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World of Tanks History Section: Sagopshin Tank Battle, Prokhorovka in the Caucasus

The Wehrmacht offensive towards the Caucasus in 1942 had two goals. The secondary was to cut the line of Lend-Lease supplies, but the primary goal was to reach the local oil supply. At the time, Caucasian wells accounted for 70% of the USSR's oil. It's not hard to imagine what a loss of these wells would mean for the USSR, which was already doing poorly in 1942, or what a godsend it would be for the fuel-starved German army.

On September 2nd, 1942, the Germans crossed the Terek river and wedged themselves into the Soviet defenses. Fierce battles were fought around Malgobek. This village and others nearby cut off the Germans from the Alkhanchurtskaya Valley, from where the precious oil was a stone's throw away. The Germans picked the Sagopshin settlement (modern day Sagopshi), just south of Malgobek, to deliver their decisive strike. The elite 5th SS Motorized Division "Viking" was chosen to attack here.

Anti-Tank Gorge

The 5th division mobilized serious resources for the attack on Sagopshin: "Westland" and "Nordland" motorized regiments, a tank battalion, elements of a tank destroyer squadron, artillery. Even though the Germans were battered from prior battles and were running low on shells, they still outnumbered the defenders in both tanks and men.

Viking's tank battalion counted 48 tanks, mostly long-barreled PzIIIs (34 tanks). There were also nine PzIVs and five PzIIs. In addition, the enemy had around 10 StuG assault guns.

The Soviet 52nd Tank Brigade commanded by Major V. Filippov had only 30 tanks to oppose them: 2 T-34s, 5 KV-1s, 13 light T-60s and 8 M3 Stuarts. A battalion of motorized infantry and Major F. Dolinskiy's 863rd Tank Destroyer Regiment also participated in the battle. However, good defensive positions and skill of the commanders were on our side.

Filippov and Dolinskiy developed the battle plan together. They decided to defend the stretch between Terskiy and Sunzhenskiy escarpments. Three anti-tank lines were built. Each consisted of a tank ambush, anti-tank guns on the flank, and submachinegunners. The first line, with three ambushes, was designed to disperse the German battering ram and deliver maximum losses. This line contained Stuarts, and, most likely, both T-34s. The second line contained KV tanks and 76 mm guns. The last line was meant to finish off whatever forces broke through the first two. The trap was set.

When the SS-men flowed through the bottleneck, they sprung the trap. What happened next went down in history as the most fierce tank battle during the fighting at Malgobek. Modern researcher T. Matiev called it "the Caucasian Prokhorovka".

Slaughter in the Valley

On September 28th, 1942, the Germans were preparing to attack when they were struck by Soviet artillery and mortars. Sadly, the damage was more emotional than physical. Soviet documents go on to say that the enemy "in a force of 120 tanks, supported by submachinegunners and powerful artillery and mortar fire attacked from Ozerniy sector with two columns of three echelons each". The numbers are exaggerated, and only about 50 tanks participated in the attack.

The Germans attacked in the fog, counting on it to save them from Soviet fire. However, when the fog lifted the SS saw that they walked into a trap. The defenders' mortars and cannons fired at a range of 700-800 meters, and machineguns swept off the tank riders. Then the storm of steel hit the German infantry, which was advancing a few hundred meters behind the tanks.

The Viking tankers didn't notice that their infantry support was cut off. They decided to advance right up to the Soviet positions. Already on the first line, six enemy tanks burned up. A shell hit the tank of Sturmbahnfuhrer (Major) Mulenkamp. "The first hit came right behind the turret. The engine caught fire, the turret lifted up a bit. The back of my chair was torn to shreds, and I lay, thrown against the gun breech, yelling "Everyone out of the tank!"" Mulenkamp survived, but his gunner did not.

The German tanks engaged in a duel with Soviet tanks. Tankers of the 52nd brigade knocked out the tanks of the 1st and 3rd company commanders, leaving the SS-men without command. Soviet howitzers and Katyushas that were positioned in Sagopshin and Malgobek joined the tanks and AT guns. Ground attack aircraft appeared in the sky.

