The Battle of Berlin and the Battle of Kursk, both amazing in their own way.
The Battle of Berlin and the Battle of Kursk, both amazing in their own way.
On 7 December, the German 7th Panzer Division had about 30 operational tanks, roughly the same as a current American battalion. The German tanks were mostly Panzer IIIs, whose 50-millimeter guns could only destroy a Russian T-34 tank in a frontal attack at ranges under 500 meters. The Russian 1st Tank Corps had about 60 tanks, mostly T-34s with 76-millimeter guns. The Russian tanks completely outclassed the German panzers in terms of protection, firepower, and mobility.
The Battle for Sowchos 79 began when the Russian 1st Tank Corps attacked across the Chir River, penetrating the defending German 336th Infantry Division and continuing south. The lead Russian elements seized Sowchos 79 by 0930 on 7 December. The first key event in the battle was the Russian breakthrough along the Chir River. This success was a result of the defending German 336th Infantry Division having a long front, no armor support, and inadequate antitank capabilities. The typical German antitank gun was a towed, 37- or 50-millimeter model, neither of which could destroy a T-34 at more than 500 yards. The 336th did not have enough guns to cover its front or defend in depth. By seizing Sowchos 79, the tanks of the Russian 1st Tank Corps posed a large threat to the rear of the German infantry and the entire Chir River front. This forced German leaders to commit the still-arriving 11th Panzer Division to battle.
The Russian 1st Tank Corps attack succeeded by correctly applying the principles of mass, the offensive, objective, and simplicity. They massed an entire tank corps against a weakly held portion of the German line, which had no defending tanks and few antitank capabilities. By continuing their attack across the Chir River, the Russians maintained the overall momentum of their Stalingrad offensive. Last, the Russian 1st Tank Corps mission was very simple--attack across the Chir River to surround the 336th Infantry Division and fix the 48th Panzer Corps. The Russian tank corps, however, disregarded the keys to their 7 December success and were defeated the following day.
American doctrine captures and applies the lesson learned by the Germans. Defending infantry units must be prepared to defend in depth and have adequate antitank capabilities when facing an armored force. According to Field Manual (FM) 3-90, Tactics, obstacles (in this case, the Chir River) must be covered by direct and indirect fire or they will not be effective barriers against attacking forces. Offensive units massing their forces can easily develop local superiority in numbers to achieve a breakthrough if obstacles are not properly considered. The Germans, unlike the Russians, learned from their mistakes and were flexible enough to exploit the Russian breakthrough to their own advantage on 8 December.
The battle's second key event demonstrates the application of the principles of mass and the offensive, along with the characteristics of the offense. On 7 December, the German 11th Panzer Division moved north from its railhead at Rostov to join the 48th Panzer Corps. Only its 15th Panzer Regiment was available to stop a Russian breakthrough. The 48th Panzer Corps ordered the regiment to stop the Russian breakthrough and push the enemy back across the Chir River. The Russians still maintained a good operational tempo and continued to mass their forces against the German lines. By midday on 7 December, the Germans were unable to halt the Russian advance, but the 15th Panzer Regiment resistance allowed the 11th Panzer Division's main body--including the 110th and 111th Panzer Grenadier Regiments--to arrive that afternoon. The division's artillery, engineer, and antiaircraft units were committed to stop the Russian advance. A counterattack by the 15th Panzer Regiment, with support from the antiaircraft and engineer units, blocked the Russians from penetrating south of Sowchos 79.
The commander of the 15th Panzer Regiment, Colonel Graf Schimmelmann, displayed tremendous audacity by moving his unit forward before the rest of the 11th Panzer Division was concentrated for a counterattack. Schimmelmann recognized the importance of his regiment as the only full-strength unit available to the 48th Panzer Corps. His first battalion left its assembly area 15 minutes after receiving its warning order. By quickly counterattacking, the regiment acted as a fixing force that helped in "establishing the conditions necessary for decisive operations." (1) The 15th Panzer Regiment counterattack massed every available tank to stop the Russians at Sowchos 79.
The action of the Russian commanders contributed to German success. The Russian 1st Tank Corps did not exploit its success from the afternoon of 7 December, but instead held its positions at Sowchos 79. The Russian corps lost the initiative because it did not exploit its original success with the offensive characteristics of audacity and tempo. Exploitation "follows a successful attack and is designed to disorganize the enemy in depth." (2) While the German 15th Panzer Regiment's counterattack and heavy resistance certainly contributed to halting the Russian advance, the Russians simply did not exploit their attack. There were numerous instances of a lack of initiative at the junior level of Russian armored forces. (3) There is no direct evidence of the lack of initiative at the Battle of Sowchos 79, but it can be inferred from the state of the Russian armored forces at this point in the war. Instead of continuing the assault or seeking a weak point, the Russians continued attacking directly at the 15th Panzer Regiment until the panzers fixed them at Sowchos 79.
