Kursk-Oboyan Offensive Operation

The 'Kursk-Oboyan Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking by the right-wing forces of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s South-West Direction (20 December 1941/26 January 1942).

An integral part of the Soviets' great winter counter-offensive of 1941/42, the operation was characterised by bitter fighting that lasted for 70 days in the Belgorod area and ended after the mutual exhaustion of both opponents and the arrival of the of a thaw that rendered movement all but impossible: the Soviets considered 26 January to be the end of the offensive, but the fighting did not end until the beginning of the spring thaw on 24 March.

After halting and then repelling the German 'Taifun' (i) and 'Wotan' offensives in the Battle of Moscow, Iosif Stalin found it possible to launch offensives in all sectors of the Eastern Front from Leningrad in the north to the Black Sea in the south with the object of achieving a decisive victory during 1942. At this time the military industries which had been evacuated from western Russia and Ukraine to the safety of areas to the east of the Ural mountains were starting to deliver an increasing number of weapon, and the Soviet armies continued to be replenished and enlarged with the men made available by another draft. All this made it possible not only to replenish the Soviet army’s currently active forces, but also to create nine reserve armies.

One of the offensive operations which could thus be planned and executed in the winter and spring of 1941/42 was the 'Kursk-Oboyan Offensive Operation'. During the winter counter-offensives of 1941/42, Soviet troops attacked the Germans with the forces of almost all fronts, especially those of the North-West, West, Bryansk and South-West fronts. During the first half of December, in the zone for which the South-West Front was responsible, in the course of the 'Yelets Offensive Operation', the 3rd Army and 13th Army managed to defeat the German forces by which they were opposed. The 40th Army, adjacent to them in the south, pinned the German forces and attacked in the direction of Cheremisinovo from the line of the Kshen river, but was able to achieve only the most limited advance.

By Stalin’s directive of 7 January, Timoshenko’s South-West Direction was instructed to go over the offensive with the right-flank armies of the right flank of General Leytenant Fedor Ya. Kostenko’s South-West Front. These elements were General Leytenant Kuzma P. Podlas’s 40th Army in the Kursk area and General Major Vasili N. Gordov’s 21st Army in the Oboyan area, and these were to retake Kursk and Oboyan respectively. If the offensive was successful, General Leytenant Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s Bryansk Front was to advance in the direction of Orel in order to drive from the north into the flank and rear of the German forces defending Bolkhov, defeat the Germans to the south of Belev and support the West Front’s offensive of the West Front to the north.

Despite the importance of the role allocated to it, the 40th Army received almost no reinforcement. The 21st Army, although brought into battle from the front reserve where it had been replenished for two months, also had significant shortages: each of these armies was, in fact, little more than one reinforced infantry corps. They possessed no mobile forces with which to develop success, and they also suffered from a major shortage of artillery and ammunition. Each of the armies solved the problem of breaking through the German defence independently, but no shock groups were created. Thus, the tasks of breaking through the German defences fell on ordinary infantry divisions. Finally, in the operation the two armies were not even committed in their entireties: the 21st Army, for example, committed only two of its five divisions. No pinning or diversionary forces were used. The planning for the operation was considered only inadequately by the front’s headquarters, but instead passed down to the two army headquarters. In fact, the operation was reduced to nothing more than the independent actions of two armies on separate axes. Even their transition to the offensive began at different times as soon as each army was ready. All these factors simplified the task of the German command to organise the checking of the Soviet offensive.

The Soviet forces in the areas of Kursk and Oboyan were opposed by elements of Generalfeldmarschall GŁnther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the form of General Hans von Obstfelder’s XXIX Corps on the left wing of Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau’s (from 5 January General Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army and General Werner Kempf’s XLVIII Corps on the right wing of Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army. These created a reinforced defensive arrangement based on powerful centres of defence in populated areas and on the exploitation of dominant heights with completely penetrable gaps between them to entice the Soviet forces into gaps from which they could be assailed on their flanks.

Not having been accorded the benefits of preparing adequately and of receiving reinforcements, the 40th Army launched the offensive on 20 December with the initial task of reaching the Tim river line and then advancing on Kursk. Having advanced with heavy fighting for 6.2 to 7.5 miles (10 to 12 km), on 25 December the army stormed the heavily fortified village of Tim, and by 28 December had reached and crossed the Tim river.

On this same day, three days later than the 40th Army, the 21st Army launched its own offensive toward Oboyan, and liberated five villages on the first day and two more on the next day, and cut the railway linking Belgorod and Kursk.

In the following days, the offensive developed only slowly as the Soviet forces squeezed out the Germans by nibbling at they defences. On 30 December, the 40th Army retook three villages before losing one in a German counterattack, and the 21st Army took two villages. The attacks were carried out in deep snow and without sufficient reconnaissance. Repeated frontal attacks were delivered against the same German positions without proper artillery support, and air support in the current conditions of cloud and falling snow were limited in number and largely ineffective.

Having determined the Soviet axes of advance, the Germans promptly redeployed fresh units into the threatened areas. The Germans stubbornly defended settlements, even when these had been surrounded, forcing the Soviet troops to waste their strength in repeated attacks, and after the attacking units had suffered heavy losses, the Germans replied with strong counterattacks on the Soviet units' flanks and rear.

On 1 January 1942, the 21st Army reached the village and stronghold of Maryino, but was able to take it only at dawn on 4 January. On 3 January, units of the 21st Army captured the villages of Gorodishche, Krivtsovo and Zorinsky Dvory, thereby cutting the road linking Oboyan and Belgorod. On 4 January, the villages of Nagolnoye and Bobryshevo were liberated, and the encircled German garrison in the village of Shakhova was destroyed. On 5 January, Soviet troops reached Oboyan’s outlying villages of Cossack, Pushkarny and Streletsky.

