Battle of Raseiniai
The Battle of Raseiniai (23–27 June 1941) was a large tank battle that took place in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The battle was fought between the elements of the German 4th Panzer Group (General Erich Hoepner) and the Soviet 3rd Mechanized Corps (Major General Alexey Kurkin) with the 12th Mechanised Corps (Major General Nikolai Shestapolov), in Lithuania, 75 km (47 mi) north-west of Kaunas. The commander of the Soviet Northwestern Front, Colonel General Fyodor Kuznetsov, tried to contain and destroy the German troops that had crossed the Neman River (Nemunas) but was unable to prevent them from advancing. The result of the battle was the destruction of most of the Soviet armoured forces of the Northwestern Front, which cleared the way for the Germans to attack towards the crossings of the Daugava River (Western Dvina). The fighting around Raseiniai was one of the main battles of the initial phase of Operation Barbarossa, referred to in Soviet historiography as the Border Defensive Battles (22–27 June 1941) and formed part of the larger Soviet 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 Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Army Group North controlled the 18th Army and the 16th Army, along with the 4th Panzer Group (General Erich Hoepner). The Germans had 20 infantry divisions, three Panzer and three motorized infantry divisions. Air support was provided by Luftflotte 1 (1st Air Fleet).
The Soviet 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 (Colonel General Fyodor Kuznetsov). The front had the 8th and 11th Armies with the 27th Armies in its second echelon; the Northwestern Front had 28 rifle, 4 tank and 2 motorized divisions.
On 22 June 1941, the Northwestern Front had two mechanised corps, the 3rd Mechanised Corps (Major General Alexey Kurkin) had 31,975 men and 669[a] – 672 tanks[b] and the 12th Mechanized Corps (Major General Nikolai Shestapolov) had 28,832 men and 730[c] – 749 tanks;[d] only BT-7s and T-26 tanks were available.[e]
The 4th Panzer Group advanced in two spearheads, led by the XLI Panzer Corps and LVI Panzer Corps (General Erich von Manstein). Their objective was to cross the Neman and Daugava, the most difficult natural obstacles in front of the Army Group North and to drive towards Leningrad. German bombers destroyed many of the signals and communications centers, naval bases and the Soviet aerodromes from Riga to Kronstadt. Šiauliai, Vilnius and Kaunas were also bombed. 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, Kuznetsov ordered the 3rd and 12th Mechanized corps to take up their counter-attack 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 and the German columns then began to swing towards Raseiniai, where Kuznetsov was concentrating his armor for a big counter-attack on the next day. By the evening, Soviet formations had fallen back to the Dubysa. North-west of Kaunas, forward elements of LVI Panzer Corps reached the Dubysa and seized the vital Ariogala road viaduct across it.
By the end of 22 June, the German armoured spearheads over the Niemen had penetrated 80 km (50 mi). The next day, Kuznetsov committed his armoured forces to battle. Near Raseiniai, the XLI Panzer Corps was counter-attacked by the Soviet 3rd and 12th Mechanised Corps. The concentration of Soviet armour was detected by the Luftwaffe, which immediately attacked tank columns of the 12th Mechanised Corps south-west of Šiauliai. No Soviet fighters appeared and the Soviet 23rd Tank Division sustained particularly severe losses, Ju 88s from Luftflotte 1 attacking at low level, setting 40 vehicles, including tanks and lorries on fire.
German forces encountered a unit equipped with the Soviet KV heavy tanks for the first time. On 23 June, Kampfgruppe von Seckendorff of the 6th Panzer Division, consisting of 114th Panzergrenadier Regiment (motorized infantry), Aufklärungsabteilung 57 (Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 57), one company of Panzerjäger Battalion 41 and Motorcycle Battalion 6 was overrun by the 2nd Tank Division (General Yegor Solyankin) from the 3rd Mechanised Corps near Skaudvilė.[f] The German Panzer 35(t) tanks and anti-tank weapons were ineffective against the Soviet heavy tanks, some of which were out of ammunition but closed in and destroyed German antitank guns by driving over them.[g]
The KV-1 and 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 [sic - Soviet] 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 and defensive fighting continued.
The lone Soviet tank
A KV-1 or KV-2 tank (accounts vary) advanced far behind the German lines after attacking a column of German trucks. The tank stopped on a road across soft ground and was engaged by four 50 mm anti-tank guns of the 6th Panzer Division anti-tank battalion. The tank was hit several times but fired back, disabling all four guns. A heavy 88 mm gun of the divisional anti-aircraft battalion was moved about 730 m (800 yd) behind the tank but was knocked out by the tank before it could score a hit. During the night, German combat engineers tried to destroy the tank with satchel charges but failed despite possibly damaging the tracks. Early on the morning of 25 June, German tanks fired on the KV from the woodland while an 88 mm gun fired at the tank from its rear. Of several shots fired, only two penetrated the tank; German infantry advanced and the KV opening machine-gun fire against them and the tank was knocked out by grenades thrown into the hatches. According to some accounts, the crew was buried by the German soldiers with full military honors; in other accounts, the crew escaped during the night.
The 6th Panzer Division Kampfgruppe commander General Erhard Raus, described it as a KV-1, which was damaged by several 88 mm anti-tank shots fired from behind the vehicle, while it was distracted by Panzer 35(t) tanks from Panzer Battalion 65.[h] The KV-1 crew were killed by pioneer engineer unit who pushed grenades through two holes made by the gun while the turret began moving again, the other five or six shots having not fully penetrated. Apparently, the KV-1 crew had only been stunned by the shots which had entered the turret and were buried nearby with military honors by the German unit.
