Tuesday, 11 November 2014

World of Tanks History Section: Tanks in the Kiev Operation

In September of 1943, elements of the Voronezh Front (soon to be renamed 1st Ukrainian) were marching towards the Dnieper. The advance guard of the Front consisted of elements of the 3rd Guards Tank Army. The tankers were tasked with pursuing the retreating enemy and capturing a foothold on the right bank of the river for another offensive. Capturing a bridge would be ideal, but Rybalko's army was unlucky. The Germans blew up the bridge in Kanev just as the first T-34 touched it. The army's pontoon bridges at the time were migrating somewhere around Kursk.

Bukrin Foothold

Crossings had to be built with whatever was on hand, and the enemy made sure that there wasn't a lot. Engineering units had to carry out feats of creativity. For instance, sappers of the 69th Motorized Infantry Brigade noticed a sunken barge on the German shore, swam across during the night, poured out the water with buckets, and dragged it away from under the Germans' noses. The 69th Brigade started crossing the river on the night of September 22nd, capturing the first scrap of the Bukrin foothold. Soon they were joined by elements of the 6th and 7th Guards Tank Corps.

Initially, the enemy did not have many forces here, but as early as September 21st, the Germans started hurriedly transferring elements of the 24th Tank Corps. The Bukrin foothold was not a random choice. The Dnieper curved eastward, allowing the attackers to bombard a section of the right shore from three directions. The German artillery could only strike from one.

However, this had a downside. Incapable of pushing the Soviets back across the river, the Germans attempted to put a cork in the bottle, cutting the bend off with elements of the 48th Tank Corps, headed for Kremenchug. An attempt by the Soviet command to prevent the Germans from concentrating their forces with an airborne landing came too late and was poorly prepared. The planes got lost, paratroopers were spread out over a large area, and could do little against the approaching German tanks.

Infantry could not punch through a defensive line reinforced by tanks. We needed our own, but it was impossible to carry them across a river with improvised methods like logs or rafts. Light A-3 pontoons (made from inflatable boats) managed to carry 24 SU-76 SPGs over the river on the night of September 29th. An attempt to use two pontoons to carry a T-34 ended poorly. "When the third tank drove onto its ferry, it broke apart and sank along with the tank. The tank and pontoons were extracted from the water. No more attempts were made to transfer T-34 tanks on A-3 pontoons."

The army's pontoon brigade tried to build two crossings, but their 16 ton capacity meant they could only be used to deliver supplies to the foothold. The N2P ferry park, equipped to transfer tanks, only reached the shore on October 6th. A bridge began construction, but was delayed by artillery and bombs.

Change of Direction

In these conditions, an offensive was only ready by October 12th. The Germans had plenty of time to plug the opening. Two attempts to break out of the "bottle" were unsuccessful. The 27th and 40th Armies tried to attack, but could not penetrate the German defenses and let the tanks out to operate in the clear. Even the tanks of the 3rd Guards Tank Army could not significantly change the situation. The foothold was reliably blocked. Just the first offensive cost the 3rd Guards a hundred knocked out T-34s, 24 of them permanently.

Meanwhile, on September 24th, Stavka ordered the Voronezh Front HQ to move the main strike from the Bukrin foothold to the Lutezh foothold further north. Primarily, this meant relocating the Front's chief striking force, the 3rd Guards Tank Army. This was no easy task. It meant withdrawing about 400 tanks, 3500 cars, hundreds of tractors and guns. This wasn't much easier than moving them across the river.

Thankfully, cloudy weather with low clouds and a thick fog over the river that lasted nearly until noon concealed the crossing, while only hindering it slightly. All repairable tanks were abandoned on Stavka's orders. In exchange, the army received over 200 new tanks and SPGs. At dawn on November 2nd, the 3rd Guards Tank Army concentrated on the Lutezh foothold. Another day later, the German forces blocking the foothold came under fire from an artillery barrage. The result of 203 mm fire was impressive. In the first hours after the barrage, only individual mortars and guns could fire back. The infantry took the first two kilometers without significant resistance.

In the first day of the offensive, only infantry divisions pushed back the Germans. Rybalko's army stepped into battle on November 4th. The reports read: "The enemy was not expecting massed tank action in this sector. This is confirmed by the fact that the tank army encountered little meaningful anti-tank obstacles in their penetration." Knocked out tanks at Bukrin successfully captured the attention of the German high command and its forces. Few of them remained at Lutezh. Even the sapper groups of the 3rd Guards ended up eliminating or capturing small leftover enemy groups.

On the midnight of November 5th, tank brigades of the 7th Guards Tank Corps occupied the northern outskirts of Svyatoshino and cut off the Kiev-Zhitomir highway. The remaining German forces had only one direction to retreat in: the Kiev-Fastov highway and railroad. This trip was the last for many that tried to take it. Battles for Kiev raged on until November 6th. In the middle of the day, the last pocket of resistance was cleared out.

On the dawn of that day, the 91st Independent Tank Brigade moved out to Fastov, crushing everything in its path. By the evening, it was at the city's outskirts. Facing heavy resistance, brigade commander Yakubovskiy feigned an attack from the east, but attacked from the north with his main forces (a tank and an infantry battalion). By the morning of November 7th, Fastov was cleared of the enemy.

General Schell's Counterattack

The Germans tried to fight back. The task was given to the fresh 25th Tank Division, newly arrived from France. F. Mellentin left a very creative description of the events in his memoirs: "During the day of November 7th, the advance guard saw Russian T-34 tanks south of Fastov, and ran in panic. These inexperienced men ran in horrible disorder until General Schell, the division commander, personally intervened and collected his units. They managed, with great difficulty, to tear away from the pursuing Russians, losing almost all of their transport. On November 8th, von Schell arrived at the HQ at Belaya Tserkov and his division came under our command."

On November 9th, the tank regiment of the 25th Division arrived from Kirovograd. The division had orders to do whatever it takes to stall the Russians advancing to the south and south-west. This time, the Germans made it all the way to the eastern ourskirts of Fastov before the attack failed. The Germans losses were so great that the 25th Division was incapable of performing any offensive action for several weeks.

The fate of the 25th Tank Division is well illustrated in a drawing in the report of the captured inventory department of the 3rd Guards Tank Army. The mountain of scrap that marks December 1943's 556 tons recovered contains a tank with a distinctive cross on its armour. Not a surprising fate for tanks of a broken and retreating army. Next year, these masses of scrap would become even more frequent for the Germans.

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 fond 315 (3rd Guards Tank Army)
  • D. Shein, Tanki Vedyet Rybalko
  • V. Goncharov, Bitva za Dnepr
  • V.F. Mellentin, Tankoviye Srazheniya 1939-1945: Boyevoye primeneniya tankov vo Vtoroy Mirovoy Voyne
Original article available here

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