Extract from military record: 330th Howitzer Artillery Regiment Student officer10.1938—9.1939 330th Howitzer Artillery Regiment Deputy commander of fire direction platoon, 9.1939—7.1941* 1st Antitank Brigade Rifleman 7.1941—10.1941 188th Reserve Rifle Regiment Rifleman 9.1943—10.1943 12th Truck Regiment Deputy commander of training platoon, 10.1943—5.1945 15th Truck Regimen Driver, senior sergeant of truck company 5.1945—6.1946
*Military record brief indicates June 1941, but because the brief was issued in 1964, and in accordance with recollections of A. A. Goncharov that in June his unit was equipped with 203mm howitzers, the military record brief probably is in error.
The Dzerzhinsk Military Commission of the city Baku drafted me into the Red Army in October 1938. Initially I was assigned as a cadet in an Artillery College, and in September 1939 I became the deputy commander of a fire direction platoon. Because the mission of our platoon included the adjustment or correction of artillery fires, we were sometimes labeled the “fire direction and reconnaissance platoon.” But in actuality we did not engage in reconnaissance and never went beyond no-man’s land. We found good positions for observation and, well camouflaged and using communications means, adjusted the fire of our battery. This is what they taught us in the artillery college. Truth be told, the calculations were relatively complicated, containing many mathematical and trigonometric elements.
Even before the war I participated in the occupation of Western Ukraine [invasion of Eastern Poland- translator]. One time I was summoned by our politruk [rank for political officers in the Red Army, equal to senior lieutenant- V.Potapov] for work with the local population. Apparently there was some kind of order regarding the resettlement of a specific group of the population away from this locale. Our politruk, I, and several other “ideologically hardened” soldiers were sent in to assist the local authorities. Our politruk was extremely unpleasant person, badly educated, and completely impudent. I did not particularly like communists and always tried to keep them at a distance. But because I was thought well of, I was summoned against my wishes. I recall once receiving a letter from my older brother. Unlike me, my brother was a committed Komsomolist and member of the Baku Komsomol gorkom [gorkom means a city committee- trans.] In his letter he very colorfully and fervently gave me advice and instructions in clear, patriotic tones. I was sitting down, reading this letter, when suddenly this politruk, having slipped up behind me and read several lines, snatched the letter out of my hands. Gathering up the soldiers, he read my brother’s letter to them aloud. Naturally, I did not like this because it was a personal letter.
Later I had occasion to run afoul of his “methods” of work and I liked them even less. I recall an occasion in one of the village huts where they were evicting a prosperous Polish peasant. Without any suspicion of what was going on inside, I entered the hut at the very moment when this politruk, brandishing a Nagant Model-1895 revolver, was cursing and poking it in the face of the peasant, demanding gold and money. I stopped abruptly, turned around, and departed, forgetting even to render the report that had occasioned my visit.
I also remember a time when we were escorting a column of displaced (being resettled) civilians. They were carrying their simple goods on wagons when suddenly one of the Polish women began singing. It was in Polish, and so beautiful, just like Anna German [one of the most popular Soviet singer of that time- V.Potapov]. I had no idea what she was singing about, but it was from the heart and I observed that many of the Polish men had tears in their eyes.
I experienced the war practically from its first days, as a member of the cadre army in Western Ukraine. Our 330th Howitzer Artillery Regiment was deployed in Zhitomir and was in summer camp. On the night of 22 June they put us on alert and no sooner had they evacuated us from the camp then it was bombed. German reconnaissance was working well and, it seems, was fully informed regarding our location. But we were lucky and managed to hurry away and almost avoid losses. We were equipped with 203mm howitzers mounted on self-propelled carriage, which were towed by a heavy prime mover.
This is how the war began for us. Our first battle occurred relatively soon after the war started. We reached a position that had been selected by our commander and, hastily preparing the guns, spotted a column of German tanks and infantry moving in march order. We fired our guns practically in direct lay and ruined the Germans’ day. A 203mm howitzer is an enormously powerful weapon! Our rounds separated turrets from tanks and threw them aside; glimpses of German infantrymen could be seen in the explosions of our rounds, their bodies being flung scores of meters through the air. Overall, this first battle went well for our side. It spoke well for the training and readiness of our cadre unit.
But the Germans advanced very successfully with their motorized units, breaking through for great distances. Our supply of ammunition and fuel for our prime movers was disrupted and, having exhausted our on-hand fuel and ammunition, we quickly had to abandon the guns and tractors, which we first disabled.
