Ivan Kobets


Ivan Kobec, 1941


- In 1939, barely three months after I graduated from the teachers college and began working as a schoolteacher, I was drafted and sent to the Pukhovichi Infantry School located near Minsk. There were three battalions at the school - one put together with cadets of the Leningrad Red Banner Kirov's Military School - they had already underwent a seven-month training there, the second battalion consisted of sergeants, who had been in the army for twelve to eighteen months, and the third battalion - us, civilians. The training was really hard. We studied every day, twelve hours without breaks, and finished the three-year program in a year-and-a-half! We were taught mostly the infantry tactics: offense, defense, how to deploy, fire, and dig the trenches. We also studied the weaponry - artillery, mortars, tanks. It was tough ... Everything was done on foot! You are carrying the rifle, plus a Degtyarev machine-gun or magazines for it - at the school, only battalion commanders were entitled to have a horse.

In May 1941, the school was relocated from the vicinity of Minsk to Veliky Ustyug, where we were supposed to graduate on the 19th of June. Everybody wanted to get a vacation leave after the graduation but the commanders told us we would get it once we got to our assigned regiments.

So, I was given the rank of Lieutenant and assigned to a base in Zapolarye (Arctic Russia). On the train, only a half-an-hour to Leningrad, we were told that the USSR was in a state of war. The train halted. A captain got us together and said - "This war is going to be serious. It's fighting 'til the end." That was how he put it, not the way we were taught - "with lesser blood, on the enemy's territory." Thus, we arrived to Kandalaksha and were immediately taken to positions at the border, to the 596th Rifle Regiment. I was issued a gas-mask, a gun and a helmet. This was how the war began for me.

The Germans attempted to breach through our sector but we fought off - our division had been deployed untoward the border just a day before their attacks. They launched a major offensive on July 1st and our 122nd Division held the German 36th AK for seven days. Later, we pulled back to the Kairala defense line, already held by the 104th Division. I must mention that back then we didn't have scout or reconnaissance units in battalions - only on the regimental level. The constantly changing conditions demanded constant information feed and the battalion commander ordered me to put together a 'hunters' platoon. I did, and commanded it until the winter of 1942.

Let's smoke! Infantry resting
(photo from the Archive of Karelian Front Veterans Board)

Reconnaissance is a very hard work. And we didn't have any special training! We had this peculiar episode in the first days of the war. The Germans were trying to skirt our positions on the right. The battalion commander sent us to take a watch on the road and observe their movements. We went as close to the road as possible and lay in a marsh for 24 hours. Bugs, mosquitoes! It wasn't possible to breathe, let alone observe! We were covered in our own blood. On the way back, I noticed that the Germans were building a bypass from the road to Kualoyarve, directly into the right flank of our battalion's position, obviously for a straight run to the nearest commanding height. When my group was crossing their defense line, we had to go across a clearing in the woods; I sensed that we had been detected and they would try to intercept us. Indeed! And then there's this moose rushing at us! Yes! Somebody must have scared him off good. I tell my people to halt and take cover. Just as we settled down, we noticed a group of Germans descending from the slope. For some reason, I best remembered the insignias on their caps. We let them come closer, showered with grenades and finished off with rifles to clear the way. As soon as we got to our positions, I reported to the commander of their plans to take over the heights. Unfortunately, nobody took heed of our information. The Germans took the heights, dug in and our defense became impossible - they were seeing all of our regiment's positions and all the way inside. The commander realized this - the situation was bad, the Germans must be knocked off. Easy to say - our losses were mounting. Had anybody listened to us, a single company could have held the heights forever.

- How often did you do reconnaissance missions?

In the first months, July to November, we went out every two-three days. Later, when the frontlines got established, it became very difficult - barbed wire, minefields, snipers' landmarks set at the ready. All this required very serious preparation - studying the target, terrain, approaches. And still, to fetch a "tongue" at the edge of the defense line was very, very difficult. It was easier in the rear or on the flanks, where they had sentry stations or patrols and we could set an ambush on the trail or ski track. At that time, we went on missions once or twice a month.

65 SMRB, 1942.
(photo from the Archive of Karelian Front Veterans Board)

- Did you dress to be indistinguishable from your men?

