Military history

Chapter 6

Sleeping

War is not only about combat but, as sapper Ivan Pyanykh observed, ‘dangerous and exhausting daily work’. Under these circumstances, the opportunity to rest, to sleep, was one of the few joys in a soldier's life. Marches undertaken at night (for the sake of secrecy) were most exhausting. An infantryman, Boris Ovetsky, remembers:

Despite some opportunities to have a snooze during the day, the desire to sleep at night was unbearable, and we learned to sleep on the move. The most important thing was to have something to hold on to – a cart, a cannon – this way you could stay asleep for a while.

If men had to rest at night they tried to stay in villages, where locals would billet the combatants. Even then, as most veterans remember, they wouldn't remove their clothes if near the front line. A sniper; Claudia Kalougina, remembers:

Once we stayed overnight in a completely empty village house. Everyone settled quickly and I had no room at all. There was a trough for cabbage-chopping on the floor and I found my place in it. It was not comfortable, I couldn't fall asleep, but wanted to sleep one way or another. In the morning, one soldier got up early and I sneaked into his place. I had a few nods of sleep and then the reveille came.

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These soldiers decided to rest near either the T-70 tank or the SU-76 self-propelled gun. If they weren't members of the crew, it was very dangerous to sleep so near to an armoured fighting vehicle (1943).

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Young Kazakh soldiers sleep like the dead at the bottom of a trench. Judging by the fact they are loaded with accoutrements and their machine gun isn't established properly, we can suppose the photo was taken on the march.

But frequently, soldiers had to sleep in the open air. While not a problem in summer, in autumn and in winter conditions were appalling, with soldiers sleeping in snow or mud. Usually, soldiers slept in pairs. Twigs or branches would be laid on the snow, one trench coat would serve as a mattress, the other as a blanket. Tank crews were a bit better off – they always had a roof over their heads. A chief of staff of a tank battalion, Konstantin Shipov, recalls:

There was little time for sleeping – it would be already 1 or 2 a.m. before you organized repairs, messed, posted sentries. And at four or five in the morning it would be time to get up. That was why we often had to sleep in the tanks: the driver and radio-operator would sleep in their seats, the gun-loader and gun-layer on the ammo stock. I – for I am a short one – would lift the gun, put the ammo stock lids on the breech end, and settle with my feet stuck into the turret niche.

Of course the rear units and servicemen from aviation units who lived in relative comfort rarely experienced difficulties of this kind ...

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Artillerymen sleep during breaks between fighting. Each member of the gun crew fell asleep at his place according to the quarter bill (Central Front, 1943).

A machine-gunner sleeps near his weapon – a Maxim model 1940 with a broad mouth, through which it was possible to fill the water-cooling jacket with snow (Central Front).

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A 120mm mortar crew sleeps (Central Front, 1943).

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A sleeping Red Army soldier uses a tinned food box for a pillow (Karelian Isthmus, 1944).

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