The Nine Lives of a Soviet Tank Commander: Vasily Bryukhov's Service During World War Two
December 29, 2013
On the west wall of the World War Two Memorial, President Harry Truman's words honor the sacrifices that other nations made to defeat the Axis nations during World War Two:
THE HEROISM OF OUR OWN TROOPS…WAS MATCHED BY THAT OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE NATIONS THAT FOUGHT BY OUR SIDE…THEY ABSORBED THE BLOWS…AND THEY SHARED TO THE FULL IN THE ULTIMATE DESTRUCTION OF THE ENEMY.
As a Senator and later President of the United States during the final months of the war, Truman was well aware of the fact that we needed our allies to win the war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Allies such as Britain, the Soviet Union, and China suffered devastating attacks on their homelands. Then they combined their power with the United States to defeat the Axis. Without their help, the Freedom Wall at the World War Two Memorial would have honored a much larger number of American dead.
One of those allies was Vasily Bryukhov of the Soviet Army. He was born in 1924 in the Ural Mountains. The Soviet Union had just won a civil war against its opponents. Growing up on a farm prepared him for the privations of military service. The school system that Bryukhov entered in the 1920s taught basic military discipline, atheism, the need to rapidly industrialize the nation, and the goal of eliminating class differences between people. The state controlled media and a ruthless police force hid news of the Soviet labor camps, famines, and executions that claimed the lives of millions of “enemies of the state” from Bryukhov and many other citizens.
After Germany conquered Western Europe in the first years of World War Two, it unleashed a massive invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. By December, the invaders had killed or captured over four million Soviet troops. Russia created new military units with remarkable speed and quickly replaced the units that the Germans destroyed. Vasily became an instructor for a detached ski destroyer battalion that was formed during this mobilization to combat saboteurs, spies, desertion, and other forms of public disorder. In November, a German air raid wounded Bryukhov while his unit unloaded from a train near Moscow, the nation’s capital. While he recovered in the hospital, his battalion was one of many others that stopped the Germans from entering the city. Less than forty of the 360 enlisted men in his unit survived the battle.
After demanding to be trained as a combat commander, he was to the Stalingrad tank school. While students that had been there for three months or more were sent to the front to fight the approaching Germans, he and the other newcomers were evacuated eastward to the new tank officer’s school at Kurgan. In four months, he learned how to drive, maintain, shoot, command a platoon of three tanks, and coordinate his movements with other tanks as well as with riflemen. Meanwhile, the Soviets destroyed an entire German army at Stalingrad and turned the tide of the war.
In July 1943, the Germans attacked a fifty mile wide and deep Russian bulge in their line around the city of Kursk. Bryukhov’s three T-34 tanks joined one of many defense lines that consisted of belts of mines, entrenched infantry and artillery. This tank had an excellent balance of firepower, sloped armor, and maneuverability that enabled the Soviets to outfight the Germans, at least at close range. Soviet tank units, like Bryukhov’s, raced towards their enemies before superior German gunnery overwhelmed the Soviet tanks. When Vasily’s tank was knocked out, he escaped to enter another which was promptly destroyed. Crews inside burning tanks had ninety seconds to escape their machines before they became trapped in a firey furnace. Since the tank commander and gunner in the turret had their own escape hatches, they had the best chance to survive a burning tank. If the closest hatch to the driver and radio operator in the hull of the tank jammed, they would be burnt alive or suffocated by the smoke. By the end of the battle, only 100 crewmen from Vasily’s brigade of 260 survived. These Soviet defenses and counterattacks wore down the Germans so much, that the Red Army recaptured all of their lost ground.
During the Soviet offensive to liberate the key road and rail junction at Orel, Bryukhov’s tanks were ordered to charge towards the German defenses. As the platoon leader, Vasily used the radio to pass orders regarding spacing and firing targets to the two other tanks. German fire knocked out all of Bryukhov’s tanks. Only Vasily and one of his crewmen survived out of his 15 man platoon. Soviet battalion and brigade commanders watched this destruction, analyzed the German fire, and sent the rest of their forces to attack weaker areas of the German defenses. Through many costly battles like this, the Soviets drove the Germans out of their nation. Bryukhov took command of another platoon and he continued fighting the Germans across Russia.
