- Before the war I lived in the town of Elektrostal, where I finished a secondary school and joined a factory to work as an electrician. Even before the war, in 1941, I filed an application and was enrolled in the Technical Automobile Academy. It was located in the city of Gorky – there are still such military training camps of Gorokhovetsk where the technical academy was being formed. I arrived there and entered the academy when the war had not yet begun- but it did begin when I was there, in the middle of my studies in that academy.
- What did you study in the academy, what equipment?
- When the academy was the automobile oriented, the studies would begin this way: whoever could not ride a bicycle had to learn how to ride it first. Those who passed practical bicycle riding test were assigned to learn how to ride a motorcycle.
- Which motorcycles did you ride?
- Soviet makes. Then we were assigned to study motor vehicles: GAZ-AA, ZIS-5 trucks. We practiced driving them. We were not allowed to use the starters, if it stalled - get out, turn the crank. But when the war broke out, the tank crews: commanders and sergeants were in demand. From then on commissioned officers were assigned to each combat vehicle (tank) and two officers to each heavy tank: a driver - an officer and a tank commander - an officer. And then our automobile academy was converted into an armor academy.
- Were all the trainees transferred to that or was there a selection?
- There was a Commission. But the selection process was not rigorous: as long as the men had their arms, legs, and heads in place - they fit in. For instance, I was very tall. Later I was often asked: "How were you able to fit inside the tank?" - And my usual answer would be as follows: "There is a saying: An old man had bees as big as oxen. - But how were they able to fit inside a hive? - How? They were squealing, but still able to fit inside. "It was with me – I was squealing, but was able to fit inside. We had no other choice. There was war! From our academy only 7 or 8 men were transferred to other technical automobile academies.
- Were you happy about having been transferred to the armor academy?
- Everyone, including me, immediately began to ask to be sent to the front. The Head of the Academy, General Rayevsky said to us: "All of you are asking to be sent to the front. So what? - Once there, what position would you get? At best, you'll be gun loaders. But if you stay here you'll end up being the commanders. You have already been in the academy for so long that now you’re almost ready commissioned officers, and you want to leave!" The Head of the political department, Lieutenant Colonel Prokhorov, and other officers also came up to the cadets, talked and persuaded us to stay.
- Did you get a lot of driving practice?
- Very little, as well as very little shooting practice. Most of the time we practiced tank platoon tactics, "on foot like in tanks" in platoon and company formations...
In winter 1942, the snow was up to the chest level. I would be put in front of my fellows, to lead the way through snow banks. It was hard! Whoever wore boots – got snow in them, but those who wore lower leg wrapping puttees, were left with dry feet. Back then we still wore Budenovka cloth spiked helmets.
- How were you fed back then?
- The cadet catering normwas observed. Butterwas supplied.
- Was this the case in 1941-1942?
- Yes, it was. We could also get some side job opportunities in the nearby kolkhoz collective farm.Hauling a coupleof logswould earn some potatoes. Dining at theacademy wastolerable. Peopledid not suffer from hunger, but were healthy. Despite such difficult conditions of study, almost nobody was ill.
- At least you did not starve, did you?
- No, we did not starve at all.Though,it was hard! In the armor academy we studied theT-26, BT-5, BT-7, T-37 and T-38 tank models. When the Germanswere approachingcloseto Moscow,our academywas redeployedto the town of Vetluga in Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) Oblast. Winterfroststhere were very severe!When wemoved in,there wasnothing there. A "mess room" was made as follows – tables were arranged outdoors,on whichfrozen bread was put. Russianmenare durable,can do and resist anything. There we werecamped, andin early June of 1943 I graduated fromthe armor academy.
Theclass which graduated from the academy before ours was sentto the factoriesto pick uphardware. Theclass,which Iwas in, was sent straight to the front. The battle of Kursk-Orel Salient was brewing. The hardware was available, but there was a lack of personnel.And so, I went from the academy straight to the front -in theUrals VolunteerTank Corps, which thenwas deployednear Moscow.Whatwas so special aboutthe formation of thatCorps? When the Soviettroops defeated theGerman army groupnear Stalingrad, the spiritual uplift in the wholecountrygot very high. Thenthe workersof the southern Urals, from cities suchas Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk and Molotov (Perm),appealed to thecentral Communist partyand militaryauthorities with a request for the establishment ofa Urals VolunteerTank Corps. The year was 1943.
I do rememberthe first secretary, Nikolai Patolichev, ofthe ChelyabinskRegional Party Committee and the first secretary,Vasily Andrianov, of the SverdlovskRegional Party Committee. In Sverdlovsk,was the headquarters ofthe Urals district, and he (Andrianov) as secretarywas a member ofthe regional War Council. So, theworkers displayedtheirpatriotism: "We want to establish aspecialvolunteerUralsTank Corps, where thevolunteersfrom the factories of the Urals will be assigned. Everything that is necessaryisfor thatCorpswill be purchasedwith the moneythat the workers wouldraise."
And thenAndrianov addressed Alexander Katkov, then the commander ofthe Ural Military District: "I need you to call Stalinto get permission." Such a great machine could not be established withoutthe Supreme Command Headquarters (Stavka) and withoutthe Central Communist Party Committee.Hesaid:"I know thenatureof Stalin, I will not call." Andrianovsaid, "Well, nowI’ll goto my office andcallStalin on the direct line." So Andrianov wentto his office, got through toStalin,reported on who he wasand what thesubject was.Stalinlistened to him very carefully and said: "ComradeAndrianov,we are currently pressingthe Germanson all fronts, so we need a lot ofequipment and machinery. The southernUrals area is a great source of equipment and specialists.So, we cannot withdrawso many peopledirectly from the plants and factories, otherwise wewill not fulfill our production plan. The frontis in need ofmachinery and hardware. It hasstretchedfrom north to south, to the Crimea. "StillAndrianovremindedStalin that at all times in history theUralshad sent its sonsand daughters for the protection ofRussia, andthereforeit was necessary tosatisfythe request ofthe workers. Stalin said thatthis request would be broughtto theSupreme Command Headquarters and the Party Central Committee, and information on the decision made would be provided later...
A few days later a telegram arrived which allowed establishing such a corps on the basis of these three regions: Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk and Molotov (then called the Perm region).
So, the Urals Volunteer Corps was established in these three regions. There were so many applications filed to join it! People went to the military commissariats (recruitment offices), city and regional Communist party and Komsomol committees in great numbers. No more than 10 thousand were to be selected - the number in a corps in wartime, so the best of the best were selected and assigned to the formation. The officers, who were supposed to guide the corps formation, were either those with war experience coming from hospitals, or armor academy graduates assigned by the command for formation. The task was established to have the corps sent to the front by the 9th of May (what a coincidence!). The tank crews were trained, and then they went to the factories to help in the assembly of their own tanks. All this was done with money from the workers of these three regions. At the rallies the workers stated: "If we don’t have enough money, we will work 14-15 hours a day instead of 10 hours, to earn overtime pay for the corps formation."
The corps was formed quickly: formation began around March and in early May the corps was already formed. I did not participate in the formation of the corps, but the other fellows, like Nikolai Zheleznov of the 63rd Chelyabinsk Guards Brigade (back then it was just the 244th brigade) who had participated in the formation told me this story. I went through the war in that 63rd Brigade right up to the end, until the 9th of May 1945. And it was the 9th of May 1943 when the Corps headed from the Urals toward the front – what a coincidence it was!
