Tuesday, 7 October 2014

World of Tanks History Section: Operation Typhoon

In September of 1941, it was clear that both Soviet pre-war ideals of victory with little bloodshed and German plans of swiftly crushing the Red Army burned up in the flames of summer battles. The Germans wasted precious time in the battle for Smolensk and by turning Guderian's tank group south, to Kiev. But it was still warm, and the illusion that the tempo of Operation Barbarossa could be revived still inhabited German headquarters. All they had to do was put some strength into a finishing blow.

Before Typhoon

The Germans did not cut corners. Three of four tank groups participated in the offensive on Moscow, codenamed "Typhoon". Before the offensive, Hitler's speech was read to German units, telling them, in part, of the beginning of the last and greatest decisive battle of 1941.

Unlike a lot of Hitler's promises, these one turned out true. However, this battle was not decisive in the way he expected.

The position of the Red Army before the offensive was not enviable. The pre-war mechanized corps with their hundreds and thousands of tanks were lost, sacrificed in the first months of the war to stop the German advance. There was not enough vehicles to restore them, nor were there enough competent commanders and staff officers capable of directing such units. Nevertheless, tanks played a pivotal role in the battle for Moscow.

Drang nach Moskau

At dawn on September 30th, Guderian's 2nd tank group moved out. On October 2nd it was joined by Hermann Hoth's 3rd tank group and Erich Hoepner's 4th, tasked with destroying Soviet West and Reserve Fronts.

The Red Army was not the only one suffering from equipment shortages. The Panzerwaffe was not what it used to be on June 22nd. For instance, Hoepner's tank regiments from the 6th and 7th tank divisions had to be consolidated into one tank brigade.

More than 300 tanks attacked in two echelons on a 2 km front. The density of German guns was equally impressive, 100 cannons per kilometer. The sky was filled with dive bombers from Wolfram von Richtofen's 8th air corps.

Soviet infantry only learned to withstand attacks of such magnitude two years later, at Kursk. In the fall of 1941, German tanks cleaved through the defenses of ragged Soviet infantry like a sword through plywood. The only hope was on Soviet tanks.

Counterattacks: Kholm, Mtsensk, Maloyaroslavets

Lieutenant-General I.V. Boldin's operative group was formed from reserve units of the Western Front. It was composed of three tank brigades, and one each of infantry, cavalry, and motorized divisions. Overall, the unit had over 200 tanks, but they were largely outdated T-26 and BT tanks. Deployment lagged behind. When Hoth's tanks reached the shores of the Dniepr on October 4th, only the 128th Tank Brigade was ready to oppose them.

The Germans remembered this battle for a long time. Hermann Hoth wrote in his memoirs that the stubborn Russians fought to the death to stop the advance of German tanks. According to German data, they knocked out 28 Soviet tanks at a cost of 26 of their own, a ratio rarely seen in German documents in 1941. Sadly, Boldin's counterattack only held back one wedge that was driving through the Soviet front.

Guderian's 2nd tank group achieved a much more dangerous penetration. Having covered 200 km over several days, the 4th tank division reached Orel by October 3rd. At the time, the city was considered deep in the rear; even the streetcars were still running. There were no serious defenses between Orel and Moscow. Dmitriy Lelyushenko's 1st Guards Infantry Corps was hurriedly formed to plug the gap, but it was still in the process of moving out to the front.

A single battalion of soldiers from the 201 Airborne Brigade landed on the Orel airport, already under enemy fire. The paratroopers gave their lives to delay German tanks for another day.

On the evening of October 4th, the advance guard of Katukov's 4th Tank Brigade reached the outskirts of Orel. Soon the Germans realized that the time of easy and rapid marches was over. The 35 km from Orel to Mtsensk took an entire week to cover. For these battles, Katukov's brigade became the 1st Guards. Many of its soldiers received medals, six of Katukov's men received the Order of Lenin, one of the highest Soviet honours. Among them were future tank aces D. Lavrinenko and A. Burda.

Guderian's subordinates from the 4th tank division clenched their teeth and wrote reports on "absolute dominance" of new Soviet tanks. The value of these battles is highlighted by the fact that in November of 1941, a commission including Ferdinand Porsche and future Tiger designer Erwin Aders was sent to examine the tanks between Orel and Mtsensk.

While Guderian's division was wasting time and tanks in their mad dash to Moscow, their comrades were closing their jaws around the Bryansk, West, and Reserve Fronts. However, the Germans lacked the strength to both maintain a solid encirclement and continue their offensive. The attempt to achieve both anyway ended poorly.

Firstly, many encircled units managed to break out. Secondly, the few tank and mechanized units allocated to advance to Moscow did so along main roadways. As a result, Soviet high command, lacking the strength to restore a solid front line, could concentrate on building anti-tank defenses in most obvious directions. The main components of these defenses were tank brigades and anti-tank guns. For instance, the 17th Tank Brigade was a key part of defending Maloyaroslavks. Here is what the German 57th motorized corps wrote:

"The Russians are sitting in nearly every village on both sides of the road, sometimes in small numbers, sometimes large, and fiercely defend...The enemy is fortifying the front lines today...His advantage: tanks that fight in formation, and fight fiercely and skilfully."

A good defense is the key to success

At Ilyinskoye, near Maloyaroslavets, the Germans saw first hand what a well organized defensive line looks like. At about 1:00 pm, 15 German tanks moved out of Cherkassovo, accompanied by an infantry company. The soldiers were riding on the tanks, as well as APCs and motorcycles. The tanks were in two groups, the first one composed of 8 vehicles, the second one of 7.

At Sergeevka, the infantry was "swept" off with machinegun fire. The tanks tried to reach Ilyinskoye, but two were knocked out. The German infantry deployed to fight without seeing the enemy. Tanks from the second group pulled up. The offensive continued, but in a disorganized fashion. A portion of the tanks rushed forward, some were stuck on the road. One drove into a ditch. Soviet machinegun fire pinned down infantry. This attack resulted in numerous photos of a burned out tank column and a small cemetery near the road.

By the end of October it was clear that the "rapid dash" to Moscow failed. Instead of a march across highways, the Germans paid a heavy price for every kilometer they drove eastward.

Now the results of the battle depended on who had that last battalion in reserve.

Article author: Andrei Ulanov.

Andrei Ulanov is an historian and an author of books and articles on the Great Patriotic War. His most prominent works are "Order in Tank Forces" and "First T-34s" (co-authored with Dmitriy Shein). Currently, he is working on books on AT measures of Soviet infantry and combat use of T-34 tanks in 1942.

Sources:
  • CAMD RF documents.
  • NARA documents.
  • H. Hoth, Tank Operations
  • L.N. Lopukhoskiy, Vyazemskaya katastrofa 41 goda
  • Defense of Moscow: 17th Tank Brigade, http://konkurs.senat.org/notabene/17TBR.html
  • Fragment from "Geschichte des Panzer-Grenadier-Regiments 73", http://www.eco-kovcheg.ru/ilinskie_rubezhi-04.html.
Original article available here

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