This was the German offensive by General Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army of Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to check a Soviet offensive to the north of Novgorod on the northern shore of Lake Ilmen (15/19 March 1942).
The liberation of Lyuban was one of the primary objectives of the northern offensive undertaken as part of the Soviet general winter offensive of 1941/42. The main weight of this offensive was provided by General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front 1. Meretskov’s offensive began on 7 January 1942 with a probing attack to the west across the frozen Volkhov river, immediately to the north of Novgorod, by the six divisions and six brigades of Sokolov’s 2nd Shock Army with the intention (from 13 January) of smashing through General Friedrich-Wilhelm von Chappuis’s XXXVIII Corps into the rear areas of the 18th Army and then wheeling to the north in the direction of Leningrad with the aid of flanking support by Klykov’s 52nd Army and Galanin’s 59th Army. The fighting took place on a frozen swamp under the direst conditions, and in the following month the Soviets advanced some 40 miles (65 km), about half the distance to Leningrad.
During the second week of March, General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 54th Army launched a subsidiary offensive to the south-west from Kirishi designed to link with the 2nd Shock Army, commanded by Klykov since 10 January after Sokolov had revealed gross incompetence, for the final push to Leningrad. The two armies approached to within 15 miles (25 km) of each other, in the process nearly isolating General Kuno Hans von Both’s I Corps. Up to this time the defensive effort of the 18th Army had been essentially of an extemporised nature, with ad hoc units committed in order to plug gaps and attempt to stem the Soviet advance. Since 17 January the army had been commanded by General Georg Lindemann after the elevation of von Küchler to succeed Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb at the head of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, and it was on Lindemann that it fell to plan and implement a more permanent reversal of Soviet fortunes with attacks on the shoulders of the salient north of Novgorod.
Farther to the south, during the last week of February the surviving 3,500 of the initial 5,500 men of Generalmajor Theodor Scherer’s 281st Sicherungsdivision and other elements encircled in Kholm were entering their second month under siege, and the perimeter that this force still held around the town had shrunk to the point at which air supply was becoming both difficult and very costly. On 25 February, for example, four of a group of 10 aircraft flying to Kholm were shot down, bringing the Luftwaffe’s losses of Junkers Ju 52/3m transport aircraft during the Kholm airlift to 50 machines. From this time onward, only gliders could land, and this was possible only on a cleared area of ice on the Lovat river. Powered aircraft were restricted to airdrop sorties at very low altitude to ensure that they released their loads accurately, and in the process were exposed to anti-aircraft fire from all directions.
In the same period, in the altogether larger Demyansk pocket farther to the north-east on the western side of the Valdai hills, and thus to the south-east of Lake Ilmen, itself just to the south of the Soviet forces’ Volkhov salient, General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s isolated II Corps needed 300 tons of supplies per day, and this effort required a major and sustained airlift, the first such effort in aviation history. To undertake this airlift, the Luftwaffe had to divert almost all of the transport aircraft assigned to Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and half of those assigned to Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, to the detriment of these two army groups’ logistic support. Slow and cumbersome, the Ju 52/3m transport aircraft had necessarily to fly in groups of 20 to 40 machines, with strong fighter cover, and Soviet bombing of the Demyansk pocket’s airstrips made it impossible to create and maintain an effective transport aircraft schedule and also created further dangers for the aircraft and their crews. Thus the total airlift delivery up to 28 February was 1,900 tons short of the requirement of about 3,800 tons.
Still farther to the north-west, von Both’s I Corps, holding the north-eastern face of the Soviet salient to the west of Volkhov, received a severe shock on 25 February when Soviet ski troops pushed to the north through frozen swamps along the Tigoda river to get within 5 miles (8 km) of Lyuban, to the north of Volkhov salient, as the first stage of the ‘Volkhov Offensive Operation’. The intelligence branch of von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had known for several days that the Soviet 327th Division was advancing to the north from a location near Spaskaya Polist to the west of the Volkhov river in the salient but, knowing that the Soviets generally preferred to complete an extended development period before any major attack, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had not expected the attack to start as early as this. What von Küchler and his immediate subordinates had not known was that Meretskov, commander of the Volkhov Front, and Klykov, commander of the 2nd Shock Army inside the Volkov salient, were under ‘categorical instructions’ from the Stavka to start their offensive without delay.
Nevertheless, when meeting von Küchler, Generaloberst Ernst Busch and Lindemann (commanders of the 16th Army and 18th Army respectively), and von Both, von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, General Christian Hansen and von Chappuis (commanders of the I Corps, II Corps, X Corps and XXXVIII Corps respectively) at his East Prussian headquarters on 2 March, Adolf Hitler spoke with some confidence about exploiting the initiative. Although its situation had not undergone any material change, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had swayed for more than two weeks on the edge of a disaster, and Hitler now declared that in itself this gave him encouragement.
