The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid 1942
On 19 November 1942 Soviet forces launched their carefully prepared counter-offensive against the over-extended German, Rumanian, and Italian forces which had pushed to the frontiers of Asia. By 24 November the Red Army had encircled the German 6th Army, elements of the 4th Panzer Army in Stalingrad itself and to the west, destroyed the 4th Rumanian Army, pushed back the 3rd Rumanian Army to the River Chir and created a gap between the Germany Army Group B in the north and Army Group A in the Caucasus. On the same day Hitler declared that Stalingrad was to be a `fortress’, to maintain its position relying on air resupply which Goering had promised with colossal over-optimism.
This air resupply line presented a clear parallel with the railway lines of former wars. The German forces in the pocket required 600 tonnes of resupply for normal existence with 300 tonnes as the bare minimum. Bad weather, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and fighters combined to prevent even this being attained, the average daily delivery being just over 100 tonnes. From the relative safety of the Germany Army Group, or so the Germans thought, `Don’ aircraft would leave Tatsinskaya airfield, with about 40 kilometres to the next field south of Morozovsk, then another 40 to one south of Chernishkovskiy, and then 150 kilometres over Soviet-held territory to the beleaguered pocket itself.
During the course of the November counter-offensive the Soviet Supreme High Command had initiated plans for a more wide-ranging operation by forces of the South-West Front and the left wing of the Voronezh Front to destroy the enemy on the middle Don and to pursue the offensive towards Kamensk and Rostov. This operation was to be called `Saturn’, and involved the destruction of the 8th Italian Army, the operational group `Hollidt’ and the remnants of the 3rd Rumanian Army. However, the offensive by the Germany Army Group `Don’ with the aim of relieving Stalingrad, which began on 12 December forced the Soviet High Command to revise its plan. Instead of a deep strike against Rostov, the Soviets now planned to send their main forces south east to destroy Army Group `Don’. This was called `Little Saturn’. First and Third Guards Armies of the South-West Front would form two encircling pincers, one striking from south of Verkhny Mamon and the other from Bokovskiy, and converging on Tatsinskaya and Morozovsk. Sixth Army of the Voronezh Front (transferred to the SouthWest Front on 19 December) would support the main attack from the west. Tatsinskaya was a target both because of its nature as an air and rail communications centre and because of its position in relation to the forces engaged.
The Middle Don operation began on 16 December. The objective was to destroy the encircled enemy groupings on the southern bank of the Don by day four. The tank and mechanized corps would take the lead in particular 1st Guards Army’s 24th Tank Corps which was given Tatsinskaya as its objective to be taken by 24 December and 25th Tank Corps, targeted on Morozovsk, the other key airfield on the Stalingrad route. These objectives were clearly defined before the offensive, as was that of 6th Army’s 17th Tank Corps, which was to cover the right flank and drive for Kantemirovka. Seventeenth Tank Corps would then continue to the airfield at Millerovo, which it would attack in concert with 18th Tank Corps by 24 December.
Meanwhile, from 12 December, prior to the operation, Soviet Front aviation (17th Air Army) launched attacks on Millerovo and Tatsinskaya airfields and the railroad junction at Likhaya. Immediately before the operation they attacked Tatsinskaya, Morozovsk and the railroad between the latter and Likhaya. Night bombers attacked enemy headquarters and reserves.
First Guards Army was deployed in two echelons for the attack, the three Tank corps (18th, 24th, 25th) forming the second `breakthrough exploitation echelon’. The Tank Corps themselves were also deployed in two echelons before their insertion. Eighteenth and 25th Corps were committed to battle on 17 December and 24th Corps on 18 December. The latter coincided with the collapse of 8th Italian Army two days after the beginning of the Soviet offensive. Twenty-fourth Tank Corps under Major-General Badanov tore into the gap created by the Italian collapse and on towards its distant objective. By 19 December, 17th, 18th, 24th and 25th Tank and 1st Mechanized Corps were cutting through German support elements and driving south-east in order to cut off the enemy’s withdrawal routes to the south-west.
