Operation Bekassine

snipe

This was a German operation, occasioned by the Soviet success in the Battle of Nevel ('Nevel Offensive Operation') by Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', using parts of General Christian Hansen’s 16th Army and Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army, against General Leytenant Kuzma N. Galitsky’s (from 21 November General Polkovnik Nikandr E. Chibisov’s) Soviet 3rd Shock Army at Pustoshka with the object of restoring an overland link with Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' (1/8 December 1943).

The Battle of Nevel was part of a Soviet offensive in the north-western part of Russia and the north-eastern part of Belorussia, from 6 October to about 16 December 1943, although fighting in this area last into the new year of 1944.

The initial phase of the Soviet operation created an unexpected breakthrough of the German defences and liberated the town of Nevel on the first day, and attacks over the next four days created a salient about 22 miles (34.5 km) wide and 15.5 miles (25 km) deep at the junction between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. In the weeks which followed, the forces of General Andrei I. Eremenko’s 1st Baltic Front (Kalinin Front up to 20 October) enlarged the salient and attempted to outflank and encircle the formations of Hansen’s 16th Army and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee to its north and south respectively while those same formations, on Hitler’s express orders, held the salient’s shoulders and sought to cut off the Soviet salient. Hitler finally conceded on 16 December that this was impossible as the 1st Baltic Front continued its offensive to the south in the direction of Vitebsk.

After the the Battle for Velikiye Luki in the winter of 1942/43 the 3rd Shock Army had remained in much the same position to the east of Novosokolniki and Nevel throughout the spring and summer. During this time the rail line from Vitebsk through Nevel to Pskov remained in German hands as the primary logistical link between the two army groups, although this line was subject to Soviet artillery fire near Novosokolniki. Breaking this rail line was an obvious objective for the Soviets. Although Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had created a ready reserve of five infantry divisions to handle any threats on each end of its front, early in September the German army high command ordered two of them transferred to Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. On 19 September Heeresgruppe 'Nord' assumed command of Generalleutnant Karl von Oven’s XLIII Corps from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', giving it an additional three divisions but also 48 miles (77km) of front, and responsibility for the defence of Nevel and Novosokolniki.

Despite the fact that at this time the Soviet position clearly possessed the potential to become the springboard for a major strategic offensive: a push between the two German army groups right through to the Gulf of Riga, the nature of the terrain, with its many forests, lakes and swamps, but also few roads even by Soviet standards, combined with the manpower demands from other sectors to render this impractical. Instead, Eremenko planned the attack on Nevel as a supporting operation for his Kalinin Front’s wider offensive toward Vitebsk.

The Soviet offensive started 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 sector between Zhigary and Shliapy, 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 based on the 21st Guards Division and the 78th Tank Brigade with 54 tanks. The assaulting force struck and destroyed Generalleutnant Carl Becker’s 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision: like all Luftwaffe field divisions, this formation 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.

In addition to the flight of 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision, the right flank of Generalleutnant Werner Richter’s 263rd Division was badly mauled. While the attack of the 357th Division was held, the armoured vehicles of the 78th Tank Brigade, carrying troops of the 21st Guards Division and supplemented by more infantrymen carried in trucks, together with the 163rd Anti-Tank Regiment and 827th Howitzer Artillery Regiment, poured into the gap and rapidly drove to the west for the liberation of Nevel. At the same time the 4th Shock Army, deployed on the 3rd Shock Army’s southern flank, also launched an attack towards Gorodok. Shvetsov had formed a shock group from two of his rifle corps, each advancing abreast in three echelons: General Major Afanasi F. Beloborodov’s II Guards Corps spearheaded the effort with its 360th Rifle Division, followed by the 117th and 16th Lithuanian Divisions and two tank brigades. General Major Anatoli A. Diakonov’s LXXXIII Corps had its 47th Division up, supported by 234th, 235th and 381st Divisions and another two tank brigades. Although there were no further panicked withdrawal by the formations of General Alfred Schlemm’s II Luftwaffe Feldkorps, the attack gained some 12.5 miles (20 km) but then faltered just short of the road and rail lines linking Nevel, Gorodok and Vitebsk.

The Soviets reckoned that their 'Nevel Offensive Operation' ended on 10 October, but the fighting in and around the salient continued at least into mid-December with the German forces attempting to cut off the salient while the Soviet forces expanded their hold to the north, south and west.