In the summer of 1941 I did blunder. We were on a reconnaissance mission. The deputy platoon commander and I - in officers' greatcoats, and, as though this wasn't enough, with shiny, star-adorned belt buckles on top. There were 12 men in the group. So, we make it through their outposts. But we yet have to pick a target! The men lie down, I tell my deputy - "Let's move a bit forward." So, we crawl forward, he and I. I rose on one knee to point to something for him and - it was only "Zi-i-ip!" - and I'm on the ground. I got lucky - the bullet entered my leg below the knee, between the bones. The German sniper was in the trench only 15-20 metres away and was aiming my legs on purpose - to wound and capture. He did see I was an officer. He kept my men down, and I couldn't move on my own anymore. Finally, they threw me a rope and just pulled me out. If it wasn't the officer's greatcoat, he may have simply killed me. Yes, that's what happened. Afterward, we dressed all the same and one could not tell a commander from a private. It must be said that back there we were pretty well outfitted - warm underwear, wadded pants, furcoats. Though we had problems with boots sometimes - on that rocky ground, they wore out fast. As far as camouflaged outfits are concerned - we didn't have them. Neither did the Germans, by the way.

- How well were you fed?

It was mostly porridge. We had a variety of canned food: at first, Russian, mostly fish, and later - the lend-lease stuff - canned meats. At lunch, we would be given a soup, porridge with canned fish or meat, and tea or dried-fruit drink. In missions, we took along rations - biscuits (croutons), canned stuff, sausage, sugar, butter. We didn't have any chocolate though. We were also issued pure alcohol, but only to combative units, 100 grammes per person each day. We also had spirit lamps - fueled by a mixture of alcohol and stearin; people simply extracted the alcohol from that fuel. I never took alcohol on a mission. First, it was issued daily, at night, and we wouldn't have been able to get enough for a mission. Second, if you do take enough - it all would be consumed at once, and a drunk soldier is just as good as a wounded or dead soldier, without a question. That's how a friend of mine, Nikolai Aleksandrovich Makarov, was killed. He was on an observation post, waiting for his group to return. So he drank a bit, got mighty fearless - when the group was already coming back with a captive, he just walked out to meet them. In the winter, without the white coveralls! The Germans got him, of course. Hadn't he drank, he may have been alive now. Never did we drink before combat! Afterwards - yes! After a successful mission, the regiment commander himself would issue alcohol, get some extra rations and even sit at the table with us.

- How did you perceive the Germans?

There was a very clear understanding - if you miss him, he kills you. But there was no hatred. If you're at war, that's what you do - shoot and kill.

- Did you have any fear?

The person who has never been in battle - his entire nervous system is under stress. He's frightened by every gunshot, every blast. There are no such people who just come prepared for war, no. But this fright can be overcome. Over time, when you get used to it, you'd understand - this shell is just gonna go by and this one is dangerous. Even after a short time off, say, after being in the hospital, this fright temporarily comes back.

Then again, if you are frightened, you can't go on a mission! Did you know that men sense their leader just as a horse senses the rider? If the horse feels the rider's fear, it won't come near the obstacle! Same here, if the commander is brave, the soldier feels it: "Uhuh! You won't be done for with this one! This leader won't fail you!" The commander's courage and calm play the most important role! I, for example, while in action always thought this way: "If I don't get killed today, I will tomorrow. So what's is there to fear, anyway?" Maybe because of this attitude people always wanted to get into my platoon. I selected them this way: the most important thing - it's the will. Where there's the will, the rest shall come! Because the cowardly, the sick or the weak wouldn't wanna do that! Their physique also mattered, of course. That guy, Volkov (see Episode I), I really felt sorry for him. He was taller than average, big guy, good lad. He says: "I'm hit." I tell him: "Freeze, stay down. Half-a-minute, a minute and it'll be over!" It's easy if one isn't wounded, you press into the ground hard; the wounded - they're frantic. I turn back to him in a second - and he's dead.

So, I could pick out people from the entire regiment. I had a regular staff of 20-25, of course, but when I was going on a mission, I could pick any extra people as necessary. There were always many volunteers among the convicts, because there were more opportunities to earn extra points in a mission, and once the convict got distinguished in action, the commander immediately applied for complete acquittal. I probably had five men like that and two of them had 10-year sentences. They were very good men.

