2nd Demyansk Offensive Operation

The '2nd Demyansk Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking by the North-West Front and the Special Group 'Khozin' against those elements of the 16th Army of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' caught in the Demyansk pocket (15/28 February 1943).

The Soviet offensive, which was a component of 'Polyarnaya Zvezda' and co-ordinated with the actions of the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front, the North-West Front eliminated the Demyansk pocket, but failed to develop its offensive in accord with the original strategic plan.

The primary Soviet formation committed to the '2nd Demyansk Offensive Operation' was Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s North-West Front, to which Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov was attached as the representative of the Soviet supreme command. At this time the North-West Front comprised General Major Gennadi P. Korotkov’s 1st Shock Army, General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 11th Army, General Leytenant Sergei G. Trofimenko’s 27th Army, General Leytenant Anton I. Lopatin’s 34th Army, General Major Yevgeni P. Zhuravlev’s 53th Army, and General Major Fyedor P. Polynin’s 6th Air Army. Also involved was General Polkovnik Mihail S. Khozin’s Special Group of Forces 'Khozin', which comprised General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army and General Leytenant Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 68th Army, as well as the 2nd Shock Aviation Group subordinated directly to the front’s headquarters.

The German forces in the area were elements of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and comprised Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army with General Paul Laux’s II Corps and General Christian Hansen’s X Corps as well as Generalleutnant Gustav Höhne’s Gruppe 'Höhne ' and Generalleutnant Otto Thiemann’s Gruppe 'Thiemann'. Air support for the German ground forces was provided by Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I.

At the beginning of 1942, the forces of the North-West Front , operating in the Staraya Russa area, managed to achieve significant success in the encirclement of the II Corps, then under the command of General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, in the area of Demyansk. The Soviet forces were unable to destroy the German grouping, however, and on 21 April Generalleutnant Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s Gruppe 'Seydlitz' had been able to restore overland communication with the encircled group, breaking through in the Soviet defence by creating the so-called 'Ramushevo corridor', which was 3.7 to 5 miles (6 to 8 km) wide. Soviet troops attempted repeatedly to cut this corridor, but the efforts which took place on 3/20 May, 17/24 July, 10/21 August and 15/16 September were unsuccessful.

On 5 October 1942, the Soviet supreme command replaced Kurochkin, then the commander of the North-West Front, with Timoshenko. The new commander received specific orders from Iosif Stalin to destroy the German grouping in the Demyansk area in the shortest possible time. As a result of the weather and ground conditions attendant on the autumnal rasputitsa, however, the new offensive was launched only on 28 November. There was severe fighting over a period of almost two weeks, but the Soviet troops failed to achieve tangible results. Despite the failure, on 23 December the North-West Front, in accordance with a new directive of 8 December, began as new operation with the 1st Shock Army and 11th Army in order to 'break through the throat of the enemy’s Demyansk grouping'. By 13 January 1943, however, this new effort had failed to break into the German defence, and the commitment of additional forces, in the shape of the 34th Army and 53rd Army, yielded no better success.

By January 1943 the Soviet supreme command, inspired by the success of 'Iskra', had decided to undertake a general offensive to the north-west as 'Polyarnaya Zvezda' in the area to the south of Leningrad. This concept was developed as a joint undertaking by the forces of the North-West Front, Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front supplemented by the specially created Special Group of Forces 'Khozin', designed to encircle and destroy the entirety of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and achieve the total liberation of the Leningrad region. Co-ordination of the forces involved in 'Polyarnaya Zvezda' was entrusted to Zhukov, who was appointed as the representative of the Soviet supreme command at the headquarters of the North-West Front. Thus, the next operation to eliminate the German grouping round Demyansk became the most important single element of 'Polyarnaya Zvezda'.

According to the Soviet supreme command’s plan, the 1st Shock Army and 27th Army were to begin the operation on 19 February, about 10 days after the start of the 'Polyarnaya Zvezda' offensive by the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front, and the North-West Front’s other major formations, namely the 34th Army, 53rd Army and 11th Army, were to join the offensive later.

The formations of the 1st Shock Army, advancing on the 'Ramushevo corridor' from the south, had to break through the German defences in the area of Shotovo and Ovchinnikovo, and then to move to join the 27th Army, which would be advancing to the south from the area of Penno and Borisovo region. In the area of Onufrievo and Sokolovo, it was planned to close the ring of the Soviet encirclement and trap the German grouping. Then the 1st Shock Army was to destroy the German troops in the 'Ramushevo corridor' and ensure that the formations of the Special Group of Forces 'Khozin' were brought into the breakthrough, and the 27th Army was to advance to the west in order to destroy the German grouping in the Staraya Russa region. After this part of the plan had been completed, the 27th Army was to be subordinated to Khozin and, with the main forces as well as the 68th Army, undertake the rapid development of the offensive in the direction of Luga, while other elements of the North-West Front, linking with the 52nd Army of the Volkhov Front, undertook the liberation of Novgorod.

