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British tactics German tactics Italian tactics

Esigenza C3 – The Italian Invasion of Malta

“Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa…”

– Field Marshal Erwin Rommel quoted in ‘A History of WW2 by A. J. P. Taylor and S. L. Mayer

You can learn more about the naval part of the planned invasion of Malta on our sister website, Naval Encyclopedia!

A simple glance at a map of the Mediterranean immediately reveals why the tiny island nation of Malta has such a high strategic value. Lying roughly halfway between Sicily and North Africa, the island has, for millennia, been an important trading port and safe harbor in the often treacherous Mediterranean. The island would be no less important in World War 2. The British were in control of Malta (it had been a Crown Colony since 1813) and, as of June 1940, the island sat directly between the Axis power of Italy to the north, and the Italian possessions in North Africa (Libya) below it. All Italian, and later, German supply planes, transports, and shipping had to travel well away from Malta or risk being intercepted by ships or ground-based aircraft from the island. This tiny archipelago of Malta, Gozo, and Comino was just 56 miles from the Italian island of Sicily and 225 miles from Tunisia, and was one of the key British strategic locations in WW2 and the setting for what may have been the only example of coordinated Axis planning of the war.

The strategic position of the Island of Malta. Source: Vivarelli
Allied planes and vessels could, in contrast, stage there or put into port for repairs, refueling or replenishing ammunition. This small island was a huge thorn in the side of the Axis, and with the War in North Africa in full swing, control of Malta was more important than ever. The plan to wrestle control from Britain was consequently hatched. The Italians had long wanted to remove Malta from British control, planning such an attack as early as 1938, but lacked the men, equipment, planes, and ships to do it on their own.
The Italians had launched a naval attack on Malta on 26th July 1941 under the guns at Fort Elmo guarding the entrance to the Grand Harbor at Valletta. The Italian X Flottiglia MAS Naval squadron was trying to attack the ships in the harbor but was seen by radar on the island and consequently repulsed by the Bofors guns (another source states ‘twin 6-pounders’) manned by the 3rd Light Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment, Royal Malta Artillery and men of the Cheshire Regiment. Total casualties are unknown but at least 16 men were killed and at least one motor launch sank. Half-hearted efforts to just sail into Malta and attack the fleet or land troops were not going to work. Any successful attack would need more planning, more resources, and German help.

Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 pictured over the capital city of Malta, Valletta, during a raid on the city and Grand Harbour. Source: Public domain

Genesis

The origin of the combined plan for this operation came from the Italians who convinced, on 17th January 1942, Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring of the value of the idea. He had been appointed as the Commander in Chief of the South (German: Oberbefehlshaber Sud) and was aware of the dysfunctional command structure of the Axis, but could also see the value of Malta. He now sought the support of the Führer for this plan of a combined Italo-German operation. He was not alone in this, the Italians advocated for it, and both Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (German Commander in North Africa) and Admiral Erich Raeder (German Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine) were also in favor of this idea.
Bombing alone was not working on Malta. It had started in December 1941, but neither Germany nor Italy had sufficient heavy bombers to neutralize the airfields and air defences on the island. Despite this, the harbor at Valletta and the various facilities on the island were bombed extensively by both German (Luftwaffe) and Italian (Regia Aeronautica) aircraft for more than two years, with thousands of bomb sorties killing thousands of people. The people of Malta refused to give up and the attempts to blockade the island to starve it of supplies failed too. If the Axis wanted to remove Malta from British control, it was going to take more than bombs and blockade.
Despite being well positioned at the outbreak of the War and having large land forces, the Italians had not fared well in their ventures in Yugoslavia and Greece and then North Africa. The Germans had come to prop up the Italians in those theatres, and the Italians quickly became dependent on German help.
In terms of the plan to strike Malta, it was no different. German and Italian bombs could not break the spirit of the defenders, and those Italian plans for invasion were now potentially supported with actual material assistance from the Germans. Kesselring was being very supportive of the work of the Italian Chief of Staff, Marshal Ugo Cavallero, to seize the island.
After Kesselring had visited Hitler at the Berchtesgaden in February 1942, things changed. Hitler supported the operation and, therefore, planning for a combined Italo-German amphibious assault could begin properly under the codename ‘Esigenza C3’ (for reference, Esigenza C2 had been the occupation of the island of Corsica) for the Italians and Operation ‘Herkules’ for the Germans. The operational plans were, however, not the same. The Italians favored a joint air and sea assault, whereas the Germans were only planning for a seaborne invasion, making a coordinated planning effort overly complex.

Risky Business

After the losses in the German invasion of Crete in April 1941 (around 6,000 casualties), Hitler was not in favor of airborne operations, as these had shown that airborne attacks by paratroopers could go very badly wrong and lead to large losses. On top of this concern, the campaign in the East (Operation Barbarossa) against the Soviet Union was going to require a huge amount of logistical support, men, and equipment.
Nonetheless, training was undertaken. The elite Italian Folgore and La Spezia Airborne Divisions (elite Italian paratroopers) would train alongside the Germans as part of the 10,000 strong airborne invasion force.

Field Marshal Kesselring (left) and Marshall Ugo Cavallero (right). Source: German Federal Archive and Wikimedia Commons

Planning

The acceptance of the combined invasion plan was on 17th January 1942. On 8th February, Admiral Arturo Riccardi and Marshal Cavallero met with Kesselring to discuss the actual requirements for ships, landing craft, and supplies needed for the invasion, as well as to set a timetable of operations (Esigenza C3 planning was in the hands of General Vittorio Ambrosio, Chief of Staff for the Italian Army). Kesselring, for his part, advocated on behalf of the Italians to Hitler, trying to obtain German equipment for the Italians to use and, on 17th February 1942, the German Army High Command (German: Oberkommando der Heeres) ordered for arrangements to be made.
The pressure to strike as soon as possible did not come from the Italians, who wanted more time to prepare, but from Kesselring. As early as 17th March, he proposed a raid in force by paratroops against the island. Italian and German air raids on Malta reached their peak between March and April that year and the momentum of attack was on the Axis’ side. A surprise raid by paratroopers was seen as capitalizing on the damage these raids were causing. Despite this disagreement, Kesselring had actually ironed out some of the command problems within the Axis and, along with Cavallero, had reached a general agreement on a strategy for the Mediterranean theatre.
Despite pressure from Admiral Raeder on behalf of Operation Herkules/Esigenza C3, in April 1942, the project was postponed. Hitler’s strategy was to focus on capturing Tobruk and push the Allies back to the borders of Egypt before striking Malta and, eventually, Gibraltar. Despite Hitler’s plan though, the idea was not dead, and joint planning work continued until August 1942.

Esigenza C3/Operation Herkules

The plan called for up to 100,000 men, hundreds of aircraft for ground attack, air cover, and transportation, as well as the bulk of the available Axis surface ships and submarines in the Mediterranean. Italian planning was, despite the best efforts of Cavellero, disjointed. The Army made its own plans, often in conjunction with the Navy, but sometimes independently, and likewise so did the Navy. Neither the Army nor the Navy cooperated with the Air force, with both seeing it as a supporting organization to their own roles – such was the nature of Axis interservice rivalry.
Despite these problems, however, both the King and Mussolini approved of Esigenza C3 and, on 14th October 1941, Cavelero instructed the various members of the senior staff with responsibility for the Army, Navy, and Air Force to examine the plans, a process led by Army General Antonio Gandin. This then developed into a formal joint staff known as Ufficio C3 under the command of General Gandin and resolved the Italian part of the rivalry, as all three services were now under a unified command. Planning then entered five phases. Phase I, which was to last from then until 10th March 1942, was general planning and wargaming and involved input from the Japanese Naval Mission to Italy. Phase II followed straight after until the end of March defining what sort of support the Germans might offer them and the creation of an expeditionary command. April 1942 was Phase III which was for the expeditionary command to organize and plan the operation, with Phase IV reserved for refinement and the preparation of logically support for all of May, June, and July 1942. Phase V was the invasion, with a date for Esigenza C3 set for 1st August 1942.

Japanese Experts

The Italians were especially keen on the advice from the Japanese, who had a lot more experience with this sort of island assault operations compared to themselves and, also, from the middle of February 1942, help from the Germans too. On 21st February 1942, the Italians convened the first tripartite conference on the amphibious operation against Malta. Under Italian organization, the attendees included General Gandin and Admiral Tur (Italy), Admiral Katsuo Abe, Navy Captain Mitunobu, and Colonel Shimizu (Japan) from the military mission to Rome. As a result of the in-depth information and insights from the Japanese, Cavellero understood them to be the experts in this field and asked them for their own study into attacking Malta.
The Japanese study was prepared very quickly, with a plan ready by 5th March 1942, and over two days was compared to the Italian study and war-games took place. The plans, whilst different in some regards, agreed on general principles, but the Italians were impressed with the level of detail in the logistical planning of the attack, although they did not agree with the Japanese assessment of the defenses, which they felt were significantly underestimated.
There was continued cooperation with the Japanese on this endeavor, and further information was gained by studying various other European amphibious attacks from German and Allied raids, including Dieppe. The expertise from the Japanese, refined with training and exercise, later formed the Italian doctrine on such matters, known as the Norme di impiego per Grandi Unita’ di Assalto e Sbarco (English: Employment of large assault and landing formations), with a focus on landing assault storming parties to secure the beachhead ahead of the main landing force.

The Germans

Having obtained extremely valuable insight from the Japanese, the Italians then sought to work with the Germans, using their experiences, in particular from Crete, but also from raids they made in the Baltic. Primarily, the Italians were looking for the German expertise in parachute operations, and Major General Bernhard Ramcke, a veteran of the Crete assault, was selected to be the leading German expert.

Generals Bernhard Ramcke (left) and Kurt Student (right) – German airborne operations masterminds for the Operation Herkules part of Esigenza C3. Source: German Federal Archives
Work with Maj. Gen. Ramcke began on 11th April 1942, and he was later joined by General Kurt Student, Commander of Fliegerkorps XI and an expert in airborne operations. Interference by Kesselring in the planning, though, was to disjoint this smooth planning process when on 13th April 1942 he demanded the creation of a ‘German Office’ within the planning staff, adding another layer of complexity to the command and control. Despite this, a comprehensive plan of attack was developed with agreement on the key strategic points to capture and the timing and coordination of the attack.

The Italo-German Invasion Plan

Airborne attacks on the Southern Heights had the mission of establishing a secure site for a landing and attack the airfields south of Valletta, followed by the seizure of the airfields at Luqa, Takali, and Hal Far, which would allow more troops and supplies to be brought in by air.
Underwater, demolition teams and commandos would be instructed to seize the cliff at the landing site and securing the beachhead for the first wave of landings. That first wave, once ashore, would then seize Marsaxlokk and the port. The second wave would then attack north and west through Marsaxlokk, and the island of Gozo to the north would be seized to form a logistical hub.
A small amphibious assault would be undertaken on Marsaxlokk Bay along with feints directed along the on the northwest coastline of the island, where the defenses were strongest and backed by the Victoria Line. The Victoria Line ran across the northwestern corner of the island from the Bigemma Hills to Maddalena Bay, constituting the main defensive line with machine guns and artillery positions. Crucially, Italian intelligence showed this line could not face south, so was vulnerable to an attack from this direction.

Italian troops from the San Marco Division during a training exercise for the invasion. Note the rather crude landing barges. Source: digilander

CONOPS

With a combined plan to focus on, the Italian High Command (Comando Supremo) developed its own Concept of Operations (CONOPS) by 22nd May (with a modification added on 27th May) for this complex operation, which was to be in two phases. It is also worth bearing in mind that Hitler had authorized the use of German paratroopers too, a matter confirmed by Kesselring in a meeting with Cavallero on 21st April 1942.

Operational Phases for Exigenza C3

Phase I 28th June 1942
17th July 1942
Intensification of the naval and air blockade on Malta with bombing of enemy airfields, defenses, command and control facilities, and water distribution facilities.
Phase II D-Day
1st August 1942 +
Fake paratrooper landings in the north conducted by means of dropping dummy parachutists whilst real paratroopers were being dropped to the south. [Added 27th May].
Isolation of Valletta and prevention of a British counterattack by deploying two paratrooper divisions to the Dingli/Zurrieq area and glider landings at Kalafrana and Fort Benghisa.
The main attack consisting of landing two divisions to seize Marsaxlokk from the rear.
Occupation of the island of Gozo by the Superga Division to serve as a logistics base.
Deception operations by means of small amphibious landings along the north and east. (Added 27th May)
The first naval landing wave would consist of 24,000 men, 32 guns and 30 tanks.
A second amphibious attack to be undertaken by navy special forces and light infantry against Fort Benghisa and Fort Delimara to divert enemy forces from Marsaxlokk Bay. (Added 27th May)
A division held as a reserve to be sent wherever it was needed, but two reserve divisions landed at Marsaxlokk to attack the Victoria Line from the south and complete the occupation of the island.
The remainder of the men, tanks, guns, and support troops to follow successively.


Italian CV.3 light tank disembarking from a landing barge during a training exercise. Source: digilander

The plan of attack for Operation Esigenza C3. Source: Taken from Vivarelli

Assumptions

This bold CONOPS was dependent on several factors though. Firstly, that the Germans had sufficient air transportation capability for the airborne troops and the dropping of supplies. This meant the use of 500 Ju 52 aircraft, 300 DFS 230 gliders, 12 Me 323 transport aircraft, and 200 Gotha 242 gliders.
Second, that there were enough fuel reserves available to move the entire Italian fleet to Maltese waters to support the attack and, finally, and perhaps most crucially, the ability to transport all the ground forces. Over 70,000 men, trucks, tanks, and artillery needed to be moved and unloaded, some of which would have to be done under enemy fire.
The Italians, for their part, had the ability (by the end of June 1942) to transport 29,000 men, along with tanks, artillery, and supplies by sea. The rest of the transportation would have to come from the Germans, as the Italians rushed production of the 100 Motolance (ML-Class) motor launches and Motozattere (MZ-Class) motor barges (copies of the German Marinefahrorahm) it needed. By July 1942, the 100 Motolance and 65 Motozattere were ready along with an assortment of small craft, steamers, motor-sail boats and tankers already set aside. The Italian Navy (RM) modified some large civilian craft for the operation too, including two former ferries to off-load heavy tanks.

Italian Motozattera motor barge. Source: Vivarelli via German Federal Archives
As a result of this production, the Italians could supply a lot of their own sea capability but, nonetheless, they required German help in the form of 27 Marinefahrprahm, 10 Siebel catamaran barges, 6 Type 39 Pionierlandunsboote (engineer boats), 6 Type 40 Pionierlandunsboote (engineer boats), 281 Sturmboote (assault boats – of which 81 would be crewed by the Germans and the remainder would be crewed by the Italians), and 300 smaller inflatable boats.

Motolance’ motor launch seen during training at Livorno, October 1942. Photo:Betasom.it
The airborne landings of both the German and Italian forces would fall under the direction and control of the Germans (General Student), which was logical considering they were supplying the majority of the assets to deliver the troops and supplies, but also from a political point of view, considering the reticence about the German use of airborne forces since the carnage in Crete. Marshall Cavallero would, however, remain supreme commander for the overall operation operating via the Italian and German service heads. No German troops, therefore, would fall under Italian control or vice versa. Once ashore and landed, all ground forces during the operation would be commanded by General Armando Vecchiarelli as leader of the Expeditionary Corps as it would be known (Italian: Corpo di Spedizione), although it is unlikely he would have been able to direct any German troops to move without agreement from their commander.

Italian Folgore Division during training. Source: digilander

Axis Forces (June 1942)

Fliegerkorps XI (Student)
Folgore Parachute Division (Frattini)
7,500 men
9 x Infantry, 3 x Artillery, and 1 x Saboteur Battalions as well as various Engineers and support troops.
La Spezia Air Land Division (Pizzolato)
10,500 men
6 x Infantry, 3 x Artillery, 1 x Saboteur Battalion, and 1 x Mortar Battalions, 1 x Reconnaissance Team, as well as various Engineers and support troops.
7th Flieger Division (Petersen)
11,000 men
Forza Navale Speciale (Tur)
San Marco Marine Infantry Regiment (2,000 men)
Navy-Parachute Swimmers (nuotatori) Battalion (300 men)
4 x Camicie Nere Fascist Militia Landing Battalions (~1000 men each)
Corps di Spedizione (Vecchiarelli – Comando Superiore Tattico)
Livorno Infantry Division (9,850 men)
Superga Infantry Division (9,200 men)
Friuli Infantry Division (10,000 men) – added to plan 6th May 1942
Napoli Infantry Division (~9,000 men)- added to plan 6th May 1942
Assietta Infantry Division (9,000 men) – added to plan 6th May 1942
10th Tank Group with over 100 tanks*
Artillery troops (~3,000 men)
[Troops supplied with additional special equipment, climbing teams, as well as heavy weapons including anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft weapons]
Various Italian and German naval transport, escort and landing vessels as well as air transport and interdiction forces.

* What tanks were going to be used by Italy has been speculated on for some time. The authors Massagiani and Green in ‘The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940–1943’ clarify that the plan had originally considered German tank support to consist of supplying 20 Panzer III’s and that, although on the 30th April 1942, Hitler, in a meeting with Mussolini, had suggested using captured Soviet heavy tanks in the assault, this plan was abandoned. Instead, the Italian plan for tanks was to make use of eight 75 mm armed Semovente (likely the M.13 based Semovente M.40), and a further 19 Semovente armed with 47 mm guns, which would indicate the L.60/40 based L.40 da 47/32 all in the first wave, as well as a number of Medium tanks (likely the M.13/40). Further tanks coming ashore in the second wave would include at least 50 CV.3 light tanks and the bulk of the heavy artillery, including 90 mm and 75 mm anti-tank guns as well as 147 mm and 105 mm field guns towed by 170 tractors.
It is known that the Comando Supremo did indeed request 10-12 heavy tanks from the Germans, presumably to support the first wave assault and it is possible that the unit Panzer-Abteilung zbV 66 (formed 30th May 1942) was formed for exactly this reason, following Hitler’s suggestion of 30th April. That unit consisted of captured Soviet equipment, including heavy tanks, as well as German equipment. Had this fanciful idea come to fruition, it would have seen the Germans either supplying Soviet tanks, like the KV-2, to the Italians or operating them directly during the invasion. Regardless of such ideas though, the idea was dumped, and German involvement was to be restricted to parachutists and logistical and air support. The tanks for the invasion would be Italian.

Captured Soviet KV-2 and T-34 tanks belonging to Panzer-Abteilung zbV66. Source: beutepanzer.ru

Italian assault boats practice their attack (left) and the FF.SS. Aspromonte with modification to her bows for use as a landing ship for amphibious operations (right). Source: digilander

Allied Forces (July 1942)

The Allied forces on Malta were certainly prepared for a possible attack with 16 battalions of infantry, a wide assortment of artillery, and about two-dozen armored vehicles the most formidable of which for any potential invader was the A.12 Matilda II. Four of these tanks belonging to 7th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment were stationed on the island. However, given the significant tank forces set aside for the invasion by the Germans and Italians even these very well armored tanks would be unlikely to be decisive in any defence.

