Operation Battle of Lenino

The 'Battle of Lenino' was a small battle fought between Soviet-supported Polish and German forces in an area to the north of the village of Lenino in the Mogilev region of Belorussia within the context of the 'Spas-Demensk Offensive Operation' (12/13 October 1943).

The 'Spas-Demensk Offensive Operation' was intended to clear the eastern bank of the Dniepr river of German forces and piercing the 'Panther-Wotan-Linie' defences. Though not in itself militarily significant, the 'Battle of Lenino' is prominent in Polish military history as it was the first major engagement fought by Polish forces on the Eastern Front.

While they succeeded in breaking through the German defences and inflicting heavy casualties, the Soviet and Polish forces were unable to maintain their advance. Other Soviet formations failed to co-operate effectively, and there was a lack of adequate artillery and tactical air support as a result of the ongoing German armoured counterattack on the 10th Guards Army to the north of the 33rd Army. The Poles were forced to go over to the defensive, and were ordered instead to hold their ground in this sector as the VI Guards Cavalry Corps arrived to assumed the task of breaking through the German defensive position. This relief did not arrive, however, and after two days the Polish 1st 'Tadeusz Kościuszko' Division had suffered 25% casualties and had to be withdrawn, while the remaining Soviet forces were too weak to widen the breakthrough which had been achieved.

The main assault was to be carried out within the sector of General Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s West Front by General Polkovnik Vasili N. Gordov’s Soviet 33rd Army, and primarily by Generał brygady Zygmunt Berling’s Polish 1st 'Tadeusz Kościuszko' Division aided by tanks of the Polish 1st Tank Regiment, light artillery regiments of the Soviet 144th and 164th Divisions, as well as the 538th Mortar Regiment and the 67th Howitzer Brigade from the 33rd Army’s reserve. The flanks of the Polish division, which was to advance past the northern side of Lenino, were to be secured by the Soviet 42nd Division assaulting the village of Sukhino and the 290th Division assaulting Lenino itself. The Polish division was seriously under-equipped and inadequately trained, however, as it had been formed only four months earlier. Moreover, the flanking Soviet divisions had each been reduced to some 4,000 men by the start of the operation, and their combat value was thus seriously limited. In addition to that, the morale of the Polish division had been seriously undermined by the fact that most of its soldiers were former prisoners of the Soviet concentration camp system and had volunteered for army service as a way to escape the prisons rather than to fight for their homeland.

The German side of the front was manned by elements of Generalmajor Friedrich-Wilhelm Prüter’s 113th Division and Generalleutnant Otto Schünemann’s 337th Division of General Robert Martinek’s XXXIX Panzerkorps within Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s (from 12 Oktober Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s) Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. The German units were battle-hardened and, more importantly, ensconced in well-prepared defensive positions. As the Germans were aware of the Soviet plan, they reinforced their lines in the area with elements of Generalmajor Rudolf Stegmann’s 36th Division just one day before the launch of the offensive. The main German defences line extended between Hills 217.6 near Sukhino to the north and Hill 215.5 to the north of the town of Lenino. The swampy valley of the Mereya river lay in front of the German positions. While not much of an obstacle for infantry, this area was impassable by Soviet tanks.

The main task of the Polish 1st Division in the first stage of the operation was to break through the German defences on a 1.25-mile (2-km) front in the vicinity of the village of Polzukhi and Hill 215.5. The gap thus created was then to be farther widened by the Soviet 42nd Division and 290th Division. In the second stage of the operation, the Polish forces were to reach the line of the Pnevka river and then continue their assault toward Losiev and Churilov. Soviet forces were to assist the Poles in reaching the line of the Dniepr river.

Three days before the start of the offensive, on 9 October, Berling ordered a reconnaissance in force of the German lines, but this attack failed in the face of a heavy German artillery response, yet warned German commanders of the possibility of offensive actions in this sector of the front. In addition, the Germans reported no less than 1,000 Polish and Soviet soldiers who crossed the lines before the battle for fear of being sent back to the Soviet prison camps when the war was over. The German forces were thus fully aware of the Polish and Soviet preparations and plans.

By 11 October the plans for a joint Soviet and Polish assault had been completed and despatched to the various formations and units operating in the area. The main force of the assault was to be the Polish 1st and 2nd Regiments, with the 3rd Regiment following the 2nd in the northern sector. The German lines were to be paralysed by a 100-minute creeping barrage, and the start of the assault was to scheduled for 09.00 on 12 October.

Although the plans were ready, on the evening of 11 October the Soviet command ordered the Poles to start the assault earlier than planned, with yet another attempt at a reconnaissance in force of the German lines at 06.00 on the following day. The orders reached the 1/1st Regiment only two hours before its assault.

At 05.50, the 1st Battalion left its positions and started to push toward the Mereya river and the German trenches located 220 yards (200 m) farther to the west. Supported by only a token force of divisional artillery, the battalion was met by fierce German resistance from well-prepared positions. The unit managed to reach the first line of trenches, but was then counterattacked and driven to ground in front of the German lines. The battalion suffered more than 50% casualties, but held its improvised defensive positions for three hours until the main assault started. The battalion had failed in its task of reconnoitring the German lines. however, but had learned that the German units were much stronger than expected. Moreover, the premature assault served to warn the Germans of the planned attack in this area and therefore gave them further opportunity to prepare.

