Kozelsk Offensive Operation

The 'Kozelsk Offensive Operation' was a Soviet offensive by parts of General Ivan S. Konev’s West Front against the 2nd Panzerarmee in the south-western part of the Kaluga region (22 August/9 September 1942.

The 'Wirbelwind' attack of Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee early in August had created a small salient in the Soviet line. In response, the West Front, then under the command of General Georgi K. Zhukov, sent General Leytenant Prokofi L. Romanenko’s 3rd Tank Army, supported by General Leytenant Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 16th Army and General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army, to launch an attack intended to cut off the German troops in the salient. The Soviet offensive bogged down in the face of unfavourable terrain and the combination of German defences and air superiority. Although the three Soviet armies managed to reduce the size of the salient, in the process they suffered heavy losses, especially in tanks. The Soviet offensive failed to achieve its objective, but was nonetheless useful inasmuch as it tied down German armoured units in a secondary sector.

It was on 11 August that the 2nd Panzerarmee Army launched 'Wirbelwind' intended to shorten the front line of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' by cutting off and then destroying the Soviet troops of General Leytenant Vasili S. Popov’s 10th Army and Bagramyan’s 16th Army located in the Kirov and Sukhinichi salient. AS first planned, 'Wirbelwind' would have involved a simultaneous advance of the 2nd Panzerarmee from the south and Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army from the north, the latter to seal the base of the salient and thereby prevent the Soviet formations from escaping to the east. However, the start of the '1st Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive Operation' late in July forced the relocation of most of the 4th Army to reinforce the defence of Rzhev. At the insistence of von Kluge, the offensive nonetheless took place as the sole responsibility of the 2nd Panzerarmee, whose armoured spearhead force, Generalleutnant Gustav Schmidt’s 19th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzerdivision of General Josef Harpe’s XLI Panzerkorps, ran into the 16th Army’s fortified defensive line, and the two Panzer divisions were halted after crossing the Zhizdra river. The 2nd Panzerarmee captured the village of Ulyanovo and created a 15.5-mile (25-km) salient in the Soviet line, surrounding and destroying the forward elements of three infantry divisions.

The 'Kozelsk Offensive Operation' was schemed as the means to eliminate the entire German penetration and the 2nd Panzerarmee by isolating the salient with a combined attack by the West Front’s 16th Army, 61st Army and 3rd Tank Army. Romanenko’s 3rd Tank Army, reinforced with additional infantry and tank units, was to launch the main assault from the the area of Belev to the south-east of Kozelsk, cross the Vytebet river and capture Ulyanovo in the German rear, with Belov’s 61st Army following. Meanwhile, Bagramyan’s 16th Army, spearheaded by the mobile forces of General Major Alexei V. Kurkin’s IX Tank Corps and General Major Vasili G. Burkov’s X Tank Corps, and General Major Viktor K. Baranov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps, was to attack from positions to the south-west of Kozelsk and destroy the German defences along the Zhizdra river. Continuing their advance, Bagramyan’s troops were then to link with those of Romanenko and Belov at Ulyanovo to complete the encirclement of the 2nd Panzerarmee.

The 3rd Tank Army, which had yet to see combat, included the General Major Semyon I. Bogdanov’s XII Tank Corps and General Major Vasili A. Koptsov’s XV Tank Corps, as well as the 179th Separate Tank Brigade and the 154th and 264th Divisions. Immediately before the beginning of the offensive, the 1st Guards Motor Division, four regiments of artillery from the Stavka reserve, two guards mortar (Katyusha rocket launcher) regiments, two anti-tank fighter regiments, and five anti-aircraft artillery regiments, as well as other units. The army comprised 60,852 men and 436 tanks, including 48 KV heavy tanks, 223 T-34 medium tanks, three T-50 light tanks, and 162 T-60 and T-70 light tanks, as well as 168 armoured cars. The artillery strength of the army included 677 pieces of artillery and mortars, including 124 45-mm anti-tank guns, as well as 61 37-mm anti-aircraft guns and 72 Katyusha rocket launchers. Romanenko’s army was further reinforced by General Major Dmitri K. Mostovenko’s III Tank Corps with 78 tanks, and other units from the 16th Army’s northern group.

