Nevel Offensive Operation

The 'Nevel Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking in the Pskov area of Belorussia as the second of the 16 sub-operations together constituting the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' (i) (6 October/16 December 1943).

The other sub-operations were the 'Gomel-Rechitsa Offensive Operation' (30 September/30 October), the '1st Orsha Offensive Operation' (3/26 October), the 'Lenino Offensive Operation' (12/13 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 'Gomel-Rechitsa Offensive Operation' (10/30 November), the '2nd Orsha Offensive Operation' (14 November/5 December), the 'Novi Bykhov-Propoisk 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).

In the 'Nevel Offensive Operation', the initial Soviet attack created an unexpected breakthrough of the German defences and liberated Nevel on the first day, and attacks over the next four days created a salient about 21.75 miles (35 km) wide and 15.5 miles (25 km) deep on the junction between Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s (from 29 October Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s) Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Through the following weeks the forces of General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Kalinin Front, which was redesignated as the 1st Baltic Front on 20 October, continued to expand the salient and attempt to outflank and encircle the formations and units of Busch’s (from 11 October General Christian Hansen’s) 16th Army and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee to its north and south while those same formations, on Adolf Hitler’s orders, 'held the goalposts' and sought to cut off the salient. Hitler finally conceded on 16 December that these efforts were futile as the Kalinin Front continued attacking to the south in the direction of Vitebsk.

Following the Battle for Velikiye Luki in the winter of 1942/43, General Leytenant Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 3rd Shock Army had remained on much the same line to the east of Novosokolniki and Nevel through the spring and summer. During this time the strategically important railway line from Vitebsk to Pskov via Nevel remained in German hands as an essential lateral link between the two army groups, although it was under Soviet artillery fire near Novosokolniki. Breaking this railway link was an obvious Soviet objective. Although Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had created a ready reserve of five infantry divisions to deal with threats at either end of its sector, early in September the Oberkommando des Heeres ordered the transfer of two of these divisions to Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. On 19 September, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' took command of General Karl von Oven’s XLIII Corps from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', giving it an additional three divisions but also another 48 miles (77 km) of front and responsibility for the defence of Nevel and Novosokolniki.

The Soviet forces' current positions offered the potential to serve as the springboard for a 'big solution', namely a strategic offensive to drive between the two German army groups right through to the Gulf of Riga. The terrain was heavily forested and included large numbers of lakes and swamps, though only a few roads even by Soviet standards, and this combined with the manpower demands of other sectors of the Eastern Front to render so grand an offensive impractical. Instead, Eremenko planned the attack on Nevel as a supporting operation for his front’s wider offensive toward Vitebsk.

The Soviet forces launched their offensive at 05.00 on 6 October with a reconnaissance in force, followed at 08.40 by a 90-minute artillery preparation and air attacks by the 21st Assault Aviation Regiment. The 3rd Shock Army went over to the attack at 10.00 on the sector between Zhigary and Shliapy sector on precisely the boundary between the two German army groups. The 28th Division spearheaded the assault in the first echelon followed closely by an exploitation echelon comprising the 21st Guards Division and the 78th Tank Brigade, the latter fielding 54 tanks. The assaulting force struck and demolished Oberst Hellmuth Petzold’s 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision. Like all the Luftwaffe 'field divisions', this was in fact of brigade size with a mere four infantry battalions, and was especially weak in artillery with just eight 75-mm (2.95-in) mountain guns and one battery of StuG III assault guns. The division had also been badly damaged in its first action to the south of Bely during 'Mars' nearly one year earlier.

Even as the remnants of the 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision fell apart and retreated, the right flank of Generalleutnant Werner Richter’s 263rd Division was being badly smashed. While the attack of the 357th Division was contained, the 78th Tank Brigade, carrying troops of 21st Guards Division and supported by more men of this division in trucks, along with the 163rd Anti-Tank Regiment and 827th Howitzer Artillery Regiment, entered the gap, drove at speed to the west and liberated Nevel off the march. At the same time General Major (from 16 October General Leytenant) Vasili I. Shvetsov’s 4th Shock Army, deployed on the left flank of the 3rd Shock Army, also launched an attack toward Gorodok. Shvetsov had created a shock group from two of his three rifle corps, each advancing abreast in three echelons. General Major Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s II Guards Corps led with its 360th Division followed by the 117th Division and 16th Lithuanian Division, and two tank brigades. General Major Anatoli A. Diakonov’s LXXXIII Corps led with its 47th Division, which was supported by 234th Division, 235th Division and 381st Division, and another two tank brigades. Although there were no further panicked withdrawals by the other three divisions of General Alfred Schlemm’s II Luftwaffe Corps, the Soviet attack gained about 12.5 miles (20 km) but ultimately faltered just short of the railway and road lines linking Nevel and Vitebsk via Gorodok.

