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During the winter of 1942, Russian soldiers used the brutal winter conditions to their advantage, counterattacking isolated positions manned by hard-pressed Germans -- including members of the elite Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops), who wore the edelweiss badge on their caps. One of those positions was the city of Velikiye Luki, a key link in the supply line that fed the Germans of Army Group North. (Library of Congress)
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Battle of Velikiye Luki: Surrounded in the Snow

Encircled in the vital city of Velikiye Luki, the German Ninth Army made the Soviets pay dearly for its capture.

By William A. Webb

In the wet snows of late November 1942, the Soviet army struck at the thinly manned German front lines north and south of the city on the river, surrounding the vital supply center and trapping its garrison while threatening to cut off and encircle an entire German army group.

Adolf Hitler forbade a breakout and ordered that the surrounded troops be supplied by air. Relief attacks never quite had the necessary strength to break through the encircling Russians, and by late January 1943 the city was again in Russian hands, the German defenders either dead or taken prisoner.

Similar To Stalingrad

The German commander was General Hellmut von der Chevallerie, not Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus. His opponent was the Third Shock Army, not General Lieutenant Vasily I. Chuykov's Sixty-second Army, and the army hemorrhaging German blood was the Ninth, not the Sixth. Nevertheless, the encirclement of Velikiye Luki bore a strong resemblance to the well-known Nazi debacle that was unfolding at the same time at Stalingrad.

Located on the Lovat River at a triangulated point south of Leningrad and west of Moscow, Velikiye Luki was a small city with a prewar population of 30,000. The road and rail network west of Novosokolniki converged there; supplying forces either to the east or west required control of the city. Unlike other Russian cities of similar size, Velikiye Luki was heavily influenced by Western Europe, since it was the point of conversion from the wide West European rail gauge to the narrower East European gauge. Western diplomats and VIPs regularly passed through the city on their way to Moscow. For their use the Soviets maintained a Western-style hotel, named the Hotel Moscow. Luxuries were available there that were unknown throughout the rest of the Soviet Union.

High Stakes

Velikiye Luki was crucial to both sides. To the Germans it was a bulwark protecting the vital railway supplying Army Group North, which passed through Novosokolniki some 20 kilometers to the west. Loss of that rail line might have forced Army Group North to lift the siege of Leningrad. Given Hitler's penchant for standing fast no matter what the military situation, this turn of events could have caused Army Group North to be trapped against the Gulf of Riga.

But if the German high command thought Velikiye Luki was important, the Soviet high command considered it crucial. Their efforts to recapture the city started in August 1941, soon after its capture, and continued almost without pause until January 1943. To the Soviets, the city's recapture meant much more than threatening the supply lines of Army Group North. The Russians' ultimate objective was to slice into the rear of Army Group Center, anchored 30 kilometers south at Velizh. Such a move would threaten to encircle and unhinge the entire German front. Smolensk would surely fall, and trapping Army Group North would merely be a bonus. The stakes were no less than the fate of two German army groups.

Sudden Vulnerability

For a while it seemed a very different battle might take place. In early November 1942, the German Eleventh Army moved into the seam between Army Groups Center and North to shore up the hodgepodge of battered units that had been under almost continuous Soviet attack since the previous winter. German morale soared, for the Eleventh Army veterans were the conquerors of Sevastopol and were led by Germany's most able field commander, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Surely, they believed, the formations necessary to defeat the Soviets in the sector between Kholm and Velizh would become available. Was not Manstein already a legend in the Wehrmacht? What else could his presence signify except a coming offensive? Unfortunately for the exhausted men of the LIX Corps, it was not to be. The Soviets struck first and far to the south, in a bend of the Don River on the flanks of the Sixth Army fighting in Stalingrad. The Eleventh Army and its illustrious commander, minus a few key units, were immediately transferred to the threatened area, and the LIX Corps was left to its fate.

The departure of the Eleventh Army meant there was no German front line from Kholm in the north to Velizh in the south. All that remained in the area was the 83rd Infantry Division screening Velikiye Luki in the center and the 3rd Gebirgsjäger (mountain troop) Division slightly to the south. The LIX Corps, renamed Group von der Chevallerie, was given the added responsibility for defense of the area the Eleventh Army had evacuated, without the benefit of any additional troops.

Understrength Divisions

When Soviet infiltrators moved into jump-off positions north and south of Velikiye Luki, no German outposts were in position to oppose them. North of the city, the Germans wishfully believed that the dense forest was impassable. In the south, the 3rd Gebirgsjäger Division was stretched out to cover a front of more than 20 kilometers.

Both the 83rd Infantry and 3rd Gebirgsjäger were veteran divisions, though badly understrength from the fighting the previous summer. The two divisions were dangerously overstretched, the 83rd in particular. Dug-in companies were each defending up to three kilometers of the front directly west of Velikiye Luki along the Kuban Stream. Worse, the 3rd Gebirgsjäger was split between Norway and Russia, having left one of its infantry regiments and an artillery battalion behind after being mauled in the drive on Murmansk. The area that it was tasked to defend was so desolate that there were not even farmhouses to provide shelter from the winter snows.

The Opposing Sides

Spearheading the Soviet attack were four guards divisions, the 9th, 19th, 21st and 46th, as well as several ski battalions and tank brigades, with no less than nine rifle divisions following. Many of these divisions had been destroyed and reconstituted at least once, following the Soviet policy of burning out a unit and then withdrawing it for rebuilding. In January 1942, for example, the 249th Estonian Rifle Division was thrown into the fighting for Kholm, starting the battle with 8,000 effectives. By the end of the month, only 1,400 were left, a loss rate of more than 82 percent. Another division, the 28th Rifle, had been nearly destroyed during the summer and was still well below strength. Under such circumstances unit cohesion was almost impossible.

