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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 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

Sources

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Militärarchiv Freiburg Fremde Heere Ost, IIc, 10.10.1944, BA-MA RH 2/2101
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Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis (Soviet (Russian) Study of War), Zetterling, Frankson
Bergström, Christer (2007). Barbarossa – The Air Battle: July–December 1941
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Sovetskie Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily v Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voine 1941–1945
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