All paraded in the central squares where representatives of the Communist party, Soviet, Young Pioneer, Komsomol organizations and labor unions arrived. There units were handed red banners. The workers instructed: "We’ve handed to you our children, sons, husbands. Now we’re handing to you the banner, we’re handing to you the equipment, and you have to justify our trust - to avenge the burned cities and villages, to avenge the deaths of all our people, and come back to the Sacred Urals with the banners of victory!" The soldiers knelt on one knee and swore that they with honor would justify the trust of the senior generation, would justify the trust of their parents and would return with the banners of victory...
So, on the 9th of May 1943 the Corps was sent by troop trains to the vicinity of Moscow where the 4th Armored Army started being formed and where it joined under the name the 30th Urals Voluntary Armored Tank Corps. Its brigades in the beginning carried the numbers: 241st, 244th and 243rd, and later on when the Guards titles were conferred on them their numbers were changed to the 61st, 63rd and 65th Guards Brigades. But it happened after the battle of Kursk-Orel Salientwhere our first baptism by fire took place.
I graduated from the academy, and shortly after we had passed our final examinations, a small party was organized, and we, the 9th and the 10th companies, were put into railcars and sent to the front. We travelled through Moscow. My parents lived in the town of Elektrostal, but I didn’t get the opportunity to swing by home, but got a chance to stop by my uncle’s, who lived in Moscow, on the run. My wristwatch had been broken, and my uncle took the watch off my wrist and kept it for himself and gave me his: "Take, Pavel, this. I went to the army with this watch and returned; my brother went to the army and returned, I had given him this watch! Now I am giving it to you".
We arrived, took over the crews, and then were sent to a populated place named Morilovo. I became a tank commander. I was not made a platoon leader right away because of my being just a fresh academy graduate, because I was very young and didn’t have any experience, none at all!
- Do you remember your first crew?
- Vasily Lezhnev was the loader. Victor Kozhevnikov was the driver-mechanic. I don't remember the radio operator … It is impossible to imagine the battles of the Kursk-Orel Salient, impossible to describe them! Had it been infantry it might have been described, but for the tankmen there were certain specifics. We were closed, almost isolated from the world, attached to the tanks. The fights were very intense there. The enemy had prepared strong defensive position, but despite that, the Urals volunteers broke the enemy defenses.
- Do you remember your first fight?
- Then there was some lack of clarity. I knew that there would be enemy panzers that I had to knock out, to move forward and do everything to win. I remember how I knocked out an enemy self-propelled gun: I hit it at short range... We liberated the towns of Volokhov, Karachev and Bryansk. When Bryansk was liberated, we were withdrawn for reformation to the Bryansk forests where we stayed a very long time.
There, in the Bryansk forests, we played pranks. We found some German shells, and there in a case were long extrusions of gunpowder, like macaroni. While holding one of them in one hand you would light it, squeezing it with the other hand, and then you would release it- it would fly and whistle. The guys would say: "Let's make the Katyusha!" - "How?" - "We would dig a hole, put an empty shell cartridge there, discard the shell, and there we would arrange powder paths". We made four holes, and put cartridges in each one.
The brigade commander approached: "What are you doing?" But we had just set the powder paths on fire. They blazed up! The fire and flame went above the trees. All four with such a whistling sound: "uh-uh-uh", - at four corners … The commander turned to me: "Is this your doing?!"
- What else did you do to entertain yourselves?
- In the Bryansk forests as we stayed in the camp, we went out for dances. But we still had to stick to the service, so we tried to have a good time in the least noticeable manner. Those days all the armored brigades had given the reports to their home cities that they were serving honorably, carrying out their oath, in line with their home cities workers’ instruction. One day delegations from the home cities arrived to visit us in the Bryansk forests. The armored brigade formed in Chelyabinsk was visited by the Chelyabinsk delegation; the brigade formed in Sverdlovsk was visited by the Sverdlovsk delegation and the brigade from Molotov by the Molotov delegation. There were three main armored brigades and a fourth motorized rifle brigade. There also were separate regiments: a heavy-armored tank regiment, artillery regiments and a signal detachment. All of these encompassed the Corps. As the delegations arrived they brought us gifts. Everyone was handed a small present: a small box which held some makhorka tobacco, mittens, socks and handkerchiefs. And in each box there was a small bottle (apparently with alcohol – Note by N.K.). In my box there was a note: "A 3rd Grade schoolgirl is writing to you. Dear mister soldier! I’m sending to you this parcel where I’ve put socks and mittens that I had knitted myself and some makhorka which I had bought with 100 rubles taken from my mother, so here is for you my small gift ". It illustrates the care that not only the seniors, but also small children had for the soldiers. Further she wrote: "Please destroy the Germans quicker, because we’re tired of such difficult life"...
Then we were redeployed to the area near Kiev where the Borispol airfieldis now. We did not camp there for long before we went for the Kamenets - Podolsky operation. We became the Guards unit: the Guards banners were handed to us, and all the servicemen received the Soviet Guards badges. Our salaries were almost doubled! Many guys were decorated with orders and medals. I personally was not decorated for that operation, but the Soviet Guards badge – the fact that we had become a Guards unit was particularly dear to me! And the number of our Corps had changed from the 30th to the 10th Guards Urals Voluntary Armored Tank Corps, and the 61st, 62nd, and 63rd armored brigades and the motorized rifle brigade also became Guards brigades.
In the Bryansk forests we trained personnel in battlefield conditions: lived in dugouts, built wind-breaks. People who arrived to reinforce us were emaciated. It was very difficult for them. When we walked we would hang two submachineguns on ourselves that they (the new recruits) might walk also! Many of them had come from villages. They had gotten used to bread and potatoes, but we had food rations. In the beginning it was very difficult for them. They went to the kitchen, picked up the potato peals there and cooked them. But later on they got used to our diet. Once the personnel had been trained, they replaced our fallen-in-action comrades.
Further fights went on in Kamenets-Podolsky, Gusyatin, Kapityntsy. I can remember one episode which happened there when I had a direct engagement with a Panzer -VI Tiger. We met head on. There was some town and at its suburb there was that Tiger Panzer, dug in. I moved head on against it... The Panzer -VI was very different from our combat vehicle (T-34). Our combat vehicle was excellent, but the Germans had made an electrical firing system for their main gun and machine guns, their turret traverse gear was electrical also.
- The Soviet tank had electric motors too!
- That happened later. A combat vehicle commander acted like a circus performer. With his right hand he would turn the turret, with his left hand - the main gun, and on the firing pedal which was mechanical he would put his right foot. So we would go on in such way, shivering from the strain: all that you could see was a slice of sky and a slice of earth. You would actually prop yourself up on the floor with your left foot, working with all the other limbs. The mechanical gun firing system employed a set of levers. While these levers got activated, the target would already leave the gun sight. But they (the Germans) had everything electrical! We moved on, maneuvering to and fro, in a zigzag: the driver-mechanic and I had practiced that technique earlier. One foot had to work the lever and moreover direct the driver-mechanic, giving him directions on where to go by touching his head, to the right, to the left. The Tiger Panzer might succeed in hitting from a distance of one and a half kilometers and piercing our T-34 tank. Its point blank range was up to 2 kilometers! We had a 76-mm gun, so we could only kill the German Tiger Panzers at a range of 400 to 500 meters. And then, while maneuvering in the battlefield, it was necessary to figure out the precise moment that my shell would be accurate. When I chose such moment after we had approached at short range, we made a short stop. The “Tiger" began turning around with intention to leave, exposing its side to us! I fired a shot and saw that my shell had hit it. The German tank lit up. Then I stopped firing: I will go further – I thought. But it turned out that my shell had hit their transmission compartment where there was a speed gearbox, steering clutches - and those were burning in the tank. But the Germans not wasting any time turned their main gun around and fired a shot at my machine. Their shell hit us on the right side under the turret, pierced the turret: it had blown the loader to pieces, had blown off the radio operator’s head... When their shell hit us the driver-mechanic’s hatch on latches was slightly opened. He removed the lid and bailed out. I tried to bail out also, but my hatch was closed. And when I opened it, it caused a draught and the flames came at me. There was a four-core cable coming from the tankman helmet to the radio set, to the tank intercom and a connector plugged into a jack. I dashed out, but I had forgotten to pull out the connector and was yanked back into the burning tank... Then I don't remember how and where I succeeded to escape … Somehow I managed to run away about 30 meters and only then did I hear a big bang: the tank exploded as its ammo rack had detonated. I started shaking with my head: I couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t utter anything! I wasn’t even scratched, only shell-shocked and a little bit later regained my senses. I was treated for about 10 days in the field hospital of the medical battalion and began talking and hearing a little bit. Upon my return I was engaged in further fights just at the time when we approached the city of Kamenetsk-Podolsky. When we were approaching the city and fought the battles that caught us after nightfall. Both German and our tanks stood off against each other. We were about run out of fuel. The Germans airdropped fuel to their units. A little bit of miscalculation on their part and we got hold of their fuel.
