guns. They were certainly deployed behind the charging combat tanks, supporting the attack. We happened to have SU-85s (SP 85 mm gun), SU-100s (SP 100 mm gun) and SU-122s (self-propelled 122 mm howitzer). We used them as coverage against hits from the flanks. Suppose that we were charging a town and at the flank or behind there was a space across which the enemy might counterattack. At the beginning there was nobody, but just in case, you would put a battery there in ambush and have them stand still whatever it took. When the situation changed you brought it up to the parent formation. Besides I always had a reserve at my disposal. Wherever a precarious situation developed I would move the self-propelled guns there. Had I not had reserves where would I take them from? Taking away from the battle line was not an option for they had already engaged in action. Nobody can fight without reserves. Once in Ukraine the Germans abandoned a Russian 152 mm self-propelled gun. Apparently they had captured it before from our troops. I appropriated it for our battalion and painted out the crosses. I always had it at hand until it ran out of service life and began breaking apart. Whenever we faced a ‘Tiger’ tank I would put it forward. The ‘Tigers’ then had pierced through our armor at the range of two kilometers and we couldn’t get them with our tank guns. The self-propelled gun would fire a couple of shells and blow the Tiger’s turret off and away. There was such a story about that self-propelled gun. Someone from the self-propelled gunners had recognized that it was their loss. They raised hell about it and that information reached the corps commander.
- “He had stolen that self-propelled gun from us.”
- “Where did you lose it? Why were there crosses painted on it? No, he had stolen it from the Germans.”
So that self-propelled gun stayed with me. By the way, I liked sleeping on that self-propelled gun. The left mud-guard it had was the broadest, like a table. I could spread a greatcoat on it and sleep like in a bed.
We cut across the Dniester River near the village of Soroky and found ourselves in Moldavia. We fought through towards Botosani and on the way cut across the Prut River. There was Romania already. We faced a resilient resistance there. The Germans had established a whole chain of strongholds there. For example, there were a few pillboxes and earth-and-timber emplacements covering each other with gun fire, so we couldn’t approach them off-the-march (straight off). The pillboxes there were formidable ones; some designed to accommodate a platoon at least. Two levels; living accommodations, foodstuff and ammunition hoards in the basement and artillery and machine guns at the upper level. All the surrounding location was exposed to gun fire and the gun fire to every single landmark there was ranged. The earth-and-timber emplacements were also formidable ones; three or four layers of thick logs filled up atop with rocks and soil. What would you round up such a bunker with? It would even resist a direct hit from an air bomb. Luckily there was no haste and we were not driven forward; instead we were ordered to destroy the strongholds methodically, thoroughly and to keep our heads down. Therefore crossing the first fortification zone took fairly a long time but we did it with relatively low casualties. During those battles the brigade had lost just a few tanks and a friend of mine, the motorized rifle battalion commander Osadchiy, was killed. What was the procedure for destroying the firing points? We just fired at the gun slits. We had become good marksmen by then. We would destroy one pillbox and once it did not cover the other one anymore, proceeded to the next. In May when we had passed across the frontier defense zone it became easier. But by then the Germans had made the second fortification zone, which was the state of the fortification art. It looked as follows. Three rows of trenches linked by communication trenches about 2 meters deep. Behind it there was a gap about 5 kilometers and three more rows of trenches, then a gap again and one more fortification zone. In the trenches there were grenadiers, anti-tank artillery and tanks embedded into the ground nearby. Behind the first zone of trenches there were heavy artillery and mortars. There was enough gun fire.
Our troops were also building fortifications. We were deployed behind the first line of our defenses. The brigade headquarters and my battalion were based in Potenzhen, the second battalion was in the neighboring village of Moviliene. Both our villages were continuously under the disturbing artillery fire of Germans. We had got accustomed to recognize “friendly” cannons by sound. Once we heard “Boom, boom, boom”, ‘All to the shelter!’ command followed. We would hide, the shells would burst and then we went about our business. Those raids didn’t cause us major casualties, but apparently were intended to lower our morale.
New reinforcements and tanks were arriving at both our brigade and the whole corps. Some very good fellows were among them: Vasily Bryukhov, a friend of mine, who later would become a Hero of the Soviet Union. After the war and now we keep in touch often by correspondence and telephone calls. Now he is a retired general. After a while I had appointed Vasya (Vasily) to company commander and later before the end of the war he became a battalion commander. He was a perfect fighter. Later his battalion would be the first to meet the Americans. A lieutenant Ivan Konstantinovich Vasadze arrived along with a tank platoon. He used to fight in a tank battalion under one of the rifle units and when just two or three tanks of the battalion had survived they were handed over to us. The unit went for reformation. Such transfers of the last surviving tanks to other units were common at the front. I liked Vasadze for his calm and businesslike nature. He was laconic and amazingly brave in battle. Later he would become my deputy. I was walking along the ranks of the new arrivals to come to know each, to look in their eyes to see what was in their hearts. Lo and behold, there was a familiar face. ‘Sashka, is that you?’- ‘I am, comrade commander.’ The guy appeared to be Sasha (Alexander) Burtsev, an old acquaintance of mine. I remembered him as a young kid. Back in Uryupinks he used to follow me: “Sir, take me with you to the front!” I had tried to spare Sasha as best I could before he gained the necessary experience. In the beginning I had given him the brigade staff commander’s tank. Later he also became a good fighter, setting the German tanks on fire. Many good officers had arrived at the battalion.
Meanwhile, Colonel General Susaykov, the member of the War Council of the Front had arrived. He held a conference with the officer corps of the battalion commander’s rank and higher. He had called for the commander of the first battalion under the 170th Brigade. I came up and reported: “The battalion has been mobilized, fully supplied with new equipment.” Tanks with 85 mm guns had just arrived and my battalion was the only one in the corps to get those. I continued: “The officer training sessions have been conducted; the battalion is up in arms.”
He stared at me and asked: “How long have you been in command of the battalion?”
- “Since the Korsun-Shevchenko operation.”
- “Why are you still a Senior Lieutenant?”
I said: “I am the wrong person to ask this question. Apparently, I am still young.”
- “According to the staffing list, officers of which rank are supposed to be at the battalion commander’s position?”
- “Lieutenant Colonel.”
- “Right, a deputy battalion commander – the Major, a company commander – the Captain. And you are the Senior Lieutenant in this position.”
Susaykov called over the brigade commander Chunikhin and they whispered to one another. I was not deaf then and overheard something. Susaykov: “What’s the matter?” Chunikhin answered that recommendations for promotion allegedly had been sent out for a few times, but someone would hold them down.
After the break he called me up again: “By the order of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief the rank of Captain is meritoriously conferred on you!” So, in such a way I was promoted to the captain’s rank. I had never taken up the question either about rank, or decorations, which apparently were supposed to be conferred on me, but for some reason were not. Sometimes such thoughts occurred to me, but I assumed that my promotion was held down perhaps due to my young age. I was just 22 years old then. I preferred not to believe that the reason was my origin, my father was the ex-tsarist army officer, and that my superiors were biased against me due to that. I was fighting honestly anyway. As late as after the war when I was a regiment commander in the Trans-Baikal and was on friendly terms with our counterintelligence officer Yerokhin, he supported my suspicions.
He said: “Your promotion papers were turned down because there was a reference to your parentage in your file.” I said: “Why parentage?”
- “Because your father was the tsarist officer.”
- “Well, but now times have changed, I am an officer myself, a Soviet officer, have been through the war. Will you prosecute me for that?”
- “The times have changed, but the information remained.”
And later my origins echoed to me. When I was already a deputy division commander of the 44th Division during the time of Khrushchev. An allotment arrived to send an officer from our unit to Cuba. I was selected for that. After a while a personnel officer called: “Stay where you are, we will send another officer there.”
I asked the counterintelligence officer: “Why him? He is a dim witted officer.”
He said: “Because his parents belong to the class of workers and peasants.”
