The Luga Position


Although there were far fewer T-34s and KV heavy tanks on the battlefield by mid-July 1941, the ones that did appear tended to be more dangerous since now they were fully armed and fueled, and had drivers with some experience. The Kirov plant in Leningrad was building more than forty KV tanks a week and the Northwest Front was receiving many of these. Furthermore, there were many re-called reservists with combat experience from the Russo-Finnish War and the best of these were used to form KV crews. The fact that Kampfgruppe Raus was forced to use such ad hoc desperation tactics to stop a single KV tank attack indicates the increasingly evident inadequacy of German tank and anti-tank weaponry.

After an advance of over 400km in less than three weeks, a combination of stiffening Soviet resistance, adverse terrain and supply problems brought Generaloberst Erich Höpner’s Panzergruppe 4 advance to a virtual halt. It would take almost three weeks for Reinhardt’s corps to get sufficient supplies and reinforcements to break out of its Luga River bridgeheads. The stubborn Soviet defense at Luga bought Leningrad almost an additional month to prepare its defenses. After the Battle of Soltsy, both the 1st and 10th Mechanized Corps were dissolved, but part of the 1st Tank Division (minus one tank regiment and its motorized rifle regiment) was returned to Leningrad from the northern Finnish front on 17-19 July. The division remained in reserve near Krasnogvardeysk for the rest of July and into early August, receiving replacements and twelve new KV-1 tanks from the Kirov plant. By early August, the Northwest Front had about 250 operational tanks left: the 24th Tank Division at Luga (less than 100 BT-2 light tanks), a few tank detachments from the disbanded mechanized corps (about fifty-100 mixed BT and T-26) and the 1st Tank Division (sixty-eighty tanks).

Large-scale armoured warfare did not resume on the Leningrad front until 8 August. General der Panzertruppen Georg-Hans Reinhardt ‘s XXXXI Armeekorps (mot.) began its breakout from its bridgehead near Kingisepp, while General der Infanterie Erich von Manstein’s LVI Armeekorps (mot.) made a direct frontal assault on the Luga position. The 24th Tank Division committed individual platoons of light tanks to support the 41st Rifle Corps at Luga, but Voroshilov held most of his remaining armour back for the first few days, uncertain whether it would be needed to counterattack any German breakthroughs. In the breakthrough battle, Höpner’s panzers were aided by the arrival of several German infantry divisions, but heavy fighting lasted along the Luga line for two weeks. Marshal Kliment Voroshilov C-in C (July to August 1941) Northwestern Direction began committing the 1st Tank Division in bits and pieces, but a detachment sent to aid the defense of Kingisepp was ambushed by Reinhardt’s panzers and lost twenty-eight tanks on 11 August, including eleven KV heavy tanks. The Soviets claimed eleven German tanks in this action. However, the 1st Tank Division was able to make good some of its losses, including five more KV tanks and four of the new T-50 light tank (of which only sixty-nine were built).

The Luga position was gradually enveloped as Reinhardt enlarged his Kingisepp bridgehead in the west and other German forces captured Staraya Russa and Novgorod in the east. The Soviets briefly managed to divert German attention away from the main battleground by launching their own bold counterattack at Staraya Russa, which encircled X Armeekorps on 16 August and forced Höpner to dispatch von Manstein to rescue the trapped German infantry. Meanwhile, Reinhardt’s panzers finally crushed Soviet infantry around Kingisepp then pushed eastward toward Moloskovitsy, where there was a head-on clash between the 1. Panzer-Division and General-major Viktor I. Baranov’s 1st Tank Division on 15 August. Baranov was one of the most experienced senior Soviet tank leaders, having commanded a tank battalion in the Spanish Civil War and then a tank brigade in the Russo-Finnish War, where he was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union (HSU) for his role in breaking through the Mannerheim Line. However, the Battle of Moloskovitsy went badly for the Soviet tankers, who lost fifty-two of sixty-five tanks, including six KV, four T-28, thirty-two BT-7, six T-50 and four T-26, and the division was forced to retreat to Krasnogvardeysk. Baranov claimed that his tankers inflicted the loss of 103 tanks and forty-one antitank guns upon Reinhardt’s corps, but the Germans were not seriously damaged. Once in Krasnogvardeysk, which was a strongly fortified position blocking access to Leningrad, the 1st Tank Division received additional new-built tanks and trained reservists to replace its losses. The division was reorganized into a three battalion armoured group with a total of fifty-nine tanks. Baranov put the thirty-four-year-old Kapitan Iosif B. Spiller in command of his 1st Tank Battalion, which had twenty newly-built KV tanks. Spiller was another very experienced Soviet tanker, with prior combat experience against both the Japanese and the Finns. Contrary to the mass of English-language, German-influenced historiography which often depicts Soviet tankers as untrained and unskilled buffoons, the Red Army did in fact possess men who were every bit as experienced and capable as their opponents.

