Borisov Defensive Operation

The 'Borisov Defensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking on the left and right banks of the Berezina river and along the main road linking Minsk and Moscow near the town Borisov, and was thus part of the 'Belorussian Strategic Defensive Operation' designed to halt the German advance toward Moscow (30 June/10 July 1941).

The operation remains an example of the type of mobile defence offered by the Soviet forces in the first period of the 'Great Patriotic War', when the actions of three divisions made it possible to delay the advance of Generalleutnant Friedrich Kühn’s 18th Panzerdivision of General Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Corps (mot.), in Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 1st Panzergruppe, toward Orsha and thus make possible the deploy the defensive strength of the Soviets forces' Second Strategic Echelon on the upper reaches of the Dniepr river.

As a result of the encirclement and defeat of major parts of General Dmitri G. Pavlov’s (from 28 June General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s and from 2 July Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s) West Front in the first days of the German 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR, the way to Smolensk along the 'Moscow Highway' linking Minsk and Moscow lay open to the assault forces of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. The nearest large water obstacle on the German axis of advance was the Berezina river. This had bridge crossings at Borisov, Veselov and Ukholoda. The Soviet supreme command therefore appreciated that a German advance over the Berezina river would jeopardise its plans to deploy the armies of the Second Strategic Echelon along the line linking Orsha and Mogilev.

Borisov and its bridgehead were defended by a division consolidated from a miscellany of units retreating units and the remnants of the Borisov garrison, the NKVD internal security troops for the protection of the railway and the railway bridge and, in particular, the cadets of the Borisov Tank Technical School. This force of about 2,000 men was commanded by Komkorps Ivan Z. Susaikov, who was head of the school and the commandant of Novo-Borisov. The defence force also had 10 tanks and two batteries of anti-tank guns. In Borisov, the organisation of the defence was the responsibility was General Major Mikhail V. Alekseyev, but nothing is known of his actions.

The men of the Borisov Tank Technical School totalled about 400 instructors and cadets, but they lacked artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. The catastrophic start of the war for the Soviets had placed the Borisov garrison and the command of the tank school in a vacuum so far as information and intelligence were concerned. In a report to General Leytenant Yakov N. Fedorenko, the head of the Main Armored Directorate, Susaikov wrote that '[the] command of the school from 23 to 26 June did not receive any information about the [Germans] from the front headquarters. The task was not assigned to the school…It was not possible to locate the headquarters. Incidental and fragmentary information about the [Germans] was received exclusively from servicemen, who were straggling along the highway to the east in a disorderly crowd.'

In this situation, Susaikov took the initiative and, with the help of the school’s personnel and the local population, began to prepare the Borisov area for defence: some 4.35 miles (7 km) of anti-tank ditches were dug, and work was begun on the construction of fortified positions and defence sectors on the eastern and western banks of the Berezina river. Detachments were created out of the school’s instructors and cadets, and these were employed to detain the retreating men for consolidation into new detachments to be included in the defence. Among the officers who found themselves in Borisov was Polkovnik Aleksandr I. Lizyukov, the deputy commander of the 36th Tank Division and who was returning from leave. Trying to get information about the Germans, Susaikov organised reconnaissance, which used armoured vehicles out to a maximum radius of 25 miles (40 km) before encountering the German vanguard elements.

On 26 June, communication with the West Front’s headquarters was restored, and Susaikov was appointed commander of the garrison and the officer responsible for the defence of Borisov, and Lizyukov was appointed as Susaikov’s chief-of-staff. The combat order of the command of the Western Front laid it down that '[You] are responsible for holding Borisov and the crossings and, as an extreme case should the [Germans] near the crossings, blow these, continuing a stubborn defence of the opposite bank. On the crossing from Zembin to the Veselovo farm send a detachment with demolition equipment with the task of readying the crossing for an explosive demolition, stubbornly defending and, when the [Germans] approach, blow it thoroughly. You are also instructed to do the same with the ferry near Chernyavka' to the south-east of Borisov.

Before fighting began, preparatory work was carried out, and the area was divided on 27 June into four defence sectors that were to be held by forces now exceeding 10,000 men. Sector No. 1 was under the command of Polkovnik Bely, Sector No. 2 was the urban area of Borisov and commanded by Polkovnik Mikhail D. Grishin, the commander of the 2nd Division, Sector No. 3 was commanded by Kombrig Vasili K. Moroz, and Sector No. 4 was commanded by Major Kuzmin.

To contain the Germans, Pavlov on 30 June ordered the transfer to the Borisov area of Polkovnik Yakov G. Kreizer’s 1st Moscow Motorised Division, which was to position itself on a front of some 31 miles (50 km) along the eastern bank of the Berezina river and come under the command of Komdiv Vasili A. Yushkevich’s XLIV Corps.

Susaikov harboured no illusions about the forces at his disposal, and on 28 June reported that 'The garrison that I have for the defence of the Berezina river and Borisov has a extemporised combat unit only as part of the armoured school (up to 1,400 men). The rest of [my force] is a collection of ''rabble'' from the alarmists of the rear, demoralised by the above-mentioned situation, commanders from the rear (work-related journeys, leave and medical treatment) searching for their units, and a significant number of German intelligence and counter-intelligence agents (spies, saboteurs etc.). All this makes Borisov’s garrison incapable of combat.' The relationship between Susaikov and Kreizer has been described as being characterised by 'certain frictions' and several units of the division holding the main sectors were lurking to the rear of the cadets and the 'rabble'.

