This was the German operation, otherwise known as ‘Landbrücke’, to relieve the forces of General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps of Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army trapped in the Demyansk pocket on the Eastern Front (21 March/21 April 1942).
Located to the south of Leningrad, the pocket had been created on 8 February, and a somewhat smaller German pocket had also been simultaneously brought into existence at Kholm, about 60 miles (100 km) to the south-west of Demyansk, by the the limited Soviet success in the first part of ‘Demyansk Offensive Operation’ (7 January/20 May 1942).
The Soviet encirclement effort was supervised General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin, commander of the North-West Front. The Soviet plan was to cut all land communication between the German forces in the Demyansk area and the railway line at Staraya Russa, which was the primary logistical supply route for the 16th Army. The terrain was very difficult, however, as it comprised, for the most part, forest and swamp which was at the time covered with snow. Thus the progress of the North-West Front was at first slow in the face of determined German resistance.
The objective of the North-West Front’s offensive was to encircle and trap the entire northern flank of the 16th Army, of which the II Corps was only a part. The Stavka was adamant that the North-West Front continue its advance to the west even after this success, so the Soviet plan was initially only to contain the trapped German forces. The initial thrust of the pincer’s northern arm was made, on a south-westerly axis from the area just to the south of Lake Ilmen, by General Major Aleksandr S. Ksenofontov’s 11th Army on the right and General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army on the left, with the I and II Guards Rifle Corps released for the operation from the Stavka reserve. On 8 January the Soviets began the new ‘Rzhev-Vyazma Strategic Offensive Operation’. This incorporated the previous planning for the ‘Toropets-Kholm Offensive Operation’ between 9 January and 6 February 1942, and constituted the southern pincer of the attack which, in concert with the northern pincer created by the second phase of the ‘Demyansk Offensive Operation’, encircled major formations of the 16th Army.
The pincer’s southern arm, which moved into action on 12 February from the Ostashkov area on a westerly axis toward Kholm, comprised General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s 4th Shock Army of General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front. It was also planned that a direct assault would be made on the encircled German formations by two airborne brigades to support the advance of General Major Nikolai E. Berzarin’s 34th Army, whose primary task was to pin the Germans between the two arms of the pincer movement.
It was on 8 February, during the Soviet winter offensive which lifted the pressure of the German ‘Taifun’ (i) offensive against Moscow, that General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army and Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army met near Saluchi and Ramushevo, just to the east of the Lovat river in the area to the south of Lake Ilmen, and thus encircled von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps as well as part of General Christian Hansen’s X Corps, both of these formations being parts of Busch’s 16th Army. The Soviet encirclement cleanly separated the forces in the Demyansk pocket from General Hans Jürgen von Arnim’s XXXIX Corps to the west.
Trapped in the pocket, which was some 40 by 20 miles (65 by 32 km) in size, were some 90,000 German troops and 10,000 auxiliaries 1.
Generaloberst Georg von Küchler, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, wished the trapped formations to fight their way out of the encirclement but, after being assured by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring that the pocket could be supplied with its minimum daily supply requirement of 245 tonnes by the aircraft of Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I, using the airfields at Demyansk and Peski within the pocket, Adolf Hitler ordered that the surrounded divisions should hold their positions in this ‘fortress’ until relieved.
The weather was surprisingly co-operative or this period late in the winter of 1941/42, and while there was considerable snow on the ground by this time, resupply operations to the pocket’s airfields at Demyansk and Peski were generally very successful. The operation to supply the Demyansk and Kholm pockets required all of the Luftwaffe’s transport capability, as well as much of its bomber force on the Eastern Front. The Soviets grew increasingly desperate to eliminate the Demyansk pocket, and over the winter and spring launched a number of fruitless but bloody assaults on the ‘Ramushevo corridor’ which constituted the sole but very narrow land link between Demyansk and Staraya Russa through the village of Ramushevo, but all of these were beaten back. In total three Soviet armies (18 infantry divisions and three brigades) were tied to the Demyansk pocket for a period of some four months.
The situation for the German break-out from the Demyansk pocket emerged from the realisation on each side that the current winter conditions would, in a matter of weeks at the most, become the spring conditions in which the thaw of the winter’s snow would turn the ground into a morass of deep and cloying mud, the rasputitsa in which military operations were all but impossible. Given this fact, during the last week of February, the Soviet commanders of the forces opposite those of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ started to come to grips with the realisation that soon they might have nothing more to show for the winter efforts of this armies than some thousands of square miles of forest and swamp. Kurochkin’s North-West Front and Konev’s Kalinin Front had torn the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ completely free of the rest of the army group in the area to the Ostashkov, encircled Kholm, and trapped one German corps and half of another corps around Demyansk. Despite these achievements, however, the key point in the area to the south of Lake Ilmen, Staraya Russa, remained in German hands. In the area to the north of this same lake, General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army had cut deep behind the line of General Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army on the Volkhov river without affecting thus far the German grip on Leningrad.
