The 5th Guards Tank Corps was given another break in reserve, its brigades now being filled up only with T-34s (no more T-70s were assigned to it) while its heavy tank regiment was rebuilt with fifteen more Churchills. Then, on October 3, 1943, it received urgent orders to advance to reinforce the 38th Army in its meager bridgehead over the Dnepr River north of Kiev. In order to do so the corps had to first cross the Desna River. Haste was in order, as the 38th Army had its back to the mighty Dnepr and was under tank attack. But there were no bridges remaining over the Desna and it would take eight to ten days to build heavy enough bridges to cross a tank army. What was to be done?
Dangerous situations call for dangerous solutions, so rather than wait for a bridge to be built, the 5th Guards Tank Corps decided to do without one. First a path to the Desna through the marshy woods on its banks had to be found. Leading the way was the 20th Guards Tank Brigade. Then, with the help of local farmers and fishermen, engineers reconnoitered the river bottom and found a flat sandy place fairly free of obstacles. The tankers were then ordered to prepare their tanks by making greased tubes of canvas for the exhaust pipes, and to fill in every chink and crevasse in the tanks with oakum and grease. Then, with only the driver and commander aboard, the former with his hatch fastened and waterproofed and the latter standing in the turret to direct the blind driver, the tanks began to ford the river, underwater! Even more astonishing, only a few tanks flooded out and no crew were lost. The few tanks that flooded were towed out of the river and the whole corps, some ninety tanks, proceeded to the bank of the Dnepr. With the exception of a few German operations with specifically designed amphibious tanks, nothing like this had ever been done before. Fortunately several damaged barges were found on the Dnepr shore, and these, rapidly repaired, were put into service as a ferry while rafts were constructed to move trucks, men, and guns across. By dawn of October 6th Kravchenko had sixty tanks in the Lyutezh Bridgehead, on the west side of the wide Dnepr River.
The first man across the river was Colonel Stepan F. Shutov, since the sixteenth of September the commander of the 20th Guards Tank Brigade. Colonel Shutov, who was to command the brigade for the next year of triumphs, had a special desire to return to Kiev where he had been stationed before the war. His wife and two sons had not been evacuated from Kiev before it fell to the Germans in 1941. The Colonel and his troops had some scores to settle. Even before all elements of the corps crossed the river, General Kravchenko received orders to conduct a raid out of the bridgehead. With the troops of General Chibisov’s 38th Army, the tankers lunged out, rapidly expanding the bridgehead. General Kravchenko sent his men in a thrust across the Irpen River to Makarov, less than two miles north of the main Kiev-Zhitomir highway, a main German supply route.
Unfortunately as the tankers thrust into the German rear, the Germans attacked the southern edge of the bridgehead just north of Kiev along the bank of the Dnepr. Reluctantly the tank corps was withdrawn back into the bridgehead proper to help repulse the German attacks. While the Germans had been very slow to identify the 5th Guards Tank Corps, only confirming its presence in the bridgehead on October 12, they were quick to brag about its withdrawal. Leaflets dropped on Soviet lines crowed about the “destruction” of the corps and its “240 tanks”. Seeing the leaflet, Kravchenko harrumpfed that if he had 240 tanks he wouldn’t be going for Makarov, hell, he’d be going for Berlin!
Failing to breakout from the larger bridgehead south of Kiev at Velikye Bukrin, Voronezh Front (soon to be renamed 1st Ukrainian) secretly shifted General Pavel Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army into the Lyutezh Bridgehead, followed by a rifle corps and an artillery corps, as well as other forces. Once again the Germans missed the massing of Soviet forces, and were subject to a nasty surprise on November 3rd.
A massive barrage was followed by an assault out of the Lyutezh bridgehead. The 3rd Guards Tank Army and 38th Army, now under General Moskalenko, smashed the thin German front and fought their way through the counter attacking German panzer reserves. In the final attack that produced the breakthrough both Rybalko’s and Kravchenko’s tankers were ordered to turn on their headlights and sirens for a night attack that sent the Germans flying in all directions. The front broken, a mass of Soviet armor headed south, west of Kiev, taking Vasilkov. The German forces in Kiev swiftly evacuated the city as Kravchenko’s tankers probed into the northern and western edges of the city.
