In February 1944 the crossing of the Narva began. There were violent battles for the Narva. There were Estonian SS military personnel in the Narva and they had nowhere to retreat. The German commanders convinced them that they were sending assistance soon and they were to hold defense until new forces joined them. And they staged a holdout of this plan. Another desperate thing about these battles was that Estonians fought Estonians, the Estonian Corps of the Soviet army against the Estonian SS division. There were cases when members of one family were on opposite sides. The river was frozen, but the ice was scarlet with blood.
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In summer 1944 we managed to destroy the enemy fortifications on the bank of the river. Our battalion took part in these battles, but I would like to emphasize that the main blow was struck by the penal battalion fighting beside us. They were sent into initial attacks, and, frankly speaking, they were just cannon fodder. If it had not been for them our casualties would have been many more. There were few survivors in those penal battalions. They had to fight in penal battalions until 'first blood,' until their first wound, and after the hospital they were assigned to common military units.
One can speak a lot about hardships at the front. We continuously moved from one location to another fighting on a beachhead for one or two weeks before moving to new positions. To begin with, we dug trenches. It's impossible to count how many we had dug. Of all tools we only had entrenching shovels. We started with digging a hole to hide the body before deepening it to the size fitting the height of the body. Then we dug a passage to the nearest neighbor and then it became easier to work. Then, when this trench was completed we were ordered to move to another location and then started all over again.
We slept in the open air for the most part. It was fine in summer, when one could fall asleep on the grass, but winter was worse. We slept in twos on one ground sheet and one top coat and used another ground sheet and top coat to sleep under them. We used our back packs as a pillow and gripped our machine guns so that nobody could take them away. When we woke up three hours later, we were covered with a heavy layer of snow.
There was artillery preparation before each battle. By the end of the war we had sufficient artillery units. At the very start of my experience at the front we had 45mm anti-tank cannon guns called 'Farewell, Motherland!' It took three men to roll it onto an open space. They shot tanks point blank. However, the tanks didn't wait to be shot at. Very often these three soldiers were killed immediately. Later we got antitank rifles and rocket missiles. Also there were more planes attacking the enemy's positions, followed by artillery preparation and then the infantry attacked shouting 'Hurrah! For the Motherland!'
I remember our first battles. We were to rise to attack and it was scary to get on and march ahead, but we knew that we had to march ahead and had to stop thinking that we might be killed at any moment. Later, with more experience, this fear lessened, but never disappeared. It's impossible to get used to such things. But then we would think about our field kitchen delivering food after a battle, which was quite a comforting thought to enjoy. Of course, there were delays with food supplies, particularly in spring and fall, when roads were impassable. At such times field kitchens had problems catching up with armed forces.
There were many more battles after the Narva. We were marching across the territory of Estonia, from the south of Estonia via Tallinn heading to the islands. The Germans must have envisaged that the end was approaching and were hurriedly running away from Estonia.
I remember the battle for Saaremaa Island, which was a strategic point, and our regiment was to capture it. I was in Battalion 3. Battalion 1 was the first one to be sent to the island. It consisted of the marines of the Baltic Fleet on marine boats. These boats were the first to attack. They were to land on the beachhead and later we were to join them there. This landing ended tragically. The boats delivered them to the shallow water and they thought it was the sandbank, but it was followed by deep water and they all drowned.
It happened this way. The night battle on Saaremaa was frightful. We reached our positions. It was pitch dark and we bumped into the Germans heading to their boats. Our attack was quite unexpected for them. This was my first face to face fighting. Of course, we had fought before, but we never knew who killed whom or how many people each of us killed. The main goal was to move ahead and destroy the enemy. Nobody cared whether the enemy was killed by a cannon shell or one's bullet. There were no emotions. It was like a shooting range, while there we were close to the enemy and besides, we had to fight in this inky darkness.
We didn't know Germans before we grabbed them. They had longer hair, whereas we had very short haircuts. We grabbed someone by his head and if we felt the longer hair we knew it must be a German soldier. We fought with whatever was at hand: bayonets, knives, rifle and machine gun butt stocks. I didn't have a feeling that I was killing human beings. There was some animal feeling of self-protection: you were fighting for yourself and for your life. There were no other emotions.
In early 1945 I was sent on a course for junior command staff. After finishing this training I was awarded the rank of junior lieutenant. When we were sent to Kurland I had a platoon under my command. The final combat actions in Kurland were the most violent. Our command was in a hurry to wrest the ground from the enemy and finish the war, while German forces were holding the lines and fighting desperately, supporting some of their units to give them a chance to evacuate.
We were moving ahead very slowly: fighting, shooting, wresting the ground from the enemy, advancing 50-100 meters and stopping again. The location was unfavorable and there was no shelter: grassy clearing, then a spot of wood and then an open clearing again. Even the wounded had to wait for rescue until night and they had to stay there bleeding, if they happened to have been wounded on an open grass clearing.
My close school friend was fighting in the neighboring regiment. During an attack he was wounded in his leg and had to stay in a swamp all day long. There was no way to pull him out. At night he was taken out and sent to the medical battalion and later he was sent to hospital. He was developing gangrene, and the hospital could offer no cure. He had his leg amputated beneath his knee to stop the gangrene.
We fought in Kurland, when we had some period of inactivity. Actually through April 1945 we were only engaged in training. We made earth huts and were having a rest. We knew the war was coming to an end. In early May, Estonian General Lieutenant Lembit Piarn, Corps Commander, visited us. He came from the family of Caucasian Estonians. These families moved to Georgia in the 19th century looking for a better life. We lined up and Piarn told us that in a few days we would receive a signal to begin combat action and we were to prepare ourselves to advance 7 kilometers within one and a half hours and wrest the ground from the enemy.
We started preparations and training in aimed shooting on the run and running. Then, on 8th May 1945 in the late afternoon, we were ordered to start the combat action. We started moving to our positions. The tanks were moving along the road and the infantry was following them. It was still light, when all of a sudden the tank column stopped and I saw a Willis car approaching us from the German front line. It stopped and a general came out. He approached the tanks and pronounced loudly: 'That's it, comrades! The war is over!' Later I heard that this was General Panyushkin. He had already visited the Germans and they had signaled their surrender.