In overall terms, therefore, it may be said that while the Soviet general offensive was characterised by a number of partial successes on the one hand, on the other hand it appeared to promise little in the way of any long-lasting accomplishment. Apart from the increasing pressure of time, the Stavka was faced by two significant problems in this part of the Eastern Front: these were the wide dispersion of command effort inherent in the general offensive from the start, and the nature of the local offensive efforts resulting from the differing operation methods of the field commanders. The first, which was not perhaps seen at the time, had already passed well beyond the stage from which it could otherwise have been reversed, while the second seemed impossible of elimination but was amenable to mitigation. In order to achieve this, the Stavka applied what had become its standard correctional treatment, namely a mix of fresh orders, reinforcement, and strident urgings to perform more effectively.
On 25 February, the Stavka placed all the formations operating against the Demyansk pocket under the command of the North-West Front, and at the same time instructed Kurochkin to ‘squeeze’ the pocket out of existence in four or five day, and to press ahead with the advance westward past Staraya Russa. One week later, the Stavka gave Kurochkin five regiments of artillery, three regiments of mortar and air reinforcements, and then followed with orders to intensify the offensive, not only ‘squeezing’ the pocket but also ‘crushing the enemy in the directions of the main effort’.
General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front which, by the last week of February, had not as yet managed to get the 2nd Shock Army turned to the north in the direction of Lyuban despite repeated orders to do so, was a still more difficult problem for the Stavka. Unless the Soviet forces could sever the railway linking Leningrad and Chudovo via Lyuban, the chance of achieving a major improvement in efforts to effect the relief of besieged Leningrad were small. After sending Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov, a senior member of the state committee for defence, to act as its representative on the spot, the Stavka on 28 February ordered Meretskov immediately to launch an attack toward Lyuban without, as Meretskov had proposed, a pause for the regrouping of his front. The Stavka additionally ordered General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin, commander of the Leningrad Front, to drive General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 54th Army toward Lyuban from the north-east, and promised strong air support for both of these thrusts.
At this same time, in the last week of February, Adolf Hitler and the Oberkommando des Heeres knew full well that 3,500 men, the Kampfgruppe ‘Scherer’ under the command of Generalmajor Theodor Scherer, were beginning their second month under siege in Kholm, and the perimeter this small force held round the town had been compressed to the extent that air supply had became difficult, and indeed very dangerous for the crews of the aircraft involved: on 25 February, for example, four out of 10 aircraft flying to Kholm were shot down, in the process increasing the Luftwaffe’s losses of Junkers Ju 52/3m three-engined transport aircraft during the airlift to 50. From this day onward, aerial resupply of Kholm’s ‘garrison’ had to rely on gliders, which could alight only on a strip of ice cleared on the frozen Lovat river, and the paradropping of supplies from aircraft flying very low altitude to ensure accuracy of dropping and their loads’ minimum descent time, a method which exposed the aircraft to concentrated anti-aircraft from all directions.
In the Demyansk pocket, farther to the north-east, as noted above the II Corps needed 245 tonnes or more of supplies per day, and this demanded a full-scale and sustained airlift operation, the first of its type in aviation history. The demands of this airlift meant that the Luftwaffe had to divert almost all of the transport aircraft hitherto allocated to Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and half of those supporting Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. The Ju 52/3m transport aircraft were slow and unwieldy, and had therefore to fly in groups of between 20 and 40 machines with fighter cover, and Soviet bombing of the airstrips within the pocket dislocated the flight schedules and created additional hazards for the aircraft and their air and ground crews. Total deliveries up to 28 February fell short of their target by 1,900 tons, which represented about one-half of the requirement.
General Kuno Hans von Both’s I Corps, holding the north-eastern face of the Soviets’ Volkhov salient, was hard hit on 25 February as Soviet ski troops, driving to the north over frozen swamps along the Tigoda river, got to a location within 5 miles (8 km) of Lyuban. The intelligence branch of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had known for some days that the 327th Division was moving to the north from the Spaskaya Polist area. Knowing how deliberately Soviet commanders generally operated, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had therefore expected an attack, but not as early as it was in fact delivered. What the army group did not then know was that Meretskov and 2nd Shock Army were under ‘categorical instructions’ from the Stavka to launch an attack without delay.
