On 20 April at the graduation exam, I commanded a live-firing exercise – I calculated the data and directed the firing. We graded out at the top. I acquired the rank of lieutenant, while those who had passed with a `Good’ mark or a `Satisfactory’ were made junior lieutenants. Five days later we were posted to the Red Army’s Commander of Artillery in the city of Kolomna, Moscow Oblast. We were given a monetary bonus – 700 rubles, which we spent literally over the course of a week.
We arrived in Kolomna. We again were placed behind a high palisade in barracks with wooden bunks. The food was bad. Some kind of gruel . thin, so that guys didn’t linger, but longed for the front. Every day representatives of units would arrive and select recruits from our reserve pool. Those needed by some unit who agreed to go departed. Representatives often came from the destroyer anti-tank artillery regiments. The older guys, the front-line officers now in the reserve, sought every possible way to avoid serving in these units. They were accustomed to being with the howitzers 1.5 to 2 kilometres behind the front-lines. But to wind up in an anti-tank regiment, God forbid with 45-mm anti-tank guns! . Although it was hard sitting in the rear, they wouldn’t go: `We’re not prepared.’ However, such a semi-famished existence had lit a fire under us, six young guys from the Tomsk school, so we decided, `Enough sitting around here in the reserve, let’s go, guys, and join the destroyer antitank artillery regiment.’
We were taken by truck to Korobcheevo, 7 kilometres away from Kolomna. There, the 1513th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment was forming up. Actually, several such anti-tank artillery regiments were then forming in the environs of Kolomna. Major Vasilii Konstantinovich Zyl’, who subsequently became a Hero of the Soviet Union, was the acting commander of our regiment. The regiment received its equipment – 45-mm Model 1942 anti-tank guns – and we began training.
In March 1943, the Urals Volunteer Tank Corps was forming in the Urals. According to its TO&E, each tank brigade in this corps was to have a destroyer anti-tank artillery regiment. However, the 62nd Tank Brigade in Cheliabinsk didn’t have one. The corps commander Lieutenant General Georgii Semenovich Rodin came to visit us near Kolomna. We were raised on a combat alert. We were led out onto a field and given an order – to hit an embrasure at a range of 800 metres. With our third shell we hit it. Our battery graded out as `Excellent’, as did the other four batteries. Based on these results, our regiment joined the 30th Urals Volunteer Tank Corps.
Now let me talk about the `45′ for a bit. In the regiment there were five batteries, each with four guns. They were towed by American Willys jeeps, to which first the trailer was hitched, and then the gun to the trailer. The Willys was a marvellous machine – mobile, powerful and with a low profile. You could drive it right up to the firing position. The gun itself was a very good one. Its sight had a 4 x scope. It fired very accurately, like a rifle. At 500 metres it was almost impossible to miss an embrasure. If the aim was accurate, the shell would fly true with a flat trajectory. Of course, in combat much depends on the gunner. He had to have strong nerves. There would be explosions around him, bullets would be whistling past, a comrade next to him would be wounded and fall on the gun trails, and he had to lay the gun coolly. The platoon commander would be located 1.5 metres to the right of the gun during a battle, the gun commander – to the left. I would give a command, and the gun commander would repeat it: `To the left of landmark such and such. Sight, such and such. Shell, such and such. Fire!’ But when you fire, you hear your shot; it is deafening, especially the armour-piercing rounds. In fact it isn’t frightening to you – you can no longer hear the enemy fire; only watch as someone falls wounded or dead. Then you become so absorbed in the battle: you make corrections, give commands, fire again, and you forget that the other side is firing back at you. You’re thinking only about hitting the target.
During a battle, we never had it so that only the gunner and loader were at the gun – there, all the crew is needed and everyone works. The gun crew consisted of six men. I’ve already mentioned that the gun commander stood to the left of the gun. The position for the No. 1 man – the gunner – was to the left of the gun’s breech. The breech operator, the crew’s No. 2, stood to the right of the gun. The loader, the No. 3 of the crew, stood behind the gun layer. Behind him were the No. 4 and No. 5 men, the trail handlers who stood side by side. The crew had no machine gun. The personnel were armed with submachine guns, both ours and German. I myself carried a PPSh, a TT and a German Walther. There were always a lot of weapons.
In a standard ammunition load, we had ten armour-piercing discarding sabot shells, ten canister shells, and thirty high-explosive and armour piercing shells. We knew no limits on our ammunition in 1943 or later. The velocity of the high-explosive shell was 800 metres/second. It was clearly visible in the binoculars as it flew toward the target. The armour piercing shell’s velocity was 1,200 metres/second, while the armour-piercing discarding sabot reached 1,300 metres/second. The latter could penetrate 90-mm of armour. We easily dealt with Pz-III tanks. Of course, the shell couldn’t penetrate the frontal armour of heavy tanks, but nevertheless we still had the task to fire at it from the front facing. We fired at its side armour when it showed it to us, otherwise we’d aim at the tracks – a hit would break the track, the tank would pivot in place, which would then allow you to fire at its flank.
