Battle of Lenino, 12th-13th October 1943

Battle of Lenino

Battle of Lenino by Michal Bylina (Polish Army Museum, Warsaw)

The Battle of Lenino was a tactical World War II engagement that took place between October 12 and October 13th, 1943, north of the village of Lenino in the Mogilev region of Byelorussia. The battle itself was a part of a larger Soviet Spas-Demensk offensive operation with the aims of clearing the eastern bank of the Dnieper River of German forces and piercing the Panther-Wotan line of defences.

While the Polish and Soviet forces managed to break through the German defences and inflict heavy casualties on the Germans, it was a pyrrhic victory. There was a failure in cooperation from other Red Army units, and a lack of artillery support or close air cover caused by the ongoing Wehrmacht panzer counter-attack against the 10th Guards Army to the north flank of the 33rd Army. The division was forced to assume defensive positions, and was ordered to hold its ground due to the expected arrival in its sector of the 6th Guards Cavalry Corps which was tasked with breaking through the German defensive position.

As the relief never arrived, after two days the Polish Polish 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division suffered 25% casualties and had to be withdrawn, while the remaining Soviet forces were too weak to widen the achieved breakthrough. The battle is nevertheless prominent in the Polish military historiography, as it was one of the first major engagements of Polish Armed Forces in the East.

Opposing forces

On the Soviet side of the front line the main assault was to be carried out by the Polish Polish 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division, aided by tanks of the 1st Polish Tank Regiment, light artillery regiments from Soviet 144th and 164th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 538th Mortar Regiment and 67th Howitzer Brigade from the Army’s reserves. Both flanks of the Polish division were to be secured by Soviet 42nd (assaulting the village of Sukhino) and 290th Rifle Divisions (assaulting Lenino itself).

However, Polish division was seriously under-equipped and inadequately trained, having been formed only four months prior to the battle. In addition, the Soviet divisions have been reduced to merely 4000 men-at-arms each by the start of the operation and their combat value was seriously limited.

In addition to that, the morale of the Polish division was seriously undermined by the fact that most of its’ soldiers were former prisoners of the Soviet Gulag concentration camp system and joining the army for them was a way to escape the prisons rather than fight for their homeland.

The German side of the front was manned by elements of 113th and 337th Infantry Divisions. The German units were battle-hardened and, more importantly, entrenched. As the Germans were aware of the Polish and Soviet plans, they reinforced their lines in the area with elements of the 36th Infantry division under Gottfried Fröhlich just a day before the battle.

The main German line of defences was stretched between hills 217.6 near Sukhino to the North and hill 215.5 right north of the town of Lenino. The swampy valley of river Mereya (often put as Miereja in Polish historiography) lay in front of German positions. While not an obstacle for infantry, it was uncrossable to Soviet tanks.

1st Infantry Division on the way to front. Note variety of Polish and Soviet uniform.
Source: Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej via Polish Foreign Ministry licence .

Battle plan

The main task of the Polish 1st Infantry Division was to break through German defences on a 2-kilometre strip of the front line in the vicinity of the village of Polzukhi and hill 215.5. The gap was then to be further widened by Soviet 42nd and 290th Rifle Divisions. In the second stage of the operation the Polish forces were to reach the line of Pnevka river and then continue the assault towards Losiev and Churilov. The Soviet forces were to assist the Poles in reaching the Dnieper River line.

Battle

Opening moves

Already three days prior to the actual battle, on October 9th, Gen. Zygmunt Berling, the commanding officer of the Polish 1st Division, ordered a force recon assault on German lines. The assault failed due to heavy German artillery barrage, yet alarmed the German HQ of possible offensive actions in this sector of the front line. In addition, the Germans reported no less than 1000 Polish and Soviet soldiers who crossed the lines prior to the battle for fear of being sent back to Gulag when the war is over. Because of that, the German forces were aware of the Polish and Soviet preparations and plans.

By October 11th the planes for a joint Polish-Soviet assault were ready and dispatched to various sub-units operating in the area. The main force of the assault was to be constituted by Polish 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments, with the 3rd Regiment following the 2nd in the northern sector. The enemy lines were to be paralysed by a creeping barrage lasting 100 minutes. The assault was to start at 9 AM on October 12.

