Tikhvin Defensive Operation

The 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation', otherwise known as the 'Tikhvin-Volkhov Defensive Operation', was the Soviet undertaking in the Leningrad sector of the Eastern Front to hold the key city of Tikhvin (16 October/18 November 1941).

The operation took place in the eastern part of the Leningrad region in the area to the north, west and south of Tikhvin, and lasted for 43 days on a front between 185 and 217.5 miles (300 to 350 m) wide. The depth of the Soviet retreat was in the order of 60 to 70 miles (100 to 120 km).

The operation took place between 16 October and 18 November, although the latter date os arguably problematical as it was formally determined at the beginning of the offensive on Tikhvin by General Kyrill A. Meretskov’s 4th Army’s on 19 November. At the same time, Soviet troops in the southern part of the operation’s region, in the area of Malaya Vishera, had on 12 November launched an offensive, but at the same time, in the northern part of the region, Soviet forces were fighting defensive battles against German forces which had not abandoned their attempts to break through to more of the southern shore of Lake Ladoga and indeed continued at Volkhov until 25 November and at Voybokalo in the first days of December.

The 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation' was immediately preceded, in both time and space, by the 'Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation', and the 'Tikhvin Offensive Operation' was the Soviet continuation of the 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation' over the same ground. The '2nd Sinyavino Offensive Operation' also overlapped the 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation'.

In the middle period of September, the Germans made their final decision regarding the proposed fate of Leningrad, namely that this city, which the Germans regarded as the birthplace of the communist state, should be isolated from the rest of the USSR and forced to surrender even as it was shelled and bombed to destruction. As a result of events in the course of the German offensive on Leningrad, the land communications linking the city with the rest of the USSR were cut and in fact, as further developments emphasised, had been severed completely. Leningrad still had a line of communication across the south-western corner of Lake Ladoga as the lake’s southern and south-eastern shores, as well as part of its eastern shore, remained under Soviet control.

In order to sever all communication, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' developed a plan whereby the German forces were to develop an offensive from the Volkhov line in the general direction of Tikhvin, and then continue toward the Svir river top meet the advance of the Finnish co-belligerent forces round the northern and eastern sides of Lake Ladoga. The main offensive was to be secured against any Soviet assault on its right flank by an offensive toward Malaya Vishera and Bologoye with the prospect of linking with the left-wing forces of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' that were to advance toward Kalinin and Vishny Volochek. This combination of advances would prevent the possibility of a Soviet counter-offensive from the south, and also cut off the entire North-West Front in the area of ​​the Seliger lakes system. In addition, the motorised troops of the right flank, having taken Malaya Vishera, had to develop an offensive to the east in order to reach Tikhvin from the south. From the left flank of the strike group, a limited offensive to the north was also assumed, with the aim of dividing the Soviet forces and pressing them toward the southern shore of Lake Ladoga.

The German offensive on Tikhvin was to a certain extent unexpected by the Soviet command, which had concentrated its forces farther to the north (up to 70% of all the theatre’s Soviet forces were located in the area to the south of Lake Ladoga), was undertaking the '2nd Sinyavino Offensive Operation', trying to cut off the German forces which had broken through to Lake Ladoga, and seeking to restore over-land communication with Leningrad. During the period of this operation, the German forces struck a blow on whose axis there were only limited Soviet forces that had already been weakened by the despatch of a number of formations to Moscow. Consequently, the planning of the Soviet operation was carried out during the German offensive.

On the German side, Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army had in the operational area General Rudolf Schmidt’s (from 11 November General Hans Jürgen von Arnim’s) XXXIX Corps (mot.) with two Panzer and two motorised divisions, and General Kuno von Both’s I Corps with four infantry divisions. The German infantry formations and units were concentrated in two places on the left bank of the Volkhov river opposite Gruzino and in the area of ​​the bridge that carried the 'Oktyabrsky' railway across the Volkhov river. The armoured formations and units were positioned behind the infantry in readiness to drive past the river after the seizure of the bridgeheads. Command of the forces committed to the operation was vested in von Both.

