The '1st Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking otherwise known as the 'Battle of Rzhev' and part of a series of battles which lasted for 15 months in the centre of the Eastern Front (30 July/23 August 1942).
It should be noted, however, that despite its 'official' end the fighting in this Soviet offensive continued undiminished into September and did not finally come to an end until 1 October. In the course of the undertaking, the Soviet forces suffered massive casualties and achieved little in the form of territorial gain or the infliction of huge losses on the opposing German forces, and has thus come to be known variously as the 'Rzhev meat grinder', 'Rzhev mincer' and 'Rzhev slaughterhouse'.
Rzhev lies 140 miles (230 km) to the west of Moscow and was taken by the Germans in 'Taifun' (i) during the autumn of 1941 as they thrust toward Moscow. When the Soviet 'Moscow Strategic Offensive' and then the 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive' drove the Germans back, Rzhev became a key bastion of the Germans' defensive arrangements. By the middle of 1942, the city stood at the head of a salient extending from the rest of the Eastern Front’s northern sector, and pointed toward Moscow. In July and August 1942, Iosif Stalin tasked two of his most senior commanders, General Georgi K. Zhukov and General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev, commanding the West Front and the Kalinin Front respectively, to execute a strategic offensive to retake Rzhev and to strike Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' so decisively that it was driven right back to the west and no longer posed an immediate threat to Moscow. The offensive was to fall upon one of the Soviets' primary opponents of the winter battles of 1941/42, namely Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army, which occupied the majority of the Rzhev salient.
The ratio of huge losses to small gains during the two-month struggle left a deep impression on the Soviet soldiers who took part, and in October the strategic balance in the centre of the Eastern Front remained essentially unchanged. However, the German army had also suffered grievous losses, and while its defence had been tactically successful, it had achieved little more than maintenance of the status quo. Although the offensive failed, Zhukov was nonetheless given another chance to crush the Rzhev salient soon after the failure of his first attempt.
It was the closing stages of the Battle of Moscow which established the Rzhev salient. The Soviet counter-offensive had driven the German forces from the outskirts of Moscow back more than 100 miles (160 km), and had penetrated the front of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in several places. A strategic crossroads and vital railway junction straddling the Volga river, Rzhev became the northern cornerstone of the left wing of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Rzhev was the only sizeable town in its area, and gave the 9th Army something on which to base itself in what seemed to be nothing but a wilderness of forest and swamp in every direction. The salient’s existence was threatened at the very moment of its creation, when the Kalinin Front’s 39th Army and 29th Army opened a gap just to the west of Rzhev and thrust to the south into the German rear. Just managing to fend the encroaching Soviet forces off the essential railway into Rzhev, the 9th Army, commanded by Model from 15 January in succession to General Adolf Strauss, managed to close the Rzhev gap, thereby cutting the Soviet supply lines and reducing the Soviet ability to deal a crippling blow to the whole army group. The Soviet counterattack had run out of impetus and the Germans recovered sufficiently to mount several operations to clear their rear area. In July 1942, 'Seydlitz' was mounted to trap and destroy what was left of the two Soviet armies, and succeeded in little more than a week, making the army group once again an almost credible threat to Moscow.
General Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel of the XLVI Corps (mot.) was senior corps commander in the 9th Army during June 1942, and was in temporary command of the army at the start of the battle while Model was on convalescent leave. Model had commanded the 3rd Panzerdivision at the start of 'Barbarossa', and had become commander of the XLI Corps (mot.)] in October 1941. He had shown great resolve in the winter’s defensive winter battles, and been promoted to command the 9th Army on 12 January 1942.Model was a tough soldier and a specialist in defensive warfare.
Zhukov was chief of the Soviet general staff at the time that 'Barbarossa' began, but after disagreeing with Iosif Stalin about the defence of Kiev, had been demoted to command of the Reserve Front. He became a troubleshooter, commanding the Leningrad Front in the autumn before returning to Moscow to conduct the Soviet capital’s defence and then the great counter-offensive. Zhukov remained in the central sector, and he argued in the spring of 1942 that the Moscow axis was the most critical and that Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' posed the greatest threat to the USSR. To Zhukov, the German forces at Rzhev 'represented a dagger pointed at Moscow'. Zhukov convinced Stalin to give him the extra forces he needed, and commanded the Western Front’s offensive efforts until, in the latter part of August, he was appointed deputy supreme commander and was transferred to Stalingrad.
