Lyuban Offensive Operation

(Russian town)

The 'Lyuban Offensive Operation' was a Soviet unsuccessful attempt to relieve Leningrad (7 January/30 April 1942).

The Soviet offensive of the worst winter months of 1941/42 against Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s (from 19 December Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s) Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in front of Moscow, formally known as the 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation' (5 December 1941/7 January 1942) and comprising six sub-operations, was supported by other offensives in the Leningrad area to the north-west, and also in Ukraine and Crimea to the south.

In the area of the Baltic and Lake Ladoga, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', totalling 30 German divisions and one Spanish division, covered a front stretching from Oranienbaum on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland to the army group’s junction with Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' near Ostashkov. Within Heeresgruppe 'Nord', Generaloberst George von Küchler’s 18th Army was on the left, with General Albert Wodrig’s XXVI Corps enclosing the besieged defenders of the Oranienbaum logdement, and General Mauritz von Wiktorin’s XXVIII Corps and General Georg Lindemann’s L Corps covering the southern approaches to Leningrad and the line of the Neva river.

Leningrad was still cut off by land, as the Germans held the narrow strip of land, barely 10 miles (16 km) wide, to the key fortress of Petrokrepost (Schlüsselburg in German) on the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. The ice road across this lake was open, however, and along it nearly 500,000 of Leningrad’s population were being evacuated. Farther to the east, von Leeb’s forces had been forced out of Tikhvin on 9 December and fallen back to the Volkhov river between Kirishi and Novgorod, a line held by General Kuno von Both’s I Corps and General Friedrich-Wilhelm von Chappuis’s XXXVIII Corps.

To the south of Lake Ilmen, Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army held the area between Staraya Russa and Ostashkov with General Christian Hansen’s X Corps, General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps and, on the extreme right, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s armour-strong XXXIX Corps. The Germans had no reserves worthy of the name.

On the Soviet side, the Oranienbaum lodgement was held by the Coastal Operations Group, while on the Leningrad isthmus General Major Aleksandr I. Cherepanov’s 23rd Army faced the Finns to the north, and the 42nd Army and General Leytenant Vladimir P. Sviridov’s 55th Army, supplemented by the Neva Operational Group, faced the 18th Army to the south. All these Soviet armies were controlled by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov’s Leningrad Front, which also controlled General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s detached 54th Army covering the area to the south of Lake Ladoga between Schlüsselburg and Kirishi on the Volkhov river. On the line of this river from Kirishi to Novgorod, General Major Piotr A. Ivanov’s 4th Army, General Leytenant Nikolai K. Klykov’s 52nd Army, General Major Ivan V. Galanin’s 59th Army and General Leytenant Grigori G. Sokolov’s (later General Major Andrei A. Vlasov’s) 2nd Shock Army had been regrouped on 17 December to form General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front.

To the south of Lake Ilmen, General Polkovnik Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front had General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army, General Major Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 34th Army, General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army, which covered the front’s line from Staraya Russa to Ostashkov, where it met General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front.

The 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation' and following 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation' were merely the first stages of the huge Soviet general offensive that swiftly developed along the full length of the Eastern Front after the German 'Barbarossa', 'Taifun' (i) and 'Wotan' campaigns had been checked before Moscow. Thus the Soviet winter offensive of 941/42 against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was soon supported by other offensives in the Leningrad area against Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and in Ukraine and Crimea against Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.

In the area of the Baltic and Lake Ladoga von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', now comprising one fresh Spanish and 30 tired and depleted German divisions, extended across a front which stretched from the Oranienbaum pocket on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland to a junction with Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' near Ostashkov at the southern end of Lake Seliger. von Küchler’s 18th Army was on the left of the army group with Wodrig’s XXVI Corps enclosing the besieged defenders of the Oranienbaum beach-head, and General Mauritz von Wiktorin’s XXVIII Corps and General Georg Lindemann’s L Corps covered the southern approaches to Leningrad and the line of the Neva river. Leningrad was still cut off by land, as the Germans held the narrow strip, scarcely 10 miles (16 km) wide, to the key fortress of Schlüsselburg (Petrokrepost in Russian) on the southern shore of Lake Ladoga at the mouth of the Neva river. The Soviets had managed to open an ice read across Lake Ladoga, however, and this made it possible for almost 500,000 persons of Leningrad’s population to be evacuated. Farther to the east, von Leeb’s forces had been forced out of Tikhvin on 9 December by the Soviet 'Tikhvin Offensive Operation' and had then fallen back to the line of the Volkhov river between Kirishi and Novgorod, a line held by General Kuno von Both’s I Corps and von Chappuis’s XXVIII Corps. To the south of Lake Ilmen, Busch’s 16th Army held the area between Staraya Russa and Ostashkov with Hansen’s X Corps, von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps. and, on the extreme right, General Hans Jürgen von Arnim’s XXXIX Corps (mot.). This last was the army group’s sole armoured corps, and the was nothing in army group reserve.

