Operation Büffel (iii)


'Büffel' (iii) was a German series of local withdrawals by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' from the Rzhev salient on the Eastern Front (1/22 March 1943).

This movement eliminated the Rzhev salient and thereby shortened the German front by 230 miles (370 km) and releasing 21 divisions for service elsewhere. The withdrawals were accompanied by a ruthless security campaign, resulting in widespread destruction, deportation of able-bodied members of the local population for slave labour, and killings of civilian population.

Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army and Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army evacuated the salient in March 1943 as part of a general shortening of the German line to the west of Moscow. Large-scale security sweeps, under the doctrine of Bandenbekämpfung (bandit fighting), were carried out in the weeks before the operation, in which an estimated that of the 3,000 Soviets who were killed, the great majority were unarmed, as revealed by the inventory of the seized weapons: 277 rifles, 41 pistols, 61 machine guns, 17 mortars, 9 anti-tank rifles and 16 small pieces of artillery. The withdrawal itself took two weeks, with minimal casualties or disruption in a move of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', which totalled some 300,000 men, 100 tanks and 400 pieces of artillery. During the operation, Model personally ordered the deportation of all male civilians, the poisoning of wells, and the razing of at least 24 villages as part of a scorched earth policy to hinder the Soviets' advance into the evacuated area.

The Soviets had been planning to launch an offensive into the salient, and on 6 February 1943 the Stavka had issued its Directive No. 30043 on the preparation of an offensive on the central section of the Russo/German front to encircle and destroy the main forces of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.

Preparations for retreat by the German troops were discovered by Soviet reconnaissance elements of General Polkovnik Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s West Front on 18 February, and five days later those of General Polkovnik Maksim A. Purkayev’s Kalinin Front. Reports indicated that some German groups were falling back to the west, some artillery had been repositioned closer to the roads, and some dug-outs, bridges, buildings and railway lines were being prepared for demolition. Despite these reports, the Soviet command reacted slowly. General Leytenant Vladimir Ya. Kolpakchy, commander of the 30th Army, gave the order to advance only on March 2 at 14.30, and at 17.15 on the same day, a Stavka directive ordered the entirety of the Kalinin Front and West Fronts to take the offensive.

On the morning of 3 March, Soviet troops entered the city of Rzhev without encountering any resistance. On 4 March, Soviet troops took control of Olenino, and then Gzhatsk (5 March), Sychovka (8 March), Bely (10 March) and Vyaz’ma (12 March).

The Soviet pursuit of the Germans was complicated by the latter’s use of well-equipped defensive positions, minefields and destroyed communications. Thus some Soviet formations managed to advance only 3.75 to 4.35 miles (6 to 7 km) per day. In the second half of March, troops of the West Front attempted to cut off German units in the area of Orlov and Bryansk, but in several days of fighting in which they lost 132 tanks, the I Tank Corps and V Tank Corps halted. On 22 March, Soviet troops reached the Germans' new 'Büffel-Stellung' (buffalo position), from Dukhovshchina to Spas Demensk via Dorogobuzh, along which were the formations of the Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were now entrenched. Faced with the combination of determined German resistance and the reduction in their own supply of ammunition and food as a consequence of their own lengthening lines of communication, the Soviets brought their '2nd Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Offensive Operation' to an end on 31 March.

The shortening of their lines allowed the Germans to create a reserve for operations elsewhere. These formations were later used during the summer campaign of 1943, most importantly 'Zitadelle' (Battle of Kursk).

The official Soviet report of 7 April 1943 showed the effects of the German scorched earth policy. In Vyaz’ma, out of 5,500 buildings, only 51 small houses were still standing; at Gzhatsk, 300 out of 1,600; in Rzhev, 500 out of 5,400. Some 15,000 people had been deported from these three towns alone. The rural areas suffered equally: in the Sychevka area, for example, 137 out of 248 villages had been burned.