Friday 30 September 2016

World of Tanks History Section: Sagopshin Tank Battle, Prokhorovka in the Caucasus

The Wehrmacht offensive towards the Caucasus in 1942 had two goals. The secondary was to cut the line of Lend-Lease supplies, but the primary goal was to reach the local oil supply. At the time, Caucasian wells accounted for 70% of the USSR's oil. It's not hard to imagine what a loss of these wells would mean for the USSR, which was already doing poorly in 1942, or what a godsend it would be for the fuel-starved German army.

On September 2nd, 1942, the Germans crossed the Terek river and wedged themselves into the Soviet defenses. Fierce battles were fought around Malgobek. This village and others nearby cut off the Germans from the Alkhanchurtskaya Valley, from where the precious oil was a stone's throw away. The Germans picked the Sagopshin settlement (modern day Sagopshi), just south of Malgobek, to deliver their decisive strike. The elite 5th SS Motorized Division "Viking" was chosen to attack here.

Anti-Tank Gorge

The 5th division mobilized serious resources for the attack on Sagopshin: "Westland" and "Nordland" motorized regiments, a tank battalion, elements of a tank destroyer squadron, artillery. Even though the Germans were battered from prior battles and were running low on shells, they still outnumbered the defenders in both tanks and men.

Viking's tank battalion counted 48 tanks, mostly long-barreled PzIIIs (34 tanks). There were also nine PzIVs and five PzIIs. In addition, the enemy had around 10 StuG assault guns.

The Soviet 52nd Tank Brigade commanded by Major V. Filippov had only 30 tanks to oppose them: 2 T-34s, 5 KV-1s, 13 light T-60s and 8 M3 Stuarts. A battalion of motorized infantry and Major F. Dolinskiy's 863rd Tank Destroyer Regiment also participated in the battle. However, good defensive positions and skill of the commanders were on our side.

Filippov and Dolinskiy developed the battle plan together. They decided to defend the stretch between Terskiy and Sunzhenskiy escarpments. Three anti-tank lines were built. Each consisted of a tank ambush, anti-tank guns on the flank, and submachinegunners. The first line, with three ambushes, was designed to disperse the German battering ram and deliver maximum losses. This line contained Stuarts, and, most likely, both T-34s. The second line contained KV tanks and 76 mm guns. The last line was meant to finish off whatever forces broke through the first two. The trap was set.

When the SS-men flowed through the bottleneck, they sprung the trap. What happened next went down in history as the most fierce tank battle during the fighting at Malgobek. Modern researcher T. Matiev called it "the Caucasian Prokhorovka".

Slaughter in the Valley

On September 28th, 1942, the Germans were preparing to attack when they were struck by Soviet artillery and mortars. Sadly, the damage was more emotional than physical. Soviet documents go on to say that the enemy "in a force of 120 tanks, supported by submachinegunners and powerful artillery and mortar fire attacked from Ozerniy sector with two columns of three echelons each". The numbers are exaggerated, and only about 50 tanks participated in the attack.

The Germans attacked in the fog, counting on it to save them from Soviet fire. However, when the fog lifted the SS saw that they walked into a trap. The defenders' mortars and cannons fired at a range of 700-800 meters, and machineguns swept off the tank riders. Then the storm of steel hit the German infantry, which was advancing a few hundred meters behind the tanks.

The Viking tankers didn't notice that their infantry support was cut off. They decided to advance right up to the Soviet positions. Already on the first line, six enemy tanks burned up. A shell hit the tank of Sturmbahnfuhrer (Major) Mulenkamp. "The first hit came right behind the turret. The engine caught fire, the turret lifted up a bit. The back of my chair was torn to shreds, and I lay, thrown against the gun breech, yelling "Everyone out of the tank!"" Mulenkamp survived, but his gunner did not.

The German tanks engaged in a duel with Soviet tanks. Tankers of the 52nd brigade knocked out the tanks of the 1st and 3rd company commanders, leaving the SS-men without command. Soviet howitzers and Katyushas that were positioned in Sagopshin and Malgobek joined the tanks and AT guns. Ground attack aircraft appeared in the sky.

The Germans claim that the tank battalion and tank destroyer squadron was hit by a counterattack of over 80 Soviet tanks. Considering that Filippov's brigade only had 30 tanks, this is inaccurate. Nevertheless, the actions of our tankers and pilots resulted in fearsome losses. "When I arrived at the HQ of the 1st battalion of the Westland regiment, I saw the battalion commander, Sturmbahnfuhrer von Halden, completely lost while trying to figure out his casualties. I will never forget that moment" recalls Mulenkamp.