German aviation flew unhindered in the beginning of the war. The Germans struck blows on airfields that were concentrated near the border, leaving us without any air cover whatsoever. Bombers were perhaps positioned farther to the rear, because early in the war I frequently saw our bombers without any fighter cover. This made them easy targets for the Germans. Our “Ishachki” [nickname for I-16 fighter- V.Potapov], in my opinion, were powerless against the Germans and burned like plywood. One would hear the drone of motors and our bombers would pass overhead in combat formation as if on parade, up to 50 of them, without fighter support. Only 5-7 of them would return. It was a pity for them and painful for our pilots. But this was how it was at the beginning of the war.
We retreated and they bombed us continuously. At first, when the air raids began, many soldiers took shelter under our vehicles. But later, having seen how the equipment and everyone under it were destroyed by a direct hit, they learned to run away from the equipment. Every fold in the ground was a valuable protection. Sometimes as many as 5-7 men sought shelter in a ditch. Those who failed to make it to cover or who arrived there last and were on top suffered the most.
One time during a raid I became somewhat disoriented, but then spotted a hole and jumped into it. There were already two or three men in this hole. I fell on top of them and then turned over so I was facing upward. At the last moment someone else fell on top of me, face downward. The dive bombers released their ordnance so low that I clearly caught a glance of the German pilot in his flying goggles sitting in his cockpit!
It was possible to predict where a bomb would land: if you saw the tail assembly in front- it meant it would not reach you; if you saw the nose and then the tail- it also meant it would not reach you. On this occasion the bomb appeared as a circular dot that was approaching us- a direct hit! I did not have time even to react before there was a deafening explosion and the ground shook. Then everything went silent and I heard only buzzing in my ears. The soldier who had fallen on top of me was wounded. When the raid ended, everyone began to climb out of the cover. But this soldier, and I could tell by his words and gestures, was asking to be bandaged. He held out his individual dressing and I took it. He turned his back toward me but there was no way I could bandage it. His shoulder blade was pulled out and I could clearly see his lung twitching. I replied to him, but did not hear my own voice, that he needed a medic and began to summon one. The soldier was calm and said that it was nothing serious. How could he did not feel pain? Perhaps he was in shock. A short time later when the medic arrived he was already pale and almost unconscious. Of course, he could not survive such a serious wound. My own contusion was minor and went away in a week or two.
In general, we suffered greatly from aviation. Sometimes the Germans dropped emptied barrels pierced with holes along with their bombs. These barrels howled so terrible that the blood froze in our veins. This was a powerful psychological weapon!
German units were constantly breaking through on various sectors. It left me with the impression of constant confusion, of no precise information. At times the Germans advanced more rapidly than our units were able to withdraw, and easily broke through our defenses. But it is possible that this was simply my impression. I had no way to confirm it.
One time they placed me at a fork in the road to assist in controlling the movement of columns. They told me that when everyone had passed through a vehicle would come back and pick me up. Soon a half day had passed and what was going by my post was not organized columns but crowds of soldiers. Later the road was empty for some time, and then some scouts approached. They told me to leave, that behind them were the Germans. They were the last, there was no one else left to withdraw. I replied to them that I would not be forgotten, that a vehicle should come back to pick me up. They were no long out of sight and still no vehicle had arrived. The sun was setting. Not too far away and a little bit off the beaten path was some kind of village. I decided to go there and take a look. There might be some kind of headquarters there. I hoped to ask them if it was time for me to be relieved of my post. Or I would look to see if our people were still in the village and then return to my post. When you know you are not alone, you are calmer.
I thought that I ran to that village. As I passed through their field gardens I looked ahead and coming toward me, about 100 metres away, walked a German, with his sleeves rolled up and holding a submachine gun in his hands. He was walking along looking around. I quickly fell to the ground and drew a bead on him, just like a target on the firing range. Waiting for a moment until he stopped, I smoothly released the hammer. He fell, throwing up his hands. I made a beeline from that village, taking a path through the bushes and under the trees!
Having run about 800 metres, I returned to that same fork in the road where I had stood all day. I saw in the distance the vehicle that had come for me while I was en route to the village. Unable to find me, it was returning from whence it came. I ran after it. I was afraid to fire my weapon in the air- this would draw the attention of the Germans who, obviously were somewhere in the vicinity. To my good fortune, someone sitting in the back of the vehicle was looking in my direction and spotted me. They came back and picked me up.
