First Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive Operation

1st Battle of Rzhev

This was a Soviet operation by General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front and General Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front designed to liberate Rzhev and Sychevka from Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ (30 July/23 August 1942).

This Soviet offensive in the summer of 1942 is otherwise known as the Battle of Rzhev and one of a series of battles which lasted 15 months in the central sector of the Eastern Front. Though the Soviets officially deemed the ‘First Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive Operation’ to have ended on 23 August, the fighting in fact continued at a high degree of intensity into September and did not finally halt until the beginning of October.

Rzhev lies 140 miles (225 km) to the west of Moscow, and was captured by the Germans on 14 September 1941 during the ‘Taifun’ (i) offensive toward Moscow. When the Soviet ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ and ‘Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation’ of December 1941 to April 1942 drove back the Germans, the latter made Rzhev a cornerstone of their defensive arrangement. By the summer of 1942 the city stood at the apogee of an eccentric German salient pointing toward Moscow. In July and August 1942, Iosif Stalin allocated to Zhukov and Konev, two of his ablest commanders, the task of undertaking an offensive to recapture Rzhev and drive Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ from Moscow. The main weight of the Soviet offensive was to fall on one of their primary opponents of the campaign of the winter of 1941/42, Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army, which held most of the Rzhev salient.

The two-month ‘First Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Offensive Operation’ ultimately cost the Soviets immense losses for little advantage, and the battle came to be known as the ‘Rzhev meat grinder’. When the offensive ended, the strategic balance in the central sector of the Eastern Front remained essentially unchanged, though the Germans too had suffered great losses. Moreover, while their defence had proved tactically successful, the Germans had achieved nothing greater than the maintenance of the status quo. Although the ‘First Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Offensive Operation’ failed, Zhukov was nonetheless given another chance to crush the German hold on the Rzhev salient soon this.

It was the later stages of the Battle of Moscow which had created the Rzhev salient. The Soviet counter-offensive had driven the German forces from the outskirts of Moscow back more than 100 miles (160 km), and had penetrated the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in many places. A strategic crossroads and vital railway junction straddling the upper reaches of the Volga river, Rzhev became the northern bastion of the left wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. It was the only sizeable town in the area, and gave the 9th Army something on which to base its defence in what otherwise seemed a large wilderness of forest and swamp. The salient’s existence was threatened at the very moment of its creation, when General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 39th Army and General Major Vasili I. Shvetsov’s 29th Army of the Kalinin Front opened a gap in the area just to the west of Rzhev and drove to the south into the rear of the German formation. Just managing to keep the advancing Soviet armies away from the vital railway link into Rzhev, the 9th Army, now commanded by Generaloberst Walter Model, managed to close the gap, in the process cutting the Soviet lines of supply and reducing the Soviet forces’ ability to deal a crippling blow to the whole of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. The Soviet counter-offensive had exhausted itself and the Germans quickly recovered strength sufficient for the launch of several operations to clear up their rear areas. In July 1942, ‘Seydlitz’ (iii) trapped and destroyed the two Soviet armies in slightly more than one week, making Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ again an almost credible threat to Moscow.

During the summer, the weather in the Rzhev area is warm, with long days and sunlight string enough to dry the area to after the spring thaw. Rzhev is surrounded by flat, rolling country interspersed with dense forest and patches of swamp, and the area round the town was mostly of open farmland with a dense network of small villages, the latter often taking the form of ribbons of houses along roads. These were themselves mostly mud tracks which became almost impassible in the spring and autumn rains, but normally dried in the summer. The rainfall is generally moderate, but the summer months of 1942 were characterised by unusually heavy and persistent rain.

Of the Soviet objectives, Rzhev was by far the largest as it had a population of more than 50,000 persons. Of the area’s other settlements, Zubtsov possessed fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, Pogoreloye Gorodishche had only 2,500 inhabitants, and Karmanovo, which was to see much savage fighting, was simply a large village.