A battle of two Majors

In the second half of the day, regrouping after the Soviet counterattack, the Germans attacked again. By this point, the Viking tank battalion lost about a third of its tanks, and Mulenkamp was knocked out once more after moving to a different tank.

The battle reignited and separated itself into several separate clashes. According to documents of the 52nd Tank Brigade, German tanks broke through to the headquarters and Filippov entered the fray in his own tank, knocking out 5 enemies.

The situation was still dire, so Filippov sent in his reserve, a company of seven tanks that attacked the flank and knocked out several tanks. Mulenkamp himself spoke highly of the maneuver. "Here I saw that Russian T-34s got around us and were driving a wedge between the tank battalion and Westland regiment. Someone spectacular was commanding the Russian tanks." At that point, the SS commander had his third tank of the day knocked out under him.

The commander of the anti-tank artillery regiment, Dolinskiy, also personally stepped in to replace a gun crew that was killed in battle. The Major knocked out two tanks. Senior Lieutenant P. Dym's battery also performed well, knocking out several German cars, a German battery, and a few tanks (the documents say 17, but that is unlikely). Soviet infantry clashed with German, anti-tank riflemen fired at SPGs and armoured halftracks. Taking heavy losses but still unable to break through, the Germans retreated and built defensive positions in the lowlands by Sagopsin until the night.

Flugel's breakthrough: the dud trump card

On September 28th, the Germans were not satisfied with a frontal attack. About ten tanks commanded by Obersturmfuhrer G. Flugel with tank riders circled around the Soviet defenders and aimed to go around Sagopshin from the north. This group moved out before the battle in the valley even started. Flags accidentally left by Soviet sappers let them navigate the minefield.

Thankfully for our soldiers, the group came across Soviet tanks positioned on the slopes of the gorge. The battle was fought at a stone's throw, some 50 meters. The Germans insist that they knocked out two T-34s, but since all T-34s were fighting in the valley, this is a mistake and these would have been T-60s or Stuarts. By the second half of the day, Flugel's group blocked the Sagopshin-Nizhniye Achaluki road. Flugel decided to cement his success and send three tanks to the left, but this attempt failed. The Germans retreated and took up defenses at the road.

Flugel's group waited for reinforcements in the afternoon, unaware that Viking's forces took heavy losses in the valley and were stuck there. Soviet aircraft appeared in the sky. The Germans managed to trick our pilots, having removed air identification flags and waving their hands in greeting to the Soviet pilots. The result was unfortunate: Soviet airplanes, and then artillery, hit Sagopshin, which was held by our forces.

However, soon Flugel was attacked by German aircraft that did not recognize their own tanks. A Soviet howitzer barrage followed. The SS commander ordered his tanks and infantry to take cover in an anti-tank ditch. By already knew of Viking's sad fate, so he planned to wait until darkness and retreat. A sudden order to take up defensive positions came at night, so Flugel only sent back three tanks with wounded. The Germans managed to capture several groups of Soviet infantrymen, who were unaware of this daring penetration. On the next day, Flugel was forced to fight his way back to his own lines with heavy losses.

The battle on September 28th at Sagopshin took about 10 hours. According to Soviet data, the enemy lost 54 tanks, 23 of which burned. Filippov's losses were 10 tanks, half of which were irreparable. German documents confirm that their losses in armour were greater than the Soviets'. On September 29th and 30th, they were forced to attack with mostly infantry.

Sagopshin decided the fate of the battle for Malgobek, which, in turn, put an end to the German "oil campaign" in the Caucasus. The precious oil fields were even closer to them than Moscow was in the winter of 1941.

Original article by Stanislav Chernikov.


  1. VIKING´s tank battallion indeed counted 48 tanks - on 26th of september. However, at the time of the attack, the PzAbt. had already taken serious losses and was not up to this strength anymore.