At the start of what became known to the Soviets as the 'Great Patriotic War', Konev was commander of the 19th Army, which become encircled around Vitebsk in the first weeks of the conflict. Stalin blamed Konev for the disaster but Zhukov intervened and ensured not just Konev’s survival but also his promotion to command of a front. Konev went on to command the Kalinin Front in the winter battles around Moscow with distinction, and still commanded the Kalinin Front at the start of the '1st Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive Operation' before being elevated to supervise the operation after Zhukov’s promotion to deputy supreme commander.
The summer of 1942 in the Rzhev area was warm, with long days and a high sun which allowed the area to dry and solidify after the spring thaw. The area was flat and rolling, with thick forests and areas of swamp. The neighbourhood of Rzhev had open farmed land spotted densely with small village, which were often ribbons of houses along the road. The roads were mostly mud tracks that became almost impassable in the spring and autumn rains, but normally dried out in summer. Rainfall was typically moderate, but the summer months of 1942 had seen unusually heavy and persistent rain.
Of the Soviet objectives, Rzhev was by far the largest, with over 50,000 inhabitants, while Zubtsov had fewer than 5,000 persons and Pogoreloye Gorodishche had just 2,500 inhabitants. Karmanovo, which was to become the scene of much bitter fighting, was just a large village.
The Volga river is the longest such waterway in Europe, and in both the central sector of the Eastern Front at Rzhev and at the southern sector at Stalingrad, German and Soviet armies struggled for mastery of its banks. Both Rzhev and Zubtsov straddled the river, which is 140 yards (130 m) wide at this point.
Of major significance to both the attackers and the defenders were tributaries of the Volga river, namely the Dërzha, Gzhat, Osuga and Vazuza rivers, which ran basically south to north across the line of the Soviet attack. These were normally docile and fordable at this time of year, but had become swollen with the July rains and had risen to a depth of more than 6 ft 6 in (2 m), and by August therefore constituted a major impediment to the West Front’s attack. Zhukov’s forces would have to cross the Dërzha river on their start line and then another one or even two flooded rivers to reach their final objectives.
For the Germans, the most important objective was the railway line linking Vyaz’ma and Rzhev, whose loss of which would sever their supply line to Rzhev and render the defence of the whole salient untenable. Also important from the Soviet perspective was the railway line lining Zubtov and Shakhovskaya, which ran in the direction of their intended advance, and could thus be employed for logistical purposes.
The 9th Army's strength varied considerably during the middle period of 1942 as Heeresgruppe 'Mitte shifted forces between its armies for use in different operations and defensive commitments. Early in July, the 9th Army was reinforced for 'Seydlitz', reaching a total of 22 divisions, including four Panzer divisions, organised in five corps. After the successful conclusion of 'Seydlitz', Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' redeployed many of the 9th Army's offensive-capable divisions farther to the south for its next planned attack against the Sukhinichi bulge, leaving the 9th Army at the end of July with 16 infantry divisions organised in three corps: 14 of these divisions were in the line, one in reserve and another in transit.
Nearly all the divisions in Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had seen heavy fighting during the winter, and this sapped their fighting strength. According to rehabilitation reports, the necessity to hold the line, and the 'unabated intensity of defensive fighting', meant that the divisions of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' could be partially restored only partially toward full strength. They would have thus possess limited mobility and reduced combat capability, and their greatest deficiency was a shortage of motor transport and horses.
Following the collapse of its front to the east of Rzhev, the 9th Army was quickly strengthened, but the continual strain of combating persistent Soviet attacks led Model to demand further support. By the end of September, the army had under command a total of 25 divisions, which was half of the army group’s overall strength, including 20 infantry and four Panzer divisions as well as Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Infanteriedivision 'Grossdeutschland'.
On 30 July, under the commander of von Vietinghoff-Scheel, the 9th Army comprised General Carl Hilpert’s XXIII Corps with the 197th Division, 246th Division, 86th Division, 110th Division, 129th Division and 253rd Division, General Bruno Bieler’s VI Corps with the 206th Division, 251st Division, 87th Division and 256th Division; and General Hans Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps with the 14th Division (mot.), 161st Division, 36th Division (mot.) and 342nd Division. The army’s reserves were the 6th Division and part of the 328th Division.