On the Soviet side, the Oranienbaum bridgehead was held by General Major Antonov’s Coastal Operations Group (formerly the 2nd Neva Operations Group and originally the XIX Corps), while on the Leningrad isthmus General Major Aleksandr I. Cherepanov’s 23rd Army faced the Finns to the north, and General Major Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 42nd Army, General Major Vladimir P. Sviridov’s 55th Army and General Major Vasili M. Konkov’s Neva Operational Group faced the 18th Army to the south. All these Soviet armies came under General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin’s Leningrad Front, which also commanded General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s detached 54th Army, which covered the area to the south of Lake Ladoga between Schlüsselburg and Kirishi on the Volkhov river. On the line of the Volkhov river between Kirishi and Novgorod, General Major Piotr A. Ivanov’s 4th Army, General Leytenant Vsevolod F. Yakovlev’s 52nd Army, General Major Ivan V. Galanin’s 59th Army and General Leytenant Grigori G. Sokolov’s 2nd Shock Army had been regrouped on 17 December to form General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front.

To the south of Lake Ilmen, Kurochkin’s North-West Front, comprising General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army, General Major Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 34th Army, General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Andrei A. Eremenko’s 4th Shock Army covered the area between Staraya Russa and Ostashkov, where met General Leytenant Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front.

Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had ended its retreat from Tikhvin on 26 December along a front which appeared as what was almost a right angle with the transverse on the north running east/west and the vertical on the east running north/south. The 18th Army held the front in the north. To the west of Schlüsselburg the front had not changed since September, and was in effect a curve round Leningrad which touched the Gulf of Finland some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south of the city just a short distance from a second and more western curve round the Oranienbaum beach-head pocket that ended on the coast about 50 miles (80 km) to the west of Leningrad. To the east of Schlüsselburg the German-held Flaschenhals (bottleneck), which had been all but eliminated during the Soviet drive toward Tikhvin, had reappeared in the retreat. From its 10-mile (16-km) northern edge on Lake Ladoga, the front extended straight to the south for 10 miles (16 km) and then veered to the south-east to the Volkhov river and the junction with the 16th Army on the river near Kirishi. Along this front the headquarters on von Küchler’s 18th Army had 17 divisions. Busch’s 16th Army covered a front, 200 miles (320 km) long, facing due east and anchored on the Volkhov river to the south of Kirishi and following the river to Lake Ilmen. To the south of the lake, the front bulged eastward to the Valdai hills lying to the east of Demyansk and then followed a chain of lakes south to the southern boundary of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' near Ostashkov. The headquarters of Busch’s 16th Army had 11 divisions disposed as five to the north of Lake Ilmen and six to the south of this lake.

For the purposes of what was now its defensive situation, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' knew that Lake Ilmen was a location of considerably greater importance than the boundary between the two armies. The lake, which is 25 miles (40 km) wide, divided the army group’s front on its eastern face almost exactly in two. Novgorod, at the lake’s northern tip and only just inside the German front, controlled the lateral road and rail lines extending all the way to the north to the 'bottleneck'. In tactical terms, the front to the north of the lake covered the rear of the line around Leningrad and the Oranienbaum pocket against any Soviet offensive from the east. It did that at a distance of 10 miles (16 km) at the 'bottleneck' and some 60 miles (100 km) at the mid-point on the Volkhov river. At the southern end of the lake, the town Staraya Russa, lying 10 miles (16 km) behind the front, lay on the only rail line and the main road which were the primary li9nes of communication for the German forces the southern flank. From the lake to the army group boundary and beyond, and from the front in the Valdai hills to the west for 130 miles (210 km) was a tangled expanse of rivers, swamps and forest in which the most important points were the road junctions at Demyansk, Kholm and Toropets, each 50 miles (80 km) or more from one another and from Staraya Russa.

