Operation Battle of Nevel

The 'Battle of Nevel' was fought between Soviet and German forces in the Pskov area of western Russia and on northern Belorussia (6 October/c. 16 December 1943).

The initial Soviet attack created an unexpected breakthrough of the German defences and liberated the town of Nevel on the first day, and continued attacks over the next four days created a salient about 21.75 miles (35 km) wide and 15.5 miles (25 km) deep at the junction of between Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s (from 28 October Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s) Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Through the following weeks the forces of General Andrei I. Eremenko’s (from 19 November General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s) 1st Baltic Front continued to expand the salient and attempt to outflank and encircle the formations and units of General Christian Hansen’s 16th Army and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee to its north and south while those same major formations, at Adolf Hitler’s orders, 'held the goalposts' and attempted to cut off the salient. Hitler finally conceded these efforts were futile on 16 December as the 1st Baltic Front continued attacking to the south in the direction of Vitebsk.

Following the 'Battle of Velikiye Luki' in the winter of 1942/43, the 3rd Shock Army had remained on much the same line, to the east of Novosokolniki and Nevel, throughout the spring and summer. During this time the railway line from Vitebsk through Nevel to Pskov remained in German hands as a vital lateral communications link between the two army groups, although it was under Soviet artillery fire near Novosokolniki. Breaking this line was an obvious objective. Although Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had created a ready reserve of five infantry divisions to deal with threats on either end of its front, early in September the Oberkommando des Heeres ordered that two of these be transferred to Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. On 19 September Heeresgruppe 'Nord' assumed command of General Karl von Oven’s LXIII Corps from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', giving it an additional three divisions, 48 miles (77 km) of front and responsibility for the defence of Nevel and Novosokolniki.

The Soviet position had the potential, or so it seemed to the Soviet high command, for use as the springboard for a 'big solution', i.e an offensive to drive between the two German army groups all the way to the Gulf of Riga on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea. Given the nature of the terrain, with its many forests, lakes and swamps and few roads even by Soviet standards, and the manpower demands from other sectors, this was in fact wholly impractical. Instead, General Andrei I. Eremenko, commander of the 1st Baltic Front, planned the attack on Nevel as a supporting operation for his front’s wider offensive toward Vitebsk: 'While planning the Nevel operation, we anticipated supporting the general front operation along the Vitebsk axis and also creating conditions conducive for developing success to the south toward Gorodok and also to the north and north-west to seize the Novosokolniki centre of resistance…Furthermore, the attack on Nevel diverted considerable German forces, and its success would disrupt the entire enemy communications system…This would prevent the enemy from manoeuvring from the north to support his Vitebsk grouping.'

The Soviet offensive began at 05.00 on 6 October with a reconnaissance in force, followed by a 90-minute artillery preparation at 08.40 and air attacks by the 21st Assault Aviation Regiment. The 3rd Shock Army went over to the attack at 10.00 on the Zhigary-Shliapy sector, precisely at the boundary between the two German army groups. The 28th Division spearheaded the assault in the first echelon followed closely by an exploitation echelon consisting of the 21st Guards Division and the 78th Tank Brigade, the latter with 54 tanks. The assault force struck and demolished Oberst Hellmuth Petzold’s 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision: like the other Luftwaffe 'divisions', the 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision was in fact the size of a brigade, with only four infantry battalions, and was especially weak in artillery with just eight 75-mm (2.95-in) mountain guns and one battery of StuG III assault guns. It had been badly damaged in its first action to the south of Belyi during 'Mars' nearly a year earlier and had never fully recovered.

In addition to the flight of the 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision, the right flank of Generalleutnant Werner Richter’s 263rd Division was badly mauled. While the attack of the 357th Division was contained, the 78th Tank Brigade, carrying men of 21st Guards Division with more mounted on trucks, along with the 163rd Anti-Tank Regiment and 827th Howitzer Artillery Regiment, entered the gap and rapidly drove to the west and liberated Nevel off the march. General Leytenant Kuzma N. Galitsky, commander of the 3rd Shock Army, reported that 'In the city of Nevel, the enemy garrison was destroyed, and many warehouses, vehicles, and other equipment were seized. There are prisoners. The quantity of trophies is being calculated.' At the same time General Major Vasili I. Shvetsov’s 4th Shock Army, deployed on 3rd Shock Army’s southern flank, also launched an attack toward Gorodok. Shvetsov had formed a shock group from two of his corps, each advancing abreast in three echelons. The II Guards Corps led with its 360th Division, followed by 117th and 16th Lithuanian Divisions and two tank brigades. The LXXXIII Corps had its 47th Division forward, supported by 234th, 235th and 381st Divisions and another two tank brigades. Although there were no further panicked withdrawals by General Alfred Schlemm’s II Luftwaffen-Feldkorps, the attack gained about 12.5 miles (20 km) but ultimately faltered just short of the road and railway links between Nevel and Vitebsk via Gorodok.