Even so, when he met with von Küchler, commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, Generaloberst Hans Busch and Lindemann, commanders of the 16th and 18th Armies respectively, and von Both, von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, Hansen and General Friedrich-Wilhelm von Chappuis, commanders of the I Corps, II Corps, X Corps and XXXVIII Corps respectively, at Führer headquarters on 2 March, Hitler held forth about initiatives with some confidence. Although its situation had not significantly improved, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had successfully balanced on the edge of disaster for more than two weeks, and this in itself gave encouragement to Hitler. On the other hand, the conference disclosed that no substantive improvement was yet evident in the army group’s situation. At Kholm, half the men of the original ‘garrison’ force had been killed or wounded. Replacements could be delivered by glider (and in fact there had been enough new arrivals to offset about half of the losses), but the delivery of each such replacement reduced the volume and payload weight left available for the carriage of supplies and also increased the consumption of those supplies transported in the remaining volume. A relief force of some six assorted battalions under the command of Generalmajor Horst Freiherr von Uckermann, commander of the 218th Division, had forced its way through from the south-west almost to within sight of Kholm, but was now stalled in deep snow and itself practically encircled. von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, commanding the II Corps within the Demyansk pocket, told Hitler that his force was dependent on a daily basis for the arrival of the supply flights. Thus there was only a very narrow margin of survival for Scherer’s and von Uckermann’s groups at Kholm and the II Corps at Demyansk. To the south of Lyuban, the I Corps was enjoying a period of expectedly easy success for, under pressure from the Stavka, Meretskov had hastily pushed the 80th Cavalry Division and 327th Division into the breach the ski troops had opened on 25 February, and the I Corps had then closed the gap in its front, in the process trapping about 6,000 Soviet troops. But if the 2nd Shock Army in the south and the 54th Army in the north-east could then penetrate to Lyuban, the I Corps would be encircled in a pocket like that at Demyansk.
Hitler seemed to accept the commanders’ gloomy reports with sympathetic detachment. He promised a regiment of reinforcements to get von Uckermann’s relief force back into movement, and ordered the writing of an order of the day to honour the ‘garrison’ of Kholm. Hitler told von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt that the hardships which his II Corps were enduring were the result of having to hold the Demyansk pocket as if it were a fortress, even though it was not, and added that this demanded that the troops outside the pocket to come to the aid of the trapped corps.
When the conference turned to its main concerns, which were the plans to close the Volkhov river line behind 2nd Shock Army and to restore contact with the II Corps, there was a marked change in Hitler’s tone changed. After Busch and Lindemann, commanders of the 16th and 18th Armies respectively, had offered initial proposals for counterattacks toward Demyansk and at the Volkhov gap, Hitler set approximate starting dates for both, namely 7 to 12 March for the Volkhov operation and 13 to 16 March for that toward Demyansk. To offset shortages of ground forces, Hitler stated, the Luftwaffe would commit aircraft as ‘escort artillery’, using the heaviest demolition bombs it had to blast the bunker systems the Soviets had built in the forests of the area. The Demyansk operation, Hitler added, would also have to be co-ordinated with the planned thrust of Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army from the south toward Ostashkov.
A item in the discussion took the generals completely by surprise for, in the middle of talking about the Demyansk and Volkhov operations, Hitler gave the army group a new mission. With spring coming, he observed, it would be necessary to tighten the siege of Leningrad and, particularly, to keep Vitse Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Baltic Fleet from steaming out into the Baltic Sea after the ice had melted. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ would therefore have to provide troops to take and occupy a group of islands at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland: these islands, Suursaari, Lavansaari, Seiskari, and Tytarsaari, had Soviet garrisons, which were presumably small, but the Germans could not be certain of that.
In a task in which they had to contend with a shortage of time, the Soviets and a mass of uncertainties, the army group and army staffs had a maximum of 10 days to prepare and launch ‘Raubtier’, as the Volkhov operation was designated. The spring thaw was just starting in Crimea and would extent northward in the weeks to come, and had therefore to be taken into account. On the other hand, air support could only be effective if it was concentrated in just one place at a time. ‘Raubtier’ had thus to precede the relief of the Demyansk pocket, and any delay with the former would almost inevitably have a knock-on effect on the latter. Moreover, Hitler’s addition of the Gulf of Finland islands to the tasks of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ further complicated matters as it would, of course, require troops and air support not naval vessels. No date had been set for the Gulf of Finland undertaking, and the army group regarded it as a waste of effort and time. The Oberkommando des Heeres insisted, however, that Hitler took the need for the undertaking very seriously as he believed he would be the subject of ridicule if Soviet warships entered the Baltic Sea after the sea ice had melted.
