Gomel-Rechitsa Offensive Operation

The 'Gomel-Rechitsa Offensive Operation (2nd Stage)' was the Soviet ninth of the 15 sub-operations together constituting the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' (10/30 November 1943).

The other 14 sub-operations were the 'Gomel-Rechitsa Offensive Operation (1st Stage)' (30 September/30 October), the 'Nevel Offensive Operation' (3/12 October), the '1st Orsha Offensive Operation' (3/26 October), the 'Vitebsk (Riga) Offensive Operation' (18/30 October), the 'Idritsa Offensive Operation' (18/30 October), the 'Pskov Offensive Operation' (18/30 October), the 'Polotsk-Vitebsk Offensive Operation' (2/21 November), the 'Pustoshka-Idritsa Offensive Operation' (2/21 November), the '2nd Orsha Offensive Operation' (14 November/5 December), the 'Novy Bykhov-Propoysk Offensive Operation' (22/30 November), the 'Kalinkovichi Offensive Operation' (8/11 December), the 'Gorodok Offensive Operation' (13/31 December), the 'Idritsa-Opochka Offensive Operation' (16 December 1943/15 January 1944) and the 'Kalinkovichi Defensive Operation' (20/27 December 1943).

In the 'Gomel-Rechitsa Offensive Operation (2nd Stage)', Soviet forces broke through the German defences along a 60-mile (100-km) sector of the Eastern Front and penetrated to a depth of about 80 miles (130 km) to the west, threatening the southern flank of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and degrading its connections with Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. It was during the morning of 26 November, following severe overnight fighting, that Soviet forces liberated Gomel.

After its successes in the campaign which resulted from the Germans' 'Zitadelle' offensive round the Kursk salient, the strategic task set by the Soviet high command was the liberation of the left-bank Ukraine, the forcing of the Dniepr river and the liberation of Kiev. Successful actions in the Chernigov sector were vital for the accomplishment of this task. The Germans had meanwhile created a powerful grouping of forces in the area of Kiev, and also worked furiously on the building of the so-called 'Ostwall', otherwise known as the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung'. In September, Soviet forces crossed the Disna river and the Sozh river, liberated the settlement of Komarin, and then approached Gomel, in the process liberating Dobruzh on the Iput river and also Novobelitsa. However, attempt to progress farther failed in the face of the excellent defences the Germans had created around Gomel itself and the presence of strong German forces in the area of the confluence of the Sozh and Dniepr rivers.

General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Belorussian Front therefore decided at this time to undertake a concealed redeployment of forces to Loyev, cross the Dniepr river and advance toward Rechitsa, thereby placing the German grouping in the Gomel area under threat of encirclement.

General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov, commander of the 65th Army, decided to break through the German defences on the line between Lipnyaki and Yastrebka line, and then to develop his army’s offensive in the direction of Osinovka, with the infantry of the XVIII Corps, XIX Corps and XXVII Corps, the armour of the I Guards Don Tank Corps and IX Tank Corps, and the cavalry of the II Guards Cavalry Corps and VII Guards Cavalry Corps.

The XLII Corps of General Leytenant Prokofi L. Romanenko’s 48th Army had the task of breaking through the German defences in the section of the Dniepr river near Kholmech and Prokisel.

The main thrust of the offensive began on 10 November near Loyev, and on the following day Rokossovsky strengthened the offensive by committing his tank and cavalry corps. Soviet troops fought with determination and success to enlarge their bridgehead on the right bank of the Dniepr river. On 13 November, Soviet forces liberated Kholmech, Dvorets, Krasnopolye and Artuki; on the night of 15 November, elements of the XIX Corps liberated Demekhi, thereby cutting the rail and road lines linking Gomel and Kalinkovichi; and on 16 November, Soviet troops liberated Rebus and the village and railway station at Babichi.

It was at this stage of the offensive that the 15th and 16th Guards Tank Brigades of the I Guards Don Tank Corps, together with the XIX Corps' 37th Guards Division and 162nd Division were allocated the task of making a surprise attack to the north-west in the direction of Rechitsa. By the evening of 16 November, these units had occupied Ozershchina and entered combat in the outskirts of Rechitsa.

At 04.00 on 17 November, three T-34 medium tanks were instructed to leave the cover of woodland and move across open country specifically to elicit a response from the German artillery. The German guns were located and engaged by Soviet artillery, and this opened the way for a platoon of tanks, supported by units of the 194th Division, to move on Rechitsa. Two of the three tanks reached the city centre.

The XLII Corps advanced from the south-east.

