Early life and World War II
Zaytsev served until January 1943, when he suffered an injury to his eyes from a landmine. He was attended to by Professor Filatov, who is credited with restoring his sight. He then returned to the front and finished the war on the Dniestr River with the military rank of Captain. After the end of the war, Zaytsev visited Berlin, where he met friends who served with him. They presented him with his sniper rifle, now engraved with the words: "To the Hero of the Soviet Union Zaytsev Vasily, who buried in Stalingrad more than 300 fascists." (The rifle is now on exhibit in the Volgograd State Panoramic Museum's "Stalingrad Battle" exhibit.) After the war, Zaytsev managed a factory in Kiev, and remained in that city until he died at the age of 76.
For the Russians, World War II produced numerous snipers with large numbers of confirmed kills. Hence, some sources claim that Zaytsev's remarkable performance was not unique and that others matched or surpassed his kill record, such as Ivan Mihailovich Sidorenko of the 1122nd Rifle Regiment who is credited with approximately 500 kills by the end of the war. Undoubtedly, though, there were numerous Soviet snipers serving during World War II who distinguished themselves with a high number of individual kills, including Fyodor Okhlopkov who had 429 confirmed kills.
The telescopic sight from Heinz Thorvald's rifle, allegedly Zaytsev's most treasured trophy, is still exhibited in the Moscow armed forces museum. However, the entire story remains essentially unconfirmed. There is no mention of it in any Soviet military reports, including those of Aleksandr Shcherbakov, even though almost every act of sniperism was reported with relish. The supposed duel is depicted in David L. Robbins' book War of the Rats and fictionalized in the film Enemy at the Gates, although Thorvald character's name was changed to Major König. Whether this duel actually took place is in dispute among historians, however, due to lack of any evidence as to whether there was a German sniper of such name or rank who ever existed during World War II. Zaytsev himself did make mention of the duel in his own biography "Notes of a Sniper", although it was a brief description occupying less than a chapter, in which he commented that he had been up against a very skillful sniper.
Zaytsev's story was portrayed in the films "Ангелы Смерти" (Angels of Death) and Enemy at the Gates
Zaytsev's story is portrayed differently in the book "War of the Rats"
The Soviet Sniper has been glorified and romanticized in film and print but do we really have an accurate picture of Soviet sniper tactics during the Great Patriotic War or as we call it, World Ward Two. These soldiers - both men and women carried a great deal of responsibility when they entered the battle. The general perception of snipers are that they are cold hearted assassins, natural born shooters and larger than life heroes. In fact, they were former factory workers, school girls and clerks. They came from every walk of life and were humble and self-sacrificing.
Soviet snipers were a part of the military planning and tactics long before the outbreak of the war. The Soviet experience from the first world war highlighted the importance of incorporating sharpshooters or snipers into their battle plans. Marksmanship and sharp shooting skills were emphasized in both the military and in official state run youth and recreation programs. When the rifle 1891/30 was developed it was also decided to develope a sniper variant. Up until that time the official tactics for small units largely ignored the importance of utilizing snipers equipped with special purpose rifles. The Soviet Army did utilize sharpshooters but they were equipped with either standard infantry rifles or sometimes civilian hunting rifles. However, the shooting skills of the Finns during the Winter War drove home a bloody point that could not be ignored by the Soviet high command. Soviet field commanders feared the presence of Finn sharpshooters and snipers and recognized that these snipers were able to disrupt the communications and flow of battle and served to demoralize front line troops. It was the experience of these commanders that shaped sniper tactics in the Soviet Army.
The initial plan was to equip every platoon sized unit with a sniper rifle to be used their best shooter. However, with only about 50,000 rifles in the inventory, the Army was hard pressed to man every platoon with snipers as the Army expanded. An unfortunate decision by the command led to a further diluting of sniper effectiveness through the introduction of the SVT sniper rifle. This rifle suffered from a series of problems when used in the field as a result of its design as a semi-automatic rifle. For one thing, it did not respond well to extremely cold environments and suffered problems with the lubricant gumming up its working parts. Another problem was in cold shot accuracy where the first round fired would tend to wander significantly wide of the point of aim. Many snipers complained that the rifle was unwieldy and mechanically loud to operate.
