[Article by Maj Gen (Ret) N. Shtykov: "In the Battles for Bridgeheads on the Upper Don"]
In the summer of 1942, the Nazi troops initiated an offensive in the southwestern sector of the Soviet-German Front. The enemy was rushing toward the Volga in the Stalingrad area, endeavoring to capture this important strategic point and major industrial center of the nation.
Considering the difficult situation of our troops in the Stalingrad sector in the summer of 1942, the enemy command felt that we would endeavor to securely reinforce and retain the occupied perimeters and there would be no opportunity of going over to an offensive.
Having encountered stubborn resistance, the Nazi Command began to shift its troops from other sectors into this one. Under these conditions, the Voronezh Front was given the task of tying down the enemy by energetic actions and preventing it from shifting forces to Stalingrad.
In carrying out this task, the 6th Army of the front, during the period from 6 through 17 August, conducted an operation to capture and widen a bridgehead on the right bank of the Don. It succeeded in capturing and holding on to two small bridgeheads to the north of the town of Korotoyak and these over the entire autumn represented a constant threat to the 2d Hungarian Army and this forced the enemy to maintain reserves there. It was precisely here that the Soviet troops were to go over to a counteroffensive.
The commander of the 6th Army, Maj Gen F. M. Kharitonov, endeavored to compensate for the lack of superiority over the enemy in men and equipment by achieving surprise, by careful preparation of the troops and clear organization of cooperation. This was achieved by the hard training of the subunits, units and staffs. In order to achieve surprise, the crossing of the Don was planned for the night.1
The 25th Guards Rifle Division and the 24th Motorized Rifle Brigade which were to be used for operations in the main sector were deployed and prepared for the offensive deep in the army defensive zone. Where the crossing was being planned, the subunits of the 53d Fortified Area and the several subunits attached to it from the 173d Army Reserve Rifle Regiment2 under the command of Col A. G. Dashkevich put on a demonstration of intense work on the defensive positions. But they were actually preparing the jump-off position for the crossing.
The 25th Guards Rifle Division had extensive combat experience. For successful operations in the Battle of Moscow, it had received the honorary name of "Guards" while the feats of its men performed on the Northwestern Front from whence it had arrived on 22 July as part of the 6th Army had been recognized by an Order of the Red Banner.3 The glorious combat traditions had been widely used in carrying out party political work in the units and subunits where, upon the instructions of Div Commissar Ye. V. Bobrov, a meeting of the experienced men with the young recruits had been organized. Here particular attention was paid to the exchange of experience in nighttime operations and in crossing water obstacles.
In their speeches the veterans emphasized the most crucial moments, for example, the necessity of strict discipline and that at night all the orders of the commanders must be carried out noiselessly and the attack must be rapid and bold.
The division commander, Col P. M. Shafarenko, having made a detailed study of the area of the forthcoming crossing on the map and directly in the field, chose the jump-off area on the Bityug River not far from the town of Bobrov and organized training of subunits from all branches of troops for the forthcoming crossing of the Don. The training was carried out employing the crossing equipment to be used in crossing the river. Also worked out were the questions of coordination during the offensive on the opposite shore in the aim of broadening the bridgehead. Here the commanders of the cooperating rifle, artillery, tank and engineer subunits had become personally acquainted and had coordinated and trained in joint actions.
Four days were assigned to prepare for the crossing. Considering the complexity of the pending actions and the short period of time, the division staff headed by its chief, Lt Col I. A. Danilevich, planned all measures in detail.
The operations department of the division staff clearly assigned duties to the officers who were to exercise supervision and provide the necessary help to the units and subunits.
