|MAIN MENU MEMOIRS OF INFANTRYMEN THE RUSSIAN BATTLEFIELD|
Evgenii Bessonov (From E.Bessonov's archive)
Our preparation for the forthcoming battles on the Sandomierz bridgehead was over. At the end of December of 1944, we moved out of the village we were occupying not far from the forward defense positions of our troops. Our unit concentrated in the forest and for a few days we had slept on the fir-twigs by the campfire. In a few days the dugouts were built and ovens-burzhuiki (little bourgeois) made out of empty fuel barrels were set up inside them. The doorways, for the lack of doors, were covered by waterproof cape-tents and pieces of tarpaulin.
To tell the truth, the temperature hasn't been so freezing; about 10-12 degrees of Celsius below zero (10-14 F), but even such a temperature froze us to our bones. It was certainly warmer in the dugouts. There was no training of any kind this time and we had all the time to ourselves. We were making up for the lost sleep, examining the weapons for any possible fault and made ourselves busy with all kinds of nonsense, cards in particular.
The officers were taken to the forward trenches several times to be presented with the possible marching routes for the tanks and tankborne infantry and introducing us to the tank crews. We didn't know when the offensive would begin. Such things are never known. But all of us had sensed that the moment would come soon enough and therefore we felt agitated, even nervous. Waiting and catching up are the worst of everything.
Finally, the day has come. On January 12th, 1945, after protracted artillery bombardment and air strikes the all-arms units went on the offensive. In the lightning attacks, they captured the first and then the second enemy defensive belts. If my memory serves me right, the artillery bombardment and air strikes had continued for an hour and a half. The guns of all calibers, from 76 millimeter to 152, mortars of 82 mm, 120 mm, 160 mm caliber and "Katyushas" fired at the enemy defensive positions. Bombers and assault planes pounded from the above. The air was filled with continues roar of the bombardment and we had to yell to be heard. The dense smoke was rising over the enemy's front line where something was burning, exploding and flying through the air. Now and then with the difficulty the enemy would snarl with fire as almost all of the artillery and mortars were suppressed.
Our turn has come after the all-arms units broke through the defensive positions. The brigade and army's orders were to enter the breakthrough and continuing the offensive toward Order, capture a bridgehead on the river's left bank.
As other companies of the battalion, our company rode on the tanks of the brigade's tank regiment, which began moving forward in column. There was confusion on the road. Besides our brigade, other combat units and the different rear service units were also on the move. Some trucks and horse carts were moving in the opposite direction adding to the muddle. It was dangerous to drive on the side of the roads since sappers hadn't cleared the mines yet. The brigade's commander car, the M-1 ("Emochka"), blew up on a mine. Although colonel Turkin survived, his driver and orderly were killed. Lieutenant Shakulo, a platoon commander from our company, was wounded on January 12th and was sent to a hospital. Something hit him and he broke his leg. I was ordered to take over from him, although Sergeant Savkin, a wonderful guy, brave and skilled soldier remained the unofficial platoon leader.
The entire day of January 12th, 1945, we have successfully although slowly have been, moving forward. The clouds hung low, and we haven't seen any of the enemy's planes. Darkness fell early in January, and we encountered the enemy in the late afternoon. On the approaches to a fortified village turned into a strong point we were shot at by tanks and machine-guns. We quickly parted from our tanks and took cover forming a line. Infantry tried to dig in, but orders from battalion commander and tank regiment commander made us move forward. Lucky for us it was almost dark, and the darkness would reduce our casualties. Despite the enemy's fire, in one swift charge we broke into the village and forced the Germans to retreat. Right before the village we came under strong fire and our company divided. A platoon under Vjunov attacked from the left flank, and I with other two platoons from the right. Our tanks supported us, but didn't follow us into the village. They were probably careful about German "Tigers" that were beyond the village and kept an intensive fire at out tanks. As we moved into the village, the "Tigers" did not fire at us out of fear to hit their own infantry that was running out of the village.
With two of my platoons, I came through to the opposite side of the village and took the German trenches that were already empty. That night battle has imprinted itself deep into my memory. We fought off German counterattacks until sunrise. I had no communications with neither the company commander nor Vjunov's platoon. I didn't even know where they were. A machine-gun platoon commander Lieutenant Alexander Guschenkov noticed the direction of my attack. He didn't get confused in the middle of that nightmare and came to our aid. With two crews of "Maxim" machine-guns he took the position on the unprotected right flank of my platoons. They were of the great help to us. The other two companies of our battalion fought on the left flank. The third platoon from our company was also somewhere there.
