In the far off Fall of 1941, when the 4th Tank Brigade was sent into battle with the words "Only you stand between the Germans and Moscow", it is doubtful that any of its tankers could predict where and how the brigade will finish its combat path in that great war. Maybe it will burn up in an encirclement, like many others have that summer in the Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltics. Maybe it will hold on a bit longer.
Then, in the Fall, they managed to survive, and keep standing. They slowed down the German tank wedge, won time for a new corps to take up positions behind them. For these battles, the 4th Tank Brigade received the title of 1st Guards.
In April of 1945, it was all different. Mikhail Efremovich Katukov, no longer a Colonel, but a Colonel-General, was in command of the 1st Guards Tank Army, which included the 1st Guards Tank Brigade. Moscow was still behind them, but by now it was far to the east. In front of them was the enemy's lair, Berlin. However, first they needed to overcome the "Berlin Gates", Seelow Heights, where the Eastern guests were going to be met with anything but hospitality.
On approach to Berlin
On April 15th, 44 T-34-85 tanks were ready for battle in the brigade. Another 17 SU-85 and SU-100 SPGs in the attached 400th Guards SPG Regiment. In the night of April 16th, the brigade crossed Oder and concentrated on the Kostrzyn foothold. In a few hours, their last and most difficult fight began.
If it was 1941 or 1942, the brigade would meet their end here, in burnt out and destroyed boxes, but it was the victorious year of 1945.
"Acting on order, the brigade followed attacking infantry at 7:30 on April 16th, overtook it, and took Sachsendorf in battle by 8:30. Advancing further, the brigade met fierce resistance from previously readied defenses at Seelow Heights. Thanks to a skilled flanking maneuver, the tanks entered the heights at 20:00 on April 16th, captured one of the heights, and threw the enemy's defenses into disarray."
Things were far from kicking down the doors, as this was only the first of the three lines of defense. Katukov's tankers only reached Marksdorf in the evening of April 18th, cutting off the retreat of the 11th SS Tank Corps. Over the next two days, the brigade was "deflecting frenzied attacks from the SS-men", as was written in contemporary memoirs.
On the evening of April 20th, 1945, strike groups from the 1st Belorussian Front broke the last line of defense at Seelow Heights, the so called "Wotan Line". On April 22nd, Soviet tank units cut the communications of the defending 9th Army and the 4th Tank Army, which overextended to aid it. In two more days, the trap closed fully. It contained up to 200,000 enemy soldiers, and a lot of vehicles. The majority of them lie forever in the forests near the small city of Halbe.
In the enemy's lair
The 1st Guards Tank Brigade was already fighting in Berlin. At dawn, the brigade was joined by lagging soldiers from the 21st Motorized Infantry Brigade. The assault on the city began.
"By morning on April 24th, the brigade crossed river Spree on rafts near the Kepenik region. A part of the corps' advance guard, the brigade advanced towards Adlershof and Johannisthal. At 5:00, they encountered heavy resistance at the north-western edge of Johannisthal, a Berlin suburb. At 11:30, the brigade fully controlled Johannisthal, where 10,000 citizens of allied nations were freed from camps."
The path into the city had to be ground out through several streets. Considering the experience of previous battles, the tanks marched in a "pine tree" pattern. The vehicles on the right side of the street fired at the left side, the left side on the right. 100-150 meters in front of the tanks, infantry removed Panzerfaust troops. Often, fighting was done as in an encirclement: the Germans let the forward units slip past them while hiding in basements among the civilians, or entered the rear through tunnels.
"The enemy turned all stone buildings into fortresses, placing submachinegunners and Panzerfaust teams into them. Unlike previous battles, they opened fire en masse from the top floors of buildings. Light and heavy AA guns were used as anti-tank guns. Guns from heavy tanks on improvised mounts were used as well. Many city streets had barricades, some of them reinforced concrete. Each barricade had minefields in front of it. SMG gunners and Panzerfaust teams were aided by tanks and SPGs, two to five."
A commander's death
On April 27th, the 1st Guards Tank Brigade entered the north-western outskirts of Schöneberg. Here, when suppressing a German AT gun placed in the church belltower, the brigade commander, Abram Matveevich Temnik, met his end. The commander of the nearby IS tank regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Veniamin Aaronovich Mindlin, recalls:
"Nice! You are still alive? Excellent!" I heard Temnik's voice in my headphones. "Where are your tanks?"
"Hello! I am at the crossroads. Did you see the flares?"
"Good. I have a question. See the red church? It is in front of you, to the right. The Fritz have a 75 mm gun there. It's shooting at my tanks from point blank range! Can you take it out? First Guardsmen always pay their debts!"
"I'll try sending SMG gunners."
"What can your infantry do? Fire from your "wolfhounds"!"
"We tried, the brick is very old, more than a meter thick..."
"Let's take them together, from both sides! I'm gathering the HQ for an attack."
"Why HQ? Where is your SMG battalion?"
"Fighting for the train station. There are labyrinths there, they can't spare a single man!"
"Why throw HQ into battle?"
"What else can I do? I will lead the attack myself. When can you start?"
"In about five minutes."
Temnik was swinging around his Mauser pistol and yelling something. I could see his red face and his moustache through my binoculars. His coat was gone, his shirt glistened with medals.
Seeing their brigade commanders, the retreating guardsmen halted. Both groups merged. Temnik stopped running for only a second, then waved his Mauser and stormed forward. Everyone was running close to him, and were close to the fence, when suddenly, in the very middle of the attackers, an explosion shot up.
This all happened in fractions of a minute. Another two or three, and we would be with him. In war, in battle, there is always just a little bit missing.
The tracks clattered, engines roared, shells from IS tanks whistle overhead. The SMG gunners rose up again and ran for the church.
After the explosion, Temnik's group was covered in dust and smoke. The dust settled. Temnik and his officers were lying on the pavement."
The command of the brigade was taken over by the HQ commander, Guards Colonel Katirkin.
Ending the war with six tanks
The brigade continued to plow its way forward. In the night from April 29th to April 30th, along with elements of the 20th Guards Motorized Infantry Brigade and the 88th Infantry Division, they knocked the enemy out of the last sector before the zoo. On the evening of April 30th, battles for the zoo itself began. At that point, only six working tanks remained in the brigade.
A few kilometers to the north, units of the 3rd Shock Army were storming the Reichstag.
On May 1st, 1945, at 16:00, by orders from the Corps commander, the brigade transferred its six tanks and their crews to the 20th Guards Motorized Infantry Brigade, as well as 89 SMG gunners from the motorized infantry battalion, and was transferred to the second echelon. The battle and the war was over for the 1st Guards Tank Brigade.
Article author: Andrei Ulanov. Andrei Ulanov is an historian and an author of books and articles on the Great Patriotic War. His most prominent works are "Order in Tank Forces" and "First T-34s" (co-authored with Dmitriy Shein). Currently, he is working on books on AT measures of Soviet infantry and combat use of T-34 tanks in 1942.
1. Report on combat actions, 1st Guards Tank, Cherkov, twice Order of Lenin, Red Banner, Orders of Suvorov, Kutuzov and Bogdan Khmelnitskiy Brigade, as a part of the 8th Guards Mechanized, Carpathian, Red Banner, Order of Suvorov Corps of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the 1st Belorussian Front from April 16th to May 2nd, 1945 (CAMD RF 299-3070-771)
2. V. Mindlin, The Last Battle is the Hardest. A memoir tale. Znamya, 1985. #4. pp 90-124
Original article available here.