After their main defensive position centred on the area of ​​the railway station had been overrun, the Germans sought strenuously to retake the area but were denied by the 2/954th Regiment, and on 18 November the Soviet red flag was hoisted over Rechitsa. The remaining Germans fell back to the city’s south-eastern outskirts, where they attempted to hold the industrial zone and the railway bridge across the Dniepr river; the latter was their last land link with the German forces in the area of Gomel. The Soviets managed to defeat a spate of German counterattacks, however, and also removed German demolition charges from key buildings and other structures before then overcoming fierce German resistance on 21 November and seized the bridge.

On the night of 18 November, Batov’s 65th Army cut the railway linking Kalinkovichi and Gomel. Two infantry divisions and two tank brigades of Panov’s corps moved into the rear area of the German forces, which compelled them to beat a hasty retreat from Rechitsa. The last centre of resistance in the area of ​​the railway station was then quickly extinguished and by 14.00 the whole of the city was in Soviet hands.

Building on this success, the 48th Army used part of its forces to force the Berezina river at its confluence with the Dniepr river and seized a bridgehead to the south of Zhlobin. Pressing on the heels of the retiring Germans, Belov’s 61st army approached Mozyr. Here the German defence was penetrated by the left-wing formations of the Belorussian Front across a width of 75 miles (120 km). As usual, the Germans responded vigorously with a major counterattack. On the night of 18/19 November, the Germans deployed an armoured force of PzKpfw IV battle tanks, PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks and PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks, supported by an infantry regiment, entered the village of Korovatichi, overcoming the 172nd Division. German tanks penetrated to the centre of the village, where they engaged the 41st Artillery Brigade of the high command reserve. The 160th Tank Regiment, whose 22 T-34 medium tanks and T-70 light tanks currently occupied positions between Krasnaya Dubrova and Korovatichi, at 10.30 on 19 November followed a salvo by an artillery regiment in Tishkovka burst into the German unit from the area of Apsanschina. Brought to a halt in Korovatichi by powerful artillery anti-tank fire and an infantry division, the German task force turned back only to run head-on into the Soviet tanks.

The bloody battle in Korovatichi lasted for two days and ended in and-to-hand combat. Both sides suffered heavy losses in both men and equipment, but the German counterattack failed to achieve its object and was repulsed.

On 21 November, the Soviets liberated Gorval, and Soviet forces advanced into the rear of the Germans forces holding Gomel. On 22 November, the 11th Army and 63rd Army broke through the German defences in the Kostyukovka area to reach the railway linking Gomel and Zhlobin and the road lining Gomel and Mogilev. At the same time, the 50th Army and 3rd Army launched an offensive to the north of Zhlobin, liberated Propoysk, Korma and Zhuravichi, and on 25 November reached the Dniepr river near Novy Bykhov, thereby enveloping Gomel from the north.

Thus, by the evening of 25 November, the Belorussian Front had neared Gomel from three directions. The threat of encirclement persuaded the Germans on the night of 26 November to start the withdrawal of their troops from the area between the Sozh and Dniepr rivers. The retreating Germans tried to reach Rechitsa in order to connect with the remnants of their forces in that area, but were met by the 48th Army.

On the morning of 26 November, parts of Polkovnik N. Masons’s 217th Division and Polkovnik F. Bulatov’s 96th Division entered Gomel. At the same time, units of Polkovnik D. Vorobev’s 7th Division and General Major A. M. Andreyev’s 102nd Division entered the city from the south-east.

By 30 November, Soviet forces reached a line stretching from Potapovka to an area to the south of Yelsk via Hamza, Prudok, the Chausy area, the area to the west of Petukhovka, the area to the south of Novy Bykhov, the area to the east of Rogachev and Mozyr.

As was becoming standard on Soviet operations of the period, the actions of the Soviet forces in the 'Gomel-Rechitsa Offensive Operation' were greatly facilitated by the local partisans forces, which attacked the retreating Germans, destroyed railway tracks, and undertook reconnaissance.

As a result of the 'Gomel-Rechitsa Offensive Operation', therefore, the Belorussian Front had advanced some 8- miles (130 km), threatening the envelopment of the southern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and disrupting its communications with Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. The Soviet forces liberated Gomel, a large regional centre, and also a large area of Belorussia. They also contributed to the success of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s advance on Kiev. Shackled by the activities of the Belorussian Front, the Germans could not redeploy even one division to the Kiev sector. After three unsuccessful attempts, therefore, the 1st Ukrainian Front was finally able to liberate Kiev from its southern bridgehead on 6 November. Building on this success, on 12 November the 1st Ukrainian Front liberated Zhitomir, but later lost this to a German counter-offensive.