Saturday, 18 January 2014

55th Army's Offensive Operation

I obtained a report on an offensive by the 55th Army, from March 19th, 1943 to March 27th, 1943 (CAMD RF 411-10189-436). It's quite lengthy, and not as suitable for episodic as Guardsmen in the Fall was, and hardly at all about tanks, but there are a few relevant parts. One is quite interesting.

"Senior Sergeant Matveev from this same unit [690th IPTAP], on March 19th, set fire to an "Elephant" tank from 300 meters with his 76 mm gun, thus dispelling the opinion that this tank is immune to AT artillery."

A Ferdinand, an upgraded one even, at Leningrad? Of course not. This is one of the first encounters with a Tiger tank. Due to an elephant figure seen on the first knocked out tanks (the insignia of the 502nd s.Pz.Abt), the tank was called Elephant. It is only when some German literature was captured that referred to the tank did the Red Army find out its proper name.

As always, let's confirm this event. Schneider's Tigers in Combat I indeed mentions that a Soviet offensive took place on March 19th at Krasniy Bor and Sablino. Only 4 Tiger tanks remain operational in 1/s.Pz.Abt 502. Sadly, as always, the diaries are not exactly forthcoming on the details.

That's really the only tank-related thing in the artillery section. The infantry section only mentions presence of tanks here and there, and doesn't really reveal anything interesting for analysis. Now for the good part: Tanks!