Another major feature of the area is the Volga river. This is the longest waterway in Europe, and in both the central sector of the Eastern Front at Rzhev and the southern sector at Stalingrad, the German and Soviet forces fought extensive battles for control of its banks. Both Rzhev and Zubtsov straddled the river, which is some 425 ft (130 m) wide in this area. Also important for both offensive and defensive purpose were tributaries of the Volga river such as the Derzha, Gzhat, Osuga and Vazuza rivers, which flow from south to north across the line of the Soviet attack. These were normally docile streams fordable at this time of year, but had become swollen by the July rains and had risen to the depth of more than 6 ft 6 in (2 m). By August they constituted a major impediment to the attack of Zhukov’s West Front, whose forces had to cross the Derzha river on their start line and then a further one or, in some places, two flooded rivers to reach their final objectives.

From the German point of view, the most aspect of the area was the railway line linking Vyaz’ma and Rzhev, whose loss would sever the line of supply to Rzhev and render untenable the defence of the whole salient. From the Soviet point of view was the railway line linking Zubtov and Shakhovskaya, which extended in the direction of their intended advance and could thus be used to move supplies forward as the front moved.

The 9th Army’s strength varied during the summer as Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ shifted formations and Units between its armies as required for different operations and varying defensive needs. Early in July the 9th Army was reinforced so that it could undertake ‘Seydlitz’ (iii), reaching a total of 22 divisions, including four Panzer divisions, in five corps. After the completion of this operation, the army group shifted to the south many of its divisions capable of offensive operations for its next planned attack, this time against the Sukhinichi bulge, leaving the 9th Army at the end of July with 16 infantry divisions, organised in General Bruno Bieler’s VI Corps (6th Division, 87th Division, 206th Division, 251st Division, 256th Division and 328th Division), General Carl Hilpert’s XXIII Corps (86th Division, 110th Division, 129th Division, 197th Division, 246th Division and 253rd Division) and General Hans Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps (14th Division [mot.], 36th Division [mot.], 161st Division and 342nd Division). Of these divisions, 14 were in the line, the 6th Division in reserve and the 328th Division in transit. Nearly all of the divisions in Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been involved in heavy fighting during the winter, and this had eroded their overall combat strength. According to rehabilitation reports, the necessity to hold the current front and the extended intensity of the defensive combat meant that the divisions of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ could only partially rebuilt toward effective capability, and then only with limited mobility and reduced combat efficiency. The greatest deficiency was the shortage of transport, of both the motorised and animal types.

Following the collapse of its front to the east of Rzhev, the 9th Army received rapid reinforcement, but the continued strain of persistent Soviet attacks led the 9th Army to demand further support. By the end of September, the army had 25 divisions, half the army group’s strength, under command, the total including 20 infantry and four Panzer divisions, as well as Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Infanteriedivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ (mot.) in five corps. The original three corps, now with 12 divisions including the 2nd Panzerdivision in the XLVI Corps, had been supplemented by General General Walter Weiss’s XXVII Corps (14th Division [mot.], 72nd Division, 95th Division, 129th Division and 256th Division) and General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s XXXIX Panzerkorps (1st Panzerdivision, 5th Panzerdivision, 78th Division and 102nd Division).

On the other side of the front line, Iosif Stalin and the Stavka had sought and indeed continued to seek the development strong concentrations of forces capable of attacks across narrow sectors with powerful assistance from the supporting arms. The Kalinin Front, for example, had been instructed to build a shock group of no less than 11 infantry divisions and three infantry brigades, eight tank brigades and 10 artillery regiments.In order to achieve these high concentrations the Stavka transferred five infantry divisions, six tank brigades, two regiments of 152-mm (5.98-in) guns, four regiments of anti-tank artillery, and 10 battalions and 10 battalions of multiple rocket-launchers from its reserve to the Kalinin Front.

