The Soldier's Lot
For 35 years (between the ages of 17 and 50) all Soviet men-and all the Soviet women whose professions might make them useful to the Armed Forces-remain on the register of those liable for military service, forming the Armed Forces reserve. This register, listing all these individuals, is maintained by Rayon City, Oblast, and Republic Commissars, who come under the orders of the Organisational Directorate of the Military Districts and, thus, ultimately, of the Chief Organisational Directorate of the General Staff.
The tens of millions of people on the register may be called up without notice, if either partial or full mobilisation is announced.
As soon as a young man is 17, he appears before a medical board and is listed on the register. The next year, as soon as he is 18, he is called up for service in the Armed Forces. Depending on the date of his birthday, this may happen in the spring (in May or June), or in the winter (in November or December).
Conscripts spend two years in all Services and arms of service, except for the Navy, in which they serve for three years.
Every year, two intakes, each of approximately a million young men join the Armed Forces and those who have completed their service are demobilized. Thus, every six months something like a quarter of the total number of other ranks changes over. New men join, the older ones leave, remaining on the reserve until they are 50.
Private Ivanov received instructions to report to the local assembly point on 29 May. In preparation he did three things:
he got together with a gang of fellow spirits to beat up some of his enemies, in accordance with the principle-`Today you help me to knock the hell out of the people I don't like and then tomorrow I'll help you to do the same.'
he told his girl-friend that she was to wait two years for him, to go out with no one else and to write to him frequently-`Otherwise you'll see, I'll come back and kill you. You know me.'
on the night of 28 May he drank himself into complete insensibility. Parents realise that unless they hand over their drunken son to the assembly point by midday he will be punished under military law.
A convoy takes the crowd of drunk and half-drunk youths to the station, where they are put on a train and taken to their place of duty.
A soldier is not entitled to choose an arm of service, the area in which he will serve or the trade which he will follow in the army. Long before Ivanov received his call-up papers, the General Staff had sent all Military Commissariats details of the men they would be receiving and instructions on where they were to send them. Naturally, the General Staff does not go into details, saying no more than `150 men, of category «0» are to be sent to Military unit 54678'. This may be a unit of diversionary troops, it may be a nuclear submarine, or it may be something very secret indeed. The Military Commissar can only guess. (If the number has four figures the unit belongs to either the KGB or the Ministry of Internal Affairs. If it has five, it is a Ministry of Defence unit.) This is all he is told except that there is sometimes a minor additional requirement, such as `Category «0», but all are to be tall and physically well-developed.'
The Military Commissar prepares groups of soldiers by categories-for instance, 5 men from Category 1, 100 from Category 2 and 5,000 from Category 3 to military unit 64192. The Military Units receive their own instructions-`You will receive 100 men from Khabarovsk, 950 from Baku, 631 from Tbilisi.'
Each Military District makes up several troop transports, provides escorts and officers, and sends them off to different corners of the huge country, while mixed columns move off to distant rocket batteries, fortified areas and motor-rifle divisions.
One requirement is sacrosanct when these selections are being made: whenever possible, Russians must not be stationed in the RSFSR, Ukrainians in the Ukraine or Latvians in Latvia. If there are disturbances among the Russian population of, for instance, Murom or Tolyatti or Omsk, these will be crushed, sometimes with considerable bloodshed, by non-Russian soldiers. If a strike breaks out in Donetsk (as one did in 1970) there will be no Ukrainian soldiers in the area. The soldiers stationed there are Tatars, Kirghiz, Georgians. It is all the same to them who they shoot at. What is important is that there is no one in the crowd confronting them whom they know and no one in it who speaks a language they can understand.
It is also essential to mix all the nationalities together in divisions, regiments and battalions. If one regiment contains too many Lithuanians and another too many Tatars, this must result from a slip-up by some military bureaucrat. The punishment for such mistakes is harsh.
The movement of such colossal numbers of men takes up two whole months. Surprisingly, the machine works extremely smoothly, rather like a sausage machine-all sorts of pieces of meat, some onions, some rusks, and some garlic are put in at one end and out of the other come solidly compressed rolls of well-mixed human material.
A column of new recruits is not a sight for anyone with weak nerves. Traditionally, anyone joining the army dresses in such rags that you wonder where on earth he found them. For recruits know that any more or less useable article-socks which are not in tatters, for instance-will immediately be seized from them by the soldiers escorting the column. So they dress in the sort of rags which should be thrown on a bonfire-a mechanic's boiler suit, solid with grease, a painter's working clothes daubed with paint of all colours, even a sewage-collector's overalls. Many of them will have black eyes, acquired in farewell fights with their local enemies. All are unshaven, uncombed, shaggy, dirty-and drunk, into the bargain.
All the officers and soldiers escorting the column are armed. The roughest, toughest sergeants and other ranks are chosen for this job. They stop the fights which keep breaking out, giving the recruits new bruises as they do so. The young newcomers quickly feel the weight of a sergeant's fist and soon realise that it is best to do what he tells them-and that the same goes for a soldier, who may himself have spent a fortnight in the same sort of column, swapping punches with those around him, as recently as a year ago.
Anyone who has once seen for himself what a column of these new recruits looks like will understand why there are no volunteers in the Soviet Army, why there never could be and why there is no need for them. The whole system is too inflexible, too regulated, and too tightly controlled to concern itself with any individual's opinions or wishes. Everyone is simply grabbed, indiscriminately, as soon as he reaches 18, and that's that.
How to avoid being called up
At some juncture long ago, before Stalin, in Lenin's day, the wise decision was taken that the state apparatus should be manned, not by riff-raff, but by comrades of proven worth, who were responsible, experienced and dedicated to the popular cause. In order that the state should not be infiltrated by alien elements at some stage in the future, it was decided that successors to this ruling group should be prepared and that it was essential to ensure that these young people were appropriately educated. Educational establishments were therefore set up to prepare the future ruling class, and these were filled, for the most part, with the children of the comrades of proven worth, who were themselves dedicated to the revolutionary cause. The comrades were very pleased with this plan and have never since contemplated any deviation from the course approved by Lenin.
As an illustration-the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, Comrade A. A. Gromyko is, of course, a person of proven worth. It follows that his son, too, must be dedicated to the people's cause; this means that Comrade Gromyko's son can become a diplomat and, provided that it is possible to check that Comrade Gromyko's son has made a success of this career, the grandson of Comrade Gromyko, too, can enter the diplomatic service. Comrade Gromyko's deputy is Comrade Malik. He, too, is a trusted person, dedicated to the national cause and this means that the road to a diplomatic career is also open to both his son and his grandson.
The comrades of proven worth got together and agreed among themselves that, since their children were already dedicated to their Motherland and prepared to defend its interests throughout their entire lives, there was no need for them to enter the army. Accordingly, when the sons of the comrades of proven worth reach 17 they are not required to register for military service; instead, wasting no time, they enter the Institute of International Relations. After qualifying there, they go off to spend not just two years but the whole of their lives defending the interests of their Motherland at the most exposed portion of the front line in the battle against capitalism-in Paris, Vienna, Geneva, Stockholm or Washington. This is why the children of the comrades of proven worth do not have to be ferried around in dirty railway trucks, are not punched in the mouth by sergeants, and do not have their gold teeth pulled out, and why, too, their girl-friends do not need to wait for them for two or three years.
