V.V. – I was borne in August of 1924 in the town of Jartsevo in the Smolensk region. I only managed to finish 8 grades of school before the war began. Five days after the invasion, our district created a “destroyer” battalion from Komsomol volunteers. The German bombing raids on the region were very heavy, and our battalion was tasked with guarding the two nearest railroad bridges, dealing with any German saboteurs and paratroopers, and patrolling the district. The battalion received one 1.5-ton truck, which provided all of our mobility.
Our commander was a man from the town’s militsia [local police – Transl.] who had served a tour with the army before the war. We were issued one Vickers rifle and 5 rounds for it, housed in a schoolhouse and sworn in as soldiers. In July we had a battle with some German agents that had infiltrated behind the frontline, and even managed to capture one of them alive. Everyone was really surprised at how easily we dealt with the Germans then – we could hardly have known what a terrible and bloody war awaited us all. We all wanted to get to the front as fast as possible, worried that the war might end without us getting to fight. Of course, later that summer I gained a more realistic perspective on the war. The area around Jartsevo was held by professional troops, very well trained and equipped. They had an echeloned defense 30 kilometers deep, with artillery positions every 100 meters. The commanders were fond of saying things like – “we’ll fertilize the earth with German corpses!” And the Germans – they just flanked the entire defensive position…
When they did that, people started to panic…our battalion just fell apart. We waited for orders to begin an orderly evacuation of noncombatants out of the region, but never received it. I myself managed to walk 20 kilometers along country roads to the next railroad station, and rode out of the encirclement on the last freight train that had escaped the Germans.
G.K. – And did your relatives manage to evacuate?
V.V. – My father was in the army by then, the next time I saw him was 1946. When I came home after being discharged, my father was waiting for me on the train platform. I walked by him twice, and he didn’t recognize me…That’s how much the war changed me.My mother wasn’t fortunate enough to escape. When my regiment liberated Jartsevo in 1943, she wasn’t in town – the civilians who’d survived the occupation were hiding in the nearby forests during the battle. Our house had been completely destroyed. Someone later told my mother that they had seen me standing over the ruins of our home. After that, for a long time she kept going to Smolensk to meet the medical trains headed east, hoping to run into me. She never did, but I actually was on one of those trains when they shipped me to a hospital in the rear areas. That’s a mother’s instinct for you…
One of my uncles, Semen Fillipovich Vostrov, tried to break out of the encirclement in a car with two of his friends. They ran into a German patrol and were killed…another uncle, Grigorij Fillipovich Vostrov, stayed behind with his wife Vera and daughter Valja. At one point, they were hiding in their house a wounded Russian pilot who’d been shot down behind enemy lines…a neighbor told the Germans, and they shot my uncle’s entire family as well as the pilot. My family lost a lot of people during that terrible war…
G.K. – What happened to you after you escaped from the German encirclement?
V.V. – I wound up near Moscow, worked as a garage mechanic for a while. In April of 1942 I volunteered for frontline service. I was first assigned to a reserve regiment, went through basic training, then became an infantryman on the Western Front. Towards the end of 1943 I was wounded, and after I was released from the hospital I wound up in an assault gun regiment.
G.K. – Would you like to talk about your life in the infantry?
