Vitsyebsk gate

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Coordinates: 55°30′N 30°48′E / 55.5°N 30.8°E / 55.5; 30.8

"Vitebsk gate" or "Surazh gate" (Belarusian: Віцебскія вароты or Belarusian: Суражскія вароты) was the conventional name in Soviet historiography, also later in Belarusian, given to the corridor connecting the Soviet and German-occupied territories. It was a 40 KM area (between Velizh and Usvyaty) in the place of contact between the German army groups "North" and "Center". The area was created by the Soviet offensive undertaken by the "4th Shock Army" during the winter of 1942 (the so-called Toropets–Kholm Offensive operation) and existed from 10 February 1942 until 28 September 1942.

Red Army offensive creating the Gate[edit]

The Soviet 54th infantry brigade taking part in the 4th Shock Army offensive, captured the town of Usvyaty during the night of 20 January 1942. In July 1942 it was changed by the 47th Naval infantry division, with 334th infantry regiment holding western part of Usvyaty, forming the north border of the Vitebsk Gate.

Forces of the 360th infantry division and 48th infantry brigade, composed of only 1500 men, had managed to capture the western parts of Velizh and dug in there on 29 January 1942. Meanwhile, the 249th infantry division and 51st infantry brigade surpassed Velizh and according to the order dated 30 December 1942 attacked Surazh. Then the 51st infantry brigade blocked the town from the north while the 249th infantry division marched further southwest towards Vitebsk, coming close to the city 3 February 1942 (note the red arrow on the extreme left, out of the front, on the map here: However, both units were too exhausted and undermanned for these tasks. By the time the 249th infantry division reached the suburbs of Vitebsk, it only had 1400 soldiers in action. Fresh German units counter-attacked: the 277th infantry regiment (which belongs to 83rd infantry division) threw Soviet forces out from Surazh to the east until Ostrovki (Ostrovskie) settlement around 10 February 1942. Other German regiments from 205th infantry division (Third Reich) and from 330th infantry division attacked from Vitebsk and forced Soviet 249th infantry division to retreat quickly, following the delayed order. Later both Soviet units returned further northeast and dug in on the northeast suburbs of Velizh, forming the south border of the Vitebsk Gate.

The main reasons why German military ignored this huge (40 KM) "hole" in the front were:

  1. lack of forces after heavy summer-autumn 1941 campaign and Red Army counter strikes during winter 1941-42;
  2. very long front line (and communications) due to numerous "salients, re-entrants and pockets" near Vyazma and Rzhev, for the Army Group "Center";
  3. many units were assigned to the Demyansk Pocket deblocking and towards the blocked force in Kholm Pocket, for the Army Group "North";
  4. HQ of both Army Groups had no wish to take care of these 40 KM of dense forests and swamps with so few roads. The Red Army offensive would be fruitless since the only serious road heading to fortified Vitebsk went near the south bank of the Western Dvina river, which was controlled by the Germans. Red Army did not try to make any offensive here after the 249th infantry division's retreat during February 1942.

Partisan control and defense of the Gate[edit]

In the swamp and forest region (3–5 KM north of Western Dvina River) small Soviet units, with the help from partisan groups led by Ya. Z. Zakharov, M. F. Biryulin, M. I. Dyachkov, M. F. Shmyrev, S. T. Voronov, V. V. Strelkov,[1] managed to clear and control a large area with no strategical roads. Later the front stabilized here and the 40 KM gap in German defensive line was filled by partisans. They destroyed local German garrisons in and held control over the villages Tarasenki, Punische, Galevichi, Ozerki, Ukraytzi, Verechje, Kazakove and others. The northern part of Surazh `rayon` of Vitebsk region (near village Tarasenki) was the first part of Belarusian territory liberated by Soviet forces since 1941.

Map of the Vitebsk (Surazh) Gate (English)

The corridor opened into the hardly accessible territory where several partisan units were based and were later able to control territory around 1600 square KM (so-called Surazh partisan area) with 16-17 "sel'Sovet" (Soviet village-level representative type local governance) and one Vitebsk "oblSovet" (Soviet region-level representative type governance) re-established with a telephone line connecting it to the regular army and governance on the mainland USSR.

It seems the Soviet political and military command did not realize the possibilities the Gate created initially, as the real contact with the local partisan units was not established until March 1942.[2] After realizing those, and aiming for the overall inclusion of the partisan movement in the overall strategy, and for the disruption of the German rear in the event of the anticipated German 1942 offensive,[3] a resolution had been made, supposedly in March 1942,[4] to create steady logistical and personnel support for the partisan movement and to maintain centralized coordination of its activities. Initially, the North-Western Operational Group was created by the Belarusian Communist Party (1942-03-20), liaisoning with HQs of the Kalinin Front and 3rd and 4th Soviet strike armies. Later, the Headquarters of the Partisan Movement under Ponomarenko was created (1942-05-30), with territorial Headquarters (Belarusian under Pyotr Kalinin) subsequently created in September 1942. Soviet leader Stalin was unaware about the existence of the Gate until the summer of 1942 (according to the M.F. Shmyrev he personally told Stalin about the Gate on the meeting with partisan leaders in Kremlin[5]).

