Saturday, 17 December 2016

World of Tanks History Section: Panfilov's Last Step Back

The front line passed near Kryukovo in late November of 1941: a settlement and a railway station. The Red Army and the Wehrmacht pushed against it like two boxers. One, more vicious and more experienced, was still attacking, but his blows lacked the crushing strength they had at the start of the bout. The other, forced to keep his guard up, was barely standing. He missed hits, spat blood, fell down. But every time he got up again and kept fighting.

One of Panfilov's men, regiment commander Bauryzhan Momysh-Uly, was looking for a place to stand for his men, the last line of defense. He couldn't find it. Then the senior lieutenant pulled out his knife. "I carefully cut the map in half and gave one half to Sulima. "Here," I said. "Burn it. We won't need to study terrain east of Kryukovo."" Moscow lay to the east, and Momysh-Uly hid it beyond the "end of the world", not just from the Germans, but from himself.
Nowhere to Retreat

The 8th Guards Panfilov Rifle Division (formerly 316th) was a part of the 16th Army of the Western Front. The army commander, Lieutenant-General Rokossovskiy, had the idea to form a defense along the banks of the Istra river and the Istra water reservoir, a so called "limit of the front". The commander allowed his men to take a few steps back.

Rokossovskiy's plans were approved by the Soviet Chief of Staff, B.M. Shaposhnikov, but G.K. Zhukov, the commander of the Western Front, personally rejected them. He demanded that the army hold west of Istra. Zhukov understood the army commander's desire to give his troops the most advantageous positions, but the plan threatened the Front. Specifically, the defense of Klin and covering the assembly of the 1st Shock Army, which was just coming in from the reserve of the Supreme Command. 

Neither the opinion of the army commander nor the front commander's disapproval had any meaning. In the cold fall of 1941, the shallowed out and frozen water reservoir was not a serious obstacle for the Wehrmacht. On November 25th, the Germans not only crossed it, but pushed the Soviet forces away from the eastern bank. Rokossovkiy ordered his men to take back what was lost, but they could not carry out that order. The Germans moved across the main forces of the 11th and 5th Tank Divisions and broke through the Soviet defenses by the middle of November 28th.

The headquarters of the 8th Guards Rifle Division and 19th Tank Brigade in Maryino were in the way of the German attack, leading to the loss of command over forces that were in the way of the "tank steamroller". Even Rokossovskiy's HQ in Kryukovo was in danger.

The village and railroad station of the same name were supposed to be the cornerstone of the 16th Army's defense. The region was controlled by the 8th Guards Rifle Division, the best in Rokossovskiy's army. However, even Panfilov's men weren't made of iron, and two weeks of nonstop vicious fighting at the last stages of Operation Typhoon cost the division dearly. Its troops couldn't take another attack. An urgent message sent to the HQ of the Western Front read "enemy broke through the front of the 8th GSD". A little later, the events were given a fuller description: "The 8th GSD, attacked by tanks and infantry, did not hold, lost formation, and began a disordered retreat to the east. The division was stopped by the end of the day."

Tug of War at Kryukovo

Rokossovskiy replied quickly and firmly.

"To the commander of the 8th Guards Rifle Division
CC: Commander of the 7th Guards Rifle Division

The division is not completing its objectives.
During November 28th and 29th, its constant retreat opened the front and threatened other units in the army with destruction.

I demand that:
Forces of the 8th GSD, 20th KD, 44th KD, and all tank forces attached to the division must take Kryukovo by dawn.
After that, attack according to orders.
The overall authority in taking Kryukovo is given to the commander of the 7th Guards Infantry Division.
...
Failure to complete these orders will have consequences.
Inform regarding completion by 6:00 on November 30th, 1941.
Commander of the 16th Army, Lieutenant-General Rokossovkiy
Member of the Army Military Council, Divisional Commissar Lobachev."

Rokossovskiy and Zhukov, who also knew about the crisis in Panfilov's division, understood that even the harshest orders won't stop tanks or form counterattacks. New men had to be found. Zhukov couldn't stick his hands into Stavka's reserves, that would jeopardize the planned counteroffensive that he devised. The 16th Army was falling apart in front of his eyes, and that was no less dangerous. Zhukov decided to scrape together reinforcements for Rokossovskiy from neighbouring armies, platoon by platoon.