Lest the absurd idea should enter anyone's head that the sons of the comrades of proven worth are not defending socialism, with weapons in their hands, they are given military awards for their service from time to time. The son of that most responsible and trusted of all comrades, Brezhnev, for instance, spent years defending the interests of socialism in the barricades of Stockholm; on his return from this most crucial operation he was given the military rank of Major-General even though he has never spent a day in the army, or indeed as much as an hour locked in a railway wagon with a lot of grubby recruits.
In the KGB, as in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they read the works of Lenin and therefore, following his precepts, they, too, admit to their training establishments the sons of comrades of proven worth, rather than just anyone. And because these boys, too, will have to spend their lives defending socialism, they are also given exemption from military service.
The Workers' and Peasants' State contains a mass of other important state organisations and undertakings for which future leaders must be prepared. To train them an enormous network of higher educational institutions has been set up. The comrades of proven worth have decreed that anyone entering one of these higher educational institutions is to be granted exemption from military service. The universities organise military training courses, of limited scope, and these are considered sufficient.
In every town there is at least one institute which is ultimately controlled, through a series of intermediate authorities, by the First Secretary of the Oblast Committee of the Party. Naturally, the First Secretary's own children do not attend this institute. They study somewhere in Moscow. But he has a Second Secretary and a Third; they have deputies, who themselves have assistants, who have consultants. All of these have children. Formerly all those concerned with the administration of the Oblast sent their children straight to the local institute where, since they were the children of trusted comrades, they were received with open arms. Nowadays, things have changed somewhat. The Third Secretary of the Oblast Committee will telephone his opposite number in a nearby town-`My son is due for call-up in the autumn and your boy next spring. If you'll look after my son, I'll do the same for yours.' A mutually beneficial exchange is arranged. A couple of lotus-eaters are admitted to two higher educational institutions, without being required to pass any examinations. However, they find themselves in neighbouring towns, rather than at home, and they are also regarded as `workers and peasants' rather than as the sons of comrades of proven worth. But then, first in one town and then in the other, the two Third Secretaries are suddenly seized with the desire to improve the living conditions of students. Not everyone can be given a rent-free apartment, of course, so the Oblast Committee allocates just one. Thus only one student gets one-our own, dear `worker-peasant'. With considerable effort he obtains his certificate of higher education. Everyone else is sent off to work in Siberia but he is found a place with the Oblast Committee, as an assistant. Time passes quickly, he climbs steadily upwards and before long his own son is growing up and will soon be eligible for army service. Meanwhile, however, the system has become more complicated. Mutually helpful exchanges between two neighbouring towns are too conspicuous. So our worker-peasant doesn't enrol his son in the nearest town. Instead, the son of someone who appears to be a true member of the working class enters an institute in a third town, without having to pass exams, while from this third town to ours comes an apparently straightforward young man, the son of some official or other, whose name no one knows. A flat is quickly found for this young man, who then gets a post with the Oblast Committee. He finds a job there for someone else, who reciprocates by letting him have a car, without payment, and who in his turn does the same for yet another person. The wheel turns on and hundreds of thousands of parasites avoid having to endure the railway wagons or the brutish armed sergeants.
But what happens if your father is not among those at the helm of the Workers' and Peasants' State? In that case if he will just slip the Military Commissar a few thousand rubles, you can be found unfit for military service and your name removed from the register. The Military Commissar in Odessa was shot for doing this, the same happened in Kharkov, in Tbilisi, every year for five years in succession, they sent a Military Commissar to gaol but that did not solve the problem so they had to shoot the sixth one. They would hardly have shot a Military Commissar-a Colonel-for misdeeds involving a few thousand rubles. The sums concerned must have been very large indeed.
And if your father has not got a few thousand rubles to spare? Then you could cut off your trigger finger with an axe. Or you could stick a small piece of foil on your back when you go for your X-ray, so that they decide you have tuberculosis and turn you down for the army. You could go to prison. But if you haven't the courage for any of these, brother, you'll find yourself in that dirty railway wagon.
If you can't, we'll teach you; if you don't want to, we'll make you
The column of recuits finally reaches the division to which it has been allocated. The thousands of hushed, rather frightened youths leave the train at a station surrounded by barbed wire, their heads are quickly shaven, they are driven through a cold bath, their filthy rags are burned on huge fires, they are issued with crumpled greatcoats, tunics and trousers that are too large or too small, squeaky boots and belts. With that the first grading process is completed. It does not occur to any of them that each of them has already been assessed, taking into account his political reliability, his family's criminal record (or absence of one), participation (or failure to participate) in Communist mass meetings, his height and his physical and mental development. All these factors have been taken into account in grading him as Category 0, 1, 2, and so forth and then allocating him to a sub-category of one of these groups. There will be no more than ten Category 0 soldiers in a whole motor-rifle division-they will go to the 8th department of the divisional staff. In each intake there will be two or three of them, who will replace others who are being demobilised, and who will themselves join the reserve. They have no idea that they are in this particular category or that files exist on them which have long ago been checked and passed by the KGB.
Category 1 soldiers are snapped up by the divisional rocket or reconnaissance battalions or by the regimental reconnaissance companies. Category 2 soldiers are those who are able to understand and to work with complicated mathematical formulae. They are grabbed by the fire-control batteries of the artillery regiment, of the anti-aircraft rocket regiment and of the self-propelled artillery battalions of the motor-rifle and tank regiments. And then there are the soldiers of my own arm of service, the tank crews-Category 6, thanks to the swine who do the planning in the General Staff. But nothing can be done about that-the army is enormous and bright soldiers are in demand everywhere. Everyone is after the strong, brave, healthy ones. Not everyone can be lucky.
A detachment is set up in each battalion, to handle the new intake. The battalion commander's deputy heads this and he is assisted by some of the platoon commanders and sergeants. Their task is to turn the recruits into proper soldiers in the course of one month. This is called a `Young Soldier's Course'. It is a very hard month in a soldier's life; during it he comes to realise that the sergeant above him is a king, a god and his military commander.
The recruits are subjected to a most elaborate and rigorous disciplinary programme; they clean out lavatories with their tooth-brushes, they are chased out of bed twenty or thirty times every night, under pressure to cut seconds off the time it takes them to dress, their days are taken up with training exercises which may last for sixteen hours at a stretch. They study their weapons, they are taught military regulations, they learn the significance of the different stars and insignia on their officers' shoulder boards. At the end of the month they fire their own weapons for the first time and then they are paraded to swear the oath of allegiance, knowing that any infringement of this will be heavily punished, even, perhaps, with the death-sentence. After this the recruit is considered to have become a real soldier. The training detachment is disbanded and the recruits are distributed among the companies and batteries.
Socialists make the lying claim that it is possible to create a classless society. In fact, if a number of people are thrown together, it is certain that a leading group, or perhaps several groups, will emerge-in other words different classes. This has nothing to do with race, religion or political beliefs. It will always happen, in every situation of this sort. If a group of survivors were to reach an uninhabited island after a shipwreck and you were able to take a look at them after they had been there only a week, you would undoubtedly find that a leader or leading group had already emerged. In the German concentration camps, no matter what sort of people were imprisoned together, they would always establish themselves in stratified societies, with higher and lower classes.
The division into leaders and followers occurs automatically. Take a group of children and ask them to put up a tent; do not put one of them in charge but stand aside and watch them. Within five minutes a leader will have emerged.