At the beginning of the operation, the Soviet forces were holding defensive positions in the area to the south of Lake Ladoga along the line from Lipok on the lake shore to Novgorod. General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 54th Army of the Leningrad Front, to which almost all suitable reserves were sent, was concentrated on a 21.75-mile (35-km) sector from Lipok to Voronovo and the Maluksinsky moss swamp. Since September, the '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation' had been fought in this army’s sector. By the beginning of the 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation', the fighting had subsided somewhat and the army was accumulating forces to strike at Sinyavino and then to Leningrad. The Maluksinsky moss swamp and the line from it through Kirishi to the mouth of the Pchevzha river, more than 31 miles (50 km) long, aided the defence. General Leytenant Vselovolod Yakovlev’s 4th Separate Army, whose formations were extended thinly along the line, with one infantry regiment in reserve in the depths of the defence. From the mouth of the Pchevzha river to the village of Dubrovka, at the turn along the run of the Volkhov river, a distance of some 50 miles (80 km), two divisions of General Leytenant Ivan T. Korovnikov’s 52nd Separate Army were deployed. Farther to the south, as far as Novgorod and its approaches, General Leytenant Stepan D. Akimov’s Novgorod Operational Group of the North-West Front held the Soviet line with 10 infantry divisions.

On 16 October, units of Generalleutnant Herbert von Böckmann’s 11th Division and Generalleutnant Otto Sponheimer’s 21st Division crossed the Volkhov river in two places and managed to seize and then to expand a bridgehead in Gruzino despite the determined opposition of the 267th Division and 288th Divisions. On the following dat, having crossed to the right bank of the Volkhov river, a German shock group the battle: Generalleutnant Josef Harpe’s 12th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Zorn’s 20th Division (mot.) advanced in the direction of the main attack on Budogoshch, and Generalleutnant Erich Brandenberger’s 8th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Friedrich Herrlein’s 18th Division (mot.), together with part of Generalleutnant Paul Laux’s 126th Division, attacked toward Malaya Vishera. At the same time, von Böckmann’s 11th Division and Sponheimer’s 21st Division deployed along the front to the north, and began an offensive along the Volkhov river in the direction of Kirishi.

From 20 October, elements of the 52nd Army began to withdraw to the east and south-east, and thus there emerged a gap between the 52nd Army and the 4th Army. German forces instantly poured into this gap and headed for Budogoshch.

As the Soviet defensive operations developed in different way on different axes, it is practical to consider these defensive efforts separately.

On the southern flank of the German group, between 16 October and 12 November, the Germans planned that their forces were to outflank the 52nd Army’s formations and units, bypass Malaya Vishera and attack Tikhvin from the south. On 22 October, in fierce battles, elements of the 52nd Army were forced to abandon their hold on Bolshaya Vishera,but the German forces, faced with resistance, could not develop a frontal offensive on Malaya Vishera, and the 8th Panzerdivision withdrew north of Malaya Vishera in order to develop a thrust against Tikhvin not from the area to the south of the city, but from the area to its north. Nevertheless, on the evening of 23 or, according to some sources, 24 October, the 126th Division was left at Malaya Vishera. The Soviet command hastily transferred the 259th Division and the 25th Cavalry Division from the Demyansk area to reinforce the 52nd army. German forces managed to advance a little to the east of Malaya Vishera, but with the transferred divisions and the 52nd Army’s remnants, the Soviets managed to bring the German offensive to a halt at the bend of the Malaya Vishera river and thereby thwart the German plan to reach Tikhvin from the south in a deep envelopment. At the end of October, the situation in the 52nd Army’s sector was relatively stable and remained so until 12 November. From this line, the Germans withdrawn first the 8th Panzerdivision, and then at the beginning of November the 18th Division (mot.) to be replaced by Generalmajor Antonio Muñoz Grandes’s 250th Division of Spanish volunteers. Otherwise known to its officers ands men as the División Azul, this formation crossed the Volkhov river in the area to the south of Shevelev on 18 October.

