Gomel-Trubchevsk Defensive Operation

The 'Gomel-Trubchevsk Defensive Operation' was the Soviet sixth of the nine sub-operations together constituting the 'Smolensk Strategic Defensive Operation' (24 July/30 August 1941).

Within 'Barbarossa', the end of the fighting for Smolensk at the end of July 1941 was followed by a short period of relative inactivity as Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' went over to the defensive in the central sector of the Eastern Front.

On the southern flank, the German command decided to conduct a limited operation in the Roslavl area and then in the Rogachev area, then defeat the Soviet troops in the Gomel area, and then use Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army in operations against the Soviet Korosten group of forces based on General Major Mikhail I. Potapov’s 5th Army of General Polkovnik Mikhail P. Kirponos’s South-West Front.

The German command intended to use the armoured strength of Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe to encircle the South-West Front to the east of the Dniepr river in co-operation with the armoured formations of Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe within Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.

On 1 August, the 2nd Panzergruppe launched an offensive (2nd Army and one motorised and two Panzer corps with two Panzer, one motorised and seven infantry divisions) in the Roslavl region. By3 August the Germans had taken Roslavl and encircled the Soviet grouping of General Leytenant Vladimir Ya. Kachalov’s 28th Army. By 6 August the German operation had been completed.

On 8 August, the 2nd Panzergruppe began a new offensive, this time against General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 13th Army of General Polkovnik Fedor I. Kuznetsov’s Central Front, and by 14 August the XLV Corps had been defeated in the area of Krichev and Miloslavichi. General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) continued its offensive to the south as far as Unecha, Klintsy and Starodub.

In an effort to stem the German offensive and then to throw it back, the Central Front was forced to use all of its reserves (two cavalry divisions of the Stavka reserve task force and the 137th, 121st and 132nd Divisions) and to withdraw troops from relatively calm areas for redeployment to more hotly contested areas. On the eve of the German offensive against Gomel, therefore, the 21st Army had lost the 42nd Division, 155th Division, 50th Tank Division under the command of the XXV Mechanised Corps, as well as a number of small units. There had also been changes in Soviet commanders: Kuznetsov was recalled and reassigned to Crimea, his position in command of the Central Front being taken on an acting basis by General Leytenant Mikhail G. Efremov, whose place as commander of the 21st Army was taken by the erstwhile chief-of-staff, General Major Vasili N. Gordov.

The 21st Army now comprised General Major Vasili S. Popov’s XXVIII Corps (one division), General Major Pavel P. Korzun’s grouping (one motorised division and one motorcycle regiment), General Major Kuzma N. Galitsky’s (later Kombrig Nikolai A. Gusevsky’s) LXVII Corps (four divisions and ancillary units), General Leytenant Leonid G. Petrovsky’s LXIII Corps (four divisions and ancillary units), Polkovnik Vasili M. Badanov’s 55th Tank Divisions less it armour, and a smaller of smaller units.

For the forthcoming battle, the 2nd Army deployed General Hans Felber’s XIII Corps with three infantry divisions, General Walter Schroth’s XII Corps with four infantry divisions and one cavalry division, General Karl Weisenberger’s LIII Corps with three infantry divisions, and General Gotthard Heinrici’s XLIII Corps with two infantry divisions.

It was on 12 August that the German offensive toward Gomel began. The seven infantry divisions and one cavalry division of the XII Corps and XIII Corps dealt the main blow in the gap between the Dniepr and Sozh rivers, and the LXVII Corps was shattered. At the same time, the two divisions of the XLIII Corps, advancing in the Streshin area, pushed the Soviet forces back beyond the Dniepr river.

The Soviet command tried to restore the situation on 13 August with a counterattack in the Rekt area by forces of the LXVII Corps supplemented by the 167th Division transferred to its zone, but this was a failure. Moving to the south, German troops occupied Dovsk, and Galitsky, commander of the LXVII Corps, was seriously wounded and evacuated. This latter disrupted the control of his corps.

By the end of the day, the Germans had occupied Merkulovichi and continued their offensive toward Chechersk, which had been taken by 08.00 on 14 August. The headquarters of the 21st Army was now itself under attack, and effective control of this formation’s subordinate unit was completely upset.

