Escape of the 2nd Shock Army Operation

The 'Escape of the 2nd Shock Army Operation' was the Soviet undertaking to extract General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army out of the encirclement in which it had been trapped near Volkhov (13 May/10 July 1942).

During the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation' in January 1942, the 2nd Shock Army had taken the so-called 'Lyuban salient', which penetrated deep into the defences of General Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army of Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. Although the Soviets failed in the main objective of the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation', namely the rupture of the German blockade of Leningrad, the Soviet high command nonetheless deemed the territory which had been regained as the ideal springboard for a decisive strike in the task of breaking the siege of Leningrad. However, in addition to its advantageous operational location, the Lyuban position, with its area of 48.25 sq miles (125 km²) and its nature as a marshy area well removed from railways and roads, had a number of significant drawbacks: it was connected with the main part of forces of General Kyrill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front only by a narrow 'isthmus' of hard ground in the Myasny Bor area and, in fact, all the Soviet troops in the Lyuban salient were in a semi-encirclement. The Soviet command did not attach importance to the expansion of the isthmus, and after their first but unsuccessful attempts to expand it, the Soviets ceased to operate actively in this area.

The German high command, on the other the other hand, strengthened their positions and forces in every way possible to them on each side of the isthmus as they saw this as a decisive point to settle the fate of the battle. To ensure that the front-line forces had the benefit of uninterrupted deliveries of supplies, the German laid narrow-gauge railways as inside the Lyuban salient there were almost no roads. The salient was in itself a densely swampy and forested area, and the supply and control of forces in the salient were very difficult.

These difficulties increased dramatically with the onset of spring: the melting of the snow and the ice in the marshes effectively terminated the possibility of using motorised and horse-drawn vehicles. The ice airfields in the swamps melted, and the construction of unpaved airfields in the swamps was impossible. All loads had to be moved by hand. The supply of the troops with ammunition, clothing and food suitable for the season was already highly unsatisfactory and now became considerably worse, and the combat capability of the troops dropped commensurately.

The Germans were quick to take advantage of this: counter strikes on the northern and southern faces of the isthmus were cut between 15 and 17 March, and was restored only by 2 April. However, Soviet control of the isthmus was very narrow (about 1.55 miles/2.5 km) and was under the fire of German artillery. The threat of encirclement and death therefore hung over the Soviet forces inside the Lyuban salient: the food ration was extremely inadequate, for each man received only 1.76 and 2.82 oz (50 to 80 gr) of biscuit per day, and often nothing at all. The men thus resorted to the practice of digging up and eating carcasses of dead horses, and boiled leather items of uniform and harness. From April, many men died of malnutrition.

A directive of the Soviet supreme command on 21 April exercised an extremely negative effect on the outcome of the struggle on the outer ring of the encirclement of Leningrad for it united the Volkhov Front and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin’s Leningrad Front into the Leningrad Front, divided into the Leningrad Direction and the Volkhov Direction. The latter comprised the 2nd Shock Army, 8th Army, 54th Army, 4th Army, 59th Army, 52nd Army, IV Guards Corps, VI Guards Corps and XIII Cavalry Corps. The result was significantly worsened command and control.

At first, Khozin continued to develop a plan to complete the breaking of the blockade of Leningrad. But having received more accurate data on the state of the 2nd Shock Army’s troops, he came to realise the threat looming over the army and the, during the evening of 11 May, sent a report to Iosif Stalin and in this recommended that most of the 2nd Shock Army should be withdrawn to the base of the Lyuban salient and the troops thus made available should by used both to make a major enlargement of the isthmus, and to prepare further operations to break the blockade of Leningrad on another sector of the front.

A more radical decision was then made in Moscow, and on 12 May Khozin received an oral instruction to prepare the withdrawal of the 2nd Shock Army, in its entirety, from the Lyuban salient. On the same day, Khozin issued preliminary orders for the withdrawal of the army, and on 14 May a supreme headquarters directive confirmed the decision for a complete evacuation of the 2nd Shock Army from the salient, where only a single bridgehead was to be retained across the Volkhov river.

