4 July 1943 5th Guards Tank Corps, Voronezh Front

The 5th Guards Tank Corps traces its origins back to the 40th Tank Division, formed from separate tank battalions in the Kiev Special Military District on March 11, 1941, as a part of the 19th Mechanized Corps. When the war started on June 22, 1941, the corps was deployed in the area of Zhitomir, west of Kiev but far from the front. The whole corps contained 450 tanks, but included only six KV tanks and two T-34s. The 40th Tank Division, commanded by Colonel Mikhail V. Shirogokov, was up to full strength in enlisted men, but only 53% of its officers and NCOs. Of the tanks assigned to the division, 139 of them were obsolete T-37 amphibians, with a two-man crew, extremely thin armor, and a single light machine gun. In addition there were nineteen obsolescent T-26 tanks with light armor, a three man crew, and a 45mm gun, and a half a dozen T-28 medium tanks which were found in repair depots in the division’s area by intrepid junior officers. These tanks were slow and lacked good armor, but had a low velocity 76mm gun in the main turret and two small turrets in front with machine guns.

Within two days of the war beginning most of the T-37s had been assigned in small groups to support rifle divisions. They were not to be heard from again. The rest of the division marched towards the border in two echelons, the first with all of the tanks remaining and the motorized elements, while all of the others who lacked transport were to march behind the mechanized elements. The motorized rifle regiment lacked 83% of its heavy weapons and had no 76.2mm infantry guns at all, while the artillery regiment was missing 66% of its guns. By June 24 the division, under constant air attack, was concentrated at Dedovichi. The next day the tank element of the division, namely all nineteen T-26s and the T-28s were assigned to support the 228th Rifle Division against German attacks at Dubno. In 24 hours of intensive combat it lost eleven T-26s with an additional three damaged, and two of the T-28s. Thus after three days of war, the division, which on paper was to have over 415 tanks, was down to 9!

The division continued to fight, but by July 22 it had been reduced to 700 men! In late August the survivors were evacuated to the Caucasus to form new brigades, the 45th and 47th Tank Brigades. Since the 47th was later withdrawn from the corps, we will follow the path of the 45th Tank Brigade.

The brigade, under Colonel Alexander Kukushkin, began forming up in September, 1941. Under the pressure of the German forces driving for Rostov, the brigade was moved to Stalingrad to finish its organization. This was not completed until April 1942, at which time the brigade contained two tank battalions (250th and 251st), which contained a total of twenty-five to thirty T-34s, seven KV-1s, and fifteen to twenty T-60 tanks as well as the 45th Motorized Rifle Battalion. In April the brigade was entrained and moved to Voronezh where it became part of the 4th Tank Corps under Lt. General Vasili Mishulin. The corps also contained the 47th Tank Brigade (thirty-one T-34s, twenty T-60s), the 102nd Tank Brigade (thirty-one Lend Lease Mk II “Matilda” tanks and twenty T-60s), the 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade, a Guards Rocket battalion and a reconnaissance battalion. Unit training began in April, by June the corps was ordered to concentrate at Stary Oskol. Under air attack as it moved up, the corps got badly spread out on the roads.

By June 30 the corps was ordered to attack the advancing Germans at Gorshechnoe along with 24th and 17th Tank Corps. Unfortunately the 24th Tank Corps never showed up, and two tank brigades of the 17th had been pushed back before the 4th arrived. The 45th Tank Brigade led the attack, followed by the 102nd. Like all the Soviet tank corps thrown into the fighting around Voronezh, the 4th took heavy losses, and by July 3rd the remnants of the 4th and 24th Tank Corps were struggling to cover the retreat of the 13th and the scattered 40th Soviet armies. As the German attack headed southeast toward the Don bend, the front around Voronezh stabilized and the 4th Tank Corps was withdrawn in August and shipped southeast to the 1st Guards Army where it was promptly thrown into a series of costly and futile attacks on the northern flank of 6th German Army which was straining towards Stalingrad. At this time, 45th Tank Brigade’s Colonel Kukushkin was replaced by Lt. Colonel Pyotr Zhidkov. Attacking over the open steppe under German dive bombings and against dug in 88mm guns, the corps took heavy losses through September.

On September 28th General Mishulin was relieved and replaced by Major General Andrei Kravchenko. Kravchenko, a veteran of tank fighting since the beginning of the war was to lead the 4th Tank Corps to some of the most important victories of the Second World War. A tall, good-humored man, Kravchenko was of the school of generals that preferred to lead from the front, sometimes by personal example.

