Monday 7 August 2023

Shermans in "August Storm"

In Soviet historiography, the Soviet-Japanese War of 1945 is overshadowed by grandiose operations against Berlin and Vienna earlier that year. However, Western historians pay close attention to this campaign and debates on whether it was the A-bombs or the Soviet invasion that forced the Japanese to surrender rage on to this day. Famous historian David Glantz even invented a grandiose name for this operation: August Storm. The Red Army's advance was indeed lightning fast, in part thanks to foreign vehicles. This included the M4A2(76)W HVSS, the most advanced Sherman variant sent to the USSR.

Clouds gather

Stalin promised to enter the war against Japan within three months of Germany's defeat at the Yalta conference in February of 1945. Colonel-General Alfred Yodl signed an order for unconditional capitulation of all German forces on May 7th, 1945, coming into effect at 23:01 on May 8th. This kicked off the countdown for a Soviet offensive against Japan. The Red Army had three months to move an enormous force to the other side of an equally enormous country.

Concentration of the 6th Guards Tank Army in the vicinity of Tamsagbulag. The army included the 9th Guards Mechanized Corps that used Sherman tanks.

The 6th Guards Tank Army was one of the units that was destined to transfer to the far east. On June 26th, 1945, the unit was reallocated to the Transbaikal Front. It would have to cover a distance of 9000 km to cross from Czechoslovakia to Choibalsan. 88 trains of 60 cars each were allocated for this journey. The full transfer took 30 days, but the first elements began to form up by July 17th. New tanks awaited them there: 100 M4A2(76)W including the latest tanks with HVSS suspensions. These tanks were described in documents as "M4A2 with wide tracks". The 46th Guards Tank Brigade was fully equipped with these vehicles. One company from each of the tank regiments of the 18th, 30th, and 31st Guards Mechanized Brigades that made up the 9th Guards Mechanized Corps also received new tanks.

From Choibalsan, the tanks would make a 300 km march to Tamsagbulag, where the army would prepare for the upcoming offensive. This march took place in extreme conditions. The temperature reached 45 C during the day, as a result of which marches took place only at night to avoid overheating the engines and running gear. This also helped hide the tanks from air reconnaissance, as there was nowhere to conceal them in the desert. The army's documents describe the M4A2 as less sensitive to hot weather than the T-34-85. The American tanks could cover more ground every day, but at the cost of increased fuel consumption. The Shermans normally burned 40 kg of fuel per hour, but this went up to 60 kg in Mongolia. Each tank could only run 90-100 km before refuelling instead of 150 km. The T-34-85 burned only 26 kg of fuel per hour.

M4A2(76)W HVSS, the newest tanks of the 9th Guards Mechanized Corps.

Both Soviet and American tanks broke down during the march. The T-34-85 and SU-100 typically went out of action due to battery failure (180 cases). The T-34-85's tracks also wore quickly. It was estimated that they would have to be changed after 500-600 km of driving. The M4A2's most sensitive part was also its running gear. Tanks with VVSS suspensions had a very high rate of wear on their 4th and 5th wheels, on tanks wit HVSS suspensions only the 5th wheel wore down. This was a widespread issue and just the 46th Gds. TBr. and 84th Gds. TRgt. had to replace 69 wheels. Shermans also needed more water. Instructions required two separate water cisterns on each vehicle: one for the tank and one for the crew. Due to dusty conditions, air filters had to be cleaned every 2-3 hours.

A technical support group was sent after the tanks, consisting of 3-4 mobile workshops, a welding workshop, and trucks with fuel, oil, and spare parts. The group was tasked with restoring broken vehicles, conduct preventative maintenance during rest stops, and act as consultants for the personnel. At rest stops, the tanks were spread out at a distance of at least 30 meters from one another.

The 6th Guards Tank Army was reinforced with the 36th and 57th Motorized Rifle Divisions, an AA division, the 208th Self Propelled Artillery Brigade, two light artillery brigades, two RGK artillery regiments, and a motorized engineering brigade. At the start of the campaign, it numbered 185 M4A2, 416 T-34-85, 193 SU-100, 26 SU-76M, 117 BT-5 and BT-7, 22 T-26, 129 AA guns, 201 mortars, 46 Katyushas, and up to 359 cannons and howitzers.

The vehicles were expected to expend 3 loads of fuel and ammunition during the operation. By the start of the offensive, tank and mechanized units were issued 2.1-2.7 loads of fuel and 2-3 loads of ammo.

Old T-26 tanks mixed with new T-34-85s. Pre-war tanks turned out to be useless in this operation.

