8 September 1941–27 January 1944

The Siege of Leningrad, the Soviet Union’s second largest city, was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in the history of warfare. This lengthy blockade was undertaken by Army Group North, the Spanish Blue Division and the Finnish Army between 1941 and 1944, and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 700,000 civilians.

Leningrad was a vital city in the Soviet Union. By 1940, it had a population of 2.54 million, making it the fourth largest city in Europe. Its factories produced about 10 per cent of the Soviet Union’s entire industrial output, including much of its high-quality steel and the new KV-1 heavy tank.

As war in Europe approached, Stalin resolved to safeguard Leningrad by pushing the Soviet Union’s vulnerable border areas back as far as possible from the city. After Finland refused to sell part of the Karelian Isthmus adjoining the Leningrad Military District, the Red Army seized the land by force between November 1939 and March 1940. Next, Stalin moved against the pro-German Baltic republics, and in June 1940, Soviet troops marched into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. After this, Stalin moved three armies with 440,000 troops into the former Baltic States in an effort to secure Leningrad against any threats from the west.

Leningrad was not identified as a major target in the planning for Operation Barbarossa. However, Hitler was adamant that it should receive equal priority with Moscow and Kiev on the axes of advance. It lay in the path of Army Group North, led by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, which consisted of the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies and General Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Group, totalling 475,000 troops in 28 divisions.

In the opening days of Barbarossa, Leningrad’s ability to defend itself was seriously compromised. The Soviet forces in the Baltic States were badly defeated in the first 18 days, with most of their tanks and aircraft lost. Some 30,000 civilian volunteers in Leningrad were employed to help build defensive fieldwork on the approaches to the city, and 160,000 recruits were organized into eight people’s militia divisions in July. These divisions fought a successful delay on the Luga River that stopped Army Group North’s headlong advance towards Leningrad for nearly a month. By the time the Germans finally overwhelmed the Luga Line on 16 August, Leningrad’s defenders had built a series of dense fortified lines on the south-west approaches to the city.

However, the German advance shifted eastwards, severing the Leningrad–Moscow rail line at Chudovo on 20 August. With Soviet forces in retreat, von Leeb dispatched XXXIX Army Corps to encircle Leningrad from the south-east while massing the rest of Army Group North for a direct assault on the city.

By 2 September 1941, Finnish forces had advanced to the 1939 borders between Finland and the Soviet Union. On 4 September, German artillery began shelling Leningrad, and four days later the city was entirely surrounded by Army Group North. The German encirclement trapped four armies – the 8th, 23rd, 42nd and 55th – inside the city and the nearby Oranienbaum salient, with a total of 20 divisions and over 300,000 troops. There were about 30 days’ food reserves on hand in the city, but this was further reduced when the Luftwaffe bombed the Badaev food warehouses on 8 September.

General Georgy Zhukov, newly appointed commander of the Leningrad Front, arrived on 9 September as General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XXXXI Army Corps began to assault the outer defences of the city. On 16 September, the German XXXVIII Army Corps reached the Gulf of Finland, and the following day, the German 1st Panzer Division managed to approach to within 12km of the city. Zhukov launched a 16-day counter-offensive westward towards Siniavino beginning on 10 September, but this failed to take its objective and casualties were heavy.

On 8 November 1941, in an effort to eliminate the final Soviet links to the encircled city by severing the rail lines that supported the Lake Ladoga barge traffic, the Germans captured Tikhvin. Without this rail junction, the food situation in the city became critical. However, 11 days later a Soviet counter-attack led by 4th Army was launched and it was retaken on 9 December; the Germans, threatened by encirclement, withdrew west.

Meanwhile, on 22 November 1941, the first major Soviet truck convoy managed to cross Lake Ladoga on an ice road and bring some relief to Leningrad. The civilian death toll continued to rise: during the last four months of 1941, German artillery fired over 30,000 rounds into Leningrad, which, in addition to air raids, killed about 4,000 civilians.

On 6 January 1942, the newly established Soviet Volkhov Front launched the Lyuban winter counter-offensive aimed at breaking the blockade. In March, the Soviet 2nd Shock Army was cut off in the Volkhov swamps by German forces.

The Soviets launched a series of failed offensives against the Siniavino Heights over the summer of 1942, but it was not until 18 January 1943 that the Soviet 2nd Shock Army and 67th Army linked up north of Siniavino, establishing a small land corridor into Leningrad. On 15 September 1943, the XXX Guards Rifle Corps finally captured the Heights.

Army Group North watched anxiously. Occupying a relatively inactive front, it had been neglected during most of 1942, had not fully replaced its losses of the previous winter, and was committed to a static defense that might be attacked at any of a number of critical points. Around Leningrad, particularly at the “bottleneck”—the narrow tie-in to Lake Ladoga—Army Group North functioned as the main support of German strategy in northern Europe. If the hold on Leningrad were broken, Germany would, in the long run, lose control of the Baltic Sea. Finland would then be isolated; the iron ore shipping from Sweden would be in danger; and the all-important submarine training program would be seriously handicapped.

In the 16 months they had held the “bottleneck” the Germans had built a tight network of defenses in the swampy terrain and had converted Schlüsselburg, several small settlements, and scattered patches of woods into fortified strongpoints. But, with only six to eight miles between fronts, one facing west and the other east, the defenders had little room to maneuver. The Russians had found highly instructive their experience in the summer, and in the intervening months had rehearsed every tactic and maneuver for taking each individual German position. This method the Germans themselves had used in 1940 to train for the assaults on the Belgian forts.

The attack on the “bottleneck” began on 12 January. Sixty-seventh Army, its troops wearing spiked shoes to help them climb the frozen river bank, struck across the ice on the Neva River while Second Shock Army, on the east, threw five divisions against a 4-mile stretch of the German line. Methodically, the Russians chopped their way through, and by the end of the first week had taken Schlüsselburg and opened a corridor to Leningrad along the lake shore. Thereafter, in fighting that lasted until the first week of April, the two Soviet fronts made little headway. When the fighting ended, they held a strip 6 miles wide, all of it within range of German artillery. When the battle ended, Army Group North claimed a defensive victory, but its hold on the second city of the Soviet Union was not as tight as before.

In the summer of 1943 the Army Group North zone, by comparison with the other army group zones, was quiet. In a battle that flared up toward the end of July around Mga, Leningrad Front’s performance fell far below that of the commands operating against Army Groups Center and South. The front-line strengths of the opposing forces in the Army Group North zone were almost equal. The army group had 710,000 men. Leningrad, Volkhov, Northwest, and Kalinin Fronts, the latter straddling the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary, had 734,000 men. For the future, however, Army Group North also had to reckon with some half a million reserves echeloned in depth behind the northern fronts. In artillery the two sides were about equal, but again the Russians were known to have substantial reserves. In mid-July Army Group North had 49 tanks, 40 fit for combat. The Russians had 209 tanks at the front and an estimated 843 in reserve. By 15 September Army Group North had 7 tanks still serviceable. In the last six months of 1943, First Air Force, which was responsible for air operations in the army group zone, flew just half as many sorties as its Russian opponents.

During August air reconnaissance detected increasing enemy activity off both Army Group North flanks. A rise in the number of boats making the short but extremely hazardous trip in the Gulf of Finland between Leningrad and the Oranienbaum pocket indicated that the Russians might soon attempt to break out and unite the pocket with the front around Leningrad. In the south Kalinin Front, under Yeremenko, began a build-up opposite the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary. To meet those and other possible threats, the army group created a ready reserve by drawing five infantry divisions out of the front. In the first and second weeks of September the OKH ordered two of the reserve divisions transferred to Army Group South.

On 19 September, in conjunction with the Army Group Center withdrawal to the PANTHER position, Army Group North took over XXXXIII Corps, the northernmost corps of Army Group Center. That transfer brought the army group three divisions, forty-eight more miles of front, and responsibility for defending two important railroad and road centers, Nevel and Novosokol’niki. By late September no one doubted that the Russians were preparing for an offensive in the vicinity of the North-Center boundary. That area of forests, lakes, and swamps, and of poor roads even by Russian standards, heavily infested by strong partisan bands, had long been one of the weakest links in the Eastern Front. During the 1941 winter offensive the Russians had there carved out the giant Toropets salient, and in the 1942-43 winter campaign they had encircled and captured Velikiye Luki and nearly taken Novosokol’niki. Compared with the losses elsewhere, particularly after Stalingrad, these were mere pinpricks; but there always was a chance that the Stavka might one day try the big solution, a thrust between the flanks of the two army groups to the Gulf of Riga.

In the second week of September 1943 Army Group North had begun work on the PANTHER position, its share of the East Wall. The north half of the PANTHER position was laid behind natural obstacles, the Narva River, Lake Peipus, and Lake Pskov. The south half was not so favorably situated. It had to be stretched east somewhat to cover two major road and rail centers, Pskov and Ostrov, and the tie-in to Army Group Center had to be moved west after the Nevel breakthrough. Nevertheless, when it was occupied it would reduce the army group frontage by 25 percent, and, unlike most of the East Wall, it had by late 1943 actually begun to take on the appearance of a fortified line. A 50,000-man construction force had improved the communications lines back to Riga and Dvinsk and had built 6,000 bunkers, 800 of them concrete, laid 125 miles of barbed wire entanglements, and dug 25 miles each of trenches and tank traps. During November and December building material rolled in at a rate of over 100 carloads a day.

In September the army group staff had begun detailed planning for Operation BLAU, the withdrawal to the PANTHER position. The staff estimated that the million tons of grain and potatoes, half a million cattle and sheep, and military supplies and other material, including telephone wire and railroad track to be moved behind the PANTHER line, would amount to 4,000 trainloads. The withdrawal itself would be facilitated by the network of alternate positions that in the preceding two years had been built as far back as the Luga River. The 900,000 civilians living in the evacuation zone, particularly the men who could, if they were left behind, be drafted into the Soviet Army, raised problems. The first attempts, in early October, to march the civilians out in the customary treks produced so much confusion, misery, and hostility that Küchler ordered the rear area commands to adopt less onerous methods. Thereafter they singled out the adults who would be useful to the Soviet Union as workers or soldiers and evacuated most of them by train. During the last three months of the year the shipments of goods and people went ahead while the armies worked at getting their artillery and heavy equipment, much of which was sited in permanent emplacements, ready to be moved. At the end of the year, having transported 250,000 civilians into Latvia and Lithuania, the army group could not find quarters for any more and called a halt to that part of the evacuation.

