Comrade Zaitsev says Shoot for the Stars
When Patience Is Essential
Mamayev Hill occupied an imposing height over the city. Its southern arm was indicated on the map at an elevation marker of 102.0 meters. From its peak, it commanded an excellent view of the city, which by now was almost completely in the hands of the enemy. Therefore it was easy to understand our desire to hold at least the southern slopes of Mamayev Hill, if not the summit itself, and to use this position to attack our enemy's flanks and rear. You couldn't find a better position than this in all of Stalingrad. We could literally peer through our sights and see the backs of the heads of the Nazi soldiers who were mired down in the center of the city.
But before we could go on the offensive, we had first to secure the area and protect ourselves from attacks from the rear. Nazi machine guns and snipers higher up the hill fired on us from time to time. The Germans had stationed various long range spotters for artillery and mortar fire on top of the hill. Therefore, we were forced to monitor and fire on two different fronts simultaneously.That, by the way, was a common occurrence in Stalingrad. It was often difficult to distinguish your front line from your rear guard. Everything was always mixed up.Once we had secured ourselves from German fire from above, we turned our gaze in the opposite direction down the hill, towards the approach to the southern slope. This approach was broken up by little gullies and covered over with thick patches of burs, thistles, wormwood and elderberry.
Our numbers had diminished, as the services of the snipers had come in great demand. Viktor Medvedev and his partner had been called to the area surrounding the Meatpacking Plant. Shaikin and Morozov were working the territory near the Icehouse, while Abzalov and Nasirov were stationed at the shooting range in the Metalworking Factory, instructing new snipers and making the Germans in that area keep their heads down.As a rendezvous point for the snipers in my group, we selected a low, cramped trench near the source of the twisting stream that led to the Tsaritsa River, and then on to the city center.Last night, I said to my comrades, we heard the jingle of pots at the bottom of the ravine. There's a reservoir there, surrounded by thorny bushes
Yes, there are bushes down there, confirmed Nikolai Kulikov, but so what?
I think the Krauts are using the reservoir, I said, to infiltrate our positions.
After talking it over, we decided to set up a twenty-four-hour stakeout of the reservoir. We planned to split up and observe it from two sides.Night came, and high overhead, illumination flares went off. For a few seconds each flare would exhume random objects below from the darkness.Shaikin and Ubozhenko had taken up positions along the ravine's eastern wall Kulikov and myself, the western one. We climbed towards the precipice, directly in front of the thickest bushes, and huddled near the bottom of a deep crater. A hundred yards below us was a Nazi trench. One of their machine guns was visible. In the light of a flare, we also noticed the bodies of two dead Italians, lying near the edge of our crater. These two bodies were in a state of advanced decomposition.
The Aryans bury their own kind, but they leave the wops to feed the vultures, whispered Nikolai.
Vultures deserted this hell-hole a long time ago, I replied.Sitting in the bottom of a shellhole and counting gunshots is, to put it mildly, a tiresome assignment. We had to do something to occupy ourselves, so we outfitted our foxholes for action. We raked in the soil from the edges of the crater and trampled it down beneath ourselves. With each hour, the crater became shallower and shallower and our positions higher and higher. Both of us wanted to smoke, but because the smoke would have been a dead giveaway, we had to resist. As they say, Endure, Cossack.
My exhaustion became harder to ignore. My back was aching from the intense strain of such an uncomfortable position. But at last our work was coming to a conclusion. I had built myself a fine foxhole and could finally sit comfortably, observe and shoot. To my right, Nikolai was having a harder time. His position wasn't quite as accommodating, but he wasn't complaining. He was already conducting surveillance. Meanwhile, as it began to grow light, I was wondering how our comrades on the other side of the ravine were faring.Just then, in the clearing in front of the thicket, a German soldier emerged with a bucket in his hand and a submachine gun around his neck. He halted and looked around as if he was waiting for someone. Moments like this one were so common in war; a man stands there, not knowing that his life is hanging by a thread. I held the soldier's head in the cross hairs of my scope; I could clearly see his trembling lips, his white, even teeth, his straight and slightly protuberant nose and his pale, clean-shaven face. Two more soldiers showed up, also carrying buckets, and then they all disappeared into the bushes.
Five minutes went by. The soldiers emerged again, but now they were straining under the weight of the full buckets. We could see that hiking up the rise was a challenge to them. The water sloshed around inside their pails, but the soldiers never spilled a drop. Water was dear to them. And indeed, it was going to cost them dearly.Kulikov hissed at me like an angry goose: but I wasn't ready to shoot yet, and I forbade him to shoot as well.
Strong is the fighter who is able to master himself, I said in a whisper.
I had resolved not to open fire that day. First I had to find out if there were any Nazi officers at this site, and if so, of what rank. I also wanted to pin down their approaches to the spring.My nerves were stretched to the limit, so I decided to have a smoke and try to relax. I lowered myself to the bottom of the hole that way the smoke would dissipate before it wafted overhead - and had just lit up when Kulikov called to me, Just look at what these swine are doing!
I put down my cigarette and picked up the artillery periscope. What I saw was tempting.On the same spot where the lone soldier had stood with bucket in hand, several Nazi officers were now washing themselves. They had undressed to the waist, and a private was pouring water over their backs from an aluminum cup. On the ground nearby lay three caps, bearing officer's emblems.
Look at how these mudaki are living it up! Kulikov was furious. He was gripping his rifle so tightly his hands were turning white. These intruders act so carefree while we're filthy, stuck with these stinking corpses. Let's show them how to have some fun, eh? Let's see how they dance to our music!
Not a chance, I said. We're giving them a one-day pass. And quit your talking. Chit-chat interferes with our work.
I had offended Nikolai Kulikov. He slid down to the bottom of his foxhole and lit up a smoke.A soldier who's afraid to pull the trigger doesn't belong in battle, he hissed.
Kolya, I said, I know it's our job is to go after the officers. But those guys are lieutenants. If we waste bullets on junior officers, the big shots will never show their faces.
We should take the opportunities that present themselves," protested Nikolai Kulikov.
Up on the summit shooting broke out. I could hear the rumble of tank engines from behind the water towers. I could see the Germans running from the spring. From the clearing, they descended into a trench and disappeared beneath the bank of the ravine, into deeply dug trenches. From there they could withstand bombardments and gunfire without a problem.The Germans were certainly efficient. They had turned that part of the ravine into a fortress. The approaches to their entrenchments were covered by a pillbox that held two machine guns. They could slide shut the embrasures in the pillbox with steel plates. Their trenches and the pillbox were connected by a shallow trench, and we could see their soldiers running back and forth.
It was already midday. Our thirst, combined with the stench from the corpses nearby, was torturing us. When we were setting out the night before, we hadn't counted on getting hung up in this spot, and so we had failed to pack any extra food or water. Just then the Germans' machine gun opened fire. We could see it perfectly. Bullets whistled past our helmets.
Kulikov and I both and I set our telescopic sites for three hundred meters, and we shot simultaneously. But the Kraut machine gunner kept on blasting away at us, as if we had fired blanks.
The shooting in our sector ceased as quickly as it had started. Nikolai and I sat in silence. We were both ashamed because we had missed. Kulikov's head was down, and he was wheezing.I encouraged him to take a break. We began fishing for reasons why we could have missed. Maybe the strain was affecting our vision, or our scopes had gone bad, or perhaps our breathing was unsteady, or maybe we had simply forgotten how to press the trigger without jostling the rifle? I looked over at Kulikov. He had dropped his head into his hands, wondering, like me, what went wrong.
Forget about it, Kolya, I told him, get some rest. Meanwhile I was kicking myself.
Then I remembered, we had been shooting down at our target. Under those conditions, it's always awkward to measure distance. You can never believe your first estimate you always have to add on at least ten per cent of the measured distance, to be safe. And something else when you've got all kinds of guns firing nearby, the air around heats up and seems to ripple before your eyes. It's a heat mirage, and it makes your target appear closer than it really is. You have to take this into account and either tack on a few yards, or fire a test shot at something close to your target, in order to correctly gauge your distance and zero in on your target.
Down in the ravine the Nazi's machine gun opened fire again. Kulikov pressed his eye to his scope. Listen, I said, I've got him set at three hundred fifty; you shoot for four hundred. We aimed again, and fired simultaneously. The machine gun fell silent. Nikolai had killed the gunner, while my bullet had fallen short.When dusk came, Nikolai and I returned to the rendezvous point, where things were business as usual. The other snipers were swapping stories of their kills. Every dead Nazi made for an elaborate tale. Okhrim Vasilchenko was keeping score. He was writing on a chunk of plywood with a pencil stub.
I'll be rating you all on a scale of 1 to 5, he announced. Then next to each of our names he scrawled 1, 2, 3 Next to my name, Vasilchenko wrote a zero. You need to get yourself in order, chief! he said. You keep this up and you'll end up blacklisted.
A soldier from the third battalion delivered dinner to us. He placed a sack filled with bullets and grenades next to the thermos of kasha and quickly ran off.. Not long before daybreak, we left our rendezvous and took up different positions. I had decided to blockade the enemy's pillbox and their officers' bathing area. My plan was to use three pairs of snipers, stationed at various points. For Kulikov and myself, I selected a new position, not far from that of the day before. Although I had a periscope with me, at first I couldn't see the pillbox. Some sharp edged shell fragments from a recent barrage were obstructing my view. I had to shove them aside. I had a clear view then and could make out the entrance to the enemy's bunker.
