Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation' was the Soviet undertaking immediately following the 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation' and as such was the counter-offensive from the area of Tikhvin, Volkhov and Malaya Vishera to the south-east of Leningrad (10 November/30 December 1941).

The two sub-operations of the 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation' were the 'Tikhvin-Kirishi Offensive Operation' (12 November/30 December 1941) and 'Malaya Vishera Offensive Operation' (10 November/30 December 1941).

The Soviet offensive against elements of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', whose forces had taken Tikhvin as the culmination of 'Tichwin', was fought in the region to the east and south-east of Leningrad. At the start of the offensive the front line passed in the north through the zone to the south of the railway line linking Sinyavino and Volkhov via Voybokalo, in the north-east by the approaches to Volkhov, then along the railway line to Tikhvin and the area round it, then to south-west through Taltsy railway station and Berezhok, and then to the south-west to Malaya Vishera, where it reached the line of the Volkhov river a little to the north of Dubrovka. The western edge of the offensive was marked by the Volkhov river to Kirishi and then to the north-west through Voronovo to reach the railway line. By the end of the operation, the front lay generally along the eastern bank of the Volkhov river, with Soviet bridgeheads on the river’s western bank and German bridgehead at Kirishi on the eastern bank. From Kirishi, the front extended to the north-west, largely in parallel with the railway linking Kirishi and Mga, and finally to the north to reach the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. The length of he front was between 185 and 220 miles (300 and 350 km), and its depth some 60 to 75 miles (100 to 120 km) in which the Soviet advance was made at a rate of 1.25 to 1.55 miles (2 to 2.5 km) per day.

The operation lasted from 10 November to 30 December, the start date being that on which the Npvgorod Army Task Force took the offensive in the areas between Malaya Vishera and Novgorod. The date on which the Soviet offensive ended is also somewhat arbitrary as it was determined by the dates on which the Soviet forces regained the positions it had held along the Volkhov river at the start of the 'Tikhvin-Volkhov Defensve Operation', which was the immediate predecessor of the 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation'.

During the 'Tikhvin-Volkhov Defensive Operation', German forces had crossed the Volkhov river, after which they almost managed to reach the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, and did capture Tikhvin, thereby cutting the railway line that was the only real supply route available to the Soviets for the supply of besieged Leningrad, and moved somewhat toward Bologoye. The German objectives were not fully achieved, and in the absence of sufficient reserves, the suffering of major losses, the overextension of the lines of communication, and finally the arrival of full winter conditions: the combination of these factors slowed and finally halted the German offensive in almost all areas except the main attack through Tikhvin until the middle of November, and at Volkhov until December.

By 23 November, the German high command had come to the conclusion that the task of linking with the Finnish forces along the Svir river was a task that had now to be postponed into 1942. The German offensive through Tikhvin toward the Svir river was therefore suspended, so the most urgent task required of the German forces now became the retention of Tikhvin until 1942, when it could become the launch point for the renewed offensive that was now planned. The state of affairs on the southern flank meant that in the area of Malaya Vishera the German lacked the reserves for continued offence and therefore had no option but to go onto the defensive. At the same time, in the northern sector, the German task remained unaltered: penetrating to the southern shore of Lake Ladoga.

By the beginning of the 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation', the Soviets occupied an enveloping position on the north-eastern and south-eastern sides of the German salient that had its shoulders near Schlüsselburg (Petrokrepost in Russian) in the north and Novgorod in the south with its apex at Tikhvin in the east. This was seen by the Soviets as ideal for the execution of a major counter-offensive both to regain lost territory and also to encircle and destroy as many as four German corps.