The Germans claim that the tank battalion and tank destroyer squadron was hit by a counterattack of over 80 Soviet tanks. Considering that Filippov's brigade only had 30 tanks, this is inaccurate. Nevertheless, the actions of our tankers and pilots resulted in fearsome losses. "When I arrived at the HQ of the 1st battalion of the Westland regiment, I saw the battalion commander, Sturmbahnfuhrer von Halden, completely lost while trying to figure out his casualties. I will never forget that moment" recalls Mulenkamp.

A battle of two Majors

In the second half of the day, regrouping after the Soviet counterattack, the Germans attacked again. By this point, the Viking tank battalion lost about a third of its tanks, and Mulenkamp was knocked out once more after moving to a different tank.

The battle reignited and separated itself into several separate clashes. According to documents of the 52nd Tank Brigade, German tanks broke through to the headquarters and Filippov entered the fray in his own tank, knocking out 5 enemies.

The situation was still dire, so Filippov sent in his reserve, a company of seven tanks that attacked the flank and knocked out several tanks. Mulenkamp himself spoke highly of the maneuver. "Here I saw that Russian T-34s got around us and were driving a wedge between the tank battalion and Westland regiment. Someone spectacular was commanding the Russian tanks." At that point, the SS commander had his third tank of the day knocked out under him.

The commander of the anti-tank artillery regiment, Dolinskiy, also personally stepped in to replace a gun crew that was killed in battle. The Major knocked out two tanks. Senior Lieutenant P. Dym's battery also performed well, knocking out several German cars, a German battery, and a few tanks (the documents say 17, but that is unlikely). Soviet infantry clashed with German, anti-tank riflemen fired at SPGs and armoured halftracks. Taking heavy losses but still unable to break through, the Germans retreated and built defensive positions in the lowlands by Sagopsin until the night.

Flugel's breakthrough: the dud trump card

On September 28th, the Germans were not satisfied with a frontal attack. About ten tanks commanded by Obersturmfuhrer G. Flugel with tank riders circled around the Soviet defenders and aimed to go around Sagopshin from the north. This group moved out before the battle in the valley even started. Flags accidentally left by Soviet sappers let them navigate the minefield.

Thankfully for our soldiers, the group came across Soviet tanks positioned on the slopes of the gorge. The battle was fought at a stone's throw, some 50 meters. The Germans insist that they knocked out two T-34s, but since all T-34s were fighting in the valley, this is a mistake and these would have been T-60s or Stuarts. By the second half of the day, Flugel's group blocked the Sagopshin-Nizhniye Achaluki road. Flugel decided to cement his success and send three tanks to the left, but this attempt failed. The Germans retreated and took up defenses at the road.

Flugel's group waited for reinforcements in the afternoon, unaware that Viking's forces took heavy losses in the valley and were stuck there. Soviet aircraft appeared in the sky. The Germans managed to trick our pilots, having removed air identification flags and waving their hands in greeting to the Soviet pilots. The result was unfortunate: Soviet airplanes, and then artillery, hit Sagopshin, which was held by our forces.

However, soon Flugel was attacked by German aircraft that did not recognize their own tanks. A Soviet howitzer barrage followed. The SS commander ordered his tanks and infantry to take cover in an anti-tank ditch. By already knew of Viking's sad fate, so he planned to wait until darkness and retreat. A sudden order to take up defensive positions came at night, so Flugel only sent back three tanks with wounded. The Germans managed to capture several groups of Soviet infantrymen, who were unaware of this daring penetration. On the next day, Flugel was forced to fight his way back to his own lines with heavy losses.

The battle on September 28th at Sagopshin took about 10 hours. According to Soviet data, the enemy lost 54 tanks, 23 of which burned. Filippov's losses were 10 tanks, half of which were irreparable. German documents confirm that their losses in armour were greater than the Soviets'. On September 29th and 30th, they were forced to attack with mostly infantry.

Sagopshin decided the fate of the battle for Malgobek, which, in turn, put an end to the German "oil campaign" in the Caucasus. The precious oil fields were even closer to them than Moscow was in the winter of 1941.

Original article by Stanislav Chernikov.

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