Sunday, August 26, 2018

Red Sky in Morning

Captain Pyotr Sergeivich Yershov was trembling nearly uncontrollably, the pain from his leg was nearly overwhelming him, but for the sake of what was left of his crew, he had to keep it together, at least until the expected Soviet counterattack rolled the fascists back to the East Prussian border.

Yershov and the crew of his KV-2 assault howitzer had been holding their own nicely, until just before sun up. Up until then, they had destroyed four German self-propelled anti-tank guns, one of their big 88 mm dual purpose guns, a lot of infantry and at least three Panzer 35s, the little Czech-built tanks that their opponent seemed to have a lot of.

Just after sundown the day before, an attack by a group of what had to have been German combat engineers had also been driven off, but the cost had been high.

Sergeant Major Tikhonov had reported in shortly after the last Germans had been seen to, he was badly wounded, bleeding profusely from a wound in his side, under his left armpit. At the time Yershov was still deafened by the explosive charges which had gone off against the side of their vehicle, crippling it and killing his driver, Private Pavel Ivanovich Zhukov.

"Tovarishch Kapitan! Beg to report, the Germans, they have..."

Catching himself, Starshiy Serzhant Tikhonov gripped the side of the tank, he could barely stand.

"Ivan Petrovich, I order you back to an aid station, your wound looks bad." Truth be told, Yershov wondered how the tough old sergeant was still on his feet at all.

"Yes, yes, but I must tell you, the Germans are not done with us yet. We can hear vehicles maneuvering out there in the dark, tanks and motorized guns most likely. Their infantry is quiet for the moment, we gave them quite a bloody nose. But..."

The sergeant major gasped and dropped to one knee. Yershov climbed down from his turret and told off the man with Tikhonov to bring a stretcher.

"Don't worry about all that, Ivan Petrovich..."

"Nyet, listen to me sir, one of my men says he saw another of their big 88s being prepared. It was being towed, we don't know where to, it..."

With a sigh, the sergeant major fell onto Yershov. Just then the stretcher showed up.

"Is he?" one of the bearers asked.

"He's alive. Barely, get him to the rear, there was an aid station about a half mile back. Move out!"

As the stretcher bearers carried the unconscious sergeant major to the rear, Yershov looked around. The dead German had been dumped unceremoniously into the ditch alongside the road, but the satchel charges which he and his mate had planted had done enough.

The track was badly damaged, and they had no spare links to repair it, but the worst part was that a small piece of the tank's interior, just on the other side of where the charges went off, had spalled off and killed his driver. Young Zhukov's throat had been nicked, a trifling wound, had it not cut his carotid artery.

They had desperately tried to save the young private, but in the dark and confined space of the vehicle's interior, and with Zhukov's thrashing, he had bled out. The KV's interior now stank of blood and the contents of Zhukov's bowels. Private Vasiliev has volunteered to drag Zhukov out of the tank and bury him, but the continuing crisscrossing of tracer fire from the German and Russian lines made it too dangerous.

Though the firing had subsided before Tikhonov had made his report, Yershov had noticed that the tracers coming from the enemy weren't only to his front, the Germans were making their way along either flank. He assumed that by mid-day, they would be surrounded.

Unless the commander of their corps, Major General Alexey Vasilievich Kurkin, counterattacked, they were doomed.

About an hour before sunrise, a single German tank had managed to make it's way behind Yershov's tank. The Germans waited, by starlight the German tank commander could just make out the thin ribbon of road which the massive Soviet tank was blocking. In the shadows of the night, he imagined that he could see the big KV. But not well enough to open fire and kill it.

Yershov was up in his commander's cupola, keeping a look out while the rest of the crew managed to nap, fitfully, but better than nothing. Yershov himself had not slept in three days, no four, he thought. The Germans had stormed across the border on the 22nd, today was the 25th, at least he thought it was.

To the east, Yershov could see the first harbingers of dawn, but he was uneasy, an old nursery rhyme perhaps, something about "red sky in morning" and warnings, he couldn't quite remember. But the eastern horizon was as red as blood.

