The 'Orel-Bryansk Defensive Operation' was Soviet first of the seven sub-operations together constituting the 'Moscow Strategic Defensive Operation (30 September/23 October 1941).
The undertaking was carried out almost simultaneously with the 'Vyaz’ma Defensive Operation' in the first stage of the Soviet attempt to counter the first stage of the German 'Taifun' (i) offensive to take Moscow. During the operation, major Soviet forces were surrounded by more mobile German forces but were nonetheless able to check the advance of Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe (from 6 October designated as the 2nd Panzerarmee) and inflict heavy losses on it. Then the surviving units broke out of the encirclement to assume defensive positions on the approaches to Moscow, and thereby delayed 'Taifun' (i) for more than two weeks, giving the Soviets the time they needed to regroup and to bring up reserves, including many from the Far East. The 'Orel-Bryansk Defensive Operation' by General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s Bryansk Front was thus an integral part of the battle for Moscow.
After the end of the Battle of Smolensk on 10 September, both sides operating on the Eastern Front used the short pause in hostilities to bring their operational plans up to date with the current military situation, regroup and rehabilitate their forces, and restore their combat capabilities through extensive maintenance and reinforcement.
The Soviet forces involved on the 'Orel-Bryansk Defensive Operation' were elements of the Bryansk Front in the form of General Major Mikhail P. Petrov’s 50th Army, General Major Yakov G. Kreizer’s 3rd Army, General Major Avksentii M. Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army, General Major Arkadi N. Ermakov’s operational grouping and General Major Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s I Guards Corps.
Facing these Soviet forces were elements of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the form of Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army and Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe.
On 16 September, von Bock gave the order to undertake 'Taifun' (i). The plan for this operation committed two strike forces, of which that in the south was the 2nd Army on the inner (left) side of this southern pincer arm, and the 2nd Panzergruppe on the outer (right) side of this same arm. This force was to break through the defences of the Bryansk Front before encircling encircle and then destroying its troops with a concentric offensive from the areas of Shostka and south of Roslavl, and then to bypass Moscow from the south and south-east with its mobile formations. Guderian decided to go over to the offensive two days earlier than the rest of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' with the support of the army group’s entire aviation strength provided by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II. He also sought to take full advantage of the good weather, as there were few paved roads in the direction of his advance, which was scheduled to start on 30 September.
As a result of the arrival of forces from the Oberkommando des Heeres’s reserve and men from other sectors of the Eastern Front, by the end of September Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was in the position to commit some 400,000 men in its southern strike force, which gave it a superiority over the Bryansk Front of 2.6/1 in artillery, 4.5/1 in armoured fighting vehicles and 10 or 11/1 in aircraft.
The Soviet supreme command and general staff failed to determine the plan and likely timing of the new German assault in general and in detail. Thus the Soviet high command became concerned that Moscow was the primary target only on 27 September, when it belatedly ordered the forces of General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s (from 13 October General Georgi K. Zhukov’s) West Front and Eremenko’s Bryansk Front to go over to a stubborn defensive posture and to mobilise all their engineering elements to build field fortifications and create obstacles.
The Bryansk Front held a front some 215 miles (345 km) wide, and had in its echelon the 50th Army, 3rd Army and 13th Army and Ermakov’s operational grouping. Two infantry divisions, one tank division and one tank brigade constituted the front’s reserve. In total, the front had a front-line strength of 233,000 men, 1,529 pieces of artillery and mortars, 257 tanks and 166 aircraft.
In accordance with Eremenko’s decision, the front’s main defences were concentrated on its right wing, where the commander deployed almost his entire reserve his entire reserve less the single tank brigade. This disposition was adopted despite intelligence data which correctly estimated that the Germans' main weight was concentrated against Ermakov’s operational grouping on the front’s left wing. This grouping had been greatly weakened in the course of continuous operations, and was now offered only the shortest of times to prepare the defence. Moreover, on 28 September the grouping was ordered to prepare and conduct an offensive in the area of Glukhov.