The army group staff believed that logically BLAU should begin in mid-January and be completed shortly before the spring thaw, in about the same fashion as Army Group Center had executed BÜFFEL the year before, but on 22 December the chief of staff told the armies that Hitler would probably not order BLAU unless another Soviet offensive forced him to. At the moment, Hitler’s opinion was that the Russians had lost so many men in the fighting in the Ukraine that they might not try another big offensive anywhere before the spring of 1944.

Toward the end of the month it appeared, in fact, that Hitler might be right. The bulge on the Army Group North right flank was worrisome, but the Stavka had shifted the weight of the offensive to Vitebsk, for the time being at least. In the Oranienbaum pocket and around Leningrad the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had been ready to attack since November, but with the trouble at Nevel out of the way the army group was less concerned than it had been. Intelligence reports from Eighteenth Army indicated that the units in the Oranienbaum pocket, in particular, had been strengthened; and boat traffic between Leningrad and Oranienbaum had been usually heavy during the fall, continuing until some boats were trapped in ice. On the other hand, almost no new units had appeared, and Leningrad Front seemed to be depending for its reinforcements on the Leningrad population. While an offensive sometime in January appeared a near certainty, the longer Eighteenth Army’s intelligence officers looked the closer they came to convincing themselves it would be cut in the modest pattern of the three earlier offensives around Leningrad.

On 29 December the OKH ordered Küchler to transfer to Army Group South one of his best divisions, the 1st Infantry Division which Eighteenth Army was depending on to backstop some of its less reliable units in the Oranienbaum-Leningrad sector. When Küchler called to protest, Zeitzler told him he would not need the division; Hitler intended to execute Operation BLAU after all and would tell him so personally the next day. During the noon conference in the Führer headquarters on 30 December, Küchler, expecting to receive his orders, reported on the state of the PANTHER position and the time he would need to complete BLAU. In passing, he remarked that he had talked to Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, Commanding General, Eighteenth Army, who “naturally” had asked for his army to stay where it was even though he lost 1st Infantry Division. To a question from Hitler, Küchler replied that the Eighteenth Army front was well fortified, almost too well, in fact, since the army did not have enough troops to man it completely. Hitler then terminated the conference without mentioning Operation BLAU.

Küchler did not fully realize what had happened until the next day, after an order had come in to transfer another good division to Army Group South. Zeitzler told the army group chief of staff that Hitler had begun to falter in his decision as soon as Küchler made the remark about Lindemann’s wanting to keep his army where it was. He thought it would take at least a week to talk Hitler around again. By day’s end the chief of staff had a memorandum marshaling the arguments for BLAU ready for Küchler to sign, but that was scarcely enough. Lindemann would have to be persuaded to reverse himself, since in such instances if in almost no others Hitler always took the word of the man on the spot.

On 4 January—by then a third division was on its way to Army Group South—Küchler went to Eighteenth Army headquarters and, citing the necessity to husband the army group’s forces, almost pleaded with Lindemann to reconsider. Lindemann replied that his corps, division, and troop commanders in the most threatened sectors were confident they could weather the attack. After that, none of the army group’s arguments counted for much. Hitler told Zeitzler he was only doing what Küchler wanted. Nor could Küchler and his staff draw any comfort from the knowledge that Lindemann was probably motivated mainly by a desire to draw attention to himself—as a senior army commander he had never had so good an opportunity to show what he could do directly under the eyes of the Führer. No less disquieting for the army group was the knowledge that it was committed to repeating an error which had already been made too often in the Ukraine. To the operations chief at OKH the chief of staff said the army group was marching to disaster with its eyes open, putting forces into positions which in the long run could not be held.


On 14 January 1944 the operation began. Leningrad Front, General Polkovnik L. A. Govorov commanding, mounted the main effort. Second Shock Army drove east out of the Oranienbaum pocket while Forty-second Army attempted to push west on the front below Leningrad. Against Forty-second Army, the stronger of the two, the corps artillery of L Corps reacted fast, laying down a well-placed barrage that stopped the attack before it got started. Second Shock Army did better; the 10th Air Force Field Division began to crumble the moment it was hit.

Not a real surprise but, still, only half expected, were the strong thrusts that General Polkovnik Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front launched the same day north and south of Novgorod on Eighteenth Army’s right flank. Novgorod had been considered a danger point, but the army had not been convinced that the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts would have the strength to attempt simultaneous offensives on a major scale. Lindemann, on 10 January, had rated the build-ups—in the Oranienbaum pocket, southwest of Leningrad, and east of Novgorod—as relatively modest, particularly in terms of reserves. He had predicted that without more reserves the thrusts could not go very deep and that the attacks in the Oranienbaum-Leningrad sector and at Novgorod would “very likely” be staggered. In fact, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had Eighteenth Army outnumbered by at least 3:1 in divisions (55 rifle divisions, 9 rifle brigades, and 8 tank brigades to 20 German divisions), 3:1 in artillery, and 6:1 in tanks, self-propelled artillery, and aircraft.

The Soviet commands had chosen exactly the two places in which Eighteenth Army had the least room to maneuver. The loop of the front separating the Oranienbaum pocket from Leningrad was only twenty miles wide at its base. On the Eighteenth Army right flank an envelopment five to ten miles deep was enough to chop out Novgorod and break the tie-in to Lake Ilmen. The danger was, as Zeitzler warned at the end of the day, that minor slip-ups could have consequences similar to the Nevel debacle.

During the second and third days the battle seemed to be going about as the Germans hoped it would. Neither Govorov nor Meretskov put in any new units, which seemed to indicate that they were operating without much in the way of reserves, and it appeared that Leningrad Front did not intend to do more than open the Oranienbaum pocket. On 16 January Küchler told his army commanders that the Russians had committed all their forces, and Army Group North could win the battle by taking some risks in the quiet sectors.

The next day his optimism started to fade. Lindemann had put in his entire reserve, the 61st Infantry Division, to stiffen the 10th Air Force Field Division, but it was barely managing to stave off a complete rupture. Before noon the army group informed the OKH that the fighting around Leningrad was taking a turn for the worse. Eighteenth Army would have to begin dismantling the siege artillery during the night, and if the army group wanted to see the battle through it would have to withdraw below Lake Ladoga to the ROLLBAHN position along the Leningrad-Chudovo road to shorten the front and gain two divisions. The army group had originally built the ROLLBAHN to provide just such insurance. In the afternoon the answer came from Hitler: he neither approved nor disapproved but thought it would be better to give up the hold on the Gulf of Finland and take back the front between Leningrad and Oranienbaum. Küchler protested that to do that would give the Russians the victory and an opportunity to turn south with their strength intact.

On the morning of the 18th Lindemann reported that the fronts east of Oranienbaum and west of Leningrad were collapsing. The same was happening at Novgorod where the encirclement was nearly complete, and the few extra battalions the army had been able to throw in would not even be enough to hold open an escape route much longer. After seeing for himself how near complete exhaustion the troops at the front were, Küchler asked and was denied permission to withdraw to the ROLLBAHN. In the afternoon Forty-second Army’s spearhead drove into Krasnoye Selo, the former summer residence of the Czars, and cut the two main roads to the north. After that, Küchler decided he had no choice but to take back the two divisions on the coast before they were completely cut off. He informed the OKH that he intended to give the order at the end of the day whether he had received permission by then or not. At the midnight situation conference Hitler approved, after Zeitzler told him the order had already been given.

On 19 January the first stage, which plainly was only the prelude to the battle, ended. The difficult task was to get Hitler to accept the consequences. Küchler’s order had come too late to save the divisions on the coast; some elements escaped, others were trapped and destroyed as the Russians swept in from the east and west. Second Shock and Forty-second Armies then joined forces, and the appearance of several fresh divisions demonstrated that they had more than adequate reserves. At Novgorod eight Soviet divisions encircled five German battalions. Their one hope for escape was to elude the Russians in the swamps west of the city.

Shortly after nightfall, after Zeitzler had argued unsuccessfully for half an hour, Küchler called Hitler and begged him to give the troops at Novgorod what would certainly be their last chance. Suddenly dropping the argument he had clung to stubbornly throughout the day, that Novgorod could not be given up because of its “extraordinary symbolic significance,” Hitler agreed. On the subject of the ROLLBAHN, however, he merely read Küchler a short lecture on the demoralizing effects of voluntary withdrawals. Fifteen minutes later he called back to give permission for that too. At midnight he changed his mind about the ROLLBAHN, but Zeitzler told him the orders had gone out to the divisions and could not be recalled.

Hitler had also tried to extract from Zeitzler and Küchler guarantees that the ROLLBAHN position would be held. On the 10th Küchler, appraising the situation, declared that the two recent tactical setbacks, at Novgorod and southwest of Leningrad, had resulted from lack of reserves and an overtaut front. The same conditions still existed. The withdrawal to the ROLLBAHN would free three divisions, two to go into the front below Leningrad, the other west of Novgorod. With that, the army group would have exhausted its resources for creating reserves. The three divisions would be used up in a short time, and an operational breakthrough could then be expected. He recommended that the pullback to the ROLLBAHN be made the first step in a continuous withdrawal to the PANTHER position, pointing out that the army group was already so weakened that it would have just enough troops to man the front when it reached there.

Less than a day passed before Küchler’s forecast began to come true. On 21 January Forty-second Army attacked toward Krasnogvardeysk, the junction of the main rail lines and roads coming from the south and west. L Corps had not had time to sort out its battered units and start setting up a front.

That night Küchler flew to Führer headquarters where the next morning, shortly before his interview with Hitler, word reached him that Eighteenth Army could not hold Krasnogvardeysk unless it gave up Pushkin and Slutsk, also important junctions but farther north. Hitler was deaf to all his proposals. The Führer brushed off everything said concerning Pushkin and Slutsk, the PANTHER position, and possible new threats on the army group right flank with a statement that Army Group North was spoiled; it had not had a crisis for more than a year and, consequently, did not know what one was. “I am against all withdrawals,” he went on. “We will have crises wherever we are. There is no guarantee we will not be broken through on the PANTHER. If we go back voluntarily he [the Russians] will not get there with only half his forces. He must bleed himself white on the way. The battle must be fought as far as possible from the German border.” When Küchler objected that the PANTHER position could not be held if the army group was too weak to fight when it got there, Hitler blamed all the gaps in the front on the egoism of the army groups and insisted that every square yard of ground be sold at the highest possible price in Russian blood. Finally, demanding that the ROLLBAHN be held, he dismissed the field marshal. Later Zeitzler said the time had been bad and Küchler should try again in a few days; Hitler was worried about the landing that day by Allied troops at Anzio south of Rome and had not listened to what was said.

