August 23, 2019

Move fast and break things: the Raid on Tatsinskaya

This post relies heavily on an outstanding booklet by defense analyst Robert Forczyk entitled Red Christmas:  The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid, 1942.  (link)

About 35 kilometers east of Belaya Kalitva, Rostov Oblast, Russia, there is a monument commemorating the raid on Tatsinskaya Airfield by Vasily Badanov's 24th Tank Corps on Christmas Eve, 1942.  A column of tanks charge through a gap and up into the sky, leaving a slew of wrecked aircraft in their wake.

It's not wrong.

The Plan
The Germans are bottled up in Stalingrad, only a miracle can save them.  But they've got an airlift going, and it's just keeping Sixth Army alive.  That buys time - Erich von Manstein, the greatest panzer general in the history of the universe - has a counteroffensive underway, and the Germans are rushing in more units to assist with the relief effort.

If the Russians can take out the airfields, the airlift collapses, Sixth Army can't hold out, and the Battle of Stalingrad ends quickly.  But those airfields are 150 miles beyond the front lines, and you'd need to bring heavy weapons to destroy them.  A mechanized operation that deep into enemy territory has never been attempted in modern warfare.

Call it a stretch goal

It is very possible the operation will fail.  On the other hand, this is the Eastern Front in 1942, and if you have to burn a tank corps, maybe you burn a tank corps.

The Russians launch Operation Little Saturn, a coordinated assault through the Italian sector that threatens to cut off Manstein's Panzers as they drive toward Stalingrad.  The fighting is insane and heroic, and leaves a huge gap in the Axis lines.  Through that gap goes Badanov's 24th Tank Corps, heading straight for Tatsinskaya.
At 0200hrs on 18 December, Badanov’s corps conducted a forward passage of lines through the 4th Guards Rifle Corps and advanced southward into the snow-filled void.       - Forczyk

This is not a little commando raid.  This is 5,000 men, 140 tanks, 300 trucks, and some armored cars, going for a motor-tour of Rostov Oblast, a region not noted for its rest stops.  They have enough fuel to get there, but - unless they find some along the way - probably not enough to get back.
The column was immense – initially about 5km (3 miles) long and 1.5–2km (0.9–1.2 miles) wide – but there were few Germans or Italians in the area to see it.  - Forczyk

Even with no enemy around, serious problems crop up:
  • They can only drive during daylight, and there's only eight hours of it this time of year.
  • There aren't enough trained drivers, and after a couple of days the ones they have are exhausted and keep falling asleep at the wheel.  
  • The T-34 tanks are awesome and built for this sort of thing, but the light T-70s - a wartime kludge design - have trouble keeping up.
  • The T-34s have heaters, but the other vehicles don't, so they have to stop periodically so everyone can get out and warm up.
  • Overloaded trucks start to go by the wayside, their suspensions shot.  The men in the trucks, not wishing to be left alone in a frozen desert deep in enemy territory, hop on other overloaded trucks, or onto the tanks.
  • The Corps soon outdistances its air cover, so Badanov has to disperse the force into smaller groups to limit the damage from possible Luftwaffe attacks.
The column spreads out and slows down, sometimes making only 15 miles per day.  But they do move, and on December 23rd they have tanks with riders - but not much else - within striking distance of the target.

The Decision
Badanov was now only 27km (17 miles) from Tatsinskaya and he knew that it was decision time. The 24th Tank Corps was now badly spread out...  Refuelling would take hours and cost him any remaining surprise. On the other hand, his scouts informed him that the two German Kampfgruppen were lingering nearby...  - Forczyk

George Patton once said:  "a good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."  Of course his raid failed, but as a general principle it seems sound.

There is a line from the movie Torpedo Run, when a U.S. submarine has an enemy carrier in its sights, but firing will expose it to certain counterattack and probable destruction.
  • Glenn Ford:  What would you do?
  • Borgnine:  I'd stay up and shoot.  That's what we're here for.

Hey...come to think of it...!?

