‘A Hot Day’ 22 June 1941

While large-scale assaults by German aviation and armour did not occur across the whole of the Białystok Salient, smaller forays were so widespread that not a single sector remained quiet. Sergeant Major Anatoly Loginov of the 87th Frontier Guards Detachment (3rd Frontier Post) recalled that:

I was on duty in Lobzha, not far from Grodno. Around 2 or 3 a.m. on 22 June heavy bombers flew over at high altitude. The Frontier Post Commander was resting and the Politruk was on vacation. According to the regulations, however, a sergeant major was entitled to set operational tasks for border protection, so I assigned a task for the next detail. Suddenly, the sky turned red: ‘Well, Sergeant major, is it war or just provocation?’ – ‘It’s war, guys. The Belovsky, Sorokinsky and Malinovsky sectors are all under fire. We’re going into action.’ The German artillery put down a barrage for about ten minutes, then their infantry advanced while the tanks worked round our flanks. But we were well armed: two large-calibre machine-guns and SVT semi-automatic rifles. I had a PPSh submachine-gun. And we had two good sharpshooters with sniper rifles. In general, border guards are good shots – we were taught to fire in the direction of gunshots and muzzle flashes. A few days earlier we’d virtually been disarmed by the detachment’s Head of Technical Supply, who told me to discharge the cartridge belts for the machine-guns. I made a start on this task but stopped as soon as he left. Because of this we could only fight for a couple of hours. But the guys still rose to the counter-attack three or four times. At last the Germans broke through. At 4.30 a.m. a messenger arrived with orders to quit the border and join regular Red Army units. I sent up a red flare – the signal to withdraw and head for the frontier post. We arrived at the Commandant’s office and were formed into units – we’d done our duty.

Private Anatoly Kazakov of the 178th Artillery Regiment (attached to General-Major Sherstyuk’s 45th Rifle division), recalls:

The West Ukrainian town of Lyuboml, situated on the River Bug, some 13km from the State Border, was defended by the 45th Rifle Division (whose HQ was located at Kovel). South of the town was a steep rise topped by a topography station – the position of our 178th Artillery Regiment. The regiment was armed with 76mm horse-drawn guns, subordinate to divisional command. Due to inadequate training, severe frosts and an intake of recruits from Azerbaijan and Georgia – who didn’t know Russian – our unit was hardly battleworthy. Which brass hat had the bright idea to place such an outfit in the first echelon? Meanwhile, the locals – who had only recently become Soviet citizens – clung to the customs and attitudes of the Polish State. They were mistrustful of the new collective farms and fearful of the NKVD. One local, on examining our clumsy Red Army soldiers, openly declared: ‘The Germans will annihilate you . . .’

About 4 a.m. on 22 June shells pounded our position. The first salvo hit the barracks, causing the roof to cave in and the walls to collapse in a cloud of dust and smoke. Then the HQ tents were hit – the battalion commander’s arm was shattered, so the chief of staff took over. Now disorder was replaced by sensible action, everyone taking his place according to battle drill. Our horses were pulled from the stables with some difficulty amid the shell-bursts, while the gun crews rolled the guns out of the depots to the relays. Thus the battery cantered to its reserve positions, unknown to the Germans, who continued pulverizing our former location on the hill. Gradually we assembled and counted our losses, which turned out to be light – several soldiers wounded and two horses killed. Later, our field kitchen – forgotten by everyone – turned up and the soldiers stuffed themselves with hot pasta.

A German rama [i.e. ‘frame’, the Russian nickname for the twin-fuselage, twin-engine FW-189 reconnaissance aeroplane – trans.] appeared in the sky but our relays – hidden beneath the awnings of nearby shacks – apparently cheated it, as no shelling followed. Perhaps the aircraft was interested in a more important target . . .

The regiment was largely manned by recruits who had served no more than two months. We felt sorry for these boys, thrown unprepared into the inferno of combat. Again, we were astounded by the short-sightedness or malicious intent of the District HQ. Meanwhile, the sun rose high above the horizon – a hot day was beginning, in both the literal and figurative sense.

