Barbarossa 1941 – USSR Invaded 75th Anniversary Series [Part Two]

June 27, 2016 by crew

Welcome back, Beasts of War, to our 75th Anniversary review of “Operation Barbarossa,” Germany’s massive initial invasion of the Soviet Union. Opening on June 22th, 1941, this assault ignited what is known today as the “Eastern Front,” four years of the most brutal warfare in history … and by far the most important part of World War II.

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In Part One, we saw the Axis hurl four million men across the Soviet frontier, backed by thousands of tanks, aircraft, and artillery pieces. We gamed one of the first tank clashes on the Eastern Front, together with the first desperate Soviet counterattacks. Now we shift south to the Ukraine, and one of the largest tank battles there’s ever been.

The Battle of Dubno

June 24th – 27th, 1941

While German spearheads were making runaway gains in the north toward Leningrad and in the centre towards Minsk, things in the south were proving a little more sticky. Despite tremendous gains and devastating damage inflicted on the blindsided Soviet forces, German spearheads into the Ukraine were moving far slower than planned.

There were two basic reasons for this. First, Soviet planners had assumed that any possible invasion would target the Ukraine for its rich agricultural and industrial resources, so more forces were deployed here. Second, the general commanding in the Ukraine was Mikhail Petrovich Kirponos, a cut above other Soviet generals at the time.

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When the Army Group South attacked the Ukraine on June 22th, 1941, Kirponos reacted quickly. No less than six Soviet mechanized corps (over 2,500 tanks) were massed into a combined counterattack against the front, left, and right flanks of First Panzer Group, the huge armoured spearhead commanded by Colonel-General Ewald von Kleist.

The Germans ran into the first part of Kirponos’ attack (22nd Mechanized Corps) on June 24th, starting a series of engagements that are sometimes called the Battle of Brody, Battle of Rovno, or Battle of Dubno. Whatever the name, it would last four days and involve more tanks than any other part of Barbarossa.

In fact, this would stand as history’s largest single tank battle until the Battle of Kursk in 1943. Kleist’s whole panzer group (thirteen divisions, including five panzer and two motorized divisions) would be struck by elements of all six of Kirponos’ mechanized corps, totalling twelve tank divisions and backup infantry and artillery.

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Again, these Soviet units were hardly full-strength, but suffice it to say that this was one hell of an explosion that had many on the German general staff genuinely worried.

As massive and well-conceived as Kirponos’ attack plan was, it was crippled by two major problems. First, the Germans absolutely owned the sky. Every move Kirponos’ tanks made was spotted and reported, quickly bringing down the screaming Junkers Ju-87 “Stuka” dive-bombers.

Also, Kirponos was working against the Red Army itself. Not enough radios, fuel, ammunition, or spare parts … an inexperienced officer corps, bad roads, poor coordination, all the connective tissue that holds an army together, all of this was completely lacking and effectively doomed Kirponos’ counterattacks before they could really begin.

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The result was a spasmodic, uncoordinated series of attacks. Never were Kleist’s panzers hit all at once. Instead they were able to pivot and apply their full strength against each Soviet attack in turn, like the hero in a bad martial arts movie surrounded by enemies who all make the fatal mistake of attacking him one at a time.

Still, the Germans were horrified at the sheer scale of the Soviet attack. Kirponos hit Kleist’s one panzer group with more tanks than were possessed by the entire German Army. Not only were the German tanks badly outnumbered, they were also woefully outclassed by two famous tank designs, the KV-1 heavy tank, and the incomparable T-34.

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The KV-1 (named for Klimenti Voroshilov, Soviet general and crony of Stalin’s) was a heavy tank, armed with a 76.2mm main gun that outclassed the 37mm and 50mm guns on German tanks. The KV also carried thick armour that made it impervious at anything the Germans had short of a direct hit from one of their 88mm “FlaK” guns.

While the KV was formidable, the T-34 was nothing short of revolutionary. Many consider it the “grandfather of the main battle tank,” a design with firepower, protection and mobility all in equal superlative measure. One key design feature was the slope to its armour, making it more likely that an enemy shot would glance off its face when struck.

However, these early T-34s were not perfect. Only the company commanders had radios, meaning they had to command their platoons with signal flags. Ammo was badly stored. There was no gunner, the commander had to operate the main gun himself, making it hard to command the tank properly, much less a platoon or company.

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Kirponos’ basic plan was for the 22nd Mechanized Corps to hit Kleist’s panzer group from the front, halting them long enough for the 9th and 19th Mechanized Corps to hit them from the north. Meanwhile, three more mechanized corps (8th, 15th, and 4th) would hit them from the south.