Each tank crew was a tightly-knit team of four to five men who were used to working within the claustrophobic conditions of the T-34. The commander of each vehicle was a sergeant, who selected targets in battle. The gunner/loader grabbed the heavy gun round, placed it in the breach of the gun, and fired on targets specified by the commander. Right after the empty shell casing flew out from the breech of the main gun, blue-grey cordite fumes filled the inside of the tank. Periscopes allowed limited vision of the battle outside the tank. Unless a projectile bounced off the armored walls of the tank, crewmen heard nothing outside over the noise of the engine and gun. The tank driver moved the vehicle to the next best firing position. The radio operator ensured that the commander could communicate with Bryukhov.
Maintaining the tanks between battles was hard work. Each crew reloaded, refueled, and repaired their tanks at night to avoid German aircraft attacks. The crewmen unloaded supply trucks full of wooden cases full of explosive shells, machine gun ammunition, fuel cans, and spare parts. They formed a line where each man passed either fuel or ammunition to the proper place of the tank. Then they performed other repairs such as changing tracks, wheels, lubricating moving parts, and identifying tanks that needed to be repaired by specialists. Whenever possible, Bryukhov worked on the tanks alongside his men. This helped him maintain their respect.
Bryukhov admired the women that served as medics within his unit. He considered their service a hundred times more difficult than that of the men. Vasily saw them ride into battlefields on the backs of tanks to help the wounded. They braved enemy fire and unexploded ordinance while saving the wounded. Despite this, they were decorated with the lowest medals. These women often returned to the rear areas to receive unwelcome attention from some of the men, wore with ill-fitting uniforms, and struggled with unhygienic conditions. 300,000 more of them served as medics in the Red Army.
By the summer of 1944, the Soviet Army began expelling the Germans from Eastern Europe. Vasily’s unit entered Romania, a key German ally that provided them with crucial fuel. When the Soviets attacked, many Romanian units ran away from the fighting or surrendered which disrupted German defenses. Because the Red Army lacked armored transports for riflemen, ten of them often rode on top of each of Bryukhov’s tanks. They jumped off each tank and protected the tanks from enemy anti-tank weapons . This combined arms teamwork allowed the Soviets to cross the border of Hungary in October. Fighting there intensified as Soviet units surrounded the capital, Budapest while other Russian forces fought their way into the city in vicious house-to-house fighting. In January 1945, Bryukhov’s tanks helped fight off savage German counterattacks that tried to break through to Budapest.
By the time he entered Austria in 1945, Vasily was a battalion commander in charge of roughly twenty seven tanks. As his men raced to their assigned objectives, they saw soldiers in vehicles speeding towards them. Luckily, they fought off the instinct to open fire. After the men noticed the white crosses on the hoods and the red, white, and blue striped flags, they knew these other soldiers were Americans; so, they peacefully passed them by. Later on, both sides planned a formal greeting. There was too much excitement for that, so formalities were swept aside by all as they shook hands, exchanged tobacco, toasted each other, and celebrated the end of the war in a scene reminiscent of the World War Two Memorial’s bas relief of a similar meeting on the Elbe River in the middle of Germany. Over twenty-five million Soviets died in the war; so, Bryukhov was one of the lucky survivors. Upon his return home, his father leaped from the house and hugged him. Vasily’s mother said that she prayed for his safe return. After Vasily replied that other family’s prayers were not answered, she said “I prayed better than others.”
Thanks to millions of people like Bryukhov, the Soviet Union survived a terrible war. He climbed out of several burning tanks across Russia and Eastern Europe and helped drive out the invaders. Peace allowed Vasily and many other Russians to marry and raise a family. He earned many prestigious assignments in the Soviet Army during the Cold War such as commands of a regiment and a division; service on the staff of the defender of Stalingrad- General Vasili Chuikov, as well as his service as Chief Military Advisor to the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen. He ended his career as a general. As Bryukhov rose in rank and responsibilities, he noticed the comfortable way that the Soviet leaders lived compared with the rest of the population. He lost faith that the government would ever eliminate class differences and create a communist utopia. This failure was one of many reasons the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. Since heroes are timeless, Russia’s current government awarded Vasily their highest decoration, “Hero of the Russian Federation,” for his wartime valor.
A special thank you to Artem Drabkin who helped make General Bryukhov’s story available in English.
Abdulin, Mansur. Red Road From Stalingrad. Pen and Sword, 2013
Bryukhov, Vasily. Red Army Tank Commander: At War on the Eastern Front. Pen and Sword, 2013.
Correspondence with the Author via Artem Drabkin, 2013.
Drabkin, Artem. “Vasily Bryukhov, I Remember Website. http://english.iremember.ru/component/content/article/71-bryukhov-vasily-pavlovich.html
Merridale, Catherine. Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945.