Friday 16 September 2016

World of Tanks History Section: Crushing the Tarnopol Fortress

The main purpose of new IS-2 heavy tanks that appeared in the Red Army in 1944 was the destruction of German pillboxes with their 122 mm guns. Fighting enemy tanks was not a priority. However, plans and forecasts rarely work in war. The IS tanks got a chance to test themselves against enemy armour soon after they arrived on the battlefield.

This happened in the spring of 1944, during the Proskurovo-Chernovtsy operation. In addition to their other objectives, the Soviet forces had to surround the German 1st Tank Army. Colonel-General Chernyakhovskiy's 60th Army participated in this task. One of the first targets in its path was Tarnopol (modern day Ternopol). Hitler declared it a Festung: a city-fortress that German forces had to hold until the last man. On April 11th, it was time for the defenders to carry out that order.
Another useless fortress

The 1st and 4th Guards Tank Armies helped Chernyakhovskiy's troops encircle the German garrison in the city by April 24th. The German commanders understood that their Fuhrer's loud words and hysterical orders to hold at any cost could not help in battle against the superior Red Army forces. Attempts to remove the Tarnopol blockade began soon after it was established. Colonel Werner Friebe was tasked with this objective. He collected a combat group from his battered 8th Tank Division, but since he could only muster 24 Panthers and 6 Hummels, nine Tigers from the 507th battalion were temporarily assigned to him. Friebe attacked, but his first attempt petered out after it hit Soviet T-34s, SU-85 tank destroyers, and two anti-tank artillery regiments. The second attempt was tried in mid-April.

This time, the group would act alongside the recently arrived 9th SS Tank Division and several other units, including the 653rd Ferdinand battalion and panzergrenadiers from SS division Hohenstaufen. The Germans' strength lay in their large amount of APCs, which increased the infantry's mobility and protected it from artillery fire.

Soviet commanders realized the possibility of a new German offensive, so Chernyakhovskiy's army received additional forces, the most valuable of which was Lieutenant-General A. Panfilov's 6th Guards Tank Corps. Aside from T-34 brigades, the corps contained the 11th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment, equipped with brand new IS-2s.

Only 11 kilometers

The next German offensive was scheduled for April 11th, 1944. As it often happened, the SS and Wehrmacht commanders had a falling out, so the first few days of the offensive were unenthusiastic. Their main success involved the capture of a foothold at the Vyazushka river while Friebe's main forces were fruitlessly bashing against the Soviet defenses to the north. It took two days to agree on how the enemy forces would unite, but nature threw them a wild card. Powerful rains washed away the roads to the foothold, preventing the Germans from moving their forces there.

Two days of battles revealed to the Soviets how the Germans were planning to get through to Tarnopol. Most available artillery was moved closer to the enemy foothold and T-34s were positioned behind the infantry. IS tanks were left in reserve.

By April 14th, the Germans finally assembled their tank spearhead. Artillery and several waves of bombers worked over the Soviet defenders. This dealt significant damage to the 135th Rifle Division which was in the path of the breakthrough, and their anti-tank units could not stop the enemy. The Germans broke through to the positions of the 339th Howitzer Artillery Regiment, which was almost entirely lost.

T-34s from the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade helped slow down the enemy's tanks, but 76 mm guns of the T-34s could do little against Tigers, Panthers, and Ferdinands. By the evening of April 15th, 9 tanks were left in the brigade out of the initial 30. Only 11 kilometers separated Friebe from Tarnopol.

By the way, there were no longer any Germans in Tarnopol. The city's commandant, Major General von Naidorf, decided to collect the remainder of the garrison and break through towards his relief when he heard that help was coming. They managed to get to the Zagrebelye village where they were finally pinned down. The little scrap of land that the Germans held was constantly pounded by bombs and artillery. Pauses between barrages were used by Soviet troops to attack again. Von Naidorf died on April 15th, and Colonel von Schenfeld took command. He led the remaining 1500 Germans to try and break through westward on the night of April 16th. Only 55 made it through to their own.

Time for large calibers

Friebe did not yet know on the morning of April 16th that there was no one left to save. He thought that one more decisive blow and the defenses would fall apart. Half an hour before noon, after an artillery barrage and bombing runs, the German forces moved out. This is when the 122 mm guns of the IS tanks made themselves known.