By 2 October, and back under Model’s command, the 9th Army comprised Hilpert’s XXIII Corps with the 197th Division, 246th Division, 86th Division, 110th Division and 253rd Division; Bieler’s VI Corps with the 206th Division, 251st Division, 87th Division and 6th Division; General Walter Weiss’s XXVII Corps with the 256th Division, 14th Division (mot.), 72nd Division, 95th Division and 129th Division; General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s XXXIX Panzerkorps with the 102nd Division, 5th Panzerdivision, 1st Panzerdivision and 78th Division; and Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps with the 2nd Panzerdivision, 36th Division (mot.) and 342nd Division. The army’s reserves were the 161st Division, 328th Division, 9th Panzerdivision and Infanteriedivision (mot.) 'Grossdeutschland'.
Stalin and the Stavka attempted to create strong concentrations of forces to attack across narrow sectors with heavy assistance from supporting arms. For example, the Kalinin Front was told to 'create a shock group' of no less than 11 infantry divisions, three infantry brigades, eight tank brigades and 10 artillery regiments. To achieve these force concentrations the Stavka transferred to the Kalinin Front from its reserve five infantry divisions, six tank brigades, two artillery regiments of 152-mm (6-in) guns, four anti-tank artillery regiments, and 10 battalions of 'Katyusha' rocket launchers.
Support for the operation was planned and developed in a vast scale and, in an attempt to gain air superiority from the Germans, General Leytenant Aleksandr A. Novikov, commander-in-chief of the Soviet air forces, was instructed to concentrate 1,100 aircraft, including 600 fighters, in the attack sectors. The Soviet forces were to smash through the German front by implementing the idea of 'artillery attack' to maximise firepower using massed collections of guns, mortars and rocket launchers. General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 30th Army, for example, concentrated 1,323 guns and mortars along its 6.2-mile (10-km) front. The correlation of infantry in the attack sectors was calculated as between 3.4/1 in the sectors of the 30th Army, General Major Vitali S. Polenov’s 31st Army and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin’s (from 18 October General Leytenant Vasili N. Gordov’s) 33rd Army sectors, and about 7/1 in the sectors of General Leytenant Maks A. Reyter’s 20th Army and General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 5th Army. Artillery advantage was overwhelming: it was 6.7/1 in all but the 30th Army, in which where it was calculated at 2/1.
The majority of the Soviet tank strength still lay in its numerous separate tank brigades, which were organised for the direct support of the infantry. The 30th Army started the offensive with nine tank brigades operating 390 tanks, the 31st Army had six tank brigades with 274 tanks, and the 20th Army had five tank brigades with 255 tanks.
Behind these army-level forces were newly created tank corps, the VI Corps and VIII Corps to the rear of the 20th Army, and the V Tank Corps behind the 33rd Army. The tank corps had been created between March and May around a kernel of existing tank brigades and new personnel from training establishments. They were supplied with the best tanks available, but lacked artillery and support units. Initially, even trucks were in short supply. Although formed around a core of veterans from the winter fighting, these men were from units which had supported the infantry armies: they were not yet accustomed to independent action, and as a result were incapable of fulfilling their newly acquired exploitation role. While the corps' commanders were experienced, many of them were cautious of German armoured units as a result of their experiences in the previous year of campaigning and tended to overestimate German strength and capability.
Lelyushenko’s 30th Army comprised the 2nd and 16th Guards Divisions, the 52nd, 78th, 111th, 220th, 343rd and 379th Divisions, nine tank brigades including the 35th, 238th and 240th Tank Brigades in the army’s mobile group; General Major Vasili I. Shvetsov’s 29th Army was of unknown composition; Polenov’s 31st Army comprised the 20th Guards Division, the 88th, 118th, 164th, 239th, 247th and 336th Divisions and six tank brigades (34th, 71st, 212nd, 92nd, 101st and 145th, of which the last three were in the army’s mobile group; Reyter’s 20th Army comprised the 251st, 331th, 354th, 82nd, 312th and 415th Divisions, the 40th Rifle Brigade and five tank Brigades (17th, 20th, 11th, 188th and 213rd, of which the three were in the army’s mobile group, and also the VIII Guards Rifle Corps with the 26th Guards Division and the 129th, 148th, 150th and 153th Brigades; Fedyuninsky’s 5th Army comprised the 3rd Guards Motorised Division, the 42nd Guards Division, the 19th and 28th Divisions, the 28th, 35th and 49th Brigades, and the 120th, 161st and 154th Tank Brigades; Khozin’s 33rd Army comprised the 50th, 53rd, 110th, 113rd, 160th and 222nd Divisions, the 112th, 120th and 125th Brigades, and the 18th, 80th and 248th Tank Brigades; and Gordov’s 33rd Army comprised the VII Guards Corps with the 5th Guards Division and 30th Guards Division, and the 17th Division.
