Lissow itself was defended by 61st Guards Tank Brigade of 10th Guards Tank Corps (4th Tank Army). On the eve of the Vistula-Oder operation this brigade was nearly in full strength - i.e. it had approx. 65 T-34/85s. JS-2's belonged to 72nd Guards Heavy Tank Regiment. However, probably they were very few in numbers - only one company (5 tanks) - because by that time the bulk of the regiment (less on company) was fighting with 17.PzD south of Lissow as part of the 10th Guards advance detachment (reinforced 63rd Guards Tank Brigade). The towed anti-tank guns (76 mm ZIS-3) belonged to 426th Guards Light Artillery Regiment (eventually one of its battalions was deployed there). It was quite possible that the brigade had been reinforced with (elements of) 425th Guards Anti-Tank Regiment that possessed the newly introduced SU-100's tank destroyers..
It is a pure speculation that by the dawn of 13 Jan 45 sPzAbt 424 was fighting in the Soviet rear - it was the Red Army's spearhead elements that were operating in the rear of Army Group A causing panic among the supply columns and those military units in process of redeployment.
Battle for Lisow
The Soviet offensive towards lower Oder (Vistula-Oder operation) began at dawn of 12 January 1945. By midday the German tactical defense facing the Branov bridgehead was penetrated and by 13 00 Marshal Konev (the commander of 1st Ukrainian Front) unleashed one of his two tank armies – Lelushenko’s 4th Tank Army (10th Guards Tank Corps and 6th Guards Mech. Corps). It went into action one hour later. Shortly afterwards its forward elements were involved in combat with some of the German reserves - namely sPzAbt 424 and elements of 168.ID. Despite the sporadic German resistance, by 17 00 the forward detachments advanced some 35 km deep into the enemy rear (by then the distance between them and the main body of 4th Tank Army was 15-20 km) and reached the area southeast of Kielce. By the end of day the head of 4th Tank intelligence informed Lelushenko that aerial reconnaissance had spotted sizable enemy reinforcements (in fact - XXIV.PzK) moving to the front. Nevertheless the advance of the both corps continued throughout the night (it became dark at 18 00).
One of the Soviet units that was heading at full speed to the west was Colonel Zhukov’s 61st Guards Tank Brigade from 10th Guards Tank Corps. The Brigade was moving in a column formation as follows: 1st Tank Battalion, Brigade’s HQ, 2nd Tank Battalion, 3rd Tank Battalion, Artillery Battery (eventually equipped with 76 mm ZIS-3 guns), Mortar battery. Three rifle companies were attached to the battalions as tank-borne infantry. (NO JS-2’s THUS FAR!!!). The column followed closely 4th Tank’s forward detachment – the reinforced 63rd Guards Tank Brigade. Lieutenant-Colonel Zaytsev, the chief of staff of the 61st was leading the brigade with a jeep while the commander (Zhukov) was driven in the in HQ’s bus.
By midnight the column suddenly halted and Zaytsev heard the sounds of battle ahead - 63rd Guards had been engaged in combat with the enemy. Zaytsev ordered 1st Tank Battalion to remain where it was and moved forward alone to scout the situation. Shortly afterwards he found Colonel Fomichev (the commander of the 63rd Guards) conducting the battle of one of his battalions. In the meantime the commander of 10th Guards Tank Corps Colonel Chuprov arrived and asked Zaytsev:
- Where is your combrig (the commander of the brigade)? I need him immediately!
Zaytsev sent one of the communication officers to find Zhukov, but shortly afterwards the young chap returned and reported that there is no tail behind 1st Tank Battalion – the rest of the brigade was missing! Then Chuprov ordered Zaytsev to remain attached to the corps HQ with 1st Tank Battalion and to undertake attempts to establish contact with the main body of the brigade. Zaytsev and Captain Krinko spent the night in fruitless attempts to establish radio contact with Zhukov and the rest of the brigade, but everything was in vain.
Shortly after midnight the lost brigade turned to the northwest and reached Lisow, a small village south of Kielce. Col. Zhukov sent a reconnaissance platoon under Lieutenant Pobedinskii to scout the situation. Shortly afterwards Pobedinskii radioed that an enemy tank column comprising some 70 tanks was coming from the west. Zhukov ordered to let them pass and the Soviet tanks, well hidden in the dark, remained silent.
