Friday, 2 December 2022

Americans at the Right Place, at the Right Time

The first foreign tanks sent to the USSR as military aid arrived in the fall of 1941. These were British Matilda III and Valentine II tanks. They arrived in time to briefly take part in the defensive fighting of late November-early December of 1941. It's hard to say that they played a key part, but it would be incorrect to dismiss their contribution. The situation with American tanks was similar. They first convoy arrived at the end of December of 1941, but shortages of ammunition and other problems delayed their debut to May of 1942. It is often said that the 114th Tank Brigade achieved almost nothing at Kharkov, but that is not correct. The American tanks took part in the offensive on Chepil, which temporarily penetrated the encirclement. An evacuation was organized thanks in part to Soviet tankers fighting in American tanks.

Tanks of the 258th Independent Tank Battalion before battle, early September 1942.
The Light Tank M3 that the Red Army dubbed M3 Light or M3L is associated with many stereotypes. Allegedly, this was a bad tank with weak armour that was universally despised. Perpetrators of these stereotypes usually can't explain why this awful tank fought until the very end of the war and continued to serve in many nations for decades after. The tank's career in the Red Army was not without its highlights, and in one section of the front these tanks even played an important role, if not a key one. This was the North Caucasus Front (Black Sea Forces group). It turned out that the M3L somehow became the most common tank in that area.

Force majeure to the rescue

Supplies of foreign armoured vehicles began from the north. The exception was a delivery of British Tetrarch I tanks through Iran. On December 27th, 1941, 20 of these tanks arrived in Zanjan and were forwarded to Baku. The southern route was later used for other cargo. According to an agreement reached in early December 1941, starting in February 1942 Iran became the destination for transports carrying cars and trucks. They arrived as parts kits. Workshops were organized in Iran to assemble the vehicles and ship them to the USSR. This was done because the cargo capacity of northern ports was limited. For some time, the southern route was used only for trucks.

This photo is often used to illustrate shipment of tanks through the southern route. In reality, this is a Stuart Hybrid tank being shipped to the British. However, very similar vehicles would begin arriving in Iran before too long.

The situation changed in late spring of 1942 due to a force majeure. The Americans allocated fewer transports to the northern route, but the number of transports going through the south doubled. Three ships carrying 71 tanks departed towards Bandar Shah (modern day Bandar Torkman) on May 25th, 1942. One of them, SS Cold Harbor, was sunk on June 15th by the U-502 German submarine. This was a very unpleasant situation for the GABTU. The tanks now had to be delivered by rail to the Caspian Sea and then forwarded to Baku. Since there was no other way, a receiving department numbering 81 men was hurriedly formed in Bandar Shah. An additional receiving department of 19 was formed in Baku. 141 tanks were sent through the Persian Gulf in total, 104 of which were delivered by September 1st. 

Report on M3L and Valentine VII tanks that arrived through the south route. Soviet receiving departments differentiated between the M3 and M3A1.

The initial plan consisted of the tanks driving on their own to Tabriz. There they were loaded on railway platforms and shipped to Stalingrad, where a 31 man receiving department was formed. However, the situation at the front began to change while the tanks were at sea. The German army and its allies began to rapidly move towards Stalingrad. Operation Edelweiss kicked off, pointing the German forces directly to the Caucasus and the Baku oil fields. The armoured forces of the Southern Front were far from the latest and greatest. As of July 15th, 1942, the Southern Front's armoured units had 1 Valentine and 1 Matilda. There were quite a few T-26 tanks (25 of them). The most numerous type of tank was the T-60 (77 tanks). The reserves that could be put into battle were of similar quality. For instance, the 126th Independent Tank Battalion that arrived at the front in early August had 36 T-26 tanks. BT-7s were also arriving with new units. The situation at the end of the summer of 1942 was bleak.

Tankers of the 258th Independent Tank Battalion on the march. The tankers are using American helmets.

