On New Year’s Day 1942, Grossman wrote to his wife again, amid the euphoria that the Germans were retreating on all fronts.
Dearest Lyusenka, well, we’ve celebrated the new year: you in Chistopol, I at the front . . . The horizon is clearing for us. There is a feeling of confidence and strength in the army, and each day brings the victory closer . . .
Ten days later, he wrote again.
My articles are published quite often now, and the editor has become kinder to me. I learned of Gaidar’s death yesterday.1 He died in battle . . . Lyusenka, do you remember Gaidar? Where are our friends? I am still unable to realise that Vasya Bobryshev is dead. I read his last letter the other day, and my heart contracted. I often remember Roskin with a great pain in my soul. I think of Mama, I still don’t believe she is dead. I still cannot accept it. The real pain for her will grip me later . . .
Towards the end of January, Grossman set off to visit an airfield at Svatovo, but it was not an easy journey in that winter.
There was a snowstorm when we left Zaliman for Svatovo. The road disappeared under snow. Soon we were hopelessly stuck. Fortunately, a tank which was passing spotted us. We climbed on to it and it took us back to Zaliman and towed our car.
He mentioned this adventure in his next letter to his father.
It is still stinging cold here. The other day a snowstorm caught me in the steppe, and a tank took me back to the village, otherwise I would have frozen to death out there. There is a lot of work, and the work is interesting. My spirits are high. Only I am worried about all my dear ones, all of you who are scattered in different places. I often dream of Mama. What’s happened to her, is she alive?
Throughout the war, Grossman was always intrigued by specialist arms. During the first part of the war, fighter pilots appear to have attracted him the most; then at Stalingrad, snipers caught his imagination; and during the last six months of the war, tank troops.
At the beginning of February, he visited a Red Army aviation fighter regiment supporting the South-Western Front from its airfield at Svatovo, north of the Donets. They were equipped with Yak fighters. In the early part of the war especially, Soviet aircraft, although far more numerous, could not match the technological superiority of their Luftwaffe opponents, so some fighter pilots resorted to ramming German aircraft. Only a few managed to bail out.
Salomatin: ‘Ramming – that’s Russian character. It’s the Soviet upbringing.’
Sedov, Mikhail Stepanovich, born 1917: ‘Ramming isn’t heroism. Heroism is to shoot down as many of them as possible.’
Skotnoi: ‘What sort of a hero is a man who has a full load [of ammunition] and doesn’t manage to shoot [an enemy plane] down and has to ram [it]?’ Skotnoi does not talk much. He is melancholy. ‘I would have been embarrassed to go to a good club. I would be too shy to talk to a girl.’
Some of the pilots he interviewed, especially unit commanders, stuck rigidly to the Party line, even if that meant claiming, against all evidence to the contrary, that their aircraft and engines never let them down. During some parts of the war, Red Army aviation was losing almost as many aircraft through accidents as from enemy action.
Major Fatyanov, Ivan Sidorovich: ‘Our men work in pairs. They will even give up their prey in order to stick with their companion. What is most important is to believe in one another. We help others when they are in trouble. This tradition existed before us, but we always follow it. We have faith in our equipment. Neither an engine nor an aircraft would let one down.’
On the subject of the Germans: ‘They cover their Junkers when they go in and come out of an attack. But they can’t stand rapid changes. There isn’t much comradeship among them. Pairs are easily broken up. They escape using their speed. They flee from an active enemy, but never let go of a damaged one. I wouldn’t say I am very experienced.’ (He is modesty itself.)
An aviation general is speaking on the field telephone about bombs, the take-off of bomber aircraft, the beginning of the attack, and so forth. Suddenly, he says: ‘A baby is crying somewhere at the other end of the line. Must be in the izba.’
Grossman appears to have been intrigued by the minor contradictions in their accounts.
Martynov, Al[eksandr] Vas[ilievich], born 1919: ‘One can spot the whole character of a pilot in the movement of his machine. I can see if the enemy is strong and persistent. Fritzes look for simpletons. They pick them off from behind. You see what your partner is like from his character as a pilot, and his whole nature is shown by the way he flies his machine. Yet in an air battle, it is very difficult to distinguish between pilots . . . I must protect my comrade, rather than shoot down that bloody Fritz . . . You see a Fritz, how he wags his head, and you give him a couple of hot ones! Close-quarter battle in the air is a bit hard for Fritz. Close-quarter battle is a struggle to the last drop of blood. The enemy does not like fighting on a horizontal plane, or when banking. They try to fight on a vertical axis. The enemy do everything smoothly, and evade sharp bankings. It’s therefore possible to break away on the horizontal by side-slipping. Their firing is not carefully aimed.
