The 'Demyansk Defensive Operation' was the fifth of the seven Soviet sub-operations of the 'Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation', and was fought in the area to the south and east of Lake Ilmen (1/26 September 1941).
The operation took place as the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' were advancing to the north-east from East Prussia with the task of taking Leningrad, and occurred in an area bounded geographically in the north by the eastern shore of Lake Ilmen to the north of Staraya Russa, in the east through Parfino and the northern shore of Lake Velyo along the Seliger lake system to Peno, in the south approximately along the line linking Peno and Kholm, and in the west along the Lovat river. To the north of this operation, also as part of the 'Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation', there were fought the 'Novgorod-Chudovskaya Defensive Operation' and to the south the 'Velikiye Luki Defensive Operation'.
In historiographical terms, the operation was carried out between 6 and 26 September, the starting date being that of the first active fighting in the zone of the 34th Army, which was in the process of moving to Demyansk. However, 1 September should be seen as the real start of the operation as this was the day on which the German forces launched the next stage of their 'Barbarossa' campaign from the Kholm area. The end of the operation was marked by the end of the German local offensive and the stabilisation of the front on the north-western tip of the Valdai uplands.
The operation was immediately preceded in time and space by the 'Baltic Strategic Defensive Operation', and the 'Demyansk Offensive Operation' from 7 January 1942 was a Soviet continuation of the operation.
The German strategic objective in this operation was to ensure communication between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. and thus to prevent the possibility of Soviet counter-offensives from the south on the right flank of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and from the north on the left flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. For the future, after the end of the fighting for the Valdai hills, a special concentration of German forces could have been created on the northern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to advance into the rear of the Soviet forces West Front. Other possibilities were a German advance along the eastern shore of Lake Ilmen with the aim of linking with the troops operating on the Volkhov river, and an offensive to the east to sever Soviet strategic railway communications on the 'October Railway' system of north-western Russia and thereby deprive the Soviet forces of a powerful logistic capability centred on the large transport nexus in Bologoye.
According to the operational plan, the German forces now located at Kholm, on the right flank of the German grouping intended for the operation, struck at the positions of General Major Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 27th Army, broke through its defences and, advancing toward Demyansk, surrounded the Soviet troops occupying positions along the Lovat and Paula rivers. In the front’s centre, the German forces exerted sufficient pressure on General Major Kuzma M. Kachanov’s (from 12 September General Major Piotr F. Alferev’s) 34th Army to prevent a possible counterattack against the German attack force. The offensive also continued in the direction of Pola, Lychkovo and Demyansk in the area of zone of General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army.
The Soviet command created its own plan on the basis of the situation created by the Germans. General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front had as its primary task early in September 1941 the stabilisation of the situation along the line of the Lovat river between Kholm and Parfino, together with the capture of Staraya Russa. As the operation continued, the plans of the Soviet command changed, most especially from the middle of September when the stabilisation of the situation at least on the line of the Seliger lakes.
The main German formation involved in the battle under the command of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army in the form of General Christian Hansen’s X Corps, General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps and elements of General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.), supplemented by formations of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the form of General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.). Air support was provided by General Helmuth Förster’s I Fliegerkorps of Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I.
On the other side of the front line, the North-West Front was committed in the form of the Novgorod Army Task Force (minor part), the 11th Army, the 34th Army and the 27th Army.
By the beginning of September 1941, the North-West Front held the line between Lake Ilmen and the Kholm area. On the front’s right flank was the 11th Army, which occupied positions from the eastern shore of Lake Ilmen toward the east, and then the south to a location east of Parfino on he junction of the Pola and Lovat rivers , then west of Pola to the area west of Nalyucha. The 34th Army’s area of responsibility extended from the area of the village of Rosino through the villages of Starye Gorki, Rosolovo, and along the banks of the Starovskaya Rob’ya stream (Kokorino, Bolshoe Strechno, Izbitovo). Next in line was the 27th Army, whose line passed to the south-west through the villages of Khmeli, Rechitsa and Lovati, then along the river up to its bend in the area of the villages of Gorki and Pustoshka, from which the line went south-east to Knyazhy Klin, then along the Bolshoi Tuder river to the area of the village of Tukhomichi . To the south, the positions of the West Front’s 22nd Army began. Thus the Germans' right flank had a fairly convenient foothold on the right bank of the Lovat river, to the east of the Kholm river, where the II Corps was concentrated. The X Corps faced the 11th Army at Parfino and farther to the south. Between the two corps, Generalleutnant Kurt Jahn’s 3rd Division (mot.) and Obergruppenführer Georg Keppler’s (from 19 September Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke’s) SS 'Totenkopf' Division were opposed by the 34th Army.
