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On the role of the 8th Mechanized Corps in the June 1941 counteroffensive mounted by the South-Western Front

Among the many battles that took place during the opening period of the Great Patriotic War, one border-zone engagement in particular, the counteroffensive mounted by forces of the South-Western Front in June of 1941, has received special attention from military professionals and the general reader both within our country and abroad. Many of those who took part in that battle have left detailed accounts of the fighting. I myself have also participated in the counteroffensive, having commanded the 8th Mechanized Corps, comprised of the 7th Motorized and the 12th and 34th Tank Divisions, since its inception in 1940 and through its dissolution in July of 1941. As such, I would like to use this article to add my experiences to existing accounts of the battle as well as to expand on and clarify the role played by my Corps.

In the summer of 1941, the 8th Mechanized Corps, as part of the 26th Army, was based in what was then called the Drogobychskaja sector in the Ukraine. When the war began, the various units making up the Corps were still being formed and rearmed. Technically, the Corps had its full complement of officers and enlisted men and 932 tanks compared with its authorized strength of 1,031 machines. However, only 169 of the Corps’ tanks were modern medium and heavy models such as the T-34. The remaining 763 machines were obsolete models averaging barely 500 kilometers between maintenance checks, and 197 of them were in need of a full factory overhaul. The Corps was also lacking in artillery and anti-tank weapons. Of the 141 guns on hand, 53 were small-caliber 37m and 45mm guns. Anti-aircraft resources were comprised of 4 37mm AA guns and 24 anti-aircraft machine guns. In terms of gun transport, the Corps only possessed a pool of slow moving and worn out tractors.

On June 20, 1941, by order of the staff of the Kiev Special Defense Region, all serviceable tanks in the Corps were fueled and took on combat ammunition, and at dawn on June 22 the Corps was placed on alert. By the end of the day, the Corps advanced to a position 10 kilometers south of Sambor. Only one motorized regiment of the 7th Motor Division did not get its orders in time and was bombed by the enemy, losing a total of 190 men including 120 wounded.

At 2040 hours on June 22, commander of the South-Western Front Colonel General M.P. Kirponos ordered the Corps to advance into the Kurovice-Vinniki sector and place itself under the command of the 6th Army. By 1200 hours the next day some of the tanks have reached their objective. However as the main part of the Corps was approaching its designated positions, commander of the 6th Army Lieutenant General N.I. Muzychenko issued a new set of orders: the Corps was now to take position in the woods southwest of Javorov, and on June 24th to launch an attack together with units of the 6th Rifle Corps with the aim of throwing the enemy back across the border.

Due to this sudden change in the Corps’ mission objectives I was forced to immediately set out towards the advancing columns of the 12th Tank and 7th Motorized Divisions. Turning them around in a new direction required considerable effort. The 34th Tank Division was attended to by the Corps Political Officer, Brigade Commissar N.K. Popel’, and by Battalion Commissar M.A. Oksen. From that time onward, the Corps moved along wooded paths and country back roads under constant threat from enemy aircraft.

At 2200 hours the Corps received yet another set of orders, this time from the Front commander: by the end of June 24, the 8th Mechanized Corps is to deploy near Brody, with the aim of attacking an enemy tank grouping advancing to the north of Dubno on the morning of June 24. I immediately ordered commanders of the 12th and 34th Tank Divisions’ advance guard Colonels P.I. Volkov and N.D. Bolhovitin to turn their units in the direction of L’vov, refuel at the depots in that city, then drive off to Brody, take defensive positions around the town’s suburbs, establish communications with local Red Army units and reconnoiter the enemy positions.

By 2400 hours the main part of the Corps began moving towards its newly assigned positions. The march was conducted under constant air attacks. The roads were clogged with Red Army units and civilian refugees streaming towards the rear, and the resulting traffic jams had slowed the Corps down considerably. Given the rapidly changing battlefield conditions, it was virtually impossible to control the traffic or to establish roadside maintenance facilities.

