On the Eastern Front the Soviet Operation Bagration continued, the German defensive line had been smashed apart in many places. The scale of the attacks across the whole of the central front, encompassing most of modern day Belorussia, is hard to comprehend. The Germans were being encircled or cut off piecemeal. Sometimes they would make desperate attempts to break out to the west. On other occasions that were able to mount a relatively organised defence.
Vasily Krysov commanded a platoon of SU-122 self propelled howitzers, part of a Red Army force that had spent the last week trying to catch up with the Germans:
Pursuing the retreating enemy through the night with occasional clashes against rearguard detachments, we reached the line ‘Krugel’ — forest two kilometres east of Krugel – by dawn of 7 July. Our further advance was stopped here by very heavy fire from German artillery, tanks and assault guns dug—in on Hill 197.2, which had been converted into an enemy strongpoint.
We quickly concealed the tanks and self-propelled guns behind folds in the terrain, and disguised them thoroughly. Lacking clear targets, the Germans randomly shelled our forest. It was so stuffy and hot that even at night, the forest couldn’t spare us from the sultry July air; our crews’ overalls were soaked with sweat, and our faces were as grimy as stokers.
… [the attack began after an artillery bombardment] …
Immediately, dozens of tank engines roared as the tanks and self-propelled guns headed menacingly towards the enemy lines. Our self-propelled guns and the infantry followed behind the tanks. The 1821st Regiment of heavy SU—152 self-propelled guns headed by Major Gromov moved in the second echelon as the corps’ reserve of General Anashkin’s 129th Rifle Corps.
Judging from the expressions on the faces of my crew and the communications from the other tank destroyers, everyone was in an elated mood and had no doubts about the success of our assault. Obviously, I was the only one who thought that the preparatory barrage had been too short and not sufficiently concentrated for such a solid enemy defence, and for some reason there had been no air strike at all.
As soon as the tanks and self-propelled guns emerged from the forest, the enemy defence came to life and bristled with fire. Shells began to explode just nearby. Machine—gun bursts were riddling the area. The parched rye caught fire — at first locally, but the fire spread quickly, and the wind drove a line of crackling red flames and long plumes of smoke towards us. It became unbearably stuffy inside the fighting compartment because of the heat and smoke, even though all the ventilation fans and the powerful fan of the engine’s flywheel were working.
It was hard to breathe, but even more difficult to spot enemy tanks and guns. The flames and smoke concealed the discharges of firing enemy gun barrels, and we had to fire at vague outlines of targets. Our tank destroyer was heading directly towards the hill, about 30 metres behind the tanks and in a gap between them, to allow firing opportunities. Revutsky’s machine rolled to the right of us, while the other self-propelled guns advanced on the left.
I took a glance out of the hatch to get a better view of the battlefield and to get my bearings. The T—34s were slowly advancing across the whole front towards the crackling, burning rye, firing on the move from guns and the hull and turret machine guns.
The self-propelled guns were advancing in their wake, positioned in the gaps between the tanks — they would stop for several seconds from time to time to fire a shot. Enemy shells were exploding all along the front of the advance and throughout the entire depth of our formation.
Shells were either striking sparks from the steel hulls of the armoured vehicles, or they were ploughing up the earth near the tracks. Enemy machine guns were spraying the battlefield with a multi—layered deluge of lead, so intense that our foot soldiers couldn’t even move forward in a belly—crawl, and were forced to advance exclusively within the tracks of the tanks and self-propelled guns, sheltered by their hulls.
We left behind the wide strip of burning rye and in front of me to my left I saw two of our tanks burning. I thought bitterly about the burned crewmen, and about what was awaiting the rest of us on this blazing, wind—blown field, which had already gobbled up two tanks during the first hour of action. Quite a few infantrymen had already been killed or wounded too.
Gazing intensely at the Germans’ ominous defence line I managed to spot a gun that was firing at our tank destroyer, and I immediately ordered my gunlayer over the intercom: ‘Sergey! At the gun near the three birch trees! Sight mark 15! Fire!’
‘Lane!’ the driver reported to indicate that he had found level terrain as the vehicle stopped smoothly. With a lot of effort I discerned through the obscuring smoke that our shell had burst a bit short of the gun, and adjusted the aim: ‘Sight mark 16! Fire!’ ‘Comrade Lieutenant, the gun’s gone!’ Sergey Bykov reported.
‘Look for it to the left and right of their previous position!’ However, there was already a spurt of flame from the left birch tree. We sensed a hit on the hull and heard an explosion. The left side of the machine was illuminated by fire! ‘Short! Fire!’ Sergey ordered and fired again. An instant after the shot we heard Bykov report in our headphones: ‘The target’s been hit!’