The 6th Guards Tank Army had 57,800 American 76 mm rounds (4.4 loads) and 1800 75 mm rounds, although no Shermans with 75 mm guns were listed in its inventory. There were also 493,610 .50 cal rounds (5.6 loads) and 19,635 .30 cal rounds (0.6 loads) for American machine guns. The 9th Guards Mechanized Corps that contained nearly all American tanks was issued 2.7 loads of 76 mm ammunition by August 8th.

Lightning strikes

The USSR declared war on Japan on August 8th, 1945, at 23:00, exactly three months after the German surrender. Soviet troops moved out at midnight. The 6th Guards Tank Army was tasked with crossing the Greater Khingan mountain range as quickly as possible and entering the Central Manchurian Plains. In order to prevent the enemy from pulling up reserves, this had to be achieved by the fifth day of the operation.

The advance of the 6th Guards Tank Army was swift, but it was limited by mechanical failure of its tanks and shortages of fuel.

The 9th Guards Mechanized Corps took a position in the first echelon of the right column. 183 M4A2 tanks were in action: 35 each in the tank regiments of the 18th, 30th, and 31st Guards Motorized Brigades, 65 with the 46th Guards Tank Brigade, and 10 with the 14th Independent Guards Motorcycle Battalion. Three more vehicles were attached to the corps HQ. The 389th Guards SPG Regiment had 23 SU-100.

The corps was reinforced with the 57th Motorized Rifle Division, 208th SPG Brigade, and 1141st Gun Artillery Regiment. This was a gain of 26 SU-76M, 65 SU-100, 11 T-26, and 100 BT-5 and BT-7. The right column had 296 tanks in total.

The 9th Guards Mechanized Corps was supposed to travel 120 km on the first day, 100 on the second and third, 80 on the fourth and fifth. The corps began its offensive at 04:30, after a 65 km long march. It turned out to be necessary to move during the day in order to meet the required rate of advance. By 16:50 the tanks reached Bain-Hoshun-Sume and were at Noroharola by the end of the day.

Columns of Soviet tanks in Manchuria.

The 9th Guards Mechanized Corps resumed its advance at 06:00 on August 10th. The corps reached the foot of the Greater Khingan mountains, but reconnaissance reported that the chosen route across the Korohon pass was unsuitable for tanks as the rain had washed away the roads. The tankers had to turn into the Horen-Gol river valley, reaching the Tunchakan pass by the end of the day. Movement across swampy terrain consumed extra fuel. This area was also crisscrossed with many mountain streams and slopes up to 20-25 degrees steep, which did not make driving any easier. Some vehicles flipped over in these conditions.

Rains turned what little roads were available into mud, making it difficult for even tracked vehicles to advance.

As fuel began to run out, units had to consolidate their fuel and leave most of their tanks behind. For instance, only 18 tanks of the 48th Guards Tank Brigade and only 7 from the 30th Guards Mechanized Brigade continued on. It started raining again. The speed of tanks on the soggy roads dropped to 4-5 kph. The rate of the offensive dropped considerably, not just because it was difficult for tanks to drive in mud, but also because it was difficult to deliver fuel by air in this weather. It took three days to cross the area where the roads were destroyed by rain.

Path of the 9th Guards Mechanized Corps (red line). After crossing the Greater Khingan Mountains, the corps was no longer constrained in maneuver and captured Lubei.

Movement became easier after crossing the Greater Khingan Mountains. The city of Lubei was located 150-170 km from the foot of the mountains. The 9th Guards Mechanized Corps covered that distance in a day. By the end of August 11th, the corps settled in the city, awaiting fuel. The plan was completed ahead of schedule. It took three days to cross the required distance rather than five.

After crossing the mountains, the 9th Guards Mechanized Corps regrouped in Lubei. The city had an airstrip and fuel could be easily delivered by air. The corps resumed movement in the second half of August 13th, but fuel ran out again on August 16th and only small groups continued onward.

Tankers of the 9th Guards Mechanized Corps and Chinese civilians. The Sherman tank has the older VVSS suspension.

The 9th Guards Mechanized Corps received a new mission: gather in Tongliao as soon as fuel supplies allow it. The plans had to be amended on August 19th when it became known that the Japanese were ordered to lay down their arms on the previous day. The corps was ordered to occupy Mukden with one brigade and then rejoin the rest of the 6th Guards Tank Army around Gaojiatun, Fuzhou, and Santuanxiang. There was just enough fuel to fill up the 46th Guards Tank Brigade.

The 6th Guards Tank Army began to restore its materiel and disarm surrendering Japanese units. Elements of the 9th Mechanized Corps slowly pulled up to Tongliao. The corps reassembled by the end of August, after which any further movement without orders was prohibited.

Refueling. Manchuria, 1945. A lack of fuel was the most serious impediment to the Soviet advance.