The Germans' first impression of the Battle of Nevel was that they had failed severely but not irredeemably. von Küchler ordered his three remaining reserve divisions into the breakthrough area while Hitler ordered that the shoulders of the Soviet salient, already looking like the start of a pocket, must be held regardless of cost. The initial German efforts to counterattack failed as a result of the logistical problems of moving large numbers of men and matériel, and also of the greater Soviet strength, and on 9 October von Küchler decided to wait for reinforcement before making another attempt. Meanwhile Hitler berated his local commanders for failing to hold at unit boundaries, and demanded that they should 'consider it a point of honour' to maintain contact. When Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' proposed the amalgamation of the 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision with an army division, Hitler would not authorise this on the wholly specious grounds that he had no desire to water down good Luftwaffe troops with poor army troops.

By a time several days later, the two army groups had massed a troop strength sufficient to allow the planning of 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 lacked sufficient strength.

On the following day, the 3rd Shock Army attacked the villages of Moseyevo and Izocha on the north-eastern flank of the salient with the 100th Brigade and eventually the whole 28th Division, supported on the right by the 165th and 379th Divisions of the newly-arrived LXXXI Corps. The Soviet assault was held by the German forces, but it did succeed in taking more favourable jump-off positions for General Polkovnik Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army that was moving arriving in the region. At about this time the boundary between General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Kalinin Front and General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s Baltic Front (2nd Baltic Front from 20 October) was moved to bisect the salient from east to west, and the 3rd Shock Army was reassigned to the latter front. On 19 October Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' suggested a joint effort to close the gap, but von Küchler opposed this as he had no troops to spare as a result of the Soviet threat to Novosokol’niki. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' then requested authority to proceed on its own, but Hitler again refused. On 26 October the army group was forced to transfer the Panzer division it had been holding in reserve for the counterattack, and this ended in the short term all such planning

Making good use of an early morning fog, on 2 November the 3rd shock Army and 4th Shock Army drove through the defences on the left flank of the 3rd Panzerarmee in a location to the south-west of Nevel. This breakthrough opened a gap 10 miles (16 km) wide, and the 3rd Shock Army then turned to the north behind the flank of the 16th Army, while the 4th Shock Army advanced to the south-west behind the 3rd Panzerarmee.

In response, Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' moved one Panzer division to the north from Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s (from 4 November Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s 9th Army. The arrival of this formation strengthened the northern flank of the 3rd Panzerarmee in the area to the south of the Soviet onslaught and deflect the 4th Shock Army to the south-west and thus away from the Panzer army’s rear. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was not as fortunate, for it was soon clear that the more aggressive operational performance of the 3rd Shock Army had been allocated the primary task in the renewed offensive. von Küchler despatched six infantry battalions from the 18th Army, and with these the 16th Army was finally able to curve its right flank to the north-west. Both the army group and army expected the Soviets to continue to exert pressure around that flank.

On November 4 Hitler summoned von Küchler and Busch to his headquarters, where he described the October battle around Nevel as a Schweinerei (filthy mess) and blamed the German failure to recover the Nevel area on the 'defeatist' attitude of the chief-of-staff of the southern corps in Heeresgruppe 'Nord', Hitler said that he had decided that the new gap in the German line must be removed with absolutely no delay. Busch, whose headquarters had already proposed a joint counterattack by the two army groups, agreed. Küchler objected for he wished not to risk a counterattack at a time in which his army group’s flank was exposed and, indirectly, that he did not share the sense of urgency expressed by Hitler and Busch with regard to the two army groups' exposed flanks. von Küchler was more concerned by signs that the Soviets were massing their forces for an attempt to liberate Leningrad and, as he explicitly warned Hitler, that given the area’s freezing temperature the Soviet offensive could fall on the Germans at any time. All in all, therefore, von Küchler did not wish to weaken the north by redeploying formations to the open flank. Any attempt to to 'gain' strength by a shortening of the front, von Küchler averred, would be very dangerous as it might trigger a chain reaction. Brushing aside von Küchler’s concerns, Hitler ended the meeting by ordering the two army groups to be ready on 8 November to counterattack from the north and south, close the gap, and cut off the two shock armies.