In general, the forces of the Bryansk Front were inferior to the Germ forces opposite them in both strength and capability, and were wholly incapable of preparing a defence, both deep and effective, in the minimal time afforded to them, and in tactical terms were spread thinly at the rate of only 0.3 tank and four pieces of artillery and mortars per kilometre of front. In combination with mistakes in determining the axes of the Germans' main attacks and thus the weighting of the defence made the task of the Soviet front-line formations almost impossible.
In the last days of September, the forces of the Bryansk Front covered the area of Bryansk and Kaluga and that of Sevsko, Orel and Tula. The forward edge of their defence, spread thinly along 180 miles (290 km) of the front, held the line extending from Snot via Pochep and Pogar to Glukhov.
On 30 September, divisions of General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) and General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) struck the left wing of the Bryansk Front from Shostka and south of Roslavl as the first movement of the offensive by Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe. By the end of the day, the defences of the 50th Army and the 13th Army had been penetrated. It was at this time that the formations of Ermakov’s grouping were to have advanced in the Glukhov area. Deployed in the manner necessary for offensive movement, the grouping was located on terrain not prepared for defence and could not hold the German assault and began to withdraw. The Germans assault had opened the way into the rear of the 13th Army’s left-flank formations of the 13th Army, and during the afternoon of the same day, both divisions (Polkovnik Mikhail E. Erokhin’s 298th Division and Polkovnik Konstantin G. Kalmykov’s 55th Cavalry Division) were driven back to the north-east. Between the 13th Army and the Ermakov grouping there emerged a gap which Soviet counterattacks could not close.
Eremenko came to the conclusion that the Germans had inflicted only a diversionary blow with one of the 2nd Panzergruppe's corps, and therefore expected the main blow to be delivered later by the 2nd Army in the direction of Bryansk. This it was decided to restore the position on the front’s left wing with only the forces stationed there.
On the morning of 1 October, Ermakov’s grouping struck the quickly planned counterblow, but this failed to close the gap opened by the Germans on the previous day. The formations committed to the counterattack were introduced into the battle in parts, at different times, from different directions and with weak fire support and could thus not match the power of the 2nd Panzergruppe's advance. Panzer divisions, supported from the air by the full range of air power supplied by Luftflotte II, immediately drove off and back Ermakov’s grouping, and by 12.00 the formations of the XLVII Corps (mot.) had taken Sevsk and driven farther to the north, while the XXIV Corps (mot.), which was advancing in the Orel sector, had increased the depth of its penetration 43.5 miles (70 km) by the end of the day.
By the end of 1 October, therefore, two gaps had already been created in the defence of the Bryansk Front’s left wing: the first, in the direction of Komarichi, was 37.25 miles (60 km) wide and 43.5 miles (70 km) deep, and the second, in the Sevsk direction, was 9.33 miles (15 km) wide and 21.75 miles (35 km) deep. In this situation it is hardly surprising that communication between the Ermakov grouping and the 13th Army was disrupted.
On 1 October, Stalin summoned Lelyushenko to his headquarters and set him the task of halting the 2nd Panzergruppe, which had broken through the Bryansk Front and was advancing on Orel, with his newly created I Guards Corps. This had to complete its assembly in no more than five days, and was to be controlled directly by the Stavka. At the same time, an air group was created to strike at the German armour that had broken through to the rear of the Bryansk Front. However, on the same night, Lelyushenko was again summoned to headquarters and told that Guderian’s formations were already very close to Orel. Lelyushenko realised that in the very short time allotted by the Stavka for the corps' formation, he lacked the time needed to organise the city’s defence. Lelyushenko therefore decided to abandon Orel without a fight and thus be in the position to organise a defence to the south of Mtsensk with the 36th Motorcycle Regiment, which was in reserve, and the Tula artillery school. Stalin approved this decision by drawing a defence line in the Mtsensk area along the Zusha river.