The main enemy of the tankers was the exhausting heat and lack of fuel, but there was some contact with Japanese forces. Reconnaissance elements of the 30th Guards Mechanized Brigade clashed with enemy cavalry, but after a short skirmish the riders retreated, leaving several men dead and seven captured. There was also a brief battle with cadets of the "Japanese-Manchurian Espionage and Sabotage School". The tankers saw some action. For instance, the crew of Junior Lieutenant V.V. Durakovskiy engaged an enemy blockade, killing 20 enemy soldiers.

In total, the 6th Guards Tank Army lost 99 men during the month of August (20 killed, 11 wounded, 63 sick). 280 enemy soldiers were killed. 125,047 Japanese soldiers and 300 tanks were also captured.

Japanese tanks only showed up as trophies during this campaign.

Across the desert on a steel steed

The 6th Guards Tank Army engaged in almost no combat, allowing one to compare the mechanical qualities of its vehicles in isolation from all other factors.

By August 31st, 1945, the Army had 161 M4A2 tanks remaining out of 185. Nine of them needed light repairs, 14 needed medium repairs, and one needed major repairs. There were no combat losses. 361 T-34-85 tanks out of 416 remained. 8 needed light repairs, 44 needed medium repairs, and one needed major repairs. Two T-34-85 tanks were lost in battle. While arguments about relative merits of T-34 and Sherman tanks continue to this day, they proved equally resilient in this campaign. About 87% of both types of tanks remained in service after driving through the desert for three weeks.

BT-7 tanks proved themselves better than the T-26, but still had poorer reliability than more modern tanks.

The SU-100 turned out to be more reliable. 183 out of 193 vehicles remained in service, with 10 needing medium repairs. 21 SU-76M remained in service out of 26, with five needing medium repairs. Light tanks performed worst of all. 57 BT-5 and BT-7 tanks remained out of 176. 75 needed medium repairs and 44 needed major repairs. All 11 T-26 tanks needed major repairs. The old worn out tanks began to fall behind on the march almost immediately and had to be left at repair bases. All of the corps' tractors were used to recover these useless tanks, and so broken Shermans had to be evacuated with other tanks.

Repair crews noted that the driving conditions were exceptionally difficult. Driving 120-140 km per day across salt flats and dunes with steep climbs and slopes in heat and dust was no easy task. The SU-76M and M4A2 were judged to perform the best in these conditions. The T-34 mainly suffered from battery failure. The batteries were unsuitable for this climate. The M4A2 had its Achilles' heel: road wheels. Over 300 wheels had to be replaced during the operation. Nevertheless, many commanders of companies, platoons, and individual tanks were decorated for completing the 1000-1600 km long march with no breakdowns.

Sherman tanks on the offensive. Both VVSS and HVSS suspensions can be seen.

Drivers were also decorated. For instance, the Sherman tank driven by Guards Senior Sergeant A.S. Minibayev ran flawlessly for 156 hours, for which he received the Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class. Guards Starshina I.G. Yegorochkin's tank drove for 930 miles (the figure was not translated into kilometers) over the course of 148 hours. Guards Sergeant H.H. Biderdinov's tank worked for 129 hours and Guards Senior Sergeant V.S. Sabanov's tank worked for 153 hours without repairs. Each of them received the Order of the Patriotic War 2nd Class.

The progress of units was also slowed down due to a lack of fuel and spare parts. Since there were no battles, it was not possible to strip tanks down for spare parts. Tankers of the 9th Guards Mechanized Corps rated the M4A2(76)W HVSS highly, as the wide tracks achieved high mobility in mud, sand, and cross-country. These tanks could tow other Shermans or T-34-85s.

The rapid thrust over the course of hundreds of kilometers in exceptionally difficult conditions was a serious trial for both Soviet and American vehicles. The 6th Guards Tank Army was lucky to receive new Sherman tanks in time, as the experience in difficult terrain showed the value of the modernized suspension.

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  1. "he 6th Guards Tank Army had 57,800 American 76 mm rounds (4.4 loads) and 1800 76 rounds, although no Shermans with 75 mm guns were listed in its inventory."

    Was this supposed to be '1800 75 rounds'?

  2. A not related question but I like to know more about this quote aperantly mentioned in an interview of former Soviet tank veteran saying this ...please
    " Did you know that one of the designers of the Sherman was a Russian engineer named Timoshenko? He was some shirt tail relative of Marshal S. K. Timoshenko."
    To what person engineer he is refering too .
    I had made some research and nothing comes out so far regarding a Russian involved in the design of the M4 tank .
    Thanks in advance .

    1. Never heard of this claim. It is not impossible, as a large number of immigrants left the former Russian Empire after its collapse and a tremendous number of people were involved in designing the Sherman tank and its various components. Here is one engineer called Timoshenko who emigrated to the US, although the article doesn't mention his relationship to the marshal or involvement with the Sherman tank.