This was the Soviet strategic offensive, more formally known as the 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation', within the summer and autumn campaign of 1943 on the Eastern Front (7 August/2 October 1943).
Otherwise known as the 2nd Battle of Smolensk, this operation 1 was fought almost simultaneously with the Battle of the Dniepr River or ‘Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation’ (13 August/22 September 1943) and first stage of the ‘Lower Dniepr Offensive Operation’ (26 September/20 December) in that part of the Eastern Front farther to the south.
The battle was fought on the Soviet side by General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Kalinin Front and General Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s West Front, whose task was to clear the German forces from the Smolensk and Bryansk regions. Despite a capable German defence, the Soviet forces were able to achieve breakthroughs and to liberate several major cities including Smolensk and Roslavl. As a result of this operation the Soviet high command was in the position to start realistic planning for the liberation of Belorussia. However, the overall advance was quite modest and slow in the face of heavy German resistance, and the operation was therefore accomplished in three stages between 7 and 20 August, 21 August and 6 September, and 7 September and 2 October.
Although playing a major military role in its own right, the ‘Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation’ was also important for its beneficial effect on the ‘Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation’, for it has been estimated that as many as 55 German divisions were committed against the ‘Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation’, significant numbers of which could otherwise have been redeployed to play a critical role in preventing the Soviet advance across the Dniepr river farther to the south.
In the course of the ‘Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation’, the Soviet forces also decisively drove the German forces back from the ‘Smolensk land bridge’, historically the most important approach for an attack from the west on Moscow.
By the end of its unsuccessful or even disastrous ‘Zitadelle’ operation, otherwise the Battle of Kursk, in July 1943, Germany had lost all hope of regaining the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. The German losses had been considerable, and as a whole the German army was less effective than before as many of its experienced soldiers had fallen during the previous two years of fighting. This left the German army capable only of reacting to Soviet operations rather than actively planning and implementing its own offensives.
On the Soviet side, Iosif Stalin was determined to pursue the liberation of all the USSR’s German-occupied territories, a course of action that had started at the end of 1942 with ‘Uran’, part of the ‘Stalingrad Strategic Offensive Operation’ which led to the liberation of Stalingrad. The ‘Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation’ was to achieve the liberation of Ukraine and push the southern part of the front toward the west. However, in order to weaken the German defences still more, the ‘Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation’ was fought at the same time to liberate other Soviet territory but perhaps more importantly to draw German reserves away to the north from Ukraine, thereby weakening the German defence on the southern part of the Eastern Front. Both operations were a part of the same strategic offensive plan, aiming to recover from German control as much Soviet territory as possible.
The terrain over which the Soviet offensive was waged is a slightly hilly plain covered with ravines and possessing, as a significant impediment to military movement, significant areas of swamp and forest. Its most important hills climb to a height of 750 to 800 ft (250 to 270 m) and sometimes more, allowing for improved artillery defence. In 1943, the area was for the most part covered with pine and mixed forests and thick undergrowth. Numerous rivers also pass through the area, the most important of them being the Seversky Donets, Zapadnaya Dvina, Dniepr, Desna, Volost’ and Ugra rivers. These rivers are neither notably wide at between 30 and 360 ft (10 and 120 m), nor deep at between 1 ft 6 in and 8 ft 3 in (0.4 and 2.5 m), and therefore were not difficult to cross, but the nearby swamp-like areas, which are notably large, presented altogether greater crossing difficulties, especially for mechanised formations with their heavy vehicles. Moreover, like many south-flowing rivers in Europe, the Dniepr’s western bank, which was held by the Germans, was higher and steeper than its eastern bank. There were very few available bridges or ferries. For the Soviet troops, the offensive was further complicated by a lack of adequate transport infrastructure in the area in which the offensive was to be fought. The road network was not well developed, and paved roads were rare. After the fall of rain, which is frequent during the Russian summer, most of the roads were turned into glutinous mud of the type which greatly slowed the advance of mechanised troops, and also created logistical problems. The only major railway line available for Soviet troops was that linking Rzhev and Kirov via Vyaz’ma. On the other side of the front line, the German forces controlled a much wider network of roads and railways centred on Smolensk and Roslavl. These two cities were important logistical centres, allowing rapid supply and reinforcement of the German forces. By far the most important pair of railways available to the Germans were those linking Smolensk and Bryansk, and Nevel and Mogilev via Orsha, linking the German western troops with those concentrated around Orel. However, as part of the Soviet planning, German railway communications were attacked by partisan forces in ‘Kontsertnye’, one of the largest railway sabotage and interdiction operations of World War II.