    One PzIIIJ (#112) was total write off on 26th of sep.
    On 27th of september, the PzAbt. took the most serious losses in penetrating through obstacles and the extensive anti-tank ditches prepared by the 57th rifle brigade in front of Sagopshin. During the intensive fighting, 133 PoW were taken, and the records list among other items, nine 76.2mm anti tank guns and 21 45mm anti tank guns in the overrun and captured anti tank positions.
    Losses were more severe than on the following day: One PzIV total write off and three Pz IV knocked out. Further, eleven Pz IIIJ, four Pz IIIe and one Pz II were knocked out and left disabled in the field. At the evening of the 27th of sept. the Pz Abt. Vikings strength was down to:
    4 Pz II, 7 Pz III (short), 11 Pz III (long), 1 Pz IV (short), 4 Pz IV (long) = 27 tanks.

    All of the losses except for one PzIV could be eventually recovered and repaired but they were not aviable for attack on 28th. The PzAbt. therefore requested 10 replacement tanks for being able to carry out the attack on Sagopshin on 28th. Its not clear from the documents whether or not the request was met at all.

    The actual strength was not 48 but -at best- 37 tanks for the attack on 28th. Soviet forces in the area were numerically stronger than VIKING´s Panzerforces on 28th. Acc. to Foczyk, two TB´s were committed at Sagopshin, the 52nd TB and eighteen tanks of the 75th TB (10 M3 and 8 VALENTINE Mk III).

    In the fighting on 28th, the Abt. claimed twelve tanks knocked out(1 KV1, 6 T34 and 5 Valentine Mk III), which seems to match numerical losses within 20% but not the type losses in soviet documents. In all probability, at least one KV1 kill has been mistaken by a T34 claim as the strength was down from 5 KV1 before the battle to 3 on Oct.1st despite reinforcements. The losses of VALENTINEs indicate either misidentification or involvement of the 75th TB. Losses for VIKING were fourteen tanks on this day.

    The 52nd TB claimed that the attack was carried out by 120(...) tanks in two columns (50 +70 tanks), and that it destroyed 54 tanks, both numbers handily exceed the number of german tanks participating in the battle and consitutes a patriotic overclaim. Tank Losses were roughly similar for both parties, an advantage for the soviets in knocked out tanks (10 soviet vs 14 german), while losses in total write offs were to the german advantage (5 soviet vs 3 german).

    1. What about Viking's attached tank destroyers, which I assume were really StuGs?

    2. Tankfront lists the 75th TBr as a part of the Far East Front for the duration of the war, are you sure it was that unit?

    3. Peter,
      not 75th TBP (75th tank brigade) but 75th OTB (75th tank battallion)

  2. While losses in total write offs were to the german advantage (5 soviet vs 3 german).

    Wasn't it pretty routine practice for the Germans *never* to write off any vehicle, no badly how wrecked, unless it was not recovered? Even vehicles that had to be shipped back to Germany to factories to be completely rebuilt were only classified as "damaged", while by Soviet standards such vehicles were classified as write-offs. This is not an apples-to-apples comparison; in the Kursk battles, many of the German vehicles classified as "damaged" were in fact never repaired or rebuilt and indeed were factually write-offs.

    1. Sort of. The Germans did indeed drag away everything but total burnouts. If the tank could not be repaired at the field or depot level, they were sent back to Germany and they were actually called 'lost' and counted that way.
      The Germans had junkyards or fleets of different tanks and they were deemed as scrap or repairable. Parts and complete AFV were created out of the junkyards. Scrap yielded armor and alloys were scarce so even if melted down, they had value. Panzerworld has a nice article.

  3. Peter,

    the temporary attchment orders for the StuGs make it clear that the unit was subjected to VIKING only for the clearing of the obstacles and anti tank ditches on 27th and then had to be returned to the ID. Whether or not these StuG´s were then recommitted as "replacement" for the high losses suffered on 27th, I don´t know. But even if -which is not certain-, that does not increase the number of tanks on hand beyond 37 for 28th., a far cry from the 120 claimed.

    Acc. to R.Foczyk´s book, the 75th TB was committed at Sagopshin together with the 52nd TB on 28th. The strength on 28th of this unit frankly is not known to me. The 18 tanks quoted were on hand according to Kolimietz/Moschansky, on 1st of oct and may not represent strength on 28th. Kolimietz/Moschansky confirm independently of Foczyk that the 75th TB was in the Caucasus and committed at Sagopshin on 28th. The strength was 30 M3 Stuart on 7th of sept. Within 8th of sept. and 1st of oct., the unit lost at least 20 M3 Stuart, but it also got a lot of reinforcements (Valentine Mk III) in this timeframe, understating the number lost somehow.