The German advance toward Borisov was head by Generalmajor Walter Nehring’s 18th Panzerdivision, and on 30 June this division’s leading elements reached the outskirts of Novo-Borisov. The concrete bridge across the Berezina river had been readied for demolition, but the Soviet command hesitated as there was a constant flow of units retreating across the bridge.

The battle for the Borisov crossings lasted from 30 June to 2 July. Kreizer’s armour received the order to move to Borisov at 03.40 on 1 July, and at 05.50 it began to move. After travelling some 80 miles (130 km), by 12.00 it had reached the area of Borisov. The main strength of the 18th Panzerdivision approached the railway bridge during the evening of 1 July, and in a rush attack managed to break its way across the main reinforced concrete bridge and, interrupting the work of the engineers preparing to blow it, seized a bridgehead on the river’s eastern bank.

On 4 July, the West Front reported that 'as a result of the criminal negligence of the command and the military unit defending Borisov, the bridge across the Berezina river was not blown, which made it possible for [German] tanks to break through across so important a water barrier.'

On 2 July the 1st Moscow Division had launched a counterattack along the main road to Borisov but, largely as a result of German air attacks, failed to dislodge the Germans from their bridgehead at Borisov bridgehead. On the following day, the Soviet division went over the defensive and was forced to pull back under German pressure.

On 3 July, the 1st Moscow Motorised Division came under attack near Nemanitsa, and Kreizer’s first line of defence was broken. Behind Loshnitsa, the Germans faced a screen of KV-1 heavy tanks. Kreizer later recalled that '[the] situation remained tense: tanks and motorised infantry of the [German] XVII Corps (mot.), expanding their bridgehead, advanced along the highway, trying to build on the success in the direction of Loshnitsa. Under these conditions, a decision was made by the forces of the 12th Tank Regiment and 6th Motorised Regiment to counterattack into the flank of the [German] grouping that had broken through in the direction of Loshnitsa. During the counterattack, a major tank battle broke out, with more than 300 tanks participating on both sides. As a result of the counterattack, it was possible to delay the [German] offensive until the end of 4 July. Parts of the division won time to take up defences on the Nacha river.'

A mobile defence became the key element in the tactics of the 1st Moscow Motorised Division for the entire period of the battle: in the first half of the day, operating on a front up to 12.5 miles (20 km) wide and occupying convenient lines, the division used all available firepower to check the advance of the German armour, forcing it to deploy into battle formations and thereby slow its advance, then under cover of the increasing darkness, the division’s main forces used vehicles to withdrew some 6.2 to 7.5 miles (10 to 12 km) into a new line of defence. This tactic made it possible to avoid the type of major losses inevitable in actions on permanent lines of defence under conditions of the Germans' total air superiority. In addition, swift and unexpected manoeuvres served to mislead the Germans, preventing them from using what was, at the time, their favourite tactic of outflanking their opponents to fall on their rear.

On 4 July, the 1st Moscow Motorised Division, hard-pressed by the 18th Panzerdivision, withdrew from the third defence line the Nacha river and pulled back a new line along the Bobr river, in the process abandoning Krupky.

By 6 July the Soviet division had been reinforced by the arrival of the 115th Tank Regiment of the 57th Tank Division with more than 100 light tanks, mainly of the T-26 type, as well as 30 T-34 medium tanks and 10 KV heavy tanks, and once again attacked the Germans in order to support the 20th Army’s offensive toward Lepel.

On 7 and 8 July, the Soviet division entered the battle for Tolochin, and Kreizer later recalled that '[on] 8 July, the attack of the division began, which occupied the position of this point with its battle formation…Our attack was unexpected by the [Germans]. As a result of a short fierce battle, the [Germans] were driven out of Tolochin (in this battle, 800 men were taken prisoner, and 350 vehicles and the standard of the XLVII Corps (mot.) were captured). The division held the town for 24 hours. And then, bringing up fresh forces, the [Germans] unleashed powerful air and artillery strikes on the division’s defending units.'

In the course of 8 and 9 July, there was a major tussle for Tolochin, which changed hands twice. By 20.00 on 9 July, the 1st Moscow Motorised Division had been forced to withdraw to the next defence line at Kokhanovo after suffering significant losses in men and equipment. Thus while up to this time the division had been able to fight mobile defensive battles on a fairly wide front, reaching as much as 21.75 miles (35 km), its combat capability had now been reduced to purely defensive combat in which all its strength concentrated only only a single sector, namely the road linking Minsk and Moscow. The Germans were also adversely affected, however, as the absence of other roads suitable for manoeuvre warfare in this area, were unable to make a deep outflanking movements or cover its own flanks adequately.

Thus the 1st Moscow Motorised Division not only escaped the encirclement that was all too often the fate of Soviet formations during this period of the war, but also able to fulfil its task of delaying the Germans. The advance from Borisov to Orsha took the Germans more than a week, and the 18th Panzerdivision lost as much as half of its tank strength. The 1st Moscow Motorised Division had also suffered significant losses. of course, and on 10 July was withdrawn to the reserve of the 20th Army in the area of Orsha.