Key point: The Eastern Front was a slaughterhouse in which millions died. As the war went on, the fighting would become even more brutal.
In 1941, the northwestern corner of the Ukraine was not what one would call tank country. With the exception of a few narrow, poorly maintained highways, movement was largely restricted to unpaved roads running through terrain dominated by forests, hills, small marshy rivers and swamps. Yet, during the first week of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, a tank battle involving up to 3,000 armored vehicles took place there. This struggle in a roughly triangular area bounded by the cities of Lutsk, Rovno and Brody, became the forerunner of the brutal armored clashes on the Eastern Front.
On June 22, 1941, Panzer Group 1, the armored spearhead of German Army Group South, breached the Soviet lines near the border town of Vladimir-Volynski at the juncture of the Soviet Fifth and Sixth Armies. As a result of this skillful tactical move, a gap 40 kilometers wide allowed the jubilant Wehrmacht troops to pour into Soviet territory. The Soviet Fifth Army, commanded by Major General M. I. Potapov, bore the brunt of the enemy thrust desperately attempting to slow the German tide.
The German operational plans called for a rapid advance to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, capturing it and reaching the Dnepr River just beyond the city. After achieving this objective, the German troops were to swing south along the river, trapping the bulk of forces of the Soviet Southwestern and Southern Fronts (Army Groups). The capture of Lutsk, an important road nexus, would allow the mobile German units an opportunity to break out into open terrain and advance along two axes to Kiev: the Lutsk-Rovno-Zhitomir-Kiev thrust and the Lutsk-Dubno-Berdichev-Kiev thrust.
Kirponos’ Unrealistic Orders
At the end of the first day of war, Lieutenant General M. P. Kirponos, commander of the Southwestern Front, received instructions from the Soviet National Defense Committee to immediately counterattack in the direction of Vladimir-Volynski, destroy the German forces operating from that area, and occupy the city of Lyublin by the end of June 24. The fact that the city of Lyublin was located over 80 kilometers inside German-occupied Poland caused General Kirponos to wonder if the Soviet High Command really understood the unfolding situation on the border.
Even though he realized that his mission was unrealistic, Kirponos was obliged to carry out his order. The problem facing him was two-fold. Not only was the Soviet defensive situation unstable, but the five mechanized corps earmarked for the counteroffensive were spread throughout the northwestern Ukraine. It would take some units up to three days to arrive in the area of operations. Therefore, all five mechanized corps would be committed into combat piecemeal, with marginal or non-existent cooperation among them.
The tight schedule did not allow Kirponos sufficient time to concentrate his forces and adequately prepare for the counterattack. To further complicate the situation, many units of Soviet mechanized corps were mechanized in name only. Many regiments of the motorized infantry divisions lacked wheeled transport, and many artillery regiments were woefully short of prime movers. There were widespread shortages of communications equipment and artillery, especially armor-piercing ammunition.
As the Soviet mechanized formations began moving toward the border, the German Luftwaffe launched relentless and merciless air attacks on the armored columns strung out along the narrow roads. Often, the Soviet drivers, desperately trying to maneuver for cover, became bogged down in the difficult terrain and had to abandon or blow up their vehicles. The attrition of poorly maintained armored vehicles due to mechanical breakdowns began to reach alarming proportions. Due to losses from air attacks and mechanical failures, some Soviet tank formations eventually went into action with less than 50 percent of their operational strength.
Still, the forces converging on the Panzer Group I were formidable, almost double the number of panzers available to Lieutenant General Paul L. Ewald von Kleist. The actual pre-war strength of the five Soviet mechanized corps consisted of roughly 3,140 tanks. Even allowing for a large percentage of non-combat losses during the approach to battle, these numbers still dwarfed the approximately 618 tanks that were available to the German commander.
In the early afternoon of June 24, one of the tank divisions of the 22nd Mechanized Corps came into contact with the advancing Germans west of Lutsk. This division, the 19th, was severely brutalized by the German air attacks during its approach and was plagued by mechanical breakdowns. Its remaining 45 light T-26 tanks and 12 armored cars were combined into one provisional regiment and committed into action after a short preparatory artillery barrage. A seesaw fight with the units from German 14th Panzer Division raged for two hours during which the Soviet unit lost most of its remaining armored vehicles and was forced to fall back to nearly 15 kilometers west of Lusk.