On November 6th, the eve of the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Front Commander Vatutin was able to proudly announce that the third city of the USSR, Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, was again in Soviet hands. For his (and his troop’s) contribution to the victory, General Kravchenko was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest award.
While the 3rd Guards Tank Army headed southwest towards Fastov and Vinnitsa, 5th Guards Tank Corps was directed southeast towards Belaya Tserkov. Almost immediately they ran into German reserves hastily streaming towards the battlefield. They were first attacked by elements of the SS Das Reich Division, as well as some troops of SS Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler and the 25th Panzer Division. These fresh troops halted the Soviet drive, and forced Kravchenko’s corps onto the defensive. The 21st Guards Tank Brigade in particular took serious losses. His men stubbornly gave ground as the Germans pushed towards Fastov from the southeast. Reinforced by infantry of the 40th Army, they dug in and repelled all attacks, forcing the Germans to redirect their attacks to the west of Fastov.
On November 12 the massed panzer might of the German Army Group South struck a concentrated blow to the to the north. Unable to make ground against the 3rd Guards Tank Army around Fastov, they struck further west against the southern flank of 38th Army which was driving west against Zhitomir. The 1st Panzer Division, with over 170 tanks, almost half the deadly Panthers, sliced into Moskalenko’s troops and then turned straight west to retake Zhitomir from the east. To cover this attack, the SS Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler, (with almost as many tanks) attacked towards Brusilov. Brusilov was an important road hub between Fastov and Zhitomir. Half of the SS division struck towards Brusilov from the south while the other half pushed north past it on the west side and occupied Kocherovo on the Kiev-Zhitomir highway.
Kravchenko’s tankers were ordered to swing around from southeast of Fastov to north of Brusilov. They were tasked with breaking through the SS and taking 1st Panzer from the rear. For three days they battered away, supported by lots of artillery support and several rifle divisions. The SS took heavy casualties and were surrounded in Kocherovo. But they held on, and while they did so the 1st and 7th Panzer Divisions chased the Soviet cavalry out of Zhitomir and immediately reversed course and headed east again. Although the SS history describes how they were relieved in Kocherovo by the 1st Panzer, the 1st Panzer history claims that they had to fight their way into the town and that they took very serious losses fighting through the woods to the west.
For the next six days the remnants of 5th Guards Tank Corps fought to defend the Zhitomir-Kiev highway, fending off attacks by 7th Panzer Division and elements of SS Das Reich. Finally the Germans were forced to call off their attacks on November 26th due to heavy losses, stiff Soviet resistance, and bad weather. Kravchenko’s weary survivors were pulled back into reserve to refit and rearm preparatory to the next offensive. At this time the corps lost its heavy tank regiment (no tanks left anyway), as well as its antitank regiment and heavy antitank battalion, having these replaced with two regiments of SU-76s and a regiment of SU-85s. Later in January another regiment of towed 76.2mm antitank guns was added.
While the Germans attacked north against the 60th Army, 5th Guards Tank Corps continued to rest and refit. Still somewhat understrength, it was committed at the end of December to support the massive Soviet offensive that kicked off on Christmas Eve. Kravchenko’s men were attached to General Chernyakovsky’s 60th Army. Along with 15th Rifle Corps they attacked the German 213th Security Division, waiting till late morning on the 24th instead of the usual dawn attack to catch the Germans in the early phases of their Christmas boozing. In this they succeeded, and quickly Zhitomir passed back into Soviet hands. The corps was then pulled out of 60th Army’s zone and sent all the way over to the left flank of 1st Ukrainian Front to support General Zmachenko’s 40th Army in its attack on Belaya Tserkov. In the first part of the new year the corps drove south, but it was well understrength. German counterattacks battered 40th Army and sent it reeling back, leaving pockets of surrounded Soviet troopers behind. In one such pocket, around Tichovka, was the 6th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade of the corps and a rifle division.