By dawn Pobedinskii’s platoon entered the village and reached its center where an enemy artillery column (trucks, prime movers, towed guns) was resting. The Germans spotted the approaching tanks, but didn’t react because they confused them with German machines. Suddenly Soviet tanks opened fire and all hell broke lose. Some of the Germans were killed, others fled and the rest were taken prisoner (among them was the commander of Pz.Art.Reg. 27 of 17.PzD).
The interrogation of the prisoners showed that the main body of 17.PzD would arrive in Lisow soon and Zhukov decided to accept the battle and ordered his men to prepare for defense. All weapons were camouflaged carefully and the riflemen, the artillery and mortar batteries and the T-34’s occupied the most important sectors.
By 1000 Lelushenko was informed that the aerial reconnaissance had spotted two enemy tanks columns heading towards Lisow – one from the south (17.PzD) with approx. 100 tanks and another from the north (16.PzD, 20.PzGrD) with approx. 200 tanks. Lelushenko concluded that Nehring was aiming to cut off the forward detachments of 4th Tank Army (61 and 63 G.T.Brigades and 16.G.Mech.Brigade) and decided to entrap XXIV.PzK. He ordered the anti-tank artillery to deploy east of Lissow and instructed the commanders of the both corps to attack the flanks of the enemy columns from the north (6.G.Mech) and south (10.G.Tank) respectively. Thus Nehring Corps would be placed between the hammer (6.G.Mech and 10.G.Tank) and the anvil (the anti-tank artillery) and smashed. However, Nehring’s plan was far more ambitions – he was aiming to envelop the entire 4th Tank Army! Nehring shifted the emphasis of the attack further to the east. Soon 16.PzD and 20.PzGrD collided with 6.G.Mech east/southeast of Kielce while 17.PzD struck 63 G.T.Brigade east of Lisow. The later fought vigorously, but was unable to withstand the pressure and began to fall back. Thus a gigantic tank battle erupted, with over 1000 tanks engaged, that was comparable only to that in the vicinity of Prochorovka.
Meanwhile Zhukov and his men, completely unaware about the intentions of Lelushenko and Nehring, waited in their positions for more than an hour. Then an intense artillery barrage opened up and heavy enemy shells began to pound the village.
Major Ankudinov, the commander of the 3rd Tank Battalion, was aware that within the next 10-15 minutes Lisow would become the hell itself and ordered two of his men – sergeant Ryzhov, the driver of his tank, and sergeant Muzichenko to evacuate the inhabitants of the village out of the combat zone as soon as possible. Most of them (predominately women, children and elderly men) followed Ryzhov and Muzichenko, but some others (among them was Jan Banach, the priest) decided to stay. Soon the both sergeants returned back and took their places inside their tank.
Meanwhile the first German tanks reached the outskirts of the village and struck the positions of the Major Nikonov’s 2nd Tank Battalion. It was Captain Markov’s company that took the heaviest blow – 17 Tigers were rolling against the tanks of Lieutenants Pobedinskii, Kuznetsov, Abuzgaliev and Marinin. Markov reported the desperate situation to Zhukov, but the commander radioed him back:
- Stand fast! Lisow must be defended at any cost!
Markov positioned his tanks as best as he could and ordered his men to let the Tigers to close in and then to open fire against their most vulnerable parts. When the enemy tanks closed in Markov ordered his T-34’s to fire simultaneously from a distance of 150 m. In a matter of seconds Pobedinskii’s, Abuzgaliev’s and Labuza’s tanks destroyed collectively four Tigers. Soon more German tanks were hit and began to burn. The enemy attack in this sector (the cemetery) was repelled and the Germans fell back leaving behind 13 burning machines.
Captain Vertiletskii’s company fought bravely too and knocked out 10 enemy tanks. Vertiletskii himself was heavily wounded and lost an eye, but continued to conduct his men. But it was Zhukov, the brigade commander, who had distinguished himself most – his tank was credited with the destruction of seven enemy tanks. Furthermore, Zhukov never dropped his main functions – to conduct the actions of the tank units, infantrymen and artillery. Sadly for his men, in the heat of the battle his tank was hit in the ammo section and exploded. Zhukov and his crew died instantly.