"Special Priority
Commanders of the 5th, 22nd, 43rd, and 49th Armies
CC: Commander of the 16th Army

The Front Commander orders each rifle division to detach one rifle platoon complete with authorized weapons and ammunition. Select platoons that already saw combat.
The selected platoons should be sent to the Commander of the 16th Army no later than 17:00 on November 19th to fill the 8th and 9th Guards and 18th Rifle Divisions. 5th Army to Nakhabino, 33rd, 43rd, and 49th Armies to Kryukovo, which is 30 km north-west of Moscow. Supply each platoon with two days' worth of food.
Report on completion.
Sokolovskiy"

"Special Priority, deliver immediately
The Front Commander orders: immediately transfer by trucks one rifle battalion from the 19th Rifle Division to Rokossovskiy at Kryukovo. Report on completion. 
Sokolovskiy"

Recently, the Red Army discovered once again that tanks can't be stopped by just infantry. Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Brigade was ordered to aid Rokossovskiy's men.

Katukov replied to the commander of the 8th Guards Rifle Division, informing him that the brigade is currently in battle, and it would be nice to know who was coming to replace them. Of course, Katukov likely knew that his men would likely to have to split up. The situation at Kryukovo demanded immediate attention. Since the 1st Guards Tank Brigade could not leave the front lines, the brigade commander sent everything he could pull out of battle.

"To the commander of the 8th Guards Rifle Division
  1. 5 tanks were sent to the 1073rd Rifle Regiment on the northern outskirts of Malino at 5:00 on December 1st, 1941
  2. Three tanks were sent to the 1077th Rifle Regiment at Savelka and three tanks to the 1075th Regiment at Aleksandrovka at 10:00 on December 1st, 1941"
The brigade's motorized infantry battalion and eleven tanks. Not a lot, but in the coming days, they helped the 8th Guards Division to hold the line at Kryukovo.

Location of elements of the 1073rd Rifle Regiment, December 5th, 1941 at Kryukovo (shaded blue).

The rest of Katukov's brigade could only hand off their positions and come to help on the night of December 3rd. In the morning, the 8th Guards Division began their attack, trying to knock the enemy out of Kryukovo. The Germans (35th Infantry and 5th Tank Divisions) lost their offensive temper by then, but could still put up a solid defense, especially when the attacking division barely had enough men for a regiment.

"1. Throughout December 3rd, the 8th Guards Rifle Division and attached elements fought stubborn offensive battles to take Kryukovo, pushing the enemy out of houses and basements. 
The enemy, up to one infantry division and 50 tanks strong, offered stubborn resistance to our attacking units and attempted unsuccessful local counterattacks.
2. Elements of the division could not take the south outskirts of Kryukovo and remain at the line in the attached diagram.
1077th regiment (786 men) fought in the direction of Alabushevo.
1075th regiment (287 men) repeated the offensive at the south outskirts of Kryukovo three times since 3:00 and took it at 17:00. Losses during the day: 29 killed, 105 wounded, losses are being confirmed. 
1073rd regiment (350 men) attacked towards the station and eastern outskirts of Kryukovo. As a result of the battle, the station was taken. Losses during the day: 30 killed and 60 wounded. The commander of the regiment Senior Lieutenant Mamysh-Oly [sic] and Deputy Secretary of the Party Organization comrade Shirokov were wounded.
1st Guards Tank Brigade: fought alongside elements of the 8th Guards Rifle Division.
45th Cavalry Regiment, 51st Cavalry Regiment: attacked three times, but without success, taking heavy losses."

Through December 3-5th, Panfilov's infantry and Katukov's tanks attacked Kryukovo, but without success. The German counterattacks were equally fruitless. Unable to enter the village and station, the Soviet forces stopped with losses in men and tanks.

"Two KV tanks were blown up by our mines near the school due to the fact that minefields are not guarded and units were not informed. 1 tank was evacuated to the repair base, the other is still on the battlefield with blown up tracks and there is no way to evacuate it due to powerful rifle and machinegun fire."

These unsuccessful battles clearly showed that it was impossible to take Kryukovo back with existing forces. In order to aid in the upcoming attack, Major-General V.A. Revyakin was given an artillery regiment, two squadrons of rocket launchers, and the 17th Rifle Brigade. The latter just arrived at the front and was composed of inexperienced soldiers, but it was fully equipped and armed! The other units from Revyakin's operational group could only wish for such a blessing.

