Operation Schlingpflanze

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This was a German unrealised plan to widen the corridor between Staraya Russa and pocket of Demyansk at its narrowest point between Ramushevo on the Lovat river and Saluchi (July/17 August 1942).

At this time, the pocket was held by General Wilhelm Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps of General Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army within Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ against General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army, General Leytenant Anton I. Lopatin’s 34th Army and General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev’s 3rd Shock Army of General Polkovnik Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front.

Adolf Hitler saw continued German possession of the pocket, which he preferred to envisage as the Demyansk salient, as a threat poised over the Soviet rear areas in the north, and thus insisted that the salient be maintained and even enlarged.

In the summer of 1942, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was, like Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, allocated an essentially secondary role though with the difference that it had in prospect a genuinely strategic mission: as ordered by Hitler in his Führerweisung Nr 41 of 5 April 1942, it was to complete the capture and/or destruction of Leningrad, establish overland contact with the Finnish army on the Karelian isthmus, and occupy Ingermanland (the area of the Soviet coastal pocket round Oranienbaum) as soon as the situation in the encircled areas or the availability of sufficient strength made these possible. Although deferred in its execution, the mission was, in Hitler’s mind, considerable greater than one of opportunity. His thinking was derived to the situation in the autumn of 1941 and, most especially, the failure in December to establish contact with the Finnish forces on the Svir river, after which Sotamarsalkka Erich von Mannerheim, the Finnish army’s commander-in-chief, had told the Germans that the Finnish forces would not take the offensive anywhere along the front until, at the very least, they had been relieved of the having to holding a front to the north of Leningrad.

Early in the winter of 1941/42, Hitler had ordered the staff of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to draft the ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) plan for the seizure or destruction of Leningrad. Overtaken by a number of difficulties, including the Soviet military renaissance during this winter, the army group had progressed its plan farther than the basic plan, but even so Hitler had continued to place the elimination of Leningrad a one of his main priorities, as demonstrated by the Führerweisung Nr 41. However, by this time it had become abundantly clear that unless the USSR collapsed militarily or politically, Leningrad was not to fall except at the cost of huge casualties for the attacker and defender alike. In the summer of 1942, therefore, ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) was to be a major operation and would require substantially greater resources than Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ either already possessed or was likely to receive in the foreseeable future.

On 30 June, at Hitler’s ‘Wolfsschanze’ headquarters in East Prussia, von Küchler briefed Hitler on the operations, other than ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), which his group might undertake after it had rested its formations and received its scheduled troop and equipment replacements. von Küchler outlined five possibilities: ‘Brückenschlag’ as a joint attack with Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to Ostashkov, the widening of the narrow corridor linking the forces in the Demyansk pocket with the rest of the German forces on the Eastern Front, the elimination of the Volkhov bridgehead and/or the Pogostye salient, and the seizure of Ingermanland. von Küchler added that the implementation of three of these (the Demyansk corridor, the Pogostye pocket and the Ostashkov operation) was urgent.

von Küchler returned to his own headquarters on 1 July and set the army group staff to work on two operations, namely ‘Schlingpflanze’ and ‘Moorbrand’. ‘Schlingpflanze’, to widen the corridor to the Demyansk pocket on its northern side, was to be undertaken first as the II Corps in the pocket was still reliant on air supply as the two relief lanes with the Germans had driven past Ramushevo to the western side of the pocket were under Soviet artillery from the south as well as the north, and were always muddy and indeed underwater whenever it rained. ‘Moorbrand’ would pinch off the Soviet salient at Pogostye and thus, von Küchler believed, severely limit the Soviets’ ability to deploy sizeable forces between the Volkhov river and Lake Ladoga. Hitler liked the idea of ‘Moorbrand’ as, though the terrain was generally unsuitable for motor vehicles of any description, the German tanks might be able to run on the raised railway embankment which crossed the base of the salient.

