Sunday 17 January 2016

World of Tanks History Section: Sinyavino Offensive

1. Introduction

On September 8th, 1941, Shlisselburg fell. German forces reached the shore of Lake Ladoga, closing a ring around Leningrad. Zhukov, who replaced Voroshilov as the head of the Leningrad front, counterattacked all September to free the northern capital. Local attacks were successful, but the overall situation became more and more dire. Petergof, Strelna, Uritsk fell to the Germans. On September 18th, the Germans captured Pushkin. The front only stabilized in October of 1941.

In mid-October, Stavka ordered the first operation to liberate Leningrad. However, Germans struck first, and attacked towards Tihvin on October 16th. On November 8th, despite nonstop counterattacks from the RKKA, the city fell. The Germans took the last railroad to Leningrad. The blockaded city was doomed.

However, with the taking of Tihvin, the German offensive stalled. The front stretched out so far, that it was impossible to move further without collapsing the supply lines. Finns, whose aid was valuable to the Germans, stopped their advance, and weren't in a hurry to go on. The cold winter of 1941 began. The RKKA attempted to throw the Germans back all winter, but without much progress. The summer came, and the Leningrad Front fell silent.

2. Two assaults

Both Germany and the USSR planned to attack in the fall of 1942. The Germans rushed to crush the resistance of the besieged city. For Germany, taking Leningrad would be a strategic and a propaganda victory. The fall of such a major city would be a hit to the morale of the Red Army and all Soviet people. The operation titled "Northern Lights" was scheduled to begin in September. Hitler put Erich von Manstein in charge, who successfully took Sevastopol in the summer of 1942. His 11th army was moved up from the southern fronts, and reinforced with elements of the 18th army. The Germans assembled a force of 12 divisions.

The Soviet side planned to execute its own offensive. The most important part of it fell to the forces of the Volhov Front, which were meant to penetrate the German defenses south of Sinyavino, crush the Mginsk-Synyavino region group, and regroup with the forces of the Leningrad Front. Said forces would attack the enemy in the direction of the Tosna river. The Neva operational group would cross the Neva river, advance on Sinyavino, and reinforce the forces from the Volhov Front. The shortest point in the German defense was found near the Otradnoe village. There, only 16 kilometers separated the fronts. That section was heavily defended, but the Soviet high command expected that an attack from two directions at once could overwhelm it.

3. Combat action

A part of any attack is to confuse the enemy and obscure the direction of the main attack. Sadly, this could not be achieved in this case. By August 4th, German scouts reported that the Soviets would attack south of Lake Ladoga sometime in the middle of the month. Scouts also spotted moving Soviet forces. While the exact plan of attack was not revealed, the Germans made preparations to resist the Red Army's advance.

On August 19th, the forces of the Leningrad front moved out, attacking the German forces at Ust-Tosno. This village was fortified by the Germans with a system of bunkers, trenches, and AT gun positions on both sides of the river. The terrain that the Germans were located on was rather unfriendly to tanks, and swamps from the south and south-west prevented movement through them completely. The only path of armoured attack, the road to Ust-Tosno, was heavily mined, defended by trenches, and was within line of sight of AT batteries.

The attack started on August 19th at 10 am. After an artillery barrage, troops landed on the eastern shore of Tosna. After noon, an infantry regiment and a company of KV tanks joined the attack. The Germans saw KV tanks before, and knew what they were capable of. As soon as the tanks were sighted, all AT fire was focused on them. Tanks tried to maneuver, but fruitlessly. One fell into a crater and got stuck. Two went off-road and were trapped in the swamp. Two more were immobilized by mines. One of the immobilized tanks was penetrated by AT fire and burned. More tanks were assigned to the assault, but no more attempts to regroup were made in that region. Infantry had to proceed with no armour support.

Over several days, the battle raged on. Soviets managed to force the enemy out of Ust-Tosno and capture a portion of the right shore of the river next to the village of Ivanovskoye. German reserves, supported by aviation and artillery, managed to retake Ust-Tosno, gaining nearly all previously held territory. The Soviets retained their section of shore and half of Ivanovskoye.