Meanwhile, Eighteenth Army was beginning to disintegrate. Fighting in mud and water, the troops were exhausted. Govorov and Meretskov, on the other hand, had managed, since the warm weather set in at midmonth, to give their divisions a day out of every three or four to rest and dry out. On the morning of 23 January, Lindemann gave the order to evacuate Pushkin and Slutsk and reported to the OKH that it could either accept his decision or send a general to replace him. During the day the army completed the withdrawal to the ROLLBAHN, which the Russians had already penetrated in several places.

On the 24th at Eighteenth Army headquarters Küchler accused Lindemann of having submitted false estimates of Soviet reserves at the end of December. Lindemann admitted “mistakes” had been made. The belated revision of the army’s past intelligence estimates was swiftly buried, however, under waves of bad news from the front. In the morning the Russians entered the outskirts of Krasnogvardeysk and rammed through to the bend of the Luga River southeast of Luga. The divisions in the ROLLBAHN position tried to patch the front by throwing in their rear echelon troops. At the end of the day Lindemann reported that his right flank had lost contact with Sixteenth Army and Krasnogvardeysk would fall within twenty-four hours.

Because losing Krasnogvardeysk would badly weaken the supply lines of the corps farther east, the army group asked to go back at least to the Luga River. In the evening Zeitzler replied that Hitler’s orders were to hold the corner posts and make the troops fight to the last. Since there was nothing else to do for the time being, he advised the army group command to be “a little ruthless” for a while.

On 27 January, Küchler and the other army group and army commanders on the Eastern Front attended a National Socialist Leadership Conference at Königsberg. Hitler addressed the generals on the subject of faith as a guarantee of victory. He called for a strengthening of faith in himself, in the National Socialist philosophy, and in the ultimate victory and suggested that the generals’ faith needed strengthening as much as anyone else’s. During one of the interludes, in a private talk with Hitler, Küchler repeated a situation estimate he had sent in the day before: the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts were employing four strong attack forces to cut Eighteenth Army to pieces; they were going toward Narva from the east and toward Luga from the north and east; if the attack from the east carried through Luga it would cut the communications lines of six of Lindemann’s eight corps. Hitler responded by prohibiting all voluntary withdrawals and reserving all decisions to withdraw to himself. When Küchler remarked, probably with the subject of the day’s meeting in mind, that Eighteenth Army had suffered 40,000 casualties and the troops had fought as hard as could be expected, Hitler replied that the latter statement was “not quite” true. He had heard the army group was not fighting everywhere with as much determination as it might.

That interview destroyed Küchler as an effective army group commander. When he returned to his headquarters he still seemed, as his chief of staff later put it, to realize that all he could do was retreat, but all he could talk about was showing more determination and attacking—with what, nobody knew. On the 28th the chief of staff, Generalleutnant Eberhard Kinzel, took matters into his own hands and told the Chief of Staff, Eighteenth Army, that the time had come. An order to retreat must be issued, but the army group was forbidden to do that. The army would, therefore, have to act as if it had been given, issuing its own implementing orders orally rather than in writing. He would see to it that the army was covered “in the General Staff channel.” The next day Kinzel prevailed on Küchler at least to submit a report pointing out to Hitler that Eighteenth Army was split into three parts and could not hold any kind of a front forward of the Luga River.

On the 30th Küchler went to Führer headquarters where Hitler finally approved a retreat to the Luga River but directed that the front then be held, contact with Sixteenth Army regained, and all gaps in the front closed. When Küchler passed this along to his operations officer the latter protested to the Operations Branch, OKH, that it was impossible to execute; one of the gaps was thirty miles wide, and at Staritza northwest of Luga the Russians were already across the Luga River. Later Zeitzler agreed to tell Hitler that the Luga line could not be held. In the meantime Küchler had been told to report back to the Führer headquarters on 31 January.

At the noon conference the next day Hitler informed Küchler he was relieved of his command. Model, who had been waiting to replace Manstein, was given temporary command of the army group. Reacting quickly as always, Model telegraphed ahead, “Not a single step backward will be taken without my express permission. I am flying to Eighteenth Army this afternoon. Tell General Lindemann that I beg his old trust in me. We have worked together before.”

During the last days of January the Eighteenth Army’s attrition rate had spiraled steeply. On 27 January the army north front had lain about ten miles north of the line Narva-Chudovo over most of its length and forty miles northeast of Narva in its western quarter. By the 31st it had been pushed back nearly to the Narva River in the west and slightly below the Narva-Chudovo line in the east, by itself not a surprising loss of ground; but in the interval the front had virtually dissolved. On the situation maps of the 27th it had still appeared as a distinguishable, continuous line, albeit with several large gaps. By the 31st all that was left was a random scattering of dots where battalions and companies still held a mile or two of front. The only two divisions still worthy of the name were the 12th Panzer Division, which had come in during the last week in the month, and the 58th Infantry Division, moving in from the south by train. On 29 January the army group reported that as of the 10th Eighteenth Army had had an infantry combat strength of 57,936 men; it had lost since then 35,000 wounded and 14,000 killed and now had, including new arrivals, an infantry strength of 17,000.

Model had never had a greater opportunity to display his talent as an improvisor, and he took it with a flamboyant zest which, though it did not change the tactical situation, quickly dispelled the sense of hopelessness and frustration that had been hanging over the army group. He also had the advantage of Hitler’s tendency to give new appointees, particularly when they were also his favorites, greater latitude, at least temporarily, than he had allowed their predecessors.

Model’s first moves were as much psychological as military. To dissipate what he called the PANTHER psychosis he forbade all references to the PANTHER position and abolished the designation. Past experience had shown that in times of adversity, named lines, particularly when the names suggested strength, had a powerful attraction for both troops and commands. On the other hand, the state of Eighteenth Army being what it was, Model could not attempt to enforce his original “no step backward” order. Instead, he introduced something new, the Schild und Schwert (shield and sword) theory, the central idea of which was that withdrawals were tolerable if one intended later to strike back in the same or a different direction in a kind of parry and thrust sequence. The theory was apparently Hitler’s latest brain child, a remedy for—as he viewed it—the disease of falling back to gain troops to build a new defense line which in a short time would itself prove too weak to be held. That Model placed overly much faith in the theory may be doubted. He was enough of a realist to know that while the withdrawal was usually possible the counter-thrust was not. On the other hand, he was also well enough acquainted with Hitler to know that it was always advantageous to make a retreat look like the first stage of an advance.

Model applied the Schild und Schwert theory in his first directive to Eighteenth Army issued on 1 February. He ordered Lindemann to take his main force back to a short line north and east of Luga. After that was accomplished and the 12th Panzer Division had finished closing the gap to Sixteenth Army, as had been directed before the change in command, the 12th Panzer and the 58th Infantry Divisions plus as many more divisions as could be spared from the short line would be shifted west of Luga for a thrust along the Luga River to establish contact with the two corps on the Narva. The first part of the directive gave the army a chance to reduce its frontage by almost two-thirds, which was necessary, the second envisaged a gain of enough strength—which was highly doubtful—to open a counteroffensive and extend the front fifty miles to the west.

To apply the Schild und Schwert theory on the Eighteenth Army left flank was impossible. LIV Corps and III SS Panzer Corps, both under the command of General der Infanterie Otto Sponheimer, the Commanding General, LIV Corps, had fallen back along the Baltic coast from the Oranienbaum pocket. After 28 January they had been thrown back to the Luga River and then to the Narva River, the northern terminus of the PANTHER position. They could go no farther without endangering the entire PANTHER line and the important shale oil refineries near the coast about twenty miles west of the river.

On 2 February, when Model inspected Sponheimer’s front, his divisions were crossing to the west bank of the river and pulling back into a small bridgehead around the city of Narva. South of Narva the Russians were probing across the river and before the end of the day had a small bridgehead of their own. Elements of the Panzer Grenadier Division Feldherrnhalle, coming from Army Group Center, and a regiment of the 58th Infantry Division were arriving to strengthen the front below Narva.

Everywhere Model heard the same complaint: the troops were worn out; and everywhere he gave the same order: they would have to see the battle through. The help the army group could give was small enough: an infantry adviser for III SS Panzer Corps; an artillery expert to match the skilled artillerists the Russians were using; requests to Himmler for some experienced SS replacements, to Dönitz for reinforcements for the coastal batteries, and to Göring for air force personnel to be used against the partisans.

Nevertheless, the near collapse of Eighteenth Army at the end of January had had the effect of a temporary disentanglement, at least in places, as on the Narva River. Model’s decision to close up the front around Luga gave the army a chance to maneuver and to catch its breath. The next move was still the Russians’, but it would be met on a coherent front. For a few days at the beginning of February the points of greatest pressure were in the Sixteenth Army area where the Second Baltic Front pushed into the front south of Staraya Russa and west of Novosokol’niki, tying down German troops which might be shifted north and, as a bonus, creating entering wedges which might be exploited for deep thrusts later.


By 4 February 1944 the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had regrouped and were beginning to close in on Eighteenth Army again. Army Group North informed the OKH that Meretskov had massed one strong force and 200 tanks southwest of Novgorod, and Govorov was assembling another east of Samro Lake thirty miles off the Eighteenth Army left flank. They obviously could try for an encirclement around Luga.

Model still intended to attack to the northwest, and he proposed a “large” and a “small” solution. The first would carry the front out to the length of the Luga River; the second would extend it diagonally to the northern tip of Lake Peipus. Kinzel, the Chief of staff, remarked later to the Chief Staff, Eighteenth Army, that it was gratifying just to be able to think about such bold strokes. Whether either would be carried out would depend on how the battle developed. In any event, nothing would be lost because the preliminary movements would be useful no matter what the army did next.

Hitler, usually delighted by talk of an offensive, displayed no enthusiasm. In a rare personal directive to Model he cited the Narva area as most vulnerable and ordered it reinforced without delay. In the sector between Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen he saw a danger of Eighteenth Army’s being pushed east away from Lake Peipus and a threat of an encirclement, and he instructed Model to submit a request for a withdrawal to the PANTHER position as soon as either of those became imminent.

Having appointed the kind of daring, iron-nerved general he wanted, Hitler himself became the advocate of caution. The change probably also resulted in part from Hitler’s tendency to associate men with events. Most likely, before dismissing Küchler he had decided that a retreat to the PANTHER position was necessary, but he had not acted then because he could not bring himself to appear to mitigate what he considered to be Küchler’s responsibility for the defeat.

