CHEREPKOV A.V., INTERNATIONAL MASTER
The theme of the Great Patriotic war sounds as an alarm bell, a reminder of if for long years. Both my grandfathers (one infantry soldier, another artillery lieutenant colonel) were at war and left alive, having passed through all war time... 62 years ago on the 22-nd of June the cruelest and bloodiest war began throughout all the history of humanity.
International master Alexander Cherepkov, war veteran, who made a march-advancement from a private to senior lieutenant, at "the war scale of ranks", kindly confided in the recollections at my request. He alone but anybody else, could tell us something about! At his 83 years he appeared in good health and frankly said of that what had not been yet spoken of...
Alexander Vassilievich, in what way did You remember a tragic for our country day, the 22-nd of June 1941?
In those days I served a sentence at the corrective labor camp of "Segezhlag" GULAG, NKVD. I got there as a result of scuffle which happened at the dancing ground because of a girl-partner. In general, an event for that time was usual. A bit tight youth entertained as they coned and ugly mug beating was considered as one of its elements. Militia men came at once unlike our time, and in spite of the evidence of girl-witnesses and good references from the place of work I "was punished" for a year in full program, that is, given a maximum, what was stipulated by an article for petty hooliganism! Against modern notion of the number of sentenced I'll note that as total three -four thousands of criminals "were sitting" in our camp at two points, and politicals were much less, - not move than one - two hundreds. By the way, they lived in better conditions, in small houses, a we were in barracks, and made use of "Red Cross" services. Curious enough, the dispossessed kulaks were sent to us, being in a row with "urkas" (criminals). At first I was given a hard work as navvy, then a road-paver, (that is, I cobbled roads), and only at the end of my time I began working as a carter with a horse, I carried fire - wood and got a stakhanvite ration as a man who had fulfilled his plan at 125 percent. We continued to build Belomoro-Baltijsky canal... Only the beginnings of July 1941 we were declared of the war breaking. The sentenced according to petty articles and those who had worked "a lion's mite" of the time were granted amnesty and left free as soon as possible.
This, You returned in a native city and got a work, didn't you?
Yes, after having been freed I was given a reference - shut (I had not a passport) wherein I was characterized positively as a man who had done his work up to 175 percent! It was not still so simple to reach Leningrad, we went in goods van, sprang off from it at the "Moscow Sorting" station... So the war began for me. I was taken to the Baltic Ship-Building Mechanical defence yard named after S. Ordjonikidze where I worked as stevedore till April 1942. Much remembered is evacuation of fabrics and other industrial enterprises. Without panic in well organized way and continuous current the echelons were sent to the east. Then blockade began. I had occasion to drink up this "bitter cup" as well. I tried to volunteer, but I was not taken, it was said approximately so: "Wait, when it is needed we'll call you". Leningrad blockade began with that Germans bombarded "Badaev's stores" of food. I remember it well, I himself participated in unloading the burnt 50-kilogramme sugar sucks...
In those times people were called up into the Soviet Army and Naval Fleet at the age of 22; didn't it?
Yes, it may be at 20 (at 22 it was in tsarist Russia, - note by S. M. Bystrov). They tried to call me and my friends into Air Force in 1940 when I was 20 years old. We wrote that we want to serve in tank troops as one team. Then the song "Three Tank-men" was popular. They laughed at the military enlistment office, but the request was satisfied. Yes, so in February 1942 I was call up and sent into a tank college namely in the 12-th separate reserve regiment of heavy tanks. It was the college set up at the base of the Polytechnical Institute. I was there some ten days, and after filling in a form I was dismissed as a relative of condemned for anti-Soviet propaganda.
And who was still a political prisoner among Your relatives?
My younger brother Nikolai had a godfather who was sentenced 10 years for "agitation against Soviet power". And I myself not so long ago was freed from the places "not far-off"...
Well, it is not even a relative it was not obligatory to write about him...
I was taught in the spirit of confidence and honesty. Even at school, being not always a good learner I was considered an example pupil. The pedagogue could not believe the whole class, but he will believe me... I was of great authority. A modern man perhaps will not understand...
And how did You prove to be in the acting army at the front?
