Battle of Raseiniai
The Battle of Raseiniai (23–27 June 1941) was a tank battle fought between the elements of the 4th Panzer Group commanded by Gen. Erich Hoepner and the 3rd Mechanized Corps[a] commanded by Major General Kurkin & 12th Mechanised Corps[b] commanded by Major General Shestapolov in Lithuania 75 km northwest of Kaunas in the attempt by the commander of the Northwestern Front, Kuznetsov to contain and destroy German troops that had crossed the Neman River (Nemunas). The result of the battle was the almost complete destruction of Soviet armoured forces of the Northwestern Front, clearing the way for the continued German offensive towards the crossings of the Daugava River (Western Dvina). This was one of the major battles during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa known in Soviet history as the Border Defensive Battles (22–27 June 1941) as part of the larger Baltic Strategic Defensive Operation.
Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, and staging in East Prussia prior to the commencement of the offensive, was the northern of three Army Groups participating in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Army Group North controlled the 18th and 16th Armies, along with the 4th Panzer Group commanded by General Erich Hoepner. In total, the Germans had 20 infantry divisions, three Panzer and three motorized infantry divisions. Air support was provided by the 1st Air Fleet.
The military administrative control over the Baltic republics area where the Army Group North would be deployed was exercised by the Special Baltic Military District which after the invasion was renamed into the Northwestern Front, Commanded by Colonel General Kuznetsov. The front fielded 8th and 11th Armies with the 27th Armies in its second echelon. All together, Northwestern Front had 28 rifle, 4 tank, and 2 motorized divisions.
Army Group North's 4th Panzer Group advanced in two spearheads, led by the XLI Panzer Corps and LVI Panzer Corps. Their objectives was to cross the Neman and Daugava, the most difficult natural obstacles in front of Army Group North's drive towards Leningrad.
German bombers destroyed many of the signals and communications centers, naval bases, and the Soviet aerodromes in particular; from Riga to Kronstadt, on Šiauliai, Vilnius and Kaunas the bombs rained on carefully selected targets. Soviet aircraft had been on one-hour alert, but were held on their airfields after the first wave of German bombers passed.
At 9:30 AM on 22 June, Colonel General Kuznetsov, ordered 3rd and 12th mechanized corps to take up their counterattack positions, intending to use them in flanking attacks on the 4th Panzer Group, which had broken through to the river Dubysa (Dubissa). By noon, the Soviet divisions began to fall back. The German columns then began to swing towards Raseiniai, where Kuznetsov was concentrating his own armor for a major counterattack on the next day. By the evening, Soviet formations had fallen back to the Dubysa. Northwest of Kaunas, forward elements of Erich von Manstein's LVI Panzer Corps reached the Dubysa and seized the vital Ariogala road viaduct across it. Without this crossing, Germans tanks might have been trapped in what was a giant natural tank ditch. A dash to Dvinsk would have been wholly ruled out. Meanwhile southwest of Vilnius more armor from the 3rd Panzer Army, which had ripped through the Soviet 11th, moved across the Niemen River over the intact bridges.
By the end of 22 June, the German armoured spearheads had crossed the Niemen and penetrated 80 kilometres (50 mi). The next day, Kuznetsov committed his armoured forces to battle. Near Raseiniai, the XLI Panzer Corps was counter-attacked by the tanks of the Soviet 3rd and 12th Mechanised Corps. But this concentration of soviet armour was detected by the Luftwaffe, which immediately directed heavy air attacks against tank columns of the 12th Mechanised Corps south west of Šiauliai. These attacks went unopposed by any Soviet fighters and were carried out with great success. The Soviet 23rd Tank Division sustained particularly severe losses. Ju 88's from Luftflotte 1 thundering in at low level, setting ablaze 40 vehicles, including tanks and lorries. The battle would last four days.
It was here that German forces encountered a unit equipped with the Soviet KV heavy tanks for the first time. Gen. E.N. Soliankin's 2nd Tank Division from Soviet 3rd Mechanised Corps attacked and overran elements of the German 6th Panzer Division[c][I] near Skaudvilė on 23 June. The Germans' Panzer 35(t) tanks and antitank weapons were practically ineffective against the Soviet heavy tanks—some of them were out of ammunition, but closed with and destroyed German antitank guns by literally driving over them.[f] Attempts to destroy these armoured giants concentrated on first immobilising them by firing at their tracks and then by tackling them with artillery, AA Guns, or by blowing them up at close range by high explosive charges of the Sticky Bomb type. An account by the Thuringian 1st Panzer Division describes this battle.