At some time the shooting died down and I decided to walk along the captured trenches. I wanted to support my soldiers and show them that I was with them, which is important to the soldiers especially in the difficult situations.
Sergeant Savkin showed me grenades, helmets, ammunition magazines and mess-tins hidden in the niches in the trenches. I ordered not to touch it. But one soldier either dozing off or jumping up to stay warm brushed on something and was blown up. His body flipped up and he fell as an empty sack, dead. He was the only casualty we had from those "surprises".
Some time later the German infantry attacked us again. But their tanks stayed where they were. By that time our tanks moved up and together we bit the attack off. Our fire forced the infantry to the ground. The German tanks opened fire on the houses setting them on fire. The night battle is always a heavy one, and this battle lasted all night. We couldn't see anything and fired at the muzzle flushes or sometimes at some silhouettes. We couldn't see the results of our fire and its effectiveness was low.
As I remember, there were no less than 15 German "Tiger" tanks. The number of infantry I could not determine because of the darkness. And only three T-34-85 tanks supported me. Their crews were rookies, and it was their first battle. They fired rarely, fearing that the German tanks would detect them by their muzzle flashes. When houses began to burn, they tried to move farther away into the darkness. Their retreat although shortl had a bad effect on my soldiers most of whom were rookies too. Even veterans were nervous beyond the normal but they held on and kept firing. But everyone was glancing back at the tanks, fearing that the tanks would abandon us retreating to the rear. Therefore I had to run to the tanks and stop them if they moved too far away, forcing them to get closer to us. From time to time I also had to run and see how Gushenkov was doing on my right flank and then return to my soldiers. The village was burning, shells were exploding all over, and German bullets and splinters were flying with a screech. Our "DP" machine-guns and sub-machine guns added to the shooting as well. The Germans tried to hit our flank but Guschenkov's machine-guns opened up on them at point-blank range and shot them down. After that they left our flank alone. Two or three soldiers left the trenches and hid behind a house that wasn't burning yet. One of the tanks was hiding behind the same house. I forced the soldiers back to the trenches. If the panic is not stopped right away, the troops become uncontrollable. Therefore I strongly reprimanded the squad leaders whose soldiers left the positions. I had to run the entire night between the tanks and the trenches under enemy fire. I was steaming and I was thirsty all the time, but lucky for me there was a draw-well nearby. My orderly was getting cold water in a mess-tin for me and I drunk it all the time. The burning village lit the area all around us. And under this light I had to force the tanks that constantly tried to get to a safer place to fire in our support. Besides that I was commanding almost a company of two rifle and one machine-gun platoons. This entire running about nearly cost me my life. In the burning village I was visible to everyone and as soon as I dove into one of the trenches, the shell exploded on the breastwork. The breastwork was swept off and private Ivanov and I were stunned. The trench was near the burning house and was seen from a far. And it was getting too hot to stay in it. But the second shell didn't follow. Perhaps, the Germans thought that we were killed. I quickly moved into another trench giving Ivanov permission to go to the rear. He received a concussion.
Before the sunrise the Germans stopped the attacks and then completely disappeared. Probably, their task was not to destroy our battalion and brigade. They wanted to hold our forward movement as long as possible to save other units on the different part of the front from destruction and withdrew them before they were encircled. Our losses were insignificant despite the prolonged battle. At the sunrise Guschenkov and I found the company commander Chernyshov and the third platoon leader Vjunov.
I reported to Chernyshov our losses and we exchanged our opinions about the night battle. The field kitchen managed to prepare a breakfast. Usually, two or three soldiers from every squad are sent with mess-tins to get the food for the entire squad of 7-8 men. My orderly and I usually ate together from the same mess-tin. If it were possible, we would wash the mess-tins with water or wipe them off with the grass. Someone could always get extra food since the food was prepared for the entire battalion, but battalion always had casualties. So there was plenty of food for everyone.
After the breakfast we moved forward on foot. Then we mounted the tanks. The
battalion was a forward detachment for the brigade. Our advance was quick. The
enemy didn't offer serious resistance.