As 1942 began, in conditions of extreme cold, Soviet efforts to extract a last measure of advantage from their offensive from Tikhvin by probing across the Volkhov river decreased and then came to an end on 4 January. On this same day, von Leeb reported a quiet day along his whole front, the first such in many weeks, but he expected that this interlude would be short. For several days the army group’s intercept branch had detected radio traffic from the 2nd Shock Army, a Soviet formation new to it. The only question, as von Leeb saw it, was whether the Soviets were about to attempt another attack across the Volkhov river or to regroup to the north and try to take the shorter route to Leningrad across the 'bottleneck'.

On the other side of the front, of course, the decision had already been made on a scale somewhat more ambitious than von Leeb suspected, and the Stavka had sent Army Commissar 1st Rank Lev Z. Mekhlis, the army’s senior commissar, to Volkhov Front to ensure that Meretskov got an early start. by 6 January, Meretskov had deployed the 59th Army and 4th Army on the Volkhov river between Kirishi and the rail line linking Leningrad and Moscow, and the 2nd Shock Army and 52nd Army to the south of the rail line. The 2nd Shock Army was to smash its way across the Volkhov river and advance to the north-west in the direction of Lyuban with support by the 59th Army and 4th Army on the right and the 52nd Army widening the breach on its left and also taking Novgorod. Starting from the Kirishi area, the 54th Army of the Leningrad Front and the right-flank elements of the 4th Army were to surround and destroy the German forces in the 'bottleneck'.

On the entirety of the operation’s northern flank, including the North-West Front and Leningrad Front, the Soviets possessed comfortable numerical superiorities: 1.5/1 in men, 1.6/1 in artillery and mortars, and 1.3/1 in aircraft. The Volkhov Front had received new troops and supplies, but in the first week of January, Meretskov still did not yet have the strength to start an offensive. The 59th Army, with at least eight infantry and two cavalry divisions, was the front’s strongest formation. Many of the 2nd Shock Army’s promised formations had yet to arrive, however, and according to Meretskov, its one infantry division and seven infantry brigades gave it the strength of only one infantry corps. The armies' reserves of rations and fodder were paltry, and they had only about one-quarter of their required ammunition stocks. In these respects, the 2nd Shock Army and 59th Army were the worst off because supplies were distributed from the rear separately to individual armies, not through the front, and these armies were only just establishing their positions.

Nevertheless, on 7 January, the front north of Lake Ilmen came to life as the offensive started' albeit in a somewhat loose order. The 4th Army and 52nd Army led, and the 59th Army and 2nd Shock Army followed onto the offensive at intervals during the next days. Over a period of five days, the Germans stood off attacks pressed, or rather not pressed, with any real determination or, as far as the Germans could tell, purpose. The danger was that one or another of the Soviet armies would strike a weak spot, of which there were several. This was in fact what occurred on the morning of 13 January when the 2nd Shock Army, delivering its first purposeful effort, brought down a heavy artillery barrage and then fell onto the boundary of Generalleutnant Paul Laux’s 126th Division and Generalleutnant Baptist Kniess’s 215th Division in the area to the south of the rail line. Inter-divisional boundaries were always difficult to defend, and this was rendered more difficult as the 126th Division had only recently arrived on this part of the Eastern Front. In one day, a 4-mile (6.4-km) gap opened between the two divisions. The 2nd Shock Army had almost executed the first stage of its task but, in two more days of fighting, proved unable to widen the gap. Matters were already starting to go wrong for the Soviets. On 15 January, the 4th Army and 52nd Army halted and went over to the defensive, and on the following day Meretskov ordered a halt so that his formations could regroup.

As the Germans watched the Volkhov Front get off to a fairly disorganised start, they began to believe that the Soviets' real primary was to be made in the area to the south of Lake Ilmen, where Kurochkin’s North-West Front had also gone onto the offensive on 7 January. Late in this same day, the 16th Army's outposts on the southern shore of the lake reported the presence of Soviet motor convoys and ski troops with sleds moving to the south-west across the frozen lake. In the wilderness area lying to the south of the lake, in fact over most of the distance to the army group boundary, the 16th Army had established only a line of strongpoints rather than a solid front. By the break of day on 8 January, two Soviet divisions had crossed the lake and started to push southward some 10 miles (16 km) behind the front. On 9 January, as the 16th Army managed to gather a few battalions to screen Staraya Russa, Soviet ski troops pulling sleds moved to the south along the frozen Lovat river to the road linking Staraya Russa and Demyansk.