The 83rd Infantry Division was commanded by Maj. Gen. Theodor Scherer, who had received the Knight's Cross for his defense of Kholm in the winter of 1941-42. Specifically charged with defending Velikiye Luki was the division's 277th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. Freiherr von Sass, and the attached 336th Security Battalion. As commandant of the city, Sass also had several smaller units attached to his garrison, among them a Nebelwerfer (rocket launcher) multibarreled mortar battery. Including its garrison responsibilities, the combat sector of the 83rd Division totaled 125 kilometers.

A Costly Undertaking

But Velikiye Luki was ready for a siege. Since the 11th Panzer Division had captured the city in August 1941, the defenders had constructed numerous concrete bunkers and tank traps, each known by suitably Germanic names such as Bayreuth, Vienna or Nordlingen. Supplies of food and ammunition were stocked up and reserved for use only if the city was encircled. Key locations were also fortified. Among these were the misnamed West Railroad Station, which was located in the eastern part of the city and doubled as a bunker and supply depot, and the medieval fortress known as the Citadel, located in the western quarter. The Citadel, surrounded on three sides by the Lovat River and possessing thick earth-and-mortar walls, had a commanding view of the bridges over the Lovat and was nearly impervious to artillery fire. The plan of defense was simple: Fight to the death for each strongpoint, then fall back to the next prepared position, forcing the Soviets into a bloody battle of attrition. The presence of the resolute defenders ensured that any Russian attempt to recapture the city would be costly.

In early November the Soviets began interdicting German supply lines, harassing supply trucks and trains with artillery and air attacks. Unlike their Western Allies, however, the Soviet Army Air Force rarely flew more than 20 miles behind the front on interdiction missions. This limited area of operations meant that while the Germans might have trouble actually getting supplies to their most forward units, the rail network itself was largely undamaged.

Soviets Take Objective

The Soviet offensive began on November 24, with strong forces moving on Velikiye Luki from north and south, bypassing the screen of fortified positions in a semicircular arc east of the city. Encountering only scattered resistance and racing through the snow, by nightfall the Soviets had Velikiye Luki nearly surrounded. The German units dug in along the Kuban Stream were overrun so quickly that the Soviets were able to launch attacks against the city proper the next day. The attackers, however, were repulsed with heavy losses. More assaults came on the 26th, but again the Germans held. Russian attacks came almost daily in the following seven weeks. Although the Germans inflicted ruinous losses on the enemy, their own casualties mounted. On the 27th, the Soviet 357th Rifle Division completed the encirclement of the city. The last telephone call into Sass' headquarters came that day. From then on, communication with the trapped defenders was by radio only.

By midday on the 28th, Soviet spearheads had cut the rail line south of Novosokolniki, their main objective. General Scherer now took over command of the city. Gathering units from anywhere he could find them, Scherer prepared to defend Novosokolniki to the last. From the start, the Germans realized the Soviet offensive was stronger than anticipated. Hitler's headquarters, though, was in chaos trying to deal with the growing fiasco at Stalingrad, and scant attention was being paid to the threat to the German center.

Dearth Of Reinforcements

Hitler ordered Velikiye Luki held at all costs, hopefully until it was relieved, but held all the same. The Germans scraped together what units they could, though there were precious few available to seal the breach, much less fight through to the relief of Velikiye Luki. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was asked for permission to use the 1st Fallschirmjäger (parachute) Division, formerly known as the 7th Flieger Division, then in reserve 30 kilometers to the southwest, but he refused.

The German units now surrounding the open terrain south of Velikiye Luki formed two Kampfgruppen, named Klatt and Meyer, and began fighting their way west to link up with relieving units near Novosokolniki. Front-line infantry battalions of the 3rd Gebirgsjäger and 83rd Infantry divisions made up both Kampfgruppen (battle groups), and their destruction would be devastating to the German defense. Few reinforcements were available, but what could be found were rushed to the threatened sector. Units scheduled for Manstein's canceled offensive were put into the line.

Wearing Down The Defenders

The 8th Panzer Division was ordered south from Leningrad with orders to fight through to Velikiye Luki. Already understrength, the division's panzer regiment had only 32 operational tanks, 27 of which were prewar Czechoslovakian models. The 8th Panzer was also known as a problem unit that never seemed to perform up to expectations. On the road to Velikiye Luki, however, its tankers would fight well. In addition, the 20th Motorized Division, which was already scheduled for transfer from Leningrad, was also sent south. The 291st and 205th Infantry divisions had been earmarked for Manstein's canceled offensive and were now committed to action southeast of Velikiye Luki in the area of the two Kampfgruppen.

The 1st SS Motorized Brigade had been formed in late 1941 from surplus SS personnel to perform rear-area security duties, but the Eastern Front's insatiable demand for fighting troops soon landed it in combat. By the time of the Velikiye Luki relief expedition, the unit was badly depleted but still battleworthy and went to the relief of Novosokolniki. The recently formed 6th Luftwaffe Field Division was committed to the area just north of Velizh, but Göring's restrictions on its use and its overall poor level of training made it of little use. The last regular unit involved was the 331st Infantry Division. Comprised of overage reservists rushed into action during the previous winter, the division was at best a second-line unit. According to one source, two of its three regimental commanders were so decrepit they could not leave their command posts unaided.

From the beginning of the battle, both sides recognized that Velikiye Luki might well hold out until German relief forces could fight through to the embattled garrison. Even before the outlying strongpoints along the Kuban Stream were overwhelmed, the Soviets were launching costly frontal attacks on the city from the west, east and south, in an effort to wear down the defenders before help could arrive.

Next: Strong Attacks

Copyright (c) 2000, PRIMEDIA Enthusiast Publications, Inc.


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