Tank Battle at Raseiniai:
The Tank Battle at Raseiniai

The German plan for Operation Barbarossa, the surprise attack on the Soviet Union, depended on very rapid, deep penetration by mechanized and motorized forces in the first days of the invasion. On the Soviet side, the Red Army deployed its mechanized corps behind its front lines, ready to counter-attack any German breakthroughs. That set the stage for tank battles to occur just behind the German-Soviet frontier, though in many places the Soviets were caught off-guard and unable to follow through on their pre-wear doctrine.

In Lithuania, the Baltic Special Military District – which would become Northwest Front once the war began - fielded three armies, with sixteen rifle divisions and a separate rifle brigade between them (two of those rifle divisions consisted of troops from the former Lithuanian Army, forcibly incorporated into the Red Army the previous summer and none too willing to die for the dialectic). In support, the District had two mechanized corps, each with one motorized infantry and two tank divisions. Altogether, District commander Gen. Fyodor I. Kuznetsov had just under 370,000 men with 3,500 guns and over 1,500 tanks.

Opposing them, Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s German Army Group North brought two armies and an army-sized “panzer group,” with nineteen infantry divisions, three panzer divisions and two motorized infantry divisions, plus one SS motorized division of rather dubious combat value. Those totaled 562,000 men with just over 600 tanks, another 600 armored vehicles and almost 4,000 artillery pieces.

This Soviet KV2 breakthrough tank did not survive the battle.

The comparison of paper strength doesn’t tell the full story. The German Army, coming off its conquests of Poland and France, was at the peak of its performance. Training and doctrine, small-unit leadership, operational planning, all gave them enormous advantages over the Red Army. The Soviets, for their part, enjoyed much better intelligence (the Germans vastly underestimated Soviet strength) and of course much better tanks.

Kuznetsov had strict orders to avoid any action that might be seen as a provocation. He ignored these, preparing his front-line units as best he could and moving up the two mechanized corps under the guise of “training exercises.” But they still lacked sufficient fuel and ammunition, with their already-inadequate stockpiles held far behind the front.

Georgi Zhukov of the Soviet general staff raged at Kuznetsov over even those moves, accusing him of cowardice and of intentionally spreading panic – the type of charges that often ended in front of a firing squad in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Under those circumstances, the front commander had no chance to deploy what might have been his most effective units in stopping the German panzers, the powerful 9th and 10th Anti-Tank Brigades, each with 72 Model F22 76.2mm field guns (deployed in the anti-tank role), 24 85mm anti-aircraft guns (also deployed in the anti-tank role), plus an anti-aircraft battalion and a battalion of mine-laying sappers. That sort of heavy metal would render a German panzer division into so much scrap metal, but neither brigade would play a major or even minor role in the looming battle.

Army Group North, like the rest of the German forces deployed against the Soviet Union, began its attack in the early-morning hours of 22 June 1941. A massive artillery barrage heralded the attack along most of the front; in a few sectors, the Germans went forward without artillery preparation to assure surprise.

The 41st Motorized Corps of Fourth Panzer Group struck at the junction of the Soviet 8th and 11th Armies, where 125th Rifle Division put up fierce resistance against 1st Panzer Division that lasted most of the day. The neighboring 6th Panzer Division had an easier time with 48th Rifle Division, which had been issued mostly training ammunition and could offer little resistance. By nightfall the German division had advanced 55 kilometers into Lithuania to capture the town of Raseiniai.

The German Air Force dominated the skies over Lithuania on the first day of the German invasion, disrupting communications, delaying and damaging marching columns of troops and tanks, and gleefully slaughtering helpless civilian refugees. Kuznetsov’s orders did not reach his mechanized corps until just before midnight.

Kuznetsov planned a pincer attack against 41st Motorized Corps’ breakthrough, with 12th Mechanized Corps attacking the German left (western) flank, where 1st Panzer Division advanced, and 3rd Mechanized Corps striking from the right (east), against 6th Panzer Division. Franz Landgraf of 6th Panzer Division helped by halting his division around Raseiniai to allow his fuel columns to catch up to the panzer spearheads.

On the Soviet right flank, 12th Mechanized Corps lost one of its two tank divisions when 8th Army headquarters sent it to provide support to the hard-pressed infantry along the Baltic coast. The remaining armored formation, 28th Tank Division, arrived in its assembly areas late on 23 June, having suffered heavy losses to German air attacks along the way. Though ordered to attack the following morning, when 3rd Mechanized Corps would be in position on the opposite flank, 28th Tank Division launched a series of fruitless small-scale attacks that dispersed its strength for no appreciable gain.

A Soviet-era map of operations in Lithuania; Raseiniai is in the lower center, surrounded by a sea of Nazis.

On the Soviet left flank, the German 7th Panzer Division (from Army Group Center) quickly broke through the Soviet front lines on 22 June and attacked 3rd Mechanized Corps’ 5th Tank Division at Alytus. The Soviet tankers held the crossings over the Dvina River for some hours before giving way, but the action prevented 5th Tank Division from joining its sister division in the counter-attack at Raseiniai.

That left Maj. Gen. Egor Solyankin’s 2nd Tank Division, a formation raised only the summer before from a light tank brigade and almost immediately dispatched to Lithuania as part of the occupation forces, robbing it of any chance for large-unit training. It still retained mostly light tanks, T-26 infantry-support machines and BT fast tanks of several marks, but had received a handful of new T-34 medium tanks, KV-1 heavy tanks and the monstrous KV-2 breakthrough tanks.