The 11th Army was now starting to carry out its share in the offensive just to the south of Lake Ilmen, and von Leeb and Busch immediately appreciated the fact that this army could be dangerous. Staraya Russa, close behind the front, was the railhead and main supply base for all of the 16th Army's line in the area to the south of Lake Ilmen, so a thrust by the 11th Army past Staraya Russa to Dno, w0me 80 miles (130 km) to the west, could sever the German lateral rail and road communications all the way to Leningrad.

Tp the west of Ostashkov, on the extreme right flank of the 16th Army, the 3rd and 4th Shock Armies went over to the offensive on 9 January, their attack striking two regiments of Generalleutnant Erwin Rauch’s 123d Division holding a 30-mile (50-km) line of widely spaced strongpoints extending to the north from the army group boundary. Many of the strongpoints were located so far apart that the first Soviet assault waves simply advanced between them, and in three days all of the strongpoints had been destroyed and a 30-mile (50-km) gap created.

The breakthrough in the south raised the immediate prospect of an encirclement that seemed, to the Germans, to be the only worthwhile object for the Soviet offensive. In fact, Kurochkin had on his own initiative in fact 'amended' his orders from the Stavka and ordered the 34th Army to become 'more active toward the west' and the 11th Army and 3rd Shock Army to launch forces off their flanks to take the line of the Lovat river and thereby prevent any significant German retreat. The 16th Army was managing to provide cover for the immediate area of Staraya Russa by bringing up police and security troops from its rear area, but there were no German reserves available for the army’s southern flank. On the afternoon of 12 January, von Leeb ordered Busch to have the II Corps, his most southerly major formation and that located farthest to the east, to ready itself to withdraw. The von Leeb called Hitler and proposed to begin the process of pulling back to the line of the Lovat river the entire front in the area to the south of Lake Ilmen.

Hitler’s response was that he had to reckon the effect that this would exercise on the whole front and told von Leeb to come to the German leader’s headquarters on the following morning, when they would 'discuss the matter in its full context'. The 'discussion' was short and almost inevitably one-sided. Hitler ordered that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' hold the current line in the area to the south of Lake Ilmen and to scrape together, from his own resources, a strength sufficient to make an effective counterattack and close the gap which the Soviets had created. Any withdrawal, Hitler averred, would expose the left flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in a possibly disastrous manner. The necessary order had been transmitted by teletype even before von Leeb’s arrival at Hitler’s headquarters, and after von Leeb’s departure, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht called the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in Pskov to leave the message that Hitler 'would be pleased' if von Leeb, on his return, would personally impress on Busch 'the unconditional necessity for holding the southern flank'. However dire the situation might be, von Leeb did not believe it was possible to hold the flank, either before he spoke with Hitler or after this.

Even as von Leeb got back to Pskov, the 3rd Shock Army was approaching the road linking Kholm and Demyansk, and by 15 January the Soviets had crossed the road and were fanning out to the west. Believing the whole front to the south of Lake Ilmen would now have to be pulled in toward Staraya Russa, von Leeb asked either that he be relieved or that he be allowed to order the retreat while his army group still had at least a little room for manoeuvre. A sign as what might be expected came through Generaloberst Franz Halder, chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres. Halder called von Leeb’s chief-of-staff, Generalleutnant Kurt Brennecke, to tell him to 'put all of the powers of the general staff in motion…and extirpate this mania for operating. The army group has a clear order to hold…and the highest command will assume all the risk.'

On 17 January Hitler relieved von Leeb 'for health reasons', and appointed von Küchler to command Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

For Hitler the line had been drawn: the winter battles on the northern flank were to be fought regardless of cost wherever and whenever they occurred. Hitler had therefore made his decision that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' would stand fast.