  1. The terrain made using tanks difficult. Tank-accessible regions were only available between the flanks of the 123rd and 291st Infantry Divisions, which covered a large amount of forested areas, limiting the coverage and maneuverability of tanks on the front echelons and first lines of defense.
  2. Organization of tank cooperation with infantry and aircraft:
    1. After a decision by the Military Council of the 55th Army on the combat use of tank units, which was communicated to the commanders of the 222nd Independent Tank Brigade, 220th Independent Tank Brigade, 152nd Independent Tank Brigade and 31st Guards Heavy Tank Breakthrough Regiment, the units began reconnaissance of rendezvous points, starting positions, and movement routes. The starting positions were determined as follows: 31st Guards at the north outskirts of Krasniy Bor, 220th at the south outskirts of Kolpino, 222nd on the western outskirts of Kolpino, 152nd on the western outskirts of Kolpino, after the 222nd vacates the area.
    2. On March 10th, 1943, tank commanders received excerpts from the 55nd Army HQ order, which determined the objectives of the tank units in the upcoming offensive. Based on the order, tank commanders began joint reconnaissance with commander of infantry divisions acting in the offensive sector, and developed cooperation plans.
    3. From March 11th to March 14th, the units continued reconnaissance, a task which consumed all personnel, including the drivers.
    4. From March 14th to March 17th, tank units performed exercises in the region, practising their cooperation with 123rd and 291st infantry divisions, in places where the mobile groups had to enter the breakthrough and cooperate with aviation.
    5. After all questions have been resolved, mobile group HQs received representatives from artillery and aviation. From artillery: one fire correction team per battalion, which practised correcting fire using the tank's radio. From aviation: radio teams with powerful radios that could call in and direct aircraft. All cooperation between infantry, artillery, sappers, and aviation was recorded in the battle plan, as well as the main predetermined signals.
  3. Battle dynamics
    1. On March 19th, 1943, at 9:05, the breakthrough group, consisting of the 222nd ITB and 31st GTBR, attacked the enemy's front lines along with elements of the 123rd and 291th infantry divisions. By 20:00, the 222nd reached: the cemetery (1867) and Lesn. (1868-v) with one battalion, and Krasniy Bor at the north-eastern clearing (1867-a) with another. The brigade had no further successes in battle, taking losses in personnel and materiel. Overnight, the brigade continued on to their nighttime objectives.
      By 20:00 on March 19th, the 31st GTBR reached (1870-n), (1870-v), (1870-v). When the regiment reached this line, the tanks remained with their infantry. In order to keep the position that the infantry captured, they were reinforced with ammunition without leaving the defensive line.
    2. The 71st Independent Armoured Train Division, in cooperation with elements of the 72nd infantry division, opened fire on the Voyskorovo, Kattelovo, Petrovshina, Samsokovka regions from the Kolpitsino railroad station. At 10:00, the division concentrated at the Rybatskaya and Obuhovo stations, entering the reserve of the 55th Army commander.
    3. From March 20th to March 24th, the 222 ITB and 31 GTBR supported 123rd, 291st, 268th, and 189th infantry divisions, and continued the offensive with the objective of destroying the enemy's reinforcements and capturing the line: Bezymyannaya height (1172), mark 43.8 (1273), mark 43.6 (1274), mark 36.3 (1375), Gertovo, widening and supporting the breakthrough at Kordelevo, Chernaya Rechka, Polisarka river, bridge (1467), mark 41.1 (1568), and to the left of the line: Vorobyevy Dachi, foothold (2172), Mishkino.
      The 222nd ITB, remaining in the reserve of the army commander, was ready to deflect an attack from the previous directions. On March 20th, one tank company, received orders from the HQ chief of the 55th Army, Major-General Tsvetkov to, at 19:10, acting as an infantry support group alongside 1/56 Independent Infantry Brigade re-group with cut off elements of the 123rd infantry division, clear the clearing at Smol., clear the clearing along Kordelovskiy stream, and fortify for a defense, arranging an ambush of four tanks in the Poperechnaya clearing (1767-b), and three tanks north of the Smol. clearing (1866-1867), where, alongside elements of the 123rd, they will deflect enemy attacks. The company completed their objectives. The 152nd ITB, 31st Guards Light Tank Brigade, 49th Guards Heavy Breakthrough Regiment, and 3rd Independent Armoured Car Brigade remained in the reserves of the 55th Army commander. 
    4. Between March 25th and March 27th, the 152nd ITB and 220th ITB conducted preparations for an offensive. The 220th ITB and 291st ID were tasked with striking with their left flank between the Kordelovskiy stream and Poperechnaya clearing, form up at the Kamenistaya clearing, capture the forest north-east of Chernaya Rechka, and capture the line: Vinokur river, Polisarka river, until the Konnaya Pustosh swamps.
      152nd ITB, with one battalion and elements of the 13th ID strikes with their left flank, with the objective to capture the Pesochnaya clearing (1568), destroying the enemy's hardpoints along the highway. Further, guarding its right, it was to capture the Vuinaya clearing (1269-1279), marker 47.0, and ready to deliver a strike at Sablino.
      One tank battalion, with elements of the 189th ID, captured the line: mark 42.7 (on the highway), Vazhnaya clearing (1770-1771), destroying the enemy hardpoints along the railroad, exiting the forests west of Ulyanovka.
    5. On March 24th, the 222nd ITB and 31st GTBR were removed from the advancing army. 222nd ITB was transferred to the Front reserves at Rybatskoye, which it reached by 12:00 on March 25th. The 31st was transferred to the army reserves at Ust-Izhora, which it reached by 24:00 on March 25th. Units in reserve performed maintenance and were resupplied with personnel and materiel.
      The 30th Guards Light Tank Brigade was transferred to the Front reserve by the commander of the Armoured Forces of the Leningrad Front, due to its inability to be used in the offensive sector due to spring mud and limited off-road performance of the Brigade's tanks.
      48th Battalion of the 152nd Independent Tank Brigade reached the ravine (1770-b), but could not advance further due to poor terrain. Infantry moving behind the tanks could not advance due to heavy enemy resistance. Tanks attempting to cross (1770-b) were stuck, and left without infantry cover. Later, on March 28th-31st, the tanks remained with infantry, repelling enemy attacks in parallel with working on evacuation and repair of damaged materiel. The 152nd ITB commander deployed a motorized infantry brigade as support.
  4. Conclusions
    1. Due to the heavily swamped forests, spring mud, insufficient communication between tank, infantry, and artillery, tank units could not notably impact the course of the battle, and took heavy losses.
    2. Tank units and crews were not ready to fight in forests and maneuver in difficult terrain. The reconnaissance performed during battle was unsatisfactory, resulting in many losses due to stuck and sunken tanks.
    3. Poor terrain and concentrations of artillery would not let tank units maneuver, which cased losses and did not allow concentrated use of tanks in any direction.
    4. Cooperation between tanks with artillery and infantry was lacking. Artillery spotters communicated the most dangerous targets slowly, artillery poorly supported tanks, infantry could not keep up with tanks, leaving them without much needed infantry cover. The enemy swiftly transported 88 mm guns in the most likely directions where tanks would be used, causing damage to our tanks. Most likely, tanks that were stuck would be hit by these guns."
 Tanks come up once more in the conclusions.

"Tanks took heavy losses when fighting in forests. This was due to the fact that they had no infantry or artillery cover, and were left on their own. Tanks must advance behind infantry, not in front of it, and as fire support in already scouted directions."

Regrettably, I do not have the appendix with the loss numbers in it. It would have been interesting to compare against the German claims in Tigers in Combat. However, some crude comparisons can still be made: the 502nd claims to have knocked out 10 tanks on March 19th, 12 tanks on March 20th, and 18 tanks on March 21st, for a total of 40 tanks. Next, nothing happens until March 31st. 

An Independent Heavy Tank Breakthrough Regiment would contain 21 tanks, and an Independent Tank Brigade two 24-tank platoons, for a total of 48 tanks. Therefore, at their full strength, the 31st GTBR and 222nd ITB could have brought 69 tanks to the fight. It's hard to believe that, having knocked out more than half of the enemy tanks, the 502nd Battalion would immediately withdraw, and the Soviet tank units would continue fighting for three more days before being transferred to reserves, not to mention that the Soviets documented heavy beatings specifically at the hands of towed anti-tank guns.

The 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion and 31st Guards Heavy Tank Breakthrough Regiment met again, under much better documented terms.


  1. The Tank Brigade more likely was composed of two battalions with a total of 53 tanks at this date.