The first enemy assault upon Lisow was repulsed, but the onslaught had taken heavy toll on 61st guards.
In the meantime Lieutenant-Colonel Zaytsev, who together with 1st Tank Battalion was still attached to the HQ of 10th Guards Tank Corps, was monitoring the radio traffic. Finally he heard Zhukov’s voice and sounds of a heavy battle. Zaytsev quickly realized that his brigade was caught in a fierce battle and asked Colonel Chuprov, the corps commander, to release both him and the battalion and to let them join their comrades. Chuprov refused – there was no continuous frontline ahead of them and corps HQ was still vulnerable to enemy raids. The Germans attacked again. The forward observers spotted them and shouted:
- Attention! Tanks!
Tigers and Panthers were rolling forward slowly and SPW’s were following them closely firing repeatedly with their machineguns and guns. The defenders opened fire from a distance of 600 m. Bullets and shells were flying from everywhere and the tanks of 61st Guards were forced to change their positions quite often.
Lieutenant Pobedinskii where outside his tank and was showing Uhanov, his tank-driver, the new position when his T-34 was hit by shell. Pobedinskii immediately returned to the tank, opened the hatch, removed the body of Agafonov, the gunner, and took the seat of his dead comrade. In the meantime a Panther bypassed his tank and began to recede into the distance. Pobedinskii managed to swing the turret and fired. Shell struck the Panther from the rear. Then came a blow and the German tank exploded. Almost immediately a Tiger appeared, but Pobedinskii and his crew were saved by the Kuznetsov’s tank – the later managed to destroy the beast with the very last AP shell available in its ammo box…
By noon Captain Climovich arrived from Lisow to the HQ of 10th Guards Tank Corps. He brought a note from Lieutenant-Colonel Scopa, brigade’s political officer (comisar), and informed Zaytsev about the death of Zhukov. Zaytsev reported the sad news to Chuprov and the corps commander finally allowed him to join his brigade, but once again refused to release 1st Tank Battalion from its guarding functions. Soon Zaytsev, Climovich and two soldiers took a jeep and headed for Lisow at full speed.
Meanwhile the struggle for Lisow (or what was left of it) continued. The brigade was repulsing the Germans again and again. After the eleventh attack the defenders of the right flank (3rd Tank Battalion) began to lose nerve and to fall back. There was no more continuous line of resistance and some Germans began to attack the brigade from the rear. Captain Markov assembled the remnants of his company (Pobedinskii’s, Abuzgaliev’s and Kuznetsov’s tanks) at the cemetery and simply told them:
- I know that we will die here…
Then he hugged and kissed each of his men.
Markov’s company repulsed the twelfth enemy attack and then the Germans gave up and retreated. After the final German assault Markov himself was speechless, shell-shocked, exhausted, but alive. His jacket was covered with blood and oil. His men were very much in shock too. Jan Banach, the priest, appeared from somewhere and entered the circle of soldiers. Then the old Pole carefully hugged the bandaged head of the heavily wounded Anatolii Borzenkov and told him quietly:
- I saw everything…everything…
The jeep of Lieutenant-Colonel Zaytsev reached Lisow by dusk. By then the fighting was definitely over. The scene was beyond description – burned-out skeletons of tanks, ruined homes and burning farm buildings. The only house that was still intact had been turned into brigade’s HQ and first aid station. Zaytsev entered the house, greeted Lieutenant-Colonel Scopa and took the command of the unit. He sent a scout patrol to find the body of Zhukov and afterwards order the commanders of the both tank battalions (Nikonov, Ankudinov) and the rifle battalion (Major Bendrikov) to report him the situation. Own loses were quite heavy – 11 tanks were total write-offs and another 11 were heavily damaged, but reparable. The officers counted 35 destroyed enemy tanks. Furthermore, one of the officers added, many destroyed AFV’s had been recovered by the Germans and evacuated.
The newly appointed combrig earned a short break for his men. By the end of the day 1st Tank Battalion arrived and joined its parent brigade. The maintenance teams worked all night long and by dawn the brigade had strength of 50 tanks. The dead soldiers were buried in Lisow while the body of Colenel Zhukov was transported to Lvov and buried there. By noon 61st Guards received orders to move towards Kielce and the tanks rolled forward again.