140 Colonel-General Heinz Guderian wearing Knight's Cross around neck #6

Colonel-General Heinz Guderian wearing Knight's Cross around his neck.

(Oct. 22, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the Red Army was counter-attacking the German forces that were attempting to capture the Soviet city of Tula.

Tula is a 700-year-old Russian city located 120 miles south of Moscow, on the Upa River. At the time, it had a population of 272,000 and was an important weapons manufacturing center. Today it has a population of about 500,000 and is the capital of the Tula District — Tulskaya Oblast.

The home of the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy — Yasnaya Polyana (Clear Glade) — is located just outside the city and is now a museum. During the battle for the city, the house was occupied by the Germans and converted to a hospital.

In 1941, Tula was the linchpin for the German effort to encircle the Soviet capital. The forces aiming for Tula were part of Col.-Gen. Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee, which constituted the southern half of a pincer movement aimed at surrounding the Soviet capital.

Just about that time, heavy rains came, turning the ground into mud, slowing the advance of the German mechanized forces and tripling its fuel consumption. General Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee turned toward Tula on Oct. 8, 1941. The first snow fell the day before.

Gen. Guderian was just about the best Panzer commander that the Germans had, and, therefore, the best in the world. His Panzers split the Allied armies during the French Campaign. If he hadn’t been restrained by his nervous superiors, the Allies might not have been able to secure the port at Dunkirk and evacuate the British Expeditionary Force. During the Campaign, he earned the sobriquet, “Der Schnelle Heinz — Hurrying Heinz!” Guderian understood the need for speed!

On Oct. 23, 1941, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko was placed in charge of the Soviet defense of the area, which includes Tula. Marshal Timoshenko was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, and a Marshal of the Soviet Union, for pulling the Soviet fat out of the fire in the Winter War with Finland.

Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee proceeded up the highway toward Tula from Orel on Oct. 24. Orel, which means “eagle” in Russian, is located 224 miles south-southwest of Moscow and had been captured on Oct. 3. Today, it has a population of 317,000.

Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee reached the outskirts of Tula on Oct. 26. At that time General Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee consisted of three Armeekorps: XXIV, XLIII & LIII, which included seven infantry, and three Panzer, divisions, and the elite Grossdeutchland regiment. The corps were led by Gens. Baron Geyr von Schweppenburg, Gotthard Heinrici and Karl Weisenberger.

On Oct. 29, 1941, when Gen. Guderian’s forces made a final push to take Tula, a combination of soft and muddy ground, severe cold in the evenings, inadequate clothing, general fatigue and the tenaciousness of the Soviet soldiers defeated their effort. The Germans were two miles from the Soviet city, when, on Nov. 1, Gen. Guderian called a halt to the assault. That same day, the first troops from Siberia took their place in the defenses of Moscow.

Tula was defended by Fiftieth Army, commanded by Arkadii N. Ermakov, supplemented by the Tula Workers’ Regiment, the 156th NKVD Rifle Regiment and the 732 Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment.

Gen. Ermakov’s Fiftieth Army was aided by the city’s citizens organized by the city’s Defense Committee Chairman Vasilii G. Zhavoronkov, secretary of the district party committee. With the city virtually surrounded, Comrade Zhavoronkov had the citizens working feverishly digging antitank ditches and constructing defenses. Zhavoronkov would serve as the Soviet Union’s trade minister after the war.

The 413th Rifle Division, commanded by Gen. Alexey Tereshkov, arrived from the Urals to reinforce Gen. Ermakov’s Fiftieth Army on Nov. 5. Two days later, Third Army, commanded by Iakov Grigorevich Kreizer and Gen. Ermakov’s reinforced Fiftieth Army, counterattacked. The Soviets battled Gen. Weisenberger’s LIII Corps for 10 days. The Soviets were finally thrown back with the loss of 3,000 prisoners and many guns.

On Nov. 15, the ground having frozen solid, and the Panzers having regained their mobility, Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee renewed its attack on Tula. With the temperature at -8°F, the cold was having an effect. The first cases of frostbite appeared.

Lubricating oils froze solid, telescopic sights were rendered useless and metal parts, like rifle bolts, became brittle and broke. It was the coldest winter in recorded history. And the German soldiers still had no winter clothing! This attempt to take Tula was beaten back by Gen. Ermakov’s Fiftieth Army and by Forty-Ninth Army, commanded by Ivan G. Zakharkin.

A second Soviet counterattack was launched, on Nov. 18, by the fresh Siberian troops, equipped with T-34s, commanded by Gen. Pavel A. Belov, near Venev, causing heavy losses to the German 112th Infantry Division, commanded by Albert Newiger. Venev is a town with a current population of 16,000, in the Tula Oblast, located on the Venyovka River.

The best German tanks could only take a T-34 with a well-placed shot in the rear, so without antitank guns that could deal with the new Soviet T-34 tank, the German soldiers panicked, broke, and ran.

Gen. Ermakov was relieved of command and court-martialed on Nov. 22, after the Germans achieved some local successes at Stalinogorsk (now Novomoskovsk). After a few months in prison, he was released, all was forgiven, and he was given another command. After his dismissal, command of Fiftieth Army was given to Ivan V. Boldin, who retained it till the end of the war.

Novomoskovsk is located in the Tula Oblast at the source of the Don River, about 200 miles south of Moscow. Before the war, the city had a population of 79,000. Today, its population is 130,000.

The 17th Panzer Division, commanded by Rudolf E. Licht, reached the outskirts of Kashira on Nov. 25. Kashira is located on the Oka River, about 90 miles south of Moscow. Today, it has a population of about 40,000. On Dec. 1, the Red Army, launched a counterattack by 1st Guards Cavalry Corps, commanded by Gen. Belov, the 112th Tank Division, commanded by Gen. Andrei L. Getman, and 415th Rifle Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Pyotr Andreevich Aleksandrov, newly arrived from Siberia, which drove the Germans away from Kashira.

Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee, shifted its attempt to capture the city the following day, cutting the rail line and the Tula-Serpukhov highway. The next day, Gen. Getman’s 112th Tank Division counterattacked and recovered the road and line. Meanwhile, the 167th Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Wolf Trierenberg, crossed the Don River and surrounded fresh Siberian units, capturing 4,000 and 42 guns. The temperature had dropped to -31°F.

By Dec. 5, Gen. Guderian had to admit failure and halted his Army’s offensive operations. The temperature was now -36°F. He recalled, “...the offensive on Moscow failed. We underestimated the enemy strength, as well as his size and climate. Fortunately, I stopped my troops on 5 December. Otherwise, the catastrophe would be unavoidable.”

The next day, the Red Army launched its surprise counterattack. The opening artillery barrage was so heavy that an entire German division was obliterated. Marshal Timoshenko’s Southwestern Front relieved Tula on Dec. 16.

With fresh troops and tanks brought from the Far East, the Tenth Army, commanded by Filipp A. Golikov, moved against Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzerarmee east of Tula. However, between Dec. 17 and 22, the Luftwaffe destroyed 299 motor vehicles and 23 tanks, slowing the Red Army’s pursuit of the Germans. Although almost surrounded and heavily pounded, Tula had held. It was named a “Hero City” on December 7, 1976.

Next week: The Good Ship Reuben James

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

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