Operation Battle of Krasny Bor

The 'Battle of Krasny Bor' was part of the Soviet 'Polyarnaya Zvezda Offensive Operation' against the Germans on the Eastern Front (10/13 February 1943).

The battle was designed to take the form of a pincer attack near Leningrad to build on the success of the 'Iskra Offensive Operation' and complete the lifting of the siege of Leningrad, in the process encircling a substantial part of Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. The offensive near the town of Krasny Bor formed the western arm of the pincer. The Soviet offensive began on 10 February 1943, and made significant gains on the first day, but then rapidly deteriorated into a stalemate. The strong defence by the Spaniards of Generalleutnant Emilio Esteban Infantes’s 250th Division (spanische) (otherwise the División Azul) and the Germans of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei Alfred Wünnenberg’s SS-Polizei-Division gave the German forces time to reinforce their positions, and by 13 February the Soviet forces had been brought to a halt.

The German siege of Leningrad had begun early in the autumn of 1941, and by 8 September German and Finnish forces had surrounded the city and thereby cut all the supply routes into Leningrad and its suburbs, and by the same token all possible evacuation routes. However, the original drive on the city failed, and the attack became a siege. During 1942 the Soviets made attempts to breach the blockade, but all of these undertakings were unsuccessful. The last such endeavour in 1942 was the 'Sinyavino Offensive Operation'. After the defeat of that effort, the front line returned to what it had been and once again 10 miles (16 km) separated General Polkovnik Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front in the city and General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front outside it.

Despite the failures of earlier operations, the Soviets saw the lifting of the siege of Leningrad as a very high priority, and therefore began preparations in November 1942 for a new offensive, only a few weeks after the the failure of the 'Sinyavino Offensive Operation' (iii). In December, the operational plan was approved by the Stavka and received the codename 'Iskra'. By January 1943, the situation looked very good for the Soviets: the German defeat at Stalingrad had weakened the Germans radically, and the Soviet forces were planning or undertaking offensive operations across the entirety of the Eastern Front, especially in the southern part of the USSR. Given this situation, 'Iskra' was to become the first of several offensive operations aimed at inflicting a decisive defeat on Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

'Iskra' was a Soviet strategic victory and opened a land corridor some 5 to 6.25 miles (8 to 10 km) wide into the city. A railway was swiftly built through this corridor, making it possible to deliver more supplies into the city than had been possible along the 'Road of Life' truck route across frozen Lake Ladoga, eliminating the possibility of the capture of the city and the establishment of physical links between the German and Finnish forces round Leningrad. At the same time, however, the Stavka knew that 'Iskra' was incomplete as the corridor it had opened was narrow and was still well within range of German artillery. Additionally, the important heights and the strongpoint at Sinyavino were still controlled by the Germans. This led Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the Soviet senior commander, to plan a much more ambitious offensive operation named as the 'Polyarnaya Zvezda Offensive Operation'.

'Polyarnaya Zvezda' was created to build on the success of 'Iskra' and was launched only days later. Zhukov, who had overseen 'Iskra', had been promoted to the rank of marshal on 18 January, the day on the two Soviet fronts linked and broke the blockade. 'Polyarnaya Zvezda' was schemed as a three-front attack by the North-West Front under Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko, the Volkhov Front under Meretskov and the Leningrad Front under Govorov, of which General Major Vladimir P. Sviridov’s 55th Army was now a part. The North-West Front was to attack the Ramushevo 'corridor', which since 1942 had connected the German-held Demyansk salient with their main positions. The destruction of the bulk of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s 16th Army in the pocket would allow the front to exploit the gap in the German lines. The Leningrad Front and the Volkhov Front were to capitalise on the fact that the 18th Army had been stretched very thinly in the January fighting and therefore attack the army’s flanks, aiming to link near Tosno. Again, this would create a gap in the German lines. In overall terms, therefore, the offensive’s object was nothing short of a decisive defeat of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and an advance to the Chud lake.

