He entered the fray of the infamous Stalingrad when he crossed the River Volga on 22nd September 1942, joining the 1047th Rifle Regiment of the 284th Rifle Division of the 62nd Army. His career as a sniper began when he was awarded the Medal for courage and a sniper rifle for shooting three Germans from 800 meters away, when instructed by his commanding officer. His career soon took off, scoring his 225 kills between 10th November and 17th December, of whom 11 were enemy snipers. His sniping ability presented him with the opportunity to run a training school for snipers in a metal hardware factory. His 28 students were known as Zaichata and during the war they killed an estimated 1000-3000 enemy troops.
The most famous moment of his life as a sniper was an epic duel between him and Major Erwin König, which was immortalised in the 2001 film, Enemy at the Gates. Despite the fame of this tale, there is not actually any evidence the König even existed. He was supposedly the head of the Berlin sniper school, sent to find and kill the notorious Zaitsev. According to his memoirs and Russian propaganda, Vasily managed to track down König and tricked him into revealing his position by using a helmet on a stick. König fired and when he looked to see if his target was dead, Zaitsev shot him through the head. While it is unlikely that this actually happened, the Armed Forces Museum in Moscow claims to have the rifle of König in their possession.
In January 1943, a mortar blinded him and he was wounded heavily. In a Moscow hospital, his sight was restored by Professor Filatov and he soon returned to the front after being awarded the honour Hero of the Soviet Union. He continued his work with his sniping school as well as becoming a Regiment Commander. He then fought in Ukraine at the Dniestr river, again as a sniper, and ended the war fighting at Seelow heights, 90 kilometres east of Berlin, as a Captain. Some of the greatest awards he received that haven’t already been mentioned include the Order of Lenin, Order of the Patriotic War and Order of the Red Banner (which he earned twice).
After the war he made his home in Kiev, where he studied at a textile university, prior to working as an engineer and eventually as a director of a textile plant. He passed away in 1991 and was buried in Kiev, despite his wishes for his body to lie in Stalingrad. He was reburied on 31st January 2006, with full military honours, in Volgograd (once Stalingrad).
Vasily Zaitsev has been celebrated as an iconic figure of the war for Russians and it is arguable that his work as a sniper and training his students helped the Soviets hold onto Stalingrad, stopping the onslaught of the German army. He will be forever remembered as one of the greatest snipers ever.
Contributed by Matthew Rudd