The ride is rougher than I would have preferred - these backwoods roads don't get many vehicles that aren't attached to a horse or mule. I'm roused from my musings as we come around a stand of trees. I smell the kennels before I see them. This is my third training school visit and I have yet to experience any of the enthusiasm that my superiors show for this program. But that is irrelevant; duty first. Always duty first. 26 kilometers outside of Tambov, this secret location was supposedly picked because of it's low strategic importance (although I honestly cannot believe that they can't smell the dog feces all the way in Moscow). The cacophony is audible through the automobile glass as we pull up to the gates of the walled compound. The driver hands his orders to the gate guard and after a cursory inspection, we are allowed access with a stiff salute. By the sound (and the smell), there must be over three hundred dogs here. The plaza is lined with kennels and almost every one is occupied by a medium or large-breed dog. The sedan swings wide and pulls in parallel to the converted command center - the keep of this former feudal manor. Lieutenant Yashkin quickly gets out and opens my door. I try not to grunt as I exit the sedan with stiff legs and back from the punishing ride here. Lt. Yashkin follows me to the manor house and is quick to get the door for me.
With my hat under my arm, I enter the dark but tidy command center and the commanding officer is there to greet me with a salute. My first impressions of the man are softness. Not only in his slightly unkempt, graying hair and thickening waist line, but also in the color of his cheeks and nose, and the slight glassiness of his eyes. It seems the Major likes his drink. "Colonel Maslov! Welcome! I am Major Garanin. Welcome to School 3! Can I get you anything? A drink perhaps? Would you like something to drink, Lieutenant?" He asks, suddenly noticing Lt. Yashkin and eager to please. "Yes thank you Major. And this is Lieutenant Yashkin. He will be assisting me with the assessment. Please extend him every courtesy as well." Maj. Garanin's eyes opened slightly as he nods in agreement. He seems to pick up a bit of pluck as he leads us through narrow plastered corridors to his office. Maj. Garanin squeezes behind his desk, silhouetted in front of a large window in the fading approach of dusk, and waits for us to be seated in the two dark leather chairs in front of his desk. I notice as he hesitates while selecting one of several bottles of alcohol - probably his second or third best. Maj. Garanin expertly scoops up three tumblers and pours them without missing a drop. I take mine with a nod and raise my glass in a small toast, then take a sip of the clear liquid. The vodka swirls around my tongue and I inhale as It slides down the back of my throat. My pallet detects subtle flavors of grain and earth. Perhaps it was his best bottle. We exchange small talk at first, and then I cut to the matter at hand. I question Maj. Garanin about the readiness of the school. Have enough handlers been found? Are there enough carpenters? Have all the supplies that we require arrived already? Maj. Garanin seems almost smug as he assures me that the school is up to the task. Lt. Yashkin and I refuse a second drink (which he happily pours for himself) and by the time we leave our chairs there are two privates at the door to show us to our quarters.
Our rooms are on the uppermost floor, three stories above the walled plaza. The windows face west, away from the kennels, but the thin glass windows don't do much to lessen the noise of the kennels, and unless I am mistaken, the smell seems stronger from up here too. Thankfully I am not a lite sleeper. The room is sparsely furnished with a wash stand and basin, a bed with a chamber pot tucked underneath, a dresser and a writing desk and chair, as well as a small mirror above the wash stand. I unpack my suitcase into the sturdy dresser next to the bed. While I unpack I see the corner of a photograph peeking from between the wool of my folded uniform. Irina. I know every freckle, dent and crease of her photograph as well as I know every bit of her lovely face. Somewhere in there is Anatoly's picture. How old is he now? Ten? It's been a few days since I've seen their pictures. I tuck the photograph safely back into my uniform and place it in the drawer. I don't feel like thinking about home now. Duty first. I turn the wick up on the oil lamp and stretch out on the bed. It's not too bad, not too lumpy and it feels good to stretch tired muscles. I think about my orders from above; getting these dogs ready for the Germans, who are already gathering Panzer divisions near Lithuania. All of this preparation, this entire program can only mean one thing: desperation. What else could this be? Who are the madmen who think of these things? I stop and remind myself that I am here to do a job. Duty first. Instead, I think of my journeys since I was given this assignment. I've seen more of Mother Russia than I ever thought I would. Thoughts of home creep in and my eyelids start to grow heavy.
