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СчетчикиRambler's Top100

 

© Денис Махель,
2004-2017

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12:54

Электронная библиотека

 

 

The Tank Battle at Venev

Франц Куровски,
"Немецкие танковые асы" (1992)
перевод с немецкого Давид Джонстон (2002)

On 13 November, the Eberbach Brigade was called on by Gen. Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg for an attack in the direction of Venev. Oberst Eberbach had exactly fifty tanks left; at full strength he would have had three hundred.

The cold wave that had now set in was making life difficult for the panzer crews. By early morning on 13 November the temperature had fallen to twenty-two degrees below zero. Optics became misted and oil thickened. There was no winter clothing or antifreeze. Nevertheless, the Eberbach Brigade set out full of confidence.

The armored unit pushed past Tula on the right and drove— this time without infantry—toward the north. It rolled through Stalinogorsk unopposed. The next objective was Oslavaya.

"Filthy cold!" moaned Bix as he stared from the turret cupola. The wind, which was blowing out of the north, threatened to freeze his breath.

"If we only had some winter things," offered Schwartz.

"That's for sure!" murmured the Feldwebel.

Ahead, Bix saw a tank stop at the side of the road. The leading group rolled past and Bix realized that the figure standing in the commander's cupola in the black jacket was Oberst Eberbach.

"If the old man can stand it, then we can too," said Krause.

Knowing that their commander was in the same situation did not ease conditions, but did make them somewhat easier to bear.

The advance continued and next morning the panzers found themselves at the edge of a village not far from Oslavaya. Suddenly an entire regiment of Russian infantry appeared from out of the morning mist, advancing toward the tanks. The first bursts of machine gun fire were already whipping toward the waiting panzers.

"Lekschat Company, counterattack!" crackled through the headphones.

The motors of the tanks roared as they moved off toward the enemy in a broad wedge. Lances of flame spurted from cannon and machine guns. High-explosive shells exploded in the enemy formations. Many of the Red Army soldiers were run over by the tanks. It was a grisly scene: Russian infantry charging German tanks. But the situation was also dangerous enough for the panzer crews. As soon as a commander raised his head from the turret hatch to get a better view of the terrain, he immediately came under fire from machine guns or enemy snipers. Some of the shots whizzed close past their targets—others found the mark. Bix kept looking outside in an attempt to assist his driver. Once, a burst of machine gun fire whizzed just past his left ear. Bullets cracked against the steel of the armored cupola and ricocheted to the side. After the light snowfall the rather hilly terrain was so slippery that the tanks occasionally slid down the icy slopes like sleighs.

Bix's panzer slid to the side and toppled into a gully. It slid into an outcropping with a jolt.

"Hopefully we can get out of here again," sighed Bix.

Obergefreiter Schwartz, an auto mechanic by trade, just grinned. "We'll get out all right! Just hang on!"

Engaging first gear, he steered the tank diagonally up the towering slope, and it worked! Slowly the tank crawled higher, until it was again on level ground.

Once again the tanks fired high-explosive shells into the masses of Russians storming toward the gully. The Red Army soldiers dug into the snow and disappeared within a few seconds.

Lekschat radioed a warning: "Be careful, Bix. Oberfeldwebel Rieger has been killed by a sniper."

Rieger had been the commander's driver. Everyone in the unit knew him. Just recently Oberst Eberbach had granted his wish and made him a tank commander.

In the meantime a large part of the Russian regiment had been wiped out. Only a small number of soldiers escaped to the northeast.

The advance was resumed at about midday. Once again Hermann Bix drove in the lead position. The tank rolled forward almost unmolested. Bix had no idea where he was. He had no maps of the area, but since there was only one major road there, he assumed this must be the right way.

It was already early afternoon when the Feldwebel saw the first houses of Oslavaya before him.

Bix was wearing a Russian fur-lined cap. This camouflage was so effective that the drivers of the Russian trucks that came toward him showed no inclination to flee. On the contrary, the Russian soldiers riding in the trucks even waved to him.

Bix radioed Hauptmann Lekschat: "Have passed some Russians; they haven't recognized me."