  4. As far as TWO are concerned, it was routine in german forces to write off a tank if it was burned out, irregardless whether or not it was recovered. But also if it suffered catastrophic hull failure due to direct bomb hits or ammunition explosion or other causes of damage beyond economical repair. It could also be written off if the damage was repairable (shot through, disabling components) but the tank could not be recovered and had to be abandoned.

    Thus, by german standarts, the 5 burned tanks of the 52nd TB are indeed TWO.

    The difference between the fractions of tanks knocked out and TWO between german and soviet cases, frequently observed in engagements has -apart from the competence of the recovery teams- two principal reasons:

    A) the german practice of tank kill claiming required as a precondition of an awarded claim to have the tank burned out (=TWO), as damage in burned out tanks would render them irrecoverable and beyond economic repair (secondary heat exposure embrittling the armor plates). Thus, german tanks and sapper teams often had to continue firing on a knocked out tank in order to set it on fire and burn it intentionally to be able to file a claim with high chances of awarding.
    The Soviet claim system did not require the german tank to burn, it was sufficient to knock it out to file a claim. Thus, a knocked out tank was often not further engaged.

    B) The german 50mm to 128mm anti tank shells were made of higher grade steel, capped and explosive filled type with a reasonably working delay action fuze. The projectile bodies were decrementally hardened and protected by a cap to keep the lower body with the high explosive cavity intact during penetration. This was a requirement to pass acceptance tests of AP projectiles, not only to perforate but also to perforate in a condition fit to burst (=no lower body damage tolerated). The delay action fuze caused high order explosion (when the cavity was intact) in 1/2 to 2/3 of the time after penetrating the armor plate within 45°, in turn greatly increasing the probability to set sth. on fire inside the tank because the explosive effect is more concentrated in confined spaces.

    Soviet AP in this period was either solid AP-shot or APHE, but without AP-cap, with low grade steel and correspondingly soft hardness. Deep fragmentation grooves were cut into the body, which increased the break up and frequent deformations of the projectile body when striking sufficiently thick, or oblique armor plate. There was no requirement to keep the projectile intact after perforation. It was sufficient to make a hole 20% or 80% of the time, the condition of the projectile body did not interested anyone. Consequently, the cavity with the explosive could be cracked or split open which results in premature (before complete penetration) and low order explosion (typically 1/3 as violent as high order detonations), greatly reducing the effect inside the tank behind the armor plate. In the early 50´s, the SU finally adopted the german delay fused APCBC-HE type for tank ammunition.

    1. The German practice sounds like a surefire way to waste quite considerable amounts of time, effort and ammunition...

    2. Not nearly so much more effort with the PzGr.39 at Your disposal. Plus, for the higher command and their considerations of the enemy potential tank forces strength, it´s not really important to know the number of tanks knocked out (damaged), what is important is the number of tanks destroyed. You don´t know how many of the damaged tanks can be returned to operational condition and You cannot possibly know the timeframe required for this but You can expect that a burned out tank is a complete loss for the enemy war effort.

      The Soviets did treated tanks as consumables and probably expected the germans to do likewise.
      Because of the lack of interest to finnish off (burn out) knocked out german tanks and because of the inferior post penetration effect of soviet AP ammunition, and because they had very competent recovery institutions at hand, the Panzertruppen were able to repair 70% to 90% of all knocked out tanks in these battles. Tanks were treated as recoverable and repairable assets by the germans.
      They, however, expected probably the soviets to do likewise, but then again, they didn´t.

    3. The 75th OTB (which you still keep calling 75th TB for some reason) was initially armed with 30 Stuart tanks. I can't find any mention of these Valentines.

    4. I find the reasoning there quite dubious. The goal in battle is to *win*, not kill as many enemies as possible - that's just a means to the end. For immediate practical purposes a merely disabled enemy, whether severely injured footsoldier or recoverably KO'd AFV, is just as good as an irrecoverable casualty as they're no more capable of meaningfully hampering operations.
      Spending time and ammunition in battle merely turning a KO into a TWO smacks of losing sight of the whole point of the exercise and not a little tactically counterproductive. Surely both are better expended on dealing with the still active enemy combatants? Wounded men and busted machines alike can be dealt with in due time once the field is won, after all.

      On another note it's not terribly unusual for Soviet unit-level combat reports to laconically note how they were able to return most of their tanks disabled in the day's combat into service literally overnight, so I daresay you might be overstating something a leeeeetle bit...