A special group was tasked with advancing toward Luga, Strug Krasnykh, Porkhov and Dna in order to sever the communications of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and prevent German formations and units from coming to the aid of the grouping at Demyansk and in the area of Leningrad and Volkhov. Farther into the future, developing the offensive toward Pskov and Narva, the Special Group was to complete the encirclement and then to co-operate with the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front in the destruction of Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

To achieve the most rapid offensive, the Soviet command intended to carry out an airborne operation to capture the important railway junction of Dno, for which purpose five guards airborne divisions were included in the strength of the 68th Army of the Special Group.

The Soviet preparations for a major offensive by the North-West Front at the beginning of 1943 was in no way unforeseen by the Germans. Realising that once again it would be extremely difficult to hold the Demyansk lodgement, in the first half of January von Küchler asked for Adolf Hitler’s authorisation for the withdrawal of the forces round Demyansk to the line between Staraya Russa and Kholm. Hitler responded, as usual, with a flat refusal even to consider any form of retreat, but on 29 was forced to allow the evacuation, The headquarters of the 16th Army immediate started the implementation of the evacuation plan that had already been formulated. At the same time, the Germans continued to defend their current defensive positions, which had been well prepared, right to the last moment. Especially important in this respect was the defence of the 'Ramushevo corridor', in which the density of the German mines reached between 1,200 and 1,500 mines per kilometre and there was a pillbox or bunker every 330 to 385 yards (300 to 350 m).

According to the Soviet plan, the North-West Front was to go over to the offensive on 19 February, but the deteriorating state of the weather meant that the armies of North-West Front and the Special Group of Forces 'Khozin' could not complete the regrouping that was needed, so the operation’s start was postponed for several days. At that moment, intelligence data made it clear to the Soviets that the Germans had begun to withdraw from the Demyansk position: this German retirement lasted to 16 February as supplies and equipment not immediately needed by the German divisions were removed, and on 17 February the order came for the start of the forces' withdrawal.

The Soviet supreme command thus ordered the immediate start of the offensive by all the forces currently available.

On 15 February, the 11th Army and the 53rd Army attacked with the object of severing the 'Ramushevo corridor', and the 34th Army launched an offensive to the north-east of Demyansk. Running into severe resistance, the Soviet forces were unable to cut the 'Ramushevo corridor' and thereby prevent the Germans from implementing their evacuation plan.

On 20 February the Soviet supreme command recommended to Zhukov that the main offensive be launched by the 27th Army, the 1st Shock Army and the Special Group of Forces 'Khozin' some three to four days earlier than the date that had earlier been decided, its reasoning being the fact that 'in the area of ​​Demyansk, the [Germans] began a hasty withdrawal of their units to the west'. On 23 February, the 27th Army attacked in the area to the south of Staraya Russa, and the 1st Shock Army at the base of the 'Ramushevo corridor' in an effort to prevent the German forces from falling back from the Lovat river. By this time the German forces had abandoned most of their lodgement, and Demyansk itself had been abandoned by units of the II Corps on 22 February. Despite the determination with which their attacks were delivered, the Soviet forces could not break into the defences of the 'Ramushevo corridor', and on 20 February the offensive was brought to an end without reaching the goals which had been set for it.

On 1 March, Busch reported that the last Germans forces had evacuated the Demyansk pocket, in the process making available additional divisions with which to effect a significant strengthening of their defences in the area. This dramatically changed the operational situation.

The Germans had held the Demyansk pocket for more than one year in the expectation this this could be the springboard for once of the arms of a large-scale pincer operation to encircle significant Soviet troops with converging strikes from the Demyansk and Rzhev areas. However, in March Soviet forces had driven the last German formations to leave the Demyansk lodgement and retreat across the Lovat river, and at almost the same time the Germans abandoned Rzhev-Vyaz’ma salient. The result was that even the theoretical possibility of a German offensive toward Moscow was finally eliminated.

For all its longer-term strategic and operational implications, the '2nd Demyansk Offensive Operation' was in itself only partially successful inasmuch as its local results achieved were rather more modest, and the main tasks that had been assigned to the North-West Front before the start of the operation were not achieved. The Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front also failed to achieve significant results. Thus the Soviet 'Polyarnaya Zvezda' operation could not be realised in February 1943, and was therefore revised to a smaller-scale undertaking to be undertaken in March.

The losses of the North-West Front between 15 and 28 February were 33,663 men, of whom 10,016 were killed or missing, and 23,647 were wounded or taken ill. The 15th Army's losses between 16 and 28 February totalled 6,916 men, of whom 1.718 were killed or missing.