|Eastern Front Campaign - Caught in the Crossfire|
|by Michael J. Canavan, Sr|
Command Sergeant Major
US Army (retired)
Operation Barbarossa (Unternehmen Barbarossa) was the German codename for the planned invasion of the Soviet Union. This operation was named after the emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. The eastern front created by Operation Barbarossa would become the biggest theater of war in World War II. This front saw some of the largest and most brutal battles of the war resulting in a horrific loss of life.
Operation Barbarossa was largely Hitler’s idea and was in the planning stages well before 1941. Convinced that Britain would crumble if the Soviet Union fell and bolstered by the swift victories oh his armies in Western Europe, Hitler decided the time was ripe to gain Lebensraum for Germany. Unfortunately for the Germans, the plan was never fully completed. The various commands in the German hierarchy were not united on a clear strategy. Logistical planning by the German High Command was mostly wishful thinking, although Hitler was convinced that the Soviets would capitulate before winter set in.
The Soviet forces greatly outnumbered the German invasion force with nearly 5 million men and approximately 24,000 tanks at the start of operation Barbarossa. The Soviets had significant problems that made their forces vulnerable to a German offensive. Tactical doctrine for the Red Army was undergoing radical change. In 1938, General Pavlov had instigated a standard linear defense that mirrored the defense used by other nations. Heavily fortified zones were formed by infantry divisions reinforced with organic tank components.
The surprising defeat of the French in six weeks forced the Russians to conclude that France’s reliance on a linear defense, and lack of armored reserves, were at fault. The Soviets, not wanting to repeat the mistakes made in France, decided to concentrate their infantry divisions in large mobile formations. All tanks would be incorporated into huge mechanized corps. Each corps was to be larger than a German Panzer Army. The mechanized corps would cut off and wipe out the armored spearhead and then, along with the infantry army, drive the enemy’s infantry back into Germany. This reorganization had only just begun when Operation Barbarossa began. Stalin’s purges of military leaders, poor equipment and training throughout the Soviet army, and a lack of motorized logistical support put the Soviet forces at a severe disadvantage when facing the Germans.
Perhaps of greater impact was the fact that Stalin just did not believe that the Germans would break the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed just two years earlier. He was convinced that the Germans would finish England before opening a second front. Stalin did not trust many of the intelligence reports he received to the contrary. Thus, the Russians were taken by surprise at the worst possible time.
In the early morning of 22 June, 1941, the Germans launch their ill-fated invasion.
The Soviets had 166 divisions and 9 brigades on their western front when Barabrossa begins. This was a total of about 2.9 million men. Facing Army Group North was the Soviet Northwest Military District under Kuzvetzov. It consisted of 24 divisions under the 8th Army commanded by Sobennikov and the 11th Army commanded by Marosov. Russia was in the process of building the so-called Molotov Line, which was modeled after the French Maginot Line. Incomplete and unprepared, the line of bunkers and trenches offered little impediment to the rapidly moving German forces.
Hitler prepared for the attack by moving 3.2 million men to the Soviet border and stockpiling vast quantities of materiel in the East. Many aerial surveillance missions were sent over Soviet territory while the German diplomats assured Stalin that the troop movements and stockpiling were in preparation for the coming final battle with Britain.
The German ground force was divided into three Army Groups. Army Group North was commanded by von Leeb and consisted of Hopner’s 4th Panzer Group with 1st, 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions. Army Group Center was led by von Bock and had Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group with 3rd, 4th, 10th 17th and 18th Panzer Divisions and Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Group with 7th, 12th, 19th and 20th Panzer Division. Army Group South under von Runstedt was made up of von Kliest’s 1st Panzer Group with the 9th, 11th, 13th, 14th, and 16th Panzer Division.
Army Group North was tasked with surrounding, but not occupying or assaulting, Leningrad, the former winter capital and the cradle of the revolution. German tactics called for the large encirclement of Soviet forces. Unfortunately for von Leeb, the terrain (swamp, marsh and woodland) greatly restricted mobility and caused him to deploy his two corps (41st and 56th) on separate, dispersed axis. There were no great encirclements in the north. Hitler hoped that the Soviets would divert forces away from the defense of Moscow to defend Leningrad.
It was 18 August 1941 and an offensive by the 8th German Panzer Division was expected by the Soviet commanders. The Soviets were desperately trying to blunt the German assault. A lone KV-1 (number 864) commanded by Lt.Kolobanov was given orders to defend the road from Kinigsep near the town of Krasnogvardeysk, in the Leningrad area. The tank commander had selected a position on a wooded hillside overlooking a cross road surrounded by swamp and had dug in and camouflaged itself. Four more KVs were nearby defending other roads. All the tanks have been issued double ammunition loads, two thirds of which are armor piercing rounds.
The next day, German motorcycle recon troops, a halftrack and one light track passed the tank’s position. Five minutes later, a column of 43 tanks appeared and filled the road. The KV-1 fired and the first round caused the lead German tank to explode into flames. Two shots later, the second tank in the column was in flames as well. Kolobanov then opened fire on the rear of the column and managed to destroy the last tank in the column. The Germans were now boxed in by the burning wreckage and the marshy ground surrounding the road.
Unable to spot the Soviet tank, the remaining German armor opened fire, shooting blindly into the woods. Some of the German tanks tried to withdraw but many of them got bogged down in the surrounding swamp. While the German column was in chaos, the Soviet KV-1 destroyed 22 enemy tanks in 30 minutes. Eventually the KV-1 was spotted but the German guns failed to penetrate thick KV's armor. The impacting rounds made life inside the tank extremely difficult Soviet crew. After a German rounds struck the turret ring, Kolobanov’s tank was forced to leave its entrenchment and maneuver the entire tank in order to aim.
The Soviets noted two German towed guns which had been deployed during the battle on the crossroad. Kolbanov’s first shot disabled one gun, but the other gun managed to fire one shot and damage the KV's periscope before it too was destroyed. Ammo almost gone, Kolobanov was ordered to withdraw as three more KV-1s were sent to relieve tank 864. The three KVs manage to finish off the remainder of the German column. A total of 42 German tanks and two guns were destroyed. Kolobonav’s tank sustains 135 hits but not one round managed to penetrate the Soviet tank. Lt. Kolobonaov was awarded the Order of Lenin and Usov.