V.V. – You know, I’ve looked at your website, and there is already a wealth of stories from regular infantrymen. I don’t think I could add anything substantial to that. The infantry was almost certain death. No-one who served escaped his fate. I was extremely lucky to last as long as I did on the frontline. I can tell you about my last infantry combat. The frontline was near Orsha. The German positions were 400 meters away from our trenches. We were deployed in defensive positions – can’t start any fires, they fed us cold stew and crackers once a day. Then suddenly they relieved us, took us back 10 kilometers behind the front. We washed up, got new uniforms. Then they formed us up and read aloud the order about a new offensive. The next morning, we attacked after an artillery preparation. We barely advanced 100 meters when the German dive bombers showed up and started plastering our lines. We couldn’t retreat, and staying put meant certain death from German bombs – and so we rushed forward. Across the barbed wire, across the minefield, under fire from German machine guns and mortars, and all the while the bombs kept whistling overhead and exploding among us. Finally, we captured the first German trenchline, and immediately the order came down – “Keep forward! Do not stop!” At that moment, my SMG jammed. I squatted down, cleared the jam, then started to run again. I only had about 50 meters to go to the next German trench when I felt a hard blow to my legs. A German mortar shell exploded just behind me, and a big fragment lodged in my left knee. But – once again – I was extremely lucky. My boots and my greatcoat were full of holes and shrapnel, but only a few fragments actually hit me. A friend dragged me off into a fresh shell hole and bandaged me up. I crawled back to the rear using my SMG as a support – not even the wounded were permitted to leave the field of battle without their weapon…Eventually, I wound up in our medical battalion, then they loaded up in carts and took us to a field hospital in the woods near Smolensk. There were many hundreds of wounded already there on the ground, waiting their turn in the surgical tents. The doctors worked as if on a factory conveyer belt. There wasn’t really any anesthetic, but our people are hardy – we just gritted our teeth until it was over. They operated on me, and then loaded the lot of us into freight cars and shipped us off to Moscow. Our train cars were usually used to transport coal, so by the end of the trip we were all black like Africans with only the teeth and the whites of our eyes showing. We arrived at the Belorussia train terminal, and then they took us by car to a hospital near the “Aviamotor” metro station. Then they operated on me again. A month and a half later they discharged me and sent me to an infantry school, but then my wound opened up again hardly a week after I got there. Another hospital, another surgery, crutches. I had two more surgery after the war. After I was discharged from that hospital, they sent me to a convalescent battalion. I had thought they’d immediately ship me off to the front with a reinforcement company, but instead I was forwarded to a tank training regiment in Petushki.
G.K. – Was it difficult to think about going back to the front after all the things you’d experienced in the infantry and the hospitals?
V.V. – No, there wasn’t any fear or anxiety at all. I was ready to fight again, to fulfill my patriotic duty – I wasn’t looking for an easy way out. But I did see how hard it was for some soldiers to go back to face death. In the hospital, the guy in the bed next to mine was a senior NCO named Kapustin, one of the professional soldiers from before the war – that was the sixth time he had been wounded! He once confided to me that he just didn’t have any strength to go back into the meat grinder on the frontlines…
G.K. – Did you want to become a tanker?
V.V. – When I was with the infantry, we all envied the tankers – they had fewer things to lug around, don’t have to sleep out in the open, in the mud, in the swamps, for months on end. But no-one had really wanted to become a tanker. The prospect of being burned to death wasn’t exactly inspiring.
G.K. – What was the reserve training regiment like? How would you “grade” the training that you received?
V.V. – The reserve training regiment was formed on the basis of a tank regiment destroyed near Khar’kov. We arrived in literally the middle of nowhere, and had to build out our housing bunkers and the training grounds ourselves while we trained. The training went for 12 hours a day, every day, though a meaningful portion of that time was spent on construction work. Hunger…we lived in huge 250-man earthen bunkers with 2-story wooden bed frames. Our “beds” were our greatcoats stretched out on the logs. But we weren’t complaining – by that time, we’d all forgotten what a warm bed was like after two plus years of the war…The regiment was preparing crews for T-34s, T-70s, T-60s and SU-76 assault guns. I wound up in a training company for tank gunners – they taught me how to shoot reasonably well. They actually offered me a chance to stay on as one of the instructors, but by that time I’d had enough of the regiment’s osobist [Special Department Representative – an officer of the NKVD’s counter-intelligence department, later reformed as “SMERSH”, responsible for “moral and political health” of his unit as well as for uncovering “traitors, saboteurs and anti-Soviet agitators”; generally disliked by regular troops. Transl.]. So I went off to the front the first chance I got.
G.K. – What’s the story with the regiment’s osobist?
V.V. – Well, during the winter a few men from the regiment were sent to pick up some supplies for the regimental kitchen in a Studebaker truck. On the way back, we were all dead tired – I was sitting in a folding seat in the back of the truck, and the soldier next to me happened to have been a starover [a sect that had split off from the Russian Orthodox Church in mid-17th century – Transl.] who had previously served in the long range artillery. The snow was really coming down. I dozed off, and when I woke up at the regiment the starover had disappeared. Apparently he jumped off somewhere along the way and deserted. Well, after that the osobist kept bringing me in for questioning almost every night and accusing me of being in on the whole thing – “you’re the one who sat next to him and so you must have seen everything,” “it’s your fault that he deserted,” “you two thought this up together” and so forth…I just couldn’t deal with that anymore, and so was very happy to finally wind up somewhere else – the assault gun training brigade in Mytischi.