The Soviet plan called for an advance to the eastern bank of the Volkhov river along its entire German-held length and the seizure of bridgeheads on the river’s western bank. These were objectives which were to be attained, in the Soviet plan, by a series of strikes from various points but all converging in Kirishi and Gruzino. The main blow was assigned to General Kirill A. Meretskov’s (from 16 December General Major Piotr A. Ivanov’s) 4th Army, which was to drive forward from the Tikhvin region to Budogosh and Gruzino. During this strike, 4th Army had the initial task of cutting off General Hans Jürgen von Arnim’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) in the Tikhvin area. After this, the 4th Army was faced with the task of reaching Volkhov and linking in the Kirishi area with General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 54th Army advancing from the salient’s northern side and in the Gruzino area with General Leytenant Nikolai K. Klykov’s 52nd Army advancing from the salient’s south-eastern side: this would sever all the routes by which the German forces might escape from the area to the east of Volkhov. The 54th Army was also to fall on the left flank of Generalleutnant Herbert von Böckmann’s Kampgruppe 'von Böckmann', which had been created only on 20 November out of General Kuno von Both’s I Corps in the area of Kirishi. In co-operation with the Novgorod Army Task force of General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front, Klykov’s 52nd Army was to advance to the north, destroy General Friedrich-Wilhelm von Chappuis’s XXXVIII Corps in the Malaya Vishera area and, on reaching Volkhov, link with the 4th Army, thus creating of a continuous front along the Volkhov river from Novgorod in the south to Volkhov in the north.

At the start of the 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation', the Soviet fielded three armies and two army task forces. Fedyuninsky’s 54th Army, which held the southern shore of Lake Ladoga as far to the east as Voronovo, then parallel with the line of the railway connecting Mga with Volkhov via Voybokalo, and finally the line of the railway linking Volkhov and Tikhvin to a point about half the distance to the last. The 54th Army included the Volkhov Army Task Force, and unit which were not part of this group held defensive positions along the eastern face of the German penetration to Ladoga in the Sinyavino region, preventing the expansion of this wedge to the east.

Mereskov’s 4th Separate Army, which held the Soviet line starting from the south-eastern edge of the 54th Army’s sector along the railway connecting Volkhov and Tikhvin, and covering Tikhvin from the north, east and south with the Northern, Eastern and Southern Task Forces respectively.

Klykov’s 52nd Separate Army held the line from Malaya Vishera to the north-east, through Taltsy almost to the positions of the 4th Army, though there was no direct link between the two armies in the area in which they almost abutted as there was wholly impassable terrain.

The Novgorod Army Task Force held the line between Malaya Vishera with a south-western sector extending as far as the Volkhov river in the area to the north of Novgorod and farther to the south along the eastern shore of Lake Ilmen.

The German forces were those of Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army within Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and in the salient comprised General Mauritz von Wiktorin’s XXVIII Corps in the Mga area, von Both’s I Corps in the Volkhov area, von Arnim’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) in the Tikhvin area and von Chappuis’s XXXVIII Corps in the Malaya Vishera area.

The Novgorod Army Task Force of the North-West Front and the 52nd Separate Army took part in the 'Malaya-Vishera Offensive Operation', and were opposed by Generalleutnant Paul Laux’s 126th Division and Generalmajor Antonio Muñoz Grandes’s 250th Division, the latter a Spanish volunteer formation otherwise known as the División Azul, as well as some parts of Generalleutnant Siegfried Hänicke’s 61st Division in reserve. Later additions were Generalleutnant Rudolf Lüters’s 223rd Division and Generalleutnant Bruno Frankewitz’s 215th Division.

The Novgorod Army Operational Task Force undertook an auxiliary mission during the operation inasmuch as the formation was entrusted with the defence of the Plovnaya Gorka line with part of its strength, the mouth of the Msta river to the east of Novgorod, an advance with its main strength in the direction of the Selishchensky settlement, the destruction of the German forces in collaboration with the 52nd Army and the seizure of a bridgehead on the western bank of the Volkhov river in the area of ​the ​Selishchensky settlement.

