Monday, February 26, 2007

Tank Rider * * *

Tank Rider is a war memoir from a man, Evgyny Bessorov, who served in the Russian infantry during WWII. He was the lowest level of officer, a platoon leader. It was his job to get the soldiers up and rushing at the Germans during the endless battles. He rushed into battle for 2 years carrying usually only a shovel, which he used for its intended purpose (digging in) and to 'tap' the butts of soldiers who had been laying on the ground for too long. He said of his job, no one wants to die, that includes soldiers, it was my job to get them up and running at the enemy. Sometimes he had to physically manhandle his soldiers out of their foxholes; only once did he have to threaten execution. He led his men through 4 or 5 major battles. During each he lost about 80% of his platoon. His survival was pure luck combined with caution.

He starts his front-line service at the battle of Kursk.
From there, it is a relentless 2 year push towards the German border and then into Berlin. He is part of the troops the encircle Berlin from the east. Here he is injured and then rejoins his battalion when they are outside Prague. And then 'Woina kaputt'...the war is finished.

As he states in the introduction, this is a book about what he saw and what he did. He doesn't analyze the war or his experience. He doesn't dwell on the horrible things he saw, but he says many times that it was very hard, he was scared and no one wanted to die. He does not mention anything about the Russians treatment of German POWs or about raping and pillaging when the Russians came into Germany. However, he was a frontline soldier and everything I've read has said that the frontline soldiers were too tired to do anything and were on the move forward constantly. The raping and pillaging and shooting of POWs happened behind the lines. Thus I would think that he is not 'leaving out details'. He is upfront about his failings: the times when he was too scared to move or when he made an error that got men killed. He is not philosophic about his job which was to lead men to their deaths. His job was to lead groups of men forward to take objectives at any cost. It was his job, and that was that.

Although, as I mentioned, he doesn't talk about Russian bad behavior, many passages are telling. He asserts that he did not allow his soldiers to loot. Loot however was defined as killing pigs and destroying property. Emptying out the larder and the chicken coop was not looting. He talks a lot about how well they ate in Germany and how well stocked the German pantries were. At one point when they catch a bunch of soldiers, the political officer comes racing forward screaming, 'Don't Shoot Them!!'. He is affronted, noting that the officer acted like he had been shooting prisoners the whole war. However, that the political officer was afraid that the prisoners would be shoot is telling. In other places he talks about 'taking the middle way'. They would come into a village in Western Ukraine, and the people didn't want to feed the soldiers. Bessorov said that he would pull out his gun and threaten that if food wasn't on the table in a hour, he would shoot them. This was the 'middle way'. We did not loot, but the soldiers got fed.

WWII was a war that had a huge effect on his generation. 40% of the boys in his high school class were killed in the war. Interestingly, in start contrast to the USSR propaganda about the country rallying together to support the troops, he gives many stories of the rural people not supporting the soldiers. In training, they practically starve because they are sent to the countryside to learn to dig holes and the villagers refuse to feed them. In the eastern Ukraine, when they push the Germans out, the villagers are very welcoming and always make food for the soldiers, but in the western Ukraine, people are downright hostile.

Overall this is an interesting book for those interested in the eastern front of WWII. This is one of the few memoirs from the Russian side. Until the fall of the USSR, such memoirs were forbidden since they might conflict with the official stories.

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