- Did the commanders use you as infantry or saved you for the missions?

You know how every commander took care of his reconnaissance teams? Uhuh! For him, reconnaissance was everything! If the commander is good, he would protect his recon platoon better than his own eye!

- Did you have any privileges, leeway?

No. I only knew that I had to carry out the mission. If you turned back - you are a coward. But it also happened like this: they would take off, get shot at, come back and report - "We got detected." In one of my cases, we got under machine-gunfire, stumbled upon Germans, and still completed the mission. We only didn't save the captured (See Episode II). Though nobody was put forward for a decoration after that.

I never went after promotions or decorations. Once I got called to the division's staff. I was a Senior Lieutenant back then. I arrive and report, and a staff officer asks:
- Why is your uniform out of order?
- How so?
- You are a Captain! - he then took two bars off of his collar tabs and put them on mine.
I was 21 years old when I became Captain. I wasn't lucky with decorations, either. In the hottest days of the beginning of the war - only very few were recommended for decorations. Besides, in our parts, in the Arctic, we got decorated only for actual missions or actions, not like in the West - by assignment. So I have only the Order of the Red Star for that successful ambush (See Episode III).

- What did you think of the Party?

I came to the war as a Komsomol member (Young Communist). Later, after the incident with the documents, when we found the briefcase (See Episode IV), I was noticed in the Regiment and they decided to admit me to the Party. I remember I was walking with my recon men when the regiment's party secretary saw me and told me about the decision.
- What do I need to do? - I asked.
- Nothing. Just write up an application. That's all.
They made me a candidate and after, in 6 months, I was made a Party member. So, I did everything that was asked of me.

- Was there any interference in your reconnaissance activities from the Party functionaries?

No! I had this deputy commander, political officer, Lieutenant Litvak; he never interfered with operations - only looked after the men, so that they are outfitted, fed and aware of what's going on in the country. He really helped me. He would talk to the people, things of that nature. There were nasty political officers, of course, who tried to take charge, but not in my case.

- Did you believe in signs, omens, premonitions?

I had these two episodes. The first one happened when we pulled back to Alakurtti and took defense. The signalman and I were sitting in the same trench when this bombardment started. All of a sudden, I had this feeling as though somebody forcefully pulls me to the side. I only leapt 15 metres off when a shell exploded on the spot where I just was and killed my signalman. The second incident took place when we were moving to the Verman river, in August. We just stopped for a break on a butte, and the Germans were shooting here and there. And then, some force just lifted me in the air and I ran down the slope, 10-15 metres. That very same second, a whole salvo - 6-8 shells, came down on our resting place. There were wounded and maybe even killed, and I was saved only by that leap. The both incidents occurred within seconds, faster than it took to tell about them. But when I got blown up on a landmine, I didn't have any premonitions. We were on a raid behind the enemy's lines. I just swapped places with the two scouts who were leading the way, they were so exhausted they were sleep-walking, and set off a booby-trap. The only thing I can remember is black-red flames in front of me. The guys told me I was tossed ten metres away. What's interesting, had it been only five metres, the fragments would have cut me right down the middle - that would have been the end, as it was - I got them in my legs and in a hand, the one I had lowered. They pulled me out but I never returned to reconnaissance after these wounds. In 1943, I went on a raid with my battalion and had to pull back - my wounded leg got swollen so bad it had to be operated. Later, I served in the 19th Army Staff, in the army intelligence and reconnaissance, with Daniil F. Zlatkin.

- Did you limit yourselves to the standard issue rations?

Of course not - we picked, cooked and preserved berries and mushrooms. Sometimes hunted. In early July 1941, on the division's left flank, there was a trail we always kept guarded. Once, I sent two of my men to get up on the closest hill and watch the Germans. As soon as they went down the wooded gully, I heard gunfire erupt there. I was already thinking about getting down there with my men when these guys showed up. It turned out, they got us a deer. So we were with fresh meat for three-four days.

- What kind of weapons did you use in the missions?

