The operation to break the Leningrad blockade wasn't only the first major Soviet offensive of 1944, but also the first major use of armour by Leningrad and Volkov Fronts since 1941.
One of the more notable episodes of the Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Operation was the action of the tankers from the 59th Army during the liberation of Novgorod. In three years of difficult and bloody fighting in the Leningrad direction, few such examples of independent and effective action by a tank unit can be found. The heroes of this story are the tankers of Colonel Kirill Osipovich Urvanov's 16th Tank Brigade.
From the Foothold
The last time the brigade was actively used in battle was January of 1943, in an attempt to build on the success of the first penetration of the Leningrad blockade. Now, a year later, it composed the mobile group of the 6th Infantry Corps. The brigade had 48 tanks, 32 of them T-34s and the rest light T-60s and T-70s.
Opposing them was the German 28th Jaeger division. The German command reinforced them with assault guns from a tank destroyer unit and a large amount of AT guns.
The offensive of the 59th Army started in the Novgorod direction on January 14th, 1944. The first successes were on the auxiliary direction, where the Soviet operational group crossed lake Ilmen. On the main direction, the 239t Infantry Division attacked from the Volkhov foothold and also penetrated enemy defenses after some time. On January 15th the 16th Tank Brigade reinforced with an SPG regiment followed them into the breach.
The tanks fought in difficult conditions. First, the Soviet forces did not penetrate the defenses completely. Second, forests, swamps, deep snow, and the reinforced banks of Pitba river created many problems for the attackers. The first attack revealed all these issues, but there was no choice: it was still necessary to cross the swampy shores and minefields. Thanks to timely actions of the commander and personnel, a Soviet motorized infantry battalion managed to capture a foothold on the opposite side of the river by dusk. The rest of the infantry and the tanks followed them. By the end of January 15th, German defenses were penetrated. The 16th Tank Brigade turned south to the Novgorod-Chudovo highway. In addition, the Germans were driven out of Tyutitsa.
Pummelling at Podberezye
On the next day, the 16th Tank Brigade achieved great success due to competent direction from superior officers who managed to coordinate an artillery barrage that was necessary when attacking such a large stronghold. Tankers hit the village and the Podberezye railroad station. Senior Lieutenant Gorokhov's platoon entered the village first, then the others pulled up, fully clearing it of Germans. Having captured Podberezye, the Soviet forces took one of the largest German footholds, as well as cut off several enemy garrisons positioned to the east. This was a serious hit for the Germans. The 18th Army HQ demanded that the station be held at any cost, and this was quite a shock.
The 16th brigade also distinguished itself by defeating a German column that was trying to retreat from Podberezye. On January 16th, Soviet intelligence reported that the Germans were retreating west. Tankers had to cut off the enemy's retreat, and tanks were sent to the Podberezye-Nekohovo highway. Two T-60s were the first to reach the road: tanks commanded by Senior Sergeants Pridatko and Sviridov.
They saw a column of a German tank destroyer squadron, headed by an assault gun. The tankers opened fire. The Germans fired back and hit Sviridov's tank. The tank burned. With the last of his strength, the driver turned the tank perpendicular to the road, blocking the column.
Pridatko's crew managed to knock out several cars when the German assault gun rammed his tank. The light vehicles was crushed by the enemy's mass. By then, other tanks reached the battlefield, and a two hour battle ensued. When the Germans were finally defeated, 200 dead Germans, 45 cars, 10 guns, 8 motorcycles, and 3 radio stations littered the road. In addition, several dozen Germans were taken prisoner. Seems that most of the 28th Jaeger Division's AT guns were destroyed in this battle. German sources write that the 478th Tank Destroyer Battalion was lost here.
The front lines turned into several strongholds that the enemy still held onto. The Germans in Novgorod were in a serious danger of being encircled.
Novgorod is Ours!
The penetration of German defenses and battles over their strongholds came at a cost. In total. the 16th Tank Brigade lost 6 T-34 tanks and 4 light tanks. The fighting was far from over.
The tankers did not rest on their laurels. On January 17th, they moved further south along with the 65th Order of the Red Banner Infantry Division and another veteran of the swamps and forests, the 29th Tank Brigade. Tanks tore southwards across forest roads and swamps, threatening to cut off the main road west from Novgorod. They captured one important location, Vyazhishe village, reaching yet another railroad.
It became clear that significant effort was required to keep moving forward. Brigade commander Colonel Urvanov was selected as the head of the advance guard. While soldiers were clearing the road, he decided to send an SPG regiment and motorized infantry battalion to capture the railroad and hold it until the tanks can get out of the swamps.
By the end of January 17th, the armoured advance guard of the Soviet offensive was several kilometers away from the Novgorod-Luga highway. The motorized infantry battalion of the 16th Tank Brigade was ahead of the rest. If was the first to reach the railroad near the Nashi passing loop. Here, our tankers met their old friends from Sinyavino in the winter of 1943: elements of the 3rd Grenadier Regiment of the 21st Infantry Division and SS cavalry. Until the arrival of the main forces, the advance guard repelled up to eight attacks without retreating one step. Several days later, sad scraps of a single battalion from the 21st Division managed to make it through the encirclement.
The Germans knew that Novgorod could not be held. The breakthrough began on the morning of January 20th. The Germans took heavy losses in the fighting around the city.
When tanks joined up with their motorized infantry, another push south followed. Soon those who spent days marching through swamps and crushing German garrisons were shaking the hands of their comrades who liberated Novgorod the Great.
This part of the operation concluded fortunately for the 16th Brigade. Total losses were 11 tanks, 54 dead, 148 injured and three MIA. Considering the conditions of the operation, these losses were acceptable.
Original article available here.