In Russia both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were squaring up for a gigantic clash near the city of Kursk. Only a few men in the Germans High Command knew when they were due to launch their attack and only a few Soviet officers knew of the timing of their planned pre-emptive strikes. For nearly three million men and women it was a time of watching and waiting. Each one had to come to terms with what fate would bring in the next few weeks:
Late June, 1943.
Seventy kilometres to the north-east of us lies the village Prokhorovka. It is very hot. Not a cloud in the sky, not a drop of rain. The air is motionless and dry. All day long our regiment is involved in tactical exercises. I am now commander of the first and main mortar gun crew and assistant platoon commander. We train our new recruits, sharing our Stalingrad experiences, and also learn some of the things which we didn’t have time for at the Tashkent Military School.
We knew all the technical characteristics of Tigers, Panthers, Ferdinands and other enemy tanks and self-propelled guns. Our gunners received new anti-tank weapons. We also became acquainted with new self-propelled 152mm guns. The infantry had enough reliable anti—tank weapons: all the soldiers carried anti-tank grenades and there was an ample supply of Molotov cocktails.
We lost no time. Every day our T-34 Tanks helped us practice. We learned how to throw cocktail bottles, and the heavy percussion grenades. Such a grenade can explode in your hand if you accidentally strike it against the side of the trench when throwing it. But if it hits a tank, the powerful blast could stop it dead.
We veterans explained to the greenhorns the particular weaknesses of Tigers, Ferdinands, Panthers, and so on. You should always act in pairs. The enemy tank must ride over you, over your trench, then one soldier fires at the accompanying infantrymen, while the other throws the bottle or grenade. Because of the intensive exercises involving tanks, we realized that very soon we’d be taking part in some heavy fighting between large armoured forces.
One day, after picking out our firing position, we began digging trenches. At last, we had some heavy rain, but we kept on working until it got dark. We were taking our exercises very seriously! We also made a dugout with a thick layer of earth over the roof. It was a dry and pretty comfortable dwelling. Then our field kitchen arrived and we had a hearty meal. It was still raining heavily. The boys began preparing for sleep. Our sentry went to his post. As usual, before lying down, I checked my lucky mascot: but my trouser pocket was empty!
At first I sat there absolutely stunned. Then I began thinking. Should I look for it? But where? In the wet earth, churned up by dozens of soldiers’ boots? In the tall grass, under heavy rain, in the dark? In the open field, where piles of earth lie around the trenches? The situation seemed hopeless. I had lost my lucky charm! This means I’ll be killed. How mysterious the human mind is! I sat there in the dugout and kept repeating to myself that to die now was not as bad as at the very beginning, before I shot my first Nazi. Since then I’ve finished off a lot of them! But I want to live very much. Especially having survived Stalingrad. And it looks like the war is nearly over . . .
I tried to convince myself that my superstitious fears were nonsense. After all, my mascot was simply a symbol which I had invented for myself. What possible connection could there be between this little thing and my life or death? Why did I ever decide to put my faith in it? But some unknown force ordered me: ‘Go look for it!’ The rain suddenly stopped. I crawled out of the dugout. But I had not the faintest hope of finding my mascot.
Wet clay everywhere with many deep traces of boots, filled with water. I see a gigantic footprint. This must be Ivan Konski’s boot or Sergei Lopunov’s. Their feet are the size of an elephant’s.
Then I suddenly noticed some kind of a thin stick, like a match, in the imprint of the heel. I bent down, plucked it out with my finger and saw that it was a small stick with a cavity. I brought my ashlight closer and then sniffed it. I could smell the odour of nicotine.
My hands began to tremble! Afraid to give way to the wild joy about to flood me, I carefully examined the footprint further, and found three more sticks with cavities. Yes, it was my cigarette holder, crushed and broken into four parts. My mascot!
Returning back to the dugout I took a piece of string out of my knapsack, put the four parts together and tied them up tightly. Then I hid my mascot in my trouser pocket and sewed it up. After the enormous strain and dread brought about by my mascot’s temporary loss, I became drowsy and fell into sleep.
In my dream, I saw myself once more lying dead with outstretched arms and legs. I awoke with a start. Everyone in the dugout was sleeping. No one saw a thing. ‘I will probably be seriously wounded,’ I thought.