Gorodok Offensive Operation

The 'Gorodok Offensive Operation' was the Soviet thirteenth of the 15 sub-operations together constituting the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' in the Vitebsk region of the Eastern Front (13/31 December 1943).

These 15 sub-operations were the '1st Gomel-Rechytsa Offensive Operation' (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 Gomel-Rechytsa Offensive Operation' (10/30 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).

During October and November 1943, the Nevel Offensive Operation' and subsequent offensives toward Polotsk left tis sector of the Eastern Front became serpentine in its track, characterised by a number of salients and re-entrants. In the area of Dretun', General Polkovnik Nikandr Ye. Chibisov’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Vasili I. Shvetsov’s 4th Shock Army achieved an advance of some 35 miles (55 km) to the west before coming to a halt and assuming the defensive on the outer edge of a large 'bag' (salient) with a north/south axis of about 60 miles (100 km) but linked with the rest of the Soviet forces by a narrow neck near Nevel with a maximum width of 6.85 miles (11 km). Slightly farther to the south, German forces of Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee within Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had penetrated as much as 30 miles (50 km) deep into the Soviet defences in the left flank and rear of the Soviet 'bag' This created the 'Gorodok salient', so called from the town of Gorodok lying at its base . Thus, on a relatively short sector of the front, and at the same time, the Germans had the opportunity to undertake the encirclement and then the destruction of the two Soviet shock armies in the area to the east of Nevel, and the Soviets had the opportunity to undertake the encirclement and then the destruction of the German corps in the area to the south of Nevel. The threat to their forces was taken very seriously by the Soviet high command, for in 1942, in almost the same 'bags', the Soviet 2nd Shock Army was surrounded and effectively destroyed in the Lyuban region of the Volkhov Front’s sector in what the USSR came to know as the 'Lyuban Defensive Operation', and in the area to the south of Kharkov in the German forces' 'Fridericus' offensive. The pace of Soviet planning was therefore greatly accelerated by the German counterattack from the south along the Gorodok salient’s narrow throat at the end of November: this German effort was readied too rapidly and ended after an advance of only 1.25 miles (2 km), but the threat was rightly seen by the Soviet high command as very real.

In these circumstances, General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan, commander of the 1st Baltic Front, proposed an offensive to destroy the Gorodok salient. The suggested plan was based on attacks by the main forces of the 1st Baltic Front from the east and by the 4th Shock Army from the west toward the station at Bychikha, thereby encircling and opening the way to the destruction of the German forces in the Gorodok area, the elimination of the German salient, and the continuation of the offensive in the direction of Vitebsk and Shumilino, and in order to take the former with an attack from the north-west. Up to this time, the Germans had held Vitebsk with determination for some two months, repulsing several Soviet attacks. Thus Bagramyan suggested that instead of more frontal attacks, the Soviets seek to take the city with a blow from the rear. General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 43rd Army and General Leytenant Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 39th Army were to pin the German forces and thus prevent their redeployment to the area of the main attack, and the 43rd Army was then to contribute to the capture of Vitebsk by an assault from the east.

The Soviet high command approved Bagramyan’s plan with changes that included the allocation of the main attack to General Leytenant Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army, the strengthening of the two artillery breakthrough divisions, and the addition of two anti-aircraft artillery divisions, five guards mortar regiments, five artillery regiments, one mortar regiment, one engineering brigade, and three separate engineer battalions. The army itself had 11 infantry divisions. To strengthen the force earmarked for the offensive, the I Tank Corps also reached the offensive zone, though it must be added that this corps had been greatly diminished in numbers and capability in the battles in had recently fought, and thus possessed only 62 tanks and self-propelled guns in service; however, 35 tanks were returned to service during the operation after being repaired. Within the corps, the 10th Guards Tank Brigade had 46 armoured fighting vehicles and the 2nd Guards Heavy Tank Regiment had 17 armoured fighting vehicles.

The 1st Baltic Front managed to achieve its concentration for the offensive without detection by the Germans.

Shvetsov’s 4th Shock Army, holding defensive positions on a broad front, was able to launch an assault force of two infantry corps with five divisions, General Major Mikhail G. Sakhno’s V Tank Corps with 91 tanks and self-propelled guns, the 34th Guards Tank Brigade with 24 tanks and General Leytenant Nikolai S. Oslivovsky’s III Guards Cavalry Corps. The army was also reinforced by eight artillery and mortar regiments as well as three engineer battalions delivered the neck of the 'bag'. Air support was the task of General Leytenant Nikolai F. Papivin’s 3rd Air Army, and for the operation as a whole Bagramyan had 20 divisions, 275 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 2,150 pieces of artillery and mortars.

The Germans had already schemed the determined to hold the Gorodok salient without thought of retreat as this would make it very difficult for the Soviet forces to reach and take Vitebsk. At the same time, the Germans were also preparing an offensive to destroy the Soviet forces in the Nevel salient with a primary assault from the Gorodok salient. The defence of the salient lay in the hands of General Heinrich Clössner’s IX Corps on the eastern face, General Friedrich Gollwitzer’s LIII Corps on the western face, and General Hans Jordan’s VI Corps in the base of the salient. Air support was provided by elements of Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim’s Luftflotte VI, and the ground forces could be strengthened by two divisions of the southern wing of General Christian Hansen’s 16th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and one Panzer and five infantry divisions from the southern wing of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. In the sector first targeted by the Soviet offensive, the Germans nine infantry and Panzer divisions, 120 tanks and assault guns, and as many as 800 pieces of artillery and mortars holding positions centred on potent strongholds which dominated all the most important terrain features such as hills, river crossings, crossroads and settlements.

