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The eastern front at the time of the Second Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive.


Operation Mars was the operation codename for the Rzhev offensive operation part of the Rzhev-Vyazma strategic offensive operation (08.01-20.04.42) launched by Sovietmarker forces against German forces during World War II. It took place between 25 November-20 December, 1942 in a salient in the vicinity of Moscowmarker. The offensive was one in a series of particularly bloody engagements collectively known as the Battles of Rzhev, which occurred near Rzhevmarker, Sychevkamarker, Vyazmamarker (Sychevsk-Vyazma offensive operation) between January 1942 and March 1943. The battles became known as the "Rzhev meat grinder" ("Ржевская мясорубка") for their huge losses, particularly on the Soviet side. Other operations that were executed as part of the strategic offensive were the Mozhaisk-Vyazma offensive operation , Toropets–Kholm Offensive and the Vyazma airborne desant operation.

The offensive was a joint operation of the Soviet Western Front and Kalinin Front coordinated by Georgy Zhukov. For many years it was virtually unknown in the West, and just relegated to a footnote in Soviet military history.

The basic plan of the offensive was to eliminate the Rzhev salient by launching multiple, coordinated thrusts from all sides of the salient. After the destruction of the German 9th Army, the forces would regroup and link up with the 5th and 33rd Armies which were to attack along the Moscow-Viaz`ma highway. This latter part of the operation was codenamed Operation Jupiter.

When resistance around Viaz`ma was neutralized, the 9th and 10th tank corps and the 3rd Tank Army would then penetrate deeper into the rear of Army Group Centre.

However, the Americanmarker historian David Glantz considers that the offensive was more important in STAVKA planning than the near-simultaneous Operation Uranus, and its minimisation into a mere holding attack supporting the Stalingrad operation was a propagandistic whitewash. He claims that the plan was to develop it into a breakout for Army Group Center's deep rear.

In this regard, it is interesting to compare the size of the Soviet forces committed to the two offensives:

Operation Mars: Initial forces 668,000 men and 2000 tanks, plus 415,000 men and 1265 tanks earmarked for the follow-up offensive Operation Jupiter ( about 150,000 men and several hundred tanks were used to reinforce the unsuccessful Op Mars).

Operation Uranus ( initial Stalingrad offensive): 700,000 men and 1400 tanks, plus 400,000 men and 1200 tanks for the second part named Operation Saturn.

The losses (as stated below) also compares quite unfavorably with those suffered during the Stalingrad offensives: 155,000 killed/missing and 331,000 wounded over a period of almost two and a half months.

It would have not been the only instance in which the Soviet armed forces downplayed and ignored unsuccessful operations, while emphasizing the successful ones (they would not be the only country doing this). Especially as Zhukov would go on to gain fame as one of the most able of the major Soviet military commanders, it would make sense to obliterate his occasional blunders.

In the words of author David Glantz : "In the unlikely event that Zhukov was correct and Mars was really a diversion, there has never been one so ambitious, so large, so clumsily executed, or so costly"

The attack

The offensive was launched in the early hours of November the 25th. It got off to a bad start, as fog and snowy weather grounded the planned air support. It also greatly reduced the effect of the massive artillery barrages preceding the main attacks, as it made it impossible for the forward artillery observers to adjust the fire and observe the results.The Northern thrust made little progress. The Eastern attack across the frozen Vazuza river slowly ground forward. The two Western thrusts made deeper penetrations, especially around the key town of Belyimarker.The progress was nowhere near what the Soviets expected, however. The outnumbered German defenders fought stubbornly, clinging to their strongpoints, which were often centered around many of the small villages dotting the area. In some cases the German strongpoints remained manned for a time after the Soviets advanced past them, creating more problems for the Red Army in their rear areas.Despite repeated, persistent Soviet attacks, small-arms fire and pre-planned artillery concentrations cut down the attacking infantry. Tanks were picked off by AT guns, by the few German tanks, or even in close combat by infantry.

The relative lack of initial success now compounded the Soviet problems: The minor penetrations and the resulting small bridgeheads made it difficult to bring forward reinforcements and follow-up forces, especially artillery, so critical for reducing the German strongpoints.The Germans were hard-pressed, however, and for a long time, the outcome of the battle hung in the balance.The offensives around Stalingrad had resulted in the encirclement of the entire German 6th Army, and the few strategic reserves were deployed south. What few local reserves the 9th Army possessed were quickly overwhelmed. General Model had to scrape together additional meager reserves by employing literally every man capable of holding a rifle, and by shifting units from less threatened sectors of the salient. Eventually this shifting of forces coupled with Soviet losses and supply difficulties, allowed the German forces to gain the upper hand. The lines held, and slowly some of the lost ground was retaken. The counterattacks against the Belyi (Western)and the Vazuza (Eastern) thrusts resulted in several thousand soldiers trapped behind German lines. A few of these would manage to break through to Soviet lines, some after fighting as partisans in the German rear for weeks. Almost all vehicles and heavy weapons had to be left behind. However, the Germans were not able to remove Soviet forces from the Luchesa Valley in the northwest of the salient, but this was not of much significance since the Soviets there were also unable to press their attack in the difficult terrain.

Outcome

The Germans successfully prevented the Soviets from accomplishing their objectives, thereby winning the battle.They had, however, taken losses they could ill afford, and it had been a close-run effort.General Von Kluge recommended to Hitler that the salient should be abandoned, in order to economize on manpower and to prevent a possible renewed, successful offensive.Hitler resisted strongly, reluctant to give up any won ground and hoping to retain the salient for a future thrust towards Moscow. The sobering realities of the crumbling front as well as the shock of the Stalingrad disaster prevailed, and the Germans began a staged withdrawal in the beginning of March 1943. By the 23rd of that month, the withdrawal was complete.

Casualties

  • Soviet: 100,000 KIA/MIA, 235,000WIA, >1,600 tanks
  • German: 40,000 KIA/MIA/WIA


Notes

  1. David Glantz: Zhukov's greatest defeat page 308


References

  • Glantz, David M. (1999). Zhukov's Greatest Defeat: The Red Army's Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942. ISBN 0-7006-0944-X.
  • Krivosheev, G. F. et al. (1997). Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century. Stackpole. ISBN 9781853672804


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