On 10 November, the Novgorod Army Task Force in the southern shoulder of the Tikhvin salient attacked in the first stage of the 'Malaya Vishera Offensive Operation' but met with little success, and two days later formations of the 52nd Army on the salient’s south-eastern face joined the offensive. The Soviet offensive developed very slowly. The 52nd Army’s first task was the capture of Malaya Vishera, and this army advanced on a front 30 miles (48 km) wide from Zelenshina to the village of Poddubye, 8.75 miles (14 km) to the south of Malaya Vishera: the army attempted to make an impact with a concentrated spearhead force, but instead moved forward with all four of its first-echelon divisions in line abreast. Thus a mere two regiments of the 259th Division had to undertake a direct assault on the well-fortified village and, without proper reconnaissance and artillery support, attacked Malaya Vishera directly until 19 November. One day later, in a night battle parts of the army, after completing a flanking movement, forced Laux’s 126th Division to pull back from the village. Nonetheless, the Soviet offensive continued to develop only slowly.

By 9 December, the Soviet forces had been able to advance only 12.5 miles (20 km) west of Malaya Vishera. From 12 December, the pressure exerted by the Soviet forces became both strong and constant. The German troops fell back systematically from both the 52nd amy and the Novgorod Army Task Force, and the Spanish division was forced to abandon the strongholds of Posad, Otensky and Shevelevo. On 15 December, the Germans ordered their own forces as well as the Spanish division to retreat from the Malaya Vishera area to the western bank of the Volkhov river. By 23 December, German troops had crossed the Volkhov river, and two days later the Soviet 259th Division and 267th Division seized several bridgeheads in the area to the south of Gruzino, but the 111th Division, operating in the Vodosye area to the north-east of Chudovo took only one, though this cost the Germans the use of the railway linking Chudovo nd Kirishi. Even so, the Germans retained a single bridgehead across the Volkhov River in Gruzino, and in fact retained this until January 1944.

On the northern face of the Tikhvin salient, by 10 November the Soviet 4th Army had created three operational groups: General Major Piotr F. Privalov’s Northern Task Force comprised two regiments of the 44th Division, the 1061st Regiment and the 46th Tank Brigade withdrawn from positions on the Svir river, and was deployed in the area to the north and north-west of Tikhvin; the Eastern Task Force comprised the fresh 65th Division, the 191st Division, the 27th Cavalry Division, one regiment of the 44th Division, the 121st Tank Regiment and the 128th Separate Tank Battalion, and was deployed to the east and south-east of Tikhvin; and General Leytenant Vsevolod F. Yakovlev’s Southern Task Force comprised the 4th Guards Division, the 92nd Division, the 292nd Division and the 120th Tank Regiment, and was deployed in the area to the south and south-west of Tikhvin. Between the Eastern Task Force and the Southern Task Force, elements of the 60th Tank Division and the 27th Cavalry Division were combined into a grouping under the command of General Major Anton A. Pavlovich.

The Germans attached great importance to the retention of Tikhvin so as to maintain their positions for the offensive they intended to launch in the spring of 1942, and in order to maintain control of the railway along which their flow of supplies moved. The Germans appreciated that they lacked the strength to guarantee both of these requirements, however, and by 17 November the operational branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres had asked the Finns to resume their own offensive to advance from the Svir river to Tikhvin. But General Waldemar Erfurth, the German representative at the headquarters of the Finnish army, noted that 'it soon became apparent that there was no way to overcome the crisis. The Russians did not think about stopping the battle to the east of Tikhvin, but about the fact that, with the arrival of additional forces, which were partially pulled back from the front deployed in front of the Army of Karelia, they would launch a counter-offensive in the direction of Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. To overcome the danger that would arise in this sector, the Oberkommando des Heeres turned to the Finnish headquarters with a request that the Army of Karelia increased its combat activity, if possible, pin the Russian troops in this sector of the front.'

According to the Soviet plan for the 'Tikhvin-Kirishi Offensive Operation', Privalov’s Northern Task Force was to advance to the south with its right flank farthest from Tikhvin and cut the lines of communication (both road and rail) linking Tikhvin and Volkhov), thereby severing the Germans' line of retreat to the west. Pavlovich’s grouping was to advance to meet the Northern Task Force with the object of cutting the road and rail lines connecting Tikhvin and Budogosh, so severing the German line of retreat to the south-west. The efforts of these two groups were to create an inner ring of encirclement round the German forces in the Tikhvin area. Meanwhile, the Southern Task Force was to cut off the escape routes on the outer approaches to Tikhvin, in case the outer pincer arms failed to close and the struggle near the western outskirts of Tikhvin took on a protracted nature. The Eastern Task Force and the left flank of the Northern Task Force were to attack Tikhvin directly.

