Sinyavino Offensive Operation (ii)

This was a Soviet operation of the summer and autumn of 1942 planned with the aim of breaking the siege of Leningrad and establishing a reliable route along which supplies could be delivered to Leningrad (19 August/10 October 1942).

At the same time, German forces were planning ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) to capture and/or destroy the city and establish an overland link with Finnish forces to the north of the city. To achieve this object, the Germans were moving heavy reinforcements from Sevastopol, which the Germans had captured in ‘Störfang’ during July 1942. Each side was unaware of the other’s plans and preparations, and as a result the battle developed in an unanticipated manner for both sides.

The ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii) was launched with a pair of initial stages. General Leytenant Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front began the offensive on 19 August and General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front launched the main offensive eight days later on 27 August. From 28 August the Germans redeployed the forces they were themselves assembling for ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) and gradually halted the Soviet offensive. Initial German counterattacks failed, but the Soviet forces were themselves unable to advance any farther. After a 10-day stalemate, the significantly reinforced Germans counterattacked the Soviet forces on 21 September and, after five days of heavy fighting, linked and cut off the bulge formed by the Soviet offensive. By 10 October the front had returned to its position at the start of the Soviet offensive, and heavy fighting nonetheless continued until 15 October as the last pockets of Soviet resistance were destroyed or, in some cases, managed to break out.

While the Soviet offensive had failed, their heavy casualties caused the Germans to order their forces to to go over to the defensive in the area to the south and east of Leningrad. In November, the German reinforcements and other units were removed from Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to deal with the major Soviet offensive at Stalingrad, and all thought of implementing ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) was abandoned.

The siege of Leningrad had been instituted early in the autumn of 1941, and by 8 September of that year German and Finnish forces had surrounded the city, cutting off all supply routes to the city and its suburbs. During the winter of 1941/42 Leningrad had been partially supplied by means of the so-called ‘Road of Life’ over the frozen water of Lake Ladoga, and this made it possible for the defenders to hold the city. However, with its capture of Sevastopol in western Crimea on 4 July 1942, Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army became available for employment elsewhere, and Adolf Hitler decided that this formation would be ideal for the final destruction of Leningrad.

Soviet forces tried to lift the siege, which was causing severe damage to the city and losses among its civilian population, all the more so as German air attacks often broke the ice on Lake Ladoga and thereby interrupted the ‘Road of Life’. The Soviets undertook several small-scale offensives in the area of Leningrad during the first part of 1942, but all of these failed. The last of them was the ‘Lyuban Offensive Operation’ of 7 January/30 April 1942, and resulted in the encirclement and destruction of most of General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army. Even so, the opening of a supply route to Leningrad was so important that preparations for a new operation were taken in hand almost immediately after the defeat at Lyuban.

The land to the south of Lake Ladoga is densely forested and characterised by extensive wetlands close to the lake’s southern shore, both of which were major factors hindered the mobility of artillery and vehicles. In addition the forest shielded both sides from visual observation. One of the key locations is the Sinyavino heights, some 490 ft (150 m) higher than the surrounding flat terrain. The heights were one of the area’s few dry and clear areas, and provided a good spot for observation. The front line had moved very little after the German and Finnish blockade had been established, allowing the German forces to build a dense defensive network of strongpoints in the area, interconnected by trenches, protected by extensive obstacles and interlocking fields of artillery and mortar fire.

