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World of Tanks History Section: Crushing the Tarnopol Fortress

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The main purpose of new IS-2 heavy tanks that appeared in the Red Army in 1944 was the destruction of German pillboxes with their 122 mm guns. Fighting enemy tanks was not a priority. However, plans and forecasts rarely work in war. The IS tanks got a chance to test themselves against enemy armour soon after they arrived on the battlefield.

This happened in the spring of 1944, during the Proskurovo-Chernovtsy operation. In addition to their other objectives, the Soviet forces had to surround the German 1st Tank Army. Colonel-General Chernyakhovskiy's 60th Army participated in this task. One of the first targets in its path was Tarnopol (modern day Ternopol). Hitler declared it a Festung: a city-fortress that German forces had to hold until the last man. On April 11th, it was time for the defenders to carry out that order.
Another useless fortress

The 1st and 4th Guards Tank Armies helped Chernyakhovskiy's troops encircle the German garrison in the city by April 24th. The German commanders understood that their Fuhrer's loud words and hysterical orders to hold at any cost could not help in battle against the superior Red Army forces. Attempts to remove the Tarnopol blockade began soon after it was established. Colonel Werner Friebe was tasked with this objective. He collected a combat group from his battered 8th Tank Division, but since he could only muster 24 Panthers and 6 Hummels, nine Tigers from the 507th battalion were temporarily assigned to him. Friebe attacked, but his first attempt petered out after it hit Soviet T-34s, SU-85 tank destroyers, and two anti-tank artillery regiments. The second attempt was tried in mid-April.

This time, the group would act alongside the recently arrived 9th SS Tank Division and several other units, including the 653rd Ferdinand battalion and panzergrenadiers from SS division Hohenstaufen. The Germans' strength lay in their large amount of APCs, which increased the infantry's mobility and protected it from artillery fire.

Soviet commanders realized the possibility of a new German offensive, so Chernyakhovskiy's army received additional forces, the most valuable of which was Lieutenant-General A. Panfilov's 6th Guards Tank Corps. Aside from T-34 brigades, the corps contained the 11th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment, equipped with brand new IS-2s.

Only 11 kilometers

The next German offensive was scheduled for April 11th, 1944. As it often happened, the SS and Wehrmacht commanders had a falling out, so the first few days of the offensive were unenthusiastic. Their main success involved the capture of a foothold at the Vyazushka river while Friebe's main forces were fruitlessly bashing against the Soviet defenses to the north. It took two days to agree on how the enemy forces would unite, but nature threw them a wild card. Powerful rains washed away the roads to the foothold, preventing the Germans from moving their forces there.

Two days of battles revealed to the Soviets how the Germans were planning to get through to Tarnopol. Most available artillery was moved closer to the enemy foothold and T-34s were positioned behind the infantry. IS tanks were left in reserve.

By April 14th, the Germans finally assembled their tank spearhead. Artillery and several waves of bombers worked over the Soviet defenders. This dealt significant damage to the 135th Rifle Division which was in the path of the breakthrough, and their anti-tank units could not stop the enemy. The Germans broke through to the positions of the 339th Howitzer Artillery Regiment, which was almost entirely lost.

T-34s from the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade helped slow down the enemy's tanks, but 76 mm guns of the T-34s could do little against Tigers, Panthers, and Ferdinands. By the evening of April 15th, 9 tanks were left in the brigade out of the initial 30. Only 11 kilometers separated Friebe from Tarnopol.

By the way, there were no longer any Germans in Tarnopol. The city's commandant, Major General von Naidorf, decided to collect the remainder of the garrison and break through towards his relief when he heard that help was coming. They managed to get to the Zagrebelye village where they were finally pinned down. The little scrap of land that the Germans held was constantly pounded by bombs and artillery. Pauses between barrages were used by Soviet troops to attack again. Von Naidorf died on April 15th, and Colonel von Schenfeld took command. He led the remaining 1500 Germans to try and break through westward on the night of April 16th. Only 55 made it through to their own.

Time for large calibers

Friebe did not yet know on the morning of April 16th that there was no one left to save. He thought that one more decisive blow and the defenses would fall apart. Half an hour before noon, after an artillery barrage and bombing runs, the German forces moved out. This is when the 122 mm guns of the IS tanks made themselves known.

The breakthrough regiment was well prepared to deflect the German attack. The defenses were built in two echelons. One platoon (two tanks) was sent to cover the road to Tarnopol. 600 meters from the IS-2s, the remaining T-34s dug in. Open terrain spread out in front of the defenders, and German tanks showed up like targets at a range. Gunners calmly let the enemy approach, and a heavy shell put an end to the tank. A maximum of two rounds was needed for a Tiger or a Panther.

From documents regarding this battle:

"Guards Lieutenant Yudovin's crew burned up a heavy German tank from 1400 meters, and a second tank from 1200 meters. Guards Lieutenant Vovk's tank burned up two German tanks from 1200-1500 meters."

"Guards Junior Lieutenant Pankov's crew burned up one enemy tank from 1400 meters and three tanks from 1200 meters."

"Gunner Guards Sergeant Maskoryants burned up 4 German tanks with his sight set to 14."

It took a while for the Germans to understand the full extent of the problem. After the attempt to push through the Soviet defenses through the shortest route (along the highway) failed, attempts were made to attack from various directions. They tried to feel out a weak spot or try to go around tanks and infantry. IS tanks did not let them: they did not stop at firing from a standstill, but manevered and deflected one attack after another. During the battle, the commanders even sent a part of the tanks to destroy the group of escapees from Tarnopol that tried to get through the forest past their positions.

As a result of the fierce fighting, the 11th Guards Heavy Tanks Regiment reported 29 knocked out tanks.

On the next day, Friebe attempted another attack. He already knew that the Festung in Tarnopol was no longer there, but there was still hope to save at least a portion of the forces that were breaking out of the encirclement. This attempt cost Friebe another few tanks. Over two days of battles, the IS tanks knocked out 37 tanks, having lost 4 tanks burned and 5 knocked out. Personnel losses consisted of 14 dead and 4 wounded. On the morning of April 16th, 13 Tigers were listed in Friebe's group. Two days later, there were only six. Total losses added up to 50-60 tanks.

IS tanks at Tarnopol did not fight in their designated role, but their effectiveness against the best German tanks at the time impressed Soviet commanders, and soon additional instructions on how to use the new tanks were published. They stated that IS-2 regiments must be kept as an anti-tank reserve and be introduced into battle in a decisive direction. Several months later, this tactic worked wonderfully on the Sandomierz foothold.

Original article by Andrei Ulanov.

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