The beginning of 1945 found me in a very happy state- I had just become a Communist and Senior Lt., the leader of the 2nd platoon.
The situation on the front was stable. The counter-advance of Germans in the end of October was beaten off, allowing our troops to build up forces without much interruption.
I well remember a meeting with leader of the reconnaissance platoon, Sen.Lt.Sergei Malonenko. He joined our regiment after being wounded during the crossing of the Dnepr. After some celebration of a meeting, he showed us a diary of a German officer caught during the last counter-attack. It was fun. "Russians are defending. Our losses are heavy but we are close to the victory. One more effort..." One more effort and the author of the diary was hit in the head by Sergant Melnikov and brought to our headquarters for interrogation.
The workers of Kramatorsk sent another open letter to our regiment.The letter and the answer were read by political officers (commissars) to all of us.
The regiment, re-equipped after the recent battles, was preparing for the new ones,since we would not have to wait long for them. New comrades were to master the tanks and flame-throwers, and fast because the regiment was already attached to the 65th Army of the 2nd Belorussian Front. Each day new troops were arriving, ammo dumps, hidden tanks, guns, soldiers were everywhere. It was evident that the big Day was coming.
It came on January 14, 1945 with the massive preparatory fire. The power of the strike was tremendous - our tanks were not even needed in the attack, we just backed up the advancing infantry after they broke through the Fascist defense.
The enemy was retreating into the fortress on the riverbank of Vistula, Graudenz, the gate to the East Prussia.
The Commander of 37th Guard Division, Gen.Rachimov, issued his orders to our regiment personally. The fortress was to be taken.
The attack started about 16.00 hours on January 30, 1945 with an 8-minute barrage. The enemy line was broken. Almost without a fight, the Germans retreated to a small village in the vicinity of Graudenz, which they fortified and prepared for the defense.
Two companies of our regiment attacked the village with the support of Guards infantrymen. The gun was hot from firing. A smashed mortar battery, torn wires, streams of fire from the flame-thrower into the enemy trenches...
My platoon reached the smooth terrain to the left of the village on the direct route to Graudenz. Our tanks lined up with tank of Lt.Tretiakov to the left of me and tank of Fandienko to the right. There was a heavy snowfall. The snow was piling up in front of the optics and our tanks moved with open drivers' hatches.
Three more kilometers and we were already in the suburbs of Graudenz. The ruins closed up and finally they were everywhere in sight. Suddenly the Tretiakov's tank, while still rolling on, burst into flames. I caught in the corner of the eye the terrifying view of the turret falling off Fandienko's tank, which was to my right.
What son of a bitch and where? I had to act promptly. I looked closely into the dark silhouettes of houses trying to find the target and finally saw the flash. Here it was! Four shots finished off the German anti-tank gun. At the same moment a heavy blow in the left side rocked the tank.
When I was conscious again, the tank was standing with strong incline forward and was full of smoke. I understood that a mixture of oil and fuel, always present in the engine compartment, had leaked forward and ignited.
Through the smoke and in the uncertain light coming through the hole in the side, I saw my gun loader lying dead on the floor. His jacket was burning. I took off mine and put out the fire first on him and later on the floor. I still hoped that he was alive but no hope remained after I had a closer look at him.
The driver was nowhere in view. Later I found him lying dead near the tank; he had been thrown through the hatch and got hit with a burst from submachine gun. The gunner had a severe wound in the hand, and I could hear his cries.
I thought over the situation. The tank was standing with the front part in the ditch and the gun muzzle buried in the ground on the opposite side. As the snow was getting in the tank through the hole, I took my mitten to seal it. While doing so, I noted through the hole vague silhouettes of Germans soldiers approaching to the tank.
The bullets already clanged on the armor. The turret could not be turned, so we could rely only on the hand weapons in the close combat. The only way to save the day was to start the engine and put the tank back on the road.
I got to the driver's seat and tried to start the engine. Four tries - nothing! The Germans would be close already... At the same time, as I remembered the compressed air tanks, I heard a shout from the turret "Commander, air!".
I found a handle, there was the hiss of air and, at last, the roar of the engine.
After a few attempts I backed onto the road. The Germans were, indeed, close. I clearly saw them in the blizzard. I had no doubt about their intentions and gave them two shots from the flame-thrower to keep them away. A few were covered with fire, the rest disappeared behind the ruins.
I got out of the machine to check it and saw the repair engineer Novikov running to me. Together we cleaned the gun. I asked him if he could drive the tank, and without answer he jumped in and we hastened forward.
Soon we saw an infantry company pinned to the ground by German machine guns, shooting from the building. On the way to the building we retrieved through the bottom hatch a wounded infantryman.
I gave a few shots from the flame-thrower. The building caught fire and I added a few shells for better effect. The MG's went silent. The attack continued.
The Infantry officer was happy and ascribed to me 33 prisoners of war for helping out.
In this battle many our tankers distinguished themselves. Sn.Lt. Shelukhanov saw his friend, Lt. Tretiakov, lying near a burning tank. It turned out later that Tretiakov opened the commander's hatch, as nothing could be seen through the optics, stuck up with the snow, and at this moment a Panzerfaust hit the tank. He was thrown clear of the tank and lay unconscious near it. The tank blew up.
Shelukhanov put his tank over his friend and retrieved him through the bottom hatch. They reached the brick factory, where our tanks took heavy losses from the AT guns.
The tank of Capt.Tomasian was damaged but Capitan brought it to the factory, escaping the anti-tank ditch. He parked the tank close to the wall and went out to attend tankers from damaged machines. Tankers, clearly seen on the white fresh snow in their smoke and oil-stained uniforms, were gathering in a ditch, not far from the brick factory. They needed to be organized because the fight was going on and the dispersed tankers were an easy prey for fascists. And in time! The German infantry was counter-attacking. After the heavy fight the Germans retreated.
Lt.Vedernikov blew up the big ammo dump. Sen.Lt. Novikov killed the Tiger and crushed AT gun. On Febr.1,1945 Graudenz was surrounded. The main forces were moving forward. German deblocking strikes failed.
Repairmen restored 5 from 16 damaged tanks. For the actions in combat our regiment was awarded with the Red banner. Our crew was decorated with the Orders of the Great Patriotic war, II class.
The regiment was again in reserve. The pause was welcomed as the constant fight drained the lifeforce both from tankers and tanks. Even in pauses between battles tankers were busy: loading ammo, re-fueling, small repair... Slept, most often, in tanks - no real rest. The tanks left more than thousand kilometer behind. Battle damage, tear and wear. The holes on my good old tank were welded, engine was replaced, the rest checked and tuned. Still, the old girl was showing her experience - we could hardly catch up newer and faster tanks. Still, no complains - we were long time together.
Next episode Back to the content
Back to the main index Back to the section index