At the end of the first week in November the Germans were still holding fast on the flanks of the breakthrough, but the 4th Shock Army had sent parts of two divisions probing as far the the west as Dretun, 30 miles (48 km) to the rear of the 3rd Panzerarmee's flank. In an attempt to check, if not halt, the Soviet advance to the west, the Germans now halted the 'Heinrich' (i) so-called anti-partisan operation before its completion, and ordered SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski to turn SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Curt von Gottberg’s Kampfgruppe 'von Gottberg' and another division-sized force to the east and create a screening line behind the two army groups' flanks.

von Küchler ordered four infantry divisions (two each from the 16th Army and the 18th Army) to move to his right flank, but these formations had first to be taken out of their current static positions and, in some instances, moved several hundred miles by truck and rail, which took considerable time. On 7 November the 3rd Shock Army gained more ground behind Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. Commanding the 1st Baltic Front, Eremenko was pushing formations of Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army and General Major (from 17 November General Leytenant) Aleksandr S. Ksenofontov’s 11th Guards Army through the gap between the two German army groups and, in a rapid series of nibbling attacks, then create a basically north/south pocket behind both army groups. Eremenko appeared to be concentrating his efforts on the pocket’s northern edge and, so far, devoting little of his strength to any drive to the west. This was fortunate for the Germans since the army group commands had observed that the Waffen-SS generals were operating in a fashion that suggested they were seeking more to impress Hitler than making any real military contribution to the overall German effort.

The 3rd Panzerarmee did launch its attack on 8 November with Generalleutnant Walter Hartmann’s 87th Division and Generalleutnant Mortimer von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision. The latter was relatively strong as it included 29 PzKpfw IV battle tanks and three of the latest PzKpfw V Panther tanks. At the headquarters of the II Guards Corps, Beloborodov received an alarming report in the morning from his 156th Division which read 'The enemy are advancing and attacking the 417th Regiment with up to 50 tanks and infantry.' During the day the German force advanced as far as 5 miles (8 km) between Lakes Ezerishche and Ordovo. in the process taking the villages of Blinki, Borok and several others. Beloborodov was forced to change the task of his 47th Division to counterattack the penetration. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was scheduled to attack from its side on the morning of 9 November, but von Küchler protested that all his formations and units were tied down. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' accused Heeresgruppe 'Nord' of refusing to attack for lack of determination, and Hitler refused to accept any more 'excuses' and ordered Heeresgruppe 'Nord' to begin its counterattack no later than the next day. von Küchler meanwhile assembled a scratch force of seven battalions, which complied with Hitler’s order on 10 November, ran into heavy artillery fire and were then driven back by a counterattack.

During the night of 9/10 November, the 4th Shock Army embarked on the neutralisation of the German breakthrough on its front. While the II Guards Corps contained the 20th Panzerdivision along the line of the road linking Gorodok and Nevel road, other formations of the 4th Shock Army regrouped and drove deep into the German rear areas. The 357th and 119th Divisions advanced to the south-west in the direction of Polotsk while the 381st and 154th Divisions, supported by the 236th Tank Brigade, wheeled to the south and attacked the German defences at Gorodok from the west. The 3rd Panzerarmee shifted Generalmajor Friedrich-Wilhelm Prüter’s 113rd Division to block the advance on Gorodok, and several combat groups were similarly positioned to cover the approaches to Polotsk. The combination of German resistance and deteriorating weather then imposed a temporary halt on the Soviet advance, but the 20th Panzerdivision was also forced to abandon its drive toward Nevel. The immediate Soviet threat had thus been averted, and on 12 November Eremenko was berated by the Stavka for apparently losing composure over the German counterattacks. This criticism foreshadowed Eremenko’s removal from command of 1st Baltic Front on 19 November: Eremenko’s successor was General Hovhannes K. Bagramyan, previously commander of the 11th Guards Army.

The part of the 3rd Shock Army in the renewed Soviet offensive began with a wholesale reorganisation: the 178th, 185th and 357th Divisions had been replaced by the 115th, 146th and 326th Divisions supplemented by the 18th Guards Division. The 3rd Shock Army also received the 34th Guards and 118th Tank Brigades and, shortly after the start of the renewed offensive, the 119th Guards Division and the 219th and 245th Divisions.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were continuing their exploitation of the gap between the two army groups by advancing past each flank to extent the pocket to a length of 50 miles (80 km). In the south, the Soviets were at the level of Polotsk and Gorodok, and in the north, and in the area to the south of Pustoshka, they were less than 10 miles (16 km) from the rail line extending to the west out of Novosokol’niki. At this point, and in greater strength than before, the Soviets started to turn east behind the right-flank corps of Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

It soon became evident that it was the 3rd Shock Army which had been allocated the primary effort in the renewed offensive. von Küchler transferred six infantry battalions from 18th Army to cover the 16th Army's new rear as the latter’s most southerly formations were becoming enveloped from three sides. The Soviet forces attacked deep into the German rear areas towards their primary objective, namely the town of Pustoshka on the rail line linking Velikiye Luki and Riga. By 7 November the 3rd Shock Army’s leading elements had penetrated to a depth of more than 18.5 miles (30 km) across a front of 25 miles (40 km). By the middle of the month the 119th Guards Division, flanked by the 146th Division and supported by the 118th Tank Brigade, had taken Podberezye and threatened to cut the rail line linking Novosokolniki and Pustoshka. At around the same time the 6th Guards Army went over to the attack on the east side of the Nevel-Novosokolniki salient in an effort to link with the 3rd Shock Army and then jointly isolate and destroy General Karl von Oven’s XLIII Corps. This made almost no progress and 6th Guards Army went back onto the defensive on 15 November. About one week later the 3rd Shock Army made several futile efforts to break through the German defences in the area to the east of Pustoshka but achieved only minimal gains, and on 21 November Popov ordered his entire front over to the defensive.