The West Front’s contribution was the V, VI and VIII Tank Corps, and the II Guards Cavalry Corps.
The stability of the front, which had not undergone any significant change since January, had given ample time for Soviet intelligence and planners to pinpoint the German forward defences and to plan their destruction or suppression. The situation behind the German front was less certain for the Soviet planners, and the Germans, on Model’s orders, had worked hard on the construction of a secondary defence line outside of Rzhev and a final belt of defences on the town’s outskirts.
The terrain was in places low and swampy, with the area’s villages constructed on the higher and drier elevations. The Germans had turned these into strongpoints linked by trench lines and field fortifications. They were described by Soviet accounts as having solid minefields, networks of bunkers, and barbed wire laid out in dense lines. Additionally, the unusually wet summer and continued downpours of late July and August greatly enhanced the defences, hindering the deployment of both tanks and artillery by the Soviet forces, which proved unable to bring to bear their superiority in these areas. The distance to Rzhev was 7.5 miles (12 km) which the attacking forces hoped to cover in a rapid advance reaching the town in two days and fully occupying it by the third.
To accomplish this mission, Lelyushenko’s 30th Army had received very considerable reinforcement, and now had four infantry divisions aligned on narrow attack axes pointing straight at Rzhev, and another two flanking rifle divisions to shoulder aside the German defences. Behind these the 30th Army had two more infantry divisions ready to reinforce the main attack, and another behind the flank. The six infantry divisions in line would strike at the junction of Generalleutnant Bogislav von Studnitz’s (from 22 August Generalleutnant Werner Richter’s) 87th Division and Generalleutnant Paul Dannhauser’s 256th Division, and pierce the defences along a 6.2-mile (10-km) front. Each of the main attacking divisions was reinforced by a tank brigade and backed by an impressive array of front- and army-level artillery, as well as Katyusha rocket launchers. In all, the 30th Army deployed 390 tanks, 1,323 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 80 rocket launchers
At 06.30 am on 30 July, the 30th Army’s artillery opened fire, General Major Nikolai M. Khlebnikov, the Kalinin Front’s artillery commander, later recalling that 'the power of the fire’s impact was so great that the German artillery, after several faltering attempts to answer fire with fire, stopped. First two positions of the main-strip [German] defences were destroyed, troops occupying them – almost completely destroyed.' After 90 minutes of Soviet artillery fire, at 08.00 the infantry divisions attacked and, despite the sudden start of more heavy rain, which forced some infantry to wade through sodden fields with water up to their knees, the attack quickly acquired momentum.
In the centre, within the offensive’s first hour the 16th Guards Division had overrun the German first-line trenches, and took the fortified villages of the German second line soon after this. By 13.00 the division was deep in the German rear and already approaching the village of Polunino, half of the way to Rzhev. To its right, the 379th Division and the 111th Division also smashed into the German front line, penetrating right through it and capturing four batteries of the divisional artillery of von Studnitz’s 87th Division.
The 30th Army had broken through on a front 5.6 miles (9 km) wide and a reached a depth of 4.35 miles (7 km), but by a time late on this first day its spearheads had been brought to a halt by German counterattacks, and ominous signs of the difficulties which lay ahead had started to appear: in the breakthrough sectors, the supporting tanks were lagging behind, and many remained mired in the mud, and the infantry had come up against prepared German lines and, when digging in, found their trenches immediately filled with water.
Generalleutnant Paul Dannhauser, commanding the 256th Division, committed his engineer and reconnaissance battalions in a counterattack from Polunino, and committed his last reserve, the divisional field replacement battalion, in an attempt to fill his open flank. Nearly all of his original front, anchored by a strongpoint known as 'Emma' near the previous boundary between the 256th Division and 87th Division, was still in German hands in spite of severe pressure from the Soviet flanking attack. The 9th Army had reluctantly handed over the 54th Kradschützenbataillon, a motorcycle battalion that was the 14th Division (mot.)'s only reserve, to fill the hole in the 256th Division's left flank.
