I have a picture of SU-76 over my desk, and it reminds me of my young days, which were closely connected to this vehicle, about wartime friends and events, about my job at Kubinka proving grounds and all the following things.
Let me start from the beginning. In March 1943, after leaving hospital, I was sent along with other soldiers to 15 training self-propelled artillery regiment, located at Iksha station of Savelovskaya railway. The regiment was deployed on the territory of incomplete “Gidroprivod” factory. The order and cleanliness of the base surprised me. I was even more surprised and put on my guard by the guardsmen at the regimental banner. They were dressed in dark blue overalls and tanker’s helmets. There was a strange vehicle standing at the HQ building. It had the chassis of the German Pz-III tank, but instead of turret it had some weird armoured superstructure, resembling self-made armored trains of the Civil war times. It was housing a ZIS-3 gun, very well familiar to all frontline soldiers.
An aspiration to make this excellent and reliable gun mobile on the battlefield caused this hybrid to come to life. The decision was quite timely, and allowed our early self-propelled artillery to use captured tanks. Several regiments of these vehicles were sent to war. But what will be my military profession now? A driver, an artillerist or a tanker? Before being wounded in January 1943 I was towing a 120mm regimental mortar with my 1.5 ton GAZ-AA truck, which driver’s cabin was popularly called “say bye-bye to your health” (To be honest, horses, however archaic they could seem, were more efficient than trucks during the winter). The 15th regiment, subordinate to the Head Artillery Department, was involved in training primarily truck and tank drivers. After three months of training the drivers were issued a hand-written certificate, that this or that person is qualified to drive ZIS-5 and GAZ-AA trucks. The certificate was signed by the chief of staff and the clerk, and then stamped. It was possible to get this certificate from the clerk for a glass of "makhorka" (home-grown tobacco, it was very popular in Red Army) if the clerk liked you…
The tank drivers (who were as a rule recruited from truck and tractor drivers) were getting their military profession put into their papers upon the completion of the course and promotion of the graduates to the rank of sergeant. Theoretical lectures were held in classroom that had SU-76 engine and its transmission - both assembled and disassembled.
The first version of SU-76 (SU-12) had 26-cylinder carburetor engines GAZ-202 of 75 h.p. each. The two engines had their own radiators, clutches, their own gearboxes and transmissions. All these mechanisms were placed in the front of the hull, and between them was the driver’s seat. One can imagine, how hard it was to operate a vehicle with two gearboxes and two clutches.
Two famous Soviet designers - Lipgart and Astrov, changed the destiny of the SP gun. In 1942 they rebuilt it based on GAZ-202 engines. Now SP’s engine was made up of two engines with consequently joined crankshafts. This engine, installed on a single framework, had one tow-disked clutch and one 4-speed gearbox, produced initially at Moscow, and later at Ural’s ZIS factory. The engine of 150 h.p. was located at the right side of the hull and was, despite its length, quite compact and relatively easy to maintain. A common cooling system with a single cellular radiator and 6-….. fan was handled cooling very well. The transmission was also simplified, and in many features replicated the transmission of mass-produced pre-war T-26 tank.
This is how SU-76 (SU-15) came forth. Open hull and low back wall of the fighting compartment provided the crew with excellent conditions for intensive fire. German “Artshturm” SP gun with 75 mm gun (Soviet codename for StuG 40) was beautiful outwardly, but conditions for crew were quite inconvenient and physically intolerable because of gas and empty cartridges accumulation.
