Why World War II in Ukraine Was Essentially a Giant Killing Field

July 9, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIEastern FrontNaziSovietTanksMilitaryTechnology

Why World War II in Ukraine Was Essentially a Giant Killing Field

The Eastern front was a terrible place to be.

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.

The T-34 Medium and KV-1 Heavy Tanks Surprise the Germans

While the fighting raged around Dubno, two more Soviet mechanized corps, the 8th and 15th, joined the fray. These two strong corps attacked from Brody, advanced 35 kilometers and cut German lines of communication around the small town of Berestechko, 45 kilometers west of Dubno. For a short time a real possibility existed of encircling the Germans around Dubno.

The 8th and 15th Mechanized Corps were the strongest encountered by the Germans thus far. Even after losses to air attacks and mechanical failures, these two corps still contained approximately 1,500 tanks between them. More significantly, these Soviet formations included approximately 250 new T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks. Unfortunately for the Soviets, the T-34s and KV-1s were not concentrated into large formations. Rather, they were dispersed in small units throughout the two corps.

The appearance of T-34s and KV-1s took the Germans by complete surprise. The German tankers quickly found that their new adversaries were in many ways more than a match for the panzers.

The majority of German field artillery pieces proved only marginally effective in countering these tanks. However, the 88mm antiaircraft cannon, acting in a direct-fire anti-tank role, proved very effective.

German Tactics Pay Off

The German panzer commanders had to quickly improvise new tactics in dealing with superior Soviet tanks. Utilizing their superior tactical proficiency and the higher training levels of their drivers, the German panzers would maneuver out of the way of T-34s and KV-1s, all the while whittling away at lighter BT-5/7s and T-26s. The German field artillery, taking advantage of its greater mobility, would act in a close-support role and soak up the attack of the Soviet tanks. The Germans PzKpfw IIIs and IVs, after dealing with the lighter Soviet tanks, would circle back and attack the T-34s and KV-1s from their more vulnerable sides and rear.

The higher German rate of fire was a significant contributing factor which allowed the Germans to successfully counteract superior Soviet tanks. For every round managed by the Soviet tankers, the Germans could usually respond with two to four rounds in return. The sheer volume of fire would often result in hits on vulnerable areas like gun barrels, turret rings and tracks. Immobilized due to combat damage, mechanical failure or difficult terrain, the Soviet tanks would then succumb to a barrage of fire. German combat engineers displayed significant courage in approaching the immobile but still firing Soviet tanks and destroying them with satchel charges.

Often, the inexperienced Soviet drivers moved along the most easily negotiated routes, even if that meant exposing their tanks to greater enemy fire. For example, many of them would guide their vehicles along the tops of ridges or hills, presenting large silhouettes to German gunners.

The behavior of Soviet crews in combat was extremely uneven as well. On some occasions, they would abandon the fight or bail out of their vehicles at the slightest setback. On other occasions, the Soviet soldiers would fight with fatalistic determination even when the tactical situation did not dictate it and when nothing would be gained by their sacrifice.

The lack of radio communications among the Soviet tank forces was a major factor of their relatively poor performance and higher casualties. Below the battalion level, very few Soviet tanks had radios. Motorcycle drivers were used to carry messages over distances longer than the line of sight, while Soviet tank company and platoon commanders had to resort to hand and flag signals. This resulted in a tendency for Soviet tanks to bunch up close to their leaders so as to see and follow their signals. After losing their leaders, the Soviet crews, who were not trained or encouraged to display tactical initiative, were much easier prey for the skilled German tankers

The Ineffective T-35s

Mixed in among the Soviet armor, 41 monstrous T-35 heavy tanks rumbled toward the Germans. Mounting five turrets, manned by a crew of 10, too heavy and too slow, these obsolete tanks suffered multiple mechanical breakdowns or became otherwise immobilized before ever coming to grips with the enemy.