After the debacle at Moloskovitsy, Baranov decided to avoid large-scale battles with Höpner’s panzers, since Red Army tank units were not yet ready to employ combined arms warfare. Instead, Baranov opted to use his tanks in platoon-size ambushes to disrupt and delay the German advance toward Leningrad. It took Reinhardt’s panzers three days to advance 30km on the road from Kingisepp to the outskirts of Krasnogvardeysk, being engaged daily by Baranov’s tankers employing `shoot `n scoot’ ambush tactics. Höpner transferred the 8. PanzerDivision, recovered after its defeat at Soltsy, to Reinhardt’s corps, where it was made the vanguard on 18 August. Spiller was tasked with defending the outskirts of Krasnogvardeysk and he deployed a platoon of five KV-1 tanks under Leytenant Zinoviy G. Kolobanov just west of the city, along the route that 8. Panzer-Division was approaching. On the morning of 19 August, Kolobanov’s KV-1s, which were the `ekranami’ model with extra 35mm-thick armour plates welded on the turret, waited hull-down in ambush.  Once again, the 8. PanzerDivision demonstrated a propensity for falling into enemy ambushes and a certain tactical mediocrity, as its lead kampfgruppe drove straight into the kill zone unaware. Kolobanov’s five KV-1s opened fire at a range of 450 meters, engaging the lead elements of the Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 59 (reconnaissance battalion) and quickly destroyed an assortment of armoured cars, half-tracks and wheeled vehicles. Panzerjäger-Abteilung 43 tried to deploy its 3.7cm and 5cm Pak into firing positions on the road, but Kolobanov easily blasted them to pieces with high explosive rounds and then hosed down the survivors with his 7.62mm coax machine-gun. The III./Panzer Regiment 10 managed to get a company or more into action, but its Pz. 38(t) and Pz. IV could not defeat Kolobanov’s platoon. Kolobanov’s tank was hit repeatedly without being knocked out, although his sights were eventually demolished and his turret jammed. He broke off the action after firing his entire basic load of ninety-eight rounds. The Soviets claimed that Kolobanov’s platoon had destroyed forty-two German tanks, including twenty-two by Kolobanov himself, without a single KV-1 being lost. While Soviet kill claims were exaggerated by counting every AFV as a tank, there was little doubt that General Erich Brandenberger’s 8. Panzer-Division had gotten another bloody nose. The KV had also demonstrated that it was an excellent defensive tank.

Despite Baranov’s efforts, the Germans managed to encircle and destroy the Luga group by 24 August. Von Manstein crushed the Soviet counterattack at Staraya Russa, inflicting heavy losses. Even worse, the OKH transferred General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Armeekorps (mot.) from Heeresgruppe Mitte to Heeresgruppe Nord to reinforce the final drive on Leningrad. Schmidt’s two mobile divisions, 12. Panzer-Division and 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) quickly proved their worth by severing the main Moscow-Leningrad rail line and beginning a drive toward the vital rail-junction at Mga, to complete the isolation of Leningrad. Baranov’s tankers continued to assist in repelling German panzer attacks upon Krasnogvardeysk, claiming the destruction of another thirty German tanks by the end of August, but admitted the loss of twenty-eight of their own tanks (eleven KV, four T-28, one T-34, three BT-7, nine T-26). Despite Baranov’s best efforts, Höpner had a significant numerical edge in armour on the Leningrad front by late August and there were no major Red Army tank units left to stop Schmidt’s steamroller advance. On 30 August, Generalmajor Josef Harpe’s 12. Panzer-Division captured Mga, cutting off Leningrad’s last ground link with the outside world. However, Harpe had not arrived quickly enough to prevent the machinery and thousands of workers from the Kirov plant (Zavod 100) from escaping through Mga by rail to Chelyabinsk, where they reestablished the KV-1 production line.

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2 thoughts on “The Luga Position

  1. Interesting to read about the `shoot `n scoot’ tactics – how did this work? I presume that Baranov’s tanks weren’t in hull-down defensive positions – did they arrive to engage the German columns, and then quickly retreat?

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  2. Interesting to read of Baranov’s hit and run tactics. I presume that his tanks weren’t in hull-down defensive positions, but instead were mobile and surprised the German units? How many tanks were used in a typical hit and run attack?

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