My tank driver’s training was almost completed. It assumed 18 hours of actual tank driving. In reality we would not get more than 3 hours. I, however, was luckier. In late August 1943 our regiment was relocated from Iksha station to Ivanteevka. I was among the guys who drove the SP’s we used for training on mudroads of Moscow area. That was the time when I appreciated excellent driving characteristics and wonderful mobility of “Colombina” - all SU-76’s arrived at destination without any breakdowns. SP’s with 122mm gun on T-34 chassis (SU-122) arrived a day later because of technical problems. We ended up at Mamonovka station, where 999th Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment was in the process of formation. We received other 21 vehicles in Kirov. Experts were murmuring: we would have been better off getting vehicles from Gorki Factory, what can these guys in Vyatka make anything except for their toys? But vehicles manufactured in Kirov were in no respect worse than the ones produced in Gorki or Mytischi. Except for SU-76s we received twenty ZIS-5 trucks, twenty GAZ-AA trucks with fully closed, although wooden, driver’s cabins, two field repair workshops on GAZ-M chassis, and Antonov oil-heaters. The HQ received Dodgeѕ and two Willis jeeps. To enhance batteries’ independence, they were all allocated a “Komsomolets” tracktor, a Willis jeep and a “Red October” motorcycle. However, before leaving for the front, all this surplus equipment was taken away.
The whole regiment had less than 180 personnel. We embarked on the train in Mytischi in late November 1943. As soon as we hit the road, the poor third food ration was switched to richer second one. We ate soup with canned red fish. But where were we going? Nobody knew that. After a 10-day-long travel, which was just one long sequence of destruction sights - blown-up bridges, burnt-down houses, ditched train cars, scattered pieces of metal, we crossed Dnieper by a weak wooden bridge, and saw the long-suffering city of Kiev. 100 more kilometres to the west we disembarked from the train at Irsha station under bombs of “Junkers”, which seemed to have appeared out of the blue. From Iksha to Irsha.
But the losses from bombs were insignificant. The second ration was changed again to the first one. Now we were getting 900 grams of bread and 100 grams of vodka. Having recovered from the air assault, we deployed in a column and moved westwards on a winter road. At a small village called Chelovichi we painted all SP’s and trucks white with chalk paint, according to the order of our command. There was a lot of chalk - Ukraine is famous for that.
In the night our battery entered a strange village with our lights off. The exhaust pipes were gleaming on the right sides of vehicles’ hulls. Digits and arrows were shining with phosphorus light on my console.
My feet in boots and leg-wrappings were frozen to a degree of total insensitivity. My right shoulder was hot; the left one was cold, neighboring the gas tank with 400 litres of B-70 petrol. Antifreeze was used in the cooling system, and the most dangerous thing was to miss the moment when temperature (after the engines had been turned off) drops below minus 35 degrees Celsius - if the temperature was lower, one could have problems with starting the engine.
One of the few shortcomings of the vehicle were its weak two 6V6ST-140 accumulators. If the driver missed or slept through the moment of critical temperature drop, there was still a hope of electrical start. For this procedure the electrical network was rearranged in a way so that one of the starters was receiving twice as much power and could rotate the crankshafts with greater momentum. If this procedure didn’t work, there was a hope to start the engine with help of a huge crank, which needed strength of two or even three people. The last hope was to start the engine through towing the vehicle with another SU-76. However, this was the most barbarian thing you could do because of the transmission overload.
In order to stretch my legs and warm up a little I got out of the vehicle through my hatch, walked around the vehicle and checked whether the tracks had been strained evenly. Excellently controllable “Colombina” was very sensitive to uneven track strain. The way to check whether the track strain was right was very easy - one just had to step on a track part hanging from the drive sprocket - two track links were supposed to lie on the ground. If more than two track links were on the ground - the tracks were strained too weakly. Less than two track links on the ground meant that it was strained too tightly.
It was all quiet around. On my right and left I could see peasant’s houses with heyroofs. Getting back on my driver’s seat, I looked at the thermometer and, having realised the temperature level allows me to take a half an hour nap, closed the hatch. I woke up from strong knock on the front hull and loud curses. Opening my hatch a little, I saw two officers dressed in clean white sheepskins. One of them, short and fat, had a papakha on. The other one, tall and slim, was holding the flashlight for the former. “Why are you parked here? Where is your commander?” - the papakha guy shouted, trying to prod me with his stick. I slammed the hatch, catching the stick. “Let the stick go!” - papakha guy ordered. Opening the hatch a little, I let the stick go. The fat and the slim went around the vehicle, and started to knock on the turret, calling for the commander. Junior Lieutenant Karginov, having taken away the tarpaulin covering the rear part of the vehicle, jumped down to the ground and received several strikes on his back. The battery commander who ran to the scene also got his portion of curses - it turned out that we parked our vehicles in a wrong place.