German air made strenuous efforts to check the swift advance of 24th and 25th Tank Corps. On 24 December alone the Luftwaffe launched 500 sorties against 25th Tank Corps. By this time, the mobile groups were over 100 kilometres ahead of their supporting infantry, and had covered a total distance of up to 240 kilometres.
Supplies for the Stalingrad pocket were brought into Tatsinskaya by both air and rail. They were stockpiled on the airfield and at the train station. Defending this key point were some 120 men of 62nd infantry division. The Germans had, apparently, realized that Soviet mobile forces might interrupt operations, but requests to move the airlift further west were refused. There were 180 Ju-52 transport planes on the field which, together with the He-111 bombers at the Morozovsk airfield, comprised the entire airflift capability for the Stalingrad pocket. At 0530 on Christmas Eve the tank corps’ artillery opened up with a brief barrage, after which Soviet tanks rushed the airfield.
Twenty-fourth Tank Corps launched a concentric attack, – indeed, Marshal Rokossovskiy later commented on the corps’ widespread use of enveloping movements. Fourth Guards and 130 Tank brigades attacked Tatsinskaya from the line of march simultaneously from the north-west, east and south. A tank battalion from 130 brigade attacked the station and destroyed 50 German aircraft with all their fuel. Immediately afterwards, tanks overran the airfield proper from north and south, shooting up aircraft or driving over them. Fifty-fourth Brigade attacked the outskirts of Tatsinskaya town from the west and by the evening of 24 December the German forces surrounded in the area had been destroyed. However, some 124 aircraft managed to take off and a proportion of the Germans got away. Nevertheless, the effect on the already inadequate Stalingrad airlift was noticeable.
The Germans reacted swiftly. On 24 December, even before the airfield and surrounding area was completely in Soviet hands, an advance detachment of 6th Panzer division recaptured the area north of Tatsinskaya. Sixth Panzer closed in, with 11th Panzer and 306 Infantry Division moving in from the east. By 27 December 24th Tank Corps had been encircled, and frantic radio messages in clear calling for 1st Guards Army to come to the rescue of the corps were to no avail. The corps had been refuelled from motor fuel and lubricants captured at the airfield but was dreadfully short of ammunition. An urgent radio message from Badanov on 27 December, and by 2300 hours on the same day Soviet aircraft had dropped 450 artillery shells, 4,500 rounds of rifle and 6,000 of submachine gun ammunition. The official restricted Soviet General Staff deductions from the operation considered that it had only been possible to drop such limited quantities of ammunition because no provision had been made in advance for the resupply of a corps engaged in exploitation of a breakthrough, although `the possibility of fighting in an encirclement had to be expected’.The General Staff went so far as to assert that `had it been possible for the Corps to receive larger quantities of ammunition it would have been quite able to bring into action its 39 T-34 and 19 T-70 tanks and hold out until the arrival of 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps which, by 29 December, had moved into the areas of Kachalin and Lesnoy. 140 By the night of 28 December 24th Tank Corps had no working tanks left and was running out of ammunition. The final hours were savage, the wounded on both sides freezing to death where they fell. Some of the Soviet troops, including general Badanov himself, managed to escape and rejoin their own forces; the rest perished.