A group of short-haired recruits nervously enters an enormous barrack room, in which two, three or even five hundred soldiers live. They quickly come to realise that they have entered a class-dominated society. Communist theory has no place here. The sergeants split the young soldiers up by platoons, detachments and teams. At first everything goes normally-here is your bed, this is your bedside locker in which you can keep your washing-kit, your four manuals, brushes and your handbook of scientific communism and nothing else. Understand? Yes, sergeant.
But at night the barrack-room comes alive. The recruits need to understand that it contains four classes-the soldiers who will be leaving the army in six months, those who will go after a year, a third class who have eighteen months still to serve and, lastly, they themselves, who have a full two years to go. The higher castes guard their privileges jealously. The lower castes must acknowledge their seniors as their elders and betters, the seniors refer to inferiors as `scum'. Those who still have eighteen months to serve are the superiors of the new recruits, but scum, naturally, to those who have only a year to go.
The night after the new intake has arrived is a terrible one in every barracks: the naked recruits are flogged with belts, and ridden, bareback, by their seniors, who use them as horses to fight cavalry battles and then they are driven out to sleep in the lavatories while their beds are fouled by their elders and betters.
Their commanders know what is going on, of course, but they do not interfere; it is in their interests that the other ranks should be divided among themselves by barriers of real hatred.
The lowest class have no rights whatsoever. They, the scum, clean the shoes and make the beds of their seniors, clean their weapons for them, hand over their meat and sugar rations, sometimes even their bread to them. The soldiers who are soon to be released appropriate the recruits' new uniforms, leaving them with their own worn-out ones. If you are in command of a platoon or a company you are quite content with the situation. You order your sergeants to get something done-digging tank pits, for instance. The sergeants give the senior soldiers this job to do and they in turn hand it on to the scum. You can be confident that everything will be finished in good time. The senior soldiers will do nothing themselves but they will make each of the scum do enough for two or three men. You can take your sergeants off into the bushes and hand out your cigarettes; whatever you do, don't fuss. Wait until someone comes to report that the job has been done. This is your moment: appear like the sun from behind the clouds, and thank the senior soldiers for their hard work. I assure you-both the senior soldiers and the scum will love you for it....
Six months pass and a new consignment of scum joins your sub-unit. Now those who suffered yesterday have a chance to vent their rage on someone. All the humiliations and insults which they have suffered for six months can now be heaped on the newcomers. Meanwhile those who still insult and beat them up continue to be regarded as scum by their own superiors.
These are the circumstances in which a soldier begins to master the rudiments of the science of war.
1, 441 Minutes
`Roll on my demob!' `I wish you all a speedy demob-make sure you deserve it!' They've taken everything else away, but they can't take my demob!' `Demobilization is as inevitable as the collapse of capitalism.' These are sentences you will see scribbled on the wall of any soldiers' lavatory. They are cleaned off every day but they are soon back again, in paint which is still wet.
Demobilization comes after two years' service. It is the day-dream of every soldier and NCO. From the moment a recruit joins the army, he begins to cross off the days to his demob. He lists the days left on the inside of his belt or ticks them off on a board, a wall, or on the side of his tank's engine compartment. In any military camp, on the backs of the portraits of Marx, Lenin, Brezhnev, Andropov and Ustinov you will find scores of inscriptions such as `103 Sundays left to my demob', accompanied by the appropriate number of marks, carefully ticked off one by one in ink or pencil. Or `730 dinners to my demob' and more marks. Or, frequently `17,520 hours to my demob' or, even more often, `1,051,200 minutes to my demob'.
A soldier's day is split up into a number of periods of so many minutes each and this makes it most convenient for him to calculate in minutes. The Soviet soldier reckons that his day lasts just a little bit longer than it does for any other inhabitant of the planet, so in his calculations he reckons that a day contains 1,441 minutes-a minute longer than it does for the rest of us.
A minute is the most convenient division of time for him, although he has to count in seconds, too.
The soldier's second day-dream, after his demobilization, is to be allowed to sleep for 600 minutes. Theoretically, he is allowed 480 minutes for sleep. Of course, one of the scum gets only half this: as he moves into a higher caste and becomes more senior he sleeps longer and longer. A month before his demobilization a senior soldier hangs a note above his bed `Do Not Tilt! To be Carried Out First In Case Of Fire.'
Reveille is at 0600 hours. Wake up, jump out of bed, trousers and boots on, run outside for a rapid visit to the lavatory, sprint to the door, which is jammed with people, another sprint and you are on the road outside, past the sergeants who are lying in wait for the `last on parade'. By 0605 the company is already moving briskly along the roads of the military camp. In rain and wind, in hail and snow-just boots and trousers, chests bare. Running and PT until 0640-35 minutes of really hard physical exercise.
Then the company goes back to the barrack-room with 20 minutes to wash and make beds. During this time the scum have to make both their own beds and those of the senior soldiers. At 0700 there is morning inspection; the sergeant-major spends half an hour on a rigorous check of the company's general tidiness, haircuts, contents of pockets, etc. After this, the company falls in and moves off, bawling a song and marching in time to it, to the dining hall. An attentive observer would notice that the number of soldiers in the company is now greater by a quarter than it was during the PT parade. Actually, when the orderly first shouted, `Company. On your feet!' at reveille, by no means everyone jumped hastily out of bed. The most senior of the soldiers, those with only six months to go before their demob, get up unwillingly and slowly, stretching, swearing quietly to themselves, not joining in the rush to the lavatory or tearing off to the parade. While the rest of the company marches round the corner, they go quietly about their own affairs. One may stretch out under his bed to sleep for another half hour, others doze behind the long row of greatcoats, which hang from pegs by the wall, and the rest may tuck themselves away somewhere at the back of the barrack-room by a warm pipe from the furnace-room. Whatever they choose to do, they don't turn out for PT with the rest of the company. They keep an eye out for the patrolling duty officers, quietly changing their hiding places if he approaches. Eventually they go and wash, leaving their beds to be made by the scum.
The Soviet Army serves a meagre breakfast. A soldier is allowed 20 grammes of butter a day, but since, theoretically, 10 of these are used for cooking, there are only 10 grammes on his plate. With this, for breakfast, he receives two slices of black bread, one of white, a bowl of kasha and a mug of tea, with one lump of sugar.
Butter and sugar are used as a sort of currency, with which to placate one's seniors for yesterday's mistakes or for some piece of disrespectful behaviour. They are also used as stakes for bets so that many of the soldiers have to hand over their breakfast butter or sugar-or both-to those who have been luckier than them at guessing the results of football or hockey matches.
There is not much bread, either, but if a soldier somehow manages to get hold of an extra slice, he will always try to make his tiny portion of butter cover it too, so that it is bread and butter rather than just bread that he is eating. Several soldiers from my company once spent a day working in the bakery and, of course, they helped themselves to a few loaves, which they shared with the other members of their platoon. Each of them had ten or fifteen slices of bread to spread his butter on and was able to eat as much as he wanted, for the first time for months. But there was very little butter indeed for each slice. I was not far away, and, seeing how they were enjoying themselves, I went over and asked how they could tell which of the slices had butter on them. They laughed and one held a piece of bread above his head and gently tilted it towards the sun. The answer became clear-a slice on which there was even the smallest scraping of butter reflected the sunlight.
