Military History |
World War II
Bessonov - Tank Rider "Mount the Tanks!"
Posted 21 Aug 2004
Evgeni Bessonov was a young Russian officer in a Tank Rider unit during World War II. In two years of fighting he led his unit from the Orel Offensive (Aug 1943) to Berlin. Bessonov (2003) is his own account of those years.
Bessonov, E. (2003). Tank Rider: Into the Reich with the Red Army. London: Greenhill.
Bessonov led the 2nd Platoon, 1st Company, 1st Motor Rifle Battalion, 49th Mechanized Brigade, 6th Guards Mechanized Corps, 4th Tank Army. Bessonov also referred to the 49th Mechanized Brigade as the 49th Motor Rifle Brigade. Apparently in Apr 1944 it was renamed the 49th Kamenets-Podosk Mechanised Brigade in recognition of the fighting in that area. The 49th was not initially a Guards unit, but was later awarded this status.
1st Company contained two other "Rifle" platoons and a MG platoon. Despite being called a "Rifle" Battalion, none of the men carried rifles - they all used SMG. .
1st Motor Rifle Battalion (Senior Lt Kozienko)
1st Company (Jnr Lt Titov)
1st Platoon (Lt Shakulo)
2nd Platoon (Jnr Lt Bessonov)
3rd Platoon (Lt Gavrilov)
MG Platoon (After Orel Offensive Lt Kolosov)
From 20 March 1944 1st company were Tank Riders in the Brigade's Vanguard.
2nd Company (Lt Gulik)
? Platoon (Lt Chernyshov)
3rd Company (Lt Grigoriev)
Anti-tank rifle platoon.
Each Rifle company was 100 men at full strength.
Bryansk Front, 15-17 Aug 1943
Source: Bessonov (2003), p. 36-40
Note: Bessonov joined his unit on either 13 or 14 Aug 1943. This action took place the day after, so either 14 or 15 Aug. I've assumed 15.
At dawn 49th Mechanized Brigade was ordered to attack strong Germans positions on a hill. The three companies of 1st Motor Rifle Battalion walked toward the hill, but were uncertain if it was actually defended. However, German MG and mortar fire forced the men to go to ground in a ravine and dig in. After dark the men moved into the open and dug in at the foot of the hill.
Later in the night Company/Battalion/Brigade (??) were ordered to to continue the assault. This fresh thrust was blocked by wire entanglements and without wire cutters the platoon commanders ordered a withdrawal.
Reporting failure the Company/Battalion (??) was ordered forward a third time. The Germans spotted them under the wire entanglements and German MG, grenades and Mortar fire drove the Russians back yet again.
The next day, along with three T34s and with weak artillery support, the Company/Battalion (??) went in again, but were again blocked at the wire. The three tanks were abandoned by their crews before being damaged (seems like a good opportunity for HMG versus AFVs rule).
The Battalion/Brigade unsuccessfully assaulted twice more during the second night. A platoon from 2nd Company disappeared entirely, and were never found (at that stage this platoon had only 16 effectives). 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Brigade took heavy losses
The third day featured dawn to dusk raids by German bombers. The anti-aircraft guns were suppressed. The Germans also put in a one hour artillery and mortar barrage. 2nd and 3rd Companies of the Battalion took heavy losses.
The Company/Battalion/Brigade broke off the attack during the third night. Senior Lt Kozienko - the battalion commander - scolded his junior officers for not pushing forward their attack and denied the existence of wire entanglements.
Skalat, Ukraine, 14-20 March 1944
Source: Bessonov (2003), p. 53-60
The Brigade approached Skalit on 14 of 15 March through rocky hills and fields. During daylight 1st Company explored the city, didn't find Germans, but for some reason were ordered to withdraw from the city.
That night Bessonov's platoon was sent in to explore again. They encountered men from the Brigades Scout company, who reported seeing enemy infantry. The Platoon advanced in that direction and spotted two Tiger tanks but no infantry. Bessonov concluded the German infantry were scattered in strong points. The Platoon then withdrew to report.
At dawn the Brigade formed up in fields outside the city. German aircraft bombed the tank regiment and strafed the other battalions but inflicted few casualties.
The Brigade then advanced into the city, and after capturing several buildings encountered German fire. T-34s supported the Platoon/Company/Battalion but after three were knocked out, and the remainder withdrew to shelter. Two Tiger tanks inflicted most of the damage on the attacking Russians.
After fighting building to building, 1st (Shakulo) and 2nd Platoons (Bessonov) reached a building on the square where a Church was located. A Tiger next to the building shot repeatedly into the Russian position, but soon ceased - presumably to conserve ammunition. The Russians - without petrol bombs or anti-tank grenades - let it be.
After dark Company Commander Titov ordered 1st and 2nd Platoons to join the 3rd Platoon, now leaderless. The men of 3rd Platoon were divided between Shakulo and Bessonov's platoons. Joined by the MG platoon (Kolosov) the Company continued their advance during darkness. They wandered into the zone of 2nd company and were ordered to advance to the side. Taking loses from some Germans they then encountered an enemy tank. After losing more men, the Company stopped and consolidated their position.
