The Red Army’s forgotten 15-month campaign against Army Group Center, 1942-1943
Ever since the old Soviet archives were opened up a few decades ago, new information has been revealed about the war in the East in WWII. In the US, this was first popularized by the works of David Glantz. In the last several years works in English by Russian authors have also started to emerge, adding even more viewpoints.
While this work has less detail on a single operation than Glantz’ do, it does provide a walkthrough of a section of the front that has received less attention than others, despite its importance. After the German attack on Moscow and the Soviet counteroffensive in late 1941, German attention and post war historian’s attentions shifted south, to the area where the 1942 Fall Blau campaign would begin, and end with the Stalingrad battle. But at the time the Soviets spent considerable effort on the central sector, the one closest to Moscow.
At then end of the Soviet Winter Counteroffensive in 1941, the line in this area was in a very confused state. For the most part, Army Group Center survived by clinging to the areas around cities and towns, and the Soviet forces bulged in and behind them in the forested terrain. A major bulge remained between the north-south communication lines between the cities of Rzhev in the north, and Viazma on the main highway to Moscow. The rest was a jumble of counterbulges of Soviet forces and pockets nearly cutting off the Rzhev salient. The front face of this extension was the closest German position to Moscow.
The First Russian Offensive – Jan-April 1942
Almost at once after the Winter counterattack ended, the Soviets regrouped and attacked again to cut off and surround the forces in the German bulge, and to rescue their own forces in the German rear areas. While the front face of the bulge was pushed in, and some breakthroughs were made into the German rear near both Vyazma and Rzhev, in the end these incursions were cut off and eliminated.
The Germans Tidy Up – May-JuLY 1942
With the end of Soviet attacks in the spring in this sector, and before Fall Blau took off in earnest in mid summer, Army Group Center attacked and eliminated the pockets inside the bulge and a counterbulge on the west face of the salient. This made their hold on the salient much more firm.
First Rzhev-Sychevka – July-September 1942
While the Germans were driving East in the south of Russia, the Soviets mounted a major offensive to take Rzhev or cut it off from the south by taking the town of Sychevka on the communication road to the South. A massive frontal assault, it managed to bash forward to the outskirts of both towns at great cost.
Second Rzhev-Sychevka (operation Mars) – November-December 1942
This massive offensive, fully as large or larger than Uranus, which cut off the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, was intended to cut off the salient by attacking the top, front and rear faces at once. This would have cut off Ninth Army in Rzhev and torn the center front wide open. However, the Germans were not as overextended here and the terrain was worse here than near Stalingrad, so the ruptures in the line created by the overwhelming attacks were eventually pinched off and the units crushed by armored reserves.
This offensive was both overshadowed by the success of Uranus, and downplayed by the Soviets because of the immense losses taken.
German Withdrawal – March 1943
In early spring 1943, the commander of Army Group Center realized that with his armored reserve depleted to halt the series of Winter offensives in south Russia, he would be unlikely to stop the next attack in the Rzhev sector that was sure to come when the Russians were ready. Almost uniquely in the war, he managed to convince Hitler and the high command to allow a planned, phased withdrawal out of the position to a prepared line across the base.
Timed to coincide with the mud season, it went off well enough. The Soviets tried to turn the withdrawal into a rout by attacking during the process, but a combination of the weakness of the units and the natural reluctance to attack fixed positions without preparation led to no real results other than the territory gained and the ability to reduce their frontage too.
Results and Remembrances
As more information is collected, total losses for both sides in these campaigns are revised continually upward. A conservative estimate is 1.3 million casualties for both sides. More recent tallys surpass 2 million. Some even claim 800,000-900,000 deaths which would estimate some three million casualties. By any standard these are a major set of battles that should be studied more.
The final chapter of the book is a interesting, and thought provoking of the aftermath of the battle up to the present. Even to this day, parties are working these woods and swamps removing explosives and finding and identifying bodies from the area of the battle.
This was an excellent book for students of the war. I look forward to more Russian historians putting forward their view of the battles.