At 0800 hours there is a regimental parade. The deputy regimental commander presents the regiment for inspection by the commander. Then the day's training, which lasts for seven hours, begins. The first hour is a review period, during which officers from the regimental or divisional staffs test the extent to which officers, NCOs and soldiers are ready to proceed with the forthcoming day's work. Soldiers are questioned on what they learned during the previous day, what training they received and what they have memorized. For me, as for any commander, this was a most uncomfortable hour. During this review period, too, orders by senior commanders from regimental level up to that of the Minister of Defence himself are read out, together with the sentences imposed on the previous day by Soviet Army military tribunals-outlines of cases involving five to ten years' imprisonment, and sometimes death sentences.
If the review period ends early, the rest of the hour is used for drill. After this come three periods, each of two hours. During these each platoon works in accordance with a training schedule which covers the following subjects:
Weapons of mass destruction and
Defence against these
The number of hours spent on each subject varies considerably, depending on the arm of service and the Armed Service in which the soldiers are serving. However, the general plan of work is the same everywhere-a review period, drill and then six hours of work on the subjects listed above in accordance with individually arranged training schedules.
Ninety-five per cent of all work, except for political training, is done out of doors, rather than in classrooms-in the open country on ranges, in tank training areas, in tank depots, etc. All periods, except for political training, involve physical work, which is often very strenuous.
For instance, tactical training may involve six hours digging trenches in blazing sun or in a hard frost, high-speed crossings of rivers, ravines, ditches and barricades, rapid erection of camouflage-and everything is done at the double. Instruction in tactics is always given without equipment. Thus, a tank crew is told to imagine that they are in a tank, attacking the enemy `on the edge of the wood over there'. Having run to the wood, the crew returns and the tank commander explains the mistakes they made-they should have attacked not on the crest of the hill but in the gully. Now, once again... Using this system of instruction, you can quickly teach a crew, who may be unable to understand complicated explanations, how an enemy should be attacked, and how to use every hollow in the ground to protect their own tank in battle. If they don't, well they just run off again, and again, and again for the whole six hours if necessary.
Weapon training involves study of weapons and of combat equipment. But you should not imagine that a platoon sits in a classroom, while the instructor describes the construction of tanks, guns and armoured personnel carriers.
The sergeant shows a young soldier an assault rifle. This is your personal weapon. You strip it like this. You are allowed 15 seconds to do this. I will show you and then we will practise it-do it again-and again-now do it with this blindfold. And again... This is our tank. It carries 40 shells, each of which weighs between 21 and 32 kilogrammes, according to type. All the shells are to be loaded from these containers through this hatch into the tank's ammunition store. You've got 23 minutes to do this. Go! Now do it again-and again-and again.
Any process, from changing a tank's tracks or its engine to running in rubber protective clothing during CW training, is always learned by practical experience and practised again and again until it becomes entirely automatic, every day, every night for two years. So many seconds are allowed for each part of the operation. Make sure you do it this time: if you don't you'll have to practise it again and again and again, at night, on Sundays, on Sunday nights.
Exceptional physical strain is put upon Soviet soldiers. During his first days in the army a young recruit loses weight, then, despite the revolting food, he begins to put it on, not as fat, but as muscle. He starts to walk differently, with his shoulders back, a mischievous twinkle appears in his eye and he begins to acquire self-confidence. After six months, he begins to develop considerable aggression, and to dominate the scum. In his battles with the latter, he wins not only because of tradition, or the support of his seniors, his NCOs and officers-he is also physically stronger than they are. He knows that recruits coming into the army are far weaker than he is-he has six months of service behind him. Within a year he has become a real fighting-man.
A Soviet soldier is forced to adapt to circumstances. His body needs rest and he will find a thousand ways to get it. He learns to sleep in any position and in the most unlikely places. Don't ever think of giving an audience of Soviet soldiers a lecture with any theory in it-they would fall asleep at your very first words.
At 1500 hours the platoon, exhausted and dripping with sweat, returns from training, and tidies itself up. Hastily, everyone cleans boots, washes, puts things right-at the double, all the time. Dinner parade-they march off, singing, to the dining hall and spend 30 minutes there over disgusting, thin soup, semi-rotten potatoes with over-salted fish and three slices of bread. Hurry, hurry. `Company, on your feet! Fall in!' Dinner is over. They march off, singing, to the barrack-room. From 1600 to 1800 they clean weapons, service equipment, clean the barracks and tidy the surrounding area. From 1800 to 2000 `self-tuition'. This means training which is devised not by the divisional staff but by the sergeants. `50 press-ups. Now do it again... You didn't make much of a job of loading those shells. Try it again... Now once more... The time you took to run three kilometres in your respirator was poor. Go and do it again.'
From 2000 to 2030-supper. Kasha or potatoes, two slices of bread, tea, a lump of sugar. `Butter?-you had that this morning.' After supper a soldier has 30 minutes of free time. Write a letter home, read a paper, sew up a senior soldier's collar-lining for tomorrow's inspection, clean his boots until they gleam, iron his trousers.
At 2100 hours there is a formal battalion, regimental or divisional parade. Evening roll-call, a run-through of the time-table for tomorrow and of the results of today's training, more sentences imposed by military tribunals and then an evening stroll. This takes the form of 30 minutes of drill, with time kept by drum-beat, and training songs, yelled out by several thousand voices. At 2145 the soldier reaches the barracks again, washes, cleans his teeth, polishes and cleans everything for next morning. At 2200-lights out. For those, that is, who are not on night exercises. The timetable makes provision for 9 hours of night training each week. No allowance is made for loss of sleep. These night exercises can, of course, go on for any length of time. And those who are not on night exercises may be got out of bed at any moment by a practice alert.
Saturday is a working-day in the Soviet Army. What makes it different from other days of the week is that the soldiers have a film-show in the evening. No-not about James Bond, but about Lenin or Brezhnev.
Sunday is a rest-day. So reveille is at 0700 hours, instead of 0600. Then, as always, morning toilet, PT, breakfast. And then free time. This is what the political officer has been waiting for. There is one of these `Zampolits', as they are called, in each company, battalion, regiment and so on. The Zampolit can only work with the soldiers on Sundays, so his whole energy is devoted to that day. He arranges tug-of-war competitions and football matches-more running! He also gives lectures about how bad things were before the Revolution, how good life is nowadays, how the peoples of the world groan under the yoke of capitalism and how important it is to work hard to free them. In some regiments the soldiers are allowed to sleep after dinner. And how they sleep-all of them! On a bright sunny Sunday, sometimes, a division looks like a land of the dead. Only very occasionally is a single figure-the duty officer-to be seen walking around. The silence is astonishing and unimaginable at any other time. Even the birds stop singing.
The soldiers sleep on. They are tired. But the Zampolits are not tired. They have been resting all week and now they are bustling about, wondering what to organise next for the soldiers. How about a cross-country run?
Sunday does not belong to the Soviet soldier, and so he reckons, reasonably enough, that this day, too, lasts 1,441 minutes instead of 1,440.
Day After Day
Practice makes perfect. This is a wise saying, which the Soviet Army accepts.
Accordingly, during his service every soldier goes through the same cycle of instruction four times.
Each of these lasts for five months, with one month as a break before the next one begins. During this interval, the soldiers who have completed their service are demobilized and the new intake arrives. In this month the recruits go through their Young Soldier's Course: the remainder overhaul and repair equipment and weapons, and do maintenance work at barracks, camps and firing-ranges. They are also used for various sorts of heavy work. This is not always for the Armed Forces; sometimes they become labourers on State projects. Then the five-month cycle of instruction begins. All the subjects in the training schedule are covered but during the first month the emphasis is on the individual training of each soldier. The youngest ones learn what they need to know and do, while the older ones repeat everything for the second, third or fourth time. As a soldier's service lengthens, the demands he must meet increase. A soldier who has only just joined may be required to do, for instance, 30 press-ups, one who has served for 6 months 40, after a year he will have to do 45 and after 18 months 50. The standards required increase similarly in every type of activity-shooting, running, driving military vehicles, resistance to CW materials, endurance without an air-supply in a tank under water, etc.
