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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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The Conduct of the Orel-Bryansk Operation

The two spearhead armies of Rokossovsky’s Central Front lunged into the gap between German Second Panzer and Second Armies on the morning of 25 February, two days after General Pukhov reported that his 13th Army’s had finally seized Maloarkhangelsk23. Covered by the 13th Army’s 132d Rifle Division and Group Novosel’sky, which were pressuring the German Second Panzer Army’s right flank, the advanced rifle divisions of Lieutenant General P. I. Batov’s 65th Army advanced towards Komarichi and Dmitriev-Orlovskiy in regimental column and against light enemy resistance. On the army’s right flank, the regiments of Colonel I. A. Kuzovkov’s 69th Rifle Division’s were deployed across a broad front and maintained only loose contact with the 13th Army’s operational group (separate ski brigades whose mission was to facilitate the 65th Army’s advance). In the 65th Army’s center and on its left flank, the 354th and 37th Guards Rifle Divisions advanced in similar fashion against weak resistance offered by elements of the German 137th Infantry Division24. At this juncture, the defending Germans sought only to monitor and slow Soviet forward progress until reinforcements arrived to establish a more solid defense. Batov’s dispersed attack formation could do no more than slowly press the defending Germans back. The 65th Army’s advance was also hindered by the delayed arrival of the 70th Army’s forces. Although the 70th Army had been assigned an offensive sector on the 65th Army’s right flank, the Batov’s forces had to cover the entire sector until troops from the 70th arrived. Finally, on 26 February an operational group from General Tarasov’s 70th Army reached the Gremiach’e area and began feeding the army’s divisions piecemeal into their respective offensive sectors25. For days, however, while the 65th Army pressed forward, the bulk of the 70th Army’s divisions continued struggling forward along the roads from Livny to Fatezh.

Deploying forward from concentration areas around Fatezh, General Rodin’s 2d Tank Army attacked westward on 25 February through a screen erected by the 13th Army’s 132d Rifle Division, which had driven forces from the German 707th Security Division back to the outskirts of Dmitriev-Lgovskiy. The Germans fought hard to hold the town until reinforcements could arrive since it protected the critical road communications westward to Sevsk and northward to Bryansk. The tank army’s two attached rifle divisions (the 194th and 60th) fought their way through the swamps along the Svapa River, which covered the approaches to Dmitriev-Lgovskiy and Deriugino to the north, against spirited resistance while Rodin’s 11th and 16th Tank Corps followed26. Given the stiff German resistance, the 11th Tank Corps swung south of the town, crossed the Svapa River, and began a headlong drive toward Sevsk, more than 50 kilometers to the west. The 16th Tank Corps remained along the Svapa River to support the army’s two rifle divisions advance on Dmitriev-Lgovskiy. Exploiting the 11th Tank Corp’s enveloping maneuver, General Kriukov’s Cavalry-Rifle Group, with three ski brigades in the lead and the army’s 115th Rifle Brigade attached, followed the 11th Tank Corps into the breech.

The tenacious German defense of Dmitriev-Lgovskiy forced over half of Rodin’s forces to engage in close combat for the town. Rodin’s 16th Tank Corps and the 60th and 194th Rifle Division were forced to conduct an intense five-day struggle to overcome the Germans Dmitriev-Lgovskiy and Deriugino defense line. The other half of Rodin’s forces, the 11th Tank Corps and Kriukov’s Cavalry-Rifle Group, bypassed the German defenses and advanced along deteriorating roads toward Sevsk against lighter German resistance.

