For the Record: Romanian armor - part II (Bucharest to Stalingrad)
First part can be found here.
The war begins
The first part of the article dealt with Romanian armor history up until cca 1939. By that time, the 1935 rearm plan was still being kept and weapons were (despite some problems) flowing to Romania. However, the French doctrine was still practically in effect and very little was going on on the field of tank tactics. That was to change soon.
The Romanians weren't blind. They saw the success of the German panzers during the blitzkrieg in Poland and decided finally they would put more emphasis on armor. The first step was proper education. A specialized tank training center was estabilished near Targovisti and the tanks were to be organized within one big brigade (1st motomechanized brigade - Brigada 1 motomecanizata). Within this brigade, 1st Tank Regiment was formed. It was armed with the 126 R-2 light tanks Romania obtained. 2nd Tank Regiment was also formed and armed with the 75 French and Polish R-35's. It was a step forward, but not a big step enough, as most of the units from these regiments remained stationed with infantry formations and the crews were still only trained to accompany the infantry.
In order to modernize the tactics further (to advance their own goals that is), a German delegation was sent to Romania in October 1940 to teach the Romanians the basics of the blitzkrieg and operations of larger armored units. This however had two catches. First: while initially successful, German ideas never reached the high command and the infantry units (to which the smaller tanks units were attached) themselves, effectively negating whatever the Germans taught the tankers. Second problem was that at that point, the Romanians thought that with these instructors, Romania would also recieve German tanks. That proved to be a false hope (Germans had no interest or spare capacities to arm the Romanian army at that point) and created additional friction between Germans and Romanians. This was also one of the main reasons of later Romanian failures between 1941 and 1943. The initial training with German instructors continued between February and May 1941.
In the meanwhile (on 17.4.1941), the main (and only) Romanian armored force, the 1st motomechanized brigade was renamed to 1st tank division (Divizia 1 blindata). While on paper it was a strong armored unit, it lacked a lot of both combat and support vehicles. In reality, it had only 109 operational R-2 tanks in early June 1941 - Germans considered the division a reinforced regiment and Soviets assessed its effectivity as a brigade. Furthermore, the division was plagued by poor repair skills (very few repairs could be performed in the field, resulting in more "total losses" than usual), poor supply chain, relying heavily on horses and very poor radio connection between units (the radiomen recieved no training whatsoever). Cooperation between various arm branches was also quite bad - infantry and tanks could cooperate actions on platoon levels only and the division as a whole never conducted any training whatsoever. Despite the fact the morale wasn't bad, it was a prelude to disaster.
R-1 tankettes and armored cars were located in the recon units of Romanian cavalry and were spread all over the place (not very effective either). Furthermore, a special FT tank batallion (Batalionul Carelor de Lupta FT) was also formed and equipped with the ancient Renault FT tanks. On paper it had 75 of these, but in reality, only 20 were operational. And such was the state of Romanian armor by the time the Germans pushed Romania into war with Soviet Union.
From Bucharest to Odessa
A lot has been written of the assault on the Soviet Union, so I will focus only on certain aspects of it. Dear readers, who want to read the complete history of Romanian army in Russia can do so in one of many publications, written on this topic. Either way, 1st Division took part in the initial operations.On 3rd of July 1941, Romanian army crossed the river Prut and started pushing towards Mogilev Podolski in Ukraine. First tank vs tank combat happened near Brynzjena - a platoon of R-2 tanks fought 12 Soviet tanks. One R-2 was knocked out, but the Soviets lost 2 T-28 tanks.
While the initial push was successful, the Romanian offensive lost its momentum within days and the assault ground to a halt in series of Soviet counterattacks on Dnestr river. The division was forced to change its direction and went for easier targets instead, capturing Kishinev on 16.7.1941. By that time however, only half of all the division vehicles were operational because of mechanical failures and human errors (for example when advancing, the division had literally no recon units, because the scout motorcyclists drowned their vehicles in mud), the issue was so bad that the division had to be taken out of the orders of battle for 10 days to rearm and repair - even the most routine maintenance proved to be difficult, because Romania lacked mobile repair vehicles and many tanks had to be transported back to Bucharest or to Ploesti for refit.