Solyankin’s division had to move over 100 kilometers from their peacetime station at Kedainiai to Raseiniai, under heavy air attack during daylight hours and suffering numerous mechanical breakdowns. The reaching their assembly areas during the night of the 23rd-24th, Landgraf’s re-supply pause having helpfully kept 6th Panzer Division fixed in place to allow the operation to even take place.

The Soviets struck at dawn, achieving surprise despite ample warning from German air reconnaissance. While Solyankin could not deploy his entire division, he had managed to bring forward a respectable combat force including both tanks and motorized infantry, which now fell on 6th Panzer Division’s Battle Group Seckendorff. Following German doctrine, the anti-tank gunners waited until the enemy tanks had approached within a few hundred yards before firing, only to watch their 37mm shells bounce off the T-34 and KV tanks even at point-blank range. Following Soviet doctrine, the tankers spotted the firing anti-tank guns and went directly after their positions, squashing both guns and crews under their treads (German sources sometimes claim that this occurred when the tanks had run out of ammunition, but this was standard practice regardless).

“Regiment commander Major I.P Ragochy stopped my tank,” wrote D.I. Osadchiy, commanding the 3rd Tank Regiment’s 5th Company, equipped with KV-1 heavy tanks. “and in a matter of minutes set the task of immediately turning around and repelling the attack of the Nazi tanks that had broken through on the left flank of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Regiment. Having given the crew of six vehicles the command, ‘To Battle,” we quickly moved in the given direction.”

A German 37mm gun squashed by a Soviet tank, its squashed prime mover in the background; the Germans rarely photographed their own losses.

Osadchiy’s memoir gives a pretty clear picture of the chief disadvantage the Soviet tankers faced when fighting the Germans – a lack of radios, and therefore clear command, control, communications and intelligence. Ragochy stopped Osadchiy’s tank, verbally told him where the Germans were to be found, and sent him on his way. Osadchiy in turn verbally told the crews of his own tank and those of the five others with him.

The found the Germans in the form of a motorcycle courier, who rode up to Osadchiy’s tanks, apparently mistaking them for German vehicles. All six tanks appear to have opened up on the unfortunate German with their machine guns, blowing him into very small pieces. They next engaged and destroyed the seven tanks and two other armored vehicles that followed the courier.

“In this first battle for us,” Osadchiy wrote, “we escaped with only a few dents on the machines.”

The motorcycle troops manning the German perimeter broke and fled, and individual Soviet tanks rampaged through their rear areas. The Soviets ravaged Battle Group Seckendorff, launching six attacks during the course of the day, but their ferocity waned as they ran short on fuel and ammunition and the division’s light tanks and motorized infantry were put out of action, placing the full burden of combat on the handful of modern tanks.

This would be the first encounter between German troops and modern Soviet armor. Their standard anti-tanks guns having no effect, the Germans rushed forward 88mm anti-aircraft guns and high-velocity 100mm long-range cannon (sometimes inaccurately described in secondary accounts as 105mm howitzers) to deal with them.

“In two days, our company lost one tank,” Osadchiy recalled. “Without exaggeration, we can say that each KV accounted for ten or more destroyed enemy vehicles.”

While the Soviets inflicted panic and death on the Germans, their disjointed attacks could not break through to Raseiniai and sever the German division’s road communications with German supply depots. Meanwhile, other elements of 41st Motorized Corps – 1st Panzer Division and 36th Motorized Infantry Division – began to filter around 2nd Tank Division’s flanks while 6th Panzer Division flung its hopelessly outmatched Czech-built light tanks against the modern Soviet medium and heavy machines. The German Air Force, otherwise dominating the skies over Lithuania, did not put in an appaearance.

While 41st Motorized Corps reacted, other German units overran 2nd Tank Division’s rear echelon, left behind at Kedainiai. Soon the fresh German divisions had surrounded the Soviet formation, yet somehow a Soviet supply column snuck past them. In the reduced state of the Soviet tank regiments, that provided plenty of fuel and ammunition for the remaining tanks, almost all of them KV types by this point with a handful of T34’s still operating and almost none of the older light tanks.

Soviet scouts looted a damaged German command vehicle, probably from 41st Motorized Corps, and made off with a fat packet of maps showing Army Group North’s planned advance. Curiously, their prizes also included the full plans for the recently-concluded German invasion of Greece, in which none of the German units at Raseiniai had participated.

For the next two days 2nd Tank Division’s objective shifted over to breaking free of the Germans. Most of those efforts failed, and Solyankin was killed in action on the 26th at the head of his troops. But several hundred escaped on foot, and a few even brought out their tanks. Many of them ended up in the 124th Tank Brigade, formed in Leningrad in September.

Second Tank Division would be formally disbanded in July, one of the first Red Army divisions struck from the roster. The Germans declared Raseiniai a victory, but Solyankin’s sacrifice had a profound effect on the campaign in the Baltic States. Most of Kuznetsov’s troops were able to withdraw from Lithuania more or less intact, to mount a further defense in Latvia and Estonia. Leningrad, Army Group North’s ultimate objective, never fell to the Hitlerite invaders.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his new puppy. He will never forget his dog, Leopold.

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