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PRELUDE TO KURSK: Soviet Strategic Operations February-March 1943

Впервые опубликовано 25.09.2005 19:01
Последняя редакция 13.01.2016 11:09
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Planning for Operations against Orel and Bryansk

Central to Soviet strategic planning in early February 1943 was the fact that the German Stalingrad garrison had surrendered on 2 February. This released to Stavka control six combined-arms armies and one air army of Colonel General K. K. Rokossovsky’s Don Front (the 21st, 24th, 62d, 64th, 65th, and 66th Armies, and the 16th Air Army), which could be used elsewhere along the front7. Although all had suffered losses in the fierce fighting around Stalingrad, they were blooded and experienced forces commanded by equally experienced and skilled command cadre. These armies required extensive refitting after almost two months of fighting in the Stalingrad region, but some of this refitting and reorganization had been carried out before and immediately after the German surrender. In addition to its Stalingrad armies, the Stavka retained other strategic reserves under its control, many of which had been raised during the Stalingrad fighting. The most important of these formations were the 2d Tank and 70th Armies. Lieutenant General A. G. Rodin’s 2d Tank Army was formed in January and early February 1943 on the base of the Bryansk Front’s 3d Reserve Army and then assigned to the Bryansk Front’s reserve. Lieutenant General G. F. Tarasov’s 70th Army, which was formed between October 1942 and early February 1943 and which consisted of NKVD border guards and internal security forces from the Far Eastern, Central Asian, and Transbaikal Military Districts, was now also available for Stavka use. These fresh forces played a vital role in the Stavka plans for an expanded offensive.

The central feature of the Stavka’s expanded culminating stage of the Winter Campaign was a three-phase strategic offensive, which would ultimately encompass the forces of four fronts. The first phase, planned to begin on 12 February, would capitalize on the Bryansk Front’s success in the Voronezh-Kastornoe operation and its capture of Kursk (on 8 February). Between 12 and 17 February, the combined forces of the Western and Bryansk Fronts were to encircle and destroy German forces in the salient formed east of Orel. All the while, the Central Front’s armies would assemble in the Fatezh region west of Kursk. In the second phase, planned for 17 and 25 February, the new Central Front, spearheaded by its tank army and a cavalry-rifle group, would capture crossings over the Desna River near Novgorod-Severskii and Trubchevsk, while the Western and Bryansk Fronts’ forces would clear German forces from the Bryansk region. Finally, during the operation’s third phase, planned to begin on 25 February, the Kalinin Front’s forces would attack through Vitebsk to link up with Central Front forces near Orsha on the Dnieper River. These two fronts, together with the Western and Bryansk Fronts, would then capture Smolensk and complete the destruction of German Army Group Center by mid-March. The Stavka timed the entire offensive to coincide with the Voronezh and Southwestern Fronts’ operations, which it assumed would be successful. By mid-March the Stavka expected its forces to reach the Dnieper River line from Vitebsk in the north to Dnepropetrovsk and the Sea of Azov in the south.

Obviously, General Rokossovsky’s new Central Front would play a vital role in realization of this offensive’s ambitious goals. Marshal A. M. Vasilevsky, then Deputy Chief of the General Staff, recalled:

While discussing the situation in the south and reckoning that the complete defeat of the Paulus’ grouping was merely a matter of days, the Stavka of the Supreme High Command was thinking about the subsequent use of the Don Front’s forces, which were being freed up from Stalingrad. After numerous conversations between the Supreme Commander and leading figures at the Center and in the fronts, yet another decision had matured at the end of January and beginning of February: besides the operations in the south, to conduct a series of large-scale offensive operations linked together by a single strategic concept and plan, with the aim of defeating the main forces of German Army Group Center. First of all, the concept envisioned the defeat of the German’s 2d Panzer Army in the Orel region by the Bryansk Front and the Western Front’s left flank. Then, having brought the former Don Front’s forces forward and having renamed it the Central Front, develop the offensive and reach the rear area of the enemy’s Rzhev-Vyazma grouping by a blow through Bryansk toward Smolensk, in conjunction with the Kalinin and Western Fronts’ forces, and resolve the projected missions. A concrete plan of action was drawn up, and, in the early part of February, the Stavka issued directives to the fronts involved8.
Accordingly, the Stavka issued the following order to Rokossovsky, the commander of the Don Front, on 5 February 1943:

1. Form the Central Front by 15 February 1943.

2. Rename the field headquarters of the Don Front the field headquarters of the Central Front. The front’s headquarters is to be located in the Ol’shanets region, 10 kilometers east of Elets.

3. Appoint Colonel General K. K. Rokossovsky to command the Central Front, Major General K. F. Telegin as the member of the front’s Military Council, and Lieutenant General M. S. Malinin as the chief of staff.