- You used diesel fuel and what about them (the Germans)?...
- They also used diesel fuel so they dropped diesel fuel in bags on parachutes, with side cushions. We also were expecting fuel supplies, but apparently, it was the Wehrmacht who supplied us with fuel. At first we thought that those were some ingots that would explode if we touched them. But we were young and reckless - we ran out, it was interesting to us. We tied a cable to one of those and attached the other end to the tank, pulled – it didn’t blow up! And when we figured out that it was fuel, diesel fuel, we started collecting those bags, as many as we could. We refueled the tanks and then headed toward Kamenetsk-Podolsky. The Germans had abandoned their entire columns of vehicles there. It was spring with its impassable mud. It was difficult even for the tanks to pass, let alone the wheeled vehicles. Germans abandoned everything and retreated. There was a lot of good stuff. We approached Kamenetsk-Podolsky, and in the village of Orinen there was the army headquarters. The Germans headed this way, and we detoured a little bit on other road; on the other side. There was a bridge, and our tanks could not pass across that bridge. The bridge wasn't designed for such a heavy thing as our 20 - 30 ton tank. It was very dangerous. For that fight I was decorated with the Order of the Red Star, and for that entire operation I received two decorations by decree: No. 2H and No. 3H.
- In which battalion were you?
- In the 2nd tank battalion. Ivan Pupkov was the battalion commander and Alexander Sidelnikov was my company commander. When the major fights at Kamenetsk-Podolsk were over we went further, to Ternopol. When the city (Ternopol) was almost completely liberated we were redeployed to Ivano-Frankovsk Oblast. We headed southward, passed through a number of cities, liberated the town of Kalomiya in Ivano-Frankovsk oblast and stood still in a "sort of defense". Decorations were handed to us there.
Ahead of us there were penal units, we with our tanks stood behind them, and further behind us there were deployed regular infantry units. We stood there for about a month, and right during that time I received the T-34/85 tank. Senior Lieutenant Dmitry Potapov brought them to us. He remained in command of one of them and I took over the command of the other “eighty-fifth one”. During that time our tank industry began producing the new upgraded tanks, like the T-34/85 tank with an 85-mm main gun. These machines also employed the new TSh-15 gun sight, electrical gun and machine gun firing system, and the turret traverse gear motor. By that time I had no tank, and my friend Nikolai had no tank either. The transmission of his tank had been damaged near the Ivano-Frankovsk fortress and the tank burned down. And when my tank was knocked out and blown up it burned down too. I’d got into the other tank, with another crew. Potapov and I were in one company, in one battalion, and by that time I was still a linear tank commander. I was not familiar with this battle vehicle (T-34/85) and he helped me out with learning it. But I gave up to him my battle-tried crew and took over his young crew, and started training the crewmen for further fights. My driver-mechanic Victor Kozhevnikov left for Potapov’s crew, but before that he had passed his experience onto the young driver who stayed with me in my crew. We were ordered to perform a demonstration firing of the main guns of the new (T-34/85) machines. And I did fire perfectly well: I had always had successful gun firing in battles.
The Germans stood in defense, dug in. My crew was instructed to start off at night and bring our tank into the open space where two German panzers, both "Tigers" had been towed. One of them was put with its frontal armor forward and the other one with its side armor forward. I started my machine and stopped it at a distance of some 1,700 meters from the targets. Its main gun could strike the German tanks at the range up to 2 kilometers! The "Tigers" were set up near each other, and I was ordered to perform demonstration firing for the “top brass” of the 1st Ukrainian Front. The Front was commanded then by Georgy Zhukov. The T-34/85 tank featured the following new feature: it had a commander’s cupola, so the tank commander did not fire the main gun anymore, rather the gun layer and loader did. But I dismissed the gun layer and sat down at the gun myself. I still had some time available before the event. I had fired three practice shells, but none of them hit the target. I became a little nervous! I didn’t have a clue, as to what seemed to be the problem, as I had shot very well! Changing tanks was out of question as day was breaking and the Germans could detect us. The shells weighed 16 kilograms. When you’d chamber it, the breechblock would rise and cause the gun sight to flinch, - apparently, it had to be slightly adjusted. A millimeter flinch in a tank gun sight at the distance of 2 kilometers resulted in a 3 to 4 or even 5 meter error at the target; exactly what had caused my shells to miss. Our brigade commander Mikhail Fomichev was already there: "What’s wrong with you?" - "Comrade Colonel, Mikhail Yuryevich, I’ve already figured out the mistake. I will perform the firing, and this time everything will be fine".
Then Zhukov approaches. I reported to him that the crew was ready for demonstration firing practice, and then I was instructed to fire three shells at the side armor and another three shells at the frontal armor. My shooting was better than “excellent”. I reported to Zhukov. All the three shells that I had fired hit the frontal armor, pierced it and blasted inside. As for the shells that I had fired at the side armor, they went through both walls, and blasted outside. The distances between holes were within 40-60 centimeters – what a perfect accuracy of hits! For that demonstration firing I was awarded with Marshal Zhukov’s personal prize – a wristwatch with a reference to the occasion – a certificate which read: "It is issued to the Guards Junior Lieutenant Pavel Pavlovich Kuleshov … Deputy Supreme Commander, Marshal of the Soviet Union G. Zhukov". Now this watch and the certificate are stored in a museum in Chelyabinsk. I donated it to the museum and in return was given other watch produced in a Chelyabinsk factory. In this way the operations of 1944 finished. Then one of our comrades was conferred the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.
Then there were delegations again. We were resupplied with equipment and reinforced with personnel from the Urals. And there it so happened: when we liberated the city of Ternopol and left for Kalomiya, the Germans recaptured Ternopol! We were urgently removed from the defenses, embarked on flatcars to be redeployed to Ternopol. But the Ukrainian guerrillas shot up the steam engine and our train broke apart; and we started jumping right off the flatcars, in disorder... After all we managed not to let the Germans go any further and liberated Ternopol for the second time. After Ternopol we went for the Lvov operation - where we already had two T-34/85 machines in the platoon.
