“Dad, please tell me about the war,” I said to my father, playing with his decorations when I was little. “You don’t want to do it?” “What do you want to know?” he said gloomily. “How did we kill each other?”
Many years passed before May 8, 1985, when on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Victory Day, my father put on his military jacket for the first time, and we went to look for his division. The day was bright and sunny. There were a lot of war veterans in Gorky Park, Moscow’s on the bank of the Moskva river. Numerous plaques with the names of military units and a stream of decorations on people’s chests flitted before my eyes. We walked along the alleys for a long time, looking closely at faces. We asked questions to passersby but did not get any sensible answerы. Actually our question was simple. Are there any war veterans from the 96th Mountain Rifle Division here?
“Looking for the 96th division?” asked a lieutenant colonel. He seemed very pleased with himself. “I fought for it.”
“When did you fight there?” my father asked.
“In 1944,” the lieutenant colonel answered.
“What did you do?”
“I was a political instructor.”
“Oh well, I see,” my father said with a note of sarcasm. “And I got there in 1937.”
There was no chance for them come to terms. The time gap was too big. It is anyone’s guess how many men there were in two or three formations of each union. Only after my father passed away, I made the first attempt to figure it out. I found out that after being drafted to the Army, he was sent to the Kyiv Special Military District or, to be more precise, to what was then the western part of Ukraine. A year after drill on the boot camp, he got assignment to the 209th regiment of the 96th division named after Jānis Fabriciuss. Two years later, the division was redeployed to Northern Bukovina, very close to Bessarabia. This area had been taken away by the USSR from Romania under the threat of military intervention as part of the efforts to regain the former lands of the Russian Empire lost in 1918. Hitler was not yet ready for the war with the USSR and advised the king of Romania to resolve the issue in a friendly way.
On June 22, the German-Romanian troops crossed the Soviet border. Shortly before, the 96th division was moved from Chernovtsi to summer camps. Although the German-Romanian attack was unexpected, the Soviet troops retaliated. Together with the soldiers of the 60th division, they drove the invaders back across the border. This might be taken for the workings of deceitful Soviet propaganda, but there was an important witness who will not let us lie.
“Everything is not so bad at the front,” Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary in early July 1941. “The progress is significant. In the south, fighting is very fierce. The roads are almost impassable. Chernovtsi has been seized. The enemy doesn’t have operational command anynore. The prisoners gave testimonies that they do not surrender just for fear of being shot. The combat operations are conducted extremely persistently. A stroll (the Germans dreamed about an easy one – A.S.) is out of the question. The “red regime” has mobilized people. And add to it the well-known stubbornness of the Russians. Our soldiers are really having a hard time.”
Soon the predictions of the German “propaganda chief” got a new confirmation. As a matter of fact, a report to the staff of the 18th Army informs that “50 soldiers under the command of Major Miklei, the commander of the 209th regiment, made a night raid on the staff headquarters of a German unit and successfully seized it.”
“On July 25 and 26, 1941, covering the retreat of the 96th division, in the battle near the village of Trostyanets in the Vinnitsa region, Miklei's soldiers knocked out 42 tanks.”
A week later, on August 2, near the village of Krasnogorka, Miklei was wounded. He continued to lead the regiment until he was killed by a fragment of a German mine.
By the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet dated November 9, 1941 for “the exemplary performance of combat missions at the front of the fight against the German invaders and combat valor” Major Gennady Miklei was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. By the same decree the title of Hero of the Soviet Union was awarded to Major General Ivan Shepetov, the division commander, for a successful covering action and assistance to the 18th Army of the Southern Front during a breakout from encirclement.
The heroic 96th division when through many bitter experiences of the war before it got into the terrible slaughterhouse of the Second Battle of Kharkov (Operation Fredericus) in May 1942. Various estimates indicate that our troops lost 270,000 soldiers in killed, wounded and missing in that ordeal. Another 130,000 men turned up in German captivity. Out of the many thousands of soldiers and officers who were seized by the Germans, a small group of 600 men managed to reach friendly forces. My father was among them, too. The banner of the division was rescued, and part of it was sent to the new unit. After passing through the mayhem of SMERSH, the wartime counter-intelligence agency of the Red Army, my father was assigned to the 151st division, which reached the Caucasus in the course of battles. His 96th division, previously the 14th Guards Division, stopped on the banks of the Volga River.