4. Include the field headquarters of the 21st, 65th, and 70th Armies, 16th Air Army, 2d Tank Army, 2d Guards Cavalry Corps, and divisions... in the Central Front.

5. ...

6. Leave your deputy commander, Lieutenant General K. P. Trubnikov, with a group of commanders in the Stalingrad region.

I. Stalin
G. Zhukov9

On 6 February the Stavka issued directives to the Western, Bryansk, and Central Fronts containing the fronts’ specific missions for each phase of the forthcoming operation10. The directive to the Western Front ordered Colonel General I. S. Konev to transfer Lieutenant General P. A. Belov’s 61st Army on the front’s left flank to Bryansk Front control. Then, together with the Bryansk Front’s 61st Army, the Western Front’s 16th Army and 9th Tank Corps were attack on 12 February through Zhizdra toward Bryansk. The combined force was to link up with the Bryansk Front’s 13th and 48th Armies near the city of Bryansk, thus encircling the entire German Orel grouping. In addition, the directive ordered Konev to prepare an attack on 25 February with his 50th and 10th Armies and two tank corps toward Roslavl’ and Elnya in concert with the Bryansk and Central Fronts’ expanding offensive.

The Stavka directive to the Bryansk Front ordered Colonel General M. A. Reiter’s forces to cooperate with the Western Front in the rapid encirclement and elimination of the German Orel-Bryansk grouping. After General Reiter’s 13th and 48th Armies reached the Droskovo, Maloarkhangelsk, and Fatezh line on 12 February, the 13th Army was to support the commitment of the Central Front’s forces to combat and advance along the Karachev and Bryansk axis. The 48th Army was to envelop Orel from the southwest. Meanwhile, the Bryansk Front’s 61st Army was to attack southward from the Belev region through Bolkhov to link up with the 48th Army’s forces at Orel. When the 61st Army’s forces reached Zmievka, the Bryansk Front’s 3d Army was to join the offensive on Orel from the east. The first phase of the operation was to culminate on 15-17 February with the complete destruction of the German Orel grouping. The second phase would climax from 23-25 February when the Bryansk Front’s 13th Army linked up with the Western Front’s 16th Army to destroy the German force grouping around Bryansk. Both the Western and Bryansk Fronts would then join the Central Front in the final drive to Smolensk and the Dnieper River to destroy the bulk of German Army Group Center.

Rokossovsky received detailed instructions from the Stavka on the night of 6 February. They read:

For the purpose of further exploiting the Bryansk and Voronezh Fronts’ success and reaching the rear area of the enemy’s Rzhev-Vyazma-Bryansk grouping, the Stavka orders:

  1. By 12.2.43 concentrate:

    a) The 2d Tank Army in the Dolgoe region;

    b) The 2d Guards Cavalry Corps with three ski brigades and two tank regiments in the Cheremisinovo region;
    c) The 65th Army in the region north of Dolgoe and south of Livny.

    Move the 2d Tank Army, the 65th Army, and the 2d Cavalry Corps out of their concentration region to the Kursk and Fatezh deployment line by the end of 14. 2. 43.
    Concentrate the remaining units of the 21st and 70th Armies in the Volovo, Dolgorukovo, and Livny regions as they arrive and send them after the advancing forces of the front’s first echelon.

  2. The 2d Tank Army, 65th Army, and 16th Air Army will launch an offensive in the general direction of Sevsk and Unecha Station on the morning of 15. 2. 43 with the immediate mission of severing the Bryansk-Gomel’ railroad line.
    Deploy Kruikov’s cavalry-rifle group on the left flank and send it through Novgorod-Severskyi, Staryi Bykhov, and Mogilev, where it is to cross to the Western bank of the Dnieper, secure crossings, and reach the Orsha region.
    Bear in mind that the Bryansk Front’s 13th Army will advance to Bryansk on your right, and the Western Front’s 16th Army will launch an offensive through Zhizdra to Bryansk.

  3. When your front’s armies have reached the Bryansk-Gomel’ line, conduct your main attack on Smolensk through Klimovichi and Khislovichi with the missions of seizing the Smolensk region and cutting off the withdrawal routes of the enemy’s Vyazma-Rzhev grouping. When your main forces reach the Unecha Station region, seize Gomel’ with two rifle divisions and the western bank of the Dnieper River in the Rechitsa and Zhlobin sector.
    Simultaneously with your forces launching the offensive against Smolensk from the Bryansk-Gomel’ line, the Western Front will conduct an offensive to Roslavl’ and subsequently to Smolensk, and the Kalinin Front will advance to Vitebsk and Orsha, and part of its forces to Smolensk, to link up with your main attack.