Recon in-force

Although the plans were ready, in the evening of October 11 the Soviet command ordered the Poles to start the assault earlier than planned, with yet another attempt at reconnaissance in-force of the German lines at 6AM the following day. The orders reached the 1st battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment only 2 hours prior to their assault.

At 5.50 AM the 1st battalion left its’ positions and started to push towards the Mereya river and the German trenches located 200 metres further westwards. Supported by only a token force of divisional artillery, the battalion’s forces were met with fierce resistance from well-prepared Germans. The unit managed to reach the first line of trenches, but was then counter-attacked and suppressed in front of German lines. The battalion suffered over 50% casualties, but held out its’ improvised defensive positions for three hours, until the main assault started. It failed to recon the enemy lines however, and only discovered that the German units were much stronger than expected. Moreover, the premature assault notified the German HQ of the planned strike in this area and gave the Germans time to prepare.

Main assault

During the eventual assault little went according to plan Artillery barrage was to start at 8.20 AM, but was postponed due to thick fog. It was to last 100 minutes, but the commanding officer of the Soviet 33rd Army Gen. Vasili Nikolaevich Gordov called it off after less than an hour, believing the German lines to be already destroyed by Soviet Katyushas.

The infantry assault started at 10 AM. A steady line of Polish troops from the 1st Regiment reached the lines of the 1st battalion, and then the first line of German trenches almost unopposed. However, the German forces simply withdrew to the second line due to artillery barrage, which allowed their forces to avoid losses. In the open fields between the German lines Polish infantry was being decimated by concentrated fire of German machine guns. While the second line was also captured, this victory came at a price: Soviet units that were to cover both flanks of the Polish infantry did not leave their initial positions and the Polish spearhead suffered heavy losses both from flanking machine guns and friendly fire of Soviet artillery.

The 2nd Regiment on the northern flank fared little better. It reached the 1st German line almost unopposed and by noon managed to capture the village of Polzukhi located between the German 1st and 2nd lines of trenches. The German units counter-attacked and a close-quarters fight for the burning village ensued. While the village was ultimately secured by a flanking manoeuvre of the 3rd battalion, the regiment suffered tremendous losses. In addition to that, army’s supplies failed to reach the fighting units and most of its’ companies were short on ammunition. Because of that further advance had to be halted. Meanwhile the 1st Regiment was threatened from a strong German position in the village of Trigubovo on its’ left flank. The village was to be secured by the Soviet 290th Infantry Division, which however failed to reach this objective. After a heavy fight the village was secured around noon, but then the logistics failed and the ammo supplies of the regiment were depleted as well.

Although by noon the Polish 1st Division managed to strike a 3 kilometres deep wedge in German lines and pierce them, the assault had to be halted. Soviet tanks that were to support the breakthrough did not cross the Mereya river and both Soviet divisions were stopped near their initial lines. Only after noon did the tanks start to cross the river. While improvised bridges were prepared by engineers, the paths leading towards the river were swampy. 2nd tank company lost 5 tanks to malfunctions, 2 to enemy fire, while the remaining 3 could not reach the river crossings at all. The 1st tank company was to cross the river through a bridge in Lenino. However, their advance was halted by German aerial bombardment, suffering further losses during the fights for Polzukhi and Trigubovo. The swampy river valley proved to be a problem to artillery as well: light infantry guns and mortars had to be carried by foot soldiers as wheel transport could not cross the obstacle.

Battle of Lenino, Source: Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej via Polish Foreign Ministry licence .

Counter-attack

At 2 PM the fog lessened and the German 337th Infantry Division mounted a counter-assault. Aided by the Luftwaffe and reserves of the German 39th Corps, the unit stormed Polish positions at Trigubova held by the 2nd battalion of the 1st Regiment. The initial attack was held off, but in the end German tanks and complete aerial superiority forced the Poles to abandon their positions. The 3rd battalion tried to retake the village but failed. The Germans also attacked Polish positions at the hill 215.5 and pushed them eastwards. The 1st Regiment started to loose cohesion, the chaos further increased when its’ commanding officer went missing and had to be replaced with Col. Bolesław Kieniewicz, a Soviet officer of Polish ancestry. The positions of the 2nd Regiment were also being attacked both head-on and from the flanks. A heavy barrage of Soviet howitzers prevented the unit from being completely surrounded and destroyed. The losses however were heavy and the regiment lost the village of Polzukhi.