Allied Forces (July 1942)

Infantry
Northern Command 4 x Infantry Battalions
Southern Command 4 x Infantry Battalions
Central Command 4 x Infantry Battalions
Western Command 4 x Infantry Battalions including a machine gun battalion with 4 x 4.2” mortars, 1 x Military Police Company
Miscellaneous small independent units of engineers, logistics, some Royal Navy personnel, possibly some local irregular forces.
Artillery
4 x Regiments of Anti-Aircraft, 2 x Field Artillery, and 2 x Coastal
64 searchlights
12 x 4.5” AA guns
84 x 3.7” AA guns 16 x 3” 20cwt. AA guns
At least 8 x Bofors AA guns (possibly up to 36)
7 x 9.2” BL Mk.X guns (1 at Fort Bingemma and 2 at Fort Madalena on the East Coast, 2 at Fort San Leonardo and 2 at Fort Benghisa on the West Coast)
10 x 6” BL Mk.VII (2 at Fort Delimara and 2 at Fort San Rocco on the East Coast, 3 at Fort Tigne and 2 at Fort Campbell on the West Coast.
24 x 25 pounder field guns
18 x 6 pdr. 10cwt. QF Mk.I (12 at Fort St. Elmo and 6 at Fort Ricasoli)
Approximately 30 x QF 18 pdr.
Whatever armed ships in harbor may also have been able to provide fire support too, as well as some obsolete/decommissioned Victorian era guns
Tanks
7th Royal Tank Regiment 4 x A.12 Matilda tanks
3rd (King’s Own) Hussars 2 x Vickers VIc Light tanks
Malta Tank Squadron Royal Tank Regiment (formed from 1st Independent Troop and X Squadron 6 RTR) 2 x Valentine Mk.II Infantry tanks
2 x Valentine Mk.III Infantry tanks
A Squadron 6th Royal Tank Regiment 8 tanks formed from an unknown mix of A.9 Cruiser Mk.I and A.13 Cruiser Mk.IV or III
Unknown number of light armor in the form of ‘Bren carriers’


Cruiser Tanks of 6 RTR being unloaded and seen during training on Malta 1942 – not yet painted in the distinctive ‘Malta’ pattern camouflage. Source: IWM

British A.12 Matilda tank (left) and Vickers Mk.VIc (right) painted in the distinctive ‘Malta’ pattern camouflage. Source: IWM

Vickers Mk.VIc (right) painted in the distinctive ‘Malta’ pattern camouflage. The pattern here is less random and slightly more uniform to match a wall or building. Each vehicle was unique. Source: IWM

British A.12 Matilda with a variation of the Malta pattern camouflage with an additional ‘shadow’ around each of the squares adding depth to the pattern. Source: IWM

British Valentine Mk.III Infantry Tank ‘Adonis’ in Malta.

A note on the ‘Malta Pattern’

The camouflage pattern seen on the tanks and also on some other armored vehicles, soft skin vehicles such as staff cars and trucks as well as field guns, generators, radar, and even helmets is unique to the forces on the island. The pattern is specifically intended to closely match the rocky nature of the island, from the open barren highlands to the rocky stone walls and buildings. It consists of random shapes on a light stone color with the lines between dark green or dark brown. A variation on the pattern added a third color as a ‘shadow’ within these blotches and at least one vehicle was even painted in the scheme to match stone courses used in buildings. To apply it on the entire vehicle involved simply painting first the background color and then the dark lines were painted over, being careful that neither layer obscured the census mark on the vehicle.

Two examples of the color scheme used including the regular stonework pattern. Source: maltacommand.com

Conclusion

The relationship between the Italians and the Germans was never a full-hearted one. The Germans tended to be overbearing, authoritarian and dismissive of the Italians. The Italians, for their part, were overly grand in their ideas and underwhelming in their ability to actually deliver results on the ground. They failed to plan for the invasion of Malta in a fully coordinated manner and instead made independent plans for a joint operation which was guaranteed to either sideline one plan over the other, or simply never happen. Whilst both parties agreed on the need to remove Malta from British hands, their inability to work together ensured that it could not happen. The Italians did not have the resources to ‘go it alone’, and the Germans had conflicting political and strategic objectives. For Italy, the Mediterranean was their theater, and Malta was their back door. For the Germans, it was a side campaign likely diverting precious resources from the fighting on the Eastern Front. Germany, with the preponderance of the military forces in the relationship, made the final decision, and the invasion was canceled at the end of July 1942, just one month after the fall of British held Tobruk to the combined Italian-German forces in North Africa.
Had Esigenza C3 been ordered to take place, there is little doubt that all of the planning, training, and exercising would have proved vital. For once during the war, the Axis powers had planned, trained and worked together on a single definable goal with a clear objective. The Italians, in particular, and contrary to popular misconceptions, were, for once, very well prepared. A fact reiterated by Japanese Admiral Abe who, upon witnessing the practice night-time landing of 4,500 men under the dangerous cliffs at Livorno (Italy) remarked to Admiral Tur:

“I came back to Rome convinced that you can accomplish brilliantly, having observed your tenacious exercises, conducted with indomitable spirit and severe discipline”

Esigenza C3 was not to be, however. Hitler had recalled Student to Berlin, kneecapping one of the most complex parts of the whole plan, and with Rommel’s success at Tobruk, there was the excuse to cancel the entire plan in the vain hope of victory in the desert. The Italians too had accepted the dream of taking Malta was over. with Rommel’s failure at El Alamein, the Italians were compelled to send many of the troops for the operation over to North Africa to help, which, regardless of Hitler, doomed the plan. The plan was officially dead on 27th July 1942, but it was effectively over the month before.
With the plan canceled, Malta remained a bastion of British power right in the heart of Axis Mediterranean planning, although from the end of 1941, the actual importance of Malta for hampering Axis supply efforts had waned and in some regards, the bombing alone had crippled the island anyway. Nonetheless, the inability to remove this British hub and turn it to Axis use to support operations in North Africa remains a critical failing of Axis strategy.
Malta had resisted the bombardment of the Axis forces for years and was one of the heaviest bombed places during WW2. The will of the people remained unbroken and the stalwart defense of the island resulted in it being awarded the George Cross on 25th April 1942 – the highest civilian award. This cross remains proudly on the Maltese flag to this day.

Sources

Vivarelli, A. (2014). The Axis and the Intended Invasion of Malta in 1942: A Combined Planning Endeavor. School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Kavanagh, S. (2006). Comparison of the Invasion of Crete and the Proposed Invasion of Malta. US Army Command and General Staff College. (PDF)
David Pastore at forum.axishistory.com
The Times of Malta (LINK) (LINK)
Operatione C3 Malta at digilander.libero.it
De Ninno, F. (2017). The Italian Navy and Japan: Strategy and Hopes 1937-1942.  (LINK)
maltacommand.com
Panzer-Abteilung zbV 66
Greene, J., Massignani, A. (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940–1943.


An Italian Carro Veloce CV.3, 50 of which would have participated in the second wave of landings.
Semovente da 75/18, eight of which would have landed on Malta in the first wave and help take on British field fortifications and armor.
L.40 da 47/32 self propelled gun, 19 of which would have gone along their bigger 75 mm armed brothers in the first wave.
Carro Armato M.13/40, a number of which would have formed the tank component of the Italian invasion force.
German Panzer III Ausf.G, 20 of which were at some point proposed to be used.
Captured Soviet KV-2 tank of Panzer-Abteilung zbV 66, which might have been proposed for use in the invasion.

Light Tank Mk.VIc in the famous Malta patern, two of which were present with the 3rd (King’s Own) Hussars.
Infantry Tank Mk.II Matilda in the famous Malta patern. 4 of these were present on the island with the 7th Royal Tank Regiment and would have proven tough nuts to crack for the Italian armor.
A small number of the outdated Cruiser Mk.I were also present on Malta with A Squadron, 6th Royal Tank Regiment.
A few Cruiser Mk.IVs (pictured here) or Cruiser Mk.IIIs were also present with the 6th Royal Tank Regiment.
Infantry Tank Mk.III Valentine Mk.V in the famous Malta patern, four of which were present with the Malta Tank Squadron. These would have also proven tricky for the feebly-armed Italian tanks.
An unknown number of Bren Carriers were also part of the Maltese garrison.

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British tactics French tactics Italian tactics

Campaigns and Battles in East Africa – The North, British and French Somaliland


British Somaliland and indications of the Italian assault August 1940. Source: Stewart

Map of the invasion. Source: Mockler

Introduction and background to AOI

Following the Italian declaration of war against Great Britain and France on the 10th June 1940, the British perceptions of the Italians in Africa changed. The British had misunderstood the unique position Italy held and, although it had previously been unhappy with the Italian invasion and occupation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), they had not carried out any action to stop them. Following the declaration of war, however, the gloves were off and the British and French possessions in the region, as well as access through the vital Suez canal, were potentially threatened. The Italian high command had expected a short war which would give them territorial gains while Italian East Africa (AOI: Africa Orientale Italiana), surrounded and cut off, merely had to hold out until Great Britain sued for peace.

First Strike

Unlike the large sedentary Italian force languishing in North Africa, the force in AOI under the command of the Duke of Aosta (Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta) took the initiative. Rather than sit and wait to be attacked by the British and to try and get some breathing space to ensure the survival of the colony, the Duke quickly launched attacks on British border posts in Kenya and Sudan. Small towns inside the Sudan border, such as Kassala and Gallabat, were taken before he turned his attention North to the territories of British and French Somaliland. He also launched raids over the borders attacking Berbera, Hargeisa, and Zeila but did not formally invade the French and British territories until sufficient forces had been gathered together. The Aubarre area was the formation point and, by the end of June 1940, the Italians had occupied Borama four miles over the border into British Somaliland in preparation for either an invasion or as a vanguard against a British counterattack.
In general, the strength of British and French forces in the North was massively overestimated, with an estimate of as many as 11,000 British and native forces when, in reality, it was less than half that number. However, the presence of two easily resupplied ports so close to Ethiopia was a major strategic concern for the protection of AOI. Therefore, the ports in Djibouti (French Somaliland) and Berbera (British Somaliland) had to be eliminated for the AOI to stand any chance of holding out.
As of the 1st June 1940, the Italian forces in the whole of AOI (encompassing modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and most of Somalia together forming an area larger than France),, numbered just over a quarter of a million men comprising a mix of regulars (Regio Esercito – Royal Army of Italy), MVSN (Italian: Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale – Voluntary Militia for National Security) commonly known as the ‘Blackshirts’, and colonial forces.

Italian forces in AOI by region, 1st June 1940. Source: Orpen

Renault FT’s in French Somaliland, 1938. Source: Public Domain
The first target of the Italian assault was the French colony and port of Djibouti. French forces defending the territory were commanded by Major General Paul Legentilhomme. The garrison there had been quadrupled since September 1939. At his disposal, he had a substantial infantry force consisting of seven battalions of Senegalese and Somali infantry, four companies of militia troops and two platoons of camel-mounted troops, and an assortment of aircraft. General Legentilhomme also possessed a small stock of 3 batteries of field guns, 4 batteries of anti-aircraft guns, and at least 4 Renault FT light tanks armed with the short 37mm gun, constituting one light tank company. This constituted a significant force of men and tanks, intended to not just dissuade the Italian forces from attacking but, according to Allied plans, it was to be the strike force against Addis Ababa. The much weaker British forces in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Kenya, and British Somaliland were supposed to remain defensive and let the French attack up the rail line to Addis. Whether the Italians knew that this was the plan or not, the peril was obvious.
Regardless, General Nasi, commanding Italian forces, attacked French Somaliland on 18th June 1940 with 9,000 men starting with the forts of Ali-Sabieh (~90 km south of the capital) and Dadd’to in the south and north respectively and skirmishes around Lakes Abbe and Ally in the South West. Despite the enormous advantages of the French forces, the Italians managed to occupy a series of border fortifications on the AOI/French Somaliland border by the end of June but got no further. Italian planes bombed Djibouti harbour, and on the 24th June, the Franco-Italian Armistice came into effect, requiring the demilitarisation of French Somaliland for the period of war between Italy and Great Britain, ceding effective control to the Italians.
The armistice also required all arms and ammunition, which would have included those tanks and guns, to be surrendered to Italy but General Legentilhomme stubbornly refused to cooperate insisting he would fight on, refusing to comply with orders to surrender until 28th July when President Petain replaced him with General Germain. General Germain though, refused to demilitarise, instead adopting a non-belligerent posture, fully cooperating with the Vichy Government but taking no offensive action and thus denying the stock of tanks and equipment to the Italians. The battalion of French troops blocking the Jirreh pass (considered a ‘back door’ into British Somaliland) was withdrawn per the armistice agreement but was replaced with a detachment of the Somaliland Camel Corps instead to guard the 45-mile border.
The armistice had effectively neutralized French Somaliland and permitted the Italians to make use of the port of Djibouti and the railway line unhindered by the French forces, although British control of the sea meant that the harbour received no useful supplies to help AOI. With the conclusion of operations in French Somaliland by the end of the July, the attention was turned to eliminate the British next door. The British later seized the French colony from Vichy hands in October 1941 following a naval blockade.

Italian troops march in columns during the invasion of British Somaliland.

The assault on British Somaliland

With French Somaliland neutralized, the threat from the British had to be eliminated as well and, although the French had not surrendered their tanks and guns, the Italians had sufficient men to do the job. General Guglielmo Nasi, commanding the Italian forces, over-estimated British strength in the colony, assessing that, on top of more men, they also had 24 guns and 8 anti-tank guns as well as 50 anti-aircraft guns which would complicate his invasion plans. Italian forces did occupy the station at Buramo on the 24th June. This lead to the despatch of a camel troop by the British to scout and raid them, which (in company with some local Somali tribesmen) they did on the night of the 29th/30th June. A further raid against Italian forces by this Camel troop was carried out at Dumuk but, these raids did little to deter the General and may only have served to reinforce the need to remove this British presence. The invasion started on the 3rd August 1940, with Italian troops crossing the border.

A column of Italian M.11/39 Medium tanks advancing into British Somaliland, August 1940.

Defences

The defence of British Somaliland was commanded by Brigadier Arthur Chater when on the 15th May 1940, the official defence shifted from ambivalence to ‘scuttle’ with actual soldiers started to be used rather than irregular light troops and the Somaliland Camel Corps. After this, some active defence was being considered, but it was too little too late. Forces did start arriving so that, by the time of the invasion, Brigadier Chater had at his disposal about 5,000 men consisting of:

  • Somaliland Camel Corps (SCC) (~630 men including reservists) comprising a total of one motorised machine gun company, one camel-mounted rifle company, one pony-mounted rifle company, and one company of dismounted rifles. 400 Askaris with 14 British Officers with reinforcements from the Southern Rhodesia Regiment of 17 Officers and 20 Other Ranks which formed a second dismounted company.
  • 2nd Battalion Black Watch standing by at Aden
  • 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesia Regiment (1st NRR)
  • 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion King’s African Rifles (KAR) (about 875 men of whom just 9 of the 40 officers were regulars) arrived 12th July 1940
  • 1st East African Light Battery (4 x 3.7″ howitzers) (from Kenya) arrived 12th July 1940
  • 1st Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment (1st/2nd Punjab Reg.) arrived 1st July 1940
  • 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment (3rd/15th Punjab Reg.) arrived 1st July 1940
  • some Police units
  • Six Italian 20mm cannons stripped from an interned Italian ship


Troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps
Brigadier Chater chose the best defensive line open to him, about 50 miles inland from Berbera on the high ground. Back in 1939, GB£900 had been spent on the construction of concrete machine-gun nests at Tug Argan and Sheikh Pass to constitute the entirety of the defences for the protectorate. This position at Tug Argan would block the only road route to Berbera, leaving the invading Italians with three options. Either attack the Jirreh pass to the north and advance down a poor track to Berbera; attacking down the main road from Hargeisa to the pass at Tug Argan where the British forces were; or going around the south via Burao and over the Sheikh pass.
This was the first time any real practical consideration had been given to defending the protectorate at all. As Millman (British Somaliland: An administrative history) puts it “there had been no time to put the defence of the Protectorate on any sort of satisfactory footing before the Italian invasion began. Only in the process of attempting to defend the place did it become clear that it was indefensible” (p.118). But held, it had to be. The British Prime Minister had decreed it, against the objections of Brigadier Chater, who was more in favour of simply abandoning the province. As a defence of the entire 700 or so miles of the border (not including the 45 miles bordering French Somaliland) was not possible, the only other option was to seize access routes and high ground.
Brigadier Chater deployed his forces, with the 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment held in reserve at Berbera, some of the Camel Corps with some Punjabi troops guarding the northern pass at Jirreh, the 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment guarding the Sheikh Pass, and the Northern Rhodesians and KAR at Tug Argan. The remainder of the Camel Corps, Police and irregular units were used to provide scouts and screening of enemy movements at border crossings.
With his forces deployed like this, regardless of which way the Italian forces would attack, they would have to cross one of the three passes, and only one had a decent road, the route through Tug Argan.

British Dispositions 1st August 1940

Area Troops
Dobo 1 x Company SCC less one troop
Hargeisa 1 x Motor company SCC less one troop
1 x Troop SCC
1 x Company NRR, KAR
Burao 1 x Company and one Troop SCC
Zeila to Berbera Road 1 x Officer’s Patrol with wireless
Forward (Border) areas Illalos (native irregulars)
Tug Argan Main Position NRR less one Company
Machine-Gun Company
B Company SCC
1st East African Light Battery
Tug Argan Left Flank 2nd KAR with HQ at Mandera*
Tug Argan Laferug
(Force Reserve)
3rd/15th Punjab Regiment (until the 7th August when replaced by 2nd Black Watch)
Tug Argan Sawr Hills 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment (after 7th August)
Sheikh Pass Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Shell Gap (road from Zeilah) Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Bihendi Gap (East of Berbera) Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Berbera (base) Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment

*Haile Selassie’s War by Anthony Mockler puts the HQ location at Barkasan Hill rather than at Madera although it likely moved during the defence.

The Italians are coming

Invading British Somaliland was the substantial force under General Nasi consisting of about 25,000 men of whom just 4800 were Italian, with the bulk being native Ascari troops. As well as this infantry force, General Nasi also had half a company of M.11/39 medium tanks and a squadron of CV.3 light tanks, as well as some armored cars.
Dividing his force, General Nasi sent the main portion, including the tanks, Eastwards along the Jigga to Hargeisa road. Commanding this column was General Carlo De Simeone leading the XIII Colonial Brigade under General Nam, the XIV Colonial Brigade under General Tosti, and the XV Colonial Brigade under Colonel Graziosi. A total of 11 infantry battalions with 14 batteries of artillery, the half company of the M.11/39 medium tanks, the squadron of the CV.3 light tanks, and some armored cars. Following, and acting as a reserve, was the II Colonial Brigade commanded by Colonel Lorenzini consisting of 4 battalions of infantry and two battalions of artillery.

