The 'Dukhovshchina Offensive Operation' was the Soviet seventh of nine sub-operations together constituting the 'Smolensk Strategic Defensive Operation' (17 August/8 September 1941).
After the capture of Smolensk on 16 July by the forces of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the comparatively early stages of 'Barbarossa', the German high command considered it feasible to divert part of the army group’s mobile troops (Panzer and motorised formations of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe) from the army group’s northern flank to reinforce Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in its advance on Leningrad. In the meantime, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe on the southern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was readying an offensive to the south with the aim, together with elements of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd', to encircle the Soviet armies of General Polkovnik Mikhail P. Kirponos’s South-West Front in the Kiev region. Despite these diversions, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was to press forward with its offensive against Moscow with only infantry divisions. However, the continued resistance of Soviet troops in the Smolensk 'cauldron' and the attacks by task forces of General Leytenant of NKVD Ivan A. Bogdanov (from 30 July General Georgi K. Zhukov’s) Front of the Reserve Armies at the end of July 1941 forced the German command to order on July 30 the suspension of the offensive toward Moscow and to go over to the defensive in the central sector of the Eastern Front.
In this situation, the Stavka decided, for the purpose of regaining the strategic initiative on the central sector of the front, to launch a pair of offensives: Zhukov’s Front of the Reserve Armies was to defeat the German troops in the Yelnya region, and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s West Front was to defeat the German troops in the Dukhovshchina region.
The West Front’s main blow was to be delivered by General Leytenant Ivan S. Konev’s 19th Army (89th, 91st and 166th Divisions) and General Major Vasili A. Khomenko’s 30th Army (242nd, 250th and 251st Divisions and 107th Tank Division). To the north, General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 29th Army was to advanced on Ilyino, and General Leytenant Fillip A. Ershakov’s 22nd Army was top hold the Line farther to the north. To the south, General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail F. Lukin’s 20th Army were to operate actively in order to pin the German forces in the area of Yartsevo and the Dniepr river crossings.
In the area targeted by the Soviet offensive were two major formations of 9th Army, which was commanded by ended Generaloberst Adolf Strauss and later, while Strauss was ill between 20 August and 5 September, Generaloberst Hermann Hoth. The two formations in question were General Walter Heitz’s VIII Corps with the 8th Division, 28th Division and 161st Division, and General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps with the 129th Division, 106th Division, 35th Division and 5th Division as well as the 900th Lehr-Brigade. The 9th Army's reserve, located in the area of Dukhovshchina, comprised the 14th Division (mot.) and the 7th Panzerdivision.
During the evening of 6 August, Timoshenko arrived at the headquarters of the 30th Army and assigned to Khomenko the task of using his army to support the 19th Army’s offensive, and on the following day reached the headquarters of the 19th Army. The army commanders were both told of the Stavka order that the West Front was 'firmly to hold the Dniepr river line with the left wing of the front and repelling enemy attacks on its right wing, and to crush and destroy the enemy’s Dukhovshchina grouping in the centre'. The 16th Army and 20th Army had to take active offensive actions on the Yartsevo and Dniepr river lines to pin the German forces opposite them and thus prevent their redeployment to the Dukhovshchina sector.
On 8 August, after air and artillery preparations, the formations of the 19th Army and 30th Army went onto the offensive. In the next few days the Soviet formations managed to advance only some 5 to 6.1 miles (8 to 10 km), and the offensive then stopped. The 19th Army’s offensive on 11 August nonetheless made a contribution to the escape from the encirclement of some of the Soviet forces which had been involved in the offensive on Smolensk at the end of July 1941, as well as General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s group of forces currently withdrawing from Grodno.
On 15 August, Timoshenko, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Western Direction, ordered that the 'Dukhovshchina Offensive Operation' be resumed. The 19th Army was reinforced with the 101st Tank Division and the 64th Division, as well as the 43rd Air Division and additional artillery, including two batteries of 'Katyusha' multiple rocket launchers. The 30th Army was reinforced with the 45th Cavalry Division and 46th Air Division and artillery, including one 'Katyusha' battery. Moreover, the 50th Division of the 19th Army and the 162nd Division of the 30th Army, which had by now been brought up to strength, were committed to the renewed offensive.
General Major Lev M. Dovator’s cavalry group of two cavalry divisions was despatched to operate in the Germans' rear areas round Demidov near Dukhovshchina.
On 17 August, the 30th Army and 19th Army resumed their offensive, and on 19 August von Bock recorded that 'the 9th Army reports that the enemy broke into the location of our troops on the left wing of the VIII Corps. The 161st Division is bleeding to death and is at the limit of its capabilities.' Three days later von Bock recorded that 'the breakthrough at the front of the 161st Division was so serious that Hoth, who assumed temporary command of the 9th Army as a result of Strauss’s illness, called in his last reserves – the 7th Panzerdivision and the 14th Division (mot.) – to help.'
