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Tankers

Otroschenkov Sergei Andreyevich


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.

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.

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Interview and literary work by: N. Dormachev
Translated by: N. Kulinich
Translation review by:
C. G. Powers





Memoirs: Tankers

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