Well, I actually have digressed from the subject. The whole summer long through August 20 we were ‘having rest”. We were building crews, conducting officer training sessions and exercises. During the training sessions we reviewed the battles which our brigade had been through. We were passing our experience, which we had gained at the war, onto the younger generation. I drew the battalion officers’ attention to the mistakes, which had been made by various crews. For the most part those mistakes had been paid for with our blood, therefore I took those classes very seriously. In due time, near Stalingrad Captain Mukhin, my company commander, a smart man, used to give such classes to us also. And those classes appeared to be very helpful for the young tankers. The subjects included actions in different situations, reviews of developed tactical maneuvers based on terrain, time of day, activity of each crew. Many items were illustrated by examples taken from real life. I can give you such episode. The battalion was charging across a marshy terrain. All the crews were ordered to turn their radios on for reception. I saw a young tank commander was driving his tank right into a swamp. I commanded to him: “Stop, you are heading to the swamp!” Not a word in response. “Can you hear me?”- I asked. No answer. And the tank flew into the swamp and settled itself into it up to its turret. I saw one kilometer away from him on the road three German tanks, including one ‘Tiger’, advancing towards us. The communication started working right away. The commander of the bogged down tank saw the Germans also and fell into a panic: “Battalion commander, the Germans! What shall we do? Help!”
I told him: “Don’t’ panic and don’t cry! You will let the Germans come closer and destroy them at short range.” I must tell that the tank had bogged down very fortunately; it was nearly undetectable from the road. When the German tanks aligned with him, he set them on fire at their sides with three rounds one after another. That’s it! I radioed to him “Now extract your tank from the swamp yourself, we won’t be helping you. If you don’t, I will execute you.” That was exactly what I said. Discipline was tough.
Later it took that crew a half a day to extract their tank from the swamp. I didn’t even drop a towing line to them. They found logs and recalled how to attach them to the tracks for self-extraction. Hard going, but they did come out of the swamp.
- “Well,” I said, “have you learned your lesson? Why didn’t the communication work?”
- “Well, we had switched to the intercommunication.”
- “How might that be? The order was explicit to turn the radio on for reception. You might have received the order any moment. The battle was in progress!”
He stood silent.
- “For your setting the Germans on fire I will recommend you for decoration, but keep in mind, that today you’ve had a great stroke of luck. The next time in such situation you might well be killed.”
For that battle he had gained the Order of the Red Banner and, more important, the experience. Everything matters in war, nothing is trifle. Every order must be fulfilled precisely. We discussed at the tank commander classes such episodes, many of which had not ended up so fortunately. Such sort of knowledge would not be provided in training schools. It came with practical experience. Prior to every battle we had a general idea of the direction in which we would charge, the terrain, the enemy opposing us, where the enemy could move reserves up from and where precautions had to be made against potential flanking attacks. We would sit together and contemplate the forthcoming action. The specific targets were not disclosed to us in advance. I, the battalion commander, was notified of the target just a few hours before the battle. Then we would sit together again and specify the activities of all crews, coordinate interaction with the attached troops, artillery and infantry. There was a lot of brainstorming before the battle. We, the young twenty year old kids, were sitting nights pouring over maps. We bore enormous responsibility for the lives of our men and the successful outcome of the day. The battle would be bloody anyway and minimizing the casualties was our primary objective.
For me the scariest point at war, the “very shivers” were whenever I was reengaging in battle after a unit reformation or time of rest. Personally I had always felt great anxiety before contact with the enemy because of not knowing what and where the enemy might be. Then when the action began, I would grow into the environment and at once the anxiety would let go. There was no time for fear when one was busy. A sort of wild excitement engulfed a person. Even the thought that you might be killed didn’t occur to you; instead, you thought: “I must get them and there is no other way!”
I feared the most for the men of the fresh reinforcements, which had never yet been in battle. ‘How would they behave in battle?’- I thought. Based on my previous experience, I knew that if a battle was successful and the enemy played by our rules, the youth would take everything in quickly and fight “in my favor”, doing what I wanted them to do. If the first battle was successful and we possessed the initiative, then those men would fight well further on. But it also happened otherwise when our attacks were defeated, there was no success and the tankers lacked self-confidence too. That was the worst thing. Then those guys at best would live two or three more weeks and after that become food for ravens. All would be knocked out. So my primary objective was instilling in the young tankers the confidence that they could and were capable of fighting. Then it was easy in heart and easy to command.
The 5th Guards Tank Army commanded by Pavel Rotmistrov, as a part of which we had fought in the battle of Prokhorovka, went to Belorussia and then further to Pomerania, to the Baltics, only the 7th Mechanized Corps and our 18th Tank Corps were left.
On the 20th of August the Jassy-Kishinev offensive operation began. As a battalion commander I was aware that artillery preparation would begin in the morning. I had seen an eyeful of artillery bombardments in my life but not such a massed one. Everything started with rocket salvos of ‘Katyushas’, then artillery of all bores joined the ‘concerto’, and then our shturmovik (fighter bomber) and bomber aircraft went to softening the German defenses. The ground under us was trembling. You would shout to the man standing next to you, but he couldn’t hear. Awful, continuous rumble. The artillery preparation had lasted for about an hour and a half. By then we had fed the men and were ready. We didn’t go for a breakthrough of the German defenses, but for the time being were left in reserve. After a while our wounded infantrymen appeared straggling from the front line to the rear, some on carts and others on foot. We were informed that the success of the offensive was taking shape. Only in the afternoon we were assigned the task to come up with the battalion to the jump-off line, which was near the army field command post. I had already been there before the offensive for reconnaissance. There was a high ground, camouflaged communication trenches, stereoscopic telescopes and observation devices atop. A wide sector of the enemy defenses, indeed well camouflaged too, was visible from there. Then we were given the strictest order not to ‘loom up’, not to give away the field command post. And now, we, a group of commanders of different armed forces and ranks, were standing upright on that high ground, looking through binoculars. Shortly after my arrival at the command post, about fifty German heavy bomber aircraft Ju-88 (please do not confuse with the diving Ju-87 Stukas) hovered about 300 meters high right over our heads. I must say that we were impressed with that huge formation. A score of big machines carrying death! We raised our heads up and froze in stupor. They didn’t drop their bombs; instead turned back and flew somewhere to the side, towards the advancing troops. After a while we heard the humming boom of bomb explosions.
It was already dark when my battalion received the order to advance forward, and to do it in the vanguard of the brigade. It was night, dark. While passing across the German defense line smashed by our troops we ran into a minefield. Our sappers had missed it. Two tanks in the battalion tripped the mines. Luckily, no one got hurt, the machines too; just had their tracks broken. We called up the sappers and presently they found the lanes. We moved forward. The whole night long the battalion advanced without engaging the enemy. This is how nicely we had scared them away. A platoon commanded by Vasily Bryukhov was traveling in the advance guard point and suddenly his tanks stopped and opened rapid fire somewhere to the side. As the situation was quiet I drove up to Bryukhov’s tank, got out and knocked on the hatch. He stuck out. “Where do you think you are firing?”- I asked. – “The Germans are over there, retreating.”
- “What’s the range to them?”
- “Two kilometers.”
I looked through the binoculars. The range to the retreating German tanks was three to four kilometers.
- “You are standing on a hillock, and it seems to you that they are near, but, as a matter of fact, you cannot reach them. What was your primary task, anyway? To follow that direction, so beat a path forward! Whatever is happening to the left and to the right of us is none of our business. Let the others deal with them.”
The driver-mechanic of Bryukhov’s crew, who now lives here in Yekaterinburg, later told me: “We heard how you were teaching Vasily, we were sitting in the tank and smiling.” After that Vasily Pavlovich was fighting very well, as were many others. After capturing Husi the character of the young tankers was revealed. They had sensed a taste of how to beat the Germans. A few days later I appointed Vaslily Bryukhov to commander of the 2nd company instead of one dim witted officer.