The Gate was guarded:

  1. From the south, by the 1st Belarusian Partisan brigade, which formed by joining 5 partisan squads 8 April 1942 and initially had about 300 men. The brigade later grew to 1500-2000 men with mortars and cannons (with M.F. Shmyrev nicknamed "Daddy Minay" as commander; he was a World War I vet, later fabric director in Vitebsk assigned as a partisan commander just before Vitebsk was captured by Germans, his partisan squad fighting Nazi from 12.07.1941 and his four children, aged 3 to 14, were taken as hostages by Gestapo autumn 1941 and executed February 1942).[6] The brigade commander was called to Moscow during the end of November 1942 and the post was taken by its new commander, Ya.Z. Zakharov.
  2. From the north, by 2nd Belarusian Partisan brigade, which was formed from Mekhovskiy partisan squad during May 1942 (M.I. Djachkov as commander) and later had 617 men in action units armed with mortars plus 128 men in HQ, supply and sanitary units, separate cavalry recon unit.[7]

Generally, starting in April 1942 the partisan numbers grew quickly, much helped by the significant influx of the cadre personnel (commanding, political, organisational, specialist) and war material through the Vitebsk Gate. Several thousand trained cadre were sent to Belarus, with most of them being native Belarusians, intentionally. They were formed in diversion groups and so-called "organisers" groups (consisted of: communists leaders and agitators, printing shop (typography) specialists, medics, explosive and diversion instructors). More than 170 groups, around 3000 men were sent through Gate which makes 15% of the total flux of man force to the partisans of the Belarus (total numbers are: 20050 men - 265 partisan squad commanders, 549 underground resistance organisers, 1146 explosive instructors, 23 chemistry instructors, around 15000 sabotage and diversion specialists, 11 underwater diversion specialists, 457 radio operators, 252 scouts, 52 printing shop specialists, 12 newspaper editors).

The transport flux through the Gate[edit]

More than 5,000 pieces of firearms, tens of millions of cartridges, hundreds of tons of explosives, machine guns, typographical and printing machinery, millions of copies of Soviet newspapers and other propaganda material were provided through the Gate to German occupied Belarus. About 150 radio stations were moved into Belarus through the Gate in April–September 1942. Material and personnel entering through the Gate into the Vitebsk land were subsequently rerouted to the other regions of Belarus according to the instructions issued from headquarters.[8]

The Gate worked in the opposite direction allowing transport out of Belarus as well. Notably, about 20,000-25,000 conscripts to the Red Army, 200,000 refugees, 1,600 tonnes of grain, 10,000 tonnes of potatoes and other vegetables, food products, livestock, and 2,500 horses were moved out of the German-occupied territory through the Gate.

In 1967 Belarusian artist Mikhail Savitsky painted "Vitebsk Gate"[9][10] which depicts refugees crossing the Gate.

Anticipating the closure of the Gate specialists were sent to Belarus to build airstrips. Almost 50 covert airstrips and many airdrop sites were built in the course of the war, facilitating the subsequent logistical support of the partisan movement from the "Mainland" (Russian: "Большая земля").

German offensive for destruction of the Gate[edit]

German forces launched a large and well planned army operation by the night to 25 September 1942. The operation started as offensive from the south, using three directions: from Vitebsk to Kurino, from Surazh to Tarasenki, from Kraslevichi (near Velizh) to the west. These strikes joined each other on the banks of the small river Usvyacha and then all forces turned to the north.

The aim was to take control over the main (Rochade) "belt" forest road which runs along the west bank of the Usvyacha river from Western Dvina bank in the south and till the Usvyaty town on the north through villages Tarasenki-Pudat'-Shershni.

Heavy fights occurred near the villages of Punishe, Buly, Pudat' then further north near Myaliny, Shmyri, Drozdy. By the night between 27–28 September Germans took all these villages using their advantage in artillery and tanks.

German forces from the north cleared the road Velikie Luki - Usvyaty and during 27–28 September launched a synchronized 10 km long strike to the south along Usvyacha river towards village Shershni.

The next day German forces captured the villages Karpenkino, Shmyri, and Shershni meeting the forces striking from the south and closing by that Vitebsk Gate. Occupants burned several other villages during the following punitive expedition around the area.[11]

The regular Red Army force on the Gate's north side (town Usvyaty) were also attacked by Germans two days after 28 September but the 334th regiment of 47th infantry division defended his ground.

A monument for the partisans killed during these fights was raised year 1977 near village Zapol'e.[12]

Historical importance of the Gate[edit]

Vitebsk (Surazh) Gate was the biggest and most important example of how one side can use a "hole" in the front to cultivate and develop the partisan movement inside the territory occupied by enemy. The experience gathered by Soviets during the Vitebsk Gate functioning was used several times afterwards (during year 1944 for partisan squads supply operation in Belarus and Ukraine). The Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos during Vietnam War had similar and even bigger importance growing around 1975 to 2000 km long system of all-weather motor-roads, oil pipeline and telecommunication lines. This experience can be used anywhere in future wars providing two conditions for battle situation fulfilled: 1. partisan war is going on, 2. wide uncontrolled "holes" exist in the enemy regular front.