Of course, it was clear that the Soviets would give the Germans a free hand in executing ‘Raubtier’. During the first week of March, Georgi M. Malenkov, a member of the Politburo and the state defence committee, joined Voroshilov at the headquarters of the Volkhov Front, and the Stavka allocated Vlasov, who as commander of 20th Army had been one of the most important figures of the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ (5 December 1941/7 January 1942) 2 to become Meretskov’s deputy. Before the end of the week, the 2nd Shock Army was regrouping for another drive toward Lyuban, and the 54th Army was on the edge of Pogostye, 20 miles (32 km) to the north-east of Lyuban. At Kholm, the Soviets were making effective use of armour: one KV-2 heavy tank stopped von Uckermann’s relieving force for a whole day until it could bring up an 88-mm (3.465-in) gun to destroy it, and T-34 medium tanks were engaged in gunfire engagement with the German strongpoints on the perimeter of the pocket.
On 7 March the 18th Army was ready to launch ‘Raubtier’ two days later if the air support ordained by Hitler could be made available. The proviso was substantial. The Luftwaffe was currently fully committed at Kholm, where it was seeking to aid von Uckermann’s force in advancing the last few miles to the pocket before the latter was overrun by Soviet armour. German air support was currently keeping the pocket in existence, but was achieving less in supporting the forward momentum of von Uckermann’s force. German warplanes were able to pin Soviet troops in the open, but they were not effective against the Soviet prepared defences, which were concealed under the snow. On and immediately after 7 March, Hitler could not bring himself to withdraw air support from Kholm, in part as he was concerned that this would result in the collapse of the pocket’s resistance, and in part as he was seeking a replacement for von Uckermann, who had been accused by a Luftwaffe liaison officer of lacking in confidence. By 11 March the Luftwaffe, also, was demanding postponements as the weather was giving its aircraft icing problems which made it dangerous for its Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers to carry the very heavy demolition bombs they were supposed to use.
The Soviet 54th Army was meanwhile starting its south-westerly drive toward Lyuban, which could cut off the I Corps. Küchler and Lindemann were ready to go proceed on 12 March without air support, but Hitler refused to authorise the start under such circumstance for fear of very heavy losses. By this time the delays in ‘Raubtier’ were eroding the time which had been allotted for the Demyansk operation and were also threatening the projected attacks on the islands in the Gulf of Finland. The army group staff now saw the latter as wholly pointless, but Hitler nonetheless insisted it be implemented while the ice was still thick enough to be crossed. The Finns, who were to complement the German effort from their side of the gulf, had indicated that they would be ready on 20 March. Fog and low cloud forced another postponement on 13 March, but the Luftwaffe reported that it expected the weather to clear by the morning of the following day, when its warplanes could start sometime between 09.00 and 12.00. During the night, though, the temperature plummeted -34.5° C (-30° F). Anticipating a choice between having the troops stand in the open while awaiting the arrival of the warplanes under such conditions, or letting the attack start before the arrival of the warplanes and risking the accidental bombing of his men, Küchler opted to wait another day.
The mouth of the Volkhov pocket was about 6 miles (10 km) wide, as it had had been for the last three months. The railway and road linking Novgorod and Chudovo passed through the pocket on a north/south line, but there were no east/west land communications. In about the centre of the pocket, about 1 mile (1.6 km) distant from each other, the Soviets had therefore cut two east/west lane, each about 100 ft (30 m) wide, through the trees and underbrush, and in these lanes laid compacted snow deeply enough to cover the tops of the tree stumps; the lanes served as the 2nd Shock Army’s lines of communication and supply. In order to differentiate them, the Germans had named the northern lane ‘Erika’ and the southern lane ‘Dora’.
At the fall of night on 14 March the cold had not abated, but the Luftwaffe was certain its planes could make their first attacks at daylight on the following morning, and the 18th Army had readied tents and stoves for movement with the advancing troops. The continuing cold made the whole German undertaking fraught with extreme risk as, in such conditions, weapons in general and machine guns in particular had a great tendency to jam, and men lost the will to fight. Küchler knew the risks, but decided that ‘Raubtier’ could not be delayed further.
At 07.30 on the next morning, the German warplanes arrived over the front. After the dive-bombers had struck their targets, the XXXVIII Corps and I Corps pushed into the gap from the south and north. During the day, 263 aircraft flew ‘Raubtier’ missions and, by dark, the XXXVIII Corps had 915 yards (1000 m) and I Corps some 3,550 yards (3250 m). In the next two days ‘Raubtier’ continued to progress, but at a pace slower than that of first day. Part of the problem lay in the fact that the warplanes were not living up to Hitler’s expectation in the ‘escort artillery’ role: when they dropped their bombs close to the line of advance, some of the weapons fell among the German troops, and when they allowed a safe margin, the Soviets generally had time to recover before the German forces, moving through deep snow, could reach them.