It was already morning when our lead tank was knocked down. It wasn’t set on fire, but was just disabled. A German self-propelled gun was in ambush and we eliminated it. On the same day we ran into a defensive screen hastily established by the German. It was a battery of anti-tank guns, one of which was hidden off the side, sideways. It was the gun, which had knocked down our first tank. I drove up to the knocked down tank and my gunner Mikhail killed the gun with the first round. Then we fired at the battery and I called up another tank platoon for reinforcement. Together we suppressed the battery, which due to haste was poorly camouflaged by the Germans, and with gunfire fended off a self-propelled gun. After that holdup the lead in the vanguard was taken up by the second battalion, which headed for Husi, a significant transportation hub, and we followed them. Evening shut in. We were passing by a village. There was already plenty of our infantry, carts and horses in it. How did they manage to pass by us? I don’t know. When we approached Husi there was a great creek valley in front of us, about one and a half kilometers wide. On the other side of the valley there was the city proper and below we saw a great number of motor vehicles. The vehicles were moving in not less than twenty rows. The Fascists were retreating from the city targeted for encirclement. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of motor vehicles. We with two tank battalions managed to intercept them and opened fire. At first we fired at the leading vehicles to stop the flight of all of them. The vehicles were on fire. In the city there was a battle ongoing also; pockets of resistance still remained. And we had squeezed down the vehicles in the valley. Not far off, about three or four kilometers, there was an airfield. The German aircraft would take off, bomb us and go back to land for refueling right in front of us. The battle for Husi had lasted all day long. By evening we had forced our way to the city and by morning freed it up from the Germans. Then without a stop we entered the bank of the Prut River thereby closing the encirclement. The battalion approached a burned down bridge where it took up defenses, awaiting the retreating Germans. But there were very few of them. At that position we had destroyed 6 or 7 German tanks. The second battalion had been assigned a different task and was operating apart from us. On the far side of the Prut River our advancing 4th mechanized corps was operating commanded by Lieutenant General Vladimir Ivanovich Zhdanov. After the war he would be in command of our division in the Trans-Baikal and I knew him very well. Later he became a Hero of the Soviet Union and a National Hero of Yugoslavia; even streets were named after him.
A reconnaissance captain joined us from Zhdanov to coordinate interactions.
There were further battles. We fought every day. By now many names of towns and men have faded away from my memory. Though, sometimes some fragments come back to me.
Once in a battle the gun loader tarried and I pried myself away from the gun sight, turned to him and cried out: “Come on, the armor-piercing round, get it quickly!” I turned back. What the hell?! There was a revolver pistol firing slit underneath the gun sight. I looked up and saw there another open slit. But the gun sight was gone. I looked around and realized what had happened: while I was ducking to the gun loader a solid shot had hit the turret, torn the gun sight away completely and stuck in the breech-piece of the gun. Had I been there half of my head would have been blown off. In a tank duel moments had crucial importance. I stopped by a forest plantation to look around. Another tank of my battalion drove up fifty meters further and stopped also. As it turned out, just in time. At that moment it was shelled from the nearest high ground by a German tank. I saw how the shell knocked the ground just a couple of meters in front of that T-34 tank and bounced up as a red dot. Our tanker, unfortunately I have forgotten his name, turned the turret around and set the German tank on fire with the first round. I looked out and saw the flare that the German tank had turned into about one and a half kilometers away from us. The new T-34 tanks with their 85 mm guns evened the odds with the Germans in long range duels. The other battalions were still using T-34-76 tanks. I came up and commended the crew: “Well done, guys, the German is on fire!” – “It’s alright, commander.” Had our guy missed or tarried a little longer, he wouldn’t have gotten the chance for a second shot. The fascist was sure to have destroyed him.
After capturing a small village we had taken five enemy soldiers prisoner. They looked very strange, having apparent Asian facial features. They didn’t understand Russian, or pretended that they didn’t. We checked their papers. They appeared to be Uzbeks from the national unit (units organized by the Germans from POWs of national minorities of the Soviet Union to fight against the Soviet Union). A summary execution followed. We also had to fight the Vlasovites (followers of the infamous Soviet renegade general Vlasov). Those were perfect fighters, indeed. They were Russian men and had nothing more to lose. But we didn’t give them quarter.
Deputy battalion commander I.K. Vasadze, Battalion commander S.A. Otroschenkov in 1944.
The brigade approached Bucharest, already knowing that Romanians had ceased resistance and that Mihai, the king had come to power. Actually that news came to us late and there was confusion. Our guys were disarming the Romanians, whom they met on the way, not knowing yet that Romania was already our ally. The brigade was ordered to stop at the outskirts of Bucharest. Lights in the city were peacefully illuminating the night. I saw trams running in the streets. A whole delegation arrived in the brigade from the Romanian capital in a few cars. The cars hesitantly stopped by the lead tanks of our battalion. A man, who appeared to be a representative of our foreign office, came up to me and produced his identification paper:
- “You don’t need to enter the city; no one will meet you there with guns. You will enter it in a parade column the day after tomorrow.”
That night and the following day were spent cleaning up, washing and burnishing ourselves and our machines. And then in fine form, with the brigade commander riding in a jeep bearing the unfurled banner of the brigade, we passed in a column through the city and stopped at its southern outskirts.
Four three or four days the brigade was having rest and brushing up the machines. Officers went into the city. There were cinema theaters, cafés and shops open. After the battles we really wanted to relax and enjoy a peaceful life. Major Novikov, the deputy brigade commander once invited me and some other officers to go to Buchares: “Let’s go, walk around, and stop by a brothel to see what it’s like!” Well, such facilities did not exist in our country, so all were curious. Novikov then was about thirty years old, a mature man, but at that time I was hesitant to even approach a girl. We sallied forth on an excursion, just to take a look. We came to the city and found a brothel. There was a small window in the wall, like those in the cinema; the tickets were being sold there. There was a queue of Romanians. The queue was full of males of different ages from snotty-nosed kids to gray-haired old men. A guard patrol was walking nearby. Novikov came up to them and asked for permission. They answered: “Go ahead, take a look, we don’t mind.” We entered the lobby. There was a table and couches. Girls were sitting on the couches. There was a conveyor system. A man would come in with a ticket and choose a woman, who took him to a room to do their business. On returning from the room she would sit back on the couch. One gypsy looking girl was speaking fairly good Russian. We asked her to take us to a room. The room appeared to be clean and cozy. There were WC facilities and so on. We asked her: “Aren’t you afraid of getting infected?” She said: “I always examine my clients and we have a doctor, who examines us.”
With us there was one soldier, the brigade commander’s driver, a Ukrainian with the last name Lapa (paw). He was a burly guy, door-wide shoulders, about two meters tall. We suggested to him in jest: “Lapa, would you like to go? We’ll pay for you and you will tell us later how it was!” And he agreed.
Lapa came out to us later and boasted: “I gave her the works, after me she was finished for today and went home!” We laughed.
We returned to the brigade and Chunikhin summoned us all right away. Apparently counterintelligence had reported to him. He was on a rampage: “You, the combat officers, wearing decorations, hanging around brothels, picking up infection!” – “But we just went to take a look, comrade brigade commander.” – “I don’t believe you!” He had scolded us for a quite a while and then the political department supervisor Negrul tackled us. I told him: “Comrade Colonel, as communist to communist I am telling you, nothing has happened, we just went to take a look, it’s a curious thing, you know!” – “OK,” – he said, “I believe you.” Everything was over. But after that we were teased for a long time. The girls of our brigade: medical orderlies and telephone operators teased us too. They used to ogle us, the young and handsome guys, but from that point on turned up their noses at us. Though, the war was taken seriously, and youth took its course. Whenever a rare opportunity of rest was offered, both officers and soldiers didn’t miss the chance of enjoying romance and having a love affair. Sometimes they went to such institutions.
Love affairs occurred in the brigade also. There was one beautiful lady in the brigade. Usually before an attack I would sit with the officers and make an office review of different scenarios for the upcoming battle. Once I was conducting such briefing in the battalion. During a break she came up to me:
- “Comrade battalion commander, I wonder, there are so many girls in the brigade, don’t you really like any of them?”
Well, I stood tall there, the battalion commander still and all. Besides, I was young and handsome.
- “Why don’t I like?” - I said, “I do.”
- “Will you tell me who and I will pass it on to her and she will come to you.”
- “You know, Shura (Alexandra), I would tell you, but there are too many people around and I am shy.”