The remnants of the corps was withdrawn in October to Southwest Front reserve to be refitted, reorganized, and retrained. The 47th Tank Brigade was removed from the corps and disbanded to form the basis for a tank regiment. The 69th Tank Brigade was attached to the corps to replace them. A period of intensive training followed, to prepare the corps for the Stalingrad offensive being planned. By November 19 everything was ready, the corps was more or less up to strength, reinforced with an antiaircraft regiment and an antiaircraft machinegun battalion, and paired off with 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps to be the mobile group of the 21st Army of Southwest Front.

The rifle divisions of the 21st Army smashed the Rumanian 13th and 15th Infantry Divisions facing them and the 4th Tank Corps was committed into the breach by 3:00 PM the first day of the offensive. By 8:00, advancing through a snow storm against little resistance, the corps had covered 25 kilometers. On the twentieth Yeremenko’s Stalingrad Front punched out from its front south of the city and the Southwest Front forces continued to drive southeast to meet them. Kravchenko’s men ran into a tough fight on the twentieth against German and Rumanian rearguards, but pushed on. Advancing steadily to the southeast, brushing aside rear guards and shooting up fleeing transport, the 4th Tank Corps approached Kalach on the Don and Sovietskii with the 45th Tank Brigade in the lead.

On the morning of November 23 the advance guard of Major General Volskii’s 4th Mechanized Corps, the 36th Mechanized Brigade under Colonel Rodionov, reported that Kalach seemed to still be in German hands, but at 3:30 in the afternoon a column of tanks was observed approaching from the northwest. Rodionov sent out an armored car flying a red flag to check out the tanks. To the relief and joy of the armored car crew, the column sent up one green rocket, the expected recognition signal. Shortly after that Colonel Zhidkov and Colonel Rodionov were embracing and exchanging the traditional three kisses of a Russian greeting. They were the kiss of death for the 6th Army in Stalingrad.

Subsequently the whole of 4th Tank Corps was turned east, to support 21st Army’s drive against the 6th Army. The fighting was slow but steady, grinding down the pocket and pushing it steadily eastward, away from any relief effort. During this time the corps was able to repair some of its tanks damaged in the offensive, so that by January 8, 1943, when the corps was entrained for its new deployment area behind Voronezh Front, the 45th Tank Brigade had 32 T-34s, 21 T-60s, 137 trucks and three armored cars, and the other brigades of the corps were in similar shape, the corps having a strength of 7,221 men and 176 tanks (79 of them light). For its accomplishments in the surrounding of the Stalingrad pocket, the corps received the honorary title “Stalingradskikh”.

On January 12th Lt. General Golikov’s Voronezh Front kicked off its OstrogorzhskRossoh operation that was to consign the Hungarian 2nd Army to the same scrap heap that held the 3rd and 4th Rumanian and 8th Italian Armies. The 4th Tank Corps, initially behind schedule in its deployment so much that the offensive was postponed waiting for them, worked with General Major General Moskalenko’s 40th Army covering the northern flank of the front. In the process they inflicted heavy casualties on the German 2nd Army, the Hungarian’s neighbor to the north. The Hungarians and remnants of the Italian 8th Army were surrounded by January 18th and the second phase of the operation commenced on the 24th with an attack through fog and a blizzard in which the temperature dropped to -20°. By night the weather cleared enough for Soviet biplanes to drop drums of fuel to the forward elements of the corps that had burned large amounts of diesel plowing through the snow. The next day Kastornoye fell, trapping two out of three corps of the German 2nd Army.

It was at this point that the tank corps was ordered to attack Gorshechnoe, the same rail station that it had failed at the previous summer. This time there would be no failure. The station was defended by at least a battery of the lethal German 75mm Pak 40 antitank guns. As they opened fire, General Kravchenko, who was personally leading the advanced brigade of the corps, took a brief look out of the commander’s hatch, then “buttoned up” again and ordered his driver to drive straight for the guns at high speed. Following their commander’s example, the rest of the brigade followed. In practically no time the battery was overrun, guns crushed, and crews machine gunned.

The reduction of the encircled forces took until the first week in February, when the corps was pulled back into Voronezh Front reserve. At this time the corps received recognition for its recent triumphs and was redesignated the 5th Guards Tank Corps. The 45th Tank Brigade became the 20th Guards Tank Brigade, the 69th became the 21st Guards Tank Brigade, the 102nd became the 22nd Guards Tank Brigade, and the 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade became the 6th Guards.

Sporting its new guards badges and new uniforms (the Red Army at this time reintroduced the shoulder board, the pogon of the Czarist army, for all ranks), the corps continued to support General Moskalenko’s 40th Army. It was down to only about 50 tanks still running in the whole corps by this time.