Inside the Lyuban salient were the 2nd Shock Army with the exception of some rear units, parts of General Leytenant Vsevolod F. Yakovlev’s 52nd Army and General Leytenant Ivan T. Korovnikov’s 59th Army. The main strength of the two latter armies held the main front line and carried out combat missions to release the troops of the 2nd Shock Army. Inside the salient were the 4th Guards Division, 19th Guards Division, 24th Guards Division, 378th Division, 259th Division, 191st Division, 46th Division, 327th Division, 382nd Division, 305th Division, 92nd Division, 87th Cavalry Division, 25th Cavalry Division, 80th Cavalry Division, 23rd Brigade, 57th Brigade, 53rd Brigade, 22nd Brigade and 25th Brigade.

In the first days of the operation, the troop withdrawals took place in a fairly calm atmosphere. Despite the Germans' constant shelling of the isthmus and attacks by their tactical warplanes, the XIII Cavalry Corps, two infantry brigades, most of two infantry divisions and the 7th Guards Tank Brigade were withdrawn. This withdrawal was effected in extremely difficult conditions, of which the most significant were the dismal road communications and the acute shortage of fuel for the available vehicles. The 2nd Shock Army’s movement of formations and units was poorly organised and immediately became known to German intelligence.

The command of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' therefore decided to take advantage of the favourable situation and prevent the Soviets from pulling back their troops from the 'sack', for which purpose they could cut the isthmus with counterattacks and then dismember and destroy the troops inside the salient.

The German offensive began on 22 May. General Kuno von Both’s I Corps (121st Division, 61st Division and 20th Division (mot.)) struck from the north. General Siegfried Hänicke’s XXXVIII Corps (126th Division, 58th Division, 2nd SS Brigade and 250th Division of Spanish volunteers) attacked from the south. An auxiliary strike from the west on the salient, in order to pin down the defending units and prevent their retirement, was made by inflicted by the 254th Division, 291st Division, SS-Polizei Division and 285th Sicherungsdivision.

On the Soviet side, the southern side of the isthmus was defended by Polkovnik Piotr K. Koshevoy’s extremely weakened 65th Division of 3,708 men on a 8.7-mile (14-km) front, while the northern side was a similarly weak formation in the form of Polkovnik D. S. Sorokin’s 372nd Division of 2,796 men on a 7.5-mile (12-km) front. The maximum width of the isthmus did not exceed 2.5 miles (4 km). These weak forces could not hold the onslaught of the greatly superior German forces, but at the price of almost total annihilation these two Soviet divisions fiercely resisted until the evening of 30 May, when the Germans finally cut the isthmus.

Khozin erred hugely in his decision not to reinforce the divisions defending the isthmus using troops which had already departed the salient and been redeployed to other sectors of the front. The 19th Guards Division, 46th Division, 92nd Division, 259th Division, 267th Division, 327th Division, 382th Division, 22nd Brigade, 23rd Brigade, 25th Brigade, 53rd Brigade, 57th Brigade and 59th Brigade, which were part of the 2nd Shock Army, were now all trapped in the in German encirclement. The 52nd Army and 59th Army were reassigned to command of the 2nd Shock Army. All these formations and units had major shortage of manpower and chronic shortages of ammunition. As of 1 June, there were more than 40,000 men, 300 pieces of artillery, 545 mortars, 28 anti-aircraft guns and 409 anti-tank rifles in the encirclement.

There was sufficient food, issued at much reduced rates, to last until 10 to 12 June. It was impossible to ensure the supply of the troops by air: during the period from 2 to 29 June, only 279 air sorties were made to the encircled troops, and in these they dropped small arms ammunition, grenades, artillery shells, mortar bomb and food. It was totally insufficient.

The task of advancing toward the 2nd Shock Army and of breaking through the encirclement was assigned to Korovnikov’s 59th Army and Yakovlev’s 52nd Army, and in the encirclement on 27 May 27 and 1 June 1, all units from the other armies were reassigned to Vlasov’s command.

By the evening of 31 May, the Soviet command had tried to restore communication with the encircled troops using the combined detachments of the 59th Army (372nd Division, 24th Brigade, one regiment of the 191st Division and 7th Tank Brigade). But this hastily prepared attack was defeated by the Germans, who had naturally foreseen this and similar attempts and were therefore ready to destroy them. First of all, they concentrated great artillery strength in the isthmus region, and this played a decisive role in the forthcoming fighting, and secondly used their air power to dominate the the battlefield.

On 3 June, a weak attack by the 57th Brigade and 166th Separate Tank Battalion, the latter comprising a mere nine T-60 light tanks, failed with major losses and not the slightest success. One of the reasons for this was the defection to the Germans of a headquarters officer of the 2nd Shock Army, who revealed the details of the operation to break out of the encirclement.

On 5 June, an offensive was scheduled in which the 59th Army and 2nd Shock Army were to meet each other. The 2nd Shock Army created a shock force of two infantry divisions and four infantry brigades to effect a breakthrough. The concentration if this force was perceived by the Germans, who unleashed a lengthy barrage of artillery shells and bombing on it. The 46th Division, concentrated for an attack outside the encirclement, was also bombed, and during the attack, the 165th Division came under heavy fire, in two days losing more than 70% of its men. The attack was thus thwarted, and the Soviets suffered still more heavy losses.

These failures resulted on 8 June in the dismissal of Khozin and commander of the Leningrad Front and the appointment of General Leytenant Leonid A. Govorov as the new commander. On the same day, the Volkhov Front was re-established, and General Kyrill A. Meretskov was appointed its commander on the following day. By 10 June, Meretskov ordered a new offensive to save the 2nd Shock Army. In this the 59th Army committed four infantry divisions, two infantry brigades, one infantry regiment, the 7th Tank Brigade and four artillery regiments. Again, the Germans defeated this effort.

As of 21 June, the number of Soviet soldiers in the encirclement was 23,401 men, 242 pieces of artillery, 297 mortars and seven tanks. There were also as many as 5,000 civilians who had abandoned their homes when the Soviet troops retreated and left with them.

In the days that followed, the battle in the isthmus zone continued with unprecedented ferocity. As part of the 59th Army, on 18/19 June the 29th Tank Brigade and the dismounted 25th Cavalry Division were brought into the fray, and at 17.00 on 19 June the tank force managed to break through to the eastern bank of the Polist river and link with units of the 2nd Shock Army’s 46th Division. By 22 June, joint actions by the 59th Army and 2nd Shock Army had expanded the width of the corridor to between 330 and 440 yards (300 and 400 m), and this made it possible to evacuate more than 2,000 wounded men. Then Meretskov repeated Khozin’s mistake and did not reinforce the flanks of the corridor.

At the break of day on 23 June, a massive German air attack was followed by a powerful land attack which once again closed the encirclement round the 2nd Shock Army. By this date, the elements of the 2nd Shock Army covering the withdrawal, which had displayed extraordinary courage in the most difficult conditions and had managed to hold back the German onslaught on the western side of the encirclement, withdrew to the isthmus region. On that day, the area occupied by the 2nd Shock Army was reduced to some small an area that every part of it was subjected to German artillery.

It was impossible to ignore the fact that the army could no longer hold out. During the night of 24/25 June, Vlasov ordered a decisive breakthrough across the Polist river to Myasny Bor. Two divisions remained to cover the rear of the breakthrough forces, and the reinforced remnants of two infantry divisions and fiver infantry brigades attacked the Myasny Bor area. There was no artillery preparation before the attack as the guns no longer had ammunition. The bulk of the 2nd Shock Army’s equipment was destroyed, and to support the breakthrough, the artillery of the 52nd Army and 59th Army was used.

At 23.00 on 24 June, the 2nd Shock Army began its attempt to break out of the encirclement. The undertaking was organised unsatisfactorily, however, and the Germans learned of the Soviet undertaking’s imminent nature from massive explosions of equipment and fires inside the pocket. A hurricane fire from all types of weapons was directed at the forces attempting the break-out, and the breakthrough area was turned into a moonscape of of craters from shells and mines, and all of the area’s buildings and trees were demolished by fire. While suffering huge loss, some of the Soviet forces were able to break through after moving in separate groups. Moreover, the poor co-ordination of the breakthrough plan meant that the artillery of the 52nd Army and 59th Army fired not only on the German positions, but also at their own forces as they attempted to break through out of the encirclement. During the night, the corridor was breached on several occasions and again removed from the tactical equation.

This there remained in the encirclement a large number of Soviet troops without any effective leadership or plan. On 25 June, Vlasov ordered every man to attempt to save himself by any means he could, and himself with a party of headquarters staff moved into the forest. On 26 June, the Germans split the remnants of the 2nd Shock Army into two parts and began their systematic destruction. Separate groups of Soviet troops continued to resist, or attempt to break through or seek to manage a covert crossing the front line in different directions. As was often the case in such situations, there were German war crimes: captured communists and commissars were summarily executed, seriously wounded men were killed on the spot, hospitals with wounded and medical personnel were destroyed, and all prisoners were cruelled treated.

On the outer ring of the encirclement, Meretskov launched attacks until 27 June, but on the following day the last pockets of Soviet resistance in the encirclement were eliminated by the Germans. Small groups and individual soldiers of the 2nd Shock Army managed to cross the front line to their own side until September.

On 11 July, Vlasov was captured by the Germans in the village of Tukhovezhi, and by that time no one from the army headquarters or the fighting formations remained with him. Later, Vlasov now became a collaborator and head of anti-communist the Russian Liberation Army. At the end of the war, Vlasov was seized, convicted of treason and hanged in 1946.

By 29 June, 9,462 Soviet troops had managed to escape the German encirclement. This total included 5,494 wounded and sick men; and by 10 July, another 146 men had escaped. According to a later report by the Volkhov Front to the NKVD’s deputy commissar, Commissar of State Security Grade 3 Viktor S. Abakumov, the 2nd Shock Army on 1 June had under command in the area beyond the Volkhov river 40,157 men, of whom 13,018 escaped, leaving the remaining 27,139 men to an unknown fate.

According to German reports, during the battles with the encircled 2nd Shock Army, the German forces took 32,759 prisoners, 649 pieces of artillery, 171 tanks and other weapons, and a mass of military and auxiliary equipment. Among the prisoners were General Major Ivan M. Antiufeyev, the commander of the 327th Division, General Major Mikhail A. Beleshev, the commander of the 2nd Shock Army’s air element, Polkovnik F. M. Zhiltsov, the commander of the 92nd Division, Major I. Evstifeyev, the commander of the 57th Brigade, and Polkovnik P. G. Sheludki, the commander of the 25th Brigade. Divisional Commissioner I. V. Zuyev, a member of the army’s military council, was attempting to reach the front line when he was betrayed by a traitor, and was killed. The army’s chief-of-staff, Polkovnik P. S. Vinogradov, was killed. General Major Piotr F. Alferyev, deputy commander of the army, was missing.

The total losses of the Volkhov Front’s 2nd Shock Army and 59th Army for the entire period of the defensive battle between 13 May and 10 July were 94,751 men, of whom 54,774 were irrecoverable losses and 39,977 wounded or taken ill.

The German losses are not known with any precision, but according to the clearly overestimated assessment of the Volkhov Front, amounted to at least 75,000 killed and wounded, about 110 tanks and up to 40 aircraft.