"Good, Bix! Carry on along the same road. The first vehicles are just arriving here now and are getting a polite reception. We won't fire unless absolutely necessary. Out."

The tank rolled slowly through the city until it came to the marketplace, where there was a fork in the road. Bix was uncertain for a few seconds. He called back, "Which road should I take?"

"Take the one to the right, Bix," radioed his company commander. "According to my information it leads to the train station."

Bix had his driver swing the tank to the right. Soon afterward a Russian truck loaded with soldiers came toward them. The Russian crew recognized the tank as an enemy vehicle. Red Army soldiers jumped down and disappeared into the surrounding houses and gardens. A second, following truck likewise stopped.

"High-explosive!" ordered Bix.

The loader and gunner functioned like clockwork. The first shell crashed into the wall of a house. An antitank rifle appeared over the side of one of the trucks. The panzer's second shot was a direct hit. The effect was tremendous.

"Move farther forward, Bix!" The order crackled through the headphones. "The company will follow!"

The tank rolled past the burning truck and, turning behind a house, drove into a garden. Bix emerged cautiously from the turret hatch and scanned his surroundings. Now he could hear the noise of the following tanks as they advanced as far as the marketplace. Hauptmann Lekschat arranged each tank carefully so that it had a clear line of sight and an open field of fire.

At that moment Bix saw a KV-I fire its gun, but the shell was apparently not meant for him, as it whizzed past behind the corner of a house farther to the right.

"That shot was aimed at me!" reported Leutnant Bökle. "Enemy tank is sitting on the road facing in my direction. Take him in the flank!"

"Through that fence, Schwartz," bellowed Bix. The tank approached the fence and crashed through. When Bix's view was clear he recognized the outline of the mighty Russian tank about thirty meters away.

"That's a KV-I. He hasn't seen us yet. Load special round. Perhaps we'll be able to penetrate his turret with it!"

Petermann rammed the shell into the chamber just as the giant fired another shot at Bökle 's panzer. Then the first shot left the barrel of their own cannon. The shell struck the turret of the enemy tank and glanced off. The second stuck in the KV-I's armor plate. The Russian tank showed no ill effects after the third direct hit and continued firing at the Leutnant's panzer.

Bix realized that he would not be able to destroy this tank with gunfire. He called back, "My cannon has no effect on the KV-I! None of the shells are getting through, Herr Leutnant! Send some Pioniers with concentrated charges!"

Bökle 's reply, passed along by the radio operator, was not long in coming. "Bix, if nothing else works, try to shoot his cannon in two, otherwise he'll knock you out as soon as he sees you!"

At first Bix thought the Leutnant must be pulling his leg.

"I'll try it," murmured the gunner, "but..."

"Well try then, Krause," shouted Bix, even though he considered the attempt to be hopeless.

Something had to be done before they were spotted and knocked out.

Krause targeted the cannon of the enemy tank as near to the gun mantlet as possible. A normal armor-piercing round was loaded. The barrel of the KV-I's cannon was thickest at the mantlet.

Perhaps he would be lucky.

"Open fire!" gasped Bix.

The armor-piercing round struck steel, but because of the short range the entire area between the German and Russian tanks was shrouded in thick smoke, so Bix could not see the results of the shot.

"The same again, Krause!"

The gunner fired a second and then a third shot. The KV-I now began to rotate its turret, and the long cannon swung in the direction of the German panzer. With a cnxnching sound the KV-I's gun barrel cracked against the trunk of a small tree. The tank's turret stopped and at that exact moment Leutnant Bökle opened fire on the giant.

"There, he's smoking!" shouted Schwartz. A dark cloud of smoke whorled out of the stricken KV-I's gun barrel and from within the body of the tank. Before that there had been a muffled explosion. On firing its cannon, the shell must have detonated inside the tank, as indicated by the smoke coming from within.

The radio operator reported: "His barrel has burst, Herr Feldwebel!"