  4. The front’s boundary lines will be provided later. Bear in mind that the Voronezh Front’s 60th Army will be attacking on your front’s left in the general direction of Lgov, Glukhov, and Chernigov.

Stavka of the Supreme High Command
I. Stalin
G. Zhukov11

To plan such an operation was one thing. To carry it out was an altogether different matter, even if the Germans and circumstances permitted continued Soviet offensive progress in the south. Rokossovsky had to complete the concentration of his shock force in the Livny area within 6 days to meet the Stavka’s schedule, and the offensive itself was to commence in only 11 days. Although the 2d Tank Army and 2d Guards Cavalry Corps had already concentrated in the Livny region, the 70th Army’s forces had to move over 200 kilometers by road from the Elets region, and the 65th and 21st Armies had to complete their arduous railroad and road movement from Stalingrad. Heavy spring snows hampered all movement, the spring thaw [rasputitsa] was due to begin any day, and the roads from Livny and Elets to jumping-off positions at the front were already in parlous condition.

Although he objected to the stringent time requirements imposed by the Stavka, nevertheless Rokossovsky moved to Elets with his staff, leaving his deputy, Lieutenant General K. P. Trubnikov, in Stalingrad to facilitate further troop movements northward. At Elets, Rokossovsky coordinated with General Reiter, the Bryansk Front’s commander, and set up his own front command post. He later described the awesome task confronting his staff as the sought to meet the Stavka’s offensive timetable:

From the outset we encountered tremendous difficulties. There was only one single-track railroad functioning – the only one that had been restored by then. Naturally, it could not handle such traffic. Our transportation plans were bursting at the seams. Traffic schedules collapsed, there were not enough troop trains, and, in those that were available, the trucks were, as often as not, unsuited for carrying personnel or horses12.

Rokossovsky’s deployment problems were insurmountable. As a result, the Stavka had no choice but to delay the start of Central Front’s offensive from 15 to 25 February. Accordingly, the Kalinin and Western Fronts also postponed their offensives until late February or early March. Since the Central Front’s forces were unable to concentrate in the requisite time, the Stavka ordered the Bryansk and Voronezh Fronts to continue their exploitation with the forces of their 13th, 60th, and 48th Armies, while Rokossovsky completed his concentration and offensive preparations. The Bryansk Front’s armies and the Voronezh Front’s right wing proceeded to operate in accordance with the original plan, based on the assumption that their continued operations would only improve the situation for the Central Front when it finally launched its offensive. Lieutenant General N. P. Pukhov’s 13th Army seized Fatezh on 8 February, drove German Second Panzer Army’s forces to the outskirts of Maloarkhangelsk on 13 February, and threatened to envelop the German army’s right flank near Trosna with a special 13th Army operational group commanded by Lieutenant General Novosel’sky. By 23 February Pukhov’s lead division (the 132d Rifle Division) was struggling on the approaches to Dmitriev-Lgovskiy, a key road junction on the Second Panzer Army’s right flank. At the same time, General Lieutenant General P. L. Romanenko’s 48th Army pressed against the nose of the German’s Orel salient, reaching positions from southeast of Novosil’ to the northern outskirts of Maloarkhangelsk by 22 February. During these operations, the army actually pierced German defenses northeast of Maloarkhangelsk and threatened to advance on Orel from the southeast before it was halted by counterattacking German forces13.

Meanwhile, on the Voronezh Front’s left flank, Lieutenant General I. D. Cherniakhovsky’s 60th Army drove German Second Army’s 4th Panzer Division from Kursk on 8 February. Together, the 60th and 13th Armies opened a wide 60-kilometer gap between the German Second Panzer and Second Armies -- a breach Rokossovsky’s Central Front was expected to exploit14. While Rokossovsky prepared his forces for the offensive, the Voronezh Front ordered Cherniakhovsky’s army to capture Lgov by 15 February and Rylsk by 17 February so as to solidify Soviet positions along the southern flank of Rokossovsky’s intended penetration15. Without regrouping or reorganizing, Cherniakhovsky’s forces advanced westward from Kursk, but were halted on 20 February on the approaches to Lgov. Unable to penetrate into Lgov, Cherniakhovsky dispatched his 248th Student Rifle Brigade to the west with orders to ensure that the gap between the two German armies remains open

Meanwhile Rokossovsky’s lead armies, the 65th and 2d Tank Armies, raced to complete their deployment forward from Elets and Livny to Fatezh. Lieutenant General P. I. Batov moved his headquarters to Elets on 18 February to supervise the forward deployment of 65th Army, and his divisions began reaching their assigned concentration areas north of Fatezh by 24 February. Of necessity, Batov’s attack on 25 February would occur literally from the march. Lieutenant General A. G. Rodin’s 2d Tank Army had the daunting task of moving his tank army (with its 408 tanks) 200-220 kilometers from north of Livny to jumping-off positions near Fatezh. Despite the appalling road conditions, he did so in seven days, but at a cost of 96 tanks left behind in his assembly areas and 130 tanks broken down or mired along the treacherously muddy march route16. Rodin would commit 182 of his tanks into combat on 25 February, but the remaining armor would catch up later. Similarly, Major General V. V. Kriukov’s 2d Guards Cavalry Corps completed its concentration west of Fatezh by 24 February in somewhat better condition17.

