Authors: Sam Eastland
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Mysteries, #Russia
Ahlborn, Germany, near the River Oder, 70 km from Berlin
‘You can always tell when a man’s luck has run out.’
Captain Antonin Proskuryakov of the Red Army’s Kantemirovskaya Armoured Division, was fond of saying this. He would often use the expression in the presence of young officers newly arrived at the front and he greatly enjoyed the effect it had upon them. As the longest surviving tank commander in the Division, Proskuryakov’s words took on the weight of prophecy.
‘You can see it in his eyes,’ Proskuryakov told these newly minted lieutenants, who would glance nervously at one another, wondering whether the curse of lucklessness might already be upon them.
But now, as Captain Proskuryakov surveyed the blazing ruins of his T34 tank, he was forced to consider the possibility that his own run of good fortune might finally have stumbled to a halt.
It was Proskuryakov’s father, a former officer in the Tsar’s Nizhegorodsky Cavalry Regiment, who had explained to him that luck, good or bad, always travelled in threes. In the Nizhegorodsky Regiment, that was the number of horses a person could have shot out from under him, after which work would be found for the soldier as something other than a rider. It didn’t matter that the death of the three animals might not have been the man’s fault. What mattered was that it had happened.
This was the third T34 under Proskuryakov’s command to have been reduced to uselessness, and he knew that it would almost certainly be his last.
The first tank, an early model A, had gone through the ice of a lake near Cheropovets in the winter of 1941. Although he had expected either to be executed for gross negligence or, at the very least, transferred to a penal battalion, Proskuryakov was stunned to learn, soon afterwards, that a new tank had been found for him and that he would suffer no disciplinary action. He was even awarded the Distinguished Tanker badge and a Combat Service Medal in Silver, both of which he immediately fastened to his combat jacket.
His second tank, a model C, lasted him almost a year before it was hit by a Stuka dive-bomber on the outskirts of Stalingrad. Proskuryakov had been sleeping in a foxhole a short distance from his tank when he woke to the shriek of the bomber as it plunged towards its target. Already folded almost double in his primitive shelter, he curled into an even tighter ball and clenched his teeth. There was nothing else he could do. Just when it seemed that the sound itself would shatter Proskuryakov’s bones, he felt a stunning crash as a bomb landed squarely on the turret of his tank not twenty yards away. A wave of heat passed over him. Through one of the buttonholes of his cape, he saw the grass catch fire at the edge of his foxhole.
By the time Proskuryakov made it to his feet, the Stuka was nothing more than a black, smoky stain on the horizon.
He and the rest of the crew, who had been cowering in their own shelters during the attack, now stared in amazement at the ruin of their 26-ton machine. The turret, which itself weighed more than four tons, had been lifted from the chassis and now lay upside down beside the tank. On closer inspection, Proskuryakov observed that the bomb had not only wrenched away the turret but had blown a hole the size of a bathtub in the floor of the driving compartment.
In spite of the grim predictions Proskuryakov made, loudly and to anyone who would listen, regarding his future, he received no reprimand. In fact, he was commended for having the forethought to evacuate his crew as a safety precaution in the night. This earned him two more medals; the Order of Glory (Second Class) and a coveted Order of the Red Banner, as well as command of a new tank.
In addition to the impressive row of medals that he wore even when riding into combat, Proskuryakov had now begun to exhibit some of the quirks of those whose longevity had earned them a place more meaningful than any rank or decoration. One such eccentricity was a heavy leather jacket, which he had peeled from the back of a Hungarian tank man whom he found sitting cross-legged against a tree, dead and frozen solid, back in the winter of 1942.
There was no way to remove this jacket from the ice-bound man, so Proskuryakov picked up the corpse and tied it to the back of the tank. There, the Hungarian sat for days, his eyes filled with snow and hands folded like a Buddha in his lap, until a warm snap in the weather thawed him out and Proskuryakov was at last able to claim the trophy, which he had been wearing ever since – along with his medals, of course.
