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Old 03-15-2010, 02:19 AM
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Default Operation Red Willow, Pt. 2


Operation Red Willow, Pt. 2


By the first week of October, the Soviets knew trouble was brewing. It simply was impossible for the Chinese to move so many men and so much equipment into southern Manchuria unobserved. The Soviets fully expected the Chinese to try to take advantage of the lull to inflict some kind of reversal on them. What they didn’t expect was the scale of the Chinese effort. Soviet intelligence badly underestimated the ability of the Chinese to move men and materiel into Manchuria, and they overstated the effects of SAF attacks on the Chinese lines of communications to southern Manchuria. The Chinese demonstrated exemplary application of the art of deception by camouflaging the movement of their units inside southern Manchuria. They also created phantom group armies with bogus radio traffic and dummy equipment to give the Soviets the impression that the PLA was much further behind in its re-deployment effort than was the case. Thus when the blow fell, the Soviets were ready for a brush fire but got a conflagration instead.

On schedule, the Chinese counteroffensive opened in the hours before dawn on October 10, 1995. On all three axes, light infantry had infiltrated the often thinly-spread Soviet lines. In surprisingly well-coordinated attacks, the Chinese infantry enveloped isolated strong points and opened the way for tank attacks. The light units had manhandled multiple rocket launchers, 122mm artillery, and even light cruise missiles to within striking distance of the Soviets. The Soviets were stunned by the violence of rocket and artillery attacks hitting at so many places at once.

At Siping, Eighth Group Army quickly drove through the security zone in front of Fifth Army’s positions and drove a deep wedge into the Soviet lines. As planned, Fifteenth Group Army drove behind the left shoulder of Fifth Army and onto the main LOC to Changchun.

The Soviets had expected something like this, and they had units of Eighth Tank Corps available for a counterattack. Two Soviet tank brigades drove south and met the Chinese 7th Tank Division thirty kilometers north of Siping. In much fierce fighting, the Soviets repulsed the Chinese armor. However, Fifteenth Group Army did not give up here. Its infantry turned southwest and attacked the right flank of Fifth Army as the tank battle was raging a several kilometers north. Short of manpower, Fifth Army began to strain quickly.

At Changchun, Fifth (Mountain) Group Army performed a masterful infiltration that enabled them to carry the battle into the city in some areas. There the Soviet advantage in AFVs was somewhat neutralized by the restricted urban terrain. Eleventh Group Army struck northwest as planned, coming into contact with the security screen of Seventeenth Army by mid-afternoon. With tanks in the lead, the Eleventh tore through the Soviet security screen and had advanced elements north of Jilin by nightfall.

The attack on Fifteenth Army went more-or-less as planned. Light infantry crossed the Tao’er under cover of darkness. Some of the infiltration groups were discovered and fired upon. Many more reached their pre-assault assemble areas undetected and began their attacks just before dawn. Fifteenth Army was reacting to the danger on their right flank when Twenty-Third Group Army began throwing bridges across the Tao’er along the eastern quarter of Fifteenth Army’s positions. The Chinese quickly established themselves on the left bank of the Tao’er and assaulted the left flank of Fifteenth Army.

Attacks throughout the Soviet rear area met with mixed success. However, the disruption was enormous. Due to the scale of the Soviet resupply effort, there was no shortage of targets for the Chinese irregulars. Even a handful of militia with rifles were able to create massive logjams when they attacked truck convoys along the narrow roads of the Greater and Lesser Khingar Ranges. Armed bands attacked trains and the tracks themselves, as well as rail bridges in the northern quarter of Manchuria. In several places, Chinese special forces with man-pack anti-aircraft missiles crept to the edge of Soviet airfields to fire on landing aircraft or aircraft scrambling to respond to the explosion of combat throughout Manchuria. Nearly thirty aircraft were lost to attacks like these and to mortar attacks on airfields. Soviet air operations were noticeably affected at this critical juncture.

In the air, the PLAAF initiated yet another massive air battle. This time, however, the packages moving at mid-level altitudes were almost all fighters and EW support aircraft. The strike aircraft were winging their way to their targets at ultra-low level. The PLAAF was gambling with reducing positive control of their pilots.

