The Wehrmacht's pincer closed around Vyazma on October 7th, 1941. Soldiers of the West and Reserve Fronts, about 600,000 men, were trapped in side. On the next day, Commander-in-Chief I. Stalin sent a telegram to Lieutenant-General M. Lukin, the commander of the surrounded forces. It began with the words "If you don't break through, I will have nothing and no one to defend Moscow. I repeat: nothing and no one!"
The chief wasn't joking. A new line of defense had to be built between the Germans and Moscow after the West and Reserve Fronts fell. This cost time, time that the enemy wasn't about to donate. Precious days and hours were won in fierce battles. The battle for the Maloyaroslavl fortified region (37th UR) was one of them.
Construction of fortifications at Maloyaroslavl began in July as a part of the Mozhaisk line of defense. Work progressed with enormous difficulty. Construction sites were lacking specialists, especially military engineers. Rank and file workers were poorly supplied with even hand tools, "...especially axes, saws, crowbars, large pickaxes... only shovels, but even those were poor quality and often broke." The workers didn't even have shoes: "...many were barefoot and had to wear bast shoes that were made on location."
The workers achieved a miracle and finished most of the fortifications, trenches, and minefields by October of 1941. However, bunkers and dugouts by themselves cannot stop an enemy. Soldiers were needed to occupy them.
On the night from October 4th to October 5th, before the Vyazma encirclement finished, elements of the Reserve Front began retreating through the front lines of the Maloyaroslavl fortified region. Without orders, risking his life, the commandant of the region stopped retreating soldiers, formed units, and ordered them to take up defenses. Thanks to his actions, the main defensive sector near Ilyinskoye village had several hundred infantrymen, three machineguns, six anti-tank guns, and even a howitzer regiment with 15 cannons by dawn on October 6th.
On that day, more forces arrived from Moscow, including battalions of cadets from the Podolsk infantry and artillery academies. On October 10th, the 312th Rifle Division began to arrive, meant as the core of the 37th UR. The rigidity of this core was not high, as was the trend in the fall of 1941. The division suffered from a serious lack of artillery and the soldiers had almost no time to prepare the defenses. The situation forced many to enter the battle on arrival.
The position of the Maloyaroslavets UR was bad, but it could get a lot worse. On October 5th, the German motorized division "Das Reich" took Yukhnov. Only a group of Soviet paratroopers let by I. Starchak and the screening force of the 37th UR, the cadets from Podolsk, stood in their path along the Warsaw highway. Their main objective was to destroy bridges and delay the enemy by any other means. One can only guess how these miserly forces were supposed to fight the enemy, but the SS-men helped out by turning north from Yukhnov to Gzhatsk. German forces that were supposed to advance further on the Warsaw highway only arrived at Yukhnov on October 8th. These were elements of the 57th Motorized Corps. Soviet soldiers captured a prisoner and discovered that the enemy was planning on offensive on the next day.
Zhukov, commanding the West Front, personally sent the 17th Tank Brigade to the threatened sector. It was formed from tankers of two divisions that fought in the summer of 1941, ironically, against that same 57th Motorized Corps.
The brigade took positions in front of the fortified sector, along the Izveri river. Expecting only Soviet infantry in their way, the Germans attempted to cross the river on October 9th and discovered Soviet tanks. The battle began at dawn and lasted until nightfall. The brigade lost three T-34 tanks in that time, two of them irreparably. The motorized riflemen from the brigade took heavy losses as well. At night, threatened by encirclement, the tankers retreated to Myatlevo. They won an entire day for others to prepare the fortifications.
Starting on October 12th, the 17th Tank Brigade became Lieutenat-General Akimov's "firefighters". On October 12th, the tankers supported the 53rd Rifle Division. The brigade's strength was sufficient to fight a defensive battle. However, on October 15th, the brigade was ordered to attempt to cut off the highway to Borovsk, which was occupied by the Germans. This cost the 17th brigade four lost T-34s.
Meanwhile, the Germans noticed that Soviet tanks were no longer defending the central sector of the 37th UR and decided to punch a road through Ilyinskoye. However, they still had to deal with the pillboxes.
The pillboxes made an impression on the Germans, described in Paul Carell's book "Hitler Moves East". According to him, the 57th Motorized Corps had to fight their way through an analogue of the French Maginot line, whose pillboxes withstood artillery and direct hits from bombs. The defenders of the cramped and often unfinished pillboxes would have been surprised to read such a review.
On October 16th, the Germans secretly moved their tanks through a swampy forest to the Cherkasskoye village and attempted to crush the Soviet defenses with an attack from the rear. Several PzIVs led a column of light Pz38(t)s, followed by infantry. The German plan for surprise worked. Soviet 85 mm AA gun crews initially mistook the approaching column for allies. However, the Germans didn't notice the Soviet guns, even though one of them was only 100 meters away and had almost no camouflage. They had no time to lament their lack of situational awareness: the Soviet gunners figured out who was coming and opened fire. The 15 tank column was burning within minutes. Only one tank managed to escape, driving through Ilyinskoye and reaching German positions. This battle is one of the best known German tank defeats in 1941.
Sadly, the local success of the AA guns had little effect on the overall situation at the Maloyaroslavl UR. The defenders' situation was still critical. The Germans were able to circle around the Soviet defenders from the north, partially surrounding the Podolsk cadets.
The last days of the 37th Fortified Region
The threat to the fortified region from the direction of Borovsk was so high that command decided to attempt a counterattack against the city. If this was not done, the Germans could surround the fortifications completely. The 17th tank brigade, with only 4 T-34s remaining, was assigned to the 43rd Army. The 223rd Rifle Regiment was supposed to provide support, but the tankers simply could not find them. The infantry did not hold and retreated. Only 60 soldiers came to Gorodne by the end of the day.
On the way to Borovsk, the brigade picked up five more T-34 tanks that became separated from a neighbouring tank unit. The tanks reached the outskirts of Borovsk in the evening and stopped, preparing to strike at dawn. However, the counterattack did not happen.
At around 4 am on October 18th, the commander of the 43rd Army gave an order to gather the remaining cadets and other forces and begin retreating. Since the Germans attacked without pause, many units did not leave until October 20th. The heroic defense was over, costing the Germans several dozen tanks, about a thousand men, and most importantly, two weeks of time for the defenders to prepare to the east, across the Nara river.
No doubt there was jealousy for the 57th Motorized Corps, one of the leaders of the offensive on Moscow. Now, the Corps' HQ sent out unenviable reports: "The recent fighting to take Russian positions has been the most fierce of the entire Russian campaign... Losses in tanks from the beginning of the operation to the middle of October grew significantly." Meanwhile, the fall rains began, and using tanks became harder and harder. The German "Typhoon" began losing its strength.
Original article by Andrei Ulanov.