The night before he lost his third tank, Proskuryakov’s machine had developed a leaky fuel pump and he had received permission to make his way to the nearest repair depot, ten kilometres away in the village of Eberfelden.
‘Looks like you’ll be walking to Berlin,’ remarked a fellow tank officer.
‘I will ride through the streets of that city,’ Proskuryakov had replied indignantly, ‘and I will do so in this beautiful machine!’
With poppy-coloured flames pouring from the open hatches of his T34, Proskuryakov remembered his boast about riding into Berlin.
At first light, he had set off for the depot, bringing with him only his driver, Sergeant Ovchinikov. Proskuryakov was determined that this trip should take as little time as possible since he had just been granted leave, his first in over two years. His plan was to get the monstrous vehicle repaired, hand over temporary command to Sergeant Ovchinikov and then get on the first truck headed east towards his home in Noginsk, just outside of Moscow.
‘Soon,’ Proskuryakov told his sergeant, resting his hand lovingly upon the dull green metal of the tank, ‘soon all of this will be yours.’
Ovchinikov turned and scowled at him, his wind-burned face contrasting starkly with the pale and unwashed skin beneath his oil-stained blue overalls. ‘That’s what the devil said to Jesus!’
‘I know,’ replied Proskuryakov.
Sergeant Ovchinikov was a deeply religious man, and given to begging for God’s mercy at every possible occasion.
All this devotion irritated Proskuryakov, to the point where he felt he must either go insane or else shoot his driver and let Ovchinikov’s God decide what to do about it. After what he had seen in this war, the idea of a compassionate deity struck him as darkly comical. As far as Proskuryakov was concerned, the universe was not ruled over by some capricious, bearded ancient, hand cupped to his withered ear to catch faint murmurings of adoration from his worshippers below, but rather by a vast, unfeeling mechanism, as infallible as a mathematical equation, whose intricate calculations were responsible for holding the world in balance. It was this mechanism, see-sawing endlessly back and forth with the untiring precision of a metronome, which his father had primitively referred to as luck and to which Sergeant Ovchinikov prayed, loudly and annoyingly, several times a day. The only thing which prevented Captain Proskuryakov from murdering the little driver was the off-chance that he might actually be right.
With only two kilometres to go before reaching the depot, Proskuryakov and Ovchinikov arrived at the outskirts of a village called Ahlborn. The winter snow had thawed, briefly, and the streets of this tiny settlement were thick with mud. No sooner had they entered the village than it felt to Proskuryakov as if the whole right side of the tank had been picked up by an angry giant and thrown down to the ground. He realised at once that they had run over a mine.
The T34 slewed around and then stopped.
Proskuryakov immediately threw open the top turret hatch, climbed out of the tank and jumped down to the ground, followed by Sergeant Ovchinikov.
Together, they inspected the damage.
It had not been one of the large Teller mines, which would probably have penetrated the main compartment, chopping the interior to pieces, along with anyone who happened to get in the way. More likely, it was one of the smaller Schu mines, which were designed to blow off a man’s leg at the knee. The explosion had sheared through one of the holding pins, causing the tread to break, and the forward momentum had carried it right off its track.
Now the track lay like a huge dead snake in the ditch at the side of the trail. If it had been on the road, they might have been able to reverse the tank back on to the track and attach it again with a new pin, but it would take more than the strength of two men to heave the tread out of the ditch.
‘We’ll have to walk the rest of the way to the depot,’ said Ovchinikov. ‘They can send another tank to tow us out.’
Proskuryakov hoped it would not be one commanded by the officer to whom he had boasted about driving into Berlin.
Setting out on foot, they had just reached the main street running through the centre of the village when Proskuryakov heard a sound like someone shaking out a rug, and turned to see flames pouring from the open hatch of his tank. Speechless, he stared at the inferno.
There was any number of ways in which the fire could have started. A piece of shrapnel may have ruptured a fuel line. The engine might have overheated as a result of the damage they had been on their way to fix. Whatever the cause, nothing could be done about it now. Once a tank started burning, it usually didn’t stop until only a husk of iron remained.
