The '1st Dukhovshchina-Demidov Offensive Operation' was part of the '2nd Battle of Smolensk' within the 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation' otherwise known as 'Suvorov' (13/18 August 1943).
Undertaken at almost the same time as the 'Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation' (13 August/22 September), the 'Suvorov' offensive lasted two months and involved General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Kalinin Front and General Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s West Front, and its object was the clearance of the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall GŁnther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' from the Smolensk and Bryansk regions. Smolensk had been under German occupation since the 1st Battle of Smolensk in 1941.
Despite an impressive German defence, the Soviet army was able to achieve several breakthroughs, liberating several major cities including Smolensk and Roslavl. As a result of this operation, the Soviet high command then moved to begin the planning for the liberation of Belorussia. The extent of the overall advance was quite modest and its pace slow in the face of the strong German resistance, however, and the operation was therefore accomplished in three stages: 7/20 August for the first stage, 21 August/6 September for the second stage, and 7 September/2 October for the third stage. The first stage comprised the the main breakthrough, the 'Spas-Demensk Offensive Operation' and the '1st Dukhovshchina-Demidov Offensive Operation'.
Although playing a major military role in its own right, 'Suvorov' was also important for its effect on the Battle of the Dniepr. It has been estimated that as many as 55 German divisions were committed to counter 'Suvorov', and these were divisions which would have been critical in any German prevention of Soviet formations from crossing the Dniepr river farther to the south. In the course of 'Suvorov' the Soviet army decisively drove the German forces back from the 'Smolensk land bridge', the most important approach for any attack on Moscow from the west.
By the end of the 'Battle of Kursk' in the failed German 'Zitadelle' offensive during July 1943, Germany had lost all hope of regaining the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. Losses had been considerable and the whole of the German army was less effective than it had been as many of its experienced soldiers had been killed during the previous two years of fighting. This left the German army capable only of reacting to Soviet moves than than launching any major offensive of its own.
On the Soviet side, Iosif Stalin was determined to pursue the liberation of German-occupied Soviet territory from German control, a course of action that had its first major success at the end of 1942 with 'Uran', which paved the way to the liberation of Stalingrad. The Battle of the Dniepr was to achieve the liberation of Ukraine and push the southern part of the Eastern Front toward the west. In order to weaken the German defences still more, however, 'Suvorov' was staged simultaneously, in a move that would also draw German reserves to the north, thereby weakening the German defences on the southern part of the front. Both operations were a part of the same strategic offensive plan, aiming to recover the largest possible area of Soviet territory from German control.
The geographical nature of the terrain on which the 'Suvorov' offensive was to be staged is a slightly hilly plain covered with a number of ravines and possessing significant areas of swamp and forest which, in 1943, restricted military movement. The area’s most important hills reached heights of more than 860 ft (270 m), allowing for improved artillery defence. In 1943, the area was for the most part covered with forests of pine and other trees, and thick bushes. Many rivers also flow through the area, the most important of them being the Zapadnyi Dvina, Dniepr, Desna, Volost' and Ugra rivers, of which the Dniepr river is by far the largest and strategically most important. The surrounding wide, swamp-like areas proved difficult to traverse, especially for mechanised forces. Moreover, like many of the south-flowing rivers of Europe, the Dniepr river’s western bank, which was held by German troops, was higher and steeper than the eastern. Very few bridges or ferries were available bridges.
For the Soviets, the offensive was further complicated by a lack of transport facilities in the area. The road network was not well developed, and paved roads were rare. After any significant fall of rain, which is quite common during the Russian summer, most of the roads were turned into mud, and this both slowed the movement of mechanised formations to a great degree, and created major logistical problems. The only major rail axis available to the Soviets was that linking Rzhev, Vyaz’ma and Kirov.
The Germans had the benefit of a more extensive network of roads and railway lines, these being centred on Smolensk and Roslavl. These two cities were important logistical hubs, allowing the rapid movement of supplies and reinforcements. So far as the Germans were concerned, the most important railway lines were that linking Smolensk and Bryansk, and that connecting Nevel and Mogilev via Orsha, linking Germany’s western troops with those around Orel. As part of the Soviet planning, the German rail communications were attacked by the partisans' 'Concert' operation, one of the largest such sabotage undertakings of World War II.
In July 1943 the Soviet front line on this sector of the Eastern Front was slightly concave and aligned north-west/south-east.
For 'Suvorov', the West Front had the 10th Guards Army, 5th Army, 10th Army, 21st Army, 33rd Army, 49th Army, 68th Army, II Guards Tank Corps, V Mechanised Corps, VI Guards Cavalry Corps and 1st Air Army, while the Kalinin Front controlled the 4th Shock Army, 39th Army, 43rd Army, 31st Army and 3rd Air Army.
As a result of the shape of the front, a significant number of the divisions of von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were kept on this sector of the front for the fully justified fear of a major offensive in this sector: at the end of July 1943, a German staff briefing stated that 'On the front…held by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' many signs show a continuous preparation for a yet limited offensive (Roslavl, Smolensk, Vitebsk) and of a manoeuvre to immobilise Heeresgruppe 'Mitte''. This sector of the front had been effectively stable for four to five months (and up to 18 months in several places) before the Soviet offensive, and possessed geographical features favourable for a strong defensive disposition.