‘Good coordination in the pair secures success. You follow your leader and he gives the signal when to break off . . . I was on fire in the air, having been hit by anti-aircraft artillery. (I had burns and was wounded.) Yet I felt no fear when I was burning. There was no time for fear. The characteristics [of a good pilot are]:
1) to know your machine and equipment in order to be able to use it
2) to have confidence and to love your machine
3) to have courage, a cool mind and a burning heart
4) to feel true comradeship
5) to display selflessness in battle, devotion to the Motherland, and hatred [of the enemy].
‘My first meeting with a Heinkel. I attacked him twelve times, he became a bit [covered with soot]. The first time is a bit scary. I’ve returned with lot of holes. Once I was completely covered with bullet-holes, like an old quail.’
Salomatin, [explaining why] he does not wait for the slower ones: ‘I want the main one, that’s why I start a fight. It’s not decorations I am after. I want to beat the Germans, even if it costs me my life.’
Salomatin then spoke of Demidov, a fellow pilot who had recently been killed in an air battle. They had remembered him in the toasts drunk after receiving a medal. It was the custom in the Red Army to place the new medal in a mug of vodka, drain the alcohol in one go and finish with the decoration clenched between the teeth.
‘Demidov [a comrade who had been killed] used to infect everyone with his courage. Baranov burst into tears when we were being awarded decorations. The first toast was to Stalin, the second one was to the dead Demidov.’
Captain Zapryagalov: ‘[On] the first day of the war in Chernovitsy, the alarm was sounded soon after four o’clock. We ran to the airfield. I took off while it was being bombed. [I later had to do] another take-off from an airfield destroyed by bombs.
‘The main thing is that we believe. We haven’t any doubts and we will help those in trouble. We weren’t the ones who started this tradition, but we follow it reverently. [The Germans] are a very strong nation in technological matters.’
Eryomin, Boris Nik[olayevich], twenty-nine years old: ‘The main principle is the coordination in pairs, and comradeship. There’s coordination and they know each other’s peculiarities. Martynov (the second in command) flies with Korol and trained him. The second pair [consists of] Balashov and Sedov. I fly with Skotnoi.
‘One sees how the tracer ends in his black planes. The Me[sserschmitt] is long, like a pike. I looked, and saw a yellow spinner, and banked, but a bit late. I saw them firing at me, and a blue flash, and at that moment Martynov rushed at him, and he fell off me. It’s interesting, of course, one really gets carried away with it.
‘We should protect the little seagulls, they are all good people in them.’2
‘I took off with Salomatin when the alarm sounded, and shot down [a plane]. A very nice feeling. You fly there planning all the time: ‘Ah, it would be better this way, it would be better that way.’
‘The commander explained things to me, and I understood what he wanted from me. We had agreed on the ground – if you waggle your wings – that means, prepare to attack.’
Lieutenant Salomatin (Sedov’s wingman), born 1921: ‘Their leader was coming straight at me, but I didn’t turn my plane away. He broke off and turned away. Ramming him would have been more convenient. It is nothing, when there is one against one. One is afraid to be attacked by a horde of them, but when there is a group, you forget everything, you get really agitated: “They are flying to bomb our troops!”’
About ramming: ‘It is very good and expedient to exchange a fighter for a Junker. But I wouldn’t give out the title [Hero of the Soviet Union] for such an action. Anyone can do it. I have long been thinking about ramming, about striking [the enemy aircraft] with my propeller. It can do a lot of damage.
‘I went for them and drove into the middle of them, nearly touched one of them with my wing. I was coming out of the sun, and they didn’t shoot. I almost collided with another one and shot him down from a distance of twenty-five metres. Then I turned back and started shooting at anything.
‘The second flight – the leader was about two metres under my belly, and a blast of slipstream hit me. I dived and escaped from nine Messers. I started to hurry, in order to knock out a Messer tailing one of our ‘Yaks’ (Lieutenant Skotnoi was flying it), but I couldn’t make it in time. [Skotnoi] went into a glide, but I managed to send two Messers away. He landed. I made two circuits so that they wouldn’t kill him. I saw that he was alive and waved my hand at him.’
[Skotnoi:] ‘We went at one another head to head. He pierced my radiator, and I set him on fire. I went to help Eryomin. One Me[sserschmitt] set my oil tank and fuel pipes on fire. My plane was burning on the inside, and there was a lot of smoke. I dropped in altitude. Sedov covered me. I didn’t get any burns myself, only my boots were burned. I climbed out, and waved at Sedov [telling him that he could go]. My plane was completely burned out.’
1 Arkady Gaidar, famous and much-loved children’s writer, commanded a regiment at the age of eighteen during the Russian Civil War. In 1941, after the Germans invaded, he went to the front as a correspondent.
2 The plane affectionately known as the chaechka, or ‘little seagull’, was in fact the Polikarpov I–15, a very small fighter with gull-shaped wings which never stood a chance against a Messerschmitt 109.