In early July, an after-action report forwarded to the headquarters of the Southwestern Front by the staff of the 8th Mechanized Corps stated that all 45 of its T-35 tanks were lost. Four machines had been abandoned when the advancing Germans overran the 8th Corps bases, 32 suffered mechanical breakdowns, and two were destroyed by the German air attacks during the approach to battle. Only seven T-35s actually entered the fight, and all of these were destroyed by the enemy. Since the Soviet forces were virtually without any means to retrieve and evacuate the disabled combat vehicles, all the T-35s were lost.

The Battle for Berestechko: A Fire-Breathing Nightmare

The battle around Berestechko turned into a grinding, fire-breathing nightmare that chewed up men and machines on both sides. German aircraft pounded the Soviet positions without let up. In one attack they succeeded in wounding Major General Karpezo, commander of the 15th Mechanized Corps, at his command post.

In his war diary, the Chief of German Army General Staff, General Franz Halder, noted: “ … the heavy fighting continues on the right flank of Panzer Group 1. The Russian 8th Tank Corps achieved deep penetration of our positions … this caused major disorder in our rear echelons in the area between Brody and Dubno. Dubno is threatened from the south-west … ”

Even though they were causing severe problems for the Germans, the two Soviet armored formations were exhausting themselves. The attrition of men, machines and equipment was reaching alarming proportions. Despite Lieutenant General Kirponos’ pleas to pull his forces back for rest and reinforcement, Stavka, the Soviet High Command, ordered him to continue the offensive.

On the morning of June 28, the Germans launched a counter-offensive of their own against the depleted Soviet formations. German reconnaissance was able to find the exposed left flank of the 8th Mechanized Corps, and a four-division attack began to roll up the Soviet units. By afternoon, each of the three divisions of the 8th Mechanized Corps found itself surrounded. They received orders to fight their way out and two were able to do so. The third however, the 34th Tank Division, was completely destroyed, losing all of its tanks and other vehicles. Its commander, Colonel I.V. Vasilyev, was killed as well. Only about 1,000 men led by the commissar of the 8th Mechanized Corps, N.K. Popel, fought their way out. During the day’s fighting the corps lost over 10,000 men and 96 tanks, as well as over half its artillery.

The 15th Mechanized Corps was taking severe casualties as well, and during the night of June 29, both corps were finally permitted to retreat south of Brody. The Soviet formations began to fight desperate rearguard actions, trying to disengage from the enemy. On the evening of the 30th, German aircraft conducted a major attack on Soviet mechanized columns retreating in the direction of Zolochev and turned the highway around the city into a huge funeral pyre of vehicles.

Rokossovksi Attempts to Stem the Retreat

At the same time, that the 8th and 15th Corps were entering the fight, the 9th Mechanized Corps was finally able to concentrate for its own attack on Dubno. Coming up on line, its commander, Major General K. K. Rokossovksi, a future marshal of the Soviet Union, observed large numbers of Red Army soldiers aimlessly wondering around the woods. He quickly detailed several of his staff officers to round up the stragglers, arm them as best as they could, and put them back into ranks.

To his dismay, Rokossovski found several high-ranking officers trying to hide among the stragglers. In his memoirs, Rokossovski wrote that he was severely tempted to shoot one “panic-monger,” a colonel with whom he had a heated conversation. Tough-as-nails Rokossovksi, a survivor of Stalin’s prewar purges of the military officer corps, allowed the colonel to redeem himself and lead a makeshift unit into combat. In the morning of June 27, it was Rokossovski’s turn to launch his corps, numbering only 200 light tanks, into action against Dubno. The 9th Mechanized Corps met heavy resistance right away, and the Germans began to probe around its unprotected flanks and infiltrate the gaps between its units, threatening to surround the corps.

Like the commander of the 19th Mechanized Corps the previous day, Rokossovski was forced to order a retreat by nightfall without achieving his objective. His attack, however, delayed the German advance and relieved pressure on the 19th Mechanized Corps, which was retreating in the direction of Rovno.