Support for the forthcoming operation was to be provided on a massive scale. In an attempt to wrest air superiority from the Germans, General Leytenant Aleksandr A. Novikov, commander of the Soviet air forces, was ordered to concentrate 1,100 aircraft, including 600 fighters, in the sectors across which the offensive was to be unleashed. The Soviets also attempted to create the facility to smash through the German front with the ‘artillery attack’ to maximise firepower through the use of massed guns, howitzers, mortars and multiple rocket-launchers. General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 30th Army, for example, concentrated 1,323 pieces of artillery and mortars along its 6.2-mile (10-km) sector. The ratio of the infantry advantage over the Germans in the attack sectors was calculated as between 3/1 and 4/1 in the sectors of the 30th, 31st and 33rd Armies, and about 7/1 in the sectors of the 20th and 5th Armies, while the corresponding artillery advantage was an overwhelming 6/1 to 7/11 in all armies except in the sector of the 30th Army, in which it was calculated at 2/1.

Most of the Soviet armoured strength was still vested in separate tank brigades for direct support of the infantry. Lelyushenko’s 30th Army started the offensive with 490 tanks in nine tank brigades, General Major Vitali S. Polenov’s 31st Army with 274 tanks in six tank brigades, and General Leytenant Maks A. Reiter’s 20th Army with 255 tanks in five tank brigades. Behind these were newly created tank corps, the VI Tank Corps and VIII Tank Corps behind the 20th Army, and the V Tank Corps behind the 33rd Army. The tank corps had been created between March and May 1942 on the basis of existing tank brigades, personnel fresh from training establishments and the best tanks available, but lacked artillery and support units, and were at first short of trucks. Though formed round cadres of veterans from the winter fighting, these formations had supported the infantry armies and not yet used to the concept of independent action, were unable to fulfil the exploitation role envisaged for them. Their commanders were experienced, but many of them were cautious of German armoured formations and units as a result of their experiences since June 1941, and had a tendency to overestimate German strength and capability.

The order of battle of the Kalinin Front and West Front was therefore formidable 1.

The fact that the front line had not moved in this sector since January had given the Soviet planners and their intelligence teams ample time to pinpoint the German forward defences and scheme their destruction or suppression. The situation behind the front line was less well known to the Soviet planners, and Model had also constructed a second defence line outside Rzhev and a final defensive belt on the town’s outskirts.

The terrain over which the forthcoming campaign was to be fought was often low-lying and swampy, and the villages had been built on the higher and therefore drier areas. The Germans had developed these villages into strongpoints linked by field works and trench lines: the Soviets characterised them as possessing solid minefields, networks of bunkers and barbed wire laid out in dense lines. Moreover, the unusual wetness of the summer of 1942, with downpours continuing late into July and August, greatly enhanced the defences, hindering the deployment of tanks and artillery by the Soviets who, as a result, could not bring to bear their superiority in these areas. The distance to Rzhev was 7.5 miles (12 km), which the attacking forces hoped to cover in a rapid advance allowing them to reach the town in two days and take it by the third.

To accomplish this mission, Lelyushenko’s 30th Army had received massive reinforcements, and had four divisions aligned along narrow attack sectors aimed directly at Rzhev, and a further two infantry divisions on the flanks to prise apart the shoulders of the German defence. Behind these Lelyushenko had two more divisions ready to reinforce the main attack, and another behind the flank. The six divisions in the line were to strike at the junction of two German formations, Generalleutnant Bogislav von Studnitz’s 87th Division and Generalleutnant Paul Dannhauser’s 256th Division, and pierce the defence along a 6.25-mile (10-km) front. Each of the attacking divisions was reinforced by a tank brigade and backed by an impressive array of army- and front-level artillery, as well as multiple rocket-launchers. In all, the 30th Army deployed for its assault 390 tanks, 1,323 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 80 multiple rocket-launchers.

At 06.30 on 30 July, the artillery of the 30th Army opened fire. General Major Nikolai M. Khlebnikov, the Kalinin Front’s artillery commander, later wrote that the ‘power of fire’s impact was so great that the German artillery, after several faltering attempts to answer fire with fire, stopped. The first two positions of the main strip [German] defences had been destroyed, and troops occupying them almost completely destroyed.’