This logistics mishap turned into a saving grace. The Transcaucasian Front received a flood of foreign tanks: the M3L, M3S (Medium Tank M3), Valentines (primarily the Canadian Valentine VII). The first shipment of tanks arrived in Bandar Shah with 40 Valentine VII and 70 M3 Light tanks. By August 24th, 38 and 60 respectively were forwarded to the USSR. The tanks that came through Iran were late M3s with D58101 turrets. These tanks were known as "hybrids" since their turrets were similar to those of the Light Tank M3A1. That is not exactly true. The D58101 turrets had no traverse motors, no turret basket, and not even observation periscopes (the holes for their installation were plugged). The transitional turret had only one advantage: a vertical stabilizer. This allowed the tank to fire more precisely on the move. It was not easy to aim this gun horizontally since the loader had the traverse flywheel. Regardless, it was better to have this tank than a worn out T-26 or T-60.

Demonstration of anti-aircraft defense.

The force majeure ended up turning into a fortune when it came to ammunition and crew training. 46,915 out of 67,805 37 mm rounds were shipped to the USSR by August 24th, so there were no ammo shortages like with the early M3Ls. The new tanks also went to crews that were already trained. NKO order #0510 "On training of tank crews and car drivers" published on June 23rd, 1942, called for the formation of a training tank brigade. The 191st Training Tank Brigade formed at Palidahor (vicinity of Sumqayit, Azerbaijan) to drive the tanks in transit and teach tank crews. The brigade began to train tank crews and there were already trained tankers available by the time the tanks arrived. The 191st brigade was reformed into three tank battalions: the 249th, 258th, and 563rd. All three received Valentine VII and M3L tanks. The 249th OTB had 9 Valentine VII and 20 M3L tanks, the 258th had 8 Valentine VII and 20 M3L, the 563rd had 16 Valentine VII and 14 M3L.

The American light tanks came in handy.

Foreign tanks were also issued to units that used to have Soviet tanks. The 75th Independent Tank Battalion had 3 KV-1s and 14 BT-7s left by mid-July. It received 30 M3L tanks by September 6th. The 15th Tank Brigade also received these tanks. It started out with 9 KV-1, 26 T-34, and 20 T-60 tanks. By August 20th, the bloodied unit was pulled back to Bilajari, Azerbaijan, where it received 1 KV-1, 3 M3S, 10 Valentine VII, and 24 M3L. The same thing happened to the 140th Tank Brigade, which had 10 KV-1 tanks, 14 T-34s, and 16 T-60s. It was sent to Sumqayit, where it received 24 Valentine VII tanks and 13 M3Ls. As a result, tank forces of the North Caucasus Front received 124 M3L tanks in a very short span of time.

Battle for the Caucasus

The M3L tanks with D58101 turrets turned out to be the best Soviet tanks in this part of the front. The ability to drive quickly was useful in the mountains. The terrain also led to fighting at ranges of only a few hundred meters, a range at which American 37 mm guns could confidently defeat any German tank of the time. It's not surprising that the effectiveness of the M3L in the Caucasus was higher than at other fronts.

The first M3L tanks went into battle in early September of 1942.

The 249th Tank Battalion was the first to see battle. It was attached to the 11th Guards Rifle Corps of the 9th Army on September 2nd, when it was taking part in heavy defensive fighting. The 249th OTB was going to fight alongside the 62nd Rifle Brigade that had also just arrived as reinforcements. At 15:30, a strike force composed of the 62th RBr, 249th OTB, as well as the 8th and 9th Guards Rifle Brigades and aircraft attacked towards Predmostniy. This counterattack was aimed at cutting off a force of 18 German tanks that broke through to the Voznesenskoye station. The 9th Army reported 5 tanks destroyed. The strike force continued to operate near the station when the 258th OTB arrived on the scene. On September 6th, the 249th OTB, 10th Guards Rifle Brigade, and a battalion of the 417th Rifle Division attacked near Predmostniy. There were still tank battles around Voznesenskoye station and the 9th Army reported the presence of 60 enemy tanks. Fighting for Predmostniy continued on September 7th. According to the report of the 249th OTB, the battalion destroyed 12 German tanks and 13 guns from September 4th to the 8th, losing 24 tanks (10 burned and 14 knocked out). 5 of those burned were destroyed by friendly fire. Battalion commander I.A. Marunyak died in battle on September 5th. The battalion reported the capture of two functional Pz.Kpfw.III tanks

An M3L tank from the 258th OTB lost in September of 1942.