The Soviets were defending static strongpoints, and the fall of each of these narrowed the mouth of the pocket to a degree. On 18 March, the I Corps crossed ‘Erika’, and during the course of the following day both corps reached ‘Dora’, where their spearheads made contact late in the day. The 2nd Shock Army, which had already been hard pressed to maintain any progress in the Lyuban operation, now had to fight for its survival. On 21 March Vlasov entered the pocket to take command of the army.
Meanwhile the 16th Army’s attack toward the Demyansk pocket had already slipped five days behind the date originally set for its latest possible start. As a result of their experiences at Kholm and in ‘Raubtier’, the field commanders had decided that it made no sense to sacrifice time, which was now becoming very precious given the approach of the spring thaw, for the promise of air support, and Hitler had insisted on keeping all available aircraft committed to ‘Raubtier’ until that operation had been concluded, and on delaying the Demyansk operation until full air support was available. At the same time, Hitler had also insisted that the effort at Demyansk be part of the grand design to close the Ostashkov gap, to which the codename ‘Brückenschlag’ had been assigned: this was the same name as had been assigned to the 9th Army’s projected drive to Ostashkov. The codename was not inappropriate inasmuch as the 16th Army’s share of this larger effort was in fact also to build a ‘land bridge’ across the 20 miles (32 km) separating the X Corps’ front to the south of Staraya Russa and the western face of the Demyansk pocket.
As approved during the 2 March conference at Führer headquarters, the plan was based on the use of five divisions, each as close as possible to full strength, to attack from the X Corps’ line eastward toward the Lovat river: when the divisions reached this river, the distance to the pocket would be less than 5 miles (8 km), and at that point the II Corps would launch its own attempt to break out and meet the X Corps. During the conference, Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, had concluded that Busch and the commanders of the II Corps and X Corps lacked the strength of character to ensure success, and after the conference persuaded Küchler to shift control of ‘Brückenschlag’ from the 16th Army by constituting the forces for this operation as separate combat teams with authorisation to communicate directly with the army group and the Oberkommando des Heeres outside the normal channels.
Command of the main force went to Generalleutnant Walter von Seydlitz-Kurzbach and that of the secondary force in the pocket to Generalleutnant Hans Zorn, both of whom were senior division commanders. Under the eye of the Oberkommando des Heeres, von Seydlitz-Kurzbach exercised his troops in loose-order infiltration tactics based on the tactics which the Finnish army had used during the ‘Talvisota’ winter war of 1939/40. To exploit these tactics, von Seydlitz-Kurzbach fixed the line of advance through woods and swamps to the south of the road liking Staraya Russa and Demyansk. The questions which now had to be answered were whether or not the Germans could be as effective in forest fighting as the Finns had been, whether or not they could beat the oncoming thaw, and how much longer the Demyansk pocket could survive. The answers to the two last became critical as soon as ‘Raubtier’ began to eat into the time allotted to ‘Brückenschlag’.
On 16 March Küchler made a potentially dangerous flight into the Demyansk pocket to reassure von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, who was considering the launch of a break-out effort. During the flights in and out of the pocket, Küchler had the opportunity to observe for himself what would be a positive circumstance for ‘Brückenschlag’: from an altitude of about 4,100 ft (1250 m), in clear weather, he could spot no evidence of combat in the area between the pocket and the X Corps’ front. By being set on breaking the pocket open from the north and south, a task in which they might succeed, the Soviets were allowing the Germans to have a stable basis from which to launch ‘Brückenschlag’.
In middle of the afternoon of 19 March, after he knew that the ‘Dora’ lane had been cut and the Volkhov gap was being closed, Hitler gave the order for the final deployment for ‘Brückenschlag’. The Luftwaffe was to move its full strength to the south during the morning of the following day, and von Seydlitz-Kurzbach would have one day to bring his formations and units, currently dispersed behind the X Corps’ front, forward to their line of departure.
The German relief force was the Gruppe ‘von Seydlitz’ totalling five divisions under the command of General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, an ex-commander of the 12th Division, and this was to fight its way through a Soviet defence 25 miles (40 km) deep to open a narrow corridor to the pocket past the southern end of Lake Ilmen.