The breakthrough regiment was well prepared to deflect the German attack. The defenses were built in two echelons. One platoon (two tanks) was sent to cover the road to Tarnopol. 600 meters from the IS-2s, the remaining T-34s dug in. Open terrain spread out in front of the defenders, and German tanks showed up like targets at a range. Gunners calmly let the enemy approach, and a heavy shell put an end to the tank. A maximum of two rounds was needed for a Tiger or a Panther.

From documents regarding this battle:

"Guards Lieutenant Yudovin's crew burned up a heavy German tank from 1400 meters, and a second tank from 1200 meters. Guards Lieutenant Vovk's tank burned up two German tanks from 1200-1500 meters."

"Guards Junior Lieutenant Pankov's crew burned up one enemy tank from 1400 meters and three tanks from 1200 meters."

"Gunner Guards Sergeant Maskoryants burned up 4 German tanks with his sight set to 14."

It took a while for the Germans to understand the full extent of the problem. After the attempt to push through the Soviet defenses through the shortest route (along the highway) failed, attempts were made to attack from various directions. They tried to feel out a weak spot or try to go around tanks and infantry. IS tanks did not let them: they did not stop at firing from a standstill, but manevered and deflected one attack after another. During the battle, the commanders even sent a part of the tanks to destroy the group of escapees from Tarnopol that tried to get through the forest past their positions.

As a result of the fierce fighting, the 11th Guards Heavy Tanks Regiment reported 29 knocked out tanks.

On the next day, Friebe attempted another attack. He already knew that the Festung in Tarnopol was no longer there, but there was still hope to save at least a portion of the forces that were breaking out of the encirclement. This attempt cost Friebe another few tanks. Over two days of battles, the IS tanks knocked out 37 tanks, having lost 4 tanks burned and 5 knocked out. Personnel losses consisted of 14 dead and 4 wounded. On the morning of April 16th, 13 Tigers were listed in Friebe's group. Two days later, there were only six. Total losses added up to 50-60 tanks.

IS tanks at Tarnopol did not fight in their designated role, but their effectiveness against the best German tanks at the time impressed Soviet commanders, and soon additional instructions on how to use the new tanks were published. They stated that IS-2 regiments must be kept as an anti-tank reserve and be introduced into battle in a decisive direction. Several months later, this tactic worked wonderfully on the Sandomierz foothold.

Original article by Andrei Ulanov.


  1. considering that 22 IS2 were reportedly engaged by 9 Tiger-I, and managed to disable 3 for 9(4+5?) losses on their own....

    1. I think the Panthers and Ferdinands (and whatever else was scrounged up for the operation) would like a word with you...

    2. I do not think you have a realistic thinking on how a battle happens in real life....

    3. I like how you managed to only care about the Tigers' losses when Friebe's group lost 50-60 tanks in total.

    4. I would more care about that 24 Panthers which are more dangerous oponents for IS-2 than Tiger itself. Plus some Tigers could be knocked by T-34s with subcalibers before they should end up with bigger hole (holes) from 122 mm, but Panthers hardly.

    5. Yes, there were Panther´s present but so were on the russian side T34 and many -many Anti tank guns dispersed as well as both, artillery and air support. Neither of them was to Friebe´s disposal.
      Conveniently, losses in soviet T34 and anti tank guns have been quietly talked away from the article, by returning data only on IS losses.
      Plus, there were not 50-60 tanks lost in Friebe´s group.

      Actual losses (including mechanically disabled, and recovered) are recorded for Friebe´s battlegroup:
      3 Tiger
      4 Panther
      12 Pz-IV
      21 StuG

      = 19 tanks + 21 gun armed AFV. I doubt that all except two of them were lost to IS tanks given the range of anti tank guns present in this sector.

    6. T-34 losses are explicitly mentioned in the article. Did you even read it?

    7. Soviet report says about 10 destroyed Panthers from 16. April.

    8. They are not specified in that the number of t34 losses is not given in this article, whiches focus is solely on IS2. Anti tank gun losses or troop losses are not even mentioned...