The fight was costly for both sides. The commander of the 22nd Mechanized Corps, Major General S. M. Kondrusev, was killed, and the commander of the 19th Tank Division was wounded. All the regimental commanders in the division were also killed or wounded. However, as the result of their sacrifice, the 14th Panzer Division suffered heavy losses as well and was not able to take Lutsk.
During the night of June 24-25, elements from the other two divisions of the 22nd Mechanized Corps began to take up their positions alongside the remains of the 19th Tank Division. Fuel shortages were severe, and the Soviet officers partially overcame this problem with a field expedient solution of siphoning fuel from disabled vehicles and distributing it to still operational machines.
Panzers Versus KV-2s
The Soviet units were hardly in shape to fight when the Germans seized the initiative in a dawn attack. In a savage battle that lasted into late afternoon, the Soviet forces disputed every inch of ground. The Germans, steadily grinding down the outgunned light T-26 and BT tanks, came up against a dozen of the monstrous Red Army KV-2 heavy tanks. German shells simply bounced off the thick armor of the KV-2’s ungainly high and boxy turrets. On those few occasions when the KV-2s did manage to bring their 152mm howitzers into play, they were able to temporarily check the German advance.
The best defense the Germans had against these monsters was to wait them out, allowing the Soviet tanks to run out of ammunition and fuel. On one occasion, the crew of a KV-2 tank, its turret ring jammed, out of ammunition and almost out of fuel, drove their vehicle off a steep bank into a river, the driver bailing out at the last moment. More suitable as self-propelled artillery, the small numbers of KV-2s that actually entered the fight did not pose more than a minor local inconvenience to the German panzers.
Germans Grab Lutsk and Dubno, Then Head South
Finally, in fading daylight, and silhouetted by the fires of the burning suburbs around them, the 13th Panzer Division broke into Lutsk after a successful flank attack, forcing the Soviet units to evacuate the city. The desperate fight of the 22nd Mechanized Corps bought valuable time, slowing down two German corps for a day and a half. It also allowed time for the Soviet 9th Mechanized Corps to arrive and deploy in the Rovno area, 65 kilometers east of Lutsk.
At the same time that the Germans continued to exploit the gap breached between the Fifth and Sixth armies, they also advanced south from Lutsk toward the towns of Brody and Dubno, taking Dubno by nightfall. The situation of the Fifth Army was indeed grave. Many of its units found themselves surrounded and fighting for their lives, scattered all the way from the border to Lutsk. The remains of the 22nd Mechanized Corps were streaming in disorder along the highway to Rovno, spreading panic as they went. Only the direct involvement of some of the staff officers from the headquarters of the Fifth Army restored partial order.
Throughout June 26, the Germans attempted to batter their way into Rovno along the Lutsk-Rovno and Dubno-Rovno highways. Unable to do so due to the stubborn resistance of the Fifth Army, they switched their aim south to Rovno, along the secondary roads to the town of Ostrog. The fall of Ostrog would have allowed the Germans to surround the Soviet forces defending Rovno or, at least, force them to pull back.
The Soviet 19th Mechanized Corps, under Major General N. V. Feklenko, moved to intercept this new threat and crashed in behind the 11th and 13th Panzer Divisions, which formed the German spearhead. The furious Soviet attack scattered several German supporting units and advanced up to 30 kilometers into German-held territory. In the early afternoon, the Soviet 43rd Tank Division, the vanguard of the attack, fought its way to the eastern outskirts of Dubno. German anti-tank artillery inflicted heavy casualties on the light T-26 tanks, which made up the bulk of the 19th Mechanized Corps.
With impressive tactical handling, the German commanders reacted to this new threat and counterattacked the two dangerously overextended Soviet tank divisions. Caught between the anvil of two German infantry divisions and the hammer of two panzer divisions, Major General Feklenko ordered his corps to pull back to its starting positions in the vicinity of Rovno. By nightfall the fighting had died down, and Dubno remained firmly in German hands.