In July 1943 the shape of the Soviet line on this part of the Eastern Front was a concave curve with a re-entrant centred on Orel, giving the Soviet forces the opportunity to attack the German defensive lines which were thus vulnerable to flank attacks from the north.
The offensive promised to be quite difficult for the Soviet troops of the Kalinin Front 2 and West Front 3. As a result of the curvature of the front line in this area, many of the formations of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were located in this part of the front because of Germany’s very real fear of a major Soviet offensive. From north to south, the German armies involved were Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee, Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army, Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s 9th Army and General Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army.
The front had been essentially static for four to five months (and up to 18 months in several places) before the start of the Soviet offensive, and possessed geographical features favouring the defence. Thus the German forces had been gifted the time to build extensive defensive positions, numbering as much as five or six lines of field fortifications in some places, to a depth extending to a depth of between 60 and 80 miles (100 to 130 km). The first (tactical or outer) defensive zone included the first (main) and the second defence lines, over a depth of some 7 to 9 miles (12 to 15 km), and located whenever possible on higher ground. The main defence line, which was 3 miles (5 km) deep, possessed three sets of trenches and firing points, linked by an extensive communication network. The density of firing points reached 9.5 to 11.25 per mile (6 or 7 per km). In some places, where heavy tank attacks were feared, the third set of trenches was in fact a solid anti-tank ditch with a steep western side integrating artillery and machine gun positions. The forward edge of the battle area was protected by three lines of barbed wire and a solid wall of minefields.
The second defence zone, located about 6 miles (10 km) behind the outer defence zone and covering the most important directions, comprised multiple firing points connected by trenches. It was protected with barbed wire, and also with minefields in some places where heavy tank attacks were anticipated. Between the outer and the second defence zones, sets of small firing points and garrisons were also created in order to slow down the advance should the Soviet forces break through the outer defence zone. Behind the second zone, heavy guns were positioned.
Finally, deep behind the front line, three or four more defence lines were located, on the western bank of a river wherever possible. For instance, important defence lines were set up on the western side of the Dniepr and Desna rivers.
Additionally, the main urban centres located on the defence line, such as Yelnya, Dukhovshchina, Yartsevo and Spas-Demensk, were reinforced and fortified in preparation for a potentially long fight. The roads were mined and covered with anti-tank devices, and firing points were installed in the most important and tallest buildings.
Following a day of small probing attacks to establish whether or not the German troops would opt to pull back from their first lines of trenches, the Soviet offensive started at 06.30 on 7 August after a preliminary artillery bombardment which had begun at 04.40, and immediately secured a breakthrough toward Roslavl. The three formations, apparently under the control of the West Front, which were committed to this offensive were Cherevichenko’s 5th Army, Sukhomlin’s 10th Guards Army and Gordov’s 33rd Army. The attack quickly encountered heavy opposition and was checked, however, and the German troops made numerous counterattacks from their well-prepared defensive positions with the support of tanks, assault guns, mortars and machine guns. Thus, on this first day the Soviet troops advanced only 2.5 miles (4 km) with all available troops (including artillery, communications troops and engineers) committed to the battle. It quickly became clear that the three armies would not be able to effect any breakthrough of the German lines, so the Soviets decided to commit their reserve, Zhuravlev’s 68th Army, to the assault. On the German side, three additional formations, in the shape of Generalleutnant Hans-Karl von Esebeck’s (from 10 August Oberst Vollrath Lübbe’s and from 29 August Generalmajor Arno von Lenski’s) 2nd Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Hans Gollnick’s (later in the month Oberst Gottfried Frölich’s and then Generalmajor Rudolf Stegmann’s) 36th Division and Generalmajor Otto-Joachim Lüdecke’s (from September Generalleutnant Vincenz Müller’s) 56th Division, were sent to the front from the Orel sector to boost the German defence.