Battery commander and the commanding officer walked on, telling us to follow them. At the first speed and low gas the vehicle was not producing any noise, even on solid-frozen ground. A T-34 would have woken everybody up in radius of three kilometers with its clinking tracks. At the dawn our infantry moved on to capture the village. Several times the Russian grey overcoats were standing up, but they could not take that village. There was an 8-wheeled German gun-armed armoured car at the outskirts of the village, pinning our infantry down by its fire. Lt. Karginov told me to turn the SP to the right and our second shot blew the turret off the German armoured car. This was our first, and, unfortunately, the last victory. Two days later a large German SP penetrated front armour of my “Colombina” by an armor-piercing round at some 1500 meters. Following recommendations of experienced drivers, I would leave the front gas tank full, and would use the rear gas tank. This is why we did not explode immediately after being hit.
I tore pockets off my jacket earlier in the train. I also had my belt with TT pistol under the jacket - all these things helped to jump out of the vehicle without getting stuck. I sensed the hit right after I saw the shot blast. I flew out of the hatch, which I had open, and ran forwards, trying to get as far from the vehicle as I could. I stumbled and fell into a trench. Lying there, I heard the explosion of gas in the vehicle. After that the ammo started to detonate. When it was all over, I walked back to my “Colombina”, which now looked like a witch, not the beauty it used to be. I was scared of taking a look at the fighting compartment. I felt bitter, sad and lonely.
All of a sudden I heard: “Ulanov, run over here!” Three guys were looking from behind a barn. I ran up to them - they were my crew! All alive!
For several days NKVD officer has been scrutinizing us - probably, we burnt the vehicle by ourselves? Later he left us alone, having realised we were innocent. Technical officer of the regiment ordered me to take over a truck from a soldier who got sick. First I was transporting wounded soldiers on hey in the truck, and after that the regiment’s liaison officer.
In late December I took my boss and another staff officer to the city. When approaching a destroyed bridge across Uzh river, my truck detonated an anti-tank mine by its left front wheel. The blow was so strong, that I blacked out. But I had that stupid thought: the engine blew up. After I recovered, I opened my eyes but could not see anything. I tried to scratch my eyes, but my hands encountered canvas on the face. So I took it off, and, being so happy that I can still see, started to touch the windshield. It was so transparent and clear - it was simply not there! The radiator, the engine cowling and the cabin’s left door were also missing.
When I fell out of the cabin I saw that the wheel was also missing and the axle was in a small depression in frozen soil. Captain Semenov, who sat next to me, was wounded in his stomach and feet. And the liaison officer was hit by the headlight and thrown out of the truck’s body. We stayed out in the frost for two ours, before he could bring the medics in. I had shell shock, a chemical burn, and frostbites on hands, nose and ears, and numerous scratches on my left hand and leg. I don’t know what happened to the captain. I myself spent three weeks lying on hey in a hospital and after that was directed to bettering soldiers’ battalion.
On the way to a town called Ovruch I saw a column of factory-fresh SU-76’s. My hart started to beat faster - “if I can’t make it to my regiment, I will ask these guys to take me” - I thought. The chief of staff, dressed in a luxurious fur vest, looked at me with suspicion. I was a guy in a greatcoat without a flip, unshaved, with a frostbitten face and a chewed up tanker’s helmet on uncombed hair. He recommended me to recover some more, come to full strength and regain appearance fit of a sergeant of the Red Army. I guess he was right. In Ovruch, having learned that I was a driver and also a tank driver, the representative of the 26th independent Security Company belonging to the 13th Army HQ “hired” me. There I was put to run the only captured tank they had - Pz. IV. As I drove several dozens of kilometers on the tank, I had an opportunity to evaluate its driving characteristics and driver-friendliness. Both were worse than ones of SU-76 were.