Around the second half of June 25, the Corps’ units deployed to the northwest of Brody. During the nearly 500 kilometer march, the Corps lost up to half of its older tanks and a substantial portion of its artillery and anti-tank guns to both enemy air attack and mechanical breakdowns. All of the tanks still in service also required varying degrees of maintenance work and were not capable of operating over long distances. Thus, even before the start of the counteroffensive the Corps found itself in a drastically weakened state.

By this time, the enemy’s 1st Tank Group (Panzer Group 1, cmd. von Kleist – Transl.) broke through to Lutsk and Dubno, and threatened to develop an offensive towards Kiev. The battle on the junction of the 5th and 6th Armies was reaching a critical stage. The Front commander decided to seal the German breakthrough with a broad counterattack mounted by six mechanized corps. However, the Front’s intentions and the scale of the counteroffensive were not communicated down to the 8th Mechanized Corps. The Corps’ battle orders spoke only to its own mission objectives. The counterattack was to be mounted through the sector presently held by the 15th Army, which was retreating behind the rivers of Ikva and Styr’ after heavy fighting near the border. The town of Brody was completely unoccupied by either our own or the enemy’s forces. At the time, we had no information about our neighbors to the right or to the left, and no word of any units with which to coordinate our attack. By 2400 hours on June 25 our reconnaissance groups, sent out while the Corps was still on the march, reported that the enemy took defensive positions along the path of the proposed counteroffensive, covering his main axis of advance. Specifically, the enemy positions faced eastwards on the Iskva River and southeastwards on the Syten’ka River, and was engaged along those fronts by the 212th Motorized Division of the 15th Mechanized Corps. Shortly after this report I made contact with the 212th Division’s commander, Major General S.V. Baranov. He told be that the 15th Mechanized Corps was fighting enemy paratroopers that dropped in the Radzehov sector at the war’s start, and, having destroyed these forces, engaged with a powerful enemy tank group. This tank group forced the 15th Mechanized Corps back on the defensive along a 10-kilometer front. Having ascertained the situation, I began to prepare for an offensive although I did not possess any precise details of the enemy’s strength and composition.

The enemy did not have any prepared positions, and thus we decided not to conduct any preparatory bombardments. I issued the order to attack at dawn of June 26, with the aim of breaking through the enemy defenses and reaching the line of Pljashevka River-Berestechko-Mikolaev by the end of the day. The Corps’ battle order was single-echelon, with artillery support for the attacking forces provided by the Corps’ own guns. The area of attack was a vast plain heavily criss-crossed with forests and gulleys as well as small rivers roughly 5-10 kilometers away from each other. A typical example of these was the Slonovka River, which was up to 30 meters wide and 1.5-2 meters deep, with a 2-kilometer wetland around the shoreline.

The offensive began in the morning but did not develop as was desired. The 12th Tank Division was not able to break through enemy defenses due to exceedingly heavy fire. Particularly notable was the sudden appearance of enemy aviation over the battlefield, with groups of 50-60 aircraft attacking the advancing troops and tanks almost with impunity. In retrospect, our offensive preparations did not devote sufficient attention to the issues of troop concealment, anti-aircraft defenses and terrain reconnaissance. As a result, enemy aircraft had easily located the Corps headquarters, bombed it and took out the Corps’ main radio station as well as a number of staff officers and radio operators, while weak knowledge of local terrain resulted in numerous tanks bogging down in the wetlands around Slonovka River.