From the Last Line

The new attack at Kryukovo was not just another attempt to take the village and its surroundings. A general offensive was planned for dawn of December 7th, 1941. Due to a shortage of shells, Rokossovskiy ordered that there would be no artillery barrage and batteries would only fire at targets discovered during the offensive.

Meanwhile, the Germans did everything they could to turn their positions into a fortress. Kryukovo and the nearby Kamenka had little in common with Stalingrad, but surviving veterans recalled these early December street battles as some of the toughest of the whole war.

"Operational summary of the 1st Guards Tank Brigade, 24:00 December 7th, 1941
  1. Elements of the brigade, supporting the 8th Guards Rifle Division over the course of December 7th, 1941, fought the enemy over Kryukovo, Kamenka, and Goretovka.
    1. The motorized rifle battalion had the objective to take Kamenka alongside the 51st Cavalry Regiment to the right and 17th Rifle Brigade to the left, attacked across the Goretovka river and reached the south outskirts of Kamenka twice.
      Both times, met with powerful mortar fire from the northern outskirts of Kamenka and from the forest north-west of Kamenka, without support from its neighbours, the battalion was thrown back to its initial positions with heavy losses.
      By 24:00 on December 7th, the battalion, with about 140 men in its rifle companies and 80 men in its mortar company, is located in the northern clearing in a grove south of Kamenka.
    2. The tank regiment fought with the enemy throughout the day. 8 tanks under the command of Senior Lieutenant Lavrinenko are with the 1078th Regiment [there is a mistake in the document, likely they meant the 1073rd Regiment] on the eastern outskirts of Kryukovo.
      Further advance of the group is prevented by powerful fire from anti-tank artillery and enemy tanks in Kryukovo.
      The regiment's strike team composed of 5 tanks commanded by Senior Lieutenant Burda burst into Kamenka and fought with enemy tanks and AT guns. Met with heavy resistance, the group was forced to retreat with heavy losses.
      8 tanks attached to the 17th Rifle Brigade under the command of Captain Gerasimenko, without artillery or infantry support, and without the ability to cross the Goretovka river fought the enemy around Goretovka.
      ...
      The strike team in the forest east of Malino has 2 KV tanks left, one T-34 tank, and one BT tank. One KV has a weak engine due to its long time in service, the other KV has a malfunctioning gearbox, and the T-34 had a shell damage its elevation mechanism.
      ...
  2. As a result of battles during the day, the brigade destroyed: 3 enemy tanks, 1 tractor, 1 staff car, 1 covered car, 1 light car, 1 car with ammunition, 2 heavy guns, up to 10 light guns, 1 AT gun, 5 MG nests, 2 dugouts, and over 200 infantrymen. In addition, a house with a German HQ was crushed by a tank in Kamenka.
    Our losses: 6 T-34 and one KV knocked out (all tanks evacuated except one T-34 that burned up when fighting for Kamenka).
    Preliminary count of 13 dead and 58 wounded."
The 17th Rifle Brigade was the least reliable unit in play, since it never saw combat before. Doubts about it were, unfortunately, not unfounded: the brigade began its offensive late and by the evening one of its battalions began a "disorderly retreat". The battalion had to be stopped by the reconnaissance company.

The German strength was also at its limit. Only a few days ago, these units broke through the front and forced Panfilov's men to flee. Now, it became clearer every hour that they would never walk the last few kilometers left until Moscow. The question now was if they could walk away at all.

That question was answered in the morning of December 8th.

"Operational summary, 12:00 on December 8th, 1941, 8th division HQ

The 8th Guards Rifle Division and its attached units took Kryukovo and Kamenka after three days of fierce fighting.

The enemy, having a noticeable numerical advantage, resisted stubbornly. As a result of our actions, he broke and ran in panic towards Mikhailovka."

The results of the fighting were summarized by trophy teams of Panfilov's division.

"In the battles for Kryukovo and Kamenka on December 8th, the 8th Guards Rifle Division captured:
  • Tanks: 29
  • Tractors: 2
  • Armoured cars: 4
  • Cars: 41"
This was just the beginning, the first "tax" extracted from broken and retreating German units. The trophy teams would need reams of paper to list all the possessions the enemy abandoned during his flight.

Having stood their ground at the edge of the world marked by Momysh-Uly, Panfilov's division and the 1st Guards Tank Brigade took their first steps westward.

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