On the following day, the Soviets resumed their initial attack, a simultaneous breakthrough now being added farther to the north in the direction of Yartsevo. Both attacks were stopped by heavy German resistance. In the following five days the Soviet troops slowly made their way through the German defences, repelling heavy counterattacks but also sustaining heavy losses. By feeding reserve troops to battle, the Soviets managed to advance to a depth varying from 10 to 15 miles (15 to 25 km) by 11 August. Subsequent attacks by the armoured and cavalry forces of the VI Guards Cavalry Corps had no further effect and resulted in heavy casualties because of the strength of the German defence, and there followed a stalemate on this sector of the front.
During the ‘Spas-Demensk Offensive Operation’ matters went a little better for Golikov’s 10th Army, for in this region the Germans had fewer troops and only limited reserves, enabling the 10th Army to break through German lines and advance 6 miles (10 km) in two days. However, the V Mechanised Corps, relocated from Kirov and committed to battle in order to exploit the breakthrough, failed in its mission, mainly because the Soviets’ poorly co-ordinated anti-aircraft defence opened the way for German dive-bombers to attack its Valentine tanks (Lend-Lease equipment from the UK) with a certain degree of impunity. The corps sustained heavy losses and had to be pulled out of combat. Eventually, Soviet troops advanced a further 15 miles (25 km) by 13 August, liberating Spas-Demensk.
As ordered by the Stavka, the ‘Dukhovshchina-Demidov Offensive Operation’ started almost a week later, on 13 August. However, as had happened to other armies in other sectors of the front, Berzarin’s 39th Army and Golubev’s 43rd Army encountered very serious opposition. During the first day of the new Soviet offensive the Germans attempted 24 regimental-sized counterattacks, supported by tanks, assault guns and aircraft. During the next five days, the Soviet troops managed to advance only 3 to 4 miles (6 to 7 km), and although they inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans, their own losses were also heavy.
By mid-August the Soviet operations all along the Smolensk front had been brought to a halt. The resulting renewal of the stalemate was not a defeat as such, but was nevertheless especially galling for Soviet commanders, among whom Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Nikolai N. Voronov, formerly a member of the Stavka and throughout the war the commander-in-chief of the Soviet artillery arm, analysed the re-establishment of the stalemate as a result of eight primary causes, namely that the Oberkommando des Heeres knew about the operation and had prepared for it; the German defence lines were exceptionally well prepared with firing points reinforced by trenches, barbed wire, minefields etc.; the Soviet infantry divisions (and particularly reserve infantry divisions) were insufficiently prepared to succeeded in assaults of a multi-line defence disposition; the lack of adequate numbers of Soviet tanks committed to battle, forcing commanders to rely on artillery, mortars and infantry in their efforts to achieve a breakthrough as the Germans’ numerous counterattacks and minefields slowed the infantry’s progress; the poor co-ordination of regiments and divisions resulting in unexpected pauses during the attack and evidence of a strong disposition of some regiments to shirk their tasks and expose others regiments to the main weight and casualties of the attack; the tendency of many Soviet commanders to be too fearful of German counterattacks and therefore fail to act properly even if their own troops outnumbered those of the Germans; the failure of the Soviet infantry to use their own weapons (mortars and heavy machine guns) well enough, and therefore too great a reliance on artillery; and the fact that the offensive was postponed from 3 August to 7 August gave German troops more time to increase their readiness.
Given the combination of these factors, Voronov demanded that General Leytenant Vasili M. Baradov’s 4th Tank Army and the VIII Artillery Corps be transferred from the Bryansk Front and instead committed to support the attack near Smolensk.
Though the stalemate was very far from what had been desired by the Stavka, it had at least one benefit as far as the Soviets were concerned inasmuch as it had tied down within the Smolensk area as much as two-fifths of all German divisions on the Eastern Front, so easing the task of the Soviet forces fighting in the south and near Kursk.