The advance began at the break of day on 21 March with the task of advancing through a succession of small villages, some of them possessing imposing names such as Ivanovskoye, Noshevalovo and Vasilievshchina, but otherwise insignificant except as reference points in the local wilderness of trees and snow. The Soviets responded with determination and a large measure of confusion, holding fanatically to some places and giving way in others. On the third day of ‘Brückenschlag’ the temperature rose above freezing point, and on the next day several German regiments reached the Redya river, halfway to the Lovat river. By this time the 3 ft (1 m) of snow on the ground had turned to slush, and aerial reconnaissance had reported the movement of Soviet reinforcements along the Redya and Lovat river valleys from the north and the south. Two Soviet parachute brigades had landed inside the pocket not far from Demyansk and the airfield. Like those who had landed behind Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, however, once on the ground the paratroop units seemed not to know what to do.
To the east of the Redya river, von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s advance slowed and almost stopped. Ahead of his force, all the way to the Lovat river, the forest was dense, unbroken by roads or settlements, and constrained by thick underbrush. Against the Soviet troops who were emplaced in this area, the German dive-bombers were ineffective as their pilots found it impossible to spot the Soviet positions through the trees and brush. By 26 March 18 in (45 cm) of water covered the ice on the Redya river and, should the thaw continue, the entire stretch between the rivers would soon be an essentially impenetrable swamp. On 30 March von Seydlitz-Kurzbach informed Küchler that he intended to halt, regroup and alter his line of attack northward to the road linking Staraya Russa and Demyansk road.
At the end of March, the Stavka also was engaged in planning a fresh start. For the last two weeks, the Stavka had had Politburo member Nikolai A. Bulganin as its representative at the North-West Front, but as a party and political operator Bulganin clearly possessed little in the way of any military competence, and indeed his presence had done more to complicate than facilitate the front’s capacity to conduct operations. On 29 March, the Stavka gave command of all the troops on the perimeter of the pocket to General Leytenant Nikolai F. Vatutin, the front’s chief-of-staff, and made Kurochkin, the front’s commander, solely responsible for the defeat of von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s relief force. At the same time, the Stavka allocated to Kurochkin five regiments of anti-tank guns and four divisions of light anti-aircraft artillery.
For the Germans and the Soviets, the task was now to complete their tasks even as the rasputitsa mud deepened on the ground. If ‘Brückenschlag’ failed, the Germans would not be able to hold the Demyansk pocket through the spring, and the 2nd Shock Army would not be able to survive if its lines to the rear remained cut. The rasputitsa could save the German effort at Kholm and might be all that could save the I Corps from being cut off in the way the II Corps already was. While the rasputitsa would certainly have a major effect, the form which that effect might have at any one place was entirely uncertain. From Kholm, for instance, where the Soviet lines were long and the roads poor or worse, Scherer reported on 26 March that some of the Soviet forces appeared to be pulling back. His own position, however, was getting worse. The sudden and rapid thaw had completely melted the snowbanks which had helped to provide cover for his men; trenches had become mudholes half-filled with water; and felt boots, indispensable as protection against the cold, were useless to men who now spent their days sunk to the hips in mud and melted snow. Scherer predicted that even a single committed Soviet attack, supported by artillery and armour, could be sufficient to overrun the pocket
The grip of the 18th Army on the Volkhov pocket was desperate and problematical. The 54th Army had pushed a wedge past Pogostye to a point within 5 miles (8 km) of Lyuban on the north-east, and the 2nd Shock Army had no more than 7 or 8 miles (11.25 or 12.75 km) to cover in order to reach Lyuban from the south, which it appeared determined to do even after ‘Raubtier’ had closed the pocket’s mouth. On 23 March, the day on which the thaw began, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Hasse, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’’s chief-of-staff, told the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief of operations that it was slowly but inevitably becoming impossible for the 18th Army to prevent the Soviets from taking Lyuban because the army lacked the strength to do so.
The thaw slowed the Soviets as much as it did the Germans, but the Soviets were clearly determined not to let it stop them. By keeping tanks in position to rake the ‘Erika’ lane with fire, they had managed to prevent the Germans from taking possession of it and to convert the lane into a no man’s land. On 27 March Soviet armour, followed by infantry, drove through along the lane and reopened it as a supply road for the 2nd Shock Army.
At the end of the month, the 18th Army was offered a little relief when Finnish troops, with some Estonian auxiliaries supplied by the [e[18th Army, took the islands of Suursaari, Lavansaari and Tytarsaari, thus ending the army’s concerns that it would have to divert some of its own men to the undertaking.