An order arrived: the battery must take up fire positions west of Lyuboml, behind the railway. We trotted 2km down country tracks and leaped out at the allocated spot, while the relays rode off to shelter in a nearby grove. We dug in – the shovel is as much a combat weapon as a rifle – I, myself, hacking out a narrow slit trench next to the left wheel of the gun (a soldier’s rule is: as soon as you hit the ground, dig a hole for your head – never mind about your arse; then dig deeper; once you’re safely hidden, get ready to shoot). We piled parapets around the guns, smoothed and deepened the ramp. Shells were brought by cart and piled behind the guns as a reserve. Signalmen dragged coils of telephone cable to the observation post through a roadside ditch. There was a distance of some 8km between the battery and the OP.

Two hours of quiet followed. The battery was now ready to fight – despite the inhibitory role of the higher HQs (we later heard of some commanders who, having taken casualties, were still ringing HQ for permission to fire – such was the fear of provocation and of taking independent decisions). Then we heard the buzz of aircraft flying from the east – two flights of ground-attack planes were in the air. We were in raptures – our planes were overhead! Imagine our surprise when we spotted black German crosses on the wings. These Messerschmitts were returning to their aerodromes.

About midday a telephone order came from the Battery Commander at the OP: ‘Battery! Action! Number One Gun, one shell – fire!’ The zeroing-in shell flew off. Then: ‘Battery! Two splinter shells – fire!’ And finally: ‘Battery! Five shells – volley fire!’ The guns began to roar, the ground shook, the air thickened with smoke and dust. At which point, Politruk Poleshuk arrived with the news: ‘It’s not a provocation – the Germans are advancing over the whole front between the Barents Sea and the Black Sea. They’ve bombed Kiev, Zhitomir, Minsk and other cities. The Party urges us to repulse the enemy!’ Our soldiers, inspired, began to chatter: ‘We’ll reach the Atlantic in three months!’

A German spotter plane appeared. Suddenly, an alien sound mingled with the rumble of our guns – incoming shells were screaming into the battery, scattering soil and splinters, as stinking black smoke engulfed our position. Seeing an explosion between the gun mounts, I dived into my foxhole. Kosharnyi – an assistant gunlayer – also went to ground, clutching a wound in his shoulder. Soveiko – a gun charger – was killed. German shells continued to hammer us while a signalman, yelling from his trench, relayed a message from the Battery Commander: ‘Why have you ceased firing? Fire! Volley fire by the whole battery!’ Apparently it was not so comfy over at the OP.

How frightful it was to quit my shelter! Taking myself in hand, I manned the gun-sight as a charger crawled up and chambered a shell. The gun-lock clanked. A shot! The recoil knocked me back into the trench. I scrambled out and, through a shroud of dust, saw a terrible scene: shell craters covered our position; a gun had been overturned; shells were scattered all over the place; dead men were lying mangled; wounded men were crawling. And still the Commander kept calling from the OP: ‘Lisyak, 0.15 to the right, three shells – fire! Why isn’t Gun Number Four firing?’

We kept on firing with three guns. After several hours the barrels were red hot, the paint peeling and bubbling. The oil was overheating in the recoil mechanism and oozing through the screws. The load-limit of the barrels had been exceeded and they were liable to burst. Lieutenant Lisyak – the senior man at the battery – reported to the OP. The Battery Commander reluctantly called the ‘All Clear’.

This action was my first – that’s why I remember it in detail. The dead guys were picked up – mostly greenhorns – ammo carriers who, lacking entrenching tools, had cowered behind crates. I don’t know their surnames.

A strange silence gripped us. For some reason we preferred to talk in whispers . . .

The field kitchen came round and took post in a small ravine. A local guy, Yashka Kramer, was sent over to collect food. A stray German shell exploded near his foot, plastering him in hot pasta, but leaving him otherwise unscathed. Amazing things happen in war!