After a 90-minute bombardment, at 08.00 the Soviet infantry divisions attacked and, despite the sudden onset of heavy rain and the infantry sometimes having to wade through knee-deep water, the attack rapidly acquired momentum. The 16th Guards Division in the centre overran the forward trenches within an hour, and the fortified villages of the second position soon after that, and by 13.00 was deep into the German rear and nearing the village of Polunino, mid-way to Rzhev. To the 16th Guards Division’s right, the 379th and 111th Divisions also penetrated the German front and took four batteries of the 87th Division’s artillery.

The 30th Army had thus broken through on a front 5.6 miles (9 km) wide to a depth of 4.33 miles (7 km), but by a time late in the day its spearheads were brought to a halt by German counterattacks, and there were appearing clear signs of the difficulties ahead: in the breakthrough sectors the supporting armour had started to lag, many of the tanks having become stuck in mid; and the infantry had now come up against prepared German lines, forcing them to attempt to dig in although their positions rapidly filled with water.

Dannhauser, commander of the 256th Division, now committed his pioneer and reconnaissance battalions in a counterattack from Polunino, and used his final reserve unit, the division’s field replacement battalion, in an effort to seal his division’s open flank. Of the division’s initial front line, anchored by a strongpoint close to the boundary between the 256th Division and 87th Division, almost all was still in German hands despite the pressure of the Soviet flanking attack. With some reluctance, the 9th Army had released the motorcycle troops of the 54th Kradschützenbataillon, the only reserve of Generalleutnant Heinrich Wosch’s 14th Division (mot.), to plug the gap in the 256th Division’s left flank.

On the morning of 31 July the Soviets expected to be able to resume their advance, but were now experiencing difficulty in co-ordinating their various arms. So many tanks broke down that the numbers available for the support role were little more than a handful, which left them vulnerable to the German anti-tank defences. Without massed artillery to flatten them, the German positions remained intact. Moreover, the Germans had succeeded in plugging the holes in their line with divisional reserves and were now conducting a desperate defence and they hung on until the advent of reinforcement. By the evening, battalions of the 18th Regiment and 58th Regiment of Generalleutnant Horst Grossmann’s 6th Division had started to reach the all-important central sector around Polunino and a small hill to the west of this village. For the Soviets, the day was a catalogue of heavy losses and nothing else. The 16th Guards Division began a series of attacks on Polunino, which lasted right through the day, and suffered more than 1,000 casualties.

The frontal attacks of 31 July set the pattern for the days which followed: Soviet commanders just did not have the latitude, or perhaps the imagination, to develop any flexibility in their tactical thinking and generally adhered rigidly to the letter of their orders, even if this meant head-on attacks across the same ground for days or even weeks at a time.

By 3 August the Germans were already counting the number and rate of the Soviet losses almost with incredulity, and wondering how much longer the Soviet formations could maintain the offensive. The Germans estimated correctly that many Soviet divisions had suffered several thousands of casualties, but also noted signs of new men arriving to help refill the depleted ranks. Three days later the Stavka demanded that the 30th Army conceive and implement solutions to a variety of major tactical deficiencies, including poor leadership, failure to mass tanks, and inadequate supply of ammunition for the artillery. After the success of the first day, indeed, seven days of attacks had achieved nothing and the 30th Army called a temporary halt to its operation in order to regroup and reorganise.

On 10 August the Soviets attacked the flank of the 256th Division with revived intensity. The 220th Division, which had been battering away at the 256th Division’s stubborn defence since 30 July, and in the process lost 877 men killed and 3,083 wounded in the first four days alone, at last succeeded in capturing the key village of Belkovo on 12 August, the divisional commander recording that the fields were full of the bodies of the dead. The day before, Konev had suggested that the supporting tank brigade be pulled out of the line and readied to lead the next infantry attack, but the armour in question, as was the case in many other sectors, had become caught in the mud and only four tanks could be extracted.

In other sectors, though, new infantry formations had been brought up. The ‘Emma’ strongpoint constituting the vital cornerstone of the defence finally fell to the Soviets after two weeks of essentially continuous assaults, and this allowed tanks of the 255th Tank Brigade to start roaming unhindered to its rear. Some German defenders noted that the Soviet tank crews were now using new tactics: they remained out of the range of the German anti-tank guns, but systematically shot up every German position, which demoralised the infantry and caused what can be termed ‘tank panic’.