And then we entered the breakthrough near the town of Zlochev. We started moving forward and faced a formidable enemy defensive block. Lvov Oblast is a very peculiar place: there are forests, mountains and bogs. At that time the roads did not exist there and if there was a route it was impossible to use it. Besides, the Germans put their covering force right there to prevent anybody from passing. We approached, but could not pass. We started looking for a bypass route through the forest. There was a large depression with a road passing through it, which was very much broken that our tanks went along it. Potapov's tank bogged down: Victor Kozhevnikov had gone ahead heedlessly and his commander didn't correct him. And then shelling began! I bypassed their tank nearby, drove my tank to a safe place and got out of it. Our tank backed up, I hooked up a towing cable, and we pulled the Potapov’s tank out. When it was brought to a safe place too, Victor Kozhevnikov left his tank and approached me: "Comrade Commander, what you’ve done is a noble deed! I’ll do everything to pay you back! If your tank should be on fire I’ll get inside to pull you out."
The majority of our tanks had passed along successfully, and once we entered the next road it turned out to have been blocked also. We had the woods here, and mountains there. We couldn’t go that way, so we went around, towards the village of Olshanitsa. I was sent out for reconnaissance - I went there with three tanks and came across that covering force: there were 4 enemy guns and 4 tanks. I carried out a general scale reconnaissance as an armored point and none of our tanks was knocked out. The brigade commander approached, I reported to him: "so and so, I’ve come across an enemy covering force. I can't tell you for sure, how many, but when they opened fire, there were 5 to 7 barrels. Then the scouts went and verified that there were 4 tanks and 4 anti-tank guns". The brigade commander said to me: "Since you’ve found them, it’s your job to destroy them." But how shall I? With one crew? Is it possible? But after some consideration... we went about it this way: here were the woods, there was the village. They wouldn’t let us get on the road, they had set up an ambush at the side of the road - and they might have picked us off, one after another! But I didn’t take the road to go headlong towards them right away.
- How did you know, that you shouldn’t have gone that way?
- I don't know how, I simply felt it. The Germans had been smart about it too. They didn't set up the covering force right on the road, but a little off to the side, so I ran straight into it. There was a forest road surrounded by woods, and there was a village in the woods also. And then, having given it a little thought, I reported the brigade commander my ideas of how that enemy cover force could be destroyed. "Are you going to give a lecture on how to do the job?” (The brigade commander got a little angry). - "No, I’m not. I just I want to share my thoughts, since I have already been there I saw everything around. You need to assign one tank for destruction of the enemy covering force. That would be my tank. I would disembark the gunner and go forward, find cover for my tank where my first, second and third firing points would be, from which I will fire my gun. I case they should notice me and start firing back - I will retreat in reverse to reach the second firing point where I won’t be expected. Then I will reverse again and reach the third firing point. We will put all other tanks here with their guns turned that way and have them fire their weaponry so that their powerful gunfire will distract them from my tank". - "OK, since you’ve found them (the enemy covering force), reported on your plans - you will be the one to destroy them ". I received the formal order, approached my crew and I said: "I’ve made the following decision - to remove two crew members: the radio operator and gunner. Only the driver-driver-mechanic, the gun loader and I, the commander, will be on this mission ". - "Why?" - "So if we get killed there will be only three casualties, not five ". I looked around, started off and approached closely. Our other tanks made noise, firing; the motors running. The Germans turned all their attention there! And I approached, chose the firing positions for myself and, having walked on foot, found how it was possible to get to the firing positions safely. From the first firing position I set two Germans tanks on fire right away. Any tankmen or gunners could immediately detect for each shell fired at them, which tank it came from and approximately what type of gun fired it. Of course, they opened fire at me right away. I reversed and came to a new firing position. From this firing position I destroyed another enemy tank. The Germans opened fire again, but on the third firing position I destroyed the fourth tank. And then a friendly heavy armor regiment came along just in time, and a heavy Joseph Stalin IS-2 tank approached me. At full speed I rushed forward, and we suppressed the enemy guns with caterpillar tracks, destroyed the enemy covering force and started moving ahead toward the city of Lvov. There was a tobacco factory. When we moved along the road (there was a beautiful road surrounded by trees), we came under a Luftwaffe attack. Again I went on a reconnaissance and hid the battle vehicles. By then I had already been a platoon leader. All three vehicles were hidden well under the trees – everything was covered. The sun was shining... But they (the German aircraft) attacked and set the first vehicle on fire! I asked myself: "How come? The vehicles were covered!" It turned out that the tracks were shining. They had been polished to a gloss!
- Did they (the German aircraft) drop bombs or fire their guns?
- It was a German 37-mm antitank aircraft gun. The airflow blinds were not closed, because as the tanks moved their engines would get overheated, therefore, the blinds were opened for better airflow. There were two more parked vehicles; one was knocked out, another was set on fire. The crews remained with their damaged vehicles. But everything ended up not so bad. The aircraft had flown away and we started moving ahead. The parent units caught up with us, and we went further.
- Did you have engagements with aircraft again?
- Aircraft... They received commendations for destroying one target many times. Their crews would come around a target, say, destroy it by bombing and photograph it, as they had cameras. But decorations for this “feat” were distributed throughout other air units, even though the target was destroyed by only one of them! While some of us, the tankmen, would destroy an enemy panzer, our infantrymen would see who exactly had done it. But they (the airmen) had it all in large quantities. They would come around to bomb a troop train - and photograph that. And sometimes they would even hit a friendly target – but still would photograph that anyway!
- Did you get friendly hits?
- Yes, our friendly attack aircraft once hit us. We had just taken a populated place, covered our tanks and the infantry stopped. I got out of the tank to look around. And all of a sudden, - we saw them, the Soviet attack aircraft coming. Here they came - and it began... I jumped into the tank, caught their radio wave, and got through to them, I heard them talking: "Mischa, Kolya, let’s make another strafing run, look, they’re still moving". And so they did! I told them: "We’re the friends!" Attack aircraft sometimes arrived late when we already occupied settlements. To stop their strafing I had to get through to our main armor unit radio station to have it get through to their targeting command radio station to get them contact their lead air group pilot there, and only then it was possible to convey the recall command. By that time they would have finished their attack and departed!
- Did you have tank losses from that attack?
- No, we didn’t. But such cases did occur! For some time I had no tank, but was a senior brigade liaison officer for keeping in touch with the Corps command. I had an armored car with a driver at my disposal; ran errands, delivering reports and orders. All of a sudden they appeared from nowhere, fell upon us and began bombing. The driver rushed out of the car and ran away. I rushed out too and hid underneath the armored car. Nevertheless, I rushed out of the armored car where neither bullets, nor splinters could do anything to me. And you call it hiding; I just hid my head! Nowadays remembering that is very exciting, of course, but always very disturbing...
In general, we approached the city of Lvov, and didn’t do it headlong, but sideways, having attacked it from the South. I radioed that we were at the suburb of the city, but the mission was not liberating Lvov, but bypassing it and capturing it from the other side. There was such an episode: in front of Lvov there was a water tower. "Why", - I thought, - "shouldn’t I look around to see what is there?" I started the vehicle and approached the tower. "What’s that?" – I thought. There was something like a clock bell ringing. I went down into the engine room of the tower, and there lay a five hundred kilogram bomb. Apparently, there was an intention to blow up the tower to cease pumping water to the city. I rushed out towards the tank, took flat-nose pliers and cut one of the wires off - and the bell stopped ringing. That was a clock operated bomb and once the clock hand reached the set time everything would have been blown up. Fortunately, it did not happen, the water tower survived and, as I believe, it is still there.