The German plan for the seizure or destruction of Leningrad in summer and autumn 1942 was first outlined in Hitler’s Führerweisung Nr 41 of 5 April 1942, which emphasised that the capture of Leningrad and the drive to the Caucasus in the east were the main objectives of Germany’s campaign on the Eastern Front during the summer of that year. In the course of discussions with Hitler on 30 June, von Küchler presented the German leader with the ideas for several operations which would facilitate the implementation of Führerweisung Nr 41. Following these discussions, the Oberkommando des Heeres began the redeployment of heavy artillery, including the ‘Gustav’, ‘Dora’ and ‘Karl’ batteries of siege artillery, to assist in the destruction of the Soviet defences round Leningrad and the Oranienburg lodgement protecting the island fortress of Kronshtadt holding the western approaches to the city along the Gulf of Finland and its southern shore. The redeployment was complete by 23 July, which was the day on which the Führerweisung Nr 45 included orders for a ‘Feuerzauber’ operation by Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to seize Leningrad by a time early in September: the operation was to be undertaken by the 11th Army, which had 12 divisions under command in the area of Leningrad. In addition, the Oberkommando des Heeres bolstered the level of air support for the land operation by adding Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps to the air forces already in the area for the provision of an additional air support capability. On 30 July ‘Feuerzauber’ was renamed as ‘Nordlicht’ (ii).

As it neared its definitive form, ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) was based on the use of three corps for the penetration of the Soviet defences in the area to the south of Leningrad: one corps would cut off Leningrad from the possibility of Soviet relief from the south and west, while the other two would turn to the east and destroy the Soviet forces between the Neva river and Lake Ladoga. The three corps would then combine to capture Leningrad without the need for heavy urban combat. With Leningrad taken, the troops involved in the siege would become available for use elsewhere, and thus make victory on the Eastern Front more likely. Meanwhile, the Germans were also preparing the trio of ‘Blau’ strategic offensives for the southern end of the Eastern Front with the object of reaching the lines of the Don and Volga river, taking Stalingrad, and punching into the Caucasus to take the oilfields on the western side of the Caspian Sea.

As noted above, the Soviets had tried several times in the first part of 1942 to lift the siege of Leningrad. While both the winter and Lyuban offensives failed, there was now a part of the front across which only 10 miles (16 km) divided the Leningrad Front in the city and the Volkhov Front outside it. The ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii) which was now planned was to link the forces of the two fronts and establish a supply route to Leningrad. Because it was currently stronger, the Volkhov Front was to carry out the offensive while the weaker Leningrad Front carried out only local attacks and captured bridgeheads across the Neva river. General Leytenant Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army of the Volkhov Front was to spearhead the attack with the five infantry divisions and one tank brigade of its VI Guards Corps, with the one infantry division, seven infantry brigades and one tank brigade of the same army’s IV Guards Corps in second echelon and elements (one infantry division, one infantry brigade and one tank brigade) of the re-forming 2nd Shock Army in third echelon. Air cover and support were provided by General Major Ivan P. Zhuravlev’s 14th Air Army.

Taking into account the difficulties and heavy fortifications of the planned offensive, the Soviet troops were, by striking contrast with their earlier operations, very well equipped. The 8th Army was significantly reinforced with artillery and tanks, and on average each first-echelon division was reinforced with one tank battalion, a few artillery regiments and one or two batteries of Katyusha rocket launchers. This allowed the Soviets to deploy between 98 and 160 pieces of artillery per mile (between 60 and 100 pieces of artillery per kilometre) and between eight and 14.5 tanks per mile (five to nine tanks per kilometre) of the frontage of their main offensive. The troops were also equipped with large numbers of the modern PPD-40 and PPSh-41 sub-machine guns. Engineering units were attached to individual artillery batteries, increasing the army’s overall mobility.

In the first stages of the ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii), the German defence rested with Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army which, on 27 August, comprised General Albert Wodrig’s XXVI Corps (two infantry divisions), General Kuno Hans von Both’s I Corps (one infantry division), and General Herbert Loch’s XXVIII Corps (one infantry division, one light division and one mountain division). During August the 18th Army was reinforced by elements of the 11th Army in the form of General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps (three infantry divisions, one Panzer division and one mountain division). Air cover and support was provided by elements of Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I.