These northern and southern attacks were meant to slice behind Kleist’s spearhead and meet at Dubno, thereby cutting off the panzer divisions the way the Germans were doing to the whole Red Army along the entire front. But these kinds of attacks require practised coordination. The Germans had it. The Soviets didn’t.

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Although the Germans would experience some panicked moments, their fast, agile, and well-coordinated panzer divisions (9th, 11th, 13th, 14th, and 16th Panzer Divisions, forming the basis of III, XIV, and XLVIII Motorized Corps) were able to pivot time and again, smacking down each disjointed Soviet attack and quickly turning to face another.

Although facing the KV and T-34 for the first time was definitely a shock, many of these machines were abandoned when they broke down, threw a track, or simply ran out of fuel. German gun crews also soon developed tactics against them, like immobilizing them with track shots or drawing them into traps of flanking fire.

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In the end, the Soviet pincers were unable to close at Dubno. Although German losses were heavy, Soviet losses were catastrophic, particularly among their tank divisions. The 10th Tank Division (15th Mechanized Corps) went from 205 tanks to about twenty in two days. The 22nd, 8th, and 4th Mechanized Corps were all but annihilated.

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The surviving Soviet forces had no choice but to pull back, giving up their defence of L’vov, falling back through Zhitomir and finally towards Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. Still, the Battle of Dubno slowed the advance of Army Group South by at least a week, something that no one else on the Soviet line was able to say.

A War of Rivers

Guderian at the Dniepr

As the Battle of Dubno raged and subsided in the south, in the centre, panzer generals Guderian and Hoth pushed their armoured spearheads ever deeper into the Soviet hinterland. After taking Minsk and sealing some 330,000 Soviet troops in Bialystok Pocket, they raced eastward toward the mighty Dniepr River.

This is a massive river, taking a winding course from north to south across thousands of kilometres of Russian and Ukrainian steppe. Indeed, the Eastern Front would be in many ways a “War of Rivers” – the Dniepr, the Don, the Donets, the Dvina, and the fateful Volga, where the Germans would one day come to grief at Stalingrad.

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But for now, Guderian wanted to get bridges across the Dniepr, and fast. If he waited too long the Soviets could use the reprieve to organize strong defences along the opposite river bank. Guderian therefore ordered an immediate infantry attack in assault boats, which we will recreate in a game of PanzerBlitz.

The gamble was dire. Guderian had bypassed many pockets of resistance and his rear was far from secure. General Hoth’s Panzer Group III was lagging behind in the north, leaving Guderian’s left wing exposed. But they didn’t call Guderian “Fast Heinz” for nothing. On July 11th, he hurled the 29th Motorized over the Dniepr at a town called Kopys.

The Germans had only outboard assault boats, many of them wooden. Needless to say, they’d be horrifically vulnerable making the crossing on open water. Only by seizing the moment and attacking while the Soviets were still reeling from recent defeats did the Germans stand a viable chance.

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The Germans also enhanced their odds with massed artillery and air strikes, wreaking terrible damage to any Soviet unit on the far river bank. On the operational level, such interdiction also prevented the Soviets from bringing up any reinforcements or mounting reserves for an immediate counterattack.

Once across, the infantry then had to expand the bridgehead to a sufficient depth to allow German engineers to build first pontoon, then permanent bridges. Only then could the heavy artillery, panzers, fuel trucks, and supply convoys rumble over the river, reform, and continue the advance still deeper into Russia and the Ukraine.

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Once Guderian had one or two bridges across the Dniepr, the Soviet defence fell apart quite quickly. Panzers and motorized grenadiers fanned out, attacking other Soviet positions from the east side of the river. More and more crossing points opened, and soon Panzer Group II was again pouring toward the east.

As with most military obstacles, it’s like knocking down a wall with a crowbar and hammer. The difficult (and bloody) part is getting that first crack. Once you get a crowbar in that crack, you can start to pry it wider. Pry it wider, and you can get more leverage and hit that crowbar with a bigger hammer. Soon enough, the wall is rubble.

By the end of July, the Germans had pushed 500 miles deep into the Soviet Union in place. The Red Army had basically been annihilated, but a new Red Army was already taking its place. Come back next week as we take a look at German advances in the north, and Hitler makes one of the greatest operational blunders in history.

By James Johnson

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"...all of this was completely lacking and effectively doomed Kirponos’ counterattacks before they could really begin"

"Guderian therefore ordered an immediate infantry attack in assault boats, which we will recreate in a game of PanzerBlitz..."