Over the sound of machine-gun bullets exploding inside the T34, with a noise like a string of Chinese firecrackers, both men heard the rumble of a vehicle approaching.
‘At least we won’t have to walk to Eberfelden,’ remarked Ovchinikov. He stepped out into the middle of the road and waved his arms back and forth.
Soon afterwards, they saw a truck enter the outskirts of the village. It was preceded by a small staff car. Probably one of those American lend-lease Jeeps, thought Proskuryakov.
Ovchinikov was still waving his arms when he noticed the large white cross painted on the bonnet of the car, and he realised it wasn’t a Jeep after all. It was a German Kübelwagen, and the truck that followed it was a five-ton Hanomag filled with enemy soldiers.
‘Run, you idiot!’ shouted Proskuryakov.
The two men sprinted for their lives.
After a short sprint in their heavy tanker’s clothing, both men were so out of breath that they were forced to take shelter in a small church at the edge of the village. Finding the front door bolted shut, they had forced their way in through a window at the side, only to discover that the roof of the church had collapsed and the interior was a shambles of old pews, roof beams and plaster dust. To the side of the main altar, they came across a doorway leading to a narrow staircase which spiralled down into the earth. At the bottom of this staircase, on the other side of an unlocked iron gate, the two men made their way into a crypt, where pinewood coffins rested in alcoves chipped from the crumbly, sand-coloured rock. There, the Russians huddled silently, freezing in the meat-locker cold.
An hour went by.
‘Surely they have gone by now,’ whispered Ovchinikov.
Proskuryakov had been thinking the same thing. All he could hear was the murmur of wind blowing through the shattered rafters of the church and the patter of rain, which made its way down through a hole in the floorboards and dripped on to the dusty surface of the crypt. Perhaps they never even saw us, thought Proskuryakov, but he was not yet confident enough to abandon the safety of their hiding place. ‘I’ll take a look through that gap in the floorboards,’ he said, ‘but I need something to stand on.’
The two men lifted a coffin from its alcove and heaved it into the middle of the room.
Proskuryakov removed his leather coat and placed it in the corner, out of the way. Then, very carefully, he stepped up on to the coffin and looked out on to the main floor of the church. All he could make out were smashed wooden pews and prayer books lying scattered on the ground. ‘There’s no one,’ he said with a sigh. Even for a man as stubbornly faithless as Proskuryakov, it was hard not to feel as if fate had intervened on their behalf.
What happened next took place so quickly that it was over before Proskuryakov even realised what had occurred. With a loud, dry crack, the lid of the coffin collapsed. One of the captain’s heavy boots dropped through the splintered wood, while the other slid off the end of the plank. The whole coffin tipped over and Proskuryakov landed heavily upon the floor.
For a few seconds, he only lay there, too dazed by the fall to react. He swatted at the wreckage which lay on top of him and as his hands tore through old and rotten fabric, he felt his fingernails scrape against what he now realised was frozen human flesh. With a cry Proskuryakov scrambled to his feet, slapping his face and chest as if bees were swarming around him.
‘It’s all right, Captain,’ Ovchinikov assured him as he attempted to brush the dust out of the captain’s hair. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’
‘I’m not worried!’ barked the captain, ‘and stop pawing at me, for pity’s sake!’
Ovchinikov lit the stump of a candle which he carried in his pocket and the two men turned their attention to the contents of the coffin, which now lay strewn across the floor.
‘It’s just another dead man,’ remarked Proskuryakov, determined to show that he had regained his composure, ‘and it looks like he’s been that way for quite a while.’
‘No,’ Sergeant Ovchinikov pointed to an object clutched between the withered, ice-rimed fingers of the corpse. ‘There’s something else.’
‘What is it?’ asked Proskuryakov, squinting as he leaned forward to get a better look.
The light of the candle flickered in the sergeant’s trembling hand. ‘Mother of God,’ he whispered.