The Soviet Central Front’s offensive finally recorded some successes on 2 March, even though the attacks by the Bryansk Front’s 13th and 48th Armies had faltered at and north of Maloyaroslavets. On the Central Front’s right flank, Batov’s 65th Army carved a deep salient in the German defenses between Komarichi and Trosna on the flanks of German forces defending Dmitriev-Lgovskiy and Kromy. Although the Germans were forced to abandon the former, Batov’s forces were unable to exploit the penetration since the Germans reinforced their sagging defenses with the newly-arrived 78th Assault Infantry Division. Unbeknownst to Batov, the 78th Division had just arrived from German Ninth Army, which was just then beginning its withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient. As such it represented the first of many fresh German divisions that would soon be flowing south to help thwart the Soviet Central Front’s offensive. At this point, however, Batov, was still brimming with optimism since he could now count on support from the 70th Army, whose lead divisions were assembling around Gremiach’e and preparing to enter combat in their hitherto vacant sector. Rokossovsky too was encouraged by events elsewhere in his front’s sector. Most important, the 11th Tank Corps and Kriukov’s Cavalry-Rifle Group had captured Sevsk from its Hungarian defenders and were preparing a precipitous exploitation westward against dwindling resistance27.

Despite the progress on his left and right flank, the situation in Rokossovsky’s central sector was less encouraging. After abandoning Dmitriev-Lgovskiy late on 1 March, the Germans withdrew to prepared defenses covering Deriugino and the main road to Bryansk. Even though General Rodin committed his entire 16th Tank Corps to combat, his infantry’s forward progress was agonizingly slow. Worse still, the heavy fighting diverted a significant portion of Rodin’s forces from their original attack axis through Sevsk to Trubchevsk and instead diverted them toward Komarichi and Lokat’, points to which German reserves were gravitating.

During the ensuing five days, Rokossovsky’s force made only grudging gains on his front’s right flank and in its center and spectacular but misleading progress on its left flank. On the right, Batov’s 65th Army was joined by an increasing flow of 70th Army divisions, which finally occupied their assigned front sector and struggled alongside the 65th Army’s divisions to penetrate the German 78th Infantry and 12th Panzer Divisions’ defenses protecting the southern approaches to Orel. Rokossovsky hounded the two army commanders to intensify their attacks. Tarasov’s 70th Army pounded German defenses west of Trosna unmercifully, but at high cost, and Batov’s forces pushed across the Usozha River and seized some villages on the approaches to Komarichi. However, progress in both sectors was agonizingly slow. It was becoming painfully apparent to all concerned that significant reinforcements were required to sustain any continued advance.

However, to the south and west, Rokossovsky’s force fared far better. Major General I. G. Lazarov’s 11th Tank Corps of Rodin’s 2d Tank Army captured Sevsk on 1 March and, rolling westward, seized the key road junctions at Seredina Buda and Suzemka on 4 March. Cooperating with partisan units, the corps’ 59th Tank Brigade swung north toward Igritskoe on the Usozha River in an attempt to find the Second Panzer Army’s open right flank. The 11th Tank Corps’ remaining brigades fanned out in support of General Kriukov’s Cavalry-Rifle Group’s drive toward its ultimate objective, Novgorod-Severskii, a key city on the Desna River astride vital German communications lines linking German Second Panzer and Second Armies. Although Kriukov’s cavalrymen reached the outskirts of Novgorod-Severskii, 160 kilometers into the German rear, on 7 March, his success was deceptive, since his forces were now spread thinly across a front of over 100 kilometers. While this thin screen of cavalrymen and riflemen could contend with the remnants of defending Hungarian light divisions, it could not deal successfully with German armor28. Sadly for Kriukov, his forces would soon face German armor.

The most immediate source of reinforcements for Rokossovsky’s faltering offensive was Lieutenant General I. M. Chistiakov’s 21st Army, which had been en route to the Livny area from Stalingrad since early February29. The lead elements of Chistiakov’s army reached their assembly areas around Fatezh on 4 March. Rokossovsky avoided repeating the mistake he had made previously when he committed the 70th Army to combat piecemeal and ordered Chistyakov to assemble his army fully before committing it to action. Once committed, Chistiakov’s force was to reinforce the advance of Batov and Tarasov’s forces on Orel. Rokossovsky’s reinvigorated offensive, however, now faced new time imperatives imposed by events taking place well outside of his area of operations. In fact, these imperatives forced him to renew his attacks before Chistiakov’s army was ready to go into action.