The 4th Army’s offensive began on 19 November, and immediately foretold the bitter nature of the fighting which was to come. The German forces defended themselves stubbornly, and also counterattacked. None of the task forces fulfilled their allotted tasks: the 65th Division, which constituted the main strength of the Eastern Task Force and attacked Tikhvin first from the south-east and then from the south, managed to reach only the suburbs of Tikhvin, where it was brought to a halt. The Southern Task Force made a slight initial advance to the north-west in the direction of Sitomlialso but was then halted. Pavlovich’s grouping made no significant progress at all. The right flank of the Northern Task Force was slightly more successful: the 44th Division delivered many attacks and managed to take a powerful strongpoint in the village of Lazarevichi, but failed to cut the railway and was then driven out of the village. Nevertheless, the road remained under Soviet artillery fire and could therefore not be used as a line of retreat. This left the Germans with just a single line of communication, namely the earth road connecting Tikhvin and Lipnaya Gorka and thence Budogosh.

On 26 November the Soviets resumed their offensive, with essentially unaltered objectives, but there were no significant changes in the Soviet and German positions.

At this juncture, the Soviets began to regroup their forces and to re-plan their offensive. The point of main effort was shifted to the 4th Army’s left flank. Pavlovich’s task force, reinforced with the 1st Grenadier Brigade, was entrusted with the task of undertaking the main attack along the Syas river. The Northern Task Force’s right flank was to make an auxiliary strike. The 65th Division was to continue the offensive against Tikhvin, but shifting its points of attack to the south and south-west of the town.

At the end of November, the Germans strengthened the defense of Tikhvin with a fresh formation, Generalleutnant Siegfried Hänicke’s 61st Division transferred from the Baltic States and which had previously been involved in the occupation of the islands of the Moonsund archipelago.

The renewed Soviet offensive started on 5 December, and quickly achieve success. On the very first day, the Northern Task Force cleared the entire eastern bank of the Tikhvin river in the Ovino and Lazarevich area, but managed to force the river only four days later. Thus the Northern Task force cut the road linking Tikhvin and Volkhov. By the end of the renewed offensive’s first day, Pavlovich’s grouping had taken Novo-Andreyevo and Shibenets, cutting the earth road linking Tikhvin and Budogosh, and continued the offensive toward Lipnaya Gorka. By 8 December the Eastern Task Force, having broken through the fortifications in the suburbs, reached the outskirts of Tikhvin. The Southern Task Force continued to advance toward Sitomla and the section of the road linking Sitomlya and Budogosh after reaching the approaches to this road on 3 December.

The German command was faced with the fact of the possible encirclement of all its forces in Tikhvin, and on 8 December the commander of the 61st Division, who was also commander of the defences of Tikhvin, decided against the orders of Adolf Hitler to abandon the town. This demanded that the escape route be held. and the German forces therefore undertook powerful counterattacks to keep the corridor open. The Germans began to evacuate their troops from Tikhvin, on the same day, abandoning significant quantities of weapons and vehicles: the Soviet haul of booty amounted to 42 pieces of artillery, 46 mortars, 190 machine guns, 102 trucks, 27 tanks, 10 other armoured vehicles, 2,700 rifles, 110 machine guns, 28,000 shells, 30,000 grenades, 17,500 mines, 210,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, food warehouses and a fuel dump.

On 9 December, the 65th Division and the 191st Division launched a major offensive against Tikhvin from the south and the north-east respectively. The 151st Regiment of the 61st Division remained as a rearguard and was the unit which in fact liberated the town. On the same day, von Leeb ordered a straightening of the front line, which actually meant a retreat to Volkhov.