The continued Soviet tank attacks now threatened to swamping the German defence, but the Soviet infantry tactics remained crude, with the men packed densely together in direct fontal assaults. Replacements were often committed straight into the fighting as they detrained, and were given no orientation or the time needed to get to know their officers or their new units.

Returning from convalescent leave, Model quickly appreciated that the German defence had been bent but not broken, issued a ‘not a step back’ order and instructed that all available reserves, including extemporised Kampfgruppen of troops returning on leave trains, be channelled to the front. At the same time, Model demanded additional reinforcements from higher commands.

The Soviet losses were huge, but the German defenders were also under severe strain. The need to meet and throw back constant attacks exhausted the troops, and all Soviet break-ins had to be driven back by local counterattacks without delay. The 481th Regiment had by this time been whittled away to just 120 effectives, most of then attached to the Kampfgruppe ‘Mummert’, which included units of four different divisions. The Panzerjäger anti-tank battalions were the key to the continued German defence the Soviet armour, but their guns could not be everywhere, so it was common for the infantry to use bundles of grenades or mines to deal with tanks overrunning their trenches.

The gains of the Soviet flanking attacks were limited, but did manage to open a new opportunity in the area to the east of Pultuno, which the 2nd Guards Division was able to exploit. Overrunning a sector of forested and swampy terrain, the division in three days fought its way to the airfield on the outskirts of Rzhev. German counterattacks then stabilised the front, and Model allowed the 256th Division and 14th Division (mot.), whose positions now bulged into Soviet line, to withdraw across the Volga river’s western bank. Now within easy artillery range, the Soviets began to drop fire on Rzhev: in combination with air attacks, this reduced Rzhev to little more than smouldering ruins.

By the end of August, the stubborn German defence of Pultuno had come to an end as the Germans finally withdrew under heavy pressure to take up new defensive positions on the Rzhev perimeter.

The West Front’s part of the offensive, planned for a 2 August start, was delayed by two days as a result of the weather conditions. Zhukov schemed to achieve a penetration of the German line at Pogoreloye Gorodishche, and then advance toward the Vazuza river, destroying the defending forces of the XLVI Panzerkorps, known as the Gruppe ‘Zubtsov Karmanovo’, in the process. The front’s mobile group, comprising VI and VIII Tanks Corps and the II Guards Cavalry Corps, was then to be committed in the direction of Sychevka with the 20th Army while the 31st Army co-operated with the Kalinin Front’s forces in the capture of Rzhev.

Early in the morning of 4 August , Zhukov unleashed the West Front’s attack against the Rzhev salient, beginning with a massive preliminary bombardment. The Soviet concentration of artillery and mortars along a narrow front rained fire down onto the German positions for nearly 90 minutes, and this was followed by a pause in which Soviet warplanes laid smoke along the front line. But the lull was a ruse to lure the German defenders back into their forward trenches to suffer the final stage of the artillery bombardment, culminating with a deluge of rocket-launcher missiles. The weight of the artillery bombardment in many places destroyed the German wire entanglements, and smashed both bunkers and fixed positions. The attack battalions of the Soviet infantry divisions then used rafts, boats and ferries to cross the swollen Derzha river and took the German forward positions within 60 minutes and with little in the way of losses.

A battalion stronghold of the 364th Regiment of Recke’s 161st Division and one of the 20th Army’s main initial objectives, Pogoreloye Gorodishche was quickly outflanked and then cut off by Soviet infantry. Soon after 12.00, aided by another sharp artillery bombardment and supported by tanks, Soviet infantry stormed into the position from three directions and overwhelmed the garrison, capturing 87 officers and men and leaving many more dead.

