The 70th Guards began in September 1939 as the 138th Rifle Division. This unit fought in the Winter War against the Finns 1939-40, where it took heavy casualties and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Between March and April of 1941 the 138th Rifle Division was turned into the 138th Mountain “Order of the Red Banner” Rifle Division. In theory, Mountain Rifle Divisions were to be equipped with special equipment and be trained in special forms of warfare, however events would soon transpire that would disrupt this transition.
On June 22, 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union: The Great Patriotic War had begun. During this time the 138th Mountain “Order of the Red Banner” Rifle Division, was stationed in the Transcaucasus Military District near Leninakan, in Soviet Armenia, where it was under the command of the 23rd Rifle Corps. It was then moved to the 45th Army and then to the 46th, still being held in reserve. During this time the division was under the command of Colonel Mikhail Yakovlevich Pimenov.
On December 25, 1941 the division went into the ‘active army’ under the 47th Army of the Crimean front. On January 15, 1942 the 138th took part in the amphibious landing near Sudaka, on the Kerch peninsula of Crimea, where it took part in combat operations under the 51st Army of the Crimean front. After suffering heavy losses in February and March of 1942, the 138th Mountain Rifle Division was pulled back to the newly recaptured Feodosiya where it was converted to a regular rifle division. On April 8, 1942 the 138th Red Banner Mountain Rifle Division became the 138th Rifle Division.
Within a month of the new unit being formed, Manstein’s 11 German army almost completely destroyed the 51st Army. Luckily for the 138th it was able to escape the Kerch peninsula and reach the Russian mainland via naval transport on the 19th and 20th of May. Two days before the unit escaped it received a new commander Colonel Ivan Ilyich Lyudnikov. Lyudnikov, an experienced officer who had been a soldier since he was 15 years old, took command of the unit on May 16, 1942.The unit was now forced to fall back to Krasnador, through the Caucasus, and then carried out a fighting retreat across the steppe toward Stalingrad; first as part of the 4th Tank Army, then as part of the 64th and 51st armies, as well as part of a special operational group under the command of Vassili Chuikov. After the long march across the steppe, the 138th was pulled off the line and put in reserve.
On September 14th German forces entered Stalingrad and the greatest battle in human history began. One of the central points of combat was the Barriakady (barricades) Gun Factory. On October 14th the German 6th Army attacked the factory decimating the Soviet units in the area. To stop the German advance the 138th Rifle Division was brought back into the battle. Because the 138th had fought well in the retreat across the steppe, and he personally knew Lyudnikov and many of the other officers in the unit, General Vassili Chuikov the commander of 62nd army requested that the 138th be sent in. On the 15th and 16th of October the 138th was ferried across the Volga into the burning city of Stalingrad. Once in the city the 138th took up positions in and around the Barrikady Gun Factory. The Germans managed to take a sizable chunk of the factory, but because of the heavy casualties which the 138th and her neighboring Soviet divisions had inflicted on the Germans, Hitler himself ordered that 5 battalions of elite Storm Pioneers be sent in to take the rest of the gun factory.
On November 11th two German infantry divisions and 5 pioneer battalions struck, forcing a wedge between the 138th and her southwestern neighbor, the 95th division. To the northeast the once powerful 37th Guards division was almost completely destroyed. To the 138th divisions’ front and sides were Germans and to the rear was the Volga. The 138th was now separated from the rest of the 62nd army. The troops of the 138th held off attack after attack by German soldiers as they struggled to hold a pie shaped piece of land which eventually shrunk to only 400 by 700 meters. This small sliver of land soon earned the nickname Lyudnikov’s Island, or Island of Fire. The 138th held their ground; they now only numbered a few hundred and were completely cut off as ice chunks made it impossible for reinforcements or supplies to be brought in. At one point in the battle German soldiers even managed to break through into Lyudnikov’s headquarters where brutal hand to hand fighting ensued until the Germans were pushed back. They held out this way, separate from the rest of the army for 40 days.
Their only supplies came from the bodies of dead Germans and from limited Soviet airdrops, but they still held out. Despite their being surrounded by the Germans, the 138th managed to launch counter attacks utilizing storm groups containing a handful of well armed men who would wreak havoc on the enemy. By this point the 138th was down to 20-30 rounds of ammunition per man. On November 19th the Soviet High Command launched Operations Mars and Uranus which completely cut off the German 6th Army. Despite this move the 138th was still cut off; however, on December 22nd the 138th was able to link up with the 95th Rifle Division and the siege was at an end. On January 10, 1943 the 138th was pulled out of the Barriakady and shifted to the Red October Tractor Factory where it, along with other divisions, took part in the eventual destruction of the German 6th Army. Because of their bravery the 138th Rifle Division was transformed into the 70th Guards Rifle Division on February 6, 1943.
According to Charles Sharp, In April the division went north from the Volga to the 17th Guards rifle Corps in central front reserves north of Kursk. On 5th July when the battle of Kursk started, the 70th Guards were in the 13th Army directly in front of the panzer thrust of the 9th German army. In the first two days of the German attack, 70th guards was re-enforced by the 231st tank regiment, 1441st SU regiment, 477th Army Mortar Regiment, two battalions of the 16th Guards Mortar (heavy rocket) Brigade, 3rd antitank brigade, and the19th Guards Army Cannon Artillery Regiment: a total of over 50 armored vehicles, 72 anti tank guns, and 80 guns, mortars, and rocket launchers of 120mm or larger size. The German Attacks were stopped, literally dead in their tracks, losing up to 50 tanks a day in front this single Guards Rifle Division. In recognition of the division’s success in fighting off elements of two panzer corps, on 21st July 1943 the 70th Guards Rifle Division was awarded the Order of Lenin: the highest unit award in the Soviet Army.
After Kursk, the 70th Guards were transferred from the 13th Army to the 38th Army under the first Ukrainian front, and later the 4th Ukrainian front. The 70th Guards continued to fight its way west. In September of 1943 the 70th Guards Division took part in bitter fighting to secure bridgeheads along the Dnepr River, and repelled numerous German counter attacks north of Chernobyl. In July 1944, the 70th Guards took part in the operation to liberate Lvov on the Ukrainian Polish border. The 70th guards then went on to fight in Prague, Czechoslovakia against a withering, but still determined German resistance. Finally on May 8th 1945, The Great Patriotic War came to an end when the Nazis unconditionally surrendered. At this time the 70th Guards was in the 101st Rifle Corps of the 38th Army near Prague. According to Sharp: “The final wartime honorific title of the division was 70th Guards Rifle Glukhovskoi Order of Lenin Twice Order of the Red Banner, Orders of Suvorov, Kutuzov, and Bogdin Khmelynitskii Division”.