In the second month, while work continues on the improvement of individual skills, sections, crews and military teams are set up. In reality they exist already, since 75% of their members are soldiers who have already served in them for at least six months. The young recruits adapt quickly, for they are made to do the work for the whole team: the older members do not exert themselves but they squeeze enough sweat for ten out of the new arrivals so as o avoid being accused of idleness themselves and in order not to incur the wrath of their platoon or regimental commander.
From the second month, weapon training is no longer individual but to whole sections. Similarly, the sections, teams and other basic combat units receive all their tactical, technical and other instruction as groups. At the same time, members of these sections, teams and groups learn how to replace one another and how to stand in for their commanders. Sub-machine gunners practise firing machine-guns and grenade launchers, machine gunners learn to drive and service armoured personnel carriers, members of rocket launcher teams are taught how to carry out the duties of their section commander. Members of tank, gun, mortar and rocket-launcher crews receive similar instruction.
The third month is devoted to perfecting unit and in particular platoon cohesion. Exercises lasting for several days, field firing, river crossing, negotiation of obstacles, anti-gas and anti-radiation treatment of personnel and equipment-the soldiers carry all these out as platoons. During these exercises, section commanders receive practice in commanding a platoon in battle. Then come field firing and other practical exercises lasting for two weeks each, first at company, then at regimental and finally at divisional level. Two final weeks are taken up with large-scale manoeuvres, involving Armies, Fronts or even complete Strategic Directions.
After this an inspection of all the formations which make up the Soviet Army is carried out. Checks are carried out on individual soldiers, sergeants, officers, generals, sections, platoons, companies, batteries, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions and Armies. With this the cycle of instruction is completed. A month is set aside for repair and refurbishing of equipment, firing-ranges, training grounds and training centres. In this month, again, the demobilization of time-expired soldiers and the reception of a new intake of recruits takes place. This is followed by a repetition of the entire training cycle-individual instruction and then the welding together of sections, platoons, companies, battalions, regiments, divisions, then the large-scale exercises and finally the inspection. So it goes on, over and over again.
Why does a soldier need to read a map?
Most Soviet soldiers do not know how to read a map. This is the absolute truth. They are just not taught to do so. What is more, there is no intention that they should learn, since it is not considered necessary.
In the West you can buy a map at any petrol station. In the USSR any map with more than a certain amount of detail on it is classified as a secret document. If you lose a single sheet of a map you can be put in prison for a long time-not a luxurious Western prison, but something quite different.
The fact that maps are regarded as secret gives the Soviet command a number of important advantages. In the event of a war on Soviet territory an enemy would have considerable difficulty in directing his artillery fire, or his aircraft, or in planning operations in general. Thus, in 1941, the German command had to use pre-revolutionary maps, printed in 1897, to plan its air raids on Moscow. From time to time single Soviet maps fell into the hands of German troops, but this only occurred accidentally so the maps were unlikely to be consecutive sheets. When the Germans entered Soviet territory, it was noticeable that the accuracy of their artillery fire from covered fire positions fell off sharply. They were unable to use their V-1 and V-2 rockets.
By making the map a secret document the Communists achieved something else-attempting to flee from the Soviet paradise without a map is a fairly risky undertaking. On one occasion a Soviet soldier swam across the Elbe near Winterberg and asked for political asylum. When he was asked if he had any secrets to disclose he revealed that he had spent the last eighteen months painstakingly gathering every crumb of information he could lay his hands on. He was carefully questioned and was then sentenced to death and shot. He had swum the Elbe at the wrong point and had fallen into the hands of the East German frontier guards, who had questioned him, in broken Russian, at the request of their Soviet comrades. If he had swum across the Elbe a few kilometres further north he would have landed safely in West Germany-if, that is, he had avoided treading on mines or being torn to pieces by guard dogs.
In the Soviet Army there are, it is true, hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have been instructed in map-reading. But they are only those who would need to use a map in battle-reconnaissance and assault troops, SPETSNAZ diversionary troops, topographers, missile control operators, aircrew, artillerymen, etc.
An ordinary tank crew member or infantry soldier does not need a map. He does not take operational decisions, he obeys them. Remember Soviet tactical theory-no battalion, no regiment, division or Army advances independently. Even a Front can only operate independently in exceptional circumstances. A Soviet offensive is a massive avalanche of tanks, supported by a storm of artillery fire. All this is directed at a single, narrow sector of the enemy's front. Individual initiative could ruin the overall plan. In many cases, regimental and divisional commanders have no authority to deviate from the route they have been ordered to follow. In this situation an ordinary soldier does not need a map. His function is to keep his weapons and equipment in good order and to use them skilfully, to advance bravely and with determination in the direction indicated by his commander, and to push forward at all costs and whatever the losses. The Soviet soldier is not expected to pore over a map-there are any number of others who are doing that-but to refuel a tank quickly, to unload ammunition as fast as he can, to aim accurately and to fire cold-bloodedly. His task is to work as fast as he can, repairing damage to his personal weapons or changing rollers or tracks on tanks, putting out fires, driving his tank under water towards the enemy's shore. He must go without sleep for three days and without food for five, he must sleep in the snow in his shabby greatcoat and carry out the orders of his commander unquestioningly. The Soviet Army teaches him to do all this. But it only teaches map reading to those who will command and direct this soldier.
Those who built the Great Pyramids were probably not particularly well educated and often they probably did not even understand each other, since slaves had been driven together from distant areas to build the huge structures. But the pyramids turned out none the worse for that. The slaves were not expected to carry out intricate calculations or to make precise measurements: all that was required from them was obedience and diligence, submission to the lash and willingness to sacrifice themselves in order that some unknown but most desirable aim should be achieved. Soviet generals adopt a similar position-surely it is not necessary to involve every slave in plans of such enormous complexity. Soviet generals are not arrogant; they are completely satisfied with a soldier who, even if he cannot read a map, does not strike, does not set up trades unions, does not pass judgement on the actions of his commanders and only gets his hair cut when a sergeant tells him to.
The Training of Sergeants
Soldiers are glad when their column reaches their new division and they are told that they are joining, for instance, the 207th Motor-Rifle Division, the 34th Guards Artillery or the 23rd Guards Tank Division. They know and are ready for what awaits them. But they are seriously alarmed if they discover that they are joining the 92nd Motor-Rifle Training Division, the 213th Motor-Rifle Training Division or the 66th Guards Motor-Rifle Training Division. The word `Training' has an ominous sound to a recruit. True, it means that he will never be one of the scum, that he will never have senior soldiers above him, but, instead, he will become a sergeant in six months' time, standing above both scum and senior soldiers, as their lord and master. But he knows that for this he will have to pay a very heavy price-six months in a training division.
Formerly each regiment trained its own sergeants. In addition to its four or five battalions and its various companies, each regiment had a `regimental school'. The regimental commander put his best company commander in charge of this school. If the last of an officer's postings contained the words `commanded the regimental school' this showed that at one stage he was regarded as the best young officer in his regiment. The regimental commander devoted equal attention to his choice of platoon commanders from this school and he also sent the most ferocious of his sergeants there. Then each company commander would pick out the most promising of his recruits and would send them to the school. Their training would turn them into real wolf-hounds; they would return to their company with their sergeant's shoulder-boards and lead its soldiers to glory.