What else do I remember form the first months of the war? A large number of dead bodies along the sides of the roads by which our troops and civilian population were retreating... Burning wheat fields... Black smoke that completely blotted out the sky, through which the sun was barely visible. They frequently show this picture in movies about the war and some point out that this was not real. But I want to insist this is the way it was!
I recall how on a small bridge in a destroyed vehicle a soldier was nearly cut in half and his still living torso was hanging by his intestines from the bridge. I remember a wounded border troop laying face down in a pool of blood that was flowing out of a nearby dead horse. From the bubbles in the pool I could tell that he was still alive. I turned him over on his back so he could breathe easier. Did the medics come by to pick him up later? Who knows.
One time a comrade and I barely missed being killed by a German light tank. The two of us were sent out on reconnaissance to determine if there were Germans in the area. We ran into this tank. For some reason it did not fire at us, perhaps it was distracted or wanted to take us with its tracks. We ran across a field for a long time, then into a field of hops. The poles that supported the vines were like telephone poles. The wires that hung from these poles were thick with vines. We were fortunate to come across this hop field and while the tank became tangled up in the support hardware, we continued to run. To this day I am surprised that our own legs did not get tangled up in the hops. If that had happened, it would have been curtains for us! Whoever has seen hops grow can understand what I am talking about. I also remember that our armored cars were very soft targets for the Germans and burned like matchsticks. They were easily shot through by the large-caliber German machine guns.
Three times I came out of encirclement On two occasions everything turned out alright and on the third—they had surrounded us in the Kiev area- during my escape I was wounded in the leg by a piece of mine shrapnel. They bandaged my left foot. The mine fragment had literally cut this foot in half a little bit below the toes, breaking all the bones except the one leading to my big toe. This was in October and we had been walking back toward our own lines for about a month. My comrades- scouts, cut off my boot that had quickly filled with blood, bandaged my foot, and dragged me in a poncho to some kind of shed. They found a medic, who sewed me up and placed a splint on my foot. He changed my bandage, gave me some food and water, and left me. Another wounded soldier, who could walk, was left with me.
As soon as the Germans entered the village, they announced with a loudspeaker from their vehicle that every soldier hiding there could give up without fear. They promised them their lives. The wounded soldier with me decided to surrender. He recommended that I do the same, but I refused. I asked him to help me burrow into the straw so that the Germans would not find me. He helped me and then departed. I never saw him again. The Germans, glancing into the shed, fired a short burst at the pile of straw, but to no avail. After this they gathered up their prisoners and left. I rested a while to gain strength and then began to infiltrate to the southeast, toward Dnepropetrovsk, on a makeshift crutch. Fortunately, this city was not too far away and it was my homeland. I was born in the village Troitskoe, Dnepropetrovsk area, Petropavlovsk region.
I had many relatives there, even though after the Civil War our family had been forced to leave for Baku in order to avoid deportation and famine. They “de-kulakized” my maternal grandfather [Bolsheviks called "kulaks" rich farmers; thus "de-kulakization" was an act of expropriation of all material goods including money, food stowage, houses, livestock, etc- Valera]. He had a modest farmstead and was so ashamed that he was “de-kulakized” by the very sot from our village.
The terrain across which I walked was very familiar to me, and through people I asked them to inform my relatives about me. In general they helped me to reach my relatives, though my grandfather at first did not even recognize me! It was difficult for him to recognize his grandson in this grown up and disheveled person. Later as my condition improved it was very interesting that no one turned me in to the Germans, even the local police, and in fact they treated me well! There were no Germans in the village itself, but they sometimes came through. On those occasions I simply tried not to look them in the eye. My foot gradually healed as time went by.
In October 1943, after the liberation of our village, I was once again drafted into the army. The military commission, after having examined my wound and then rejecting me for regular front line service, sent me initially to a driver-training course and later to the 12th Truck Regiment as a deputy commander of a training truck platoon. Our mission included not only training but also practically all the functions of providing transport services to the front lines. We were considered an auxiliary unit, though our cargoes of ammunition and shells were no less dangerous if one considers that sometimes we had to deliver them directly to the front lines, under artillery fire and German air attacks.
The German pilots were very punctual. If they spotted anything suspicious, they circled around and returned to check the target. They would pass over our head and fly off into the distance, until they were almost invisible, and then return. I had very acute vision and could see them so far away that frequently the regiment commander took me with him. If the situation from the sky worsened, we would quickly stop our vehicle and attempt to make it look abandoned. We would drop the sides, throw some things around, and then hide ourselves where we could. However, just the same the Germans made a circle and returned and sometimes, having fired off a burst of cannon or machine gun, flew onward.