Though Red Willow did not take the Soviets by surprise, they were unprepared for powerful simultaneous attacks in so many places. Thorough reconnaissance had provided the Chinese with a very good picture of the Soviets’ defensive deployments. Like water running through the cracks in a seawall, the Chinese light infantry avoided the Soviets’ strongest defensive positions and overwhelmed lesser ones. Though the Soviet forces in Manchuria had worked hard over the past two weeks to build doctrinaire defenses, the sheer frontage to be covered and shortages of fuel for the engineering vehicles, mines, and other obstacle materials resulted in a line of defense that was far from rock-solid.

Eighth Tank Corps was ordered south to support Fifth Army. Two tank brigades had driven the Chinese 7th Tank Division back into the high ground east of the Changchun-Siping LOC, but the Chinese tanks remained a threat. The two Soviet brigades would risk leaving their left flank open if they moved south to clear the infantry of Fifteenth Group Army off the left flank of Fifth Army. Two more brigades would be required to make short work of the Chinese infantry and to offer solid support to Fifth Army.

However, as the two brigades moved out, CINC 1st Far East Front became aware of the attack by Eleventh Group Army across the Changchun-Harbin LOC. The Soviets had been aware that a mechanized formation was assembling at Jilin, but they thought it was a single mechanized division. The appearance of four heavy divisions northeast of Changchun was a rude shock. Air attacks and the reserves of Seventeenth Army would not be sufficient to stop Eleventh Group Army before the Chinese were astride the supply line for two armies and a tank corps. CINC 1st Far East Front ordered Eighth Tank Corps to move three brigades north of Changchun to parry the Chinese thrust.

By nightfall, the area between Siping and the Sungari was a furious welter of combat. Eighth Group Army and Fifteenth Group Army were strung out like a fishhook along the front and right flank of Fifth Army and two brigades of Eighth Tank Corps. The tanks were keeping the supply line open against energetic probes by the Chinese 7th Tank Division. Fifth Army was firing everything it had to keep the masses of Chinese infantry at bay.

The Soviets attempted to put their contingency plan into action, which amounted to using maneuver and air power to get any threatened forces out of a jam. With the Chinese attacking in so many locations, and with Nineteenth Army essentially dispersed throughout the operational rear, there was precious little left to maneuver. The job fell to the SAF.

The air situation had improved for the Soviets since the end of September. A distinctly lessened tempo of operations had enabled the ground crews to catch up on much-needed maintenance. Supplies and equipment had been brought forward to the occupied air bases in Manchuria. Response time, turn-around time, and loiter ability all were dramatically improved as a result. However, attacks by Chinese guerilla forces on the Soviet air bases at least partially offset this advantage. A single heavy machine gun firing from outside the perimeter of a Soviet air base could cause delays to the launch schedule until someone dealt with it. Also, the PLAAF was able to attack these forward bases with much more success than they had enjoyed in the first days of the war. Thus the theoretical advantages of having moved many of the Soviet tactical aircraft to forward bases went largely unrealized in the first twelve hours of Operation Red Willow.

The Chinese had taken note of the very effective use of helicopter gunships by the Soviets. Particular attention was paid to moving air defense units into Manchuria, even to the point of stripping air defenses from divisions facing Vietnam and India. The mobile divisions taking part in Red Willow received extra air defense units. At the same time, the availability of Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters was much less than it had been in early September. Thus Soviet efforts to use their helicopter gunships to smash the Chinese forces on the move were far less successful than they had been.

Throughout the night of October 10-11, elements of Eighth Tank Corps, Seventeenth Army, and Eleventh Group Army tangled in the woods and fields north of Changchun. By daylight, the Chinese had closed the most direct line of supply to Harbin. Fifth (Mountain) Group Army had most of Seventeenth Army tied down at Changchun.

During the night of October 10-11, First Armored Group Army moved out of its assembly areas south of Siping. Aligned along a railroad linking Siping and Tao’an, the First Armored would use the rail line for resupply most of the way to Tao’en, then strike northeast toward Fuyu on the Sungari. There the First Armored would help Eleventh Group Army close the noose around Fifth Army, Seventeenth Army, and Eighth Tank Corps.