A red-haired Nazi in an officer's cap peeked out of the entrance for a moment and disappeared. I announced this to my comrades, and our teams spread into a formation that allowed us to talk back and forth. All the snipers were suddenly wide awake at the prospect of having targets. We lay waiting in nervous expectation.The tip of an officer's cap appeared in a trench next to the dugout. You could see the edges of its swastika emblem. The cap rose higher and higher above the rim of the trench, until the visor itself was visible.
What do you think? I asked Kulikov.
It's one of their snipers setting a trap he wants us to take a shot. The cap disappeared. Not very subtle, he said.
What's one of their snipers doing down here? I asked.
Nikolai shrugged his shoulders. The devil knows. I guess he's got a death wish.
That's for sure, I said. Yesterday, when you took out their machine gunner, where did your bullet hit him?
In the mouth, answered Kulikov. It must have taken off the back of his head.
With a shot like that, I said, you've thrown their snipers a challenge, and now they've accepted. They're gunning for you,
Nikolai. You've got to set up a decoy that looks like you.
The soft sunlight gently warmed our shoulders while a refreshing breeze blew across our faces. These were the last mild autumn days of 1942.Lunchtime rolled around. A hunched-over German soldier approached the dugout. He was unarmed, and only carried a bucket in his hand. We decided to leave him be, since he looked so shabby and pitiful. Another ten minutes went by, when suddenly a heavyset, polished Nazi officer turned the corner of one of the trenches. He had an iron cross at his throat and a colonel's insignia on his jacket. A sniper followed behind him, carrying a beautiful hunting rifle with a huge scope. Two additional officers emerged from behind the same corner of the shallow trench. One of them was a major wearing a knight's cross with oak leaf clusters. Following behind the major was another colonel, who was smoking a cigarette in a long holder.
Nikolai and I exchanged a glance. This was what we had been dreaming about. There were still lots of little Nazi fish swimming out there, because we had been willing to wait to catch the sharks. Missing out on the little fish was the price a sniper had to pay for a moment like this. I nodded a yes towards Nikolai, and he signaled the others. Our shots rang out, three volleys of two shots each. We made textbook head shots, and all four of the Nazis dropped to the earth, their lives draining out of them. Now with the enemy's sniper dead, it seemed Kulikov's challenge would go unanswered. We had sent our rival six feet under.
Ten or fifteen minutes passed, but no one approached the slain Krauts. We were growing bored, when out of the blue, a massive artillery bombardment rained down on us. We crawled underground, waiting anxiously as shells exploded closer and closer. When a shell approaches the earth, its scream is so intense that it feels like your head is going to explode. You lie there, feeling like your intestines are being slowly yanked out by a winch. You say to yourself, that one's got my name on it but after the impact, if you can look around, you know you are still alive, and you can see that the shell struck somewhere else.
Then the Luftwaffe arrived, dive-bombers that hit us in flights of nine planes each. You know you must have taken out some serious Nazi brass, for them to call in the air power. One of their bombs hit our trench and we were knocked around by the shockwave. Vasilchenko and I were momentarily deafened, while Kulikov and Morozov got off with just a scare. For over two hours, bombers, artillery and mortar fire relentlessly pounded our position. When things at last had grown quiet again, an irritated Lieutenant Fedosov showed up.
What the hell did you guys do to get those Krauts so riled up, huh?
The Kraut bombardment had also damaged the enemy's artillery emplacements near the railroad tunnel. The wooden panels that had camouflaged their big guns had been torn away, and now the emplacement sat fully exposed. Their gun crews were swarming over the artillery pieces like rats. This was going to be a field day for us snipers!
We steadied our rifles on the embankment. Kulikov and I began by taking out their officers. Because of the torrents of noise that masked the report of our rifles, and because we were so thoroughly camouflaged, the enemy had no idea where our shots were coming from. As their officers fell, the enlisted men nearby froze in confusion. The hot-tempered Dvoyashkin and Shaikin saw what we were doing, and they also brought down many Nazis face first in the dirt. Only then did the Kraut artillerymen grasp what was happening. The few survivors dove for cover. After an attack like this, they weren't going to show their faces in daylight anytime soon, and guns like theirs were useless after dark. We had thoroughly neutralized them.
In the evening, the snipers met at the rendezvous point and reviewed the day's events. I posed the question: Now do you understand why we needed to be patient yesterday?
We're ready for your next plan, chief, replied Nikolai Kulikov.
 The Russian saying is: Endure, Cossak, and you'll get to be an Ataman.
 Mudaki : bastards