Huge 7-speed gearbox, positioned to the right from the driver’s seat, was bothering me with its heat, howling and strange smells. The tank’s suspension was harder, than the one of SU-76. The noise and vibration of “Maybach” engine was giving me headaches. The tank devoured huge amounts of fuel. Dozens of buckets had to be poured into the tank through single funnel, which was very uncomfortable. The former driver, having come back from hospital, wanted to get his job back. He started to build a scheme against me, saying, that Ulanov was lazy, slept all the time, the vehicle was not maintained properly and in general he was a suspicious guy. And eventually he got what he wanted. It was a pretty safe spot - the Army’s HQ has never been closer than 20 km to the combat area, and the tank only carried some five pieces of ammo. So I was relocated to operate a small BA-64 armored car.
In May 1944 we were offered to go to armor school in Moscow. I gladly accepted the offer. However, instead of Moscow we, several cadets, ended up at the junior lieutenants’ courses of the 13th Army in Kremenets town in Western Ukraine. All our protests were in vain. They threatened to deprive us of our Komsomol membership. We had to subdue ourselves.
Graduating the three-month courses were rifle and machine-gun platoon commanders. I ended up at MG platoon commanders’ training. The main subjects were political education, tactics and hardware. The basic requirement was to assemble and disassemble the heavy Maxim, DP, infantry version of Degtyarev, and the German MG-34 with eyes closed. In late August 1944 I graduated as a junior lieutenant, a commander of a machine-gun platoon. My last name was 232nd on the graduation order list.
When the unit was in process of formation in Dembe town in Poland, an officer arrived at the regiment. He had a leather jacket and Armor Corp’s insignia - according to the order of the Front’s Staff he was searching out SP-gunners who somehow ended up in infantry.
I came up to him and reported that I was a trained SU-76’s driver.
- And would you handle commanding a SP?
- I can do that.
In 15 minutes, having turned the platoon over to my substitute, I sat in the truck that carried “caught” SP-gunners away. In 1228th Self-propelled artillery regiment I received a well worn, but well working vehicle. My driver was Pisanko from Kharkov (born 1928). He was a slim and weak guy, with a red nose, but very dependable.
Dear Pisanko! You saved my life, stopping the vehicle when I, walking in front of the vehicle, suddenly fell through the gap in a bridge flooring when crossing Visla at night…
My crew’s gun-layer was an older Migalatiev, who served in artillery even during WWI. The loader was Tsarev, who previously served on a heavy 152mm SP - he was so happy that he no longer had to carry 40 kg shells around - our shells weighted just 12,5 kg. The same day we were instructed how to engage Tigers. 2 SPs work together. One SP opens fire, and, backing up, serves as bait for a Tiger. When the Tiger has his side exposed, the second SP opens on him at 300m or less. The trick was so simple!
After 80-km long march and crossing Visla at night, we dug five vehicles of our battery in, covering 1 km of frontline. German artillery started shelling our positions at the dawn. The shelling lasted till darkness. This went on for three more days. I paid attention to the fact that many shells did not explode. I did not count, I had other things to do, but I believe approximately two of ten shells would not explode. One of the shells landed on the breastwork of our shelter and did not explode. First we felt little uncomfortable, but later we got used to it.
On the third day German tanks assaulted our positions. There were no Tigers among them. On our right we had IPTAP guns dug in. Working together we managed to beat off several assaults. The surviving German tanks retreated with backward movement. Our ground-attack Il-2s helped us a lot! Strafing at low altitude they fired their missiles, which almost hit us sometimes. When adjusting the gun, I was first using the periscope, which was not too comfortable, as it shook together with the vehicle when we fired our gun. Migalatiev recommended me to forget this piece of iron and look at the targets directly without any optical devices. First my eyes would close from the blast wave coming from the muzzle brake, but later I got used to it and could make adjustments more precisely.