When I reported that we had entered Lvov and we were in Lvov, the brigade commander made the decision to enter the city. There were small brick plants, private ones. So, we entered the city from that direction. We went for reconnaissance with three crews: my crew, Potapov's crew and Dodonov's crew. We passed Zelyonaya Street, Ivan Franko Street, and further on there was the way towards the Mickiewicz monument, the Mickiewicz Square... My tank was knocked out at the intersection of Zelenaya Ivan Franko streets on Mayakovsky Street, I was wounded. The tank was still combat capable, could move, but I was wounded. It happened as follows: I got out of the tank and started showing the way, and at the intersection I was wounded and my vehicle was knocked out. Having a submachine gun with me, I reached the Mickiewicz Square and fainted there. There I was picked up. It happened on the 27th of July. A. N. Dodonov went further and reached the Lvov broadcasting center, and then participated in the liberation of the railway station. Not a single building in Lvov was destroyed!
The Т-34-76 “Guardia” (Guards) Tank Crew. (from left to right): the tank commander A.V. Dodonov, machine gunner/radio operator A.P. Marchenko, gun loader N.I. Melnichenko, the battalion commander P.V. Chirkov, driver-mechanic F.P. Surkov, Summer 1944. ------------ During the fighting for Lvov the “Guardia” (Guards) Tank crew of the 63rd Armored Brigade commanded by Colonel M.G. Fomichev from the 10th Guards Urals Volunteer Armored Corps under the 4th Tank Army acted with particular heroism. The crew commanded by Lieutenant A.V. Dodonov was tasked to break through towards the city center and plant the red flag on the City Hall of Lvov. The tank was driven by the driver-mechanic sergeant-major F.P. Surkov. Radio operator sergeant-major A.P. Marchenko new the city well acting as a guide for the crew. Acting aggressively, the “Guardia” Tank supported by its infantry units, reached the very entrance of the City Hall. A. P. Marchenko with a squad of submachine gunners having killed the enemy guards, broke inside the building, ascended the tower and planted the red flag atop. During the six day battle the crew destroyed more than 100 enemy personnel and burned 8 enemy tanks. However, the Hitlerites managed to knock the Soviet tank down. In vicious fight Dodonov and Marchenko were killed, Surkov and Melnichenko were severely wounded. For the outstanding feat F.P. Surkov was made a Hero of the Soviet Union and other crew members decorated with orders.
- Where were you wounded?
- In the hip. It was an explosive bullet that hit me where I had a pistol, so my pistol saved my life. For this operation Dmitry Potapov, driver-mechanic Fedor Surkov (from the A.N. Dodonov’s crew), the Brigade commander and I were nominated for the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union. All four represented the Chelyabinsk Armored Brigade. Many of my fellow tankmen were decorated with orders and medals: Nikolai Lopatin, Gregory Kononenko, Mikhail Konstantinov. All our commanders were decorated as well.
After being wounded I lay in a hospital in the city of Piryatin of Poltava Oblast. The decree on the conferment on me of the Hero’s title was issued in September, and I lay in the hospital until late October. After being discharged from the hospital I was transferred to Kharkov, to the 61st detached regiment of the officer’s reserve. On arrival there, my referral papers qualified me as a convalescent patient, I was told: "Don't bother to ask where the 61st detached reserve regiment is, just ask about the Bachelors’ House and you will be shown where it is!” So, once there, I asked: "Where is the Bachelors’ House?" - "Oh, that’s a familiar place! Take the tram and you’ll get there". I arrived there, reported, and was checked in. About three days later I was summoned to the office: "You’ve been assigned to go to Moscow!" - "Why Moscow? I need to go to the front!" - "The instruction says to Moscow".
I arrived in Moscow, to the Chief Directorate of Armored Troops, Personnel Office and reported there... and was told: "You may take your time for about three days, and then we will find you." I said: "I have a question. My parents live 20 kilometers away from Moscow, Can I go there?" - "Of course, you can!" Actually it would have been an exciting opportunity for me to stay in Moscow, but during the war my parents had moved from the town of Elektrostal to the place where they were born. My father had contracted tuberculosis while working as a tank repairman back at the plant in Elektrostal. He was told: "Leave for a country setting where there’s vegetation". So they did move there. I had lived in that village very little, just knew its postal address. The rest of the time we lived in Voskresensk, in Electrostal as my father had always been away on business trips. Anyway, I reached that village, found a Cattle Procurement office and told them there: "I am looking for Pavel Petrovich and Eudoxia Semeonovna Kuleshovs ". - "They’ve gone, moved away to work for a place named OSOAVIAKhIM". I walked there following their directions and found them... It was already early November. While still on the way I saw them stacking hay. First I saw a woman stacking hay resembling my mother. Having approached closer I saw that it was really her and saw my father nearby. I came up even closer and quietly said: "Mom"... Seeing me she fell on the hay stack...
So I arrived to visit my parents. For me visiting my parents during the war was great luck and happiness. Seeing parents - you know what it means for a soldier! It was a very warm reception... After the 7th and 8th of November I spent about three days with my parents and then took a train for Moscow. And shortly after my departure they received a telegram: "The Title of Hero of the Soviet Union has been conferred on your son". So they already knew it, while I still was unaware!
Once back to the Personnel Office I was given the instruction to depart for the 1st Belarusian Front, but my unit was in the 1st Ukrainian Front. I retorted: "I need to be in the 1st Ukrainian Front, as my unit is there, the Urals Voluntary Armor Corps!" But they told me: "We know better where the officer staff is needed. You will go to the 1st Belarusian Front". The travel instruction was handed to me to get on the train for Minsk. I arrived in Minsk, changed trains there, and traveled further for the 1st Belarusian Front by cargo trains and motor vehicles. Once on the way, in Minsk, I came to a dormitory room. There was a newspaper binder on the table. I looked through a newspaper, where there was a decree of the Supreme Council as of the 27th of September 1944 about conferment of titles of the Heroes of the Soviet Union and a long list of names. Having looked closer I saw: Fedor Pavlovich Surkov, my former driver-mechanic, Dmitry Potapov, Mikhail Fomichev and me, Pavel Pavlovich Kuleshov. All four represented my brigade, myself included. It was only then that I found out everything! I pulled the newspaper out from the binder and took it with me. I arrived in the area of the Front Headquarters location; found the headquarters of the 1st Belarusian Front, where I submitted my travel instruction: "Please reassign me for the 1st Ukrainian Front. I will get there, you just endorse my reassignment and that will be it!" - "No, we need personnel here. Go as a reserve for now. You’ll be around for about five days until we pick up a position for you and make an assignment ". I went out, looked around and saw "Studebaker" trucks parked carrying the markings of our 4th Army. I turned to the drivers: "Why are you here?" - "We’re here to pick up some cargo: uniforms, weapon and ammunition". - "Can I go with you?" –I asked. - "Look, it’s up to you. We have room in the cab". I had the thought: if they travel in a convoy, they won't be checked...
- Did you want to go back to the front after your hospital stay?
- I strived to return, whatever it took, even though it was possible to stay.
- Why did you so strive?
- There was a wish to finish them all, to stay in the thick of it up to the end, to the Victory. But there is a black sheep in every flock. Many guys stayed back in the “Bachelor House”. Got married there; some went to the rear units, and others faked disability for themselves. But generally people strived to go all the way through.
When I reached the vicinity of the 4th Armored Army I went to look for the Corps. I found a communication center: a signalwoman named Masha Pashintseva was there. When she saw me she asked: "Oh, Pavlik, where’re you from?! We know you’ve been conferred the Hero’s title!" She telephoned to the battalion: "You know, Kuleshov is here, right next to me in the Corps communication center!" Mikhail Fomichev, the brigade commander, at the time the decree was issued had gone home on leave, so he was not in the brigade. Colonel Alayev, the deputy brigade commander talked to the signalwoman: "Masha, who is there with you?" - "Kuleshov arrived? Now there at the communication center?" - "Send him to me quickly!" I said: "I don’t want to go to headquarters; I will go to the battalion to my comrades". But despite this I was brought to him (Alayev). We sat and talked for a little. And then my fellows came running. I came out to meet them. There was a fuss and noise in the battalion, all were put on our toes! I came to the battalion location area, presented my papers, the travel instruction. My personal records file was apparently on the way to the 1st Belorussian Front. I spent the night, and in the morning the battalion was paraded, everything was nice and proper. I had polished myself... At the parade it was declared: "Our frontline comrade, who had passed with us all the way from the Kursk- Orel Salient to right here, the territory of Poland, has returned ". In this way I arrived in my unit where I became a tank company commander. Everything was so nice and good...