On 1 September, in the 27th Army’s zone to the east and north-east of Kholm, the II Corps launched a strong offensive. There was heavy fighting, and while on this first day the Soviets at first fell back but then managed to restore something of the situation. Farther to the north, along the Lovat river, the Germans did not advance, but in the area to the south of Kholm, they broke into the Soviet defences along the Truversha river and took the villages of Kamenka and Tukhomichi before developing the offensive against the village of Apolets, which fell on 3 September. By 5 September, the Soviet left flank had to withdraw beyond the Marevka river. At the same time, the local arm’s right flank held its position on the eastern bank of Lovat river and was gradually surrounded from the south. At the same time, in the 34th Army’s zone the Germans exerted only modest pressure, and thus the 34th Army was gradually outflanked and started to retreat. On the northern flank the Germans continued the offensive: from the line linking Tulitovo, Manuylovo and Shchechkovo, Generalleutnant Paul Laux’s 126th Division and Generalleutnant Kurt von Briesen’s 30th Division advanced, and by the evening of 1 September the 254th Division had been compelled to abandon the village of Polu as it fell back to the eastern bank of the Pola river, and then, alternating retreat with attempted offensive efforts, withdrew by 2 September to the line of the Volozh and Kolpinka rivers, and then farther to Lychkovo along the railway.
On 2 and 3 September, the Soviet command demanded that the forces on this sector of the Eastern Front to encircle and then destroy the German formations in order to reach Lovat river along its entire length by 3 September. The 27th Army was to defeat the German forces facing it and then advance to the north from the area of Kholm to complete the encirclement. Given the tactical situation and the strength of the German forces, it is hardly surprising that none of the Soviet armies succeeded in their efforts, which were wholly unco-ordinated. On 4 September, the front command stated that the required tasks had not been completed and, as a result of the threatening situation on its right flank, tried to organise a counterattack from north to south in the area between the Bolshoi Tuder and Pola rivers. The counterstrike did not take place. In addition, an order was given for the Soviet forces to prevent, regardless of cost, the Germans from crossing the Pola river. On 5 September, though, the Germans attacked on the right flank of the 34th Army and succeeded in crossing the river at several points: Bolshoye Stepanovo, Maloye Stepanovo, Gorodok, Bolshiye Rogi and Malye Rogi were all captured. Only in the areas of Kolom and Ignatitsa were the German attempts to cross the river thwarted. At the same time, the army’s left flank continued to hold it positions on the Starovskaya Robya river but was thus threatened with encirclement. The Germans also continued their offensive in the 27th Army’s in the direction of Molvotitsy after scattering the Soviet formations in their path. By 4 September the front’s headquarters had lost touch with the 256th Division, and two days later stated that it had lost control of its formations, which were thoroughly disorganised, so local resistance was now sporadic and based on local initiatives. The army’s headquarters knew the location of only three of its divisions, one of them in reserve.
On 7 September, the 11th Army continued to retreat toward Lychkovo and was already on or near the lines linking Beglovo and Pozhaleevo. The 34th Army continued fighting along the line of the Pola river, along which it still held the bank in some places. The army also fought to hold a number of abandoned settlements along the river bank. In the 27th Army’s zone, the situation continued only to worsen: the Germans took Molvotitsy and moved to Demyansk from the south, taking the settlements of Bel 1 and Bel 2, and often encountered only small detachments conglomerated from dispersed unit. Only on 7 September did the remaining detachments of the 185th Division and 46th Tank Division finally begin to withdraw from the Lovat river, and by this time both formations were already deep in the rear of the front-line German forces. In the evening of 8 September, Demyansk was abandoned by the Soviets, and the first German formation to enter the town was Demyansk was Generalleutnant Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 19th Panzerdivision, which was currently attached to the II Corps. On the same day, the Germans renewed their attack on the 34th Army: this army’s right flank was thrown back from Pola and its left flank, which was holding settlements on the river bank, was deployed to the north. The 34th Army effectively fell part on this day, for its headquarters lost contact with most of its organic formations. A complete German encirclement had not yet been completed as the 11th Army was still holding its positions on the approaches to Lychkovo. On 9 September, the front’s headquarters issued orders, whose primarily object was the recapture of Demyansk, for which a task force was created out of parts of the 27th Army’s 23rd and 33rd Divisions, which were deployed to the north of the German breakthrough, the newly arrived 28th Tank Division without its tanks, one NKVD regiment of internal security troops, and one battery of rocket launchers. The troops of the 27th Army to the south of the German breakthrough were parts of the 185th Division, the remnants of the 5th Division, the 256th Division, and the 9th and 10th Artillery Brigades, which were despatched to hold the line between Orekhovo and Seliger and thus prevent the Germans from reaching Ostashkov from the west and north-west.