By Soviet reckoning, the 'Nevel Offensive Operation' ended on 10 October, but in actuality the fighting in and around the salient continued at least into the middle of December as the German forces attempted to cut off the Soviet salient as a whole while the Soviet forces expanded their hold to the north, south and west.

The Germans' initial reaction was that they had performed badly but not irrevocably. von Küchler, commander of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', ordered his three remaining reserve divisions into the breakthrough area while Hitler ordered that the shoulders of the gap which the Soviet forces had torn in the German line must be held at all costs. The Germans' first efforts to counterattack failed as a result of transport problems and the overall superiority of the Soviet strength, and on 9 October von Küchler decided to await reinforcement before making another attempt. Meanwhile Hitler berated his subordinates for failing to hold at unit boundaries, demanding that they 'consider it a point of honour' to maintain contact. When Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' proposed that the remnants of the 2nd Luftwaffe Felddivision should be merged into an army division, Hitler refused on the avowed, but remarkably erroneous, statement that he did not wish to water down good air force troops with bad army troops.

In a few days later the two army groups had gathered enough strength to plan a counterattack by two divisions from the north and one from the south, but on 14 October Hitler forbade this as he believed the force was insufficiently strong. On 15 October, the 3rd Shock Army attacked the villages of Moseyevo and Izocha on the north-eastern flank of the salient with the 100th Brigade and eventually all of the 28th Division, supported on the right by the 165th Division and 379th Division of the newly-arrived XCIII Corps. While the Germans held this attack, it did capture more favourable jumping-off positions for General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, which was currently moving into the region. At about this time the boundary between the Kalinin Front and the Baltic Front (2nd Baltic Front from 20 October) was moved to bisect the salient from east to west, and the 3rd Shock Army was reassigned to the latter front. On 19 October, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' proposed a joint effort to close the gap, but von Küchler declared he had no troops to spare as a result of the threat to Novosokolniki. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' then requested authorisation to proceed alone, but Hitler again refused. On 26 October, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was ordered to transfer the Panzer division it had been holding in reserve for the counterattack, and this ended all such planning for the foreseeable future.

Early in the foggy morning of 2 November, the 3rd Shock Army and 4th Shock Army attacked once more, and penetrated the defences of the left flank of the 3rd Panzerarmee in the area to the south-west of Nevel. After the breakthrough, which opened a gap 10 miles (16 km) wide, the 3rd Shock Army turned to the north behind the flank of the 16th Army while 4th Shock Army moved to the south-west behind the 3rd Panzerarmee.

On 4 November, Hitler summoned von Küchler and Busch to his headquarters, and here he characterised the October battle around Nevel as a Schweinerei (filthy mess). At the end of the conference Hitler ordered the two army groups to be ready on November 8 to deliver a counter-offensive from the north and south to close the gap.

The 3rd Panzerarmee did launch its attack on that date with Generalleutnant Walter Hartmann’s (from 22 November Generalleutnant Mauritz Freiherr von Strachwitz’s 87th Division and Generalleutnant Mortimer von Kessel’s) 20th Panzerdivision. The latter was relatively strong as it had on strength 29 PzKpfw IV and three PzKpfw V Panther tanks. Beloborodov received an alarming report in the morning from his 156th Division to the effect that the Germans were advancing and attacking the 417th Regiment with as many as 50 tanks and infantry. During the day the German force advanced as much as 5 miles (8 km) between the Ezerishche and Ordovo lakes and captured the villages of Blinki, Borok and several others. Beloborodov was forced to change the task of his 47th Division to counterattack the penetration off the march. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was scheduled to attack from its side on the morning of 9 November, but von Küchler protested that all of his formations and units were otherwise committed. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' then accused Heeresgruppe 'Nord' of refusing to attack simply 'because it did not want to'. Hitler refused to 'accept any further excuses' and ordered Heeresgruppe 'Nord' 'as a matter of honour' to begin its counterattack no later than the next day. von Küchler assembled a scratch force of seven battalions which attacked as ordered on 10 November, ran into heavy artillery fire and were then driven back to their line of departure by a counterattack.

