Military history

Chapter 3


People were transported to the front in freight wagons equipped with bunk beds and small stoves. The trains would stop at stations on the way, to take on hot food. Vasily Bryukhov, who headed to the front in 1944 as a tank platoon commander; recalls:

We were ordered not to take fellow-travellers onboard, but there were so many willing! Displaced by the war from their old haunts, evacuated many kilometres away from home, they were on their way back. By fair means or foul they would find their way to the open wagons and crawl under the soft covers.

An infantryman, Vladimir Boukhenko, making his way to the front in the summer of 1942, remembers:

On our way to the front we constantly socialized with wounded men transported to the rear for treatment. From their stories we learned that they'd been in action no more than a month or two. We gradually began to understand that, at best, we'd be in hospital within a couple of months.


Infantry on the march. In front – can be seen an S-65 ‘Stalinets’ tractor, which pulls a 76.2mm anti-aircraft Ml gun, model 1930/1931.


It's 20 kilometres to Danzig.

Nevertheless, as a radio operator and machine-gunner of a T-34 tank, Leonid Katz recalled that, even in the darkest days of 1941, ‘there was no despair or feeling of being doomed. We were all 20 years old, all patriots brought up by the Soviet system in a fanatical spirit.’

Having detrained, men would march to the muster areas. From the end of 1943, when the Red Army switched to the offensive, marches of many days were a typical part of infantry life. Efim Golbraikh remembers:

A foot soldier is loaded like a donkey: trench coat, backpack, goddamn gas mask (stuffed with hand grenades), steel helmet, entrenching tool, mess tin, map-case, and several ammo pouches, plus a rifle or submachine-gun. You're sweating all over White salt stains would appear on your blouse – you'd take it off and it would stand upright on its own. On the march, we were given sunflower seeds by liberated villagers – what the Germans called ‘Russian chocolate’. The seeds helped pass time on the road. By the time you'd cracked a full pocket of seeds, 10 kilometres had gone. Such was the soldier's speedometer I remember 80-kilometre marches as a nightmare. We slept on the way. On top of everything else, they would hang four 82mm mortar shells on each of us. You ain't recommended to fall over with a shell round your neck, especially a second time – one of them might have switched to full cock from the shock [...]. You walk, your whole body itches from sweat and lice, your stomach sticks to your backbone from hunger. Thus we walked our way to Victory ...

Soldiers would fall asleep on their feet, stumble out of formation and tumble into roadside ditches due to exhaustion. As a precaution, they tried to grip the shoulder of the man in front; or they marched three abreast – the man in the middle asleep, supported by comrades on either side, then they would swap over.


A platoon of submachine-gunners on the march.

Life was much harder for the commandos and partisans who operated behind enemy lines. Anna Arkhipova – a two-way radio operator in a partisan detachment – recalls:

We would get 200 kilometres into Finnish territory and even more than that. We walked for eighteen hours during a march. After all, we carried all our supplies – ammo and food – in backpacks, therefore any delay threatened starvation, as we could only carry the bare minimum for survival. Even so, our backs were still cracking [. . .] We walked in silence, three scouts in the vanguard. Combat protection was from both sides. Orders and news were passed along the file. No way could one step out of line under any excuse – even to urinate. That was why, if there was an urge – do it in the pants! All of us girls had cystitis. We didn't wear bras or underwear – we had none. We had no time to think about ourselves! Sure, by the end of a raid, any bear would run a mile from our stink [. . .] Every forty minutes we had a rest. We longed for a stopover like manna from heaven. A stopover lasted ten minutes. You'd lift the backpack with strain, inwardly cursing the war – and sometimes aloud!

Servicemen from mechanized brigades were better off. A sapper, Michael Tsourkan, remembers:

We rarely went by foot during marches. We were transported in the ZIS or polutorka [1.5-tonne truck – trans.] trucks, and we were always covered by flak gunners [...] I sat on the left side, and when the vehicle began to skid, I would have to jump off and put a special chock under the wheels. And during night marches they would tie me up to the bench, for sometimes the ones sitting on the edge had their heads torn off by oncoming vehicles [. . .] Once, in Romania, our vehicle stopped because a soldier's corpse had stuck between the back wheels and wouldn't let us move ...

Flights to the front were not much easier for airmen. A Pe-2 pilot, Ivan Kabakov, recalls:

The route from Irkutsk to Leningrad was several times longer than my total flight hours spent in the air in this type of aircraft! We flew over to Kazan using the ‘Kaganovich compass’ [a joke name for a railroad, named after the People's Commissar of Railroads, L.M. Kaganovich – trans.]. The ground services along this route were very primitive. There were practically no reserve aerodromes, and meteorological services were very weak. During the relocation our regiment lost two planes. One caught fire near Krasnoyarsk. The crew died. Another plane landed in Kansk with retracted landing gear. An Army aviation regiment followed us. And they managed to get to Kazan with only fifteen planes!

It may be said the constant relocation of advancing and retreating troops was a heavy burden for all branches of the Armed Forces.

Infantrymen on the march. In the foreground can be seen machine-gunners armed with the Degtyaryov light machine gun, model 1927.



A Maxim machine-gun crew (26th Army) deploys. This machine gun was used by the Red Army throughout the whole war. Although heavy and water-cooled, it was extremely reliable.


Carrying an 82mm mortar, model 1937. The weight of the mortar plate exceeded 20 kilograms. If a soldier fell while carrying it, the weight could easily break his cervical vertebrae.


Two images of forced river crossings, one undertaken by the crew of a 45mm gun.



A long-awaited halt! The soldier in the foreground carries not only his knapsack, but also his gas mask. Soldiers usually discarded their gas masks and heavy anti-tank grenades on the march, filling their bags with extra ammunition or personal belongings.


The crew of a 50mm company mortar. These weapons were widely used by the Red Army at the beginning of the war, but later it was found to be ineffective and was gradually phased out.


A battery of 122mm howitzers on the march. Each gun is pulled by six horses. In front, wearing the Order of the Red Star on his blouse, you can see the battery commander.

The Karelian Front: the crew of a 45mm gun pull their weapon to the top of a cone-shaped hill. A Red Fleet sailor stands out against a background of soldiers. Brigades of infantrymen were often formed from naval personnel, who, believing it beneath their dignity, refused to swap uniforms.


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