The 55th Army’s objective was to break open the vital road and rail link between Leningrad and Moscow, starting from its jump-off position in the Kolpino area toward Tosno; it was to join with a northbound pincer attack of General Major Aleksandr V. Sukhomlin’s 54th Army of the Volkhov Front, thereby encircling German formations in the Mga sector. The pivot point for this highway was Krasny Bor, situated between the highway and the railway line. The 55th Army’s attack would also hit sectors defended by other German formations on the flanks and thus draw them into battle. Once this attack had succeeded, the plan was for the second-echelon forces to advance through the gap toward Tosno. The attack was scheduled for 10 February, and the 55th Army planned to attack with a force of approximately 33,000 men and 30 tanks in irs first echelon, to be followed as a second echelon by a mobile group comprising the 122nd Tank Brigade and the 35th Ski Brigade.

On 10 February, a massive artillery bombardment by 1,000 pieces of artillery and mortars descended on the lines of the Spanish division at precisely 06.45. Shells, mortars and Katyusha rockets pounded the trenches, bunkers and dug-outs which had been constructed to strengthen the eastern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. At 08.45, the bombardment shifted from the front line onto Krasny Bor itself, and also struck the villages of Podolvo and Raikelevo to the east and south-east of Krasny Bor respectively; the latter accommodated the forward command post of the Spanish division.

At about 08.40, the 45th Guards Division, 63rd Guards Division and 72nd Division, followed by some tanks, advanced towards Staraia Mgsa to the east of Krasny Bor, Krasny Bor, Raikelevo and Podolvo, with the 63rd Guards Division facing the 5,900 men of the Spanish division, which was holding the eastern flank of the line. Pinned by two hours of initial bombardment, the Spanish units were unable to retreat toward the town and in many cases fought to the death. The front line was quickly overrun, and many Spanish units were destroyed.

Inside Krasny Bor, a company of Spanish infantry held the Oktyabrsky railway station, repulsing infantry charges and three tank assaults by advancing Soviet forces. By 11.00 the company had been reduced to 40 men, yet these managed to hold the factory until 12.00, when they fell back into the town. From 09.00 to 10.40, isolated Spanish units fought off Soviet attacks but were then cut off when the Soviets seized the Oktyabrsky station. Now encircled, the Spanish units still holding the highway linking Leningrad and Moscow decided to hold for as long as possible, and were destroyed in combat.

Meanwhile the 55th Army had advanced despite heavy casualties inflicted by the dug-in Spanish troops. The Soviets took Raikelevo, which cut off Podolvo from Krasny Bor. In Krasny Bor itself the Spanish artillery, engineers and other assorted stragglers came under attack from Soviet infantry and armour, and by 12.00, the 63rd Guards Division reported the capture of Krasny Bor, despite the fact that the southern half of the town was still controlled by the Spanish. Soviet tanks opened fire on a hospital and retreating ambulances but were eventually beaten off by Spanish troops armed with Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. The afternoon brought belated support for the defenders in the form of an attack by Luftwaffe fighter-bombers on the Soviet positions around the town of Kolpino, to the north of Krasny Bor, while the 45th Guards Division seized Mishkino. Sviridov decided to insert the mobile group into the battle late in the day, but this was stopped by a combination of fierce resistance and a sudden thaw that stopped the ski brigade from operating off-road. The German command reinforced the Spanish defences with extemporised Kampfgruppen.

The 63rd Guards Division advanced as far as the western central part of the town, and after 15.15 drove a small element into the rear of the Spanish division’s forward command post. Meanwhile, the remaining Spanish troops were ordered to new positions on the Izhora river, to the west of the town, and here they held out against 63rd Guards Division’s last attacks of the day.