Reinforcements

In the evening it became clear that the Polish lines would not be able to hold out for much longer. Gen. Berling decided to relieve the 1st Regiment and replace it with fresh troops of the 3rd Regiment, until then held in reserve. The 1st Regiment started the fight with 2800 men at arms, by that time it was reduced to merely 500.

At 7.20 PM the 3rd Regiment, supported by the remaining 16 tanks of the 1st Tank Regiment, recommenced the assault. However, by then the German defences at the 2nd line were strengthened and proved impregnable. A series of attacks and counter-attacks proved costly to both sides, but changed little: despite all-night close-quarters fights, the villages of Trigubovo and Polzukhi remained in German hands.

Day Two

According to a new plan, at 7.45 AM of the following day the 1st Division was to attempt yet another break-through. Overnight the Soviet divisions that were to support the morning assault of October 12 were deprived of ammunition, which was delivered to the Poles. In the early hours of October 13 a short artillery barrage shelled the German lines and the bled-out Polish regiments assaulted the German lines once again. Despite constant German aerial bombardment and their complete superiority in the air, the forces of the 1st Division retook Polzukhi. However, the final assault on Trigubovo failed and soon even Polzukhi had to be abandoned. Although by nightfall the village was retaken, the 1st Division lacked strength to continue the fights. Overnight it was withdrawn and replaced with the forces of Soviet 164th Rifle Division. By early morning of October 14 Polish and Soviet forces withdrew across Mereya river, to their initial positions.

Aftermath

Casualties

The Polish division had held its sector for two days despite sustaining heavy losses during the combat, and after two days was returned to the second echelon of the Front for rebuilding. Altogether, the 1st Division lost roughly 25 to 33% of its’ personnel on one day.[6] The losses reached almost 3000 men: 502 killed in action, 1776 wounded and 663 missing or captured. It was not until spring of the following year that the division could be used in combat again.

German losses were heavy as well and were reported to reach 1500 soldiers, in addition to 326 German soldiers taken prisoner of war. The Wehrmacht also sustained heavy losses in equipment: 72 machine guns, 42 pieces of artillery, 2 tanks and 5 aeroplanes.

Post-war meaning

Although a tactical and strategic failure, the battle was presented as a success by Soviet propaganda, as it was the first battle of the Soviet-backed Polish forces. In fact the battle, while bloody and lost, proved a political victory to Soviet-created Union of Polish Patriots (ZPP) whose aim was to present itself as a true authority of future Poland, alternative to the legitimate Polish government in exile. The ZPP leaders wanted to prove already before the Tehran conference that the Polish units in the USSR take an active role in the fight against the Germans. In this light the usage of barely-trained division in fruitless assault is often described as a political demonstration rather than military operation.

After the war the village of Trigubovo was renamed to Kostyushko, a Russian rendering of the name of Tadeusz Kościuszko, the name-sake of the Polish division. On October 7, 1950, the anniversary of the battle was declared the official “Day of the Polish Army” by the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland. In 1989, when Poland quit the Warsaw Pact and Soviet sphere of influence, the day was replaced by the pre-war Day of the Polish Army date of August 15, to commemorate the Battle of Warsaw of 1920.

Criticism

The battle was depicted as a victory, a “great and meaningful event in Polish history”, a “milestone in the Polish struggle against fascism” and a “seal on the Polish-Soviet brotherhood of arms” by Soviet propaganda. However, the losses on the Polish side were tremendous and many authors described it as carnage or senseless bloodbath or using the Polish soldiers as cannon fodder, questioning the true reasons behind sending the barely trained 1st Division into combat without proper support and with no clear objectives. Some authors go as far as to suggest that the decision was a deliberate attempt to further exterminate Poles in Soviet Union, akin to the Katyn massacre but this time with German hands.

text – Wikipedia

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