Particular attention was given to the commandant service, as it was to play the main role in observing camouflage discipline and ensuring prompt arrival in the concentration area and at the crossing sector. The division commander assigned supervision of the commandant service's work directly to I. A. Danilevich and the chief of the division political section, Maj P. I. Grechko. In the regiments this task was carried out by the deputy regimental commanders with the staff officers and political workers. Strict supervision over the movement of the units into the concentration areas and to the crossing sectors ensured their prompt and concealed arrival. During these days everyone was aware of the intense activities carried out by the regimental chief of the engineer service, Mil Engr 2d Rank M. A. Mikhaylichenko, the commander of the combat engineer battalion, Capt N. Ye. Dorokhov, the chief of the division's first rear department, Capt V. F. Pisarev, the divisional artillery staff officer, Capt A. S. Apakin and the Sr Political Leader V. I. Chernyshov who was killed in the crossing on 8 August. They did everything to supply the advancing troops with crossing equipment and then to organize a raft crossing.
For supporting the troops during the crossing and combat on the bridgehead, the 291st Air Ground Attack Division was assigned to the commander of the 6th Army. The division's commander, Col A. N. Vitruk, met repeatedly with the division commander P. M. Shafarenko as well as with the regimental commanders K. V. Bilyutin and F. G. Krivomlin. Together they worked out in detail the questions of cooperation in all stages of the battle.
In order to provide an opportunity for the regimental and subunit commanders to more clearly organize the actions of subordinates directly in the field, the taking up of the jump-off position for the offensive was carried out 24 hours before the start of the crossing, that is, during the night of 5 August. During the day of 5 August, reconnaissance4 was carried out in all elements and the tasks and questions of cooperation were clarified. Objectives in the enemy rear were marked where artillery attacks were to be planned in order to cause fires and thereby create markers for our troops.
In the interests of surprise, the artillery softening-up was to be brief, lasting 30 minutes. At the same time the ground attack planes of the 291st Air Division were to make bomb and strafing attacks against objectives deep in the enemy defenses.
The 25th Guards Rifle Division crossed the river in two regiments. Somewhat earlier its 73d Regiment had been shifted to the 174th Rifle Division. The actions of the 78th Guards Rifle Regiment supported the forward battalion (the 2d Rifle Battalion of Sr Lt G. L. Relin). Under the cover of artillery fire, it was to cross on available equipment and seize the enemy strongpoint at elev. 186.2 which prevailed over the terrain in the crossing area. Its capture would deprive the enemy of an opportunity to use small arms and machine gun fire against our subunits in the course of their crossing of the river.
As soon as the artillery troops, having securely neutralized the enemy on the forward edge, had shifted fire deep into the enemy defenses, the forward battalion, crossing on rafts, boats and other available equipment, attacked the Nazi trenches by surprise. The bold actions of the guardsmen stunned the Nazis and soon thereafter elev. 186.2 had been captured. Sr Lt G. L. Relin decided to benefit from the enemy's confusion and to continue the advance toward the southeastern edge of 1st Storozhevoye (Diagram 1).
The commander of the 78th Regiment, Lt Col K. V. Bilyutin, in having dependable contact with the forward battalion, with permission by the division commander immediately began to cross the river with the main forces of the regiment in order to reinforce and exploit the success of the 2d Battalion. It succeeded in crossing to the opposite bank quickly and without losses, but the enemy command was able to undertake a strong counterattack, forcing the regiment's subunits to go over to the defensive. Lt Col K. V. Bilyutin, in firmly controlling combat, sent out reconnaissance which reported the bringing up of enemy reserves from the region of Dovhalevka.
Having been informed of this, the divisional commander decided to hit the advancing reserves employing the ground attack planes of the 291st Air Division and after intense shelling by artillery and rocket launchers against the counterattacking enemy grouping, to resume the offensive by the forces of the division's first echelon and to shift to the opposite bank the 81st Guards Rifle Regiment of Maj F. G. Krivomlin for broadening and deepening the captured bridgehead. Lt Col K. V. Bilyutin ordered the battalions of G. L. Relin and M. I. Vasyukov to tie down the enemy on the front, while the 3d Battalion of Capt V. Ya. Trofimov, in outflanking 1st Storozhevoye to the southeast and coming out in the enemy rear, was to capture the important strongpoint on elev. 195.0.
