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Battle for Velikiye Luki (1943): Map

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Situation after the initial Soviet advance.


The Velikiye Luki offensive operation ( ) was executed by the forces of the Red Army's Kalinin Front against the Wehrmacht's 3rd Panzer Army during the Winter Campaign of 1942-1943 with the objective of liberating the Russian city of Velikiye Lukimarker as part of the northern pincer of the Rzhev-Sychevka Strategic Offensive Operation (Operation Mars). It is particularly notable as an example of the failure of German operational combat in relieving an encirclement, similar to those employed at the Battle of Stalingradmarker. It should not be confused with the latter.

Background

When Operation Barbarossa had stalled and ended with the reassessment of the strategic goals by Hitler, the front line in the northern sector of the Eastern Front had stabilized in the spring of 1942, and the Wehrmacht was left in control of the city of Velikiye Lukimarker, which provided bridges over the Lovat River to the eastern bank. A major north-south rail line ran parallel to the river's west bank, at Novosokolniki behind the German lines, and another to Vitebskmarker, an important strategic German logistic centre. Marshy terrain extended to Lake Peipusmarker from just north of the city defended by the German 16th Field Army, making attack there difficult for either side. The city itself was therefore a natural point for a Soviet counterattack, offering the possibility of eliminating the German bridges, and to establish a bridgehead on the western bank, denying the Germans use of the rail line that provided communications between Army groups North and Centre. In view of its strategic significance, the Germans heavily fortified the city over the course of 1942.

The offensive

The Soviet offensive to retake the city was developed in mid-November 1942 using troops from the 3rd and 4th Shock armies, and 3rd Air Army. The diversion of German forces for the Battles of Rzhev had left the front line in the area of Velikiye Luki relatively weakly defended, with the city itself defended by the 83rd Infantry Division commanded by Lieutenant General Scherer, the lines to the south held by the 3rd Mountain Division, and the front to the north held by the 5th Mountain Division. The city itself, however, was provided with extensive prepared defenses and garrisoned by a full regiment of the 83rd Division, Infantry Regiment 277, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Eduard Freiherr von Saß, who had only assumed command a matter of days before the offensive. Along with artillery, engineer and support units (including Artillery Regiment 183 and Pioneer Battalion 183) the garrison totalled around 7000 troops.

Encirclement

The Soviet classic pincer offensive, spearheaded by four rifle divisions to the south and one to the north, commenced on November 24. Despite heavy losses, they successfully encircled the city by the 27th, trapping the garrison; by the next day they threatened to cut off other elements of the corps south of the city when the front commander released his 2nd Mechanised Corps into the breach created between the 3rd Mountain and 83rd Infantry divisions. Army Group Centre's commander asked the OKH for permission to conduct a breakout operation while the situation was still relatively fluid by pulling the German lines back by around ten miles (16 km); this would have both screened the vital rail link and left the resulting Soviet salient exposed to counter-attack. The request was dismissed by Hitler, who, pointing to an earlier success in a similar situation at Kholmmarker, demanded that the encircled formations stand fast while the Kampfgruppe Chevallerie from the north and 20th Motorised Division from the south counter-attacked to open the encirclement.

The relief force

Von Saß and the garrison were ordered to hold the city at all costs, while a relief force was hurriedly assembled. The remainder of the 83rd Infantry and 3rd Mountain Divisions, encircled south of Velikiye Luki, fought their way west to meet the relieving troops. Due to Army Group Centre's commitments at Rzhev, the only resources immediately available to man the lines opposite Velikiye Luki were those already in the area, which were organised as Gruppe Wöehler (291st Infantry Division) under an improvised staff headquartered in a peasant hut. Later, other divisions were made available, including the understrength 8th Panzer Division from Kampfgruppe Chevallerie, the 20th Motorized Infantry Division from Army Group Centre reserve, and the weak 6th Luftwaffe Field Division, and the hurriedly rushed to the front 707th and 708th Security, and 205th and 331st Infantry divisions although there was a corresponding build-up of Soviet strength.

Throughout December, the garrison — which maintained radio contact with the relief forces — held out against repeated Soviet attempts to reduce their lines, and in particular the rail depot in the city's southern suburb. The Soviet forces, attacking strongly entrenched troops in severe winter weather, suffered extremely high casualties along with understandably high rates of desertion from the Estonianmarker units to the German side , while conditions in the city steadily deteriorated despite airdrops of supplies, ammunition and equipment. In the meantime, Soviet attempts to take their main objective, the rail lines at Novosokolniki, had been frustrated by the counter-attacks of the relief force. An attempt by the Germans to reach Velikiye Luki in late December, ran into stubborn Soviet defence and halted.