Then I was handed the Gold Star and the Order of Lenin. Georgy Zhukov had left for the 1st Belarusian Front, and from the 1st Belarusian Front Ivan Konev came, who when pinning the "Star" to my tunic was already the 1st Ukrainian Front Commander. My comrades had gotten some sausage and said: "Take off your "Gold Star"!" It was lowered in hydrochloric acid, wiped, and then dipped into everyone’s mug with alcohol. The "Gold Star" was handed around and then returned to me. "Now we’re going to wash this "Gold Star" because it’s been into everyone’s mug". In this way my "Gold Star" underwent the traditional Russian war decorations vodka washing ceremony.
It was the autumn of 1944, at the Sandomierz bridgehead. The operations were already very complicated there in their design, but they at the same time were easier emotionally because we had already crossed the border and moved across the foreign territory. It was much easier for us there. Before that, when we still moved over the Soviet territory, we were afraid of firing an extra shell at our countrymen’s houses. Then a Stalin order forbidding the armored troops to engage in fights but to go for breakthroughs as the Germans had done to us. Making breakthroughs, entering the gaps like an avalanche, rushing forward, leaving the surrounded enemy far behind in the pockets, which would be mopped up by the others. That’s the way we advanced while liberating Poland, reaching the city of Piotrków. The brigade received the title of "Piotrkówska". So we went further... In the territory of Poland there was an episode which I still remember. We stopped and I entered a Polish house asking for something to eat. A Polish woman cried out: "Fascist Germans took away everything, nothing is left. They took away everything!" I told the driver-mechanic: "Turn the tank around with the gun pointing at this house…" When she saw the gun: "Oh sir, I’ve got everything! Both pig fat, eggs and moonshine!"
- Weren't there any memorable fights?
- There I was already a tank company commander and was always a little too far behind the line of combat tanks to operate the platoons and to see fighting. I didn't rush forward very much. Anyway we certainly managed to get engaged in clashes. We approached Berlin and having bypassed it captured Potsdam, and on the 2nd of May Berlin fell. We did not directly participate in the fights for Berlin, but were in Potsdam.
- When you were near Berlin, didn’t you attach additional armor or bed meshes to your tanks as a protection against Panzerfausts?
- No, there were no meshes... After the fall of Berlin we received the order to reach Prague within five days. Prague had revolted and waited for help from the Soviet Army, from the Soviet people! So we went towards Prague. In fact, we crossed the mountains in tanks. We knew that Alexander Suvorov had crossed the Alps with soldiers on foot. But we were crossing with tanks, with motor vehicles! There were cases when tanks fell into precipices and crews perished. There were cases when wheel vehicles fell also, and a certain number of personnel perished. But we went there, as we had been ordered, to render help. And at half past four in the morning we were already in Prague. Right there my friend Ivan Goncharenko with whom we had studied in the armor academy together was killed. He was securing the hardware crossing the Vltava River over the Manes Bridge, when his tank was burned by a Panzerfaust shooter. Ivan Goncharenko died, but only after he had secured passing of all major equipment. We entered the Old Town of Prague, and from the opposite side the Vlasovites and an SS division came up against us. We had to finish them off...
The crew of the tank No 1-24 before final dash towards Prague. (From
left to right)
Sometime at about 11 o'clock we heard on the radio station: "Victory! The war is over!" When we heard about the Victory, we began firing all types of weapons. Such a firing was there that everything around hooted. Shells and mortar projectiles flew up! But then as if some impulse was sent – the firing sharply ended. We started rolling around on the ground, kissing each other, tossing forage caps and garrison caps up in the air. On the one hand, we rejoiced that we had survived and that the war ended. But, on the other hand, we mourned for those who didn't make it, that their fathers and mothers wouldn’t see their daughters and sons. Secondly, we were sad about those kids, children whose fathers and mothers had died, who wouldn’t feel the tenderness of their parents as they became orphans... Not without reason it is sung in the song: "It is a joy with tears in the eyes". This way the war ended. For the last three operations the title of the Twice the Hero of the Soviet Union was conferred on our Brigade Commander, and I was decorated with the Order the Red Banner.
- At the front did you do chores together with your tank crew? Say, the main gun barrel cleaning?
- Yes. Officers were issued an additional food ration, there was butter, pig fat, cigarettes, but I didn't smoke. So I never went to fetch it, someone from among our crew members went to pick it up. When he returned, we all would sit down together and split the rations between us all. Though, there were those who would surreptitiously eat theirs alone. But I would give mine out. Whenever we went on attack, everyone had an emergency ration bag with hard tack in it: good crackers, pig fat, canned stewed meat, etc. We didn’t put it inside the tank, but attached it so that it could be taken off, dropped off at any time. Of course, we would lose it too. Just one turn of the turret and the bag would come off. Can you imagine what it’s like for four persons digging the tank into an entrenchment? Therefore we would do such things - use the emergency ration. Ahead of us usually were infantrymen who would dig foxholes and entrenchments for themselves. Once you’d see that they started dozing off, apparently through with their digging. You’d approach a squad leader: “Boys, so and so, your help is needed. Here’s some crackers, fat and sugar for you. Leave the outpost and let the others work". Some were afraid of opening the emergency ration, referring to strict orders. But then almost all began to do so. Again there was mutual understanding between people! Tankmen had enough food, as they were well catered to. But the infantrymen had nothing like that! I didn't smoke, so I would give my makhorka tobacco away - and the crew members were happy. Together with them I cleaned the main gun, handled shells and was engaged in refueling. I never left the crew alone; performing all the work together with them. The tank was being dug in, cleaned, washed and repaired. My driver-mechanic Fedor Surkov, who would later become a Hero of the Soviet Union and used to be a test driver at the Chelyabinsk Tank Plant told me once: "Hey commander, let’s do some fuel pump adjustments!" - I said: “Why would we do that?" - "We will enhance the engine capacity by 50-60 horse power!" I said: "Fedya, we cannot do that; there are seals on the pump!" Those seals are designed for a certain engine RPMs. But after two attacks –both the tank would be gone, and the engine would be gone too. He taught me how to adjust the engine fuel pump, and I did it myself later, as many others did too. In the armor academy we were taught the “Procedure of tank refueling. It is pouring the fuel through a silk filter, through a strainer ". But in reality we would pour it directly from a watering can – oh, boy!
- Didn’t you have pumps for refueling?
- What pumps?! Trucks couldn’t come to where we were. Barrels were only dropped off, and that was it. All the rest we had to do ourselves. Later on, when I had been servicing a little longer I learned everything and it was much easier: if someone was idle - I could see that.
- When you went on the attack, did you leave the hatch open?
- The top hatch was usually open.
- Did you remove the springs from the latches?
- But you wouldn't open it in an emergency?
- There were different types of turrets. There were those with a common hatch, but we had separate hatches: commander’s hatch and loader’s hatch. Ours was a hexagonal turret. The pentagon turrets were not very good ones. Once a shell hit our turret it would ricochet and be gone, but if it hit a pentagon turret – it turned out to be a direct hit.