On 2 October, the 2nd Panzergruppe took Kromy, whence it advanced to Orel along the Kromskoye road. At this time, Lelyushenko’s headquarters had not yet even approached Mtsensk. On 2 October, the main forces of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' moved into action. On the right wing of the Bryansk Front, eight infantry divisions, supported by Generalmajor Karl von Dewitz gennant von Krebs’s 191st Reservedivision and armour, struck the 50th Army as they advanced toward Zhizdra.
At about 10.00 on 3 October, Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe approached the southern outskirts of Orel. Thus the threat of encirclement was clearly hanging over the troops of the Bryansk Front. On that day, in a manner unexpected by the command and staffs of the Bryansk Front and the Orel Military District, Guderian’s leading corps broke through to Orel and captured the city straight off the march.
At the time, there were four anti-tank artillery regiments, one howitzer regiment and several infantry units in Orel. Most of these forces were being readied to tackle a German advance from the south along the axis from Kursk, and thus the Bryansk Front was unable to delay the German advance from the south-west. Troop control was lost. In this regard, the Stavka was forced to subordinate the front armies directly to itself, but this was no real help for the front. On 3 October, which was the fifth day of their offensive, the Germans had advanced 155 miles (250 km) and broke into Orel.
By this time, the Bryansk Front’s overall situation had deteriorated significantly. On 3 October, units of Generalmajor Willibald Freiherr von Langermann und Erlencamp’s 4th Panzerdivision of the 2nd Panzergruppe captured Orel and swept forward along the road linking Orel and Tula. At the same time, units of the XLVII Corps (mot.) cut into the rear of the 13th Army and began to move onto the rear of the 3rd Army. The very real threat of encirclement now hung heavy over the troops of the Bryansk Front. In heavy fighting, Ermakov’s grouping made its way to the east to cover Dmitriev-Lgovsky.
In order to gain time for the organisation of defences near Mtsensk, which is located only some 30 miles (50 km) from this regional centre, troops of the 201st Airborne Brigade of the V Airborne Corps were landed on Orel’s airfield after movement from Teikovo in the Ivanovo region by Lisunov PS-84 and Tupolev TB-3 aircraft of the 23rd Air Division. Part of the 201st Airborne Brigade (some 500 men of the brigade’s 1st Battalion and its reconnaissance company) was also parachuted straight into the city. The airfield was located on the city’s south-western outskirts, so the paratroopers immediately entered the battle and held back the Germans until about 19.00. On this day the total of men delivered to Orel was 1,358: about 500 into Orel itself, another 500 or so to the Optushansky airfield, and about 360 to other points, including the area round Kroma. In Orel itself, on the line that ran through the Kromskoye road, the paratroopers were supported by secret police of the 146th Local Separate Convoy Battalion of the NKVD internal security organisation.
The activity of the paratroopers made it possible for Lelyushenko to organise a defence on the approaches to Mtsensk. The paratroopers, having cut the road linking Orel and Mtsensk, created a defence along the banks of the Optukha river and held this line until the approach of Polkovnik Mikhail E. Katukov’s 4th Tank Brigade of the I Guards Corps. Along with the motorcycle regiment and the 4th Tank Brigade, the I Guards Corps included the 11th Tank Brigade, the 6th Guards Division, the 34th NKVD Regiment and one division of 'Katyusha' multiple rocket launchers.
The farther advance of German tank columns along the highway was stopped by the main forces of the I Guards Corps with the support of the 6th Reserve Air Group of the Supreme Command Headquarters and other air elements at the turn of the Zusha river. In this fighting, Katukov’s 4th Tank Brigade showed particular determination and fighting capability against a numerically superior enemy. The tank units created ambushes from which they caught and savaged German convoys before falling back to new positions. In the battles for Mtsensk, the guards destroyed as many as 60 tanks, about 30 pieces of artillery and as much as one infantry regiment. After suffering severe tank losses, the formations of the XXIV Corps (mot.) were forced to halt for two weeks on the line linking Belev and Mtsensk to absorb reserves and replacements.
