Nalchik-Ordzhonikidze Defensive Operation

The 'Nalchik-Ordzhonikidze Defensive Operation', otherwise known as the 'Vladikavkaz Defensive Operation', was the Soviet seventh of the seven sub-operations together constituting the 'North Caucasian Strategic Defensive Operation' (25 October/12 November 1942).

This defensive operation was undertaken by the Northern Group of Forces of the Trans-Caucasus Front within the 'Great Patriotic War', and was fought with the object of preventing the penetration of German and Romanian troops, advancing within the 'Edelweiss' offensive, through Nalchik and Ordzhonikidze to Tbilisi, Grozny and Baku, of which the last two were the centres of the oil-bearing regions and the Trans-Caucasus region.

By the end of 25 October, the Germans had managed with great secrecy to regroup Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee of Heeresgruppe 'A', which was under the direct command of the Oberkommando des Heeres, and to concentrate its main strength of two Panzer divisions and one motorised infantry division in the Nalchik area. The task of this group was to take Ordzhonikidze on its advance to seize Grozny and Baku, and to press forward along the Georgian Military Highway to Tbilisi. The Soviet forces holding the area of the planned German operation was General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s Northern Group of Forces, which comprised General Major Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 9th Army, General Major Piotr M. Kozlov’s 37th Army, General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 44th Army, General Major Vasili A. Khomenko’s 58th Army, two separate infantry corps and one cavalry corps. Supported by the 4th Air Force, the Soviet group defended a front of about 217.5 miles (350 km) long. Ignorant of the German regrouping, the Soviet command was readying an offensive in the toward Malgobek and Mozdok, and accordingly concentrated its main strength for this task. In the Nalchik area, the 37th Army, which had been seriously weakened in earlier fighting and possessed no armour, was on the defensive. Here, on the 3.7-miles (6-km) sector on which they planned to break through the front, the German had total tank superiority and also created superiorities of 3/1 in men, 11/1 in artillery and 10/1 in mortars.

General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front did not expect an offensive in the Nalchik area, and had therefore made no effort to reinforce the troops defending the sector. Larger forces were concentrated in the zone of Koroteyev’s 9th Army where, as noted above, an offensive was being prepared. The military councils of the 37th Army and Northern Group of Forces lacked the foresight to discern the German plan, despite intelligence reports from the 9th Army and 37th Army about the regrouping being undertaken: the 37th Army and the Northern Group of Forces concurred with each other that this regrouping was merely a German strengthening if its defences.

The start of the Northern Group of Forces' offensive toward Malgobek and Mozdok was scheduled for 1 November. Early in the morning of 25 October, however, about 70 German aircraft delivered a potent attack on the headquarters in Dolinsky and also on the dispositions of the 37th Army, and as a result communications between the Northern Group of Forces and the headquarters of the 37th Army were severed. Kozlov also lost control of his forces. At 10.00, after a short but concentrated artillery bombardment, General de divizie Gh. Ioan Dumitrache’s Romanian 2nd Mountain Division, reinforced by German units, went onto the offensive. Under the cover of smoke screens, the tank-supported assault troops struck at the junction of Polkovnik Nver G. Safarian’s 295th Division and Polkovnik Georgi I. Kuperadze’s 392nd Division as they headed in the general direction of Nalchik. The 295th Division was forced to retreat at the rate of 5 miles (8 km) per day in some areas, and the 392nd Division was cut off and pushed into the mountains: the units of this latter division which were driven into the Baksan river gorge had to leave for the transcaucasian region through the passes of Mt Elbrus. On the morning of 26 October, the Axis forces resumed their offensive and during the afternoon of the same day neared Nalchik, and the Germans came to believe that the Soviet troops would no longer be able to stop the advance. On the same day, the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'A' reported to the headquarters of Adolf Hitler that 'In the area of the 1st Panzerarmee the attack on Nalchik apparently took the [Soviets] by surprise. On the first day the Panzer divisions already advanced to Psygansu, and some of their units turned to the north and created the conditions required for the encirclement of approximately four [Soviet] divisions. The destruction of this group should be completed in a few days. The [Soviets were] driven back into the mountains. It seems that the advance by Panzer forces in the southerly and then the easterly directions toward Vladikavkaz will open up broad prospects…'

On 26 October, starting from the area of the Mayskaya river, Generalleutnant Traugott Herr’s (from 1 November Generalleutnant Hellmut von der Chevallerie’s) 13th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Boineburg-Lengsfeld’s 23rd Panzerdivision attacked Kotlyarevskaya. After breaking through the weak Soviet defences, the German tanks quickly fanned out to the south-west and by the end of the day had advanced more than 12.5 miles (20 km).