During the morning of the following day, the Soviet attackers expected to be able to resume their advance, but encountered severe difficulties in the co-ordination of their various arms. Numerous breakdowns reduced the numbers of supporting armour to a handful, which left the tanks vulnerable to German Panzerabwehr defences. Even though they were without massed artillery support, the German defensive positions remained intact, and the Germans had managed to plug the gaps in their line with divisional reserves and were now fighting desperate battles, holding on until further help could arrive. By the evening of this day, battalions of the 18th Infanterieregiment and 58th Infanterieregiment of Generalleutnant Horst Grossmann’s 6th Division began to reach the vital central sector around Polunino and Hill 200, which was a small elevation to the west of the village. For the Soviets, the day failed to deliver anything but substantial losses. The 16th Guards Division began a series of attacks on Polunino, which continued all day, and suffered more than 1,000 casualties. The frontal attacks of the 31 July set the pattern for the days to come: Soviet commanders did not have the latitude or sometimes the imagination to develop and implement flexible tactics, and often rigidly executed orders from above, even if it meant attacking head on across the same ground for days or even weeks.
By 3 August the Germans were already assessing the Soviet losses and wondering how much longer the Soviet formations could keep going. The Germans were correct in estimating that many infantry divisions had suffered thousands of casualties, but also noted signs of new men arriving to fill some of the Soviet formation' depleted ranks. Three days later the Stavka issued a pronouncement demanding that the 30th Army provide solutions to a variety of perceived problems, including weak leadership, the failure to mass tanks and the poor supply of ammunition to the artillery. After the success of the first day, seven days of attacks had achieved nothing and the 30th Army called a halt in order to regroup.
On 10 August the Soviets attacked the 256th Division's flank with renewed ferocity. The 220th Division, which had been battering the stubborn defence of the 256th Division since 30 July and had lost 877 dead and 3083 wounded in the first four days alone, finally captured the key village of Belkovo on 12 August. On the previous day, Konev had suggested that the supporting tank brigade be pulled out to lead the next infantry attack, but this attached armoured unit, as in so many other sectors, had become trapped in mud from which only four of its tanks could be extracted.
In other sectors new infantry formations and units had arrived. Strongpoint 'Emma', the German defensive cornerstone which had held out for two weeks, finally fell as tanks of the 255th Tank Brigade were roaming unhindered in its rear. Some German defenders noted that the Soviet tank crews were employing a new tactic of remaining out of the range of the German anti-tank guns and systematically shelling every position, which demoralised the German infantry ands caused was what in effect 'tank panic'.
The continued Soviet tank attacks now threatened to swamp the German defences, but the Soviet infantry tactics remained crude: dense masses of men rushed forward shouting at the tops of these voices. Replacements were often committed straight from their trains into the fighting without orientation or any time to get to know their officers.
Just returning from convalescence, Model saw that the German defence had bent but not completely broken. He issued 'not a step back' orders and sent forward all available reserves, including extemporised Kampfgruppen assembled from troops returning from leave. At the same time, he demanded additional reinforcements from higher commands.
The Soviet losses were huge, but the German defenders were also under very severe strain. The constant attacks exhausted the German soldiers, and small Soviet breakthroughs had constantly to be driven back by local counterattacks. The 481st Infanterieregiment had by this time been reduced to 120 combat-capable men, mostly attached to the Kampfgruppe 'Mummert', which was composed of units thrown together from four different divisions. The Panzerabwehr anti-tank battalions were the key to the German capacity to checking the Soviet armour, but could not be everywhere, so it became common for the infantry to use bundled grenades or mines to strike at the tanks overrunning their trenches.
The gains of the flanking attacks, although meagre, did finally open a new opportunity in the area to the east of Pultuno, which the 2nd Guards Division was able to exploit. Overrunning a sector extending across swampy and forested ground, the division in three days fought its way through to the airfield outside the town of Rzhev. German counterattacks then stabilised the front, and Model allowed the 256th Division and 14th Division (mot.), whose positions now bulged out into the Soviet lines, to pull back across the Volga river to its western bank. Now within easy artillery range, the Soviets began to shell the town, and in combination with air attacks, this reduced Rzhev to smouldering ruins.
By the end of the month, the stubborn defence of Putino came to an end as the Germans finally withdrew under heavy pressure, and took up new defensive positions on the Rzhev perimeter.