In the short term, however, Hitler’s instinct proved to be better than von Leeb’s professional judgement. The imminent encirclement which von Leeb had forecast did not develop, at least in the immediate future. The 11th Army had a foothold on the road linking Staraya Russa and Demyansk road, but nothing more than this. The 3rd and 4th Shock Armies were concentrating on the execution of the operation allocated to them in December, namely the driving of a wedge between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', but were were advancing on slightly divergent axes and their 'strengths were not sufficient for such tasks'. Like the 2nd Shock Army, neither of these formations was the potent combined-arms grouping implied by its designation. Wounded in October 1941 while commanding the Bryansk Front, Eremenko had assumed command of the 4th Shock Army after his release from hospital in December, and his army had been short of some 1,000 officers and 20,000 men even before the start of the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation'. The army’s table of organisation listed three tank battalions and 10 ski battalions, but one tank battalion and five ski battalions had not yet arrived. Yet Eremenko had been better served than Purkayev, whose 3rd Shock Army as the 4th Shock Army was based on the previous 27th Army whereas the 3rd Shock Army was an entirely new formation that had to be built from the ground up and could be made ready for combat at the last moment only by the transfer of personnel from the 4th Shock Army, which also had to share its supplies. On the day the offensive began, both armies had been almost without rations and ammunition, and the only fuel which the 4th Shock Army possessed was that in the tanks of its vehicles.

On 21 January, the 4th Shock Army took Toropets and on the following the 3rd Shock encircled Kholm. The distances these two armies had advanced were impressive: some 60 miles (100 km) to Toropets and 55 miles (90 km) Kholm. Nonetheless, the two armies' real successes were less impressive, for both had exhausted their supplies, and a scattering of German units was still able to hold Kholm. The 4th Shock Army seized enough German stores at Toropets to maintain its advance, but the Stavka’s plan now required Eremenko to wheel due south out of the area of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' into the rear of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. On 22 January, the 3rd and 4th Shock Armies were passed into the control of the Kalinin Front, and while this reduced Kurochkin’s problems it increased those of Konev, the commander of the Kalinin Front. Despite the fact that it further endangered Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', Eremenko’s turn to the south was almost a relief for the Germans. Halder remarked that it was better than if the turn had been to the north, for then the continued siege of Leningrad would have become impossible.

Seen from the German side, one of the most disconcerting features of the Soviet offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Nord' up to this time had been its decidedly erratic execution. Offended in his tactical sensibilities, Halder was complained that the war seemed to be 'degenerating into a brawl', and that the offensive of the two shock armies was 'without sense' as in the longer run it could accomplish nothing decisive against either of the two German army groups. Unable to credit that the Stavka would deliberately waste strength in secondary attacks, Hitler, Halder and von Küchler all came to the conclusion that the main Soviet blow had still not been delivered, and that when it was would take the form of of an assault on the 'bottleneck' to the east of Leningrad, where a Soviet advance of a mere 10 miles (16 km) would break the German siege. The German leaders were wrong, however, and the 'brawl' was to continue.

During the week following the time the Volkhov Front’s attacks had staggered to a halt in the area to the north of Lake Ilmen, Meretskov had reassessed the situation and regrouped his forces to exploit a weak spot which the 2nd Shock Army had found on the Volkhov river. The Germans had managed to screen the gap, but the Soviets still retained a bridgehead measuring 5 miles (8km) by 3 miles (4.8 km). On 21 January the 2nd Shock Army, with the 52nd Army and 59th Army on its left and right flanks respectively, started to attack the German forces holding the western face of the bridgehead. The flanking armies were close beside the 2nd Shock Army so that they could roll up the German front to the south and to the north when the breakthrough came. Thus the Soviet offensive, which had been schemed as a major five-army undertaking to destroy the entire German front between Lake Ladoga and Lake Ilmen, had become what was in effect a single thrust by the 2nd Shock Army that was still 70 miles (115 km) from Leningrad, whose siege the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation' had been planned to break.

The 2nd Shock Army advanced well in the initial five days of the second attempt, penetrating through the front to a distance of almost 25 miles (40 km). In achieving this, however, the 2nd Shock Army failed to gain a position within range of any significant objective. The area in which it was fighting was that of the headwaters of the Luga and Tigoda rivers, and was thus a a very large and indeed almost uninhabited conglomeration of swamp and peat bog, and for the most part under water in all but the winter months. The presence of a Soviet army behind their front was highly disconcerting to the Germans, but of greater short-term danger was the fact that the two flank armies would widen the Soviet breakthrough. The 59th Army, in particular, in driving to the north as Chudovo on the rail line connecting Moscow and Leningrad, could possibly have ripped open a 25-mile (40-km) breach and with this a straightforward axis along the rail line to Leningrad. The Germans kept a tight hold on Spaskaya Polist, some 20 miles (32 km) to the south of Chudovo, however, and by containing the 52nd Army also kept the breach to a width of just 6 miles (10 km) and so compelled the 2nd Shock Army to fight in a pocket.