On 9 September the 11th Army’s defensive lines were penetrated, as a result of which the Germans seized Lychkovo. The 254th Division was despatched from reserve, but its attacks were unsuccessful. At the same time, many parts of the army were left to the west of Lychkovo in the area of Beglovo and Knevitsa. The 34th Army withdrew to the line linking Shumilov Bor, Kostkovo and Novy Brod all to the west of Demyansk. The 245th and 257th Divisions were to deploy in the west. The 259th and 262nd Divisions were despatched to the north-east toward the Chichilovo area, from which they were to attack to the north-east in order to reach Ilovka and Luzhno, lying to the southeast of Lychkovo, in order to support the 11th Army. The 181st Division, 25th Cavalry Division and 54th Cavalry Division were concentrated at Novy Brod, on the army’s left flank, with the task of striking to the east into the flank of the German forces which had broken through to Demyansk. The 27th Army’s 23rd Division and 28th Tank Division held the line near the village of Peski to the east of Demyansk, from which the attack on this town was to be made. To the west of the German salient, the 33rd Division withdrew from Molvotitsy toward Dyagilevo and Ermakovo. The 185th Division moved to the north-east of Latkino to link with the 33rd Division. The 5th Division of the 27th Army’s southern group came under attack and, leaving the source of the Volga river, occupied the northern shore of the Strezh lake in the Kokovkino region. The 256th Division held the Yevseyevo area.
On 10 September, the 11th Army continued fighting in the Lychkovo area despite the fact that it had lost touch with some of its divisions. For the 34th Army, this same day became the moment of its crisis as 'units of the 34th Army left the line and, uncontrolled by the command and staff, began an indiscriminate retreat, making their way in separate groups through the [Germans'] battle formations in the general direction of east. Most of the matériel was abandoned.' The 27th Army managed a partial disengagement of its left flank for a retreat to the line of Seliger lakes, where it organised defences defense, and prepared its right flank for an attack offensive on Demyansk. On 12 September this army launched a series of attacks in the direction of Demyansk, but none of these achieved any success. By 14 September, it had become clear to the command that the Soviet troops were completely defeated. So the 34th Army and the 11th Army were relieved of offensive responsibilities and instructed to withdraw to the area of Lychkovo and Luzhno, at the same time supporting the withdrawal of the 11th and 34th Armies' encircled troops from the area top the west of the road linking Lychkovo and Demyansk. By 15 September, however, German advanced units had already reached the Veljo lake. Meanwhile, the 27th Army, under German pressure, was forced to pull back its right flank all the way to the east and south-east of Demyansk, back to the lakes, which the Germans approached on the same day. The Germans also attempted to cross the Seliger lake with small forces, but this attempt was repulsed.
In the second half of September 1941, the active phase of the 'Demyansk Defensive Operation' came to an end. After taking Demyansk and consolidating along the line of the lakes, for lack of the required strength the Germans did not press their attack farther. The Soviet command was fully aware, however, of the danger of a renewed offensive by rested and reinforced German forces: such an offensive could isolate the north-western theatre, so the Soviet high command rebuilt the North-West Front and deployed reinforcements. The Soviet troops readied defensive positions and, in order to but time, during the second half of September 1941 undertook constant and fairly strong local attacks. As Generaloberst Franz Halder, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff, noted on 21 September, 'The enemy is putting strong pressure on our troops in the Valdai Heights. The enemy even launched an attack against the II Corps with tank support.' In some places there was some fighting as each side tried to improve its tactical situation: the Soviet troops were pushed to the eastern shore of the Velja lake. Moreover, a number of disparate Soviet units continued to escape their encirclement.
By 30 September, the front line had shifted from Lake Ilmen eastward some 70 miles O((115 km) to the area lying to the east of Lychkovo. From the lake to the village of Shkvarets, the Soviet positions were now held by the 180th Division, which was opposed by units of Generalleutnant Theodor Freiherr von Wrede’s 290th Division. From there the front line, skirting around Lychkovo, passed through the village of Kirillovshchina (202nd Motorised Division, 84th Division, 182nd Division, 26th Division and 254th Division. Behing this grouping were the 8th Tank Brigade, 25th Cavalry Division and 54th Cavalry Division, and these were opposed by von Tippelskirch’s 30th Division and two regiments of Eiche’s SS 'Totenkopf' Division. Then the 262nd Division, 163rd Division, 259th Division and 245th Division were located from the Kirillov region to Isakovo, with the 10th Anti-Tank Brigade and the 188th Division in reserve. The positions opposite this grouping were held by occupied by units of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Bohnstedt’s 32nd Division. Farther along the lakes, the 23rd Division, 28th Division and 4th Division held the front with the 33rd Division and 183rd Divisions and the 46th Cavalry Division in reserve.
Thus ended this phase of the German offensive, and the front now stabilised for a time at the north-western end of the Valdai uplands. Having taken Demyansk and consolidated along the line of the lakes, the Germans showed no very short-term inclination to renew the offensive as they needed to rehabilitate and reinforce their increasingly overstretched formations. However, the Germans had succeeded in achieving their strategic goal of providing a physical link between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Until the spring of 1943, the Germans' Demyansk lodgement continued to play the role of a salient from which the Germans could threaten the rear of the Volkhov Front and the West (later Kalinin) Front, as well as the overland communications of the centre of the USSR with its north-western regions.
The Soviet losses were significant as, most especially, two complete armies had been defeated. The Germans reported about 35,000 Soviet troops taken prisoner, and the destruction or capture of 117 tanks and 254 pieces of artillery.