The sudden collapse of 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision came as much a surprise to the Soviets as to the Germans, and it has been written that 'in warfare combatants can occasionally have more good luck than convenient to handle, and apparently something of that sort befell [the] Kalinin Front in the attack on Nevel…for a Soviet front command, even in late 1943, it raised many distressing uncertainties. On 9 October, [Eremenko] suddenly reined in the offensive. During the several days' pause that followed, Army Groups North and Center threw a line around the western limits of the breakthrough, and each moved in a corps headquarters to command the battle area.'

By Soviet reckoning the 'Nevel Offensive Operation' thus ended on 10 October, but the fighting in and around the salient continued at least into the middle of December with the German forces attempting to cut off the salient as a whole while the Soviet forces expanded their hold to the north, south and west.

The Germans' first impression was that they had erred badly but not irrevocably. von Küchler, commander of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', ordered his three remaining reserve divisions into the breakthrough area while Hitler ordered the 'corner posts' (the shoulder positions on each side of the breakthrough gap) to be held at all costs. The initial German counterattack efforts failed as a result of transportation difficulties and superior Soviet strength, and on 9 October von Küchler decided to wait for reinforcements before making another attempt. Meanwhile Hitler berated his subordinates for failing to hold at formation and unit boundaries, demanding that they should 'consider it a point of honour' to maintain contact. When Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' proposed merging the remnants of the 2nd Luftwaffe-Felddivision with an army division, Hitler refused, stating with an incredible misappreciation of the realities that he did not wish to water down good Luftwaffe troops with bad army troops.

Several days later the two army groups had gathered enough troops to plan a counterattack by two divisions from the north and one from the south, but on 14 October Hitler forbade it because he believed the force was not strong enough. From the next day the 3rd Shock Army attacked the villages of Moseevo and Izocha on the salient’s north-eastern flank with the 100th Brigade and eventually all of 28th Division, supported on the right by the 165th and 379th Divisions of the newly-arrived XCI Corps. While this attack was held by the German forces, it did capture more favourable jumping-off positions for General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, which was currently moving into the region. At about this time the boundary between General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Kalinin Front and the Baltic Front (2nd Baltic Front as of 20 October) was shifted to bisect the salient from east to west, and the 3rd Shock Army was reassigned to the latter front. On 19 October Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' proposed a joint undertaking to close the gap, but von Küchler declared that he had no troops to spare as a result of the threat to Novosokolniki. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' then requested authorisation to proceed alone but Hitler again demurred.On 26 October, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was forced to transfer the Panzer division it had been holding in reserve for the counterattack, and this effectively ended all such planning for the foreseeable future.

In an early morning fog on 2 November, the 3rd Shock Army and 4th Shock Army drove through the defences on the left flank of Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee to the south-west of Nevel. After the breakthrough, which opened a gap 10 miles (16 km) wide, the 3rd Shock Army turned to the north behind the flank of the 16th Army while 4th Shock Army advanced to the south-west behind the 3rd Panzerarmee. The 4th Shock Army’s part was described by General Major Afanasi F. Beloborodov, commander of the II Guards Corps with the words 'The offensive began during the first few days of November. Co-operating closely, the 3rd and 4th Shock Armies delivered a strong attack south of Nevel, penetrated through the defile between the lakes and advanced rapidly to the north-west, west and south-west. Since the depth of the penetration expanded but the mouth of the penetration remained narrow as before, a huge sack formed in the enemy defence. The 4th Shock Army’s formations…menacingly hung over the Fascists' Gorodok grouping. In turn, while holding firm to the so-called Ezerishche salient, this grouping, whose apex dug its heels in at the mouth of the penetration, also represented a great danger for us.'

On 4 November, Hitler summoned von Küchler and Busch to his headquarters, and characterised the October battle around Nevel as a Schweinerei (filthy mess). At the close of the conference he ordered the two army groups to be readied by 8 November for a counterattack from the north and south and close the gap.

The 3rd Panzerarmee did launch its attack on that date with Generalleutnant Walter Hartmann’s 87th Division and Generalleutnant Mortimer von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision. The latter was relatively strong as it had 29 PzKpfw IV and three PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks. In the morning, Beloborodov received an alarming report from his 156th Division that 'The enemy are advancing and attacking 417th Regiment with up to 50 tanks and infantry.' During the day the German force pressed forward as much as 5 miles (8 km) between the Ezerishche and Ordovo lakes, and captured the villages of Blinki, Borok and several others. Beloborodov was forced to change the task of his 47th Division to counterattack the penetration off the march. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was scheduled to attack from its side of the salient on the morning of 9 November but von Küchler protested that all his units were tied down. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' accused Heeresgruppe 'Nord' of refusing to attack simply 'because it did not want to'. Hitler refused to 'accept any further excuses' and ordered Heeresgruppe 'Nord' 'as a matter of honour to begin its counterattack no later than the following day. von Küchler assembled an extemporised grouping of seven battalions, which attacked as ordered on 10 November, ran into heavy artillery fire and was then driven back to its line of departure by a counterattack.

