354th Rifle Division (Soviet Union)

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354th Rifle Division
Active Aug. 1941 – 1946
Country  Soviet Union
Branch Red Army flag.svg Red Army
Type Division
Role Infantry
Engagements Battle of Moscow
Battles of Rzhev
Battle of Kursk
Lower Dnieper Offensive
Operation Bagration
Lublin-Brest Offensive
East Pomeranian Offensive
Berlin Strategic Offensive
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Mjr. Gen. D.F. Alekseev
Mjr. Gen. V.N. Dzhandzhgava

The 354th Rifle Division was raised in 1941 as a standard Red Army rifle division, and served for the duration of the Great Patriotic War in that role. The division distinguished itself in at least three battles. It was credited with the liberation of the town of Kalinkovichi on 14 January 1944, and shared credit with other formations for the liberation of Bobruisk during Operation Bagration. It also played the leading role in the defense of 65th Army's bridgehead over the Narev River in Oct., 1944.

Formation[edit]

The division was organized at Penzensk in the Russian SFSR starting on 11 August 1941 until the end of October, when it began moving to the front. It comprised:

  • 1199th Rifle Regiment
  • 1201st Rifle Regiment
  • 1203rd Rifle Regiment
  • 921st Artillery Regiment
  • 476th Sapper Battalion
  • 645th Antiaircraft Battalion
  • 809th Signal Battalion
  • 443rd Medical Battalion
  • 420th Reconnaissance Company
  • 473rd Truck Company
  • 436th Chemical Defense Company[1]

Col. Dmitrii Fyodorovich Alekseev was named divisional commander on 1 September. Alekseev had the advantage of starting with an unusually strong cadre for this period of the war; 35 percent of his officers were active-duty, and he received a large number of high-morale, experienced Communist Party members from the Penzensk party organization.[2]

On 26 November the 354th was assigned to 16th Army, under command of K.K. Rokossovski, part of Western Front defending before Moscow. In early Dec. the 16th Army joined in the Soviet counteroffensive against German Army Group Center. Later that month the 354th was reinforced with the 274th Antitank Battalion (12 45mm guns, 27 PTRD antitank rifles); in addition, each rifle regiment had its own company of 27 PTRDs, giving the division a very strong antitank defense for a rifle division of this period. At the same time, however, the 645th AA Battalion was replaced with the 307th AA Battery, with just 4 37mm guns. In early 1942 the 354th was further reinforced with the 516th Mortar Battalion.[3]

Battles of Rzhev[edit]

The division was reassigned to the 5th Army in late January 1942, and then to the 20th Army in July, still in Western Front. In the late stages of Operation Mars, the 354th, now part of the 8th Guards Rifle Corps, was directed to attack German strongholds in the villages of Khlepen and Zherebtsovo, and while briefly threatening a German battalion with complete encirclement, the division had suffered "immense casualties" and could not complete its mission.[4] The division then went back into Western Front reserves for rebuilding.

Battle of Kursk[edit]

In Feb. 1943 the 354th was reassigned to Gen. P.I. Batov's 65th Army in Rokossovski's Central Front (former Don Front). The division would continue under the command of Batov and Rokossovski for the duration of the war. Central Front was deployed to the Kursk area, where the rebuilt division helped make gains in a gap between the German 2nd Army and 2nd Panzer Army until German reserves brought the advance to a halt.[5] The 354th remained in the Kursk salient through the following months, including Operation Zitadelle. 65th Army's positions were in the western sector of the bulge, and were not directly involved in the German offensive.

Advance[edit]

Following the German defeat at Kursk, Central Front began advancing westward out of the salient. Two months of offensive campaigning gradually wore down the 354th until by Sept. it was down to about 60 percent of its authorized strength. In spite of this, on 28 September the 1203rd Rifle Regiment, reinforced by the 257th Separate Army Shtrafnaya (Penal) Company, made a successful assault crossing of the Desna River.[6]

Following the crossing of the Dnepr River and the liberation of Kiev in Nov., Rokossovski's Front (now named Belorussian) continued a remorseless western advance along the southern fringes of the Pripet Marshes. In one phase of this advance, on 14 January 1944, the 354th was successful in liberating the town of Kalinkovichi and was later given the name of that town as its divisional honorific. All this came at a cost and in March the rifle units in the division were at about 1/3rd their authorized strength.[7] In that same month the 354th was joined with the 193rd Rifle Division to form the 105th Rifle Corps, where they would both serve for the duration. Both divisions were brought up closer to full strength for the next offensive.

During that offensive, Operation Bagration, the 354th was given part of the credit for the liberation of the city of Bobruisk, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Gen. Alekseev had been promoted and had been succeeded by three different colonels in command of the division in the first half of 1944, but on 29 June Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Vladimir Nikolayevich Dzhandzhgava, former commander of the 15th Sivash Rifle Division, took command of the 354th, a position he would hold for the duration. Meanwhile, Alekseev had taken command of the 105th Rifle Corps, also for the duration.[8]

With the defenses of Army Group Center shattered, the division raced westward towards Poland. While attempting to reach and cross the Western Bug River, the forward detachments of 65th Army were counterattacked by elements of three German divisions from 19 – 25 July. The 354th faced off against the 5th SS Panzer Division "Viking"; although some elements were surrounded for a time, the Germans were eventually forced to pull back.[9] After an advance of more than 600 km, the 65th Army reached the Narev River on 5 September and forced a crossing. The 354th was sent into the bridgehead and, while unable to further expand it, was successful in helping to defend it against immediate German counterattacks. The division dug in, but on 4 October came under a massive artillery bombardment and found itself under attack by the 3rd Panzer Division and driven back towards the river. Partly owing to Dzhandzhgava's personal intervention in the battle, the bridgehead was barely held.[10] This bridgehead would become one of the breakout points of Rokossovski's 2nd Belorussian Front in January, 1945.

The new offensive began on 14 January, and the 354th pushed on through northern Poland and eastern Germany to the Elbe River during the next few months. As the final offensive began in April, the division had 6,000 personnel; the rifle regiments had two battalions of two companies of 60 – 70 men each, which was typical of Red Army rifle divisions at that time.[11] On 1 May, Stalin gave thanks to the 354th for the capture of the German city of Stralsund.[12]

Six men of the 354th Rifle Division were named as Heroes of the Soviet Union, all in 1945. The division honorifics were – Russian: Калинковичская ордена Ленина Краснознамённая ордена Суворова. (English: Kalinkovichi, Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Banner, Order of Suvorov). The division was disbanded in 1946.

Sources[edit]

  1. ^ Charles C. Sharp, "Red Tide", Soviet Order of Battle World War II, Vol. IX, Nafziger, 1996, p 90
  2. ^ Sharp, p 90
  3. ^ Sharp, p 90
  4. ^ David Glantz; Zhukov's Greatest Defeat; University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 1999; p 190
  5. ^ David Glantz; After Stalingrad, The Red Army's Winter Offensive 1942 – 1943, Helion and Co., 2009, p 285
  6. ^ Sharp, p 90
  7. ^ Sharp, pp 90 – 91
  8. ^ Nikolai Litvin; 800 Days on the Eastern Front; University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 2007; p 81
  9. ^ Litvin, pp 84 – 89
  10. ^ Litvin, pp 90 – 99
  11. ^ Sharp, p 91
  12. ^ Litvin, p 140