- Of course. Usually we had tanks produced in Chelyabinsk. In the entire Brigade the tanks generally were from Chelyabinsk. Reinforcement companies were arriving from Chelyabinsk: they’d come to us, and we would take a look: How many commanders were required to make up understaffing, and then we would keep them. How many other crewmembers were required to make up the understaffing, and we would keep them as well. The others would get on the train and go back to fetch the tanks. There were cases when the guys would go to and fro during the whole war. Coming to the front – nobody would buy him – then he’d go back. What’s the problem? If you gave someone a ride by letting him board the flatcar, you could earn additional rations.
- Was there a hierarchy in a tank crew? You were the commander, but who was the next in terms of importance in the crew?
- Too much depended on him?
- During battle too much depended on him. The way he listened to you, the way he obeyed your commands: where to turn, where to make a short stop. The driver-mechanic had to work like clockwork, had to understand everything. Through the intercom it took longer. I had to give a command to the radio operator, and he would communicate it to the rest of the crew. But to make the things easier, I’d push the driver with my foot one way or another and he’d realize what I wanted right away. Later, in the T-34/85 tank, I could switch between the radio and the TPU (tank intercom system) myself.
- After the driver-mechanic who was next in rank?
- Gunner, loader, radio operator. But the latter was already deprived of his radio set. All he was left to handle was the machine gun, nothing more.
- Was the bow machine gun needed?
- It was needed for “up-gunning”: as covering fire. Its targeting was not so good. Some of the tanks also carried flame throwing installations.
- Did you fight in such a tank?
- I didn’t, but saw them around. The point was that when we fought within our territory (of the Soviet Union) we could not use them, therefore they were removed. And then, when we felt our strength, entering the territory of Poland, was there any point of burning everything around? Therefore those flame throwers were removed from tanks completely. And it was right! It dawned on someone, and it was a wise decision.
- Did you have a radio set in the turret?
- Yes, in the turret to the left. There were both the intercom and the radio set. It facilitated battle control. Because I was first to be able to see what kind of target was there. Not the loader, but I gave the command, which round to be loaded: armor piercing or incendiary, or fragmental, highly explosive or shrapnel.
- Did you use the practice of showing a fist, which meant an armor-piercing round?
- Yes, we used this practice.
- Did you always have a machine gunner/radio operator in your crew?
- Many crews were staffed without them. But it never happened in my crew; we always had a full complement. The infantrymen were always around - so our guys would grab somebody, convince him of how it was good to fight as a tankman, and enlist him in the crew.
- Did you allocate the fields of vision in the tank between the crew members during the fight?
- The radio operator usually saw nothing. The driver-mechanic watched only the road ahead. Well, in general, the responsibility of watching around was assigned to the commander and the gun loader. They used the observation slits in the turret. With the advent of the T-34/85, the periscopic sight was also used. Then the tank commander could see everything.
- Was it a good thing?
- Effective. But it was simply an observation device: it had nothing to do with targeting. While the commander’s gunsight enabled making calculations using graduation lines, the former enabled observation only. Before an attack you’d assemble your crews and announce: "We will adhere to this direction, the reference point will be such, and such ". You’d always provide orientation to the crews: "My vehicle will be here, yours - there, in such sector. Here’re your reference points". Everybody knew his sector. This was the way we’d travel.
- Did the driver-mechanic open his hatch during the fight? Some people say that they’d open it at a palm’s width.
- I didn't allow that. The Germans were not fools. They’d see that the hatch was slightly open - and pick the driver-mechanic off. Those devices were designed not without reason. He (driver-mechanic) would look through a periscope as he had two of them. As we travelled through mud the periscopes would be splashed with dirt quickly. But there were cover caps: while travelling on the roads one of them (caps) could be left closed, while the other be used, and the second remained clean. Then the first was closed, and the second opened. We adapted!
- You did not allow opening the hatch?
- What for?
- Did you sit down at the driver’s levers?
- On marches both the driver-mechanic and I drove the machine. Once we had to chop my short fur coat with an axe because there was frost and sleet. I was sitting on the bow machine gun ball & socket support showing the way. And when the tank stopped, I couldn’t move. So it was chopped free with an axe. But I had to drive the tank into the battle only once; all the other times my driver-mechanics were good enough. That was the only time I had to drive the tank myself during a battle! I did not suspend the driver-mechanic from driving. The tank driving was a very strenuous work. From beneath the bottom there were pull rods going to the gearbox. Sometimes they’d come off and the driver had to use a heavy hammer to knock them back where they belonged. Didn't you hear about such things?
- No. I heard that the gear could be switched by a push of the knee.
- The lever could be shifted with a knee, and sometimes not only the lever, because the pull rod was adjustable, if not it meant there was no more compatibility, and more efforts were required. If it was shifted at speed it could not be reinstated. If a pull rod was off, you’d knock it back with a large hammer. The machine gunner/radio operator assisted the driver-mechanic, learned to know how to switch the gears, where the first, second and third gears were…
- Did anything break in the tank more often, something generic?
- Fuel pumps, gearboxes would fail; the friction band could fail but that would happen because of slackness. When the friction clutches were being tied up, if they were not tied up properly and the split pins were not fit in, and after a while it would be loose. The running gear was very robust. The thrust clutch was very good. Our T-34 tanks, theT-34/85’s, were indispensable tanks during the Great Patriotic War. High quality they were! They had both good maneuverability and terrain crossing capability.
- Did the caterpillar tracks break often?
- Again it happened due to slackness. When on the move, you’d feel that something was going wrong - the machine would break away. Changing a caterpillar track is certainly heavy work. When the road wheels would get damaged by the blast of an antipersonnel mine or an anti-tank mine it’d break the caterpillar track and then could knock the road wheel loose. Then the caterpillar track could be repaired as we had spare track links on hand. It would require putting spare track links on four road wheels. Pulling an idler wheel through was a very hard task; a log was used to ensure cohesion with the hull. To pull an entire caterpillar track, you’d align the tank, you’d align the engine, and you’d engage friction clutch to make sure that the second caterpillar track wouldn’t work. You’d take a crow bar, insert it in a hole in a track link, and assist with the tank gearbox. When it’d emerged from the hull, it had to be lowered down. And then you’d link the caterpillar track together and then you’d start pulling. You’d pull it with the engine, you’d hook up; it would stretch and rise. There were notches to ensure that that the track was properly pulled. If it was the case you’d use the log … Besides, I’d change the gear box myself. My crew and I would change the cables. We worked on the engine once. The engine was a difficult thing, because special expertise was required, but expertise was in short supply. But we would lift and lower it ourselves. We would do it this way: stick a log to the turret, attach a chain hoist to the log, and then would lower it. In the same manner we would handle the gearbox: it would be impossible to pull it out, even the starter couldn’t be removed by hand, it was heavy. It was the same story with the batteries: there were four of them.
- Did you have to use compressed air often?
- Seldom or never. It was a sort of emergency reserve: it was only required if the vehicle stalled during battle, in attack. It might happen due to failure of the starter or dead batteries. These were the only cases when compressed air would be used.
- Were there cases of deliberate disabling of tanks because of reluctance to fight? Were there any cases of cowardice?
- Yes, there were.
- What exactly would they disable?
- Some minor items. Some would disable a sight and then they could see nothing. Others would break a firing pin, engines, or pour some sand into the fuel tanks. This would be a very severe offence. Such cases were rare, but still happened.
- Did any reprisals follow?