During the eventual assault little went according to plan. The artillery barrage was due to start at 08.20, but was postponed because of thick fog. It was to last 100 minutes, but Gordov called it off after less than 60 minutes in the belief that the German lines to be already destroyed by barrages of Soviet Katyusha artillery rockets.

The infantry assault started at 10.00. A steady line of the 1st Regiment’s men reached the lines of the 1st Battalion, and then the first line of German trenches almost unopposed. However, the German forces had simply withdrawn to their second line because of the artillery barrage, which allowed their forces to avoid losses. In the open fields between the German lines, the Polish infantry was then savaged by concentrated fire from German machine guns. While the second line was also captured, this victory came at a price: Soviet units that were to cover both flanks of the Polish infantry did not leave their initial positions, and the Polish spearhead suffered heavy losses both from flanking machine guns and the 'friendly fire' of Soviet artillery.

On the northern flank, the 2nd Regiment fared little better. It reached the German first line almost unopposed and by 12.00 had managed to capture the village of Polzukhi, which was located between the German first and second lines. The German units counterattacked and a close-quarter fight for the burning village followed. While the village was ultimately secured by a flanking manoeuvre by the 3rd Battalion, the regiment suffered very considerable losses. In addition to that, supplies failed to reach the fighting units and most of their companies were short of ammunition. Because of that, any farther advance had to be halted. Meanwhile, the 1st Regiment was threatened from a strong German position in the village of Trigubovo on its left flank. The village was to be secured by the Soviet 290th Division which, however, failed to reach this objective. After heavy fighting the village was secured at about 12.00, but then the logistics situation denied the regiment the supply of ammunition it needed.

By 12.00, although it had managed to drive a wedge some 1.95 miles (3 km) deep into the German lines, the 1st Division had to halt its assault. Soviet tanks, which were to have supported the breakthrough, in fact did not cross the Mereya river, and both Soviet divisions were stopped near their initial lines. Only after 12.00 did the tanks start to cross the river. While improvised bridges were prepared by engineers, the paths leading toward the river were swampy. The 2nd Tank Company lost five tanks to malfunctions and two to German fire, while the remaining three could not reach the river crossings at all. The 1st Tank Company was to cross the river by means of the bridge near Lenino, but its advance was checked by German air attacks and the unit suffered further losses during the battles for Polzukhi and Trigubovo. The swampy river valley also proved to be a problem fore the artillery: light infantry guns and mortars had to be carried by foot soldiers as wheeled transport could not cross the obstacle.

At 14.00 the fog thinned and the 337th Division mounted a counterattack. Supported by the Luftwaffe and the XXXIX Panzerkorps' reserves, the German formation stormed the Polish positions at Trigubova, which were held by the 2/1st Regiment. The initial attack was held off, but in the end German tanks and complete aerial superiority forced the Poles to abandon their positions. The 3/1st Regiment tried but failed to retake the village. The Germans also attacked the Polish positions at Hill 215.5 and pushed the Poles back to the east. The 1st Regiment started to lose cohesion, and the chaos further increased when its commanding officer went missing and had to be replaced by Polkovnik Bolesław Kieniewicz, a Soviet officer of Polish ancestry. The positions of the 2nd Regiment were also being attacked both frontally and on the flanks. A heavy barrage of Soviet howitzer fore prevented the unit from being completely surrounded and destroyed. Nevertheless, the losses were heavy and the regiment lost the village of Polzukhi.

During the evening it became clear that the Polish would not be able to hold their positions for much longer. Berling decided to relieve the 1st Regiment and replace it with fresh troops of the 3rd Regiment, until then held in reserve. The 1st Regiment had started the battle with 2,800 men, but by this time had had been reduced to just some 500 men.

At 19.20, the 3rd Regiment, supported by the remaining 16 tanks of the 1st Tank Regiment, resumed the assault. However, by then, the German second-line defences had been strengthened and now proved impregnable. A series of attacks and counterattacks proved costly for each side, but changed little: despite close-quarter fighting right through the night, the villages of Trigubovo and Polzukhi remained in German hands.

On the night of 12 October, Polish reconnaissance troops launched a surprise assault on the village of Tregubova and destroyed the headquarters of the 337th Division. The Germans reacted by sending some Polish-speaking German troops against the Polish unit. Some Polish officers and soldiers were killed in the action, but so too were all the German infiltrators.

At this time, the situation became clearly unfavourable for the Soviets and Poles. The expected German surprise attack to take Lenino did not materialise, but the Polish and Soviet forces had suffered considerable losses. The artillery’s ammunition was also insufficient, and the unstable and complicated front line neutralised the Soviet advantage in artillery strength. However, Gordov still believed that the attack could gain ground with another offensive effort. Berling believed that, given the number of casualties on each side, the Soviet advantage was lost and instead that they should switch to the defensive, but his suggestion along these lines was unilaterally rejected. So on the morning of 13 October Gordov continued the offensive.

