Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior.
Karl von Clauswitz
Chapter 20 - THE RUSSIAN
0655hrs Monday, 23rd July 1945
Hotel Neese, B.O.Q. Building, Div HQ, 15th US Armored Division, Schlangen, US Occupied Germany.
He stood tall and looked in the mirror, and liked what he saw. By his own peoples standards he was handsome but that wasn't it. Neither was it the muscle-bound frame, jet black hair and piercing green eyes. It was the uniform of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Red Army tank troops and the medals upon it which gave him satisfaction, medals which reflected the years of hardship, blood and loss which accompanied him from Poland in 1941 through to his final battle in the fatherland of his hated enemy. The rising sun played across his awards, twinkling off them with each breath he took.
His eyes fell upon the 'Hero of the Soviet Union' award which sat apart from and above the rest and, as always, his thoughts went to Alexei and his crew. On his neck above the medal was a scar of that encounter, showing how close the distance between life and death is really measured and, as was always the case, his hand rose to seek out the blemish.
The doctor had told him that, in this case, the distance between life and death was about 3mm, for that was how far the small shard of metal had missed his jugular by.
There were other scars and stories to go with them of course, but none brought back so many ghosts as that one.
He had been ordered by Major Petrenko, dear, cowardly, spiteful bastard Major Petrenko, to hold the ridge created by the raised railway line in order to give time for the rest of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps to prepare a defensive position around Hoptivka to the north. With a handful of infantry, anti-tank gunners, mortar men and his own T/34's Arkady had resisted the SS for hours, throwing back attacks from tanks, panzer-grenadiers and assault guns.
He had been Captain Yarishlov at that time, and his position had been fallen upon by Hausser's SS at Bilashi on the northern edge of Kharkov. Little had been said of it in the Motherland, for it was a stinging defeat at a time of repeated victories, but Arkady knew the human cost of the affair only too well.
During the course of the action Yarishlov received a bullet nick to his calf, a small but heavily bleeding wound which made him hobble. He received his second wound when he ran at full tilt and threw himself into a trench to avoid incoming mortar rounds. The wound this time was a cracked rib from accidentally landing on a wooden ammo box, the corner of which penetrated the skin and hurt like hell.
The memento at his throat was picked up from a bursting 105mm high-explosive shell which destroyed the last Zis-3 anti-tank gun and put its brave crew beyond burial. It had stung for sure and bled like hell but had not incapacitated him and so he ordered the last smoke shells laid down from his mortars to cover the withdrawal of his scratch force as the runner reported their corps regrouped at Zhuravlevka.
The three surviving senior NCO's moved out and relayed the order to fall back, which order was obeyed immediately of course but not without casualties as the shells continued to fall all around the position.
Senior Lieutenant Alexei Gurundov, commanding the last surviving tank, passed the orders to his crew, and the scarred T34 disappeared further into the wood in which it had been positioned.
Alexei had taken a final look back which was fortunate for Yarishlov, as it coincided with the blood loss finally taking its toll and his collapse on the reverse slope of the small hillock on which his command post had been situated. A swift order to halt and Alexei was out of the tank, running for all he was worth towards the prone form of his commander. Both men had been together since the first bloody days of 11th Mechanised Corps and had been drawn closer by shared hardships and loss, as had many comrades of all nations in those difficult years. Fortunately the lee of the hillock isolated Gurundov from observation but the shells were still a problem. If it had been the other way round things might have been different, for Gurundov was a bear of a man and Yarishlov was slender. Swept up on the shoulder, Yarishlov was carried from the field like a roll of carpet, with the safety of the wood reached just before enemy infantry stormed the now abandoned command post. One sharp-eyed SS trooper put a few shots after the pair but nothing came really close and Yarishlov was hauled up on top of the tank by willing hands and the T34 set off along the track once more.
Eventually the tank made it back to the next defensive position and the crew took a break, not before they placed their wounded comrade in the hands of the medical service. Arkady was very weak from loss of blood but had regained consciousness during the escape, not enough to talk but enough to listen and certainly enough to drink thirstily from the proffered canteen. He had remained laid on the top of the turret being held in place by Gurundov as the tank had bounced along in its search for safety.
