According to popular belief, the largest tank battle of World War II–called the Great Patriotic War in the USSR–occurred in July 1943 on the Kursk Bulge, near Prokhorovka. However, historians recently studying archival materials say there was another, equally large-scale tank battle that occurred at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, near the Belarusian city of Senno.
At the beginning of July 1941, the situation at the front for the Soviet troops was critical. After the capture of the city of Minsk and the defeat of the main forces of the Western Front, German troops began to advance towards the Dnipro and Western Dvina rivers.
On July 3, Colonel-General Franz Halder, head of the German General Staff, wrote the following in his diary: “We can say that the task of destroying the main forces of the Russian land army in front of the Western Dvina and the Dnieper River is accomplished.”
In order to take control of the Dvina-Dnieper bridgehead, the Wehrmacht’s strike formations launched offensives in two main directions, toward Orsha and Vitebsk. In the direction of Vitebsk came the 39th Motorized Corps from the 3rd Panzer Group, led by Colonel-General German Goth. The 7th Panzer Division, which was in the forefront, seized Lepel on July 4 and continued to advance eastward.
The seizure of Vitebsk was a priority task for the development of a further offensive. In the direction of Orsha came the 47th Motorized Corps of the 2nd Panzer Group, under the command of Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, with the 18th Panzer Division in the forefront. At the same time, the 17th Panzer Division was sent to the city of Senno.
In order to counteract the German offensive, the Soviet command decided to inflict an unexpected counterattack by forces of the 7th and 5th Mechanized Corps.
Both corps, in coordination with aviation forces, had to concentrate the strike in the directions of the village of Ostrovno and the city of Senno. The beginning of the offensive was scheduled for the morning of July 6.
In the Soviet 5th Mechanized Corps there were one motorized (109th) and two tank (13th and 17th) divisions. In total, 927 tanks were in service with the corps. Support for the actions of the 5th Corps was carried out by the 467th and 587th Artillery regiments.
The 7th Mechanized Corps had two tank divisions (14th and 18th) with a total strength of 507 tanks. Both mechanical corps were part of the 20th Army. The 23rd Mixed Air Division and the 12th Bomber Air Division, which numbered between 150 and 300 aircraft, provided air support.
On the German side, the 7th and 17th Panzer Divisions took part in the tank battle, and later the 12th Panzer Division joined them. As a part of the 7th and 17th divisions, there were approximately 300 to 400 tanks.
On July 9, the 12th Panzer Division, consisting of 209 tanks, joined them. Air support was provided by the 8th Air Corps under the leadership of W. von Richthofen.
Due to the lack of interaction between the mechanical corps, the fighting was carried out separately. The 5th Mechanized Corps advanced in the vicinity of the villages of Tolpino and Zotovo. At the same time, the 7th Mechanized Corps attacked at the turn of the Chernogostnitsa River.
The attack began on July 6, 1941. During the first day, the 18th Soviet Panzer Division managed to capture the city of Senno. The detachment of the German 17th Panzer Division stationed there had to retreat. However, the 14th Panzer Division advancing near the Chernogostnitsa River could not overcome the German defenses.
One participant in those events, Vasily Gulyaev, described the battle at the river Chernogostnitsa in the book of memoirs The Man in the Armor (Человек в броне):
“A tank armada, numbering up to a hundred vehicles, rushed to the river. But the enemy was silent. My BT-7 went to the ferry…. And then enemy planes appeared. The bombing began. One of the fragments of an air bomb exploding nearby destroyed our right caterpillar. Our BT-7 spun on the spot. We had to leave it.”
At the end of the first day, Commander Kurochkin of the 20th Army reported to Marshal Timoshenko that the failure was justified due to the lack of interaction between artillery and tanks. In addition, he was sure that the situation was aggravated by the lack of support from aviation.
During the next day, fierce battles over the city of Senno unfolded. The 18th Panzer Division, with the support of the 5th Mechanized Corps, attacked the columns of the German 17th Panzer Division and managed to defend the city. However, the troops of the 14th Panzer Division on the Chernogostnitsa River line once again suffered serious losses. Soviet troops in this area lost half of their 74 tanks–11 KV-1s and 24 T-34s.
The next day, July 8, the situation of the Soviet troops deteriorated. The 18th Panzer Division and the 5th Mechanized Corps had to retreat from the city of Senno and its district. Parts of the German 7th and 17th Panzer Divisions managed to encircle part of the 5th Mechanized Corps and cause serious damage to it.
At the same time, there was another unsuccessful attempt to seize the border by the Chernogostnitsa River. However, even a change in direction and support of the Allies did not bring success.
On July 9, 1941, at about 4:30 pm, the Soviet troops ceased to attack in connection with the German offensive north of the city of Vitebsk. On the orders of Commander of the 20th Army, Pavel Kurochkin, the troops retreated to the Orsha area and occupied defensive positions. However, part of the troops remained surrounded until July 20.
According to the data of the Russian historian Aleksei Isaev, Soviet troops lost 832 tanks and at least 646 men during the Battle of Senno. The losses of the Wehrmacht were about 300 tanks and 4 infantry regiments. However, this is disputed–some historians claim that the German side lost only 27 tanks, and the rest managed to be restored.
On July 9, 1941, Franz Halder made another entry in his diary: “On the northern flank of the 2nd Panzer Group, the enemy launched a series of strong counterattacks from the direction of Orsha against the 17th Panzer Division. These counterattacks were repulsed. Our losses in tanks are insignificant, however, human losses are quite high.”
The Soviet offensive ended in failure. This contributed to the weakening of Soviet troops in the area, which subsequently paved the way for the German advance. German troops found numerous abandoned tanks in the battle area.
Many of the tanks had significant damage, but in some cases the fuel had simply run out. Among these tanks were KV-2, T-34, BT-7 and even chemical (flamethrower) HT-130 tanks.
Stalin’s son Yakov Dzhugashvili was the commander of the battery of the 14th Howitzer Regiment of the 14th Panzer Division. He took part in the battles at the border of the river Chernogostnitsa, and soon afterward, the Germans captured him. Historian Vladimir Beshanov, in his book Tank Pogrom of 1941 (Танковый погром 1941 года) recorded his words:
“The failures of the Russian tank forces are due not to the poor quality of the material or weapons, but to the inability of command and the lack of maneuvering experience…. The commanders of brigade divisions [and] corps are not in a position to solve operational tasks. In particular, this concerns the interaction of various types of armed forces.”
In 2011, in honor of this battle, a monument in the form of an IS-3 tank was erected in the city of Senno. In addition, a memorial sign is at the Beshenkovichi Highway crossing of the Chernogostnitsa River, near the village of Sinegorje.