‘Brückenschlag’ got under way once more on 4 April. von Seydlitz-Kurzbach had completed the regrouping of his force, and the Soviet opposition had been regrouped and reinforced. Soviet infantry were well dug in, and also firing from the tree-tops. Aircraft, most of them slow single-engined biplanes such as the Polikarpov Po-2, cruised over the German bivouac areas right through the night to drop light bombs from altitudes of between 100 and 200 ft (30 and 60 m) and disturbing the men’s rest. On the softening ground, wide-tracked Soviet armour was again revealing its superiority, and the tank crews had discovered that the trees and underbrush gave them excellent protection because German hollow-charge projectiles frequently detonated after striking branches. The Germans were using a new weapon, the Panzerschreck, which fired a rocket-propelled grenade with a hollow-charge warhead, and this could knock out a T-34, but von Seydlitz-Kurzbach pointed out that the use of this weapon demanded a firer possessing nerve and luck given the fact that the weapon was not effective at a range of more than 55 yards (50 m). The nocturnal temperature was remaining above freezing point, and the roads, including those the Soviets had surfaced with layers of packed snow and sawdust, were thawing. Manoeuvre was impossible, so the only way in which ‘Brückenschlag’ could succeed was by punching through to the Lovat river by the most direct route. Ordinarily, the 6-mile (10-km) distance to the Lovat river was a two-hour walk, but it took von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s formations eight days to get within 545 yards (500 m) of the river and to begin a slow turn upstream in the direction of Ramushevo.
Under Zorn’s control, the forces of the II Corps began their attack out of the pocket on 14 March. This was a significant gamble. Zorn was supposed not to have started this movement until von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s force had reached and taken Ramushevo, but von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s men had suffered more than 10,000 casualties, and if and when they reached Ramushevo the rasputitsa was certain to be in full swing.
The siege of the Demyansk pocket ended on 21 April as the relief force and the break-out from the pocket met after suffering casualties of 3,355 dead and more than 10,000 wounded. However, their fight had denied the Soviet high command the services, for deployment elsewhere, of numerous formations at a critical moment, units that would have otherwise been used elsewhere.
Between the forming of the Demyansk pocket on 8 February and the virtual German abandonment of Demyansk on 20 May, the Demyansk and Kholm pockets received 59,000 tonnes of supplies through the ‘Ramushevo corridor’ and by air, as well as 31,000 replacement troops, and at the same time 36,000 wounded men were evacuated. However, the cost to the Germans was significant. The Luftwaffe lost 265 aircraft, including 106 Junkers Ju 52/3m, 17 Heinkel He 111 and two Junkers Ju 86 aircraft, as well as 387 aircrew. The Soviet air forces lost 408 aircraft, including 243 fighters, in the battle to destroy the pocket.
Even though German units were no longer trapped, fresh troops were poured into the region and fighting continued until February 1943, the Soviets not liberating Demyansk until 1 March 1943 as the German forces fell back.
Perhaps the worst consequence for the Germans of the fight for the Demyansk pocket was the false belief in the Luftwaffe’s air transport capability that it inculcated in Göring and Hitler. Göring later promised a similarly successful solution to the supply requirement of Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army after it had been surrounded in Stalingrad. In theory, the success of the effort could have been equally advantageous: with the 6th Army trapped but still in good fighting condition, the Soviets would have been compelled to use much of their strength in an effort to keep the pocket contained, and this would in turn have provided the time and opportunity for other German formations to regroup and mount a successful counter-offensive. The size of the forces caught in the two pockets was significantly different, however, for while a corps with some six divisions was encircled in Demyansk, at Stalingrad an entire and greatly reinforced army of more than 20 divisions was trapped, and at a greater distance from the bases from which the air supply effort would have to be made in the face of now considerably stronger Soviet air forces. Whereas the Demyansk and Kholm pockets together needed some 240 tonnes of supplies per day, the Stalingrad pocket needed an estimated minimum of 800 tonnes per day. By this time, later in 1942, moreover, the German air transport capability had already suffered heavy losses, and was much further removed from good infrastructure for maintenance. In short, the Luftwaffe simply did not have the resources needed to supply Stalingrad.
In the sector of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, it is worth noting, the month of April 1942 had been characterised by the effects of the spring thaw and as a succession of operational crises. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and the Oberkommando des Heeres considered ordering the II Corps to attempt a break-out. As Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was abandoning its share of ‘Brückenschlag’, the tactical value of the Demyansk pocket was at best a doubtful, but no one was prepared to argue that point with Hitler. Küchler did tell Hitler that with three more divisions he could wipe out the Volkhov pocket, but Hitler responded that Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were no to rely only on their own resources as all the formations and matériel which had not already committed had now been earmarked for use in the ‘Blau’ summer offensives in the south. Küchler managed to assemble five battalions which he could have used to strengthen ‘Brückenschlag’ except for the fact that they had to be committed to the Kholm relief as ‘humanity and comradeship make it unthinkable to abandon the Scherer group’. The Luftwaffe had a battalion of paratroops to land in Kholm, but its delivery would necessitate the diversion of airlift capability from the support of the Demyansk pocket and would probably suffer major losses: the army group predicted that, if attempted, the drop would result in half the men landing among the Soviets and the other half suffering terrible injuries as the men came down amid the town’s buildings.