On 6 February the 12th Panzer Division finished closing the gap to Sixteenth Army. Its next mission was to assemble in Pskov and attack east of Pskov Lake and Lake Peipus. The 58th Infantry Division was standing by farther east, and Eighteenth Army had called for a withdrawal on the front around Luga which would free three divisions in two days. In the pause, short as it was, the Army’s strength had begun to rise as stragglers, men recalled from leave, and those released from the hospitals were returned to their divisions. In addition, Model had ordered 5 percent of the rear echelon troops transferred to line duty.

At Headquarters, Eighteenth Army, Model on the 7th issued instructions for the first stage of the projected counteroffensive. By shifting divisions from the north and east the army would create a solid front between the southern tip of Lake Peipus and Luga. Having accomplished that, the army would apply the Schild und Schwert theory by employing two corps on the east defensively to stop the Russian advance from Samro Lake and one corps in the west in a thrust northward along the Lake Peipus shore.

During the next two days Eighteenth Army tried to jockey its divisions into position. Roadblocks laid by the partisans delayed 12th Panzer Division’s advance toward Pskov. The 58th Infantry Division established a short front on the Plyussa River at about the center of the proposed new line, but the Russians filtered past on both sides, and the other divisions would have to attack to close up the front. That would not be easy since the divisions only had four understrength battalions each and the enemy strength was growing hourly as units moved in from the northwest. The swampy terrain also raised problems, but, on the other hand, it was probably the main reason why Leningrad Front could not bring its full force to bear more quickly.

By 10 February the 58th Infantry Division was split in two and one of its regiments was encircled. The 24th Infantry Division, trying to close the gap on the right of the 58th Division, got nowhere and for most of the day had trouble holding open the Luga-Pskov railroad. Although Eighteenth Army would try again the next day to regain contact with the 58th Division and close the gap the prospects were worsening rapidly. Air reconnaissance had spotted convoys of 800 to 900 trucks moving southeast from Samro Lake.

The next afternoon Eighteenth Army reported that the battle had taken a dangerous turn. The 24th Infantry Division was stopped. Soviet tanks had appeared. Both regiments of the 58th Infantry Division were surrounded and would have to fight their way back. That they could save their heavy weapons was doubtful. After nightfall Lindemann told Model that the only way he could get enough troops to close the gaps on the left flank was to take the entire front back to the shortest line between the southern tip of Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen. Govorov had spread the right arm of the pincers out to the Peipus shore and was pushing south toward Pskov. He already had some units far enough south “to pinch the 12th Panzer Division in the backside.” Reluctantly, Model agreed to let the army go back.

The next day brought more bad news.

At Narva the Russians expanded their bridgehead and created another north of the city. Between Lakes Peipus and Pskov, Govorov poured in enough troops to threaten a crossing into the PANTHER position. If Model were to establish a front between Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen he would have to fight for it. On the evening of the 12th Model informed the OKH that he still planned to take and hold that line and wanted to know whether Hitler approved. The OKH response indicated that nobody there, including Hitler, liked the idea. The opinion was—for once—unanimous that it was too late to set up a front between the lakes and that, in any event, it was more important to free one division for Narva and another for the Peipus-Pskov narrows. The operations chief in the OKH added that Hitler was repeating every day that he did not want to risk any encirclements forward of the PANTHER position. An hour before midnight Sponheimer reported breakthroughs north and south of Narva. On the north III SS Panzer Corps had managed to close the front and even gain a little, but south of Narva the Feldherrnhalle Division did not have the strength even to offer effective resistance.

In the morning on the 13th Model sent a situation report to Hitler. He said he would fight the battle around Narva to its end. If worst came to worst he would shorten the front by giving up the bend of the Narva River. He still believed it would be best to hold between Lake Peipus and Lake Ilmen until more work had been done on the PANTHER position. Hitler’s answer would be strengthened with greatest speed. The army group would submit a plan and timetable for a prompt withdrawal to the PANTHER position.

For the moment it appeared that the decision to go back to the PANTHER position might have come too late to save the Narva front, for which, as a last resort, the army group that day released an Estonian brigade. The brigade was the product of a draft the SS, which was responsible for foreign recruitment, had been conducting in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania since early January. Because Hitler refused to offer the Baltic States even a promise of eventual autonomy, the draftees were dispirited and their only motivation was fear—of the Russians and the Germans. On the night of 13 February, Sponheimer reported that the Estonians had arrived in complete disorder verging on panic. Some had tried to desert on the way. That left Model no choice but to take troops from Eighteenth Army. He ordered the 58th Infantry Division transferred north after a three-day rest. The division had lost a third of its personnel and all of its heavy equipment in the encirclements.

On the morning of the 14th, after Sponheimer reported that he had no room to maneuver and no troops to close the gaps and was therefore helpless, Model asked to evacuate the small bridgehead still being held east of Narva, to gain three battalions. Zeitzler approved and offered in addition an infantry division from Norway. Then, shortly after daylight news came in that the Russians had staged a landing on the coast northwest of Narva. Later reports revealed that the landing force was not large, about 500 naval troops, supported only by several gun boats from Lavansaari Island in the Gulf of Finland. In the report sent to the OKH Model stated that, nevertheless, the scene around Narva was “not pretty” and he had ordered the bridgehead given up immediately. During the day the landing parties were wiped out without much damage having been done except by the German Stukas that bombed a German division headquarters and knocked out several Tiger tanks.

More troublesome was the appearance of Soviet ski troops on the west shore of Lake Peipus north of the narrows. The security division responsible for the area reported that its Estonian troops were “going home.” After that, Model told the OKH that he would begin the withdrawal to the PANTHER position on 17 February and complete it early on 1 March. He would mop up the west shore of Lake Peipus in the next few days and use the first two divisions freed to cover the lake shore. He expected that as soon as Eighteenth Army began to move Govorov and Meretskov would try for an encirclement around the army’s “shoulders.” They had strong forces in position north of Pskov and on the west shore of Lake Ilmen.

In the two days before the withdrawal began, the Russians did not try again to cross the lakes, and on 17 February Model gave a corps headquarters command of the lake sector and began shifting the 12th Panzer Division into the area. On the Narva the battle began to degenerate into a vicious stalemate in which the two sides stood toe to toe, neither giving nor gaining an inch. Sponheimer could not close the gaps in his front, but that Govorov was less than satisfied with his own progress was confirmed in repeated radio messages offering the decoration Hero of the Soviet Union to the first commander whose troops reached the road running west out of Narva. As the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies began to move, the Soviet armies followed close. Through their networks of agents and partisans they knew exactly what was taking place.

On 19 February Army Group North became suddenly and acutely aware of an old danger that had been lurking in the background throughout the last month of crises. On that day, for the first time in two months, the attacks on the Third Panzer Army perimeter around Vitebsk stopped; and air reconnaissance detected truck convoys of 2,000 or 3,000 trucks moving out, most of them heading north and northwest. Army Group North intelligence estimated that two armies could be shifted to the Sixteenth Army right flank in a few days. Model foresaw two possibilities. The first, and most likely, was that after adding to its already strong concentration in the Nevel-Pustoshka area, Second Baltic Front would attempt to break into the PANTHER position below Pustoshka and roll it up to the north before the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies could establish themselves there. The second, the “big solution” as the Germans had come to call it, was a thrust straight through to Dvinsk and on to Riga to cut off Army Group North in the Baltic States.

Model also speculated that the activity on the Sixteenth Army right flank might be a sign that the Stavka was becoming discouraged with the attempts to encircle Eighteenth Army. If that was so, it did not result in any lessening of pressure on Eighteenth Army. As predicted, the Volkhov and Leningrad Fronts bore down heavily on the army’s shoulders.

Meretskov tried for a breakthrough at Shimsk west of Lake Ilmen on 17 February. For three days, while the flank of Sixteenth Army came back from Staraya Russa, the battle to keep contact between the two armies swayed in the balance. On the 10th, when both began pulling away from Lake Ilmen, that crisis was passed.

Govorov reacted more slowly but more dangerously. Pskov, throughout the war the main communications center of Army Group North, was also the hinge on which the whole withdrawal to the PANTHER position turned. The army group could not afford to lose Pskov but scarcely had room around the city in which to maneuver. In the swamps and forests east of Pskov Lake, Leningrad Front had trouble bringing its forces to bear, but on 24 February it began laying on heavy pressure north of the city and launched probing attacks across the lake. According to intelligence reports, Stalin had called in Govorov and personally ordered him to take Pskov. By 26 February the threats at Pskov and on the Sixteenth Army right flank had made Hitler so nervous that he asked Model to try to speed up the withdrawal.

In the north, on the Narva front, the Germans toward the end of the month had gained only enough strength to tip the scales slightly in their favor. On 24 February General der Infanterie Johannes Friessner, who had proved himself in the fighting on the Sixteenth Army-Eighteenth Army boundary, took over Sponheimer’s command which was then redesignated Armeeabteilung Narva. By then troops of the 214th Infantry Division were beginning to arrive. They still needed seasoning, but they could be used to relieve experienced troops from the quiet parts of the line. Going over to what he called “mosaic work,” Friessner cut into the extreme tip of the bridgehead south of Narva and pushed the enemy there into two small pockets. Although the Russians ignored the punishing artillery and small arms fire and kept pouring in troops through the open ends of the pockets, the danger of their reaching the coast was averted.

On 1 March Army Group North took the last step back into the PANTHER position, and the Russians demonstrated that they were not going to let it come to rest there. North of Pustoshka two armies hit the VIII Corps front. South of the town two armies threw their weight against X Corps. Leningrad Front massed two armies south of Pskov and poured more troops across the Narva River, attacking out of the bridgehead to the north, northwest, and west. For a week the battle rippled up and down the whole army group front. Except for small local losses, the German line held. On 9 March Second Baltic Front stepped up its pressure against the Sixteenth Army right flank and began straining heavily for a breakthrough.

On the 10th the army group was confronted with a politically unpleasant and militarily insignificant consequence of the disastrous winter. The commanding officer of the Spanish Legion and the Spanish military attaché visited Model to tell him the legion was being called home. Franco, they said, was not turning away from Germany; he wanted to gather all his “matadors” about him to resist an Anglo-American invasion. Since the legion had proved as troublesome in the rear areas as it had been ineffectual at the front, the loss to the army group was not a painful one.