In this manner, providing the required support to the vanguard of 2nd Ukrainian Front, I participated in the Jassy-Kishenev operation and latter the Budapest operations. It was particularly difficult during the capture of Budapest. There the delivery of ammunition was accomplished straight to the front line unit, under very heavy fire. They did not give us awards for this because we were an auxiliary unit. But God was with us and we received the number one award- our lives!
In Romania, because service as a driver entailed constant travel, I visited many towns and cities. To my surprise I quickly mastered the Romanian language, and after three or four weeks was able to speak freely in Romanian. I became so good at their language that at times the Romanians took me as one of their own. Sometimes “commercial” relationships developed with local nationals. If I was going somewhere empty, it was possible to pick up cargoes along the way, for which the Romanians gratefully rewarded me with whole barrels of wine.
Sometimes we managed to find something in abandoned German supply dumps. I recall that I really liked the German camouflage poncho. It was white on the inside and spotted on the outside. One could wear it so as to remain unseen in snow or vice versa. The Germans were well off in vehicles and equipment!
As a people, the Romanians were very friendly in spite of the fact that their soldiers had fought against us. How did our own soldier-liberators conduct themselves? It varied. On the whole, discipline was good. SMERSH [NKVD organs- trans.] was not asleep at the switch. Discipline fell dramatically when they began to send criminals to the front. Cases of theft from both military personnel and the local population immediately increased and it was out of this group that the phenomenon of dedovshina [hazing and physical abuse of soldiers by other soldiers, based primarily on time in service- trans.] developed.
Several of these criminals, who were being allowed to exculpate their guilt before the Motherland with their blood, were assigned to my platoon. But they hardly acknowledged their guilt and their inner nature did not change. After several instances of theft and assaults, and also open coarse behavior, we had to “re-educate” them in a language that they understood best of all. After their “re-education,” I did not hear of any more such cases in my platoon.
We did have our problems with other units. One time during an inspection I noticed that one of my soldiers had suffered a significant beating and was black and blue. After some questioning I learned that he had stood up for some Romanian who was being harassed by sailors of our Danube Flotilla. Naturally, the sailors were a little bit intoxicated with alcohol. Gathering up a group of my friends, fellow servicemen, and the beaten-up soldier, we went out in search of the sailors. We found them in one of the restaurants in quite a state of intoxication. We had a heated exchange of words. Of course, they had a sailor’s vocabulary and made a lot of faces. Suddenly one of them pulled out a pistol. One of my nearby friends attempted to disarm this sailor and I and another comrade came to his assistance. My friend was shot in the hand and the sailor was wounded in his leg. The sailors sobered up almost instantly, gathered up their wounded, and disappeared back to their own area uttering threats. Later we learned that they carried out their threats against those Romanians with whom the conflict had arisen in the first place. In the dark of night they shot into a window. Fortunately, because the window was well above floor level, no one inside the dwelling was injured. The entire family fell to the floor and watched their ceiling be riddled with bullets. This Romanian family fled the area to avoid further harassment. Such things happened.
I remember driving around Budapest and seeing the wreckage of a shot-down German airplane protruding from the upper floor of a building.
When the attack on the city was launched, I had to evacuate the diplomats’ children from the Italian embassy. I was to take them away from the combat actions. I took the smallest into the cab of the truck and put the rest in the cargo compartment. It was winter, and out of concern lest the children freeze, I put straw on the floor. While we were driving a “lapotnik”[This is a Russian nickname for the German FW-190- V.Potapov] flew over us, firing a burst of machine gun fire. I drove the truck to the side of the road and put the nose in the ditch, stopped the truck, grabbed the children from the cab and jumped out. Then I dropped the tailgate and the children in the back jumped down. I well remember a small girl, about four years old, who hung onto my collar so we would not get separated! I carried her in my arms. We quickly scattered the hay around, trying to create the impression that the truck was damaged, and then ran to the nearest tree line with the children. I was carrying the little girl in my arms and the rest of them hovered around me like little chicks around the mother hen. We could easily be seen against the snow and were a good target.
Normally everyone runs in all directions, but in this case these were frightened children who did not even understand Russian. It was good that the German made a very wide circle for his turn. He became a small dot in the sky. By this time we were already in the tree line but I was fearful that the German would spot us and then casualties would be unavoidable. I lay down and the Italian children huddled tightly in a pile around me. I covered the little girl that was hanging around my neck with my body. The German fired a few more bursts into the truck and at the tree line, but to no avail. He didn't spot us and no one was hit. I drove the remainder of the trip without incident and later returned to the embassy for another load. It was good that no one froze. This was a great concern for me, with children, the winter, and an open vehicle. I sometimes wonder where are these children now and what became of them.
