I Was There3 December 2014

Arsenti Rodkin, 10 October 1944

This account was written by the Russian historian Artem Drabkin based on his interviews with Arsenti Rodkin. Rodkin served as a T-34 commander in the 1st Tank Corps from 1943 to 1945, taking part in the advance through Lithuania and into East Prussia. This account provides a glimpse of what life was like for those who opposed the German War Machine in the east, fighting as part of the brave and determined – but sometimes chaotic – Red Army. It also illustrates the difficulties that faced crews of the T-34/85 tank, which was massively front-heavy and had a gun that protruded 6ft 6 inches (2m) past the front of the hull.

10 October 1944

On 10 October 1944 we crossed the German border, We captured Shipen, crossed a railway that ran between Memel and Tilsit, and advanced towards Tilsit. On 11 October I was wounded. On that day, I was moving forward as part of an advanced unit. The Germans had an anti-tank gun and something else in the ambush they sprang. I saw the gun when I got out of the tank after it was hit in the right-hand side by a shell. At first I felt that something had hit me in the hip and then I saw flames underneath the tank. I got out and knew then that I was wounded: some debris had hit me in the hip and the ankle bone. I ran off into a ditch on my right-hand side. A gunner had jumped out with me (I had him on the crew in place of a signalman gunner). The rest of the crew baled out and hid in the left-hand ditch. I then noticed the German trenches, which were about 30 metres ahead of us.

Suddenly there was a German, apparently an officer, coming out of the trench and shooting at me with his handgun. I shot back. I called over to my driver, Dima Spiridonov, and asked him to throw me a grenade. He did. I pulled the pin and threw it towards the German. However, I missed, and the grenade detonated a few metres in front of the trench. The German then popped up from the trench and threw a pineapple grenade at me; he missed too. I thought, to hell with you Fritz, you sit there and shoot if you want, I’m leaving.

My gunner pulled the boot off me and bandaged my wound. We started crawling towards our positions. There was gunfire coming from both sides, German and Russian. There were mortars, German and our own, and Katyushas roaring overhead. We crawled about 200 metres, came across a sewage pipe and got inside it. We sat there waiting for all this mess to stop. when it all calmed down, we crawled a little further. I was getting tired and it was very hard to move, I said to Dima:

“Keep going, I’ll manage on my own”

He yelled at me: “How good an officer you are then!”

“all right, all right, be quiet, I shall crawl then.”

We reached the intersection and needed to cross the road. He said to me “You go first, boss.’

I got over the road, he started crawling then the Germans opened up with a few bursts of small arms fire. However, they miss us (It must have been my lucky day!). An infantryman tried to follow us and got wounded. He went back to where he had started and cried: “Tankers, do not leave me alone here I am wounded!”

I said, “Dima, we need to save that bloke”

“How do we do that?”

I paused, then shouted “You take care of yourself. We’ll send your comrades to rescue you as it gets dark. We cannot help you now.”

We reached to where our tanks were resting and organized the infantry to rescue their wounded friend. The they got me in a truck and rushed me to hospital, I spent about two months in a hospital bed. After that I was still limping a bit, but because the hospital was relocating I was worried about losing touch with my unit. I approached the chief doctor and asked to be discharged from hospital. In fact, there were a few of us ‘walking wounded’ who were released before our time and then went to look for our units on our own. I had returned to my battalion in mid-december 1944. Just in time, because on 13 January 1945 a new offensive commenced.

I happened to be in the reserve at this time and id not have a tank of my own. Sometime around 18 January, though, I took command of a platoon within the 3rd Battalion, and by midday we took up our initial positions. I managed to get in touch with a couple of officers there, Junior Lieutenant Lyashenko and Lieutenant Levin. They asked me “What is best for us to do?”

“Hell knows,” I said, “just do as i do.”

Our battalion deployed and attacked the enemy. Shortly after our attack, Levin got hit from the left somewhere. All in all there was not much gunfire though, and so we kept moving.

At one point we drove into a ditch and shoved some dirt and rocks into the barrel, but luckily I spotted it. We drove behind a building and cleaned the gun up. Then we kept moving and reached the main assembly point. By that time everything seemed like a big mess. Our battalion commander rushed forward somewhere and disappeared. We were then placed under the command of the neighboring battalion’s commander, whose name was Udovichenko. He said to me “Do you see that knoll over there to the left? Get over there, have a look around, and make sure they cannot hit us from that position.”

We took off. It turned out there was an anti-tank ditch right in front of that knoll. I noticed it when we were about five metres from it. However, I had my internal radio turned off [the radios in T-34s were of dubious quality and often filled the ears of the crew with deafening static or feedback] so I did not have enough time to warn the driver. He noticed it only when our tank reached the edge of the ditch.

He pulled up sharp, the tank stopped dead, causing the front of the machine to dip down and the back to rise up. The gun barrel was driven into the dirt again and we were stuck arse-end up.

I leaned out of the hatch and noticed a German about 30 meters away from us, holding a Panzerfaust, sticking out from behind a dwelling. I fired at him with my handgun, making sure he couldn’t aim properly. He managed to fire a shot, but the grenade hit the ditch parapet in front of our tank.

I said to my crew: “Get out, or else we’ll be incinerated in here.” They all got out and scattered around quickly. I had a pair of warm German pants on me, which were equipped with straps which I had wrapped around my waist. When I was getting out, I got caught up and hung there, upside down, like a sausage. Well, I thought, I’m finished.

Meanwhile, the German jumped out from behind the house and ran towards our tank, holding his Panzerfaust, apparently thinking everyone had scarpered. I pulled my handgun and shot him. He fell, and I shot him one more time to make sure. I twitched and twitched hanging on those straps, and at least fell down onto the snow. My boys had disappeared, leaving me alone. I could not, however, leave my tank by itself: it was still in good order. I squatted down behind the tank and waited.

A while later, I heard the sound of tracks clanking. My crew had returned, bringing two tanks with them. My former driver, Dima Spiridonov, was in one of them. We hooked up our tank with steel ropes and pulled it out. The gun barrel was clogged with clay. We managed to catch up with our battalion and got into line. Night was approaching fast.