The War showed as its terrible face

…Near Leningrad it became clear that we are going to the territory, where quite recently there was going the war with Finland. The destination point was the town of Sortavala, where at the northwest suburb, at the open field was built a tent camp. Here we had to live till autumn, to learn the basics of the military science. It was not easy. It was very hard to learn to obey military discipline, to learn military language, procedures of reporting, contacting officers and so on. At the autumn, after swearing allegiance I was sent to the Värtsilä settlement and enlisted to the first company of the 367th infantry regiment.

And again intense drill continued. In 1940 in the Red Army they had seriously risen the demand plank. All the training was held in conditions close to those at the battlefield. We made raids with the full ammunition, had tactical training in field and even in winter hat to spent nights in the forest near the small fires. The company commander senior lieutenant Rebrov was exclusively demanding, exacting and even heatless towards the privates. Every small fault was punished, without any exclusions.

There were no visible traces of the past war campaign at that places. The township was not destroyed at all – it kept quite clean, even smart. But, in general, we knew quite little about that "unanimous" war with Finland during 1939-1940. We still believed that if the enemy will attack, we would beat him on his territory "by the powerful blow and small blood".

In general, the service in the Red Army was, probably, quite usual and there was a hope that in the due time it will end and there came the day when we will return to our families and will be happy. At least that were our hopes and so I wrote in the letters the letters to my wife, to support her. There we only the words going from the heart that I could help her.

In the June 22nd I was on guard at the training equipment warehouse from 4 till 6 o'clock. The warehouse was about 500 meters from barracks and I could clearly see that at about 5 o'clock the orderly was galloping from barracks with the commander's horse at rein. It was strange to see that the man was not fully dressed – he did not have his field shirt on – only white underwear was on him. After several minutes a saw an unusual movement in the barracks and near them. At first I thought that this was a training alarm, but then decided that there had happen something extraordinary. Soon I was changed from the watch and learned that Germany had attacked the Soviet Union and they had bombed Kiev. All action units of the regiment left the barracks. Our company took its defense line and we began to dig trenches. It was unclear from where to expect the enemy, but we built our defense against the attack from the borderline.

There were not a single shot during the first three days, but on the fourth it became known that Finns attacked the border guards barracks some nine kilometers from our regiment by the straight line, across the swamps. There were no other way from us to that point and in the same day a squad from our platoon was sent to help the border guards. In the next day only five of them returned. They told that by the time they came there, the barracks were already taken by Finns and they were met by the machine-gun fire. Four of them were killed. They took with them one wounded in the stomach, but at about the middle of the way back he asked them to leave him on the small marshy island. He asked them to leave him a grenade and to hurry up to the regiment to inform about the situation.

Their story shocked us – they left the wounded comrade alone for sure death – it could not be explained or justified. I could not hold my indignation and told those who returned that their deed was cruel and unforgivable. I thought that to leave the wounded alone was not permissible – one of them should be left with him and wait for help.

The war had shown as its terrible face.

All our company was sent to the border guards barracks with the task to beat away the Finns and to hold over the barracks. As I already said, the way there was through the marshes and two small rivers running in the unsteady swampy land. The way there was hard and slow – for more than two hours we were walking though the wild mossy tundra-like plane. We were going in silence and, probably, every one was oppressed by the thought that we are coming up to the secreted insidious enemy that held much better positions – he could see us, while we cold not.

Ahead we saw a small hill, covered be bushes and coniferous trees behind, with the wide glade at the top. There came the command to stop. When the rears came up, there was a command to set a line and move forward.

We were moving with the fide front, expecting to see the barracks, held by Finns. We held the neighbors at sight, rifles ready to meet the enemy. One of the sergeants somehow managed to outstrip the line. Suddenly we heard the shot and his cry "I am wounded". We saw him laying. Holding the foot with both his hands he hurriedly explained that he saw Finnish officer that shot at him and run away. There came a loud command: "Move ahead!" We reached the top of the hill, where steep slope began and laid down. The enemy was silent. We did not see any sign of the barracks. Ahead of the steep slope there again was seen a swamp and it was not quite reasonable to move ahead without reconnaissance. But our commanders did not try to determine the situation and we begun to move down. It was at this time when the enemy started dense submachine-gun and mortar fire on our company, nailing it to the steep slope, staying invisible and invulnerable – our return shots were unmarked and, as they say "just to the wild". Three forth of the company was left there on that hill, among the wild swamps. About half of them were only wounded, but we could not help them.

Only forty-two of us returned from that "operation", of the one hundred sixty of the full company.

It was a kind of a mystery where at that time were company commander senior lieutenant Rebrov and zampolit (commissar) Vovk. No one of the survived saw them at the combat and we did not know what to do next. We gathered on the road not far from the place of the first strike we decided to send someone to the regiment headquarters (we knew the roundabouts it should be) to inform about the events and get some commands. One of us (I do not remember his name now) took the commission. By the evening he returned and told us that at the regiment headquarters he saw our company commander Rebrov and zampolit Vovk. They were removed from the company command.

Under command of junior lieutenant Kormishin our company was moving towards Sortavala under the constant Finnish pursue. We took stands, entrenched, but after a short resistance retreated again, constantly loosing our friends. On one of the defense stands our company was partially enforced by the conscripts, but the situation was still critical. We had the impression that we were fighting without any contacts with the higher command; we did not get neither ammunition, no food.

Near Harlu the remnants of our company were joined to the second company under the command of the senior lieutenant Zharov. Here we were allowed to have a small rest. Together with me Zharov went to the small house some seventy meters from the rest and laid down on the floor to have a short nap. I began to load the drum of his Degtyarev submachine-gun. We placed in the house by the will of the senior lieutenant and might be because of that I did not think of a sudden enemy attack. There were no shooting at all. After about twenty minutes I loaded the submachine-gun drum and started to clean my rifle. Suddenly I heard a quiet puffing of the engine. I looked from the window and frozen: some five-eight meters from the house there slowly moved a spotted tank with swastika. I rushed to the sleeping commander, told him that there is an enemy tank nearby. He understood, grabbed his submachine-gun and run away to the bushes near the house. At the same time I heard the submachine-gun fire and the sound of falling glass. My rifle was not in working state. I laid on the floor trying to understand what am I to do. The fire continued and I heard foreign talk nearby. Suddenly the door wide opened and I saw several Finnish soldiers with their submachine-guns pointing at me. It happened in July 16th 1941.

.  .  .

Ivan Tvardovsky¹ (1914-2003)
The Motherland and foreign lands: The book of the life, Smolensk, 1996.

¹ The younger brother of well-known Soviet poet Alexander Tvardovsky.