Fighting for Oboyan, both fierce and protracted, now began. The first Soviet units, of the 160th Division, broke into the eastern outskirts of the town during the afternoon of 4 January, and on 5 January Oboyan was largely encircled. Entrenched in the town, the Germans put up a stubborn resistance, and launched an increasing number of counterattacks against their besiegers and also other advancing Soviet units: the Soviet offensive was thereby checked. Along he full width of both Soviet armies' fronts there was extremely stubborn but fruitless fighting, and in some places there was Soviet confusion as units launched simultaneous but unco-ordinated attacks on the same settlements. In Oboyan, on 6 January, the Soviets suffered heavy casualties as they managed to seize the fortified buildings of the station and the grain elevator. On the night of 7/8 January, a determined attempt was made to start the complete liberation of the town, and on 8 January Soviet troops managed to break into the town centre several times, but were driven back almost every time. Only a few units managed to gain and retain a foothold in the town.

To create the turning point in the area of the 21st Army, the 8th Motorised Division of the NKVD internal security forces was committed into the battle. On 8 January, one of this division’s regiments, in co-operation with units of the 169th Division, captured the north-western outskirts of the village of Kazatskoye and the eastern outskirts of Oboyan, while other units occupied the eastern half of the town. On 9 January, units of the 8th Motorised Division reached the centre of Oboyan.

During this stage of the fighting, one battalion of the 227th Division’s 777th Regiment made a daring 25-mile (40-km) raid into the German rear areas. The battalion overcame four German garrisons, namely those in the village of Orlovka and the farms of Zorinskiye Dvory, Vesely Ivnyansky and Peresyp' Oboyansky. The raid greatly facilitated the offensive in the Oboyan area.

In order to hold Oboyan, the Germans exploited the failure of the 227th Rifle Division, which from the very beginning of the effort to take Oboyan had not succeeded in taking the station at Prokhorovka. The Germans launched a counterattack to the north of Prokhorovka and drove back parts of the division. On 9 January, the Germans also began to exert pressure on the neighbouring units of the 169th Division. Given the threat of encirclement from Zorino, Bolshaya Psinka and Nagolnoye, and the lack of ammunition and fuel, on 10 January the Soviets ordered their unit in Oboyan to withdraw. Although the Soviet command tried to maintain a siege of Oboyan until the threat of a German outflanking movement had been eliminated and so opened the way for another attempt to take the town, this was not achieved.

The Germans pushed the Soviet troops about 12.5 miles (20 km|) back from Oboyan to the area of ​​the village of Krasnikovo. The Soviet units then adopted a defensive posture on about the same line from which their offensive had begun. On 11 January, stubborn battles began along this line, where the two sides swiftly exhausted each other with a series of counterattacks.

In the area to the north, by 6 January units of the 40th Army had with difficulty reached the line of the frozen Seim river, which they crossed on the ice, and by 8 January had reached the region 17.4 to 18.6 miles (28 to 30 km) to the south and south-east of Kursk, which the army could not attack for lack of strength. From 10 January, German units also launched strong counterattacks, stopping the Soviet offensive. On 15 and 18 January, the 40th Army again tried to break through the German defences, but achieved only the smallest advance. Particularly stubborn battles were fought in the area of ​​the village of Vypolzovo, which was taken by the Soviets on 15 January, lost on 23 January and again liberated on 24 January.

On 18 January, Soviet troops again returned to the offensive, shifting their main blow to the Shchigrovsk sector. This time, the offensive was linked to the actions of the front’s left-wing forces, which launched the 'Barvenkovo-Lozovsk Offensive Operation' on this same day.

In the 40th Army’s area, a specially formed group under the command of General Major Vasili D. Kryuchenkin, commander of the III Guards Cavalry Corps, launched an offensive from the line of the Tim river, broke through the defences and occupied several villages. The left flank of the 21st Army again went onto the offensive against Oboyan, and the 38th Army moved against Belgorod at the same time. In the following days, Kryuchenkin’s group advanced toward Shchigra, albeit at only a slow pace, but the offensive of the 21st Army and 38th Army stalled almost immediately. By 23 January the Germans had managed to halt the Kryuchenkin group, which did not reach Shchigrov by a distance of 12.5 miles (20 km). Fierce fighting in this area lasted until 5 February: the group was surrounded and suffered heavy losses as it broke out.

In general, during the 'Kursk-Oboyan Offensive Operation' the Soviets failed to achieve their allotted goals, despite the stubborn attacks of the troops which had been committed. In the area of the 40th Army’s offensive, the front line had been pushed between 9.4 and 21.75 miles (15 and 35 km) to the north-west by the end of the operation; in the 21st Army’s area, the front line remained in about the same place.

Between 2 and 26 January, the Soviets lost 10,586 men dead, missing or taken prisoner, and 19,996 men wounded or taken ill. The German losses are unknown.

The reasons for the failure of this offensive are typical of those for all Soviet offensive operations during the winter of 1941/42: these reasons were incorrect planning not only by each army, but also by each division, extremely short preparation time, lack of any decisive superiority, lack of shock and tank formations, an acute shortage of artillery and its ammunition and unco-ordinated tactical actions as reflected in the delivery of many attacks on the same lines and settlements by different units. The situation was aggravated by the winter’s cold and deep snow.

In the South-West Front’s report on the conduct of the 'Kursk-Oboyan Offensive Operation', the reasons for this failure were reduced to unsuccessful actions of the command and staffs of the army and divisions: unsatisfactory reconnaissance, insufficient preparation, and loss of battlefield command and control.