Operation Red Willow included a counterattack northwest of Beijing as well. Reinforced by a tank division and a mechanized division respectively, Sixteenth and Thirtieth Group Armies opened their attacks with mechanized forces. The original tank divisions of each group army had been considerably reinforced with new tanks and artillery. It was here, away from the main concentration of Soviet air power, that the PLAAF was able to operate with the greatest effectiveness. Backed by copious air and artillery action, the two Chinese group armies drove Thirty-Ninth Army back to the rail junction at Jining, then back towards the Mongolian border. With the fighting in Manchuria commanding the attention and resources of Far Eastern TVD, Thirty-Ninth Army was left to fend for itself.

Though the divisions of 1st Far East Front had recovered some of their strength by October 10, they were far from the condition they had been in when the Sino-Soviet War started. By the end of the day on October 11, it was obvious that the Chinese were attempting nothing less than the destruction of four of the five armies of 1st Far East Front. The scheme of envelopments south of the Sungari River made it impossible for the Soviets to hope to hold a supply line open to Fifth Army if the army stayed where it was. Fifth Army was ordered to withdraw to Changchun.

At this point, the Kremlin intervened. In an act strongly reminiscent of Hitler’s behavior during the Second World War, Sauronski ordered the armies of Far Eastern TVD to hold their ground. He believed that any sort of withdrawal would weaken the hand of Soviet negotiators. He was convinced that if the Soviet forces held their ground, powerful air and mechanized forces could relieve any encircled units. Additional Soviet divisions were already en route, and Nineteenth Army had been ordered to consolidate so it could come to the aid of the front-line forces.

As a result, Fifth Army was stuck where it was, attacked on two sides by a numerically superior enemy. Its LOC to Changchun was held by two brigades of Eighth Tank Corps, and parts of the supply line were under fire from Chinese artillery.

The main body of Eighth Tank Corps clashed repeatedly with Eleventh Group Army between Changchun and the Sungari. The Chinese refused to be pinned down, moving regimental- and division-sized groups throughout the area and slashing across the roads wherever possible. Dismounted Chinese infantry attacked the Soviet tanks and other AFVs from woods and farmhouses. Though the LOCs between Changchun and the Sungari technically were open, it was nearly impossible to move any significant quantities of supplies along them.

To the west, Twenty-Third Group Army managed to get an arm around the rear of Fifteenth Army. The Soviets managed to break open their supply line by committing their reserve, but it was obvious they could not stay where they were.

By morning on October 13, the Soviets were beginning to get themselves together in the air. The air bases had been mostly secured. The pressure of the massive PLAAF effort was lessening. Once again, the superiority of the Su-27s, MiG-29s, and MiG-31s was giving them mastery of the Manchurian airspace. Soviet losses were higher this time than they had been, and the PLAAF had managed a number of low-level, small-group attacks on the Soviet airfields. Nevertheless, after three days of intensive air action the Soviets were beginning to get things in hand. Now they could think about turning their fighter-bombers against the Chinese ground forces.

However, by this time First Armored Group Army had reached the Sungari at Fuyu. Eighth Tank Corps was fighting to keep the LOCs to Changchun open with some help from Seventeenth Army. Fifth Army was just barely holding its own. Most of its tanks were out of action, and the artillery was nearly out of ammunition. For all intents and purposes, Fifth Army was in a pocket. Fifth (Mountain) Group Army had managed to bring every road and rail line passing through Changchun under fire at some point along its length, despite often heroic efforts by Seventeenth Army to push the Chinese out of the city. With Eleventh Group Army contesting every LOC between Harbin and Changchun and with First Armored Group Army ready to slash southeast along the Sungari River virtually unopposed, Eighth Tank Corps and Seventeenth Army were effectively enveloped. Twenty-Third Army had put another group behind Fifteenth Army. Militia and guerilla were everywhere. CINC Far Eastern TVD and his political officer presented a joint statement to the Kremlin that unless 1st Far East Front were allowed to break out of their respective pockets and fall back behind the Sungari, all would be lost. Danilov ordered his forces to fall back.

