The '1st Demyansk Offensive Operation' was the Soviet encirclement of part of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' around Demyansk, to the south of Leningrad (8 February/21 April 1942).
A much smaller pocket was simultaneously surrounded in Kholm, about 60 miles (100 km) to the south-west, both pockets being the results of the retreat of the German forces following their defeat during the Battle of Moscow.
The encirclement began as the first phase of the '1st Demyansk Offensive Operation' (7 January/20 May 1942) as the initiative of General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin, commanding the North-West Front, designed to cut the link between the German positions in the Demyansk area and the Staraya Russa railway that formed the primary line of communications for Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army. As a result of the very difficult terrain, comprising mainly woods and swamps, and the thick snow, the initial advance by the North-West Front was very modest in the face of determined opposition.
On 8 January 1942 there began a new 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation', which incorporated the previous North-West Front planning into the 'Toropets-Kholm Offensive Operation' (9 January/6 February), which formed the southern pincer of the operation that, initiating the second phase of the northern pincer of the 'Demyansk Offensive Operation' (7 January/20 May), encircled General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps and parts of General Christian Hansen’s X Corps of the 16th Army during the winter of 1941/1942.
Trapped in the pocket under the overall command of von Brockfeldt-Ahlefeldt were some 90,000 troops 1, which were then involved in the battle of the pocket. The North-West Front’s offensive was planned to encircle the entire northern flank of the 16th Army, of which the II Corps was only a modest part, and the Soviet command was desperate to keep the North-West Front moving even after this success.
The first thrust was made by Kurochkin’s own 11th Army, General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov''s 1st Shock Army and the I and II Guards Corps released for the operation from Stavka reserve. A second thrust was executed on 12 February by General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army of General Leytenant Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front, with the additional objective of attacking the encircled German forces directly through the insertion of two airborne brigades to support the advance of General Leytenant Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 34th Army. The front soon settled as the Soviet offensive lost momentum as a result of the difficult terrain and bad weather.
After being assured that the Demyansk and Kholm pockets could be supplied with their daily requirement of 270 tons of supplies by Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I, Adolf Hitler ordered that the surrounded divisions hold their positions until relieved. The Demyansk pocket contained two moderately good airfields at Demyansk and Peski. From the middle of February the weather improved significantly, and while there was still considerable snow on the ground at this time, resupply operations were generally very successful as the Soviet air forces in the region lacked the strength to interfere effectively. On the other side of the coin, however, the operation used all of the Luftwaffe’s transport capability, as well as elements of its bomber force, which both suffered comparatively high operational losses.
The North-West Front grew increasingly desperate to destroy the pockets, and over the winter and spring launched a number of assaults on the so-called 'Ramushevo corridor' which formed the slender land link between Demyansk and Staraya Russa through the village of Ramushevo. These Soviet assaults were repeatedly driven back. In total five Soviet armies comprising 18 infantry divisions and three brigades were tied up for four months in the fruitless offensive. At the end of May, however, the Stavka reconsidered the overall situation on the North-West Front’s sector and decided to shift its attention to the Moscow sector, on which a new German offensive was expected in the summer.
On 21 March 1942 German forces under the command of Generalleutnant Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach started their attempt to break out of the Demyansk pocket via the 'Ramushevo corridor'. Over the next several weeks this corridor was widened, and a Kampfgruppe was able to break the siege on 21 April, but the battle had taken a heavy toll. Out of the approximately 100,000 men trapped, 3,335 had been killed and more than 10,000 wounded. However, the determined German resistance had denied the Soviet high command numerous formations at a critical moment, formations which would have otherwise been available for more useful service elsewhere.
The Soviet losses remain unknown other than the fact that in the period between 7 January and 20 May 1942 the North-West Front lost 88,908 men killed or missing, and 156,603 men wounded.
Between the forming of the two German pockets early in February to the virtual abandonment of Demyansk in May, the two pockets received 65,000 tons of supplies (delivered by air as well as on land) and 31,000 replacement troops, and 36,000 wounded had been evacuated. However, the cost to the Germans had been significant, the Luftwaffe losing 265 aircraft, including 106 Junkers Ju 52/3m transports, 17 Heinkel He 111 bombers and two Junkers Ju 86 bombers, together with 387 airmen. The Soviet air forces lost 408 aircraft, including 243 fighters, in their efforts to destroy the pocket.
Unfortunately for the Germans, the success of the Luftwaffe’s contribution influenced Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Hitler that they had developed the methods and tactics that would guarantee an effective airlift capability on the Eastern Front, and so helped to pave the way to disaster that befell Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s altogether larger 6th Army when it was trapped in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Fighting in the Demyansk area continued to 28 February 1943, and the Soviets could not liberate Demyansk until 1 March 1943 as the last German forces in this area finally retreated.