To the south of Pogoreloye Gorodishche, the 331st Division quickly overran the German forward trench line and pressed forward swiftly to take Gubinka, a village in the Germans’ second line. Until that morning it had been the location of the 336th Regiment’s headquarters, which the Soviets found abandoned and strewn with staff documents and discarded equipment. All along its front, the 161st Division had been assaulted in overwhelming force, its defences had crumbled and given way, and its remaining men were in full retreat. The 20th Army and 31st Army had ripped a gap in the German front, and by evening their infantry divisions and supporting tank brigades had advanced 5 miles (8 km) into the German lines.

The German command quickly appreciated the danger presented by the new Soviet offensive, and Adolf Hitler immediately released five divisions 2 which had hitherto been held in reserve for ‘Wirbelwind’, the planned attack on the Sukhinichi bulge. von Vietinghoff-Scheel, the acting commander of the 9th Army, had already committed what reserves he had against the Kalinin Front’s offensive attack and had virtually nothing available but the personnel of a few army training establishments, teenaged helpers and a few Flak guns with which to attempt to stop the new Soviet advance, and positioned these at strategic points. These could not delay the Soviet armour for long, however, and the German defences were thus wide open until the reinforcement divisions could arrive.

On the morning of 5 August, in what General Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, described as a very wide and deep penetration, the Soviet infantry divisions pushed deep into the German positions against negligible opposition. As the Soviet commanders began to commit their armoured units, however, problems started to emerge. The crossing points along the Derzha river were interdicted by German air attacks and further complicated by the combination high water and a strong flow, so the tank corps were taking hours to pass even small parts of their strength across the river. The local road network, its surfaces saturated by the incessant rains, rapidly deteriorated and became clogged with traffic of all sorts, some of which became trapped in the mud and caused large traffic jams. Resupply carts, artillery and tanks were stuck in these traffic jams, and their units and formations thus became disorganised and disorientated. The 11th Tank Brigade, part of the 20th Army’s mobile group, became lost and finally appeared some days later fighting in the wrong sector. The accompanying motorcyclists, who were attached to the army mobile group, were unable to move their machines forward and had to abandon them, and the men therefore advanced as ordinary foot-slogging infantry.

Even so, the 20th Army’s infantry advanced another 18.5 miles (30 km) and by the fall of night had been joined by the leading elements of the VI Tank Corps and VIII Tank Corps. These forces were now approaching the Vazuza and Gzhat rivers, but as the night of 5 August approached began to make contact with fresh German units, mainly of the 5th Panzerdivision, which was the element of the reinforcement closest to the breakthrough area and had been rushed to the crucial sector to the north of Sychevka. Here its forward elements crossed the Vazuza river at Khlepen and fanned out to occupy defensive positions.

At the southern corner of the breakthrough, the stubborn defence offered by Generalmajor Hans Gollnick’s 36th Division (mot.) had been the only bright spot for the 9th Army on 4 August, but the opposing VIII Guards Corps had quickly infiltrated forces around the hard-pressed division’s northern flank and into its rear. On the following day, the Soviets broke through from the north with tanks and infantry, swept around and over a battery of divisional artillery, 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers, and reached the hamlet of Dolgie Nivy, barely 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from the 36th Division (mot.)’s headquarters in Voskresenskoye. Gollnick saw the houses of the hamlet disappear in flames and started to reorganise his defences to cope with what was to be just the first of a series of crises for the division.

Infantry of the 20th Army was pushing past Gollnick’s rear towards Karmanovo, but were thwarted by the arrival of the 2nd Panzerdivision, which drove the Soviet troops back and sent tank and Panzergrenadier units to the aid of Gollnick’s division. Meanwhile, 6 August was a day of several crises for the 5th Panzerdivision: both its flanks were hanging in the air and it was attacked along the full length of its new front by infantry and tanks, some of which broke through to harass supply units and artillery positions. The division’s 14th Panzergrenadierregiment had deployed both its battalions in line, and these were hard hit: the 2/14th Panzergrenadierregiment was encircled and had to fight its way out, with a supporting tank company losing eight of its tanks as it fought off attacks on all sides by T-34 tanks. The day’s fighting cost the 5th Panzerdivision 285 casualties, but the division nonetheless limited the Soviet advance to just 2 miles (3.2 km).