Badanov's low on fuel.  His men are cold and tired.
Safe in Berlin, Göring ordered that his Luftwaffe men would ‘stand fast’ at Tatsinskaya and that evacuation was not authorized unless Soviet tanks were firing on the runway.  - Forczyk

The next morning Soviet tanks are firing on the runway.
[Base Commander] Fiebig was awoken from two hours’ sleep by the sound of rockets exploding nearby, which contributed to his deteriorating state of mind. He was hurriedly driven to the airfield, arriving around 0815hrs. Meanwhile, at the train station, Soviet tankers discovered a train with flatcars loaded with 50 damaged aircraft, intended for shipment back to repair depots in Germany, as well as a train loaded with aviation fuel. These trains, as well as the loading docks at the railyard, were soon set ablaze. - Forczyk

Badanov's tanks, approaching from three directions, hit the airfield during normal flight operations.  Chaos ensues as dozens of German planes try to take off at once, some colliding with one another as the Russians fire 75mm shells into them and spray the area with machine gun fire.  Refueling trucks - easy targets of opportunity and hard for the Germans to replace - explode all over the base.
In the later stages of the raid, some of Nechayev’s T-34 tanks had apparently exhausted their main gun ammunition and they began ramming the tail sections of Ju-52 transports on the flight line, in order to prevent their take-off. - Forczyk

A majority of the German planes manage to take off, including one, according to reports, piloted by a signal officer who had never flown a plane before. Nevertheless, the attack knocks out about 10% of the transport capacity of the Luftwaffe.  The base commander jumps on the last plane out, leaving hundreds of his troops to their fate.

The Russians mop up efficiently, utterly wrecking the base.

At this point it may be useful to reflect on a problem with raids.  Raids are fun, at first.  You plan creatively, you get to surprise the enemy, and maybe take out a big strategic target.  But, like Game of Thrones, it's hard to work out a good ending.

Most raids are planned like this:
  • 24 Tank Corps: [Achieves surprise, seizes airfield in enemy rear areas and destroys it.]
  • Germans:  OMG WTF aughghgh!
  • 24 Tank Corps: Heh heh heh [Escapes in the confusion]

But most raids go like this:
  • 24 Tank Corps: [Achieves surprise, seizes airfield in enemy rear areas and destroys it.]
  • Germans:  Vector in Luftwaffe scouts, fighter-bombers and dive-bombing units.  Re-direct 11 and 6 Panzer to the affected area.  Re-direct nearby battle groups to blocking positions and support.  Destroy raiding force, take no prisoners.
  • 24 Tank Corps: Ah.

11th Panzer, retreating from the east, is heading straight for the base with orders from Hitler to kill everyone in sight.  Very quickly, Team Badanov is surrounded by well-supplied superior forces.  His tanks, mostly out of fuel (their diesels can't burn the 300 tons of benzene they've captured), are sitting ducks.

Badanov knows it won't go well and gets ready to try and escape.  But there's a problem:  Stalin has a new plan:
At 2200hrs, Badanov was able to get through to Vatutin and reported: ‘Situation critical. No tanks. Large losses of personnel. Have lost half my officers. Cannot keep Tatsinskaya. I ask permission to withdraw from the area. Enemy transport aircraft on the airfield are destroyed.’ Amazingly, Badanov’s request to evacuate Tatsinskaya was refused. Even though the operation was conceived as a raid, Stalin no longer wanted to give up the airfield since he recognized that holding it had great propaganda value. 
- Forczyk
Evacuate?  In our moment of triumph?

Badanov reviews his options:
a) die for nothing on a wrecked airfield, or 
b) MacGyver a breakout and try to talk his way out of the firing squad when he gets back.
He selects b).

This being the Eastern Front in 1942, he escapes by the simple expedient of ordering 300 "volunteers" to attack the Germans in one direction, while he and a thousand men and a few crippled tanks sneak through a gap on the other side of the perimeter.  The 300 are never heard from again.

The remnants, as per Soviet doctrine, manage to return and link up with the advancing main force.

On December 23, 1942, the Germans had a fully stocked and functional transport hub to move supplies into Stalingrad.  On December 28th, they had a junkyard with burned buildings and a thousand or so corpses.  And Sixth Army, already starving, had lost its only lifeline.

[A]ttempts to restart the airlift after the raid from safer airfields such as Ssalsk, greatly increased the distance to Stalingrad and caused the already meagre airlift effort to collapse. The loss of Tatsinskaya and Morozovskaya airfields, as well as the threat to Heeresgruppe Don’s main lines of communication between Rostov and Tormosin, were the final straws that demolished any hope of saving [Sixth Army].  - Forczyk

Despite pissing off Stalin and getting wounded in 1944, Badanov survived the war and subsequent purges, and among other decorations received the Distinguished Service Cross from the United States.  He died in Moscow in 1971.



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