Vasily Zaytsev grew up as a peasant in the Ural mountains and lived the normal life for one brought up in such circumstances. Hunting and shooting wolf and deer to survive, he went on to become one of the most famous Soviet snipers during World War Two and Hero of the Soviet Union.
Vasily joined the navy in 1937and was posted as a clerk to the Vladivostok area where he excelled and went up through the ranks to Chief Petty Officer. Once Germany had broken its pact with the Soviets and invaded the Motherland, he quickly volunteered along with countless others to transfer to the army on the frontline and this he did whilst gaining a promotion.
The sailor clerk turned infantryman spent a short period of time on the outskirts of Stalingrad, undergoing training on the standard weapons and tactics that he was likely to be using in the foreseeable future; machine guns, bayonet drill, knife fighting, close quarter battle and joking that he was now used to catching a grenade an enemy had thrown only to throw it back seconds before it exploded into the enemy held trench!
In mid to late September of 1942 Vasily and other freshly trained reinforcements were posted to 1047th Rifle Regiment. Now dressed in Khaki greens he found himself boated across the River Volga into The Metal District, this area was to be his playground and once famously quoting “for us there is no land beyond the Volga”, the here and the now was everything.
The 1047th Regiment went straight into the attack as soon as it landed and Vasily was almost killed by a massive German on his first day in close combat. Luckily for him his newly taught fighting techniques were still fresh and he managed to strangle his opponent, which was remarkable for a small man of just 5’2”.
Two instances in those early days were to transform him into the sniper he became. Firstly, whilst resting with comrades in a shell crater a German machine gun opened up on them from about 600m. After observing with a periscope and barely taking aim, Vasily shot the gunner dead and then two other gunners who ran to his aid.
Secondly, most likely as a result of word going around of his shooting prowess, his Commanding Officer called for him. On arrival he was shown a Nazi officer carelessly stood in a room by a window. After taking careful aim at 880m he shot the officer dead with one shot and again two others who ran to the officer’s aid.
Vasily Zaytsev now had a sniper rifle thrust in his hands and was told to go and do what he could. Rifles with scopes fitted were a new phenomenon to Vasily, one that he had to quickly remedy and by practise, along with trial and error he soon became used to a rifle with a little pipe attached to it.
The standard Soviet sniper rifle of the period was the Mosin- Nagant fitted with a 4x PE scope. It is a bolt operated and magazine-fed, with an integral magazine fitted for use with x5 round clips. It fired a 7.62 x54mm round and could be fitted with a bayonet.
As his experience grew on the battlefield of Stalingrad, so did his tally and from the middle of November to mid December 1942 he had marked up 225 kills, an amazing amount considering the life expectancy of a sniper operating there was about one week.
This does not include of course the many kills him and snipers like him tallied up with the PPSH machine gun. Due to the close proximity of the enemy whilst out stalking their prey, most snipers favoured the PPSH instead of a side arm due to its amazing rate of fire, caught out in close contact and you needed a weapon with serious firepower to extract yourself from the situation. The PPSH 41weighed 3.63kg, fired approx 1000rpm from a 35rd box magazine or the more popular 71rd drum.
Before long the command had ordered Zaytsev to train others how to snipe and he realised that he was setting up the first ever Soviet Sniper School. He trained individuals in the art of sniping and the training ground was the front line, so any mistakes were punished with injury or death. Allocating pairs, one to shoot, one to spot, he had soon built up a group of snipers who very quickly began to make their name – and their presence felt – on the battleground.
The Germans had become increasingly concerned about the effect on morale and the course of the battle and would send in sniper after sniper to eliminate Zaytsev. One famous example being the Head Sniper from Berlin’s school of sniping, although records have been wiped clean so it is one’s word against the other.
Vasily had not had so much trouble from any other opponent until now, this German was good, a “Super Sniper” he called him. His name was Heinz Thorvald, aka Erwin Konig. Vasily and his team of snipers knew that he had arrived and was operating in the area because the standard rose sharply, several of Zaytsev’s group had been shot and wounded.
A confrontation between the two was inevitable, after all, Konig had been sent to kill him. For seven days they stalked each other in the district and as well as the continuous danger from artillery bombardment, they had to painstakingly observe every minute detail of the panorama in front of them to look for the slightest thing that would suggest a sniper was present.
After two comrades had been wounded in action Vasily projected a back bearing to an area where the shots most likely travelled from. Most debris and paraphernalia present had been there a long time, after both he and his spotter had observed the area for some time Zaytsev noted a difference. In the middle foreground was a pile of spent brass cases from a tank or artillery piece, they had been there since before his time. Now though, it look liked the bottom had been cut from one of the shells. The pair watched and watched and watched until he noticed a slight change in colour, it was from the muzzle of Konig’s rifle.
Zaytsev positioned his spotter off to the flank and carried out a rouse he had become famous for, trickery! At the given moment the spotter slowly raised his helmet on a stick and instantly a round shattered the helmet. Vasily waited for the movement that was sure to come; a slight head adjustment to recover the spent cartridge was all that he needed, a tiny portion of head came into view and… Bang! Vasily put a round right through the German scalp. Vasily Zaytsev killed numerous snipers with such methods.
As the battle and the war continued Vasily picked up many wounds and injuries. In the early days there had been no exemption from fighting as infantry, they would snipe day and night then be involved in infantry attacks the next. It was relentless and by this stage in early 43 several of his group were dead. During one such attack he was injured in the face and eyes by mortar fire and was removed from the front, temporarily blinded.
He was sent to Moscow where he made a full recovery. He spent the rest of the war teaching and sniping all the way to The Seelow Heights , part of Berlin’s “Ring of Steel”, ending the war as a Captain, but again in hospital.
Vasily Zaytsev, Hero of the Soviet Union died in Kiev in 1991 at the age of 76, just 10 days before the Soviet Union finally dissolved.
Although he was initially buried in Kiev, his dying wish was to be lain next to the monument commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad and so, on 31st January 2006 he was reburied with full military honours on Mamayev Kergan, overlooking the city he defended.
(Images from various Public Domain sources.)