2nd Company took over the positions of 1st Company who returned to their earlier positions (in the building next to the square??). The Germans counterattacked. A Tiger pounded the house where the Platoon/Company was stationed. Bessonov engaged in a duel with a German Sniper located at the window of a high house, and won. And finally a German Infantry attack was thrown back by machine gun fire.
During the night the Company pushed past the church square without encountering enemy. They dug in in wooden barns and huts in the outskirts of Skalat.
The Germans drove the Company out of their positions with machine gun and sniper fire. Several huts were set on fire in the process. The Company moved to safer positions and repulsed another infantry attack from the city.
At twilight the Company moved again - this time to a large brick building which was the Gestapo HQ. As a bonus the men found honey, other food stuffs, and alcohol in the cellar.
During the day the Germans deployed three or four truck loads of infantry 600-800 m away in the fields outside the city. The two Maxim heavy machine guns cut into them as the approached, however, the Maxims were short of ammo and used only short bursts.
In an attempt to concentrate for an attack toward the centre of the city the Germans started running across the road about 100 m from the Company's position. The sniper in 1st Platoon shot so many as they ran across that the attack was halted.
1st Company was only Russian unit to the right of the main road; this area was also relatively free of Germans. On the left - where heavy fighting continued - were the other two Companies of 1st Battalion, and the entire 2nd Battalion.
In the evening Company Commander Titov ordered the Company back to the house "with the Tiger by the wall" (on the church square). As the Company withdrew four more Tigers entered the town and managed to get behind the Russians, to a position a where they could control the main street. In the absence of effective anti-tank weapons the Company left the Tigers alone.
Tanks from another unit and a regiment of Katyushas (BM-13) arrived. The Katyushas showered the Germans with fire, but also killed 30 men of 3rd company of 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion who were stationed in trenches in a field outside the city. The Germans used this opportunity to launch an attack, but it wasn't sufficient and they were driven from the city.
- Throughout this battle Bessonov refers to "Tigers" but I believe this may just be the Russian tendency to call all Panzers "Tigers"
- Company Commander Titov was not with the Company during this battle. He remained in the rear and Shakulo and Bessonov led the men. Titov communicated with Shakulo and Bessonov using runners. He, however, did blow up a German tank with a Petrol bomb some time during the battle for Skalat.
- This was the only German tank that Bessonov mentions being destroyed during the battle. Apparently the tanks had free rein of the streets, but after losing this vehicle they became more cautious.
Gusyatin, Ukraine, 22-23 March 1944
Source: Bessonov (2003), p. 62
As the 4th Tank Army pushed south-east across the rear of the Germans, 49th Mechanized Brigade was involved in significant fighting for Gusyatin. They pushed the Germans out of the city, but as soon as the front line troops left the Germans returned and slaughtered the Brigade's support train. The following day, 24 March, further Soviet units arrived and drove the Germans from the city again.
Road to Kamenets-Podosk, 24 March 1944
Source: Bessonov (2003), p. 65
As the 49th Mechanized Brigade pushed toward Kamenets-Podosk, 1st Battalion encountered occasional pockets of German resistance. In one incident, early in the morning of 24 March 1944, the advancing column of T-34s with 1st Company as tank riders, plus supply vehicles and Studebaker trucks ran into German infantry and three tanks (Tigers and Panthers) in a village. The tanks of both sides opened up, along with the Brigade's artillery battalion (76mm guns) firing over open sights. 1st and 2nd platoon dismounted as soon as the fire fight began and went to ground in the fields outside the village - only 100 m from the German positions. Despite enemy fire, Shakulo and Bessonov got the men up and assaulted the village. The Russian guns knocked out one German tank, a second was abandoned by its crew, and the remaining tank and surviving infantry fled as the Russians rushed amongst the buildings. The Russian tanks then knocked out the remaining German tank.
From noon until evening German ground attack aircraft hammered the Battalion and their supporting tanks. Bessonov's platoon missed the worst of it, but other units suffered severe casualties. 1st company was reduced to about 32-37 men. Other companies were reduced to 10-15 men.
Bessonov was ordered to lead 3 tanks, and the remains of 1st Company, and a machine gun platoon towards Kamenets-Podolsk. (The much reduced Company could all ride on the 3 tanks.) The objective was to capture outskirts and wait for the Brigade to arrive.
Bridgehead at the River Strypa, April 1944
Source: Bessonov (2003), p. 79-87
The Battalion set up at the village of Dobropolic on the River Strypa. The majority dug in on the eastern bank, but Bessonov and 1st Company were ordered to hold the Bridgehead on the western bank. The 30 houses of Dobropolic occupied a depression between the banks of the river. Bessonov's men dug their trenches on the western edge of the village. The surrounding terrain includes low hills, ravines, fields of young wheat, muddy ploughed fields, patches of low scrub without leaves. and at least one forest . After some days the Germans sent two columns of infantry, APCs, and tanks to within 300 m of the Russian trenches where they dug in on a hill. As Bessonov waited for the attack, his men came under fire from Katyushas, and to add insult to injury, he received orders from Battalion HQ that the telephone operators were to be withdrawn and the bridge across the river blown behind him. The 25-30 men of 1st Company, half of whom were raw recruits, were abandoned to their fate.