Undismayed, the Soviet troops held their ground and, resupplied from the air, held off all German attempts to destroy them for two weeks. Meanwhile, big things were doing behind Soviet lines. General Kravchenko was summoned to Front headquarters and told that he was to join his corps with the 5th Mechanized Corps to make the 6th Tank Army, which he was to command. General Vasili Alekseev was given command of the corps. As yet there was neither staff nor supporting elements (artillery, engineer, antitank, antiaircraft, supply, communications, etc.) for the new army, so the staff of the corps doubled as the army staff. Formed on January 20, the army was to concentrate in and around Tinovka and to prepare for a new operation on January 25th!
This was to be the Korsun Shevchenkovsky Operation, designed to snip off a salient where the inner flanks of 1st Panzer Army and 8th Army met and touched the Dnepr bank, the last German foothold on the mighty river. General Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front had expanded like a balloon from its November bridgeheads across the river, and was now stretched thin. All it could contribute was the weak 27th Army, part of 40th Army, and 6th Tank Army. It was to jump off on January 26th. The day before that the 2nd Ukrainian Front would jump off with three armies seeking a breakthrough that 5th Guards Tank Army under General Rotmistrov could exploit through. The plan was for the two tank armies to link up at Zvenigorodka.
The attacks did not get off to a good start. The 6th Tank Army was massed at Tinovka, screened by a rifle division. But before the attack the Germans captured a lieutenant of that rifle division who revealed the concentration. Kravchenko ordered the 5th Guards Tank Corps to lead the attack, striking in the first echelon towards the German strong point at Vinograd. Not only was the corps missing its motorized rifle brigade, in the three tank brigades the corps could only boast fifty tanks and in the three SU regiments a total of four assault guns! Worse, the Germans had reinforced the front line with an assault gun battalion of their own and when the corps jumped off, it promptly lost thirty of its fifty tanks to German antitank guns, assault guns, and mines. No penetration was achieved.
On the 27th General Kravchenko decided to change the axis of the attack, using the tank brigade of the 5th Mechanized Corps, the 233rd, to attack further north. This brigade, equipped with Sherman tanks, succeeded and drove through the German lines, outflanking the Vinograd position, and reaching Lisyanka by midnight. The next day they relieved the encircled Soviet forces, including the 6th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade and swept into Zvenigorodka to link up with General Rotmistrov’s tankers of 20th Tank Corps. Over 80,000 Germans were pocketed around Korsun.
At the beginning of February the Germans struck back with eight panzer divisions, two of them, followed by two others, attacked through the positions of 6th Tank Army. The army was reinforced with a strong rifle corps and antitank assets, but nonetheless was mauled by the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions. Vatutin committed General Bogdanov’s 2nd Tank Army, understrength but possessing brand new JSU-122 heavy tank destroyers armed with the devastating 122mm high velocity gun. Counterattacks by both armies and some of the worst weather in the whole of the war (snow, rain, mud, ice, fog; sometimes all of them the same day) brought the German attacks to a halt.
The Germans brought in more tanks and troops, including a heavy panzer regiment armed with Panthers and Tigers, and attacked again on February 10th. In two days they had lanced through the 6th Tank Army’s front and captured an important river crossing at Lisyanka. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who was supervising the entire operation of both fronts, severely criticized General Kravchenko’s conduct of the battle. Of course it was hardly shocking that a man who had been a tank corps commander a few weeks before and now found himself commanding a tank corps, a mechanized corps, three or four rifle divisions, artillery, antitank guns, etc. etc had a little difficulty coping with the situation, especially in light of the fact that his headquarters lacked both staff and communications equipment to control such a large and varied force.