Nevertheless, the motor riflemen of the 12th Tank Division commanded by the Major General (Tank Forces) T.A. Mishanin, supported by Corps artillery, managed to advance across the wetlands, force the Slonovka River and capture a bridgehead as well as a ruined bridge on the opposite bank. By 1100 hours the bridge was repaired, and our heavy tanks crossed over to continue the offensive. By 1600 hours, after a period of heavy fighting we managed to capture the village of Leshnev, which had been turned by the enemy into a powerful anti-tank strongpoint. A tank company commanded by First Lieutenant I.S. Zherdev, having circled around Leshnev, cut the road out of the village and destroyed a retreating German motorcycle battalion along with its artillery and supplies. Units of the enemy’s 48th Mechanized Corps (XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, cmd. Balck – Transl.) fell back with heavy losses to defensive positions on the right bank of the Pljashevka River under pressure from the 12th and 34th Tank Divisions. By the end of June 26, the 34th Tank Division, having inflicted considerable losses on the enemy, reached the Hotin-Ostrov line. The division’s commander Colonel I.V. Vasil’ev reported to me that his units destroyed 3 motorcycle battalions, 10 tanks and 12 guns, and captured over 200 officers and enlisted men from the 48th Mechanized Corps of General Kleist’s tank group. I did not question his report, as I saw plentiful evidence of German losses on my way to divisional headquarters.

At 1300 hours the 7th Motorized Division attacked the enemy in its Slonovka River defensive to the east of Leshnev, but was not successful. Thus, during June 26 the Corps advanced 8-10 kilometers towards the village of Berestechko and by evening was forced back on the defensive by strong enemy counter-attacks. The Corps was ordered to continue attacking on June 27 towards the flank and rear of the enemy’s advancing tank group (Panzer Group 1 – Transl.). Interrogation of a captured German officer revealed that Kleist’s group consisted of four tank and four motorized divisions, with some of the tank units already on the outskirts of Rovno. Kleist’s group was followed by four infantry divisions from the German 6th Army. As I sent my report to the Front staff about the Corps’ June 26 successes, I had expected that the Front commander will issue orders to exploit the penetration, defeat the enemy and throw him back to the border. However at 0400 hours on June 27 General V.P. Panjuhov arrived at our Corps headquarters bearing the Front commander’s order for the Corps to retreat behind the Kremenec-Podkamen’ sector held by the 36th Rifle Corps and to place ourselves into the Front’s reserve. Panjuhov did not inform us of the cause for this change in our orders, nor did he share the situation of our neighboring units. We had to hurry, as once the battle commenced it would be very difficult to extricate our forces.

The 7th Motorized and 12th Tank Divisions both managed to successfully disengage during the night. However the 34th Tank Division, having resumed its offensive at dawn, only managed to retreat after several hours of heavy rearguard actions.

At 0640 hours on June 27, the Front’s Political Officer, Brigade Commissar Mihajlov arrived at our Corps headquarters with a new order by the Front commander, General Kirponos. Now the 8th Mechanized Corps was directed to push the enemy out of Dubno, and then establish a circular defensive position around the Dubno-Smordva-Pelcha sector while preparing for a new offensive.

The terrain around Dubno was very familiar to me. Here I fought with the White Polish forces in 1920 as a brigade commander in the 14th Cavalry Division of the 1st Cavalry Army. In addition, over the past ten months that I’ve commanded the Corps I had once again studied this terrain in great detail. The region was fairly unsuitable for tank operations. After sketching out several potential battle plans I came to the conclusion that the Corps could only begin carrying out its new orders after about 24 hours of refit and redeployment. I’ve decided that the offensive would jump off from the Rudnja Station-Kozin sector, with units reaching their staging areas around 0200 hours on June 28, and commencing the attack at 0400 hours. The Corps would attack in a 2-echelon battle order; the 12th and 34th Tank Divisions would make up the first echelon, while the 7th Motorized Division would follow in the rear. The main thrust of the attack would be made by the 12th Tank Division along the Brody-Dubno highway, while the 7th Motorized Division would exploit any successes.

Preparation for the attack commenced in accordance with the plan and schedule outlined above. We had to regroup the Corps’ formations, replenish the individual units, and send out reconnaissance teams just to be able to finalize the attack plans. However, the rapid flow of battle around the Corps did not afford us the benefit of orderly preparations. During the day on June 26, our headquarters was paid a visit by a member of the Front’s Military Council, Corps Commissar N.N. Vashugin, who, acting on the Front commander’s behalf, demanded that we begin carrying out our orders immediately.

