Tank Rider: Into the Reich with the Red Army
By Evgeni Bessonov, translated by Bair Irincheev
Hardcover in dustjacket, illustrated, 250 pages, indexed
Published by Greenhill Books, 2003
Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
During the Second World War Soviet vehicle production focused almost exclusively on tanks. Tank designs were practical with no frills or unnecessary features, churning out the maximum number of tanks as efficiently and rapidly as possible was the only goal. The manufacture of other military vehicle types was given secondary importance or not pursued at all. Because of this, approximately 59,000 T-34 tanks were able to be produced during the war. The Red Army’s logistical needs were supplied using Lend-Lease trucks. American aid provided 375,000 trucks to the Red Army, along with 44,000 Jeeps and an additional 12,700 tanks, along with much of the food and other equipment required.
One vehicle type conspicuously absent from the Red Army’s order of battle was the armored personnel carrier. There was no Soviet analog to the U.S. M3 halftrack nor the German Sd.Kfz. 251 Hanomag. The Soviet solution for providing armored formations with infantry support was to add grab bars to their tanks, the infantry would ride the tanks themselves into battle. As might be expected, casualties amongst infantry riding tanks were severe. This is the story of the tank riders.
Evgeni Bessonov was an infantry platoon leader from shortly after the Battle of Kursk right up to the Battle of Berlin. Despite being in the thick of things, he was only wounded once, right at the end of the war. His unit, the 35th Guards Mechanized Kamenets-Podolsk Brigade, participated in four major offensives. Each time, heavy fighting reduced the strength of Bessonov’s unit by 80% or more. When the pace of the offensives permitted the unit would be re-built with replacements and casualties who had recovered from their injuries. Then a short break for rest and training, and the process was repeated for the next offensive. Only one third of the Officers in Bessonov’s battalion survived the war.
The book is told in the first person, remembered many years after the war. Throughout, I had the impression of an old veteran sitting in his living room telling his story. Bessonov describes a soldier’s life in great detail, where they slept (or didn’t), problems with supply, finding or making shelter, moving to the next objective. Foraging for food was a much more important aspect of the war for the Red Army than the Western Allies, he often describes getting food and drink from civilians in an area or capturing it from the Germans to make up for lack of rations. Unlike most of the war histories I have read, combat is not described in detail, only generalities such as “we took losses” or “the Fritzes pinned us down” are given. At the end of the book is a chapter where Bessonov’s comrades and classmates are described, and their fates (if known) are shared.
This book is definitely written in a style different than most war histories, but is still quite accessible and an informative read. Translator Irincheev provides some useful notes explaining some of the colloquialisms used which is welcome. Overall, a good book worth the read for those interested in the Soviet perspective.