Feldwebel Jürgen Witzleben was staring intently through his commander's sight. Prodding his gunner with his foot he asked, "Do you see it Thomas? Big as a whale, stands out like a whore in church doesn't it?"

Gefreiter Thomas Benfeldt chuckled at his tank commander's characterization of the big KV, but yes, with the early dawn light, he could see the enemy tank in his gunsight. He looked to his loader, who nodded.

"Put one up his ass, Thomas."

Stretching, Yershov was knocked to his seat by the shock of a German anti-tank round penetrating the engine compartment of his vehicle which shook the tank. Though small at 47 millimeters, the round traveled at high speed and was fired from fairly short range.

It passed through the thin armor at the rear of the KV, missing all of the vital engine components and, more importantly, completely missing the fuel system, then entered the crew compartment where it disemboweled the assistant loader Private Arkady Petrovich Rogov, then continued on, nearly spent, to decapitate the bow gunner, Private Mikhail Gennadyevich Vasiliev.

But the German round had also peeled off a long piece of steel from the ammunition stowage and driven it lengthwise into Yershov's leg.

"Traverse left, Valentin Alexandrovich, the bastard is behind us!" Yershov shouted as he put his eye to his commander's periscope. As the turret moved to point the gun over the back deck, he saw a flash.

"Panzergranate geladen!" screamed the loader of Panzer 214.

"Feuer!!" bellowed the commander of Panzer 214.

"Reload, reload, reload, hurry up you bastard!" Gefreiter Thomas Benfeldt urged his loader, he knew that they had not killed the big Soviet tank, he could see the KV's turret turning in their direction. It was a race against time, who would fire first?

Benfeldt at that point, realized that he had wet himself. Scheiße, these bastards won't let me forget this I'll bet.

He was wrong.

The Panzer 35(t)'s second round had banged off the side of the KV's turret, leaving a trail of sparks as it ricocheted off into the sky. The German's third, and last, round hit the road about ten meters behind the KV then ricocheted off the road and into the tank's engine compartment where it burrowed into the tank's engine block.

Feldwebel Jürgen Witzleben was tossed like a child's toy from the turret of his tank as the 152 millimeter high explosive shell impacted the glacis in front of the driver. The explosion ripped the turret of the small tank from the hull and tossed it behind the tank. The other three members of his crew had died instantly. He marveled that he was still alive, though he couldn't catch his breath as he lay some 25 meters away from his tank.

He heard the sharp bark of an 88 just before he died of shock. At the very least they had bought time for the big gun to move into position. He would be awarded a posthumous Iron Cross, Second Class.

As the first 88 round tore most of the left side of his tank away, Yershov could see German infantry opening fire from his front. As Vasiliev's machine gun had been destroyed by the round which had killed him, they had nothing but the tank's main gun and it's coaxial machine gun left to defend themselves. Then he remembered Valentin Alexandrovich's PPD-34, which his sergeant kept nearby all the time. The men joked that he even slept with it, they called it "Smirnov's Baby."

PPD-34, Soviet Submachine Gun, Predecessor of the PPSh-41
"Valentin Alexandrovich, hand me Baby. You have the main gun, I will try to keep the fascists to our front busy while you deal with those behind us."

Yershov popped his hatch and sprayed a magazine at the German landsers making their way incautiously up the road, they assumed that the KV was dead. Bad assumption. As Yershov reloaded, he could see at least two Germans down, and not moving, a third was on his hands and knees, vomiting.

Another 88 round slammed into the KV, penetrating the turret this time and mortally wounding Captain Pyotr Sergeivich Yershov. But Sergeant Smirnov had managed to drop a 152 round on top of the German 88, disabling it and killing most of its crew. He heard a sharp intake of breath from his captain as he and Corporal Shukov traversed the turret to the front, to bring the coaxial machine gun to bear. The main gun had been disabled by the 88's last shot.

"Captain, keep firing until we can crank the turret around! Captain?"