As we complied, we had to practically improvise the vanguard of our attack from the 24th Tank Regiment (cmd. Lieutenant Colonel Volkov) of the 12th Tank Division strengthened by 15 T-34 and 6 BT-7 tanks detached from the 23rd Tank and 27th Motorized Regiments. This force promptly set out for Dubno, followed by a hastily formed strike group commanded by Brigade Commissar Popol’. This strike group included 217 tanks and up to 9,000 men, drawn mostly from the 34th Tank Division.

Meanwhile, my staff and I remained at our position in the woods three kilometers southwest of Sitnoe, awaiting the arrival of the 7th Motorized and 12th Tank Divisions. We were soon visited by the Front’s Chief of Tank Forces Major General R.N. Morgunov. He told us that he was tasked with coordinating the actions of our Corps and the 15th Mechanized Corps attacking on our left, with the goal of destroying enemy concentrations in and around Dubno. He also mentioned that Dubno would also come under attack from the northwest by the 9th Mechanized Corps of Major General K.K. Rokossovsky deployed near Klevan’ and by the 19th Mechanized Corps of Major General N.V. Feklenko presently near Rovno. This information came as a surprise, however General Morgunov quickly left for the 15th Mechanized Corps without leaving any instructions.

By the end of June 27, Brigade Commissar Popel’ reported that the Corps advance guard and the 34th Tank Division surprised and destroyed an armored regiment and support units of the enemy’s 11th Panzer Division caught in march order. In doing so, they captured the Pelcha sector and opened up the way to Dubno itself. At the same time, the 7th Motorized Division’s advance guard attacked through Sitnoe. The enemy had tried to hold it up near the Pljashevka River, however the combined actions of tankers, motor riflemen and artillerists forced the enemy back and the advance guard proceeded to Dubno. Unfortunately, the main forces of the 7th Motorized Division could not reach the Pljashevka River before dark, by which point the enemy’s 17th Panzer Division had established a defense on the opposite bank that prevented the Division from forcing the river on the march. Meanwhile, units of the 12th Tank Division continued to gather in the rear of the 36th Rifle Corps.

The actions of the 8th Mechanized Corps have immediately gained the attention of the German High Command. At first, the Chief of the Army’s General Staff (OKH – Transl.) Colonel General Halder regarded the counterattack with calm. In the first days of the offensive he had written that “Russian units attacking the southern flank of Army Group South (i.e. the 8th Mechanized Corps) seem to have been gathered in haste…It seems that the enemy retreated only partially, contesting every defense line, rather than attempt to mount a large-scale operational or strategic retreat…In the Army Group South sector, the Russian 8th Tank Corps is attacking from Brody towards Dubno into the rear of our 11th and 16th Panzer Divisions. One can hope that by this action it is moving only towards its own destruction.”

During the day, bolstered by ample air support the enemy mounted three large counterattacks against the 7th Motorized Division. Our tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns destroyed over 60 Hitlerite tanks and destroyed up to a regiment’s worth of infantry. Only when darkness fell did the battlefield fall silent, save for the cannonade in the northeast. We had thought that this cannonade signaled the approach of the two mechanized corps commanded by Feklenko and Rokossovsky. Our left flank, where the 15th Mechanized Corps commanded by Major General I.I. Karpezo was supposed to have been operating, was completely calm.

On the morning of June 28 the battle continued. By 1100 hours, the 12th Tank Division entered the 7th Motorized Division’s sector. Together they mounted an attempt to break through the German defenses along the Pljashevka River and link up with the group led by Popel’, however their efforts proved unsuccessful. Moreover, the enemy went on the offensive himself. Intelligence indicated that the Corps was now facing the 16th Motorized and the 75th and 111th Infantry Divisions along with the 16th Panzer. This meant that the enemy outnumbered us in both tanks and infantry by a factor of 3 to 1. Given this, we were once again forced on the defensive. After regrouping his forces and carrying out a powerful preliminary bombardment, the enemy attacked our positions with infantry supported by up to 100 tanks while his aircraft bombed our rear areas. The attack was repulsed, with enemy losses amounting to up to 50 tanks and four infantry battalions.