On the other hand, however, the conference disclosed that there was as yet no significant improvement in the army group’s situation. In the Kholm pocket, half of the original garrison had been killed or wounded, and while replacements could be and indeed had been delivered by glider in sufficient numbers to replace about half of the losses, the delivery of every such man reduced the volume left available for the carriage of supplies and also increased the consumption of those supplies which could be transported in the volume still available. A relief force of some six mixed battalions under the command of Generalmajor Horst Freiherr von Uckermann had cut through from the south-west to reach a position almost within sight of Kholm, but was now stalled in deep snow and itself practically encircled by Soviet forces. von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt told Hitler that his forces in the Demyansk pocket had no reserves of consumables and were therefore wholly dependent on each day’s supply flights. For the smaller forces commanded by Scherer and von Uckermann in and near Kholm, and the larger force commanded by von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt at Demyansk, continued survival was therefore problematical.
To the south of Lyuban, though, the I Corps was enjoying an expectedly easy success. Spurred by the Stavka, Meretskov had driven the 80th Cavalry Division and the 327th Division into the breach opened by the ski troops on 25 February, and the I Corps had then closed the gap and thereby trapped about 6,000 Soviet troops. But if Klykov’s 2nd Shock Army in the south and Fedyuninsky’s 54th Army in the north-east did then manage to reach Lyuban, the I Corps would itself be trapped in a pocket.
Hitler accepted the reports with apparent equanimity, promised a reinforcement of one regiment to get the advance of von Uckermann’s relief force under way once more, and gave an instruction for an order of the day to be written honouring the Kholm garrison.
When the meeting started to address its primary concerns, namely the plan to close the Volkhov river line in the rear of the 2nd Shock Army and the need to restore overland contact with the II Corps, the tone of the conference shifted. Once Busch and Lindemann had provided proposals for counterattacks to close the Volkov gap and toward Demyansk, Hitler set approximate starting dates for each, in the form of the period between 7 and 12 March for the Volkhov operation, and then the period between 13 and 16 March for the Demyansk operation. Hitler added that the shortage of adequate ground forces would be offset by the Luftwaffe’s provision of aircraft to serve as ‘escort artillery’, using the heaviest demolition bombs available to destroy the bunker systems which the Soviet forces had constructed in the forests. The Demyansk operation, Hitler said, would also have to be co-ordinated with the proposed thrust of Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army from the south toward Ostashkov at the southern end of the Valdai hills.
However, a new item in the discussion now took the generals completely by surprise for, while talking about the Volkhov and Demyansk operations, Hitler apparently without thought allocated Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ a wholly new task: with the advent of spring approaching, Hitler said, it was vital that the siege of Leningrad be tightened and, most importantly, Vitse Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Baltic Fleet be prevented from exiting the Gulf of Finland into the Baltic Sea after the ice had melted. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ would therefore have to provide the troops needed to take and hold a group of islands at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. The Suursaari, Lavansaari, Seiskari and Tytarsaari islands were currently held by the Soviets, presumably with only small garrisons, but the Germans could not be certain of this.
Staffs at army group and army levels were now compelled to work against time, the Soviets and several uncertain factors to prepare ‘Raubtier’, as the Volkhov operation was codenamed, within a maximum of 10 days. The driving factor was of course the spring thaw, which had already started in Crimea and would extent itself to the north in the next few weeks, and the inevitable if temporary loss of mobility which would follow in its wake. Another factor which had to be taken into consideration was the comparative weakness of German air strength over the Eastern Front: air support was essential for the success of any German operation, but adequate air strength could be provided for only a single operation at a time: thus the ‘Raubtier’ operation to seal the Volkhov gap had to be undertaken before the ‘Landbrücke’ (otherwise ‘Brückenschlag’) attempt to improve the situation at Demyansk, where the time factor was still more critical, and any delay with the former operation could and almost certainly would cripple the chances of the latter operation. Moreover, Hitler’s demand that the islands in the Gulf of Finland be taken added further complication as it was a task which would also require troops and air support. No date had been set for it, and the army group regarded it as a waste of time. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht was adamant, though, that Hitler took the matter very seriously as he believed that he would become a laughing stock in the event that Soviet warships entered the Baltic Sea after the ice had disappeared.
Of course the Soviets were not prepared to permit the Germans to carry out their plans without opposition. In the first week of March, Georgi M. Malenkov, a member of the Politburo and State Defence Committee, joined Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov at the headquarters of the Volkhov Front, and the Stavka despatched General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov, who as commander of the 20th Army had been one of the heroes of the Moscow counter-offensive, to become Meretskov’s deputy. Before the end of the week, the 2nd Shock Army was being regrouped for a renewed advance on Lyuban, and the 54th Army was attacking Pogostye, some 20 miles (32 km) to the north-east of Lyuban. At Kholm the Soviets were making effective use of armour: a single example of a KV heavy tank halted von Uckermann’s relief force for a day until it could bring forward an 88-mm (3.465-in) gun to cripple it, and T-34 medium tanks were engaged against the strongpoints on the perimeter of the pocket.