Tanks from the 258th OTB turned out to be the best known. The tanks and their distinctive markings were photographed by famous photographer Ya.N. Khalip shortly before going into battle. That is when the famous photo of Soviet tankers in American helmets and Thompson M1928A1 submachine guns was taken. The 258th OTB went into battle alongside rifle units fighting near the Terskaya homestead on September 8th, 1942. These units had to deflect a large German attack from there (35-45 tanks). Some tanks managed to break through to Terek. The battalion claimed 18 German tanks destroyed. In total, the tankers of the 258th OTB reported 32 destroyed tanks, 21 guns, and 400 German soldiers and officers from September 8th to September 11th. The commander of the 258th OTB Yu.N. Karev received the Order of the Red Star for the completion of this objective. The political deputy of the 258th OTB P.A. Bundyukov also excelled. His tank was knocked out in this battle. He switched to another tank and evacuated his vehicle. The battalion lost 11 tanks burned out and 11 knocked out, 9 of which were evacuated.

Tankers of the 258th OTB reported 32 destroyed German tanks for 22 lost (9 of which were evacuated).

The 75th OTB went into battle a little earlier, on September 7th. It took part in the unsuccessful counterattack north of Malgobek jointly with Colonel I.A. Chernov's 52nd Tank Brigade, who decided to launch a bold offensive. The results were predictable: the brigade lost 2 KV-1 tanks, 14 T-34, and 120 men. For this, Chernov was removed to command on September 9th and court martialled. The 75th OTB was left to support the infantry. For instance, on September 9th Lieutenant V.N. Daurov's tank crushed 3 field guns and 5 anti-tank rifle positions. After two days of battles, the 52nd TBr and 75th OTB retreated to later attack the enemy at Terskaya.

M3L from the 75th OTB.

One of the combat groups of the 13th Tank Division numbering 75 tanks attacked from Kizlyar on the morning of September 11th. This was the start of the most successful battle fought by light tanks in the whole Great Patriotic War. In the evening, elements of the 13th Tank Division continued their offensive towards Malgobek. Three tanks from the 75th OTB commanded by Lieutenant A.Ya. Pavkin arrived in Malgobek around that time. They reached the western outskirts of the city and discovered a column of advance units from the 13th Tank Division. A turkey shoot followed, with 11 German tanks out of 16 shot up, 7 of which Pavkin claimed personally. Pavkin's tank was also damaged, but kept fighting. The main forces of the 13th Tank Division soon pulled up to help their advance guard, but they had to deal with the KV-1 tanks from the 52nd Tank Brigade.

The fighting in Malgobek is best known thanks to the actions of the KV-1 tanks from the 52nd Tank Brigade. The problem is that German documents don't confirm Lieutenant Petrov's claims of 14 tanks knocked out. The 13th Tank Division reported 20 tanks lost that day, most of them from Pavkin's ambush. Pavkin received the Order of Lenin for that day's battle. He became the highest scoring tank ace of those who fought in light tanks. Nevertheless, the destruction of the 13th TD's assault force had little effect on the flow of the battle. At 8 am, a force of 40 tanks took Malgobek, continuing their offensive on the next day. The 52nd Tank Brigade as well as the 249th and 75th OTB took up defensive positions. Interestingly enough, vehicles of the 75th OTB were counted amongst those of the 52nd TBr in documents. On September 14th the brigade attacked Malgobek, costing the Germans 3 tanks and 800 infantrymen. The 75th OTB lost 5 M3L tanks. 8 more tanks of this type were lost on September 16th. By September 18th, American light tanks made up the core of the 52nd TBr's remaining strength. Having absorbed the 75th OTB, the 52nd TBr now had 16 M3Ls out of 29 tanks in total. The 75th OTB reported 18 destroyed enemy tanks from September 7th to the 22nd. 28 M3L tanks were lost in this time, 9 of which were evacuated.

Award order for Lieutenant A.Ya. Pavkin, the highest scoring light tank ace.

The 52nd Tank Brigade continued to expand thanks to neighbouring units. For example, tanks were taken from the 249th OTB on September 29th, of them 2 were M3Ls. By October 4th, the brigade was composed of 3 KV-1 tanks, 2 T-34s, 10 T-60s, 9 M3L, and 10 Valentine VII. When the brigade went into battle on October 10th, there were 15 M3Ls. By that point, the 9th Army received the reconstituted 15th Tank Brigade with 24 M3L tanks. It reached the front line on October 8th, fighting alongside the 337th Rifle Division that also arrived that day. These two units fought near Ordzhonikidze (Vladikavkaz) alongside the 5th Guards Tank Brigade as of October 10th. Several tanks were lost to German anti-tank artillery on October 11th. Sergeant V. Dyachkov, the driver of an M3L tank, distinguished himself in battle on October 12th by driving the tank out of battle after the rest of the crew was killed. The brigade was on the defensive after October 13th, setting up several ambushes. The order to wait in ambush came just in time, since up to two battalions of infantry supported by tanks attacked from Malgobek on October 15th. The enemy was repelled by fire from ambushes.

