Battle for Velikiye Luki
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|Battle of Velikiye Luki|
|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
Velikiye Luki (red, upper left) and the nearby rail trunks, in the context of the Soviet 1942–1943 offensives. (click to enlarge)
|Commanders and leaders|
|Kurt von der Chevallerie||Maksim Purkayev|
|LIX Korps – ~50,000 (on 19 Nov)
Reinforcement forces: ~50,000
|3rd Shock Army – 95,608 (on 19 Nov)
Reinforcement forces: 86,700
|Casualties and losses|
|Soviet estimate: ~60.000 killed, missing or wounded, 4.500 captured||104,022
31,674 killed or missing
The Velikiye Luki offensive operation (Russian: Великолукская наступательная операция) 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 Luki as part of the northern pincer of the Rzhev-Sychevka Strategic Offensive Operation (Operation Mars).
As part of Operation Barbarossa, the German LVII Panzer Corps took Velikiye Luki on 19 July 1941, but was forced to retreat the next day due to Soviet counter-attacks breaking the line of communications in multiple places. A new attack was launched in late August by both the LVII and XXXX Panzer Corps, and the city was recaptured on Aug. 26.
The city had great strategic value due to the main north-south railway line running just west of the city at Novosokolniki, as well as the city's own rail network to Vitebsk and bridges over the Lovat River. After its capture and with the German offensive running out of steam for the winter, the area was fortified. Marshy terrain extended to Lake Peipus from just north of the city defended by the German 16th Field Army, making operations in the region around the city difficult for both sides. Rather than maintaining a solid "front" in the area, the Germans established a series of thinly held outposts to the north and south of the city.
Soviet counterattacks during the Winter Campaign of 1941–1942, especially the Battles of Rzhev just to the south, formed a large salient in the German lines. Velikiye Luki lay just on the western edge of the original advance, and was just as strategic for the Soviets as the German. The city dominated the region and would therefore be the natural point for fighting, offering the possibility of eliminating the German bridges on the Lovat, and to deny the Germans use of the rail line that provided communications between Army groups North and Centre. Furthermore, as long as the German Army occupied both rail junctions at Velikiye Luki and Rzhev, the Red Army could not reliably reinforce or resupply its troops on the north face of the massive Rzhev Salient.
In view of its strategic significance, the Germans heavily fortified the city over the course of 1942. The Soviets often raided into German-held territory around the town and the town could only be kept supplied by armoured trains.
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 city itself was defended by the 83rd Infantry Division commanded by Lieutenant General Theodor 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 7,000 troops.
Encirclement of German forces
Rather than attacking the town directly, the Soviet forces advanced into the difficult terrain to the north and south of the town. Spearheaded by four rifle divisions to the south and one to the north, the operation commenced on 24 November. Despite heavy losses, they successfully cut the land links to the city by 27 November, 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). The request was dismissed by Hitler, who, pointing to an earlier success in a similar situation at Kholm, demanded that the encircled formations stand fast while the Gruppe Chevallerie from the north and 20th Motorised Division from the south counter-attacked to open the encirclement.
German relief attempts
Saß and the garrison were ordered to hold the city at all costs, while a relief force was 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 Wöhler (291st Infantry Division). Later, other divisions were made available, including the understrength 8th Panzer Division from Gruppe 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, 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, heavily damaged.
Operation Totila, the next attempt to break through to Velikiye Luki, was launched on 4 January. 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 capture the city continued. On 5 January, 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 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 10 January, a force of 15 armoured vehicles overran a series of Soviet positions and broke through into the town. However, the force concentrated itself in the citadel and soon after was bombarded by Soviet artillery. By this point, 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 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.
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 2,000 wounded would fall into Russian hands...help must immediately come from the outside". Along with 3,000–4,000 of his men, he was taken into Soviet captivity when his forces surrendered on 16 January.
After the war, the Soviet authorities collected a representative set of men of various ranks from General to private who had fought at Velikiye Luki from prisoner of war camps and brought them to the city. A military tribunal held a public trial in the city and convicted them of collective responsibility for war crimes generally related to anti-partisan warfare. Von Saß, von Rappard, the previous commander of Infantry Regiment 277 and six others were publicly hanged in the main square of Velikiye Luki in January 1946. All others who were identified as having been involved in the battle were typically given sentences of twenty to twenty-five years. Between 1953 and 1955, a total of eleven survivors returned to Germany.