Finally appreciating the danger of the Bryansk Front’s encirclement, the Stavka decided to withdraw its troops on the night of 6/7 October. Too much time had been lost, however, and elements of the XLVII Corps (mot.) had by now intercepted the rear of the 13th Army and 3rd Army, for on 6 October the Germans had occupied Karachev and Bryansk. The armies of the Bryansk Front were broken apart, and most of their formations were surrounded. The German command allocated four of what was now the 2nd Panzerarmee's five corps to destroy the encircled Soviet troops.
The Soviet defence of the Orel-Mtsensk 'cauldron' lasted nine days. During the operation, Guderian’s forces lost 133 tanks while fighting the 4th Tank Brigade.
The withdrawal of the Bryansk Front’s forces began on the night of 8/9 October. By dawn, the formations of the 3rd Army and 50th Army had managed to make a dash of almost 30 miles (50 km) to the east. The troops of the 13th Army tried to break out of the German ring to the south-east, but could not achieve this. Gorodnyansky then decided to make his way to the south, in the direction of Suzemka station, some 20 miles (32 km) to the north-west of Sevsk. At dawn on 9 October, forces of the 13th Army units achieved surprise when they attacked and breached the line of Generalleutnant Justin von Obernitz’s 293rd Division: the 132nd Division, 143rd Division, 141st Tank Brigade and part of the army headquarters, and later part of the second echelon and the Army reserve broke through it. On this day, the men of the 13th Army advanced almost 15.5 miles (25 km) to the south, but were then stopped by German countermeasures to close the gap.
While the 13th Army made its breakthrough from the encirclement, the troops of the the 2nd Army linked with the 2nd Panzerarmee to the north-west of Bryansk. The Bryansk Front was thus split into two parts: the northern part comprised the 50th Army in the area of Bryansk and Dyatkovo, and southern part comprised the 13th Army and 3rd Army in the area of Trubchevsk, Suzemka and Navlya. The task of destroying these Soviet forces was entrusted to 20 of the 22 divisions under command of the 2nd Army and 2nd Panzerarmee.
In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the command and control arrangements of the encircled Soviet forces were completely disrupted despite everything tried by Eremenko. On 13 October, during a German air raid, the front’s commander was wounded and that night airlifted to Moscow, leaving the front’s chief-of-staff, General Major Georgi F. Zakharov, in command.
Despite their encirclement, the armies of the Bryansk Front continued to fight bloody battles in their efforts to break through the German positions and retreat in the directions indicated by their command. Formations of the 50th Army under the leadership of General Major Mikhail P. Petrov, made their to the south-east, and by the end of 13 October were concentrated in the area of Batagovo station near Buyanovichi, some 15.5 miles ((25 km) to the north-east of Bryansk) to develop a crossing of the Resset river. Forcing this waterway, but taking heavy losses from German fire, the army’s formations failed to break through and Petrov was killed. The remnants of the army were surrounded in the area of Zheltovodye and Vereshcha some 6 miles (10 km) to the north-west of Karachev, and on 17 October defeated. On 20 October, about 6,700 of the survivors, including the army headquarters and led by a colonel, managed to escape to the Belev area near Pern.
To the south-west of Navl, the Germans cut off the line of retreat for Kreizer’s 3rd Army and sealed off all its eastward exits. For two days, the army’s formations fought heavy battles to break through the encirclement, and in this period communication between the army headquarters and most of the divisions was disrupted: knowing the general direction in which they stood the best chance of escape, the divisions acted independently. The 137th Division and 269th Division, which remained under army command, as well as the 42nd Tank Brigade, fought from 17 to 20 October while completely encircled some 3.75 to 12.5 miles (6 to 20 km) in the area to the north of Dmitrovsk-Orlovsky. The divisions' position was hopeless, however: all their vehicles were stuck in the impassable swamps, they ran out of fuel, and tanks broke down. It was impossible to save these machines under almost continuous artillery shelling and mortar bombardment as well as German direct attacks.