But she insisted.
- “OK, Shura, it’s you!”
Everybody laughed out loud, but she smiled and said: “It’s too late, comrade battalion commander.” She already had someone.
- “You see,” I said, “before the war I was unlucky in communication with the girls too.”
In the tenth grade at school there was one beautiful girl. I was a good pupil and was helping her with mathematics. Once I told her: “I want to offer to you a good friendship for the rest of our lives.” – “You know,” she answered to me, “to have an affair with a girl one should be capable of making money to buy pants.” My father had a big family then, supporting seven people and in general it was difficult to buy clothes then. I answered her rudely then: “OK, go and seek your fortune in pants.”
So I told Shura: - “One of them had rejected me for my pants, the other one did when I was a lieutenant. So what is a lieutenant? Thin, sweet-voiced and transparent. A twenty year old man. She told me then: ‘You are still like a calf, get mature first and then you will make approaches to a girl.’ This is the second time. And this time with you it didn’t work, too late.”
I had told that her on purpose, jokingly, and then continued: -“When the war is over I somehow will handle that issue by myself, without advocates. But now, while we’re busy with war, the subject is closed.” That anecdote was circulated later in the brigade.
After a short rest the brigade moved on. Especially memorable was passing across the Transylvanian Alps. In my opinion, I would have been better off going through a battle, than in a tank passing through those mountains. There was an abyss about two hundred meters deep to the right and a thrusting up into the sky steep rock to the left, and a narrow path. One slip-up meant the tank’s falling into the abyss. We travelled very slowly, like on foot. Tank commanders would get out of the tanks all the time to coordinate the driver-mechanics’ motion by centimeters. Sometimes the tracks would hang over the abyss. We had to pass across the precipice on a suspension bridge. The Alps were Alexander Suvorov’s area, but he used pass across them in the 18th century with infantry! It’s hard to deliver the emotional stress. Once we had passed the mountains what a relief at heart we felt!
After passing across the Alps our brigade got a chance to have rest for about two weeks in the corps reserve at the Romanian station of Deva. It was a big and densely populated settlement. Many tanks required repairs. Basically we were rebuilding running gear. After long marches along all those Romanian serpentine roads in heat the rubber wheel treads failed and fell apart. Besides, there were the tanks with 85 mm guns in my battalion, which were heavier than those with 76 mm guns. The stress load on the running gear was very intense. Wheels, support arms and tracks were being delivered to us. We did major overhauls of all the machines. The idle crews being away from the deadly threat relaxed. Even we, the commanders, for lack of occupation, fell into revelry and took alcohol. There occurred one episode, which I don’t like to remember. Once I was returning from the neighboring settlement to the encampment of our unit a little tipsy. While on the way I saw a toppled over truck of motorized riflemen from our brigade. On the ground there were five or six motionless soldiers injured in the crash. An apathetic looking technical quartermaster of the motorized rifle battalion was hanging around. I got out of the car and dashed to him sounding off about his inactivity. The technical quartermaster was a captain like me and also tipsy. Without saying a word, he turned around and heavily punched my ear.
I, naturally, flared up, grabbed my holster and pulled out my pistol. Realizing that he had put his foot in it, the captain without thinking twice ran like mad. I don’t know how it would have ended up had I shot at him. On a bet I had hit a coin with a pistol at the range of ten steps. Thank God, something made me lift my hand at the last moment and take a couple of shots above his head. Perhaps that saved the lives of us both.
There were many witnesses to that scuffle; therefore the brigade command couldn’t conceal it. The shooting incident was reported to General Govorunenko, the Corps commander, who personally released me from the battalion commander’s position. I handed over my battalion to Captain Zadorozhny, the deputy commander. The brigade commander at first appointed me the deputy commander of the third battalion commanded by Grischenko, and then assigned to me a jeep with a driver and sent me back on the brigade’s route to Bucharest to pick up the tanks that straggled behind. Heavy-hearted I started off to fulfill the order. Captain Zadorozhny, a nice and cheerful guy in everyday life, who could tell a joke, showed his worst side in the battle. In my opinion, he, an experienced officer, appeared to be a bit of coward. Instead of assessing the situation on the scene, maneuvering and finally commanding the battalion, he in the very first battle arbitrarily drove the men forward, while he himself stayed behind in safety. Therefore, during the next offensive when capturing a strategic hub Arad the first battalion incurred major casualties.
Govorunenko summoned me again: - “Have you had enough scuffling and running? Go ahead and take over the command of the third battalion from Grischenko. I will assign Grischenko to command the first battalion instead of Zadorozhny.” The second battalion then was commanded by my friend Kolya (Nikolai) Matveyev. Later in Pest, Nikolai would be senselessly killed in a motor vehicle accident. He lost control of the vehicle and it fell into a canal.
Near Arad a regiment of Romanians was operating together with our brigade. They were poor warriors, indeed. We had to goad them all the time. Sometimes I really wanted to take a stick and knock their colonel on the head to make him assure fulfillment of orders. They were very cowardly folks. Just one shot fired unnerved them. And God forbid some of them getting killed; then it was better to watch for them not to run away. They were not like us, Russian Ivans. If I were assigned a task to arrive at certain destination by certain time I was sure to be there, even if I had to crawl! The brigade commander would call: - “Where are you, have you accomplished the task?”
- “Yes sir.”
- “Entrench yourself at the position and await further instructions.”
And sometimes, I didn’t see him for weeks, just heard him on radio, or a liaison officer would bring an order from him. All of the other responsibility was on you, and you were a 22 year old kid. That’s it.
In Arad our brigade liberated a large camp of Soviet prisoners of war. Among those who were released there was a captain Sarkisian, a former serviceman from our brigade. He had been captured by Germans long before near Voronezh when I was not with the brigade yet. Our veterans recognized him and Chunikhin accepted him to the brigade appointing him to be my deputy. After a while I came up to the brigade commander and asked him to remove Sarkisian from my battalion.
Chunikhin asked: - “Why?”
I said: - “First of all he is fifteen years older than me. Secondly, I don’t trust him for he has been in prison for the whole war. Thirdly, he interferes with where he doesn’t belong. He modifies my orders. If I issue an order, please be so kind to fulfill it. I don’t need such modifications.”
He was taken away from me and sent to Kolya Matveyev’s second battalion. After Kolya’s death the battalion was commanded by an Uzbek Captain Jumin. He was a nice guy, a real artist and a good combat officer. He was also killed, so regrettably senselessly. The brigade was descending down a steep mountain slope to a road located near the bank of the Danube river and there was no way to bypass it. All descended safely. Jumin had sat astride the tank, at the front. Either it was the driver-mechanic who had braked hard, or a bump on the road, but he fell and his head went right underneath the tracks. After that accident Sarkisian was appointed to command the second battalion. That way he finished the war as a battalion commander. But after the war, as I’ve been told, he was arrested for some misdoings while in the POW camp; he allegedly had collaborated with the Germans.
After Arad we fought our way to Timisoara and then to Seget, which was already in Yugoslavia. After Seget we turned to Hungary.
The battalion logistics supervisor Sergei Malstev, The deputy battalion commander Sergei Otroschenkov, in 1944.
On the 2nd of December our 170th Tank Brigade had cut across the Danube near Sambor, which is to the south of Budapest. The battalion was reinforced with artillery and assigned the task to outflank Budapest to the west, to cut off the road along the Danube and to tighten the second assault around the Hungarian capital. The battalion had cut across the river to the south of Budapest and detoured around the city across Feldbach, Odon and the station of Mahn. We entered the station. Everything was quiet and no enemy was seen. In the advanced guard point there was a tank platoon and I was in a radio contact with them. Suddenly the platoon commander reported: - “Comrade battalion commander, I’ve captured prisoners.”
-“Well, send them over!”
- “But they are ours.”
It turned out that the logistics supervisor of my battalion had taken another road to come to the station in a car. He found nobody at the station and with all his might was loading up the booty from rail cars when our advanced guard point “captured” him. This is how the logistics supervisor was the first to capture that strategic station.
