Around 70 years separate us from the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. However, the echo of those years remains in accidental findings.
‘Military’ echoes. Each time we see news on the finding of another cache of ammunition in a forest, village or city, we can’t help but wonder at the history behind the store. Historians and researchers suggest answers…
Furious fighting took place near Gomel in the autumn of 1943. For Pribor village and other settlements, which were located close by, it wasn’t just another page in history — it was their entire autobiography. Ammunition was destroyed in nearby forests in great amounts and, after the war, dozens of young boys died or were injured on finding mortar bombs and shells hidden in the earth.
“I think that precious little has remained in the earth, but it still possesses enough ammunition,” notes Yuri Lashkevich, a commander of the 5525th military unit’s pioneer and pyrotechnical group at the Belarusian Interior Ministry. “As a result of seismic vibrations, the earth brings long-hidden artefacts to the surface. A person could dig his plot of land to plant vegetables for 20 years and find nothing extraordinary until he comes across a mortar shell in the 21st year.”
New construction also disturbs the earth’s interior. A bullet with gunpowder was found in a wall during reconstruction of a building in Mozyr; it once housed a military commissariat but who knows how it became embedded in the wall. Moreover, the remains of two Red Army soldiers were recently discovered, alongside several hand grenades, when a highway was widened in Gomel.
“These grenades aren’t live, are they?” I wonder.
“Actually, 98 percent of weapons are still in working condition,” stresses chief instructor Yuri Naumenko, as he passes me a German mortar shell still bearing clear manufacturing inscriptions.
Gomel’s pioneer and pyrotechnical group is 12 years old. Annually, its specialists safely disarm or destroy up to 3,500 pieces of ammunition or up to 500kg of trotyl. ‘Military’ echoes from the past are still present.
Following lost tracks. Pinsk’s flotilla (Pinsk is a district centre in the Brest region) was one of the ‘hot spots’ of the Great Patriotic War. It was little studied until the last decade, although separate sources mention its heroic defence. One year ago, enthusiasts from the Association of Navy Intelligence Veterans, from Ukraine’s Kiev, joined specialists from the military-patriotic detachment of the Belarusian town of Shklov (in the Mogilev region) and Russian specialists to organise an international expedition.
Last autumn, they brought fragments of two vessels to the surface, from the bottom of the River Berezina in the Svetlogorsk district (Gomel region). These were ‘Vinnitsa’ boat and a BKA 205 armoured intelligence boat. Various other military rarities, such as weaponry, devices and uniforms were also found. All have been donated to the museum in the Svetlogorsk district, which will create an exhibition dedicated to the history of Pinsk’s flotilla.
Meanwhile, an international expedition of specialists from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia has continued its discoveries. Another Polesie area — the Petrikov district — has come under scrutiny, where struggles to the last breath took place during the last war. Archive documents indicate that the nearby River Pripyat and the neighbouring lakes hold strange treasures: vessels, planes and tanks. However, a future spring expedition is to concentrate on diving and aviation works, using special intelligence equipment.
“The ‘Yaselda’ steamboat stood at a local ship repair yard for many years,” the head of the expedition, Alexander Marmashov, tells us. “When we compared its ‘biography’ with archive data, we found that it was the only vessel in Pinsk’s flotilla to have survived.”
The 17m propeller vessel was constructed in 1940 at Bobruisk’s Ship Repair Yard. From the first days of the war, it joined Pinsk’s detachment of river vessels, with a nine member crew patrolling, delivering fuel and ammunition supplies and military mine sweeping. It was attacked and twice ran aground but continued to fight another day. In the summer of 1944, it returned to the Dnieper flotilla and was given its name of ‘Yaselda’. After river fighting, the ‘veteran’ served the civil fleet, working as a tow hawser and an icebreaker. It was also filmed and will now be turned into a monument.
Very rare case. Specialists note that interest in war history is much greater now than it was a few decades ago. This may be due to the passing of time, which places some of the pain more remotely. The research impulse descends deeper and deeper into the past…
The recent finding in Gomel of a WWI machine gun has stirred interest from professionals and amateurs. Belarusian museums lack similar exhibits, so it’s understandable that people are excited by the discovery. The 8mm Hotchkiss mounted machine gun from 1914 was used by the French Army, as well as the armies of Afghanistan, Belgium, Spain, Norway, Turkey, Japan and Poland during WWI and early WWII. Being easy and reliable, with perfect accuracy, it was popular. Up to 250 rounds could be fired without interruption, to a maximum distance of to 2.4km.
According to the Director of the Military Glory Museum in Gomel, Pavel Zhdanovich, the gun is a rare discovery in Belarus. It is known that, during WWI, Russia received only a few hundred such machine guns as part of allied assistance. Some were later used by the Red Army and the People’s Guard. During WWII, German auxiliary and police detachments, armed with trophy weapons, used these machine guns. Maybe, this is how it found itself near Gomel.
“It’s a priceless acquisition for us,” notes the Director of the museum. “Historians from post-Soviet countries have begun to study WWI closely only in this century. Previously, they concentrated their efforts largely on the Great Patriotic War and so little has survived from WWI. Today, the museum boasts around 80 exhibits from WWI. The Hotchkiss machine gun will, undoubtedly, occupy a key place in the exhibition and will enrich it…”
By Violetta Dralyuk