      The largely successful supression of the Tarnopol breakout was an event mentioning. And it was a tactical victory, sure. However, the question remains whether or not the big event was the loss of ~2000 troops garrissioning Tarnopol, or

      the battles around Korsun pocket a couple of weeks earlier which resulted in a pocket breakout with more serious lossess incurred (breakout not prevented but costly), or
      that the wandering Hube pocket established contact with Haussers Divisions again on the 15th after fighting it´s way through for more than 180km and successfully extracting 200,000 troops from an already executed encirclement with minimum casualties. Something Konev couldn´t prevent with all his force.

    9. [quote]Soviet report says about 10 destroyed Panthers from 16. April.[/quote]

      It´s only a claim. Claims are not much worth and may be inflated. Inflation can result from two reasons: Intentionally or casually because an actual tank kill has been claimed by more than one party shooting at it independently, which in prepared defensive battles as this, was frequently the case if the attacker got caught in the cross fire between T34, IS2 and anti tank gun.

    10. Well, sure. But by this time the Soviets tended to be the ones left in control of the battlefield, meaning they could actually verify the claims.

      Which they also did since they had standing bounties for tank (and presumably other) kills and weren't going to fork over the rubles for unverifiables.

    11. Are You suggesting that the soviets knew better than the germans how many losses the germans had?

    12. I'm saying that by this point of the war they were far less likely to get away with selling their superiors horse cakes about enemy losses, as said superiors could and did check the claims.

      As for the Germans, well... They actually had some pretty funny habits when it came to reporting their own losses at least in terms of AFVs y'know. Namely a tendency to not write stuff off as losses until there was not even the *lightest* chance of returning it to duty one way or another - in practice usually meaning wrecked beyond possibility of repair or captured by the enemy.
      Shot-up hulks in repairs depots, though? Nope. Totally not "casualties" - at least until the repair depot gets captured, which is how at least one unit "lost" a score of Tigers in a single day in Normandy...

      Indeed this site tends to take unabashed glee in providing examples of this peculiar practice and its corollaries.

    13. No. The Soviets got away selling their overcaims. At Kursks, where they were in possession of the battlefield they claimed at levels beyond sanity:

      Just check soviet air forces claims which usually are not in the focus of these works. Soviet sources claim that the 9th Pz.Div. lost in 20 minutes air attack 70 (!) tanks. The 3rd Pz.Div. is supposed to have lost 220 tanks and 2000 men KIA in 20 hours in air attacks alone. The 17th PzDiv finally is claimed to have lost 240 tanks in just four hours.
      A total of 530 german tanks claimed as knocked out by the air armies.
      The 9.PD reported only 25 TWO during the whole battle (all causes), the 3rd PD reported 9 TWO (not incl. 3 Pz II which were lost to anti tank gun and mines) with a total of 235 KIA and 27 MIA during the whole campaign.
      the 17th PD did not even take part in the battle at all and reported no losses.
      Overclaiming for air force ground attack seems to have been present on the german side, too. The Hs-129 attack on july, 8th on soviet tank formations is a known case of exceptional overclaim, too.
      The germans, too, overclaimed, but in average by just 30% to 50% where verifyable informations are aviable.

      Coming to TWO, yes, the german practice was to report only when either the tank was burned out (heat exposure changed the martensitic steel structure and making the armor excessively brittle, so repair was improssible it had to be discarded) or the terminal loss materialized. F.e. german pioneers blew up ~70 Pz V in repair shops in Belgorod once the city was abandoned and no means for transportation of the damaged vehicles were at hand. These tanks may be hit by previous action (frequently suffered mechanical problems rendering them inoperative, too).

      But if You are familar with german reporting, You will notice not only TWO but also damaged vehicles are reported, often with the required time of fixing in addition to the number of vehicles at hand. So casualties are therein indirectly mentioned, You just need to take all aviable data into account and not only TWO.

      That soviet historians deliberately lied, faked and manipulated statistics in their ww2 works is nothing special, the general practice was confessed by soviet historian G.Koltunov in his article 1996 after the fall of the SU.

      But what is helpful is that there also came a bright generation of new historians, Gorbac, Chazanov and Sokolov, scholars which recently came under pressure for their lack of historical "patriotism"...

    14. As for the first part, ground-attack kill claims were universally bullshit and pretty much every military slashed their pilots' claims by AT LEAST half as a starting point.