The Soviet High Command decided that at this point there was little left for the Germans to do but retire behind the Dnepr River, and ordered an all-out assault all along the southern half of the front. Widely diverging objectives were assigned, ignoring the fact that the forces ordered to achieve them were badly weakened in men, machines and munitions. Now seemed to be the time to press ahead. A converging attack was ordered against Kharkov, the fourth city of the USSR, with the 5th Guards Tank Corps fighting its way past the elite Grossdeutschland Division to cut in against Kharkov from the north and northwest, while the 69th Army came at it from the east and the 3rd Tank Army struck it from the southeast.

Kharkov was evacuated (against orders) by its SS defenders on February the 16th. After a few days spent in unscrambling the massive tangle of three armies that had stormed the city, the tank corps continued its role, supporting 40th Army in its drive on Akhtyrka and Poltava. Kravchenko’s tankers, pushing through weak German resistance, celebrated Red Army Day, February 23rd, liberating Akhtyrka. But the celebrations were short lived, as the Southwest Front, Voronezh Front’s left hand neighbor, was assaulted that day by massive German reinforcements and was smashed and reeling back from the Dnepr to the Northern Donets by the end of the month. Voronezh Front’s attempt to cover its southern flank by sending 3rd Tank Army to the rescue barely slowed the panzer’s drive north, and the Germans smashed into Kharkov again and took it by March 14. As the SS Panzerkorps stormed into Kharkov, the refitted Grossdeutschland Division thrust into the gap between the 69th Army and 40th Army, aiming for Belgorod. Kravchenko’s tankers were hard pressed to defend the flank of Moskalenko’s army as it rapidly back pedaled from Bogodukhov. By late March Soviet reinforcements and deteriorating weather (mud) brought the German offensive to a halt. The attack had pushed the Soviets back over the Northern Donets and inflicted serious losses on them, but left a large bulge protruding into German lines around Kursk.

At this point the armored forces of both sides were mostly drawn back into reserve, to be rebuilt, receive new equipment and fresh replacements, and, in the Soviet case, reorganized into pretty much the structure with which they would fight the rest of the war. In the case of 5th Guards Tank Corps, this meant adding a third battalion of tanks to each tank brigade, as well as the corps itself adding an antitank regiment of twenty 76.2mm AT guns in April, a mortar regiment of thirty-six 120mm mortars, an antiaircraft regiment of sixteen 37mm AA guns in May, and a heavy tank regiment, the 48th Guards equipped with twenty-one Churchill IV tanks (British Lend Lease) in June. In June of 1943 German intelligence estimated the strength of the corps as over nine thousand men, one hundred thirty-one T-34s, twenty-one Churchills, sixty-three T-70s (an improved light tank with a 45mm gun), fourty-three armored cars, an equal number of American halftracks, almost eight hundred trucks of all kinds, and among other things, five U-2 biplanes. One interesting note; the corps had not only a motorcycle battalion, but also a reconnaissance battalion and a motorized submachine gun battalion. The 20th Guards Tank Brigade itself had eleven hundred men, four 76.2mm guns, one armored car, thirty-two T-34s (less than the other two brigades), twenty-one T-70s, three cars, eighty-five trucks of various kinds, and five motorcycles. On June 7, 1943, Major General Kravchenko was promoted to Lt. General.

The corps remained in Voronezh Front reserve until the beginning of the great battle of Kursk. On July 5th, the first day of the offensive, Voronezh Front commander, General Vatutin, ordered the 5th Guards Tank Corps to advance and at 24:00 hours to reach Tetervino and in conjunction with 2nd Guards Tank Corps and 1st Tank Army to counterattack the German panzers. Instead the corps was forced to assume the defensive behind 6th Guards Army on the line Yaklovo-Oboyan. At 11:30 on July 6th the Germans fired off a 90 minute artillery preparation after which they launched an attack with 300 tanks towards Yaklovo. Later in the afternoon they shifted their attack towards Luchki. The 5th Guards Tank Corps claimed 95 enemy tanks knocked out, as well as several “Ferdinand” assault guns. It is worth noting that there were no Ferdinands in this part of the battle, but, in common with their American and British allies, the Soviets tended to report every enemy tank a “Tiger”, every enemy gun an 88mm, every assault gun a Ferdinand. While it is easy to smile in retrospect, when they are facing you any tank looks very big.

During the night the corps withdrew to the northeast of Yaklovo, and during July 7th was forced to withdraw to Pokrovka-Tetervino. At 10:00 on the 8th the corps went over to the attack against Kalinin, but after gaining some ground was hit by strong enemy counterattacks supported by Stukas, and was forced back to its start lines. The 2nd Guards Tank Corps was attacking towards Nechaevka at the same time, but suffered a similar result. In heavy fighting, alternating between offensive and defensive, the 5th Guards Tank Corps contributed to the defeat of the left flank of the German assault on the southern face of the Kursk bulge. In previous summers German offensives had rolled until November or December, smashing up Soviet armies, corralling hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and threatening the world’s first socialist state with defeat. Now, despite the presence of hundreds of massive Tigers, deadly Panthers and awe inspiring Ferdinand assault guns, the major German offensive lasted… no more than eight days. Within two weeks the Soviets would be counterattacking, starting a series of offensives that would continue, with pauses only to bring up supplies and replenish losses, until they came to a halt in the smoldering wreckage of Berlin.