Smirnov turned to see his commander sitting placidly in his commander's seat. The PPD was a mangled pile of junk, as was his captain's chest. Shrapnel from the gun breech had exploded back into Yershov as the 88 round had hit it, then ricocheted up through the turret roof, leaving a gaping hole in the armor.

"Kill them all Valentin Alexandrovich," Yershov managed to say, before he coughed up a gout of blood, and died.

"Covering fire!" bellowed the German infantry captain as he led his maneuver element to the left of the big KV, he wanted to keep away from the Soviet's coaxial machine gun. As at least three German MG-34s opened up on the Soviet tank, ineffective in damaging the tank, other than scratching the paint, the noise of the rounds hitting the steel should distract the crew long enough for...

German MG-34 Light Machine Gun, Predecessor of the MG-42
Hauptmann Christoph von Waldfeucht saw the Soviet MG "twitch" in their direction. The grenade he was holding was fused and tossed in the tank's direction in an instant. Again, no hope of killing, but a distraction was needed.

Shrapnel from the hastily thrown German grenade, which had exploded nearly perfectly over the hole in the turret roof, sliced down and killed Shukov instantly. Shrapnel had also torn into Smirnov's upper thigh and upper arm. The wound in the upper arm hurt, the one in the thigh concerned him. He felt warm down there, too warm.

All of that had flashed through his mind in an instant as he triggered the tank's coaxial Degtyaryov machine gun, missing the German who had thrown the grenade, but hitting the two men behind him.

Just as the bolt slid home onto an empty breech.

Waldfeucht gestured to his men to climb up on the beast. The young officer surmised that the Russki's were reloading, now was the time. Fusing two grenades, his sergeant held them for an instant, then dropped them into the tank's hatch. Diving to the ground, he thought he had seen the Russian tank commander, just sitting there, as if he hadn't a care in the world.

"Blyad'!" Smirnov muttered as he saw two grenades drop into his dead captain's lap. Realizing that he was a dead man anyway, he racked the bolt back on the machine gun and began to fire. A moment later, both grenades detonated.

Hauptmann von Waldfeucht took a long drink from his canteen, then turned to his sergeant, "Anyone survive that mess?"

Oberfeldwebel Heinz Martinsohn shook his head as he watched the members of his squad removing the dead Russians from the KV. "Nein, Herr Hauptmann, all of them dead at their stations, it's a mess in there."

"Very well, dig those graves quickly, we need to be moving on." He saw Oberst Raus's Kübelwagen rolling towards him, pulling over from the long column of trucks heading towards Leningrad, now that this Soviet tank had been killed.

Raus jumped from his vehicle even before it had come to a complete stop, "Christoph, how many did you lose?"

"Seventeen men dead in my company alone, twenty-three wounded, five seriously. Counting the four Panzerjägers this beast killed, the two 88s destroyed, the three Panzer 35(t)s and the combat engineers that were killed last night, too many Herr Oberst. Too many."

"What are you doing now? We don't have time for this, the rear echelon will take care of burials."

"Sir, we found six Russians inside that tank. Everyone of them died at his post. It took us two days to deal with them. Brave men. My guys suggested a proper burial was in order, these men fought bravely and well. We should honor that. These are not subhumans, these are men, they were damned good men. We could use some like them."

Colonel Raus stared briefly at the young captain, "I had no idea you were such an idealist Christoph. While I agree with your sentiments, keep them to yourself. The Führer doesn't hold to your point of view. Nor do the Feldpolizei or the Gestapo."

"Idealist," the young captain spit into the dirt to his right, "I'm a soldier, these men were soldiers. If I fall, I expect the same courtesy I extend to these men. Regardless of the color of their uniforms."

Colonel Raus clapped the younger officer on the shoulder, "I like you Captain, but I fear for your safety. Stay alive, Germany needs you." With that Raus jumped back into his car and headed north.

Christoph von Waldfeucht would not see Erhard Raus again until 1945. Waldfeucht was badly wounded in the battle of the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket, where he commanded an infantry battalion as a major, and wasn't returned to duty until late in 1945. Assigned to the XI SS Panzer Korps as a Lieutenant Colonel, which puzzled him until he learned that Erhard Raus now commanded that ragtag unit. Raus had asked for him by name.