      I don't quite see why you think this is at all relevant to ground-troops claims.

      As for two, among the funny habits of German bookkeeping was to play coy with the definition of "under repairs" and eventually claim scuttling - when in practice the AFV in question had been a wreck in enemy hands for weeks already. So, yeah.

      Also not sure why you think the academic integrity or lack thereof of postwar Soviet historians has fuck-all to do with the military's internal reporting during the war.

    15. You need to slash soviet ground attack claims for Kursks not by half -but by over 90% instead. It represents a difference whether or not one out of two claims is true or one out of ten.

      As for german bookkeepers. Really it´s not their fault. They do exactly what is required, the dayly loss reporting is not at all for Your consideration but for the higher level staff. They get real facts on which they may assess the tactical and operational capability of the reporting units and whether or not they have sufficient forces left to execute the tasks they are supposed to deal with.
      THIS was their primary concern.

      The interpretation of these data is where people quibble a lot about today. But they seem to forget that extraction of loss data is done by historians or even wannabe historians, and not by the units themselves.

      And once historians start to be selective of sources, or manipulating sources, or outright fake data You run into a string of problems...

    16. I've seen a Soviet post-battle analysis of ACTUAL enemy AFV losses to ground-attack aircraft at Kursk. No prizes for guessing how well it supported the pilot claims.

      Again, I fail to see how this is at all relevant to ground-troop claims where not only were forces in far better position to observe the kill in the first place (and indeed witness corroborations were among the requirements for Soviet bounty payments), but also the enemy losses far more readily verifiable afterwards by salvage teams and whatever.
      Especially after failed attacks as the other guy had that much harder time recovering his KO'd toys from amongst hostile positions...

      As far as German bookkeeping went, ofc the unit commanders had a very good idea of what the *actual* combat strengths and casualties were. The whole issue is that this more often than not was something completely different from the blatant spin they recorded in writing and reported upwards; not only does this make it somewhat complicated to disentangle vehicles "undergoing repairs" (ie. unadmitted casualties) from those ACTUALLY being legitimately fixed, it also meant the German top brass literally couldn't trust the numbers the frontline commanders reported and duly much of the time had little idea of the real status of the forces on the ground. (This internal misinformation coupled with absurdly exaggerated claims of enemy losses cannot have helped helped Hitler's growing predilection for increasingly fantastical plans any.)

      Soviet reporting practices were virtually the polar opposite. They wrote down almost any vehicle that was out of action for nigh any reason, for whatever amount of time, as a "loss" - including those sent to the rear for routine maintenance and so on. Actual *irrecoverable* casualties were of course recorded separately.

    17. Contrary to Your interpretation, the German high level staff got an excellent picture about loss structure and once You familarize with the procedure (which dates back, btw. to 1938) You realize that during any time of all offensive operations, a significant number of tanks in armored formations (typically 50%) was undergoing repair, except for the initial days before combat after resting and refitting. This is normal level. At a certain point into the campaign, an equilibrium establishes at which the repair shops turn out as many vehicles as were damaged and the number of tanks at hand stabilized unless accumulated TWO reduced the pool (notice that damage in aprox. 30% to 50% of the cases was mechanical / accident and not combat related to start with).
      The problem with soviet sources is that access to files is restricted and soviet historian did not show an interest to accurately explore soviet losses on their own, creating a lack of sources. Sokolov exploited this in his various, not so much liked books.
      German loss sources on the other hand are publicly acessible, and can be studied.
      During ww2, the soviets did both at times, reported TWO and damaged together or seperately. Their repair effects were hampered by a less developed rapair system structure aviable, an excess of readily aviable resupply tanks provided by the industry and by the fact that the german kill claiming system required a tank to be burned before claims could be made, resulting often in attack on already disabled tanks, worsening their condition beyond economic repair. Burned out tanks are always irrecoverable.

      This brings us back to soviet kill claims on the ground. Where then are the 300 tank kills claimed by the Soviets at Prochovka? Or what about the ten PANTHER claimed at Tarnopol when in fact only four such casualties are recorded by removing four Pz V from the -on hand- tabulation?

      What You do attempt here is borderline methodology. Trying to rebuff both, german loss description as well as justify claim exageration on the soviet side. I am wondering whether or not You are aware that this doesn´t serve history, it only serves soviet propaganda.