The KV-1 & KV-2, which we first met here, were really something! Our companies opened fire at about 800 yards, but it remained ineffective. We moved closer and closer to the enemy, who for his part continued to approach us unconcerned. Very soon we were facing each other at 50 to 100 yards. A fantastic exchange of fire took place without any visible German success. The Russian tanks continued to advance, and all armour-piercing shells simply bounced off them. Thus we were presently faced with the alarming situation of the Russian tanks driving through the ranks of 1st Panzer Regiment towards our own infantry and our hinterland. Our Panzer Regiment therefore about turned and rumbled back with the KV-1s and KV-2s, roughly in line with them. In the course of that operation we succeeded in immobilizing some of them with special purpose shells at very close range 30 to 60 yards. A counter attack was launched and the Russians were thrown back. A protective front established & defensive fighting continued.
The next day, a single KV-2 heavy tank, at a crossroads in front of Raseiniai, managed to cut off elements of the 6th Panzer Division which had established bridgeheads on the Dubysa. It stalled the Division's advance for a full day while being attacked by a variety of antitank weapons, until it finally ran out of ammunition.[d][e]
In the south, by 23 June, 11th Army commander Lieutenant-General Morozov ordered the units falling back to the old fortress town Kaunas on the Niemen to move on to Jonava some 30 miles to the north-east. By the evening of 25 June, the Soviet 8th Army fell back towards Riga and the 11th towards Vilnius to the Desna. A breach gaped in the Soviet front from Ukmergė to Daugavpils.
By 26 June, the XLI's Panzer Corps 1st Panzer Division & 36th Motorised Infantry & following infantry Divisions had cut through the rear of the Soviet Mechanised Corps and linked up. The Soviet 3rd Mechanised Corps had obligingly run out of fuel, & Gen. E.N. Soliankin's 2nd Tank Division was encircled & almost completely destroyed. The 5th Tank Division & 84th Motorised Rifle Division were severely depleted due to losses in vehicles and personnel.[g] The 12th Mechanized Corps pulled out of the trap, but by now was very short of fuel and ammunition. [h]
The Soviet Baltic Fleet was withdrawn from bases in Liepāja, Windau, and Riga by 26 June. Meanwhile, Von Manstein's's LVI Panzer Corps dashed for the River Dvina and in a remarkable coup seized bridges near Dvinsk intact.
After the operation
After the seizure of the Dvina bridges and the fall of Dvinsk, the leading formations of LVI Panzer Corps furiously set about enlarging the bridgehead. On 25 June, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko ordered Colonel General Kuznetsov to organize a defense of the Western Dvina, by deploying the 8th Army on the right bank of the river from Riga to Livani while the 11th Army would defend Livani-Kraslava sector. Colonel General Kuznetsov also decided to use Major-General Berzarin's 27th Army. Berzarin was to pull his troops off the Hiiumaa and Saaremaa islands and out of Riga and bring them to Daugavpils. At the same time the Soviet high command (Stavka) released Major-General Lelyushenko's 21st Mechanised Corps from the Moscow Military District to co-operate with the 27th Army; Lelyushenko had 98 tanks and 129 guns.
At 5:00 AM, on 28 June, Lelyushenko attacked upon Kuznetsov's orders in an attempt to destroy the German bridgehead near Daugavpils. Von Manstein halted on the Dvina, but attacked on the next day, striking along the Daugavpils-Ostrov highway. At Riga on the afternoon of 29 June, the Germans crossed the railway bridge over the Dvina. On 30 June Soviet troops withdrew on the right bank of the river, and by 1 July were in retreat to Estonia. A priceless opportunity now offered itself to the Germans. An immediate drive forwards would make it almost impossible for the Soviets to defend Leningrad. However, it was not to be: orders received with disbelief by the tankers were to wait for the infantry to arrive. In the end the wait would last almost a week.
Colonel General Kuznetsov was removed as front commander by Timoshenko, and 8th Army commander Major-General Sobennikov took over the front on 4 July. Timoshenko issued a directive on 29 June to the Northwestern Front stipulating that in the event of a withdrawal from the Daugava, the next river line, the Velikaya, was to be held and every effort made to get Soviet troops emplaced there. Despite this, the river Velikaya line fell rapidly on 8 July, with the rail and road bridges remaining intact. Pskov itself fell on the evening of 9 July. The 11th Army commander was therefore ordered to move to Dno. The crumbling of the Northwestern Front on the Velikaya and the German sweep to Luga were grave setbacks for the Soviets, and the 8th Army was being rammed inexorably towards the Gulf of Finland. But the German pause had given time for more troops to be rushed in to Siege of Leningrad, and the battle for the city would be long and hard.
- a On 22 June 1941 3rd Mechanised Corps had 31,975 men & 651 Tanks including (10 T-34 & 2 Battalions of 50 Heavy KV-1s).
- b On 22 June 1941 12th Mechanized Corps had 28,832 men & 749 Tanks including only lighter Soviet T-26, Bt Series Tanks.