Final relief attempts

Operation Totila, the next attempt to break through to Velikiye Luki, was launched on January 4. The two German spearheads advanced to within five miles (8 km) of the city, but stalled due to pressure on their flanks. Soviet attempts to reduce the defence and liberate the city continued. On January 5, a Soviet attack from the north split Velikiye Luki in two, a small German force — along with several hundred wounded — becoming isolated in the fortified "citadel" in the west of the city, while von Saß and the bulk of the garrison retained a sector centred around the rail station in the south of the city. It now seemed unlikely that any breakthrough operation would succeed, though after repeated representations to the Luftwaffe, a battalion of the 7th Flieger-Division paratroopers located 20 miles southeast of the city was finally released to assist the operations.

On January 10, a surprise thrust by German infantry supported by tank destroyers succeeded in breaking through to the citadel and joining the fragment of the garrison trapped there. However, by now von Saß's force in the easterly pocket lacked the resources for a westward breakout to link up with the relieving force. The German plan called for the paratroop battalion to advance to the "citadel" on the night of the 14 January and assist a breakout by the troops there and any walking wounded. The paratroopers failed to reach the citadel after losing their way in the featureless and snow-covered landscape, but the force in the citadel broke out on their own under cover of darkness; around 150 men eventually reached German lines.

Aftermath

Radio contact with the eastern side of Velikiye Luki ceased on 15 January: at 04:40 Saß stated that "a breakout appears out of the question because almost 2000 wounded would fall into Russian hands...help must immediately come from the outside". Along with 3-4000 of his men, he was taken into Soviet captivity when his forces surrendered on 16 January.

Von Saß and seven other officers (including von Rappard, the previous commander of Infantry Regiment 277, who was taken as a POW in 1945) are stated to have been executed in the main square of Velikiye Luki in January 1946, after a tribunal convicted them of war crimes against POWs and civilians in and around the city.

The battle is sometimes called "The Little Stalingrad of the North" due to its similarities with the larger and better-known Battle of Stalingradmarker that raged simultaneously in the southern sector of the front. (However, a number of other battles in World War II and afterward have also been dubbed a "Little Stalingrad".)

Orders of battle

While it is somewhat difficult to separate the actions of various Red Army and Wehrmacht units within the flurry of movements involved in the larger scope of the Soviet operations, for the most part these below are derived from Glantz and Isayev.

Soviet

German relief attempts.
(Notice that the order of battle given on this 1952 map is not accurate.)


German



Most of Army Group Center was engaged in resisting the second Soviet Rzhev-Sychevka offensive throughout this period.

Almost half of the 83rd Infantry Division was assigned to the Velikiye Luki garrison.

The 3rd Mountain Division was at little more than half strength, since its 139th Regiment had been left in Lapland when the division withdrew from northern Finland. The 138th Mountain Regiment was the unknown unit of 3rd Mountain shown in Maps 2 and 3.

20th Motorized was from Army Group Center's reserve.

See also



Notes

  1. reinforced by elements of 291st Infantry Division


References

  • Chadwick, Frank A. et al. (1979). White Death: Velikiye Luki, The Stalingrad of the North. Normal, Il:, game design notes, GDW (Game Designers Workshop) a board wargame that covers the battle with considerable detail. It includes notes on the battle, orders of battle for each side, and a 1:100,000 map derived from Soviet wartime situation maps.
  • Department of the Army, Historical Study Operations of Encircled Forces German Experiences in Russia, Pamphlet 20-234, Washington DC, 1952 [126841]
  • Glantz, D.M., Zhukov's greatest defeat: The Red Army's Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1999
  • Isayev, A.V., When there were no surprises: History of the Great Patriotic War which we never knew, Velikiye Luki operation , Yauza, Eksmo, 2006 (Russian: Исаев А. В. Когда внезапности уже не было. История ВОВ, которую мы не знали. — М.: Яуза, Эксмо, 2006)
  • Webb, William A., Battle of Velikiye Luki: Surrounded in the Snow, PRIMEDIA Enthusiast Publications, Inc.(2000). [126842] ". Accessed on April 21, 2005.



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