Tuesday 2 September 2014

World of Tanks History Section: The Last Tank Battle of WWII

Shumshu island, in the northern group of the Kuril archipelago. Not the most pleasant place for living. Today, there is no permanent population on this island. But in the far off year 1945, it was completely different.

While Japan was a powerful force in the Pacific, it saw the Kurils as an important strategic base. Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta based his invasion of the Aleutian islands from there. The Kurils were also a base for preparing the Japanese invasion of Kamchatka.

In the second half of the war, the roles changed. Now it was the Americans that regularly staged raids at Japanese bases. Concerned about an American invasion, the Japanese began reinforcing the north Kurils. Among others, Shumshu received the 11th tank regiments from Manchuria. The Japanese Imperial Navy, having their own tank branch, transferred the 51st and 52nd coastal defense units to the island, armed with amphibious Ka-Mi tanks.

Kuril splinter

On August 9th, 1945, the Red Army's Manchurian Operation began. Lieutenant-General A. Kravchenko's Guards T-34s vapourized any Kwantung Army units in their path. On August 11th, battles raged on South Sakhalin. Kamchatka and Shumshu were quiet, but not for long.

Early morning on August 18th, a Soviet advance force from Kamchatka landed on Shumshu, and, having surprised the Japanese, moved 2 km inland without much resistance. The Kuril landing operation has begun.

Sadly, after the initial landing, the operation did not go as flawlessly. An hour after the landing, the first ships carrying infantry arrived. The Japanese regained their senses and opened fire. The situation was made more difficult by the overloaded ships that could not get close to shore. The boats meant for ferrying soldiers got lost in the mist, and did not arrive on time. Soldiers had to jump into the water and swim to shore. The water damaged their radios, and communication with ships was only regained by 11 am. Barely any artillery made it to shore. This was the cause of the largest amount of casualties, finally recorded as "Missing in Action".

The Japanese themselves did not realize what was happening and who was attacking them. Reports of thousands of American soldiers flew form the island to headquarters. Only after a few hours did the Japanese discover that they were being attacked by Soviets. A lack of awareness of the numbers and nationality of attackers did not prevent the Shumshu garrison commander from ordering his troops to push the invaders into the sea.

Japanese light tanks were the first to reach the landing. At about 3:30, Colonel Ikeda sent Captain Ito Isao's tank company to perform reconnaissance with 11 light Ha-Go tanks. By 1945, these vehicles were hopelessly outdated. However, since the majority of artillery was still on the ships, they presented a credible thread.

The landing was covered from sea by a patrol boat. The main factor in deflecting the Japanese counterattack was the heroism of the Kamchatka marines. Shumshu award orders are peppered with the phrase "threw himself under the enemy tank with grenades". Having lost six or seven vehicles, the Japanese succeeded in pushing the marines to the eastern slope of height 171 (Severnaya mountain on modern maps). There, the Soviet soldiers began hurriedly fortifying, partially reusing captured Japanese positions.

Subsequent descriptions of events from the Japanese and Soviet sides differ, sometimes significantly. The Japanese write that a second tank company arrived to help the first, but this was not enough. As a result, the Japanese lost many tanks, with Colonel Ikeda himself dying in that battle.

The Soviet version of events records that, having received word of approaching reserves, the second echelon commander, Colonel Artyushin, moved out the majority of his AT units (AT rifles, grenadiers, and the few 45 mm guns that made it to shore) to meet the enemy. At about 14:00 local time, the Japanese attacked with 18 tanks. Nearly all of them were left in the trenches, having been knocked out by AT rifle fire. Only one tank managed to escape.

Colonel Ikeda's Bushido

The only thing on which both sides agree is the description of Colonel Ikeda in his last battle. Japanese sources write that the commander of the 11th tank regiment headed the attack, sticking out of his tank with a banner in hand. This is how he was remembered.

For his devotion to samurai ideals, the Colonel was given an appropriate death. He was not struck down by the bullet of a common infantryman, but by the hand of the commander of the Soviet advance guard, Major Shutov.

"The tanks formed up and thundered towards us. On one of them, banner in hand, was a Japanese officer. We prepared to deflect the counterattack. I could see the grimace on the officer's face. I press on the submachinegun's trigger. The officer falls, the banner falls with him. A moment later, his tank stops."
- Memoirs of Major Shutov. "Record of Heroic Day" collection. South-Sakhalinsk, 1969

The Japanese could not push the Soviets into the sea, the landed force dug in too deep. In total, the Japanese report losses of 21 tanks that day, and 96 crewmen. The remaining 30 tanks of the 11th regiment were concentrated west of height 171, and were ready for an attack. However, the order never came. On August 19th, the Shumshu garrison surrendered. WWII ended here.

Major P.I. Shutov was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for exceptional completion of combat tasks, bravery, and heroism.

Colonel Ikeda, the commander of the 11th tank regiment, was posthumously made a Japanese national hero. The 11th tank battalion of the Japanese Self-Defense Force, based on Hokkaido, displays his regiment's insignia on its tanks. Colonel Ikeda's Shinhoto Chi-Ha stands on Shumshu to this day.

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.

Documents of the 2nd Far East Front and Kamchatka Defensive Region, provided by Yuri Pasholok.
Photographs from Yuri Pasholok's personal archive.
"Record of Heroic Day" memoir collection. South-Sakhalinsk, 1969

Original article available here.

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