Tyulenev, commander of the Trans-Caucasus Front, despatched to the Northern Group of Forces the 155th Brigade from Sukhumi and also the 317th Division and 319th Division from the 58th Army. In addition, General Major Piotr E. Lovyagin’s newly formed X Corps was brought into the breakthrough area . On the night of 27 October, this corps was supposed to take up defensive positions along the eastern bank of the Urukh river between Terek and Chikola, and take under it command the two right-flank forces already deployed there: these were the 275th Division and the 52nd Tank Brigade. General Major Ivan P. Rosly’s XI Guards Corps was ordered to defend the outer edge of the Ordzhonikidze defence region. The Axis forces meanwhile continued their continuous advance, driving Kozlov’s forces into the foothills of the main ridge of the Caucasus mountains. A gap came into being between divisions of the 37th Army, and the sector between Urukh and Chikola was completely exposed, and there developed the threat of an immediate breakthrough by German armour to Ordzhonikidze.

On 28 October, after breaking through the 37th Army’s defences, the Germans took Nalchik. On the night of 30 October, in an effort to halt the German advance, the Northern Group of Forces moved one tank brigade, reinforced with anti-tank artillery, to the Digora region, and one of the 58th Army’s infantry divisions to the sector between the Suadag and the mouth of the Ardon river. This strengthening slowed the German advance, but nonetheless the Soviet situation remained poor.

On 29 and 30 October, the Germans redeployed the 13th Panzerdivision and 23rd Panzerdivision to the western bank of the Urukh river. On 31 October, elements of the 1st Panzerarmee struck in the Chikola area and got onto the rear of the X Corps before destroying its headquarters. Having broken through the corps' defences, the Germans launched an offensive on Ardon.

Overcoming the Soviet resistance, on 1 November the Germans occupied Alagir and crossed the Ardon river. On the same day German warplanes bombed Ordzhonikidze. During these days, Tyulenev decided to abandon the planned offensive in the Ishchersky area, and within two days to transfer the X Guards Corps from the 44th Army . The 2nd Guards Tank Brigade and the 5th Guards Tank Brigade were also transferred. In the Ordzhonikidze area, moreover, there arrived five anti-tank artillery regiments and three rocket artillery regiments of the 9th Army, as too did the Northern Group of Forces' reserve commander. As a result of these measures, the Axis offensive was slowed, but the situation nonetheless remained extremely dangerous.

On the morning of 2 November, German infantry supported by almost 100 tanks, broke through the outer flank of the Ordzhonikidze defensive area in the Fiagdon river sector some 12.4 miles (20 km) to the west of Ordzhonikidze, and Dzuarikau, and thus reached Ordzhonikidze’s outskirts. By the end of the day, the Germans had captured Gizel, but made no farther advance on that day as the reserves of the Northern Group of Forces were beginning to appear.

The Soviet forces could not long hold back the onslaught of so strong an armoured grouping, however, yet did everything they could to stop the German advance. In the Fiagdon area, units of Rosly’s XI Guards Corps destroyed 30 German tanks and did not yield ground.

During this period, a heavy burden was imposed on the crews of the 4th Air Army’s warplanes. Despite the bad weather, they flew about 2,200 sorties in the Nalchik area, and in a 12-day period were involved in about 100 air battles, during which they shot down 60 German aircraft.