From that moment on, the Soviet offensive became a pursuit of the retreating Germans and battles with their rearguards, while the Germans sought to hold the corridor to Volkhov and planned their evacuation of the area. Both sides were hampered by the adversity of the winter weather and the dismal state of land communications. For the Germans it was a terrible change in their fortunes: exhausted, emaciated and often wounded soldiers, who had not seen hot food for many days and were freezing, trudged back to the west. Soviet armour and cavalry roamed round the German columns, some of which were scattered. Above the retreating Germans, Soviet warplanes darted down to bomb and strafe.

The Eastern Task Force and the Southern Task Force pursued the Germans to the south-west. The Northern Task Force advanced from Tikhvin in the direction of Ostashev Gorka and Zelenets. The 4th Army planned that by 10 December the Eastern Task Force was to have advanced to the Sias river and capture this waterway’s course, by 11/12 December the area to the east of the Sitomli river was to have been cleared, and the Northern Task Force was to have been withdrawn to the line lining Ostasheva Gorka and Zelenets, then by 13/15 December to have been redeployed in pursuit of the retreating Germans and linked with the Northern Task Force in the area of Myslino station, and the Eastern Task Group to have pressed forward to the Budogosh region. However, the offensive developed more slowly than had been planned, and it was only on 15 December that the Soviets took Sitomlya and on 19 December reached the Lynka river. This threatened he Germ forces to the south-east of Volkhov with encirclement and, under pressure from the 54th Army, the Germans began to withdraw. By 24 December this had made it possible by 24 December to complete the clearance of the railway linking Tikhvin and Volkhov railway. On 21 December, the 4th Army’s right flank met, in the Lynka area some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the south-east of Volkhov, the 3rd Guards Division and 310th Division of the 54th Army.

On 17 December, the 4th Army and the 52nd Army were combined united into Meretskov’s new Volkhov Front, and the Novgorod Army Task Force became part of the 52nd Army.

On 21 December, Budogosh was liberated and on the following day the 65th Division and 92nd Division of the 4th Army reached the Volkhov between Kirishi and Lezno and, in obedience to the Stavka’s order that there be no pause in the offensive, began to drive past this line with the object of taking Novgorod and liberating the entire area to the east of Leningrad. As events developed, this plan was later adjusted to become the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation'. In the last days of December, the 4th Army gradually moved forward to Volkhov and began to cross the river. In almost all cases, these bridgeheads were quickly eliminated by the Germans. The forces of the 4th Army attempted without success to storm the remaining German bridgehead in Kirishi.

On the northern side of the German salient, before the start of the Soviet offensive, the Volkhov Operational Group, which had been created on 29 October and subordinated to the 54th Army on 12 November, was ordered to halt the German offensive on Volkhov and Voybokalo, and then to strike the German left flank in the direction of Kirishi, cut the German line of retreat to the west beyond the Volkhov river, and in collaboration with the 4th Army destroy the encircled German troops.

By 25 November, the German offensive directly on Volkhov had come to a halt along a front 3.7 miles (6 km) to the south of Volkhov. To the east of Volkhov, the front passed through Ramenye, Dubrova and Ostrov. In view of the strong Soviet resistance in this sector, the Germans shifted the axis of their main attack to bypass Volkhov to the west, in the direction of Shum and Voybokalo.

On 28 November, the Soviet 16th Tank Brigade, 310th Division, 311th Division, 3rd Guards Division and 6th Marine Brigade went over the offensive, and in heavy fighting with the 11th Division, 21st Division and 8th Panzerdivision pushed the Germans slightly farther from Volkhov and retook part of the railway lining Volkhov and Tikhvin. In the area to the west of Volkhov, the German offensive continued. The change in the direction of the strike was to a certain extent unexpected by the Soviet command, for there were no combat-ready Soviet forces in the area. This forced the area’s understrength formations, including the 311th Division, to be transferred as rapidly as possible to the Voybokalo area. By 1 December, he Soviets had been able to stop the German offensive just to the south of Voybokalo, and two days later the Soviets launched an offensive with a specially created shock group comprising the 311th Division, 285th Division, 80th Division, 6th Marine Brigade and 122nd Tank Brigade. On the Soviet offensive’s first day, the shock group managed to drive into the German defences and attack the German strongpoints in Opsala, Ovdekala, Tobino, Padrila and the Krasny Oktyabr state farm. However, the success of the offensive ended there: the units holding the German strongpoints defended their positions with skill and determination. In addition, the German command began to transfer reinforcements in the form of Generalleutnant Kurt Herzog’s 291st Division, whose arrival was made difficult by natural conditions, and the Soviets redirected part of the 54th Army’s strength to Sinyavino.

