Fire in the Steppe:
The Battle, Part Three
Far from a walkover, the Brody-Dubno tank battles showed that even caught by surprise with faulty doctrine and a lack of logistical support, the Red Army knew how to fight. Six mechanized corps rumbled forward to meet the panzers, and though the Germans eventually resumed their advance they did so at a cost in men, machines and time that ultimately doomed the risky gamble of Operation Barbarossa.
Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe is tightly focused on these battles: 42 scenarios all from the Brody-Dubno sector. The Germans attack, the Soviets attack, and sometimes both sides attack. Let’s continue our look at them.
Attack and Response
First Panzer Group’s staff expected 48th Motorized Corps to deliver the strongest blow to the opposing Soviet South-West Front. A salient in the German-Soviet border pointed directly at the small cities of Kremenets and Dubno lying astride the key rail artery heading south toward Odessa, and Ludwig Crüwell’s 11th Panzer Division moved up into this small bulge in the hours before the invasion, intent on bursting forward in the war’s first days. To assist the advance, Crüwell’s division had generous support from corps- and group-level assets, including motorized heavy artillery.
Werner’s Kempf’s corps also included 16th Panzer Division and 16th Motorized Division. All three divisions had been raised after the Battle of France, with 11th Panzer built around the veteran 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade and the other divisions formed by splitting the former 16th Infantry Division. The corps would also receive crucial support from the 88mm anti-aircraft guns of the German Air Force’s motorized Hermann Goering Regiment. Kempf placed the 11th Panzer at the head of his corps, with 16th Panzer following and 16th Motorized behind the tanks.
Crucial to the offensive’s success, 44th Infantry Corps’ divisions would hold the “shoulder” of the advance against Soviet counter-attacks from the south while those of 40th Infantry Corps marched behind the panzers to widen the breach.
The offensive in this sector would strike at the “seam” between the Soviet Fifth and Sixth Armies. Fifth Army held its section with 27th Rifle Corps, while Sixth Army had Fifth Cavalry Corps holding a section of the line and in the midst of handing over its positions to rifle divisions. Sixth Army had one key advantage over its neighbor; Stavka had approved the use of Maj. Gen. Andrei A. Vlasov’s powerful 4th Mechanized Corps for local counter-attacks in direct contravention of stated doctrine. That decision would hamper the looming Soviet counter-offensive by taking away the crack 8th Tank Division: the best-trained and best-equipped such formation in June 1941, with a full allotment of personnel and weapons and nearly 200 modern KV-1 and T-34 tanks. Like other tank divisions, however, it faced crucial shortages in transport vehicles which hampered deployment of its artillery and the timely re-supply of fuel and ammunition.
Immediately after the German onslaught, Sixth Army took command of two more mechanized corps, Dmitri Ryabyshev’s 8th and Ignati Karpezo’s15th. Fifteenth Corps included the potent 10th Tank Division, fully-equipped with tanks and personnel and, unusually for Red Army divisions, mustering 80 percent of its assigned transport vehicles. The division lacked sufficient mechanics and recovery vehicles, however, and lost many of its tanks to breakdowns before reaching the front.
The mechanized troops spent the first day of the war wandering behind the Soviet lines, often counter-marching in attempts to obey contradictory orders and pre-war plans. With three of the Red Army’s best divisions – 8th Tank, 10th Tank and 7th Mechanized – they still represented enormous potential fighting power. On the second day, the Soviet tankers began to strike.
Task Force Lysenko
23 June 1941
Sixth Army’s commander, Lt. Gen. I.N. Muzychenko, received permission to use his powerful IV Mechanized Corps in direct support of the rifle divisions and border troops under German attack rather than hold it in reserve for the counter-attacks demanded by Red Army doctrine. Lt. Col. Georgiy E. Lysenko of the 81st Mechanized Division, attached to the 32nd Tank Division, gathered his own battalion and two tank battalions to face the advancing Germans at Radekhiv.
The Soviets infantry and artillery fought hard for Radekhiv, but the poorly-coordinated tank battalions could add little to the effort despite their impressive machines. When the Germans broke into the town Lysenko ordered a retreat, knowing that the reinforcing 10th Tank Division was not far away.
In many other Panzer Grenadier games this would count as a fairly large tank battle with 19 tank platoons involved all told. Here’s it’s just of middling size with the Germans on the attack against Soviet defenders who include copious numbers of T-34 tanks and additional batteries of deadly 76.2mm guns.