The 16th Army comprised nine infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions, four separate infantry brigades, seven tank brigades, one fighter anti-tank brigade, two tank battalions, three artillery regiments from the Stavka reserve, five anti-tank artillery regiments, seven guards mortar battalions and two mortar regiments. However, the army’s shock group consisted of the 322nd Division and two cavalry formations, the 2nd and 7th Guards Cavalry Divisions, while the rest of the units were concentrated on the army’s centre and right flank. Kurkin’s IX Tank Corps and the X Tank Corps of the 16th Army possessed about 100 tanks, for a total of around 700 tanks involved in the Soviet offensive. The 61st Army’s southern group included two infantry divisions, three rifle brigades, one fighter anti-tank brigade, two tank brigades and three Stavka reserve artillery regiments. The three Soviet armies fielded a total of 218,000 troops.

Against them, the 2nd Panzerarmee could muster General Heinrich Clössner’s LIII Corps, Harpe’s XLI Panzerkorps and General Rudolf Kämpfe’s XXXV Corps, these three corps controlling the 296th, 293rd, 134th, 52nd, 56th and 26th Divisions, the 11th, 17th, 19th and 20th Panzerdivisions, and the 25th Division (mot.). The German forces had about 200 tanks and assault guns between them, which meant that they were outnumbered by more than 3/1 in armoured strength.

The tanks of the 3rd Tank Army were transported to Kozelsk by rail from the area of Tula area between 15 and 19 August, while motorised units undertook a road march of 75 miles (120 km). The 15.5-mile (25-km) march from the rail station to the front was completed by 21 August, but the infantry divisions took longer to arrive as they had to move in foot. The army was divided into three shock groups (Group 'Koptsov', Group 'Bogdanov' and Group 'Mostovenko'), each of these shock groups being based on a tank corps and including an infantry division and artillery units. Group 'Mostovenko' included two infantry brigades instead of a motor infantry brigade. The first echelon, tasked with the breakthrough, included three rifle divisions and one rifle brigade. The second echelon consisted of nine tank and three motor infantry brigades, and in the third echelon were the 1st Guards Motor Division, the 179th Tank Brigade, the 8th Motorcycle Regiment and the 54th Motorcycle Battalion.

The orders for the offensive were issued on 18 August, giving division and brigade commanders three days of preparation, although the late-arriving 154th and 264th Divisions of the 3rd Tank Army had only one day to complete its preparations. On the night of 20/21 August, the 154th and 264th Divisions, tasked with the initial breakthrough in 3rd Tank Army’s sector, moved into their jumping-off positions.

German intelligence detected the Soviet build-up, allowing the Germans the time to strengthen the forward defences of the LIII Corps with large numbers of anti-tank weapons, minefields and hastily dug trenches and dug-outs. The German armour was withdrawn for the creation of an operational reserve, and rear defences with multiple lines of bunkers and dug-outs were created. The German defences were based on the Zhizdra and Vytebet rivers, the network of ravines and settlements being turned into fortified strongpoints.

The Soviet attack began at 06.15 on 22 August, with Romanenko sending three infantry divisions and one infantry brigade in the first echelon against Generalleutnant Johann der Boer’s 26th Division and Generalleutnant Karl von Oven’s 56th Division. The Soviet infantry units were able to advance between 2.5 and 3.7 miles (4 and 6 km) through the German forward defences, and while they were unable to break through, they did manage to capture the village of Goskovo and advance to Myzin in the morning before being halted by the arrival of German tanks from the second line. At 07.20, Zhukov committed the XII Tank Corps, led by the 30th and 106th Tank Brigades. After outrunning their supporting infantry, the corps was brought to a halt by strong German field defences, minefields and attacks by Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers and other bombers in the Goskovo area after an advance by 12.00 of 2.5 miles (4 km). The XV Tank Corps' 113th Tank Brigade, equipped with T-34 tanks, was committed behind the 154th Division and, advancing past the infantry, suffered heavy losses to German air attacks after being stopped in a minefield. The XV Corps' 17th Motor Brigade was then committed, but this also failed to restart the offensive.