Italian troops carried in trucks during the invasion of British Somaliland. Source: waridaad.blogspot.com
The second, lighter force was heading northwards to the sea at Zeila, sealing off any escape or support from French Somaliland. Commanded by General Bertoldi who had at his disposal 8 infantry battalions including 2 CCNN Blackshirts of which one was the machine gun battalion of the Granatieri di Savoia (the Savoia Grenadiers); an elite unit of the regular Italian army, as opposed to the mainly colonial forces. General Bertoldi was supported by four batteries of artillery split between LXX Colonial brigade and XVII colonial brigade. Alongside this northern column was an ‘exploitation’ unit led by General Passerone with just two battalions of infantry and a battery of artillery with the plan being, then upon the fall of Zeila, this small unit could attack Berbera from along the coast.
The third and final column consisting of a single infantry battalion, two groups of irregular troops and a single battery of artillery was led by General Bertello. They were to circle around the right flank. This force was sent to attack Sheikh Pass and then onto Berbera. If all three columns were successful, General Nasi would not only seal off any possible escape or reinforcements by land but also converge on Berbera from three directions.
The attack began on the 3rd August 1940, with the border crossed by the north and south columns with the main column moving toward Hargeisa. Here, on the 4th August, it met lead elements of the Camel Corps and Rhodesians and the Italians deployed their 12 light tanks (CV.3) abreast in a line of attack. The Camel Corps troops and Rhodesians reported knocking out or disabling three of these light tanks with anti-tank rifles before retreating as these tanks assaulted their position and overran it allowing the Italian column to resume its advance. Noteworthy here is that the official London Gazette report on the campaign states that Italian losses were a single armored car set on fire and two others damaged by rifle fire and not any tanks. Although the column advanced once more, it was harassed by British planes as it moved along the road but having taken Hargeisa allowed the Italians to move their air support up to assist in the attack on Berbera. This is presumably why the attack halted at Hargeisa on the 6th and 7th, to consolidate the advance.
The north column under General Bertoldi with the Savoia Grenadiers set the pace though, crossing the border and reaching their objective ahead of expectations, capturing Zeila. General Passerone’s exploitation force was then free to march on Berbera from the north unopposed.
On the 6th, the southern column under General Bertello reached Odweina and found the Sheikh Pass blocked by a battalion of the 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment. General Bertello chose to engage these troops only lightly with irregular troops while sending the main force he had north to attack the flank of the British at Tug Argan instead.
The main column resumed its advance on 8th August and, at 12:30 hours 9th August, ran into a delaying force comprising one company of the NRR with a machine-gun section of the SCC. The delaying tactic was a failure, however, as the first Italian tanks (M.11’s) were led around the hastily placed minefield ambush and overan the machine-guns. Unable to stop these tanks with anti-tank rifles or machine guns, the British, again, withdrew. With no weapons available to penetrate the Italian armor, a request for a gun capable of knocking them out was sent. The call was answered by the Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Hobart which sent a 3-pounder Naval gun along with 3 crew to Tog Argan where it was deployed on Observation Hill. Although not ideal, the gun could adequately deal with any of the Italian tanks although as a result of the mounting which had to be fabricated for it, the contraption had to be partially dismantled for reloading each time, with a resulting rate of fire of just 1 round every 5 minutes.
The British Home Command was aware that an invasion had begun and on the 10th was sending reinforcements and a change of command. Brigadier Chater was replaced with Major-General A.R. Godwin-Austen because the size of the forces coming would need a higher ranking commander. These reinforcements were another battalion of infantry, an artillery battery, a field artillery regiment, two 2-pounder anti-tank guns, a unit of Indian sappers, and the mechanized cavalry regiment taken from the 4th Indian Division. However, they never arrived, leaving General Godwin-Austen to command the original and much smaller force. The only reinforcements he had at his disposal were two 3″ anti-aircraft guns from the 23rd battery Hong Kong and Singapore brigade of the Royal Artillery.

Deployment of British forces at Tug Argan, 10th/11th August 1940. Source: Moyse-Bartlett

Map of the action at Tug Argan. August 1940. Source: unknown
The Italians reached Tug Argan on the 10th but did not attack until the 11th as they deployed ready for attack. The column had been led by the M.11/39 Medium tanks followed by CV.3 Light tanks and then the troops carried by a lorry. The British position was arranged with three companies of the 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment dispersed over the hilltops covering the right flank (north) at the Sawr Hills. The left flank (south) was a 5 mile long position covered by the Rhodesians and Camel Corps on a series of hills (Black Hill, Knobbly Hill, Mill Hill, Castle Hill, and Observation Hill) with the four 3.7” guns divided into pairs of two on the hills (Knobbly and Mill). With them, in this spread-out line of defended hilltops with the Indians troops on ‘Punjab Ridge’ followed by half of the 2nd KAR on Block Hill, covering the Mirgo Pass. This over-extended defensive line was weakened by a gap of 5 miles before another defended position covering the Jerato Pass, held by the other half of the 2nd KAR. Behind all of this was the newly arrived 2nd Black Watch held in reserve at Laferug. This was a poor arrangement with troops unable to cover each other with supporting fire due to the distances between positions and enough room for the Italian forces to manoeuvre between them or pick them off one at a time.

French colonial Renault FT-31 in 1940.
French colonial Renault FT-31 in 1940.

M11/39 in Eastern Africa, British Somaliland invasion, September 1940.
cv35 Ariete div. Libya 1941
Italian Carro Veloce CV-35 serie II, Ariete division, serving in Africa, but on the Lybian front. The same vehicle formed the stapple of Italian armored forces in East Africa.
A Universal Carrier Mk.II heavily modified for desert combat with the VIIIth army, El Alamein, June 1942
A Universal Carrier in British used in North Africa. This trustworthy vehicle was present on all fronts the British Army operated, including East Africa.

The Italians attack

The attack from the road required De Simone’s force to cross very rugged terrain made more complex by the inaccurate maps they were using (copied from inaccurate British maps from 1926) but was preceded by a bombardment from the Italian guns falling on Mill Hill, which was defended by two platoons of the Camel Corps along with two howitzers. The bombardment then shifted to other forward positions and was then followed up by air attacks from Italian bombers and ground attacks by fighters. Mill Hill, in particular, was heavily damaged by this shelling and bombardment. In the history of the King’s African Rifles, Lt.Col. Moyse-Bartlett reports that 8 Italian tanks which had been moving along the Tug towards Observation Hill were fired upon by the 3.7” howitzers on the hill which appears to have caused them to leave.
The XIV brigade took the centre and attacked the Rhodesians over the dry stream bed for which Tug Argan is named (a ‘Tug’ is a dry stream bed). To their left was Lorenzini with II Brigade working its way around the British positions making excellent use of cover through the dry stream. On the right flank was XV Brigade facing Punjab Ridge with the armored vehicles held back in reserve. The right flank attacked by XV brigade was supported by the arriving troops from Bertello’s column heading north. Thus, the British positions were too spread out and were attacked in force from more than one direction.
The initial Italian attacks from the centre and north were repulsed, but the gaps between the positions were exploited by XV Brigade splitting the KAR from the Rhodesians along Mirgo Pass. The Italians ambushed a supply column and the Black Watch, having penetrated past the British lines.
XV Brigade though had suffered casualties during the main attacks and was replaced with XIII Brigade from the reserve for a fresh attack. Italian aircraft bombed the British positions, particularly Castle Hill which had been well defended by the Rhodesians against XV Brigade. The initial attacks had failed as the stalwart defenders were not for budging and the two flanking columns had not progressed well either. Despite no enemy forces blocking his troops, Passerone’s column towards Berbera had been stalled by a combination of terrible roads, constant British air attacks, and shelling from British warships. The southern column had engaged the Punjabi’s at Sheikh Pass but had made no real attempt to shift them, preferring instead to hold the troops there to prevent them being used at Tug Argan.
Mill Hill was abandoned by the afternoon of the 12th due to heavy losses caused by Italian attacks, with the defenders leaving behind the two howitzers, spiked and abandoned. The other two guns, based on Knobbly Hill were overrun by the Italians meaning that the British were effectively without artillery support.
Black Hill fared no better. Defended by just the machine gun company of the Camel Corps supported by the Rhodesians they quickly became isolated and cut off as the Italians infiltrated through their lines. So cut-off they were that, with the loss of communications, the British commander believed the hill had fallen to enemy attacks on the 13th and sent a patrol from the 3rd/15th Punjabi’s to check, finding the beleaguered defenders short of water and ammunition. In the peak of the dry season in that part of the world with temperatures of 48 C (120 F) commonplace, a lack of water was as much of a danger as enemy fire. No additional troops arrived at Tug Argan to support the British but with enemy tanks moving around more guns had been found in the form of a pair of Bofors cannons on the 13th.
On the 14th August, Observation Hill came under fierce bombardment. The naval 3-pounder which had been placed there was causing great disruption in the hands of the skilled naval gunners who, along with the Camel Corps machine gun detachment, were a serious hindrance to Italian movement. As a result, the Italians moved guns through the British lines and started a bombardment of the hill from behind in a very confused engagement. During the night of 13th/14th August, the Black Watch brought up two Bren Carriers laden with water supplies to the defenders on Castle and Knobbly Hills as well as additional ammunition. The Italians ambushed this supply convoy causing the loss of one carrier which fell into a ravine and was abandoned. Three trucks were also abandoned by their Somali drivers but, by daylight on the 14th, a lot of confidence in the viability of the defences had been lost.
Daybreak on the 14th also brought a renewed and intense barrage on Castle and Observation Hills with over 500 shells landing on Castle Hill alone smashing several areas of defence but the Italian attack at 16:00 hours was still fought off. With much of the defence works smashed and the Italians growing more confident the outcome was in no doubt.
A new attack on Tug Argan was ordered on the 15th August by General De Simone, and General Godwin-Austen already believed his position to be untenable. The ambush of the Black Watch by XV Brigade getting through the gaps in his defences convinced him he was going to be surrounded and destroyed and he began his plans to withdraw to Berbera.
When the Italians attacked on the 15th, they quickly got artillery behind Black Hill but were dispersed by British fire. The hill was heavily shelled though but the main attack was on Observation Hill where, after a two hours intense bombardment, they forced the Rhodesians off it scattering them by 17:00 hours. The Naval 3-pounder and its gallant naval crew, Petty Officer Hugh Jones, and Able Seamen Sweeny and Hurren were lost defending the position believed killed although they were later reported to have been captured (all three of them were released as POW’s in April 1941, and Petty Officer Hugh Jones returned to Australia in June 1941). Captain Wilson (East Surrey Regiment) commanding elements of the Somaliland Camel Corps received a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions on Observation Hill.
The Italians then set to work on the Punjabi positions. Lorenzini’s flanking force penetrated into the Punjabi’s positions as they were withdrawing causing chaos and the 3rd/15th Punjabi Regiment withdrew in disorder. The entire defensive system of positions was abandoned with forces pulling back to Berbera with the retreat covered by the Black Watch and KAR. Black Hill too was abandoned on the 15th and the remaining Camel Corps and Rhodesians retreated.
Suspecting a feint withdrawal, De Simeone did not capitalise on the enemy rout with his forces still in position for further attacks and to defend what they had won. II Brigade was moving towards the positions formerly held by the Black Watch at Laferung with XIII moving along the road to support them. XV Brigade was still on the high ground they had won, LXX Brigade was still coming back to the main force to, and XIV was still in reserve with no progress made in pursuit until the 17th.
Finally, at 10:50 hours on the 17th, realising the British were retreating, De Simeone ordered the attack on the covering position at Laferug held by the Black Watch and the two companies of the 2nd KAR who were covering the British withdrawal and found them to be a most stubborn opponent. Despite attacking with a brigade strength (LXX Brigade) force supported by artillery and tanks, the attack was poorly organised and it did not go well for the Italians.
The attack on the left flank was repelled and then there was a battalion strength attack by “hordes of Italian troops, many of them black and being driven forward by shambock (a type of whip) wielding white officers” on the British centre defended by a single company which was being subjected to heavy casualties but was progressively creeping over the advanced British positions.
We opened fire and they all ran into each other and the troops scattering for cover and more trucks came up behind. Now everyone was firing….[some members of the Battalion started to withdraw]… this was absolutely not allowed with express orders. I got very angry and jumped out of my trench, waving my pistol I shouted to them to turn around and get back to their trenches, fix their bayonets and then come with me
Account of Captain D. Rose (Black Watch)
Captain Rose brought up three Bren carriers and the company forced the Italian battalion back about 500 metres at the point of the bayonet, restoring the position to British control. During this time, Captain Rose was shot in the shoulder bowling him “arse-over-tip like a shot-rabbit” before he got back to his trench.
[The Italian attack]… was pushed forward on the left with great spirit until fifty Highlanders upped and charged wildly yelling, bayonets out, for six hundred yards, a terrifying sight that sent ‘the enemy rising and running like hares in their hundreds
Haile Selassie’s War. p.248
The next attack by the Italians sought to regain this ground, attacking along the left and centre with infantry supported by eight to ten light and medium tanks working together where they ran into the fire of the two Bofors gun which had been brought up. The destruction of one medium (M.11) and two light (CV.3) tanks by these guns under the command of Sergeant Major Sandy (Black Watch) fought off this renewed attack. Of note here is that in ‘Haile Selassie’s War’, Anthony Mockler states this was, in fact, just a single Bofors gun and one captured Italian Breda cannon with 5 rounds and ‘The Black Watch’ by Victoria Schofield confirms just a single Bofors gun with just a dozen shells.
The stubbornness of the Black Watch and the audacity of the bayonet attack had stunned the Italian forces, but the defence was not without a price. Captain Rose had been wounded, the Battalion piper Henry MacDonald had been shot as he started piping for the charge and a further 7 of the Black Watch had been killed during the campaign with 6 of them during this action.* Italian losses are not known but it was the Italians who had the upper hand.
*The Roll of Honour for 2nd Battalion Black Watch records just 6 names with 5 recorded as being killed on the 17th and a sixth dying on the 19th at Hargeisa, suggesting he died of his wounds in captivity.
Unable to go through the British, the Italians instead moved around to their right flank with about 20 tanks circling the British positions. Unable to protect themselves from that direction, and with a front-line about two miles long straddling the main road, the British were very thinly spread and vulnerable to being flanked. To avoid being cut-off, and having achieved their delaying mission, the British withdrew back towards Berbera. Nursing his bloodied nose at Laferug, De Simeone had failed to capitalise on the confused retreat and breakthrough of the British defences two days day before-hand.

Abandoned British trucks, British Somaliland 1940. Source:coconuttimes.com
The British delaying action had been a success but with risk. The troops were nearly overwhelmed and destroyed and could just as easily have been cut off. As a result a plan for a second delaying action at Nasiye was abandoned. The first action had been so successful it was not needed anyway. Enough time had been bought for the evacuation of troops and all of the bridges along the road had been blown up to slow down the Italian advance. Ships including HMAS Hobart at Berbera were loaded up with troops and some civilians and evacuated to Aden.
Unfortunately, the Black Watch, which had been assumed lost to enemy action was cut off by the blowing up of the bridges, meaning they had to abandon most of their vehicles. Additional lorries then had to be brought back from Berbera to evacuate the men. Even so, two men were left behind and missed the trucks having to swim to the evacuation boat wearing only their rifles.
Regardless of the rather chaotic retreat, it had been carried out in mostly good order and overnight on the 17th/18th August the entire force, save for a couple of hundred strong rearguards at the outskirts of Berbera made up mainly of the SCC, was evacuated. The locally recruited SCC then disbanded to the local population.

Two triumphant Italian soldiers are holding an upside Union Flag taken as a trophy in British Somaliland.
De Simeone got to Berbera on the 19th, finding that the last British troops had gone. All the Italians got for this victory was a bombing raid by RAF Blenheims instead. There were spoils though. The Somaliland Camel Corps was effectively disbanded (reformed 1941, and disbanded again in 1943) and the Italians captured a large quantity of material, including 30 ‘anti-tank machine-guns’ (sometimes incorrectly described as 2-pounder guns), 5 mortars, 5 pieces of artillery, 3 Bren gun carriers, large quantities of machine guns, small arms, and ammunition, as well as over 100 much needed trucks to add to the Italian inventory.
The invasion had taken the territory and pushed the British out, but was not the decisive victory needed. The British withdrawal had been orderly, and the cost for Italy had been high.
British reported losses for the entire invasion of British Somaliland were 38 killed, 102 wounded, and 120 captured or missing, although it is not known if this includes the irregular Somali forces estimated to have lost around 1000 men. Italian reported losses for the conquest of British Somaliland were 465 killed, 1530 wounded and 34 missing, out of which 161 of the killed or wounded were Italian, the rest being native troops. An estimated 2000 Somali tribesmen fighting against the British may have died. Other figures quote 260 British and 2,052 Italian casualties showing just how complicated such figures are to determine especially with irregular troops.

The captured Governor’s residence in Berbera with the Italian flag flying over it in triumph.
Nonetheless, this was seen and portrayed as a great victory in Italy and, for the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, another bitter early loss. The loss was not a severe military one but a loss of face, a political victory. The port had been so poorly developed by the British it was barely usable for delivering supplies anyway and was just a berth. It was the damage to British prestige which stung Churchill more than anything. A report published in 1946 concluded that the loss of British Somaliland was attributable to 4 causes:

  1. The insistence on defending colonies on the cheap
  2. Inadequate preparations for War against Italy by the War Office.
  3. The collapse of the French resistance in French Somaliland
  4. The unsuitability of Berbera as a port slowing down the delivery of supplies and reinforcements.

Despite this early success though, the Duke of Aosta made a critical mistake. He stopped further advances out of AOI and instead tried to consolidate his position. In doing so, he yielded the initiative to the British and was never to regain it. De Simeone and General Godwin-Austen would meet again in Africa, with the invasion of Italian Somaliland, and General Godwin-Austen was not going to repeat the earlier mistakes and excess caution he had shown in defending British Somaliland. Had the defence of the Protectorate been considered and planned earlier or the forces better organised at Tug Argun, it is conceivable that the entire Italian invasion could have been halted, giving Italy an early taste of defeat rather than the misleading belief that the campaign in East Africa was a meeting of equals.