There is a knock at the door. I swing my legs onto the floor, muscles protesting at having been roused from some much-needed relaxation. "Enter" I sigh, slightly annoyed. The fresh-faced private hastily salutes. "Beg pardon, Col., but I am instructed to show you to the dining room." Food. My stomach rumbles at the thought of a warm meal. I nod in agreement and the boyish private leads me down. We pass a common hall lined with benches. Several dozen men and women are eating. The smell of bread and cabbage are heavy in the air. Spoons and plates rattle as they spot me passing and stand in salute, napkins tucked in their collars, crumbs cascading down wool uniforms. "As you were" I nod in acknowledgement. As a mid-level officer I'm still not used to being the highest rank, but in these rural outposts there are not many officers above the rank of major. Not anymore, at least. My escort leads me to a side room where I find Yashkin and Garanin talking over glasses of vodka in front of empty plates. They both rise when they see me and wait for me to sit. A server carves a roasted chicken as we break bread and we go over details that I had overlooked earlier.
I wake to the sound of roosters just before dawn, the sky outside my window is a plum color. I can sleep through dogs, but not roosters. I relieve myself in the chamber pot and freshen up in the basin, combing my hair straight. I take a few minutes to polish up the tips of my boots and my insignia pins before dressing. I go out to the plaza, where several kennel workers were feeding the dogs. There are a few carcasses on the ground. The kennel men aren't enlisted, but they give clumsy salutes as I approach. I wave in acknowledgement and head toward the nearest dead dog. I motion one of the kennel men to turn the dog over for my inspection. The barking is almost deafening, no doubt the feeding is exciting the dogs that much more. I can't smell any parvo or other disease. The dog does have some lumps and boils. I have them expose the teeth. Yes, a much older dog than I would have recommended. A cursory inspection of the other carcasses reveals much of the same: natural causes, not disease. Good. Diseases can spread quickly among the kennels and if they were not reigned in quickly, they could destroy all of our preparations. As the sun rises over the wall, I talk to the kennel men about the dogs. Were there any problems with the dogs? Were there any temperament issues? Did any of the dogs stand out? To the last question, all of the men agreed on one name. Kashmir. As it turns out, Kashmir was a young East European Shepherd female. No other names were mentioned at all by the men and I quickly realized that Kashmir was the only one they bothered to name. I asked to see this Kashmir they took me to a kennel at the end of the row. A kennel man released the latch and out comes this exquisite example of a dog. I take an instinctive step back, expecting her to run out and jump on the nearest person (me). Instead this Kashmir saunters out and arches her back in a stretch before coming to a stop and sitting one meter in front of me. With her tongue lolling and her head cocked, Kashmir raises a paw in salute and settles back down on her haunches. I can't help but smile as the men laugh in approval.
I continue talking with the men and find myself constantly watching Kashmir. She is so atypical of her breed. Her mild manner and her sense of intelligence is very unnerving. After talking with the kennel men and watching their interactions with Kashmir - playful pats and ear scratches - I had to finally speak up. I asked the men if they realized what these dogs were here for. Of course they did, they assured me. These dogs were trained for explosive delivery. Yes, that's right, I tell them. They assure me that Kashmir can deliver her payload and make it back to safety before any of the other dogs, and she can do it every time. I feel a pang of guilt and I don't have the heart to tell the men, not while they are fawning over Kashmir. Timed detonations were not getting the results that Moscow wanted. These dogs were to be fitted and trained for triggered detonators. That was my reason for being here; to oversee and complete a successful training program at Training School 3. I purposely try to avoid looking at Kashmir while I do a cursory inspection, sizing up each dog in my head, calculating. A kennel man with a clipboard follows me and takes down kennel numbers. I rearrange the dogs in order of usefulness. The dogs nearest the small cremation furnace will be put down immediately. Thankfully there are not many of those. Some of the dogs will be expended during practice and some of them will be the focus of our training. There are enough dogs that I can hopefully make the quota set before me by Moscow. As I calculate the fate of these dogs, Kashmir nags at the back of my mind. I try and push thoughts of her from my head, telling myself that there is no room for compassion here. These animals are tools. Weapons. Nothing more. As noon approaches I am driven two kilometers to the test field, where mockups of the new Panzer tanks are spread out over a one and a half kilometer range. The mockups are adequate; the paint pattern, insignia, size dimensions and silhouettes look correct. Very good. We begin tomorrow.