In the first place it is important just to hit a tank, which is difficult when it is moving. If your shell hit and penetrated, you considered it shocked or knocked out. Normally the crew wouldn’t wait for a second shell and they’d leap out of the tank. What was important was that it stopped and ceased firing. When the tank stopped, it was now easy prey.
The high-explosive shell was quite effective against infantry. Of course, its explosive force was small; therefore we more often relied on the fragmentation setting. The crater left by such a shell was tiny – only 10 centimetres – but the fragmentation damage was quite large. Moreover we fired at the infantry at a very rapid rate. As soon as they raised their heads, a second shell would be on its way.
We did have occasion to fire canister. I will talk about this later. Here the gunner aims the gun through its barrel at the legs of the attacking infantry. The canister cuts down the attacking line of infantry like a scythe. It is terrible fire. As the first wave is cut down, the second wave is already crawling away. Therefore we weren’t given many of these shells – ten per gun.
When driving up to the firing position, we immediately tossed the ammunition cases from the Willys and unhitched the gun. I would indicate where to place the vehicle so that it wouldn’t be too far from the firing position, but at the same time it would be sheltered by folds in the terrain or screened by vegetation. The drivers would drive them away and construct revetments. The battery’s guns were placed at a distance no greater than 20-30 metres from each other. If you placed them farther apart, it became impossible to control them – commands were given by voice. Sometimes, like at Korsun-Shevchenkosky, the guns stood at a distance of just 5 or 6 metres from each other.
As soon as we arrived, we checked the aim point. For this the gun’s muzzle had four notches, vertical and horizontal. Through these notches we would extend threads and use them to line up the barrel at some cross-shaped target no nearer than 500 metres from the gun. Then we would align the sight with this target. If there was time, we would always without fail grease the wheel bearings, because if you forgot, a wheel might jam. We rigorously adhered to this. Otherwise, the gun required no special care. We’d grease the breech mechanism, but never dismantle it, because this was a complicated procedure. Sometimes the artillery mechanic would take away guns with worn-out barrels and bring back new ones. That was all.
So, we arrived at a firing position. I as the battery commander (I became a battery commander at the end of July 1943) would choose a position for the guns. This was a holy cause. The lives of my subordinates and their opinion of me as a commander depended upon how I selected positions. Of course, the fact that I had passed through the infantry in 1941 helped me quite a bit. The men of the battery would say, `Our battery commander has come over from the infantry!’ Before the gun would take its firing position, I would order, `Gun commander, follow me.’ He would creep behind me by about 5 metres, and my orderly would be on my right. I myself would crawl out, choose a position, and say to the gun commander, for example to Chichigin, `Put your gun right here.’ When I myself personally crawled around and pointed out to each where to deploy his gun, then the gun commander would say with confidence, `Our battery commander has selected the firing position, now everything depends upon us.’
I was considered lucky and the soldiers greatly respected me. At the same time, in the regiment I was known as the Shtrafnik- a man who is serving in a penal battalion or company. All the batteries and personnel would be knocked out, so they would then form a single battery from the remnants of the five and I would be appointed as its commander. The remaining battery commanders now got something like a rest, while I continued to fight. Later, when the Germans destroyed all my guns, only then would the entire regiment be withdrawn into the reserve for re-forming. My peers had already rested up, while I would get only a week before the equipment arrived.
Once we chose a position, we would dig an emplacement for the gun, but it often happened that we didn’t have time to do this. Then with the sappers’ spades we would dig channels the width of the gun’s wheels, so that the gun would rest directly on its lower shield. We camouflaged the guns. We concealed the positions as far as possible with whatever we could find.
On the attack, when supporting an attack the gun was always loaded with armour piercing shells with the trigger locked. The forward shield would be removed in order to reduce the height of the gun. In that way the gun’s height was lowered to just over 50 centimetres. We’d stop, dig the wheels in, and the gun would settle even lower. We’d quickly cut several branches of a bush or maybe stalks of corn, if in or around corn fields. Everything was done to ensure the tanker didn’t see you prior to your first shot. You’d let the tank approach to within 400, 300 or 250 metres and open fire – we couldn’t hit it out to a kilometre, or even 500 metres. If we were supporting infantry, we’d manhandle the gun forward, keeping it faced toward the enemy. The command would be, `The gun with the barrel forward, march!’ The crew would grab the gun trail from the left and the right and start rolling it – on wheels it moved quickly. The gun would already be loaded with an armour-piercing round, in order to fire immediately at a tank or a machine gun. Even if you don’t hit it, when a fireball goes flying right past you, your hands start shaking. At first we’d give the machine gun an armour-piercing shell, and then we’d set the range on the high-explosive shell and quickly blanket the target.