Bix peered through his field glasses and saw with amazement that the gun barrel of the Russian tank had been pierced three times. It had been no burst barrel. The Feldwebel couldn't believe his eyes, but there it was: Krause had put all three shots through the gun barrel of the enemy tank and rendered it useless.

Suddenly the hatch of the Russian tank flipped open. The commander tried to climb out. A shot rang out and the Russian was left hanging in the opening.

This experience taught Bix that from short range, even with the small-caliber gun, he could engage and destroy the heaviest tank.

There were explosions all over the city as the Pioniers ' concentrated charges went off. The armored engineers had moved forward and were blowing up the heavy enemy tanks one after another. Later the infantry and the Pioniers silenced the last remaining nests of resistance. Oslavaya had fallen.

The panzers rolled onward in the evening hours. They drove on throughout the entire night. Venev was reached on the morning of 24 November. The battalion re-formed and rumbled toward the city in a broad wedge. The panzers came under fire from enemy tanks when they reached the railway line that ran south of the city. Once again the Lekschat Company was positioned on the right wing and "Harpoon" was on the extreme right flank.

"We can't get across here, Herr Hauptmann," radioed Leutnant Bökle. "We would most likely shed our tracks on the embankment and the railroad tracks. Then we'd be sitting ducks for the Russians. We must find another place."

Lekschat immediately agreed: "Good, Bökle, that would be best." Then he called "Harpoon."

"Harpoon from chief: go farther to the right and look for a favorable crossing. Report as soon as you find something, Bix!"

The Feldwebel 's panzer began to move. Schwartz turned it around and then, driving slowly, set off parallel to the railway embankment. After several hundred meters the embankment became lower, and Bix discovered a level crossing.

"Drive up to it cautiously, Schwartz!—Krause, load armor-piercing and stand ready!"

The panzer worked its way forward slowly. The nose of the tank was over the edge of the crossing and still there was no enemy fire.

"Across, Schwartz!" shouted the Feldwebel. The tank accelerated and rolled forward, reached a firm field road on the other side, and then drove on a few hundred meters more. Bix called in his report. At once Lekschat sent the company's tanks to follow. Not until the last was driving across the tracks did the Russians open fire.

"Move forward quickly, Bix!"

Bix was familiar with this order because he had heard it often enough during the past weeks. The tank drove on and when Bix looked around he saw that the rest of the company's tanks were lagging behind. The last Panzer III, which had come under fire from the Soviets, was stopped on the level crossing and was returning fire in an effort to keep the enemy's attention fixed to the front.

Left on his own, a little later Bix came to the northern arterial road from Venev. Here, too, the picture was one of enemy vehicles driving one behind the other. The lone German tank did not appear to be recognized as such. After receiving Bix's report, Hauptmann Lekschat ordered him to turn around and drive into the city.

"Just as at Mzensk, Bix. Into the city from behind, the last place they'd expect us from," added the chief.

A light antiaircraft gun appeared in front of the Panzer III. Tracks rattling, the tank rolled over the gun while its crew ran to the side. A heavy machine gun was also run over. The attack by the German tank had been too much of a surprise.

Right and to the front, Bix spotted a hill. Beneath it lay a frozen pond, along whose left side ran a road. It was covered with tank tracks, leading the Feldwebel to be cautious. It was therefore no surprise when a KV-I suddenly rolled out of a side street from behind one of the larger houses. Not realizing that the other tank was an enemy, the KV-I rolled straight past in front of Bix. The tank's commander even waved to the rear, urging Bix to follow. What should he do? Stop, fire, turn around?

While he was still deliberating, two Russian T-38 reconnaissance tanks came rattling down the hill.

"They've recognized us!" shouted the radio operator.

Just then the first tank began to slide on the icy slope. The driver of the following tank tried desperately to turn hard right and miss the ice, but it, too, slid straight down the slope and thundered against an outcropping, which straightened the tank out and sent it down the hill behind the first like a bobsled.

The first T-38 crashed through the ice at the foot of the hill. The second rumbled onto the ice and attempted to gain ground, but its tracks simply spun in place.

Schwartz immediately turned the Panzer III around. The gunner soon had the enemy in his sights. There was a flash as he fired and the shell hammered into the enemy tank between its turret and hull.