The Germans continued their attempts to break through to Ordzhonikidze. After capturing Gizel and concentrating up to 150 tanks in this area, they sought to expand the breakthrough on 3 and 4 November, but were thrown back everywhere with heavy losses. On 4 November, the headquarters of the 1st Panzerarmee reported to the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'A' that 'the offensive on Vladikavkaz will have to be halted until the area to the south of the Terek river has been cleared of the [Soviets] and this will eliminate the danger of a strike on the flank and rear of our Panzer divisions'. However, tactical factors were not the reason for the alt of the German offensive on Ordzhonikidze: the pause was forced on the Germans by the stubborn Soviet resistance and their own losses.

On 5 November, the German offensive ended. Now the German command was thinking not about any pursuit of retreating Soviet forces troops, but about the protection of their own forces. On this day, the headquarters of the 1st Panzerarmee received an order including the words '…on the entire Eastern Front, on the [Soviet] revolutionary holiday on 7 November, large offensive operations should be expected. The Führer expresses the hope that the troops will defend every inch of ground to the last man.'

The narrow corridor in which the German troops found themselves at Ordzhonikidze was being closed ever more tightly by units arriving from the Northern Group of Forces' reserve, and there was now the very real possibility of the complete encirclement and destruction of the German forces in the Gizel area. Maslennikov decided to begin a counter-offensive with three infantry brigades and four tank brigades while the Northern Group of Forces' main forces maintained the defence. This decision reflected Maslennikov’s caution and his fears for the Grozny area, and thus his intention to cover the latter with a deeply echeloned defence.

On the morning of 6 November, the XI Guards Corps (10th Guards Brigade, 57th Brigade, 5th Guards Tank Brigade and 63rd Tank Brigade) struck along the eastern bank of the Fiagdon river at Dzuarikau. At 12.00, the X Guards Corps, in the form of the 4th Guards Brigade and the 52nd and 2nd Tank Brigades, launched an attack on Gizel. As a result of the success of the XI Guards Corps' advance, the main strength of the 23rd Panzerdivision was almost totally encircled: the division had only a narrow escape corridor, no more than 1.85 miles (3 km) wide, in the Mayramadag area, and German units made intense attempts to break out of the encirclement.

Fierce fighting followed in the Suar river gorge beyond Mayramadag, some 7.5 miles (12 km) to the west of Ordzhonikidze, where Polkovnik Aleksandr V. Vorozhishchev’s 34th Separate Brigade, formed from cadets of naval schools, defended. In an effort to aid the 13th Panzerdivision, on 9 November the Germans committed the Romanian 2nd Mountain Division and Oberstleutnant Paul Haehling von Lanzenauer’s Lehrregiment 'Brandenburg' zbV 800, supported by 60 tanks. For more than 10 days the Soviet sailors defended the line, and thereby prevented the Axis forces from capturing Mayramadag and penetrating into the Suar river gorge. The German drive therefore failed to aid the group surrounded in Gizel.

On the morning of 11 November, the left-flank forces of the 9th Army broke the resistance of the German rearguards and took Gizel, and in the afternoon occupied Novaya Saniba. On the following day, the 9th Army reached the line of the Mayramadag and Fiagdon rivers. Its further advance was halted by the determined resistance of German forces, which had organised an effective defence along the western bank of the Fiagdon river.

The 'Nalchik-Ordzhonikidze Defensive Operation' thus came to an end with the defeat of the German grouping in Gizel. The Soviets captured 140 tanks, 70 guns of various calibers and a mass of other weapons and equipment. The German and Romanian units had lost more than 5,000 men killed.

The underestimation of the forces and capabilities of the Trans-Caucasus Front had led to the failure of the 1st Panzerarmee's plans. The German forces had not been able to penetrate the Soviet front to any useful depth, and then to develop a tactical advantage into an operational Soviet defences to the full depth and develop tactical success into operational victory. As a result of the 'Nalchik-Ordzhonikidze Defensive Operation', therefore, the last German attempt to break through to the Grozny and Baku oil-bearing regions and to Trans-Caucasia was thwarted.

It is worth noting, moreover, that the 'Nalchik-Ordzhonikidze Defensive Operation' took place during the fierce battles at Stalingrad, in which the German command constantly sought new reserves with which to strengthen its Stalingrad group. It intended to take these reserves from the Caucasus region, but could not do so.