The Russian Battlefield

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Vasiliy Kotov, artilleryman

Kotov, Vasiliy Fedorovitch, Private.
By the end of the war, he held the rank of Sergeant.
Awarded three "For Bravery" medals, two Orders of the Red Star, and one Order of the Patriotic War, First Degree.
Was wounded five times, three seriously.
Credited with destroying four tanks.

That Was the Beginning of the War

How did the war begin? You'd better read books about it and get a smoother picture. What can I tell you? In general-bad impressions. It was a mess. Stupidity. Everybody was waiting for orders and scared of everything. I guess we weren't scared of the Germans so much as of our own authorities.

First, we were got up on the 22nd when it was still dark, but nobody said a word abut the war. We were living in training camps at that time and thought the alarm was the beginning of ordinary training. Our platoon of the battalion's ordnance received an order to march somewhere. Dig trenches and defend a road. That's all. And we went on marching. The battalion went on foot, our officers rode horses, we followed horses which were pulling the cannons. Our first sergeant traveled by cart.

There is a lot of talk about bombing, the casualties caused by the German aircraft. That they were overhead all the time. I don't remember that. We didn't see much of their aircraft on the 22nd of June. Nor ours, by the way. We weren't bombed. They might have flown somewhere over the high roads or to the big cities. We were marching to the border and found out about the war only in the evening, by the time we took our positions. But we don't have shells. And the infantry had only a small number of cartridges. Don't ask me about the grenades: nothing of the kind!

To cut it short, we were supplied with shells half an hour after the German tanks had rolled us flat and crawled back. That's it. And then a "football game" began as we were receiving orders and each order was more weird than the previous one. First, run there! Then, all at once, halt! Then, go anyway, but in the other direction! Then, leave the cannons with the tanks and go dig trenches with the infantry! Then, take the cannons back! It was three days of this, perhaps more.

German aviation became more active by that time. Every day their kukuruzniks (corn sowers) flew over with "gifts." Either dropped a bomb or fired machine guns. We fired bach with rifles-without much sense, of course. Then they began to show up in groups. Dive bombers. They switch on a loud siren and fall from the sky, and this howling tears your guts out! And you know what? They used to come right when our air force wasn't available. Like they knew it beforehand. At first one aircraft comes flying just above the treetops. Sometimes it drops smoke screen. And at once the other aircraft start wailing with different voices. They caused more mess than casualties. They made our horses run astray and they burned many trucks.

Then there were rumors and orders about the Germans paratroops. Of course, the "paratroops" were equipped with tanks! And the authorities started sending us here and there against these " paratroops." Once our battalion began to fire on the battalion next to us, which had also been sent to liquidate these"paratroops". Before we identified each other, we had casualties and even fatalities, if I remember correctly. And there wasn't any enemy paratroops at all. There were rumors that German parachutists used Russian uniforms. I still don't understand why we didn't kill each other.

We got enough stupidity. Once our mess got lost somewhere. We were hungry as wolves! And see, here is a camp kitchen approaching along the road. Well, we came up with our cans. They won't let us go hungry! But they happened to carry grenades inside, F-1. Can you imagine that? Could they think of another kind of transport for the grenades? Grenades inside a can!

In general, there was a bad situation with the trucks. You see, tanks and tractors and trucks and carts go along the roads in all directions. All the roads had been demolished to nothing in those three days, because none of them were paved. So after the very first rain, the tracks looked like anti-tank trenches. And there was nobody who knew other routes! Why other routes? A commander gives the order to go through such and such villages (and another one mentions only these villages), and don't try to make any other turn! Disobedience of the order! Everybody scared. We reported honestly what was real and what seemed to be real.

What seemed real? Hallucinations? I'd never believe it if it had happened to anybody else, but it was me! In the beginning of July my cannon was assigned to a tank destroyer and I was ordered to guard a small bridge. You know, not to let anybody cross the bridge. Our troops could not get there by any means. Well, I am standing at my post guarding. And in the evening I see three tanks coming across the bridge. I saw perfectly the white crosses on the turrets. I wasn't the only one who saw them. Matthew Zabrodin, the loader, is hollering, "Germans!" I fired at the head tank with my cannon. The tank driver was injured; the other two were all right and jumped out of the tank, thank God. The second tank injured two soldiers from my crew. But those tanks were ours. There weren't any crosses on the turrets! There was absolutely nothing of white color on the turrets! Hallucinations? I was fit to be tied. It passed me by. Then we were told to give our cannons back to the tankists (they didn't have tanks, though) and return to the infantry!

We made a line of defense along the bank of a river. We gathered strength there. We had tanks, cannons and ammunition. We had been preparing a counterattack. But the next day we learned that we were standing in the Germans' rear. We received neither the order to withdraw nor the one to counterattack. First we were waiting for the order, then the communications broke down. And we waited there for five days. We'd been waiting for help or an order, any order. But we received nothing. Germans didn't attack us. Their aircraft appeared now and then and dropped a few bombs at a time. They guessed rightly that we'd die of hunger anyway. On the fourth day our food supplies came to an end. We still didn't have communication with our command, although we had sent a delegation by tank. What to do? Our officers were afraid to sneeze without an order from Headquarters.

On the sixth day we somehow decided to go towards our troops, perhaps we had received such an order. The tankists had little petrol. Two tanks were sent to guard. We are going along the road. We made thirty kilometers that day and approached a small town. In the town we found some grub and petrol. We also took four trucks in good condition. Beside that, we found an abundant fabric storehouse . Our commander ordered me to blow up the store because I had learned mining before the war and knew, though only in theory, how to blow things up.