We moved forward across the forest. The lead units of the brigade had engaged in battle and our column stopped for a while. I looked around and saw fresh footprints on fresh snow leading from the road into the forest. I sent a tank mounted party to check it out. Shortly they took out a Magyar (Hungarian) in civilian clothes; his uniform and rifle were taken along.
- “Well,” I asked, “have you demobilized yourself?”
-“Yes, that’s it; the war is ‘kaput’! We’re not fighting anymore! I’m going home to Paks.”
-“Well, go ahead.”
He walked away and nobody stopped him. But Magyars were good warriors. I had high respect for Germans and Magyars as enemies. Fighting them was both very difficult and interesting. In my opinion, had they been at the site of our breakthrough around Stalingrad instead of the Italians and Romanians the pace of our advance wouldn’t have been so impetuous. Delivering the main attack against the Italian and Romanian units the Soviet Army command then had made the perfect coup.
As I have already mentioned, the offensive meant the absence of a distinct battlefront line. Sometimes we captured a populated place and advanced further, and that place would be re-occupied by an enemy unit left behind our back. Then we had to turn around and go back to drive the enemy out. Skirmishes with small and larger enemy units occurred all the time. Some anecdotal episodes occurred as well. One night the second battalion commander Kolya Matveyev, our submachine gunners and I were standing and talking in a village street. Suddenly we heard a vehicle honking behind us, demanding for us to yield the right of way. We stepped aside, the truck passed by. We looked closer and saw a German in the cab, driving! At first all we were taken aback, but then someone came to his senses and fired a burst upward. The vehicle stopped. – “Who are you?! – Where do you think you’re going?” The German smiled and waved a hand: - “There, nach Hause.” (Home –German). We laughed: “Well, come out, you’re already there.” The brigade commander got all steamed up: - “Who is on guard out there at the outskirt?”
I said: - “Comrade brigade commander, my men are.”
- “How did he pass?!”
- “He strayed and passed, the usual practice.”
The headquarters of the 5th Army commanded by general Zhdanov was based in Mako. Magyars attacked it. They had about fifteen light tanks with some kind of short-barrel mortars on the turrets. They also had infantry. The headquarters staff couldn’t repulse by themselves and urgently requested support. My battalion was based not far away and it was immediately deployed towards Mako. There were nine tanks left in the battalion. Off-the-march we attacked the enemy and slew half of the Magyar tanks, the others escaped.
When we entered the settlement I found general Zhdanov and reported to him of our arrival.
- “Well, have you driven them away?”
- “I have.”
- “OK, guard me for a little longer.”
Later, when the Magyars were driven away further Zhdanov summoned me: - “From now on act according to the plan, whatever your brigade commander tells you to do.”
After the war, as deputy division commander, I met Alexei Semyonovich when he came to our unit. He recognized me and we talked.
We entered a village above the Danube river, consolidated there and were shelled. A solid shot pierced a hole in my tank. The tank was knocked down. The brigade commander was nervous. He ordered me to go forward to check everything out, to find our infantry, which was supposed to be there. The plan was to clean up the village in the morning therefore we needed to get in contact with the infantry. Alright. I took three submachine-gunners, Arinin, an orderly with a submachine-gun and grabbed a submachine-gun myself. Setting out for such actions with a pistol was not good, a submachine-gun was a must. There was a big street ahead. We looked out from behind a house and saw a front garden and trees in front of us. On the far wayside along the street there was a trek column in twos, about fifty men, and about thirty more men on the near wayside walking. The infantry. It was night and it was not clear whether they were ours or not. I assigned the targets right away: two men to fire at the far wayside and two men to fire at the near wayside, and sent one submachine-gunner forward behind the house because they might have a flank guard. Once they aligned with the front garden, at a range of ten meters from us, not more, I cried out: “Stop, who goes there?” He: - “Halt!” (Stop – German). I sent a burst right away. Shooting broke out. Everybody fired! Our submachine-gunner behind the house fired too and killed two men who were on a flank guard patrol. All of that company ran; they really didn’t know our strength. On falling in ambush one should run away from the open. And we fired pot-shot at them as they had been taken off-balance. There was no point in looking for our infantry out there any further since the Germans had come from there. We returned. Our tank mounting infantry was sitting far behind us drinking vodka. I told their battalion commander: - “Listen, the brigade commander had told me that your guys were supposed to be out there.” He joked: - “What was I supposed to be doing there, while you were there?” I told him about our attack on the Germans. He didn’t believe me. I said: - “OK, let’s go and count.” In the morning we counted up twenty-eight dead bodies just of those whom they had left behind. They appeared to have been not Germans, but Magyars. I wondered how many more of the wounded had walked away. What a pot-shot shooting!
Pressing on, we passed by the next populated place. Not long before that my battalion was reinforced with the remaining tanks of the first battalion, which didn’t fight but was yet awaiting reinforcements. And again lieutenant Burtsev with his crew came under my command. The advanced party had passed the village easy. The parent formation of my third battalion was travelling along the street. Suddenly a powerful explosion went off ahead. My first thought was that the German Luftwaffe had raided, but no more explosions followed. It appeared that Burtev’s tank had triggered a land mine. Alexander was riding the tank astride the frontal armor, sitting to the right on the machine gun. Beside him rode my staff chief, Samsonov, the staff chief of motorized riflemen and the mounted infantry.
The explosion was so powerful that the turret was lifted up twenty meters into the air and landed in one of the kitchen gardens. A majority of the tankers and tank-mounted infantry were killed. The men literally were flying above house roofs. Burtsev was lucky; the explosion had cast him a few meters forward and he didn’t get severe injuries. A minute later with wild from shell-shock eyes he ran up to me: - “What shall we do, battalion commander!?” I left two survived tank-mounting infantry men behind to bury the dead and render aid to the living. I put Burtsev and my staff chief (he had survived also) on another tank and we moved on. Even in such cases it was beyond my authority to stop the advance of the battalion. I had an explicit order to arrive at a certain destination by a certain time. The war couldn’t wait. After advancing just a few more kilometers the battalion was engaged in the next battle. Generally, the battles in Hungary were very intense; Germans and Magyars resisted bitterly, counterattacked heavily.
In December, at twilight the battalion again approached the Danube, but this time northwest of Budapest. On the outskirts of a populated place I set my tank and a self-propelled gun to block the road. I sent one platoon of three tanks forward down the road along the Danube. The road was fine! A small settlement of about ten houses was seen ahead. I told the platoon commander: - “Position yourself so that you are not seen and keep in touch with me by radio, notify me who is coming.” A few minutes later he signaled: - “A car is coming at you.” The car arrived and honked demanding for us to yield the right of way. Vano Vasadze with a pistol came up to the passenger window. In the car there was an Oberleutenant in black SS uniform, a driver and two girls in the back seats.
Vasadze said with a Georgian accent: - “Come out!”
The German realized everything and reached to grab his pistol. Vano dispassionately fired at his bald head. The driver got out and ran. But I had deployed submachine-gunners around and all were on their guard. The driver was scythed down with a submachine gun burst. The girls later were taken away by osobists (counterintelligence officers). The Fascist appeared to be a dyed-in-the-wool one. He had the Nazi Party pin badge and two Iron Crosses. We confiscated from him a map case with documents and photographs among them. The photographs depicted him smiling against a background of gallows with corpses. We marked over his face in the picture with a cross to indicate that he had been eliminated. Later that photograph would be printed in one of the leading newspapers. I think it was “Krasnaya Zvezda” (the Red star). That fascist appeared to have been a hangman of Soviet people in the town of Velizh of Smolensk oblast. His picture was published that way, with the cross over his face.