The 5th Guards Tank Corps was reinforced with patched up tanks salvaged from the battlefield, producing a tank strength of 150-180 tanks in the corps and was finally assigned a battalion of 85mm antiaircraft guns designated for antitank work against the formidable Tigers and Panthers. On August 3rd, they jumped off as the mobile group of 6th Guards Army. They were supposed to enter a breach in the German lines to be made by 71st Guards Rifle Division, but the division failed to break the German lines. Instead the corps was shifted and assigned to provide tank support for the infantry of 23rd Guards Rifle Corps attacking the Germans at Tomarovka. Here it was hung up for two days, failing to penetrate the defenses of the German 255th and 332nd Infantry Divisions supported by the 19th Panzer Division and a detachment of Tiger tanks. All this while, however, to the east of Tomarovka the 1st and 5th Guards Tank Armies had a clean breakthrough, and were advancing rapidly to the south. On August the 6th the corps side stepped the defenses at Tomarovka and headed for Grayvoron, skirmishing all the way with elements of the 11th and 19th Panzer Divisions. By the seventh the corps was west of Bogodukhov, deep in the German rear when it ran into elements of the Grossdeutschland Division probing east from Akhtyrka. The corps side stepped these units as well and pushed to the southwest, on August 8th reaching nearly to Krasnokutsk, about 65 miles west of Kharkov.

In the great drive to cut off Kharkov from the west, 5th Guards Tank Army was furthest to the east, with 1st Tank Army to its west. Covering the western flank of 1st Tank Army was the 5th Guards Tank Corps which after the first few days of the offensive had experienced less heavy fighting than the rest of the tank army. On August 11th, the Germans, now heavily reinforced, began a two pronged drive to cut off the mass of Soviet armor west of Kharkov. Their first days attack took advantage of the Soviet tactic of leading their attack with advance guards, typically a brigade per corps. Striking north and west with large panzer formations, they trapped or beat up most of the advance guards they faced, inflicting substantial losses on both tank armies. German attacks, mostly from the area west of Kharkov, continued through the 17th of August. For reasons that are not clear, while the 3rd Mechanized Corps and 6th and 31st Tank Corps of 1st Tank Army fought terrifically bloody battles with SS Das Reich and Totenkopf Panzer Divisions and the rest of III Panzerkorps, 5th Guards Tank Corps seem to have led a peaceful existence at the tip of the Soviet penetration towards the southwest. When 5th Guards Tank Army was forced to move west to support the 1st Tank around Bogodukhov and 6th Guards Army was very roughly handled by the German counterattacks, Kravchenko’s men seemed to continue to enjoy a break.

On August the 18th the Germans struck from the west, primarily relying on the Grossdeutschland Division with its seventy-some odd tanks, including Panthers, and two groups of Tigers. Their strike quickly penetrated the Soviet lines and threatened to cut off most of 27th Army and also part of 6th Guards Army, now including 5th Guards Tank Corps. The German III Panzerkorps attacked from the south to link up with Grossdeutschland, running into defenses along the Merla River held by the 72nd Guards Rifle Corps supported by 20th Guards Tank Brigade, and later by all of 5th Guards Tank Corps repelled all attacks by SS Totenkopf. On August 20th the SS men finally broke through the 52nd Guards Rifle Division, as well as the 5th Guards Tank Corps elements supporting it, linking up with the 10th Motorized Division on Gross Deutschland’s right flank and cutting off the 166th Rifle Division and the 4th Guards Tank Corps. Most of the elements of the 5th Guards Tank Corps were pushed to the north and were not pocketed. The Germans were too weak and preoccupied to reduce the pocket, which was relieved on the 25th of August.

All of this desperate fighting reduced the participants to where Soviet tank armies could boast of only a hundred or so tanks still running in three or four tank or mechanized corps, and German panzer divisions as few as eighteen or a dozen tanks per division. The winner would be the side with fresh forces to throw into the scale of battle. This being 1943, that side was of course the Red Armies, who replied to the German offensive around Akhtyrka with one of its own further north, employing the newly arrived 4th Guards and 47th Armies. The attrition battle, which had been costly to both sides, was now over, and renewed Soviet attacks by General Konev’s Steppe Front took Kharkov on the 23rd of August while Vatutin’s Voronezh Front took Akhtyrka on the 25th. The Germans bowed to the inevitable and began a withdrawal to the Dnepr River, which took most of a month.