The most serious of these new factors was the success von Manstein’s expanded counteractions achieved to the south. Between 1 and 5 March, von Manstein’s Fourth Panzer Army encircled and utterly destroyed the Soviet 3d Tank Army in heavy fighting south of Kharkov, and his SS Panzer and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps then threatened the Soviet Voronezh Front’s defenses protecting the key Ukrainian city. Finally appreciating the gravity of the situation, the Stavka reassigned its strategic reserves to restore the situation. These reserves included the 62d and 64th Armies, which were en route from Stalingrad and which had earlier been earmarked to reinforce Rokossovsky’s offensive. Even at this juncture, however, the Stavka demurred and refused to halt Rokossovsky’s offensive30. Instead, on 7 March they altered Rokossovsky’s mission. Rather than striking deeply at Bryansk and Smolensk, the Stavka ordered Rokossovsky to regroup his forces to the Orel axis and conduct a shallower envelopment of the German Orel Grouping in conjunction with operations by the Bryansk and Western Fronts.

Specifically, the Stavka ordered Rokossovsky to concentrate his forces along the Usozha River and attack northward through Lokot’ toward Orel with his 2d Tank, 65th, and 70th Armies deployed from left to right. Chistiakov’s 21st Army was to join the attack as soon as his army was fully concentrated and combat ready. Simultaneously, the Stavka ordered Bagramian’s 16th Army of the Western Front, which had already been locked in fruitless combat for over two weeks on the Zhizdra axis, to renew its attacks and provided adequate reinforcements for it to do so. The Bryansk Front’s 61st, 13th and 48th Armies were to launch supporting attacks along the entire circumference of the Orel salient. Finally, General Cherniakhovsky’s 60th Army was to seize Rylsk and continue its attack to Glukhov so as to protect Rokossovsky’s long left flank.

The Stavka’s intention to support Rokossovsky’s new offensive with large-scale attacks by the Kalinin and Western Fronts on the German Rzhev-Vyazma salient was confounded within days by the German’s abandonment of the salient. Between 1 and 23 March, the Germans conducted a deliberate time-phased withdrawal from the salient to new positions between Velizh and Kirov, which they had begun constructing on 20 February. While the German withdrawal clearly offered the Stavka fresh opportunities, it also posed dangers that were less obvious. The withdrawal gave Soviet forces the opportunity to attack the Germans when they were most vulnerable, namely while they were conducting a delicate and tricky retrograde action. At the same time, by shortening their lines, the Germans could generate fresh divisions to assist the Second Panzer Army in its struggle with Rokossovsky’s forces. The Stavka’s solution was to order the Kalinin and Western Fronts to attack the withdrawing Germans across their entire front. The attacks, which began in early March and continued until the 23d, failed to inflict serious damage on the withdrawing Germans, but cost the two fronts over 138,000 casualties, including almost 40,000 dead. Nor did the Soviet attacks eliminate the less obvious dangers. For example, to Rokossovsky’s growing frustration, by mid-March the 72d and 102d Infantry Divisions, which had previously occupied defenses in the Rzhev region, appeared among the Second Panzer Army’s forces manning German defenses south of Orel.

Just as the Germans were beginning their withdrawal from Rzhev, Rokossovsky set about fulfilling the Stavka’s new orders. He ordered Rodin to reassemble his tank army south of the Usozha River and to deliver a concentrated blow along the Lokot’ and Orel axis in concert with Batov’s 65th Army. Tarasov’s 70th Army was to cooperate with Pukhov’s 13th and Romanenko’s 48th Armies of the Bryansk Front and smash German defenses from west of Trosna to north of Maloyaroslavets. In turn, Rodin ordered General Lazarev’s 11th Tank Corps and the 115th Rifle Brigade to turn over their offensive sector west of Sevsk to General Kriukov’s Cavalry-Rifle Group. Subsequently, the tank corps was to march northeastward and assemble on the 2d Tank Army’s left flank along the south bank of the Usozha River opposite the Second Panzer Army’s exposed right flank. This left Kriukov’s fragile cavalry force with the mission of defending a 150-kilometer wide operational sector at a time when the German Second Army to the south was also assembling forces for a concerted counterattack.

