When an army goes on the offensive, the most important objective is to penetrate enemy defenses as deeply as possible with a powerful blow. This does not always happen, and the battle turns into a slow and bloody affair, a battle of attrition.
In the middle of September of 1943, the Red ARmy had a chance to not only free Smolensk from the Germans, but develop the offensive further, towards Orsha. In order to do this, the commander of the Western Front created a mobile group, including the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps. It was expected that the group would enter a breach made by the infantry and artillery of the 21st Army. However, by September 15th, their success was negligible. The tank corps received orders to breach German defenses.
The 2nd Guards Tank Corps fought fiercely for several days. Their enemies included Tigers from the 505th battalion, as well as Marders and StuGs. By September 19th, at the cost of tens of tanks, Soviet forces penetrated German defenses. The mobile group entered the breach.
Battle for the railroad
The Germans pulled their forces back to new positions. Powerful rear guard units covered their retreat, fighting stubbornly for every trench. German infantry supported by SPGs counterattacked at every opportunity. It was vitally important for the Germans to hold the Smolensk-Roslavl railroad until the retreat was complete. The enemy committed all possible forces to this task, including engineering units and an armoured train.
Forces from both sides were drained from past battles. Infantry divisions of the 12th Army had 3-5 thousand men left by September 20th, out of fully authorized strength of 10 thousand. The fresh cavalry corps that entered the battle was not only a mobile unit, but, given the circumstances, a powerful means of attack.
Acting as infantry, the cavalrymen took the load off weakened infantry divisions. Additionally, the cavalry brought infantry and tanks. Each of the three divisions of the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps had a tank regiment, and the corps also had a regiment of SU-76 SPGs. On September 20th, the corps had about 120 tanks and SPGs under its command. This was three times as much as in the 2nd Tank Corps. The cavalry became a ram that broke through the German defenses.
Under a storm of fire, the corps engineers built bridges for infantry and vehicles. Many earned orders and medals for this frightening work. Thanks to them, all tanks and SPGs of the corps reached the battlefield on time.
Tanks and SPGs advanced, helping each other. SU-76 SPGs knocked out AA and AT guns, clearing the road for tanks. On September 21st, a loader from one of the SPG crews, P.O. Soshenkov, destroyed five enemy AA guns and stole an enemy SPG. This cleared the path for the 104th Tank Regiment of the 5th Cavalry Division. Tankers swiftly moved forward and occupied the Dolgomostye farmstead. The Smolensk-Roslavl railroad was cut off.
The 104th Tank Regiment played an important role in the fighting for settlements next to the railroad. Lieutenant A.G. Chelyshev's tank squadron (tank units assigned to cavalry had cavalry names) showed itself especially well, dealing great damage to the Germans. Chelyshev himself destroyed one SPG and one AT gun. For skilful command and personal successes, he was awarded with the Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class.
On the morning of September 22nd, elements of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and 21st Army reached the railroad.
The Germans were not content with losing the railroad. They pulled up reserves and attempted several counterattacks. Our forces endured enemy attacks under powerful artillery fire and bombs. The 32nd Cavalry Division had the toughest time, as it had to fight not only StuGs, but Tigers.
According to documents, the division knocked out only one enemy tank on September 22nd, but it was a Tiger. Destroying such a vehicle was still a difficult task in the fall of 1943. In total, during the Smolensk-Roslavl operation, the Germans suffered three total Tiger losses, two of which could not be evacuated. As a result, one was blown up and one was abandoned as is. Another Tiger was knocked out from a hit to the turret and abandoned. The tank was not a total loss, but the attack stalled, and the enemy tried to evacuate the tank. Most likely, this beast was slain by the artillery of the tank destroyer regiment included in the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps.
The Germans did not manage to win back the railroad or stop the Soviet forces. The mobile group from the Western Front continued to advance and crossed the Sozh river on September 24th, surrounding Smolensk from the south. Realizing that the city cannot be held, the German commanders ordered their forces to retreat.
On the next day, Smolensk and Roslavl were liberated by the Red Army. For success in battle, the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps received a letter of gratitude from the Supreme Commander I. Stalin, and the 32nd Cavalry Division earned the title of Smolensk.
Original article available here.