The Battery Commander telephoned from the OP. Lisyak passed on the message: ‘The OP will relocate – limbers to the battery!’ We froze in suspense – where are we going? If forward, then our troops were on the advance. If backward, they were on the retreat. The battery formed a marching column and moved onto the road. Lisyak, riding at the head of the column, turned right. But having trotted several hundred metres the column was halted. Lisyak and the gun commanders walked around, examining the terrain. There would be no forward or backward – just a change of firing position . . .

On 22 June the 62nd Rifle Division of Colonel Timoshenko was mainly engaged on its left flank, north of Ustilug. The situation was complicated by the fact the division had gone into combat undermanned: one of its regiments (the 104th) was in reserve in the Podgorodno – Horostkov area, and only two battalions were present in Colonel Petr Gavilevsky’s 306th Rifle Regiment, as one battalion had been left on guard duty in Lutsk. Meanwhile, the operations of the 41st Rifle Division (6th Army), deployed south of Barbarossa’s main strike, became the first unpleasant surprise for the Germans. These troops, commanded by General-Major Georgi Mikoushev, together with combined border guard units, invaded German-occupied Polish territory to a depth of 3km on an 8km-front. This incursion was explained in the operations logbook of Army Group South in the following way:

The 262nd I[nfantry] D[ivision] appeared prone to ‘the fright of the enemy’ and retreated. The eastern wing of the Corps is certainly in [a condition of] crisis. This situation will be rectified by the introduction of the 296th Infantry Division between the battle formations of the 24th and the 262nd Infantry Divisions.

The chief of staff of the 17th Army even requested the transfer of the 13th Panzer Division to assist the 295th and the 24th Divisions.

On the other hand, beside the success of Georgi Mikoushev’s division, the ‘Achilles heel’ of the Soviet 6th Army’s position was set up on the first day of the war. The 3rd Cavalry Division was moved forward from the Zolkew area to the Belz – Ugnuw Line, in order to cover the right flank of the Army. According to the Plan of Cover, a cavalry unit – unsuited for manning of static defence sector by virtue of its organizational structure – would have to defend this sector only until the third day of mobilization. It had been contemplated that the 3rd Cavalry Division would then be replaced by the 159th Rifle Division, ‘having taken over (the defence sector) from the 3rd Cav[alry] Division after 5 a.m. of the third day of hostilities’. However, no replacement of the cavalry division occurred either on the first day of the war or, indeed, on the third day. And it was that very sector through which the Germans later pushed the 9th Panzer Division. The splitting of Soviet mechanized units began on the very first day of the war. Not knowing the scope of the German advance, the commander of the 6th Army, Ivan Mouzychenko, deployed negligible forces to meet it. In the middle of the day, the 6th Army HQ ordered the commander of the 4th Mechanized Corps to allocate two battalions of medium tanks (32nd Tank Division) and a battalion of motorized infantry to destroy the enemy near Radzehov. The chief of staff of the 63rd Tank Regiment described the events the following way:

Having turned around, the column headed, as a matter of fact, in the reverse direction. The T-34 I was in, by order of the corps commander, followed Zheglov’s machine. For the first time I was inside a T-34. There’d been no such machines in the reconnaissance battalion I’d been in charge of before my arrival at the regiment. I look closely at the crew, at their conduct, at the way they do their duties. Everything is going well from my point of view. I feel sorry about just one thing: I haven’t had a chance to drive this tank or shoot from it. And how badly I need those skills now!

I try to imagine the situation at the State Border. I knew that the 140km sector from Krysynopol to Radymno was covered by two frontier guard detachments, the 41st, 97th, 159th Rifle Divisions, and the 3rd Cavalry Division. They were supposed to be ahead of us. Did they manage to take up their lines on time? What kind of task are they carrying out now? Maybe the regiment’s reconnaissance commander, Lieutenant Korzh, who we have sent forward, will be able to clarify something? How badly we need some general information about the enemy . . .

The driver slows down and stops abruptly. ‘What’s happened?’ I shout to the crew commander.