A counterattack by Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision on the Soviet anti-tank defence near the villages of Zadnaya and Potelitsa during the evening of 20 August was repulsed with heavy German losses: 37 tanks and armoured personnel carriers remained on the battlefield. According to the report forwarded by the headquarters of the 19th Army, as a result of the fighting on 21/22 August a total of about 80 German tanks was destroyed.
An important role in the defeat of the German armoured counterattack was the part played by Polkovnik Oleg V. Tolstikov’s 47th Air Division. After summing up the results of the battles, Polkovnik Nikolai F. Naumenko, the commander of the Air Force of the West Front, sent a telegram to Tolstikov saying that 'I am extremely pleased with the successful actions of attack aircraft and fighters. Thanks to the crushing blow inflicted by you on 21 and 22 August 1941, the counterattack of the enemy tank division was repulsed.'
On 22 August, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s staff, General Franz Halder, wrote in his diary about this: 'The 9th Army repulsed strong enemy attacks in front of its front. The 7th Panzerdivision suffered serious losses (30 tanks were irretrievably lost).
On 23 August, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' launched an offensive on its northern flank in the zone of the 22nd Army. Two days later German troops captured Bol’shoy Luka, and by 29 August had also taken Toropets. The 22nd Army’s main strength was now encircled and trapped.
The West Front’s 29th Army, 30th Army and 19th Army had resumed their offensive on 23 August, while the 19th Army was reinforced by the 244th Division and the 45th Cavalry Division. The offensive soon stalled, however.
On 25 August, Timoshenko presented a plan for an offensive by the West Front to reach the line connecting Velikiye Luki, Velizh, Demidov and Smolensk by 8 September. This new undertaking had three stages: in the first stage, to be undertaken on 26/29 August, the Soviets were to delay the German offensive through the use of air power and ground forces on the 22nd Army’s front, reinforcing and regrouping troops for a decisive assault on the Germans together with the Front of the Reserve Armies in a simultaneous continuation of the offensive by the 19th Army, 29th Army and 30th Army; in the second stage, to be undertaken on 30 August/5 September, the Soviets were to go over to a general offensive with the object of breaking up the German forces and fulfilling the front’s immediate task of breaking through the German tactical defences; and in the third state, to be undertaken on 6/8 September at the rate of 9.3 miles (15 km) per day, the Soviets were to develop their success once they had reached the line indicated by the Stavka’s order.
On 26 August, von Bock noted that 'Hoth, temporarily holding the position of commander of the 9th Army, in giving his assessment of the current situation mentioned the great losses that his army [had] suffered in defensive battles, and said that if the situation did not change, the army would soon be in bad shape.'
The Soviet operation greatly concerned von Bock, and on 28 August he pointed out that if Smolensk could not be held, Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army would also have to retreat.
On 28 August, Timoshenko ordered the resumption of the offensive on 1 September with the object of retaking Smolensk. Within this latest Soviet undertaking, the 30th Army (250th, 242nd, 251st, 162nd and 134th Divisions and the 107th Tank Division) delivered the main blow in the direction of Demidov; the 19th Army (244th, 166th, 91st, 89th, 50th and 64th Divisions, the 101st Tank Division and the 45th Cavalry Division) had essentially the same task of defeating the German forces round Dukhovshchina; the 16th Army (152nd, 38th and 108th Divisions, and the 1st and 18th Tank Divisions) had the task of crushing the Germ forces round Yartsevo; and the 20th Army (144th, 73rd, 229th, 153rd, 161st and 129th Divisions) was to bypass Smolensk from the south.
On 30 August, the Front of the Reserve Armies began the Elninskaya Offensive Operation' to defeat the German forces in the area of Elninsk.
However, the Soviet offensive quickly petered out and, moreover, the West Front had to commit all the reserves on its northern flank, despatching these to strengthen the 22nd Army and 29th Army. On 5 September, the 30th Army and 20th Army were ordered to go over to the defensive, and on 10 September the West Front’s other forces were also ordered to go over the defensive.
During the operation, the Soviets suffered heavy losses and the German forces continued to move to the east. The Soviet territorial acquisitions were modest: the 30th Army liberated the small village of Baturino and the 16th Army retook Yartsevo.
According to one source, the loss of the 19th Army between 1 August and 10 September totalled some 45,000 men, while the losses of the VIII Corps facing this army were in the order of 7,000 men including 220 men of the 14th Division (mot.) and 500 men of the 7th Panzerdivision. This represents a ratio of 4.4/1 in favour of the Germans.
On 11 September, Konev, commander of the 19th Army, was promoted to the rank of general polkovnik and on the following day appointed as commander of the West Front in succession to Timoshenko, who had been appointed commander-in-chief of the South-Western Direction.