Raus and Waldfeucht both survived the war.

Author's Note:

Many of the men mentioned in this account actually existed. There was a marker at the grave of the KV-2's crew with two names, Yershov, P.E., Smirnov, V.A., one set of initials, Sh., N.A., and mentioning three unknown warriors.

Colonel Raus, Lieutenant Wengeroth, and Lieutenant Gebhard were actually there at Raseiniai, I got their names from an order of battle for the German 6th Panzer Division which was the main unit engaged with that Russian tank.

Captain von Waldfeucht is a product of my imagination, you'll note that he has the German version of my first name, Waldfeucht is where we lived in Germany.

This story of the KV-2 at one of the earliest battles in Operation Barbarossa, the name for the German invasion plan to conquer the Soviet Union in 1941, really intrigued me. Brave men doing a thankless job for no better reason than in defense of their native land.

Отдать честь!


  1. As a "you were there" well done Sarge. Your short paragraph style is reminiscent of Robert Parker although in his later books he carried it into extreme, IMHO. Visuals always help too.

    1. The short paragraphs seem to work for scenes with a lot of action, going from one viewpoint to another.

      Thanks Nylon12.

  2. I am truly impressed that for an Air Force guy who spent a career (minus a few months in Purgatory in Texas) as a maintainer, you do a great job of capturing the essence of being a down in the mud infantryman or tanker. Great job.

    1. I read, probably too much, and have a vivid imagination.

      Thanks Dave.

  3. Very well written, sir.

    Слава и честь храбрым солдатам.

    For some reason, no matter how brutal the regime, no matter the ideology, Russian soldiers fought with one idea in mind: Да здравствует Святая Мать Россия. What is it about that land grabs people by the heart?

    1. Thank you, Joe.

      Храбрые сыновья (и дочери) леса и степи.

      Admirable in so many ways.

  4. A tale well told, about a time that all should remember, and never forget.

  5. Who are those guys on your masthead. I knew two of them well but the rest are like Lufberry and Nungesser. Maybe you could do a sticky post on them. Of course, you probably already have and I'm too ignorant to find it. I also know something of the youngsters imaged. I know Joe and VADM Stockdale, the rest....problematic.

    1. I have been remiss. Once upon a time, I promised an explanation of who's who on the masthead. I know who they are and how they got there, upon their arrival up top I may have mentioned why, in some cases I did not.

      I like the idea of a sticky post, even if it's only a "click here to go there" kind of thing.

      I shall get on that, forthwith as they say. (Whoever "they" are.)

    2. Pity there is no room for David McCampbell.

    3. There are literally thousands of faces which could go up there.

  6. Great story. It is a shame that too many of the soldiers on all sides of that conflict were far better than the politicians who caused it.

    And I was going to see if you ever made an explanation about some of your selections in the masthead. Glad you've decided to do something about it.

  7. Well done, Sarge. You have honored their memory well, enlightened us with some actual history, albeit with fictional dialogue. It is important that people learn history, and its important lessons. Lessons about culture, conflict, the actions of men (and women) in combat, and the horrible price of war.

    Your writing is as good as "Killer Angels" which is damn fine indeed! Keep it up and give us more.

    John Blackshoe.

    1. We need to remember ALL of the heroes of our species, no matter the color of their uniform.

      To be compared to the late Michael Shaara is high praise indeed!

      Thanks John!

    2. Now that my pulse has slowed to normal I can comment.

      As the others have said, very good writing.

      The more I learn, the more I'm happy with having been a Navy snipe.

      Thank you .

    3. Yeah, out on the ground where the bullets fly is not healthy.

      Thanks John.

  8. This is one of those stories I wouldn’t believe without documentation from *both* sides.

    1. Both sides seem to agree, though the German commander on scene (Raus) thought it was a KV-1, most of the evidence points to a KV-2.

      Heat of battle and all that, no doubt.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.