In the battles on the southern flank, the forces of the Novgorod Operational Group’s right flank also played a limited role. This participation was limited to the defence of individual strongpoints on the German group’s right flank, most especially the Muravyov garrison area, and a number of counterattacks. All this was undertaken on a small-scale basis and with only weak units, and thus had no appreciable effect on the overall situation.

In the centre of the German group, between 16 October and 19 November, after the infantry forces' seizure of the Gruzino bridgehead, on 18 October armoured units of the 12th Panzerdivision and 20th Division (mot.) crossed and began an offensive toward Tikhvin. By 20 October the German right-flank forces had pushed the 288th Division to the south-east as far as the upper reaches of the Oskuya river, after which the German path to Budogoshch was in effect open except for the elements of the 292nd Division which were arriving from the north and lacked the time to reverse course, Even so, it took the Germans three days to reach Budogoshch in a progress that was much hampered by the deep mud of the area’s roads.

On 23 October the Germans took Budogoshch, thereby arriving on the rear of the 4th Army and forcing its withdrawal. The Soviets hastily began to withdraw formations and units from other sectors in order to prevent any German attempt to expand their breakthrough: by 29 October the 4th Guards Division, withdrawn from Sinyavino, was deployed in the area to the south-east of the railway linking Budogoshch and Sitoml; on 29 October, in the outskirts of Sitomla, the 191st Division, which had been transferred from Leningrad by the vessels of the Ladoga Military Flotilla, turned back; early in November the 44th Division, also transferred from Leningrad, began to deploy beyond Sitomlya; and on 29 October or thereabouts the 92nd Division and 60th Tank Division reached Tikhvin.

From Budogoshch, the 12th Panzerdivision attacked toward Sitomlya, which the Soviets abandoned on 31 October.

Hit by Soviet attacks, the 20th Division (mot.) was forced to wheel its front to the south-east and repel the attacks as it progressed from the area of Taltsy station toward Budogoshch and Gruzino. In the first days of November, units of Herrlein’s 18th Division (mot.) began to join the 12th Panzerdivision, and shortly after this so too did the 8th Panzerdivision from the area of Malaya Vishera. On 4 November, the Soviets ceased their counterattacks, on 5 November the Germans resumed their offensive and on the night of 9 November, the 51st Infanterieregiment (mot.) of the 18th Division (mot.) took Tikhvin without firing a shot.

On 12 November, elements of the 12th Panzerdivision launched an offensive from Tikhvin along the railway toward Volkhov, and by 18 November had occupied Kudrovo and approached the 'island' on the Syas river.

The Soviet supreme command now made command changes including, most importantly, the replacement of Yakovlev as commander of the 4th Army by Meretskov. Organisational changes followed, reinforcements arrived , and on 10 November three task forces were created in the 4th Army. The Northern Operational Group (two regiments of the 44th Division , the 1061st Regiment and the 46th Tank Brigade withdrawn from the positions on Svir river) was deployed in the area to the north and north-west of Tikhvin. The Eastern Operational Group (newly arrived 65th Division, 191st Division, 27th Cavalry Division, one regiment of the 44th Division, 121st Tank Regiment and 128th Separate Tank Battalion) was deployed in the area to the east and south-east of Tikhvin; and the Southern Operational Group (4th Guards Division, 92nd Division, 292nd Division and 120th Tank Regiment) was deployed in the region to the south and south-west of Tikhvin).

On 19 November, the defensive phase of the operation near Tikhvin ended.

