Notes of a Russian Sniper
By Vassili Zaitsev
Published by Pen and Sword (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk)
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Vassili Zaitsev is probably the most famous soldier of the Soviet Red Army in World War 2. He was highly decorated and gained great fame in Russia during the Battle for Stalingrad. More recently his fame has been given a massive boost as the recent film “Enemy at the Gates” was predominantly based on his actions.
The film and the autobiography do differ and there are many scenes in the film that do not feature in the book and vice versa. The book, in my opinion, is more enjoyable than the film. The book starts with Vassili discussing his childhood and how his Grandfather taught him how to trap and hunt animals in the forests. He became very skilled at these activities and as a reward his Grandfather presented him with a rifle. Vassili was a short man and the rifle, when slung over his shoulder, touched the ground. He was an educated person and attended technical schools as well as working as an accountant.
He joined the Soviet Navy before the war and was very proud to wear their distinctive blue and white striped shirt – the trademark of a Russian Sailor. He attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer and volunteered with a draft of fellow sailors to be posted to the Battle of Stalingrad. On arrival at Stalingrad they were transferred to the Army. Their new officers could not get them to yield their sailors shirts and so they went into battle wearing their distinctive sailors’ shirts under their army uniforms.
He recounts many of his exciting exploits and “duels” with enemy snipers. Vassili had many duels and his officers requested that as he was extremely successful as a sniper that he train and develop a sniper unit within his regiment. He states how he recruited “trainee” snipers to his unit and how he trained them. Vassili was doing his job so effectively he managed to kill over 225 enemy soldiers. He always targeted the officers first and then worked down the chain of command. In one exploit he killed a number of enemy officers and this made the Nazis very furious so they unleashed a huge barrage of bombs, artillery and machine gun fire at his position. As in the film the German Wehrmacht eventually sent their top sniper from the German Sniper School, a highly decorated Major Konings, to locate and kill Vassili. Major Konings tried very hard to eliminate Vassili but he lost their duel.
At the time of arrival on the Stalingrad front the average life expectancy of a soldier was 24 hours. Vassili significantly exceeded this but eventually his luck did run out. Towards the end of the Battle he was wounded by shrapnel, primarily in the face, and was blinded. He was shipped back through the lines and eventually had to see eye specialists near Moscow. They operated on him and eventually he regained most of his sight. Whilst he was injured the Battle for Stalingrad finished and on recovery he was presented with the (gold) Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin by the Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin [who was the first Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR or titular head of state (1919-46)]. The Hero of the Soviet Union was the highest decoration that the USSR could bestow on a serviceman – rather like the British Victoria Cross. This autobiography is exciting and you will not want to put it down until you have read the last page – it is highly recommended and exceedingly enjoyable.