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Posted on Feb 7, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Guards Return To Fight In Russia – 1941

By Wild Bill Wilder

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 six of the bigger tank-infantry conflicts by the 4th Tank Brigade as the Soviet forces attempted to stop the German advance towards Moscow.

Battle #1 Near Orel, October 2nd, 1941 – 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 affect 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 German 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.

A Russian medium tank knocked out in the Volga River region
east of Stalingrad

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

Battle #3 November 3, 1941 – 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.

Battle #4 West of Moscow, Nov. 13, 1941 – 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” which 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.

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1 Comment

  1. I wanted no part of the tank corps. I went in the Infantry so I could breathe fresh air and see what I am shooting at.