On the northern flank of the German group, between 16 October and 4 December, the offensive to the north in the direction of Voybokalo and Volkhov continued. The Germans transferred Generalleutnant Walter Behschnitt’s 254th Division into the offensive zone. Starting from Gruzino and Kirishi the Germans met almost no real resistance as they reached the western bank of the Volkhov river. On the left flank they moved forward the 254th Division near Volkhov. The main part of von Böckmann’s 11th Division crossed the Volkhov river and advanced along its eastern bank to the north as far as Kirishi, where it crossed back to western bank. On the eastern bank of the Volkhov river was Sponheimer’s 21st Division.

The 11th Division regrouped, went over to the offensive against the 285th Division on 24 October in the area of Posadnikov island and on the very first day drove the Soviets back between 3.1 and 6.2 miles ( (5 and 10 km) to the north. Together with the 285th Division, the 311th Division also retreated. The 21st Division attacked elements of the 311th Division, which were holding the right bank of the Volkhov river, and scattered parts of the 292nd Division.

On 30 October, German troops entered the Volkhov region.

At the beginning of November 1941, during the Soviet retreat there was no continuous defence in front of Volkhov. Scattered, deprived of a single command and lacking any sense of a common goal, the Soviet forces were bled of strength in a succession of battles, and in each sector formations and units created pockets of resistance and attempted to check the German advance with wholly inadequate forces.

Even so, the Soviets offered fierce resistance and suffered very severe losses. For example, in the four weeks after it had crossed at Gruzino, the 21st Division had by 10 November lost 79 officers and 2,522 other ranks killed or wounded.

In the course of the offensive, on the German left flank, the 254th Division from the start of November was compelled by the threat of attack by the 54th Army to turn its front to the north-west, in the direction of Voybokalo and also to the west, thus covering the flank of German group. The 54th Army could not strike at the flank of the German force advancing on the Volkhov river as, on the instruction of the Soviet supreme command it continued the '2nd Sinyavino Offensive Operation', which had begun on 20 October, and advanced to the west.

By the beginning of November, sensibly worried about the possibility of the capture of Volkhov by German forces passing onto the 54th Army’s rear, transferred troops to both the Volkhov and Tikhvin areas. At the end of October, positions to the south of Volkhov were occupied by the 310th Division from the Sinyavino area and at the beginning of November by the 6th Marine Brigade. The situation remained very difficult, however, for during the first half of November the German offensive continued slowly but surely. The 285th Division and 311th Division suffered heavy losses and could no longer hold back the German onslaught. The 21st Division, in turn, attacked elements of the 310th Division, which retreated to Volkhov under the blows, and also fought with scattered units of the 292nd Division. By 4 November, the 21st Division had advanced north of Zarechye.

Between 5 and 12 November, as it continued the German offensive, the 21st Division in fierce battles with the 6th Marine Brigade neared the approaches of Volkhov as it reached the village of Veltsa. At the same time, Soviet troops still held the eastern bank of the Volkhov river near the village of Prusyn. Also at the same time, the 11th Division continued its advance along the western bank of the Volkhov river to reach Olomna by 4 November and the area slightly to the north of Glazhevo by 12 November.

After a short pause, from November 14 the Germans again went onto the offensive. The 6th Marine Brigade, the 16th Tank Brigade, the remnants of the 310th Division and other individual units fought major actions in the area to the south of Volkhov and offered strong resistance, and the Germans shifted their focus to an offensive bypassing Volkhov from the west in the direction of the village of Shum. By that time, on 14 November, the bloodied 311th Division was replaced by the 3rd Guards Division and the 122nd Tank Brigade. As early as 24 October, the Soviet troops defending Volkhov had been combined into the Volkhov Operational Group, transferred to the 4th Army, and on 12 November to the 54th Army. The German troops fighting in this same area, were reduced on 20 November, to a grouping commanded by von Böckmann task force and comprising Lüters’s 223rd Division that had been transferred to this area on 14 November and some elements of the 8th Panzerdivision.

