Soltsy-Dno Offensive Operation

This was the Soviet third of the seven sub-operations constituting the 'Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation' in the area to the south of Leningrad after the start of 'Barbarossa' (15/20 July 1941).

The other sub-operations of the 'Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation' were the 'Tallinn Defensive Operation' (10 July/10 August), the 'Kingisepp-Dno Defensive Operation' (15/20 July), the 'Staraya-Russa Offensive Operation' (8/23 August), the 'Demyansk Defensive Operation' (6/26 September), the 1st 'Sinyavino Offensive Operation' (10/26 September) and the '2nd Sinyavino Offensive Operation' (20/28 October).

On 10 July, after breaking the line of the Velikaya river, the leading elements of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' continued their advance on Leningrad. General Hans-Georg Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) (two Panzer, one motorised and one infantry divisions) drove the 118th Division back to Gdov, and the 90th and 111th Divisions to Luga. On July 12, German troops clashed with Soviet units covering the Luga defensive line in area of the Plyussa river and were stopped in stubborn fighting. Unable to bypass the defending troops from the flanks because of the swampy terrain, Reinhardt left Generalleutnant Ernst von Leyser’s 269th Division at Luga, and diverted the main forces of his XLI Corps (mot.) to the north-west, and by 14 July the corps had taken two bridgeheads on the right bank of the Luga river near the villages of Ivanovskoye and Bol’shoi Sabsk in the area of Kingisepp. The German formations were stopped at these locations by the forces of General Leytenant Konstantin P. Piadyshev’s 'Luga Operational Group', which had been established only on 5/6 July, and were able to continue their offensive only one month later. Meanwhile, a large gap had been created between the XLI Corps (mot.) and General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.), the other main component of Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe, which was now operating in two parts heading along different axes. Furthermore, the swampy and wooded area of the Leningrad region seriously impeded the independent actions of tank units.

On 10 July, Generalleutnant Curt Jahn’s 3rd Division (mot.) of the LVI Corps (mot.) occupied Porkhov and continued the corps' offensive in the direction of Dno. The 182nd Division fought against the advance, successfully repulsed two attacks, and cost the German division about 400 officers and men killed or wounded; Soviet artillery destroyed or damaged 20 German tanks. Despite their losses, by the fall of night the Germans were able to advance another 1.85 miles (3 km) to the east of Porkhov.

On 12 July, the SS Division 'Totenkopf', under the command of SS-Oberführer Matthias Kleinheisterkamp, was left in the Porkhov area, and the 3rd Division (mot.) was ordered to the north along a side road. Generalleutnant Erich Brandenberger’s 8th Division (mot.) launched an attack on Shimsk, moving along the highway along the left bank of the Shelon river in the direction of Novgorod. The remnants of the 3rd Tank Division of General Major Markian M. Popov’s I Mechanised Corps attempted to check the German attack, falling back from line to line.

On 14 July, German units occupied Soltsy and reached the line of the Mshaga river. Despite the fact that reconnaissance aircraft had reported a great concentration of Soviet troops and the approach of fresh forces from the north, the immediate task demanded of the 8th Division (mot.) was the seizure intact of the bridge over the Mshaga river.

By 14 July, the right flank of the LVI Corps (mot.), which was unprotected, had become 43.5 miles (70 km) long, and the uncovered left flank was some 25 miles (40 km) long. von Manstein believed that his corps' safety could be ensured only by the speed of its movement.

The Soviet command decided to take advantage of the fact that the LVI Corps (mot.) was essentially uncovered. On 13 July the commander of the North-West Front, General Major Piotr P. Sobennikov, issued Order No. 012 to General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army, which had been reinforced by the 21st Tank Division and the 70th and 237th Divisions of General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s North Front, to counterattack and restore the situation in the area of Soltsy.

After securing approval for the concept, during the evening of 13 July the commanders of the 11th and 27th Armies were sent Directive No. 010 detailing the first stag of the planned counterattack, which had been developed by General Leytenant Nikolai Fe. Vatutin, the chief-of-staff of the North-West Front. Th plan was based on information printed on a German map which had fallen into Soviet hands. This map showed the positions of all six divisions in Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe, and after being checked by Soviet intelligence, was used in the planning of the 'Soltsy-Dno Offensive Operation'.

The Soviet plan ordered that Morozov split his 11th Army into northern and southern groupings for the counter-offensive. These groupings were to cut off the German group that had broken through to the Mshaga river. From the northern grouping, two divisions (the 21st Tank Division and 237th Division) were to advanced from the line of Gorodishche and Utorgosh to the south-west in the direction of Baranovo and Sitnya, and the 70th Division to the south in the direction of Soltsy. The 1st Separate Mountain Brigade was to attack Soltsy from the east. The divisions of the southern grouping (including the 183rd Division of General Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 27th Army) were to advance to the north in the direction of Sitnya, where they were to link with the northern grouping’s formations.

On 14/15 July and supported by 235 aircraft, the 11th Army initiated the 'Soltsy-Dno Offensive Operation'. The Soviet counter-offensive came as a complete surprise to the German command. The bulk of the 8th Panzerdivision was surrounded and, at the same time, the 3rd Division (mot.) found itself in a vert difficult position.

On 16 July, General Major Andrei Ye. Fedyunin’s 70th Division took Soltsy, and on this same day Popov ordered the front’s armies to complete the defeat of the German forces in the area of Soltsy area. With part of the line held by the left flank and the centre of the 27th Army, the rest of the Soviet forces went onto the offensive.

Tactically astute as ever, von Manstein responded with the correct counter-action, however: he withdrew his troops some 25 miles (40 km) and prepared for all-out defence. Most of the LVI Corps (mot.) managed to break out of the encirclement, and on 16 July the SS Division 'Totenkopf' was transferred from the 16th Army to the LVI Corps (mot.), and helped to restore the situation on the Shelon river. The Soviets launched a succession of human wave attacks on the German positions, but were thrown back with heavy losses.

The Soviet counter-offensive attack’s main result was that on 19 July the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had temporarily suspended its offensive toward Leningrad. The 8th Division (mot.), which had suffered serious losses, was withdrawn to the rear. On 16 July, General Kuno-Hans von Both’s I Corps had been transferred from the 16th Army to the 4th Panzergruppe and on 18 July took Dno from General Major Mikhail P. Dukhanov’s XXII Territorial Corps. The Soviet forces retook Soltsy on 22 July but the attack on Shimsk by Generalleutnant Otto Sponheimer’s 21st Division of the I Corps failed.

Only on 27 July did the situation along the entire front between Narva and Lake Ilmen stabilise, and thus make it feasible for Heeresgruppe 'Nord' to think again about the resumption of the offensive against Leningrad.