At 12.00, it was reported to the headquarters of the West Front received that the III Tank Corps had captured Smetskiye Vyselki, and that the German troops were hastily retreating from their first defensive line. Since Group 'Koptsov' had failed to achieve a breakthrough, Zhukov ordered the XV Corps to move north into Mostovenko’s sector and move on Slobodka and Belyy Verkh. The 1st Guards Motor Division was ordered to advance between the III Tank Corps and 3rd and XV Tank Corps toward Smetskaya, Zhukovo and Perestryazh, and the attack of the XII Tank Corps was redirected to the north in the direction of Myzin and Durnevo.

As a result, the original Soviet battle plan had been abandoned and the tank brigades advanced into new sectors without reconnaissance or infantry support. This led the Soviet armour into minefields and terrain which was both swampy forested. Moreover, the report of the capture of Smetskiye Vyselkami emerged as wrong when the XV |Tank Corps' screening detachment was ambushed and completely destroyed upon approaching the village, and the vanguard led by Koptsov became involved in heavy fighting. The corps' 105th Heavy Tank Brigade and 17th Motor Brigade now attacked the village, taking it at 17.00 and dislodging the 56th Division's 192nd Infanterieregiment after losing seven tanks, but were unable to continue the advance. Meanwhile, the 154th and 264th Divisions, supported by the XII Tank Corps, captured the villages of Ozernenskoye, Ozerno and Goskovo, but the 61st Army’s southern group made no progress.

On this first day, the three shock groups advanced less than 3.1 miles (5 km), and meanwhile the Group 'Mostovenko' bypassed German resistance, reached the Vytebet river by 24 August and captured the village of Belyy Kamen on 26 August, but could advance no farther.

On 23 August, the Soviet forces continued their advance on the previous axis of attack. The XII Tank Corps, supported by the 154th Division, advanced to the south-west on Myzin, Babinkovo, Durnevo and Staritsa. The 97th Tank Brigade, which was the forward detachment of its right flank, comprised 15 tanks and one motor rifle company, was cut off by German forces and was not able to escape from its encirclement by the 106th Brigade until the end of the day. Romanenko committed the 1st Guards Motor Division, his reserve, to aid the XV Tank Corps' attack on 23 August in the centre of his army’s assault, but by this time Clössner had shifted the 11th Panzerdivision and 20th Panzerdivision to stiffen the German infantry. During the night, another Soviet attack failed as a result of poor co-ordination and the lack of a detailed plan. At dawn on 24 August, after suffering heavy losses in exchange for an advance of 0.6 to 1.25 miles (1 to 2 km), the 3rd Tank Army was again stopped by German tanks and aircraft. By the end of 24 August, only 10 serviceable tanks remained to the XII Corps' 30th Tank Brigade.

At this point, fuel shortages resulting from inexperience in the logistics of supplying large tank formations began to affect the operations of the Soviet armoured forces. The 1st Guards Motor Division was able to advance another 2.5 miles (4 km) and capture Smetskaya, further reducing the size of the German penetration, but was also halted on 25 August. By the end of the same day, Group 'Mostovenko' and the XV Tank Corps had cleared German resistance from their positions to the east of the Vytebet river and reached the river, but were unable to cross. The XII Tank Corps, the 154th and 264th Divisions and the the 61st Army’s southern group made an unsuccessful attacked to the west and south-west during this period, in some areas advancing 0.6 to 0.9 miles (1 to 1.5 km).

In an effort to reinvigorate the offensive, Romanenko decided to regroup his forces. On the night of 26/27 August, the XV Tank Corps was transferred from the offensive’s centre to its left flank with orders to advance to the south in the direction of Sorokino alongside the XII Tank Corps and the 154th Division. After completing a march of 9.25 miles (15 km), the XV Tank Corps went on the offensive, but was again unsuccessful. After the XV Tank Corps had been driven back, the 11th Panzerdivision and 20th Panzerdivision counterattacked, forcing Romanenko to withdraw the XV Tank Corps to the area of Novogryn and thereby create an operational reserve. By the morning of 27 August, the German counterattack had been thrown back, and the XV Tank Corps was moved to the left flank in the area of Pakom to support the attack of the 61st Army’s southern group. The corps was ordered to break through the German line and advance into the German rear, simultaneously pressed by the Group 'Bogdanov' and the 264th Division. The corps attacked in conjunction with the 12th Guards Division toward Leonovo on 28 August, but was stopped by an anti-tank ditch. This latter was bridged by sappers that night. However, the corps then encountered a second ditch, and this could not be overrun. At this point, the 61st Army’s southern group, which was delivering a frontal assault on the German strongpoints, had advanced 1.9 to 2.5 miles (3 to 4 km) on its right and 0.6 miles (1 km) on its left.