The battle is sometimes called "The Little Stalingrad of the North" due to its similarities with the larger and better-known Battle of Stalingrad that raged in the southern sector of the front. Judged purely by the numbers, this battle was a small affair by the usual standards of the Eastern Front (150,000 total casualties suffered by both sides as opposed to 2,000,000 total casualties at Stalingrad), but had enormous strategic consequences. The liberation of Velikiye Luki meant the Red Army had, for the first time since October 1941, a direct rail supply line to the northern face of the Rzhev Salient exposing the German troops defending Rzhev to encirclement. Events at Velikiye Luki thus necessitated the withdrawal from Rzhev salient ending any German military threat to Moscow. However, even after withdrawing from Rzhev, possession of Velikiye Luki meant that the rail link between Army groups North and Centre was severed, preventing the German Army from shifting reinforcements between threatened sectors. Furthermore, the rail lines from Velikiye Luki led directly into the rear of Vitebsk, a critical logistics hub for Army Group Centre. The effects of this battle meant that Army Group Centre was exposed to attack from the north, east, and (after the Battle of Smolensk (1943)) south, exposing the whole army group to mass encirclement, which is exactly what happened in the massive Operation Bagration the following year.
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.
- Kalinin Front (Maksim Alekseyevich Purkayev) engaged in the Second Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive to the south of Velikiye Luki.
- 4th Shock Army
- 3rd Shock Army (General Lieutenant Galitsky)
- 8th Estonian Rifle Corps(General Major Pärn)
- 5th Guards Rifle Corps (General Colonel Afanasy Beloborodov)
- 2nd Mechanised Corps(General Colonel Korchagin)
- 13th independent Guards breakthrough tank regiment (Sub-colonel Galkin) equipped with KV-1 tanks
- 34th independent tank regiment (Sub-colonel Bogdanov) equipped with T-34 tanks
- 38th independent tank regiment (Sub-colonel Zheleznov, after 30.12.42 Sub-colonel Khubayev) equipped with T-34 tanks
- 3rd Air Army
- Long Range Aviation
- 3rd Long-range aviation division (Colonel Yukhanov)
- 17th Long-range aviation division (General Major of Aviation Loginov)
- 222nd Long-range aviation division (Colonel Titov)
- Army Group Center
- Operation "Totila" relief forces
- II/11th Panzer Division (Wehrmacht)
- Two battalions/331st Infantry Division
- 8th Panzer Division (14 PzKW 38t, and one command tank)
- 20th Motorized Infantry Division
- German 6th Luftwaffe Field Division
- 3rd Mountain Division (at Novosokol'niki to the rear of 83rd Infantry Division's positions)
- 291st Infantry Division
- 1 SS Infantry Brigade (mot)
- Frikorps Danmark
- II/11th Panzer Division (Wehrmacht)
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.
- Oldwitg von Natzmer. Operations of Encircled Forces. German Experiences in Russia. — Department of the Army, Washington, DC 1952. (Oldwitg von Natzmer). Washington DC. 1952
- Галицкий К. Н. Годы суровых испытаний. 1941—1944 (записки командарма) — М.: Наука, 1973. стр.185
- Великая Отечественная война. 1941—1945 гг. Справочное пособие/ Автор-составитель И. И. Максимов. — М.: Издательство «ДИК», 2005. ISBN 5-8213-0232-3
- Glantz (1995), p. 296
- David Stahel, Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2009, pp. 290-91
- Stahel, p. 409
- reinforced by elements of 291st Infantry Division
- Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth. p. 289.
- Christensen, C.B.; Poulsen, N.B.; Smith, P.S.(1998) "Under Hagekors og Dannebrog" pp. 176–185
- 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. Shelby Stanton had researched primary sources using the captured German records held by NARA in Wash. DC.
- Department of the Army, Historical Study Operations of Encircled Forces German Experiences in Russia, Pamphlet 20-234, Washington DC, 1952. This pamphlet was written by German officers to relay their experiences fighting the Russians (sic). The officers had to rely on memory so there are some inaccuracies but gives a good overall account of various operations and battles.
- Glantz, D.M., Zhukov's greatest defeat: The Red Army's Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1999
- Glantz, David M. & House, Jonathan (1995), When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, ISBN 0-7006-0899-0
- Isayev, A.V., When there were no surprises: History of the Great Patriotic War which we never knew, Velikiye Luki operation Russian: Великолукская операция, 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).  ". Accessed on 21 April 2005.