With the start of the attack by the 3d Battalion, the 1st and 2d Battalions were also to go over to the offensive.
Firm and continuous control of the subunits and units as well as reliable communications between the control posts made it possible to quickly give the missions to the troops and clarify cooperation. Having resumed the offensive after the attack by the ground attack planes and artillery fire, the 78th Regiment without halting broke into Storozhevoye and captured it. Conditions were created for committing the 81st Regiment to combat. Committed at dawn, this regiment had the task, after a 5-minute intense shelling, to advance in the direction of elev. 187.7, cutting the enemy grouping in the bend of the Don into two parts. After capturing the elevation, its subunits began to rapidly advance into the rear of the 4th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Hungarian Infantry Division, the subunits of which, in abandoning their positions, began a disordered retreat.
During the second night, the 24th Motorized Rifle Brigade of Col V. L. Savchenko began to cross the Don. Without a halt it succeeded in capturing the village of Titchikha. The commander ordered the 25th Division and the brigade, in extending the offensive along convergent axes, to link up their bridgeheads into one.
Not relying on the Hungarian units, the German Command committed the 429th Infantry Regiment of the 168th German Infantry Division as well as around 50 tanks to the battle. The main thrust by the counterattacking enemy grouping, with air support and in addition to the German regiment involved units of the 9th and 20th Hungarian Infantry Divisions, was made against the units of the 25th Guards Division.5 Around a regiment of enemy infantry with tanks advanced just against the 3d Battalion of the 81st Guards Rifle Regiment. The division commander, in being at an observation point set up on the bridgehead 1.5 km from the forward edge, ordered the commander of the 29th Tank Killing Battalion, Maj L. I. Ostroukhov, to move up into the battalion's area and repel the tank attack. Due to the clear and decisive actions by the artillery troops, the enemy tanks were halted, but the infantry continued to advance. It reached our trenches in individual areas and here hand-to-hand clashes broke out. The regimental commander sent a machine gun company from the battalion of Maj V. G. Slonskiy to reinforce the 3d Battalion. But the division commander concentrated the fire of all artillery in front of the 81st Regiment. The army commander sent regiments of the 291st Air Division here as well. The increasing effort, particularly in the sector of the 3d Battalion, firm control of the companies by its commander, Sr Lt A. N. Agafonov, as well as the heroism and tenacity of the troops forced the enemy to abandon its plans. Its regiment pulled back to the initial position. Having recovered somewhat from the failure, on 9 August the Nazis undertook a series of counterattacks, but they were all driven off. By the end of the 10th, the situation had temporarily stabilized in the area of the 25th Division and the 24th Brigade.
On 8 August, the 174th Rifle Division commenced crossing the Don to the north of Korotoyak. Its energetic operations tied down a significant number of enemy forces, relieving the units fighting on the Storozhevoye bridgehead.
The division commander, Col S. M. Karapetyan, decided to cross this river simultaneously in two sectors, to rout the enemy on the opposite bank by a surprise attack and then capture the population points of Devitsa and Mostishchi and dig in on this line, having a battle formation of two echelons. The 73d Guards Rifle Regiment advanced along with the 174th Rifle Division on the axis of the main thrust. The regiment had been transferred to the division from the 25th Guards Rifle Division.6 Its actions during the period of crossing the river and in the defensive battles had an active and instructive nature, and to me, in subsequently commanding this regiment from the end of January 1943, it seems wise to briefly describe them (Diagram 2).