Duel at Sabinovka
23 June 1941
On the morning of 23 June another battle group from 11th Panzer Division set out southward from the town of Stojanov with two tank companies in the lead. Near the village of Sabinovka they ran into the Soviet 10th Tank Division, one of the few Soviet armored units with thorough large-unit training behind it and a full complement of modern KV tanks. A gun duel began at 800-1,000 meters.
The Germans took the worst of the encounter, losing five tanks while watching their shells bounce off this previously-unreported new type of Soviet tank. The 10th Tank Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Sergei Y. Ogurtsov, reported that nothing could stop the KV tanks, but his division had no tractors with which to recover damaged vehicles. When a KV broke down, its crew had to abandon it and set it afire.
This one’s a pure shootout; the Soviets bring nothing to the table but a passel of T-34 and KV-1 tanks (no infantry, no lesser tanks, no artillery) and try to stop the Germans with sheer firepower. Given their guns and their armor, it might just work.
Counter-Stroke at Radekhiv
23 June 1941
Armed with Lysenko’s report of German tanks just outside Radekhiv, Maj. Gen. Sergei Y. Ogurtsov of 10th Tank Division hoped to fling his entire formation at them in a mass attack. One of his two tank regiments did not reach its assembly area on time, held up by German air attacks, and Ogurtsov decided not to wait for it and expose the rest of his division to the same treatment. Tenth Tank Division had undergone extensive large-unit training for just such an opportunity, but their commander eschewed maneuver and flung them into a brutal frontal assault.
The Soviets had numbers on their side and a marked superiority in armor quality. But they attacked in waves, aiming their tanks directly into the teeth of German defenses including 88mm anti-aircraft guns deployed in a ground role. The attack broke up and the Soviets left dozens of destroyed tanks behind. Exact losses are hard to determine, as it’s unclear if Lysenko’s task force from 32nd Tank Division was also present and the Germans may have included tanks destroyed in the morning battle in their claims. Whatever the exact result, 10th Tank Division had suffered a serious setback, made worse over the next few days as higher commands sent contradictory orders causing the division to wander aimlessly across the battlefield constantly losing tanks to mechanical breakdowns and air attacks.
Now we get into the serious tank battles, with 36 tank platoons mauling each other across four mapboards. This is real wargaming.
Seven Seven Seven Seven
26 June 1941
Twelfth Tank Division, like the rest of VIII Mechanized Corps, had spent the first several days of the Great Patriotic War wandering behind the Soviet lines as various levels of the high command issued and countermanded new attack plans. Finally drawn up for battle, having left behind many tanks along the roads thanks to breakdowns and German air attacks, the once-proud divisions prepared to punish the Hitlerite invaders. The attack began with the code phrase “Seven seven seven seven.”
Despite a number of inept tactical errors and a lack of artillery support – German air attacks had destroyed the artillery regiment’s prime movers – the Soviets managed to fight their way across the Slonovka and establish a bridgehead on its north bank. Slowly they brought their tanks across the rickety repaired bridge and cleared German anti-tank positions from the nearby areas. The advance could continue despite a number of tank losses and the reluctance of some tank crews to move their machines into the open.
The Soviets have a tough mission here, to drive the Germans off a strong river position with a very difficult crossing. The Germans start out pretty weak, so the Soviets will need to make some hay before the enemy reinforcements show up. That won’t be easy; the Soviets have no artillery and the Germans have plenty.
Tank Battle at Leshniv
26 June 1941
Having crossed the Slonovka, 12th Tank Division pressed on toward its objective of Leshniv. A number of tank crews remained reluctant to engage the enemy, but the division had brought its second tank regiment into action. The first flush of success against the Hitlerite invaders inspired even greater efforts in the fight for Leshniv. Both sides poured in reinforcements as the village changed hands several times amid bitter fighting.
The Soviets attacked with great enthusiasm, with tank crews smashing German anti-tank guns flat under their treads and closing with the German tanks to shoot it out at close range among the oat fields. The Germans fought hard to hold Leshniv, but the Soviets finally cleared all of the village and forced a retreat. The German panzer battalion that intervened inflicted heavy losses on the Soviets but did not deter them and it finally fled the battlefield as well. For a brief moment, the Red Army was performing as pre-war planners had envisioned.
Now that the Soviets are over the river, we have another large-scale tank battle with 34 tank platoons in action. Both sides even have air support. It’s another example of old-fashioned panzer-pushing wargame action.