Thus the Germans had been provided with the opportunity, which they had exploited, to build extensive defensive positions, numbering as many as five or six defensive lines in some places, to a depth of between 60 and 80 miles (100 and 130 km). The first defensive zone, directly opposite the Soviet forces to its east, included the first (main) and the second (rear) defence lines to a total depth of 7.5 to 9.3 miles (12 to 15 km), and located whenever possible on higher ground. The main defence line, 3.1 miles (5 km) deep, was based on a triple complex of trenches and firing points, linked by an extensive communication network. The density of firing points reached six or seven per 0.1 miles (1 km) of front line. In some places, where heavy tank attacks might be expected, the third set of trenches was in fact a continuous anti-tank ditch with a steep western side and integrating artillery and machine gun emplacements. The forward edge of the battle area was protected by three lines of barbed wire and a solid wall of minefields.
The second defence zone, located about 6.2 miles (10 km) behind the outer defence zone and covering the most important directions, comprised network of firing points connected by trenches. It was protected by barbed wire entanglements, and also with minefields in some places where heavy tank offensives were anticipated. Between the first and second defence zones, many small firing points and strongpoints had been created in order to slow any Soviet advance following a breakthrough of the outer defence zone. Behind this second zone, heavy artillery was sited.
Finally, deep behind the front line, three or four more defence lines were located, whenever possible, on the western bank of a river, most especially the Dniepr and Desna rivers. Additionally, the main towns located on the defence line (including Yelnya, Dukhovshchina and Spas-Demensk) were reinforced and fortified so that they could sustain a long defence. Roads were mined, and they were also covered by anti-tank devices. Firing points were installed in the most important and tallest buildings.
The '1st Dukhovshchina-Demidov Offensive Operation' was the right-hand element of the northern flank of 'Suvorov', and its attack fell on formations of Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s [e3rd Panzerarmee. As ordered by the Stavka, the '1st Dukhovshchina-Demidov Offensive Operation' was fought with Dukhovshchina as its primary objective, and started on 13 August, almost a week later than its companion undertaking, the 'Spas-Demensk Offensive Operation'. As proved to be case on other parts of 'Suvorov', General Leytenant Aleksei I. Zygin’s 39th Army and General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 43rd Army ran headlong into fierce opposition as suggested by the fact that, in the course of the first day alone, German troops attempted 24 regimental-sized counterattacks. Thus the Soviet troops managed to advance only 3.7 to 4.3 miles (6 to 7 km) over the next five days and, although they inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans, themselves suffered extremely severe losses before the offensive was called to a temporary halt for a revision of the Soviet plan before being resumed on 14 September in the '2nd Dukhovshchina-Demidov Offensive Operation'.
By the middle of August, Soviet offensive operations all the full extent of the Smolensk front had stabilised. The resulting stalemate, while not representing a real Soviet defeat, was nonetheless a stinging for Soviet commanders, who offered a number of explanations for their failure to advance farther. The deputy chief of the general staff, General Aleksei I. Antonov reported that 'We have to deal both with forests and swamps and with the increasing resistance of [German] troops reinforced by divisions arriving from the Bryansk region.' Chief Marshal Nikolai N. Voronov, formerly a Stavka member and a deputy people’s commissar for defence, analysed the stalemate in his memoirs and saw the eight primary causes as the Oberkommando des Heeres’s knowledge of the operation and had prepared for it; the exceptionally well-prepared German defences; the fact that several Soviet infantry divisions (many of them reserve formations) were insufficiently readied for an assault assault of a multi-line defensive disposition; an inadequate number of tanks, which compelled Soviet commanders to rely on artillery, mortars and infantry to break through the German lines; the numerous German counterattacks and an abundance of minefields slowed the Soviet infantry’s progress; imperfect co-operation between regiments and divisions resulting in unexpected pauses during the attack and a 'strong will' of some regiments to 'hide' from the attack and thereby expose another regiment or regiments; the fear of many Soviet commanders about the capability of German counterattacks and thus their failure to act properly even in situations where their their own troops outnumbered those of the Germans; the inadequate facility of the infantry to employ their own weapons (such as heavy artillery and mortars) well enough and thus their tendency to rely too heavily on artillery; and the fact that the offensive had been postponed by four days to 7 August had given the Germans greater time to increase their own readiness.
With all these factors considered, Voronov demanded that General Leytenant Vasili M. Badanov’s 4th Tank Army and General Leytenant Nikolai F. Salichko’s VIII Artillery Corps be transferred from the Bryansk Front for user in support of the assault near Smolensk.
Despite the fact that the stalemated situation of the 'Suvorov' offensive was very far from what the Soviets had wished, it had at least one benefit inasmuch as it tied down as much as two-fifths of all German divisions on the Eastern Front in the Smolensk area, and thus eased the task of the Soviet forces fighting in the south and near Kursk. The Stavka planned to resume the 'Suvorov' offensive on 21 August, but then decided to postpone it slightly to give Soviet units more time to resupply and absorb reinforcements.