Zhukov ordered the commander of the 27th Army to take over for Kravchenko. Unfortunately at just that point the German forces inside the pocket began their breakout attempt against the 27th Army. No doubt all the command shuffling did nothing to stabilize the defenses. Nonetheless, the German drive stalled after two days, and with 6th Tank Army and 2nd Tank Army nipping at their flanks, their strength was rapidly whittled down to the point that they were unable to advance another foot. Meanwhile 2nd Ukrainian Front continued to grind away at the pocket. Finally on February 17th the survivors in the pocket made a desperate breakout attempt at night. While some of them reached German lines, the bulk of the forces were destroyed by the tanks of 5th Guards Tank Army and the sabers of the 5th Guards Cavalry Corps.
After a brief rest period to rebuild the shattered corps, the 6th Tank Army took part in the Uman Botoshani operation as a part of the 2nd Ukrainian Front. Sometimes called the “Mud Offensive”, this attack broke all precedent on the Eastern Front. It was normal for the spring time, when melting snow dissolved the roads and countryside into bottomless mud, for all armies to take a break until the ground dried out. Not this year. Ivan Konev, just having received his marshal’s star for the Korsun pocket operation, urged his troops on through the glue-like black mud. The broad-tracked T-34s helped by hauling other vehicles and supplies through the slush, while the Germans found themselves abandoning masses of heavy equipment as their troops retreated steadily southward. The operation ended in May with the Soviets on the border with Rumania and Poland. There a series of Soviet probing attacks were all turned back by German counter thrusts. General Malinovsky then took over 2nd Ukrainian Front and prepared to take Rumania out of the war with one massive blow. The 5th Guards Tank Corps received its new T-34 tanks armed with the 85mm gun, what many think of as the best tank of the Second World War. Fortunately Kravchenko’s men had enough time to learn to use them, as the attack on Rumania was not scheduled until August 20th. This also provided time for the veteran survivors of the corps, including those returning from the hospitals, to give the masses of green replacements some idea of how to fight.
A massive barrage and air strike led off the attack. General Trofimenko’s 27th Army tore a gaping hole in the German lines. Plans had called for the introduction of the 6th Tank Army into the breach on the second day of the operation, but as early as 10:00 on the first day the 5th Guards Tank Corps, led by the 20th and 22nd Guards Tank Brigades, jumped off, followed four hours later by the 5th Mechanized Corps to its left. The forces drove straight south, where they ran into serious resistance by night fall against the third line of the enemy’s defenses. This was the wooded Mare Ridge (Mare means great in Rumanian) defended by elements of several Rumanian mountain brigades and part of the German 76th Infantry Division. The next day involved heavy fighting for the ridge, in which Colonel Shutov’s 20th Guards Tank Brigade took serious casualties before they wised up and turned the flanks of the position.
What followed was a swift strike to the south, by August 25th the reconstituted German 6th Army was in the bag again, the rebuilt Rumanian 3rd and 4th Armies were gone, and the 8th Army reduced to a scattered group of battalion sized kampfgruppen. Elements of the latter, including parts of 20th Panzer Division and 10th Panzer Grenadier were pushed steadily south as the corps menaced Birlad on the 23rd, took it the next day, and reached Focsani on August 27th. The latter earned the corps the Order of Suvorov II Class. Involved in the latter action was the dramatic storming of a double decked bridge, road and railroad, over the Siret River. One motorized rifle company crossed the river on assault boats and at the same time a brigade of tanks rushed it. The combination succeeded and allowed the corps to continue its advance. On the 30th this advance swept through Ploesti, Germany’s main source of petroleum products.
On September 12th, in recognition of its key role in the elimination of the German forces in Rumania, the 6th Tank Army was made the 6th Guards Tank Army. After September 15th, the 5th Guards Tank Corps was commanded by Major General Mikhail Saveliev. Saveliev had been the commander of the 233rd Tank Brigade of 5th Mechanized Corps who had led the attack through Lisyanka to Zvenigorodka in January of 1944 that had sealed the fate of the Korsun Pocket. The next day Colonel Shutov was replaced as commander of 20th Guards Tank Brigade and was replaced by Colonel Fedor Zhilin, who would command the brigade through the rest of the war.