After 16.30 a Kampfgruppe of Generalleutnant Hellmuth Reymann’s 212th Division and two companies each of SS-Sturmbannführer Conrad Schellong’s SS-Freiwilligen Legion Flandern and the Lettische SS-Freiwilligen Legion were able to support the Spanish with a counterattack on the forest at Staraya Rechka, and by taking over the front line from the highway to the Izhora river. Elements of the 212th Division relieved the Spanish troops still holding the southern half of Krasny Bor.

At the end of the day, the 63rd Guards Division had advanced 2.5 to 3.1 miles (4 top 5 km) and captured Krasny Bor, Mishkino, Staraya Mirza, Stepanovka and Popovka station. On its left wing, the attack by the 43rd Division and the 34th Ski Brigade had gained initial success, driving the SS-Polizei-Division into the Tosno river. In the Ishora river sector, the 72nd Division pushed back the Spanish toward the river, destroying its Feldersatzbataillon (spanisches) (field replacement battalion), but suffering up to 70% casualties in the process.

On the next day, the forward elements of the 63rd Guards Division units were surrounded in several places, but the main body of the Spanish division remained in control of Krasny Bor by the evening. A planned counterattack by the Spanish division and the 212th Division was thought likely to be successful, but was not carried out as a result of concerns about the overall position of the 18th Army.

By 13 February, the 55th Army had lost almost one-third of its initial strength and most of its tanks, and could no longer advance. The total depth of its penetration was 2.5 to 3.1 miles (4 to 5 km) across a front of 8.7 miles (14 km). After the Spanish 262nd Infanterieregiment (spanisches) and a battalion of the 250th Artillerieregiment (spanisches) had allen back, they bombarded the Soviet positions and attempted a counterattack to retake Krasny Bor. The attack by the 55th Army facilitated a flanking assault by the 67th Army in the Sinyavino sector because it had led to the withdrawal of German forces from that sector.

The main road to Moscow was still controlled by the 18th Army despite the Soviet seizure of 1.85 miles (3 km) of railway line, and the Soviets launched their last major attack in this sector on 19 March: this was also repelled with heavy losses on each side.

Soviet general staff critiques after the battle highlighted the reasons for the failure of the attacks during 'Polyarnaya Zvezda' as strongly fortified defences, faulty reconnaissance, poor command and control at all levels, clumsy employment of armour and ineffective artillery support.

The failure of the 55th Army to follow through on its initial success meant that the attempted encirclement of the German forces in the Mga sector had lost its northern pincer. Lack of success by the other attacking armies, for similar reasons, had led to the overall failure of 'Polyarnaya Zvezda'. It would be almost another year before the 18th Army withdrew from the direct approaches to Leningrad. General Philipp Kleffel’s L Corps, and in particular its Spanish division, had managed to hold the Soviets inside the perimeter of the siege of Leningrad, albeit at heavy cost.

On 15 February, the Spanish division reported casualties of 3,645 men killed or wounded and 300 missing or taken prisoner, which represented to casualty rate of 70 to 75% among the troops engaged in the battle. It claimed 11,000 Soviet troops of the 55th Army had been killed in the five days beginning 9 February. Because of these heavy losses and Allied pressure on the Spanish government, the Spanish division was withdrawn to Germany and later disestablished. A new volunteer formation, the Legion de Voluntarios Españoles, remained in combat on the Eastern Front, and was attached to Generalleutnant Helmuth Priess’s 121st Division until March 1944. It was then also disbanded and the majority of the volunteers were sent back to Spain. The 55th Army eventually took part in breaking the siege of Leningrad, securing the road and rail route linking Leningrad and Moscow in 1944. The army subsequently advanced into Estonia and fought against the German forces in the Kurland pocket until 1945.

Spanish casualties in all of the war on the Eastern Front totalled 22,700 men in the form of 3,934 killed, 570 died of disease, 326 missing or taken prisoner, 8,466 wounded, 7,800 taken ill and 1,600 frost-bitten. In action against the Spanish division, the Soviets suffered 49,300 casualties.

The Spaniards taken prisoner in the battle were not repatriated from the USSR until 1954.