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John D Salt

This is my own translation of the latter (Kotluban’-relevant) parts of http://tankfront.ru/ussr/tbr/bp/tbr012.html which is an extract from “Tank march”, by Filipp Mikhailovich Zharkov.

(Parentheses) and ellipses… are used as in the original text
[brackets] are used to indicate translator’s notes

Despite the fact my Russian dictionaries are still in boxes somewhere, I have high confidence in the accuracy of this translation thanks to the various automated translation assistants available at LexiLogos http://www.lexilogos.com/english/russian_translation.htm of which Google’s seems to be best (though it is often useful to compare the efforts of two different translators).

Tonight I think I shall lift a glass in memory of the tanks crews of 12th Tank Brigade.

[~1,800 words]

From “Tank march”, Filipp Mikhailovich Zharkov:

Having completed a 250km approach march, 12th Tank Brigade received the order to concentrate in the area of Kotluban’ settlement, and prepare for a counter-attack towards Stalingrad from the north as part of 1st Guards Army to join up with 62nd Army. On the brigade’s strength were 22 T-34 tanks and 13 T-70 light tanks. I was appointed deputy commander of the 1st battalion (the battalion commander was Captain Troshin).

After unloading on the steppe, the brigade set off under a scorching sun to its designated location. During the early period of the war, it was usual to control the tank not by intercomm from the turret, but personally, sitting on the mudguard to the right of the driver. This method led to the death of our platoon commander. He could not stay on the mudguard when the tank ran over an obstacle in the road, and fell under the tracks… A similar case happened to me in the Ukraine in 1941, when I was sitting on a box of MG drums on a tank. The tank drove over an AT mine, throwing me eight metres and concussing me slightly.

Kotluban’ is a railway station connecting the North of the Stalingrad from with the rear to the West of Stalingrad. Around Kotluban’, 12th Brigade disposed itself in the Sukhoi Karkagon balka, where the wounded were subsequently taken for initial treatment. The Medical Platoon was commanded by Military Doctor Marina Mikhailovna Glotskaya, who, as I remember, went about with her big sheep-dog.

The German troops to the South of Kotluban’ station were deployed in positions ideal for defence. The forward line of defence ran through the crest of the heights, and these, as well as all movements in depth, were covered by German flak artillery positions. From these heights the surrounding area could be beautifully observed for many kilometres…

As part of the preparation for the offensive operation, the Red Army’s Head of Armoured Troops, General Ya N Fedorenko, arrived to organize the brigade’s cooperation with infantry and artillery. Tank men were invited into the staff bus, where there stood a table with Cognac and zakuski [snacks] (but not for us)…

I recall that the personnel of the brigade had been through a lot at this time with the disease tularaemia [rabbit fever] transmitted by the mice which abounded in these parts. In order to escape the mice, at night we parked our vehicles with the wheels in the water of a stream.

While we were finding our forming-up positions before the attack, German air heavily bombed our positions. They came in waves, and bombed methodically. Once bombs fell on a dump of “Katyusha” rockets. The munitions began to tear about low across the ground. We found it necessary to take cover smartly in our tanks. On the whole, the vast superiority of the enemy’s air strength was evident even during the days of preparation for the attack. What’s more, in such a completely open district, it was no effort for the German airmen to observe our movements and so prepare their defences beforehand.

Early in the morning of 18th September the 1st Guards Army went over to the offensive, following artillery preparation and a massive application of rocket artillery. No-man’s-land was about 400 metres wide. From the very beginning, morning and evening, enemy aircraft flew over us and methodically bombed the attacking troops. At this time I was at the command post of a regiment of the 292nd Rifle Division to update our combined actions. As a result of fierce fighting by detached elements, the tanks of our 12th Brigade, together with infantry, had progressed 3 to 5 kilometres in the direction of Pitomnik; but they were met by massed fire from German flak, and suffered significant losses. The rifle division attacking with the brigade was separated from the tanks, and suffered losses, as a result of artillery fire and air action.

There was no communication between the tank crews and artillery command posts. The brigade commander, Colonel A S Kirnos, was wounded when his CP was bombed. I also remember that during the attack Captain Troshin, commander of the 1st battalion, placed the battalion mascot [“foster-child”] Kolya [“Nicky”] in his tank. After the tank was hit, Troshin, at nightfall, sent Kolya out through the escape hatch with a report, then after dark left the area himself. In this battle about 25 tanks of the brigade were brewed up, and the commander of 2nd Battalion, Captain Padalka, was killed, together with his deputy, Captain Koval, and the battalion Commissar, Postnikov. A few tanks succeeded in withdrawing. The fate of those tanks that had broken into the German defences, and their crews, was unknown to me…

Later, I read in the recollections of Marshal K S Moskalenko that during the attack of 1st Guards Army from Kotluban’ station to the south on 18th September, at around 11 o’clock “Six tanks of 12th Tank Brigade (commander: Colonel V M Badanov), operating together with Major-General S V Lishenkov’s 292nd Rifle Division, fought through to Borodkin farm…” There is a discrepancy here; Colonel A S Kirnos had already been in command of the brigade for half a year.