Shepetov, the division commander, had a dramatic fate, too. He was captured, did not agree to cooperation and a year later was executed by shooting in the Flossenbürg concentration camp for an attempt to escape. However, it was not the end of the story. Those who have watched the film Chinese Box that tells about the preparations for an attempt to assassinate Stalin, certainly remember the scene of detention of Peter Tavrin-Shilo, Abwehr’s Russian agent. His failure was silly. A patrol noticed that the awards on his uniform coat were arranged incorrectly. These were the awards of the slain Shepetov – the star of Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin.
After searching throughout Gorky Park, my father decided to try his luck in Sokolniki park. It was his last hope. We were looking for the 140th Novgorod-Seversky division, as a part of which he entered Prague. However, before it, there were Mius-Front and the liberation of Donbass. That is where my father's personal story took a new turn. I remember that when I was a small kid, we went somewhere by train through Ukraine. On arriving to one place, my father lighted up. Through the window he showed us the place where he had been seriously injured. It was the Donetsk Ridge. The area was cut with ravines and beams. Soldiers installed trench mortars on the hillside so that they would not be seen. But the Germans were not foolish either. As soon as they opened fire, an Uhu reconnaissance plane appeared in the sky. It hovered there for a minute and was off. And then the world suddenly collapsed. A burst ripped through the place. Apparently, a six-barreled German mortar was shooting. Father got shot in the head and spent three months at hospital. He was utterly and completely dismissed due to the risk of the loss of vision. But in December, he was assigned to the 128th division as a training battalion noncom. In March 1944, my father was again at the front. The army was heading towards the state border of the USSR, literally within walking distance to Europe. They had to call up for service even those who had been dismissed from service on medical grounds previously.
During the war, every battle might be the last one as luck would have it. One tank soldier told me about the battle of the Dukla pass. The 140th division also took part in it when they were in southern Poland and received an order to fight their way into Slovakia.
“The battalion was waiting in ambush. There were the mountains around us and only one road. No chance to make a maneuver rightwards or leftwards. Through the breech-sight I saw a lot of infantry coming out into a relatively small area. Bang, bang, and a few minutes later the battalion was gone. We were gritting our teeth so loudly that the Germans might hear us, but we couldn’t open fire. We didn’t have an order for that. A man’s life at war is not worth a straw. In the battle for Czechoslovakia, we lost 140,000 men. And then another 600,000 in Poland. As simple as that. Let's drink 100 grams of vodka (a daily ration for each Red Army soldier during
World War II.)
In Sokolniki park, luck did not smile at us either. We walked around for a very long time and almost became desperate when we noticed a modest plywood banner at the end of the alley. Standing nearby was a tall silver-haired military man with martial bearing. It was Colonel Alexeyev, the executive officer of the 140th division. Everything happened very fast. Alexeyev asked my father some question. He answered briefly and without hesitation. So, the fraternization was successful. The next day we went to the veterans again. There were a lot of them. They came with children, grandchildren and wives. We met Lieutenant Colonel Petr Bregman, a battalion commander from Chernigov, and talked to Grisha Mulyava, a senior lieutenant from Kiev, and many others. We visited Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square. We took a photo against the background of the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky, in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral. We saw the Division Banner in the Museum of the Armed Forces. And then we had a great banquet at Avtozavodskaya metro station. It was only natural, since we were celebrating the anniversary of Victory. The soldiers recalled the past days.
“Well, now for meeting for the 50th anniversary of the Great Victory,” Alexeyev pledged.
“If we are alive,” added my father ironically.
As always, he was right.
P.S. “The day before, on the morning of June 22nd, there was nothing on the Road of Memory website. I opened it in the afternoon and suddenly found 21 names of the people who I knew closely. Three more were missing from it, but I believe it was just an error. In total, it turns out that there were 24 people in my family who fought on the frontline. A total of 16 of them were killed. Lest we forget them!”