At midmonth Second Baltic Front was still battering the Sixteenth Army flank while Leningrad Front probed for openings around Pskov and Narva. But the weather had turned against the Russians. After a warm winter—for Russia—the spring thaw had set in early. A foot of water covered the ice on the lakes. Sixteenth Army reported that the Soviet tanks were sometimes sinking up to their turrets in mud. Against a weak front the Russians might have continued to advance, as they were doing in the Ukraine, but the PANTHER position, all that remained of the East Wall, was living up to German expectations.

Although Army Group North had failed to demolish Leningrad as both a symbol and a centre of Soviet power, in operational terms the siege effectively isolated three Soviet armies for over two years and forced six other armies to conduct repeated costly frontal assaults. Total Soviet military casualties on the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts during the siege were at least 1.5 million, including 620,000 dead or captured. The siege cost the lives of about 700,000 Soviet civilians and prevented the city’s industries from participating fully in the Soviet war effort until mid-1944.


4 July 1943 5th Guards Tank Corps, Voronezh Front

The 5th Guards Tank Corps traces its origins back to the 40th Tank Division, formed from separate tank battalions in the Kiev Special Military District on March 11, 1941, as a part of the 19th Mechanized Corps. When the war started on June 22, 1941, the corps was deployed in the area of Zhitomir, west of Kiev but far from the front. The whole corps contained 450 tanks, but included only six KV tanks and two T-34s. The 40th Tank Division, commanded by Colonel Mikhail V. Shirogokov, was up to full strength in enlisted men, but only 53% of its officers and NCOs. Of the tanks assigned to the division, 139 of them were obsolete T-37 amphibians, with a two-man crew, extremely thin armor, and a single light machine gun. In addition there were nineteen obsolescent T-26 tanks with light armor, a three man crew, and a 45mm gun, and a half a dozen T-28 medium tanks which were found in repair depots in the division’s area by intrepid junior officers. These tanks were slow and lacked good armor, but had a low velocity 76mm gun in the main turret and two small turrets in front with machine guns.

Within two days of the war beginning most of the T-37s had been assigned in small groups to support rifle divisions. They were not to be heard from again. The rest of the division marched towards the border in two echelons, the first with all of the tanks remaining and the motorized elements, while all of the others who lacked transport were to march behind the mechanized elements. The motorized rifle regiment lacked 83% of its heavy weapons and had no 76.2mm infantry guns at all, while the artillery regiment was missing 66% of its guns. By June 24 the division, under constant air attack, was concentrated at Dedovichi. The next day the tank element of the division, namely all nineteen T-26s and the T-28s were assigned to support the 228th Rifle Division against German attacks at Dubno. In 24 hours of intensive combat it lost eleven T-26s with an additional three damaged, and two of the T-28s. Thus after three days of war, the division, which on paper was to have over 415 tanks, was down to 9!

The division continued to fight, but by July 22 it had been reduced to 700 men! In late August the survivors were evacuated to the Caucasus to form new brigades, the 45th and 47th Tank Brigades. Since the 47th was later withdrawn from the corps, we will follow the path of the 45th Tank Brigade.

The brigade, under Colonel Alexander Kukushkin, began forming up in September, 1941. Under the pressure of the German forces driving for Rostov, the brigade was moved to Stalingrad to finish its organization. This was not completed until April 1942, at which time the brigade contained two tank battalions (250th and 251st), which contained a total of twenty-five to thirty T-34s, seven KV-1s, and fifteen to twenty T-60 tanks as well as the 45th Motorized Rifle Battalion. In April the brigade was entrained and moved to Voronezh where it became part of the 4th Tank Corps under Lt. General Vasili Mishulin. The corps also contained the 47th Tank Brigade (thirty-one T-34s, twenty T-60s), the 102nd Tank Brigade (thirty-one Lend Lease Mk II “Matilda” tanks and twenty T-60s), the 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade, a Guards Rocket battalion and a reconnaissance battalion. Unit training began in April, by June the corps was ordered to concentrate at Stary Oskol. Under air attack as it moved up, the corps got badly spread out on the roads.

By June 30 the corps was ordered to attack the advancing Germans at Gorshechnoe along with 24th and 17th Tank Corps. Unfortunately the 24th Tank Corps never showed up, and two tank brigades of the 17th had been pushed back before the 4th arrived. The 45th Tank Brigade led the attack, followed by the 102nd. Like all the Soviet tank corps thrown into the fighting around Voronezh, the 4th took heavy losses, and by July 3rd the remnants of the 4th and 24th Tank Corps were struggling to cover the retreat of the 13th and the scattered 40th Soviet armies. As the German attack headed southeast toward the Don bend, the front around Voronezh stabilized and the 4th Tank Corps was withdrawn in August and shipped southeast to the 1st Guards Army where it was promptly thrown into a series of costly and futile attacks on the northern flank of 6th German Army which was straining towards Stalingrad. At this time, 45th Tank Brigade’s Colonel Kukushkin was replaced by Lt. Colonel Pyotr Zhidkov. Attacking over the open steppe under German dive bombings and against dug in 88mm guns, the corps took heavy losses through September.

On September 28th General Mishulin was relieved and replaced by Major General Andrei Kravchenko. Kravchenko, a veteran of tank fighting since the beginning of the war was to lead the 4th Tank Corps to some of the most important victories of the Second World War. A tall, good-humored man, Kravchenko was of the school of generals that preferred to lead from the front, sometimes by personal example.

The remnants of the corps was withdrawn in October to Southwest Front reserve to be refitted, reorganized, and retrained. The 47th Tank Brigade was removed from the corps and disbanded to form the basis for a tank regiment. The 69th Tank Brigade was attached to the corps to replace them. A period of intensive training followed, to prepare the corps for the Stalingrad offensive being planned. By November 19 everything was ready, the corps was more or less up to strength, reinforced with an antiaircraft regiment and an antiaircraft machinegun battalion, and paired off with 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps to be the mobile group of the 21st Army of Southwest Front.

The rifle divisions of the 21st Army smashed the Rumanian 13th and 15th Infantry Divisions facing them and the 4th Tank Corps was committed into the breach by 3:00 PM the first day of the offensive. By 8:00, advancing through a snow storm against little resistance, the corps had covered 25 kilometers. On the twentieth Yeremenko’s Stalingrad Front punched out from its front south of the city and the Southwest Front forces continued to drive southeast to meet them. Kravchenko’s men ran into a tough fight on the twentieth against German and Rumanian rearguards, but pushed on. Advancing steadily to the southeast, brushing aside rear guards and shooting up fleeing transport, the 4th Tank Corps approached Kalach on the Don and Sovietskii with the 45th Tank Brigade in the lead.

On the morning of November 23 the advance guard of Major General Volskii’s 4th Mechanized Corps, the 36th Mechanized Brigade under Colonel Rodionov, reported that Kalach seemed to still be in German hands, but at 3:30 in the afternoon a column of tanks was observed approaching from the northwest. Rodionov sent out an armored car flying a red flag to check out the tanks. To the relief and joy of the armored car crew, the column sent up one green rocket, the expected recognition signal. Shortly after that Colonel Zhidkov and Colonel Rodionov were embracing and exchanging the traditional three kisses of a Russian greeting. They were the kiss of death for the 6th Army in Stalingrad.

Subsequently the whole of 4th Tank Corps was turned east, to support 21st Army’s drive against the 6th Army. The fighting was slow but steady, grinding down the pocket and pushing it steadily eastward, away from any relief effort. During this time the corps was able to repair some of its tanks damaged in the offensive, so that by January 8, 1943, when the corps was entrained for its new deployment area behind Voronezh Front, the 45th Tank Brigade had 32 T-34s, 21 T-60s, 137 trucks and three armored cars, and the other brigades of the corps were in similar shape, the corps having a strength of 7,221 men and 176 tanks (79 of them light). For its accomplishments in the surrounding of the Stalingrad pocket, the corps received the honorary title “Stalingradskikh”.

On January 12th Lt. General Golikov’s Voronezh Front kicked off its OstrogorzhskRossoh operation that was to consign the Hungarian 2nd Army to the same scrap heap that held the 3rd and 4th Rumanian and 8th Italian Armies. The 4th Tank Corps, initially behind schedule in its deployment so much that the offensive was postponed waiting for them, worked with General Major General Moskalenko’s 40th Army covering the northern flank of the front. In the process they inflicted heavy casualties on the German 2nd Army, the Hungarian’s neighbor to the north. The Hungarians and remnants of the Italian 8th Army were surrounded by January 18th and the second phase of the operation commenced on the 24th with an attack through fog and a blizzard in which the temperature dropped to -20°. By night the weather cleared enough for Soviet biplanes to drop drums of fuel to the forward elements of the corps that had burned large amounts of diesel plowing through the snow. The next day Kastornoye fell, trapping two out of three corps of the German 2nd Army.

It was at this point that the tank corps was ordered to attack Gorshechnoe, the same rail station that it had failed at the previous summer. This time there would be no failure. The station was defended by at least a battery of the lethal German 75mm Pak 40 antitank guns. As they opened fire, General Kravchenko, who was personally leading the advanced brigade of the corps, took a brief look out of the commander’s hatch, then “buttoned up” again and ordered his driver to drive straight for the guns at high speed. Following their commander’s example, the rest of the brigade followed. In practically no time the battery was overrun, guns crushed, and crews machine gunned.

The reduction of the encircled forces took until the first week in February, when the corps was pulled back into Voronezh Front reserve. At this time the corps received recognition for its recent triumphs and was redesignated the 5th Guards Tank Corps. The 45th Tank Brigade became the 20th Guards Tank Brigade, the 69th became the 21st Guards Tank Brigade, the 102nd became the 22nd Guards Tank Brigade, and the 4th Motorized Rifle Brigade became the 6th Guards.

Sporting its new guards badges and new uniforms (the Red Army at this time reintroduced the shoulder board, the pogon of the Czarist army, for all ranks), the corps continued to support General Moskalenko’s 40th Army. It was down to only about 50 tanks still running in the whole corps by this time.

The Soviet High Command decided that at this point there was little left for the Germans to do but retire behind the Dnepr River, and ordered an all-out assault all along the southern half of the front. Widely diverging objectives were assigned, ignoring the fact that the forces ordered to achieve them were badly weakened in men, machines and munitions. Now seemed to be the time to press ahead. A converging attack was ordered against Kharkov, the fourth city of the USSR, with the 5th Guards Tank Corps fighting its way past the elite Grossdeutschland Division to cut in against Kharkov from the north and northwest, while the 69th Army came at it from the east and the 3rd Tank Army struck it from the southeast.