    5. Yeah, Soviet repair efforts during the war were rather extensive, with mechanics being awarded medals as much as combat personnel. There was even a saying: "Medals for labour and combat are cast from the same metal."

      Also the Western Allies had the same loss count standards, so treating this as something uniquely Soviet is pretty misguided.

  5. Soviet repair efforts were extensive, that´s not cast in doubt. However, in just too many cases a higher portion of disabled vehicles were eventually recorded as irrecoverably lost. There is nothing You can do about a burned up vehicle. On the other hand, I have seen pictures of TIGER´s peppered with holes but the vehicle did not burned out. "knocked out" =/= "destroyed" but "burned out" == "destroyed".

    My point is just that the german tank kill claim system was different than the soviet claim system, and fitted the OKH´s needs. A lot of effort is put in this blog to cross correlate claims and losses without adressing the question what exactly constitutes a claim and a loss, repectively.
    It doesn´t follow automatically that german was accurate, "probables" were awarded pretty causually and case of extreme overclaim do exist, too. Some kills that were awarded during the war under less than stringent proof would have been revoked after more critical review (Körner´s corner is a good example).
    However, I can see more dedicated effort in the german system in general to approach the claim question than in the soviet system:

    28th at Sagopshin. The germans claimed 12 tanks and the 52nd TB alone lost 5 burned out and 10 knocked out. Losses of 75th OTB are unaccounted for.
    The Soviets in turn claimed 54 german tanks "destroyed" at Sagopshin 28th while the germans lost only 3 burned out / 13 knocked out.

    OKH would take VIKINGs claim and reduce it by 50% to obtain the number of tanks actually lost to the soviet war effort, which is fairly close to what actually happened here and will understate soviet losses in other cases.
    Would STAVKA do the same?

    1. Sagopshin sounds like a very confused engagement where neither side had a very good idea of the other's strength - both would seem to claim the other to have had something like twice again the AFVs he actually possessed. Would hazard a guess of that to be a combination of terrain rendering observation difficult and casualties in the frontline units making any cross-examination of reports challenging.
      The latter would go double for the Soviets here as they apparently lost much, if not most, of their forward defense lines as well as enough of the battlefield for the Germans to be able to get their "recoverables" out. (Which kind of thing ofc also rather rules out any meaningful post-battle headcount of wrecks by the other side.) HF verifying *any* claims under the circumstances when the commanding officers themselves are A LITTLE BIT BUSY personally fighting the penetrations...

      Not really seeing how that kind of counting system particularly fit the Germans' needs insofar military realities were concerned. That kind of "counting heads" seems something far better fit for a lengthy war of attrition, ie. what the Entente planned to fight until the French screwed up and specifically what Germany could NOT afford to get stuck in, not the kind of war of maneuver for rapid decision which they by strategic necessity were banking on...

    2. I posted an extensive Soviet guide that deemed whether or not a vehicle was worthy of repair. It goes way beyond "burned out = lost".

  6. I have seen several tank instructions on this site but nowehere is there the case mentioned that a burned out tank can or should be repaired.
    In fact, the structure in Zaev´s and other primary source data on losses and irrecoverable losses sustained by the fronts in July 1943 suggest strongly that burned out tanks are irrecoverable.

    Central front losses in July:
    Tanks lost to technical problems: 129
    Tanks sunk in bogs: 29
    Tanks knocked out by enemy: 1,393
    Tanks burned out: 949
    Tanks blown up: 209
    Tanks DAMAGED: 187
    Tanks evacuated to repair depot: 55

    Tanks damaged are stirctly seperated from tanks burned. If the soviets really had restored burned out tanks -on a more or less regular base- to fighting condition then it follows that the soviets during ww2 lacked the fundamental understanding of what secondary heat treatment does to armor in regard to embrittlement.

    1. See my post above...

      Soviet tanks, once set alight, also suffered from the eventual detonation of the ammunition. The Soviets used a very sensitive HE type and bailed out crews that were pinned down would take their chances and run away from the burning tank.

  7. The Soviets had a very well structured repair system. I think I read somewhere that each tank had something like 2.5 lives. That is, KO'd but repaired and thrown back into the fight.

    Supposedly, they even had an SOP whereby tanks with so many miles were due for an engine replacement. So, whole units might be withdrawn, and trade out tanks for refurbs. The diesel engines were lousy compared to modern diesels.