Unhappy with its support role, the Luftwaffe wished to withdraw its dive-bombers from ‘Brückenschlag’ for operations, supported by heavy artillery to suppress the Soviet anti-aircraft fire, against the Soviet warships at Leningrad in an effort to ameliorate Hitler’s concern about the ships. To capture Hitler’s interest and circumvent the army group’s objections, the Luftwaffe raised the project’s status to that of an air offensive comprising ‘Froschlaich’ and the grandly titled ‘Götz von Berlichingen’. Though several Soviet warships were hit and damaged or sunk, the offensive seriously depleted the 18th Army’s heavy artillery ammunition stocks, and when the undertaking was continued into the first week in May with reduced artillery support, the Germans crews encountered anti-aircraft fire heavier than the pilots had experienced up to this time.
In and around the Volkhov pocket a disaster was almost certainly developing, though it was as yet uncertain on whom the disaster would fall. After the Soviets managed to reopen the ‘Erika’ lane, Küchler replaced Chappuis as commander of the XXXVIII Corps with General Siegfried Hänicke on 23 April. At Führer headquarters it was felt that Generalleutnant Karl von Graffen, commander of the 58th Division, in whose sector the event had occurred, should also be relieved, but as Küchler protested in vain for two days the Soviets also retook the ‘Dora’ lane. The benefit to the Soviets of retaking the two lanes, however, was less than the effect on the Germans. The XXXVIII Corps and I Corps held the corridor formed by the lanes to a width of less than 2 miles (3.2 km) and, by a time in the middle of April, the thaw and constant air and artillery bombardment had turned the lanes into cratered stretches of mud. The 2nd Shock Army was not strangled but it was choking. For its part, the 18th Army reported that its continuing hold on Lyuban was owed entirely to fortune and unfounded optimism, both of which could be removed at any time by Soviet infantry and just a little armour.
The whole of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was, as it put it to Hitler and the Oberkommando des Heeres, fighting on a hand-to-mouth basis bolstered by an almost indefensible optimism. On the other hand, the rasputitsa[/e[ was no one’s friend. The rasputitsa was impartial, whereas the winter had favoured the Soviets and given them the initiative, but that initiative was disappearing with the snow and ice. The 2nd Shock Army and the 54th Army held low ground, swamp and bottomland. The Germans expected the Soviets to know how to deal with the rasputitsa in a manner better than they themselves, and the Soviet armies would clearly know how to deal with the inevitable thaw as well as anyone.
Stalin desired more, however. Khozin, commander of Leningrad Front, had declared that if he were given full command, he could still win a decisive victory despite the rasputitsa. Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Boris M. Shaposhnikov, chief of the Soviet general staff, did not believe Khozin was capable of controlling operations by 10 armies and several independent corps, but Stalin decided to give him the opportunity to do so. On 23 April, the Stavka relieved Meretskov and abolished the Volkhov Front, which then became an operational group of the Leningrad Front. Khozin was ordered to step up the offensive and break the siege Leningrad, despite the fact that a task which had been too large for accomplishment by Meretskov and Khozin together was not likely to be mastered by one of them alone, and the time was poor for experimenting with extemporised commands. At the same time the Volkhov river had a open water down its centre, the ‘Erika’ and ‘Dora’ lanes were under water, and the 2nd Shock Army’s perimeter in the Volkhov pocket was starting to shrink.
During the afternoon of 29 April, Küchler spoke via telephone to von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt in the Demyansk pocket, an event made possible by the fact that von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s and Zorn’s troops, opposite each other on the Lovat river, had strung a telephone line across this waterway. The North-West Front was to be denied its final victory over the II Corps.
At Kholm, the 3rd Shock Army mustered its artillery and armour strength and broke into the pocket from the south on 1 May, the 96th day of the siege. The relief force under Generalmajor Werner Hühner, von Uckermann’s successor, was stalled just 1 mile (1.6 km) to the west, where it remained for three more days while the infantry probed for an opening and dive-bombers rained bombs on the Soviets. During the morning of 5 May, an armour and infantry attack launched before dawn reached the western edge of the pocket at the break of day.