According to the plan of the regiment's commander, Maj A. S. Belov, the crossing of the water obstacle was to be started by the 2d Battalion of Capt I. N. Kotlyarenko reinforced by the company of submachine gunners of Sr Lt A. P. Golovin. The regiment had around 24 hours to prepare for combat. The commander of the 174th Division, Col S. N. Karapetyan, in endeavoring to ensure surprise, decided to commence actions of the forward battalion without artillery softening-up. However, the enemy detected the start of the battalion's crossing at the very moment that the crossing troops had reached the middle of the river and opened up with heavy fire. The surprise factor was lost, and the artillery softening-up planned for such a case had to be carried out. Under the cover of artillery fire, the forward battalion continued to land on the bank while the main forces of the regiment began to cross the river. In crossing, by joint actions they threw back the Nazis against themselves and by dawn had succeeded in advancing several kilometers. In the morning, the enemy command brought up reserves and organized a counterattack by infantry and tanks reinforced by artillery and aviation. But the enemy's resources were insufficient for defeating the subunits which had crossed the river.
Having repelled a counterattack, the units of the 174th Rifle Division continued to advance, in deepening and widening the bridgehead. By the dawn of 9 August, the 73d Guards Rifle Regiment, having rushed forward, drove the Nazis out of the population points of Mostishchi and Averino. The divisional commander, S. A. Karapetyan, in committing his reserve to battle, at the same time reinforced and exploited the designated success, concentrating efforts on the Korotoyak axis. The rapid advance by the units of the division and the attached 73d Regiment deprived the enemy of an opportunity to organize defenses both on the approaches to the town and within it. It was taken without a halt. The battalion of Sr Lt A. Ya. Obukhov was the first to break into it. During this period particularly able actions were carried out by the artillery troops of Sr Lt I. A. Lokatsinin and the mortar troops of Sr Lt S. N. Petrichenko. Their subunits blocked the path of the German tanks and the Hungarian infantrymen. Due to them and to all the fighters in the battalion, the enemy counterattacks were repelled and Korotoyak was liberated. During the battle for this bridgehead, examples of courage were shown by the regimental agitator, Sr Political Leader V. I. Chernyshev, Lts Ye. K. Lobanov and P. M. Britkov and the assistant regimental chief of staff Sr Lt V. Ya. Aristov. The antitank gunners of V. S. Karatayev and the infantrymen from the rifle squad of Sgt Yu. O. Lyubchenko fought to the last cartridge.
As a result of the decisive actions by the 174th Division and the 73d Regiment, a small bridgehead was captured close to the Storozhevnoye one and this diverted a portion of the enemy forces from the main sector.
The successful actions by the troops of the 6th Army sowed confusion in the enemy ranks. The underestimation of the forces which had captured the bridgehead became obvious.
Up to two divisions of Hungarian troops and two German infantry regiments, supported by tanks, resumed the attack against the Storozhevnoye bridgehead. But the enemy encountered stubborn resistance. The guardsmen stood fast. Fierce battles were waged there until 17 September. The enemy lost up to 9,000 soldiers and officers killed and wounded, 48 guns, 28 tanks, 4 aircraft as well as much other equipment and weapons. 7
In utilizing the predominant superiority in men and equipment, the Nazi formations drove our units out of Korotoyak and Averino, they captured Storozhevnoye, however the main bridgehead, the Storozhevnoye, remained in our hands. The enemy's plans to drown us in the Don were unrealized.
At the end of November, Army Gen G. K. Zhukov arrived at the Storozhevnoye bridgehead. With great interest he questioned the division's commander, Gen P. M. Shafarenko on how the bridgehead was captured. After a complete report, the division commander said (according to Pavel Mendeleyevich [Shafarenko]): "Yes, the bridgehead is of primary importance for us."8
On 13 January 1943, our 25th Guards Division and other formations of the 40th Army of the Vorohezh Front, in utilizing the Storozhevnoye bridgehead, commenced the Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Operation.
