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Michail Badigin, artilleryman

Our barrels are long, our lives are short...

Michail Badigin is full Cavalier of the Order of Glory, joined the war in February 1942


- It was not my plan to become an anti-tank artillery man. I was in the mortar officer training. The training was cancelled, and the whole academy was sent out to the Stalingrad front to reinforce the 169th Rifle Division. And in five minutes I switched from a mortar operator to 45 mm gun tank destroyer. And served in AT artillery till the end of the war, but with different guns. First I switched to 57 mm, then to 76 mm gun...

- Say, 122 mm gun-howitzers, 152 mm howitzers and other big stuff are standing some 3-5 km behind the front-line infantry. And the anti-tank guns are, as a rule, just next to the infantry, "sorokopyatka" [a nickname for 45 mm anti-tank gun, basically means No.45 - transl.] would stand really close... or in some 50 metres behind the infantry. And when the infantry go to storm the enemy, you roll your gun, suppressing the MG-nests together with the infantry. And this is when you are in a bad spot: say, German MG opens fire. The infantry, they can duck for cover, and you’re just rolling your gun on, and they’re shooting at you. And the howitzers - nobody rolls them, they are standing, they are dug-in, and they are stationary. That’s the difference. As the saying goes, our barrels are long, our lives are short in anti-tank artillery...

- "Sorokopyatka" was the first one. The second system - that was after I came back from the hospital... I got the 57 mm gun. That was 1943. And in 1943, again after another wound, I got the 76 mm gun [throughout the whole war Badigin was wounded 5 times - at Stalingrad, at Lugansk, after that - location unknown, two more wounds in Poznan’ - Valeri Potapov]. We entered Berlin with 76 mm guns.

- And you were firing from open positions?

- Well, how can you have closed position in street fighting? You’re just rolling your gun down the street. The assault groups: infantry, 76 mm gun, and a tank. The mission is the building, help the infantry to get it. We’re opening on the basement windows: this is where the German guys with panzerfausts would be. So we’re getting them out of there. We would not spare the ammo, it was not like in the Ukraine, when we had just one piece of ammo per gun a day. Here we had plenty of ammo and we used it generously, because every shell was sparing life of our soldiers.

- Well, "sorokopyatka"...actually, it was a wonderful gun! It only weights 540 kg - very manoeuvrable, it’s easy to handle. Even if you get stuck in a shell hole you and your crew can pull it out...very precise. But the armour penetration capacity is low. When those new Tigers came in, it could not penetrate them, even if hitting the side. Later it was ordered out of service. We got new 57 mm guns. This one is stronger and the shell is heavier. Greater direct shot range, too. Excellent gun! In 1943 we received sub-caliber shells. You know, it’s an amazing shell! It was made out of light alloy, and had a wolfram kernel inside. When it hit the tank, the shell itself would disintegrate, and all the kinetic energy was concentrated in the core, and it would go right through the armour [In post-war period the design was changed and the shell disintegrated when fired - just the core flew on - Valeri Potapov]. Say, you hit a tank in a side at 700-800 metres - it would go right through the tank, and go out on the other side.

- Gunner is the key figure in the crew. Almost everything depends on him, you see? What’s the man problem of firing at a tank? Tank is on the move all the time. If it stands it is easy to hit. But range correction...A gunner has to have all the skills of firing at moving targets. Coolness comes later - you are stressed, but your brain works well, you scan and control everything. And if you have such a gunnner, you’ll have success. I’ve been gun commander since Stalingrad battle... This is where our gun commander was wounded, so I had to replace him. I stayed in this position till the end of the war.

- How many gunners did you have during the war?

- I can’t remember them all ...there were KIAs, there were wounded...Somehow I remember the 8th of August 1944...That day we lost three guns, 50 percent of personnel, although we knew about the incoming German attack, we knew about it at 10.00 AM! Our intelligence worked well, they warned us...it was such a total mess! So many of our guys lost their lives there!

- Throughout the whole war we slept in trenches; in the best case trench were covered with lids from ammo boxes or a raincoat, but often we would not even have these things...

- A tank? If the tank crew know where the gun is, then your chances are small. If they don’t, it is easier. The main thing is to choose a right position. You have to look at the terrain and guess, where the tank commander or driver will direct his vehicle. You can really predict it. If there is a hill, a tank would never go over it; it will always bypass it. So you have to position your gun in a way that a tank will expose its side. Then you can let it come as close as 400 metres, because you will kill it with the first hit on the side.