- Once a new reinforcement arrived, not from our parent city of Chelyabinsk. Two guys made an incision of their hamstrings; thus disabled themselves. They were court-marshalled and executed by firing squad. There were self-inflicted gun-shots in hands through a loaf of bread to prevent powder burns. Such cases did happen. We had to communicate with personnel a lot trying to dissuade them from doing so.
- Did you always move in zigzags in battle?
- Yes. We used such maneuvering tactics. The vehicle was speedy; we would aim, fire a shot and get started off in a different direction while the enemies were aiming their guns.
- What was the average speed you maintained?
- 25-30 km/h, but we sometimes slowed down to 12-15 km/h.
- Did infantry units always support you?
- Yes, they were always with us. There was a motorized rifle brigade in our Corps (later it would become the 29th Guards Brigade), its battalions were assigned to and distributed among our three armored brigades. 5 to 8 infantrymen were assigned to each tank. They always were with us as tank riders. As a matter of fact when we went on the attack we required 8 to 10 infantrymen. There was an episode when one colonel frightened me. My tank was down but then we fixed it and went to catch up with our unit. We came across an infantry regiment: it had to move forward, but the Germans had blocked the road. The infantry regiment commander jumped up to me: "I need you to go that way!" I looked there and saw other tanks already burning. I asked: "Did you send them?" - "Yes, I did". I said: “Please understand, no tank can do anything there. That is a kill zone. Some artillery bombardment is required." He snapped back: "I’m going to execute you for disobeying an order! I am a colonel!" Without thinking twice, I jump into the tank and began locking the hatches." Now", - I said, - "go ahead, try and do it. I can crush your regiment!" I slammed the hatch and left. Then two "Katyusha" rocket launchers arrived, fired a volley - and the regiment went on easily. A fool like that might have shot me dead for disobeying his order. That was an effective coup of mine, hiding inside the tank. Figuring out later on who was right and who was wrong would have been very difficult.
- Did you have lice?
- We, the tankmen, didn’t have any as we always were dealing with diesel fuel! We would dip our uniforms into diesel fuel. There was also a kind of soap labeled "K". After rinsing in cold water everything was fine and clean. So honestly, we, the tankmen did not have any, but the infantrymen did. After the war I saw people with a lot of lice, even on their eyebrows.
- Did you spend nights inside or underneath the tank?
- In winter conditions we would dig entrenchments and hide the tank. Then we would excavate a narrow path and place a metal box or a barrel with lattices or holes cut into it in it. We’d add some coals and fire it up like a furnace... Of course, we wouldn’t allow smoke in and burned only charcoal.
- Did you often go on night attacks?
- There were such cases when we went with our headlights on. Sometimes we had to make turmoil for the enemy – we’d turn all the headlights on and go along firing, causing alarm: The Germans would abandon everything and run away.
- Did you fire at short stops or fire on the move as well?
- We fired the gun both at a stop, at a short stop, and on the move. But the probability of hitting the target on the move was zero, so generally we fired at a short stop.
- Were you paid bonus money for the enemy tanks you destroyed?
- It was accrued, but nobody actually received it. All the accruals were transferred to the Defense Fund! I opened an account for mother and would send her 1,000 rubles every month - she had a letter of attorney to receive that money.
- Were there women in the brigade?
- There was one female driver-mechanic in another battalion, so good that even very few male drivers could outmatch her! There were also female medical instructors, signalwomen, radiowomen, kitchen staff, submachine gunners and medical orderlies. The latter had to evacuate the wounded from the battlefield. Each of them had an interesting mentality: whenever there was an air raid, she would lie down upon a wounded man to shield him with her body to save him.
- Were there love affairs?
- Of course, they were. We knew of many cases. Ivan Bubkov got married, the brigade commander got married, Akinshin got married too. Many people got married! We, the boys, were too young for that, but our senior comrades got married.
- For what was the foster boy of the Brigade, Anatoly Yakishev, decorated with the Order of the Red Star?
- For saving life of the brigade commander. He brought down a German...
A Hero of the Soviet Union Junior Lieutenant P.P. Kuleshov and Anatoly Yakishev,
- How did you treat the Germans?
- Decently. When after the Victory we camped in Germany, I roomed in an apartment of one German. In the beginning we were not allowed to room in apartments, but then we were allowed. It was a two room apartment with fine furniture. I asked him: "Where did you get such nice furniture?" The German answered: "The situation was this: if I joined the Nazi party I would have work, food". So he joined and they lived well. But his son was killed on the Eastern front.
- How did you treat them during the war?
- We didn't talk to the prisoners. We would immediately send them away. We were not capable of taking them along.
- When you entered Germany did you meet any civilians?
- I did. Elderly people hated Hitler. And the youth did as usual...
- What did you take as booty?
- Nothing. And where would I have put it? In Germany I took a nice nacreous (mother-of-pearl) accordion. I took a pack of chrome-tanned leather of different colors from one of the warehouses, I tied it to the turret, but when we charged, everything was lost.
- So you didn’t take any booty?
- No. I’ve told you: why would we take it if we had nowhere to put it?! I did take the accordion eh: I couldn’t play it, but it was so nice and beautiful. I succumbed to temptation … But in general we showed the example of good discipline to the others as the workers of the Southern Urals had instructed us: no looting. There were no abuses because our army and our corps were closely scrutinized. The first Secretary of the Regional Party Committee would arrive at the front to visit to us.
- Did you encounter SMERSH?
- In Germany when I was already a Hero of the Soviet Union, we took a village and there was a big pond where ducks swam. I killed 7 of them and took them along. A SMERSH man saw that and said: "What, you are stealing?" I said: "There is nobody around here. How can that be stealing? These were just swimming in a pond!" He said: "Come with me to SMERSH headquarters!" - I answered: "I won't go there! If you want to investigate, let’s go to our brigade, there we will discuss it". Ultimately I dragged him to our brigade where Lieutenant Colonel Denisov was a political officer. He said: "We will organize a show trial for him, please don’t make any fuss, and don’t shout here ". As soon as he left, Denisov told me: "Please go pluck and cook them quickly. I want soup so much ". What a good man he was!
- So, your political officer was a good man?
- He was a big hearted person. He used to be a deputy regiment commander, then a deputy battalion commander on political affairs. His career was ruined by booze...
On 24 June 1945 the Victory Parade in Moscow took place and I was a participant in that Parade, walked in a foot column there. We had a lot of practice in advance back in Dresden. We arrived in Moscow at the Belorussky railway station and stopped in Lefortovo District. There was an academy of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR where we stayed and practiced for the Victory Parade. We practiced very well, strived very hard. Coming to the Victory Parade from the front was so exciting, such a pleasure that it is impossible to describe. We had a lot of drills; even went to Red Square to practice. Joseph Stalin and Ivan Konev went to the Lenin’s Tomb Rostrum to check on the training. Pilots, tankmen and gunners walked in 20 x 20 men columns. There were many tankman officers. Keeping in formation after the front was very difficult! Pilots would pass: "Well okay, have rest". And 2-3 screws on those screwed metal plates on their boots wouldn’t tighten properly, so as soon as they passed someone would become lame (what’s wrong with those guys?) On the 24th of June we were aroused at 5 o'clock in the morning. It rained heavily, and we had to change the uniforms several times. The tankmen wore dark blue overalls, helmets, gloves like gauntlets. During the parade everyone could see that we were the tankmen, not anybody else! The most important thing was that I was invited to a reception in the Kremlin and saw Stalin. We were allowed to drink alcohol and eat as much as we wanted. Whomever had a few too many were taken away. In about 20 minutes they would return almost completely sober …
|Interview and literary work by:||A. Drabkin|
|Translated by:||N. Kulinich|
|Translation review by:||Charles G. Powers|