In 1965, the remains of the crew were exhumed and reburied at the military cemetery in Raseiniai. According to research by Russian military historian Maxim Kolomiets, the tank may have been from the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion, 4th Tank Regiment, part of the 2nd Tank Division. It is impossible to identify the crew because the documents were buried in the woods north of Raseiniai during the retreat.
Conclusion of the battle
In the south, by 23 June, Lieutenant-General Vasily Ivanovich Morozov, the 11th Army commander, ordered the units falling back to the old fortress town Kaunas on the Niemen to move on to Jonava some 48 km (30 mi) to the north-east. By the evening of 25 June, the Soviet 8th Army was falling back towards Riga and the 11th Army towards Vilnius and the Desna, a gap opening in the Soviet front from Ukmergė to Daugavpils. By 26 June, the 1st Panzer Division and 36th Motorised Infantry Division of the XLI Panzer Corps and following infantry divisions had cut through the rear of the Soviet mechanised corps and linked up. The Soviet 3rd Mechanised Corps had run out of fuel and the 2nd Tank Division was encircled and almost destroyed. In the encirclement, Solyankin was killed in action. The 5th Tank Division and 84th Motorised Division were severely depleted due to losses in vehicles and personnel.[i] The 12th Mechanized Corps pulled out of the trap but was very short of fuel and ammunition.[j] The Soviet Baltic Fleet was withdrawn from bases in Liepāja, Windau and Riga by 26 June and LVI Panzer Corps dashed for the River Dvina and in a remarkable coup seized bridges near Dvinsk intact.
The battle is known in Soviet historiography as the Border Defensive Battles (22–27 June 1941), forming part of the larger Soviet Baltic Strategic Defensive Operation. After the battle the leading formations of LVI Panzer Corps began to enlarge the bridgehead after the seizure of the Dvina bridges and the fall of Dvinsk. On 25 June, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko ordered Kuznetsov to organize a defense of the Western Dvina, by deploying the 8th Army on the right bank from Riga to Livani while the 11th Army defended the Livani–Kraslava sector. Kuznetsov also used the 27th Army (Major-General Nikolai Berzarin), moving troops from Hiiumaa and Saaremaa islands and Riga to Daugavpils. At the same time the Soviet (Stavka) released the 21st Mechanised Corps (Major-General Dmitry Lelyushenko) with 98 tanks and 129 guns, from the Moscow Military District to co-operate with the 27th Army.
At 5:00 a.m., on 28 June, Lelyushenko attempted to destroy the German bridgehead near Daugavpils. Manstein halted on the Dvina but attacked 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 from the right bank of the river and by 1 July were retreating towards Estonia. Instead of rushing Leningrad, the panzer divisions were ordered to wait for infantry reinforcements, which took almost a week.
Kuznetsov was sacked by Timoshenko and Major-General Pyotr Sobennikov, the 8th Army commander, took over the front on 4 July. On 29 June, Timoshenko ordered that if the Northwestern Front had to withdraw from the Daugava, the line of the Velikaya, was to be held and every effort made to get Soviet troops dug in there. The line at Velikaya fell rapidly on 8 July, with rail and road bridges remaining intact and Pskov fell on the evening of 9 July. The 11th Army was ordered to move to Dno but the collapse of the Northwestern Front on the Velikaya and the German sweep to Luga were serious defeats, forcing the 8th Army towards the Gulf of Finland. The German pause had given time for more troops to be rushed to the Siege of Leningrad, a long and hard battle.
- a David Glantz (2010) wrote that 3rd Mechanized Crops had 669 tanks, of which 101 were KV-1s and T-34s, 431 were BT-7s, and the remainder older model T-28 and T-26 tanks.
- b Steven Zaloga (2015) wrote that the 3rd Mechanized Crops had 672 tanks, of which were 50 T-34s and with two divisions consisted of 78 heavy KV-1s tanks.
- c Steven Zaloga (2015) wrote that the 12th Mechanized Crops had 730 tanks available.
- d David Glantz (1998) wrote that the 12th Mechanized Crops had 749 tanks available.
- e Robert Forczyk (2014) wrote that the 12th Mechanized Crops had 725 tanks available, of which were 483 T-26 and 242 BT's.
- f On entering the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa the 6th Panzer Division had a total of 235–245 tanks, which consisted of about 47 Panzer IIs, 155 Panzer 35(t)s, 30 Panzer IVs, 5 Panzerbef 35(t)s (command tanks) and 8 Panzerbefs.
- g The tanks were eventually destroyed by batteries of 88mm flak guns and 100mm artillery guns employed in an anti-tank role.
- h Kampfgruppe Raus consisted of Panzer Regiment 11, one battalion of the 4th Motorized infantry Regiment, the 2nd Battalions of 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 and Motorcycle Battalion 6 (afternoon).
- i On 11 July 1941 Colonel 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 and only 1 BT-7 tank. German Sources reported the destruction of more than 200 tanks, including 29 KV-1s, 150 guns and hundreds of trucks and other vehicles. The 5th Tank Division was at Yelnya by 4 July 1941 and consisted of 2,552 men and a total of two BT-7 tanks and four armoured cars. It was destroyed at the Battle of Białystok–Minsk.
- j 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.
- Rosado & Bishop 2005, p. 66.
- Taylor 2003, p. 14.
- Glantz 2002, p. 32.
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- Forczyk 2014, p. 39.
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- Glantz 2002, p. 33.
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- Zaloga 2015, p. 102.
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