When the division returned back to operational status in early August, an order came for the Romanians to capture the strategic Russian port of Odessa. Basically, the assault was a disaster. Odessa (unlike Kishinev) was well protected by fortifications and Soviet engineers blew up a few dams and flooded several access directions from which Odessa was vulnerable. Furthermore, Romanian heavy weapons got stuck in mud and so the 15th infantry division and the tank division attacked without any support and without proper recon. What was even worse, radio connection was notoriously bad and the attack was practically uncoordinated. Despite the fact they had a number advantage, Romanian forces were stopped by mere 2 Soviet infantry regiments, one of which was composed of sailors without any infantry training. Within 3 days of fighting, 1st division lost 47 R-2 tanks, before being withdrawn. What was worse: Romanian command decided to attack Odessa from another direction, but a combination of blunders (bad recon, no radio silence, ridiculous splitting of armored forces to platoon levels) caused another disaster - Soviets spotted this "surprising attack" hours in advance, moved their artillery and infantry units to counter it and in the following brutal battle, 1st division assault was practically wiped out. When the smoke cleared, the whole division was left with 20 operational vehicles out of more than a hundred it started with. Several dozen were salvaged and sent for repairs to Romania.
After this debacle, the division forces were reinforced by the R-35 light tanks and attempted a second attack against Odessa, which also failed (due to Soviet reinforcements arriving just in time). By that time, what was left of the division was organized into a special detachement (with 10 tanks left). Attack on Odessa continued and on 17th of September, the remaining Romanian forces, along with German reinforcements assaulted the 2nd defense ring of Odessa near Dalnik. This too was foiled by the Soviets - Soviet marines and paratroopers secretly infiltrated into Romanian rear positions and attacked several repair camps. This caused a panic, which in turn caused the entire assault to stall. Needless to say, Germans were pissed. In the end, Odessa fell because Soviets (despite gaining some time) felt they can't hold on to it anymore and evacuated it. The decimated Romanian forces then simply entered the unprotected city and captured it on 16.10.1941.
All in all, in 1941, the 1st tank regiment (the armored part of the 1st division) lost 26 R-2 tanks completely, 60 were heavily damaged and the rest was damaged lightly. 2nd tank regiment lost 15 R-35's completely and 25 were heavily damaged. All in all however, while tactically the Romanian armored force performance was a complete disaster, one cannot say the individual crews performed badly. Despite the setbacks, the soldiers fought on bravely and with no less skill than their Soviet and German counterparts, their efforts were however marred by the issues mentioned above, specifically by the recon failure, wrong doctrine and terribly supply chain.
By the end of October 1941, the 1st tank division was barely functional and was pulled back to Romania for some rest and refit. Naturally, the need for new tanks was greater than ever, therefore the Romanians asked the Škoda company (with German blessing) to supply them with 26 PzKpfw.35(t) (formerly LT-35, largely similiar to R-2's) from Germany reserves (vehicles withdrawn from 1st line). Their repairs however took time and they were ready only in May 1942 (they arrived in Romania in June and July). By that time, Romania (specifically colonel Constantin Ghiulai) led negotiations with Czechoslovakia with the intent to purchase license for the T-23M (the ultimate development of T-21) and TNH tanks to replace the R-1 tankettes, attached to Romanian cavalry formations (those fared especially poorly, by October 1941 all the vehicles assigned to combat units were knocked out, but most were salvaged and repaired in order to see action during the summer 1942 operations). But again, nothing came of it. Eventually, the Romanian armored forces were put back in shape with what little tanks they had left and they moved east again towards the river Don and towards what would prove to be their undoing: Stalingrad.