Our position was not too favorable - we were dug-in in an open field. And in order to avoid losses we withdrew back to a Polish village. Its inhabitants left the area or hid themselves somewhere, and flocks of terrified geese were flying away from the shell bursts like white fuzz. My vehicle was parked under a plum tree, and I, not even leaving the fighting compartment, ate and ate the tasty berries. The next day I had problems with my stomach. Four days later I was taken to hospital. The doctors said it was dysentery. Too much of good food is not good!
12 days later I came back to my regiment and reported to the assistant of the chief of staff. He said: “We had a guy with the same last name as yours.” I said: “That was me.” He looked at me, understood what was going on and ordered me to get my food both at the soldiers and the officers’ kitchen. I thanked him and asked, when I can get a command of SP. The answer was quite simple - when some SP commander gets killed.
I did not have to wait for a long time. Fortunately, it wasn’t that somebody got killed. The regiment commander wanted to have some lieutenant from the 4th battery in his staff. I just got his place.
My new crew, all older people, met me with suspicion and distrust. Gun-layer Schukin and driver Perepelitsa were old enough to be my fathers: they were around forty, and I was still a teenager. And the loader, Yaschka Vorontsov, was five years older than I was.
Here I have to make a remark, that a loader, or a “plugger”, as some called them, had the lowest position in the crew’s hierarchy. The SP commander, a commanding officer, was the full master of the vehicle and his crew. The ideal here was a strict, somewhat rude, but just lieutenant. Weaklings and slobs, who tried to make the crew happy, didn’t stay in the commander’s position for a long time. Gun-layer, whose job was to maintain the gun, optic systems, to sort and arrange the shells, and, most importantly, to do precise shooting, was commander’s substitute. Driver was responsible for the engine, transmission, the running gear, coordinated the crew’s work when refueling the vehicle with petrol or antifreeze, took care of accumulators. He could argue with commander concerning the cross-country routs and the ways to overcome obstacles. The lowest class, loader, had to clean the ammo from preservation grease, had to beat the dirt out of the tracks, ran to the kitchen to get food for the crew and did all the hard work.
Perepelitsa and Schukin kind of in passing examined my knowledge of the vehicle and the gun. Having realized, that I knew the vehicle pretty well, Perepelitsa asked me if I have been SU-76’s driver before. Having heard the positive answer, he became friendlier. After a while, he offered me to eat from the same canteen with him, honoring me in this way. Schukin and Vorontsov ate from another canteen. I would distribute my additional officer’s ration evenly among the crew. I did all the heavy work together with the crew. After several successful engagements, when we knocked out a German half-track and captured a lot of stuff, including priest robes, a roll of beautiful velvet, flints for lighters - my relationships with the crew became very normal. However, I always sensed the patronage of the older crewmembers.
In mid November 1944 it a lull descended on Sandomier bridgehead. The artillery shelling ceased. The sky was also clear. It was just the observation balloon that would appear in the rear behind the forest. The cold time came. We had to take care of the vehicle’s heating. With T-34s it was easier - one had to start fire of two or three big logs under the vehicle, and the logs, burning slowly, would heat the vehicle. The grease on the bottom of the vehicle hissed and bubbled, it stank, but it was warm inside.
This trick would not work with petrol-fueled “Colombina”. We received an order from the HQ: To keep the accumulators warm, one should use felt or dog hides. Easy to say, dog hides! All the dogs in the area were either dead or just dispersed.
We started to make the shelters deeper, putting logs on tops of them and covering them with soil. Every change of position was accompanied with construction of a new shelter. This became so exhausting that we had only thing to do: bring the Polish peasants with their shovels under a barrel of a gun. To my surprise, the Polish peasants, doing this exhausting work, having completed it and having drunk “bimber” (moonshine) with our generous food, went back to their houses appeased and without any offence.