I was given a truck with a driver, a detonator, a backpack full of explosives, and two soldiers to help me. As we were setting the stuff and fixing the wire, look, some women are approaching! They say, "Here, commander, are you going to blow up this fabric store?" I respond that I am going to do what I have been ordered to do. They started talking me into letting them take something out of the store, so all the good things wouldn't be destroyed for nothing. They said they had nothing to wear. Well, I let them! But only for ten minutes. Then I shouted, "Everybody out!"

Where did all of those people come from? They flooded the store and carried off bolts of cloth. There was heavy cloth and linen, and whatnot. Everybody is hurrying, dropping things, everything is a mess. And here comes my soldier, running up. He reports that the Germans have been seen at the opposite edge of the town, riding on motorbikes! I shouted at the top of my voice. The women ran away. I waited a little and touched the button. It blew like hell! The walls fell inside. We climbed on the truck and went to catch up with our unit. That was the first time I can recall when we blew up something before withdrawing.

By the time we joined the main force, our own troops were diminished. First, or tanks and trucks started to break down. At first we repaired them. And we waited for them. Then we started to take the broken trucks in tow. But that led to the other trucks breaking down, so we decided to leave them "out of order." We take the cartridges, machine guns, and gunlocks out of the tanks. The petrol is syphoned to the gas tanks of other trucks and tanks. Then we pour some petrol on the turret and set it on fire!. We fired six of our own tanks that way.

Then we heard the sound of fighting and decided that our main force was nearby. So we rushed in that direction. Suddenly, we were shelled by heavy guns. I ran like a hare, without looking where I was running. But those who fired were also ours. I don't know how I managed to get to the right place. We had been shelled because the Germans had made a reconnaissance with "coffins" [armored cars] and motorbikes along the same road shortly before our appearance. We had somehow crossed the Germans without seeing them. That was how I was in surrender, but never saw the Germans and came out of it without a fight. God saved me.

It was good that I went through it and got a German rifle. Lucky boy! A gun! As I was an ordnance man, I shouldn't have had a rifle. But I had broken through the line and gotten an enemy gun. That was very nice. Who could say that I didn't get it in battle? Nobody. And I surely confirmed this statement. Actually, I received the rifle in exchange for our cannon that was taken from us by order of our command. That was how I was promoted and became a commander of a cannon of our regiment's ordnance. Soon afterwards, though, I was wounded and didn't take part in the battles until autumn.

You keep asking me about our failure in the summer of 1941? It wasn't a failure. It was misfortune, that's all. What do you want, then? What the war seemed to be? Not the least as we had expected. The war was fast and tough. We had no time to cope with the details. We were impressed by all the military cars that the Germans had, but we didn't. Mobility was their "joker." Then, they had been trained much better. A German unit went into battle and worked like a Swiss watch. We had, you might say, all the parts, but didn't work as a whole. What can I say about the level of our training, when we only started learning how to fire guns in May '41?

How could we know how to fight? We had been building our military base instead of training in the year since I was drafted. We did all the brick and wood work, installed electric wire, just like real builders. If we hadn't, we would have had to pass the winter in tents. Then, we worked in the fields and helped the peasants from the western Ukraine with the harvest. In winter we started field training, too. Once in winter, we had a march along the roads. At last! The older soldiers said that before the war against Finland, they were taught more about how to march and recite slogans than how to shoot. Perhaps after that war, the high command understood that independence of the units in battle was badly needed, as well as communication and rational initiative on the lowest level. They decided to develop all of these. They were late. How could they manage it; they had only started in the spring?

In 1943 I was sure in my defense. And I was sure of my commanders, too. Even the weakest lieutenant in '43 knew much more than a lieutenant before the war. Before the war the command put everything right into your mouth, ready to digest. Just swallow it! Don't try to think or invent something by yourself! And suddenly you got to know that a war is a real thing, not a picture. You know, they usually kill in war. What now? At first, we used to ask headquarters how to deal with every detail. Couldn't do a thing without an order. But headquarters doesn't know itself which way to turn. It is a war! And any break in communication with the high command means the end for an officer. Officers were often desperate. So we used to guess: would they come to the right decision or not?

That is why so many soldiers surrendered. Look, a unit like ours is left by itself for several days. The officers are scared to sneeze without a special order. There is neither an order to withdraw nor a food supply. And besides, they are running out of ammunition. Silly gossip circulates through the unit. The unit becomes demoralized. And at that very moment the Germans are approaching in armored cars. Bitte-dritte, welcome to surrender! And we don't even have a gun to shoot at them. Some units were taken prisoners like this. My brother-in-law survived it. The worst and most frightening thing was, he said, that it was so well arranged. There was something unnatural about it. It was a shame. They could have run and escaped, but it seemed, well, unconventional. Their battalion was escorted by only two Germans. Our soldiers were so desperate that they obeyed them like commanders. We had been trained to obey too much. Later we started to learn how to think. Well...

We weren't defeated in 1941. The Germans couldn't manage to win in a couple of months as they planned. They failed with all their European military training and machinery. What are you saying? They didn't fulfill their plans! It was their defeat, not ours. And when we understood that, we started to beat them. Then we fought as we could. They did better, but complained of problems on the Eastern Front.

That's how the war began.

Interview: Mikhail Svirin
Translated by: Anton Kravchenko
Proofreading: Claire Fuller Martin

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