In the eyes of post-war Soviet analysts, the Volkhov Front and North-West Front were not able to exploit their numerical superiorities as fully as they should have done because of three problems: the difficulty of the terrain, weaknesses in support, and the inexperience of senior commanders. Since the first affected both sides about equally, it was the latter pair which was more significant. Supplies had been short in all the armies, but the Volkhov Front enjoyed some improvement in its logistical situation after a time late in January when General Leytenant Andrei V. Krulev, who was the deputy defence commissar in charge of logistics, arrived to speed the delivery of supplies.

The inexperience of commanders and their staffs was deemed to be the problem of the greatest persistence. Meretskov had already removed one commander of the 2nd Shock Army just before the offensive’s start, and in his later account of the army mentions the failings of many of its staff officers. Writing from the point of view of an army commander, Eremenko saw his own and his subordinate staffs as confident and competent, and the front command as overly cautious on the one hand and fickle on the other. As the Soviet offensive continued, the Germans became aware that the commands of the lower echelons were beset by problems: for instance, the Heeresgruppe 'Nord' radio intercept group heard messages from army NKVD sections to division and brigade sections calling attention to a large increase of 'non-fulfilment of combat assignments' and ordering the sections to intervene 'to reestablish proper order among units'.

At the end of January, the fighting on the northern flank appeared to be settling toward slow motion. There was an overall covering of snow, more than 3 ft (1 m) deep, and sub-zero temperatures were the norm, but these were not the reasons for the deceleration of the offensive, the situation of virtual deadlock resulting rather from mutual uncertainty. The German position was badly balanced, and the front-line forces could do nothing to change it. The Soviets possessed the initiative but could not exploit it. To the south of Lake Ilmen, the II Corps and X Corps held an eastward-projecting salient around Demyansk. The 11th Army had driven a wedge into the corps' northern flank to a depth of 20 miles (32 km). To the east of Staraya Russa,this wedge cut the Germans' best lines of communication and represented a substantial start toward the complete envelopment of the salient. On the southern flank, the II Corps had the 3rd Shock Army standing at Kholm, some 50 miles (80 km) to its rear and the 34th Army probing to the north into mostly vacant space.

Possessing only a very few reserves, the 16th Army had no option but to thin its front on the east to screen the corps' flanks. Busch, unhappy with the fact that he had been passed over for command of the army group and, as von Leeb had been, highly concerned about the possibility of a Soviet encirclement, wished to strengthen the southern flank against the threat of envelopment from that direction. von Küchler, irked by the fact that Busch was clinging to the idea of a potential southern-flank threat of the type which had already cost von Leeb his command, agreed with Halder that the greater danger lay in the north. Halder insisted that as an old soldier he had 'a certain nose for such things', and this told him the threat was not from the south but in the north, specifically at Staraya Russa which was, after all, the key to the entire German position in the area to the south of Lake Ilmen.

While this argument continued at the top, the manpower which the II Corps and X Corps were able to free proved to be only just sufficient, as long as the Soviets moved slowly, to keep the Soviets from swinging in behind the corps. There was a similar situation on the Volkhov river front. where the 18th Army, which had taken over the area of the breakthrough, was confident it could deal with the 2nd Shock Army after it had closed the gap in the front, but all the troops it could spare were currently being used just to keep the Soviets from widening the gap.

Toward the end of the first week in February, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' could, for several days, report that 'nothing [is] particularly wrong'. The 'Lyuban Offensive Operation' appeared to be dissolving into a series of unco-ordinated attacks: some of these were locally dangerous, but none was likely to effect a drastic change in the overall situation. For the moment Heeresgruppe 'Nord' seemed to be concerned more with the running of its logistic rail line than with the Soviet forces. The problem with the rail line was not new, although the snow and cold had exacerbated it. This problem could be traced back to the planning for 'Barbarossa', which had left the operation of the rail lines in German-occupied areas, as well as in Germany itself, under civilian control. Working on the Eastern Front was the least popular assignment for all railroad men, and it appears that the Heeresgruppe 'Nord' zone was the least desirable of all. The army group believed that its rail operations were in the hands of the dregs of the entire rail system. Halder suggested arresting a few and turning them over to the Gestapo as an object lesson for the others.