As Gurundov laid Arkady on the stretcher their eyes met, held and unspoken words went between them. Unspoken words of comradeship, love, thanks, fear, hope and warning. The only words that came were Alexei's. "Take care old friend", as he touched Arkady's shoulder and stepped back to let the medics do their work.
Within three hours Alexei Gurundov and his crew were statistics, another tank crew immolated in the pursuit of victory. In their case, destroyed by the arrival of a large calibre artillery shell landing in their laps as they sat at rest away from the front line. Their tank was found flipped over, decorated with a mulch of human remains but was soon recovered and fought on later. The men were never found; four more sons of the Rodina forever lost.
The verbal report given by the departed Gurundov and the corroboration of the Starshina of the Mortar Company and Kapitan of the anti-tank unit were enough to ensure Arkady received one of his countrys most meaningful bravery awards.
Gurundov's death was not known to Yarishlov until the day Major Petrenko visited him in hospital to inform him of his award. Had it been done more sensitively then perhaps, just possibly, Yarishlov would have taken it better but Petrenko threw the titbit of information at Arkady as he started to leave, turning the pride at the recognition of his actions into the abyss of sadness associated with the loss of a close comrade. Petrenko was never one to endear himself to those around him and under him but he excelled himself that day and would have paled had he read Arkady's mind as he walked out of the hospital.
One week later to the hour Captain Yarishlov was presented with his award by no lesser person than the Bryansk front commander, General Maks Andreevich Reiter. He was one of a number of soldiers honoured at the ceremony, some front line swine like himself, others rear-echelon personnel who got their piece of metal for who they knew, not what they had achieved. That was and is the same in armies all over the world and will never change.
Of Arkady's rearguard force, only 4 men were left alive. Himself, the starshina of mortars who would never fight again, leastways not until the Rodina needed one legged-soldiers desperately, the gunner Kapitan and one 17 year old anti-tank soldier, who was also on the line of recipients. The Latvian starshina, Artur Gaudins, got his in hospital just outside Belgorod and he felt it was a fair exchange all said and done. His leg for a shiny award and the promise of continued life with his family away from the horrors of the front. Anti-tank gunner Kapitan Yuri Lapanski proudly received his award from his Corps Commander and posed for Pravda photographs looking every bit the Soviet Model soldier the day before he coughed his life out, struck in both lungs by fragments from a short round fired by friendly artillery. The younger man, one Boris Orlov revelled in his award and the celebrity status which accompanied it, for few anti-tank gunners survived after killing a German tank or two, and certainly a gunner who had been the sole server of his weapon and still managed to slay 7 armoured vehicles was unheard of. He rode his luck for most of the war, strangely failing to destroy another enemy vehicle despite being in numerous actions, and died impaled on the bayonet of a teenage German paratrooper during a vigorous enemy counter attack in East Prussia in '45.
Arkady mused, all those thoughts inspired by the simplest gaze at a piece of treasured metal.
So many dead comrades later, Arkady and his troops now rested on the quiet outskirts of sleepy Springe in Lower Saxony, directly opposite their erstwhile American allies, enjoying their occupation duties in the land which had done so much harm to their own native land.
And so now he stood ready for his meeting with those same Americans, where he was to be shown the manouveurings of a US armoured division and, as his American hosts would hope, be impressed with the projection of power it represented and, as his commanders would hope, gather useful information on unit strengths, personnel capabilities and tactical weaknesses. Perversely, Arkady had first-hand knowledge of the Americans tanks from lend-lease, during which time the USA had provided his country with tanks and vehicles in order to carry the fight to the Germans whilst the western allies did little by way of direct action. He had had a Sherman knocked out from underneath him by a panzerfaust so he was painfully aware of their weaknesses, not as painfully as the members of his crew who would bear the scars and torture of their burns until their final day. Generally, American tanks burned very well.
Before more memories flooded over him Arkady left his room and walked to the waiting staff car for the drive to Paderborn.