Stalingrad, the city on river Don, proved to be something the Germans were totally unprepared for. This goes double for the brave, yet poorly equipped and undersupplied Romanian units. The 1st tank division (now re-armed with fresh LT-35's) was transferred to the Stalingrad theater after some training with German troops, conducted near Doneck. On 9.10.1942, it joined the 6th German Army near Chernychevska in order to commence its assault on Stalingrad itself. During the transfer alone, 12 R-2 tanks were lost to defects, a sign of things to come.
Around that time, the Romanians conducted series of firing tests of R-2 tanks versus a captured T-34. The result stunned the axis soldiers: T-34 was practically invulnerable to the 37mm guns, while it could knock out the R-2's on practically any distance. As a result, Romanians asked the Germans for more modern technology. This time, even the Germans agreed that going up against late 1942 T-34's in light tanks from 1937 might not be the best idea ever and promised to provide some spare tanks. Those came in shortly - specifically, 11 Panzer III Ausf.N and 11 Panzer IV Ausf.G tanks. The Panzer III's in Romanian service were referred to as T-3, Panzer IV's (of any type) as T-4. One of each was also transferred to Romania for training. The crews however had little time to adapt to new vehicles, because in mid November the Soviet counteroffensive did hit them hard. The 1st division was by that time operating with German XLVI corps around Perelazovskij and Petrovka, crossing the river Chir. It had 84 operational R-2 tanks, 19 T-3 and T-4 tanks and two captured Soviet vehicles (apparently one T-60 and one BT-7).
The Soviet counteroffensive was meticulously planned and designed to hit the German lines where their defense was weakest - by attacking the Romanian units. The Romanian units on river Don were completely unprepared for the sheer ferocity of the unleashed steel fury. On the first day of the offensive (19.11.1942), the line was broken by the Soviet 5th Army near Serafimovich. The Germans counterattacked, but it was too late - the counterattack itself was ripped in two and the Romanian 1st Division was fighting on its own in chaos, because its command post was overrun by Soviets.
The fighting was brutal. Both sides suffered heavy losses (Romanians claimed 62 enemy tanks while losing 25 the first day alone), after 3 days of fighting, the 1st division had only 19 R-2 tanks and 11 T-3 and T-4 tanks left, most were damaged and many ran out of fuel and had to be towed by other vehicles (luckily, the Romanians reached a supply column and were able to refuel). Even so decimated, the division was tasked on 22.11.1942 to attempt to break the 22nd German tank division out of encirclement, but it was thrown back - the division lost 2 tanks, but also 59 cars. Retreat followed with constant skirmishes with the Soviets - eventually, the 1st division practically ceased to exist. Out of more than 100 tanks and 12000 men it started the battle with, 2 tanks and 944 men were left by 2.12.1942. Practically all the vehicle losses were unsalvageable (they were captured by Soviets).
On 4.12.1942, the remnants of the division were reformed into a special Detachment of colonel Nistor (Detasamentul colonel Nistor), which recieved 4 more tanks and 700 men on short notice, along with some German light armored cars and halftracks. This detachment continued to fight on river Chir, keeping the Soviets from crossing the river, but eventually lost all its tanks in fights with 22nd Guard Motorized Brigade. By that time (January 1943), the devastated Romanians units were once again ordered home. They reached Romania in March 1943. Out of all the tanks the division had, only 40 were salvaged for repairs - mostly those R-2's that were located behind the lines in repair shops or in Romania. Please notice that by that time, in 1943, when the battlefield was swarming with Panzer IV's and T-34's, the Romanians were still fighting on pre-war light tanks. That takes special kind of courage. Practically all R-1 tankettes were lost too, at one point the situation was so bad for the Romanian cavalry that the soldiers started to use captured Soviet lend-lease Stuarts, but only for a short time.
Part 3 will include the end of the war and the Romanian designs such as TACAM TD's, R-35 (transformat) and the Maresal.