How did we aim at tanks? The Model 1942 gun had a direct fire range of 800 metres. We usually opened fire at around 400 metres. If the tank was moving laterally to you, you’d look in the binoculars, approximately determine its speed and calculate the lead. You’d command the gunner, `Aim at the base of the turret, aiming offset one tank.’ If I guessed the speed wrongly, the shell would fly in front of or behind the tank. Then you’d make a correction and fire again. At Kursk there were a lot of tanks, and they came straight at us. We primarily fired at the tracks, to make the tank pivot. While the tankers tried to figure out where the fire was coming from, in order to turn the turret, we give it a second shell in the flank; but normally they didn’t wait and they’d leap out of the immobilized tank.
We remained at Kolomna until the middle of June 1943. Over this time we were given new uniforms, and all the officers received Finnish puukko knives with a decorated handle, while the soldiers received ones with black handles. 1 We also had a motorized rifle brigade, in which the men wore bulletproof vests. It was heavy – it weighed around 12 kilograms.
In the middle of June an order was announced that made our regiment part of the 4th Tank Army. Under our own power we drove to Naro-Fominsk, and from there on to the town of Kozel’sk. We arrived in Kozel’sk on 23 July. Just a few days later, we entered the fighting as part of the Briansk Front. What can I say? It was hot. The temperature rose to 25-27° C. It was arduous. You understand, if a man gets killed, his corpse is already reeking within 2 hours. Such a stench, and then they’d bring up a meal – you couldn’t force down any food, so we drank water. There were constant attacks. There was a lot of aircraft overhead, both ours and those of the Germans. Air battles were going on constantly in the sky. We became so enraged by the constant air attacks that I deployed our guns on a hill and fired armour-piercing shells at them. My commander later let me have it: `Look, you’re not an anti-aircraft gunner; don’t waste your shells firing at aeroplanes.’
On 7 August 1943, I happened to take part in a ferocious battle. I was ordered to support an attack by a tank company and infantry toward the village of Zuevskaia. I appeared before the commander of the tank company and reported that I was at his disposal. During battles the regiment headquarters often assigned separate batteries to infantry or tank companies and in essence turned over the command of us – we’d have no communications with it. The senior lieutenant tank commander told me:
The infantry will start out now, and I’ll advance behind it by around 50-100 metres, with a 20-40 metre interval between the tanks. You advance not more than 50-80 metres behind my tanks. You have a better field of vision, so your job is to silence anti-tank guns and tanks.
I returned to my platoon commanders, explained our assignment, and ordered the guns to be loaded and hitched to the jeeps.
The attack on the village began around noon after a short artillery preparation. The infantry moved out, and behind it the tanks. We were moving across a field of tall, ripe grain. Allowing our tanks to approach to within 300- 400 metres, the Germans opened up with heavy fire. Several of the tanks burst into flames. We unhitched the guns approximately 300 metres from the outskirts of the village and returned fire. The infantry at first had become pinned down, but then came running back. The tanks began manoeuvring and were gradually drifting to our left, and we remained alone out in the open. We managed to dig little trenches for the wheels and threw off the gun shield. The guns practically sank into the rye. I ordered the commander of the 2nd Platoon to concentrate his fire on a mortar battery that was dropping a lot of shells around us, while I directed the fire of the No. 1 and No. 2 guns at tanks and anti-tank guns. The rye caught fire from the shell explosions. The smoke hindered our aim, but it partially screened us from the Germans. Then another tank started burning about 20 metres to my right. The Germans launched a counterattack with tank support, but all I was thinking about was the 100 shells inside that burning tank. Which way would it jump from the explosion and where would the turret land? I was continuing to fire, but I was keeping my right eye on the burning tank, waiting for it to explode. When the onboard ammunition did ignite, the turret was blown off, but thank God it didn’t land on the gun. Gunfire, smoke and flames. Oh, it was terrible!
We let the German infantry approach to within 50 or 60 metres and opened fire with canister. Of course, we also supplemented it with submachine-gun fire. They went rolling back to the village. That’s when our infantry went back on the attack with the support of the remaining four tanks and seized the village. In this battle the battery destroyed two medium tanks, three assault guns, four mortars and around two platoons of infantry. In the process we lost two guns together with their crews, and one more gun was damaged. Only the No. 1 gun and crew, with which I was positioned, took no losses. Two of the Willys drivers were killed when their jeeps were destroyed. We lay there enfeebled by the heat and this combat near the gun.
Suddenly I felt clapping on my shoulder, and I opened my eyes. The regiment commander was standing there: `You’re alive?! Rogachev! Drink up!’ From somewhere there appeared a bottle of water. I and the No. 1 gunner Mikhailichenko pounced on it together. I don’t recall how much water we guzzled down . For this battle I was decorated with the Order of the Red Star.
How many in all did I have to my credit? I wasn’t counting, but over the entire war my battery destroyed more than twenty tanks and armoured halftracks.
The guys from the Urals were heroic men. They advanced, regardless of anything. There was a lot of courage and bravery, but little combat experience, so the losses the corps took were quite large. Of those five guys from the reserve that together with me took command of anti-tank gun platoons in the 30th Urals Volunteer Tank Corps’ anti-tank artillery regiment, none of them survived the war.
In August 1943, the 4th Tank Army was withdrawn for rest and refitting.