Staraya Russa-Novorzhev Offensive Operation

The 'Staraya Russa-Novorzhevsk Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking that followed three other sub-operations that constituted the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive' to complete the lifting of the German siege of Leningrad and drive the force of Heeresgruppe Nord' back to the west and south-west into the Baltic states (18 February/1 March 1944).

The 'Staraya Russa-Novorzhevsk Offensive Operation' was preceded by the 'Krasnoye Selo-Ropsha Offensive Operation' (14/30 January), the 'Novgorod-Luga Offensive Operation' (14 January/15 February) and the 'Kingisepp-Gdov Offensive Operation' (1 February/1 March), and was undertaken by General Markian M. Popov’s 2nd Baltic Front, in co-operation with part of General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front against General Christian Hansen’s 16th Army of Generaloberst Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. The offensive’s object was the liberation the south-western part of the Leningrad region and the western part of the Kalinin region, and the creation of the situation needed for a further offensive into the Baltic states.

The Soviet forces, pursuing the retreating German forces, advanced as much as 112.5 miles (180 km) to the west, in the process liberating many cities and towns, including Staraya Russa, Novorzhev, Dno and Pustoshka.

It is worth noting that the offensive later became known as the '1st Stalinist Strike', and as such marked the beginning of the series of powerful offensive operations in 1944 known as the 'Ten Stalinist Strikes'.

For the 'Staraya Russa-Novorzhevsk Offensive Operation', the 2nd Baltic Front comprised General Leytenant Gennadi P. Korotokov’s 1st Shock Army, General Polkovnik Nikandr Ye. Chibisov’s 3rd Shock Army, General Leytenant Vasili A. Yushkevich’s 22nd Army and General Leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 10th Guards Army, with air support provided by General Leytenant Nikolai F. Naumenko’s 15th Air Army.

The component of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' on which the Soviet offensive fell was the 16th Army, which comprised Generalleutnant Walter Hartmann’s I Corps, General Paul Laux’s II Corps, General Gustav Höhne’s VIII Corps, General Thomas-Emil von Wickede’s X Corps, General Karl von Oven’s XLIII Corps and SS-Obergruppenführer Karl von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s VI SS-Freiwilligenkorps (lettische), with air support provided by elements of Generaloberst Kurt Pflugbeil’s Luftflotte I.

It was on 14 January 1944 that the Soviet forces of the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front, attacking simultaneously near Leningrad and in the Novgorod region, began the Krasnoye Selo-Ropsha Offensive Operation' and the 'Novgorod-Luga Offensive' as their first contributions to the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation' with the aim of defeating the 18th Army and lifting the German siege of Leningrad.

Despite the fact that it had a significant superiority over its German opponents in manpower and equipment, the subsidiary attack launched by the 2nd Baltic Front on 14 January did not achieve significant success and was soon suspended. Part of the reason for this failure can be attributed to the fact that a major part of the front’s strength was still pinned by the 16th Army farther to the south, but its limited success nonetheless contributed to the successes of the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front farther to the north.

At the end of January, the 2nd Baltic Front resumed its offensive, but again achieved only insignificant results. Parts of the 10th Guards Army, 22nd Army and 3rd Shock Army ran into fierce German resistance, advanced only some 9.33 to 12.5 miles (15 to 20 km) by the middle of February, liberated Novosokolniki on 29 January and reached the line between Nasva and Mayevo. At the same time, units of the 1st Shock Army, which served with the Volkhov Front between 2 and 15 February, tried unsuccessfully to break into the German defences in the area of Staraya Russa and to develop an offensive in the direction of Dno station in order to link with the forces of the Volkhov Front.

Despite the 2nd Baltic Front’s failures in the first half of February, the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front overcame strong German resistance and pressed forward with their offensives. On 12 February, Soviet troops finally captured the city of Luga and now, seeing that it was impossible for its force to halt the Soviet offensive on the 'Luga line', Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was forced to order the retreat of the 18th Army's main forces to the west in the direction of Pskov and the new defensive lines of the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung'.

By the middle of February, the conditions therefore became favourable for the 2nd Baltic Front to take the offensive against the 16th Army as the success of the Leningrad Front on Pskov and Ostrov had created a very real threat to the 16th Army's left flank and rear. Facing the possibility of encirclement and subsequent destruction were, initially, the II Corps and X Corps, which held defensive positions in the areas and Staraya Russa respectively. The Soviet high command therefore decided to undertake a major offensive operation with the forces of the 1st Baltic Front and 2nd Baltic Front which, together with the Leningrad Front’s continued offensive, should pave the way to the heavy defeat of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and a Soviet breakthrough of the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung'.

In its directive of 17 February, the Soviet high command started that '2nd Baltic Front forces of two armies (at least 20 divisions) [are] to break through the [German] defences in the sector of Lake Zhadro and Podrechye and, inflicting the main blow to the west of the Velikaya river, to seize the [border] between Opochka and Zilupe and crossings on the Velikaya river in the area to the north of Idritsa. [After this the 2nd Baltic Front] is to occupy Rezekne and advance on Karsava with the aim, together with the left wing of the Leningrad Front, of breaking the to break the Ostrov group of Germans.'