26 June 1941
Protecting the left flank of VIII Mechanized Corps, the veteran 7th Mechanized Division jumped off its own attack across the River Styr. As the 7th Rifle Division, Col. A.V. Gerasimov’s unit had participated in the Soviet invasion of Poland and then won the Order of the Red Banner in the last month of the Russo-Finnish War. It retained a high proportion of combat veterans and unlike most other Red Army divisions the 7th Mechanized went into action at full strength, though it had yet to replace any of its old light tanks with modern types.
In one of the few opportunities the Red Army had during the first days of the Great Patriotic War to meet the Germans on an even basis, Gerasimov’s veteran division forced its way across the Styr at two points but could not widen those beachheads into a sustainable crossing. The 7th Mechanized Division, recruited just to the east of the battlefield, fought fanatically to drive the Hitlerite invaders out of its homeland but could not overcome the strength of the German defenses and weakness of its own armor.
This is a big scenario, with large infantry forces on both sides and large-scale tank support for the Soviets. Both sides have air support, and plenty of artillery. The Germans have to protect a long stretch of river, and the Soviets want to get across and expand their bridgeheads. Seventh Mechanized Division is one of the few Soviet formations able to match the Germans on even terms.
Heavy Tank Attack
26 June 1941
On the right flank of VIII Mechanized Corps, 34th Tank Division lumbered forward with the huge T-35 “land battleships” displayed before the war in the Red Army’s military parades in Moscow. A showpiece unit, the 34thTank Division therefore had a much greater proportion of experienced tank crews than other Red Army formations, but the T-35 had never been mechanically reliable and age had not improved its service rate. Most of the big tanks had been left behind as they broke down; the survivors now finally went into action.
The German sources relied on by Western authors until the late 1990’s make few references to the huge T-35 in combat, but the Soviet records show them in action in these battles. Or at least attempting to get into action. Many of the huge tanks broke down along the way, and of those that made it, more of them fell victim to German anti-tank guns. The 34th Tank Division made considerably less progress than its sister 12th Tank Division, but it also suffered considerably fewer casualties in the process.
The Soviets are on the attack against German infantry with their pitiful 37mm anti-tank guns. The Red Army has its T35 land battleships in action – if they don’t break down first.
Ride to Dubno
26 June 1941
On the afternoon of 22 June, Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos of South West Front began to correctly suspect that the Germans meant to surround his forces in and around Lviv. With limited reserves to block such a move, he looked to the cavalry divisions near the front – they had the needed mobility, but were not suited for the armored counter-attacks demanded by pre-war doctrine. Fourteenth Cavalry Division rode for a line along the River Ikva, arriving on the 24th when they began to dig in. “Do not allow the enemy,” Kirponos ordered, “to advance to the east, south or south-east.” Two days later, the Germans appeared as Kirponos had foreseen.
Given time to prepare their positions, Maj. Gen. V.D. Kryuchenkin’s Red horsemen put up a formidable defense based on their light artillery. The German recon troops made repeated attempts to force their way across the river, succeeding several times only to be thrown back by tank-led counter-attacks. The Red Army had not forgotten how to fight.
Not may Panzer Grenadier scenarios get their own theme song (at least a couple of others have them). The Soviet cavalry is on the defensive against German recon troops, making for a very different fight than all of these tank battles.
Fortune Favors the Inept
27 June 1941
After 12th Tank Division’s successes on the 26th, the division broke off the attack and withdrew. The corps commander and commissar blamed South West Front’s commander and chief commissar for the debacle; conveniently, the political officer killed himself not long after and the front commander was killed in action. Whatever the reason for the withdrawal, the corps staff ordered 34th Tank Division, which had not moved, to shift to the right and attack immediately together with whatever troops and tanks from 12th Tank and 7th Mechanized Divisions could be collected, ready or not.
Led by corps commissar Nikolai Popel, the armored battle group surged northward expecting to meet another fearsome German defensive position. Instead, they accidentally plunged into the gap between two German divisions and found only a scratch force thrown together by First Panzer Group from the 16th Panzer Division’s recon and anti-tank battalions. The Soviets shredded the weak German effort and pushed on toward Dubno. But the Red God of War is fickle.
The land battleships are at it again, this time against a German recon force without heavy anti-tank support. There are fewer of the massive vehicles left, but the fragile ones were left behind over the previous days. It’s still a challenge for the Red Army, as they’re expected to take maximum advantage of their opportunity.
And that’s the second chapter of Fire in the Steppe. Personally, I think it has the best scenario set in all of Panzer Grenadier.
You can order Fire in the Steppe right here.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.