- If you choose position improperly, tank would go right at you. Sorokopyatka would never penetrate the front armour, even with that longer barrel: shots just ricochet; that’s it! It’s the same with throwing peas against the wall! We got 57 mm guns instead. These ones could penetrate the front armour. At 600-700 metres 57 mm sub-caliber shells dealt with all armour very well. We first received them in 1943. That changed things a lot... The enemy did not expect this - and all of a sudden what the hell? Before they attacked and never had losses that high, and here not a single tank survived.

- Engagements against tanks as they depict them now, when the whole crew, all seven, are at the gun - we would never in life do that. There were just two at the gun - the gunner and the loader. The rest were in trenches with light MG and SMGs. We would set two to three ammo boxes at the gun before the combat. That was enough. If they spend one ammo box, then the loader would run and get another. That was the way, it just worked out spontaneously.

- The crucial thing is here, and it comes with experience - to hit the tank in the right moment! If you let the tank too close, the tank can accelerate. It might be hard for tank to destroy the gun with a shell - it’s just the shield and the barrel almost at the ground level that shows. When the tank is too close, it can drive over your fire position and smash the gun, if you don’t hit it right. The tank would not always stop even if you hit it. Some burn and some just move on! We had this case at Riga bridgehead on the 8th of August 1944: we hit the tank, we saw it was a kill, but nevertheless it rolled on and smashed the gun. It arrived at the fire position at the high speed and squished it. If you have a chance, you should always burn the tank...

Badigin has scored 7 tank kills in the war (tank kills, APCs and all the other "small things" do not count - Valeri Potapov). Seven kills. Is that a lot? Some tell us, they have scored more in a single engagement. However, Badigin is very precise and punctilious person. Just seven kills. So is that a lot? It is, indeed. If every our anti-tank gun had killed just one German tank, by mid-war the Germans would not have had any armour left!

- And there was this order - I don’t know, who established it. During the winter we all received 100 gramms of Vodka. I did not drink at all, I mean, during the war - even when they issued it, I would not drink. I just did not feel confident. But when one of us was awarded, I would participate in the party, of course...

[Badigin recalls his gunner Valiev from Chimkent].

- He enjoyed great authority. Digging a trench, digging-in the gun, gun and small arms maintenance - he was very strict about all this. Even if we fired one shot and we had a break, he would tell the crew to clean the barrel. The guys did not like it. But we would have been dead if something went wrong with the gun. To have sharp shovels - it all hung upon him. He was seemingly very slow, but in the assault he would act very confidently, precisely, not a single unnecessary move. My loader was Naumenov. He was just huge. He could lift two ammo boxes, which weighted over 100 kg, and load them into "Studebecker" truck.

- It was street fighting in Poznan. The closer we got to the fortress, the stronger the resistance was. As we fired, the gun jumped back on the stone-paved street. You could not get the gun fixed on those damn stones. You just roll the gun forward, fire, it jumps back, and you roll it on. That was in the evening. Normally you walk right by the house walls, and if shelling starts, you jump in a window for cover. Just as we started to cross the street, mines started to explode all around. I heard guys shouting: "Valiev got hit!" We grabbed him, no time to put bandages, we had to get him out of there. We pulled him out, and his finger was hanging freely, just on a piece of the skin. He told us to cut it off. It was hard to put bandage on him, so we just cut it off...I ...thought that only one of his legs got hit. It turned out that both of his legs were wounded. What a bad luck! He also lost his finger.

- And our platoon leader was Tikhon Yakovlevich Goloschapov, born in 1923. An excellent comrade! One has to say that officers’ life at FEBA differed a lot from that in the rear. We would not salute too much...At the combat area you can’t really give orders if you had given up or hidden somewhere in a dangerous moment...you can’t sit in the trench and give orders...

- The most difficult part in the war is work, a physically exhausting work that was to be done before you can assault the enemy - that was the easy part, actually. Many people think that war is just fighting all the time. No! It is a continuos effort. Fighting is like a dream - it passes by, and it is gone! And you have to work again and again. In order to dig in a 45-mm gun one has to dig out thirty cubic metres of soil, and for the 76-mm gun you have to take out fifty-six cubes. In peacetime it would take two days. In the war you had to manage before dawn. 45-mm gun crew is six, the 76-mm gun crew is seven. The difference is just one soldier, but one has to dig almost twice as much! We dug so much, that several dozens of people would not dig in their whole life. It would be like this: we have dug ourselves in, but generals decide to move the battery one km to the right. You have to dig again, those whole fifty-six cubes. Before you finish it they say - five kilometres to the left. So you dig again. Sometimes this would last for two weeks - just digging.