This phase of the battle is described in more detail in the memoirs of S P Ivanov, chief of staff of 1st Guards Army: “We reported this success to G K Zhukov, who was present at one of our observation posts. By way of response, he demanded that 292nd Infantry Divison, and the accompanying 12th Tank Brigade, should expedite their attack towards Borodkin Farm.

I contacted the 12th Brigade commander, Colonel A S Kirnos, by radio, and passed on to him the directions of the Supreme Commander’s representative.

“I have six tanks”, reported Kirnos, “already broken through to Borodkin Farm. I hope, with infantry support, to be able to clear it completely.”

“And what about Hill 145.5?”

“I’m dealing with Borodkin”, said the Kombrig curtly.

“Give fire support on to the entrenched positions on that hill, and the infantry will take it”, I said.

“What’s this Kirnos chap getting steamed up about? Let me have a chat with him” cut in the Red Army’s Head of Armoured Troops, General Ya N Fedorenko, who had just arrived at the CP.

When Yakov Nikolaevich [Fedorenko] addressed the Kombrig, you could hear the steel notes in his voice:

“Kirnos! Your tanks must hold Borodkin until the infantry arrive, and your fire will help Zubarev to take Hill 145.5”.

There was a pause, then the Kombrig answered shortly:

“Wilco, Comrade General”.

Further on in S P Ivanov’s book we read: “Here are some facts concerning the courage of troops from other formations. During the attack on 18th September, Lieutenant Gribanov’s AFV, from 12th tank brigade, broke through into the enemy rear. Sowing panic there, his crew destroyed three anti-tank guns, an ammunition truck and up to 50 Hitlerites. It engaged three enemy tanks, and knocked out one of them. Nonetheless the enemy set our AFV on fire. Then Gribanov rescued two wounded comrades from the burning tank, and helped them to reach the regimental aid post…”

It is recorded in Unteroffizier Helmut Kronenbruck’s reminiscences of the time:

“On 11th September 1942 we arrived at Pitomnik aerodrome in the Stalingrad district. The aerodrome was a huge field in the steppe. No trees grew round about, except for a small grove in Pitomnik village. It was about 20 kilometres to Stalingrad. To the front line was about 15. The nearest part of the front line was never more than 15 km from Pitomnik… on the 18th September the Russians broke through the front in the area of Kotluban’, and Russian tanks got to a distance of 5 kilometres from Pitomnik. The alarm was sounded on the aerodrome. Weapons were issued. Everybody stood to. The flak gunners prepared their weapons for surface direct fire… by lunch time, the news came that the Russian breakthrough had been eliminated, and life on the aerodrome resumed its previous course.”

So, it seems that all the tanks of 12th Brigade that broke through the enemy first line apparently turned East, fought their way to Borodkin farm, and then around the middle of the day, in the absence of friendly infantry, were brewed up by German artillery. The names of these heroic tank men can no longer be determined.

In the evening of the same day I was appointed commander of the 2nd battalion by order of the brigade chief of staff M G Fomichev (later twice Hero of the Soviet Union) and given the order to prepare for a night attack in cooperation with the division on this attack sector.

All four remaining tanks of 12th Brigade were consolidated into one company. T-34 tanks were not suitable for night fighting, not being equipped at that time with night vision devices, so the tanks’ move out to the forward line was accomplished with the help of guides. At the beginning of the night attack, when the tanks had to be led to their jumping off positions, it became apparent that most of the infantry of the infantry division that attacked earlier had been killed or wounded. I well remember the mass of bodies lying on our positions and out in no-man’s-land. However, “useful” experience was gained in the conduct of night attacks; bonfires, lit in our rear, were used for orientation in the darkness for both the attack and withdrawal.

According to archive data, the tank formations of 1st Guards Army, which numbered 340 tanks at the start of the offensive, had only 183 runners left by September 20th, including replacements. “Only 433 citations for acts of outstanding bravery in action were made to higher authority for the September attacks of 1st Guards Army. Very many acts of bravery in these inexpressibly hard conditions remain, unfortunately, unrecorded.”

This counter-attack, with heavy losses, did not succeed in eliminating the German breakthrough towards the Volga. Furthermore, it is noted in the recollections of N I Krilov, Chief of Staff of 62nd Army: “The supposition that the operations of Soviet forces to the north of the city would force the enemy to withdraw some forces from Stalingrad (and at one time the front staff seemed for some reason convinced that this was already happening) was at this time unfortunately not justified. At best our army received a brief respite from aerial bombing, and not a complete one at that. Fascist aircraft did not disappear completely, but were reduced. But the onslaught of enemy ground forces did not weaken. It quickly became clear that not a single infantry or tank unit operating on the 62nd Army front was ever transferred away…”

The remnants of our 12th Tank Brigade were taken after action, it seems, to the village of Fastov, 15 km from Kotluban’, and handed over the remaining tanks to another formation.

Subsequently the commanders and battalion staffs of 12th Tank Brigade were transferred, at the end of November 1942, to the area of Razboishchino station, near Saratov, for re-formation.