But the system of regimental schools had one shortcoming. Different nationalities have differing temperaments and their own traditions. Any Soviet officer will confirm that a Tatar makes the best sergeant of all. Ukrainians are very good sergeants. The Lithuanians are not bad. But the Russian, while he makes a good soldier or a good officer, is not a good sergeant. The great Russian people must forgive me, but this is not just my opinion: it is that of the majority of Soviet officers.
It may, of course, be that all Soviet officers are mistaken but, anyway, the regimental schools certainly accepted all the Tatars they were offered, immediately. They took the Ukrainians and the Lithuanians, too, but Georgians, Russians, Uzbeks and Azerbaidzhanis were given no places. Now, consider what happens when mobilization is ordered. All divisions, wherever they are permanently garrisoned, will call up their reservists and fill all their vacancies. Next second formation divisions-`invisible divisions' are formed. In the process, it comes to light that in the Tatar Republic all the reservists are sergeants and that there are no other ranks. The situation in the Ukraine and in Lithuania is almost the same. In the other republics though, all the reservists are private soldiers and there are no sergeants at all. While it is true that for instance, Georgians make excellent officers, they are not accepted for training as sergeants, because they are too warm-hearted and this makes them ready to overlook trifling mistakes. Trifling mistakes are precisely what a sergeant is concerned with-he must never overlook them and he must punish those responsible without mercy. So, how could you ever build up a division in Georgia?
The General Staff racked its brains for a long time over this problem, but finally adopted the radical solution of disbanding all the regimental schools and of training sergeants centrally, in training divisions.
Naturally, the standard of sergeants and their authority dropped sharply as this decision was implemented. Whereas previously each company commander had picked out one of his recruits and told him, `You are going to be a sergeant', now there was no such personal selection. One column of recruits was sent to a normal division, another went to a training division: it was done quite haphazardly. Against that, the General Staff now knows that, under the mobilization plans, Georgia, for instance, needs to produce 105,000 sergeants from its reserve but that in fact it has only 73,000. The remedy is obvious-in the near future the requisite number of new intake columns from Georgia must be sent to training divisions. All the General Staff needs to do is to work out what sort of sergeants it needs-rocket troops, artillery or infantry-and to issue the necessary instructions to local Military Commissars about the numbers they are to send to each training division.
Of course, in formulating these instructions, the General Staff does not forget to ensure that a suitable mixture of nationalities is retained in each division.
A training division has the same establishment, organisation and equipment as a normal motor-rifle division. Three of the most important battalions-the reconnaissance, communications and rocket battalions-are combat subunits which are identical with those in a normal division. All the other regiments and battalions of the division keep their weapons mothballed, holding additional weapons for training purposes. The training divisions have no fixed establishment of personnel: every six months each division receives ten thousand recruits to train. After five months of brutally tough training these trainees become sergeants and are sent to combat divisions, to replace those who have been demobilized. Then the training division receives another ten thousand and the cycle begins again. Thus each training division turns out twenty thousand sergeants a year.
Each trainee spends half of his first year at the training division, is promoted and then spends the remaining eighteen months of his service with a combat division.
Training divisions are located only on Soviet territory. If war should break out their current intake would be promoted ahead of time and they would call up their reserves, take their weapons out of storage and function as a combat divisions.
Each of the regiments of a training division trains sergeants in one particular field, following a specialised curriculum. The artillery regiment trains 1,500 artillery sergeants, the engineering battalion turns out 300 engineer sergeants with varying specialist qualifications, and so forth. A very large proportion of tank crew members pass through the training divisions, since the commander, gunner and driver of a tank are all NCOs: only the loader is a private soldier. Since the newest Soviet tanks carry no loaders, every member of a tank crew will henceforth pass through a training division. In the artillery the proportion of sergeants is much lower. In the infantry, units with armoured personnel carriers have one sergeant to each section, those with infantry combat vehicles have three sergeants to each section. The training of sergeants in the various different fields proceeds in accordance with the requirements of the combat divisions.
In the tank training regiments, the first battalion usually trains tank commanders, the second, the gunners and the third, the drivers.
At the conclusion of their training all trainees sit examinations. If they pass them the specialists (gunners, tank drivers, radio operators etc.) become lance-corporals; those who pass with distinction become junior sergeants. Gun-, tank and section-commanders become junior sergeants: those who pass with distinction receive immediate promotion to sergeant.
A training division has no scum or senior soldiers. All 10,000 recruits arrive and leave the division at the same time. The division does, however, have sergeants, and their influence is a hundred times greater than that of the sergeants in combat divisions. In a combat division, while a sergeant must not be over-familiar with his senior soldiers, he must at least respect them and take their opinions into account. In a training division, on the other hand, a sergeant simply dominates his trainees, totally ignoring any views they may have. In addition, each platoon commander in a training division, supervising thirty or forty young trainees, is allowed to retain the services of one or two of the toughest of them. A sergeant in a training division also knows that he would have nothing like the same authority in a combat division. While he is still a trainee, therefore, he picks noisy quarrels with his fellows, in the hope that his platoon commander will notice and decide that he is someone who should be kept on to join the staff after the end of the course. He cannot afford to reduce his aggressiveness if he succeeds in landing a job with the training division, or he may find himself sent off to join a combat division, having been replaced by some young terror who is only too ready to spend all his nights as well as his days enforcing order and discipline. (If, however, this should happen, he would soon realise that he is unlikely to be sent on anywhere else from a combat division and that he can therefore afford to let up a bit and to slacken the reins.)
Discipline in a training division is almost unbelievably strict. If you have not experienced life in one you could never imagine what it is like. For instance, you might have a section of non-smokers headed by a sergeant who does smoke. Every member of the section will carry cigarettes and matches in his pocket. If the sergeant, apparently without realising that he is doing so, lifts two fingers to his mouth, the section will assume that he is in need of a cigarette. As one, ten trainees will rush forward, pulling cigarette packets from their pockets. The sergeant hesitates, considering which of the ten stands highest in his favour at that moment, and finally selects one of the cigarettes he is offered. By doing so, he rewards a trainee for his recent performance. Ten packets of cigarettes disappear in a flash; in their place appear ten lighted matches, held out for the sergeant's use. Once again he pauses, looking thoughtfully from face to face-whom to reward this time? One match goes out, burning the fingers of a young trainee, who stoically endures the pain, even though it brings tears to his eyes. The sergeant accepts the light offered by the soldier next to him and puffs contentedly away.
Each day the sergeant picks one of the trainees and puts him in command of the others. The trainee must spend the day devising fresh torments for his fellows. If he really distinguishes himself by his inventiveness, he will receive the greatest honour of all-he will be allowed to polish the sergeant's boots that evening. The trainees fight a silent battle among themselves, every hour of every day, for this privilege.
Power depraves those who wield it and a sergeant in a training division is as depraved as it is possible to be. He uses his power to manipulate his subordinates, gradually turning them into real man-eaters.
Service in a training division is the pipe-dream of many Soviet officers. It is generally believed that in a training division one does no work at all. But this is not true: I know because I have served in one. The work is sheer drudgery. It is true that you never need to teach the trainees anything-their sergeants do that. It is true that every square metre of asphalt is scrubbed with toothbrushes. It is true that the floors in the lavatories shine almost as brightly as the sergeant's boots. It is true that no sergeant will ever step out of line, for fear of being posted to a combat division.
