Pskov Defensive Operation

The 'Pskov Defensive Operation' was the Soviet defence of Pskov, on the Velikaya river just to the south of Lake Peipus and about 12.5 miles (20 km) to the east of the border with Estonia, against German forces advancing toward Leningrad (4/9 July 1941).

After defeating the forces of General Major Piotr P. Sobenninkov’s North-West Front in the border battled of 'Barbarossa', Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' resumed its offensive on 2 July. The army Group’s main striking force, Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe, and comprising three Panzer and three motorised divisions, advanced through Rezekne in the direction of Ostrov and Pskov.

On 3 July, the Germans took Rezekne, as thereby opened a gap between General Leytenant Fedor S. Ivanov’s 8th Army and General Major Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 27th Army of the North-West Front, leaving the axis toward Ostrovand Pskov, only very weakly covered.

As early as 25 June, General Major Ivan S. Kosobutsky’s XLI Corps of three divisions and General Major Mikkhail L. Chernyakovsky’s I Mechanised Corps had been transferred to the North-West Front with the task of covering Pskov, but many divisions of the Soviet corps had yet to arrive in their new operational area. The 111th and 118th Divisions, despatched from Yaroslavl and Kostroma respectively, were the first formation of the XLI Corps to arrive, but the movement of the 235th Division from Ivanovo was delayed, its first echelons starting to arrive only on 5 July.

On 4 July, Generalleutnant Friedrich Kirchner’s 1st Panzerdivision of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.), the German vanguard, broke through the defences of the fortified area of Ostrov and captured the 'Island', which was the central point of the city. Sobennikov, the commander of the North-West Front, ordered units of the XLI Corps and I Mechanised Corps to retake Ostrov and thus restore the Soviet situation. To undertake this task, Chernyakhovsky assigned one infantry regiment of the XLI Corps' 3rd Tank Division (less its motorised regiment). General Leytenant Nikolai F. Vatitin, the North-West Front’s chief-of staff, spoke by telephone with Kosobutsky and demanded 'Eliminate the incident, destroy the enemy and prevent him from crossing the river. Also destroy all suitable enemy reinforcements. Keep in mind that the elimination and destruction of the enemy is assigned personally to you, under your personal responsibility. You are responsible for fulfilling this order with your head.'

On 5 July, Soviet troops launched a counterattack and drove the Germans out of Ostrov, but the approach of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma’s 6th Panzerdivision restored the situation in the Germans' favour. On 6 and 7 July the Soviet attack near the 'Island' continued, but failed to produce any significant result.

Meanwhile, on the afternoon of 6 July, the Germans resumed their offensive: the 1st Panzerdivision began a rapid advance toward Pskov and the 6th Panzerdivision toward Porkhov. At this time, the first units of the 235th Division began to arrive and were immediately committed to the battle. However, there was nothing the Soviets could do to check the German advance.

In the current conditions of Soviet confusion and sketchy command and control of troops, there were cases of unauthorised abandonment of positions and indiscriminate retreat some units. This situation was exacerbated by the withdrawal of the XII Mechanised Corps as well as the rear-area and construction units of the 8th and 27th Armies, and the also by the evacuation of the civilian population. The retreating units passed through the battle formations of the XLI Corps, and this served to further the demoralisation of the military personnel. The situation was further aggravated by the tactical support missions of German aircraft, which were able to operate with almost total impunity. The roads were clogged with retreating civilians and military personnel, so the forward movement of the ammunition, fuel and food needed by the Soviet front-line forces was extremely difficult.

On the morning of 8 July the Germans succeeded in driving the weakened Soviet divisions to the northern bank of the Cheryokha river in a suburban district on the southern outskirts of Pskov. General Major Nikolai M. Glovatsky, the commander of the 118th Division, asked for the authorisation of the commander of the XLI Corps to withdraw his division across the Velikaya river. Such a withdrawal made military sense, but demanded good organisation lest it degenerate into a rout, but the premature demolition of the Pskov bridge across the Velikaya river led to a disorderly retreat by units of the 118th and 111th Divisions, and by the 25th Fortified Area remaining on the western bank of the river, and also to large losses in men and equipment. This was thus the main reason for the abandonment of Pskov and the subsequent withdrawal of the XLI Corps in different directions: the 118th Division toward Gdov, and the 111th, 235th and 90th Divisions toward Luga.

On 8 July the Germans occupied Pskov.

In this manner, the defences of the North-West Front on the line of fortified areas along the Velikaya river were broken and there emerged a real threat that the 4th Panzerarmee would advance unimpeded toward Leningrad.

For the abandonment of Pskov, Kosobutsky and Glovatsky, the commanders of the XLI Corps and 118th Division respectively, were brought before a military tribunal. Initially, both officers were sentenced to death, but a review of the case led to the execution of Glovatsky on 3 August, but the commutation of Kosobusky’s sentence to imprisonment for 10 years, though in October 1942 he was released and resumed service in the Soviet army and eventually reached the rank of general leytenant. The XLI Corps' chief of engineering service was also shot in July 1941.