The next operation of the tank army took it into Hungary, heading northwest. The armies of Rumania were turned around and now fought on the Soviet side, to attack their traditional rivals, the Hungarians. The tank army had been badly worn down during the offensive into Rumania which had take in more than 600 miles. On September 5th, when the Germans began counterattacking the Rumanian Army on the border, the tank army had only 130 tanks and 56 assault guns left in running order, by the 14th of the month they had raised this total to 262 tanks and 82 assault guns. Soviet attacks attempting to cross the Carpathian Mountains from the east were making only slow progress, and attempts to break into Hungary from the south were stymied by the same German military renaissance that was to surprise more northerly Soviet forces in the Baltic states and in front of Warsaw, the British at Arnhem, and the Americans at Aachen, Heurtgen Forest, and Metz. Counterattacks with Tigers and Panthers blunted General Malinovsky’s attacks and by September 24th the attacks were called off. Instead the 6th Tank Army, its 5th Mechanized Corps recently renamed the 9th Guards Mechanized Corps, was moved to the west, concentrated with the Cavalry-Mechanized Group under General Pliev and other forces for the Debrecen Operation, to be launched on October 6th.
The operation was preceded by some costly fighting on October 2nd when the tank army provided direct support for units of the 33rd Rifle Corps. Getting nowhere and taking losses on the 3rd of October, the tank army was regrouped. Attacking on the 6th, they managed to seize bridgeheads over the Keresh Canal south of Komadi but could not breakthrough. Heavy counter attacks by elements of the 1st, 23rd and 24th Panzer Divisions considerably slowed the pace of the attack and inflicted casualties on the Guards tankers. Finally by the 15th of October the area between the Keresh and Bereto Canals was cleared and on October 18th the 5th Guards Tank Corps took Sharand. These battles had been costly, and the tank army was down to 50% of its authorized strength in men, 39% in tanks, and 8% of its assault guns. Struggling forward, the army reached Solnok on the Tisza River in Hungary, and was withdrawn into reserve to refit at the end of October. Here they remained until December 4th, 1944, now equipped with over 350 tanks and SUs.
The next operation began on December 5, 1944, and would last through February 1945, the bitter battle for Budapest, the Hungarian capital. The attack jumped off early on a cold, overcast day. After the usual artillery preparation, the attack went in and by evening 7th Guards Army reported a clean breakthrough. The tank army headed into the breach, led by a tank brigade. General Kravchenko’s guardsmen closed in on the town of Vacs on December 7th, where they were repulsed by the powerful Feldherrenhalle Panzer Division. This fighting continued inconclusively for two days, after which the army was pulled out and shifted further north of Budapest towards the Ipel River Gorge. Here was a pass through the Matra Mountains, about a mile wide, with one railroad bridge and two road bridges over the river at Sahy. The gorge was defended by the 26th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the crack 24th Panzer Division, as well as by elements of the Dirlewanger Brigade, which was made up of a combination of criminal elements and German Communists who had been released from the concentration camps to fight. Not surprisingly, several battalions of the brigade promptly defected to the Soviets.
Fighting was heavy in the gorge, which took until the 13th to clear. The army then emerged into more open terrain in the foothills of the Matra Mountains, where it promptly ran into the 8th Panzer Division which slowed the Soviet advance. By the 19th of December, the army had reached the Gron River valley. Despite difficult weather, the army attacked with heavy air support against the German 357th Infantry Division and took Levice. At that point the army was counterattacked again by elements of the 3rd and 6th Panzer Divisions and a four-day battle of maneuver took place. The maneuvering was restricted, however, by the muddy ground This channeled the German attacks and prevented the Soviet advanced guards from being overwhelmed. The Germans had a battalion or two of Panthers and Pzkpfw IVs in each division, but very little infantry. The advanced Soviet brigades were cut off by the German tanks, but, reinforced by the Pliev Cavalry-Mechanized Group, the tank army resumed the attack on Christmas and by the 26th of December had linked up with the 18th Tank Corps in Esztergom, surrounding Budapest. This was the fourth large German pocket that the 5th Guards Tank Corps was instrumental in cutting off, and its fate was no different from that of the Germans at Stalingrad, Korsun-Shevchenkovsky, and Jassy-Kishinev.