- c Which were Kampfgruppe Von Seckendorff consisting of the 114th Motorized infantry Regiment, Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 57, one company of Panzerjäger Battalion 41 & Motorcycle Battalion 6 (Morning).
- d General Erhard Raus the Officer in Command of 6th Panzer Division's Kampfgruppe Raus which was the Unit held up by the lone vehicle disagrees; he says the vehicle was damaged by several shots from an 88 Anti-Tank Gun firing at the vehicle from behind while it was distracted by Panzer 35(t) tanks from Panzer Battalion 65 & the crew were killed by Grenades from a Pioneer Engineer unit who pushed the grenades through two holes made by the gun while the turret had started moving again, the other five or six shots having not apparently penetrated completely. The crew had remarkably only been apparently stunned by the shots which had entered the turret. Afterwards they were buried nearby with honours by the German Soldiers of the Unit held up.
- e Kampfgruppe Raus consisted of Panzer Regiment 11, one Battalion of the 4th Motorized infantry Regiment, The 1st & 3rd Battalions the 76th Artillery Regiment, one Company of Panzer Engineer Battalion 57, one company from Panzerjäger Battalion 41, one Battery of the 2nd Battalion Flak Regiment 411 & Motorcycle Battalion 6 (Afternoon).
- f The Tanks were eventually destroyed by Batteries of 88mm Flak Guns & 100mm Artillery Guns employed in Anti-Tank role.
- g On 11 July 1941 Col P Poluboiarov, Northwestern Front armoured directorate reported that the 3rd Mechanised Corps had 'completely perished' having only 400 men remaining who escaped encirclement with 2nd Tank Division & only 1 BT-7 tank. German Sources reported the destruction of more than 200 tanks, including 29 KV-1s, 150 guns & hundreds of trucks & vehicles. The 5th Tank Division was at Yelnya by 4 July 1941 and consisted of 2,552 men and a total of 2 BT-7 tanks and four armoured cars. It was destroyed at the Battle of Białystok–Minsk.
- h Colonel Grinberg temporary commander of the 12th Mechanized Corps after the death of his corps' original commander Major General Shestopalov, reported on 29 July that the strength of his corps had fallen to under 17,000 men after the first two weeks of combat.
- I On entering the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa the 6th Panzer Division had a total of 245 tanks which consisted of 47 Panzer II, 155 Panzer 35(t), only 30 Panzer IVs, 5 Panzerbef 35(t)'s (command tanks) & 8 Panzerbef's.
Sources & References
- Chris Bishop, German Wehrmacht Panzer Divisions 1939-1945, 2005, p66
- Brian Taylor, Barbarossa to Berlin - A Chronology of the Campaigns on the Eastern Front 1941-1945, 2003, p14
- David Glantz, The Battle for Leningrad 1941-1944, 2002, p32
- Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 1998, p155-p156
- Christer Bergstrom, 'Barbarossa - The Air Battle: July–December 1941, 2007, p23
- Steve Newton, Panzer Operations on the Eastern Front - The Memoirs of General Raus, 2003, p. 33
- Steve Newton, Panzer Operations on the Eastern Front - The Memoirs of General Raus, 2003, p13
- Zaloga 1995, pp 17–18.
- Steve Newton, Panzer Operations on the Eastern Front - The Memoirs of General Raus, 2003, p21-p25
- Hitler Moves East by Paul Carrell 1964 pp 23-24
- Zaloga 1995, pp 18–19.
- Steve Newton, Panzer Operations on the Eastern Front - The Memoirs of General Raus, 2003, p33
- David Glantz, The Battle for Leningrad 1941-1944, 2002, p33
- Boyevoye Doneseniye No.1, HQ North-western Front, 2 July 1941, 24:00// Sbornik boyevykh dokumentov vol. 34, Moscow, Voyennoye Izdatelstvo Ministerstva Oborony, 1958 and E. Drig, "Mekhanizirovannye korpusa RKKA v boyu", AST, Moscow, 2005 , via http://rkkaww2.armchairgeneral.com/formation/mechcorps/3mk.htm
- Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 1998, p126
- Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 1998, p128
- Zaloga, Steven J., Jim Kinnear, and Peter Sarson (1995). KV-1 & 2 Heavy Tanks 1939–1945. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-85532-496-2.
- Steven H Newton, 'Panzer Operations on the Eastern Front- The Memoirs of General Raus 1941-1945' (2003) Da Capo Press ISBN 0-306-81247-9
- David Glantz (1998), 'Stumbling Colossus - The Red Army on the Eve of World War', Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0879-6
- David Glantz (2002), 'The Battle for Leningrad 1941-1944', Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-1208-4
- Christer Bergstrom, (2007) 'Barbarossa - The Air Battle: July–December 1941, Ian Allan Publishing.ISBN 1-85780-270-5