by Ivan Yakushin
Pen & Sword Military, Great Britian 2005. Pp.180.
illus. index. $39.99. ISBN:1844151441
To the Russians, World War II is the Great Patriotic War, and as far as they’re concerned, they were chiefly responsible for winning it. They certainly did most of the dying, at least in Europe. The Red Army lost over ten million dead fighting the Germans. The titanic struggle on the Eastern front has long fascinated military historians, and a great many books have been written about it. But memoirs written by Russian frontline soldiers are hard to some by in English translation. The experience of the Red Army soldiers who turned back the Nazi onslaught and then slogged all the way to Berlin is, perhaps, one of the least documented aspects of the Second World War, at least for American readers.
On the Roads of War, by Ivan Yakushin, is a memoir of what it meant to be up at the sharp end in the grimmest, bloodiest, and most terrible campaign of World War II. What makes the book especially interesting is the range and variety of Yakushin’s experience. He survived the siege of Leningrad, the battle of Kursk, and later fought his way into Germany as an officer in a Guards Cavalry unit.
Yakushin lived in Leningrad, but when the war broke out he and his mother were visiting relatives in a village called Belev, near Tula. They managed to make their way home to Leningrad in time to be surrounded as the city was cut off by the advancing Germans. Yakushin, who hoped to enter the Red Army as an officer, enrolled in the 9th Special Artillery Academy. He worried that his eyesight might not be good enough, and persuaded a friend to take the vision test for him. The army did not see through this dodge, and Yakushin commenced his military studies in city that was slowly starving to death. He anguished over the fate of his family. He had a Red Army ration card, but rations for his family were simply not enough to survive on. His father dug bones from rubbish pits which his mother boiled for whatever scraps of fat or meat might remain on them. Yakushin himself dug potatoes in the midst of a battle to have something to take his family. Eventually Yakushin and his classmates were evacuated from Leningrad to complete their studies in the bitter cold of Siberia. He would not see his family again until after war.
Yakushin was commissioned a Junior Lieutenant in a mortar regiment and sent to the front, where he found himself fighting hunger, cold, and lice as well as the Germans. He saw action at Kursk, where he was wounded in both legs. (He would be wounded three times by the end of the war, returning to duty each time.) Following his recovery, he was transferred to the 24th Guards Cavalry Regiment, where he was put in command of a platoon of 45mm antitank guns. Remarkably, he did not even know how to mount a horse, and had to learn horsemanship on the job.
Yakushin’s regiment fought in the Operation Bagration offensive that smashed Army Group Center in the summer of 1944. Cavalry was used to exploit breakthroughs achieved by infantry and armor units. Because of this operational security was especially tight. Marches were at night, with units sheltering in the woods by day to avoid detection. Whenever men had to leave the cover of the woods, they changed their insignia to hide the fact that the cavalry was present - this might betray the intended axis of a Red Army advance. Antitank guns were often parceled out singly to support individual saber squadrons, and Yakushin seldom seems to have more than one gun under his immediate direction. Although it was an antitank platoon, Yakushin’s gunners rarely engaged German armor. (He in fact only recounts one action where he took on panzers.) Antitank guns were often used to deliver high explosive rounds to silence German machine gun positions.
Although it may seem strange to an American reader to imagine cavalry on a World War II battlefield, Yakushin and his fellow Guards cavalrymen were a force to be reckoned with. Yakushin describes a number of actions in whi