The Dreadnought of Raseiniai

The Northwest Front had two mechanized corps available to counterattack Heeresgruppe Nord’s invasion of the Baltic States on June 22, 1941, but only two battalions of KV-1 and KV-2 tanks in the 2nd Tank Division. At 1730 hours on June 22, the 2nd Tank Division was ordered to advance westward toward Raseiniai, as part of a larger counterattack against the German spearhead, Panzergruppe 1. After an approach march of over 100km (62mi) along dusty side roads, the division approached Raseiniai from the east on the evening of June 23. However, the KVs had suffered badly on the road march from clogged air filters and balky transmissions, with most of the KV-2s and about ten of the KV-1s falling out along the way. On the positive side, the German 6. Panzer-Division was caught spread out after capturing Raseiniai, with Kampfgruppe Raus and Kampfgruppe Seckendorff having thrown bridgeheads across the nearby Dubysa River. The 2nd Tank Division concentrated all available armor, including 21 KV-1s and a few KV-2s, against Seckendorff’s bridgehead. 

The Soviet attack began just after dawn on June 24. Kampfgruppe Seckendorff had the Kradschützen-Abteilung 6 and the 2. Kompanie of Panzerjäger-Abteilung 41 in its bridgehead, with 12 3.7cm PaK and four 5cm PaK. The Panzerjäger were stunned by the appearance of the huge enemy tanks approaching, but waited until they were within 200m before opening fire. However, they were even more shocked when the standard armor-piercing rounds bounced off the thick frontal armor of the KVs, with no effect. Despite the fire of all weapons, including artillery, the KV-1 tanks managed to overrun most of the German motorcycle troops and their accompanying PaK unit – the first time during World War II that German infantry had been overrun by enemy tanks. Many of the surviving German troops were so terrified that they simply hid, although one Leutnant immobilized a KV-1 with Teller mines. Even worse, a number of KV-1 and KV-2 tanks got across the Dubysa River with some Soviet infantry and smashed into Schützen-Regiment 114 (mot.) and overran some of the divisional artillery. A KV-1 platoon led by Major Dmitri I. Osadchy pushed toward Raseiniai:

The column [of the 1st Platoon], consisting of four tanks moved in the direction where the recent fighting was. Examining the next grove of trees, we came upon the enemy’s artillery firing positions. Advancing from the flank, we poured fire from the machine guns and the enemy gunners began to panic. When we hit the fourth artillery piece something unexpected happened: my tank was off the ground and hanging on it. The driver, Sergeant Andrei Yasnyuk, worked hard to shake the tank, and move it. Finally, after crushing the cannon, the tank treads touched solid ground again. Once the artillery firing positions were eliminated, we moved into a clearing to return to the starting area.

After hours of the KV-1 tanks running rampage on Kampfgruppe Seckendorff the Germans were able to get a few 15cm howitzers and 8.8cm Flak guns into action, which succeeded in immobilizing some of the Soviet heavy tanks. One KV required 13 hits from an 8.8cm Flak before it was stopped. Major Ivan Ragochy, commander of the 3rd Tank Regiment, was killed by splinters when a heavy shell hit the side of his KV-1’s turret; the round did not penetrate but caused spalling on the interior. By late afternoon the Soviet tanks were running out of fuel and ammunition and those still capable of moving retired back across the Dubysa River. A lone KV-2 that managed to bypass the German artillery pressed on toward Raseiniai and managed to infiltrate behind Kampfgruppe Raus before it, too, ran out of fuel.

North of Raseiniai, Lithuania, 24-25 June, 1941: On the second day of Operation, the German units moving into Lithuania became embroiled in tank vs tank battles of increasing intensity. Panzer Divisions 1 and 6 – sprinting ahead in an attempt to take Leningrad by – ran afoul of the Soviet 12th Mechanized Corps and 2nd Tank Division. The Germans discovered to their dismay that many of the tanks in these Soviet formations were the new T-34 and KV types. These vehicles seemed impervious to the standard 37mm PaK 36 anti-tank guns. Fire from the 75mm guns of the Panzer IV types also appeared ineffective. In the initial encounters, the Soviet tanks thundered forward like steamrollers, in many cases simply driving over the impotent German anti-tank guns, grinding them into the earth. At the end of the second day of fighting, after destroying some 40 panzers and a like number of guns, the Soviet 2nd Tank Division withdrew to a point north of the Dubissa River to replenish its exhausted fuel and ammunition. 6. Panzer-Division attempted to exploit this lull in the fighting by seizing two bridgeheads over the Dubissa, threatening the now-vulnerable 2nd Tank Division’s flank. In an effort to gain time, the 2nd Tank Division’s commander, General Solyalyankin, launched minor frontal attacks against the German units in these bridgeheads to pin them down. Additionally, Solyalyankin dispatched a single KV-2 heavy tank through the German lines in an attempt to interdict the supply lines of the two bridgeheads. This KV-2 reached a road junction just north of Raseiniai where it halted, in effect cutting off both German units. On the morning of 24 June, a resupply convoy that was sent to replenish the northern bridgehead was wiped out by fire from the KV-2. This only served to emphasize the isolation of the Germans on the far side of the river, who were coming under increasing attacks by the 2nd Tank Division. The order of the day for 6. Panzer-Division became the removal of the roadblock presented by the KV-2…

That afternoon, a battery of new 50mm PaK 38 anti-tank guns were brought down from one of the isolated bridgeheads to deal with the KV. The guns were moved to a point some 600 meters from the quiet Russian tank, and opened fire as soon as they were set up. As the German shots bounced off the KV’s armor, the Russian tank traversed its turret and opened fire, knocking out each gun in turn. The same treatment was accorded to an 88mm FlaK 18 anti-aircraft gun brought forward from Raseiniai: as the German crew scrambled to bring the “88” into action, both the gun and its tractor were destroyed before the Germans could fire a shot. Later that night a group of engineers from Panzer Pioniere Bataillon 57 attempted to deal with the KV-2 in their own way, placing a double charge of explosives on the tank. After detonating the charge. the engineers were scattered by machine gun fire from the tank. A lone engineer returned later that night to observe the results: the vehicle had been immobilized by a broken track, but the armor was unscathed. This engineer placed another charge on the gun barrel of the KV, but it too had no visible effect. The next day, as 1. Panzer-Division was brought to the aid of the beleaguered 6. Panzer-Division and a massive tank battle was fought with the Soviet 2nd Tank Division, a group of tanks was dispatched from the southern bridgehead to distract the KV while another “88” could be brought into play. This FlaK gun scored six hits on the KV-2, apparently silencing the menace. As the Germans congregated around the Russian tank, marveling at its strength, they were shocked to find that only two hits from the “88” had penetrated its armor! Suddenly, the Russian tank’s turret began turning towards them, and the Germans scattered. An engineer on the scene, however, was calm enough to put several grenades into the vehicle via the two holes in its armor, finally finishing off the KV for good. This unnamed KV crew, [probably commanded by Leytenant Vladimir A. Smirnov], while paying the supreme sacrifice, had made an immeasurable contribution to the defense of Leningrad, since their roadblock had diverted 1. Panzer-Division from its swift advance to come to the aid of 6. Panzer-Division.