On 2 July, the Oberkommando des Heeres informed Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ that a special artillery reconnaissance group was being sent to consider the terrain between the Leningrad front and the Oranienbaum pocket for the possible emplacement of very heavy artillery. Hitler intended to have the 800-mm (31.5-in) ‘Dora’ superheavy gun, a railway equipment turning the scales at 1,330 tons, moved from Sevastopol, which it had completed its work in the ‘Störfang’ reduction of this Soviet fortress port, to the north for use against Kronshtadt, the Soviet naval fortress on Kotlin island in the Gulf of Finland. Within another two weeks, Hitler had lands and three miles of water separating it from the mainland, was a worthy companion piece to Sevastopol. In the next two weeks, Hitler added the 420-mm (16.54-in) ‘Gamma’ and 600-mm (23.62-mm) ‘Karl’ batteries to the equipment scheduled for delivery to the Oranienbaum front. All the weapons including ‘Dora’, for which a 5-mile (8-km) railway spur would have to be built, were to be emplaced by the last week in August. Because their ammunition was so expensive, so much heavy artillery would not achieve cost-effective tactical results in shelling Kronshtadt alone, so most of it was to be sited to be able to fire on targets in the Oranienbaum pocket as well.

At this stage the 18th Army began to plan an infantry operation against the Oranienbaum pocket as ‘Bettelstab’. Before the 18th Army and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ could complete their initial concepts for ‘Bettelstab’, however, Hitler was turning his attention toward Leningrad. In a message to the operations branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres on 18 July, Hitler announced that ‘Blucher’ (ii), the planned amphibious assault across the Kerch Strait into the Kuban area, would be cancelled as soon as the Don river had been crossed and the break into the Caucasus region from the north had been assured. The German divisions thus released would be transferred from Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army and despatched to the north in order to take Leningrad. This decision was finalised by the Führerweisung Nr 45 of 23 July, which allocated the superheavy artillery and the five divisions from the south to Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, which was to ready itself to take Leningrad at a time early in September. Just two days before, in the Führerweisung Nr 44, Hitler had ordered Generaloberst Eduard Dietl’s 20th Gebirgsarmee to prepare for a thrust, together with the Finns, to the railway extending north/south along the western side of the White Sea to link Murmansk with the rest of the USSR, Hitler’s assumption being that Leningrad would be taken at the latest in September and Finnish forces would be released from the Karelia isthmus front.

Initially known as ‘Feuerzauber’, the operation against Leningrad only one week later became ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) in all communications above 18th Army level and ‘Georg’ within that army.

Hitler next instructed von Küchler to plan and execute his portfolio of local operations (‘Schlingpflanze’, ‘Moorbrand’ and ‘Bettelstab’) as rapidly as possible so that all effort could be concentrated on ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) by the early days of September. Right from the start, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ knew, as Hitler almost certainly did, that a spate of undertakings of this type was impossible in the time specified as the men, armour, artillery, ammunition and, most particularly, air support could not be mustered for more than one operation at a time. As events were to reveal, ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) partially afforded and partially drove the solution. From the first, ‘Bettelstab’ had not been enthusiastically received by Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and, as it could in all probability be undertaken more easily after rather than before ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), it was postponed. On the other hand, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ saw ‘Schlingpflanze’ and ‘Moorbrand’ as altogether more vital than ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) to its survival in the forthcoming winter of 1942/43. ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) was more important to Hitler and, presumably, to German longer-term strategy, however. When early thinking suggested strongly that the 18th Army lacked anything like the strength necessary to undertake both ‘Moorbrand’ and ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), even sequentially rather than simultaneously, von Küchler felt he had no option but to cancel ‘Moorbrand’.