Kharkov was evacuated (against orders) by its SS defenders on February the 16th. After a few days spent in unscrambling the massive tangle of three armies that had stormed the city, the tank corps continued its role, supporting 40th Army in its drive on Akhtyrka and Poltava. Kravchenko’s tankers, pushing through weak German resistance, celebrated Red Army Day, February 23rd, liberating Akhtyrka. But the celebrations were short lived, as the Southwest Front, Voronezh Front’s left hand neighbor, was assaulted that day by massive German reinforcements and was smashed and reeling back from the Dnepr to the Northern Donets by the end of the month. Voronezh Front’s attempt to cover its southern flank by sending 3rd Tank Army to the rescue barely slowed the panzer’s drive north, and the Germans smashed into Kharkov again and took it by March 14. As the SS Panzerkorps stormed into Kharkov, the refitted Grossdeutschland Division thrust into the gap between the 69th Army and 40th Army, aiming for Belgorod. Kravchenko’s tankers were hard pressed to defend the flank of Moskalenko’s army as it rapidly back pedaled from Bogodukhov. By late March Soviet reinforcements and deteriorating weather (mud) brought the German offensive to a halt. The attack had pushed the Soviets back over the Northern Donets and inflicted serious losses on them, but left a large bulge protruding into German lines around Kursk.

At this point the armored forces of both sides were mostly drawn back into reserve, to be rebuilt, receive new equipment and fresh replacements, and, in the Soviet case, reorganized into pretty much the structure with which they would fight the rest of the war. In the case of 5th Guards Tank Corps, this meant adding a third battalion of tanks to each tank brigade, as well as the corps itself adding an antitank regiment of twenty 76.2mm AT guns in April, a mortar regiment of thirty-six 120mm mortars, an antiaircraft regiment of sixteen 37mm AA guns in May, and a heavy tank regiment, the 48th Guards equipped with twenty-one Churchill IV tanks (British Lend Lease) in June. In June of 1943 German intelligence estimated the strength of the corps as over nine thousand men, one hundred thirty-one T-34s, twenty-one Churchills, sixty-three T-70s (an improved light tank with a 45mm gun), fourty-three armored cars, an equal number of American halftracks, almost eight hundred trucks of all kinds, and among other things, five U-2 biplanes. One interesting note; the corps had not only a motorcycle battalion, but also a reconnaissance battalion and a motorized submachine gun battalion. The 20th Guards Tank Brigade itself had eleven hundred men, four 76.2mm guns, one armored car, thirty-two T-34s (less than the other two brigades), twenty-one T-70s, three cars, eighty-five trucks of various kinds, and five motorcycles. On June 7, 1943, Major General Kravchenko was promoted to Lt. General.

The corps remained in Voronezh Front reserve until the beginning of the great battle of Kursk. On July 5th, the first day of the offensive, Voronezh Front commander, General Vatutin, ordered the 5th Guards Tank Corps to advance and at 24:00 hours to reach Tetervino and in conjunction with 2nd Guards Tank Corps and 1st Tank Army to counterattack the German panzers. Instead the corps was forced to assume the defensive behind 6th Guards Army on the line Yaklovo-Oboyan. At 11:30 on July 6th the Germans fired off a 90 minute artillery preparation after which they launched an attack with 300 tanks towards Yaklovo. Later in the afternoon they shifted their attack towards Luchki. The 5th Guards Tank Corps claimed 95 enemy tanks knocked out, as well as several “Ferdinand” assault guns. It is worth noting that there were no Ferdinands in this part of the battle, but, in common with their American and British allies, the Soviets tended to report every enemy tank a “Tiger”, every enemy gun an 88mm, every assault gun a Ferdinand. While it is easy to smile in retrospect, when they are facing you any tank looks very big.

During the night the corps withdrew to the northeast of Yaklovo, and during July 7th was forced to withdraw to Pokrovka-Tetervino. At 10:00 on the 8th the corps went over to the attack against Kalinin, but after gaining some ground was hit by strong enemy counterattacks supported by Stukas, and was forced back to its start lines. The 2nd Guards Tank Corps was attacking towards Nechaevka at the same time, but suffered a similar result. In heavy fighting, alternating between offensive and defensive, the 5th Guards Tank Corps contributed to the defeat of the left flank of the German assault on the southern face of the Kursk bulge. In previous summers German offensives had rolled until November or December, smashing up Soviet armies, corralling hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and threatening the world’s first socialist state with defeat. Now, despite the presence of hundreds of massive Tigers, deadly Panthers and awe inspiring Ferdinand assault guns, the major German offensive lasted… no more than eight days. Within two weeks the Soviets would be counterattacking, starting a series of offensives that would continue, with pauses only to bring up supplies and replenish losses, until they came to a halt in the smoldering wreckage of Berlin.

The 5th Guards Tank Corps was reinforced with patched up tanks salvaged from the battlefield, producing a tank strength of 150-180 tanks in the corps and was finally assigned a battalion of 85mm antiaircraft guns designated for antitank work against the formidable Tigers and Panthers. On August 3rd, they jumped off as the mobile group of 6th Guards Army. They were supposed to enter a breach in the German lines to be made by 71st Guards Rifle Division, but the division failed to break the German lines. Instead the corps was shifted and assigned to provide tank support for the infantry of 23rd Guards Rifle Corps attacking the Germans at Tomarovka. Here it was hung up for two days, failing to penetrate the defenses of the German 255th and 332nd Infantry Divisions supported by the 19th Panzer Division and a detachment of Tiger tanks. All this while, however, to the east of Tomarovka the 1st and 5th Guards Tank Armies had a clean breakthrough, and were advancing rapidly to the south. On August the 6th the corps side stepped the defenses at Tomarovka and headed for Grayvoron, skirmishing all the way with elements of the 11th and 19th Panzer Divisions. By the seventh the corps was west of Bogodukhov, deep in the German rear when it ran into elements of the Grossdeutschland Division probing east from Akhtyrka. The corps side stepped these units as well and pushed to the southwest, on August 8th reaching nearly to Krasnokutsk, about 65 miles west of Kharkov.

In the great drive to cut off Kharkov from the west, 5th Guards Tank Army was furthest to the east, with 1st Tank Army to its west. Covering the western flank of 1st Tank Army was the 5th Guards Tank Corps which after the first few days of the offensive had experienced less heavy fighting than the rest of the tank army. On August 11th, the Germans, now heavily reinforced, began a two pronged drive to cut off the mass of Soviet armor west of Kharkov. Their first days attack took advantage of the Soviet tactic of leading their attack with advance guards, typically a brigade per corps. Striking north and west with large panzer formations, they trapped or beat up most of the advance guards they faced, inflicting substantial losses on both tank armies. German attacks, mostly from the area west of Kharkov, continued through the 17th of August. For reasons that are not clear, while the 3rd Mechanized Corps and 6th and 31st Tank Corps of 1st Tank Army fought terrifically bloody battles with SS Das Reich and Totenkopf Panzer Divisions and the rest of III Panzerkorps, 5th Guards Tank Corps seem to have led a peaceful existence at the tip of the Soviet penetration towards the southwest. When 5th Guards Tank Army was forced to move west to support the 1st Tank around Bogodukhov and 6th Guards Army was very roughly handled by the German counterattacks, Kravchenko’s men seemed to continue to enjoy a break.

On August the 18th the Germans struck from the west, primarily relying on the Grossdeutschland Division with its seventy-some odd tanks, including Panthers, and two groups of Tigers. Their strike quickly penetrated the Soviet lines and threatened to cut off most of 27th Army and also part of 6th Guards Army, now including 5th Guards Tank Corps. The German III Panzerkorps attacked from the south to link up with Grossdeutschland, running into defenses along the Merla River held by the 72nd Guards Rifle Corps supported by 20th Guards Tank Brigade, and later by all of 5th Guards Tank Corps repelled all attacks by SS Totenkopf. On August 20th the SS men finally broke through the 52nd Guards Rifle Division, as well as the 5th Guards Tank Corps elements supporting it, linking up with the 10th Motorized Division on Gross Deutschland’s right flank and cutting off the 166th Rifle Division and the 4th Guards Tank Corps. Most of the elements of the 5th Guards Tank Corps were pushed to the north and were not pocketed. The Germans were too weak and preoccupied to reduce the pocket, which was relieved on the 25th of August.

All of this desperate fighting reduced the participants to where Soviet tank armies could boast of only a hundred or so tanks still running in three or four tank or mechanized corps, and German panzer divisions as few as eighteen or a dozen tanks per division. The winner would be the side with fresh forces to throw into the scale of battle. This being 1943, that side was of course the Red Armies, who replied to the German offensive around Akhtyrka with one of its own further north, employing the newly arrived 4th Guards and 47th Armies. The attrition battle, which had been costly to both sides, was now over, and renewed Soviet attacks by General Konev’s Steppe Front took Kharkov on the 23rd of August while Vatutin’s Voronezh Front took Akhtyrka on the 25th. The Germans bowed to the inevitable and began a withdrawal to the Dnepr River, which took most of a month.


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.

RAF in Malaya – The Enemy and Allied Forces I

The Royal Air Force (RAF) and Army Air Corps, based in Malaya, provided multi-role air support to emergency operations. This was either as an independent force of the operation, or in direct cooperation with forces on the ground. There were six facets to the availability of air support:

1.Photographic air reconnaissance facilitated informed planning and execution of anti-terrorist operations. An extensive air survey was conducted of the heavily populated areas, and active photographic tactical air cover made available. Light fixed-wing aircraft of the Army Air Corps were used for routine visual air reconnaissance, and had an active role target marking for RAF airstrikes.

2.Offensive air support was also multi-role. Due to restricted ground visibility from the air because of the very thick jungle canopy, the RAF had to rely heavily on pinpoint target coordinates from the ground forces for airstrikes to be effective. In the event of targets covering an extended area, but also dependent on target identification from the ground, bombers could lay down a deadly pattern to neutralise guerrillas positions. Often, an RAF representative would participate in the planning and implementation of ground operations in an advisory capacity when air support was included.

3.The supply of rations, ammunition and general supplies was essential to maintain sustained jungle operations. The terrain and general absence of a serviceable road network made the role of air supply critical for the success of prolonged counter-insurgency operations in the Malayan jungles.

4.For the same reasons, inaccessible areas of jungle required deployment of troops by air – light aircraft and medium helicopters. It also allowed for improved effectiveness as the troops could be deployed quicker and closer to the enemy.

5.Casualty evacuation by helicopter saved the lives of many a soldier wounded in action or suffering from some debilitating tropical disease. The medical exfiltration by this means enabled ground troops to continue with their operations, rather than having to evacuate a casualty by foot.