Forces posturing around Buda, the western half of Budapest, resembled a layer-cake. Both Germans and we maneuvered in close quarters, 3 to 5 kilometers, continuously coming in contact with each other. Battle conditions altered every hour. On the 31st of December, on New Year’s eve, the brigade was near Komarno, at the Hungarian –Czechoslovakian boarder. I was radioed an order to set the battalion forward on the road along the Danube. After a while an order followed to stop the advance. It was night, the column was standing still. Vano Vasadze came up to me with a bottle of cognac: - “Commander, it’s the New Year. Let’s celebrate it!” By the way, Vasadze only allowed me to call him ‘Vano’, all the others in the battalion called him by his full name (name and patronymic) ‘Ivan Konstantinovich’. A very proud man, now he lives in Tbilisi. Other officers came up. We poured and drank, congratulated each other on the holiday. Presently a liaison officer of the brigade staff arrived and brought a new order, which read: “Return to the starting position and set out by another road.” Only then did I realize that we had gotten into encirclement.
The Germans had mounted a counteroffensive and the brigade found itself in the German rear. In the morning the advance of the battalion was checked again. Reconnoiters had arrived, who reported that there was an ambush on the road; they had seen two ‘Tiger’ tanks with their guns pointed at the road, which we were traveling. The terrain was not good for turning the battalion around or maneuvering. Had we gone down the road they would have burned us all down, one after another. Almost the whole day long we made no headway. The situation was precarious; we had no information about the enemy. Right there we witnessed the wreck of one of our IL-2 Shturmoviks. The aircraft was flying over us with a big hole in its wing. I even picked up his radio signal. The airman was asking his partner to cover him from behind. A moment later the aircraft rolled off and crashed into the ground about a couple of kilometers away from us.
By the end of the day we found a passageway to the high ground, which was to the left of us. The high ground was overgrown with small but numerous trees. I reached the top in my tank where the brigade commander presently arrived. Chunikhin climbed up into my tank and got in touch with the corps command. They pointed out to him the direction of the exit from the ‘blind alley’ about four kilometers away across the railroad crossing and ordered him to move further towards Somor. The brigade commander departed with some of the tanks leaving an order to follow him. After a while I saw below a German wagon train and the infantry moving in a column down the road. One Fritz was sitting in a cart and joyfully playing a harmonica. Then I let loose my feelings! I still had about ten tanks and two SU-85 self-propelled guns at my disposal. I commanded: - “Start up!” We did iron that wagon-train down splendidly. The Germans who had survived ran away.
At night we approached a village and the Germans followed us. My crew and I were in a big village house when a shell hit it. The adjacent room was smashed; luckily, none of us got hurt. We reached Somor successfully and united with infantry units. Then there was the heaviest, but successful, defensive action around Somor. The Germans strived to break through to their army group surrounded by us near Budapest. They fell upon us heavily, indeed. Somor itself was situated very uncomfortably for defense. A one-street village, 2 kilometers long extending on an uphill slope. Below there was an extended flat plateau with a high mountain on the other side. Our guard post, reinforced with a tank was set up at the village outskirts. Behind the guard post there was a battery of the detached tank destroyer regiment #1000 under our corps control and the remainder of my battalion was positioned in the center of the village.
At night disorderly shooting broke out. A submachine gunner ran up and cried out: “The Germans are in the village!” German tanks supported by the Vlasovite infantry had attacked. The guard post tank, dodging the battle, escaped aside down the valley. Thereby he exposed to the strike the artillerymen. The Germans and Vlasovites quickly destroyed the battery and killed the gun crews. From that point on our battalion was engaged in action. When the commotion began I tumbled out of the house without a sheepskin coat on, it was winter outside, anyway. I saw there was a tank coming over with “buckets” behind on fire. German Panzer-IV tanks had exhaust pipes that resembled buckets. When in motion they heated up and in darkness turned red. I returned to the house to pick up the sheepskin coat, I looked through the window; there was a Fascist coming from the other side of the house. Submachine gunners infiltrated the center. I had a pistol in my hand ready for action and I shot him down. Together with our tank mounted infantry we repelled the enemy infantry attack. Very few of them, about ten men, reached the center. An order was received to abandon that village and get entrenched near Jembek, which was closer to Budapest. Early in the morning we set out for that high ground. The day began breaking. It was a gloomy winter morning. Literarily 50 to 100 meters ahead of us we discovered three German tanks that had not noticed us yet and we, firing a few salvos, set them on fire. Twenty-four hours later I handed over that sector of defense to the artillerymen and infantry, who had come up. The battalion was given an order to move forward, two kilometers northwest, and hold defenses there. The new position appeared to be convenient for defense also.
Two kilometers off the high ground occupied by our battalion there was the road to Jembek which continued on to Budapest. Towards Jembek it was blocked by our infantry units and my battalion could strike the right flank of the Germans advancing down the road. A position over a great section of the road between two hills offered a perfect overlook and that section was exposed to our gun fire. When we entered that position we saw an enemy tank column moving slowly towards Jembek. The lead tanks were already behind the hill, and the tail, about twenty machines, was at our gun point. By then my entire battalion counted 5 to 6 tanks and one self-propelled gun. We opened fire right away. The fascists panicked. Their tanks tried to turn around or bypass the machines which were already on fire, while we were picking them off. Very few Germans managed to escape; more than ten knocked-down tanks remained burning on the road. After a few futile attempts to break through to help out the besieged Budapest, the Germans suffered major casualties from our tanks and artillery and ceased their attacks from that direction. Meanwhile the 1st and 2nd battalions of our 170th Tank Brigade were repelling heavy enemy attacks. They fought about ten kilometers away from us, to the southwest of Budapest. The Fritzes rushed against their positions from the direction of Szesfehervar.
After all that leapfrogging around Budapest three serviceable tanks were left in my battalion. I gave them up to the brigade and went to Paks to receive new machines. Having replenished the battalion, we got a chance to take part in capturing of Buda. But we didn’t enter the city, just Budafok on its outskirts. From there we were supporting the advancing troops with tank gun fire.
Towards the end of the war we were often impudent enough to go to places where we shouldn’t have. The experience we had was great and we had a lot of impudence and energy. Under no circumstances did we want to leave the enemy alone, but always wanted to come and flail him. The morale of the soldiers was different than that in 1941. Back then we had walked with our heads down, but in those later days we walked with our heads up.
Once in Hungary there were five tanks left in the battalion. We were sitting and smoking behind my tank and heard Germans behind the hill who were doing some repairs. I said: “- Let’s go on the attack, sticking closer to the forest (which surrounded the hill).” We set off around the hill along the forest and one of our tanks ascended the hill. It was immediately hit by a 105-millimeter shell and exploded. What a nice crew was there! Having bypassed the hill, we came to the Germans’ rear. We set six tanks on fire and one ‘Sturmgeschütz III (Sd.Kfz. 142)’ self-propelled assault gun. I ran at it and knocked it down. Fritzes abandoned the self-propelled gun; began bailing out literarily at the range of thirty steps from us and we picked them off to the last one. I got into that self-propelled assault gun, checked it out (everything in it worked fine), turned it towards the Germans and fired one more shot.
We were paid money for burning down enemy tanks. A tank commander and a driver-mechanic were paid a thousand rubles each, other crew members were paid five-hundred rubles. I was paid the money also. While we fought in the Soviet Union I remitted all the amounts due to the foundation of defense. Many people did so. Patriotism prevailed. Later during offensive operations I asked the finances supervisor to transfer the money to my parents. My father told me that he had received it. I can tell you how the destroyed tanks were tallied. There were many tallymen. They followed in our wakes. During the offensive in the battlefield everything was clear, who destroyed what and how. It was not only based on personal reports, like: ‘I destroyed a tank’, not at all. There it was, still burning. For the whole war I had destroyed 23 tanks and self-propelled guns. Certainly, not alone, but with my crew.
Before the offensive toward the town of Veszprem, the brigade was conducting defensive actions. We were positioned in a place named Chinadpolota. I am not sure if I have remembered its name correctly, we called it ‘Devil’s Swamp’. The brigade commander ordered that the first and second battalions dig their tanks in along the defense line; the third battalion was in the second echelon (behind them). A few hundred meters behind us there was a spirits factory, next to which a battery of 152 mm howitzers was firing. A battalion of motorized riflemen had entrenched at their defensive positions and assigned 40 of their men to our battalion for helping with earthworks. I sent two vehicles to fetch them, but one vehicle appeared to suffice. All forty men fitted in it; they were 16-17 year old kids, very thin. We marked out the tank trenches and they proceeded to digging them. I came up to one group of them. A one and a half meters tall, freckled, snub nosed kid was standing leaning against a shovel, not noticing me: - “Eh, mum”, he exclaimed to his fellows, “I wish you had delivered me two years earlier, or later!” I looked at those sixteen year old boys and felt a lump in my throat (sobbed to myself). They were mere children and I thought that they were better suited to playing football in the neighborhood rather than to rotting in the trenches. And as it happened those very boys saved our defenses as well as the whole our brigade.