During the night of 9/10 November, the 4th Shock Army set about neutralising the German breakthrough on its front. While the II Guards Corps contained the 20th Panzerdivision along the road linking Gorodok and Nevel road, others of the same army’s forces regrouped and drove deep into the German rear areas. The 357th and 119th Divisions advanced to the south-west toward Polotsk, while Beloborodov’s 381st and 154th Divisions, supported by 236th Tank Brigade, wheeled to the south to fall on the German defences at Gorodok from the west. The 3rd Panzerarmee moved Generalmajor Friedrich-Wilhelm Prüter’s 113th Division to block the advance on Gorodok, while several Kampfgruppen covered the approaches to Polotsk. German resistance and deteriorating weather forced a temporary halt to the Soviet advance, but the 20th Panzerdivision was also forced to abandon its drive toward Nevel.

While the immediate threat had been averted, on 12 November Eremenko was chastised by the Stavka for apparently losing his composure in the face of the German counterattacks: 'The racket, which you kicked up about the attack of large enemy forces, supposedly up to two tank divisions from Ezerishche to Studenets, turned out to be a totally baseless and panicky report. This means that you personally and your staff accept in faith and do not verify all reports coming in from below.' This criticism foreshadowed Eremenko’s dismissal from command of 1st Baltic Front on November 19. He was replaced by Bagramyan, who had previously commanded the 11th Guards Army.

The 3rd Shock Army’s part in the renewed offensive began with a thorough reorganisation. By the start of November the 178th, 185th and 357th Divisions had been replaced by the 115th, 146th and 326th Divisions and the 18th Guards Division. It also received the 34th Guards and 118th Tank Brigades. Shortly after the offensive had begun on 2 November, the new commander of 2nd Baltic Front, General Markian M. Popov, further reinforced the army with the 119th Guards Division and the 219th and 245th Divisions.

It was soon clear that 3rd Shock Army had been allocated the main effort in the renewed offensive. von Küchler transferred six battalions of infantry from the 18th Army to cover the 16th Army's new rear as its most southerly elements were becoming enveloped from three sides. The Soviet forces headed deep into the German rear areas toward their objective, the town of Pustoshka on the railway line linking Velikiye Luki and Riga. By 7 November the 3rd Shock Army’s leading elements had penetrated more than 18.5 miles (30 km) on a 25-mile (40-km) front. By the middle of the month, the 119th Guards Division, flanked by the 146th Division and with strong armoured support, had taken Podbereze and directly threatened to cut the railway line linking Novosokolniki and Pustoshka. At around the same time the 6th Guards Army went over to the attack on the eastern side of the Nevel-Novosokolniki salient in an effort to link with the 3rd Shock Army and jointly isolate and destroy Oven’s XLIII Corps. This made almost no progress and 6th Guards Army went over to the defensive on 15 November. About one week later, the 3rd Shock Army made several futile efforts to break through the German defences to the east of Pustoshka, but made only minimal gains and on 21 November Popov ordered his whole 2nd Baltic Front over to the defensive.

The 2nd Baltic Front planned a new offensive to clear the salient early in January 1944. However this was pre-empted from 29 December when von Küchler’s forces began a phased withdrawal over a six-day period. This caught the Soviets by surprise and while 3rd Shock Army and 6th Guards Army hastily organised a pursuit this did nothing but harass the retreating Germans.

Like the 6th Guards Army, the 11th Guards Army had originally been committed in the 2nd Baltic Front’s sector of the salient, but from the middle of November was reassigned to 1st Baltic Front as the Stavka’s priority became the drive on Gorodok and then Vitebsk. Despite the fact that an untimely thaw rendered the ground near impassable to vehicles, the V Tank Corps and III Guards Cavalry Corps, backed by infantry divisions of the 4th Shock Army, began an attack on 16 November. This ripped through the defences of the 3rd Panzerarmee's 113rd Division, which was commanded by Prüter, and by 18 November had approached to within 3.1 miles (5 km) of the main road between Gorodok and Nevel. At 23.00 that evening, three tanks of the 5th Motorised Brigade, with mounted infantry, penetrated into Gorodok from the south-west and reportedly destroyed 25 German vehicles and two tanks, but this forward detachment could not be supported and had been destroyed by elements of von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision by 03.00 on 19 November. For the next week fierce combat raged just to the west of Gorodok as the Soviet mobile troops repeatedly manoeuvred and attacked in their effort to take the town. In response, the German command withdrew the remainder of the 20th Panzerdivision and part of Generalmajor Karl Fabiunke’s 129th Division from their counterattack positions to the south of Nevel.

On 13 December, the 11th Guards Army attacked the northern tip of the 3rd Panzerarmee's flank from three sides and in two days had nearly completed the encirclement of two German divisions in separate pockets. Reinhardt requested permission to pull back his front, but was refused as Hitler remained determined to close the gap. A day later the northern division was encircled and Reinhardt had no choice but to order a break-out, which took place on 16 December at the cost of 2,000 of its 7,000 men and all of its artillery, heavy weapons and vehicles. On this same day Hitler finally conceded the impossibility of sealing off the salient, bringing this phase of the battle to san end.