The Stavka planned to resume the offensive on 21 August, but then opted to postpone the relaunch of the operation to provide additional time for the resupply and reinforcement of the relevant Soviet formations. By the middle of August the situation on the Eastern Front had changed as the Soviet forces started a general offensive, beginning with the ‘Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’ (otherwise ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ of 3/23 August) and the ‘Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’ (‘Kutuzov’ of 12 July/18 August), and continuing with the Germans’ defensive Battle of the Dniepr River in the northern part of Ukraine. Despite the pressure on its formations farther to the south, the Oberkommando des Heeres was still reinforcing its troops around Smolensk and Roslavl, withdrawing several divisions from the Orel region. As a result, the two Soviet counteroffensives that followed the end of ‘Zitadelle’ proceeded relatively easily around Orel, creating a large Soviet salient to the south of Smolensk and Bryansk. In this situation, the former offensive axis, directed to the south-west in the direction of Roslavl and Bryansk became useless and the Stavka accordingly decided instead to shift the axis of westward attack toward Yelnya and Smolensk.
The ‘Yelnya-Dorogobuzh Offensive Operation’ was considered the key to unlocking the German retention of Smolensk, and the German forces thus created a massively fortified defence position around the city, the swampy areas along the Desna and Ugra rivers were mined, and heavy artillery was sited on the hills overlooking the city. Aware of the German preparations, in the week ending 27 August the Soviet armies were reinforced with yet more armour and artillery.
The new Soviet offensive finally started on 28 August by the 10th Guards Army, 21st Army and 33rd Army, supported by three tank and one mechanised corps as well as the 1st Air Army. The Soviet forces were concentrated on a front of only 22 miles (36 km), and thereby created a very high troop concentration. However, the tank and mechanised forces lacked adequate fuel supplies, and there were supplies for only one or two weeks of major fighting. After an intense 90-minute artillery bombardment, the Soviet troops moved forward. The artillery bombardment as well as ground attack aircraft had significantly damaged the German defences, and this aided the Soviet forces in breaking through on a 15-mile (25-km) sector and advancing 4 to 5 miles (6 to 8 km) by the end of the day. On the following day the Soviet infantry divisions advanced farther, creating a salient 19 miles (30 km) wide and 7 to 9 miles (12 to 15 km) deep. To ensure a full exploitation of the breakthrough, the II Guards Tank Corps was now committed to the battle: in just one day it advanced 19 miles (30 km) to reach the outskirts of Yelnya. Leaving the Germans no time to regroup, the Soviets attacked the city and started to form an encirclement. On 30 August the Germans abandoned Yelnya, sustaining heavy casualties, and thus triggered a full-scale German retreat from the area. By 3 September the Soviet forces had reached the eastern bank of the Dniepr river.
Near Bryansk things went equally well for the Soviet armies, despite strong German resistance. However, a German weakness which was now identified caused the Soviets to change their plan. The surprisingly easy capture of several hills commanding the Dubrovka region to the north of Bryansk, with numerous German soldiers captured in total absence of battle readiness, came to the attention of General Polkovnik Markian M. Popov, the commander of the Bryansk Front from June to October 1943. This meant that the Soviet offensive was probably not expected along that particular axis, and the boundary between General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front (from 20 October the Belorussian Front) and the West Front was therefore shifted south, and two ‘new’ armies executed a single-pincer movement to Dubrovka and around Bryansk, forcing the German forces to withdraw.
By 6 September, the offensive had slowed almost to a halt along the entire front, with Soviet troops advancing only 1.25 miles (2 km) per day. On the right flank heavy fighting broke out in the woods near Yartsevo; in the centre advancing Soviet troops hit the Dniepr river defence line; and on the left flank the Soviet infantry divisions were slowed as they entered the forests to he south-west of Yelnya. Moreover, by this time the Soviet divisions were tired and, at less than 60% of their establishment, heavily depleted. On 7 September the offensive was stopped, and the second stage of the Smolensk operation was over.
