Before the start of combat operations on the Soviet front of World War II, Anna Ivanovna Shvets, née Kulinchenko, finished a secondary medical school in the town of Krolevets in the Sumy region in Ukraine.
On the first day of Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union she went off to the front as a volunteer. She got into the 1st medical and sanitary squadron of the 5th Guards Cavalry Division and worked in a field hospital. As a combat medic and a surgical nurse, she did missions at almost all the fronts.
6 a.m.: We had no Place Where to Put the Wounded
Before the war began, Anna got assignment to a hospital in the town of Zhovkva (the current name is Nesterov) near the Polish border, where she worked as a nurse. In the early Sunday morning, June 22, 1941, they were awakened by the rumble of warplanes. Nurses who had been assigned to the hospital lived on the territory of a local monastery. They ran out into the street and saw numerous aircraft flying east. They felt the chills run up their backs: “It’s just started...”
During a few previous weeks everyone felt the strain of awaiting something bad to happen. Around 5 a.m., a messenger appeared on his horse and said everyone had been ordered to go to hospital.
“The wounded were everywhere,” recalled Anna. “The wards were crammed, and people were lying right on the floor in the corridors. Children, women, the elderly… all civilians... We began to provide first aid immediately. The wounds were of different degrees of severity, and some patients were delivered straight to the operating theater.”
Moans, screams, blood. A lot of blood… The nurses, very young girls, were in a big rush. They had never been in such situations before. Everything was new and unfamiliar. Some of them got confused. People cried, screamed, and begged for help ... The nurses rushed from one wounded to another trying at least to stop the blood. It was their first encounter with war, with innumerable terrible wounds in people and with human suffering...
“At 6 a.m. we had no place where to put the wounded, and they were being delivered,” recalled Anna. “The bombing raids hit villages that were near the Polish border. The chief doctor let us go, and in the afternoon, my friend and I went to the army drafting committee. We filed applications to be volunteers. We had special notification slips in our military ID books, and in case of war we had to report to the nearest military committee as medical workers. That was how the war started for us.”
The Germans Were in Horror of Cavalry
Yes, the cavalry played an important role during the Second World War. The most interesting thing is that the Germans – especially their infantry – were in horror of the cavalry. And it was understandable: imagine a herd of horses with horsemen with guns blazing -- that is, rushing -- at full tilt towards you.
“It was really very scary because the ground was shaking from hundreds of hooves,” said Anna. “One could hide from a tank, for example, in a trench, but there is no chance to escape anywhere from hundreds of horses. Of course, the front rows [of the cavalry] often fell from assault rifles and machine guns,” Anna became silent for a moment. “But then, the horsemen from behind drove up with a loud cry “Hurrah!”. That loud and drawn-out outcry and horses running at full speed with cavalrymen on them caused panic among the Nazi troops. It was like that... The cavalrymen were attacking crying: “For the Motherland! For Stalin!”
Probably, due to the fact that the cavalry could make a rapid and efficient breakthrough, its units often moved from one section of the front to another. Anna said if they were ordered to embark on troop trains or sent to raids, everyone understood that an offensive was forthcoming somewhere. No records or diaries were allowed. Very often they moved in deserted places at night, so that the Germans could not spot them from the air. They also had machine-gun carriers in their units, as well as cars in which the wounded were mostly transported.
Obviously, mostly men were enrolled for cavalry unit. However, girls worked as nurses and a few women as doctors in the hospital. They were taught to ride. Every girl and woman had a horse and a cavalry officer's orderly that took care of the animal. During encampments and reinforcements they had trainings. The commander was tough on them, demanding that girls and women could ride a horse confidently. Anna remembered his last name – Kazberuk – for the entire life. Originally, he came from the Caucasus. He tried to take his fellow countrymen to his squadron who since childhood had been beyond comfortable in a saddle.
Crossing Bloody Dnieper
When the operation for the liberation of Kiev was being prepared, they were moved to the Dnieper. The crossing was literally bloody. People were loaded on pontoons, but Nazi bombers were pouring bombs from the sky. The pilots obviously did not care that there were crosses on some pontoons indicating the presence of wounded people there. Just a few people reached the other shore -- some of them swam, and others made it with the help of the pontoon. People did it as they could. Water in the Dnieper was reddish because of the blood ... With great losses, their units managed to gain a foothold on the other side.
They Were Surrounded but Managed to get out Through Swamp
The field hospital where Anna worked was often set up almost on the frontline. It was here where doctors and nurses provided first medical aid, performed emergency surgeries and sent the wounded to the rear. Numerous times, falling behind the pace of their unit, they were left on unclaimed territories or in the immediate vicinity of German units.
Once it happened in the Isbitsky forest near Kharkiv that became the site of fierce battles. At that time, there were over a hundred wounded in the hospital. They were cut off from their unit, and one of the wounded commanders decided to go further into the forest so that the Germans would not capture them. The Nazis saw through that plan and began to pursue them driving almost into the swamp. Our cavalrymen were attacking, but could not break down the resistance.
“We found ourselves in a place where the cars couldn't get to,” Anna recalled. “We didn't have horses... There was a swamp ahead of us, and the Germans pressed us behind and could start mopping up at any moment... The commanders had maps of the area, and after consulting for a while, they decided to break through the swamp to our troops.
“The place was sloughy. Both the seriously wounded and the hospital equipment had to be removed. We tried some bypasses bust just got mired there. Then one soldier remembered his grandfather walking on the swamp. It was summertime. So, he suggested weaving tight rings of twigs which were then tied to the boots.
“Everyone who could work with their hands wove them,” recalled Anna. “We tried to get out of there as soon as possible, packing the equipment and preparing the heavy wounded for carrying over the swamp. The commander and that soldier went ahead. They warned us that we had to move quickly so that our legs would not get stuck in the swamp and to avoid panicking. Even with those rings we stuck ankle-deep in the swamp because it was slurry. Still we kept walking. It was very scary, but there was no way back because the Germans were there.”
Still, they managed to get out of the marshland and find their unit in a few days. They were so happily welcomed. The nurses cried, not even trying to hold back their tears, because no one thought that they would stay alive. They were already “buried.” And they managed not only to save themselves but also to take out all the wounded soldiers and the hospital equipment.
Wells Were Filled With Children's Corpses
There were plenty of similar stories during the war. Some of them have been erased from memory over time, and others have been remembered for the whole life. When one of the Ukrainian villages was liberated from Nazis invaders, even men could barely look at what was left of the village. Deep wells were filled with corpses of children of different ages. Burnt houses and barns with annihilated human remains. A dead young woman was lying near the road, and a baby who miraculously survived. He was picked up and then handed over to a family in one of the villages.
She Detested German Speech
Many years have passed after the war, but Anna could not calmly hear German speech. She avoided watching war films. She had to endure a lot in those horrible years. After the war she worked at Murmansk military hospital as a surgical nurse, and then moved with her family to the township of Naro-Fominsk in the Moscow region where she continued working as a nurse at a district general hospital.
Almost until the last days of her life, Anna tried to help people. She gave injections to her neighbors, helped with advice and always offered a helping hand when someone got in trouble. She was always patient, calm and honest with people. Anna thought over all her actions, and, facing difficulties, she never panicked and set an example to all of us. Obviously, she didn’t lose her military training until the last days. In December 2013, she passed away at the age of 92.