G.K. – Were the assault gun crews put together in Mytischi?
V.V. – Yes, we picked up our assault guns straight from the factory at Mytischi. There was a very similar factory in the city of Gor’kij. After we picked up our vehicles, we had a 100-kilometer training run with firing trials, and then sent off as replacements to the 1433rd Separate “Novgorod” Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment in the High Command Reserve. Soon afterwards, the unit became the 423rd Guards Separate Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment. We arrived at the regiment in our own assault guns, and all the crews were the same as back in the training brigade.
G.K. – What was the regiment’s organizational structure?
V.V. – The regiment was a part of the 6th Mechanized Corps in the 4th Tank Army. Since the regiment was designated as “separate”, its organization was a little different from line assault gun regiments. The regiment had 4 batteries of 4 assault guns, plus a company of T-34 tanks – on average, we had 25-27 machines in service before going into battle. We also had an antitank rifle company. Sometimes they attached a motorcycle platoon and a reconnaissance platoon on APCs.
G.K. – I know that you didn’t really want to recall the war, and that the local veterans’ group had barely convinced you to agree to this meeting. That’s completely understandable – even today, very few veterans are eager to talk about those terrible days. Even so…could you at least talk a little bit about those battles that were most memorable?
V.V. – In all honesty, I don’t really want to drag up those memories again…Fine…In February of 1945, the assault by our 1st Ukranian Front exhausted itself about 80 kilometers from Berlin. What remained of the regiment didn’t even have fuel or ammunition. The dirt roads turned into rivers of viscous mud. In the beginning of March, the 4th Tank Army’s commander, Leljushenko, arrived at our regiment and told us that we were going to be entrusted with a “special” operation. They lined up all of the regiment’s soldiers, and then the “theater” began. Leljushenko kept asking – “Who had already been in combat? Who had been wounded and still did not receive any commendations? Who had been recommended for a medal and still did not receive one? Does anyone have any requests?” Meanwhile, his adjutants were walking up and down the line noting down the names of the soldiers who replied to any of the questions. What did all this mean?
Our losses during a typical “special” operation ran at about 50%. In this particular case, however, we understood that we were about to be sent on a suicide mission. Why else would Leljushenko himself be trying so hard to raise our spirits…Anyway, after all the theater, they ordered us to take a small German village, saying that only our “all-terrain” assault guns could get to it through all the mud…
So here we were, sitting in our vehicles, waiting for the order to attack. There was a minefield between our positions and the village. They sent in 5 T-34 tanks with mine-clearing attachments ahead of us. The mine-clearing tanks are pretty slow, and the Germans immediately destroyed three of them…seeing this, we all rushed forward, hoping to get lucky…the minefield was made up of massive anti-tank mines, each with 100-200 kilograms of explosives. Any crew that drove over one of these went straight to heaven, their assault guns just disintegrated. A third of our assault guns blew up then and there…After fifteen minutes we reached the now-empty German village. Aside from those who died in the minefields, we had no losses. Most of the crews dismounted and began scavenging for “trophies”, but my guys stayed in the assault gun. I always thought it was a bad omen to take something that doesn’t belong to you. All of a sudden I saw a friend of mine named Topkasov carrying a new pair of leather boots, and instantly got the feeling that something bad was about to happen…
And then it did. A counterattack by German tanks! Topkasov’s assault gun was hit right in the fuel tank. You can imagine what happens when 200 liters of aviation gasoline light up, especially if the vehicle is carrying a full combat load of 80 shells…All that was left of my friend was one leg in a new leather boot…We managed to repel the German counterattack with great difficulties, but the regiment was bled dry in the process.
G.K. – Did you believe in omens?
V.V. – Yes – for instance, it was very important for me never to take any “trophies”. Our regiment commander used to be the director of a textile factory in Ivanovo before the war. A good officer, and a good manager. When the army allowed soldiers to send packages back to the Soviet Union, he ordered that every soldier in the regiment receive a “gift package” from things that we’ve scavenged to send back. I refused to accept mine, but then someone secretly sneaked a new suit into my assault gun. Two days later my assault gun burned up, along with the new suit.