Although Rokossovsky’s began his new offensive on 7 March with heavy attacks by the 65th Army against German forces east of Komarichi, his offensive developed in piecemeal fashion, largely due to delays in assembling 2d Tank Army’s re-deploying 11th Tank Corps. Despite the 11th Tank Corps absence, Major General A. G. Maslov’s 16th Tank Corps and the 60th and 194th Rifle Divisions, attacking on the 65th Army’s left flank, drove German forces back to the Usozha River and, in desperate fighting, gained small footholds on the river’s north bank. Three days later on 10 March, the 11th Tank Corps brigades finally went into action and drove across the Usozha River southwest of Komarichi. By this time, the twin assaults by the 2d Tank and 65th Armies threatened to envelop German forces defending forward of Komarichi. However, Rokossovsky’s efforts were in vain, since the Second Panzer Army now committed fresh reserves (the 45th and 72d Infantry Divisions) into Rodin’s and Batov’s path. To the east, Tarasov, Pukhov’s, and Romanenko’s armies exhausted themselves in futile attacks on the German defenses east and west of Trosna. While the seesaw struggle continued unabated, once again events elsewhere frustrated Rokossovsky’s and the Stavka’s grand plans.

South of the Central Front’s large penetration, by 7 March the German Second Army had completed a major force regrouping by shifting forces northward from the Belopol’e and Sumy regions to assemble forces capable of closing the yawning gap between it and Second Panzer Army. While containing the advance of General Cherniakhovsky’s 60th Army on the immediate approaches to Rylsk, the Second Army assembled its 82d and 88th Infantry Divisions along the southern flank of General Kriukov’s Cavalry-Rifle Group west of Rylsk with orders to attack northward. At the same time, the 4th Panzer Division regrouped at Novgorod-Severskii with orders to attack the nose of the Soviet penetration. Although still fatigued from its long delaying action westward through Kursk, which it completed only days before, on 11 March the 4th Panzer Division attacked from the small German bridgehead across the Desna River at Novgorod-Severskii. It struck the overextended cavalry divisions and ski brigades of Kriukov’s Cavalry-Rifle Group and proved that the light Soviet infantry and cavalry force could not withstand the force of even a weakened German panzer division. Kriukov’s force recoiled steadily eastward, while, Rodin’s, Batov’s, and Tarasov’s weakened armies desperately hammered in vain at German defenses covering Komarichi, and the Bryansk Front’s exhausted armies expended their remaining strength in fruitless assaults east of Trosna. Recognizing the growing threat to his virtually open right flank and the mortal danger confronting Kriukov’s force, on 12 March General Cherniakhovsky shifted forces to the right flank of his 60th Army. As prudent as this measure was, it decreased Soviet pressure on Rylsk and permitted the German Second Army to reinforce further its 82d and 88th Infantry Divisions, which were now poised to strike Kruikov’s southern flank. The Second Army’s fully assembled counterattack force struck on 14 March on a front extending from Novgorod-Severskii to north of Rylsk. Kriukov’s position was clearly untenable, and his forces had no choice but to commence an agonizing but increasingly hasty retreat eastward.

