Added 30 July 2005.

Tank Rider: into the Reich with the Red Army

Evgeny Bessonov, translated by Bair Irincheev

Since the Gorbachev era and afterwards, one of the benefits of the loosening of restrictions in the Soviet Union and then Russia has been the greater availability of access to both professional and private works on the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, unencumbered by leaden attempts to give a Party sheen to history. Tank Rider are the personal memories of an officer who participated in the latter stages of the war in the mechanised infantry, an infantryman working in close cooperation with tanks.

Bessonov warns us at the beginning of the book that he is not a professional writer, but it is precisely the fact of this lack of adornment which gives his narrative his impact. Instead of long streams of consciousness, tirades against the fascist invader or ideological haranguse, we get simple raw human emotion: fear, exhaustion, frustration, and sometimes anger, both at the enemy and at one's supposed friends.

Bessonov was born in 1923 and was drafted into the Red Army in August 1941, graduating as a lieutenant from military academy in 1943 in time to participate in the battle of Kursk. Thereafter he took part in the Soviet advance through Ukraine, Poland and right up to Berlin, in the battle for which he was wounded in 1945. After the war he remained in the Red Army for some years, rising to the rank of colonel.

One of the marks of authenticity of Bessonov's account must surely be the remembrance of the discomforts of war, even without an enemy shooting at you. He notes the hardship of his first months after conscription, when he and his classmates had to dig anti-tank ditches, and then at the front, where he says that exhaustion rather than hunger was the main enemy. Lice, nicknamed "German submachine gunners", were another constant companion, as were enervating heat in summer and snow in winter (on one occasion Bessonov awakes to find himself literally snowed into his foxhole). Another mark of his openness is his candid admission on several occasions that he was afraid, noting in one place that he and his men especially disliked having to go up against German armour, especially as improvised anti-tank weapons such as the "Molotov cocktail" were now no longer effective.

The Germans are neither the tactical supermen of some histories nor the hated fascist vermin of others, being instead a determined enemy summed up near the end of the book:

The enemy was professionally trained, possessed modern military equipment and was expert in using it. The enemy was harsh, mean and brave. The enemy had the typical German punctual discipline. However, I survived.

Throughout the book, certain traits of the Germans as a fighting force also seem apparent: a reluctance to engage in close combat but a constant use of armour and fairly quick reactions when it came to striking back. Bessonov's unit were also plagued by the Luftwaffe constantly, which makes an interesting contrast for Western readers who are accustomed to reading accounts of nearly completee Allied air superiority in Italy, Normandy and Germany.

This is not an unremittingly grim account: in places there are humorous accounts that might be recognised by soldiers the world over, such as this anecdote during the preparations for the next offensive:

Kozienko had an old bastard serving as his orderly, who was always snooping around and then reporting to the battalion commander. We would normally kick him out of our house, but somehow he still knew everything. He himself also brewed moonshine - it was for the battalion commander and his deputies. Some smart guy found out where he was brewing out and when the orderly was away, he stole the whole supply of alcohol - quite a big disappointment for him and the battalion's top brass!

It should also be added that contrary to the perceived image of Russians as hopelessly addicted to drink, the book paints a balanced picture in this respect, some of Bessonov's contemporaries being heavy drinkers (even to the point of endangering military operations), but most of them not abusing the moonshine. There is however a tragic episode at one point where a completely drunken colonel first destroys his own command of anti-aircraft guns by his own recklessness and then summarily executes a junior officer of Bessonov's company for not obeying him. Interestingly, both Bessonov and a fellow officer both contemplate shooting the colonel in such a way that the Germans are blamed for it, but could not bring themselves to do so:

But my hand did not lift against my countryman. I could not do it; I just did not have the stomach for it. ... [Romanov] also wanted to shoot the Colonel, but, apparently, he also did not have the stomach to shoot a Soviet citizen, even such a filthy one. Soon after that officers from the anti-aircraft regiment came running and took the Colonel away by force to their HQ. I never saw him again, but our comrade was killed, not in battle, but by a drunken bastard. This Colonel also destroyed his regiment by being drunk - a sober person just could not do such a stupid thing. There are really some bastards in this world... I heard later that the Colonel was eventually brought before a court-martial.

Immediately after this there is a contrast with the undemonstrative bravery of a female medic bringing in wounded men from anti-tank crews.

This brings out another aspect of war, that the enemy is not always the one facing you. If there is a villain in Bessonov's account, it is Senior Lieutenant Chernyshov, whose attitude towards his fellow officers apparently changed as soon as he was appointed company commander. Chernyshov in the book spends much of the time issuing orders from the rear and occasionally threatening his subordinates with execution, and early on in the book Bessonov makes the mistake of being insubordinate to a man whom he obviously does not respect. At the end of the book the author notes without comment that Chernyshov apparently drank himself to death, having sold all his war decorations, in 1978.

Bessonov survived the war without being seriously wounded; many of his men and fellow officers did not. By his own admission at the beginning of his account, the role of luck cannot be over-emphasised for any soldier. At the end of the book he writes brief notes on all those whom he remembers serving with, both the survivors and the fallen. Let his own moving words suffice:

What helped me to survive? It is hard to answer this question.... But how many good, young and healthy men were killed in battle! Some were my subordinates, many others were just my brothers in arms.... From the summer of 1943, when I came to the battalion, to May 1945, only one third of the officers remained - just 14 out of 45. The rest were wounded and never came back to the battalion or were killed. I bow my head befoer all those who died and I blow my head before their heroic deeds. May eternal glory be with them! Their heroic deeds will live for centuries and the memory of them will stay with me till the last day of my life.

In summary, this is a fascinating and highly readable book that helps to dispel some myths along the way.

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