In Leningrad, time and the weather appeared to be working for the Germans. Interrogations of deserters and prisoners of war suggested that Leningrad was in the direst of condition as a result of cold and starvation. Hitler urged the army group several times to consider taking advantage of the relative quiet on the front and to push in closer toward Leningrad, but von Küchler refused on the grounds that he could not spare enough troops to take the city, and that any line closer than the one the 18th Army then held would be underwater when the spring thaw began. The prospect of this thaw, which could arrived in as little as five or six weeks, also gave rise to speculation that the Soviet winter offensive might be nearing its end. Halder thought the Soviets would attempt nothing of a major nature so late in the winter season.

In the course of what almost appeared to be an impending calm, the 16th Army identified two new Soviet formations, the I and II Guards Corps, on 6 February. The two corps were deployed back to back in the wedge the 11th Army had driven into the front to the east of Staraya Russa. From this position, the corps could split the German front in several directions, but for the moment their actions did not reveal a specific purpose, and they could themselves be trapped by an attack across the base of the wedge. Generalleutnant Wilhelm Hasse, who had succeeded Brennecke as the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' on 25 January, saw the deployment of the two Soviet corps as the beginning of a Soviet last-ditch attempt to cut off the II Corps and X Corps around Demyansk. Halder, on the other hand, was puzzled about Soviet intentions: the Soviet commanders were so browbeaten, Halder believed, that they would try almost anything just to be able to claim a tactical success. Rather than to wait and see what the two Soviet corps would do, the 16th Army decided to deliver a pre-emptive attack to the east behind the two Soviet corps with Generalleutnant Karl Allmendinger’s 5th leichte Division which, although fresh from Germany, was forced to attack directly off the trains on which it arrived and despite the fact that half of it was still scattered along the rail line as far to the rear as Riga. The result of the attack was almost instant failure, and the few parties that had advanced had to be brought back under the cover of darkness on the night of 10 February.

German uncertainty was more than equalled on the other side of the front by Soviet complications. During the third week of January, Kurochkin had proposed a concentration first on encircling and then destroying the II Corps and X Corps to the west of the Lovat river, but the Stavka had not been willing to delay the projected advance past Staraya Russa toward Dno and Luga. By then the Stavka had also started to think about wheeling the 3rd Shock Army to the north-west after it had reached Kholm for a deep thrust to Pskov. Late in the month the Stavka had allocated to Kurochkin the I and II Guards Corps and General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army with orders to do undertake both the thrust to the west and the encirclement. The 1st Shock Army, which had been shipped north from the front to the west of Moscow without any rest, was to spearhead the attack past Staraya Russa. The two rifle corps were to be used against the II Corps and X Corps, and the area to be encircled was much enlarged. The 3rd Shock Army, transferred to the Kalinin Front from the North-West Front, was to serve as the southern arm, and the II Guards Corps would close the ring from the north by a long drive west of the Lovat river to Kholm, where it would link with the 3rd Shock Army and subsequently take part in the advance to Pskov. Although it would be starting deep in Kurochkin’s territory, the II Guards Corps was subordinated to the Kalinin Front.

To the north of Lake Ilmen, in the second week of February time was becoming short. Leningrad, which was still the Germans' primary objective, was in the throes of starvation, and another four to six weeks would bring the spring thaw and its attendant rasputitsa mud and flood. The Volkhov Front had widened the gap enough at least to put the 2nd Shock Army’s line of communications beyond the range of German rifle and machine gun fire, but the Germans held tight at Spaskaya Polist on the crucial northern shoulder. The Stavka was placing intense pressure on all concerned to achieve something toward the relief of Leningrad, and Meretskov therefore made every effort to get the 2nd Shock Army aligned on the Lyuban axis, which would put it about halfway to Leningrad. The 2nd Shock Army, however, persisted in pushing straight to the west where the German resistance was lighter. Neither the presence at the front headquarters of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov as a representative of the Stavka nor the replacement of the 2nd Shock Army’s chief-of-staff and its operations officer was sufficient to get the army headed in the intended direction.