In the -5, even -8 degrees frost the water would not freeze in the section of the dugout where our “Colombina” was standing. In the living part of the dugout, depending on the intensity of heating, it was warm or even hot, and we could handle it without overcoats and padded jackets on. In late December 1944, a week before New Year, a foamed regiment commander’s adjutant came tearing along and informed us, that in an hour we would have a visit from top brass - divisional, army and Front command. We had a little alarm, as we had a large metal barrel with sugar-beet fermentation product in our dugout. The whole area was covered with fields of sugar beet, which had not been harvested due to hostilities. Actually, the very name of the area was sugar plant.
It was impossible to pull the barrel with this home-made beer (a starting product for moonshine manufacturing) out of the dugout through the narrow passage, and it was a waste just to spill it out. Our decision was to put the barrel in the darkest corner, cover it with tarpaulin, overcoats and other stuff. We also had a hope that the generals will not make it through the narrow passage to the dugout because of their large bellies.
The top brass, at least 10 high-ranking officers, arrived after an hour. I reported to them at the entrance to the dugout. The regiment commander ordered me to get the vehicle out of the shelter and prepare it for firing. The engines had been warmed up before and started right away. “Colombina”, lifting the rear part of the hull at the ramp, quickly but calmly appeared at the surface. Having ordered to Schukin to elevate the barrel in position for long-distance fire (17 km), I jumped out of the fighting compartment and reported readiness.
The top brass liked the speed and distinctness of our actions, but they all, to my horror, headed towards the dugout. I left them all behind and, running into the dugout first, tried to hide the damn barrel behind me. When the exhaust gas of the engines disappeared, the sour smell of fermenting beet appeared in the air. The damn smell made it through the tarpaulin and all the stuff. A general said that there was some sour smell in the dugout.
Regiment’s commander, saving the situation, said:
Our guys brewing their own beer.
Well, this seems to be legal. But you have bimber, don’t you?
Yes, just a little, comrade general.
It must be some awful stuff?
This sentiment our crew’s chief wine maker Leshka Perepelitsa could not take, his professional skills got insulted, and he suggested they tried it. The command agreed. Perepelitsa pulled out two 800g flasks from a secret corner, and put glasses and cups on the table. Schukin opened a can of stewed pork.
Well, for the coming victory!
The moonshine in the flasks was 60 degrees alcohol… Everybody wheezed, wiped away tears and started to joke: quite a beer it was! For the exemplary maintenance of the vehicle and distinct actions the crew received a citation. The regiment commander was very happy. Leaving us, the generals said that the beer was good but recommended not to abuse it. And one more hour later the adjutant came back running and on behalf of the regiment commander asked for some more fiery liquid.
After New Year we were all expecting a large-scale offensive. The armour was deploying all over the bridgehead. Behind the armour heavy 152mm SPs were dug-in. Signal troops were working hard on cable communication system.
January 4th 1945 I was ordered to come to the regiment’s staff, where I was informed that I was sent to the Higher Officer’s Technical Armour School of the Red Army, to the department of SU-76 battery’s technical officer. I tried to protest, mentioning my unwillingness to leave my comrades, and the coming offensive. It was just 600 km between Berlin and us! The chief of staff, an older officer, told me: “Go for it, sonny. This is the regiment commander who is sending you. He really liked your dugout. And the war - we can handle finishing it without you.”
With every step I took to the East I was getting farther and farther from my comrades, from my dear “Colombina”. When I have crossed Visla on the ice with a passing vehicle, I realized the war was over for me. I did not know that in June 1945, in six months, I would be back to Germany to test the new Gorki factory SP guns, I did not know that I would be testing tanks at Kubinka from 1946 to 1950. I did not know many things. My whole life was lying ahead of me…