    18. Would it be rude to point out that at Prokhorovka the Germans were left holding enough of the battlefield (until the 17th) to recover their KO's which duly also means the Soviets couldn't just walk up and check the claims of their troops...?

      The latter certainly made no bones about their own losses in the reports sent up the chain though.

      As far as the Tarnopol engagement goes that article specifically noted that the Panther claims cannot be readily verified so eh. Overlapping claims of the same kill, recovery efforts, the usual.

      Conversely, well, I'd suggest checking the "cross-examination" and "forgery" labels to the right (which not coincidentially often occur in the same articles) to get some idea of the downright vertiginous scale at which dubious German kill claims could be made. They're on a bit different order of magnitude than 4 to 10...

      Also still waiting to hear wtf the universally and notoriously dubious ground-attack claims you brought up have to do with the topic. Or was that just a red herring?

    19. Just going to leave this here:

    20. Well, as You might recognized, I am a methodological person, and as far as claims are concerned, I do not put much faith in them. That is true for all sides. Certainly, I do not accept german kill claims for the same reasons, either. It´s just a claim. So don´t be surprised if claims do fail to match actual loss reports.

      Actual losses at Prochovka were very few on the german side. The strength reportings of the three divisions involved was stable throughout this period (counting only on-hand tanks) with a slight decline in the on-hand number of tanks from 12th july to 16th july by 2 (in words: two) tanks on hand due to accumulation of TWO. This does not mean that only two tanks of the IInd Corps were knocked out, rather it can be taken to understand that the number of knocked out vehicles was not noticably higher than the number of tanks returned from the repair shops in this period. TWO were about or less than 17 tanks/SPG for II. corps. Corresponding irrecoverable tank losses for 5th GTA according to Rotmistrovs account were 323 tanks and 11 SPG. Thus, the number of tank kill claimed by Rotmistrov equalled approx. his own losses but bear little relationship to losses incurred on tanks of the II. Corps.
      It´s possible that the soviet overclaim at Prochovka was similarely large as with their contemporary ground attack overclaim, or approaching 10:1, which is the entire point of it, as it devaluates the notion that the soviets were better able to check the correctness of their claims in this period.

      Returning to Tarnopol, the basic culprit of this article still stands: The incompletenss and pre-selection of information. What is required is an assessment who claimed what and how many losses were incurred. Not only IS2 took part in this battle.

      What about T34 claims and losses?
      What about anti-tank gun and SPG claims and losses?
      What about artillery claims and losses?
      What about airforce claims and losses?
      What about infantery claims and losses?

      These elements need to be included in addition to IS2 claims and losses in order to extract any meaningful interpretation.
      The way it is presented here, an ill informed reader might deduce incorrectly that IS2 killed 50-60 tanks for maybe 4-9 losses on their own -and this is demonstrably a misleading charackterisation of the battle.

    21. Leaving Prokho aside because I'm too tired to deal with that shit right now, I'd point out that the *topic* of this article is the early use of IS-2's in a role outside that which they were designed for.

      And that hypothetical ill informed reader should just stop being fucking stupid and practice proper reading comprehension instead.

  2. I would like to know why apparently history section only contains Soviet victories. As everyone is well aware Germans made errors but the soviets especially in the beginning of the war made countless.

    1. You are welcome to follow the source link and complain to Wargaming directly about a lack of pro-German articles.

    2. For a variety of reasons Soviet fumblings are pretty well known even in the popular imagination. For a variety of not entirely unrelated reasons, the least of which wasn't deliberate spin work by COINCIDENTIALLY German former participants, German ones are... rather less so.

      Or to exaggerate only slightly, the popular image tends to be that Ze Germanz were teh bestest soldiers evar and only the political leadership made mistakes.
      Which is ofc complete bullshit and tends to annoy both actual historians and informed laymen already in the "West".

  3. Hey I wonder if you are playing war thunder ground battles? Never meant to wage wars on which game is better but war thunder would probably suit a military history lover better as it is more realistic. In fact I am looking forward to some war thunder tanks history sections....

    1. "World of Tanks History Section" is called that because these articles were published in the historical articles section of the Russian World of Tanks website. As far as I am aware, War Thunder does not publish historical articles.