The Soviet troops were to advance through a region of woods and swamps with only a very small number of roads. Even at the preparatory stage, the development of the Soviet concept was rendered more complex by the weather, for the arrival of a prolonged thaw melted river and swamp ice, and turned the dirt roads into muddy quagmires. So bad was the transport situation that ammunition had to be manhandled to the front-line forces over distances of several miles.

On 13 December, the 11th Guards Army and the 4th Shock Army, supported by tanks and artillery, went onto the offensive, although without air support as a result of the foggy conditions. The artillery preparation lasted two hours. In the 11th Guards Army’s sector, the Germans offered their normal stubborn resistance, and during this first day of the battle the Soviets were able to take only the first German trench line. Only two Soviet formations penetrated right through the German front, one of these being General Major Georgi B. Peters’s 84th Guards Division, to a depth of 1.25 miles (2 km). It was discovered that the artillery had not and could not destroy the German strongpoints. In the second half of the day, Bagramyan ordered the artillery to undertake a second major bombardement on identified strongpoints, but the ground attack which followed this second bombardement failed to achieve any decisive result and there followed a series of strong German counterattacks.

In the 4th Shock Army’s sector the battle proceeded more satisfactorily for the Soviets as the Germans had not expected a strong blow from inside the Soviet 'bag'. The 4th Shock Army’s assault was greatly aided by the the successful use of a novel tactic, namely the laying during the last minutes of the artillery preparation of a thick smokescreen under whose cover the infantry attacked and burst into the German trenches almost before the assault waves had been detected. The Soviets therefore managed to break through the entire depth of the defence, advancing from 1.85 to 3.1 miles (3 to 5 km). At this stage of the fighting the Soviets started to commit their armour.

On 14 December, the main weight of the Soviet offensive was switched to the right flank of the 11th Guards Army, where success had been limited on the previous day and where now General Leytenant Vasili V. Butkov’s I Tank Corps and the 83rd Guards Division were committed. This allowed the Soviets to complete the breakthrough of the German defence with an advance of up to 2.5 miles (4 km), and to cut the road linking Nevel and Gorodok. As the weather improved, Soviet warplanes were also start playing an effective role in the battle. On the same day, the I Tank Corps was introduced into the breakthrough.

On 15 December, both Soviets groupings continued to advance, slowly but steadily, toward each other. On the morning of 16 December, tank and infantry corps of both armies reached the area of Bychikha station almost simultaneously from the west and the east, and there joined forces.

This trapped within the Gorodok salient Generalleutnant Mauritz Freiherr von Strachwitz’s 87th Division, Generalmajor Karl Fabiunke’s 129th Division, Generalleutnant Walter Melzer’s 252nd Division and Oberst Hellmuth Petzold’s 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision. The Soviets left the main strength of the 4th Shock Army to contain and destroy this German grouping, and this Soviet force defeated an attempt by two of the German divisions to break out of the encirclement. At much the same time, the 11th Guards Army developed an offensive to the south, pushing back the outer front of the encirclement as far as it could.

The Soviet forces completed the destruction of the encircled grouping in just two days by simultaneous, converging assaults from all sides. By the end of 17 December all organised resistance in the pocket had cone to an end, although the Germans claimed some of the encircled units managed to break out of the pocket, albeit with heavy losses, but all their heavy weapons and equipment were lost.

To the south, on 17 and 18 December the 11th Guards Army advanced between 3.75 and 5 miles (6 and 8 km), but in this sector the Germans then committed additional strength in the form of two army and one Luftwaffe divisions, one assault gun formation and a large quantity of artillery, and thereby managed to halt the Soviet offensive. Two divisions from Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and forces redeployed from quiet sectors of the front of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', including three battalions of PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks, were urgently transferred to the threatened sector.

By 20 December, the Soviet forces had liberated more than 500 of the region’s settlements.

Reabsorbing the forces made available by the destruction of the German pocket and replenishing their supply of ammunition, the Soviets resumed the offensive on 24 December. On this day, the 11th Guards Army captured Gorodok in a night assault, and on the axis toward Shumilino the Soviets advanced as much as 10 miles (16 km). This cut the railway line linking Vitebsk and Polotsk, though they could not take Shumilino. The 43rd Army also pushed the Germans back, by between 6.2 and 9.33 miles (10 and 15 km), but the German resistance, which had been very stubborn this far, now increased still more as there arrived several fresh divisions: these were Generalmajor Heinrich Eckhardt’s 211st Division, Generalleutnant Eugen Wössner’s 197th Division, Generalleutnant Hellmuth Thumm’s 5th Jägerdivision and Generalleutnant Otto Kohlermann’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Feldherrnhalle'. By 31 December, Soviet troops had reached the German pre-prepared defensive line some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Vitebsk. The Soviet forces could not break through these defences, and the Soviet high command therefore ordered the two armies to go over to the defensive.

In the 'Gorodok Offensive Operation', the Soviet forces advanced some 34.5 miles (60 km), defeated one Panzer and six infantry divisions, and eliminated the Gorodok salient. According to Soviet data, Germans lost more than 65,000 men killed and 3,300 men taken prisoner. Gorodok and more than 1,220 settlements were liberated, and the conditions were established for the planned encirclement and destruction of the German forces in the Vitebsk region.

In overall terms, however, the Soviet high command assessed the 'Gorodok Offensive Operation' as an undertaking which had not fully achieved its goals, which had included the liberation of Vitebsk. The reasons for this were assessed as the limited time allocated for the preparation of the operation and lack of adequate ammunition supplies. It was also though that in the area of the main attack it had not been possible to create a significant numerical and matériel superiority over the Germans, and that the adverse weather conditions had negatively affected the efficiency of artillery preparations and air support operations.