Rokossovsky heeded Kriukov’s calls for assistance and appreciated his dilemma. Unfortunately, there was little he could do. Once again, events were beyond his control. While his assaults had recorded limited progress, the supporting attack by Bagramian’s 16th Army north of Orel had failed miserably at immense human cost. Nor had any of the other supporting attacks achieved anything. Worse still, von Manstein’s German Army Group South had renewed its offensive with a vengeance, this time against the Voronezh Front’s overextended and exhausted armies defending south of Kharkov. To the apparent surprise of the Stavka, von Manstein’s SS Panzer Corps and Corps Raus (which included the powerful Grossdeutschland Division) struck directly at Soviet forces defending Kharkov on 6 March and seized the city on 15 March. Then on 17 March, the force struck northward toward Belgorod in concert with Second Army forces attacking from the west. Von Manstein’s assault tore apart the Voronezh Fronts 3d Tank and 69th Armies and threatened the latter and 40th Army with encirclement between Belgorod and Sumy. Any subsequent successful German advance would clearly also threaten the southern flank and rear of Rokossovsky’s entire Central Front. If the experiences of the Southwestern and Voronezh Fronts were an accurate indicator of German capabilities, the Central Front was now in jeopardy. For the first time in weeks, the Stavka now fully appreciated the deteriorating situation. The crisis was, indeed, real.

Spurred to action, the Stavka hastily began to assemble strategic reserves necessary to halt the German advance and to preserve as many of the precious gains made during the Winter Campaign as possible. Its first decision, reached on 11 March, was to transfer General Chistiakov’s 21st Army, which had just completed its concentration near Fatezh, from Central to Voronezh Front control. As Chistyakov hastily moved his army southward through Kursk to Oboyan’, Rokossovsky’s last hopes for inflicting defeat on the German Orel grouping disappeared. Reflecting its increased desperation, the Stavka also ordered the 1st Tank Army southward from the Staraya Russa region to Kursk to back up the Voronezh Front and the 24th and 66th Armies from Stalingrad to concentrate at Voronezh in the Voronezh Front’s deep rear31. The Stavka correctly believed that these forces, together with the 62d and 64th Armies, which had just arrived from Stalingrad, would be sufficient to bring von Manstein’s juggernaut to a halt. Ironically, bad weather and exhaustion were enough to halt the German drive. Von Manstein called a halt to his attacks on 17 March, shortly after his forces captured Belgorod. The fighting then subsided and the lines stabilized along the southern face of the famous Kursk Bulge.

Rokossovsky’s forces continued limited offensive operations until 21 March. During this period he shifted reserves to help General Kriukov extricate his beleaguered cavalry and rifle forces from the German pincers closing on Sevsk. Meanwhile the Stavka undertook frenetic efforts to reorganize its forces along the Kursk, Orel axis. On 12 March the Stavka abolished the Bryansk Front, assigning its 61st Army to the Western Front, its 3d, 48th, and 13th Armies to the Central Front, and its front headquarters and 15th Air Army to the Stavka reserve. A week later the Stavka ordered the creation, effective 23 March, of the new Kursk Front, commanded by Colonel General Reiter and consisting of the 60th, 38th, and 15th Air Armies32. The new Kursk Front’s task was to employ the 60th and 38th Armies, the Voronezh Front’s right wing armies that emerged relatively intact from the preceding operations, to defend the critical nose of the emerging Kursk Bulge. The Stavka promised to reinforce the front with two additional armies as soon as feasible, probably the regrouped 63d and 66th Armies.

Within days, however, the Stavka once again reorganized its forces for defense. First, on 27 March it abolished the Kursk Front, assigning the 38th Army to the Voronezh Front, which had now stabilized its positions along a line extending from Sudzha to Belgorod33. It assigned the 60th Army to Rokossovsky’s Central Front and ordered Rokossovsky to defend the Bryansk, Kursk and Orel, Kursk axes. At the same time, it formed a new Orel Front consisting of the 3d and 61st Armies supported by the 15th Air Army, tasked with protecting the nose of the German Orel salient. Finally on 29 March, it completed this round of hasty reorganizations by renaming the Orel Front the Bryansk Front.

The Winter Campaign was at an end. By the end of March, the Stavka’s hopes for significant additional strategic gains in spring 1943 had been dashed. The gaze of strategic planners on both sides would now be riveted on the legacy of the failed Soviet strategic offensive, the Kursk Bulge.

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