The 18th Army was ready on 7 March to launch ‘Raubtier’ two days later if air support became available. But the Luftwaffe was currently heavily committed at Kholm in its effort to aid von Uckermann’s force in its advance across the last few miles to the pocket before the Soviets overran it: at this moment, German air support was being successful in its efforts to keep the pocket in existence, but was achieving less in its effort to support the advance of von Uckermann’s relief force. The German warplanes could effectively pin the Soviets in the open, but were not effective against the Soviet prepared defences, which were hidden by the snow. On 7 March and over the next few days, Hitler did not order the withdrawal of the air support for Kholm, partially as a result of his fear that the pocket might then be overrun, and partially as he was searching for a replacement for von Uckermann, who had been accused by a Luftwaffe liaison officer of being short of confidence. By 11 March, moreover, the Luftwaffe was also demanding a postponement on the grounds that the icing caused by the weather conditions made it too dangerous for the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers to carry the maximum-weight demolition bombs they were supposed to deliver.
Meanwhile the Soviet 54th Army was beginning to advance to the south-west in the direction of Lyuban in an assault which could cut off the I Corps unless ‘Raubtier’ altered the situation. von Küchler and Lindemann were ready to start ‘Raubtier’ on 12 March, even in the absence of air support, but Hitler would not agree because he feared that the resulting losses would be too high. By this time the delays to ‘Raubtier’ were beginning to erode the time allotted for the Demyansk operation and to threaten the projected seizure of the islands in the Gulf of Finland: the latter was believed by the army group staff as wholly pointless, though this was not disclosed to Hitler, who still demanded that the undertaking be attempted while the ice was still thick enough to be crossed from the south coast; the Finns, who were to join the undertaking from their northern side of the gulf, had said that they would be ready to attack on 20 March. Fog and low cloud necessitated a further postponement on 13 March, but the Luftwaffe reported that it expected the weather to clear by the morning of the following day, when its aircraft could lift off some time between 09.00 and 12.00. During the night, however, the temperature fell to -31° F (-35° C). Anticipating that he would have to choose between the effects of leaving the assault troops out in the open in these conditions while waiting the arrival of their air support, letting the attack start before the warplanes arrived, and thus the possibility of a major ‘friendly fire’ episode, von Küchler opted for a one-day postponement.
As it had been since its establishment in January, the mouth of the Volkhov pocket was about 6.25 km (10 km) wide. The rail and road lines linking Novgorod and Chudovo crossed the pocket in a north/south axis, but there were no east/west roads. Near the gap’s centre, about 1 mile (1.6 km) apart, the Soviets had cut two east/west lanes, each about 100 ft (30 m) wide, through the trees and underbrush, and on these lanes had compacted several feet of compacted snow to a depth sufficient to cover the tops of the tree stumps. These two lanes had served as the 2nd Shock Army’s lines of supply and communications, and to differentiate between them the Germans had dubbed the northern and southern lanes as ‘Erika’ and ‘Dora’ respectively.
At the fall of night on 14 March the weather still remained very cold, but the Luftwaffe was certain its aircraft could start to provide the required air support from the break of day on 15 March. The 18th Army had tents and stoves ready for movement with the troops, but because of the cold the risk of launching ‘Raubtier’ was still extremely great: in the weather currently prevailing, weapons in general and machine guns in particular were prone to jamming, and men lost the will to fight. But von Küchler decided that ‘Raubtier’ could not be delayed yet again.
At 07.30 on the following morning, therefore, German warplanes arrived over the front, and after the dive-bombers had hit their targets, the XXXVIII Corps and I Corps started to push their formations and units into the gap from the south and north respectively: the former was spearheaded by Generalleutnant Karl von Oven’s 56th Division and Generalmajor Hähling’s 126th Division supported by General de División Augustín Muñoz Grandes’s División Azul, the Spanish volunteer formation known to the Germans as the 250th Division, and the latter by SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Alfred Wünnenberg’s SS Polizeidivision. During the day, some 263 warplanes flew missions in support of ‘Raubtier’, and by dark the XXXVIII Corps had advanced 880 yards (800 m) and the I Corps slightly more than 3,500 yards (3200 m). During the course of the next two days ‘Raubtier’ continued, but without gaining the distance it had achieved on the first day. A factor in this was the failure of the German warplanes to live up to their billing by Hitler as ‘escort artillery’: when they dropped their bomb loads close to the line of advance, some of the bombs inevitably fell among the German troops, and when they allowed a safer margin, the Soviets usually had time to recover before the Germans, who were slowed by having to move through deep snow, could reach them.
The Soviet forces, moreover, were defending static strongpoints, but the fall of each of these narrowed the mouth of the pocket slightly. On 18 March, the I Corps crossed the ‘Erika’ lane, and in the course of the following day both corps reached the ‘Dora’ lane where their spearheads met late in the day, thus cutting off some 130,000 Soviet troops in what was now the Volkhov pocket. Meretskov managed to open a small relief corridor for a short while, and on 21 March took advantage of this corridor to enter the pocket and take command of the 2nd Shock Army, but this had no material effect on the pocket’s overall situation.
Already finding it difficult to keep the ‘Lyuban-Chudovo Offensive Operation’ going, the 2nd Shock Army was now faced with the prospect of having to fight for its survival, and the 2nd Shock Army, which in fact managed to hold the pocket until a time later in June 1942 before capitulating, in the process eventually yielding Vlasov, 33,000 prisoners, 600 pieces of artillery and 170 tanks.