By the time the Soviets were fully engaged with German forces a rush program was initiated to get the 91/30 Sniper fully into production. In 1942 production figures totaled in the 90,000 range. As more of these rifles reached units, existing tactics were put into practice and refined. To examine the tactics of the Soviet Sniper, it is necessary to review the philosophy for using snipers in the first place. Under the Soviet system, snipers were fielded in teams of two with a sniper and an observer. Both team members were qualified snipers and changed roles after each kill. The sniper was to provide both scouting duties as well as point and indirect fire to disrupt enemy activities and communications. The observer assisted in spotting potential targets, provided security and recorded and confirmed kills. Each sniper carried a "kill book" where they recorded time, date, location and details of each kill or engagement. This book was also used to record detailed information on German troop concentrations and movements. As mentioned before, the sniper was assigned at platoon level and reported directly to the platoon leader. Most sniper teams worked autonomously and ranged ahead of advancing formations or across an assigned frontal sector.
The Great Patriotic War produced some changes to the way sniper teams operated. The advancing German Army moved rapidly and unpredictably, using flanking maneuvers to surround retreating or static forces and cut them off. Soviet commanders reacted to this by concentrating their sniper teams on their flanks out away from the main body to impede Nazi advances on the flanks. This required platoon teams to gather in larger groups that worked together to provide advance warning to the major command elements of German movement as well as to concentrate their firepower.
Contrary to popular belief, most sniper engagements took place at distances under 400 meters in rural settings and under 100 meters in urban settings. Sniper teams would move into the "no-man's land" separating the two sides under the cover of darkness and set up blinds or observation posts that were cleverly concealed. In the case of observing and harassing advancing troops, the sniper teams would blend in with straggling refugees that were largely ignored by the German forces and move ahead of the German advance, recording troop strength and composition. In the evening, they would slip under cover and close on German night defensive positions and conduct harassing fire at first light and then move rapidly out of the area. This was related to me by my father-in-law who served on the eastern front in the German Army.
When the German advances into Russia were finally halted, the Soviet forces were in so much disarray, that the common platoon sniper team concept went out the window. As the forces regrouped and reconstituted, control of sniper teams moved to the battalion level and in some cases such as in Stalingrad, division and army level. There was also a dramatic drain on trained snipers so ad hoc sniper training programs were put in place. There are several accounts of such sniper schools being implemented during the Stalingrad siege.
Tactics in urban areas were somewhat new to Soviet snipers as they fought in rural settings during previous conflicts. Much of the doctrine developed for urban sniper engagements was refined as sniper teams operated in those settings. Cover and concealment was fundamental operating in any environment but proved to be a challenge in the urban setting. Although the cities were in various states of ruin, the rubble that was fought in presented a unique challenge. In the countryside, cover and concealment was a matter of blending in with the natural foliage and scrub. In a city, rubble and buildings were quite angular and prone to making the rounded silhouette of the human body stand out. Snipers had to learn how to use the rubble to their advantage.
The sniper was given very specific responsibilities whether fighting in the country or the city and although those responsibilities were specific, the level of independent action afforded the sniper was unprecedented in the Soviet Army. The sniper was a scout, blocking force, psychological operations unit, and deadly marksman all rolled into one. To earn the coveted sniper badge he or she had to demonstrate skill with the standard infantry rifle, small unit tactics, engaging both land and air targets, use of grenades and sapper explosives and leadership. The men and women of the sniper corps were held to to a higher standard than mainstream troops and were expected to serve as role models.
This article does not do justice to bravery of the men and women who fought a very personal war, nor does it give a complete picture of their training and tactics. I will leave that up to many great authors who have written so well about the subject. For further reading, I would suggest the following books"
"Soviet Sniper's Handbook-1942", James F. Gebhart & Paul Tamoney
"Enemy at the Gates", William Craig