In February 1942 a counter-offensive was being prepared at the Volkhov front, in order to raise the blockade of Leningrad. The aim was achieved only in part the enemy was not given possibility to capture Tikhvin and other strategically vital objects. The city kept a legendary "Road of Life" to the great land over the Ladoga Lake. So over it we were retrooped into the position of 285-th rifle division of 54-th army at the head of general I.I.Fedjyuninsky. There was not hunger on "The Great Land" and our 1017-th rifle regiment participated in two days already in the offensive, when I was slightly wounded. The offensive was not prepared properly our troops had unjustified losses. Complite German superiority in the air contributed to this as well. After recovery I was assigned as an orderly to the headquarters of the second battalion and placed in the dug-out of battalion scouts.
With what weapon did You go into combat? With a rifle?
Yes, a common Mosin's three-line rifle with a bayonet. It should be confessed that many men threw out the bayonets.
Hard of was to carry them. As a rule, there was no hand-fighting. It is in the films shown everything fine, but alas, there is more prose in life!
So, our rifle regiment tried to take Dubovik village for a long time, but every thing was without result. At that period of my military 'career' I entered Komsomol.
When did You managed for the first time to play chess at the war time and with whom?
I have said already that I was an orderly. Our offensive was over and we passed into the defensive. There was a little time to think of my prewar hobbies! By a kind of work I had many contacts with commanding officers and some time there was talk out about chess. The regiment Party organizer, senior Party leader Ilya Nikolayevich proved to be chess amateur. He was summoning me for a duel, treating to me his officer's additional ration as a preliminary, and he admitted no refuses. I told him about chess championships, Leningrad chessplayers, helped to master the theory and practice of chess. After the war we made correspondence still for a long time... Then the regiment commissar began to summon me as well. Many times we played 2-3 games at an evening. I won invariably and heard his dry phrase "You may go". As a total I was "lighted up" at chess and in June 1942. I was sent to the courses of junior lieutenants of 54-th Army at Memino settlement of the Leningrad region.
It means, chess helped You in service advancement, didn't it?
Yes, it was certainly so.
It is interesting as well, where did soldiers and officers live at that time on the for ward front line?
In shelters and dug-outs. Usually we put there rows of logs, that is, three layers of dead floor. And the exit was at once into an entrenchment. There were put out also battle, outposts with inter-communication means. We tried to overhear Germans and they did us. It was especially hard in winter.
How did the studies pass?
Two-years courses in conditions of combat actions turned out into three month's ones... In truth, we had them prolonged all four! We were prepared to be a platoon commander of the sub-machine gunners company. Reveille was at five o'clock for 0,5-1 minute, retreat at 23.00. Trainings were severe. We mastered by practice a night orienting, azimuth running with compass and map, having "PPSh" sub-machine with two discs and many other things. We performed the garrison duties as well. In November of the same year I got a service testimonial and a star on shoulder-straps.
How did You military service put up further on?
Our rifle division into which I returned after the studies still fried next time to capture Dubovik village. I took command of PTR company. In October 1943 near Chudovo station I was heavily wounded and became a casualty for six months. Doctors fought for my life and health. I came into service, the reserve of 59-th army, and took a proposal to head a penal company. Please don't confuse it with a penal battalion which consisted of officers demoted in rank, by the way, it was one for all the front! But commander of the penal company was empowered as commander of common army regiment... I had the right to award one with medal "For combat merits"! Rather quickly I became the senior lieutenant.
Is it true that penalty companies were directed to the most dangerous sectors of the front?
It goes without saying. I want still to discredit one myth about NKVD barring detachments which allegedly, fired from machine-guns at the retreating "penal men". It was not and it could not be! You see in order to do it, they themselves would be subject to artillery and mine fire and enter into combat! At the same time there were cases when penal men themselves could kill a combat man who could not (and not one time) stand up and go attacking. The desertion itself was punished by shooting before a formation due to a rapid verdict of the military tribunal.
And nevertheless Your company was patriotic, isn't it?
Of course, on the whole the combat spirit was high; everyone understood the aims and tasks. But my company fulfilled in the mine local tasks: to bring in "an identified prisoner", fight reconnaissance in force, pursuit of the enemy. It was the hardest. One thing is a common offensive, where our company participates on a par with all others, and another one to fulfill a concrete task!
What episode in Your service at the front-line cut most of all in the memory?
