Sunday 29 November 2015

World of Tanks History Section: Wolf's Lair Under Tank Tracks

The last 70 kilometers before Berlin were one of the most dangerous regions for tanks in the Great Patriotic War. From Seelow Heights to the capital of Germany, Soviet tanks had to tear their way through 8 defensive lines. Where there wasn't a town turned into a fortress, there was a forest with mines and barricades, moats, rivers, and anti-tank ditches. Terrain preferred by tanks could only be found west of Berlin.

Soviet commanders sent four of the six tank existing armies to storm Berlin, as well as individual tank and mechanized corps, brigades, and regiments. Tankers received the last wave of reinforcements for the war. The Red Army had over 6000 tanks and SPGs to send to Berlin. Even experienced crews, not to mention newbies, had little experience fighting in large cities. Until now, most contributions to city fighting were made by infantry and artillery. Armoured forces needed to gather this experience in combat and write one of the most notable pages in the history of Soviet tanks.

Seelow Clench

On April 16th, 1945, a Soviet artillery barrage fell on the Germans surrounding the Kostrzyn foothold. On G.K. Zhukov's orders, 140 floodlights were turned on to light the way of the attacking forces. The air, full of smoke and dust, turned into a blinding screen that impeded both Soviet and German soldiers.

Zhukov's plan involved the penetration of the Seelow Height defenses by combined arms forces, not tank ones. However, the Germans managed to pull back their main forces out of the range of Soviet artillery, and by the middle of the first day it was clear that a quick penetration of enemy defenses would not be possible. Meanwhile, the Germans were sending more and more forces to Seelow Heights, including those formerly defending Berlin. The situation was made more difficult due to Zhukov's hope on aircraft clearing the way. Poor weather allowed minimal interference from the air force.

The Marshal made a difficult choice: send in tank armies of the 1st Belorussian Front without waiting for a breakthrough. Even armour could not buy rapid success. The Red Army was like a man slowly and painfully making his way through thorny bushes. Units lots men and machinery, but a loss of tempo meant that the Germans had more time to strengthen Berlin, already a formidable fortress.

The difficulty of the offensive created another problem: assault groups formed specifically for fighting in Berlin disintegrated. On April 22nd, Zhukov ordered the formation of new groups, with the inclusion of tanks and entire tank units. Since the plan was to fight around the clock, daytime and nighttime groups were created.

The capital of the Reich awaited its last battle. Its streets were crossed with barricades, tanks were dug in at intersections, each house was a stronghold. Volkssturm militia supplemented the ranks of the defenders.

Block by block

One of Hitler's last orders said "There is no need for each defender of the Imperial capital to know the art of war in detail. It is more important that each defender is encouraged by fanatical will and desire for victory." Volkssturm, riled up by fascist propaganda, had no shortage of fanaticism and had plenty of Panzerfausts.

Infantry was needed to protect tanks from Panzerfausts. Mechanized units and combined arms formations had enough infantry to protect their armoured vehicles. Dedicated tank units did not fare as well. Due to a lack of infantry, some tanks were stuck in the close rear, but Germans with Panzerfausts managed to sneak in even there.

Tank brigades used assault groups that included four tanks, two SPGs, one 76 mm gun, two high caliber DShK machineguns, and two mortars. There were only two infantry squads, about 20 men. At the same time, a mechanized unit's assault group had more tanks, more guns, and more infantry (two companies, at least five times as many men). In these conditions, one could not hope for reliable protection from Panzerfausts.

Here is how assault groups fought: two head tanks each fired on their side of the street. They were followed by SPGs, 30-40 meters back, who destroyed any weapon emplacements that revealed themselves. Behind them, machineguns mounted on cars worked on targets on the roof and upper floors. Where 12.7 mm bullets were not enough, shells from the last two tanks would do the job.

By the evening of April 25th, Soviet forces penetrated the innermost and most protected fortification line. Battles after that took place in the city center. Allied bombers already partially destroyed this part of the city, and the Germans did their part, turning the ruins into a deadly maze. Barricades often hid dug-in tanks, pointing their barrel through a narrow slit. Discovering these ambushes ahead of time was impossible.

The Last Push

The lack of infantry forced even headquarters to enter the firefight. On April 27th, the commander of the 1st Guards Tank Brigade, A.M. Temnik and commander of the 21st Mechanized Brigades, P.E. Laktionov were heavily wounded. Both colonels died on the next day, narrowly missing victory. Some tank units received infantry when already in battle. For example, the 2nd Tank Army received the 1st infantry division of the First Polish Army.

Assault groups covered block after block, but individual Germans with Panzerfausts tried to seep through the front lines and take up positions in territory that was already cleared. The Red Army had a very simple and effective tactic of dealing with them: any house or block where Panzerfaust crews were found was levelled with artillery fire.

On April 30th, Soviet forces reached the Reichstag. On the next day, the Poles and 12th Guards Tank Corps tried to take the Tiergarten railroad station. Even Polish courage and Ural steel was not enough: "as a result of fierce resistance from the enemy inside the building, behind powerful fortifications, the corps was unsuccessful." Tiergarten only fell late that night.

At the same time, elements of the 2nd Guards Tank Army were storming the Berlin Zoo. "War in a zoo" might sound funny, but not in Berlin, and not in 1945. This was the site of the commandant's headquarters, so the zoo was turned into a fortress. One of the main elements of the zoo's defenses was the AA tower, Flakturm am Zoo. This enormous structure could withstand hits from 152 mm shells, and 203 mm concrete penetrating shells could only destroy it partially. Battles for the zoo and the neighbouring racetrack lasted until May 1st.

The last battle in Berlin was fought by tanks of the 4th Guards Tank Brigade, destroying the German group trying to break out from the vicinity of the Spandau prision.

It is hard to overstate the impact of tanks on the assault on Berlin. However, victory is one thing, and experience is another. The conclusions of Soviet commanders, based on careful examination of many documents, was unanimous: "The use of tank armies to capture cities cannot be recommended based on experience of the Berlin operation."

Original article available here.

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