On the next night, the XV Tank Corps with withdrawn from the line and, by the morning of 30 August had been concentrated in the forests to the south of Meshalkino. An attack with the Group 'Bogdanov' toward Sorokino was planned, but was cancelled as a result of the XII Tank Corps' heavy losses. During the day, the corps' 195th Tank Brigade helped two battalions of the 61st Army’s 156th Rifle Division escape encirclement. Meanwhile, the Group 'Mostovenko' had managed to cross the Vytebet river, and Romanenko shifted the attack yet again to his centre and right flank. The XV Tank Corps and 264th Division were transferred to the revised main point of the attack, while the XII Tank Corps was withdrawn to the operational reserve to repel possible German counterattacks. Only 181 tanks remained in the army by this time, which meant that the losses during the previous nine days amounted to around 60% of the corps' armour, although some of the damaged tanks were later recovered and repaired.

On 1 September, in a meeting between Adolf Hitler and von Kluge, it was decided that 'Wirbelwind' would be abandoned as a result of the Soviet resistance and that the 9th Panzerdivision and 11th Panzerdivision be pulled out of the sector for a new attack. After regrouping his army, Romanenko launched another unsuccessful attack on the afternoon of 2 September and, despite massive German air attacks, the Group 'Mostovenko' took Volosovo, and after crossing the Vytebet river, the 1st Guards Motor Division seized Zhukovo and Volosovo. The heaviest fighting took place in the centre, near the village of Ozhigovo, which was attacked by the 264th Division. It took the Soviets until the morning of 3 September to drive the German troops out of the village, after a night attack by the 17th Motor Brigade and the 113th and 195th Tank Brigades. The XV Tank Corps was to exploit the breakthrough, but the 195th Division, advancing to Perestryazh, was counterattacked and halted by German tanks, of which 13 were claimed destroyed by Soviet forces. Despite this, the offensive had to be halted, and the Group 'Mostovenko' failed to advance during the day.

On the evening of 3 September, the III Tank Corps was withdrawn to the Stavka reserve as a result of its heavy losses. From 5 to 9 September, the tank brigades remaining in the bridgehead across the Vytebet river, supported by infantry, attempted to resume the offensive, but failed in the face of counterattacks by the 9th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Rudolf-Eduard Licht’s 17th Panzerdivision. On 10 September, the 3rd Tank Army shifted back onto the defensive, and in the second half of the month, having transferred the 1st Guards Motor Division, the XV Tank Corps' 17th Motor Brigade and artillery units to the 16th Army and 61st Army, was withdrawn to the Stavka reserve.

The attack launched by the 16th Army was similarly unsuccessful. On the first day of the offensive, the 16th Army’s shock group was halted by a combination of unfavourable terrain and a strength too weal to permit any break through the German line after advancing only a few hundred metres. The main forces of the 16th Army’s left flank advanced to the south rather than to the east toward the 3rd Tank Army, slowly forcing the German troops back to a previous defensive position. By 29 August, the army’s left flank had reached the line of Gretnya, Vosty and Volosovo after advancing between 0.6 and 3.1 miles (1 to 1 to 5 km) in eight days. An infantry division from the army reserve was sent into the fight in the area of Gretnya area, but was also unsuccessful.

After the Soviet offensive had been halted, most of the remaining tank units were transferred to other fronts as each side shifted to the defensive. Although it had prevented the German attack from continuing in the sector, the 'Kozelsk Offensive Operation' had gained very little, especially in light of the number of troops which had been committed. Soviet tank losses in the operation numbered up to 500 of the 700 original tanks. For the period between 22 and 29 August, the Soviet troops suffered casualties of 12,134 killed and 22,415 wounded for a total of 34,549 out of an initial strength of 218,412 men. On the credit side, however, the fighting did divert scarce Panzer divisions and air units from the main 'Blau' campaign in the south.