Book review: Red Army Tank Commander

1942 version T-34/76. Note how small the two-man (commander/gunner and loader) is.

1942 version T-34/76. Note how small the two-man (commander/gunner and loader) turret is. The quality of these tanks, and the courage of their crews, was an unpleasant surprise for the Germans.

What was it like to go to war in a tank on the Eastern Front? How did it feel? This book answers that, and many other things besides. What was it like, to go to war and lose your best friends? Your entire tank crew?

What was it like, to be inside a tank when fire broke out? What was the workload of a tank commander in the T-34/76?

Vasiliy Bryukhov answers these questions, and more, in Red Army Tank Commander: At war in a T-34 on the Eastern Front. Let’s give you an excerpt that answers the last question first:

Nowadays some people are so good at telling stories — I am amazed that they remember the names of the settlements near where they fought. How could I recall the names of all those places? You receive an order: “Move between Landmark X and Landmark Y” – and off you go. You’re on the move, you look for targets, you shoot, you spin around. A T–34–76 commander works like a circus artist — he lays the gun, he shoots, gives orders to his gunloader and driver, he gets in touch with the other tanks of the platoon via radio. This requires his full concentration, otherwise in combat he is done for. Once there’s a target in sight, press your boot against the driver’s head — “A short one!” – then one shot, then another. As your gun is thrown from left to right, you yell: “An armor piercer! A splinter one!” There’s no air to breathe inside the turret as it’s full of gun smoke. The engine roars — you can’t hear shell bursts, and when you begin to fire yourself, you can’t hear anything that’s happening outside. Only when a solid projectile hits your tank or a shell bursts against your armor do you recall that they are shooting at you as well.

Bryukhov_V_PAt the outbreak of the war, Bryukhov called had just graduated from high school. He waited with exasperation for his call-up to come, thinking that the war would would end without him. He didn’t need to be afraid. His call-up came in September, 1941. He would survive the war, and continue as a career officer in the Soviet army, with a number of interesting commands, and an assignment as top Soviet advisor to the then-nonexistent Yemeni army. He finally retired in 1986.

The translation of the book is very good, with the exception of some technical terms like the crew drill terms you can see in the excerpt above, that are a little “off” because of the translator’s lack of tank-specific vocabulary. But this simply makes the translation imperfect, not bad. Bryukhov’s prose really puts you in the seat of the overworked T-34/76 TC, who simply had too much to do and too small a two-man turret to do it in. (The T-34/85 got a new turret and a badly needed fifth crewman, separating the duties of commander and gunner. T-24/76 TCs often got target lock doing gunnery, and lost situational awareness of the other German tanks, who then did them in).

Destroyed T-34 at Stalingrad. One of the crew burned in the driver's hatch.

Destroyed T-34 at Stalingrad. One of the crew burned in the driver’s hatch.

The above-mentioned description of what fire did to a T-34 and its inhabitants was one of the most powerful sections of the book also. Whether you survived depended on many things, including luck and, critically, which seat you were in. Bryukhov:

Once I was almost literally burnt out. Somewhere between Orel and Bryansk my tank was hit and caught fire. I yelled: “Abandon the machine!” and grabbed the edges of the hatch chute to pull myself up and out — but the interphone plug was tightly stuck into the socket, and when I moved upwards, it jerked me back into the seat. My gunloader leapt out of my hatch, then I managed to escape and follow him. The helmet saved me— it didn’t burn well, which is why I got scorches only on my face and hands…. Later on, when new crews arrived, I made everyone adjusting interphone plug so that it could be pulled out with ease.

It is not that easy to leave a burning tank. The most important thing is not to panic. The temperature in the tank rises abruptly, and if you’ve been touched by flame you completely lose self-control. Why is it so hard for the driver to jump out? Because he has to unhook the hatch and open it up — if he is in a panic or on fire, he’ll never escape. Radio operators used to die more often than the rest. They are in the most awkward position: the driver is on the left, and the gun loader is behind, so until one of them clears out of the way, he is unable to get out himself. And the countdown only lasts seconds! So, the tank commander leaps out, then the gun loader — for the others, it’s in God’s hands. Once you are outside you roll down head over heels — I often wondered how you could leap out, tumble down the side of the home and fall to the ground and yet I never saw anyone break an arm or leg or even get any scratches.

Late 1943 T-34/76, artist's rendering (probably model kit box art).

Late 1943 T-34/76, artist’s rendering (probably model kit box art).

(The “chute” he’s referring to only existed in T-34/85 and one variant of T-34/76 turrets. You can see it in this artist’s rendering or the image on the left). Bryukhov began the war with a feeling of heroic immortality, and sustained that even after his unit suffered badly in its first combat. He then volunteered for a suicidal reconnaissance-in-force against a hard German position; he felt the hostility of his crew upon him, and when the attack went wrong, they all perished as they had feared. Bryukhov brought back a crippled tank; he, his friend, and a crewman from another tank who vowed never to trust him again were the only human survivors of the forlorn hope reconnaissance in force, and all the tanks were destroyed or unserviceable.

After that, his warmaking was more judicious. Still, the Germans had a vote, often a 75mm or 88mm one, and you couldn’t argue with the arithmetic of tank fires, as recounted above. He often lost crew members. But there are happy stories too. His friendship with another officer, Kolya Maximov, who leads nearly as charmed a life — nearly. The senior sergeant, Lesha Rybakov, who holds down an officer’s position as Chief of Staff, who impersonated a general to get fleeing units to reverse direction, and who refused all offers of a commission.  The nervous tank officer who stops when he hears, or imagines he hears, bad mechanical sounds. He proceeds to deal off many parts of his tank to other tankers with bad parts — so that, when the deputy for technical affairs shows up, his tank might not have been unserviceable at the start but it sure is now.

There’s a thieving kid whose real ambition is to run away from home — to the front.

The war runs across the geographic sweep of eastern Europe, from Russia through the then-German satellites of Romania and Hungary, into Austria, then a province of the Third German Empire (Reich).

There are relatively few honest Russian memoirs of the Eastern Front. For many years, propaganda dictated the stories. An improbable survivor like Bryukhov  — whose nomination as a Hero of the Soviet Union was so long stalled that he became a Hero of a different country, the Russian Federation, when the paperwork caught up with him in 1995 — is in a position to tell the Russian story, warts and all, from the seat of a tank and the press of a staff conference, as he rose in rank. It is a story of a man who loved his country, hated but respected his enemy, and tried to construct his own moral code in a society that had only a simulacrum of one.

Born in 1924, Bryukhov is still alive. This is his only book; it was originally published in Moscow in 2010. Its title in Russian translates to: Armor-piercing, Fire!: Memoirs of a tank officer. 

Update:

A 1943 vintage T-34/76, with armament still on board, was recovered from a bog in the Uraine in 2008. The airless conditions immersed in the bog preserved the tank well. See photos here. (Note, spammy former Soviet nation site with pop-ups etc).

2 thoughts on “Book review: Red Army Tank Commander

  1. Nick

    This reminds me of a story from the Battle of Raseiniai, during the early stages of Operation Barbarossa where a single KV-2 heavy tank from 2nd Tank Division – Soviet 3rd Mechanised Corps, held off the entire German 6th Panzer Division (the spearhead of Panzergruppe 4) for a full day at a crossroads just outside of the city, until it ran out of ammunition and was knocked out, the Germans had to drive a 88 mm anti tank gun up behind it and fire two shells through the rear armour, then a pioneer engineer team rushed the tank and pushed grenades through the shell holes.

    The Germans buried the crew in a field nearby with full military honours.

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