Operation Battle of Raseiniai

The 'Battle of Raseiniai' was a major tank battle fought between German and Soviet forces in the first stage of the German 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR (23/27 June 1941).

The battle was fought between elements of Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and the Soviet III Mechanised Corps with the XII Mechanised Corps, in Soviet-controlled Lithuania some 47 miles (75 km) to the north-west of Kaunas. The Soviets attempted to contain and destroy the German forces which had had crossed the Niemen river but were unable to prevent them from continuing their advance.

The battle ended with the destruction of most of the Soviet armoured forces of General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s North-Western Front, and this opened the way for the Germans to attack toward the crossings of the Daugava (Western Dvina) river. The fighting around Raseiniai was one of the main battles of the initial phase of 'Barbarossa', generally known in Soviet historiography as the 'Border Defensive Battles Operation' (22/27 June 1941) as part of the larger 'Baltic Strategic Defensive Operation'.

Staging in East Prussia before the launch of 'Barbarossa', Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was the northern of three German army groups committed to 'Barbarossa'. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' comprised Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army, Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army and Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe. In overall terms, the Germans had 20 infantry, three Panzer and three motorised divisions, and tactical air support was provided by Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I.

The Soviet military control over the area of the three Baltic republics, in which Heeresgruppe 'Nord' would be deployed, was exercised by Kuznetsov’s Special Baltic Military District, on 22 June renamed as the North-Western Front. The front had the 8th Army and 11th Army in its first echelon, with the 27th Army in its second echelon, and in all comprised 28 infantry, four tank and two motorised divisions.

On 22 June, the North-Western Front had two major mechanised formations, namely General Major Aleksei V. Kurkin’s III Mechanised Corps with 31,975 men and between 669 and 672 tanks, and General Major Nikolai M. Shestopalov’s XII Mechanized Corps with 28,832 men and between 730 and 749 tanks. All the Soviet armour was of the BT-7 and T-26 light tank types.

From the start of 'Barbarossa', the 4th Panzergruppe advanced with two spearheads led by General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) and General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.). The task of these Panzer corps was to reach and cross the Niemen and Daugava river, which were the most difficult natural obstacles in front of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and to drive toward Leningrad. German bombers destroyed many of the signals and communications centres, naval bases and airfields available to the Soviet forces in the region from Riga to Kronstadt. Siauliai, Vilnius and Kaunas were also bombed. Soviet aircraft had been on one-hour alert, but were held on their airfields after the first wave of German bombers passed.

At 09.30 on 22 June, Kuznetsov ordered the III and XII Mechanised corps to take up their designated counterattack positions, from which they were to be used flanking attacks on the 4th Panzergruppe, which had broken through to the Dubysa (Dubissa) river. By 12.00, the Soviet divisions began to fall back and the German columns then started to swing toward Raseiniai, where Kuznetsov was concentrating his armour for a major counterattack on the following day. By the evening, Soviet formations had fallen back to the Dubysa river. To the north-west of Kaunas, forward elements of the LVI Corps (mot. reached the Dubysa river and seized the vital Ariogala road viaduct across it.

By the end of 22 June, the German armoured spearheads over the Niemen river had penetrated some 50 miles (80 km). On the next day, Kuznetsov committed his armoured forces to battle. Near Raseiniai, the XLI Corps (mot.) was counterattacked by the III and XII Mechanised Corps. However, the concentration of Soviet armour had been detected by air reconnaissance, and the Luftwaffe immediately attacked tank columns of the XII Mechanised Corps in the area to the south-west of Siauliai. No Soviet fighters appeared and the Soviet 23rd Tank Division sustained particularly severe losses as Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined attack bombers of Luftflotte I swept over it at low level, setting 40 vehicles, including tanks and lorries, on fire.

The German forces encountered for the first time a single unit equipped with the new KV-1 and KV-2 heavy tanks. On 23 June, the Kampfgruppe 'von Seckendorff' of Generalleutnant Werner Kempf’s 6th Panzerdivision, comprising the mechanised infantry of the 114th Panzergrenadierregiment, the reconnaissance troops of the 57th Aufklärungsabteilung, one anti-destroyer company of the 41st Panzerjägerabteilung and the motorcycle troops of the 6th Kradschützenbataillon, was overrun by General Major Yegor N. Solyankin’s 2nd Tank Division of the III Mechanised Corps near Skaudvilė. The German force’s Panzer 35(t) light tanks, of Czechoslovak design and manufacture, and anti-tank weapons were ineffective against the Soviet heavy tanks, some of which were out of ammunition but closed in and destroyed German anti-tank guns by driving over them. The Germans fired at the tracks of the KV vehicles, and hit them with artillery fire, anti-aircraft gun fore and sticky bombs. According to a later German report, the KV tanks 'were really something! Our companies opened fire at about 800 m [880 yards], but it remained ineffective. We moved closer and closer to the enemy, who for his part continued to approach us unconcerned. Very soon we were facing each other at 50 to 100 m [55 to 110 yards[. A fantastic exchange of fire took place without any visible German success. The [Soviet] tanks continued to advance, and all armour-piercing shells simply bounced off them. Thus we were presently faced with the alarming situation of the Soviet tanks driving through the ranks of the 1st Panzerregiment toward our own infantry and our rear areas. Our Panzer regiment therefore about turned and rumbled back with the KV tanks roughly in line with them. In the course of that operation we succeeded in immobilising some of them with special-purpose shells at the very close range of between 30 and 60 m [33 and 66 yards]. A counterattack was launched and the [Soviets] were thrown back. A protective front was established and defensive fighting continued.'