After a brief respite, the enemy suddenly attacked us from the left. This sector was supposed to have been defended by the 212th Motorized Division of the 15th Mechanized Corps. However, apparently by June 28 there were no Red Army forces in that sector, and so approximately 40 enemy tanks were able to drive unmolested right into the 12th Tank Division’s headquarters. General T.A. Mishanin sent 3 KV and 4 T-34 tanks to deal with this threat, while I added a further 3 KVs. The 10 tank crews fought with considerable skill, and were able to destroy all 40 enemy tanks at no loss to themselves, thanks to their tanks’ thick frontal armor that was impervious to German tank guns.

The Corps was unable to link up with Popel’ and his group, which left us with two weakened divisions that were being enveloped on both flanks. After considering the situation, I’ve decided that we nevertheless had to maintain active operations against the enemy.

The relentless actions of the 8th Mechanized Corps have now drawn the attention of the German High Command. General Halder noted in his diary: “In the Army Group South sector, heavy fighting continues on the right flank of Panzer Group 1. The Russian 8th Tank Corps has effected a deep penetration of our front and is now in the rear of the 11th Panzer Division. This penetration has seriously disrupted our rear areas between Brody and Dubno. The enemy is threatening Dubno from the southwest…the enemy also has several separate tank groups acting in the rear of Panzer Group 1, which are managing to cover considerable distances.”

By the end of June 29 and the morning of June 30: “The serious situation in the Dubno sector has disrupted the movement of 16th Panzer and 16th Motorized Divisions, and has held up the 44th, 111th and 229th Infantry divisions for several days…” In the morning of June 30, after repelling another attack by enemy tanks, I held a command meeting at the headquarters of the 7th Motorized Division. Commander of the 7th Motorized Colonel A.V. Gerasimov reported that the enemy was encircling him on the left. A similar situation was developing on the Corps’ right flank as well.

In the afternoon of June 30 the enemy linked up his enveloping tank thrusts in our rear, and we became encircled. Only the Corps headquarters remained outside of the cauldron. We were forced to order a breakout in order to conserve men and material. Having successfully retreated out of the encirclement, the Corps took on fuel and ammunition and deployed into new defensive positions: the 7th Motorized Division dug in on the heights 7 kilometers northwest of Mihajlovka-Radzivilov, while the 12th Tank Division defended the Barashovka-Mihajlovka sector. Subsequent to this deployment, the Front commander ordered the Corps to establish new defensive positions northwest of Ternopol’.

Based on incomplete data, over four days of fighting the Corps minus Popel’ and his group destroyed 4 motorcycle and 5 infantry battalions, up to 200 tanks, over 100 guns of all calibers and 9 aircraft while taking over 300 prisoners. The Corps’ losses amounted to 2,308 officers and men, including 1,673 wounded and 635 killed in action, and 96 tanks including 3 KV heavy tanks, 18 T-34s, and 75 BT-7 and T-26 tanks. The Corps also lost more than half of its artillery and anti-tank guns.

Popel’ and his group were also encircled, however he was able to extricate over 1,000 men. The group managed to destroy a total of 200 enemy tanks and up to 5 infantry battalions, but took heavy casualties in the process. Up to 1,000 men were killed, including the 34th Tank Division’s commander Colonel I.V. Vasil’ev, with a further 5,363 missing in action. The group also lost all its tanks and armored cars.

On July 1, 1941, the operational strength of the 8th Mechanized Corps, now comprised of the 12th Tank and 7th Motorized Divisions, amounted to 19,000 men, 21 armored cars and 207 tanks, including 43 KVs, 31 T-34s, 69 BT-7s, 57 T-26s and 7 T-40s.

Subsequently, our Corps was withdrawn from the frontline and marched to the Nezhin sector, where it remained as a Front reserve unit from July 14. Soon the Front detached the 12th Tank Division, strengthened with repaired tanks, from the Corps, and transferred control of the 7th Motorized Division to the 26th Army. The Corps command was redesignated as the 38th Army, commanded by me, and so the 8th Mechanized Corps had finally ceased to exist.

