After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, reserves were mobilized to be sent to the front. On 12 July 1941, the 316th Rifle Division was established in Alma Ata, the capital of the Kazakh SSR. Major General Ivan Panfilov, the military commissar of the Kirghiz SSR, was appointed its commander. The reservists allotted to the 316th were mostly from the two republics. It consisted of:1073th Rifle Regiment
1075th Rifle Regiment
1077th Rifle Regiment
857th Artillery Regiment
597th Sapper Battalion
The 316th's soldiers were sworn in on 1 August, and boarded trains to the front from the 18th to the 20th. They arrived in Borovichi, near Malaya Vishera, in late August. Intense fighting against the Germans had already taken place in the region, as part of the campaign to defend Leningrad from the attack of Army Group North. The 316th was involved in several skirmishes, but on 8 September was consigned as the reserve of the 52nd Army. It spent a month in the rear.
In early October, the Germans began their offensive on Moscow. On the 7th, Panfilov's division was transferred to the vicinity of the Soviet capital, arriving on the 11th. It was assigned to Konstantin Rokossovsky's 16th Army (Western Front), and ordered to defend a 41-km long sector along the Ruza River, especially the highway passing through Volokolamsk. The 316th was reinforced with the 690th Rifle Regiment from the 126th Rifle Division, as well as the 289th and 296th Anti-tank Regiments.
On the 14th, the German XLVI Panzer Corps attacked with superior forces. By the 27th, they had advanced some thirty kilometers, pushing the 316th back to Volokolamsk. On the 28th, after a day of fighting, the city was occupied. Panfilov's soldiers retreated closer to Moscow.
The German Army resumed its offensive on 15 November. In the meantime, the 316th had received some of the first PTRD anti-tank rifles. On the 16th, the 46th Panzer Corps engaged the 316th in its new line of defense, near the village of Dubosekovo. Soviet newspapers later reported that twenty-eight soldiers from the division's 1075th Regiment destroyed eighteen enemy tanks while fighting to the last; although the story gained wide publicity, it was later revealed to be exaggerated.
The threat to the 16th Army's flank forced the Stavka to send in the reserve 78th Rifle Division. Although they were forced to retreat after three days, the German advance ceased due to the Soviets' resistance and the harsh weather conditions.
On 17 November, Joseph Stalin as People's Commissar of Defense passed a decree to promote the 316th to a Guards formation, in recognition of the role it played in defending the capital; it sustained 9,920 casualties, including 3,620 soldiers killed in action and 6,300 wounded. Marshal Dmitry Yazov, who researched the division's history, wrote that it considerably delayed the enemy's march on Moscow in its sector; in a telegram from Colonel-General Erich Hoepner to Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, the first written about the 316th:
...it is a division of savages, its soldiers fight in violation of all rules of engagement... They are fanatical, never surrender and do not fear death.
On the 18th, a group of journalists traveled to Panfilov's headquarters in the village of Guseniovo, and told him of the news. As he briefed them in the open, they came under a mortar attack. The general was killed by a shell splinter. The decree came into effect on that very day, turning the 316th to the 8th Guards Rifle Division; it also received the Order of the Red Banner. It was named in honor of Panfilov on 23 November, thus becoming one of the only two Red Army divisions to be named after their commanders, along with the Chapayevska. As a Guards Division the numbering of its subordinate units was as follows:19th Guards Rifle Regiment – from 1073rd Rifle Regiment
23rd Guards Rifle Regiment – from 1075rd Rifle Regiment
30th Guards Rifle Regiment – from 1077rd Rifle Regiment
27th Guards Artillery Regiment – from 857th Artillery Regiment
2nd Guards Sapper Battalion – from 597th Sapper Battalion
The 8th Guards took part in the December counteroffensive in Moscow, liberating the villages of Kryukovo and Istra.
During late January 1942, the 8th Guards was assigned to the 2nd Rifle Corps of the Northwestern Front's 3rd Shock Army, and participated in the battles near the Demyansk Pocket; for its performance during the operation, it was collectively awarded the Order of Lenin on 16 March. In late 1942, as part of the Kalinin Front, the 30th Guards Regiment fought as a separate unit in the Battle of Velikiye Luki near the Lovat River. In 1944, it took part in the Leningrad–Novgorod Offensive and later, in the battle of Rēzekne; for its role in taking the city and the surrounding region, it was awarded the honorary title Rezhitskaya on 27 July 1944. On 3 November, the division received the Order of Suvorov 2nd Class. The 8th Guards ended the war with the 10th Guards Army, as part of the forces besieging Courland.