To the south-west, the West Front’s offensive, which had been scheduled for a start on 2 August, was delayed by two days as a result largely of dreadful weather conditions. Zhukov planned to penetrate the German line at Pogoreloye Gorodishche, and advance toward the Vazuza river, destroying the defending forces of Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps, known to the Soviets as the Zubtsov Karmanovo grouping, in the process. The front’s mobile group, comprising the VI and VIII Tank Corps and the II Guards Cavalry Corps, were to be committed toward Sychevka with the 20th Army, while the 31st Army co-operated with the Kalinin Front’s forces in the capture of Rzhev.
In the early morning of 4 August, Zhukov launched his West Front’s attack against the Rzhev salient. The offensive began with a massive preliminary bombardment: a massive concentration of Soviet artillery and mortars on a narrow section of the front rained down shells and bombs on the German positions for almost 90 minutes before there came a pause in which Soviet aircraft laid smoke along the front. This lull was a ruse, however, and designed to lure the German defenders back into their forward trenches to suffer the final climax of the artillery and mortar bombardment, supplemented by a deluge of rockets from Katyusha launchers. In many places, the weight of the Soviet fire destroyed the German barbed wire entanglements, and smashed bunkers and fixed positions. The attacking waves of the Soviet divisions, using rafts, boats and ferries to cross the swollen Derzha river, took and held the forward German line within one hour and with comparatively small losses.
Pogoreloye Gorodishche, a strongpoint held by one battalion of the 364th Infanterieregiment of Generalleutnant Heinrich Recke’s 161st Division and one of the 20th Army’s main initial objectives, was quickly outflanked and then cut off by the advance of the Soviet infantry. Soon after 12.00, aided by another sharp artillery bombardment and supported by tanks, Soviet infantry stormed into the position from three directions and overwhelmed the garrison, capturing 87 men and leaving many more dead.
To the south of Pogoreloye Gorodishche, the 331st Division rapidly captured the opposing German forces' forward line and moved swiftly on to take Gubinka, a village in the second defence line. Until that morning this latter had been the location of the 336th Infanterieregiment's headquarters, which was found abandoned and strewn with staff documents and discarded equipment. All along the whole of its front, the 161st Division had been attacked in overwhelming force, its defences had crumbled and given way, and its remaining soldiers were in full retreat. The 20th Army and 31st Army had thus torn a gaping hole in the German front, and by evening the Soviet divisions and supporting tank brigades had advanced 5 miles (8 km) into the German lines.
The German command was quick to realise the dangers attendant on the new Soviet offensive, and Adolf Hitler immediately authorised the release of five divisions which had been held in reserve for 'Wirbelwind'. the planned attack on the Sukhinichi bulge. These included the 1st Panzerdivision, 2nd Panzerdivision, 5th Panzerdivision, 102nd Divisionand 78th Division. As the 9th Army's acting commander, von Vietinghoff-Scheel had already committed what reserves he had against the Kalinin Front’s attack and now had on hand almost nothing with which to stop the West Front’s advance: all he possessed were the men of army schools, teenage helpers and a few Flak guns, which he positioned at strategic points. These would not stop the Soviet armour for very long, however, and thus the German defences were wide open for Soviet penetration until the reinforcement divisions arrived.
On the morning of 5 August, in what was described as a 'very wide and deep penetration', the Soviet divisions pushed on into the depth of German positions against negligible opposition. However, as the Soviet various commands started to push their armoured units forward, problems started to emerge. The crossing points along the Darzha river were interdicted by Luftwaffe attacks and complicated by the depth of the swollen waters and the strong current. The tank corps were taking hours to get across even fractions of their forces. Saturated by incessant rain, the area’s roads rapidly deteriorated and became clogged with traffic of all sorts, some of which became hopelessly bogged in the mud and could neither move nor be moved. Resupply carts, artillery and tanks were stuck in traffic jams and became disorganised and disoriented. The 11th Tank Brigade, which was part of 20th Army’s mobile group, became lost and arrived only days later, and then in the wrong sector. The accompanying motorcyclists, who were attached to the army’s mobile group, were unable to move their machines forward, and had therefore to abandon them as their riders advanced instead as ordinary infantry slowly forcing their way forward through the mud.