There were many of them. For example, 1945 in Poland, Hyper Silesia. In truth, it is now Poland. Formerly it was still Germany. Our company led as usual local combats, reconnaissance in force, or fulfilled other similar tasks. I remember as now, Soloshow-Druga village. Enemy opened a strong fire by rifle weapons. The platoon laid on the ground. But we had an order; we had to take the village. The delay was like death. One could not remain under fire; they would shoot us like "hazel-hens". And then I remembered the hero from Gorky's story, Danko who pulled out his heart out of his bosom and lighted a road to his people. I exclaimed: "Who wants to live, follow me!" The company stood up and went into attack, not all, of course, but many of them were left alive compared to those who had no chance being in the trench. As a result of our successful actions the village was captured. And I was presented to Order of Red Banner for my personal deed, - I inspiring soldiers into attack. Never at the war I heard the appeal to go into attack "For Stalin". "For Motherland" yes, I heard it, it was so. Or here is another episode, it was also in 1945. Platoon of 18 men for several days; more accurately nights, could not bring in an identified prisoner, considering that an offensive was being prepared. But we did not know about it, and very powerful blow was getting ready on a narrow sector of the front-line, including the employment of famous "Katyusha". I got an order to catch "an identified prisoner" in day-time. Time pressed. It meant to send people to death. We began thinking what to be done. We decided to go lightly dressed, each wrote his death notes approximately so: "Died for Motherland". We took with us fume grenades and pushed out to the edge of the word. And suddenly... I see, my men stood up upright and went in formation straightly to the German position with a song "The Sea has spread out wide". Their sub-machineguns in this case were behind the backs at the forward line where shooting just took place, silence started in a moment. Neither I, nor Germans could understand anything. My fighters reached the German forward line without hindrance. Germans cried them something and they did it in response. The Germans mostly likely decided that ours were going to surrender. And my men approached for a needed distance, threw grenades, and burst into the house where presumably a German command point was and captured a German prisoner. Further on there followed a fearful cannonade. Only then we understood the means of the order. My men returned, one of them alone was wounded, they got "an identified prisoner", but, sorry, he was not alive already.
Did German troops resisted to the end?
Naturally yes, even at the very end of the war they dislodged us from the captured land, temporarily of course went into a counter-attack with the use of tanks, but one felt already that their power was not as before. They lacked field units, their police men participated sometimes in fighting.
And where did Your company finish the war? Did You succeed to participate in taking Berlin?
The war was over for me in Prague, May 1945.
Didn't Vlasov's troops liberate Prague really?
We didn't see them there. In my opinion, these are talks alone. The 59-th Army was included in the first Ukrainian Front under the general command of Marshal I. S. Konev. At on the night of the 8-th to the 9-th of May British BBC informed of the end of the war. At once there began fining into the air. Then we commemorated this event at the table! Czechs themselves still showed us in Prague where the Germans hided, and they themselves took to weapons already. Our penal company entered on trophy bicycles. During the whole war I didn't see such rejoicing of the population. Streets were really put with tables and with food, refreshments, and a wine on. They threw pies and other things onto driving cars. Still in a suburb of Prague I was taken from a bicycle, shaved and made drunk... Continuous "nazdar (health toasts)" greetings, congratulations... Afterwards, of course, we marred their opinion about us, it was in 1968.
So the fascist German Army proved to be an adequate enemy, wasn't it?
Yes, it is without any doubt. The General Staff Headquarters of the Army was the best in the world. And they were remarkable tacticians as well. They had in practice the stereotyped schemes for all cases of military life. We "burnt" on that many times. For example, out troops take some town or village, Germans dislodge us... German pedantry. They had different variations for any development of the situation (A, B, C and so on). Some day we attacked Germans during their dinner and captured a village without casualties and even took prisoners! Then a reinforced battalion with artillery and a mine-battery was led in... But Germans suddenly counter attacked us just in the morning with tank support. And they never attacked in darkness, and here they went into counterattack. And so our control of combat was thrown confusion that we could not hold this village. We last a lot of combat equipment and ammunition... And all this was at the very end of the war. Practically all military strategists of Germany learnt in our country. And we did teach them to our misfortune!
And what punishment did You get because of this retreat without order?
Nothing took place. All run away and we did as well. A retreat with effective forces and that same of our penal company, it is not just one the same! And one could not even speak of our penal company, or (say) battalion running from a battle-field. Well, we had (I repeat) local tasks.
What happened with You after our Victory?
The penal company was disbanded, I got into reserve. Then I was directed into the Central group of the Soviet Forces in Austria. After release there began my civil life, and my chess career with it. But this is already quite another story!
Translated by Sergeev V. V. Town of Pushkin (ending) - 1, 08.2003