The Volhov Front moved into battle on August 27th. General Starikov's 8th army struck between two German divisions defending the villages of Gontovaya Lipka and Tortolovo. The first two days of the offensive went very well. The Soviets penetrated the line of defense, crossed the Chernaya River, and got close to Sinyavino.

Keep in mind that the section of the front where the Soviets attacked was very difficult to traverse. General Meretskov, commander of the Volhov Front, later wrote in his memoirs that it would have been hard to find a worse place to attack. The region was full of swamps, forests, and peat bogs. The quality and quantity of roads was horrible. Attacking forces had nowhere to maneuver, the swampy land made it difficult to entrench. Instead of trenches and foxholes, wood and soil fortifications were built. Artillery and mortars had to be placed on wooden platforms so they would not sink into the ground. Sinyavino Heights, towering 10-15 meters over the flat plains, was the only reasonably dry place. They housed key German defenses in the path of the Soviet attack.

Despite the inappropriate landscape, infantry was accompanied by about 150 tanks. Several of those were curious tanks like the KV-8 and OT-34. The OT-34 was a T-34 equipped with a flamethrower, while retaining its 76 mm main gun. Flamethrower tanks were used very successfully. In memoirs, Soviet tank crewmen wrote that Germans would scatter as they approached. Sadly, due to the swampy terrain, tanks could not aid the offensive as much as they wanted to. In order to stop the Soviets, Germans forces from other fronts were moved to the region. By August 29th, Manstein's forces from Crimea were opposing the Soviet advance. The attack was stopped.

On August 29th, Germans sent their first Tiger tanks into battle. 4 tanks of this type, belonging to the 1st company of the 502 heavy tank battalion, were unloaded from the trains at 10 am, and went into battle at 11 am, barely giving German crews time to check their guns and instruments. This rush led to a very poor showing from the Tigers: one Tiger lost its transmission, two more tanks had their engines stall. The Germans hurriedly sent engineering vehicles to recover the tanks. Soviet commanders could not see that these were new tanks, and the Germans managed to recover all three.

By September 4th, the front reached equilibrium. The German reinforcements managed to stop the Soviet attack. 6 kilometers remained to the Neva river, but it was not possible to move even one meter forward.

On September 5th, Manstein's forces counterattacked. The forces at the front of the offensive were encircled and destroyed.

After regrouping, forces of the Volhov front again attacked towards Sinyavino. On September 8th, the 2nd Shock Army managed to destroy several German positions, but it was too late to seriously shift the situation. The offensive stalled. Soviet forces were taking heavy losses in the battles for Sinyavino, Workers' Villages #6 and #7, and Kruglaya Forest. The Soviet front was uneven, leading to small German squads moving past the spearheads, and interfering with supply lines and evacuation of the wounded.

On September 21st, the Germans finished regrouping and counterattacked the Sinyavino spearhead from the north and south. Soviet intelligence could not discover this attack in advance, and Meretskov was not expecting this move. German forces met up in the Gaitolovo region, encircling the 2nd and 8th Soviet armies. Attempts to break out were repelled. After closing the ring at the river Chernaya, German forces suppressed resistance inside the encirclement until October 2nd.

The Volhov Front was defeated. The Leningrad Front wasn't doing too great either. By October 10th, all that was gained was the "Neva Patch", a small foothold by Dubrovka. One battalion managed to hold it until April of 1943.

4. Conclusions

The Sinyavino offensive did not achieve its objectives, but it was not a complete failure, either. Because of it, Germans were forced to break up the forces meant to attack Leningrad in "Northern Lights". Considering that Manstein's soldiers had experience with storming cities, his presence could have proved fatal for Leningrad. Recall that the Germans did not plan to merely capture Leningrad, but completely destroy it. The sacrifice of Soviet soldiers was not in vain. Through a heavy price, they saved the city and its inhabitants.

The lack of Manstein's 11th army weakened the German offensive in the south. Many historians believe that the lack of these forces prevented a German victory in the Caucasus.

Original article available here.

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