Vatutin, commanding the South-West Front, ordered 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps to relieve Badanov, but it was too late. However, 24th Tank Corps’ achievement was undeniable. According to Soviet sources, in the ten days (18-27 December) of the operation the Corps killed over 11,000 enemy troops, destroyed 84 tanks and 431 aircraft. It also took 4,800 prisoners although it is not known what the Russians did with them and how, or whether, they were evacuated from the battle zone. The corps was renamed 2nd Guards Tank Corps during the final desperate hours of the fight at Tatsinskaya and on 27 January 1943 received the honorific title `Tatsinskiy’. Its destruction was a tactical reverse for the Russians but the corps was not such a large element of its parent army that its loss was unbearable. `The vacuum created by the loss of Italian 8th Army still existed and the destruction of 24th Tank Corps only eliminated the vanguard of one of the South-Western Front’s advancing armies.’ The corps had been the spearhead of a thrust which, if successful, could have isolated Army Group A which was actually of greater military importance than the Stalingrad airlift. The Germans were also trying to relieve the Stalingrad pocket simultaneously and diverting 48th Panzer Corps against Tatsinskaya left only 57th Panzer to attempt to break the Stalingrad encirclement. The Russians were therefore able to use all their available reserves in the immediate Stalingrad area against the relief attempt. The synergic effect of a Mobile Group penetration and main forces operations is thus emphasized.
On the other hand, the way the Germans dealt with 24th Tank Corps’ penetration is exemplary with a view to countering such deep attack formations in future. First, the Tank Corps (Mobile Group) was isolated from its parent forces (1st Guards Army) and, indeed, from any other OMG-type formations operating in the enemy depth (25th Tank Corps, for example). Next, it was fixed in place while information was obtained about its composition and nature, and simultaneously encircled. Finally, it was eliminated by a series of `well planned, simultaneous and co-ordinated combined arms attacks’. This denied the Soviet commander the opportunity to shift forces to deal with a succession of attacks. These attacks, by their violence and speed, also capitalized on the psychological vulnerability of a force surrounded and cut off in the enemy rear. On the other hand, the fact that they were `deep in a hostile land’ and had `no alternative’, as Sun Tzu realized, almost certainly made the Russians fight harder – until they ran out of ammunition, at any rate.
Twenty-fourth Tank Corps was not strongly reinforced with other arms of service: only an extra Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment and Rocket Launcher battalion were attached. Had it been more strongly reinforced with infantry, artillery, engineer, or other specialist units, its ability to fight in the enemy depth would have been enhanced significantly. Substantial, dedicated air support would also have increased its resilience. The need to reinforce deep-penetration formations and increase self reliance was reorganized and acknowledged in the official General Staff deductions from the experience, published in autumn 1943. As well as acknowledging the potential value of air resupply organized in advance, the General Staff noted that most of the corps experienced shortages of motor fuel because the distance between supply bases and advanced mobile formations reached unexpected lengths although the most advanced of all, 24th was able to top up its reserves from the airfield it captured. The General Staff also noted that the Corps’ organic equipment was insufficient for salvaging brokendown transport or fighting vehicles. The experience suggested `the necessity for reinforcing Corps operating far away from and without direct contact with the main forces with salvage companies equipped with powerful tractors’.
The General Staff also drew lessons for the handling in battle and overall composition of mobile groups. In most cases, they had been inserted while the enemy was still holding out and this led to unacceptable casualties: 25th Tank Corps, for example, lost 27 tanks on unreconnoitred minefields. The corps had not been supported by aircraft in the breakthrough phrase: in future, such co-operation should be planned on an army or front scale. When mobile forces were acting in the operational depth, fighter and ground-attack aircraft should be controlled by the Tank or Mechanized Corps commander. The experience also taught that the Tank or Mechanized Corps’ action was bound to achieve more success if their initial successes were exploited and consolidated by infantry. Motorized infantry or cavalry should therefore be organized for this purpose. In order to insure the continuous effectiveness of a thrust throughout the entire depth of the operation, Tank and Mechanized Corps should be merged into one mobile group comprising several corps (not less than two, at least one mechanized and the rest tank) and this group should be committed by echelons – two or even three. It would be more difficult to form and weld together an improvised Headquarters than in the case of infantry, and this suggested that Tank Corps Headquarters should be configured and receive their battle training as component parts of mobile groups. The train of thought leading to larger mobile groups and Tank Armies is clear:
The operation carried out by the South West Front in the Middle Don area serves as an example of such employment of Mobile Groups. The experience has shown that an operation o f this kind can be accomplished only by a group o f Corps placed under a unified command or merged into one Tank Army.