Major Soviet forces were advancing, and by 8 August the 20th Army had introduced more than 600 tanks on its sector. As each side committed additional forces, the fighting’s intensity increased, but the Soviet momentum lessened and then ended. Mounted regiments of the II Guards Cavalry Corps reached the Gzhat river, exploiting the gap between the 5th Panzerdivision and 2nd Panzerdivision, and were able to ford the river and establish a bridgehead on its southern bank.The cavalry’s advance was then checked by the arrival of the 1st Panzerdivision, which attacked and drove Soviets back. Likewise, the VI Tank Corps reached and crossed the Vazuza rover, together with some infantry, but was then met with fierce counterattacks and air attacks, and these prevented any further Soviet advance.

The Soviet difficulties continued. The headquarters of the 20th Army discovered that its communications were inadequate and therefore had difficulty in the co-ordination of its many infantry units and in co-operating with the front’s mobile group. As a result of the continuing logistical problems, resupply was difficult: the VIII Tank Corps ran short of fuel and ammunition, and this severely hampered its operations, the 17th Tank Brigade found that it was receiving insufficient fuel to keep all of its tanks in action, and artillery had to be held back in favour of advancing combat units.

On the German side, to prevent a breakthrough von Vietinghoff-Scheel had to commit his infantry and armoured formations and units on a piecemeal basis as soon as they became available, but by 8 August he had managed to establish a firm cordon round the West Front’s whole penetration.

With a breakthrough towards Sychevka looking increasingly unlikely as German reinforcements began to arrive, Zhukov ordered the 20th Army to extract the VIII Tank Corps and realign it farther to the south so that it could co-operate with renewed attacks by the 5th Army. At this time there was also some improvement in the weather, which finally allowed the roads to dry and harden sufficiently for ammunition to be brought forward, and the Soviet logistical situation was further improved by the restoration of the railway line as far as Pogoreloye Gorodishche. The VIII Tank Corps was still fighting the 1st Panzerdivision and could extract only 49 of its tanks for the attack. Even so, on August 11 the corps, after a brisk artillery preparation, attacked and advanced 3.1 miles (5 km) to capture the village of Yelniya. The corps’ opponent in this new sector was the 2nd Panzerdivision, which came under very heavy attacks during the day. The division had just received a delivery of new PzKpfw IV battle tanks, and immediately committed these to combat.

The 5th Army had managed to make only a small dent in the German line on 8 August when its first attack had quickly been brought to a halt by the arrival of German reinforcements, now it rejoined the struggle to increase the pressure on Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps from the east. After this the 20th Army and 5th Army continued their attacks, pushing their way forward no more than 1.85 miles (30 km) each day and engaging in bitter fighting for every village. The Germans, the Soviets now appreciated, were continuing to develop their trench systems, which were backed by concealed mortar and anti-tank gun positions, and protected by minefields and booby-trapped obstacles. Finally, on 23 August, Karmanovo fell to the Soviets, but the 20th Army could then make no further progress against a shortened and strengthened German line, and had therefore gone over to the defensive by 8 September.

On 26 August, Zhukov was appointed deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet forces and transferred to the Stalingrad front, command of the West Front passing to Konev, whose place at the head of the Kalinin Front was allocated to General Polkovnik Maksim A. Purkayev. In order to maintain a unity of command arrangements, the Kalinin Front’s 30th Army and 29th Army were subordinated to the West Front. On taking over at the West Front, Konev saw that his troops were declining in numbers and ammunition was in short supply. Konev therefore demanded a pause to reorganise, restock ammunition and allow the repair of tanks and warplanes. With these tasks completed, Konev planned to launch the 31st Army and 29th Army from the south-east and the 30th Army once again from the north, and so close the Soviet encirclement of Rzhev.