"Hit!" roared Schwartz as flames burst forth from the stricken tank.

Bix shouted to his gunner, "On to the second, quick, before he can fire!"

The second T-38 was now turning on the spot. Just as it came face-to-face with the Panzer III, it hesitated somewhat. Krause pressed the firing button and the shell struck the tank forward on the side. The force of the blow caused the T-38 to spin about its axis several times on the slippery ice. Both enemy tanks had been put out of action. Still ahead of them, however, was their "big brother." If it were to open fire, all hell would break loose. Bix was relieved to discover that the KV-I had meanwhile driven out of sight around a bend in the road.

"After him!" shouted the Feldwebel. As the tank moved off, Bix thought of the numbers he was likely to meet as soon as he entered the city. They passed the first houses. Then they were standing in a large square, probably a type of marketplace. Russians ran in all directions when the German tank appeared.

"More heavy tanks, Herr Feldwebel," reported Schwartz, but Bix had already sported the giants.

Strangely, the tanks did not attack the lone German panzer, but disappeared at high speed down a side street.

"What's going on?" asked Bix, half to himself. This was unusual for the Soviets. Their tanks usually attacked at once. Were these planning a trick of some sort? The Russian tank drivers were definitely not cowards; they had proved this more than once in the past weeks.

"We must find some good cover, Herr Feldwebel,'''' warned Schwartz. "We're sitting ducks here. If they move up an antitank gun it will be able to fire on us as it pleases."

After a quick look around, Bix ordered: "Behind that wooden building, Schwartz!"

When they reached the building, Bix made sure they were out of sight to both sides. The company was coming from the rear and they had a good field of view to the front. Nothing came from there, however.

A little later the first of their own tanks appeared. The company's leading tank stopped at the edge of the square and the rest held their positions in the street behind it. Apparently Hauptmann Lekschat first wanted to hear what his reconnaissance tank had to tell him.

Bix emerged from his turret and listened. All at once he heard a tank motor being fired up about one hundred meters to his left. Then the sound of the motor came nearer.

"Move ahead as far as the end of the barrack!" he called to his driver.

Schwartz drove forward until the bow and forward edge of the turret came around and the commander could see. Bix at once spotted the heavy KV-I, which was heading straight for him. Bix tried to duck into the turret, but his jacket caught on something on the edge of the turret. He might be hit at any moment.

"Armor-piercing round at the mantlet!" he gasped.

Krause reacted at once. The first shot clouded the area between the two tanks with smoke. There was a crack as the second shot was fired and still there had been no movement from the KV-I. Then there was a flash from the muzzle of the long barrel of the Russian tank. The Russian gunner had fired blind, however, and the shell whipped by several meters from the German tank.

"Back up!" called Bix over the intercom. The Russian giant was going to ram them.

In his previous attempts to get into the turret, Bix had inadvertently ripped the communications cable from its connector and, amid the noise of the approaching enemy tank, none of the men in the fighting compartment could hear him. As he saw no other alternative, Bix now crawled all the way out the turret hatch and took cover behind the right side of the turret away from the direction of the approaching KV-I.

Voices rang out from the fighting compartment. The men inside now had no idea whatsoever what was going on. Without orders to do so, Schwartz had not backed the tank up. That left Bix only one choice.

The Feldwebel knew the dangerous situation he would be placing himself in by leaving the protection of the turret and crawling forward to signal the driver through his vision block to back up. There were only seconds left, because the enemy tank was now only a few dozen meters away. There was no longer any doubt: the KV-I intended to ram the side of the German panzer!

This maneuver had been tried often by the Russian heavy tanks lately, often with success. At this critical moment a thought occurred to the Feldwebel: why didn't he simply fire on them? At any moment he expected the shot that would end it all. Then he saw the driver's face through the bulletproof glass of the vision block and gave him the signal to back up. Schwartz reacted instantly. The tank abruptly jerked backward a few meters.