The Italian embassy gave me a certificate thanking me in the name of the Italian government for assistance in the evacuation of the children. However, taking advantage of the opportunity, I placed the certificate on the piano and left. Of course, it would have been a great keepsake, but in those times SMERSH was incarcerating people for less "mistakes", and that certificate was from an Fascist country. They additionally gave me two thick books, apparently about the history of Italian culture. They contained beautiful reproductions and I had to take them with me. They would have noticed right away if I did not. I did not want to offend them and I couldn’t take them. Leaving the embassy, I was very worried that SMERSH agents would stop me, the more so because the Italians had written dedicatory inscriptions in the books. I got rid of the books in the barracks. I had to tear out the dedicatory pages and destroy them, and hide the books under the bed in the corner. Later someone found the books and everyone looked at them with delight.
I was in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Austria. During one of my trips I saw how they were convoying many of our soldiers and officers from Yugoslavia. Many of them were wearing combat orders and medals but no shoulder boards and they were under guard. It turned out that they had been arrested only because they were in Yugoslavia and officially married to local girls. These were the times. But this was already in 1946.
In Vienna I stopped by some kind of palace, the home of the local mayor. The windows were broken and crunched under our feet. The building itself had been damaged during the fighting for the city. On the walls hunk immense tapestries and very large-scale paintings. From childhood I very much loved to draw and looked at all of this with great interest. It was as though I was visiting a museum.
One time, it seems in Budapest, already after its capture, I was driving in a column with infantry and suddenly a grenade exploded! The vehicle in front of me stopped, the soldiers dispersed from it, and someone was wounded and the driver killed by shrapnel. It turned out that someone threw a grenade down from above, from a roof. Our men quickly searched him out- some kind of SS soldier. The city was already in our hands and instead of fleeing the city, he continued to fight. When his ammunition was expended, they captured him. In the anger of the moment the infantry stuffed him into a nearby cesspool. War is war.
The population of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia were exceptionally friendly to us. At times it was virtually impossible to move through their villages. They stopped our vehicles everywhere and showered us with treats. Their wine was excellent and the people friendly. We were their “brothers.” True, later Stalin argued with Tito. But this was later.
It was interesting that regardless of which country I was visiting, I very quickly learned the local language. In a week or two of exposure I was able to carry on conversation with local inhabitants. It was easiest of all for me to learn Romanian, but it is true that I spent the most time there. When I left for home, Romanians who knew me suggested that I stay. I knew their language well and they promised to make up the required documents for me. But Romania was not my home.
I was demobilized in June 1946, at that time the senior sergeant of the 15th Truck Regiment. I was 28 years old; I had left for the army in 1938 when I was 20. Eight years of my youth had passed in the army, in war and in the struggle to survive. Whatever I did, others were much less lucky than I. Many people had perished in the war!
I had two German pistols, one small Walther that was sometimes called a “lady’s” pistol and the other a Parabellum. This was a very powerful pistol, well made, reliable, able to hit a soldier’s helmet at a range of 100 metres! I also had a German submachine gun, but I did not like it and traded it for a sniper rifle. I threw away both pistols when I was going home and the train was approaching the border. Perhaps it would have been possible to keep both of them with me for souvenirs, but I very much wanted to go home and did not need any problems. So I abandoned them one after the other. I don’t even remember what I did with the sniper rifle.
People said that the train cars carrying soldiers would be thoroughly searched but this did not happen. I was carrying almost nothing with me. It would have been a bad example for officers to be dragging enormous trunks with trophy booty. Of course, I sent packages home to my relatives, great coat cloth or parachute silk. But that was all. I had hardly any photographs at all; I saved only those that I sent home in letters.
At one time I had a great number of photographs, but not long before demobilization they were all stolen. I kept them in a map case and hung it in the cab of my truck. It happened that I had to haul cargo to one of those places where there were many criminals. They felt themselves at liberty there. While they were unloading the cargo, someone distracted me. I left the cab of the truck and when I climbed back up ten minutes later, all that was left of my map case was the strap. They had cut it with a razor and fled. I did not even see them do it. They stole everything. But for me the war has remained in my memory for my entire life. For many decades at night I have dreamed that I was in the war.
Conversation recorded by Arkadiy Goncharov, based upon the oral recollections of his father Literary revisions: Valeriy Potapov Translated by James F. Gebhardt