Rokossovsky commenced his offensive as ordered on the morning of 25 February. Since Major General G. F. Tarasov’s 70th and Lieutenant General I. M. Chistiakov’s 21st Army were still on the move, they were ordered to join the attack as soon as they arrived in the region, even before their full concentration. Meanwhile, the Bryansk Front’s 13th and 48th Armies continued pounding the German Second Panzer Army’s weakened right flank, and on 22 February Lieutenant General I.H.Bagramian’s 16th Army of the Western Front struck German Second Panzer Army’s left flank north of Zhizdra. Despite the massive attack, rainy weather and a skillful German defense kept Bagramian’s forward progress to a minimum. At a cost of huge losses, his army advanced only 7 kilometers by 25 February. Because of the intense fighting and only limited gains, Colonel General I. S. Konev, the Western Front commander, denied Bagramyan permission to commit his 9th Tank Corps to complete the penetration. Bagramyan later bitterly lamented this decision and criticized Konev and his successor, Colonel General V. D. Sokolovsky, for their failure to adequately support the attack18. Nonetheless, Bagramyan had no choice but to continue his costly futile assaults is support of Rokossovsky’s offensive. Colonel General M. A. Belov’s 61st Army launched attacks north and east of Bolkhov in support of Bagramian’s effort, but these attacks too faltered after Soviet forces seized a small bridgehead on the west bank of the Oka River19.

Further north, the Western Front’s 5th Army attacked German defenses east of Gzhatsk on 22 February, and, simultaneously, the 33d Army’s forces struck at German defenses east of Vyazma20. However, there was very little hope that these attacks against strong and tested German defenses would do more than simply distract the Germans from the more important events taking place to the south. While the German’s defenses around the Rzhev-Vyazma salient held firm, the die was already cast for the salient’s defenders. The incessant Soviet attacks against German Army Group Center west of Moscow since November 1942 combined with the looming Soviet threat in the Orel region finally convinced the Germans to abandon the Rzhev-Vyazma salient. Apparently, the Soviet High Command was aware of German intentions and therefore, kept pressure on the defending Germans. Within days after the 5th and 33d Armies’ weak attacks had faltered, German forces began a phased withdrawal from the salient. This meant that Rokossovsky would soon have to contend with fresh German divisions freed up by the abandonment of the salient. In the meantime, the Stavka did all in its power to prevent this from occurring.

By the time Rokossovsky’s forces launched their offensive, there were already ominous signs that the overall Soviet strategic offensive was encountering unanticipated difficulties. Contrary to Stavka expectations, the frenetic and poorly coordinated Southwestern Front offensive faltered by mid-February. Thwarted in its attempts to overcome German defenses at Slavyansk and Voroshilovgrad, the bulk of the Southwestern Front’s front mobile formations raced haphazardly into the deep German rear. The lead elements of Mobile Group Popov’s four under-strength tank corps reached Krasnoarmeiskaya, south of Slavyansk, on 15 February, and the 25th Tank Corps approached the outskirts of Zaporozh’e on the Dnieper River on 20 February21.

After skillfully reorganizing his forces to bring the full force of his First and Fourth Panzer Armies and his newly arrived SS Panzer Corps to bear, von Manstein, the commander of German Army Group South, struck back at overextended Soviet forces. Attacking on 20 February, von Manstein’s XXXX Panzer Corps dismembered Mobile Group Popov in the Krasnoarmeiskaya region and chased its remnants back through Barvenkovo to the Northern Donets river22. Subsequently, the SS Panzer and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps inflicted a crushing defeat on the Southwestern Front’s overextended forces near Pavlograd and Lozovaya, destroyed the 25th Tank Corps and pushed the Soviet forces back to the Northern Donets River. At first the Stavka discounted the seriousness of the situation and steadfastly insisted that the German counteroffensive would expire or become irrelevant in light of Rokossovsky’s successes further north. The Stavka stubbornly refused to alter its plans, trusting that the Voronezh Front, whose forces were still advancing successfully south and west of Kharkov, could cope with the temporary setback in the Donbass. In essence, a deadly race ensued between Rokossovsky’s forces attacking toward Bryansk and von Manstein’s armored spearheads now approaching Kharkov from the south. At stake were Stavka strategic expectations and the fate of its Winter Campaign.

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