On the night of 9/10 November, the 4th Shock Army began to neutralise the German breakthrough on its front. While the II Guards Corps contained the 20th Panzerdivision along the road linking Gorodok and Nevel, other elements of this army regrouped and then plunged deep into the German rear areas. The 357th Division and 119th Division moved to the south-west in the direction of Polotsk, while Beloborodov’s 381st Division and 154th Division, with the support of the 236th Tank Brigade, wheeled to the south in order to fall on the German defences at Gorodok from the west. The 3rd Panzerarmee moved Generalmajor Friedrich-Wilhelm Prüter’s 113th Division to block the advance on Gorodok, and several other Kampfgruppen covered the approaches to Polotsk. German resistance and the worsening of the weather at this time forced a temporary halt to the Soviet advance, but the 20th Panzerdivision was also compelled to abandon its drive towards Nevel. While the immediate threat had been averted, on 12 November Eremenko was chastised by the Stavka for apparently losing his composure over the German counterattacks. This paved the way for Eremenko’s dismissal from command of 1st Baltic Front on 19 November, when he was replaced by General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan, who had previously commanded the 11th Guards Army.

The 3rd Shock Army’s part in the renewed offensive began only after a thorough reorganisation. By the start of November the 178th Division, 185th Division and 357th Division had been replaced by the 115th Division, 146th Division 326th Division and 18th Guards Division. The army also received the 34th Guards Tank Brigade and the 118th Tank Brigade. Shortly after the offensive began on 2 November , the new commander of 2nd Baltic Front, General Markian M. Popov, further reinforced the army with the 119th Guards Division, 219th Division and 245th Division.

It was soon clear that the 3rd Shock Army had been assigned the main effort in the renewed offensive. von Küchler transferred six infantry battalions from Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army to cover 16th Army's new rear as its most southerly forces were being enveloped from three sides. The Soviet forces headed deep into the German rear area towards their objective, the town of Pustoshka on the railway line lining Velikiye Luki and Riga. By 7 November the 3rd Shock Army’s leading elements had penetrated to a depth of more than 18.5 miles (30 km) on a 25-mile (40-km) front. By the middle of this month, the 119th Guards Division, flanked by the 146th Division and supported the 118th Tank Brigade, had taken Podberezye and now posed a direct threat to the railway line linking Novosokolniki and Pustoshka. At much the same time, the 6th Guards Army went over to the attack on the eastern side of the salient between Nevel and Novosokolniki in an effort to link with the 3rd Shock Army and jointly isolate and destroy the XLIII Corps. This Soviet thrust made almost no progress, and the 6th Guards Army went back onto the defensive on 15 November. About one week later the 3rd Shock Army made several futile efforts to break through the German defences in the area to the east of Pustoshka, but made only minimal gains and on 21 November Popov ordered his entire Front to pass over to the defensive.

The 2nd Baltic Front planned a new offensive to clear the salient early in January 1944, but this Soviet plan was pre-empted from 29 December when von Küchler began a phased withdrawal. This was dome over a period of six days, and caught the Soviets by surprise: the 3rd Shock Army and 6th Guards Army hastily organised a pursuit, but this achieved nothing but the harassment of the retreating German forces.

Like the 6th Guards Army, the 11th Guards Army had originally been committed in the 2nd Baltic Front’s sector of the salient, but from the middle of November was reassigned to the 1st Baltic Front as the Stavka’s priority became the drive on Gorodok and then Vitebsk. Despite an untimely thaw, which left the ground almost wholly impassable to vehicles on 16 November, the V Tank Corps and III Guards Cavalry Corps, backed by infantry divisions of the 4th Shock Army, on 16 November began an attack which ripped through the defences of the 3rd Panzerarmee's 113rd Division and within two days had reached within 3.1 miles (5 km) of the main road linking Gorodok and Nevel. At 23.00 three tanks of the 5th Motorised Brigade with mounted infantry penetrated into Gorodok from the south-west and reportedly destroyed 25 German vehicles and two tanks, but this forward detachment could not be supported and was destroyed by elements of the 20th Panzerdivision by 03.00 on 19 November. For the next week fierce combat raged in the area just to the west of Gorodok as the Soviet mobile troops repeatedly manoeuvred and attacked to take the town. In response the Germans withdrew the remainder of 20th Panzerdivision and part of the 129th Division from their counterattack positions to the south of Nevel.

On 13 December, the 11th Guards Army attacked the northern tip of the 3rd Panzer Army's flank from three sides and in two days had almost wholly encircled two German divisions in separate pockets. Reinhardt requested permission to pull back his front but was refused as Hitler remained determined to close the gap. A day later the northern division was encircled and Reinhardt had no choice but to order a break-out which occurred on 16 December at the cost of 2,000 of its 7,000 men and all of its artillery, heavy weapons and vehicles. On the same day Hitler conceded the impossibility of sealing off the salient, bringing this phase of the overall battle to a close.