Sources

The invasion of British Somaliland. (1998). Bill Stone
Haile Selassie’s War. (2002). Anthony Mockler, Interlink Pub. Group Inc.
Italy through the looking glass: Aspects of British policy and intelligence concerning Italy 1939-1941. (1997). Dawn Miller, PhD Thesis, University of Toronto
South African Force: East African and Abyssinian Campaigns. (1968). Commandant Neil Orpen
Somaliland Camel Corps, https://www.kaiserscross.com/188001/492443.html
How Italy was defeated in East Africa in 1941, Ian Carter, IWM
History of the Second World War: Mediterranean and Middle East Vol.1. (1956). Sir James Butler
British Somaliland: An administrative history, 1920-1960. (2014). Brock Milman, Routledge Press
The King’s African Rifles: A study in the Military History of East and Central Africa 1890-1945, Vol.2. (2012). Lt.Col. H. Moyse-Bartlett. Naval and Military Press Ltd. (2012 reprint)
The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign. (2016). Andrew Stewart, Yale University Press
Operations in the Somaliland Protectorate 1939-1940, Supplement to the London Gazette, 5th June 1946, 2719-2727
The Black Watch: Fighting in Front Line 1899-2006. (2017). Victoria Schofield. Head of Zeus Pub.
The Mercury, 5th December 1940. Evacuation of Berbera: Gallant Australians
The Swan Express, 12th June 1941. Municipal Welcome Home to Petty Officer Hugh Jones
The Daily News, 17th April 1941. WA War Prisoner Released.
Sunday Times. 13th October 1940. Serving his gun to a Heroic Death.

Categories
German tactics Soviet tactics

The Soviet Counter-Attack at Verba

30th of June 1941

Operation Barbarossa

On the 22nd of June 1941, the Soviet Union was attacked by the armed forces of Germany and its allies. From the Baltic sea in the north, to the Black Sea in the south, three German army groups, comprising about 3,000 tanks, 5,000 planes, and nearly 3,000,000 men, attacked the Soviet Union with the aim of total domination of the lands of the USSR for Leibensraum “living space”.
Army Group North was to capture the Baltic states and Leningrad, Army Group Centre was to strike at Moscow, and Army Group South was to capture Kiev. Army Group South was first to strike from Poland and capture the frontier cities such as Lvov and Zhytomir.
While Operation Barbarossa would eventually stall out just short of reaching Moscow the Germans were successfully repulsed from the capital by Soviet counterattacks, the cost to the Red Army was immense. According to Soviet sources, the Red Army lost more than 800,000 soldiers killed, 1.2 million wounded or sick and more than 2.3 million captured. Sources claim that, during 1941, the Soviets lost around 6.29 million small arms, 101,000 guns, 10,600 aircraft, 325 ships, 20,500 tanks, 3,000 armored cars and 159,000 other vehicles (trucks, tractors, cars). While there is generally no consensus on these numbers, what is accepted is that the Soviet losses were extremely high and would have broken any other army of the time.
These huge losses also lead to the effective removal of certain older and out of production models of tanks from the Red Army, including the gargantuan T-35A. Almost all were lost by the end of 1941, most from drivetrain problems. However, some T-35s did fight back, counter-attacking the Germans at Verba, in north-western Ukraine. But, in what seems to be a recurring situation for the Soviet Armored forces during those desperate days, the assault consisted solely of tanks, with no infantry, artillery or aircraft support.

T-35A in the fight

Of the forty-eight T-35A tanks deployed in the 8th Mechanised Corps, all were lost by the 6th of July, just 15 days after the fighting started. Fortunately, the documentation from the 67th and 68th Tank Regiments survived, and provide valuable insight into the combat performance of the T-35A.
Of the 48 T-35A’s that were deployed in the 8th Mechanized Corps, all tanks were lost in the withdrawal from their garrisons east of Lvov to Zhitomir.
Some T-35As were driven to Zhitomir from Dubno, originally deployed between Lvov and Przemysl, being chased all the way by the German front line. Most T-35As were lost on this march rather than in combat due to mechanical issues.
The T-35As were slowly being picked off either though breakdowns or the occasional enemy engagement, while on the march from their bases to the east of Lvov. A few tanks turned around and fought back, inflicting some casualties onto the Germans.

Counterattack

There was only one real documented engagement in which the T-35A tank was used, destroyed in combat, and later photographed. On the 24th of June 1941, two days after the invasion of the USSR, the German Army found a gap between the Soviet 5th and 6th Armies. This was exploited to create a corridor lead by the XXXXVIII Motorized Corps, which included the 11th Panzer Division and the 16th Panzer Division.
The Red Army was not unaware that the German Army (Panzergruppe 1) had found this gap, and moved to meet the Germans on their flanks. The Soviet 8th, 9th, 15th and 19th Mechanized Corps were ordered to meet the Germans and engage them.
The bulk of the fighting that involved the T-35A was between Dubno (which was recaptured on 28 June by the 8th Mechanized Corps) and Brody, which was never liberated in the counterattack. It was between these two towns that a handful of T-35s engaged the enemy. According to the records of the men of the 16th Panzer Division and the records of the losses of the 34th Tank Division, four T-35As, two BT-7s, two T-26s and a KV-1 attacked the German flank at Verba. This was where elements the 16th Panzer Division were laid up – this village had previously been captured on June 27th.
The attack was conducted without infantry support and did not have any main goals other than driving the enemy out of Verba. There was no Soviet artillery support or air support. The Germans, on the other hand, had access to air support.
It is reported that the Soviets achieved cutting the communications between the 16th Panzer Division and the 6th Army. However, all of the attacking Soviet tanks were lost in the engagement.

Verba

The village of Verba is located in western Ukraine, is situated between the towns of Dubno and Brody. To the north-east was the village of Pitch’ye, and to the south-west lay Hranivka. These three villages were on a major road that ran north-east from Lvov to the city of Rivne.

A map of Verba (Werba) and Dubno from 1936. Before 1939, this area belonged to Poland, hence the Polish names. One can see the main road and railway line from Lvov to Kiev. Sorce: https://igrek.amzp.pl/
The village of Verba sat on a corner of the road as it changed direction from east to northeast, with the road not actually going through Verba, rather passing to the north of the village. Verba also sits on the northern bank of the Ikva River, which had a rather large floodplain roughly a kilometer either side of the river. Verba is positioned on the hill on the northern side of this river basin.
The village of Verba was very typical of Ukraine, with an Orthodox church and perhaps no more than twenty houses at that time of the war. The Lvov-Kiev railway passes through Verba, which has a small station.
The main road to the north of Verba was a dirt road, which had a smaller dirt support road. Between these roads was a small drainage ditch that varied in height. The road was straight as it approached Verba, however it curved to the north as it passed Verba. Where the road curved, the road went down the side of the Ikva river flood basin banks. As it curved the road dropped by about 10 meters, with a steep bank on the river side of the road and a small hill to the north of the road.

A 1931 map of Verba or, as it was known then, Werba. The junction at the center left of the map is the described curve in the road, with the village to the south of the road, along with the Ikva floodplain. Source: https://igrek.amzp.pl/
On the curve in the road was a small junction to enter Verba from the east, and posts were placed every meter to indicate to traffic the drop on the other side of the road. After this curve north, the road flattens, with a small drop to the south where the river floodplain was, and a small hill to the north. The road was straight from there to Pich’ya.

Prelude to Battle

The village of Verba was once Polish territory and in September 1939 was captured from Poland and given to Ukraine, to whom the Lviv Oblast now belongs. On September 19th, 1939, Polish Cavalry units attacked a Soviet force of BA-10 armored cars at Verba, losing 50 men in this attack.
Between the wars, Verba was another quiet village, until the Germans attacked the USSR on 22 June 1941.
The village of Verba was captured by German forces on 27 June 1941. It is not known exactly how the road was captured, however, photographic evidence from Verba shows that a Soviet truck, likely a ZiS-5, was lost on the road, and a Panzer II turret has been found in the ditch between the two roads on the northern side.
From the 26th of June 1941, the Soviet counter-attack against Panzergruppe 1 began. This huge battle is often called “The Battle of Brody” or “The Bloody Triangle”. Some historians have suggested that it was this battle that should be called the biggest tank battle in history, not Kursk.

A map of the German assault on Ukraine. One can see that the XXXXVIII Mot Assault between Dubno and Brody. Some notes on the names on the map, before the Soviet occupation of the area, the City of Lviv was called Lwow. Under the Soviet occupation, Lwow became Lvov. Then, the German name for the city was Lemberg. Finally, after the fall of the USSR, Lvov was renamed Lviv and is currently Ukrainian territory. Source: Panzer Archive
The Village of Verba had seen some more action on June 29th, 1941, during a night attack, the Soviet infantry had successfully engaged and captured some Panzer III tanks from the 16th Panzer Division. Some speculation is that perhaps the Panzer III seen at Verba might have been previously involved in the fighting during the night before the main Soviet counter attack.
The Battle for Brody lasted for four days, from 26 June to 30 June 1941 and involved 585 German tanks and 3,046 Soviet tanks. Therefore, a total of 3,631 tanks were involved in this titanic battle.
After the battle of Brody, which included the Battle of Verba, 408 German and every single Soviet tank was destroyed. The counter-attack almost crippled Army Group South, however, left no enemy for this battered force to face, as everything in their way had been used and destroyed.
The Battle of Verba was perhaps the last engagement of the Soviet Counter-attack. After the previous three days of battle, Verba had elements of the 16th Panzer Division and the XXXXVIII Motorized Division positioned in and around the village.
The Soviets were positioned at Pich’ye and were poised to make a last-ditch attempt to breakout west. The assaulting force consisted of four T-35As (chassis numbers 148-30, 220-25, 988-16 and 0200-0), two BT-7 tanks, two T-26 tanks and a single KV-1.
By June 30th, the fourth day of the Soviet attempted counter-attack, both the Soviet and German units were exhausted from constant attack and counter-attack. However, the Germans were certainly fairing better, even though the odds were still numerically against them.
On the night off June 29th, a German reconnaissance flight picked up over 100 Soviet tanks between Dubno and Pitch’ye. Some of the tanks were noted to be heavy multi-turreted tanks. The bulk of this force moved east to clear German bridgeheads at Zaslaw, south-east of Verba. However, a small group of vehicles drove south-west to attack the Germans at Verba.
These vehicles advanced southwest down the two roads towards the village of Verba. Currently, it is hypothesized from the photographic evidence that on the left-hand main road was T-35 0200-0, T-35 220-25, the two T-26 tanks and the KV-1. It is theorized that T-35 148-39, T-35 988-16, and the two BT-7s were on the right-hand support road.

Vehicles involved

Soviet side

T-35A 0200-0
T-35A 0200-0 was manufactured in 1938 and was equipped with an anti-aircraft gun in a P-40 rotating mount. The tank had no clothesline antenna and notable features include amplified machine gun turret faces and the late type interior exhaust. All of the T-35s in the battle were from the 68th Tank Regiment. The regiment was ordered to paint two shirt white lines on the turret side to denote this regiment, and all T-35s in the battle were equipped with this mark.

T-35A 220-25
220-25 was manufactured in 1936 and had early features like the single turret escape hatch. However, due to the combat damage, the least is known about this tank’s features. Only recently has evidence of the turret come to light.
The chassis displays signs of heavy modification. The front idler wheels of the tank were replaced with stamped wheels without the usual holes of the cast spider type wheels. The driver’s hatch was replaced with the “BT” type driver’s hatch. This hatch is known as the “BT” type due to its resemblance to the BT-7 conical turreted tank’s escape hatches. The exhaust was also the interior type exhaust.
T-35A 148-39
Originating from the first production batch of T-35s, T-35A 148-39 was an early type tank that had been updated during the pre-war years. As it was from the first production batch, the clothesline antenna only had six arms to attach it to the turret. This had been totally removed pre-war and only the six square feet remained. The tank had been modernized with an internal exhaust system.
T-35A 988-16
The last T-35 at Verba, 988-16 was manufactured in 1938 and displayed a mixture of early and late features. The exhaust was the early exterior type, and the driver’s vision hatch was also an early version. The tank also had the clothesline antenna intact.
KV-1
A single KV-1 was present, likely a part of the 34th Tank Division and probably the 67th Tank Regiment, however, this is not known for sure. It was likely a part of this division, as the vehicle was painted with white air identification triangles, which was common for the 8th Mechanized Corps, and specifically the 34th Tank Division.
The KV in question was manufactured between April and May 1941 due to the technical features of the tank, which include a bolted rear turret ball mount and the placement of the turret handrail between the turret periscopes rather than behind the rearmost turret side periscope.
BT-7
Two BT-7 fast tanks were present at the battle. Each machine was equipped with a cylindrical turret and both machines were equipped with the K-20 45mm gun rather than the Model 1934 45mm gun. The exterior distinguishing feature of the K20 gun was the welded construction of the mantlet, whereas the Model 1934s mantlet was pressed into shape, giving it a rounded appearance.
At least one BT-7 was painted with white air identification triangles on the turret side, placed over a serial number “434”. The second BT was too badly burned to make out the turret markings, however, it likely had a similar scheme.
T-26
One, but possibly two T-26 tanks were deployed at Verba. Both tanks found are commonly called the “Model 1940” standard of T-26, although this is incorrect as the machine was introduced in 1939. The tanks both had a conical turret and both machines were equipped with the 20mm upper hall armor that was angled. Both tanks were also painted with white air identification triangles, however at least one T-26 had this re-painted green, and a simple line divisional marking was painted onto the turret side. This marking has been identified as that of the 67th Tank Regiment, which also fielded T-35A tanks, however, these were not present at Verba, nor did any T-35 get painted with the 67th Tank Regiments divisional marking.

German side

Not much is known about the German side of the Battle of Verba. What is known is that at least two Panzer III Tanks were present from the 16th Panzer Division, and men of the XXXXVIII Motorized Division were present. An 88mm Flak gun was deployed in a defensive position to the east of Verba, and support vehicles, likely also from the 16th Panzer Division, were present.
One Panzer III was an Ausf.G variant, with a short 50mm gun and exterior brackets for the extra jerry can stowage, whereas the other machine was a Panzer III Ausf J, which was also equipped with a short 50mm gun and extra jerry can stowage. These Panzer IIIs were photographed far less than the T-35s, however, a single turret digit has been found on the Panzer III G, the number being “2XX”

The battle

The left-side group

It should be noted that both columns of tanks attacked at the same time, and worked somewhat together. The divide between two columns was less than three meters, and the two columns were only separated by a drainage ditch between the two roads.
The left-hand group consisted of two T-35As, the two T-26 tanks, and the KV-1 heavy tank. On 30 June, while attacking the 16th Panzer Division, these vehicles were driving south-west down the Verba road on the left-hand road. This placed the drainage ditch between the roads on the right of the vehicles
It is thought that T-35A 0200-0 was in front of the line of tanks on the left road. Spearheading this column, the tank took heavy fire from the front and the sides. The village of Verba was to the south off the road and was occupied by the Germans. A railway line crossed the field to the south of Verba.
0200-0 appears to have been an early casualty. Likely due to track damage or even the death of the driver, the tank crashed into the ditch between the two roads. The front right idler wheel sunk into the soft ground and 0200-0 was firmly stuck. The tank likely fought on in this position, as the rear turret was facing the Germans. The barrel of this 45mm gun was actually hit and put out of action.

Moments after the guns fell silent, 0200-0 lays in the ditch between the two main roads, Only minutes passed before the T-26 would be moved into the ditch between the roads. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
The main turret’s P-40aa mount was equipped with its 7.62mm DT-29 machine gun and it was likely engaging German infantry. No bodies of the crew have been found in the photographic evidence, however it is almost certain that there were casualties.

Perhaps July 1st or 2nd, 0200-9 and the T-26 are now nothing more than photograph opportunities for German soldiers. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
A T-26 model 1940 belonging to the 34th Tank Division was lost next to 0200-0. It likely reversed into the wreck of 0200-0 judging by the photographic evidence. The tank was originally lost on the road, however it was swiftly pushed into the drainage ditch that 0200-0 had fallen into.
The T-26 displays no obvious damage other than a single hit to the front left-hand fender. It is likely that the tank reversed into 0200-0 after the destruction of 148-39. 148-39 was destroyed by air attack, and blew up in spectacular fashion, therefore it is not difficult to speculate that the crew of the T-26 did not want to share the same fate.

The T-26 lost with T-35A 0200-0. Notice the minor damage that includes a small penetration to the front fender, and the missing gun-shield. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
220-25 was likely behind 0200-0, but in front of the lighter tanks on that day. The tank made it past the wreck of 0200-0 and was likely responsible for the few German tank casualties of that day. The Verba road gradually increased in gradient and then curved to the right. A road crossed this north to south.

This photograph was taken on June 30th, 1941, by a man of the 16th Panzer Division. Other photographs from this collection indicate that the man was present at the battle of Verba. Here, 220-25 after suffering a direct bomb hit. Source: Francis Pulham Collection
It was here that T-35A 220-25 was bombed by a Ju-87 dive bomber. The tank was torn in half by the impact and subsequent bomb detonation.
The main turret was thrown from the hull by the explosion and landed in the main road (from where it was very quickly removed after the battle). The rear turrets stayed in place, however, the front 45mm gun turret was blown sky high, to land in front of the tank. The rear pedestal remained intact, but the front portion was obliterated. The hull was cut in two behind the front suspension bogie on the right-hand side of the tank.

220-25 once again. In the background, smoke can be seen around 148-39. This photograph was also from the 16th Panzer Division. Source: Francis Pulham Collection
The wreck was left in place until 1942, when it was moved off the road, when the front portion completely fell off.
The KV-1, also from the 34th Tank Division of the 8th Mechanized Corps, was knocked out east of 0200-0. It seems that this vehicle was retreating, as it faced eastward, with the tank’s rear facing the Germans. The turret was turned around, probably trying to engage the enemy.
The KV displays multiple penetrations and ricochets to the turret sides and rear, with the most noticeable damage being the dislodging of the transmission, discernible by the shifting of the drivetrain to the right which removed the drive wheel’s hubcap.
The earliest photographs show the KV-1 still on the roadside, but it appears that within the hour of the battle ending, the KV-1 and the T-26 were pushed to the roadside into the ditch between the two roads.

This KV-1 was also lost at Verba. 0200-0 can be seen on the right. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
The last vehicle in the group, another T-26 Model 1940, made it the furthest east of all the tanks, finally being lost near T-35A 988-16 from the right side group. However, not much is known about this tank, as the Germans preferred to photograph the T-35s.

The right side group

Speculations place two T-35s and the two BT-7s on the right hand support road. On 30 June, this group advanced south west down the Verba road in the right hand lane, with the drainage ditch between the roads on the left of the vehicles.
The T-35A 148-39 was likely first in the column of tanks on the right-hand road. This tank drove past the point where 0200-0 was lost. To the tank’s left was the drainage ditch in which 0200-0 had fallen and on the right was a steep hillside, with a wooded area and a building on top of this hill. Past this was a flat piece of land, level with the road that 148-39 was driving on.

148-39 dates from the first batch of T-35s. It was also one of the more heavily damaged tanks. The two BT-7s can be seen in this photograph, although the rear tank, number “434” has been moved forward of its original resting place. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
It is thought that when the tank reached 0200-0, the Soviets were attacked by Ju-87 dive bombers. The tank turned to the right and had nearly completely exited the road, however the dive bombers could not miss such an open target.
148-38 blew up in a spectacular explosion. The entire upper structure of the tank was opened like a can, with the main turret, turret pedestal and all of the sub turrets being blown off the tank.

