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Posted on Jan 9, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The First Guards Tank Brigade – 1941

By Wild Bill Wilder

Of course, this simplification and concentration of two good tank designs would allow the Russians to produce these tanks in quantities that exceed that of any other country in the world. America did a similar thing in the production of the venerable M-4 tank. Once tank production got into gear and was running at full steam, a T-34 tank was coming off some assembly line in Russia every 12 minutes! Germany would eventually learn to her regret that it would never have those physical production capabilities.

The initial weaknesses of the Soviet armored forces did not lie in its equipment, but in its use. Poor leadership and inadequate tank doctrine meant that thousands of Russian tank crews burned alive or were blown to pieces as military leaders made blunder after blunder. As mentioned before, they learned quickly. By the end of 1941 a coherent tank doctrine had been formed. It did not take them long to see the difference between their performance and that of the German tanks.


Russian infantry and T-34 tanks launch an assault against German troops

The idea of a tank corps, which had begun and then been abandoned, was reinstituted. This corps, about a division and a half in size when compared to western units, included 400 tanks, motor rifle regiments (now supporting tanks instead of tanks supporting them!) and an artillery regiment. Now the evolution of tanks and their use, which had changed slowly after World War One, would be accelerated, and hurriedly. The survival of the Soviet Union depended upon it!

The Fighting Fourth

The 4th Tank Brigade was a part of the Russian 15th Tank Division, stationed at the city of Stalingrad at the outset of the war. As German panzers lashed out viciously across the steppes, full mobilization of any and all forces within hundreds of miles was begun. Seeing the danger that the rapidly approaching German columns imposed upon the great capital of Moscow, the Soviets began throwing units in their way.

As they did, the Germans, with a few exceptions, just rolled right over them. Supply and scattering did as much to slow the German progress as any action by Soviet forces. The arrival of the 4th Tank Brigade, while not a momentous event, was an example of how the Russian tankers would serve the motherland and learn from their mistakes, if they lived through them.

Battles of the Fourth Tank/1st Guards Brigade, Oct-Dec, 1941

Below I have given a limited description of some of the bigger tank-infantry conflicts as the Soviet forces attempted to stop the German advance towards Moscow.

Battle #1 Near Orel, October 2nd, 1941 – Stopped in their Tracks

Before going into action, the 4th was re-equipped with brand new T-34 tanks. Then off to battle they went. Their first action took place around Orel and Mtsensk. By this time, “General Winter” was introducing himself to the German army. The mud of autumn, which had proved treacherous to any German advance, was beginning to solidify, giving signs of an early winter. And usually, an early winter meant a harsh one.

The German army had made no preparations for fighting in winter weather. They had no clothing for it or any of the materials that would keep their machinery operating. The changes in the weather began to effect the performance of the more technical and delicate gunnery equipment on the panzers. Finely machined parts froze easily and paralyzed whole columns of tanks. Filled with frustration, General Guderian, known as “Schnelle Heinz,” pushed his men constantly. The general knew what the Russian winters were like and what they could do to the Russian advance. Operation “Taifun” was in effect and every effort to reach Moscow and be within its confines by the end of the year was being made.

The first tank confrontation came between Orel and Mtsensk on October 2nd, 1941. The 4th deployed itself in a series of open fields, long abandoned by the farmers, and took on the leading columns of the von Schweppenburg’s 24th Panzer Corps. The fighting was heavy and a rude stop was put on the advance of the panzers. The German forces, however, refused to be stopped. They simply flowed around the battle and continued their move toward the great city.

Battle # 2 The Orel-Tula Highway, Oct.6-7, 1941 – The Highway is Closed

The initial confrontation between German and Soviet forces equipped with the newer model tanks had been an eye-opener for many German tankers. They were becoming increasingly concerned about the superiority of the Russian tank over their own equipment. This would even become more apparent at the battle of the crossroads on the Orel-Tula highway.

Colonel Katukov, the brigade’s commander, had the time to set up a careful defense. Infantry was placed along the front line to catch the attention of the approaching German tanks. Behind them, the tanks were carefully hidden at various points that offered a good field of fire. In addition, mobile tank groups were at the rear, ready to plug any gaps that would form in the line.

The plan was that when the Germans approached, the infantry would begin to retreat. As the tanks pursued them, they would fall into lanes of fire by the Soviet tanks. It was a classic ambush and it worked. The German tanks of the 35th Regiment fell for the ruse and became a startled victim of the enemy’s ambush. So pleased with this turn of events that General Zhukov made mention of it in one of his reports, stating, “For the first time, the tankmen of our 4th and 11th Brigades hit the enemy vehicles from ambush.”

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