Lyuban and Staraya Russa were to remain in German hands for a considerable time. However, the winter and Hitler were about to give the Soviet forces their first opportunity of the war to execute a major encirclement: indeed, once Hitler had ordered the II Corps and X Corps to hold their positions round Demyansk, the Soviets would have found it difficult not to achieve an encirclement. The pocket had started to come into existence during the first days of the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation', and from that time on the completion of the encirclement could almost have been a process of collaboration between the Hitler Soviet commands!

As the 11th Army and 34th Army started to close behind Demyansk during January, the II Corps and X Corps, forbidden to manoeuvre, wrapped their lines around to the west. In the south, the II Corps held Molvotitsy as a corner post of its defence. Generalleutnant Theodor Freiherr von Wrede’s 290th Division established a northern corner post 15 miles (24 km) due east of Staraya Russa. By retaining the 5th leichte Division at Staraya Russa, the 16th Army kept alive the possibility of striking across the gap to the 290th Division and so turn the tables on the Soviets, but the chances of so doing dwindled after the arrival of the eI and II Guards Corps and the 1st Shock Army. One of the first effects of the Soviet reinforcement was to compress the 290th Division's front into a narrow projection off the main line of the Demyansk pocket, which was pushed away to the south.

The I and II Guards Corps were tasked with the completion of the encirclement, and received instructions on how to achieve this directly from Iosif Stalin, who told their commanders, Gryaznov and Lizyukov, to 'move in strong groupings, and do not stretch out. If you become extended, you cannot move fast. Maintain your groupings, and do not divide regiments and battalions. Do not lose contact with advance detachments.' The instructions were good, but in practical terms the 'very long distances the corps had to cover' rendered them 'unfulfillable'.

As the Germans could not prevent it and did not propose to attempt to escape from it, the completion of the encirclement became inevitable. The II Guards Corps cut the last German overland supply line on 9 February, and thereafter the II Corps became responsible for the six divisions in the pocket as the headquarters of the X Corps was located at Staraya Russa, and therefore outside the Demyansk pocket. A German supply airlift began three days later, and von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt reported on 16 February that the pocket he now commanded included 95,000 men and that he required needed at least 200 tons of supplies per day in order to survive. He was then receiving just 80 to 90 tons per day.

The II Guards Corps completed an outer ring on 15 February when it made contact with elements of the 3rd Shock Army in the area to the north-east of Kholm. In fact, the outer ring possessed little more than a token significance as there were no German forces within miles of it along most of its length. A much more dismaying event for the Germans came on 18 February, when the 290th Division was compelled to withdraw into the main area of the pocket. Until then the Oberkommando des Heeres and Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had been able to talk about the launch of the 5th leichte Division to he east as a relief force within a few days. Losing the pocket’s northern corner post was also more important to the Germans than the closing of the inner ring, of which they were not aware when it took place. Soviet accounts give two dates: the History of the Great Patriotic War gives 20 February as the date and Zaluchye, just outside the pocket and due east of Demyansk, as the place; another account says the inner encirclement 'advanced slowly' and was not completed until 25 February, when I Guards Corps made contact at Zaluchye with an infantry brigade of the 3rd Shock Army advancing from the south.

On 22 February Hitler designated the Demyansk pocket a Festung (fortress): the next such place would be Stalingrad, and after it there would be many more, but in the winter of 1941/42 the term was new, and implied permanence where a Kessel (cauldron) merely the incidental result of a large-scale manoeuvring encounter. A fortress was thus to be regarded as a deliberate creation and, in Hitler’s way of thinking, a purposeful tactical device. On 18 February Hitler had already talked about staging a thrust from Demyansk to the south in order to close the 80-mile (130-km) gap to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. By 22 February Hitler and the Oberkommando des Heeres were considering a number of plans to restore contact with the 'fortress', an event for which they had time as a sudden period of inactivity was descending along the entire Eastern Front: this was in itself remarkable as 23 February was the 'Day of the Red Army' and attacks to commemorate it had been expected. Around Demyansk the pocket’s perimeter now stabilised, and was characterised by the 20-mile (32-km) gap between it and the main front at Staraya Russa, with a smaller gap farther to the south on the Polist river.

Thus the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation' merged into the 'Demyansk Offensive Operation' and the latter is sometimes linked into the former when the dates are discussed.