Thursday 19 January 2017

World of Tanks History Section: 5th Tank Army in Operation Uranus

By November of 1942, the 5th Tank Army walked a long and not so successful road. It began in the summer, when the newly formed army was sent to attack the flank and rear of the German forces rushing towards Voronezh. Due to poor reconnaissance and incorrect evaluation of the enemy's goals, our tankers were instead forces to engage the enemy tanks head on and took heavy losses.

After an unsuccessful counterattack, the army was disbanded and only reformed in September of 1942. General Prokofiy Romanenko was appointed as the commander. The army received new units: two tank corps (1st and 26th), six rifle divisions, and one cavalry corps. The Stavka intended the 5th Tank Army to play one of the two key roles in the encirclement of Paulus' 6th Army at Stalingrad. That is why Romanenko was given so much infantry: the rifle divisions were going to fight in the first echelon of the offensive and prepare a clean breakthrough for the mobile units. The cavalry corps was supposed to act as ersatz motorized infantry.

Difficult Preparations

The work ahead was difficult. The condition and level of training of the army did nothing to boost the general's confidence in success. For example, out of the 1st Tank Corps, the only unit with good training and combat experience was the 89th Tank Brigade. Regarding the other two tank brigades and the motorized rifle brigade, the report reads "commanders and drivers are poorly prepared" and "the commander cadre has no experience commanding". It's not surprising that these tank units, equipped with brand new tanks straight from the factory, began losing them even before the offensive began. The 1st Corps had 76 combat ready T-34s on November 3rd, 1941, bu November 19th there were only 57. The other half of the corps' tanks was composed of T-60s; only eight tank in the corps were KVs.

Finally, the Soviet forces managed to let the most important factor of a successful offensive slip through their fingers: secrecy. Documents of the 5th Tank Army often complain that crews cannot prepare adequate camouflage, which led to increased reconnaissance, and later bombing, of Soviet positions. Sadly, there were also cases of deserters surrendering to the enemy. In the 14th Guards Rifle Division, seven such incidents were recorded between November 7th and 14th.

As a result of prisoner interrogations after the offensive began, it became known that the enemy was perfectly aware of the concentration of the tank army and preparations for an offensive. Only the time and direction of the attack were unknown.

The 5th Tank Army had a much more difficult time with intelligence. Due to poor reconnaissance carried out on November 17th, only two days before the attack, army and division HQs did even know the precise shape of the German front line of defense. Because of this, it was decided to forego an artillery barrage, so precious shells did not land on empty land. Instead, a recce in force would be performed before the battle. The commanders hoped to obtain more precise information about the enemy and secure a more favourable position for an offensive by capturing hills along the German front.

Variable Success

On the morning of November 17th, 1942, the artillery of the 5th Tank Army fired on the defending enemy. The recce in force was scheduled to begin at 17:00, but the actual attack by the 14th Guards and 124th Rifle Divisions began several hours later. As a result, it was not possible to reach all planned targets during the day, and fighting continued during the next day.

The enemy, Romanians, treated the tank army attack as the beginning of a large Soviet offensive. They could not hope for a lot of help; all that the trapped 6th Army could send them was constant bombings in groups of 10-50 planes. The German commanders also decided that the threat is not so great. After all, they only knew of Soviet infantry, who only budged the Romanians.

The opinion that they're facing yet another poorly thought out offensive caused the enemy plenty of trouble. At 7:30 on November 189th, the Romanians understood that Soviet artillery was just warming up over the past two days. Katyusha rocket launchers and heavy M-30 howitzer squadrons joined the cannons. The "god of war" did his job, destroying or suppressing most strongholds along the front line and demoralizing the surviving defenders. However, the Romanians still retained combat capability in the flanks, which were not given close attention by artillery, and the rear.

As was mentioned above, the Stavka included many infantry divisions in the tank army to retain the more valuable mobile units for a breakthrough. Even on the dawn of November 19th, it became clear that infantry supported by individual tank brigades and flamethrower tank battalions was stalling. As a result, not for the first time and not for the last, the tank corps were forced to enter the battle before a breakthrough was achieved. They had to clear their own path with armour and fire.

The 5th Tank Army had two tank corps, but there was only enough luck for one. The 26th Tank Corps swept aside the 5th and 14th Infantry Divisions and reached Perelazovskaya station where the Romanian corps HQ was stationed. Tankers reported that "the enemy was overwhelmed and offered very weak resistance, threw down their weapons and surrendered in groups".