In front of the defensive positions there stretched corn fields. During the night the German infantry had closely approached our trenches in the high corn. The Germans were building up and getting ready for an attack at the range of a hand grenade throw. At that time one of our riflemen went into the corn stalks to do some number (to spend a penny) and heard someone speaking. He crawled up closer and made out German speech. The guy stealthily returned and reported to his company commander. The company commander didn’t waste time; he notified the other companies and ordered them to prepare hand grenades for action. The whole battalion struck on command simultaneously. At first they showered the Germans who were being prepared for their attack with hand grenades and then opened up a withering fire from all available weaponry. About three hundred fascists were killed within minutes, so any further attack of theirs was out of question. The entire battalion of motorized riflemen was recommended for decorations. The guys did a great job. A member of the War Council of the Front brought them a full sack of orders (decorations) in person. Captain Vasily Ivanovich Gorb (his surname in Russian means ‘humpback’) was in command of the motorized riflemen after the death of the previous commander Osadchy. A good officer, he used to joke over his surname: - “I bore the whole burden of the war on my humpback (shoulders)).
In Europe we often had to fight in cities. City battle tactics are in principle different from the field battle tactics. In a city panzerfaust shot was in store for a tanker behind every corner. Therefore, assault forces were formed, which consisted of two or three tanks and a dozen of submachine gunners. The tanks suppressed the enemy fortified firing points and the infantry cleared houses and defended the tanks from panzerfausters. That way, capturing a house after house, assault teams advanced in accordance with their routes until the entire city was captured. The brigade commander would assign a target to each battalion, where and by what time to arrive. How to do it was entirely the responsibility of the battalion commander. He was a tsar, a god and a warlord to his unit. I divided the battalion into assault forces; each platoon was as good as an assault force and I assigned a task to each force. All worked in accordance with the plan.
Fighting in Austria was difficult. The advance towards St. Polten-Linz along good roads was fine and fast. But once we veered southwards to Graz we began facing problems. The terrain was woody and mountainous. Narrow roads, thick forest, mountains. The areas were very convenient for ambushes. The Germans defended those areas tenaciously and successfully. In Austria my tanks were on fire more than ever during the whole war. Four times out of nine when I had to bail out of burning tanks were in Austria.
The Austrians were essentially the same as the Germans. They treated us with hostility and a sort of contempt. Talking to a local peasant there, a bauer, was as good as talking to a horse. When I tried to tell him something in broken German, he would gaze at me and pretend that he didn’t understand a word. Back home in Russia we had no heart for taking anything from the local population. But once in Hungary and Austria in abandoned houses we would find preserved foodstuffs and compotes. Stray cattle wandered in cities. Our quartermasters certainly played pranks. They would catch a cow and assign it to a cauldron to feed soldiers. They also smoked sausages for emergencies.
The thing that we envied there was the Austrian work mechanization. An Austrian would bring hay in a cart and a special electric grabbing device would offload it from the cart into a barn. There we saw many curious things for that time which would appear in Russia much later. The population of cities had evacuated almost completely. All ran to Americans. Propaganda had had its effect. We entered the city of St. Polten. A skirmish was heard ahead and I, having sent a tank company there, stopped to look around. A soldier ran up to me and called me into a house: - “Comrade battalion commander, just take a look at what’s happening there.” I opened the door. An elderly Austrian, about 50 years old, was sitting on the floor. A noose had been looped over the bed’s backboard and he had hung himself with it in a sitting position. So much he had been intimidated by propaganda about us.
On the 8th of May my tank was knocked down again. Two German self-propelled guns, as I was told later, of the latest design had done it. They had lurked in ambush in the roadside forest. They let the advanced guard point pass by and then flailed at my tank. I was advancing in the head of the battalion column. The tank burst into flames, the driver-mechanic was killed on the spot. Once out we were under mortar fire. A mortar shell splinter hit my head. The wound didn’t appear to be life threatening; a bandage was dressed upon it and I remained with my unit. On the 9th of May the Germans were still fighting back and we only ceased fire when the news of the capitulation of Germany was received. We certainly were delighted, but I ordered my men that there was to be no shooting into the air. Shooting was ceased and silence reigned. It was so unusual. I parked the tank in a small fruit orchard, got out of it and laid down under a tree. A bird sat in the tree and sang. I had not heard birds singing for four years. It was white all around in the orchard; apple-trees were in blossom. I cannot convey my feelings with words.
The battalion approached the Enns river near the city of Spremberg. The bridge across the river was in hands of the Americans. Refugees were heading on the bridge to the west, among whom, as I suspected, there were many German soldiers. There was fraternization with the allies. I also gave to one officer my wristwatch as a gift, I had good one. When the American saw my watch his knees trembled with excitement. He gave me his, a cheap one. I don’t remember what I did with it later. One tank from my battalion had rushed across the bridge into the allied territory. The crew began celebrating the victory with the Americans. It took efforts to pull them back from there.
Without ulterior motives, having seen on the river bank a comfortable position for defense, I put three tanks there with the guns pointed at the allies. A couple hours later I saw them arranging an artillery battery against us. I asked the American: - “Why have you set up your guns?”
- “And why have you set up your tanks?”
We laughed, removed the tanks and they removed the guns also.
The brigade commander scolded me later: - “Why did you do it, had not you been told that the war was over?”
- “Because I was used to it,” I answered, “after reaching the targeted area one should get entrenched.”
After the end of the war I happened to observe a number of times some strange and unpleasant demonstration of force. Our Shturmoviks (ground attack aircraft), in a few flights, in combat formation flew up from the rear of our occupational zone to the border with the allies, made a turning maneuver and flew back. After a while the Americans imitated the same maneuver with even greater forces. Why was it done? I don’t know. But that provocation was initiated from our side.
Back there in Spremberg I saw imprisoned Vlasovites. In accordance with an agreement the Americans were handing them over to the Soviet troops. A column of vehicles carrying the prisoners of war stopped on the road. An officer from a foot patrol passing by cried out to them: - “Well, assholes, have you had enough of the war?” The response followed from the vehicle full of prisoners of war: - “We did kick your asses and will continue kicking them further.” The patrol soldier, a submachine gunner, flared up and fired a multiple-round burst at the people in the vehicle at head level. Cries and moans were heard from the vehicle. The officer yelled at the soldier. The Americans pressed on the accelerators and the column moved further.
The hilarious spring days of our victory were saddened by some ridiculous deaths of our comrades. A tank commander, the lieutenant, whose name I cannot remember, was an excellent tanker and simply a nice guy. He and five other tankers had set out to stun fish using a German mortar shell, which exploded in their hands. All were killed. Then all we were young and reckless; most of us were 18 to 20 years old. I myself remember how Vasya Bryukhov and I went to the river with hand grenades to stun fish; we had wanted some fish soup.
Our company of technical support was sent to Vienna to do dismantling of some underground military factory. The guys found a keg of alcohol and apparently consumed it. Fourteen men died, the alcohol appeared to be the industrial one. The men, who had borne the heaviest war on their shoulders, died because of such a trifle. It was very difficult to put up with it.
In October 1945 I arrived in Leningrad. I entered the Highest Officer Armored Tank School, which was located near the Vitebsk railway station. I began my studies. Closer to the finish of school Colonel Zhukov arrived to meet with us from Moscow, from the head personnel management department of Armed Forces. He began interviewing all:
- “What was your previous position?”
- “I was in command of a battalion.”
- “Alright, you will fit the deputy battalion commander’s position.”
- “Why? I don’t want to be a deputy battalion commander.”
