August 15, 2014

Soviet Tanks in Berlin

In the battle for Berlin the Russians used massed mechanized units in street battles. However, Soviets do not recommend that tank units be sent into the city, where movement is usually restricted and channelized, barricades and obstacles easily prepared, and every building becomes a potential strongpoint and direct-fire gun emplacement, but the lessons learned during the battle of Berlin are worthy of attention.

Writing in "Red Star," an official Red Army publication, a Major N. Novskov details what was found in Berlin, the difficulties encountered, and some of the methods used to overcome the stubborn German defense.


Overview of the battle of Berlin
1. The battle of Berlin.


Direction of the Attack
Waiting for the Russians
2. Waiting for the Russian tanks.


For the battle of Berlin, the Russians organized combined assault detachments, consisting of one tank battalion, a rifle battalion, a company or platoon of engineers, a battalion of artillery (not less than 122 mm), and a platoon of flame throwers.

Fundamentally, the defense of Berlin was based on three defensive belts, with intermediate strongpoints:
  • the outer ring of defense along the line of lakes and canals;
  • the ring of defense in the outskirts and suburbs;
  • and an inner ring in the city proper.
The Germans had expected the assault to be made from the East and had concentrated their defenses in that area. Soviet tank units, however, attacked from the south, cutting off the Berlin garrison from the southern German armies which were to have constituted its defense in that sector. The attack in the southern sector moved swiftly, with the Soviets by-passing the main centers of resistance and driving quickly through the outskirts and into the suburbs.

Teltow Canal
Teltow canal
3. The Teltow canal.


One big obstacle that had to be countered in this first phase was the crossing of the Teltow Canal, where the Germans had demolished all the bridges or had prepared them for demolition. After a thorough reconnaissance, a well organized and coordinated assault was made on the canal and a crossing effected.

Characteristics of the Fight in the Suburbs


In the suburbs, the tanks had a certain degree of maneuverability, due to the larger number of gardens, squares, parks, and athletic fields. They were able to by-pass and envelop separate centers of resistance, to attack some defense fortifications from the rear, and to complete enveloping movements in some cases. Once enveloped, the defense zones in this area quickly collapsed.

Characteristics of the Fight in the Center
A T-34 destroyed next to Berlin’s zoo
4. A T-34 destroyed next to Berlin’s zoo.


In the center of the city, the nature of the fighting was quite different from the fighting in the suburban area. Many-storied buildings in solid masses reduced the maneuverability of tank units. The only avenues of advance were along the streets from building to building. Maneuver was not entirely prohibited, however, for heavily barricaded streets and strongpoints could be enveloped by way of adjacent buildings.

During the battle for the center of the city, the tanks were used in a supporting role to reinforce the infantry and artillery. The infantry cleared the buildings of antitank gunners who were concealed in the basements or in the lower floors. After the buildings had been cleared, the tanks would advance.

The Combined Assault Detachments
The last defenders
5. The last defenders.


It was in this battle for the center of the city that the combined assault detachments proved their worth. The combined detachment was able to attack with well protected flanks, and could maneuver within the limits of two or three buildings.

The general plan of operations of the assault detachments was as follows: If the detachment met with obstructions, it by-passed the obstruction or the sappers would blow up the obstacle under the cover of tank and infantry fire. At the same time, the artillery placed fire on the buildings beyond the obstruction, thus blinding the enemy defense and providing additional cover under which the flame throwers set the buildings afire. After demolition of the obstruction, the tanks then rushed forward and tried to get past the enemy defense zone, while the infantry cleared the enemy from the zone itself. Flanks were protected along the side streets by self-propelled mounts or by tanks.
Generalleutnant Hellmuth Reymann
6. Generalleutnant Hellmuth Reymann 
inspects machinegun positions.

This basic plan was, of course, subject to variation. Depending upon a number of elements, such as the nature of the enemy fortifications, the enemy power of resistance, and the composition of the attacking elements, the tank battalion can attack along two or three streets. Major Novskov asserts that it is better to attack along three streets, keeping the reserve in the center. When the attack is successful along any of the streets, the attacking force is then able to maneuver and envelope the stronger portion of the defensive zone. A tank attack along a larger number of streets leads to a dispersal of force and a reduction in the rate of attack.

Each tank brigade ordinarily had as a main objective the envelopment of from four to six buildings. In the accomplishment of its mission it was found to be of special importance to have a mobile reserve capable of commitment in the direction of the main effort.
IL-2 planes over Berlin
7. IL-2 planes over Berlin in May 1945.

Major Novskov states that the boldness of the tankmen played a great role in the street battles. When artificial obstructions were not present, the tanks, with motorized infantry dismounting at high speed, dashed through certain buildings to intersections, squares, or parks, where they took up positions and waited for the infantry. When the infantry had cleared the enemy from the buildings that had been passed by the tanks, the tanks again moved forward in the same manner. When a defended obstacle was encountered, the tanks first tried to by-pass it. When it proved to be impossible to by-pass the obstacle, and only when it was impossible, they would begin assault operations.

An example of the action of one assault group is cited by Major Novskov. "While attacking in the direction of the Ringbahn (loop railroad), the tank battalion was stopped in the northern part of Mecklenburgische Strasse by a reinforced concrete wall 8 meters wide and 2.5 meters high. The barricade was protected by strong machine gun and automatic fire and also by antitank grenade launchers installed in houses at the barricade itself. There were no detours. The commander decided to break through the obstacle. He first sent out a group of submachine gunners whose mission was to annihilate the grenade launchers, which was accomplished in a short period of time. Then 122-millimeter guns opened fire on the houses where the enemy firing points were located. The tanks, advancing simultaneously with the artillery, also opened fire on the buildings on the other side of the barricade. Under cover of the artillery and tank fire assault engineers climbed up to the barricade with explosives. After three explosions in the barricade, a breach was made through which tanks and infantry rushed. The well organized mutual support guaranteed the success of the attack."

Epilogue
Soviet artillery
8. Soviet artillery, during the battle of Berlin.


In the case of Berlin, used as an example of a large modern city turned into a fortress, the Russians emphasize the importance of mobile reserves; the formation of cooperating teams of tanks, infantry, artillery, and engineers; the importance of heavy artillery ("not less than 122-millimeter"); and the fact that maneuver though restricted by the channelized avenues of advance, can still be performed on a limited scale.

The Soviets further note that the use of massed tanks in the streets of a modern city is not recommended, but that it has been done, and tanks can be used effectively if it is done correctly. They emphasize the importance of not dispersing the attacking force too greatly, and of attacking on a relatively narrow front for each assault detachment.


The fight for Berlin


Source
U.S. War Department, Military Intelligence Division. Intelligence Bulletin. June, 1946.


Photos attribution
1. Lonio17 / Orionist, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1985-092-29/Woscidlo, Wilfried/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
3. A.Savin, CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 or FAL, via Wikimedia Commons
4. nn (Berlińska Victoria , E. Kmiecik, "Ruch"1972), via Wikimedia Commons
5. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J31320/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1995-081-13A/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. OverG (LA gran guerra patria de la unión soviética. 1975), via Wikimedia Commons
8. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E0406-0022-012/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons