This was the German break-out by General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps and parts of General Christian Hansen’s X Corps from the Demyansk pocket to meet the forces advancing to their relief in ‘Brückenschlag’ (14/21 April 1942).
The Battle of the Demyansk Pocket was the campaign which developed after Soviet forces had encircled and trapped the German formations around Demyansk, to the south of Leningrad. The most intensive part of the fighting was that from 8 February to 21 April 1942. A much smaller pocket was simultaneously surrounded round Kholm, about 60 miles (100 km) to the south-west.
Within the overall context of the Soviet 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation' (5 December 1941/7 January 1942) and other operations of the winter of 1941/42 which ended the Battle of Moscow, the ‘Toropets-Kholm Offensive Operation’ on 8 February had encircled the II Corps as well as part of the X Corps, both of these formations belonging to Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army of Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. 1 In overall terms there were thus some 90,000 German troops and another 10,000 auxiliaries trapped in the pocket under the overall command of von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt.
The Soviet encirclement began as the ‘Demyansk Offensive Operation’, the first phase being carried out between 7 January and 20 May 1942 on the initiative of General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin, commander of North-West Front. The operation was designed to cut the land link between the German formations in the area near Demyansk and the railway at Staraya Russa, which was the primary line of communication for the 16th Army. However, as a result of the difficulties of the terrain (forests and swamps) and weather (lying and falling snow) with the stubborn defence of the German formations, the Soviet advance was painfully slow.
On 8 January the Soviets launched their ‘Rzhev-Vyazma Strategic Offensive Operation’, which incorporated the North-West Front’s earlier planning for the ‘Toropets-Kholm Offensive Operation’ that between 9 January and 6 February constituted the southern pincer of the attack that, beginning the second phase of the northern pincer provided by the ‘Demyansk Offensive Operation’ (7 January to 20 May) completed the encirclement of the II Corps and parts of the X Corps.
Given its objective of encircling the whole of the northern flank of the 16th Army, the Soviets were determined to keep the North-West Front moving even after this initial success. The first thrust was made in the north by General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army past the southern edge of Lake Ilmen toward Staraya Russa, and General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army and the I and II Guards Rifle Corps (released specifically for this for the operation from Stavka reserve) between the 11th Army and 34th Army. A second thrust, in the area to the south of the II Corps and between Lakes Seliger and Volga, was executed on 12 February by General Major Maksim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s (from March General Major Vladimir V. Kurasov’s 4th Shock Army of General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front, and this thrust was aided, so the Soviets hoped, by the parachute delivery of two airborne brigades to support the advance of General Leytenant Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 34th Army. The airborne brigades suffered from a scattered landing, however, and were largely annihilated without benefiting the 34th Army in any way. The Soviet encirclement of the Demyansk pocket was completed as General Leytenant Aleksandr S. Ksenofontov’s mobile group of the 3rd Shock Army swept past Molovichi on the south-western corner of the pocket and advanced north-west to meet elements of the I and I Guards Corps, advancing from the north past the northern-west corner of the pocket, at Zaluch’ye. The front then settled as the Soviet offensive ran out of momentum.
After being assured by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring that his Luftwaffe forces could supply the formations in the pocket with their minimum daily supply requirement of 270 tons, Adolf Hitler ordered that the encircled divisions should hold their positions until relieved. The pocket contained two fairly good airfields at Demyansk and Peski, and the weather was adequate. While there was still much snow on the ground, the air resupply operation was thus very successful in overall terms. However, the operation needed all of the Luftwaffe’s transport capability on the Eastern Front, as well as much of its bomber force.
Increasingly desperate to destroy the pocket, which now lay well to the rear of its northern and south thrusts to Belebelka and Poddorye (I and II Guards Corps) and to Kholm (3rd Shock Army) respectively during the winter and spring, the North-West Front launched several attacks on the ‘Ramushevo corridor’ that constituted the tenuous land link between Demyansk and Staraya Russa through the village of Ramushevo. These attacks were all repulsed. In total, therefore, the Soviet effort to destroy the Demyansk pocket occupied five Soviet armies (18 divisions and three brigades) over a period of four months.
On 21 March the German relief forces of ‘Brückenschlag’ opened a narrow corridor into the Demyansk pocket, and during the following weeks steadily widened this corridor. The trapped formations were finally able to break out of the siege on 21 April, but nonetheless the battle had taken a heavy toll. Out of some 100,000 men who had been trapped, the Germans had lost 3,335 killed or captured, and more than 10,000 wounded. In strategic terms, though, the German retention of the Demyansk pocket had denied the Soviet high command the services of many formations for use elsewhere at a critical moment.
Between their creation early in February to their complete evacuation during May, the two German pockets had received 58,000 tons of supplies through ground and air delivery, and at the same time 31,000 fresh troops had arrived to bolster the defences and 36,000 wounded had been evacuated. The cost was notably high, though, as the Luftwaffe had lost 265 aircraft (including 106 Junkers Ju 52/3m, 17 Heinkel He 111 and two Junkers Ju 86 twin-engined machines) despite the fact that the Soviet air forces had been unable to secure air superiority over the area. The Soviet loss in manpower are much disputed, and their air losses were 408 aircraft, including 243 fighters.
By the end of May, the Stavka had reconsidered the overall situation on the Eastern Front and decided to shift the bulk of its available strength to the Moscow sector, where a new German offensive was expected in the summer. It is worth noting that even though German formations were no longer trapped at Demyansk, fighting in the area continued until February 1943, and the Soviets finally liberated Demyansk only on 1 March 1943 as the Germans pulled back.
The most unfortunate aspect, for the Germans, of the pocket’s successful defence was that it persuaded Göring that the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front had a support capability far greater than in fact it possessed, and this led Göring to propose a similar ‘solution’ to supply Generaloberst (later Generalfeldmarschall) Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army after it had become trapped in Stalingrad. In theory the outcome of the ‘Stalingrad pocket’ could have been equally useful to the German cause: with the 6th Army trapped but still in fighting condition, the Soviets would have had to use much of their strength to keep it contained. This would have made it possible for other German forces to be grouped for a counter-offensive in relative safety.
However, the scale of the two operations differed greatly: in the Demyansk pocket was the equivalent of one large corps (some six divisions), whereas at Stalingrad there was an entire, indeed reinforced, army. Whereas the forces trapped in the Demyansk and Kholm pockets received some 260 tons of supplies per day, the 6th Army required an estimated minimum of 490 tons per day delivered over a greater range by an air transport force that had already suffered heavy losses, against a more capable and also more determined Soviet air force, working in a location much farther removed from an adequate logistical infrastructure. The Luftwaffe simply did not have the resources needed to keep the 6th Army supplied at Stalingrad, and this was one of the primary reasons for the strategic defeat which the Germans suffered at Stalingrad.