Against all this, however, the number of suicides in the training divisions must exceed the figures for any similarly-sized group of people anywhere else in the world. If a trainee in your platoon or your company kills himself, your own record of service will carry a black mark. And this black mark will never be erased. Each officer must therefore keep a constant watch on each of his trainees. As soon as he spots the slightest indication that something is wrong he must take action. He must pick out and give power to the trainee who appears to have reached the end of his tether and to be about to turn on his platoon, to blaze away at them, at his officers and at anyone else nearby and then, calmly changing the magazine, to send another long burst ripping through his own young body.
But how can you watch them all? Can you get to the right one in time to make him so drunk with power that he will resist the temptation to kill himself?
The Corrective System
Some say that before the Revolution the Russians were slaves in chains. Many believed this and many others still do so. Napoleon was one of these and he decided that he would conquer the country by winning over its down-trodden serfs. As he entered Russia, therefore, he published a manifesto, freeing the peasantry from serfdom. However, for whatever reason, the Russian peasants did not view him as a liberator and they ignored his edict. More than that, they rose against him, everywhere he or his armies appeared. Eventually they drove him from Russian soil, ignominiously abandoning his armies as he did so.
The Communists claim that they liberated the Russian people. Yet, when the war began, these same Russians greeted their foreign invaders with tears, with flowers and with enthusiastic hospitality. What can have brought them to the point at which they would greet even Hitler as their saviour and liberator?
The Soviet forces surrendered to Hitler in regiments, divisions, corps, and Armies. In September 1941 the 5th, 21st, 26th, and 37th Armies surrendered simultaneously and without resistance. In May 1942 the whole of the South-Western Front, the 6th, 9th and 57th Armies, the 2nd, 5th and 6th Cavalry Corps, the 21st and 23rd Tank Corps surrendered in the Kharkov area. They fought for four days and laid down their arms on the fifth: At the same moment, the 2nd Shock Army capitulated on the North-Western Front. What is more, they then turned their weapons against the Communists. Soldiers, officers, and generals of every nationality of the Soviet Union surrendered, although the Russians were the most numerous, both in numbers and as a percentage of the total Russian population of the country. The Russian Liberation Army was the largest of all the anti-Communist forces, drawn from the inhabitants of the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire, which were set up during the Second World War. By the end of the war it consisted of approximately one million Russian soldiers and officers, who had chosen to fight against the Soviet Army. It could have been still larger than this, but Hitler would not give his wholehearted support to Lieutenant-General A. Vlasov, the leader of the Russian anti-Communist movement. With unbelievable short-sightedness, he embarked upon a bloodthirsty campaign of terror against the inhabitants of the territories occupied by his armies. Compared to the liberation and collectivisation campaigns carried out by the Communists, this terror was relatively mild, but it deprived Hitler of any hope of winning the laurels of a champion of freedom.
But the Communists were not idle. They did everything they could to retain power and to prevent the total collapse of the Soviet Army. On 13 May, 1942 the murderous `Smersh' organisation-a military counter-intelligence service, operating independently of the NKVD-was established. Its most important task was defined by Beriya on 15 May as `fighting attempts to revive a Russian Army'. That same day a new law on hostages was enacted, decreeing that the relatives of Soviet citizens who joined the Russian Liberation Army could be imprisoned for twenty-five years or shot. A day later new guidance on penal battalions was issued.
Penal battalions existed already but not in the form now envisaged. Nor had there ever been as many of them as was now proposed. Their final shape was decided upon in May 1942. The original proposals were confirmed and they have not changed from that day to this. Let us look at them more closely.
The old Russian Army had a good tradition: if its soldiers considered a war to be a just one they would fight like lions. If they believed it to be unjust and unnecessary for the Russian people, they would simply stick their bayonets in the ground and go home. That is what they did in 1917 and they did it again in 1941. Millions of Russian soldiers could see no reason to defend the Communist regime. Proof that this was a widespread attitude was provided by the Armies who gave themselves up. The same opinion was shared by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, who established the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, by Cossacks, Georgians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Crimean Tatars and by many other peoples who, before the Revolution, had fought fearlessly for the interests of the Russian Empire against every foreign invasion.
The Communists are clever people. They saved their dictatorship in a most original way-by developing a new use for penal battalions, which proved to be a decisive force in the battles with the German army. The Germans choked on the blood of the Soviet penal battalions. Also, with the help of the penal battalions, the Communists destroyed millions of their potential and actual domestic enemies and put an end for several decades to the growth of disobedience and resistance to their regime.
Until May 1942, each Army fighting at the front had one penal battalion. These battalions were used in defence as well as during offensives. After this the situation altered-the battalions were only to be used, according to the new policy, in offensives. In defence they were to be employed only to counter-attack -and, after all, a counter-attack is itself an offensive action on a small scale. In addition to the battalions already serving with Armies, other battalions, subordinated to Fronts, were introduced. Each Front commander henceforth had between 10 and 15 penal battalions at his disposal.
Each battalion had an administrative group, a guard company and three penal companies. The permanent component of the battalion-the command staff and the guards-consisted of ordinary soldiers and officers who were selected for their obtuseness, their ferocity and their fanaticism. They were rewarded with unheard-of privileges. The officers received seven times the normal pay-for each year of service they were given seven years towards their pension.
The penal battalions contained individuals who had shown reluctance to fight and others who were suspected of cowardice. With them were officers and soldiers who had been sentenced for various crimes and offences. The officer's who were sent to the battalions lost any decorations they had been awarded, together with their ranks, and joined the battalion as privates.
During periods of calm the penal battalions were kept in the rear. At the last moment before an offensive, they were brought up, under guard, and positioned at the forward edge of the battle area. As the artillery preparation began, the guard company, armed with machine guns, would take their place behind the penal companies, who were then issued with weapons. Then, on the command `Advance to attack!' the guard company's machine guns would force the reluctant penal companies to get to their feet and to advance. Being unable to move in any other direction, they attacked, frenziedly. The most brilliant victories achieved by the Soviet Army were bought with the blood of the penal battalions. They were given the hardest and most thankless tasks. They would break through the enemy's defences and then, sweeping through their midst, trampling on their corpses, would come the elite Guards divisions. Thereafter no one wanted the penal companies in the area. It was far better to let the Guards do the fighting.
During the assault on the German defences at Stalingrad, 16 penal battalions were concentrated in the 21st Army's breakthrough sector and 23 more in the 65th Army's sector on the Don Front. Soviet Fronts employed almost as many as this during the Kursk battles, to breach the German defences. At one point in the course of the fighting in Byelorussia, on the orders of Marshal Zhukov, 34 penal battalions were brought together and thrown into the attack, to cut a way through for the 5th Guards Tank Army. 34 battalions are the equivalent of almost 4 divisions. One should add that very few of them survived the engagement and that, of course, those who were fortunate enough to live through this battle were almost certainly killed in the next one.
Each penal battalion had an establishment of 360. This may seem a small number. Yet the capacity of these battalions was astonishing. Soviet generals loved to attack or counter-attack: anyone under the command who seemed to lack fighting spirit would quickly find himself serving as a private in a penal battalion. An unsuccessful attack brought certain death for the members of the penal companies-they were unable to escape and they were shot down by the guard company. If they succeeded in advancing, the process would be repeated, again and again. They would die, eventually, when they came up against an impregnable defence. The guard company would then return to the rear, and assemble a new battalion, which would resume the attack on the following day-or even the same day.