I took a PPSh and a TT. Sometimes we used German submachine-guns. Everybody wanted to get one because they were so lightweight. We also took along F-1 or RGD-33 hand-grenades. German grenades were also handy - they had a longer handle and could be slung farther. If we worked on the edge of their defense lines, we carried along a machine-gun, but never took it for deep raids - too heavy. Sometimes we had artillery or mortar support.

- Were you taught any hand-to-hand combat techniques?

At the military school, they taught us to use the rifle. We had this straw-stuffed dummy and then one of the cadets would stand nearby, armed with a pole whose end was wrapped in cloth - lest the attacker be hurt. And as soon as you get to attack the dummy, the cadet would hit you. So, you had to fence off the pole and poke the dummy. They didn't teach us any special strikes or knife techniques although a knife and knowing how to use it are a must for a scout.

- Did you use different tactics against the Finns and the Germans?

No! The tactics didn't change and we didn't adapt them to the adversary's nationality.

- How many men were usually in the group?

Karelia has such a terrain that even a battalion has difficulties maneuvering, especially in the summer. In the wintertime, we sometimes launched two-battalion-strong raids to make a good hit behind the enemy lines, but most often we operated in small teams that were better suited for those conditions. Usually, only 10-15 men, but well prepared and armed. The Germans typically used larger units - 50-60 troops, supported by artillery and mortars. It was a primitive and ineffective tactic. The Finns, by the way, also operated in small groups. In addition to the terrain, what's also important in Karelia - it's weather. It can change any minute! There was this incident in the 122nd Division. A ski battalion went out on a raid. The weather was good. Then, sleet started to come down and they all got wet. The leader gets through to the division commander and reports that further advance is impossible - they can't ski on the sleet. The division commander responds: - "Carry on with the objective." Disobeying the order, at his own risk, the leader turned the battalion back. At night, the frost bit hard. It was really fortunate they turned back - otherwise, they all would have frozen, although 70 troops were hospitalized anyway and the others were frostbitten.

104 RD. March, 15 1943
(photo from the Archive of Karelian Front Veterans Board)

- How did you assign tasks in a mission?

It depended on the mission. If it was just a target recon, there were no specific task assignments. If the objective was to get a "tongue," I would select 2-3 strongest men for the capture team, the rest would be in the support team which would cut off the pursuit with gunfire and help the capture team get away. It was later when our theoreticians decided there should be three teams: assault, capture and support. What it meant was that one person in the assault team would be specifically assigned to snatch a captive - the others were to make sure it happened.

- Did you train?

Yes! Once the frontline stabilized, before going on a mission, we would select a target - a machine-gun station, a trail ambush and so on. Then we'd prepare. We would find a similar spot on our side, set it up and the scouts rehearsed. What's most important in reconnaissance? It's knowing your target, especially when the objective is to acquire a "tongue." You need to study the terrain, prepare thoroughly, and only then go on the mission. Although at first, it was like this - "Okay, tonight you should get to this sector and get us a 'tongue'." Can you imagine that? All I could do is get my people, decide how to get there and what weapons to take along. Though later we got it all worked out.

- Did you pull out your dead?

We did if it wasn't too far. If we couldn't (as in that case when we were looking for the colonel), we'd just take out some rocks, make a hole in the ground, maybe sixty-centimetres-deep, cover them with greatcoats and put rocks on top. We always pulled out our wounded.

- Did the Germans have many snipers?

We had more. I was also sniping a little. Once, I went to the frontline and saw combat engineers setting up a minefield - the mines were wooden boxes with a TNT stick inside. They would then fill the box with TNT powder, insert the primer in the stick and set the mine up. So, I lay down with my rifle and kept shooting every once in a while - the Germans seemed to be building some fortifications out there and I could see somebody carry a log or something like that. I'd fire, he'd be gone. Now, those combat engineers, there were three of them, and they had two sacks - one with the sticks and the other with the powder. They would assemble several mines and then carry them over to set up, maybe three at a time. The primer must be inserted the last minute, already on the spot, but they didn't want to do it lying in the marsh. I said: "What are you doing?! You want it to go off in your hands?!" - "Nah, - they said. - Look how many we've done already!" Only forty minutes later I heard two powerful blasts.... Only one leg was left of those three....

Artem Drabkin

Translated by: Alexei Gostevskikh

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