"The commander failed to finish the phrase, because two bombs went off"
World War II veterans recount their stories about the war, its effects and its human perspective.
In 1943, Mikhail Volkov was a naval cadet. He recalls the usual tasks he had to face when sent to the Northern Fleet to undergo training.
“In April, 1943, my class at the cadet college was sent to the Northern Fleet for training. There we were assigned to ships,” says Volkov. “There were a lot of mines that the Germans floated in that area that we had to sweep. And we were only cadets, undergoing basic training. We, as future officers, had to spend a certain period doing every sailor job on the ship. So I would spend one day, say, loading the rear cannon and the next day I could switch cannons and become a gunner – vertical or horizontal. Then go on to work with the machinery or work as a second engineer… Everyone has been through that. It wasn’t holidays… it was war,” says Mikhail Volkov.
Other moments were thought of as a narrow escape, rather than training.
“The Germans would bomb us every so often. One time – it was the third month of practice – I was backing up the horizontal gunner at the second rear cannon. The cannons, I have to say, were ‘brand new’ – manufactured in 1895, to give you an idea. So they bombed us and I’m the second rear gunner. The No. 1 gunner gets killed by shrapnel. I only got a scratch and a burn after some shrapnel shot across my overcoat and burned through it. I got a scar, but nothing else. If its trajectory had been a bit different, I would have been dead. This is how I became a gunner,” remembers Mikhail Volkov.
Volkov says poor military equipment made it impossible to fight against the enemy’s planes.
“Every time an alarm sounds, you run onto the deck and take up your position, then give orders. We would shoot back, but it was ridiculous – we hit the sky, not the planes with our old cannons,” says the veteran.
Pyotr Stankevich, petty officer, Arctic convoy, Russia, recalls his daily routine during the war.
“The main task of all the ships in the Northern Fleet – destroyers, mine sweepers and the leading destroyers – was to combat German submarines. The German task was to disrupt the Northern Sea route in order to stop the convoys from England and America getting to us, to stop the delivery of supplies, of equipment, food and so forth.”
But as the war proceeded, German submarines changed their tactics.
“Whereas earlier they would attack convoys anywhere, and they operated ships and aircraft, now they would gather near our borders, near our threshold,” Stankevich said.
“The memory of this is still vivid in my head,” the veteran remembers. “We were heading home already. The convoy commander … began to thank us for the effectively finished convoy mission. I recall him saying ‘Thank you, comrade officers for the successfully accomplished convoy operation! And you, comrades…” he failed to finish the phrase, because two bombs went off.”