Tank Driver: With the 11th Armored From the Battle of the Bulge to VE Day by J. Ted Hartman Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Ind., 2003, $24.95.
Tank Rider: Into the Reich With the Red Army by Evgeni Bessonov Stackpole Books, Mechanicsbuig;, Pa,, 2003, $34.95.
“DON‘T YOU BOYS worry none,” says the tank commander in a Bill Mauldin cartoon to the infantrymen riding his M-4 Sherman as German shells begin to fall, “ we’ve got three inches of armor.” In reality, one might wonder which soldiers were in greater danger when facing German high-velocity 75mm and 88mm cannons capable of penetrating the angled armor of a Soviet T-34 medium tank, let alone a Sherman’s. Two recent books present both sides of that question from the perspectives of two soldiers who were closing in on Nazi Germany from different directions.
J. Ted Hartman was a typical 19-year- old product of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), designed to help young soldiers complete their college education and then apply it to the war Two months after beginning studies at the University of Oregon, he learned from a February 21, 1944, memo that most ASTP classes, except for medicine and foreign languages, were being canceled. Everyone in his class was sent to Camp Cooke, Calif., to serve in the 11th Armored Division. “ So much for the word of the army,” writes Hartman in a mantra that he repeats regularly throughout his memoir, Tank Driver.
By the time Hartman’s 41st Tank Battalion arrived in France in December 1944, the Battle of the Bulge was reaching its critical point. While he covers that and the subsequent battles and campaigns in which his M-4 crew participated, his most vivid and enlightening descriptions focus on the little picture— his impressions of combat and of what he saw and did when not engaged with the enemy.The result is a well-balanced, often moving look at one man’s war and every man’s war. The book concludes with reunions — during the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in 1994 and Belgian Memorial Day on May 30, 2000— with comrades in arms and friends who they had liberated in Belgium.
While Ted Hartman’s view of World War II combat was mainly from inside a tank, that of Evgeni Bessonov, author of Tank Rider, was from a perch atop one. Newly commissioned a Red Army lieutenant at age 20, Bessonov was assigned to the 49th Mechanized Brigade in August 1943 and had his baptism of fire amid the Briansk front counteroffensive north of Orel. From then until the end of the war, he describes how he learned mainly by experience to become a seasoned, reputable officer. The mechanized infantry company he led usually rode into battle aboard T-34s, whose engines provided welcome warmth during the fall and winter months, but which were not always there to support the troops when they dismounted and assaulted their next objective.
Bessonov warns the reader up front that he is not a trained writer, and indeed, unlike Hartman’s, his prose does lack a college boy’s polish. Bessonov more than makes up for that, however, in documenting memories of war on the Eastern Front from the perspective of a Soviet junior officer, with post-Soviet candor. In Bessonov’s war, some officers were better than others — and some were downright inept. In many cases the tanks, artillery and Ilyushin 11-2 Shturmoviki that supposedly won the war for the Soviets were not there, and it was up to the infantry to take the town under fire from Germans whose professionalism the author often treats with ungrudging respect. Bessonov also admits that while civilians in the eastern Ukraine welcomed him and his troops as liberators, they often encountered a far less cordial attitude in the western Ukraine, where the local partisans were often the enemy and some of the fiercest resistance came not from Germans, but from anti-Communist Russians in Lt. Gen. Andrei A. Vlasov’s army.
Like Hartman, Bessonov devotes the end of his book to what he learned of the postwar fates of his comrades in arms. Both authors, each in his own way, ably portray the war from a common soldier’s level. Many of the battles Bessonov describes on the road to Berlin will be new and unfamiliar to American readers, but given Bessonov’s treatment of them the reader will be reminded of how major they were to the men who had to fight them. More important, the reader of Tank Rider will discover that in matters of discipline, conduct under fire and simple survival in the field, the Soviet infantryman had much in common with his American counterpart— which might explain why language was not such a barrier when the enlisted men of both armies met at the Elbe River in April 1945.
Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.