For a week Hitler and von Küchler had vacillated. Hitler demanded a counterattack and instructed von Küchler to strip the 18th Army if necessary. von Küchler demanded that he first be allowed to remove the threat to his southern flank. Finally, on 18 November, in a visit to Hitler’s headquarters, von Küchler secured an order giving his army group the tasks firstly of eliminating the bulge behind its flank and secondly of delivering an attack into the gap south of Nevel. On the following day von Küchler transferred another division of the 18th Army to the south. On 21 November, the weight of of the offensive by almost the entire 11th Guards Army forced Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to bring back to their start line the two divisions that had advanced into the gap. This greatly reduced the chances of closing the gap, as indicated by the increase in the number of Soviet formations moving into the pocket. Even so, Hitler insisted that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' proceed with both of the tasks it had been allocated.

Like the 6th Guards Army, the 11th Guards Army had initially been committed in the 2nd Baltic Front’s sector of the salient, but from the middle of November was reallocated the the 1st Baltic Front as the Stavka’s priority changed to the drive on Vitebsk via Gorodok. Despite an untimely thaw, which rendered the terrain nearly impassable to vehicles on 16 November, the V Tank Corps and III Guards Cavalry Corps, bolstered infantry divisions of the 4th Shock Army, began an attack on November 16 that ripped through the defences of Prüter’s 113rd Division of the 3rd Panzerarmee, and by 18 November had advanced to within 3.1 miles (5 km) of the main road between Gorodok and Nevel. At 23.00 on the evening of the same day, three tanks of the 5th Motorised Brigade, carrying tank-mounted infantrymen, penetrated into Gorodok from the south-west and, it is reported, destroyed 25 German vehicles and two tanks, but the Soviets found it impossible to support this forward detachment , which had then been destroyed by elements of 20th Panzerdivision by 03.00 on 19 November. Over the week which followed, fierce fighting raged just to the west of Gorodok as the Soviet mobile troops repeatedly manoeuvred and attacked in their efforts 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 in the area to the south of Nevel.

From the middle of November, after several weeks of below-freezing weather, the temperature began to rise unseasonably, and this was disastrous for the German plans. With the temperature just just above freezing, the ground began to thaw, and by the beginning of the month’s last week the roads were stretches of deep mud: supplies could be moved to the front only by tracked vehicles, and in some places Heeresgruppe 'Nord' became dependent on airdrops.

The 'Bekassine' counterattack, initially scheduled for 24 November, could not begin until 1 December, and then only in rain which further deepened the mud. The weather also ruled any possibility of German air support. On the first day the two divisions, attacking directly to the west across the northern quarter of the pocket, advanced no more than 3 miles (4.8 km) before they were checked. The self-propelled assault guns following in the wake of the attacking formations stalled on the bank of a small river and remained stymied there for the next five days. On 6 December von Küchler reported that he intended to go ahead: he had another division en route from the 18th Army, and also believed the weather was giving the Soviets logistical problems. But Hitler, who was intent on closing the Nevel gap, refused to allow any more divisions to be committed on the west: on 8 December he called von Küchler to his headquarters and ordered him to launch an attack into the gap before the end of the month.

On 13 December the 11th Guards Army attacked the northern edge of the 3rd Panzerarmee's flank from three sides, and in two days almost completely encircled two German divisions in separate pockets. Reinhardt requested permission to draw back his front, but was refused as Hitler still 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, undertaken on 16 December, at the cost of 2,000 of its 7,000 troops and all of its artillery, heavy weapons and vehicles. On the same day Hitler conceded the impossibility of sealing off the salient, bringing this phase of the overall battle to an end.

The 2nd Baltic Front planned a new offensive to clear the salient early in January 1944, but the Soviet plan was overtaken from 29 December 1943 as von Küchler started a six-day phased withdrawal. This retirement took the Soviets by surprise, and while 3rd Shock Army and 6th Guards Army hastily organised a pursuit, this could achieve nothing but a harassment of the retreating Germans.