The main turret of 148-39, along with other debris. One can clearly see the three-foot plates where the antenna used to be attached to. This is a clear indicator that the machine is a 148 chassis number. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
The main turret landed on the road that 148-39 was advancing up. The forward 45mm turret landed on the hill to the right of this flattened area. The rear MG turret landed in the drainage ditch between the roads. The rear 45mm gun turret landed back onto the destroyed hull of 148-39.

The forward interior of 148-39. The machine gun turret ring is on the left, and the 45mm gun turret’s position is on the right. One can see the 45mm ammunition stowage in the forward wall. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

The rear interior of 148-39. Notice the rear gun removal access door for the 45mm gun in the turret. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
Some of the bombs aimed at 148-39 missed, creating deep craters to the east of the wreck. No crew survived this incident.
Between 0200-0 and 148-39, two BT-7s tanks were lost. The westernmost tank had burned out, whereas the second vehicle seems to lack any damage. It is possible that the first BT-7 was destroyed by enemy aircraft, however no apparent damage other than the burned surface can be found, no penetrations or bomb damage.

A view of the Verba road. T-35A 0200-0 would be behind the camera. T-35A 148-39 sits on the roadside, and one can see T-35 220-25 up the road. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
As for the second BT-7, it is possible that it either suffered a mechanical breakdown or that the crew panicked when the German planes attacked (or when they took out the two T-35As) and abandoned the vehicle.

The two BT-7s lost at Verba. These were the original positions of the tanks before the rearmost vehicle was moved forward next to the front tank. Source: Francis Pulham Collection
The last Soviet vehicle in the battle, T-35A 988-16, was likely situated in the right-hand lane, however, this is the most uncertain position, as the tank could have crossed from one side of the road to the other.
988-16 successfully passed the wrecks of 0200-0, 148-39 and 220-25, before cresting the hill at Verba, with the village to the south of the tank. 988-16 passed the village itself, and drove another 50 meters west.
The tank took a hail of fire, to the front of the hull and turrets. Upon reaching this long straight road west of the battle, the tank met a well hidden FlaK 37 88mm anti-aircraft gun.

988-16 made it furthest east of any T-35 during the battle. This photograph was taken shortly after the battle. A dead crewman can be seen in the ditch, partially covered by the watermark. The damage that 988-16 took was great. Source: Francis Pulham Collection
The thin frontal armor of the T-35 was little match for the heavy shell of the FlaK gun and a hit, likely to the front machine gun turret, was enough to stop the monster in its tracks. The face of the front machine gun turret was blown completely off and many other items were shot off or damaged.

T-35A 988-16 shortly after the battle. The photographer has kindly annotated the image to reveal the location of the 88mm Flak gun. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
The KT-28 main gun was shot out of its cradle, the turret cheek MG mount was blown out of its ball, the front 45mm gun turret’s periscope was shot away, the clothesline antenna was damaged, and many other items were removed. Apart from a single T-26, this was the furthest point for the Soviet counter-attack at Verba.

A close inspection of the nose of 988-16 reveals the large number of hits the tank took before being stopped. One headlight is missing, there are many penetrations to the hull and turrets, the KT-28 gun has taken hits, and the ball mount is maying on the floor in front of 988-16, however new photographic evidence suggests this was placed there by German soldiers, as it originally lay on the front 45m turret. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.

It is unknown whether this T-26 was lost in the fighting on June 30th 1941. This tank was lost close to 988-16, with the row of trees concealing the Flak 88 being in this frame. Reasons for this tank not being in this battle is the fact that the tank is facing east, implying it had to turn around; however another clue that this T-26 was indeed involved in the fighting, is that it has the turret markings that match with the T-26 lost next to 0200-0. Unfortunately, of all of the tanks at Verba, this humble T-26 is by far the rarest to find photographically, as the Germans preferred to photograph the T-35s that were less than 30 meters east of this machine. Source: Francis Pulham Collection.

German casualties

The Russians did not have the monopoly on casualties; at least two German Panzer III tanks were knocked out of action, along with about three German trucks.
The Panzer III Ausf J was on the left-hand side of the road and likely took hits to the tank’s left side, as this was facing the Soviet columns. The tank’s road wheels seem to have dug into the mud of the roadside.

A View of the Verba road from the photographic record of a man from the 16th Panzer Division. Smoke still billows from 220-25 and 148-39. A Panzer III Ausf.J can be seen on the left. A second tank was knocked out behind the camera. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

The same Panzer III as in the previous photograph. While no damage can be seen from this side, the exposed left side likely took a battering from the hail of fire from up to four T-35s. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

The Panzer III Ausf J after tracks had been removed. Unfortunately, photographs of these tanks are rare, as German soldiers preferred to photograph the T-35s. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

A rare view of the rear of the Panzer III Ausf J, to T-35A 220-25. The damage to the Panzer III is clear, however compared to the T-35, minor. Source: Francis Pulham Collection.
The Panzer III Ausf G was lost 25 meters in front of 220-25, in the drainage ditch between the two roads. One 45mm gun penetration can be found on the tank’s left side, likely not the shot that disabled the tank, as the front right drive wheel was totally removed from the tank, also taking off the track. The rear right idler wheel was also removed from the tank.

The Panzer III Ausf G. T-35A 220-25 was positioned in front and to the left of this tank. Notice the 45mm penetration to the hull side. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

A general map of the battle of Verba. One can see the large scattering of vehicles. From right to left: Green represents the KV-1. Next, T-35A 0200-0 (red) and the T-26 (Orange). Next the two BT-7 tanks (Yellow), and T-35A 148-39 (red). The next three tanks are the two Panzer III tanks (grey), and T-35A 220-25 (red). The Panzer III J is north of 220-25, and the Panzer III G is east of 220-25. Next, unmarked on the map was a small collection of destroyed trucks. The last red square is T-35A 988-16. The green ‘X’ Represents the 88mm Flak gun and, finally, the T-26 (orange). Source: Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank.

Post-battle

The village of Verba was scattered with vehicles and, throughout the duration of the war, the Germans slowly dismantled the vehicles left, and moved them to the roadside. After the war, the Soviets dismantled what was left, thereby leaving no physical survivors.
During the postwar era, the main road from Brody to Dubno was redirected north of Verba and was renamed the E40 highway. Verba itself has been greatly built upon, with much of the new village being extended north of the old major road.
A gas station has now additionally been built roughly where the KV-1 was lost. The wartime main road is still in use today, and thanks to google earth you can now virtually visit the battlefield.

Sources

Most of the information about the battle action was inferred by post-combat photographs and the information given in the documented losses of the T-35s. However, one actual combat photograph exists, whereas all other photographs known to experts are post-combat photographs, and have been brought to light through painstaking photographic research.
In January 2018, fresh evidence was found from a soldier of the 16th Panzer Division in the form of his photo album, that detailed elements of the battle. The photographs are presented above, and are now a part of the extensive “Francis Pulham Collection”. More information is required to fully trace this epic battle, however, only time will reveal more information.
Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank – Francis Pulham
T-34 Medium Tank- Mikhail Baryatinsky, chapter “First Combat”, pages 68-72
Private conversations with Sergey Lotarev
Private conversations with Mikko Heikkinen
Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century, Col.Gen.G.F.Krivosheev, ISBN 978-1853672804
www.t35incombat.narod.ru – Sergey Lotarev
www.axishistory.com

Categories
German tactics Soviet tactics

The Soviet 21st Tank Brigade’s Assault On Kalinin

October 17th to October 20th, 1941

The Brigade of Heroes

One of the most discussed counterattacks ever conducted by the Red Army, the 21st Tank Brigade’s assault on the City of Kalinin (the modern day city of Tver, [Russia]), has gone down in Russian history as one of the defining moments of the ‘Great Patriotic War’.
However, even Russian sources fail to truly capture the scope of the battle, and the bravery of the men who conducted themselves in battle against a numerically superior German fighting force.
On the 17th of October 1941, the 21st Tank Brigade, unsupported by other units, air power or even artillery, succeeded in quickly advancing to the city of Kalinin and nearly captured the city. However, the unit suffered a tremendous loss of life, including two men who had previously been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union distinction for their actions.

The greater Battle for Moscow

On the 22nd of June 1941, the Wehrmacht, along with their allies, invaded the USSR in Operation Barbarossa. From June to October, the Wehrmacht had advanced almost 1000 kilometers and destroyed nearly 15,000 tanks of the Red Army. Not only this, they had killed or captured nearly 3,000,000 Red Army soldiers and overrun the Soviet heartlands of Belarus, Ukraine and most of eastern Russia.
Operation Barbarossa was the German codename for the invasion of the USSR and, on the 2nd of October 1941, after the destruction of the Smolensk pocket, the order was given by Hitler to begin Operation Typhoon.
Operation Typhoon was the advance to Moscow. Early victories included the encirclement at Vyazma and the capture of Orel and Bryansk. These victories were swift and left open the road to Moscow.
The next major city the Germans had to take was Kalinin. This lay to the north-west of Moscow and was only 170 kilometers away from the capital. The city was taken with little resistance on October 13th/14th 1941.
The capture of the city left the highway to Moscow dangerously exposed. It was therefore decided by the Soviet High Command that the city should be re-taken.

Kalinin

Kalinin has been an important town since the 1300s and is the capital for the Kalinin Oblast. Originally called Novgorodian, it was named Tver in the 1300s. It was then renamed Kalinin in 1931 to honor communist party member Mikhail Kalinin. In 1991, the city was renamed Tver.

An annotated German aerial map of Kalinin. 1 is the eastern airfield, 2 is the western airfield, 3 is Kalinin station, 4 is the entrance to the Volokolamansk Highway, and 5 is the Turginovskoye highway. Source: Warfly.ru
The geography of the city is divided up by three rivers. The Volga river flows from west to east, with the majority of the city on the southern bank of the river. The Tversta river then splits the northern bank into two quarters. On the south bank the Tmaka river splits the southern bank into unequal quarters.
The city centre is made up of historical palaces and other typical Russian brick buildings of the 1700s, with the rest of the city being made up of wooden buildings and small to medium brick buildings, which is very typical of Russian towns and cities.

A typical building in central Kalinin. This photograph was taken after the assault on the city. Source: From the author’s collection
The city had two airfields. One aerodrome (an airfield without a runway allowing planes to take off from any direction) lay on the south eastern corner of the city. The second airfield with a concrete runway was situated to the north west of the city.

A typical outer Kalinin street. This photograph was likely taken to the north west, near the airfield. This photograph was taken in December, after the assault on Kalinin. Source: From the author’s collection

Prelude to Battle

On the 12th of October 1941, the 21 Tank Brigade was ordered to defend the city of Kalinin.
The commander of the brigade was Colonel Nikolai Stepanovich Skvortsov, and the deputy commander was Alexander Sergeevich Sergeyev. The brigade was formed from the Military school at Vladimir, situated to the east of Moscow.
The Brigade received tanks on the 5th of October, and was issued fresh T-34 tanks delivered from Factory 183 (KhPZ: Kharkov Locomotive and Tractor Works) and from Factory 112 (Krasnoye Sormovo). The brigade was listed as fielding 10 x T-34 tanks equipped with 76mm guns (delivered from Kharkov), 7 x T-34s with 76mm guns (delivered from Krasnoye Sormovo), 10 x T-34s equipped with the ZiS-4 57mm gun (also from Kharkov), two additional T-34s with 76mm guns equipped with flame throwers in the hull (also from Kharkov), 2 x HT-26s, 5 x BT-2 Tanks, 15 x BT-5s and BT-7s, 10 x T-60s, and 4 x ZiS-30 tank destroyers.
It should be noted that tanks from Krasnoye Sormovo (112) are only listed by one source, however, this source (https://tankfront.ru/ussr/tbr/tbr021.html) is by far the most detailed with their breakdown of the 21st Tank Brigade.
The 21st Tank Brigade was organised into three battalions, which primarily consisted of the 21st Tank Regiment, along with some other units. The first battalion comprised all of the T-34s that were issued to the unit. The second battalion was issued the light tanks, including the ZiS-30s. The unit is thought to have been the first to receive the T-60 tank from factory No.37.
A third battalion was a Motorized Rifle Battalion. This unit is thought to have been made up of 700 men, with an Anti-Tank company, an 82mm mortar company (12 mortars), along with a submachine gun platoon, sapper platoon, and the commander’s platoon.
The unit was unique amongst the Red Army by being mostly made up of veterans. Due to the unit being put together from the Tank School in Vladimir, experienced tank men were therefore available. Unfortunately, due to the severe losses earlier in the war, many more veterans had been killed in action. The tank commanders were generally experienced tankers who had fought in conflicts such as the 1939 Khalkhin-Gol battles, the Winter War, and the early stages of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (WWII).

Planning

The order to attack was given to the 21st Tank Brigade from Lieutenant General Rokossovsky. His order read: “Immediately move to the offensive in the direction of Pushkino, Ivantsevo, Kalinin with the aim of blowing the flank and rear of the enemy to assist our troops in the destruction of the Kalinin group of troops.”
This was reinforced by orders from General K. Zhukov: “… to take possession of Turginovo, in the future the combined detachment to advance in the direction of Ilinskoe, Tsvetkovo, Negotino with the task of destroying the enemy grouping in the Kalinin region.”
This assault on Kalinin was unsupported by other units or aircraft, and the entire task of liberating the city was put onto the shoulders of the 21st Tank Brigade. This was an impossible task, and the order was given because the Soviet High Command had little actual knowledge of the full strength of the German forces at Kalinin and thought that the bulk of German forces in the area were further north.
The 21st Tank Brigade was made up of three battalions; however, the first two were re-organized into three fighting groups for the assault on Kalinin. The first group was commanded by Mikhail Pavlovich Agibalov, the second group by Mikhail Alekseevich Lukin, and the third group by Iosif Isaakovich Makovsky.

Group 1

The first group was commanded by Captain Mikhail Pavlovich Agibalov. Agibalov was an experienced soldier, and had risen through the ranks of the Red Army after joining in 1932. His combat experience included the war with Japan in 1939, and the Winter War with Finland in 1939. For his service in the Khalkhin-Gol battles, he was awarded the Order of Lenin (the USSR’s highest award), and was also awarded the title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.

Captain Mikhail Pavlovich Agibalov in 1940. Source: warheroes.ru
The assault of Kalinin was devised as a two-pronged assault. From the staging area at Turginovo, group one and group two would move west to capture Pushkino, then move north along the Volokolamansk highway to enter Kalinin on the eastern side of the city, and attack the airfield and the main station.
This would also involve the destruction of the forward command post of German forces in the area stationed at Pushkino. Once at Kalinin, the groups would split, with the first attacking the airfield, then moving into the city to help with its liberation. The second group was to move into the city centre and capture the station, them move into central city up to the Tver river.
The tanks of the first group were painted with white numbers on their hulls to help with friendly tank identification. Numbers 1, 3, 4 and 6 have been found, with M.P. Agibalov’s tank being number “1”.

Group 2

The second group was commanded by Major Mikhail Alekseevich Lukin. Lukin, just like Agibalov, was a veteran soldier. During the Khalkhin-Gol battles, he successfully led a raid that resulted in a large Japanese supply dump being totally destroyed, along with a large number of trucks and vehicles. He was also awarded the title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and the Order of Lenin.

Major Mikhail Alekseevich Lukin in 1940. Source: warheroes.ru
Lukin was made commander of the 21st Tank Regiment of the 21st Tank Brigade, and therefore was in overall control of the battle. The second group was to also advance for the Volokolamansk highway, but to enter the highway south of Pushkino at Panigino. Here it would advance north at speed, linking with group 1, and attack Kalinin.
Lukin commanded a T-34 with a ZiS-4 57mm gun. This machine was painted with a white number ‘20’ onto the hull sides of his machine. His second-in-command of the 2nd group was equipped with a T-34/76 with a white number ‘21’ painted onto the right hull side, right turret side, and on the rear of the turret. It is thought that there might have been tanks numbered 20 to 25 in this group.

Group 3

The third group was commanded by Senior Lieutenant Iosif Isaakovich Makovsky. Makovsky was as well decorated as his comrades. He had received the title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and an Order of Lenin for his actions during the Winter War.

Senior Lieutenant Iosif Isaakovich Makovsky post war. Source: warheroes.ru
The third group was to move directly north along the Turginovskoye highway and enter the city at a similar location to the first and second groups, as the two main roads almost linked up at Kalinin.
The Turginovskoye highway entered Kalinin to the east of the airfield, and the third group could either go south of the field into the micro-district of Yuzhny, or move further north to enter the city north of the station. Here they would link up with the first and second groups to capture more key objectives in the city itself. The plan was made flexible to allow for different tanks to attack different areas if one group suffered heavy losses.
The third group appears to have not adopted the numbering system on their tanks. However, no definitive pictures have surfaced of their tanks, therefore it is possible that tanks numbering from ‘31’ exist. The third group was also called the ‘Makovsky Shock Group’.
There is also some photographic evidence that some tanks from all three groups were not painted with any numbers at all.

Support from the Motorised Battalion

While the main attack was happening, the third battalion was to advance up the Turginovskoye highway and assist in occupying the villages to the south of Kalinin. It is thought that they were originally going to enter the city after it was recaptured, however, the course of events meant that this never happened.
In total, 27 T-34s and 8 T-60 tanks were available for the battle. These tanks were divided into their respective groups and prepared for the attack. In theory, this could mean there were 9 T-34s per group, two groups equipping 3 T-60s with a third with 2 T-60s. It is unknown at present how many tanks were in each group.

The attack plan for the 21st Tank Brigade. The blue line is the path of the first group. The yellow line is the break off path of group 2 and the red line is the path of group 3. Source: Created by the author

German Forces

Facing the Soviets were elements of the 1st Panzer Division, which had been ordered to move north to help in the Leningrad sector; and the 36th Motorised Division, plus a mixture of other German units.
In Kalinin itself was the German 660th Assault Gun Battery, which was resting there. Roughly 10,000 troops were stationed in the newly captured city. It is known that a day prior, on the 16th of October, two Panzer Battalions were stationed in the city, however, the exact battalions are unknown.

A Sturmgeschütz III Ausf.C of the 660th Assault Gun Battery, likely on the streets of Kalinin. Source: Author’s collection.
The 660th Assault Gun Battery was formed before the Battle of France, and received their first six Sturmgeschutz III Ausf.As just before the invasion of France. It is thought that the 660th would go on to receive StuG III Ausf B’s and C’s in 1940 and 1941.
The 660th Assault Gun Battery is known to have fielded a number of Sd.Kfz 252’s, which were the ammunition carrier variant of the Sd.Kfz 250 half track. There was a handful of these machines used in Russia.