The 15th TBr reported 6 German tanks knocked out, as well as the destruction of 5 cars, 8 anti-tank guns, and about 300 German soldiers and officers. The brigade's losses consisted of 1 M3L and 2 M3S tanks destroyed and 5 M3L, 1 M3S, and 4 Valentine VII knocked out. The knocked out tanks were all evacuated. The brigade went into battle again in early November. Jointly with the 62nd Rifle Brigade, the tanks attacked Gizel on November 2nd, taking up defenses on the approach to the city. The Germans counterattacked with 16 tanks on November 5th and were repelled. The attack was repeated two hours later with 40 tanks. This attack was also repelled by 6 am on November 6th. The Germans lost 7 tanks and up to 100 men, the 15th Tank Brigade lost 6 knocked out tanks, 5 killed, and 18 wounded.

The M3L were later transferred from the 52nd TBr to the 5th Guards Tank Brigade.

The nearby 5th Guards Tank Brigade also had M3L tanks. 15 tanks were transferred there from the 52nd Tank Brigade. The 563rd Independent Tank Battalion also received tanks of this type. It was also formed near Sumqayit with a mix of M3L and Valentine tanks. By September 11th, the battalion was fighting near Mozdok. It had 10 M3L and 6 Valentines left by October 1st. The battalion took part in defensive battles in the 37th Army. It took heavy losses in fighting for Chechen-1 (vicinity of Nalchik). In part, the fault lies with the commander of the 563rd OTB Captain T.L. Borochuk. According to documents, there were instances where he lost control of the battalion, plus his tanks fought in small groups alongside the infantry. Nevertheless, there were cases where the tanks excelled. For instance, on October 26th an M3L commanded by Junior Lieutenant A.N. Lepilov was knocked out, but managed to destroy two German tanks with return fire and later stopped an infantry attack. On November 2nd, Lieutenant A.Ya. Pleshakov managed to pull out three knocked out tanks with his own. In November the battalion was pulled out to Sumqayit to reconstitute. This is when it received some of the first M3A1 light tanks. 21 tanks were delivered when the battalion was resting. The first Medium Tanks M4A2 also came around this time, but 9 were quickly handed over to the 5th Guards Tank Brigade. 9 M3A1 tanks were given in exchange. These tanks were used during an assault on South Ozereika. 

M3L and Valentine VII tanks were the most common tanks in the Caucasus by late 1942.

Other units of the North Caucasus Front also began to refill with newly arriving tanks in November of 1942. For example, the aforementioned 249th OTB had 30 M3L tanks by December 1st. The 134th Tank Regiment, which fought alongside the 4th Kuban Cossack Corps as of December 1942, had 20 M3S and 10 M3L. The 140th Tank Brigade had 24 Valentine VII and 16 M3L tanks by November 23rd. In battle on November 27th, it lost 14 Valentine VII and 5 M3L knocked out plus 6 Valentine VII and 8 M3L burned. The 5th Guards Tank Brigade (6 burned and 7 knocked out) and 15th Tank Brigade (6 burned and 2 knocked out) also lost tanks in these battles. The offensive that was off to a bad start slowly gained momentum as the Germans retreated. The cause of this was the difficult position of German forces at Stalingrad. The offensive later stalled, but the North Caucasus Front achieved its objective after all. The Germans failed to take the Caucasus and reach the oil in Baku.

The M3 and M3A1 were the most common tanks in the North Caucasus by the end of 1942. 298 tanks of this type arrived through the southern route, plus 162 tanks arrived in Baku in the first 2 months of 1943. The Valentine took over as the most common type of tank after April of 1943 when supplies of M3 tanks stopped, but the fighting in the North Caucasus was already over. There were 69 M3 tanks remaining in the North Caucasus by the conclusion of the Great Patriotic War, more than anywhere else. 

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