Neither side was aware that the other was building up its forces and planning to launch an offensive. The Germans realised that the Soviet undertaking was a major offensive only in the days which followed the start of the 8th Army’s attack on 27 August, and it was this belated realisation which led to the redeployment of the 11th Army and the VIII Fliegerkorps to deal with a major Soviet offensive and the abandonment of the preparations for the German offensive against Leningrad. Likewise the Soviet forces were unaware of the redeployment of the 11th Army to the Leningrad area and therefore expected to face only 10 divisions of the 18th Army. This meant that the Soviet forces launched an offensive when at a numerical disadvantage even before the battle started.

The Soviet operation started on 19 August, before that of the Germans, which was slated for a start on 14 September, although German sources give later dates for the beginning of the ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii) as the Volkhov Front’s part of the undertaking started only on 27 August. The Leningrad Front’s Neva Operational Group launched its offensive on 19 August, but as a result of its limited quantities of supplies and umbers of men, the front was able only to capture and expand bridgeheads across the Neva river, above and below Moskovskaya Dubrovka, as preparatory steps toward the planned link with the Volkhov Front. The German side did not see this as a major offensive, because the Leningrad Front had already mounted several local offensives in July and early August. On 19 August, Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, noted in his diary only ‘local attacks as usual’, and no additional defensive measures were instituted.

The Volkhov Front’s offensive started on the morning of August 27. The high level of security they had adopted during the build-up of their forces gave the Soviet forces a significant superiority on the first day of the offensive in terms of manpower, tanks and artillery, and took the XXVI Corps by complete tactical surprise. The 8th Army had initial success as it advanced and scattered the first line of the German defences such as those held by Generalleutnant Rudolf Lüters’s 223rd Division, pushing forward some 1.9 miles (3 km) on the first day at the location of the main attack. However, the Soviets’ initial attempts to expand their flanks failed in the face of strengthening resistance by the Germans, who reacted by redeploying Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision and Generalleutnant Johann Sinnhuber’s 28th Jägerdivision from staging areas for ‘Nordlicht’ (ii). The leading elements of Generalleutnant Erwin Sander’s 170th Division, which had only just reached Mga, also played a part in blunting the ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii), and Hitler also diverted Generalleutnant Hans Kreysing’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision, which was in the process of being redeployed by sea to Finland, to Estonia.

By 29 August the breach in the German defences was up to 4.3 miles (7 km) deep, and in order to sustain their advance towards Sinyavino, the Soviets began to commit their second-echelon divisions into the fighting. The German forces were further reinforced by Generalleutnant Walter Wessel’s 12th Panzerdivision and part of Generalleutnant Joachim Freiherr von Schleinitz’s 96th Division. This same day also saw the first combat deployment of the Tiger I heavy tank by the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung, which on 29 August had four such vehicles. The attempt to counterattack with these heavy tanks failed as two of them broke down almost immediately, and the third tank’s engine overheated.

During this first phase of the ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii), reinforcements were despatched to Luftflotte I. The Oberkommando der Luftwaffe sent several Jagdgeschwadern (fighter wings) to bolster the German defences in the face of intense Soviet air attacks. Elements of Oberstleutnant Hannes Trautloft’s JG 54 and Major Gordon Gollob’s JG 77 were rushed into the area to provide air superiority over the battlefield. Despite being opposed by the 14th Air Army and outnumbered by two aircraft to one, the Luftwaffe maintained air superiority. Luftflotte I destroyed 42 Soviet aircraft in large-scale air battles on 1 and 2 September, and in the process relieved Soviet pressure on German ground forces. The German air activity was so effective that there emerged evidence that the morale of some Soviet airmen was so badly affected that they were not giving their best in combat. This prompted Iosif Stalin to threaten any pilot refusing to engage with the Germans a court martial.

On 5 September the depth of the Volkhov Front’s penetration increased to 5.6 miles (9 km) at the farthest point, placing the front’s leading elements only 3.7 miles (6 km) from the Neva river. Yet the Soviet efforts to take Sinyavino and the adjacent heights encountered very heavy resistance and failed. On the flanks, the Soviet forces had captured the German strongpoints at Workers’ Settlement No. 8 and Mishino on 3 September, and they took Voronovo on 7 September. However, no further advance was made after this day in the penetration sector. In an effort to break the stalemate, the third-echelon troops of the 2nd Shock Army were committed, but German flanking counterattacks brought their offensive to a halt. On 7 September, the Volkhov Front pulled back two divisions of the 8th Army and replaced them with a fresh division and a tank brigade in another effort to achieve farther advance.

The ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii) was now stalemated, neither side gaining any ground despite several attempts to renew the offensive. Between 10 and 19 September there was no major change in the position of the front. The Soviets were awaiting reinforcements and air support, and hoping that then they could advance the 4.3 miles (7 km) which separated them from the troops of the Leningrad Front in the next few weeks, but reinforcement took time.

Having halted the Soviet advance, the German forces now aimed to defeat it. Now commanding all the German forces in the sector, von Manstein aimed to cut off the westward-facing salient created by the Volkhov Front’s advance. However, the initial German counterattack on 10 September failed with heavy losses in the face of extensive minefields covered by heavy artillery and mortar fire. von Manstein then decided to build up his forces for a two-pronged attack, while local German counterattacks checked the Soviet attempts to advance.

The main German counter offensive began on 21 September with six divisions: Generalleutnant Heinrich Meyer-Bürdorf’s 121st Division attacked from the north, Generalmajor Hans von Tettau’s 24th Division, Generalleutnant Fritz Lindemann’s 132nd Division and Sander’s 170th Division of the XXX Corps from the south, and Kreysing’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision and Sinnhuber’s 28th Jägerdivision mounting holding attacks. Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision had sustained heavy losses in the fighting of the previous 10 days and played no significant part in the German counter-offensive.

In their counter-offensive, the Germans faced exactly the same problems as the Soviet forces had faced in the previous month. Any advance in terrain of this difficulty and overcoming defensive positions were very slow, and casualties were accordingly high. Only on 25 September, after five days of very heavy fighting, were the German forces able to link near Gaitolovo, thereby cutting off the VI Guards Corps of the 8th Army, and the 2nd Shock Army. After defeating Soviet attempts to effect an external relief of the pocket and an internal break-out, the Germans bombarded the pocket with heavy artillery and air attacks. At the same time the 28th Jägerdivision and 12th Panzerdivision defeated the Leningrad Front’s attempts to expand the Neva river bridgeheads.

In heavy fighting from the end of September to 15 October, the German forces reduced the size of the Soviet pocket and recaptured all the strongpoints they had earlier lost with the sole exception of a small bridgehead still held by forces of the Leningrad Front near Moskovskaya Dubrovka.

For the Soviets, the ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii) had been a costly failure, although with less long-term effect than the Soviet defeat near Miasnoy Bor in June and July, where the 2nd Shock Army had been almost wholly destroyed and the German forces had been able to report the capture of 33,000 prisoners. After only three months the Soviet forces would launch a new offensive, ‘Iskra’, which would open a land corridor to Leningrad in January 1943.

For the Germans, the effects were more significant. Although the Soviet threat had been met and eliminated, and the position of the 18th Army re-established, the 11th Army had suffered major losses in manpower, equipment and ammunition. The 18th Army also suffered losses, especially in its 223rd Division, which had faced the 8th Army on the first day of the Soviet offensive. Heavy German casualties led the Oberkommando des Heeres to issue its Operations Order No. 1, which ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to go over to the defence during the full winter now on the verge of falling on the northern sector of the Eastern Front. During November, its German reinforcements and other units were stripped from Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to deal with the major Soviet offensive at Stalingrad, and all though of ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) was terminated.

In the ‘Sinyavino Offensive Operation’ (ii), the Soviets had committed about 190,000 men, and their losses had been 40,085 men killed or missing (the latter including about 12,000 men taken prisoner) and 73,590 men wounded or taken ill, for an overall loss of 113,675 men. The German losses between 28 August and 30 September had been 5,895 men killed or missing, and 20,105 men wounded or taken ill, for an overall loses of some 26,000 men.