Even so, the 20th Army’s infantry advanced another 18.67 miles (30 km) and was joined by the fall of night by the leading elements of the VI Tank Corps and VIII Tank Corps. These were approaching the Vazuza and Gzhat rivers, and as the day drew toward a close on 5 August began to make contact with fresh German units. These were primarily of Generalleutnant Gustav Fehn’s 5th Panzerdivision, which had been closest to the breakthrough area, and had been rushed to the crucial sector in the area to the north of Sychevka, where its forward elements crossed the Vazuza river at Chlepen and then fanned out, hurriedly occupying defensive positions.
At the south-eastern corner of the breakthrough, on what was now becoming the left shoulder of the new Soviet salient, the stubborn defence of Generalmajor Hans Gollnick’s 36th Division (mot.) had been the only bright spot for the 9th Army on 4 August, but its opponent, the VIII Guards Corps, had quickly infiltrated forces around the division’s northern flank and into its rear. On the following day, the Soviets broke through from the north with tanks and infantry, swept around and over a 105-mm (4.13-in) battery of divisional artillery, and reached the tiny community of Dolgiye Nivuy, barely 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from the headquarters of the 36th Division (mot.) in Voskresenskoye. Gollnick watched the houses of Dolgiye Nivuy go up in flames and started to reorganise his defences to cope with what he fully knew would by just the first of a series of crises for his division.
The 20th Army’s infantry was pushing past Gollnick’s rear toward Karmanovo, but was thwarted by the arrival of Generalleutnant Hans-Karl von Esebeck’s 2nd Panzerdivision, which drove back the infantry and sent Panzer and Panzergrenadier units to Gollnick’s aid. Meanwhile, for Fehn’s 5th Panzerdivision, 6 August proved to be a day of crises. Both of its flanks were exposed, and it was assailed along its entire front by infantry and tanks, some of which broke through to harass supply units and artillery positions. The division’s 14th Panzergrenadierregiment had deployed both its battalions in line, and both were severely mauled. The 2/14th Panzergrenadierregiment became encircled and had to fight its way out, with a supporting Panzer company losing eight tanks fending off attacks by T-34 tanks which seemed to come from all sides. The intense fighting cost the 5th Panzerdivision some 285 casualties on this day alone, but limited further Soviet advance to a mere 2 miles (3.2 km).
Substantial Soviet forces were now getting forward so that by 8 August the 20th Army had introduced more than 600 tanks into its sector. As additional forces from both sides joined the battle, the intensity of the fighting grew still further, but the attackers' momentum first slackened and then stopped. Mounted regiments of the II Guards Cavalry Corps reached the Gzhat river, exploiting the gap between the 5th Panzerdivision and the 2nd Panzerdivision, and were able to ford this waterway and seize a bridgehead on its southern bank. The cavalry’s advance was checked by the arrival of Generalmajor Walter Krüger’s 1st Panzerdivision, which attacked and drove back the Soviets. Likewise, the VI Tank Corps and some infantry units reached and crossed the Vazuza river, but once across were met with fierce counterattacks and air attacks, which prevented farther advance.
Soviet difficulties persisted. The 20th Army found its headquarters communications were inadequate and thus had difficulty co-ordinating its many infantry formations and units, and co-operating with the front’s mobile group. Because of ongoing logistical problems, resupply was difficult. The VIII Tank Corps complained of running low on fuel and ammunition, which hindered its operations; the 17th Tank Brigade found that not enough fuel was arriving to keep all of its tanks in action; and artillery units were having to be held back in favour of advancing combat units.
On the other side, to prevent a breakthrough, von Vietinghoff-Scheel was being compelled to commit his infantry and armoured units on a piecemeal basis, but by 8 August he had managed to erect a firm cordon around the Western Front’s entire penetration.
With a Soviet breakthrough to Sychevka looking increasingly unlikely in the face of German reinforcements, Zhukov ordered the 20th Army to extract the VIII Tank Corps and realign it to the south, where it was to co-operate with renewed 5th Army attacks toward Karmanovo. There was also a limited improvement in the weather, which finally allowed the roads to dry and become sufficiently firm to allow the delivery of ammunition, and Soviet logistics were further improved by the restoration of the railway line as far as Pogoreloye Gorodishche.
The VIII Tank Corps was still caught in combat with the 1st Panzerdivision and could only extract 49 of its tanks for the attack. Even so, on August 11 a brisk artillery preparation was followed by the corps' attack, which gained 3.1 miles (5 km) and captured the village of Yelnya. The opposing 2nd Panzerdivision noted especially heavy attacks on that day, but had just received a delivery of new PzKpfw IV battle tanks, which it committed immediately.