After its initial breakthrough, the 31st Army had achieved a slow but steady advance against German infantry, pushing it back step by step and inflicting a steady drain on German resources, but itself taking considerable losses. By 23 August it had taken one of the main objectives of the offensive, the southern half of Zubtsov. It formations and units then reached the Vazuza river and established a shallow bridgehead on this river’s western bank. Konev now switched the VI Tank Corps from the 20th Army and put it back into the line just below Zubtsov to exploit the 31st Army’s bridgehead in an attack planned for 9 September after sufficient ammunition had been brought up. The VI Tank Corps assembled in the forests of the area, and at dawn on 9 September after a 30-minute artillery barrage attacked alongside the 31st Army’s infantry. Achieving immediate success, it swept through a much degraded battalion of the 11th Regiment (mot.) and seized two villages before pressing forward once again to take the village of Misheyevo, threatening a complete breakthrough. After some hesitation and much telephoning, Hitler was persuaded to release Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Infanteriedivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ (mot.) for a counterattack.

According to the two fronts involved, the Soviet armies had suffered 291,170 casualties in the fighting for Rzhev, though this figure does not include the losses incurred by the various independent corps and the air forces: the overall Soviet losses were therefore somewhat greater than 300,000, although some sources give higher figures. The attacking armies’ infantry divisions were now in dire need of major numbers of replacements to offset their attritional losses between the beginning of August and the first week of September. To maintain the offensive, Konev asked for 20,000 replacements for just two of the armies. By 10 September the Soviet armies had been decimated: combat and non-combat losses had reduced them to about half their nominal strength, with 184,265 men and 306 tanks.

The losses of the 9th Army by 17 August had reached some 20,000 men, and on 1 September von Kluge flew to Hitler’s headquarters to relay what Model had told him the day before: the 9th Army was on the verge of collapse. Its casualties now totalled 42,000, and were increasing at a rate of almost 2,000 per day. Hitler promised modest reinforcements, and added that ‘Someone must collapse. It will not be us!’

By the middle of September, each of the German infantry divisions in the thick of the fighting had suffered losses in the order of 4,000 men and, in the case of the hard-hit 161st Division, more than 6,000 men. Each of the Panzer divisions had lost between 1,500 to 2,000 men, together with most of the tanks with which they started the battle. In overall terms, the 9th Army had lost more than 53,000 men including more than 1,500 officers. Additionally, the 3rd Panzerarmee had lost something in the order of 10,000 men.

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The two fronts comprised Lelyushenko’s 30th Army (2nd and 16th Guards Divisions, 52nd 78th, 111th, 220th, 343rd and 379th Divisions, nine tank brigades including the 35th, 238th and 240th Tank Brigades in the army’s mobile group), Shvetsov’s 29th Army, Polenov’s 31st Army (20th Guards Division, 88th, 118th, 164th, 239th, 247th and 336 Divisions, 34th, 71st and 212nd Tank Brigades, and 92nd, 101st and 145th Tank Brigades in the army’s mobile group), Reiter’s 20th Army (82nd, 251st, 312nd, 331st, 354th and 415th Divisions, 40th Brigade, 17th and 20th Tank Brigades, and 11th, 188th and 213rd Tank Brigades in the army’s mobile group, as well as the VIII Guards Corps with the 26th Guards Division and the 129th, 148th, 150th and 153rd Brigades), General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 5th Army (3rd Guards Motorised Division, 42nd Guards Division, 19th and 28th Divisions, 28th, 35th and 49th Brigades, and 120th, 154th and 161st Tank Brigades), and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin’s 33rd Army (50th, 53rd, 110th, 113th, 160th and 222nd Divisions, 112th, 120th, 125th and 125th Brigades, 18th, 80th and 248th Tank Brigades, and the VII Guards Corps with the 5th and 30th Guards Divisions and 17th Division). The West Front also had under its command the V, VI and VIII Tank Corps and the II Guards Cavalry Corps.
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These formations were Generalleutnant Walter Krüger’s (from 8 August Oberst Oswin Grolig’s) 1st Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Hans-Karl Freiherr von Esebeck’s (from 10 August Oberst Vollrath Lübbe’s) 2nd Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Gustav Fehn’s 5th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Paul Völckers’s 78th Division and Generalleutnant Johannes Friessner’s 102nd Division.