According to the Soviet plan, the 2nd Baltic Front was to deliver the main blow with the forces of the 3rd Shock Army and 10th Guards Army, while the 1st Shock Army (now returned from the Volkhov Front) and 22nd Army pinned the German forces in secondary sectors to make their redeployment impossible.

The two left-wing armies of General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front also had a part to play in the forthcoming offensive: these formations were tasked with delivering the main blow to Sebezh, and then reaching the Zapadnaya Dvina river in the sector of Dvinsk and Dryssa. For this, active operations in the Vitebsk region were suspended, and a significant part of the 1st Baltic Front was redeployed to the north and north-west onto the right flank of the 16th Army. The start of the two fronts' offensive was scheduled for 28/29 February.

The headquarters of both fronts were highly sceptical about the prospects for the new offensive, all the more so as the 2nd Baltic Front was to attack once more toward Idritsa, where in previous operations it had failed to achieve significant success. Moreover, during the fighting in the first half of February, the front had used most of its ammunition and fuel stocks, the strength of divisions had decreased to 3,500 (and in some cases e,000) men, and there were only a very few serviceable tanks and trucks. The high command assured Popov that adequate replenishment of his front’s men and equipment would be provided.

Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was able to predict, with some accuracy, the Soviet plan. Information obtained by German intelligence about the concentration of Soviet troops in the Nevel area indicated that the 2nd Baltic Front was about to strike at Idritsa with the object of breaking through the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' in the area to the south of Pustoshka before the 16th Army's main strength was able to fall back to this defensive line. At the same time, the Germans did not ignore the possibility of a 'big decision', namely a strategic offensive aimed at Riga via Dvinsk with the aim of cutting off the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in the Baltic states. In these circumstances, on 17 February Model ordered the 16th Army to begin withdrawing its troops to the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung'. The first to begin the retreat were units of the X Corps, which was part of General Johannes Friessner’s Armeegruppe 'Friessner', from the area of Staraya Russa. At the same time, the II Corps was ordered to cover the movement’s right flank and fall back in an orderly fashion to the intermediate defence line along the railway linking Dno and Nasva.

It seems that the Soviets had not foreseen any development of events along these lines. The reconnaissance elements of the 2nd Baltic Front and its subordinate armies failed to secure any accurate and timely information about the German plan. Discovering the actuality of the German retreat at a moment some time after it had started, the Soviets were forced to launch their offensive ahead of schedule.

By the beginning of 1944, the 2nd Baltic Front occupied the line from Lake Ilmen to Lake Nescherdo. In total, the front comprised 45 infantry divisions, three infantry brigades, four tank brigades, one fortified area and numerous artillery and engineering units as part of the 1st Army, 3rd Shock Army, 6th Army, 10th Guards Army and 22nd Army. Air support was the task of the 15th Air Army’s 355 aircraft.

The 2nd Baltic Front and the right flank of the 1st Baltic Front, the latter in the area of Nevel, were opposed by the 16th Army, which comprised 21 divisions and one brigade within six corps. Air support for the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was provided by only 200 aircraft of Luftflotte I.

By the middle of February, significant changes had occurred in the composition of the Soviet and German groups. Several of the 16th Army's divisions had been transferred to reinforce the 18th Army, and the composition of the 2nd Baltic Front had also changed as the 6th Guards Army was transferred to the 1st Baltic Front.

On 18 February, the 1st Shock Army began its pursuit of the X Corps, which comprised Generalleutnant Wilhelm Hasse’s 30th Division, SS-Brigadeführer Nikolas Heilmann’s 15th SS-Freiwilligendivision (lettische) and Generalmajor Rudolf-Eduard Licht’s 21st Felddivision (L), initially met almost no opposition and on the same day liberated Staraya Russa. By 20 February and after an advance of between 12.5 and 15.5 miles (20 and 25 km), units of the 1st Shock Army established met the Leningrad Front’s 54th Army, the Leningrad Front’s 8th Army committed part of its strength in an advance from the area of Shimsk to strike the junction of the the contiguous flanks of the 16th Army and the 18th Army in order to divide them. Covering their retreat with strong rearguard detachments, however, the two German armies managed to retreat from Lake Ilmen in an orderly fashion and thus maintain a cohesive front.

On 19 February, the 1st Shock Army and 22nd Army attacked the Germans. To the south-west of Kholm, in the area of Avinovo and Ignatovo, the XLIV Corps advanced with the task of breaking through the German defences and developing an offensive to the north in order to cut the lines of the X Corps as it fell back from Staraya Russa.

The divisions of the II Corps and XLIII Corps, which had not yet begun their retreats, offered fierce resistance to the 22nd Army as they covered the flank of the X Corps. In just a few days of bitter fighting, the XLIV Corps overcame the defences of Generalleutnant Viktor Lang’s 218th Division and Generalmajor Heinz Furbach’s 331st Division, and by 21 February cut the road link between Kholm and Loknya. On this same day, units of the 22nd Army’s 26th Division liberated Kholm. The II Corps and XLIII Corps now had no option but to begin a hasty retreat to the west in the direction of the intermediate defence line along the railway lining Dno and Nasva.