The sun casts long shadows as it rises above the forested horizon. Brown grass crunches under my boots in the crisp air. Kennel men unload dog crates for the handlers and two privates are unloading the crates of explosives, vests and detonators from another truck. Much to my disappointment, Kashmir arrived here with the Kennel Men. I will have to speak to them about this. She is, after all, military property. A weapon. I'll let it go for now, but if she interferes with the training today I will have her kenneled. The other dozen dogs here today are some of the older, slower and generally less desirable dogs. Not the prime specimens that will be delivered to the front. The handlers did an adequate job with training them. Anything left wanting would lie in the fault of the dogs themselves, from what I can see. With everything all set, I give a brief demonstration of the remote detonation devices while Lt. Yashkin observes. I don't want to repeat myself, so I answer any and all questions and when I feel that the handlers have a sufficient grasp of the system, we rig our first dog. The tired-looking sheep dog stares out from under a mop of hair as the soldiers attach the payload harness. Unlike the old harness, these have the explosives sewn into the vests, where as before, the dog would be able to detach the payload once contact was made with an enemy tank. The dog's training consisted of making it to a tank as quickly as possible, delivering the explosive and ideally returning back for another payload. It was one big game of fetch, as far as the dogs were concerned. I was sure to point this out to the handlers. If they failed to detonate, or there was a misfire, they would have a live explosive returning directly back to them, wagging it's tail. It was too late to retrain the dogs. As a precaution the privates were instructed to be prepared to shoot the dogs before they reach us, in the case of such an emergency.
The sheep dog is given the command and he bounds away toward the mockups. He is faster than I would have thought; a shaggy, dirty white ball of enthusiasm. As it reaches the first target, his handler fumbles the remote trigger and there is a flash and a puff of smoke. A moment later, there is a boom that I can feel in my chest. A success! After a few more successful detonations, I find myself looking for Kashmir. I spot her feet under one of the trucks. Her tail is between her legs. As the vests and dogs are used up I can't help but shake this deepening sense of guilt that has managed to plant itself in my head. She knows what we are doing. We finish up the day on the range and as we clean up, I feel a pang of guilt and sorrow every time I see Kashmir. Her ears droop and her tail is down. The enthusiasm that she showed previously is gone. Kashmir leaves with the handlers, looking morose, while the kennel men are down-range picking up any remains they find for cremation back at Command. One of the privates holds the door of the sedan for me. I curse myself for my weakness on the drive back as my thoughts drift to Kashmir.
Day two of training. The second batch of less-than-desirable stock is being unloaded, along with the vests and explosives. Lt. Yashkin is going over some of the finer points of the harnesses when he brings a problem to my attention. Half of the vests we brought from Command are of the previous timed detonation type. We will just have to make do. And of course, Kashmir arrived with the kennel men. I catch myself smiling at her as she prances and frolics among the men. She seems her usual self today. That makes me feel good. Until a three detonations in. The first two detonations go off perfectly, but on the third setup, Kashmir actually dragged a timed vest out of the crate and brought it to the men who were trying to put a remote detonation vest on an old female husky. She then tried to run off with the remote detonation vest! The men eventually cornered her and they had to hit her a few times across the muzzle to get her to let go, then she ran and hid under one of the trucks. We finished what remote vests we had left and packed up the remaining dogs, supplies and carcasses.
On day three of training, Kashmir was nowhere to be found - or so I thought. Then I spotted her in the cab of a truck as supplies were being unloaded. This batch of dogs looked just as pathetic as yesterday's. These handlers were fast learners, so yesterday's setbacks were not as bad as they had seemed. The first dog up was a large mastiff with obvious hip problems. The vest barely fit around her large chest, but they had her ready in no time. At the handler's command, she loped off downrange to the 'invading tanks'. It took her longer than usual to reach her target. If she had been carrying a timed charge she would have failed. Upon reaching the mock Panzer, her handler detonated the vest and... nothing. No boom. Just a puff of smoke that rose from the vest as the dog loped back. This was not good. There was much yelling as the privates scrambled for their rifles. They really need to hurry. That dog with her smoking payload is closing fast. There is a high pitched bark and I turn to see Kashmir scramble out of the truck window and streak like a black and tan comet over the field, straight at the mastiff. The impact of Kashmir's hit flips the mastiff end-over-end, but Kashmir is quickly on her feet. She latches on to the smoking vest and shakes violently at it, tearing it off the mastiff as bullets tear up the dirt around them. I guess it wasn't secured that well after all. Kashmir runs the vest back down to the tanks, flying over the dry grass, ears back and tail straight. There is a flash, a puff of smoke and a moment later, a concussion I can feel in my chest. The tightening in my chest remains and I realize that I'm crying.
Thanks for reading this! This was an actual weapon used from WWII and much later.