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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

Battle #3 November 3, 1941 – German Grief

The units of the 4th had been assigned the protection of the headquarters of a supporting infantry division on November 3rd. They were later advised by lookouts of the approach of enemy tanks.

At this point in the mobile defensive movement of the tank brigade, a steady attrition of their armor had weakened their numbers. Their spirit, however, had become more doggedly determined to do or die for the Motherland.

Now it was time to face the ever pressing German forces once again. The 4th had set up good defensive positions, but previous victories inspired the commander to order a charge. In a bold maneuver, the tanks spread out with predesignated areas of responsibility. Again the German column was stopped with heavy losses.

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Battle #4 West of Moscow, Nov. 13, 1941 – Going against the Grain

On November 11th, the 4th Tank Brigade was redesignated the 1st Guards Tank Brigade. It was the first unit to be changed to the “Guards” designation. The use of the term had hitherto been avoided, because of its link to the heritage of the regular Russian army under the Czars.

At this moment of crisis, however, all the stops were pulled and the mention of anything that would increase nationalistic fervor, even if it exceeded Communist dictates (to a point!) was not only permitted, but also encouraged. After all, reasoned Stalin, “first things first.” They had to survive first of all, and then these other matters would be resolved.

But not only for inspirational purposes was the “Guards” name reinstituted. There was another reason. The disasters of the summer of 1941 had demonstrated that many Russian units were entirely inept in leadership and the execution of orders. This included separation of units from the parent cadre, self-inflicted traffic jams, poor execution of tasks assigned, and many other “snafus” were indications that not all Soviet formations were capable of waging modern war. Too often they simply stood and died.

Once a unit had proved itself as competent, both in battle or getting to the battle, the name “Guards” would be attached to it. It actually was the conferral of a title of sorts to the division. It indicated a “semi-elite” status. This would be a flag to senior commanders that this unit could perform its tasks, no matter what they were. It was quite an honor.

The commander of the Russian tank brigade, Colonel Katukov, was promoted at this time to the rank of Major General and awarded the Order of Lenin. Difficult supply conditions and chaos along the line meant that the new general could not receive the necessary emblems of his promotion nor the medal. His subordinates, out of loyalty and appreciation, took it upon themselves to draw these badges of rank onto his greatcoat with indelible ink.

The next day marked a new confrontation between the Red tanks and the German panzers. The Germans were using the town of Skirmanovo as a launch site for new advances toward Moscow. The Brigade’s attack formation was arranged in three waves, giving it depth. The fighting around the village went on for two days and netted for the brigade another 21 tank kills and a captured 88mm dual-purpose gun.

Battle #5 The Istra River, Nov. 24, 1941 – They Still Keep Coming!

Forced to withdraw under heavy pressure, the Soviet army needed a rear-guard unit to hold up the German juggernaut. The German 11th Panzer Division was racing toward the Istra River to force a crossing. The 1st Guards Tank Brigade was joined by tanks of the 27th and 28th Brigades with some Lend-Lease Matilda tanks. The Soviet armor proceeded to set up clusters of ambushes in a checkerboard pattern along all the approaches to the river. By slowing the advance of the panzers, the Russian troops would have the time to cross the river and set up defensive positions on the other side. The German tanks of the 15th Regiment made good progress till hitting the wooded areas a few miles from the crossing.

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Winter camouflaged Soviet riflemen dismount from a T-26 light tank during an attack on a village

As the panzers headed at top speed for the river, Soviet tank fire from dozens of hiding places opened up and decimated the German ranks, slowing them to a crawl. Finally, in the face of tremendous ill-afforded losses, the armor of the Wehrmacht pulled back and tried to flank the enemy again.

Battle #6 The Outskirts of Moscow, Dec. 14, 1941 – The Moment Arrives

By now the German advance had been effectively halted. It was apparent to Russian commanders in the front line (and to the German ones too!), that no matter what the fears of the Kremlin might be, Moscow would not be attacked. On December 5th, with weeks of planning and gathering forces, Zhukov unleashed what became a massive general counterattack along the entire Moscow front.

From the area around the capital alone, 88 infantry and 15 cavalry divisions, along with over 1,500 tanks burst upon the freezing, weary grenadiers. The intention of the Soviet armies was to break through on the flanks of Army Group Center, surround as much of it as possible and cut it off. This catastrophic event completely changed the course of the war in 1941. It put the Wehrmacht into a state of panic. Here when they thought the enemy was beaten down, an entirely new fresh force, larger than theirs, was swooping in upon them. They seemed like ghosts in the blinding winter whiteness and came from everywhere. They were seemingly oblivious to the cold, disregarding death and with a vengeance as frigid as the air they were breathing.

The German defenses disintegrated under the shock of the blow. They fell back. Hitler, already prepared to announce to his nation this new glorious triumph, flew into a rage, dismissing von Brauchitsch as commander of the entire German Army He then assumed command of all German armed forces. This position he would not relinquish for the rest of the war.

The 1st Guards Tank Brigade in union with other Soviet forces smashed into the weakened and half-frozen enemy forces. The 16th Army proved very powerful against the Germans’ unprepared defenses.

The 1st Guard along with the 8th Guards Rifle Division aimed for and took the key road junction at Kryuvoi. The advance continued, as battle groups were formed to pursue the enemy. On December 14th, Katukov’s forces slammed into the 11th Panzer Division at the Istrin Reservoir and shattered it.

The tankers continued in the fighting for another three months. By March 1942, its tank force consisted of twenty pieces of armor. Nearly all of the original members of the Brigade had been killed or wounded. It was pulled from the line for a much-needed rest and refitting. By early April, the brigade would go back into action, this time as part of the 1st Tank Corps. But that is another chapter in the story.

Partial Bibliography

The Russo-German War, A. Seaton
Barbarossa-Hitler’s Invasion of Russia-1941, D.M. Glantz
Moscow to Stalingrad-Decision in the East Volume 1, E.F. Ziemke & M.E. Bauer
Hitler’s Panzers East, R.H.S. Stolfi
The Defense of Moscow, G. Jukes
Red Army Tank Commanders, R.N. Armstrong
Russian Tanks, J. Milsom
Fighting Vehicles of the Red Army, B. Perrett
Red Army Handbook 1939-1945, S.J. Zaloga & LS Ness
The Red Army Order of Battle in the Great Patriotic War, R.G. Poirer & A.Z. Conner

About the Author

Wild Bill Wilder, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, was introduced to modern warfare as a tot in World War II when his father and uncle went off to war in the USAAF. It was an experience that influenced him greatly throughout his life. After graduating from Toccoa Falls College in 1962, he spent the next 10 years in public service in various countries in Central America. He then worked in public transportation until his retirement in 1999.

Wild Bill now has even more time to dedicate to his passion – wargaming. In 1997 he formed a group called "Wild Bill’s Raiders." From small beginnings the Raiders expanded into five separate web sites and gave top-notch coverage to a number of popular wargames.

Bill has also been a vital part of the production of 13 different games, including SPWAW, Combat Mission, The Operational Art of War, and John Tiller’s Squad Battles series. He has authored over 1300 scenarios and campaigns for these and other games over the last nine years. At age 68, Bill is also a prolific writer, with his primary focus on warfare of the 20th century. To quote him, "Wargaming is a passion that never dies with the passing of the years. Instead it only intensifies as new and better wargames are produced. It is in military history that one finds often written in blood the glory and the grief of mankind!"

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