On December 31st the army was drawn back to Sahy to refit again. Their rest was to be brief, however, as the 4th SS Panzerkorps launched an attack to relieve Budapest the next day, and by January 4th the 6th Guards Tank Army was committed again to stop the German attack. The army had only 180 tanks and SUs available at this point, many of them repaired. Counterattacking without an artillery preparation on the night of January 6th, they broke through the Germans and pushed west towards Komarno. Those German strong points they encountered were bypassed, but their supporting infantry was unable to keep up with the tanks so these sore points remained in German hands. During the next day the tank army was counterattacked by the 20th Panzer Division from the north and by the 8th Panzer Division out of Komarno. The battle deteriorated into one of position, and, failing to take Komarno, the army was once again returned to reserve on January 26th, 1945.
They would not be in action again until March 19th, during which time the 6th SS Panzer Army, freshly arrived from its defeat in the Ardennes, launched the last great German offensive effort of the war. This had run into a steel wall south of Lake Balaton, and had been turned back. Germany at this point was running out of troops, equipment, oil, and time. The break they got was put to good use, and when the army again went into action, it had more than 500 tanks and SUs running.
Attacking at dawn on the morning of March 19th, the 9th Guards Army was supposed to open a hole for the tankers to exploit through. Thick fog grounded the Soviet air force and prevented accurate correction of artillery fire, however, and no hole was opened. The 5th Guards Tank Corps, trying to find a gap to flow through, managed to advance a little more than 6 miles. That night they sent out advanced reconnaissance parties and eventually found the weak spots they needed. By the end of the 21st of March they had their breakthrough and were headed for Vienna at the rate of more than 35 miles per day. On the 23rd the 22nd Guards Tank Brigade took Vesprem. On the 26th the 20th and 22nd Guards Tank Brigades stormed Devecher, on the 28th Sharvar fell and on the 29th the tanks rolled into Sombatkhei.
Finally, on the night of the 4th-5th of April, the 5th Guards Tank Corps entered Vienna from the south, as elements of 9th Guards Mechanized Corps did the same. Some brigades were down to as few as a dozen tanks by this time, but German resistance was limited. The leader of the Hitler Youth, at the head of the Hitler Jugend SS Panzer Division, swore to fight to the death for Vienna, but like many of his followers, he took to his heels at the sight of the Soviet tanks.
The experience of capturing a fairly undamaged Western European capital was something new to the grizzled veterans of 6th Guards Tank Army, and the colonel commanding the first tank brigade to make it into the downtown area struck up a deal with the manager of a local hotel for a full sit down dinner for his brigade, with white table cloths, a spectacular dinner, and a bottle of champagne between every two men. The colonel then asked for the bill, offering payment in German marks, British pounds, or American dollars. The proprietor coolly asked for dollars and was given a bundle. It was only years later that the colonel realized that the bundles he had handed over were worth $10,000, a tidy sum in those days! He figured it was worth it anyway.
The tank army took to the road again after Vienna, as part of the massive descent of Soviet forces on Prague to subdue and capture the large German forces there. After that, with time off for celebration, rest, leave, and refitting, the whole army was shipped across Siberia to the Mongolian People’s Republic. From there it jumped off in the Soviet attack into Manchuria against the Japanese Kwangtung Army. Crossing a high mountain range and a broad desert, the army conducted a mechanized blitzkrieg that is still studied as a text book example of how to carry out such operations. The end of the war found the lead elements of the 5th Guards Tank Corps on the road to Port Arthur and Darien, having already seized Mukden. For his army’s operations in Manchuria, Kravchenko received his second gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union.