But Berling did not remain inactive. Using his authority of a foreign force’s commander, Berling directly phoned Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the Soviet general staff, to inform about the situation and his appreciation of it. Vasilevsky agreed with Berling and promised quickly to inform Iosif Stalin, the Soviet leader, about this, but also suggested that Berling should not tell Gordov about the telephone conversation. While Berling awaited the Stavka’s response, the 1st Division still had to fight. Despite the arrival on the battlefield of two motorised brigades of the Soviet V Motorised Corps to the battlefield, the Polish and Soviet forces could still achieve no notable gains, and had to switch to defence in order to fend off the counterattacks of Generalleutnant Adolf von Schell’s 25th Panzerdivision.

Finally, at 17.00 there arrived came the Stavka’s response. In the message, Stalin heavily criticised Gordov about his mistake and demanded that, by 17.00 on 14 October, Gordov had to send the 164th Division to replace the Polish troops on the battlefield. The Polish division was sent back to the general staff to be supplemented and reinforced. The Lenino offensive was suspended permanently.

The Polish division had held its sector for two days in the face of very heavy losses, after which it was returned to the West Front’s second echelon for reconstruction. Altogether, the 1st Division had lost between 25% and 33% of its personnel in one day. The losses were almost 3,000 men: 502 killed in action, 1,776 wounded and 663 missing or taken prisoner. It was not until spring of the following year that the division could again be committed to combat once again.

Despite heavy losses, the Soviet and Polish troops had managed to retain their Lenino bridgehead, which later played a considerable role in 'Bagration'. The German losses were also heavy and reported to reach 1,800, in addition to 326 Germans taken prisoner. The German forces also sustained heavy losses in equipment: 72 machine guns, 42 pieces of artillery, two tanks and five aircraft.

In its purely military aspect, the plan to consolidate and expand the Lenino bridgehead aea was reasonable, but the timing of the offensive was not. At the end of the 'Smolensk Offensive Operation', the Soviet forces in this sector were exhausted: the manpower remaining to the two Soviet divisions at Lenino was only 9,126 men, about two-thirds of the 1st Division’s strength. Despite its determination, the Polish force was poorly experienced and inadequately trained, and the commitment of a number of reconnaissance actions also allowed the Germans to predict the targets and goals of the Lenino offensive.

Gordov’s stubbornness also contributed to the high casualties of the Soviet and Polish troops. At the end of 12 October, the losses of the Soviet and Polish troops had already reached an unacceptable level, and the important Hill 217.6 height could not be taken as the last reserve force had already been used. At that time, Gordov should have suspended the offensive in order to reorganise and resupply his depleted troops, but he did not. Gordov’s grave faults were violently criticised by Berling and even by Stalin.

It should also be noted, however, that while their front line was not strong, the Germans had considerable reserve strength and a deep system of defences. The bunkers, firepoints and trenches had been laid out with great care, so the Germans managed quickly to stabilise the situation and undertake effective counterattacks. Furthermore, Martinek had also recognised the importance of Hill 217.6: from this the Germans could cover a large area and directly strike the whole town of Lenino with artillery fire. Hill 217.6 would later give the Soviets many difficulties and hardships until its bombardment by a large barrage of Katyusha rockets in June 1944.

Although a tactical and strategic failure, the battle was presented by Soviet propaganda as a success as it was the first battle of the Soviet-backed Polish forces. In fact, the battle, while bloody, proved a political victory to the Soviet-created Union of Polish Patriots, whose aim was to present itself as a true authority of a future Poland as an alternative to the legitimate Polish government-in-exile in the UK. The leaders of the Union of Polish Patriots wished to prove before the 'big-three' 'Eureka' conference at Tehran took place that Polish forces in the USSR could take an active and effective role in the fight against the Germans. In this light, the use of a barely trained division in fruitless assaults was often described as a political demonstration rather than a military operation. The battle was therefore depicted as a victory by Soviet propaganda.

After the victory of Czechoslovak troops in the 'Battle of Sokolovo', the 'Battle of Lenino' was thus the second occasion in which a foreign force trained by the USSR participated on the Eastern Front. In comparison, the circumstance of the Polish force was quite different from their Czechoslovak comrades. In the middle of 1941, the USSR also agreed to help the formation of Generał dywizji Władysław Anders’s Polish Forces in the USSR, which had been formed from the Poles taken prisoner by the Soviets during their seizure of eastern Poland in September 1939 and released after the Soviets were attacked in 'Barbarossa' by their former German allies. However, as a result of differences in opinions and the reluctance of Anders to put his malnourished, untrained and unequipped troops into battle, these Polish forces did not take part in the fight on Soviet territory. Finally, early in 1942, Anders’s troops had been evacuated to Iran, becoming the Polish Armed Forces in the West to fight alongside the British forces in Europe. Many of those freed prisoners unable to join Anders in the evacuation joined the Polish force formed under Berling, who had defected from Anders’s army. These became the Polish 1st Army and Polish 2d Army under Soviet command. These Polish formations played an important role in the fight against Germany and the final capture of Berlin.