A StuG III Ausf A used by the 660th Assault Gun Battery.
The 36th Motorised Division is known to have deployed 105mm heavy guns in the village of Troyanovo, to the south of Kalinin, and the trucks carrying personnel engaged by the Soviets were also likely from this division.
This force of Germans was not prepared or expecting a Soviet counterattack so shortly after taking Kalinin. However, fortifications had been made to the train station, and the airfield at Kalinin was already requisitioned by the Luftwaffe, which had Ju-52 transport aircraft parked about the field.

A Ju-52 3M g4e German transport plane flies into the aerodrome at Kalinin. Ominously, the plane flies over a Soviet 57mm Gun, similar to those fielded in 10 T-34s by the 21st Tank Brigade. Source: Author’s private collection.
Unfortunately, the German records of the Soviet counterattack are lacking greatly, with only a small combat report from the 36th Motorised Division mentioning the attack. Therefore, the only documentation to refer is that of Soviet origin. The Soviet documentation seems to be largely accurate, albeit with some typical wartime embellishment.

T-34 Tanks of the 21st Tank Brigade

The 21st Tank Brigade was issued factory-fresh T-34 tanks from Kharkov, Krasnoye Sormovo, and T-60s from Factory Number 37. The T-34s were a diverse mix of machines. Tanks equipped with the 76.2mm guns were examples of the last production Factory 183 (KhPZ) tanks. Some machines were issued hardpoints for mounting external fuel tanks, although most were not.
All tanks were issued the newly-implemented driver’s hatch with two forward-facing periscopes protected by armored lids. The tow hooks were also the newly-implemented ‘hook’ type, dispensing with the older ‘pin’ type. The turrets issued to these tanks were a mixture of cast turrets and the ‘simplified 8-bolt type welded’ turrets.

One of the T-34s from the 21st Tank Brigade. ‘4’ was lost on the Volokolamansk highway near the airfield. Notice the V type track, the simplified turret, the updated driver’s hatch, and the new tow hooks. The hull sides do not have hard points for fuel tanks, and there is a single jack block on the rear hull side. Source: Old Ebay listing.
Tanks were issued with a mixture of track types. The standard 550mm wide track was common, although several tanks were issued with the ‘V type’ (alternatively known as ‘A type’) track. The commonly thought of as the ‘waffle’ patterned 500mm wide track had not yet been introduced.
Approximately ten T-34s were issued with ZiS-4 57mm guns. These specially designed anti-tank weapons were installed onto a standard T-34, and the only two known examples are known to not have had hardpoints for external fuel tanks.

A T-34 with a ZiS-4 57mm gun. This is the machine of Maj. Gen Lukin.

‘6’ of the 21st Tank Brigade.
Two such T-34s with 57mm guns that are known today were issued as tank number ‘20’, commanded by Lukin, and a second machine was commanded by Sergey Mikhailovich Kireev, who was in the first group. This tank is thought to have been painted with the number ‘2’, however, the damage is too severe to properly tell based on the known photographic evidence.

Prelude to Battle

The unit had received its tanks from Kharkov fully replenished with ammunition and fuel, and the brigade arrived at Kursky Station in Moscow on the 14th of October 1941. On the 13th of October 1941 the Brigade was attached to the 16th Army on the western front, and upon arrival to the front on the 17th of October, the brigade was reassigned to the 30th Army.
From Kursky the unit was ordered to move into Klin Station, and from here it was to move to Kalinin. However, the Brigade was forced to unload at Zavidovo and Reshetnikovo due to the capture of Kalinin station.
After unloading, the Tank Brigade moved towards the village of Turginovo, capturing the village with the loss of one tank due to an accident on crossing a pontoon bridge. The commander of this tank was Issac Okrane, and his crew was killed in the accident.

The advance north by group one and two

On the morning of the 17th of October 1941, the attack began. From the village of Turginovo, the first and second group advanced west then north. Group one moved to capture the village of Panigino. Here, the main highway from Volokolamansk to Kalinin lay ahead.
The attack was signaled by three red flares fired into the air, and immediately after beginning the assault, the Soviet tank crews of group two struck upon luck. A large column of German trucks and personnel carriers was advancing north towards Kalinin that had not noticed the Soviet tanks joining the rear of the column. Lukin ordered his unit to not open fire until they were discovered or until the time was right.
The same luck could not be said for the first group. The column of tanks advanced towards Pushkino, and were due to break through to the highway at the village of Emelyantsevo. At this village, they were spotted, and German anti-tank guns opened fire.
The lead tank of the advanced guard was commanded by Lieutenant Kireev (thought to be Sergey Mikhailovich Kireev), but his tank was hit and exploded, killing the crew. It is thought his tank was number ‘2’.

What is likely tank ‘2’ commanded by S.M. Kireev. Source: Author’s collection
The second tank in the forward column was tank ‘3’ commanded by S.Kh. Gorobets. This tank would later become very famous in this battle for ramming a Panzer III and escaping the battle unharmed. At this time though, it engaged and dealt with the Germans, leading the first group to the Volokolamansk highway and linking with group two.

The weather was varied, and it would appear that the snow thawed briefly for one or two days, likely the 18th and 19th of October, allowing for some snow free photographs. Here, what is believed to be ‘2’ of Kireev in the village of Emelyantsevo. Source: As taken from World War 2 Bodong Blog.
The next major village north was Pushkino. This was being temporarily used as a headquarters for local German forces. As the column passed through the village the order to attack was given, and the Soviet tanks swiftly gained the advantage, destroying many German vehicles and it is reported that many German soldiers were routed. The village was taken and the headquarters was destroyed. The groups advanced north, taking Kvakshino before hitting the village of Troyanovo.
By this time, the news had spread that the Soviets were advancing up the highway, and Ju-87 dive bombers were dispatched to engage the tanks. The column was attacked from the air, however reports conflict on whether any tanks were lost due to bombing.

A bomb left unexploded on the Volokolamansk Highway. Source: Author’s collection
Troyanovo was more heavily defended by the German forces, and the two groups faced a heavy wall of German anti-tank fire. It is known that 105mm guns of the 611 Heavy Artillery Platoon engaged the Soviet force here. In this village, the tank of Maj. M. Lukin became disabled. The reports are unclear on whether his vehicle simply broke down or was shot at. Whatever the case, the left track broke and the vehicle ended up in a ditch to the left of the road, stuck in the river Kamenka.

Lukin’s T-34 on the 18th of October 1941. Notice the broken left track links. Source: An old EBay listing
It was later claimed by his crew that Lukin single handily covered the escape of his crew, operating the 57mm gun of his tank to cover the withdrawal of his crew. He was killed in his tank and no damage is observable on the tank from photographic evidence other than the broken track.

Lukin’s T-34 a week or so after the assault. Snow has fallen again. Source: https://panzerserra.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/t-3457-tank-destroyer-case-report.html
The groups moved on towards Kalinin, now under the command of the leader of the first group, Captain Mikhail Pavlovich Agibalov. The column broke through to the village of Naprudnoe, 16 kilometres from Kalinin. It was here that Agibalov was also killed.
The combat report tells a similar story to Lukin’s. Agibalov’s tank drove off the highway to the right. Here, he disabled a German fuel truck that blew up. His tank, now off the road and isolated, took heavy fire. The main gun of his tank was seen to have stopped firing, although the machine guns were still active. It is claimed that his crew bailed out and, to cover them, Agibalov stayed in the tank. The accounts of M.Ya. Maistrovsky claim that, after the machine gun fell silent, he was found in his tank with his pistol drawn, apparently having taken his own life.

Mikhail Pavlovich Agibalov’s T-34 on the 17th of October 1941. The combat report clearly states the gun was hit, and it can be clearly seen that the gun mantlet has been dislodged. Notice the number 1 on the hull side and also that the Germans have already painted a captured tank number on the rear left side. Source: Author’s collection

Group one and two in Kalinin

Upon reaching Kalinin, the first and second groups attacked the Kalinin airfield and the train station, which was also being engaged by group three. The group that attacked the Kalinin Station was commanded by Senior Lieutenant Iosif Isaakovich Makovsky (deputy commander of the 21st Tank Brigade), who was in command of the third group, and received help from the remnants the other two groups.

An annotated map of the eastern approaches to Kalinin. Source: warfly.ru
The airfield is thought to have been attacked mainly by the first group. This group had a bit more success than the ones attacking the station. One tank commanded by Senior Political Instructor G. M. Gnyry drove up theVolokolamansk highway with the main group of tanks, he destroyed some vehicles on the highway. He then broke into the Kalinin airfield on the right of the Volokolamansk highway inside the city limits. Here, supported externally by other tanks, he successfully engaged enemy aircraft in the field, approximately 50 aircraft were parked there.
It is said that his tank was number ‘31’, however, this would have put him in group three (if the numbering system theory is correct). If this is correct, indeed, it was therefore likely his machine came from the south of the airfield and then entered to Volokolamansk highway.
One of the tanks supporting him was commanded by Sergeant S. E. Rybakov. His tank drove into the micro-district of Yuzhny (the modern name for this location) and supported Gnyry. This is the southern road that connects the two highways south of the airfield. He was surrounded and captured by enemy forces. He later escaped.
Gnyry was not as lucky. Some reports claim that his tank was lost when aircraft that had managed to escape from the field attacked his vehicle, although he could also have been attacked by German AA guns positioned about the airfield. His tank was disabled and he was forced to abandon it.
This airfield at Kalinin was attacked by tanks of the first group and the third group. The airfield was situated to the east of the city. A second airfield was situated to the west of the city. This airfield was not attacked.
At the eastern airfield, at least 16 aircraft are known to have been shot at or ran over by Gnyry.

One of the aircraft attacked by Gnyry. Source: https://warspot.ru/5942-kalininskiy-reyd-geroev-halhin-gola

The same Ju-52 as from above. The engines have been removed, likely as the machine was to be cannibalized after the damage it sustained from the T-34 of Gynry. Source: Author’s private collection.
While the T-34 tanks of the first group were attacking the airfield at Kalinin, the unit was unexpectedly engaged by German assault guns of the 660th Assault Gun Battery. During this engagement, Tank number ‘4’ engaged a Sturmgeschütz III Ausf A. The StuG III was commanded by Lieutenant Tachinsky, and the T-34 was thought to be commanded by Lieutenant D. G. Lutsenko. Lutsenko, after sustaining damage to the gun barrel, rammed at speed the StuG of Tachinsky. This caused the StuG to ride up, and sit on top of the T-34.

An aerial map showing the assumed direction of the 660th Assault Gun Battery’s counter-attack on the T-34s of the 21st Tank Brigade. Source: warfly.ru
The ramming took place on the Volokolamansk highway itself, and this allowed for the withdrawal of the remaining T-34s. After the T-34 rammed the StuG, the Soviet tanks apparently made their escape, although number ‘4’ stayed in its position with the crew refusing to escape the tank. The crew was forcibly removed from the tank by Germans using crowbars. Some sources claim the commander was shot, although there are no contemporary sources for this.

Tank number ‘4’ shortly after ramming the StuG III Ausf A. Source: https://www.militarymodelling.com/forums/postings.asp?th=97705

Lutsenko being dragged out of the turret of the tank. Source: https://www.militarymodelling.com/forums/postings.asp?th=97705

Tank number ‘4’ and the StuG about three days to a week after the incident. This particular incident was very popular to photograph. Source: Author’s Collection.

The location where tank number ‘4’ rammed the StuG. Identification was made to this location by the surrounding buildings after the tank was moved to the roadside. Source: Warfly.ru
Elements of the first group are known to have assisted in the attack the central position of Kalinin. This was commanded by Staff Sergeant Stepan Khristoforovich Gorobets who commanded the third tank in the first group. His tank was painted with a white number ‘3’, but because his tank was not knocked out and later photographed by the Germans, it is unknown if his tank was a ‘57mm’ or a ‘76mm’ gunned tank (alternate sources claim it either way).

Staff Sergeant Stepan Khristoforovich Gorobets was very much idolised after the Kalinin battles. He was killed in combat in early 1942. Source: warheroes.ru
It is known that 8 tanks entered the city past the airfield into the suburbs. As some of the tanks headed towards the station, tank number ‘3’ of the first group, commanded by Staff Sergeant S. Kh. Gorobets drove with haste westwards past the station. He then took the tank north, crossing the railway lines far to the west of the action, then he turned north, almost making it to the Tver river. His tank then turned east, and with speed he drove the entire length of Kalinin. Along the way, he disabled guns and tanks, and successfully rammed a Panzer III. Here he exited the city on the eastern side unscathed.

The path of tank number ‘3’ though Kalinin. Source: Warfly.ru
Other tanks were less successful, with 7 machines being lost with their crews fighting in Kalinin itself. Most of the crews that made it into the city were lost fighting at the station. One of the confirmed tanks to be lost next to the station is tank number ‘21’. It is known to have fallen into a ditch somewhere around the station, but its exact location has not yet been ascertained.

Tank number ‘21’ likely around the Station. Source: Old Ebay listing

Tank number ‘21’ was an interesting machine, with the numbers “21” painted on the turret rear, and then on the hull and turret right side, no identification numbers appear to have been painted on the left side of the vehicle. Source: Marcel Polak.

Tank number ‘21’ again. Notice the jack block on the rear right side. Source: Author’s private collection.
Shpak’s tank is known to have driven to the station, and it is thought that his machine was destroyed. Other crews killed in Kalinin were those of Vorobyov and Maleev.
The attack was eventually broken off and the tanks of the first and second groups were forced to make their escape back down the Volokolamansk highway, and even back down the Turginovskoye highway, the road that the third group advanced up. It is unknown in what time frame the escape was made.

Tank number ‘6’ was lost on the Volokolamansk Highway. It is thought that this machine was lost on a farm about 1km south of Kalinin. Source: Author’s private collection

Tank number ‘6’ again on the 17th of October. Notice the snow that is very light. Source: Author’s private collection

Attack by Group 3

While the first and second groups advanced up the Volokolamansk highway, the third group advanced with haste up the Turginovskoye highway. Commanded by Iosif Isaakovich Makovsky, the group seems to have met little resistance until the village of Pokrovskoe. Here there was heavy resistance. Nonetheless, the group defeated the Germans and continued north to enter Kalinin.
Once in Kalinin the third group attempted to attack the main train station. It is known that some tanks assisted in the destruction of the airfield between the Volokolamansk and Turginovskoe highways. It is unknown from what direction the third group attacked the station, but it was likely from the north east as the Turginovskoe highway crosses the east-west railway lines.

The paths of group 1,2 and 3. From this aerial view it can be seen that the 21st Tank Brigade was attempting to envelop the station. Source: Warfly.ru
The train station was never successfully recaptured, as the location had been heavily fortified by the Germans. The third group is assumed to have received help from the remnants of the first and second groups, as some of their vehicles are known to have been lost near the station. Here the third group advanced no further.
Many tanks were lost, and the remnants of the third group were forced to withdraw back down the Turginovskoye highway.

Withdrawal

When it became clear that the battle was swinging in favor of the German units, Regimental Commander G. I. Zakalyukin organized and conducted the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the Kalinin area down the Turginovskoye highway. They set up positions at the village of Grishkino. Here the 21st Tank Brigade’s Motorised Rifle Battalion with light tank support was available to assist.

A T-34 with no obvious numbers that was lost near to tank number ‘6’ on the Volokolamansk Highway. This machine is slightly different to other tanks in the 21st Tank Brigade by having exterior fuel tanks. Other than this it is identical to other 21st Tank Brigade tanks. Source: Author’s private collection
Here, over the next two days, major fighting broke out between advancing German units and the Soviets who had survived the assault on Kalinin. Makovsky himself was seriously injured on the 19th of October. At that time, he had taken command of the motorized unit.

A T-34 lost on the Turginovskoye highway. Again, this machine has no numbers, but evidence suggests that not every machine was equipped with painted numbers. Source: Author’s private collection

The recently discovered ’24’, likely from the 21st Tank Brigade. This machine shared technical features with that of ’21’, lost in Kalinin itself. As the turret graffiti suggests, the tank was lost on October 25th 1941, which means that this tank survived the assault, and was lost on the defensive. Source: Francis Pulham Collection.
The entire area was recaptured by the Germans, and fighting involving the 21st Tank Brigade in this sector ended on the 19th of October 1941. Troyanovo, where Maj. Gen Lukin’s body was, was likely recaptured on the 17th of October; but fighting continued around to the east. Lukin’s body remained in the tank, and German soldiers looted the Order of Lenin that he had received during the Khalkin Gol battles in 1939.

Tank number ‘20’ after heavy snow. Source: T-34 The Complete Encyclopedia, M. Kolomiets.
His body was recovered by four boys from the village of Troyanovo, and buried in a small wooded area. His body was later reburied in Kalinin in 1942.
In total, the brigade lost 21 x T-34 tanks, 3 x BT tanks, and a single T-60 tank. The combat records of the 21st Tank Brigade list enemy casualties as 38 tanks, 200 motor vehicles, 82 motorcycles, 70 guns and mortars, 12 fuel trucks, and a large number of soldiers.
The 21st Tank Brigade continued to fight over the winter months, but it was later brought into reserve on the 5th January 1942.

The Traveling Palace in Kalinin was used by the Germans as the grave site for their fallen comrades. All of these graves belong to the men the 21st Tank Brigade killed. Source: Author’s private collection
Kalinin was recaptured during the massive Soviet counterattack in December 1941. During the German occupation, war graves were erected outside of the main church in Kalinin. The two airfields had been requisitioned from the Soviets. Much of the city was destroyed, and Kalinin was the first major city liberated from the Germans.
Kalinin gave the name to the Soviet Kalinin front, which was active from the 17th of October 1941 until the middle of 1943 when the German forces were pushed far away from Moscow.

Conclusion

From the outset, the cards were stacked against the men of the 21st Tank Brigade. Many people have made the case that the Soviet Union needlessly lost two experienced tank commanders and ‘Heroes of the Soviet Union’.
The attack, however, did tie down units that otherwise could have been used further afield. It is also true that the units attacked were severely shaken by the incident. It is quite possible that by sheer numbers, this was one of the most successful Soviet counterattacks conducted to date at that point of the war.
For the first time in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, a coherent brigade assault had been conducted where experienced tank crews assaulted German positions. Not only did they destroy more vehicles than were lost, but they also effectively exploited weak areas, and used teamwork to take out the enemy.
It should not be forgotten, however, that the primary objective was never completed. Soviet High Command had not correctly briefed the crews on the size of the force at Kalinin, and underestimated the numbers of troops here. Not only this, but the attack was conducted with minimal infantry support.
Some sources claim that tank riders were present on a hand full of vehicles at Pushkino, but there is no contemporary evidence for this.
It can also be stated that the T-34s with 57mm guns were not used in an effective role. The 57mm gun was specially designed for tank hunting, and during this battle, the Soviet crews mostly fought guns and trucks, far more suited to a low caliber heavy round such as the 76.2mm round of the F-34 guns of regular T-34s.
The assault was ultimately a failure with regards to its original objective, although schools have been named after members of the 21st Tank Brigade, and statues erected in their honor. It was not so much a physical victory, but it was certainly a victory for morale and of legends.
 