As well as being the only survivor of the so-called local operations, ‘Schlingpflanze’ was also the only one of the three plans which was anywhere close to execution. Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army had deployed the formations for it in the middle of July and had prepared to launch the offensive on 19 July before adverse flying weather and Soviet attacks on the perimeter of the II Corps made it necessary to postpone the start several times. After this, an extended period of heavy rain flooded the entire area between the pocket and the main front. At the end of the month, von Küchler and Busch were waiting for three- or four- day period of dry weather, but were on the verge of launching ‘Schlingpflanze’ regardless of the weather because the II Corps was now in a situation as parlous as it had been in the depths of the winter of 1941/42. The Ramushevo corridor was underwater, and the airlift was satisfying one between 30% ands 40% of the pocket’s daily supply requirements. On 4 August, though, ‘Schlingpflanze’ suffered another delay when all of the ground support and fighter aircraft assigned to the operation were diverted to support Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 9th Army at Rzhev.

On 8 August Hitler summoned von Küchler to a meeting at which ‘Schlingpflanze’ and ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) were re-examined. As was his wont in order to put senior commanders off balance, Hitler started by telling von Küchler that Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was to receive the first of the new PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks and proposed that some of these being deployed into the Kirishi bridgehead across the Volkhov river: Hitler’s unstated but clearly implied reasoning that it would be possible to hold the bridgehead with little more than just these tanks. When von Küchler pointed out that his army group had no way to move these powerful but very heavy vehicles across the Volkhov river, Hitler suggested they the tanks be used in ‘Schlingpflanze’, von Küchler agreed that this would be easier than deploying them to Kirichi. At a later private meeting, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, informed von Küchler that the tanks had not as yet even started to come off the production line, and that it would be better to proceed with the planning for ‘Schlingpflanze’ on the basis that the tanks would not be available in time for the offensive.

At the main meeting, Hitler told von Küchler the tactical warplanes transferred out of his area were to remain with the 9th Army until its crisis at Rzhev had ended, and then be deployed in support of ‘Wirbelwind’, which was to be undertaken by Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee. This meant that ‘Schlingpflanze’ could not possibly be launched before 20 August. Hitler asked von Küchler how long it would take to complete ‘Schlingpflanze’, and von Küchler responded that the operation would require 14 days. Hitler then asked when ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), which was to follow ‘Schlingpflanze’, would be completed, and von Küchler replied that the operation would be completed by the end of October. Hitler said that was too late, for ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) was not an end it itself but merely the a preliminary to the operation against the Murmansk railway, and that this had to be completed before the onset of winter, and then proceeded to wonder why Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ ‘insisted’ on aiming ‘Schlingpflanze’ at the area to the north of the Ramushevo corridor when the Soviets were weaker on its southern side. Hitler added that there had been a supply road on the southern side during the winter, but von Küchler was able to respond that while there had indeed been such a road, it had been made of logs, sawdust, and ice and had long since disintegrated and been swept away. The only real road on either side of the corridor was that in the north linking Staraya Russa and Demyansk, and von Küchler informed Hitler that the seizure of this road was essential to the continued German retention of Staraya Russa.

Hitler remarked that he would be happier about ‘Schlingpflanze’ if a role for the Tiger tanks could be incorporated into it, and then turned to ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), whose object, Hitler said, was the total destruction of Leningrad. General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht general staff, added that this was essential as the Finns regarded the city as a ‘heavy burden’ on their future. Hitler added that the task could be compared to the ‘Störfang’ task which had recently ended with the seizure of Sevastopol, but it would not be as difficult: the area to be smashed was smaller and, while Sevastopol lay in rugged terrain and had been protected by powerful fortifications, Leningrad lay on flat land and was only indifferently fortified. In such circumstances. Hitler opined, Leningrad could and must be destroyed by the weight of the weapons which the Germans could bring to bear on it.