G.K. – Did you ever pray before an attack?
V.V. – Well, sometimes you remembered God, but I was brought up as an atheist, and so didn’t pray or cross myself or anything like that.
G.K. – You were wounded again in Germany. How did that happen?
V.V. – The battles on the approaches to Berlin were very bloody and inhumanly savage.
We’d just driven back to the rear from the battlefield. I was looking to replace my driver, who had been killed in that combat. Practically no fuel and very little engine oil left by that time. Just then, the regiment’s second-in-command comes up and orders two assault guns to make a combat reconnaissance, basically move towards the enemy lines and draw the fire of his guns so that our spotters could locate them. Then he attached two T-34s with tank riders for support. I told him, “Comrade Captain, we don’t have any fuel!” He only replied: “No talking – I want you to move out in five minutes!” And so we turned back towards the German positions. It was quiet, at first, there weren’t any Germans to shoot at us for several kilometers. Then we saw a German village, and some defensive positions just behind it. There was infantry, of course, plus at least one gun battery and some mortars. And then…we managed to sneak right up to the German positions, then suddenly burst into them firing at point blank range. I could see the terrified faces of the enemy soldiers the moment before they were crushed by the tracks of my vehicle. The Germans ran. We really massacred them!..and then, the German artillery came alive all along the frontline. There was tremendous shelling, they were firing indiscriminately on us and on their own men. We barely managed to avoid the enemy fire – I drove into the village, rammed an iron gate with my assault gun and took cover in the courtyard of a stone house. Later on, with incredible difficulty we made it back to our lines, all under enemy fire. And the next day they told us – “yesterday’s mission was only partially fulfilled. We’re going to have to do another combat reconnaissance today!” I just sat down at the driver’s station and told the guys who were staying behind: “write to my mother about how her son had died…” The feeling was that we were doomed…the Germans were waiting for us. The moment we moved out they destroyed one of the T-34s…I don’t know how, but we almost made it back to the village. At that point, we were the only ones left, every other machine that went in with us was already burning…About 100 meters away from the village, we were ordered back to the starting positions. The German fire was so dense that I could only think – enough, kill me already! The ground shook from explosions, and on the way back we were finally hit…The assault gun began to burn, but we had enough time to bail out and take cover in a nearby ditch…then I felt something hit me in the leg. Shrapnel…we wound up crawling the two kilometers back to our lines under incessant enemy fire.
G.K. – As a SU-76 gunner, you have personally destroyed 12 German tanks and assault guns. What does a gunner feel during a meeting engagement with German tanks?
V.V. – Well, there was this episode in the beginning of 1945. We were supporting some infantry, shelling the Germans for about an hour. There was an escarpment about 150 meters to our right. Suddenly, we saw our infantry running from that direction. Tanks!..So we turned around to face the escarpment and waited. The first tank appeared – well, first his gun barrel, and only then the rest of him. I aimed the gun and took him out with a sub-caliber shell. There was just this sigh of relief…and then the second enemy tank crawled out into sight. It was a duel – who will manage to fire first? There was so much adrenaline in the bloodstream then…you can’t think of death, you don’t even have time to get scared. I just aimed and fired. Got him. And then the infantry finished off the enemy crews with a squad machine gun. After a fight like this, you’re just glad that you got lucky again…
G.K. – What were the losses in your regiment?
V.V. – During the last year of the war, less than 25% of our crewmen survived. You see, assault guns – they’re really designed to provide artillery support for the infantry. And instead, we were often used in frontal assaults. A light assault gun just doesn’t have the armored protection, and its gun traverse is very limited. Plus, by the end of the war tanks as a whole became much more vulnerable. But – no-one ever spared us. Who has ever spared the common soldier?
G.K. – What is your view of the quality of German tankers?
V.V. – Their training was very thorough. The Germans were a very serious opponent. To be honest, their equipment was also a lot better. The German tank guns had a higher muzzle velocity and much better sights, which of course had very unfortunate consequences for us. But by the end of the war, the Germans didn’t really take risks very often. This one night we were parked in a column of march, in a single file, actually, with all the motors shut off. Suddenly, several German Panther tanks rushed past us at high speed. We never understood why they didn’t just shoot up our column at point blank range, we wouldn’t have had any time to turn our guns towards them…
G.K. – Were there any restrictions in ammunition use?