Sources
https://tankfront.ru/ussr/tbr/tbr021.html
https://warfly.ru
https://warspot.ru/5942-kalininskiy-reyd-geroev-halhin-gola
https://obd-memorial.ru/Image2/imagelink?path=89544595-0e86-48af-895f-fc3444c7dc6c
https://mikhaelkatz.livejournal.com/56836.html
https://www.poisk-pobeda.ru/forum/index.php?topic=1636.0
https://obd-memorial.ru/html/info.htm?id=2942165&page=1
https://www.network54.com/Forum/47207/message/1322129472

Private conversations with Pavel Olegovich Varfolomeyev (Russian Army from 1999-2001 and past resident of Tver)
Categories
articles German tactics Polish tactics

Charge at Krojanty

The Myth of Polish Cavalry Attacking Panzers

The cavalry charge at Krojanty is certainly less known than the myth it contributed to built, still maintained until recent years in some scholarly books and history classes in high schools and colleges. As a subject related to tanks we hope to contribute breaking the neck of this legend once and for all. This is however a tenacious image, born from a journalist confusion, turned into propaganda, and never fully debunked but by some specialist historians. We are left with the tenacious image of brave Polish cavalrymen charging head on, with lances and shining sabres, German Panzers in open field. A symbol of dashing, reckless bravery in face of certain death, sort of desperate last-ditch effort of an army reputedly devoid of tanks or any modern means of warfare. The image was so romantic and dramatic that it fuelled imagination of generations believing the German onslaught on Poland was something of a promenade, facing a supposedly ill-prepared army for modern warfare.

Context

Despite the mechanized nature of ww2, and even ww1, the horse was still, like past centuries, a major asset for the military, through regular cavalry units proceeding with long traditions that will be gradually passed onto mechanized units, and for supplies and artillery that depended on countless workhorses. The Ardennes breed in particular of NW France and Belgium of which tens of thousands were captured by the Germans, still played a major role in towing artillery, a profusion which in some case led to ruthless management and massive losses due to exhaustion.
It was then long before animal protection leagues. They were cheaper, plentiful and more “reliable” than artillery tractors of the time. This was still true in ww2, although motorization has been accepted and integrated en masse. The German Army in the campaign of 1940 still relied on nearly 25,000 horses mostly for supplies (about 500,000 when entering the war).
On the Eastern front alone, in two months, Dec. 1941-Jan. 1942, 179,000 horses died due to exhaustion and cold. On the cavalry side, some units kept the lance and sabre as their main weapons, with the pistol as sidearm, but the norm was the idea of a mounted infantry, that can quickly join point A to B and then dismount and take proper firing positions.
In 1920 the young Red Army created an all-mounted army when attacking Poland, complete with chariot-based machine gun nests, artillery and mortars. In the Interwar, the British were the first to test large scale motorized warfare, resulting in the complete conversion of their cavalry units before 1939. Despite of this, most belligerents still counted a few traditional cavalry units like France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Italy, Japan, China and the USSR.

Cavalry charges in WW1

Although the subject is somewhat far off the usual topic or armoured warfare, Polish Uhlans were not the last to orchestrate charges on the battlefield of ww2. Cavalry already operated en masse during the Great War on all fronts, at least on the opening stages of the conflict when the war was still mobile. In fact in August 22, 1914, the first British shot of the war in France was fired by a cavalryman, Edward Thomas of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, near Casteau.
Probably the last cavalry charge on the Western front was led by the 20th Deccan Horse, an Indian cavalry unit on July 14th, 1916 on High Wood, part of the battle of the Somme. Many dismounted cavalrymen were found in the trenches and in 1918 with the arrival of the Whippet Tank, there were already early attempts of mechanized cavalry.
At the end of the war, operations became mobile again and former dismounted units were back in action. As in March 30, 1918, when Canadian cavalry charged German positions in the Battle of Moreuil Wood (Lord Strathcona’s Horse). There were very few cavalry vs cavalry clashes, but at least one opposing the 1st Cavalry Brigade and the German 4th Cavalry Division as a prelude of the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914.
The Western Front was only a small part of a bigger picture, a war fought worldwide, from Africa to the middle east, Russia or the Alps among others. In many cases cavalry was still an important asset. Although unfortunate at Gallipoli the Anzacs also fought mounted like the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments that sabre charged decisively at Beersheba (Third Battle of Gaza) on 31 October 1917 (google “The Light horsemen” movie, 1987 for the picture).

Tanks and Cavalry at Monchy le Preux, 1918. Cavalry returned on the western front during the allied counter-offensives of the winter 1918
In Russia, the famous Brusilov offensive, mobilized 40 infantry divisions but also 15 cavalry divisions. At the beginning of the war, Nicolas II army could boast that its thirty-six cavalry divisions could be able to pierce through the German Army straight to Berlin. Reality of crossed fire by machine-guns quickly dismissed the idea at the battle of Tannenberg, wiping out scores of Don Cossacks units (some of the finest cavalrymen in the world). In June 1916 in Galicia, as Mackensen’s phalanx was routing Russian Infantry, the situation was reversed by General Poroshenko’s regiments of Don Cossaks, Kinburn Dragoons, and Chernagov Hussars creating havoc in the advancing, confident German infantry. They hacked their way to the rearguards, capturing supplies and machine guns and then rode back again into friendly lines, suffering in the process only 200 casualties. The effect was such for the Germans that Mackensen called off the attack, giving a restbite for the Russians to proceed an orderly retreat.

Extract from Spieleberg’s “War Horse” (2011)

Horse units in WW2

With the advent of the tank, still slow compared to cavalry standard, and despite at a clear disadvantage for reconnaissance because of the emergence of aviation, cavalry units were still enlisted in many countries when the hostilities broke out. They were however in clear minority compared to workhorses, mostly used for supplies, completing the lack of trucks for many infantry units.
WW2 French Cavalry: France could count on half a million horses, and retained in a mixed Light Cavalry Division (DLC) several horse brigades of 1,200 sabers each. They acted for reconnaissance as mounted riflemen, but were soon crushed by the offensive in 1940, and the only true cavalry units fighting for France until 1945 were found rather on the North African theater, squadrons of Moroccan and Algerian spahis, which after Tunisia, also fought in Italy and southern France.
WW2 British Cavalry:
By 1928 most traditional horse units started to be converted into their motorized equivalent. However in WW2 a number of horses were kept for supply and support, especially on the Mediterranean theater of operation. There were two mounted cavalry regiments in Palestine in 1940, and gradually the last units were motorized until late 1941. For the Empire however, still the Transjordan Frontier Force and the Arab Legion operated on horseback. By November 1940 all former twenty Indian cavalry regiments has been motorized, but some traditional units persisted nonetheless, like the Sikh sowars of the Burma Frontier Force that led the last British (and perhaps allied) sabre charge of the war. Led by Captain Arthur Sandeman of the 21st King George V’s Own Horse, this unit encountered Japanese infantry at Toungoo in central Burma and took heavy casualties.
WW2 American Cavalry:
By 1939 the United States Cavalry consisted of two mechanized and twelve horse regiments. Horses has been previously largely used on the Mexican frontier, and Panama canal zone. These wartime units comprised two horse regiments (which acted as portee, essentially a mounted light infantry which fought on foot on the spot), eighteen light tanks and a field artillery regiment. The large scale Louisiana Manoeuvers of 1940 however stressed the need of fully motorized units, while the jeep was introduced and the Armoured Corp created. The debate on the conservation of horse units raged on, until the office of Chief of Cavalry was eliminated in March 1942. The only American cavalry action of the war occurred when the Philippine Scouts (26th Cavalry Regiment) hold the attack of two Japanese armored and two infantry regiments in December 1941, and later repelled a unit of tanks in Binalonan and multiplied hit-and-run delaying actions on the way to Bataan.

US Philippines Scouts and an M3 light Tank, fall 1941. This unit was involved in the last US history cavalry charge.
WW2 German Cavalry: Germany used as much as 2.7 million horses during the war, but maintained however in 1939 a single brigade, that was expanded six cavalry divisions and two corps HQ to fight on the Mountaineous Balkans and Eastern front. It should be noted that these were reinforced considerably by a few battalions of pro-German Don Cossacks fighting partisans in Yugoslavia (about 13,000 strong). A single cavalry division also served with Guderian’s Panzer Group. By mid-1944 it was converted as two brigades and a division and served together with Gustav Harteneck’s Cavalry and the Hungarian cavalry in Belorussia.
Russian Cavalry in action
Russian Cavalry in action
The SS operated 23 paramilitary cavalry regiments in 1941 and there was a Waffen SS cavalry corp formed in 1940 to deal with partisans and guerillas in occupied territories. In 1942-43 this was reformed as the 8th SS cavalry division completed by volksdeutsche, but depleted, it was reformed and reinforced by German Hungarian cavalrymen in December 1943 as the 22nd cav. division (with organic AA and artillery units) and later in 1944 the 33rd SS Cavalry Division which operated for some time. The last cavalry operations of mixed German-Hungarian units occurred in the Lake Balaton offensive.
WW2 Hungarian Cavalry:
The Hungarians indeed mustered two traditional horse-mounted cavalry brigades at the beginning of the war and in 1941 participated in a “mad dash” from Galicia to the Donetz Basin. It was reorganized as the 1st Cavalry Division which took part in the defence of Warsaw in 1944 (part of Von Harteneck’s Cavalry Corps) whereas a second division briefly served from August on.
Hungarian Hussars in Poland
Hungarian Hussars in Poland
WW2 Romanian Cavalry:
Romania also deployed 6 cavalry brigades (later division) on the eastern front, the largest contingent among axis allies. Some received a motorized regiment, and the 7th Cavalry Division was fully motorized. They served at Stalingrad (three lost), and Crimea (two partly rescued).
WW2 Italian Cavalry:
Another German’s ally, Italy, had traditional mounted regiments available for the North African campaign, squadrons of savari and spahis from Libya. There were also no less than 16 squadrons of Cavalleria Coloniale in East Africa. Two brigades charged and captured Kassala on July 4, 1940. On the eastern front, Mussolini sent the CSIR, a mobile force of 60,900 men and 4,600 horses to Ukraine. The 3rd cavalry division comprised two traditional units, the saber-wielding Savoia Cavalleria and Lancieri di Novara. Probably one of the most celebrated action occurred on August 24, 1942, when the Savoia Cavalleria charged the Red Army near Izbushensky and managed to repel two Soviet battalions while covering the retreat of the Italian Army.
charge-savoia-cavaleria
The Savoia Cavalleria at Isbuscenskij, August, 24, 1942, one of the last and most famous cavalry charges of WW2.
USSR: Soviet Cavalry and Cavalry Mechanized Groups
The Soviets initially had prevention against cavalry, despite an early and extensive use in 1919-20 (1st Cavalry Army) and the throughout civil war, alongside rare armoured cars. All units were disbanded as mechanization was thought to replace these. The Soviet Army however could count on a total about 21 million horses in 1941, of which 11 millions were lost in 1941-42 and these were never really replenished. 3.5 millions horses were used by the Red Army, mostly for supplies. Despite of this, there were no less than 32 divisions and two brigades of cavalry in 1938. At the outbreak of the war and until late 1940 these were completely reorganized, disbanded or integrated into mechanized and tank corps.

Mongolian Cavalry at Khalkin Gol in 1939
However, these were revived, surprisingly after the setbacks of the Polish invasion and debacle in Finland. In the summer of 1941, four Cavalry Corps commands and thirteen Cavalry Divisions were available. These must have been reinforced by organic motorized units of tanks, trucks and artillery, but in reality were horse and foot only units, poorly commanded.
They were quickly brushed away and as winter came, was left was reorganized into small light cavalry divisions. Most charges were poorly executed and resulted in very high casualties, but had better success when coordinated with organic mechanized infantry units and anti-aircraft artillery. These late winter cavalry Corps were massively engaged in the fall of 1941 and early 1942, but as poor tactics remains, what left of the 41 cavalry divisions was disbanded, short of horses.
In the fall of 1942 Stalin pressed the creation of Cavalry mechanized group (CMG), which integrated tanks and infantry, but the latter was mounted instead of being carried by trucks. On this account, 26 divisions were available in the end of 1943, mostly equipped with light tanks and 5,700 men each. On the tactical level, they were kept 12–15 kilometers behind the front line, waiting for the tanks to create a breakthrough and then catch on as soon as the situation was stabilized. However mechanization, either through lend-lease or local mass production soon rendered obsolete these mixed units and cavalry units were gradually used for auxiliary offensive tasks when all-terrain mobility was required.

Soviet Cavalry, part of a CMG, 1944
These were frequently used to complete the encirclement and mopping up of routing and scattered retreating units. By 1945, seven cavalry corps has been reconstituted, each being allocated to a tank army. In the great offensive of June 1944 CMGs were deployed in areas where all-tanks units were not required or found impassable terrain. In late 1944 many of these units however were found devoid of tanks, only equipped with horse-towed 76 mm guns as antitank means.
Interestingly enough, one of the last cavalry action of the war involved a mixed units of four Mongolian cavalry divisions, one Soviet cavalry division, and five mechanized brigades with heavy tanks under orders of General Issa Pliyev which operated in Mandchuria in August 1945, crossing the Gobi desert and aiming to Peking.

WW2 Polish Cavalry

Rooted in Medieval mounted knights, and immortalized with the XVIth century Winged Hussars of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The latter distinguished themselves either against the Cossacks or the Ottomans from 1577 to 1683 (Battle of Vienna). The fame was revived in the Napoleonic era, and Polish Cavalry was recreated with Poland being re-established as a sovereign Nation in 1918.
At that time the cavalry was a hotch-potch of different uniforms, equipment and tactics, some elements coming from Germany, while others had Austro-Hungarian origins. 14 cavalry regiments were formed in late January 1919, and six cavalry brigades after March. Trained in both cavalry tactics and in trench warfare, they were the most professional troops available when the Polish-Bolshevik War broke out.

Polish Cavalry in 1939, with antitank guns
In addition, every infantry brigade received a recon squadron of light cavalry. They were equipped with sabres, lances, pistols and cavalry shortened rifles. They proved their metal in the Battle of Warsaw and later the Battle of the Niemen, while the most important cavalry battle occurred near the village of Komarowo near Zamość, when the polish Cavalry clashed and routed the feared and massive Russian 1st Cavalry Army, almost surrounded. By numbers involved alone, the Battle of Komarów is considered nowadays as the greatest cavalry battle of the 20th century.

Polish Cavalry during maneuvers of the Army in late 1930’s.
In the interwar, cavalry units participated in various military exercises and new tactical developments in accordance to the arrival of tanks, including fast deployment of mixed mounted detachments using anti-tank rifles like the wz. 35 (Karabin przeciwpancerny wzór 35). Although small in caliber (7.92 mm) the very long barrel ensured a 1,275 m/s (4,180 ft/s) muzzle velocity. There was a 4-cartridge magazine, but instead of hardcore bullets, these were full metal jacket bullet weighing 14.579 g and the kinetic energy was 11,850 J, allowing to pierce through 15 mm of armour at 300 meters. About 3500 were built from 1935, conveyed to all frontline units in secrecy. After the war, many were captured by the Germans which pressed it into service as the Panzerbüchse 35(p), and about 800 were later given to the Italians as the Fucile Controcarro 35(P).

Polish cavalry in Sochaczew in 1939
In 1939 the Polish cavalry counted for 10% of the Army, and it has been reorganized into 11 cavalry brigades, each with 3-4 cavalry regiments with organic artillery, armoured unit and infantry battalion. On the tactical level, these units were considered as a mobile reserve and served as a mounted/mobile infantry that can quickly move to any point of operation and then dismount to operate, with a variety of armaments, including machine guns, rifles and anti-tank rifles, even mortars. Organically these units also received the support of 75 mm guns, tankettes, 37mm AT guns, and 40mm AA guns. The lance was more or less dropped at that point, but the traditional Szabla wz. 1934 sabre was retained. At multiple occasions they proved valuable for filling the gaps in the front and covering friendly units withdrawal.
In all these operations, the Polish Army fought at least fifteen major actions, and countless skirmishes in which the Polish cavalry units fought dismounted, but fifteen confirmed cavalry charges during the war. Most of them were successful. The first one, with sabres and lanced occurred on september 1, 1939, during the Battle of Krojanty (see later). The second one, the same day, involved the 19th Volhynian Uhlan Regiment (by lance) which fall in Mokra on some elements of the German 4th Panzer Division, routing these in panic. The Battle of Janów (same day) saw the first cavalry vs cavalry clash as the 11th Legions Uhlan Regiment encountered a German cavalry reconnaissance squadron. Both units withdrew after a short engagement. Another clash of the same order occurred the following day, this time with the 1st squadron of the 19th Volhynian Uhlan Regiment (Battle of Borowa Góra), routing the German cavalry unit.
On September 11, round Osuchowo the 1st squadron of the 20th Uhlan Regiment of King Jan III Sobieski pierced through German infantry line on the process of surrounding the unit. In the night of the 11-12 of September, a charge from 4th squadron of the 11th Legions Uhlan Regiment helped recapture the village of Kałuszyn. On September 13 at Mińsk Mazowiecki however, the 1st squadron of the 2nd Regiment of Grochow Uhlans failed to pierce through the German lines and was repelled. However the same day at Maliszewo the 1st squadron of the 27th Uhlan Regiment retook the village and made many prisoners in the process. On September 15 in Brochów some elements of the 17th Greater Poland Uhlan Regiment charged and later fought on foot (taking cover under enemy fire) German infantry positions.
On September 19 the Battle of Wólka Węglowa saw the ulk of the 14th Regiment of Jazlowiec Uhlans did a recon, and after reinforcement of the 9th Regiment of Lesser Poland Uhlans charged and open the way for retreating troops (Battle of Bzura) towards Warsaw and Modlin. The operation was repeated in Łomianki. on September 21 at Kamionka Strumiłowa the 3rd squadron of the 1st Mounted Detachment fall on German troops preparing an assault, stopped it, forcing the troops to retreat. At Krasnobród, on September 23 the 1st squadron of the 25th Wielkopolska Uhlan Regiment retook the town after a charge, and despite heavy opposition, defeating also a counter charge by a German cavalry unit (8th Infantry Division), capturing the hilltop, HQ and making about 100 prisoners.
On September 24 at Husynne a reserve squadron of the 14th Regiment of Jazlowiec Uhlans renforced by mixed units including mounted police charged and routed Soviet infantry on the advance, before being stopped by a tank force. The last charge of this campaign occurred on September 26 at Morańce when the 27th Uhlan Regiment twice charged an entrenched German infantry battalion in the village of Morańce. Although repelled with heavy casualties the Germans sent out a soldier with a white flag and after a parley the Germans withdrew.