The German offensive on Volkhov continued: battles were fought for each village, and only on 25 November were the German forces halted 3.7 miles (6 km) from Volkhov. To the east of Volkhov, teams from the 21st Pionierbataillon engineer battalion of the 21st Division managed to infiltrate into the Soviet rear and undermine the railway from Volkhov northward to Petrozavodsk on the western shore of Lake Onega, and the 11th Aufklärungsabteilung reconnaissance battalion of the 11th Division entered the area to the west of Volkhov and for a time cut the railway linking Volkhov and Leningrad highway for a while: these were the northernmost points that the Germans were able to reach on the Eastern Front. The offensive on Shum continued slowly until 3 December. As early as 1 December, von Both’s I Corps had reached a point only 0.9 miles (1.5 km) short of the village, where it was halted, and by 3 December had already repelled Soviet counterattacks, especially that of the 311th Division which had reached Voybokalo after a hasty replenishment of its strength and supplies in Volkhov.

From its start, the land campaign had been fought in parallel with a more one-sided struggle in the air. In the Air Force of the Leningrad Front, three operational groups had been created. Two of these groups, with 12 aircraft each, were subordinated directly to the divisional commanders of the 55th Army, and the third, with 15 aircraft, was subordinated directly to the front. Soviet bombers and fighters struck German positions ahead of front ground operations.

Before the German offensive, the Germans had about 250 aircraft with which to support Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. The Air Force of the Leningrad Front had 225 serviceable aircraft, and the Air Force of the Baltic Fleet 134 aircraft. Behind the outer edge of the Leningrad Front’s eastern perimeter, an aviation task force had been established under the command of Polkovnik Ivan P. Zhuravlev, the deputy commander of the Air Force of the Leningrad Front. The 2nd Reserve Air Group and 3rd Reserve Air Group earlier, created earlier in that area, were also commanded operationally by Zhuravlev. By the beginning of the operation, Zhuravlev thus had at his disposal 73 serviceable and 38 unserviceable aircraft, a total clearly inadequate to the tasks assigned to the group.

The operational group’s pilots nonetheless supported the ground forces, covered the line of communications across Lake Ladoga and the adjacent railways, the Tikhvin railway junction and Volkhov, and escorted the transport aircraft assigned to the delivery of essential supplies into Leningrad. For operations in the Tikhvin area, the Leningrad Front’s aircraft , which were not part of the operational group, were also involved. The Ladoga Aviation Group was formed from the Air Forcer of the Baltic Fleet, and this operated in conjunction with the 54th Army. The 52nd Army, which was directly subordinate to the Soviet supreme command, had its own air force.

The 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation' was one of the first such Soviet undertakings in which the Germans had not been able to achieve their operational goals. Despite the fact that the Germans had secured a number of small- and intermediate-scale successes during their offensive, such as the capture of Tikhvin and the concomitant severing of road and rail links with Leningrad, and the thwarting of the Soviet plan for the 54th Army to break the German blockade of Leningrad, in general the Germans were unable to achieve their operational and strategic goals. The Germans had also planned to link with the Finnish forces on the Svir river near the south-eastern corner of Lake Ladoga was another objective which was not accomplished: had they managed to effect such a junction, the Germans would have completed the isolation of Leningrad and been well placed to interdict the Soviet reinforcement and resupply effort across the summer water and winter ice of the lake. This would have meant the inevitable Soviet loss of Leningrad, the Leningrad Front and the Baltic Fleet. Subsidiary German drives to the south and north were also unsuccessful. On the southern flank of the German offensive, the plan to capture Tikhvin by a deep envelopment from the south and a possible establishment of a form junction between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to the north of Kalinin was rendered impossible. In the north, despite the persistent attempts, the German plan to reach the more of the southern shore of Lake Ladoga also failed. At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that the German capture of Tikhvin was one of the primary reasons for the decrease in rations in Leningrad, and as a consequence the mass famine during the winter of 1941/42.

Even so, the resistance of the Soviet troops, the over-extension of German communications, the scarcely replaceable losses of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in personnel (from 10 October to 20 November the army group lost 26 808 men killed, wounded and missing) created the conditions needed for the Soviet 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation'.