- “Alright, sign the resignation request. The war is over and the army is being downsized.”
The army was really being downsized. There was no point in keeping a thirty million man army in peacetime. Our brigade underwent reformation. The brigades were being reformed into regiments. One of our battalions was sent to Germany as a support for infantry units. The other battalion was reformed into a flame-throwing one. Reformation was all around.
I signed my resignation request, like many other men did. All dispersed in Leningrad; some to hang around and others to look for jobs. I stopped by the Marty factory, where I used to work before the war, and met some of my old acquaintances. The personnel manager told me: - “Come to us. You may show up for work tomorrow, we will find accommodation for you, or you may get married as we have many single girls, and then we will give you an apartment right away.” There was a shortage of workforce, especially of a qualified one.
We occasionally telephoned the school: - “Has the dismissal order been issued?” – “Not yet, where are you?” – “Good-bye!”
It came to a point where we were being hunted down by foot patrols. Patrol mariners, when they saw a tanker in a street, they would come up to him, find out where he had come from and copy his identification documents: - “You are requested to report to the school today, please make sure that we don’t have to look for you twice.”
We were rounded up, paraded and read the order: “All the officers, who have finished the Highest Armored Tank School in 1946, shall be assigned to one rank lower than they used to occupy in the army. Signed by J. Stalin.” To whom could we complain? Certainly nobody objected.
In 1946, before being sent to the new service location, I went to visit my home. My brother Boris, who before the war had been exempted from military service on health grounds and worked as a teacher, and his family remained in German occupation. After a while he left for a partisan group where he served as a demolitionist. After the liberation of Demidov from the fascist he, as many other partisans, was sent to a filtration camp in the Moscow suburbs for checking. Boris had passed the checks successfully and returned to Demidov to his previous occupation.
My sister in occupation worked in the production of brushes made of horse hair. My folks and my sister had lived in peace for some time and nobody bothered them. Their living was supported by earnings of my sister and kitchen garden crops. But in the town there lived one old ill-wisher of my father. I don’t know, where that their mutual disfavor had come from. German soldiers were billeted in that man’s apartment. Once when the Germans had had some alcohol he told them that the five sons of the Otroschenkov father were in the Red Army. That very night the Fritzes went to our house, turned my parents and my sister Ekaterina out of the house, allowed taking along only the documents and some personal belongings. Then they poured the house with kerosene and set it on fire. My classmate Inna Morina and her family lived in the neighborhood. She gave shelter to my father, mother and sister.
The Germans had appointed our former neighbor Gneush burgermeister of Demidov. He used to work as the district land management department supervisor. One year before the war for some offense he was sentenced to a short-term imprisonment. My mother came to him and asked that he allot her a land plot for planting of potatoes. They had to get their food somewhere. Gneush refused rudely:
- “The only land plot you may have is in the cemetery.”
My mother answered:
- “Thanks for allowing us to have the land in the cemetery at least.”
So she returned empty-handed. Gneush failed to flee along with the Germans and was arrested. The investigation of his case was ongoing for a long time and my mother was also summoned to give testimony. Only in 1949 did I read in the “Pravda” newspaper a small article about his execution.
My brother Ivan was in encirclement near Staraya Russa together with the 2nd Shock Army commanded by General Vlasov. Then imprisonment and dispatching to Germany followed. Having found out that before the war Ivan used to be an engineer, the Germans sent him to work in a factory. Ivan survived through the end of the war. In the Soviet Union he was sentenced to 10 years in prison camps but in 1953 he was rehabilitated and returned to Saratov. For me it was very hard to realize that my brother had been in German captivity. Now we know that the entire Army had been taken prisoner and that it was not the soldiers’ fault, but public opinion then was different. The opinion of Soviet power was articulated by J. Stalin, who said that “We have no prisoners of war, but we have traitors.” Therefore, while talking to Ivan and writing letters to him I tried to avoid the subject of Ivan’s being in German captivity and sometimes I spoke out hard-hitting things to him. Now I am certainly sorry about that.
My brother and his wife lived in a room of a three-room communal apartment and then their daughter was born. His wife was a nice woman, an engineer also. She died at childbirth. Ivan was raising his girl by himself, but presently his liver cancer was diagnosed. My brother was familiar with and was a friend of leading doctors in Saratov. One of them, the professor and a nice surgeon, told me later: - “I wish I could give him my liver.” They two respected each other very much. Ivan died. I was going to adopt his daughter – my niece, but the parents of my brother’s dead wife arrived and took her away to their city of Ivanovo.
S. A. Otroschenkov in 2010.
I was allocated for military service to Trans-Baikal with the 22nd Guards Tank Regiment as a deputy battalion commander. But I was not in that position very long; as early as 1947 I was appointed battalion commander again. I did my service in the 6th Army, the 5th Tank Division. The 20th Guards Tank Regiment was part of the Division; the Regiment had been formed from the 79th Regiment where I was at service in the beginning of the war! I met the guys together with whom I had been conscripted. Some of them had been at service for eight years! They had been through the whole war and after the war waited for demobilization for three years. They had sprouted their beards. I asked one of them: “Why are you with a beard?” – “Is there any regulation forbidding wearing a beard? I will wear it until it reaches my waist. How much longer can we be on active duty?” What could I tell him? He was my age mate, we had been conscripted together and it was high time that he had gone home, but... there was nobody to replace him with. At the end of the war there were drafted the men born in 1928 and a half of those born in 1929.
We, the six newly arrived officers, were standing and talking at headquarters. I saw a lieutenant of administrative service running by. I said: “Stop, lieutenant. I think, we’ve met somewhere before, because your face rings a bell with me.” He stopped, looked at me: - “No, Comrade Major, I don’t remember you.” And then he ran off to his business on the first floor. Then he returned and cried out: - “Are you Sergei?” – “Yes, and you are Boris?” – “That’s right!” He appeared to be my first tank commander back in 1940, senior sergeant Borya Syrov. After 1941 he had worked as a clerk in headquarters: of regiment, corps and army. He had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Boris invited me to visit his home. By that time he already had a family and a child. Later Boris and I served together closely for long time. When I became a deputy division commander he came to our headquarters with the rank of major as a mobilization operations officer. Then there were maneuvers on our range and a correspondent of “Krasnaya Zvezda” (the Red Star) newspaper arrived there. He was told that story and he wrote a good article about us with a photograph near a tank. But the picture of the tank was taken in such a way that it was not clear that it was a T-54 tank; secrecy prevailed.
A boxing championship was conducted in our army. I made up my mind to revise my previous sport activities. At that competition I defended the honor of my division, performed well and won. I was enlisted into the select team of our military district. I went to Vladivostok to fight for my military district. I had to face in a fight one sailor, who was a master of sport (sport title) and a nice guy; we socialized with him later. He knocked me off my feet twice and won by technical knockout; such a definition exists in boxing. After the fight I thought to myself: - “I am a Major, a battalion commander. What the hell do I need all this for? Let the young guys fight.” Then the shell fragment incurred in the Prokhorovka battle was found in my neck. In short, I decided to give up boxing.
In 1947 I met my future wife Antonina Feodorovna. Now I have a son and a daughter, three grandsons, and a granddaughter, two great-granddaughters. My beloved wife has passed away. My daughter Nina lives in Chernyakhovsk of Kaliningrad oblast. Her husband Gennady was an airborne assault trooper. He had been at war in Afghanistan for six years and then retired as a Chief of Staff of Airborne Brigade. My son Andrei and his children live here in Yekaterinburg and we are always in close contact. I keep busy and never get bored.
In Yekaterinburg there used to be four of us, the veterans of the 170th brigade, but now only two of us are left. I don’t attend the parades and don’t like to remember the war. Even when I come across some documentaries about the war on TV I change the channel right away. Now we are talking and later I won’t be able to fall asleep for a long while. I will be preoccupied with thoughts that I had given you the wrong name of a village or couldn’t remember somebody’s name. My fellows, their deaths come back to me in my memory. It’s a terrible thing.
|Interview and literary work by:||N. Dormachev|
|Translated by:||N. Kulinich|
|Translation review by:||C. G. Powers|