A single KV tank advanced far behind the German line after attacking a column of German supply trucks. The tank stopped on a road across soft ground and was engaged by four 50-mm anti-tank guns of the 6th Panzerdivision's anti-tank battalion. The tank was hit several times but fired back and destroyed all four of the German guns. An 88-mm (3.465-in) heavier gun of the divisional anti-aircraft battalion was moved to without about 800 yards (730 m) behind the lone Soviet tank, but was knocked out by the tank before it could manage to score a hit. During the night, German combat engineers tried to destroy the tank with satchel charges, but failed despite possibly damaging the vehicle’s tracks. Early on the morning of 25 June, German tanks fired on the KV from the nearby woodland while another 88-mm (3.465-in) gun fired at the tank from its rear. Of the several shots fired, only two managed to penetrate the tank. German infantry then advanced toward the Soviet tank, which responded with machine gun fire. Eventually, the tank was knocked out by grenades thrown into the hatches. According to some accounts, the dead crew was recovered and buried by the Germans with full military honors, although, in other accounts, the crew escaped from its crippled tank during the night.

Oberst Erhard Raus, the commander of the 6th Schützenbrigade in the 6th Panzerdivision, described it as a KV-1, which was damaged by several shots from an 88-mm (3.465-in) gun fired from behind the vehicle while its crew was distracted by PzKpfw 35(t) light tanks of the 65th Panzerabteilung. The KV-1 crew was killed by a pioneer engineer unit which pushed grenades through two holes made by the anti-tank gun while the turret began moving again, with the other five or six shots having not fully penetrated. Apparently, the KV-1 crewmen had only been stunned by the shots which had penetrated into the turret, and were buried nearby with military honors by the German unit.

In the south, by 23 June General Leytenant Vasily I. Morozov, the commander of the 11th Army, had ordered the units falling back to the old fortress town of Kaunas on the Niemen river to move on to Jonava some 30 miles (48 km) farther to the north-east. By the evening of 25 June, the Soviet 8th Army was falling back toward Riga and the 11th Army toward Vilnius and the Desna river, a gap opening in the Soviet front between Ukmergė and Daugavpils. By 26 June, the 1st Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Otto-Ernst Ottenbacher 's 36th Division (mot.) of the XLI Corps (mot.), together with the following infantry divisions, had cut through the rear of the Soviet mechanised corps and linked. The III Mechanised Corps had run out of fuel and the 2nd Tank Division was encircled and almost wholly destroyed. In the encirclement, Solyankin was killed. The 5th Tank Division and 84th Motorised Division were severely depleted as a result of the losses they had suffered in vehicles and men. The XII Mechanised Corps pulled out of the trap but was very short of fuel and ammunition.

The Soviet Baltic Fleet had been withdrawn from its bases in Liepaja (Libau in German), Ventspils (Windau in German) and Riga by 26 June and the LVI Corps [mot.) dashed for the Daugava river and in a remarkable coup seized bridges near Daugava before they could be blown.

After the battle, the leading formations of the LVI Corps (mot.) began to enlarge the bridgehead after the seizure of the Daugava bridges and the fall of Dvinsk. On 25 June, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko, head of the Soviet high command, ordered Kuznetsov to organize a defence of the western Daugava river by deploying the 8th Army on the right bank from Riga to Livani while the 11th Army defended the sector between Livani and Kraslava. Kuznetsov also used General Major Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 27th Army, moving troops from Hiiumaa and Saaremaa islands and from Riga to Daugavpils. At the same time the Stavka released General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s XXI Mechanised Corps, with 98 tanks and 129 pieces of artillery, from the Moscow Military District to co-operate with the 27th Army.

At 05.00 on 28 June, Lelyushenko attempted to destroy the German bridgehead near Daugavpils. von Manstein halted on the Daugava river but attacked on the following day, striking along the road linking Daugavpils and Ostrov. At Riga, during the afternoon of 29 June, the Germans crossed the railway bridge over the Daugava river. On 30 June, Soviet troops withdrew from the right bank of the river and by 1 July were retreating northward toward Estonia. Instead of rushing straight forward to Leningrad, however, the Panzer divisions were ordered to wait for the arrival of infantry reinforcements, which took almost one week.

Kuznetsov was sacked by Timoshenko and was succeeded by General Major Piotr P. Sobennikov, the 8th Army’s commander, on 4 July. On 29 June, Timoshenko had ordered that in the event that the North-Western Front had to withdraw from the line of the Daugava river, the line of the Velikaya river was to be held and every effort made to get Soviet troops firmly entrenched there. The line at Velikaya river fell rapidly on 8 July, however, with rail and road bridges remaining intact, and Pskov fell on the evening of 9 July. The 11th Army was ordered to move to Dno, but the collapse of the North-Western Front on the Velikaya river and the German sweep to Luga were serious defeats, forcing the 8th Army toward the Gulf of Finland. The German pause had given time for more Soviet troops to be rushed to Leningrad, whose siege then developed into a long and exceptionally arduous battle.