The bridgeheads were held for 5 months and for 5 months bloody battles were carried out here, at one moment dying down and then resuming with new strength. The greatest tenacity, wholehearted dedication to the motherland, loyalty to duty and heroism were required in order to withstand the rabid enemy attacks. But the Soviet soldiers manifested these qualities daily. Here, on the Upper Don, 50 km to the south of Voronezh, on one of the sectors of the enormous Soviet-German Front, they carried out their feats.
In these battles, Sgt I. V. Panganis covered himself with immortal glory, and he is now entered in perpetuity on the roles of one of the units of the Sinelnikov-Budapest Orders of Suborov and Bogdan Khmel'mtskiy Division imeni V. I. Chapayev. In one of their numerous attacks, the Nazi infantry, with the support of 15 tanks, breached the defenses of the 1st Battalion of the 73d Guards Rifle Regiment. The battalion commander, Capt P. S. Karginov, did not have any reserves. Blocking the path of the enemy tanks were only the 45-mm gun of Sgt I. V. Panganis and less than a company of infantrymen who were defending at the village of Averino. At a price of great losses and heroic effort, the enemy infantry was stopped, but its tanks continued the attack, trying to reach the battalion's rear and cut it off from the regiment's main forces. The Panganis crew destroyed two tanks, but the Nazi tank troops soon discovered his gun and concentrated all the fire of their cannons on it. The men fell one after another, hit by shrapnel of the enemy shells. The wounded sergeant remained alone by the gun. In disregarding the pain, he loaded the cannon, aimed at the base of the turret of the advancing tank and fired. Almost simultaneously a tank shell exploded with a roar quite nearby. The shrapnel burned his arm painfully and it hung against his body lifelessly. Regardless of the burning pain, Panganis rushed to the gun, but it had been damaged. The armored monsters, clanking and roaring and spitting fire, advanced on the position. One of the tanks came so close that it seemed that the cannon would be crushed along with its commander. But the path of the steel giant was blocked by the bloodied, but not conquered, man. At his belt was a string of grenades. Gathering his last strength, he threw himself under the tank. By an Ukase of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, Sgt Igor' Vladimirovich Panganis was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.10
On 15 August 1942, the divisional newspaper STALINGRADSKAYA GVARDIYA wrote: "In fierce battles on the right bank of the Don, our glorious guardsmen have again confirmed their unshakable steadfastness and will for victory over the hated enemy. With exceptional stubbornness, the men have defended every meter of the homeland, driving off fierce enemy attacks and causing it enormous losses in personnel and equipment." The heroism and steadfastness of the men and the commanders, their military skill were one of the main factors ensuring the crossing of the river and the holding of the bridgeheads.
Also of great significance were the careful planning of troop operations, the constant training of the subunits to cross the water obstacle, the ensuring of surprise, the firm and continuous control of the troops as well as speed and prompt use and reinforcing of the results achieved by the forward battalions and by the main forces of the units and formations.
In addition, we must also point out the constant increase in effort by committing new forces to the bridgeheads. Thus, as the Storozhevnoye bridgehead was broadened, the army commander moved to it the 116th Tank Brigade of Col A. Yu. Novak and the 53d Fortified Area. The presence of a tank brigade on the bridgehead strengthened the antitank defenses of our troops and made it possible to rapidly prepare and carry out counterattacks. The fortified area, as a unit most suited for organizing and carrying out a static defense, undoubtedly contributed a great deal to retaining the bridgehead.
As our troops lacked superiority in men and equipment over the enemy, their success to a significant degree was ensured by the fact that the crossing was made in two areas. This split the rather limited operational reserves of the Nazi Command and did not allow it to effectively counter our formations. In considering the limited tasks of the 6th Army Troops (the tying down of enemy forces and not allowing them to be shifted to Stalingrad), it must be recognized that such actions were the most rational.
The combat experience of the 6th Army formations shows that for achieving success in immobilizing actions which, as a rule, are carried out with limited forces, it is very important that the troop operations be most active while the commanders, political workers and staffs should show a maximum of creativity.