Map of the event at Krojanty, 1st September 1939

The Krojanty charge

Probably the most famous of these cavalry charges, this event was abundantly covered as a cavalry vs tank clash -which never happened in any way.
It took place on the evening of September 1, 1939, near the Pomeranian village of Krojanty. The clash was part of the larger Battle of Tuchola Forest and its fame came after reporters arrived at the scene, seeing the remains of the charge. Polish infantry was then following the Prussian Eastern Railway to railroad about 7 kilometres from the town of Chojnice. At 5 am, elements of German 76th Infantry Regiment, 20th Motorised Division attacked. Just before, Polish Cavalry intercepted German infantry en route to Dantzig, screening their advance and slowing it. At 8 am, Polish Border Guard clashed with German advance and retreated to the river Brda. Covering the action were the 18th Pomeranian Uhlan Regiment, which was later the center of this event.
An opportunity presented itself as a group of German infantry were found resting in a clearing in the Tuchola Forest (near the railroad crossroads of Chojnice – Runowo Pomorskie line). After report, Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz decided to order Eugeniusz Świeściak commanding the 1st squadron to suprise charge at 19h pm with the two squadrons while the two other motorized vehicles (TK tankettes) were held in reserve, as a backup. The surprise was total, German troops were found totally unprepared and quickly routed, fleeing in terror. The Polish Cavalry then occupied the clearing. But the rest was short, as German armored reconnaissance vehicles (pat of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 20) appeared from the forest road and quickly deployed, opening a withering fire of Mg.34s and 20 mm autocannons out on the open. The Polish cavalry was cut to pieces, dispersed, most galloping for cover behind a nearby hillock. In this second clash, Commander Świeściak was killed, as well as a third of both squadrons. The action was however successful as halting the German advance, allowing the Polish 1st Rifle battalion and National Defence battalion Czersk to orderly retreat. Without the intervention of General Guderian, the 20th Motorised Infantry Division has considered a tactical retreat which was likely to happen, fearing other attacks. He also added in his memoirs “the panic of the first day of war was overcome quickly”.

Aftermath and creation of the myth

The following day, the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans Regiment was decorated by General Grzmot-Skotnicki with his own Virtuti Militari, the highest award for valor. At the same time, German war correspondents arrived at the scene of the battlefield, together with two Italian journalists. In the meantime, tanks had arrived on the scene and were stationary, so the picture showing both tanks and corpses of Polish horses and cavalrymen scattered around with broken lances and sabres. Without many indications, one journalist, Indro Montanelli, sent home a dramatic depiction of brave Polish lancers charging German tanks.
The story could have been denied, but German propaganda machine quickly found a way to exploit it, creating a myth that was used to show (in Die Wehrmacht, published on 13 September) that the Poles had gravely underestimated German weapons. It went as far as pretending Polish propaganda suggested that German armored vehicles were still part training vehicles, and had only flimsy sheet metal inherited from Versailles Treaty limitations. The myth however endured as after the end of the War, Soviet propaganda made it and example of stupidity of pre-war Polish commanders careless of their soldiers. The myth perdured still in the 1990s, as shown by many generalist publications about WW2.

One of the numerous illustrated work trying to depict the imagined Polish lancers charge against tanks
But the Poles were certainly not deprived of antitank weapons: These mixed units of cavalry and mechanized cavalry counted antitank rifles like the standard karabin przeciwpancerny wz.35, seen on the back of many cavalrymen. In addition these units were supplied with heavier antitank weapons: Some TKS tankettes were given the Polish 20 mm autocannon FK-A Wz.38, which proved its deadly efficiency, in particular in the hands of men like Orlik. Light antitank guns were also towed by horses like the 37 mm Bofors wz.36 which was able to penetrate 26 mm of armour at 600 m at 30 degrees. It could disable Panzer IIIs when used on the right spot.

WW2 cavalry tactics

In the battle of Krojanty the charge was put to good use again infantry resting, of a motorized units comprising mostly trucks and field guns, nothing really threatening for a cavalry. That explained why it was so efficient. In case of an encounter, even with armoured reconnaissance vehicles which were certainly less well protected and armed than tanks, cavalry retreated best as it could, avoiding direct combat.
There is a famous photograph supposed to show the aftermath of the Charge at Krojanty. However, this photo shows helmets gathered at a POW camp and the helmet style does not match the one used by the Polish cavalry. (Narodowe Archivum Cyfrowe)
In the battle of Mokra, mounted infantry rode over behind the attacking German armor with tankettes throwing smoke grenades to cover the approach. They did repel the German support infantry, forcing part of the German armored regiment to continue their advance without infantry support. In most cases, cavalry was seen as a way to transport quickly on the most forbidding terrains and in relative quietness compared to tanks, units that can operate with the same armaments and tactics as regular infantry, with machine guns, mortars, grenades, and anti-tank rifles. But tactically these units generally operated on the rearguard of the armoured “fist” of divisions, so behind the tanks, on the following “soft belly” of accompanying support infantry that was to take care of the units crushed and scattered by the initial armoured breakthrough.
Could cavalry would have been successful against tanks ?
Although the case never really presented itself, a specialized cavalry corps with men all equipped with special shaped-charge or phosphorus and sticky grenades, anti-tank rifles, armor-piercing rifled grenades, and perhaps even towed 37 mm guns could have been lethal if deployed quickly on the right spot to take on tanks in the flanks, or ambushing an armoured column.
We certainly can imagine dashing cavalrymen jumping from their horses to the last tanks of a column, climbing over it, opening the hatch to throw a grenade of molotov cocktail, and therefore disabling tanks up in the tank column. But it was without any thoughts of commanders busy scanning the horizon from their cupola, having both intercom and radio contact with each others. The fact was horses were big, conspicuous and not protected targets.
Combined rapid fire and shrapnells would have been absolutely devastating in an orderly, jam-packed frontal cavalry charge in any case, and it seems ludicrous to think any commanders, even the least imaginative and least informed, could even consider taking on such tanks with lances and sabres.
One of the great advantages of cavalry, especially when combined with modern, motorized support, was heir ability to cross impassable terrains for tanks, like rocky, forested areas, favouring close screening of enemy columns and waiting for the right timing to operate skirmishing tactics with great effects;

Polish Uhlan with an wz. 35 anti-tank rifle.

A Russian cavalryman passing by a disabled Panzer III, probably around Stalingrad, winter 1942/43.
To close this chapter, it must be said that experts believed that smaller and less well-documented cavalry charges occurred later on in World War II and as late as the 1970s in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique (Portuguese Cavalry) until 1974. During Operation Enduring Freedom, Operational Detachment Alpha 595 teams were covertly inserted into Afghanistan (October 19, 2001) using horses due to the mountainous terrain. There is also a permanent, active military cavalry unit in India today, the 61st Cavalry. The Western Chinese PLA sector also uses a cavalry and train regularly. However, it is horse cavalry still relevant today?

Links & Resources

The Krojanty charge on wikipedia
Creation of a myth – the Krojanty charge
The Krojanty myth on skeptoid.com
Polish Cavarly in WW2
Soviet Cavalry Mechanized groups in WW2
Cavarly in WW2
Cavalry in WW1
ww2 cav in militaryhistorynow.com
Video – cinematographical reconstitution of the Savoia Cavalleria charge

Categories
articles British tactics German tactics Soviet tactics US tactics

Effectiveness of Tactical Air Strikes in World War II – “Tank busting”

The Hawks with Stump Claws

Literature, movies and video games have contributed to the formation and spreading of historical misconceptions and generated a distorted view on tactical air strikes, not so much to the way they were conducted, but rather their effectiveness in eliminating armored, moving targets. In order to better understand the core issue at hand, combat reports, military studies and their respective evaluations allow an insight into the efficiency of destroying AFVs (Tanks in particular) from the Air.The pilots of every nation partaking in the battles of WW2 (particularly in the ETO, European Theater of Operations) grossly exaggerated the effects and accuracy of their sorties. This paved the way for an inflated view, commonly accepted and still present today. It is noteworthy that certain combat performances varied (faction wide), which made the successes of airstrikes situational, influenced by factors such as sub-optimal weather conditions or air superiority.
The main problem for Close Air Support pilots when engaging enemy armor were the inadequacies of the weaponry mounted on their airplanes, especially their low accuracy. Ergo, strikes would result in the tanks being partially destroyed or superficially damaged (occasionally blown off the road) and, after successful retrieval, sent back to the repair shops. Multiple pilots would sometimes engage the same target (every so often, an already destroyed or burned out vehicle), leading to an even greater disparity between actual losses and claimed tank “kills”. Identifying targets would cause another problem, e.g. the pilot’s ability to distinguish between tanks and APCs.

ETO, Normandy 1944

The Allies possessed air supremacy, coupled with a substantial ammunition, fuel and overall logistical advantage. Airbases were plentiful and accessible, the enemy concentrated in a relatively confined area. The main workhorses of the CAS squadrons were the American Thunderbolt and the British Typhoon.
P-47 Thunderbolt of the 404th Fighter Group in flight over Belgium, March 1945
P-47 Thunderbolt of the 404th Fighter Group in flight over Belgium, March 1945
The P-47 was a robust fighter with a solid high altitude performance dedicated for heavy bomber escort duty. It went through a long list of improvements with later versions being up-armoured and geared up for close air support.
The Hawker Typhoon was initially developed as a high altitude interceptor and as a replacement for the Hawker Hurricane, but several flaws caused the RAF to employ it as a fighter bomber. Armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons (which could only do serious damage to the engine compartment of a tank) it could carry two 500 lbs (227 kg) or 1000 lbs (454 kg) bombs or alternatively, eight unguided type RP-3 rockets.
These recoilless projectiles consisted of a propellant filled steel tube with an armour piercing (or high explosive) shell screwed into the warhead. Four fins stabilized the rocket’s trajectory. The range and armor piercing capabilities were sufficient for anti-armor duties, but a trial conducted by the RAF under best possible conditions revealed the low precision of unguided rockets: In two attack runs, four Typhoons fired all of their 64 rockets on a stationary, pre-painted Panther and only three managed to hit the marked tank.
A Hawker Typhoon armed with rockets and 20 mm cannons
A Hawker Typhoon armed with rockets and 20 mm cannons 

All bark, no bite

In August 1944, the RAF claimed to have destroyed 135 tanks in the Goodwood area (Battle for Caen). In order to analyze the weapons and tactics employed and to evaluate the damage that was done on given targets, a small team of researchers was usually dispatched to the corresponding battleground, a common practice in most armies of that time. The British “Office of Research and Analysis” conclusion was eye-opening and contradicted the RAF pilots’ over enthusiastic display: Of the 300 examined vehicles, only 10 were actually hit and damaged by the Typhoon’s RP-3 rockets.
Mortain is another candidate of such over-claiming, between the 7th and 10th August, the 2nd Tactical Air Force of the 9th USAAF claimed to have destroyed 120-140 tanks, yet of the 46 Axis tanks lost, only 9 of them could be attributed to aircraft. In fact, in the entire Normandy campaign, the Germans lost no more than 100 tanks to Allied sorties. 13 Tiger tanks were affected, however seven of them lost to massive high altitude bombing on the 18th of July and only 6 of the German heavy tanks could be attributed to the low altitude air raids of the Allied pilots.
A salvo of RP-3 rockets, as seen from the gun camera of a Hawker Typhon, heads towards some German petrol wagons
A salvo of RP-3 rockets, as seen from the gun camera of a Hawker Typhon, heads towards some German petrol wagons
Another noteworthy case would be Falaise: The tactical and operational conditions in the pocket constrained the German units to “forced march” during daytime. This, along with optimal weather conditions, amplified the RAF’s and USAAF’s chances of success, which resulted merely in a minimal increase of destroyed tanks. In retrospect, traversing open fields did not necessarily result in a high tank loss ratio.
Ironically, low altitude attacks could become very dangerous for the attacking aircraft, especially if the strafed tank formations were protected by a serious amount of Flak/AA guns. The 2nd Tactical Air Force lost 829 aircraft and the 9th Fleet lost 897 throughout the whole Normandy campaign, the majority of the casualties being close support fighter-bombers.
Field Marshall Rommel contributed to a further solidification of these myths. In one of his memoirs, he stated:
“ For the first and most serious danger which now threatened us -was from the air. This being so, we could no longer rest our defence on the motorised forces used in a mobile role, since these forces were too vulnerable to air attack. We had instead to try to resist the enemy in field positions which had to be constructed for defence against the most modern weapons of war”
His personal experience may have clouded his view. On the 17th July 1944 a low attacking plane strafed his limousine and injured Rommel near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery.

The Luftwaffe

The Luftwaffe’s tactical capabilities were initially rather limited. The infamous Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, easily recognizable by its inverted gull wings, was suitable for this task. The final version, the Ju-87G, dubbed the Kanonenvogel (“Cannon bird”), carried twin 37 mm cannons (BK 3,7).
Junkers_Ju_87_G_tank_buster1945Hs129Cannon75
A Ju-87G and a HS-129, the German dedicated tank busters
The Henschel Hs 129 B1 and B2, twin engine aircraft marked an attempt to create a dedicated tank buster, mounted with a 75mm board cannon. The results were unsatisfactory. Paired with the Henschel’s and Ju87’s particularly high vulnerability to AA fire, the Luftwaffe switched to the”Jabo” (“Jagdbomber”, fighter bomber) version of the FW190 single seat, single engine fighter, the F-8 and FW190 G.
A German FW190 pilot explains how low-altitude attacks against tanks were performed:
“Against the enemy tanks and armoured vehicles we usually made skip-bombing attacks, running at speeds of around 485km/h at between 4 and 10 metres above the ground and releasing the bomb just as the tank disappeared beneath our engine cowling. The 250kg bombs used during these attacks would either skip off the ground and into the tank or else smash straight into the tank.
The bombs were fused with a one-second delay to give us time to get clear before they went off. It was a very accurate form of attack and we used it often against tanks caught in open country.”

The OKH (“Oberkommando des Heeres”, German “Supreme High Command” or “High Command of the Army”) was aware of the notoriously exaggerated claims their combat units would report and applied a correction system (i.e. 30-50% for ground units and usually 50% for the Air Forces). Inflated numbers and errors could result in a misjudgment of enemy forces.
From January 1944 to September 30th 1944, the German Army reported to have destroyed 23,070 AFVs (actual, irrecoverable losses for the RKKA amounted to 23,700 AFVs, 29,009 “evacuated”, during the entirety of 1944, around 18,000 up to September). During the same period, the Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1847 tanks and SPGs. Correcting this figure with the given methodology would lead to 923 destroyed vehicles, a number that may be still over-inflated. Assuming that the Luftwaffe destroyed or damaged 80-100 tanks on a monthly basis (depending on the combat intensity, which peaked in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of ‘44), this would indicate that not more than 4-6% of all tanks on the Eastern Front were destroyed by air strikes.

The VVS at Kursk 1943

The VVS (Военно-воздушные силы, Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily) could rely on the Ilyushin 2 “Sturmovik” for air strikes. A sturdy, single engine, heavily armoured, low wing, two seater (pilot, rear gunner) monoplane, it was dubbed “flying tank” by the troops. Outfitted with two 23mm (or 37mm guns on the Il-2M3) guns, it could carry up to eight RS-82 or four RS 132 rockets. Soviet literature described it as the most effective ground attack plane of World War II. Another option was to outfit the Sturmovik with special designated anti-tank bombs, so called PTABs.
An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, Fall 1942, Ukraine
An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, Fall 1942, Ukraine
The PTAB (Russian ПТАБ, which stands for Противотанковая Авиабомба, “Antitank Aviation Bomb”) was a hollow charge bomb filled with 1.5 kg of explosives, capable of penetrating up to 70 mm of armour.
The effectiveness of these bombs proved to be limited. West of Belgorod, the Soviet Air Force claimed to have destroyed over 270 tanks of the 3rd Panzer Division on one single day. The 6th Regiment of the 3rd Panzer Division possessed 90 tanks in total (on the 1st of July). Ten days later, on the 11th of July, 41 operational tanks were reported, a difference of 49 tanks. Similar statements appear about the bombing run on the 17th Panzer Division, which had only one tank battalion with 67 tanks committed to the fighting in the Belgorod-Kharkov area (the only unit not assigned to a defensive role). Here, the VVS stated to have destroyed 240 tanks in just a few hours. German combat reports show a larger concern about concentrated AT positions (and minefields), which caused the majority of AFV losses during Operation Citadel. Air strikes were usually described as “a mere nuisance”.
Between the 5th and 14th July, the 2nd Air Army dropped 69,000 PTABs alongside 7448 RS-82 rockets during the defensive phase of the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet Air forces claimed to have disabled 3147 tanks and assault guns in the same period (actual losses amounted to 849 tanks for the whole month of July). If we accept the Soviet numbers this would still indicate that PTABs had to be dropped in large clusters to cause any significant damage.
A carpet of PTAB bombs launched from a Sturmovik.

Further Examples of “overclaiming”

At Kursk, the Soviet 1st Tank Army lost 648 tanks with 82 breakdowns. German aircraft destroyed only 11 of their tanks.
In the Ardennes offensive, the Germans lost 101 tanks from the 16th December of 1944 to the 16th January of 1945, (39 were abandoned), of these only 6 to Allied sorties.
Consequently, given reports and combat analysis indicate that air strikes were responsible for 2-7% of all tank losses during WWII. It should be pointed out that the Western Allies were probably the most successful at this task. However, it must be also stressed out that the effectiveness of such attacks depended on the circumstances and quantity of planes involved in the respective size of the front. To illustrate the dimensions, it is wise to compare the amount of aircraft available for ground support in proportion to the area and enemy units it had to cover and engage.
During Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe had at its disposal one airplane for every 2500 enemies. Each German plane had to cover an area of 500km² (195 sqmi). In Normandy, the Allied Expeditionary Air Force could field one plane for every 100 enemy soldiers. On average, there was one Allied aircraft for every 1km² (0,39 sqmi).

Conclusions

It should be emphasized that during WWII, tactical air-ground support was still in its infancy. Hitting small, well armored or shifting targets tended to be a difficult task, especially if the attacking plane had only a brink amount of time to aim at the target. Even today for helicopters or “tank busting” aircraft (A10, Su-24, F-16, AH-64, Hind), it can be relatively difficult, despite the availability of guided weapon systems.
World War II aircraft could only carry a limited amount of air to ground bombs or missiles and on sustained fire, the main guns were prone to overheating. Machine guns had trouble penetrating more than 10 mm of top armor. On the other hand, autocannons proved to be rather unreliable, further increasing the plane’s weight, impacting flight characteristics.
Generally speaking, the true nature of tactical, close support aircraft was primarily recon, attacking stationary targets and the ability to wreak havoc on the rear echelons and supply lines. The disruptive effect would ultimately influence the unit’s behavior (forcing it to abandon offensives or to maneuver through woods), decision making, tactics and morale. After all, it was the destruction of bridges and railroads that had the biggest impact on the German Army in France, adding substantially to the already disastrous logistical situation and pre-existing shortages of fuel.

An article by Stiltzkin

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