The simultaneous advance of the XLIII Corps from Streshin led to the encirclement of the LXIII Corps and three divisions of the LXVII Corps in the area to the east of Zhlobin. The decision of the Soviet command to withdraw the LXIII Corps, taken during the evening of 14 August, came too late to be useful.

The 187th and 117th Divisions of the LXVII Corps and the 219th Motorised Division were driven back across the Sozh river, and the Germans now saw that their route to Gomel was completely open. On 15 August, all the Soviet troops in the Gomel sector were subordinated to Kombrig Nikolai A. Gusevsky. The scattered elements of the LXVII Corps were then regrouped, and this helped to slow the German advance.

As a result of the German offensive from the north and west, by 15 August five Soviet infantry divisions (the 61st and 154th Divisions of the LXIII Corps, and the 102nd, 151st and 167th Divisions of the LXVII Corps) had been completely surrounded in the area to the east of Zhlobin by divisions of the XLIII Corps, LIII Corps and XII Corps. In a relatively organised fashion, General Major Yakov S. Fokanov’s 154th Rifle Division managed to break out of the encirclement, and the German headquarters in the Gubichi area was destroyed.

On 17 August, in the course of a breakthrough from the encirclement in the Skepnya region some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the east of Zhlobin, the commander of the LXIII Corps, Petrovsky, and the commander of the corps' artillery were killed in action. The chief-of-staff of the LXIII Corps was captured on 18 August. The commander of the 61st Division was mortally wounded in the battle and died on 18 August. The chief-of-staff of the 102nd Division was captured.

Fighting on the close approaches to Gomel began on 17 August, and General Major Pavel P. Korzun was appointed to head the forces allocated to the defence of the Gomel area. The operational situation was complicated for the Soviets, however, by the fact that on the same day Generalleutnant Kurt Feldt’s 1st Kavalleriedivision crossed the Sozh river in the Vetka area, thus outflanking Gomel from the east. In the area of ​​Vetka and Dobruzh, there was fighting for several days, and this diverted Soviet troops from the defence of Gomel. Here, in the Dobruzh area, command was exercised by General Major Vasili N. Gordov and General Major Pavel P. Korzun, of whom he latter was wounded.

It was only on 18 August that the first part of the reserves transferred by the Stavka to the Central Front began to reach the battle area: first to make it appearance was the 266th Division, which was followed by the 277th Division.

On 19 August, three German infantry divisions neared Gomel: these were Generalleutnant Herbert Loch’s 17th Division, Generalleutnant Heinrich Meyer-Bürdorf’s 131st Division and Generalleutnant Friedrich-Karl von Wachter’s 267th Division. At the same time, the Germans secured a bridgehead across the Sozh river near Novobelitsa in the area to the south of Gomel. At 00.00 on the night of 19/20 August, the Soviets evacuated Gomel, after which engineers destroyed the bridges across the Sozh river.

On August 21, the 1st Kavalleriedivision occupied Dobruzh on the eastern bank of the Sozh river.

As a result of this operation, the Germans reported the capture of 78,000 Soviet soldiers, 144 tanks and more than 700 pieces of artillery in the Zhlobin, Rogachev and Gomel areas. On 21 August, Adolf Hitler ordered the 2nd Army and 2nd Panzergruppe to continue their offensive to the south with the aim of reaching the rear of Kirponos’s South-West Front.

On 19 August, the day the day on which the Soviets abandoned Gomel, the Stavka authorised the withdrawal of Kuznetsov’s 3rd Army on the left wing of the Central Front, and Potapov’s 5th Army and the XXVII Corps on the right wing of the South-West Front behind the Dniepr river. On 22 August, the 3rd Army departed Mozyr, the last regional centre held by the Soviets in Belorussia.

On the night of 25/26 August, the Stavka decided to disestablish the Central Front from 26 August, and the badly degraded 21st Army and 3rd Amy where then reallocated to General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s newly formed Bryansk Front. The disestablishment of the Central Front and the transfer of its armies to the Bryansk Front later came to be seen as a mistake as the decision to reallocate them hasted the end of the Central Front at a time when it should have been strengthened.

One of the consequences of the Central Front’s defeat was the encirclement and defeat of the South-West Front in Ukraine.