‘Air,’ he replies.

I open the hatch. The daylight dazzles me for a moment, but at the same moment I notice black puffs of smoke rising far ahead: bomb explosions. The aircraft are getting closer and closer. They are sharp-nosed, with slightly gulled wings. They hang over the column and drop their mortal load one after another. Rumble, whizzing, fire, smoke . . .

Signal flags flash above the commander machine – ‘Forward! Follow me!’ – as it turns on the spot, crawls over a roadside ditch, and moves towards the forest, gaining speed. Our tank follows. I had time to look around. To our right is the floodplain of the River Shklo. It means we are west of Yavorov. Transport vehicles are blazing on the road, ammo is exploding, several tanks (damaged during the bombing) stand motionless. The German planes turn around unhurriedly and the howling and rumbling begins again . . .

We’re already approaching the forest when shells begin bursting right and left of us. The commander’s machine jerkily speeds up to evade fire. Our driver also revvs up and soon we find ourselves on the spot of the first tank engagement, which had just been fought by Major Zheglov’s battalion. Three German tanks stand stricken on the field, crimson flames rising from their turrets and hatches, dense smoke spiralling, ammo exploding. Our five tanks bog down in the swampy river bed left of the Krakowec road. Three of them keep firing as tankers bustle around, adjusting logs for the tracks to pull themselves out [. . .] A German shell screams over the turret of one of the T-34s. Shots are heard from the other side of the river and explosions are rumbling in our direction . . .

I had lagged behind the regiment’s commander at the approach to the River Shklo, and currently I didn’t know where he was, or what decision he took when our two battalions came across the enemy. I felt offended that, carrying out the corps commander’s order, I found myself in the role of an ordinary tanker, having lost communication with both regimental and divisional HQ. I only knew what I could see for myself, and what I had heard from the company commander, Senior Lieutenant Bestchetnov.

I tried to reach Zheglov’s two-way radio. No reply. Fortunately, I managed to contact the second battalion. Having engaged German infantry and tanks they managed to push them back. Kolkhidashvili led the companies forward but, having encountered strong fire from artillery and tanks, he had to stop. Two companies of the first battalion were somewhere on the left flank. I ordered Senior Lieutenant Bestchetnov to establish communications with them. The third battalion, having turned off the road – above which enemy aircraft kept circling – had stopped in the woods nearby and was awaiting orders.

I found regimental HQ at the edge of a grove. An HQ bus stood under pine trees, the radio-station was nearby. The Deputy Chief of staff, Captain Krivosheev, jumped off the bus. His thin, black, eyebrows were scowling: ‘The regiment commander has been killed.’ A chill crossed my heart. I stared at Krivosheev, unwilling to believe what he had told me. Could it be possible that Zheglov was no more? I took off my helmet, finding no words to express my grief. And Captain Krivosheev, without waiting for my reply, added: ‘Kombat [Battalion Commander – trans.] Scheglov is badly wounded.’ Then a signalman shouted from the bus:

‘Comrade Captain, they want you on the phone!’ The divisional commander, Colonel Efim Pushkin, was on the line. Having greeted me dryly he asked:

‘How come you didn’t safeguard the regiment commander? The first action and such a loss . . .’

‘We didn’t even know the Germans had broken through the covering units,’ I replied after a short pause. ‘We thought that infantry was ahead of us . . .’

‘You must learn to fight from the very first action,’ Efim Pushkin said, adding: ‘It’s been decided to appoint you as regimental commander. Captain Krivosheev will be the Chief of staff.’ Efim Grigorievich Pushkin stood silent for a short while, giving me time to grasp the level of responsibility pinned on me, and then added:

‘Lose no time. Take charge of the regiment. This is war. It punishes hesitancy. How do you assess the current situation?’

I reported what I knew. The report obviously dissatisfied Efim Pushkin.

‘It’s not enough for a competently run outfit,’ he pointed out. ‘Clarify the situation properly and report back. Get it done before the enemy renews his activity.’

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