Polotsk Defensive Operation

The 'Polotsk Defensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking in defence of Polotsk, and was the first of the nine sub-operations together constituting the 'Smolensk Strategic Defensive Operation' as the German 'Barbarossa' offensive advanced on Moscow (2/16 July 1941).

At the beginning of July 1941, the main forces of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were still fighting to eliminate the Soviet forces encircled in the Białystok and Minsk stages of 'Barbarossa'. For the offensive toward Moscow through Smolensk, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe and Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe, under the overall supervision of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, were allocated the task of spearheading the advance. In the Polotsk area, to the north-north-east of Minsk, the forward detachment of Generalleutnant Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 19th Panzerdivision of General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) within the 3rd Panzergruppe made effective use of the good roads from Vilnyus through Glubokoye and Postavypassed to push forward some 125 miles (200 km) and reach the Zapadnaya Dvina river. This was the region, on the middle reaches of this river, in which General Leytenant Fillip A. Ershakov’s 22nd Army (six infantry divisions) was completing its concentration after redeployment from the Ural mountains areas.

After a fierce but comparatively short engagement on 3 July, the 19th Panzerdivision battle cleared the southern bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina river near Disna, and the next day used the excellent tactical air support provided by the Luftwaffe to seize a bridgehead across the river. To the right of the 19th Panzerdivision, however, Generalmajor Friedrich Herrlein’s 18th Division (mot.) ran up against the defences of the Polotsk fortified area in the area of Vetrino and Farinovo, and was brought to a halt by Polkovnik Aleksei I. Zygin’s 174th Division. The continued stubborn resistance of the 174th Division prevented the 18th Division (mot.) from crossing the river, and Generalleutnant Friedrich Fürst’s 14th Division (mot.) was was transferred from Minsk to the Polotsk area.

From 5 July, the 22nd Army’s 98th Division, 112th Division and 174th Division unsuccessfully counterattacked in the Disna area where, in turn, the Germans attempted to enlarge their bridgehead. By 7 July, the German troops came into full contact with the 22nd Army across the full width of the latter’s area of defensive responsibility. The infantry divisions of the right flank of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' broke through the positions of the fortified area in the Sebezh area, but General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko, the West Front’s deputy commander, arrived in the area and managed to stabilise the situation.

On 8 July, the Soviet forces once more managed to prevent the enlargement of the German bridgehead in the area of Disna. At the same time, the 126th Division, which had been transferred to this area only on the preceding day, sustained heavy losses: General Major Mikhail A. Kuznetsov, the divisional commander, was mortally wounded, and among the dead and wounded were divisional chief-of-staff, the divisional operations officer and two regimental commanders.

On this day, Generalleutnant Horst Stumpff’s 20th Panzerdivision of General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) crossed the Zapadnyi Dvina river near Ulla and broke through toward Vitebsk.

On 11 July revised orders were issued to the 22nd Army, which was still involved in fierce battles with superior German forces passing round the flanks of the Sebezh and Polotsk areas: the LI Corps was to ready a new defensive line and, leaving no more than one rifle regiment and a garrison, the LXII Corps was to co-operate with General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 19th Army in destroying the German breakthrough in the Ulla area. However, the main forces of the LXII Corps were effectively pinned by German action, its 174th Division defending itself with desperation on the edge of the Polotsk region and trying to restore the situation in the area where the Germans had penetrated at Borovukha.

The German command planned to encircle the grouping of Soviet troops in the area of Polotsk and Nevelsk with the forces on the adjacent flanks of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Against the 22nd Army’s six divisions, the Germans committed General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt 's II Corps and General Georg Lindemann 's L Corps of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s 16th Army of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and the 3rd Panzergruppe in the form of General Albrecht Schubert’s XXIII Corps of three infantry divisions and Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) with single Panzer and motorised divisions. In the Ulla area, the Zapadny Dvina river was crossed by three divisions of Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.).

On 12 July, the LVII Corps (mot.)'s 19th Panzerdivision and 14th Division (mot.) struck from a bridgehead in the Disna area and broke through the Soviet defences. Developing the offensive to the north-east, the 19th Panzerdivision took Dretun, captured the Soviet supply base and continued the attack on Nevel in the course of the following day, but the defence of the units of the 22nd Army’s second echelon (48th Tank Division) dee delayed the German offensive. The advance of the 18th Division (mot.) was slowed by the attack of the LXII Corps into its rear from the direction of Polotsk.

Meanwhile, the German pressure of the 22nd Army’s front increased. On 15 July, Schubert’s XXIII Corps occupied the left-bank segment of Polotsk, and during the night of 16 July its units entered the right-bank part of the city. However, the 22nd Army had blown all three bridges across the Zapadny Dvina river. On this day, the 19th Panzerdivision entered Nevel, and Generalleutnant Walter von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s 12th Division of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was brought forward to link with it. The two divisions of General Otto-Wilhelm Förster’s VI Corps approached the right flank of the XXIII Corps and participated in the breakthrough at Polotsk.

Threatened with encirclement, the 22nd Army was ordered to withdraw, but some long-term defensive positions around Polotsk were left and continued to fight until 19 July.

The stubborn resistance of the 22nd Army in the Polotsk region had delayed the German advance on the northern flank of this part of the Eastern Front’s central sector. After the Germans had bypassed Polotsk, they encountered the defences of the 22nd Army’s second echelon in the area of Nevel and then of Velikiye Luki. The desperate resistance of the encircled Soviet troops made it difficult for the Germans to manoeuvre effectively, and the battles in the Velikiye Luki area also made a contribution to the withdrawal of the 22nd Army’s main forces from the 'cauldron'.

On 20 July, the LI Corps (98th Division and 112th Division) of the 22nd Army broke out of the encirclement, the remnants of these two divisions being amalgamated into consolidated regiments and deployed in the Soviet defences along the Lovat river. Formations of the LXII Corps, including the 174th Division, broke out of the encirclement on 21 July. On this day, after after many days of bloody battles, the 48th Tank Division, 126th Division and 179th Division drove the German troops out of Velikiye Luki.

To close the gap at the junction of the West Front and North-West Front, two armies were allocated from the Front of the Reserve Armies: these were General Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 29th Army and General Major Vasili A. Khomenko’s 30th Army. The battle for Smolensk now entered a new phase.