Fifth Army began falling back as twilight fell on October 13. Harassed by incessant shellfire, the Soviets abandoned broken down vehicles and many of their wounded. The Chinese managed to throw two powerful blocking forces between Fifth Army and Changchun. Both times the Soviets broke through, but at a high price. Eighth Group Army and Twenty-Seventh Group Army pursued closely.

Pushing their air power to the max, the Soviets attacked First Armored Group Army and Eleventh Group Army throughout the day on October 13 and 14. Eighth Tank Corps punched through to the Sungari River, scattering elements of Eleventh Group Army. The tank force then wheeled west and met First Armored Group Army in a confused mechanized melee south of the Sungari. Though the Soviet tanks were superior to the Type 59s now being used by the First Armored, the superior numbers of the Chinese enabled them to outflank and overrun the Soviet tank units. The shattered remnants of Eighth Tank Corps fell back to the east.

By this time, however, elements of Nineteenth Army had been assembled along the north side of the Sungari. Some of these crossed and took up deep screening positions west of the retreating Seventeenth Army. First Armored Group Army launched a series of powerful attacks, but a combination of aerial firepower, hastily-laid minefields, and determined action by the surviving tank crews of Eighth Tank Corps and Nineteenth Army just kept the Chinese armored force from cutting the line of withdrawal.

Badly damaged by Soviet air action and four days of intense combat, Eleventh Group Army withdrew somewhat to the southeast to reorganize. By October 15, the Chinese once again threw their mechanized forces into action north of Changchun. This time, they hit the beleaguered Fifth Army as the Soviets tried to withdraw through Changchun. 146th Guards Motor Rifle Division and 160th Motor Rifle Division were separated from the rest of the withdrawing Soviets. Caught between Eleventh Group Army to the north and Fifth (Mountain) Group Army and Eighth Group Army to the south, the two motor rifle divisions thrashed about in their small pocket for two more days before disintegrating.

By October 16, all the Soviets who were going to escape were on the north side of the Sungari. First Armored Group Army managed to destroy the rear guard forces at the bridgeheads, but the Soviets dropped the bridges.

To the west, Fifteenth Army broke through the ring of Chinese and headed north. Like other Soviet armies, they left a trail of broken-down vehicles and abandoned equipment behind them as they went. The mechanized forces of Twenty-Third Group Army pursued closely. The Soviets withdrew across the Sungari near Tailai, and the Chinese lacked the strength to follow.

CINC Shenyang MR decided to call a stop to the counteroffensive on October 17. Red Willow had accomplished its basic purpose. A major reversal had been dealt to the Soviets, though at a high price. With fresh Soviet divisions en route to Manchuria, it would be better for the Chinese to husband their existing strength. The efforts of the past week had cost the Chinese dearly, and it would take some time to replace the losses.

For the Soviets, Red Willow was a disaster. The Chinese had turned the tables on the invaders with terrible results. The Soviets had lost nearly 60,000 troops, plus hundreds of tanks, trucks, lighter AFVs, guns, and other materiel. Soviet morale was shattered. It was obvious that the Soviets were in for a long winter.

The Chinese had suffered heavily as well. Losses among the infantry were very high indeed. Tank losses were great, too. The massive firepower of the Soviets had taken a heavy toll of the Chinese attackers, and it would be a little while before the divisions that had taken part in Red Willow were ready for more action. Soviet air attack, artillery fire, and direct fire from fighting vehicles, anti-tank missiles, and dismounted machine guns proved as brutally effective on the defensive as they had on the offensive. The correlation of forces had changed sufficiently for the Chinese to wring victory out of Red Willow, but it was so costly a victory that some observers called it pyrrhic.

Though each side expected the other to renew offensive action before first snowfall, neither did. The Soviets, badly shaken by their intelligence failure prior to Red Willow and by their own losses during the fighting, were more interested in building their forces for possible action after the New Year. The Chinese, who had endured tremendous losses in tanks, artillery, aircraft, and other heavy equipment, wanted to try a Chinese-style war of attrition during the winter to wear down the Soviet willingness to fight.

It would be a long winter.




gj, this is a great read
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