The key point of this defence line was Dno, the area’s most important railway junction, for whose defence the Germans concentrated significant forces in the form of elements of of Generalleutnant Friedrick Volckamer von Kirchensittenbach’s 8th Jägerdivision, Generalmajor Rudolf-Eduard Licht’s 21st Felddivision (L), Hasse’s 30th Division and the security troops of two Sicherungsregimenter. On 23 February, the 1st Shock Army’s XIV Guards Corps reached the approaches to Dno, and at the same time elements of the 54th Army’s CXI Corps neared Nizhny. However, the Soviet attempt to take Dno by storm on the same day ended in failure and only on 24 February was the city liberated.

Continuing their offensive to the south-west, elements of the 1st Shock Army, 22nd Army and 54th Army on 25 February liberated Dedovichi, crossed the Shelon river and advanced 6.25 to 12,5 miles (10 to 20 km) along the front’s whole sector. Further developing their offensive, Soviet troops liberated Bezhanitsy, Loknya, Sushchevo, Mayevo, Zabelie and many other settlements.

At the same time, parts of the 10th Guards Army and 3rd Shock Army were now committed to the offensive. On the night of 26/27 February, elements of the VII Corps (119th Division and 1183rd Regiment of the 312th Division) delivered a surprise attack on the 10th Guards Army’s right flank, broke through the German defences and, after advancing 16 miles (26 km), by the end of the day liberated Pustoshka. However, the Soviets were unable to built on this success, and the Germans occupied pre-arranged defences to the west of Pustoshka: these defences comprised a nicely planned system of strongpoints covered by minefields and barbed wire entanglements.

The offensive of the 3rd Shock Army’s LXXIX Corps achieved not even local successes as a result of the sterling resistance of Generalleutnant Dr Johannes Mayer’s 329th Division.

Despite the absence of significant offensive successes on the front’s left flank, by 26 February the joint actions of the 10th Guards Army, 3rd Shock Army and 22nd Army forced the LXIII Corps to retreat, and the Soviets were then able to take full control of the rail line linking Dno and Novosokolniki, and that linking Novosokolniki and Zabelle via Mayevo.

The 2nd Baltic Front was not able to effect a complete fulfilment of its assigned tasks. On 28 February, elements of the 1st Shock Army cut the rail line lining Pskov and Opochka, and with units of the 22nd Army, liberated Novorzhev on 29 February. However, operating on the front’s left flank of the front, the 3rd Shock Army and 10th Guards Army again failed to achieve success. Having strengthened their forces in this area with General Gustav Höhne’s VIII Corps, the Germans staged an organised retreat across the Velikaya river and assumed solid defences on a new line.

By the beginning of March, the 2nd Baltic Front had reached the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' after an advance, in the second half of February, of about 110 miles (180 km) from Staraya Russa to the Velikaya river: the 22nd Army’s progress was in the order of 77.5 miles (125 km) from Kholm to Novorzhev, and that of parts of the 10th Guards and 3rd Shock Army some 18.67 miles (30 km) from Mayevo to Pustoshka. However, the 16th Army had managed to withdraw most of its men and equipment from the attack, and now held a solid defence on the line between Ostrov and Idritsa via Pushkinskye Gory and here halted any farther Soviet advance. The reasons that the 2nd Baltic Front had not been able to complete the full plan conceived by the Soviet high command were its belated detection of the 16th Army's retreat, its lack of manpower and resources in part attributable to its significant losses in earlier battles, and the lack of adequate support by the 15th Air Army.

In a report of 20 April, the State Defence Committee sharply criticised the command of the 2nd Baltic Front, blaming it for unsuccessful actions both in the 'Staraya Russa-Novorzhev Offensive Operation' and indeed in a number of other operations. Popov and a member of the front’s military council, General Leytenant Nikolai A. Bulganin, were removed from their positions, and Popov was demoted to the rank of general polkovnik.

1 March is considered the last day of the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation'. It is argued that early in March the Leningrad Front and 2nd Baltic Fronts were ordered onto the defensive on the line they had reached, but between 1 March and 18 April Soviet troops carried out a number of operations with the aim of breaking through the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' in a wide sector between Narva and Ostrov, but achieved only minor successes. The Soviet high command’s calculation that the armies of the two fronts would be able to complete the immediate breakthrough of the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' and begin the liberation of the Baltic states was not justified as the Soviet forces, which had been conducting a continuous offensive for two months, now lacked the strength to carry out this task.

According to a Russian statistical study, the total losses of the 2nd Baltic Front in the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation' between 10 February and 1 March were 6,659 men killed, missing or taken prisoner, and 23,051 men wounded or taken ill.

The overall result of the 'Staraya Russa-Novorzhevsk Offensive Operation' was the liberation of a major area of the USSR: the Leningrad and Novgorod regions, partly the Kalinin region and the eastern part of Estonia were completely liberated.