The official figures given for Soviet casualties during the Second World War is 20,000,000 officers and men. In reality, of course, the total was considerably higher. A large proportion of these millions reached their destiny through the sausage machine of the penal battalions. Much stupidity and idiocy was displayed in the war, there were many unnecessary and unjustifiable sacrifices. But this was an exception: a subtle and carefully thought-out policy of using the blood of potential internal enemies to destroy an external enemy-the German military machine. It was at once a shrewd and appalling scheme.
The German command understood the situation very well. But their outlook was too limited and too pedantic to allow them to adopt the correct riposte-retreating rapidly before the penal battalions, giving the latter a chance to find cover from the heavy machine guns, which threatened them from the rear, and to turn their weapons on the guard company. If Field Marshal von Paulus had done this at Stalingrad, the Soviet penal battalions would have cleared his path to the Volga. If von Manstein had done this at Kursk he would have won the greatest battle in tank history.
If... if... if only someone had realised how the Russians loathe Communism. If only someone had tried to tap this reserve of hatred.
In addition to the infantry penal battalions, which represented the majority, there were mine-clearing and air force penal units. The function of the mine-clearing units is self-explanatory but something more must be said about the air force penal companies. In addition to their bomb-loads and rockets the bombers and ground-attack aircraft carried cannon or machine guns in turrets for defence against enemy fighters. Why, reasoned our glorious Communist leaders, should honourable young Communists, devoted to the cause of liberating the working-class, die in our aircraft? Of course, our pilots must be trustworthy and dedicated (and there are hostages we can use to ensure that they remain so) but an air-gunner's duties could just as well be carried out by someone who is an enemy of socialism. And why shouldn't they be? He can't escape and he can't avoid fighting, since his own life depends on the outcome, By repelling enemy fighters he is first of all preserving his own worthless life, but he is also defending the aircraft, and with it the Communist cause.
From May 1942 onwards, penal companies of air-gunners were attached to all the bomber and ground-attack units of the Red Army. They were kept near the airfields, in stockades surrounded by barbed wire. Their training was rapidly completed. They were simply taught how to estimate the distance of an approaching enemy aircraft and how to fire their cannon or machine-guns. They were not given parachutes-they would not, in any case, have known how to use them. In order that no rash ideas should enter his head during a flight, the newly-fledged gunner was firmly strapped to his seat-as if for his own safety. The pilot in the IL-2 and IL-10 ground-attack aircraft was protected by armour-plating; behind him with his back to him, sat the gunner, who was protected only by his 12.7mm machine gun. Members of penal companies were also used as gunners on PE-2 and TU-2 dive-bombers and also on the PE-8 and other bombers.
In order to arouse the fighting spirit of these `flying convicts', an incentive was devised-their sentences were reduced by a year for each operational flight. At that time their standard sentence was ten years. Ten flights and you'll be free! This device worked, even though the gunners had not volunteered for the job. Nevertheless, the fighting spirit among these prisoners, who were really under sentence of death, was considerably higher than it was among their fellow-sufferers on the ground.
Whoever thought of this idea was certainly no fool. In the first place not many of the gunners survived nine flights. Anyone who did manage to do so was never sent on a tenth flight. His companions were told that he had been sent to another regiment, nearby, or released, whereas in fact the poor devil had been sent to serve for a year with a mine-clearing battalion. The pretext used was a standard one-`your nerves are in a bad state. The medical officer won't allow you to fly any more.'
The average expectation of life in a mine-clearing battalion was, if anything, lower than that in the penal battalions which served with the infantry.
The death rate among the `flying convicts' remained exceptionally high. This did not greatly concern anyone-this was their inevitable fate. Unfortunately though, when an air-gunner was killed, his machine-gun would slip from his hands and its barrel would drop lifelessly downwards. This was a useful signal to the German fighters-the gunner in that aircraft has been killed, so the aircraft is defenceless. Let's get it!
The Soviet command finally realised, after questioning a number of German airmen who had been shot down, that, as he died, the air gunner was involuntarily signalling to the enemy that his aircraft was undefended. What could be done? You could not get two flying convicts into one cabin-and what would be the point, in any case, since the same burst of fire might kill both of them. Much thought was given to the problem. Then a brilliant idea occurred to Marshal of the Air Forces A. E. Golovanov, Stalin's former personal pilot and bodyguard, whose job it had been to arrest marshals and generals for his master and to conduct them to Moscow. He thought of the idea of fixing a spring to the breech of an aircraft's machine gun. Whether the gunner was alive or not, the barrel of the gun would now keep pointing upwards. For this invention Stalin rewarded this favourite of his with the Order of Lenin.
In peacetime the penal battalions are known as Independent Disciplinary Battalions. Each commander of a Military District is responsible for two or three of them. Commanders of Groups of Forces stationed outside the USSR also have battalions of this sort under their command, but they are stationed on Soviet territory.
The disciplinary battalions have been organised in precisely the same way as the wartime penal battalions-administration, a guard company and three penal companies. In peacetime the officers serving with these battalions are paid at double rates-for each year of service they receive two years' pay and two years towards their pension.
The soldiers and sergeants on the permanent staff of these battalions have been sent to them by military tribunals which have sentenced them to work there for periods of between three months and two years. Time spent in a disciplinary battalion does not count as part of a soldier's military service. In my division, on one occasion, two sergeants got drunk the day before they were to be demobilized after two years' service. In their drunken state they were insufficiently respectful towards one of the staff officers. A tribunal sentenced each of them to lose his rank and to serve for two years with a disciplinary battalion. After two years they returned to the division, completed their remaining day's service and were demobilized.
Life in a Soviet disciplinary battalion today is a large subject, which should be discussed at length and separately. I will limit myself to saying that such a battalion will break the strongest of characters within three months. I have never, during my entire service, met a soldier who had spent time in one who showed the slightest traces of disobedience or indiscipline. It is a great day for any commanding officer in the Soviet Army when his unit is re-joined by someone whom everyone has forgotten and whom very few will recognise-a man sent to a disciplinary battalion some time ago for insubordination, or indiscipline or for some form of protest. The officers in the regiment and the division have mostly changed since his day, as have the overwhelming majority of sergeants and other ranks. Suddenly, he appears-quiet, downtrodden, submissive. He talks to no one and carries out all orders or instructions uncomplainingly. It is impossible to get him to say a single word about where he has been or what he has seen. His answers are monosyllabic and expressionless-`Yes' and `No' seem to be the only words left in his vocabulary. Then suddenly one of the longer-serving soldiers remembers-this was Kol'ka, the trouble-maker, the wit, a live-wire, forever suggesting risky escapades, who sang and played the guitar and was adored by all the local girls. Eighteen months ago he was sent to a disciplinary battalion for some trifling offence. The younger soldiers, gazing at this silent, gloomy new arrival, can only half-believe what they hear. The regiment quietens down, discipline improves, more respect is shown to its officers.
For minor offences a soldier does 3 to 15 days in the unit's guardroom. Any soldier who spends more than 45 days there in a year is automatically sent to a disciplinary battalion. There he is reformed: after he returns to his unit he will never again commit a disciplinary offence. He will never want to sit behind bars again.
Nevertheless, if war with the West should break out, Soviet soldiers would surrender by the million. Disciplinary or penal battalions would not prevent this from happening. And the Politburo has no illusions about this.