Dmitriev-Sevsk Offensive Operation

The 'Dmitriev-Sevsk Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking by the Central Front as part of an unsuccessful plan to inflict a decisive defeat on Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' (25 February/26 March 1943).

By the start of February 1943, its victory at Stalingrad had started the development of a strategic situation favourable for the Soviet army: on the entire southern flank of the Eastern Front, Soviet troops were pushing back the Axis forces, which had spent almost all of their reserves during the previous months and were now not in any position to stop the Soviet offensive. The Soviet high command therefore decided to exploit this situation and expand the scope of the offensive to inflict a major defeat on Generalfeldmarschall GŁnther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. The object of the forthcoming strategic operation was the implementation of a plan which, in its first stage, was to use concentric strikes by the Bryansk Front and the left wing of the West Front to defeat the 2nd Panzerarmee in the Orel area and then, in its second stage, exploit the arrival from Stalingrad of the armies of the former Don Front to develop an offensive in the general direction of Smolensk, pass into the rear areas of the German grouping in the area of Rzhev and Vyaz’ma and in co-operation with the Kalinin Front and the West Front to encircle and destroy the main forces of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. The directive ordering the offensive was signed by Iosif Stalin on 6 February.

The major role in the defeat of General Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army was to be played by General Polkovnik Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front, newly created with General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 21st Army, General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Army and General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov’s 65th Army of the former Don Front , as well as General Major German F. Tarasov’s 70th Army and General Leytenant Aleksei G. Rodin’s 2nd Tank Army from the Stavka reserve. The Central Front was to deploy in the area to the north-west of Kursk and, on 15 February, launch its offensive through Sevsk and Unecha to Novgorod-Seversky and Mogilev and finally to reach the area of Orsha, Gomel and Smolensk. Here the Central Front was to link with the advancing troops of the West Front and Kalinin Front.

However, to accomplish the over-optimistic advance of 455 miles (700 km) in one month, the front’s strength was clearly inadequate and the time limit for concentrating its troops on the start line was totally unrealistic: two of the front’s armies were at Stalingrad, 455 km (700 km) to the south-east, and were to be transported over a single-track railway line, and the armies from the Stavka reserve were also to march 170 to 185 miles (270 to 300 km). In conditions of cold and drifting snow, compounded by a shortage of wagons, the transfer schedule failed right from its start. An attempt to transfer equipment and rear services on their own was completed in total chaos: artillery, equipment and transport units lagged behind the fighting troops, and the supply of equipment carrying food for both the troops and the horses was disrupted. The troops moved to the front without ammunition, which had not yet been delivered to the troop concentration areas, and an attempt to transfer ammunition in parallel with the movement of troops finally blocked all transport routes. In the lengthy marches to which they were subjected, even before the start of the offensive, Soviet troops and their animals became totally exhausted. The German command immediately perceived the slow and arduous transfer of troops, and took measures to repel the Soviet offensive. In addition, the offensive of Soviet troops in other areas, namely the 'Malo-Arkhangyel’sk Offensive Operation' and the 'Zhizdrinsky Offensive Operation', which the Central Front was supposed to support, had already failed.

Thus it was only on 25 February that the Central Front was able to go over to the offensive toward Sevsk, and then began its undertaking without completing the final concentration of its forces: only Batov’s 65th Army had completed its concentration in the initial area, and Chistyakov’s 21st Army was well on its way, and all the Soviet formations and units were suffering an acute shortage of ammunition and food. Thus, in Rodin’s 2nd Tank Army out of 408 tanks only 182 could go into combat. More or less safely concentrated, Tarasov’s 70th Army was the best equipped of the three armies, which together had 256,820 men. Despite the many limitations imposed on them, the Soviet troops managed to break through the German defences and begin a difficult advance to the west. On 2 March, the 2nd Tank Army liberated Sevsk, where the brigade of Generalleutnant Andrei A. Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army (Russische Befreiungsarmee) defending the city was almost completely destroyed. By 6 March, the 65th Army and 2nd Tank Army had advanced between 18.5 and 37 miles (30 and 60 km), and had cut the railway line linking Bryansk and Konotop. General Major Vladimir V. Khryukin’s II Guards Cavalry Corps, reinforced by three ski infantry brigades, was committed on this day and broke through to a depth of between 60 and 75 miles (100 to 120 km), and by 10 March had reached Trubchevsk and the Desna river in the area to the north of Novgorod-Seversky.

Even in the current arduous conditions, the Central Front’s forces broke through the German defences and penetrated deep into the rear of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. The German army group was thus threatened with a major defeat should the plan for a Soviet general strategic operation reach maturity. For the development of success, however, reserves were required, but the Soviets no longer possessed these. In the southern sector of the front, the Germans responded with potent counterattacks on the Soviet troops that had reached the approaches to the Dniepr river and forced them to retreat, and thus there began the 'Kharkov Defensive Operation'. By order of Stalin, issued on 11 March, the 21st Army, which was completing its concentration, was rapidly transferred to the area, and with this Rokossovsky planned to exploit the Central Front’s current success. On the Bryansk Front and West Front, the Soviet forces' nonstop offensive efforts had depleted all their forces without any useful results. Moreover, the German command at this time safely pulled back its forces from the Rzhev-Vyaz’ma salient and transferred them to threatened areas, including that of the Central Front.

Taking into account the complexity of the situation, the Soviet high command changed the Central Front’s task, which was now redirected the German grouping in the area of Dmitriev and Orel. The regrouping of the Soviet forces into a new area inevitably made it difficult to continue support for those forces which had advanced farthest to the west.

On 12 March the Germans launched a counter-offensive by six divisions, of which three were Hungarian, against General Major Vladimir V. Kryukov’s cavalry infantry group. The Axis divisions used flanking attacks to encircle the Soviet formations that had penetrated farthest into German-held territory, and here there developed heavy fighting that persuaded the Germans to commit more of their strength. By 20 March, the cavalry group had managed to withdraw, albeit with heavy losses, to Sevsk and then defended this for several days. Given the general failure of the Central Front’s offensive, the Soviet high command on 21 March ordered the front’s forces to pass over to the defensive along the line linking Mtsensk and Rylsk via Novosil, Bryantsevo and the area to the east of Sevsk. The main efforts of the front were now focused on the rescue of the cavalry and infantry group, but several attempts to break through the front and reach Sevsk were defeated, and on 27 March German troops drove the Soviet units out of Sevsk. The remnants of the cavalry and infantry group, aided by the attack of the front’s other forces, broke out of the encirclement on 28 March, and after this the front line stabilised. About half of the territory liberated by Soviet troops in the offensive was abandoned, and this created the central westward-facing section of the Kursk salient was formed. Thus the Stavka’s plan to defeat the the German grouping round Orel, and therefore savage Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the winter and spring of 1943, was thwarted.

The Soviet losses were significant: 30,439 men were irrecoverable losses as they had been killed or taken prisoner, and 39,968 men had been wounded or taken ill. One out of every 10 men at the front at the start of the offensive had died. The main losses were those of the cavalry infantry group: about 15,000 of it men had been killed, and fewer than 3,000 men had survived. The 2nd Tank Army lost 128 tanks and 13,695 men, the latter including 3,520 men killed or missing.

The losses of the German and Hungarian troops are not known. According to the fragmentary data of individual units, at least 20,000 men had been lost, and some 3,000 taken prisoner.