Farther to the south, the 5th Army had managed to make only a shallow dent in the German line on 8 August, when its first attack had been rapidly halted by the arrival of German reinforcements, but now rejoined the struggle to add to the pressure on Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps from the east. After this, the 20th Army and the 5th Army continued to attack, grinding a short distance forward every day with bitter fighting for every village. The Germans, the Soviets found, were continually developing their trench systems, which were backed by concealed mortar and anti-tank gun positions, and protected by minefields and booby-trapped obstacles.
Finally, on 23 August, Karmanovo fell. Thereafter, the 20th Army found it could advance no farther against a shortened and strengthened German line until, on 8 September, it went over to the defensive.
On 26 September, Zhukov became the Soviet deputy commander-in-chief, so command of the West Front passed to Konev, the vacancy at the head of the Kalinin Front immediately being filled by General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev. To maintain the unity of command arrangements, the Kalinin Front’s 30th Army and 29th Army were now subordinated to the West Front.
Once he had assumed command, Konev saw that his troop numbers and artillery ammunition supplies were declining, and therefore called for a pause to reorganise, restock ammunition and repair tanks and aircraft. Konev decided to launch the 31st Army and 29th Army from the south-east and the 30th Army again from the north in order to close the encirclement ring around Rzhev.
After its initial breakthrough in the northern sector of the West Front’s offensive, the 31st Army had achieved a steady but unspectacular advance against German infantry, pushing them steadily back and inflicting a steady drain on German resources, although only at great cost to itself. By 23 August it had captured one of the main objectives of the offensive when it took the southern half of Zubtsov. Then its formations and units reached the Vazuza river and seized a shallow bridgehead on its western bank. Konev took the VI Tank Corps from 20th Army and inserted it into the line just to the south of Zubtsov by making use of the 31st Army’s bridgehead. The attack was planned for 9 September, when sufficient ammunition had been brought up. The VI Tank Corps assembled in forest ares, and at dawn on 9 September a 30-minute artillery barrage was followed by the VI Tank Corps' attack, which was supported by infantry of the 31st Army. This attack gained immediate success, cut through a much degraded battalion of the 11th Infanterieregiment and seized two villages. Moving on, the attack captured the village of Misheyevo, threatening a complete breakthrough. After some hesitation and much telephoning, Hitler released Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Infanteriedivision (mot.) 'Grossdeutschland' for a counterattack.
The Soviet armies involved in the offensive intended to retake Rzhev had suffered 290,000 casualties, this figure covering the main army groupings for the period of their offensive commitments, but not the independent corps and air force losses; thus the Soviet overall losses were in excess of 300,000 men. Some sources, such as reports from the participant armies themselves, give higher figures for their casualties than those recorded by the West Front.
The infantry divisions of the attacking armies had to receive additional men to continue their attacks. To maintain the offensive into September, Konev requested 20,000 replacements for just two of his armies. By 10 September the Soviet armies had been decimated: losses had reduced them to half of their original strength, with 184,265 men and 306 tanks.
During the operation the 30th Army lost 99,820 men between August and September, the 29th Army 16,267 men between August and September, the 20th Army 60,453 men between 4 August and 10 September, the 31st Army 43,321 men between 4 August and 15 September, the 5th Army 28,984 men between 7 August and 15 September, and the 33rd Army 42,327 men between 10 August and 15 September, for an overall total of 291,172 men.
By 17 August, the 9th Army's losses had reached some 20,000 men, and on 1 September, von Kluge flew to Hitler’s headquarters to relay what Model had told him one day earlier: the 9th Army was at the point of collapse as its casualties were up to 42,000 and increasing at the rate of almost 2,000 per day. Hitler promised some modest reinforcements, possibly including the Infanteriedivision (mot.) 'Grossdeutschland'.
By the middle of September, each of the German infantry divisions in the thick of the fighting had suffered up to 4,000 casualties and, in the case of the hard-hit 161st Division, more than 6,000 casualties. The Panzer divisions had each lost between 1,500 and 2,000 men, and most of the tanks with which they had entered the fighting. In overall terms, therefore, the 9th Army had lost more than 53,000 men. In addition, in the sector of Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee reported losses of more than 10,000 men.