6.The dissemination of anti-Communist propaganda by air was also deemed useful, although problematic to quantify in absolute terms. Aerial leaflet drops or voice broadcasts formed an integral part of the psychological warfare during the emergency. As RAF planes continue to drop pamphlets throughout Malaya, Communists have intensified their propaganda warfare. Kluang police station in Johore yesterday received a bundle of Communist leaflets saying ‘Down with the British’ and promising ‘Death for the running dogs of the British’.

Around twenty squadrons from Britain’s Far East Air Force served during the emergency, flying English Electric Canberra bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, Spitfire FR-18s and -19s, Beaufighter TF-10s, de Havilland Mosquitos, Vampires and Venoms, Gloster Meteors, Percival Pembrokes, Scottish Aviation Pioneers, Taylorcraft Austers, Sunderlands Mk Vs (RAF Kai Tak, Hong Kong, and RAF Seletar, Singapore), Avro Lincolns, Westland Whirlwind helicopters, Bristol Sycamores, Douglas Dakotas, Vickers Valettas and Sikorsky helicopters.

The Royal Australian Air Force squadrons contributed Avro Lincoln heavy bombers (Butterworth air base), Canberra bombers, Dakota transports and CAC Sabre jet fighters; and from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Vampires, Venoms, Dakotas, Bristol Freighters and Canberras.

Ships from the Royal Navy, such as HMS Amethyst, Comus, Defender, Hart, Newcastle and Newfoundland, conducted coastal anti-smuggling and anti-piracy operations, and were used for amphibious landings into inaccessible areas near the coast. Naval vessels also provided bombardment of targeted CT areas.

Naval support also came from Australia – destroyers Warramunga and Arunta, aircraft carriers Melbourne and Sydney, and Commonwealth Strategic Reserve forces destroyers Anzac, Quadrant, Queenborough, Quiberon, Quickmatch, Tobruk, Vampire, Vendetta and Voyager. The Royal New Zealand Navy’s frigate, HMNZS Pukaki complemented coastal patrols.


Troops of the Dorsetshire Regiment using machine guns today aided Malayan police in a dawn action against Chinese gangsters. The Chinese had attacked police at Nyor village, five miles from Lluang, in Jahore State. Two gangsters were killed and five wounded. A British sergeant was injured by a hand grenade.

(Dundee Evening Telegraph, Thursday, 25 September 1947)

This brief, four-sentence report was easily missed in many newspapers in the UK. As much space was given in the British press to a report from American General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters, which stated that the wartime Pacific commander had ordered the return to Singapore’s museum of 185 stuffed birds that the Japanese had pilfered during their occupation of Malaya for presentation to Emperor Hirohito.

The following month, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, together with extreme left-wing parties, called for a hartal – a general strike and closure of shops – in protest against plans by London to replace the unpopular Malayan Union with a federation of all the Malay states and Straits Settlements, but excluding Singapore.

Unperturbed, it was Britain’s wish that ‘internal self-government’ be returned to the Malayan Peninsula, apart from the Crown Colony of Singapore. On 21 January 1948, Britain signed agreements in Kuala Lumpur with the rulers of nine Malayan states, thereby paving the way for a ‘Federation of Malaya’. The new state would be promulgated by the issue of an Order in Council from Governor Sir Edward Gent in February. Gent would then become High Commissioner, while resident British commissioners in each of the federal states would only have advisory powers.

The latest British initiative merely served to harden Malayan Communist Chinese resolve to expedite their quest for a people’s republic encompassing the whole peninsula.

While the wartime marriage of convenience between the British and the MCP’s military wing, MPAJA, was a tactical necessity to rid Malaya of the Japanese, the MCP was already planning its strategies to also oust the British. A covert programme of Communist indoctrination by means of propaganda was conducted to sensitise the ‘masses’ to the need for resistance.

The MCP, however, could not anticipate the militarily strong British administration that took over from the Japanese, effectively stalling the timing of their revolution. While ensuring that they were seen by the British to be cooperative subjects of the Crown, the MCP took its subversive activities underground. In line with Mao’s teachings, MCP activists infiltrated government and public departments, such as schooling and local government councils.

In the first quarter of 1948, the MCP started to implement by deed their doctrinal objectives. Initially, this took the form of nationwide civil disorder, exploiting the legitimacy of their actions in terms of the federal government’ s Trade Union Ordinance.

By this time, the MCP had divided its strategies into two – the Jungle Organisation and the Open Organisation. Whilst the federal authorities, ‘assisted’ by the British, were unable to legitimately classify the overt trade union activities as acts of terrorism, the Open Organisation played a fundamental role in the Communist insurrection.

The Jungle Organisation itself comprised two elements – the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) and the Min Yuen, or Mass People’s Movement.

Initially comprised of regiments, logistical necessities made the structure difficult to manage, so independent platoons were created instead. With platoon strengths fluctuating between fifteen and thirty, the units came under the command of a state committee member (SCM), which allowed for areas of operation to overlap. Local militia, referred to as the Armed Work Force, augmented platoon ranks.

About 90 per cent of the communist terrorists were ethnic Chinese, the balance mainly Malay and Indian, with one or two Siamese, Japanese and Javanese. Generally young, the Communist Terrorists (CTs) were jungle habituated, attuned to the lay of the land in which they operated. Hardened survivalists, they understood deprivation and the necessity of living off the jungle. Their fieldcraft and tracking skills were, for the majority, second nature in the familiar environment.

Much of the CTs’ war materiel, unearthed from Second World War jungle caches, was of diminished quality. Compounded by the metal-unfriendly jungle conditions, British military analysts rated CT handling and maintenance of arms and ammunition as ‘adequate for the type of warfare they are engaged in’. Questionable weapons’ serviceability impacted on the morale of the guerrillas. This, together with the efficacy of the British and Commonwealth security forces, food supply, quality of leadership and strength of conviction to the cause, meant for CT tactics that were largely hit-and-run in execution. Only the most zealous adherents to the Communist dogma would show determined resistance in combat.

The CTs drew from cached British and American stock weaponry issued to the anti-Japanese guerrillas during the occupation. Weapons included .303-calibre Bren light machine guns, 9mm Sten sub-machine guns, Thompson .45-calibre ‘Chicago Organ Grinder’ sub-machine guns, American .30 semi-automatic carbines, British .303 SMLE rifles, 12-bore shotguns, Russian-made Tokarev TT-33 pistols, and dated British revolvers.

A Ho Lung CT camp in the Sungei Palong area, southern Malaya.

CT campsites were meticulously selected, with an emphasis placed on unlikely positions to the casual observer, and a reliable source of clean water. The larger, more permanent camps had bashas constructed from natural materials found in the area, a parade ground and an outdoor lecture facility. Some camps had rudimentary armouries for basic weapons repair.

Two-way radio communications were rare, the CTs lacking suitable equipment. Two- or three-man courier groups were the norm in jungle operational areas, which included the conveyance of printed Communist propaganda. So-called open couriers proved the most effective and expedient means of communication, and one that the local law enforcement agencies found extremely difficult to detect, let alone eliminate. Invariably, these open couriers were readily available Min Yuen, blending in with the general populace as an ordinary citizen going about their daily routines.

Instructional material in guerrilla tactics such as vehicle and security force ambushes, defensive positions, reconnaissance and use of weapons, was sourced from translations of Russian and British manuals, and leaflets of the Chinese People’s Army sent in from China.

The Malayan civil government was, in the first instance, the responsible authority for the anti-terrorist campaign. Viewed at first as a civil action, CT attacks on civilians were regarded as of a criminal nature, and therefore a matter for the police force to address. With the escalation in acts of terrorism, armed forces – local, British and Commonwealth – were brought in to support the civil authorities. A home guard was also formed, mainly to release combatant troops from urban and village defence duties.

By 1950, the coordinated responsibility for the control of all counter-terrorist operations lay with the Emergency Operations Council – EOC. Answerable in turn to the federal government of Malaya, the EOC was tasked with the use of fully integrated civil and military resources to totally eradicate the Communist terrorists.

Chaired by the prime minister, the EOC comprised government ministers, the commissioner of police, the flag officer (navy) of the Malayan area, the general officer commanding overseas Commonwealth land forces, the air officer commanding No. 224 Group, RAF, and the deputy secretary, security and intelligence in the prime minister’s office.

Responsible for the day-to-day conduct of emergency operations, the Federal Director of Emergency Operations was a senior British army officer seconded to the Federation of Malaya government. Generally referred to as the Director of Operations, this officer chaired the Commanders’ Sub-committee, made up of the commanders of the army, air force, navy and police in Malaya. These combined forces’ operational structures were replicated at state and district levels, in descending chain of command.

The job of the security forces was threefold:

1.The strict control of concentrations of the civilian population, in cities, towns, kampongs (villages) and plantation lines. The forces had to be in a position to not only defend civilians from CT intimidation and brutality, but also to prevent supplies of food being smuggled out to the CTs by Communist sympathisers.

2.To perform offensive operations in areas surrounding centres of population, with the objective of cutting the flow of food by eliminating the CTs.

3.To mount deep-jungle, seek-and-destroy missions to isolate them from the local populace and to destroy camps, food and arms caches, and lands cultivated for food production.

Severing the link between CT and civilian was deemed key, and therefore warranting a systematic programme of isolation of one from the other. This process became a reality with the controversial introduction of the Briggs Plan.

RAF in Malaya – The Enemy and Allied Forces II

Operation ‘Firedog’ – the air war against the CTS (Communist Terrorists) during the Malayan Emergency – began in earnest in July 1948 with the formation of an RAF Task Force at Kuala Lumpur. Reinforcements, notably Lincolns from the UK were sent to Malaya and Singapore on detachment. The first to arrive were Lincolns on 57 Squadron. On 15 March 1950, at a time when Chin Peng’s forces were slowly winning the war against the Security Forces, eight Lincolns on 57 Squadron arrived at Tengah from Waddington for operations against terrorists in Negri Sembilan. 57’s Lincolns were relieved in July by 100 Squadron. In December 1950 these were replaced by Lincolns on 61 and 148 Squadrons, the latter having converted from the Lancaster at Upwood in February 1950. The Lincoln seemed ideal for the task of bombing CT hide-outs in the jungle but while five Lincolns could effectively drop 70 1,000lb bombs on a jungle strongpoint the guerrillas had by now split into much smaller and more mobile units and were almost impossible to hit by ‘conventional’ bombing. One operation, in the Ipoh region between July and November 1954 involving Lincolns, 22 SAS and four infantry battalions, accounted for only 15 terrorists killed. From 1950 to 1958 eight Lincoln Mk.30s of 1 Squadron RAAF at Tengah dropped 17,500 tons of bombs but killed only 16 CTs and destroyed barely 30 camps. There were successes. On 13 May 1957 an operation by the RAAF Lincolns near Seremban killed a notorious Communist leader known as ‘Ten Foot Long’ and four of his followers. The Malaya Emergency officially ended in August 1960 and Operation ‘Firedog’ ended in October.

