A Soviet officer cadet endures training in Siberia

The Soviet army was usually well equipped for combat in the coldest conditions.

The Soviet army was usually well equipped for combat in the coldest conditions.

A Soviet Army hospital on the Volkhov  front 1943.

A Soviet Army hospital on the Volkhov front 1943.

Millions of men went through military training during the war. Their stories, from whatever army or nationality, all have familiar themes. The loss of privacy, the petty discipline, the arduous chores, the exhausting physical exercise, the lack of sleep.

Ivan Yakushin endured all of these things and more. As an officer cadet for the artillery in the Soviet Army he found himself in Tomsk in Siberia. Here there was one additional factor adding to the rigours of training:

It was better to be on guard duty, as the times for rest and sleep were strictly defined in the manual. The food was also better there. When we were on outdoor guard duty, in winter, we were issued with fur hats, felt boots, and sheepskin overcoats.

We would stand with our collars turned up, warm and snug, even in temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius. But there was a danger of falling asleep. Court martial and duty at the Front in a penal battalion would be the best scenario for anyone who fell asleep on guard duty. So we walked back and forth to stay awake.

The Siberian winter came with its famous frosts. The temperature was sometimes as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius. We were rolling 122 millimetre howitzers back and forth on the drill square in front of our barracks. It was difficult to assemble and disassemble the heavy guns in the cold: the heavy breech block of a 152 millimetre howitzer could freeze onto the bare skin of one’s hands.

We also had a hard time during tactical training. We were freezing to our bones in the open Siberian fields in our thin English greatcoats. Only our legs stayed warm, in huge valenki felt boots. When frozen, these felt boots were so heavy one could easily kill a person with them. You could literally take them off and use them as a weapon in a hand-to-hand fight instead of a rifle.

During a tactical training session we were ordered to build, equip, and camouflage a battery observation post in one night. The place for the post was on the slope of a hill, some 6 or 7 kilometres from the town.

The frost was quite Siberian, about minus 40. We took all sorts of entrenching tools – pickaxes, spades, shovels – and as darkness fell, we began work. We removed a 1 metre layer of snow and started hacking into the frozen soil with pickaxes. When we reached soft, unfrozen soil, we were sweaty and exhausted.

We fell down on this soft soil and rested for fifteen minutes. But within this short time, the soil began to freeze, and we had to take up our pick-axes again. We repeated this operation several times before the depth of the dugout reached about 2 metres.

Then we sawed logs, planned the location of the observation post, built a roof for it and placed a field artillery periscope inside. At dawn we covered the roof with soil, fir branches, and snow. Exhausted but satisfied with the work we had done, we dropped to the floor of the post and fell asleep.

But a bitter disappointment awaited us in the morning. Our battalion commander arrived and informed us our post had been spotted, and we had to build a new one in another place, with even stricter camouflage measures.

Ivan Yakushin: The Roads of War

Soviet soldiers examine the straw winter boots worn by a prisoner at Stalingrad.

Soviet soldiers examine the straw winter boots worn by a prisoner at Stalingrad.

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