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.