At the same instant the armored bow of the Russian tank flew past barely two meters in front of Bix and the corner of the barracks. The tank's tracks screeched and the air stank of diesel exhaust fumes. Seconds later the KV-I smashed into a massive stone wall. When the tank had rammed halfway through brick wall, the entire facade collapsed on top of it. There was a crashing, rumbling, and screeching, and the motor of the KV-I died. The dangerous foe had been immobilized. Bix had his gunner fire two armor-piercing rounds at the disabled KV-I's turret from barely ten meters. Both failed to penetrate. Panting, Bix forced himself back into the hatch. He saw how the driver of the KV-I was now attempting to back his way out of the rubble. Brickwork was already tumbling down.

Bix heard the Hauptmann call, "Harpoon from Chief, we're coming!"

The first shell from the approaching German tanks struck the turret of the KV-I. This, too, failed to penetrate the thick armor of the Russian tank. The KV-I's driver was gradually succeeding in freeing the big tank from the wall. Suddenly, Bix remembered the battle at Oslavaya, when they had put several shots through the cannon barrel of a Russian tank.

"Listen, Krause, aim as at Oslavaya!"

Krause had anticipated the order. He cranked the turret around until the thickest part of the KVI's gun barrel was in his sight and fired the first armor-piercing round. The second followed soon afterward.

At the same time, armor-piercing shot from the other tanks began to strike the KV-I. Suddenly, glowing fragments of steel, which shot out in thin fountains from the armored sides of the Russian tank as the shells struck, were whizzing toward the Feldwebel. The armor-piercing shells, which bored into the thick armor plate and stuck there, had blasted out the glowing fragments.

After firing for the third time, Bix called to cease fire. Peering through his binoculars he could see that it had worked again. The gun barrel of the KV-I had been hit three times and definitely been rendered unusable.

"Now in the running gear!" he called to his gunner.

Krause fired four shots into the KV-I's running gear in short order. The giant was immobilized.

"The Russians are climbing out!" reported Schwartz.

Bix watched as the Russian crew climbed out of a hatch and then disappeared into the neighboring houses.

"Battalion thought that our company had been wiped out," called Hauptmann Lekschat after answering the battalion commander's anxious questions.

"It's no wonder, what with all the firing," responded the Feldwebel. Several more KV-I's had been abandoned by their crews and were captured undamaged by the battalion when it arrived on the scene. Bix and his crew would not soon forget the fighting in Venev. The combat there had been some of the most dangerous they had ever been involved in.

The advance by Panzer Brigade Eberbach continued. The tanks were now driving north. The first Moscow signposts appeared along the way.

On the last night of the advance the tanks drove toward Kashira in the freezing cold. Russian aircraft bombed the armored columns. That night the vehicles covered only ten kilometers, as the deep ruts left by Soviet tanks had frozen, creating a significant hindrance. Whenever one of the panzers drove into one of these ruts it was practically locked in. The track bolts, which had become as brittle as glass in the cold, sheared off on the walls of the ruts. When a track change was necessary, the men had to carry it out in minus forty degree temperatures. Attempts to drive in the bolts with hammers resulted in flying splinters of steel, which often inflicted painful injuries.

When the panzers reached their objective, a small market town, they were met by fire from Soviet antitank guns. Once again Feldwebel Bix's tank was involved in the attack. He put two antitank guns out of action and then they were in the town. The Russian soldiers still holding out in the houses were overcome by the following German infantry in house-to-house fighting. The Red Army soldiers defended desperately, because only in the houses was there shelter from the frightful cold. Whoever was driven outside faced death by freezing.

The tank crews and infantry had scarcely settled into the huts when there was another alert. "Everyone back to the jumping-off position at once!"

Hauptmann Lekschat had no idea what this meant. Moscow lay only sixty kilometers ahead of the panzers, and they were to pull back? For Bix and his men, for the Lekschat Company, and for the entire Eberbach Panzer Brigade the order was unfathomable.

"This is the end of our dream," said loader Petermann. "The blitzkrieg to Moscow has been called off."

Petermann was right. Never again did German tanks get so close to the Soviet capital as in the terrible winter of 1941.

 

 


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