Bessonov repaired the bridge with planks as best he could and transferred all his men to the northern part of the village were the earth track led to the bridge. The Germans attacked at dawn. Some of the recruits ran for the bridge, and Bessonov withdrew the rest to the Bridge. The sub-machine guns of the Russian veterans held the attack at the line of their original fox holes. Bessonov then withdrew his men to the eastern bank.
When Bessonov reported to his commander he was immediately ordered to retake his positions in the west. Bessonov led his men quietly back across the bridge as the Germans had their lunch. With barely a shot fired 1st company charged the enemy positions and drove them out of the village. Shortly afterwards 12 men of the 2nd company arrived, but they soon returned to the eastern bank to claim the victory.
That night the Germans commenced a 20 minute mortar barrage before putting in an infantry assault. Bessonov's men could not hold them and once again withdrew to the eastern bank. This time they were allowed to stay.
Bobrka, 18 July 1944
Source: Bessonov (2003), p. 113-117
Bessonov describes an ambush on Tank Riders just outside Bobrka south of Lvov.
During the night of 17/18 July, the 49th Kamenets-Podosk Mechanised Brigade was advancing rapidly toward Lvov, about 100 km ahead of the main Russian forces. 1st Motor Rifle Battalion had suffered relatively light losses in the breakthrough fighting of 14-17 July, hence was chosen to lead the thrust to the German rear. They rode tanks of the 56th Tank Regiment. The Russian tank column advanced full throttle, without reconnaissance. The advance guard were the three tanks carrying Bessonov's 2nd Platoon, 1st company.
The Germans left a small covering force at Bobrka. The road to Bobrka went up a small hill then steeply down with a right turn. The entire hillside was steep. At the bottom a depression filled the space before the village itself. The Germans were well sited with two or three tanks (Panthers or Tigers according to Bessonov) in ambush, up to a company of infantry, a lot of MG34s, and a 8.1 cm mortar battery.
Just before dawn, the column stopped in the shelter of the small hill leading to Bobrka. They moved on after a short rest. As the first tank crested the hill, the Germans opened fire and knocked it out. This vehicle caught fire and exploded. Two or three of the tank riders were killed but the remaining eight jumped off and took cover. The rest of the company followed suit and attempted to dig in whilst under heavy fire. The company was ordered forward, but Bessonov's platoon at least was pinned on the crest. Aside from the heavy suppressing fire directed at the Russians, Bessonov's men were also unkeen to advance because they lacked any anti-tank weapons. Brigade artillery and Battalion mortars added their support, but failed to suppress the German defenders. (Interestingly the column's tanks were not committed to the assault.) After another order to attack, and a long organisation period (most of the day), Bessonov got his men up despite the heavy German fire. The men charged through the wheat into the depression on the outskirts of Bobrka. The other two platoons of the company assaulted at the same time and took the village. In their flight the Germans abandoned a Panther which had run out of fuel.
The rest of the day was spent dealing with similar, although smaller covering forces.
19 April 1944
Source: Bessonov (2003), p. 121
An incident from the following day is worth describing, as it shows how the battalion would deploy if given warning. This time the Russians spotted German defences (trenches and barbed wire) in front of a village. 1st company deployed to the left of the road, 3rd company to the right. 2nd company was held in reserve. The assaulting troops made use of what cover there was, including a ravine where they found two downed Russian pilots. As it turned out the trenches were empty.
Battle for Lvov, 20-27 July 1944
Source: Bessonov (2003), p. 122-129
At dawn Bessonov, with 1st and 2nd platoon (30-35 men total), and the machine gun platoon of 3rd company, advanced into Lvov. Lvov contained wide boulevards and steep twisting streets; it contained western style apartment blocks plus mansions surrounded by iron fences. The men dug in after a block. Later they were joined by the crew of a 45 mm anti-tank gun. the crew had dragged it into position as the prime movers had all been destroyed earlier. Unfortunately the gun had only five rounds.
At some point a 120 mm mortar battery (4 mortars) turned up, and stayed with Bessenov for the duration of his time in Lvov.
One day featured a sniper who didn't manage to inflict casualties, and after a while disappeared.
A day later Company commander Chernyshov arrived, and convinced by a probable spy/traitor, ordered Bessonov to advance further into the city. Apparently it was a trap, as within a few streets German half-tracks and infantry cut off the advancing Russians. A rather ineffectual fire fight ensued, however, it caused Chernyshov to disappear to safety.
The next day Bessonov spotted a T-34 entering the city. Although this tank was knocked out and all bar the driver were killed, officially these men were the first Russians into Lvov.
The following day tanks of the 10th Guards Tank corps entered the city. With such support nearby Bessonov advanced into the city and was engaged in street fighting with the retreating Germans.
On 27 July Lvov was finally liberated after a three year occupation.
Bessonov, E. (2003). Tank Rider: Into the Reich with the Red Army. London: Greenhill.