Vassili Zaitsev was an intelligent and courageous soldier. The fact that he started as a pay clerk in the Soviet Navy (and was for five years) is incongruous; he, along with a number of Soviet sailors, volunteered to fight in Stalingrad in 1942 and was ultimately selected to be a sniper after several weeks fighting in the city. Raised as a hunter by his family in the Urals, he was an outstanding shot who applied his hunting skills and combat experience to develop tactics and techniques that are still employed today. He then went further and taught his skills to other Soviet soldiers and was then able to develop his techniques even further; I felt the Germans in a company attack that was completely defeated by the use of thirteen sniper pairs covering the Soviet front!
- Vassili Zaitsev
This is a fascinating story and one I enjoyed immensely. It is a difficult read in parts, the descriptions of mass hand-to-hand fighting can be hard to read (Zaitsev has to choke a German to death on his first day in combat) but it brings to life the brutal reality of the fighting in Stalingrad. Throw in being buried alive (more than once), more hand-to-hand fighting, the uncertainty of what was round the next corner or in the next sewer and
What is very good are the points that Zaitsev makes about soldiering at its most basic. His description of sleep deprivation was one that I could empathise with and his understanding that leaders need to let their soldiers rest should be required reading at Sandhurst. He also writes convincingly of the importance of teamwork, integrity (which he describes as “conscience”) and trust; he could almost be writing a handbook for the British Army’s Values and Standards.
You do have to be slightly careful with this book. There is Soviet propaganda; the historical basis of the shooting of ‘Major Koenig’ has long been challenged and this does mean that you are never entirely certain as to the accuracy of the rest of the book. Zaitsev comes through as being a Communist to the core (Germans are invariably referred to as “fascists”) and even describes being hesitant to wash himself using water that he knows has been touched by Germans. You do need to apply a degree of filtration to some of the more subjective comments; I was never quite sure if it was propaganda or the view of a dedicated Communist (albeit he might well regard me as a decadent, bourgeois capitalist). The only really noticeable mistake was the misspelling of Zaitsev’s name on the cover of the book I was sent: the publishers should hang their heads in shame,
This is a great book and anyone interested in the battle of Stalingrad should read it, both for the descriptions of combat at the micro-tactical level and also the Communist perspective of the fighting. It is also a valuable book for anyone with even a passing interest in sniping and combat tactics and their development.