Suez Crisis

November 1956, Port Said, Egypt --- An Egyptian boy stands near a British tank amidst the rubble of destroyed buildings during the Suez Crisis. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

An Egyptian boy stands near a British tank amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Port Said after the British and French assault on the city during the Suez Crisis, November 1956.








Start Date: July 26, 1956

End Date: March 6, 1957

Over the months that followed Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal, the community of interest among British, French, and Israeli leaders developed into secret planning for a joint military operation to topple Nasser. The U.S. government was not consulted and indeed opposed the use of force. The British and French governments either did not understand the American attitude or, if they did, believed that Washington would give approval after the fact to policies believed by its major allies to be absolutely necessary.

The British government first tried diplomacy. Two conferences in London attended by the representatives of 24 nations using the canal failed to produce agreement on a course of action, and Egypt refused to participate. A proposal by Secretary of State Dulles for a canal users’ club of nations failed, as did an appeal to the United Nations (UN) Security Council. On October 1 Dulles announced that the United States was disassociating itself from British and French actions in the Middle East and asserted that the United States intended to play a more independent role.

Meanwhile, secret talks were going forward, first between the British and French for joint military action against Egypt. Military representatives of the two governments met in London on August 10 and hammered out the details of a joint military plan known as musketeer, which would involve occupation of both Alexandria and Port Said. The French then brought the Israeli government in on the plan, and General Maurice Challe, deputy chief of staff of the French Air Force, undertook a secret trip to the Middle East to meet with Israeli government and military leaders. The Israelis were at first skeptical about British and French support. They also had no intention of moving as far as the canal itself. The Israelis stated that their plan was merely to send light detachments to link up with British and French forces. They also insisted that British and French military intervention occur simultaneously with their own attack.

General André Beaufre, the designated French military commander for the operation, then came up with a new plan. Under it, the Israelis would initiate hostilities against Egypt in order to provide the pretext for military intervention by French and British forces to protect the canal. This action would technically be in accord with the terms of the 1954 treaty between Egypt and Britain that had given Britain the right to send forces to occupy the Suez Canal zone in the event of an attack against Egypt by a third power.

On October 23 Mollet and French foreign minister Christian Pineau met in the Paris suburbs at Sévres with Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, defense minister Shimon Peres, and chief of the Israeli General Staff Lieutenant General Moshe Dayan. The French agreed to provide additional air cover for Israel. French ships supposedly searching for Egyptian arms shipments to the Algerian rebels would move to the Israeli coast immediately, and French Mystére aircraft flown by French pilots would be repositioned in Israel. That afternoon British foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd and Foreign Office undersecretary of state Patrick Dean joined the discussions. The British, while staunchly pro-intervention, were deeply concerned about their position in the Arab world and were not anxious to be seen in collusion with the Israelis. Thus, an Israeli strike toward the canal through the Sinai would enable the British to have it both ways: they could join the French in demanding of Nasser the right to protect the canal. When he refused, as he certainly would, they could join the French in destroying the Egyptian Air Force, eliminating the one possible threat to Israeli success on the ground. All parties agreed to this new plan, informally dubbed the “Treaty of Sévres” and signed by Dean, Pineau, and Ben-Gurion.

On October 23, meanwhile, unrest began in Hungary. The next day Soviet tanks entered Budapest to put down what had become the Hungarian Revolution. French and British planners were delighted at this international distraction that seemed to provide them a degree of freedom of action.

On the afternoon of October 29 Israeli forces began Operation Kadesh, the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. Sixteen C-47 transports took off from Israeli fields, each with a paratroop platoon. The objective of the 395-man paratroop battalion was the key Mitla Pass, 156 miles from the Israeli border and only 45 miles from the canal. Meanwhile, the remainder of Colonel Ariel Sharon’s 202nd Parachute Brigade would race for the pass in French-provided trucks, linking up with the paratroopers within 36 hours. This operation was designed to trigger a major Egyptian response and threaten the canal in order to trigger the planned British-French response.

The announced objective of Operation kadesh was the eradication of the fedayeen bases, but it was begun so as to appear to the Egyptians as if it were the beginning of an all-out war. Dayan’s detailed plan called for nothing less than a weeklong lightning advance that would end with Israeli forces securing the entire Sinai and a total victory over Egypt. The destruction of Nasser’s prestige in the Arab world and final Egyptian recognition of the impossibility of an Arab military victory over Israel were the goals, rather than destruction of the Egyptian Army or acquisition of its new Soviet equipment.

A day later, October 30, the British and French governments issued an ultimatum, nominally to both the Egyptian and Israeli governments but in reality only to Egypt, expressing the need to separate the combatants and demanding the right to provide for the security of the Suez Canal. The ultimatum called on both sides to withdraw their forces 10 miles from the canal and gave them 12 hours to reply. The Israelis, of course, immediately accepted the ultimatum, while the Egyptians just as promptly rejected it.

At dusk on October 31, British and French aircraft struck Egyptian airfields and military installations from bases on Cyprus and Malta and from aircraft carriers. The aircraft attacked four Egyptian bases that day and nine the next. On November 1, meanwhile, a British and French naval task force sailed from Malta to join with other ships at Cyprus. In all, the allied landing force numbered some 80,000 men: 50,000 British and 30,000 French. There were 100 British and 30 French warships, including 7 aircraft carriers (5 British) and the French battleship Jean Bart; hundreds of landing craft; and some 80 merchant ships carrying 20,000 vehicles and stores. Yet when Eden reported to the House of Commons on events, he encountered a surprisingly strong negative reaction from the opposition Labour Party.

Also, following the initial British and French military action, the Egyptians immediately sank a number of ships in the canal to make it unusable. Meanwhile, the Israelis, battling against ineffective Egyptian forces, swept across the Sinai in only four days. Finally, on November 5, British and French paratroopers carried out a vertical envelopment of Port Said, Egypt, at the Mediterranean terminus of the canal, while at the same time French and British destroyers carried out a shore bombardment against those targets likely to impede a landing. Early on November 6, British troops began coming ashore at Port Said, while the French landed at Port Faud. A single day of fighting saw the ports in allied hands. French and British forces then began a virtually unopposed advance southward along the canal.

U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower had already entered the picture. On October 31 he described the British attack as “taken in error.” He was personally furious at Eden over events and is supposed to have asked when he first telephoned the British leader, “Anthony, have you gone out of your mind?” The United States applied immediate and heavy financial threats, both on a bilateral basis and through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to bring the British government to heel. Eisenhower also refused any further dealings with Eden personally.

The Soviets, preoccupied by Hungary, took some five days to come to the conclusion that the United States was actually opposing the British and French action. On November 5, Moscow threatened to send “volunteers” to Egypt. This proved a further embarrassment for the British government, but it was U.S. pressure that was decisive. Nonetheless, the world beheld the strange spectacle of the United States cooperating with the Soviet Union to condemn Britain and France in the UN Security Council and call for an end to the use of force. Although Britain and France vetoed the Security Council resolution, the matter was referred to the General Assembly, which demanded a cease-fire and withdrawal.

Israel and Egypt agreed to a cease-fire on November 4. At midnight on November 6, the day of the U.S. presidential election, the British and French governments also accepted a cease-fire, the French only with the greatest reluctance. By the time the cease-fire went into effect, the French and British controlled about half of the canal’s length. French and British losses in the operation were 33 dead and 129 wounded. Egyptian losses are unknown.

A 4,000-man UN Emergency Force, authorized on November 4 and made up of contingents from the Scandinavian countries, Brazil, Colombia, India, and Indonesia, then arrived in Egypt to take up positions to keep Israeli and Egyptian forces separated. At the end of November the British and French governments both agreed to withdraw their forces from Egypt by December 22, and on December 1 Eisenhower announced that he had instructed U.S. oil companies to resume shipping supplies to both Britain and France. Under pressure from both the United States and the UN, Israel withdrew its forces from the Sinai, including the Gaza Strip, during February 5–March 6, 1957. A UN observer force of 3,500 men then took up station in Gaza, at Sharm al-Shaykhh, and along the Sinai border. Although Israel had been assured that Egyptian forces would not return to Gaza, the Egyptians were there within 48 hours of the Israeli withdrawal.

Nasser and Arab self-confidence were the chief beneficiaries of the crisis. The abysmal performance of Egyptian military forces in the crisis was forgotten in Nasser’s ultimate triumph. Nasser found his prestige dramatically increased throughout the Arab world. Israel also benefited. The presence of the UN force guaranteed an end to the fedayeen raids, and Israel had also broken the Egyptian blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, although its ships could still not transit the Suez Canal. The crisis also enhanced Soviet prestige in the Middle East, and the UN emerged with enhanced prestige, helping to boost world confidence in that organization.

The Suez Crisis ended Eden’s political career. Ill and under tremendous criticism in Parliament from the Labour Party, he resigned from office in January 1957. Events also placed a serious, albeit temporary, strain on U.S.-British relations. More importantly, they revealed the serious limitations in British military strength. Indeed, observers are unanimous in declaring 1956 a seminal date in British imperial history, marking the effective end of Britain’s tenure as a great power. The events had less impact in France. Mollet left office in May 1957 but not as a result of the Suez intervention. The crisis was costly to both Britain and France in economic terms, for Saudi Arabia had halted oil shipments to both countries.

Finally, the Suez Crisis could not have come at a worse time for the West because the event diverted world attention from the concurrent brutal Soviet military intervention in Hungary. Eisenhower believed, rightly or wrongly, that without the Suez diversion there would have been far stronger Western reaction to the Soviet invasion of its satellite.

References Beaufre, André. The Suez Expedition, 1956. Translated by Richard Barry. New York: Praeger, 1969. Cooper, Chester L. The Lion’s Last Roar: Suez, 1956. New York: Harper and Row, 1978. Eden, Anthony. The Suez Crisis of 1956. Boston: Beacon, 1968. Freiberger, Steven Z. Dawn over Suez: The Rise of American Power in the Middle East, 1953–1957. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992. Gorst, Anthony, and Lewis Johnman. The Suez Crisis. London: Routledge, 1997.