In the following week, ending on 14 September, the Soviet troops were once again reinforced and prepared for renewed offensive action. The next objectives set by the Stavka were the major cities of Smolensk, Vitebsk and Orsha. The operation resumed on 14 September with the ‘Smolensk-Roslavl Offensive Operation’, which involved the West Front and the left flank of the Kalinin Front. After a preliminary artillery bombardment, Soviet troops attempted to break through the German lines in both sectors. On the Kalinin Front’s attack sector the Soviets created a salient 10 miles (30 km) wide and 2 to 8 miles (3 to 13 km) deep by the end of the day. After four days of battle the Soviet infantry divisions captured Dukhovshchina, another ‘key’ to Smolensk. On the West Front’s sector, where the offensive started one day later, the breakthrough was also promising as the Soviet forces created a salient 12 miles 20 km) wide and 6 miles (10 km) deep. On this same day Yartsevo, an important railway hub near Smolensk, was liberated. On the West Front’s left flank the Soviet infantry divisions reached the Desna river and conducted an assault crossing, creating several bridgeheads on the river’s western shore. The German defence line protecting Smolensk was thereby overrun, exposing the troops defending the city to envelopment.
By 19 September the Soviets had torn a gap, 25 miles (40 km) wide, in the German line, and on the following day the Stavka ordered the West Front to reach Smolensk before 27 September, and then to proceed toward Orsha and Mogilev. The Kalinin Front was ordered to take Vitebsk before 10 October. On 25 September, after a assault crossing of the northern part of the Dniepr river and street fighting which lasted all night, Soviet troops completed the liberation of Smolensk. On the same day Roslavl, another important city, was recaptured.
But by 30 September the Soviet forces were exhausted and depleted, and thus became bogged down outside Vitebsk, Orsha and Mogilev, which therefore remained in German hands, and on 2 October the 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation' was concluded, although a limited but successful follow-on assault was made to capture Nevel after two days of street fighting.
In overall terms the Soviet troops had advanced 60 to 110 miles (100 to 180 km) during almost 20 days of this third part of the offensive. The 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation' had been a decisive Soviet victory and a major German defeat. According to Soviet estimates, the Germans had committed some 850,000 men, 8,800 pieces of artillery, 500 armoured fighting vehicles and 700 aircraft to the campaign, and lost between 200,000 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner. The Soviets themselves had committed 1.253 million men, 20,630 pieces of artillery, 1,430 armoured fighting vehicles and 1,100 aircraft, and lost 450,000 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner. Although quite modest by comparison with the gains of later Soviet offensive operations, the overall Soviet advance in the entire 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation' had been in the order of 120 to 150 miles (200 to 250 km).
The Soviet advance during this operation was important for four reasons. Firstly, the German army had been definitively driven back from the approaches of Moscow, thereby finally removing the strategic threat which had been the Stavka’s primary concern since 1941. Secondly, the German all-round defensive positions, the cornerstones of German defensive thinking, had been almost completely overrun, and while a few still survived these could clearly not survive for any length of time. Thirdly, the 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation' was an important aid to the Soviet effort in the Battle of the Dniepr River, locking between 40 and 55 divisions into the area near Smolensk and thus preventing their redeployment to the southern end of the Eastern Front. And fourthly, the once-single German front was now divided into two portions separated by the huge and impassable Pripyet Marshes, dividing Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ from its northern counterparts, thus greatly reducing the feasibility of continued German use of its well-established practice of moving men and equipment laterally from one sector of the front to the other.
For the first time, Soviet troops entered territories which had been occupied for a long time by German soldiers, and here they discovered evidence of the war crimes committed by SS Einsatzgruppe, Waffen-SS and army troops. In the areas liberated during the 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation', which had been occupied for almost two years, almost all industry and agriculture was gone. In Smolensk oblast itself, almost 80% of urban and 50% of rural accommodation had been destroyed, along with numerous industrial facilities.
After the end of the Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation', the central part of the Eastern Front stabilised again for many months until a time late in June 1944, while the major fighting shifted to the south for the Dniepr river line and the territory of Ukraine. Only during January 1944 would the front move again in the north, when the German forces were driven back from Leningrad, completely lifting the siege which had lasted for 900 days. Finally, ‘Bagration’ in summer 1944 allowed the Soviets to clear the Germans out of almost all of the rest of the USSR, ending German occupation and shifting the war into Poland and then Germany itself.