V.V. – A third of a combat load was considered to be a “last ditch reserve”, and we could only use it with the direct permission of the regiment’s commander. Of course, in the heat of battle we often shot off our entire combat load. No-one is going to physically count their shells in combat. One time we broke through to a German divisional headquarters, and only then realized that we had no ammunition left with which to blow it away. Command made such a fuss about that!..An analogous situation arose in another battle in Germany. The regiment’s commander was given the order to attack after we’d already gone through most of our ammunition. All we could scrounge up was a single combat load for two assault guns. These two machines went forward, while the logistics chief grabbed three Studebaker trucks and rushed off to find some shells for the rest of the regiment.
G.K. – What personal weapons did assault gun crews carry?
V.V. – We were all issued a revolver. Each assault gun always had 20 grenades and 1-2 PPSh submachine guns for the crew. Everyone also usually stuffed two-three grenades into their coat pockets, some of us had German SMGs. You could salvage a whole arsenal from the battlefield, no-one really ever paid attention to what we were carrying around in our vehicle. By the end of the war, we were driving around with captured Panzerfausts.
G.K. – Were the German “Panzerfausters” especially bothersome?
V.V. – The German Panzerfaust detachments were very active against us from February to April of 1945. These were mainly put together from German penal units and Vlasov’s men [Russian defectors who fought on the German side under General Andrei Vlasov, who had been captured in 1942 – Transl.]. One time, they destroyed an IS-2 tank standing a few dozen meters away right before my eyes. Our regiment was lucky enough to enter Berlin from the Potsdam side, and we never had to fight through the center of the city, where the Panzerfausters were just running wild…
G.K. – How did your regiment treat the German civilians?
V.V. – Well, all sorts of different things happened in the spring of 1945. But you know, the tank forces generally recruited people who were educated and mostly very conscientious. I can’t remember anyone from my regiment doing anything particularly notable, although I would say that no-one who was there at the time would ever answer that question with 100% honesty.
And if anyone does answer honestly, you might want to think ten times before publishing it. I remember, near Berlin we had captured a large mansion – the garage alone was built for twenty cars. My assault gun commander was a Jew from Odessa who had worked as a teacher before the war and whose German was excellent. He was our translator. Turned out that the people hiding in the mansion were the cast of the Berlin Opera – they told us, they were very glad that they were captured by tankers and not the infantry…
G.K. – Did the crews in your regiment trust or respect the unit commissars?
V.V. – All of our commissars had been combat officers promoted out of the ranks. My own political officer, Vysotskij, for example, had himself commanded an assault gun before being transferred to do political work. People like that could be trusted.
G.K. – How did the crews view the regiment’s command?
V.V. – I don’t like to talk about this subject. We really disliked “tenure” officers, people sent over from the academies or some rear-area training school to get some frontline experience. These generally liked to order people around, and all wanted to get a medal as soon as possible. We had a second-in-command like that, he really knew how to make a mess of things…
G.K. – Another “extraneous” question. For your frontline service you have been awarded the Orders of the Red Banner, Patriotic War, Red Star, Glory 3rd Class. Any desire to talk about any of these medals?
V.V. – Not in the slightest. Only the staff officers care about medals. I was fighting for the Motherland, not for some award. I would say this, however – each of my Orders was awarded for a particular combat episode.
G.K. – Where were you when you found out the war had come to an end?
V.V. – We were driving towards Prague through Sudetenland. Hadn’t slept for three days – incessant skirmishes with the Germans, mined roads with trees cut down on both sides for ambushes, the German antiaircraft guns firing at us from the hills. One night, we made a rest stop – and then, suddenly, there were shouts everywhere: “Victory! Hurrah! The war is over!” The soldiers are all so happy they’re crying, everyone is firing guns in the air. My first thought was: “What do you mean the war is over?! I still have a full combat load?!” For better or worse, I did get a chance to shoot off that combat load. Our regiments kept fighting in the Czech mountains for five more days after Germany’s capitulation was announced. A few of our guys died after victory had been declared…My last battle was on May 14, 1945. After it was over I said to myself: “Well, now you’re done shooting for sure…Can’t wait to get home…”
|Interview:||Grigorij Kojfman |
|Editing: ||Grigorij Kojfman |
|Translation:||Gene Ostrovsky (email@example.com)|