It must be noted that during the days of the battle the opinion regarding the usefulness of a counterattack in the Brody-Dubno sector was divided. Some had thought then and are convinced to this day that rather than mount an abortive counter-attack, the Front should have immediately gone on the defensive. This is evidenced by the difference in opinions between the South-Western Front command, namely General Kirponos and his chief of staff General M.A. Purkaev, and Chief of General Staff G.K. Zhukov; I had learned of these discussions during a conversation with Purkaev at the Front headquarters in July of 1941. There is also confirmation provided by the Front’s former Chief of Operations, now Marshal of the Soviet Union, I.H. Bagramjan. Recalling a meeting of the Front staff regarding appropriate Front action, Bagramjan wrote: “The Front commander now spoke up. His thinking was that we should try to firmly entrench our Rifle Corps along an advantageous line of defense, so as to prevent the enemy tank groupings from penetrating into the rear of the 6th and 26th Armies. Thus, the 31st, 36th, and 37th Rifle Corps now arriving from the east should be deployed along the Stohod and Styr’ rivers as well as the Dubno-Kremenec-Zlochev defensive line in order to stop the enemy. The mechanized corps should also retreat to this line in order to prepare for a general counteroffensive.”

That the 8th Mechanized Corps was bombarded with conflicting orders throughout the operation also supports the thesis that there was no universal agreement on how to deal with the German attack.

Marshal of the Soviet Union K.K. Rokossovsky, who had then been in command of the 9th Mechanized Corps, had expressed no ambivalence about the proposed counteroffensive: “We had once again received an order to counterattack. However, the enemy outnumbered us to such a degree, that I took on the personal responsibility of ordering to halt the counteroffensive and to meet the enemy in prepared defenses.” [Effectively exposing himself to the possibility of being shot as a traitor for failing to carry out a direct order – Transl.]

The usefulness of a counterattack into the flank of Kleist’s advancing tank group should be self-evident. Things were progressing reasonably well in the 8th Mechanized Corps’ sector. The tank group was not covered by a solid defensive line but rather by ad-hoc defensive positions, and many German units were scattered all over the region’s roadways. By contrast, units of the 8th Mechanized Corps were concentrated in a very advantageous position – the flank and rear of the enemy divisions. As such, even in hindsight I maintain that the counteroffensive had to have been mounted and decisively so, without taking divisions out of the fighting just when they’d finally achieved a measure of success. An exploitation of the offensive would have forced the enemy to assume the defensive at least temporarily, which could have at the least given the Front sufficient time to regroup its forces, insert new units into the battle order and take up the most advantageous defensive positions with minimal pressure from the enemy.

Allowing the enemy a brief respite on June 27 resulted in his concentrating five divisions to parry our thrust. Even so, keeping the 8th Mechanized Corps engaged served to dismantle the German plans for a rapid advance on Kiev.

Undoubtedly, Front commander Kirponos’ order issued on June 29, 1941 to withdraw the 8th Mechanized Corps to positions near Ternopol’ was sound in that the Corps desperately needed to refuel, refit, and replenish its ammunition stocks. However, as was demonstrated by subsequent events, withdrawing the Corps further into Front reserve, then staging near Proskurov, was premature.

Even a few more days of action by the Corps against the enemy’s 1st Tank Group could have significantly slowed it down and inflicted further losses on the Germans. In other words, the Corps’ remaining tanks and artillery would have been used to their maximum effect, more than justifying continued casualties.

In conclusion, I would like to note that if the counteroffensive was mounted not by one but by six mechanized corps, the consequences for the enemy would have been much more serious. For one, a large-scale counterattack would have forced the German High Command to devote considerable resources to its containment, possibly drawing forces from other attack directions and considerably slowing the pace of German advance. Any time thus gained could have been used by us to constitute new formations and to offset the German forces’ superiority on key directions, while at the same time allowing us to take up advantageous defensive positions and to stabilize the front near Kiev.

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