- Soldiers were getting exhausted both physically and morally; they could not take it any more. However, this was a war, not a picnic, we had missions stated. You don’t dig yourself in - you’re dead. Only if you have dug the gun in you can fight and win in your sector. If you are not dug in - you won’t hold long. First, as a rule, we would dig trenches for cover, and only after that a fortification for the gun. As soon as you dig two bayonets deep (for those who have never had business with shovels - "two bayonets" means two shovel blades in deep - Valeri Potapov) you are safe, you can duck there. And there was this rule of thumb - it was not a regulation, but we strictly stuck to it - you dig a trench close to a shell or mine hole. Because we, as artillerists, knew, that it is very hard to hit the same spot twice... We felt ourselves more secure...

- I spent just two and a half months in Stalingrad, but we changed at least thirty to forty positions, not less! It’s several hundreds kilometers! A dozer would not be able to dig as much as we did! You have to start digging from the middle. If you start digging from the edge, and all of a sudden you have to open fire, you don’t have any place to put your gun. And when you start from the middle, you put it there, and it sinks 20 cm into the ground. The second point is soldier’s physiology. It is harder to throw soil from the middle, but a soldier is fresh now. We also had pick axes. That was indispensable. A couple of pick axes, two crow-bars and seven shovels.

- Small or large?

- There is no use for small one, you can’t dig much with a small shovel. A breastwork has to be two bayonets deep into the ground - 40 cm. And it also has to be 20 cm high. Total of 60 cm. And this is not for fun, it was calculated: you also had to shape it so that it could stop fragments and bullets. But digging was not the only thing we had to do in the war.

- There were no highways there; it was more like wild terrain. Pretty often we had to carry the gun around, and sometimes even pull the trucks themselves. When the gun stands on solid ground, it easy to handle, but when in dirt, it is ten times as heavy. Nevertheless, we pushed it, metre after metre, using all kinds of tricks, we pushed it on, hiding behind the armour shield...Say, 57 mm gun has a weight of 1250 kg. I have to say it was very manoeuvrable. Pretty successful design, from my point of view. It had wheels - five soldiers could handle it quite well...

- One thing I remember very well is when the weather let us down in Ukraine. That was early 1944. Normally you have snow and solid-frozen soil in December and January. It began that way. After that a thaw came, it all melted, soil turned into a quagmire. We would sometimes make an advance of three to four km a day. Either the gun or truck got stuck all the time. We pull out the gun - the truck gets stuck, and all over again. Only through the help of local population we managed to advance that much in 1944, up to Odessa, and liberated Odessa...

- During the night you re-deploy and dig the gun in. No time to sleep. It is not insomnia - there is just no time to sleep. In the morning you there is an artillery preparation, you move on together with the infantry. The next night you are digging again. Three or four days exhaust you to such an extent that you become indifferent, you are not even happy to live anymore.

- The last engagement, for which I actually got my Order of Glory First Degree was in Berlin. It was not so far from Reichstag building...We could not see it though because of the buildings. That day it was just 500 to 600 metres from Reichstag. Our guys were assaulting a six-floor building. The infantry stick to the building walls, shooting at the other side of the street, and we are rolling our gun. When we saw a single German soldier, we would open up on him, not sparing the ammo. We had instructions to fire at even single soldiers. And here this monster appears from behind the corner. The infantry ran back and jumped into the windows right away, kind of showing that it was not their job. It was so sudden and so close...

- Was it a Tiger?

- It was a Ferdinand [Ferdinands didn't participate Battle for Berlin, more likely it was StuG - Valeri Potapov]. Just 60 or 70 metres from us...here it is! And turns its 'knob' (means muzzle brake - Valeri Potapov)! And it faced us with its front armour, you see, that was the bad thing! If it exposed its side armour, it would have been easier, and this...This was a matter of who shot first. We could not escape anyway! A one shot matter. Well, our gun was fast. To our luck it fried after our first shot.

Source: "Russkij Dom" magazine, #1 1997.
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