On the Eastern Front two great armies were now massing. Hitler had postponed his summer offensive more than once as he waited for his latest Tiger Panzers to be available in numbers. He was placing his faith in the superior firepower of the 88mm gun and extraordinarily thick armament to be decisive against the mass of Soviet armour.
On the plains near Kursk hundreds of thousands of men were preparing themselves for battle. The sheer numbers involved left no doubt about the scale of the anticipated conflict. The element of surprise had long ago been lost, as both sides made their preparations. Yet intelligence was always needed about what enemy units were facing them and what they were doing.
In the Soviet Army Petr Mikhin found himself selected to lead a patrol out into ‘No mans land’ to snatch a prisoner. It was an unusual task for an artillery officer, but who was he to argue. It was always a risky exercise and he knew well that similar patrols had come to grief, or not returned at all. But he had a plan to approach the German lines across the nearest river. Sooner or later the German cooks would need to go for water:
We had completely given up on the appearance of the German cooks, when suddenly above us we heard the clink of empty jerrycans. What a joy — they were coming! Then worry: how would everything turn out? We had planned to capture them at dawn, when everyone was still asleep, but here we were now in the afternoon and all the Germans were up and about, while our guys on the opposite bank likely weren’t waiting for us, expecting that we had postponed the operation until nightfall.
We looked up: two Germans were standing by the barbed wire. They were young blond men in black uniforms without helmets, with submachine guns hanging from their necks and jerrycans in their hands. These were no cooks – they were tankers! They seemed struck by the beauty of the verdant meadow across the river, illuminated by the setting sun. But time was passing!
The Germans were lost in admiration, while we were tense with anticipation, and I almost wanted to cry out: ‘What are you standing around for, get down to the river!’ Finally, the Germans ran past us at a trot. They waded into the river, leaned over, and lowered the empty jerrycans into the river, before lifting their heads and examing our bank of the river carefully. Bubbling and splashing, the jerrycans slowly began to fill.
I silently lifted and then sharply dropped my right hand — the signal to spring into action. In two bounds I was at the left—hand German and had already raised my knife to strike him, when the German abruptly stepped away from the bank, tossed aside the canisters, grabbed for his submachine—gun and started to turn to face me.
Our rapid approach across the sand had been silent; the German could hardly have heard it, but more likely some instinct or intuition had kicked into gear. Using my momentum, I piled onto his back and grabbed his weapon with my left hand, while my right hand began to stab repeatedly at his chest. Shifting his submachine—gun around to his front, the German parried my blows, while trying to turn his weapon on me at the same time. Finally I delivered the decisive strike and the German went limp.
At that moment the German on the right began to howl as if he’d been sliced, and indeed he had been. I handed my German over to my partner, who to this point had been doing nothing behind my back, and told him to finish the German off and to search his pockets, while I rushed over to Zakharenko to keep him from killing the intended prisoner! I rolled up my side cap and stuck it into the Nazi’s mouth, and he fell silent. It turned out that Zakharenko, having pounced on the prisoner, had wanted to shove a piece of cloth into his mouth, but couldn’t get it out of his pocket. So he had instead grabbed a handful of sand and stones and had tried to shove that into the German’s mouth.
The German had practically bitten off Zakharenko’s thumb in the process and had violently kicked Zakharenko with his boot. Just a piece of bone was left of Zakharenko’s thumb. Wild with the intense pain, the scout had planted his knife into the German’s side, which is when the German started to howl.
We heard cries of alarm from above us. Firing on the move, Germans were already running through the forest in our direction. Our man responsible for the boat couldn’t find the end of the cable in the water, panicked, and swam across the river to our side, although later he told us that he had gone to get the boat. We made so many mistakes due to our lack of professional training!
I ran a little deeper into the water, located the cable and hauled the boat back to our bank. We tossed the wounded German on his back into the boat, I jumped on top of him and the guys on the other bank started to pull us through the water.
See Petr Mikhin: Guns Against the Reich: Memoirs of an Artillery Officer on the Eastern Front, the account is undated but appears in his memoirs before the Kursk battle.