When the topic of Soviet tankers and the Battle for Moscow is raised, one immediately thinks of Katukov and his 4th brigade. In the shadow of this great commander lie a great many units and formations, fighting to stop the Wehrmacht mere kilometers from Moscow and then push them back westward. This is a story of one of those brigades.
It happened in October of 1941, when Typhoon (the German offensive towards Moscow) was raging in full force. The enemy penetrated the front in the central direction and encircled several armies of the Reserve and Western Fronts near Vyazma. By the middle of October, a part of those forces managed to break out and retreat to the Mozhaisk defensive line. New forces were needed in order to hold the front here, new forces that the Red Army was desperately lacking. In order to win time for moving up reserves and shoring up defenses, six newly formed tank brigades were thrown into battle near Mozhaisk and Maloyaroslavets, including the 22nd brigade.
Tankers help out Panfilov's men
Like many other units of the time, the 22nd Tank Brigade was rushed to formation from October 2nd to October 11th. The day after, the brigade was sent to the front, subordinate to the 5th Army.
The rush in formation did not have a positive effect on the unit's equipment. According to the standards, the brigade was to have 7 heavy KV tanks, 33 T-34s, and 32 "small" tanks: T-30s or T-40s. In reality, there were no KV tanks, and 7 T-34s were issued instead. 12 of the light vehicles were BT tanks from tank schools, whose parts were almost completely worn out. No armoured cars for reconnaissance and control companies were issued at all. However, the brigade did get 8 rare ZiS-30 tank destroyers, consisting of a 57 mm gun on an armoured Komsomolets chassis.
The majority of the brigade's soldiers were recently conscripted. The difficult situation did not allow them to properly prepare. They would have to learn to fight in battle.
The front lines changed rapidly. As a result, the 22nd brigade was pulled apart. On October 13th, Captain Kozhanov's group (14 tanks and a motorized infantry company) was sent to Borovsk. Engaging the enemy, the group managed to disperse German infantry and knock out 7 tanks at the cost of 4 of their own. The offensive towards Borovsk was stopped for now. However, the group did not return to the brigade, remaining to fight in that sector.
Soon the brigade received new orders and set out to help the 16th Army at Volokolamsk. Covering 200 km in two marches, the brigade reached the Konyashevo-Chertanovo region. Here, it joined the ranks of Panfilov's 316th Infantry Division.
The tankers' arrival was very well timed, as the German 2nd Tank Division delivered a powerful attack towards Knyazhevo on that day. By the evening, they surrounded a whole battalion of Soviet forces. Panfilov decided to counterattack with tanks of the 22nd brigade. At 18:00, 10 T-34s and 9 T-30s attacked the enemy that was fighting the encircled battalion. The Germans, not expecting to see tanks, retreated, and the battalion was saved. For decisive and successful action, Major-General Panfilov declared his personal gratitude to the 22nd brigade.
Battle at Mozhaisk
The tankers barely had time to catch their breath after Knyazhevo when they received new orders from the commander of the Western Front. On October 18th, the brigade once more undertook a long march to Pushkino, where they were finally supposed to reach the 5th Army. The 80 kilometer off-road march left its mark: several BT tanks and 3 tank destroyers fell behind for repairs.
The commander of the 5th Army committed a common mistake for the initial period of the war, sending the brigade to battle straight from the march, without waiting for it to completely congregate or perform reconnaissance. The consequences of using small groups of tanks in this manner are predictably grim.
One of these groups, consisting of an infantry company and AT riflemen, was supposed to take up defensive positions at a crossroads 5 kilometers south of Mozhaisk. The commander of the 5th Army told them that the 17th Infantry Regiment was already holding positions there. Soldiers from the 22nd brigade confidently marched without reconnaissance, certain that they were walking towards their allies. However, once they arrived, it turned out that there were no Soviet forces there, but instead a large amount of Germans. A night battle ensued, and the group was surrounded, taking heavy losses.
The tanks of the brigade were also split up. 7 tanks were sent to defend Mozhaisk. By the time they reached the city, it turned out that it was already occupied by Germans. Two tanks were sent to perform reconnaissance, but were destroyed.
13 more tanks were given to the 20th Tank Brigade and fought for five days against a numerically superior German force at the Moscow-Mozhaisk highway. Here, our tankers knocked out six German tanks and killed over a hundred soldiers and officers. Lieutenant Sorokopudov excelled, destroyed three German tanks, as well as Lieutenant Aladinskiy, destroying two tanks, a gun, and about 25 soldiers.
On October 22nd, 1941, a new order was issued by the commander of the 5th Army. The 22nd brigade along with the 50th Infantry Division was supposed to take and hold the Dorohovo settlement, located on the Moscow-Mozhaisk highway, along the primary German axis of attack.
Turning point for the 22nd brigade
By October 23rd, the brigade was in rough shape. Only 20 tanks remained functional, and the motorized infantry battalion nearly ceased to exist: almost all of it was encircled at Mozhaisk, breaking out in small groups. The tankers' support consisted of an AA squadron, who placed their machineguns and 37 mm cannons in ambush around Dorohovo.
In the early morning, the German 10th Tank Division delivered a powerful attack from the west along the highway. Under the enemy advance, the riflemen of the 50th Infantry Divison routed, refusing to support tank counterattacks that the 22nd brigade attempted to carry out. The defense of the settlement was down to the tankers and AA gunners. Their situation became even more difficult when German infantry approached from the south.
The defense of the settlement lasted from 7 am to 6 pm. Tankers and AA gunners managed to knock out 6 German tanks, several trucks, two 37 mm guns, and about a hundred soldiers and officers. The AA squadron reported shooting down two planes.
By the evening, the situation looked grim. Soviet forces in the village (especially the AA gunners) suffered serious losses and were under threat of encirclement. Thankfully, an order was received from their superiors allowing retreat.
During October 24th-25th, Soviet forces performed a fighting retreat. Tanks from the 22nd brigade staged ambushes with two or three tanks and performed reconnaissance raids. Sadly, the 50th Infantry Division wavered once more, leaving our tankers without cover. Another problem came from mines, which sappers from the 5th Army generously spread in the depth of Soviet defenses. Nobody was left to guard these minefields, nor was there a diagram composed. A report from the 22nd brigade reads: "...3 transport trucks and 1 tank destroyer blew up on our own mines. 2 killed, 3 injured. These losses are the result of criminal negligence of the engineering service of the 5th Army."
Pulling up their forces, the Red Army attempted to knock the enemy out of Dorohovo, Trufanovka, and Boltino on October 26th. This time, a lot more attention was paid to the cooperation of infantry and tanks. Infantry followed tanks into battle, cementing their success. This cooperation yielded results. After three days of fighting, the Germans were thrown back about 8 kilometers. 6 tanks from the 22nd brigade were knocked out, but all were salvageable. The Germans lost one medium tank, 12 AT guns, about 200 soldiers and officers, 3 aircraft. Our forces captured 6 cars, 2 AT guns, 100 rifles, and other trophies. After this battle, the 22nd brigade got 3 days of rest before the next battle.
Original article available here.