According to Soviet official reports, during World War II the division killed or disabled 85,000 enemy troops, captured 5,000 more and destroyed or captured 387 tanks, 65 other armored vehicles, 43 planes, 451 guns, 180 mortars, 2010 automobiles and 328 motorcycles. In total, the soldiers of the division were awarded twenty-nine Orders of Lenin, 371 Orders of the Red Banner, two Orders of Kutuzov, eight Orders of Suvorov, fifty-three Orders of Alexander Nevsky, one Order of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, 391 Orders of the Patriotic War 1st class, 1783 Orders of the Patriotic War 2nd Class, 4747 Orders of the Red Star, forty-one Orders of Glory 2nd degree and 2061 Orders of Glory 3rd degree.
Thirty-four soldiers received the highest Soviet military decoration, Hero of the Soviet Union. The first was Major General Ivan Panfilov himself, posthumously. Panfilov's Twenty-Eight Guardsmen were also all awarded the title posthumously; when six of them were revealed to be alive, two were stripped of it. The other wartime Heroes were Piotr Vikhrev, Malik Gabdulin, Ivan Shapshaev and Tulegen Tokhtarov. Baurzhan Momyshuly received the honor in 1991, three years after his death.
The 8th Guards Division was stationed at Haapsalu in the Estonian SSR with the 4th Guards Rifle Corps after the war. On 25 June 1957, it became a motor rifle division. It was disbanded on 18 March 1960. On 23 May, the 36th Guards Motor Rifle Division at Klooga was redesignated as the 8th Guards Motor Rifle Division, inheriting the honors of the previous formation. Then it was recalled to Frunze, Kyrgyzstan in May 1967 and assigned to the 17th Army Corps of the Turkestan Military District. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it became part of the Kyrgyz Armed Forces, but was disbanded in January 2003.
At 11 July 2011, on the eve of the division's 70th anniversary, the 8th Guards was re-established in a ceremony attended by President Roza Otunbayeva. It is now garrisoned in Tokmok and commanded by Colonel Melis Satybaldiev.
During 1943 and 1944, war reporter Alexander Bek escorted the 8th Guards. Drawing from the memories of Major Baurzhan Momyshuly, he authored a book, Volokolamsk Highway (known also as Panfilov's Men), about the fighting near the city. After the war, in 1960 and 1961, he completed two sequels, Several Days and General Panfilov's Reserve. The trilogy described the experiences of Momyshuly as a battalion commander, from the formation of the division in Alma Ata until the Soviet counter-offensive in Moscow.
Bek's Volokolamsk Highway served as one the settings for an eponymous series of five plays by Heiner Müller, written from 1984 to 1987. The first part, "Russian Opening", was based on Heinrich von Kleist's The Prince of Homburg. In Müller's reinterpretation, Momyshuly assumes the role of the Great Elector. Beside Bek's trilogy, Momyshuly himself authored his accounts on the division's fighting near Moscow.Major General Ivan Panfilov (12.7.1941 – 18.11.1941)
Major General Vasily Reviakin (20.11.1941 – 18.01.1942)
Major General Ivan Chistyakov (19.01.1942 – 03.04.1942)
Colonel Ivan Serebryakov (04.04.1942 – 18.10.1942)
Major General Spiridon Chernyugov (19.10.1942 – 12.03.1944 )
Colonel Dmitry Dulov (13.03.1944 – 28.05.1944)
Major General Ernst Sedulin (29.05.1944 – 07.06.1944)
Major General Andrei Kuleshov (08.06.1944 – 17.08.1944)
Colonel Grigory Panishev (18.08.1944 – 07.09.1944)
Colonel Grigory Lomov (08.09.1944 – 09.05.1945)
Commander: Ivan Panfilov.
Chief of staff: Colonel Ivan Serebryakov.
Commissar: Senior Battalion Commissar (Lt. Colonel) Sergei Egorov
Chief of political department: Battalion Commissar (Major) Alexander Galushko;
Chief of divisional artillery: Major Vitaly Makarov.
1073th Infantry Regiment: commanded by Major Grigory Efimovich Elin.
1075th Infantry Regiment: commanded by Colonel Ilya Kaprov.
1077 Infantry Regiment: commanded by Major Zinovi Shechtmann.