On the night of 21/22 October, elements of the 3rd Army, traversed a large swamp and escaped the encirclement through a corridor, only some 550 yards (500 m) wide, which had not been occupied by the Germans. At dawn on 23 October, the main group of about 3,000 men escaped the encirclement in the area to the north of the village of Ponyri, and to the south. After occupying a sector of the Bryansk Front’s rear defence line, the 3rd Army began to restore its combat capability.
By the end of 13 October, formations of Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army had made their way to the Khomutovka area, some 37 miles (50 km) to the north-west of Lgov. Heavy fighting raged for five days. Guderian committed General Rudolf Kämpfe’s XXXV Corps and General Werner Kempf’s XLVIII Corps (mot.) against the 13th Army, closing all the escape routes to the Svapa river, but in a number of sectors were pushed back by elements of the Ermakov grouping that were holding the river’s left bank. By this time, the Soviets had exhausted all their fuel, so the 13th Army’s military council ordered the destruction of all vehicles and much equipment so that they would be of no use the the Germans. To assist the breakthrough units, the front commander ordered Ermakov’s grouping to deliver four simultaneous attacks on the Germans, who were also to be engaged by the front’s air element. On 18 October, the 13th Army’s formations managed to break through the encirclement and cross to the eastern bank of Svapa river. According to the Soviet army’s general staff, the 13th Army lost up to 50% of its manpower and matériel. By 22 October, the 13th Army had taken up defensive positions some 28 miles (45 km) to the north-west of Kursk.
Between 20 and 23 October, Soviet troops broke out of the encirclement to reached the line of linking Belov, Mtsensk, Ponyri, Fatezh and Lgov in the case of the 50th Army, to the area of Lgov in the vase of the 13th Army, and the area of Dmitrovsk-Orlovsky area in he case of the 3rd Army. By 29 October, the 50th Army was fighting on the line lining Pavshino, Kurakovo and Dedilovo. The 3rd Army was concentrated in the area of Shchigry and Livny and was then transferred to the area of Efremov to cover the gap between the 50th Army and the 13th Army. The 13th Army fought on the line linking Maloarkhangel’sk, Shchigry and Tim.
By the end of 23 October, the forces of the Bryansk Front which had broken out of the encirclement went over to the defensive on the line linking Belev, Ponyri, Fatezh and Lgov within the time limit set by the the Soviet supreme headquarters in its directive of 6 October. This ended the 'Orel-Bryansk Defensive Operation', during which the Bryansk Front’s troops had withdrawn some 130 to 155 miles (210 to 250 km), and had lost something between 85% and 90% of its men, as well as all of its heavy weapons and vehicles. This massive defeat was the result of the Germans' great superiority in combat skills and equipment, the poor supply of matériel to the Soviet front-line formations, and the errors of the front’s commander, who had assessed the situation incorrectly and thus failed to take the measures that were required to repel the German offensive. The Soviet troops were unable to 'smash the enemy’s Orel grouping' as demanded by the supreme command. What the Bryansk Front did achieve, however, was the fettering of a significant German force, making skilled use of tank ambushes to hinder the German tank and vehicle groupings. Thus the Bryansk Front thwarted the intention of the German command to secure a rapid breakthrough to Tula and a deep bypass of Moscow from the south. The active efforts of the Bryansk Front’s encircled formations also helped to slow the rate of advance of Guderian’s mobile formations, which covered the distance from their start line to Orel at the rate of some 30 miles (50 km) per day, but then from Orel to Mtsensk at only about 5 miles (8 km) per day.
Thus the stubborn defence by the Bryansk Front disrupted the pace of the German offensive in the Tula direction and pinned down large German forces for 17 days, which made it possible to prepare the defence lines in the area of Tula and along the Mozhaysk defence line, and so thwarted the German plan for an assault on Moscow from the rear.
Assessing the results of the offensive, Guderian wrote that 'having successfully completed the battles in the regions of Bryansk and Vyazma, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' has thus achieved another major tactical success. The question of whether it is able to continue the offensive in order to turn this tactical success into an operational one has been the most important question facing the German army’s high command since the beginning of the war.'