In the middle of November of 1943, the Germans tried to take Kiev, recently liberated by the Red Army. A powerful strike force struck at Soviet forces in two directions on November 15th, 1943: west of Fastov and south of Zhitomir.
Among others, the 1st SS Tank Division "Leibstandarte" attacked towards the Zhitomir direction. This division included 96 Panther and PzIV tanks and 27 Tigers. The division was tasked with capturing Brusilov. The Germans circled around it and prepared for an offensive from the east. The village of Yastrebenka lay between Leibstandarte and Brusilov, and the Germans had to take it first.
On the night from November 21st to November 22nd, the 1454th SPG Regiment equipped with new SU-85 tank destroyers arrived in the village. Its gun was an unpleasant surprise for any German tank, for example, it could punch through the front of a Tiger from a kilometer away. Eight SU-85s from the regiment and elements of three mechanized brigades (infantry and a dozen T-34s) took up defensive positions on the outskirts of the village. The defenders were also aided by artillery and minefields.
Lieutenant Vasiliy Krysov's SPG platoon took up positions on nearby height 187.7. Here, there was a convenient grove and tank trenches, left over from prior battles. Our SPG crews didn't even have to dig to get favourable positions with good visibility. A well concealed SU-85 could be the source of many problems. 30 infantrymen took up positions next to the SPGs. Soviet officers could see a group of German tanks at the Velshki village, preparing to attack Yastrebenka. Soviet documents estimate their number at 100.
At 6:00 on November 22nd, after an air strike and an artillery barrage, the German tanks began their advance. About 60 tanks participated in the attack, 11 of them Tigers, as well as panzergrenadiers and assault guns. The weather was clear, so the SS-men were worked over by Sturmoviks on their way to Yastrebenka. Judging by the fact that the enemy didn't stop, the result of this attack wasn't particularly impressive.
The real battle began when the Germans came within range of artillery. An award order for Sturmbahnfuhrer Kling, a participant in the attack, reads: "Moving in the first line of attacking units, Kling's company was forced to weather the blows of an incredibly powerful anti-tank defense system." Lieutenant Krysov confirms this in his report, indicating that anti-tank artillery, field artillery, and AA guns all fired on German tanks.
When five German tanks were within 400 meters of the hill where Krysov and Makarov's SU-85s were hidden, their sides were at a perfect flat angle. Krysov was the first to knock out a tank, Makarov knocked out a second, and the third was destroyed by shots from both. The other two tanks retreated. The SPGs fired at them again, but with no results. At the same time, Soviet infantry showered the panzergrenadiers with lead, pushing them back with their tanks.
Krysov reported that four of the 60 attacking tanks burned up during the attack, and another three were immobilized by mines. Leibstandarte's loss numbers are unavailable, but the division's documents remark that many vehicles were knocked out by multiple hits from various calibers. Significant German losses are confirmed by the fact that there were not enough forces for another attack and the enemy had to commit his reserves: 25 PzIVs from the 2nd tank battalion.
The second attack began at noon. There was another artillery barrage; the Germans pounded Soviet positions and minefields for half an hour. The fire was so intense that Soviet infantry had to hide under their tanks.
Krysov recalls: "This time, eight tanks and up to a company of infantry broke off from the main force and headed for our two SPGs and two dozen men. Almost a five-fold advantage!" Upon arriving at the grove where the SPGs were hidden, the Germans split up and grasped the height with a pincer maneuver. Krysov was forced to leave the height, taking along some infantry, and engaged four tanks that were attacking from the south.
Krusov fired and lit up the first tank. The rest retreated behind a hill. The driver remained vigilant and moved the SPG to a different position. While the Germans looked for the vehicle where it used to be, Krysov knocked out another tank. The SU-85 was hit several times in return, but did not burn up, and was able to fire one more shot. The Germans put up a smokescreen and fell back.
Krysov left his SPG to inspect the damage. The right track was shot off, as well as the idler, front road wheel, and carrier. Makarov's crew arrived at Krysov's position on foor. They reported that two Tigers were knocked out, but the SPG was shot and burned up. A Soviet tractor arrived, towing Krysov's damaged SPG towards a windmill and hiding it in a pit.
Meanwhile, battle for the village raged on. The Germans wrote that they were being shot at from all sides by T-34s dug into the ground or hidden in haystacks. Eduard Kalinovsky's Tiger was hit several times, bending the gun barrel. Rolf Schamp, gunner of SS-Unterscharfuhrer Hans Helde's tank, recalls: "We saw a field, 800-1000 meters long, behind which there was a forest. The enemy's location was unknown. We were supposed to attack towards the forest. A hurricane of fire was aimed at us! The gunshots were like fireworks. We could feel how our tank was hit more and more often."
The enemy's attack stalled once more.
Wit, Daring, and Luck
Leibstandarte's third attack at Yastrebenka began on November 22nd, 1943, at 15:00. The enemy approached in three echelons. The battle progressed quickly. Soviet reports recorded five tanks lost and four German tanks knocked out.
Lieutenant Krysov's SPG was just wrapping up repairs. Spare parts were recovered from a knocked out T-34. The repair crew was still working when the Germans burst into Yastrebenka and the battered Soviet forces began to retreat to the north. Krysov's vehicle ended up surrounded. The commander ordered the hatches opened and gun lowered, creating the illusion that the SPG was knocked out and abandoned. The trick worked: the Germans paid no attention to the "wreck", passing within a hundred meters of it.
Waiting until dark, the crew wanted to leave their vehicle and continue repairs, but an excessively curious SS-man decided to inspect it, paying for it dearly. He was strangled to death by Sviridov, the loader. In the dark, the crew completed their repairs and started the engine. They did not manage to escape undetected, and the enemy opened fire with small arms and artillery. The driver maneuvered hectically while Krysov and the others returned fire from their submachinegun and with grenades. The SU-85 fought its way back to its own. Krysov survived until the end of the war, racking up more kills.
As for the Germans, they made their way to Brusilov, and even took the city. They stopped there, as did the whole counteroffensive. Kiev was an impossible dream: out of the 130 kilometer distance, the Germans barely traveled 40.
Original article by Stanislav Chernikov.