Jodl suggested obliquely that it might pay dividends to place von Manstein in command of the operation, but Hitler would not be drawn on the subject. When von Küchler asserted that whatever the matériel deployed against Leningrad, there had to be an adequate strength of infantry, and with this raised the matter which all knew lay at the heart of the meeting. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had requested a reinforcement of one Panzer and three infantry divisions before the start of ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) as well as either a steady flow of replacements or alternatively two or three more divisions to be supplied later to offset combat losses. Hitler maintained that the army group’s estimates were too high and that, moreover, he could not allocate what he did not have, and that he had no more divisions. That was why, Hitler added, he had provided the artillery to raise the force which Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ could deploy to more than 1,000 pieces to the Soviets’ 500 pieces, and suggested hundreds of thousands of incendiary bombs be dropped to burn out the Soviet defence.

On returning to his own headquarters, von Küchler re-evaluated ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), and learned from Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, commander of the 18th Army, that to get even two divisions out of its existing resources the army would have to abandon the Kirishi and Gruzino bridgeheads, which would weaken its hold on the Volkhov line and the Pogostye salient. Lindemann also informed von Küchler that the number of artillery pieces would not be 1,000 but precisely 598.

On 14 August von Küchler went to to look at Leningrad for the first time, and from the top of the Alexander Tower, on the northern outskirts of Pushkin and the highest point on the front, was able to see masses of concrete and stone factories and apartment buildings which, he decided, would only slightly vulnerable to fire.

At this time ‘Schlingpflanze’ was awaiting the air support on which it was reliant. Finally, on 16 August, Generalmajor Adolf Heusinger, the operations chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres, informed Generalleutnant Wilhelm Hasse, the Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ chief-of-staff, not to expect the aircraft for at least another eight days and very probably longer, and to remember that Hitler was adamant about ‘Nordlicht’ (ii). Heusinger added that the time was upon them to come to rational decisions. Heusinger continued that in the very near future Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, planned to suggest the evacuation of the Demyansk pocket. It was probable that the suggestion would fall on deaf ears, and in that event Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ would have to do whatever it could before the onset of the autumnal rains to prevent itself being left in an impossible operational situation. One day later, von Küchler cancelled ‘Schlingpflanze’ in favour of ‘Winkelried’, an operation to widen the Ramushevo corridor on its southern side. On 21 August Halder telephone on Hitler’s behalf to request von Küchler to come to Hitler’s headquarters on 23 August to report on ‘Winkelried’ and ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), and added that he had just been surprised to learn that von Manstein was to command ‘Nordlicht’ (ii).

When von Küchler arrived two days later, Hitler greeted him with the comment that a great weight had been lifted from him when he learned that ‘Schlingpflanze’ had been terminated. Hitler said that he had always seen ‘Schlingpflanze’ as an extraordinarily difficult undertaking, and added that von Küchler should be careful not to try to go press too far to the south in ‘Winkelried’. Time was important, and as the Finnish army’s chief-of-staff, Jalkaväenkenraali Axel Erik Heinrichs, and its chief of operations were arriving on the following day, and Hitler wished to give them a firm commitment on ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) which, he again claimed, would be as easily achieved as ‘Störfang’. When von Küchler produced a sheaf of aerial photographs showing that many solid blocks of buildings were still standing in Leningrad, Hitler admitted that he was impressed, but countered by adding that he was sending Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, commander of Luftflotte IV and a master of tactical air warfare, to supervise the air support effort. That was the reason Hitler ended, that he had allocated command of ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) to von Manstein, for von Manstein and von Richthofen had developed an ideal collaboration in ‘Störfang’.

One day later, Hitler gave von Manstein his task, which was to implement as he thought best to achieve two things: establish contact with the Finns and level Leningrad. von Manstein was to be wholly independent of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and thus answer only to the Oberkommando des Heeres. Hitler also informed von Manstein he could expect some Finnish support, and on the following day Hitler secured the promise of Heinrichs that the Finnish forces on the Karelian isthmus would aid ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) with artillery and a feigned offensive. von Manstein would have welcomed a considerably greater level of Finnish support, but Hitler had in fact extracted all that he could and possibly more than he had expected, for he knew that Mannerheim was very leery about committing Finnish forces in any direct attack on Leningrad.