Josef Finkelshteyn (photo courtesy of K.Finkelshteyn)
In our area, it was one of the quiet days. The army's newspaper read, 'All
Quiet on the Volkhovsky Front', like the Remarque novel 'All Quiet on the Western
Front'. One of those usual army days when you think: 'They are shooting, but
it is okay. Who knows if I will be hit or not, it depends on fate.'
It was New Year's Eve, 1943. I was serving in the 345th Radio Reconnaissance battalion. The battalion was responsible for tracking German battalion, division and army movements by monitoring radio frequency bearings.
Sergeant Nika Grigoriev, my faithful assistant, and I listened in on German battalion and division radio traffic by using captured radio equipment. Sometimes we were able to catch important messages, because during a battle they often broadcasted in un-coded text. The radio equipment only had a range of one kilometer, so we had to set up near the forward trench line.
Nika and I arrived at the 44th division regiment on the evening of December 29th. When we entered the regiment commander's observation post, we were tired and soiled. 'Help lieutenant Finkelshteyn in his important military mission.', was the headquarters order that I handed to the unshaven, gloomy captain. 'Why the hell did they send you to me?' grumbled the unshaven captain. 'If you loose your head I'll have to write a report - how it happened and why.'
'Find a free dugout. And remember, the ishak (literally 'donkey') bombards our
position exactly at 1600 hours every day. But don't show your face from the
dugout when it starts to squeak. Yesterday their donkey killed my aid-de-camp
and two soldiers. Look at these big fallen trees, that is its work.'
The 'donkey' was the soldiers name for the German truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher, similar to our famous Katyusha. It fired with disgusting squeak 'yya-yya-yya'. Their rocket explosions were very strong.
Nika and I found an un-destroyed dugout partially filled with water. We drained it and laid a floor of spruce branches. It was cold, damp and uncomfortable. We had vodka - the army currency - and I sent Nika to get us a portable stove. One hour later Nika came back empty-handed. Nobody had an additional portable stove.
Soviet propagandist. Karelian front. (photo from the Archive of Karelian Front Veterans Board)
I went to the un-groomed captain, hoping he would help us. In front of his dugout a guard was warming his hands over a portable stove, gladly burning with dry tree branches. Then the 'donkey' started to squeak. Everybody hid as quickly as if a strong winter wind had blown them off. When the guard darted into a dugout, I grabbed the stove and rushed away. Holding the smoking stove with smoldering mittens, I ran as quickly as I could to our dugout. Looking at my watch I thought, 'Sons of a bitches they are so exact'. It was 4:02 p.m.
Nika and I quickly installed the stove, added a few dry branches, and turned on the radio. It grew warm and comfortable. We listened to German news about our Fronts situation while drying our feet. All of a sudden two armed soldiers showed up in our dugout. One of them yelled, 'Hende Hohn! (Russianized German for 'Hands Up!'), do not move!' along with a long sentence full of obscenities which I had often heard my mother use (popravit'). I tried to explain to him who we were and why we were there, but he did not listen to me. He hit me in the chest with his submachine gun and fired into the ceiling, 'If you move you get a bullet in your head bastard! Sergeant, call the captain, we have caught the spies.'
When the captain came he recognized us, and smiling, he said, 'Do not be offended by them lieutenant. Yesterday an SMERSH man told us there was a spy in our division. Whenever our soldiers gather around the field kitchen he sends Jerry a signal and they started to bombard us.' The conflict settled, we invited the captain for a cup of tea. 'Maybe you have something stronger?' asked the captain. Nika took out a flask of vodka and after the third shot we had became best friends.
'Listen to me lieutenant' unshaven captain said, 'Recently people from a propaganda department visited us to shout at the Germans with a megaphone. They forgot the megaphone when they left. Let's curse at the to Fascist bastards in their own foul German language. I will talk and you will translate. I am a foul language specialist'. I tried to explain to him that in school I studied German, but we did not learn obscenities. 'It is okay, just do your best' the captain said. 'Lets go to a closest trench, it is about 100 meters from here.'
Behind the trench there was a ravine with a barbed wire. Germans were on the other side. It was quiet and we were so close we could hear them calling to each other. One was playing their favorite song, 'Lyly Marlen' on a harmonica. 'Lets do it!' said the captain and handed me the megaphone. I could not swear in German as well as the captain could in Russian. But one good turn deserves another, and the Germans replied showing their own good knowledge of Russian foul language. 'These bastards learned enough! I'll teach them a lesson!' said the captain climbed into a nearby friendly bunker and began firing a large caliber machine gun into the German positions. The Germans answered immediately. After short period of time the fire expanded up and down the front. The Germans shot flares on parachutes over our ravine. It grew as bright as noontime.
The regiment commander called us and shouted, 'What the hell is going on?' 'Nothing serious, it is just festive fireworks' answered the captain.
Translated by: Kirill Finkelshteyn Proofreader: James Quinn