The 1st Tank Corps had much less luck. After crossing the front line, its brigades got lost in the steppe. The army's report had no words for this other than "blind kittens". Later, the tankers hit an enemy stronghold in Ust'-Medveditskiy. According to reconnaissance, there weren't supposed to be any significant forces here, so the corps commander, V. Butkov, decided to chase away what he though was a weak screening force.

As a result, the 1st Tank Corps came across a German tank reserve, the 22nd Tank Division. The enemy felt that something was going on, having received aircraft photos of Soviet forces massing at the Don, and deployed it on November 10th. The core of the attacking division was ten PzIV tanks with long-barreled 75 mm gnus, capable of penetrating any Soviet tank up to the KV. Otherwise, the division was made up of old Czech tanks, but even they were enough to fight Soviet light tanks.

The encounter of the 1st Tank Corps with a "weak screening force" became a difficult battle that drew in all three of the corps' brigades, followed by the 47th Guards Rifle Division and elements of the 8th Cavalry Corps. Documents state that the corps lost 17 tanks that evening and night without notable success. Sadly, none of the brigades reported knocked out enemy tanks that day.

Trap Sprung

While the Germans could be satisfied with their success in the 1st TC's sector, the situation in other directions gave little cause for joy. While they stopped one corps, two more, the 26th and 4th, were headed for the German rear nearly unopposed.

The 22nd Tank Division was forced to think about how to disengage with minimum losses instead of delivering a counterattack. The Germans attempted to retreat "British style", but they were unsuccessful. The battle at Ust'-Medveditskiy continued until the middle of November 20th. Soviet tankers reported 13 knocked out tanks and one SPG. It's possible that some of them were knocked out earlier and left on the battlefield.

The remnants of the 22nd Tank Division and Romanian forces took up defenses at the Bolshiye Donshiki village. 5th Tank Army commanders tried to free up their mobile units to arrange a breakthrough in that sector. Only the 26th Tank Corps and, partially, the 8th Cavalry Corps were successful. The 8th Cavalry Corps was engaged in heavy fighting all day on November 21st, where the Germans counterattacked with up to 40 tanks, causing heavy casualties. Bombs rained on our units from the air. The 1st Tank Corps reached Bolshiye Donshiki with its advance guard, but decided to not pick a fight and turned to Lipovskiy settlement. Over three days of fighting, the corps lost three KVs, 19 T-34s, and 11 T-60s.

The 26th Corps remained in Perelazovksaya to wait for the 19th Tank Brigade and count their trophies, but earned a tongue lashing from its superiors and rushed forward much more actively. Colonel Fillipov's advance guard was greatly successful, capturing a crossing of the Don. Soviet forces also tried to take the city of Kalach straight off the march, but the enemy deflected the attack, so the advance guard had to hold the crossing. The main forces of the 26th Tank Corps were occupied around the "Victory of October" and "10 Years of October" farms. The 157th Tank Brigade was unlucky: some of its tanks broke through to the German defenses, but were knocked out and burned up. The brigade commander and brigade political chief burned up in one of them.

The corps broke off so far that their radios no longer allowed them to communicate with the army HQ. Formally, they had three powerful RSB radios, but all of them broke on November 19th when the HQ column of the 26th Tank Corps was mistakenly fired upon by the 1st Tank Corps.

The 8th Tank Corps was still fighting tanks from the 22nd division and the Romanians. Later, army documents showed that the cavalrymen "used their tanks poorly", in part when the flamethrower tank battalion was sent to attack without an artillery barrage or cover, which ended up costing them nine tanks.

On November 23rd, elements of the 1st Tank Corps captured the Chir station with enemy supply and ammunition warehouses, 200 cars, and many other trophies. On the same day, the 26th Tank Corps captured the crossing at Berezovskiy settlement and the city of Kalach. Here, the trophies were just as numerous. Army HQ had to issue a strict order prohibiting overloading trucks used to transport them.

The 5th Tank Army completed its objective of defeating the Romanians and encircling the enemy at Stalingrad. The ring around Paulus snapped shut. However, the army still needed to create a solid front, and the infantry was running late. A part of the reason was the enemy tanks in Bolshiye Donshiki. The 5th Tank Army began its liquidation of this nuisance on November 24th. Cavalrymen of the 8th corps finally got their revenge, scattering a large enemy group that tried to break through Soviet lines. The corps reported that 59 functional German tanks were captured. The Soviet 8th Motorcycle Regiment defeated another group that was trying to break through and retreat. Only one German group managed to escape, but it landed in another encirclement.

The first stage of the 5th Tank Army's offensive at Stalingrad was complete. It was clear that the Germans would strike back, but the Red Armymen earned time for a short break and preparation for battles to come.

Original article by Andrei Ulanov.