The final key event of the Battle for Sowchos 79 was the counterattack by the German 11th Panzer Division and the destruction of the Russian 1st Tank Corps. During the evening of 7 December, German Major General Balck ordered the 15th Panzer Regiment to attack around the western flank of the Russian 1st Tank Corps in a single envelopment. He reasoned that a forced march would catch the Russians off guard in the morning. Balck planned to use the panzer regiment's superior maneuver and command and control capabilities to place his units where the Russians were weakest. He used effective terrain analysis to identify an open route into the Russian western flank. The road network in the area was severely limited, with only a small dirt road network to the south of Sowchos 79. The roads could only support armored forces "dependent on weather conditions," (4) and the terrain had steep cuts and small rivers that channeled units onto the few roads. The Russians used the steep, dry streambeds around Sowchos 79 as natural concealment for tanks, hiding in balkas (gullies) and camouflaged with snow to avoid German detection for days after the battle. (5) The balkas south of Sowchos 79 acted as natural antitank ditches, but the western side of Sowchos 79 is mostly flat with low hills. Balck decided to use the hills north and west of Sowchos 79 to avoid direct observation by the Russians.
The Russians did not expect a German counterattack on 8 December and did not establish security, offering the Germans an assailable flank. On the night of 7 December, the German 15th Panzer Regiment conducted a relief in place with the 110th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which was to block any Russian breakthrough toward the south. Good off-road mobility and low hills gave the 15th Panzers an open corridor into its assault position. Along with the 111th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the 15th Panzers advanced north, using terrain and darkness to mask their movements. They reached their assault positions by morning on 8 December 1942.
Balck also placed the 11th Panzer Division's engineer battalion southeast of Sowchos 79 to prevent a Russian breakthrough there and positioned the division's antiaircraft units there so that their 88-millimeter guns could serve as antitank artillery. (6) The 110th Panzer Grenadier Regiment supported the main attack by conducting a demonstration on 8 December, keeping the Russians in place. (7) Units of the 336th Infantry Division held to the east and prepared for a continued Russian offensive into its flank.
At 0445 on 8 December 1942, the 15th Panzer Regiment attacked eastward against the rear of the Russian armor line. (8) Its lead elements spotted Russian motorized infantry moving south into Sowchos 79, so the panzers engaged and destroyed the Russian trucks and infantry. The panzers then pushed on to engage the Russian armored forces. At that time, the Russians were preparing to continue their attack from the previous day into the flank of the German 336th Infantry Division. The 15th Panzers engaged the Russian tanks, throwing them into a confused panic. The Russian 1st Tank Corps command and control collapsed and lost all unit cohesion. The panzer grenadiers closely supported the tanks and engaged Russian infantry in the vicinity of Sowchos 79. Before the fighting was over, another Russian breakthrough on the Chir River forced the Germans to withdraw the 15th Panzer Regiment's tanks. This left German infantry to finish the battle alone, but by then the Germans had destroyed almost all of the Russian armor. The remaining Russian infantry conducted a piecemeal and uncoordinated resistance. The Germans retook Sowchos 79 by midafternoon and claimed 53 destroyed Russian tanks. (9)
"Surprise, coordinated fires, and control are the keys to a successful counterattack." (10) The German counterattack demonstrated this principle perfectly. Balck's use of maneuver achieved complete surprise against the 1st Tank Corps. The Russian tanks outnumbered the Germans by two to one, but the superior maneuver capabilities of the 15th Panzer Regiment enabled it to mass its forces and gain local superiority to overwhelm the numerically larger enemy. In addition, the Germans effectively executed a complex relief in place during the night and a coordinated two-regiment attack at dawn. This demonstrated excellent overall command and control. The Russians, however, lost all initiative and momentum from the day before. They established no local security and ignored the continued threat from the panzers they had encountered on 7 December. This left their 1st Tank Corps extremely vulnerable and resulted in its destruction. By the evening of 8 December, the 11th Panzer Division destroyed the Russian tank corps, which did not play a significant role in future engagements around the Chir and Donetz Rivers.
The principles of war outlined in FM 3-0, Operations--offense, mass, maneuver, surprise, simplicity, and security--are fundamentals that were relevant when the German 11th Panzer Division defeated the Russian 1st Tank Corps at Sowchos 79 in December 1942. Both sides applied the principles of war and won or lost based on their application of them. The Germans, although seriously outnumbered, effectively held to the principles of war, particularly mass and surprise. The Russians initially followed the principles of war and the characteristics of the offense. However, after their initial breakthrough, they lost their tactical advantage and repeatedly violated the principles of war and the characteristics of the offense. This resulted in a decisive defeat for the Russian 1st Tank Corps and a major tactical victory for the German 11th Panzer Division.