Staraya Russa Offensive Operation (ii)

old Russia

The 'Staraya Russa Offensive Operation' (ii) was the third and last Soviet sub-operations of the 'Polyarnaya Zvezda Offensive Operation', and as such was an undertaking of the North-West Front against Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in the Staraya Russa area of the Eastern Front during the middle period of the 'Great Patriotic War' (4/19 March 1943).

In January 1943, the Soviet high command developed a plan for the 'Polyarnaya Zvezda Offensive Operation'. This was to be undertaken by the Leningrad, Volkhov and North-West Fronts in February and March 1943. The operation was planned by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces, in the wake of the successful 'Iskra Offensive Operation' and envisaged two separate encirclements. One was to be carried out in the north by the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts near Mga, and the other was to be carried out farther to the south by the North-West Front near Demyansk.

The operation succeeded in recapturing the Demyansk salient but encircled no German forces. The northern part of the operation failed without gaining much ground. With the battles in the south near Kharkov and, later, Kursk demanding the commitment of all available reinforcements by both sides, the front line near Leningrad stabilised until July 1943.

In the first stage of the 'Polyarnaya Zvezda Offensive Operation', Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s North-West Front were to surround and destroy in the Demyansk salient the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s 16th Army within Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. In the second stage, committed without a pause after the first stage, the North-West Front was to use General Polkovnik Mikhail S. Khozin’s Special Group of Forces for a deep strike in the area of Staraya Russa to advance on Pskov, to break through the Germans' weakened defences and penetrate deep into the rear of the main German formations near Leningrad and Novgorod.

Between 15 and 28 February, the North-West Front fought the Germans' Demyansk grouping in the 'Demyansk Offensive Operation', but its forces were not able to surround and destroy the Demyansk grouping. Using conditions favourable for defence and the advantages offered by the early thaw, the German troops were able to hold the 'Ramushevsky corridor', thereby preventing the encirclement of the Demyansk grouping and allowing its withdrawal from the Demyansk salient. At the same time, the advancing Soviet units were exhausted and weakened to a significant degree, and the density of the German troops was increased strongly by the availability of the forces withdrawn from the Demyansk pocket. The Soviet forces were neither rested nor reinforced, and in order to offset the losses suffered in the operation’s first stage, Khozin’s Special Group of Forces was weakened. In total, the North-West Front had 401,190 men on 4 March, and its first-line formations were 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 53rd Army, General Leytenant Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 68th Army and General Major Gennadi P. Korotkov’s 1st Shock Army, all of which were committed in the operation.

On 4 March the 'Staraya Russa Offensive Operation' began as the second stage of the 'Polyarnaya Zvezda Offensive Operation'. The offensive was carried out in extremely unfavourable weather conditions: the early spring thaw had rendered unpaved roads unsuitable for the movement of troops and also thinned then broken the ice on the region’s many rivers and swamps. In the adverse weather, the four brigades of ski troops specially created for the operation could not be used in their intended role and were therefore committed to the fighting as conventional infantry. Adding to the Soviet woes was the fact that the very idea of ​​the operation, as a repeat offensive in the same area without any means of reinforcement, was quickly revealed as faulty. Waiting for the resumption of the Soviet offensive, the Germans had significantly strengthened their defensive positions near Staraya Russa.

From its first day. the Soviet offensive developed unsuccessfully as the assault forces were able to advance only between 6.2 and 9.3 miles (10 and 15 km) and in the process suffered heavy losses. The Soviet forces managed to break through the first line of defence only along the Lovat river, but liberated more than a dozen villages and closed on the approaches to Staraya Russa.

The offensive was halted here as the Soviets now needed to regroup their troops: General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army was urgently withdrawn from the Special Group of Forces and despatched south to the Kharkov sector, where events had become threatening for the Soviets. The Special Group of Forces was itself disbanded. Timoshenko was relieved as commander of the front and succeeded by General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev. Finally, supervision of the main attack was assigned to the 68th Army, and was now to bypass Staraya Russa from the south.

The resumption of the Soviet offensive, now the task of infantry forces alone, did not lead to any measure of success. Based on excellent defensive positions and using better-trained forces, the Germans repelled all the Soviet attacks. By 19 March the Soviet troops had advanced only in a few places, and then to a maximum depth of a mere 3.1 miles (5 km). This took them forward to the next German defensive line, which extended along the Redya river.

The operation was terminated on 19 March, when the Soviet forces went over to the defensive, although according to some accounts major attacks were attempted against Staraya Russa on 20 and 22 March.

The operation was thus a failure. In an advance of less than 12.5 miles (20 km) and the liberation of several small villages, the North-West Front paid a considerable price: between 4 and 19 March, the front had lost 31,789 men killed or taken prisoner, and 71,319 men wounded or taken ill. The losses after March 20 are not known. The severity of the fighting and the level of losses is evidenced by the fact that the daily loss rate was 6,444 men killed and missing, and throughout 1943 this rate was exceeded only once, during the 'Belgorod-Kharkov Offensive Operation' by the Voronezh Front, where there were several armoured battles. But while in the Belgorod area the Soviet troops achieved success and opened the way to the Dniepr river, in the Staraya Russa area comparable losses won only a small area of territory that was largely forest and swamp.