An odd thing. The Guards Tank Corps, my Tank Corps, was advancing into Prussia. It was cold that winter, but the artillery prep had done its job and the white-uniformed tank-riders clung to the hand-holds or warmed themselves over the engine grills as my personal T-34/85 speeded along a smooth Prussian road.
No opposition, just dead trenches at right angles to the road, collapsed and black-blistered by our heavy artillery. A gentle snow fell as we laagered for the night, waiting for fuel and reinforcements.
Our job was simply to "poke the hole" for the second echelon to advance through. But our artillery had accomplished that by itself and, in the absence of armor or bunkers to engage, we felt quite....lonely, even isolated within the enemy's territory. Really we expected much more from the "lair of the beast". We expected to fight for our lives but were instead confronted with emptiness and the stillness that signified a dead land.
Whomever lived here once--and we had never really encountered German civilians--had long fled. The neat country houses were empty, although the doors were locked, much to our amusement. Really, we expected much more, and our soldierly expectations were greeted with silence.
Odd how, before the advance, we had all expected to die in the most horrible manner imaginable. Now our expectations were set upon chasing geese and chickens or prying open the larders of abandoned farmsteads. We found liquor, not much, mostly beer and cognac, but enough for the night.
By morning, the comrades were in fine fetter, eager to refuel and get on with the war. Our supply trucks, for the first time in human memory, arrived at dawn and my tankists began the arduous job of transfering fuel from 50 liter drums by hand-pump into our fuel tanks.
Joking and brandishing bottles of liberated schnapps, our tank-riders took their places on the engine decks and around the turret as we refueled.
It still snowed lightly, but by Russian standards, the weather was hardly unbearable, just a crisp and chilly nuisance.
I lit a cigarette and stood in the turret of my tank, thinking--or rather dreaming--of reaching the sea and ending this campaign. Berlin only mattered to me, not these empty farm houses and certainly not their former occupants or their fleeing army. This was, in my mind, a diversion to the real effort, the fight for Berlin and the inevitable decision of the war.
I knew that my men felt the same. You could tell it by their jokes and their disdain for what looked to be a rabbit chase.
Impatiently, I shouted at the tankists to hurry and complete the refueling.
The soldiers on the tank joined in with hoots and jeers at the men doing the real work.
And then I heard it--"Tam!" "Tam!" "Tam!"--"Tam!" "Tam!" "Tam!" "Tam!"--the sound of a sledge hammer hitting the tank's armor over and over again.
Pure instinct and training took over--I dropped down into the turret, slamming and locking the hatch behind me. The drumbeat of fire continued as Alexei slowly traversed the turret and searched for a target.
"Where?" I demanded, cursing silently. But in the seconds that elapsed, Alexei and myself had both burst into a freezing sweat and neither of us could see a target through either my small vision slits or his gun sight.
And then the drumming against our armor stopped.
"Twenty millimeter?" Alexei half-asked and half-asserted.
I nodded, but we swung the turret around again for certainty's sake. Obviously we had been spotted by a fascist reconnaisance unit. It didn't cheer us that someone on their side was still willing to fight and it certainly unnerved us that they had fired when it was convenient to them!
I admit that it took moments for my conscious mind to reassert my feeling of safety. Probably it would have taken more time--as I had become more cautious over the years--had not a droplet of blood seeped through the hatch and fell upon my shoulder.
Angrily, I threw the hatch open. Our tanks were painted in white camouflage at that time and a 20mm round made only a small impression upon the turret of a T-34. Really just a tiny perfectly round indentation.
But my tank was no longer a thinly whitewashed green. My tank was bright red in that shade of red that only blood shows upon the snow. And there were absolutely those little round, harmless impressions on the armor, but these were barely noticeable amid the severed limbs, chunks of flesh and brain matter and bits and fragments of bone splattered against the turret and hull of the tank.
Twelve good men had died outside of the armor, minced and diced like beef steaks against a chopping block.
You could never have explained or described such a scene to me, had I not witnessed it. A 20mm round simply disintegrated a human being, even if it bounced off of our armor. No one standing or sitting on the tank remained in one piece--there was barely enough of our tank-riders left to fill the two buckets we routinely attached to the rear towing shackles of our tank for water and meals.
Their blood, that of simple, common soldiers ran in rivelets over our engine compartment and down our sloped hull or simply pooled in convenient spots or stained unevenly the sides of the turret. It was a scene from a nightmare, red on white on green in rivetting shades that none of us survivors forgot or ever spoke about again.
That was my introduction to the Prussian campaign. A single Nazi reconnaisance vehicle--probably some sort of armored car we could have destroyed at ease with our tank--had caught us in the open, refueling and off-guard. That day I had not paid the price for my unit's, indeed my own, laxness. Others had paid and their blood stains would remain on the tank until the campaign was over and until the tank itself went up in flames from a panzerfaust in Danzig.
I and my crew escaped alive from that event as well, but I never, ever, regretted the loss of that tank.
~D, the EviL
Death is lighter than a Feather, Duty is heavier than a Mountain....