The turning point in the 54th Army’s offensive ame only in the middle of December. By 15 December, the fresh 115th Division and 198th Division had arrived in the area to the south-west of Voybokalo and, going onto the offensive, broke the German resistance and advanced to the area of Olomna on 17 December 17, thereby arriving on the German left flank on the eastern bank of the Volkhov river. At the same time, the 54th Army linked with the 4th Army some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the south-east of Volkhov. As a result, the Germans became keenly concerned that all the German troops to the north of Kirishi might be encircled on both the western and eastern banks of the Volkhov river, and therefore began a hasty withdrawal to the south up the Volkhov river. On the eastern bank of this waterway, the withdrawal was carried out in a relatively well-ordered fashion as the Soviet command lacked the resources to organise a proper pursuit, but on the western bank the Germans suffered significant losses. In the area to the south of Voybokalo, 94 pieces of artillery and mortars, 21 tanks, 21 machine guns and 90 vehicles were captured, and the Soviets counted the bodies of more than 5,000 men.

In general, the 54th Army advanced as part of an overall operation that was facilitated by access to the railway linking Kirishi and Mga in the Pogostye sector on its left flank and in the Kirishi sector on its right flank. The 281st Division had reached Pohost by 15 December, but all the division’s attempts to take the station defended by units of Generalleutnant Ernst von Leyser’s 269th Division were driven back. By 26/27 December, the 54th Army had reached the railway in the sector between Pogost and about half the distance to Kirishi. The Soviet attacks on Kirishi failed, and the Germans retained their bridgehead in Kirishi until the autumn of 1943. In the position where the Soviets managed to reach the railway, constant fighting for the road and Pogostye station lasted a long time, and the end of the 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation' was, for the 54th Army, nothing more than symbolic as its current effort merged straight into the start of the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation'.

Together with the 'Rostov-na-Donu Strategic Offensive Operation' at the southern end of the Eastern Front, the 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation' at its northern end were the first major Soviet offensives of World War II. If in the course of the 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation' the Germans' primary goal of creating a total blockade of Leningrad had been thwarted, then in the 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation' this strategic objective became impossible of attainment, and the Germans permanently lost the initiative in this region.

The Soviet successes during the operation included the liberation of lost territory and settlements, and the restoration of railway communications in the area of Tikhvin and Volkhov.

As a result of the 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation' and 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation', the Soviets inflicted heavy damage on eight German divisions (including two Panzer and two motorised formations). As an example, the 18th Division (mot.), which had embarked in 'Tichwin' with about 10,000 men, by the time of its retreat beyond the Volkhov river, could muster a mre 741 effectives. In addition, the German command had been compelled to transfer to the Tikhvin salient five divisions from other sectors of the front.

During the two operations, the Soviet high command had acquired a considerable volume of vital combat experience, a fact which was expressed both in improved organisational capability and in the tactics of fighting both defensive and offensive operations: in particular, the Soviet high command came to appreciate the importance of restoring corps as an essential command level between the army and the division. The morale of the Soviet people (especially the inhabitants of besieged Leningrad) and of the Soviet armed forces rose significantly and, conversely, that of the Germans fell.

Despite its ultimate success, the 'Tikhvin Strategic Offensive Operation' was fought in a manner which could not disguise the fact that it was not without shortcomings at the operational and tactical levels. The latter included frontal attacks on, rather than bypassing of, German strongpoints, and poor co-ordination of the various arms. The taks ordered by the Soviet high command were not properly assessed and fully implemented. Despite the fact that occupied areas were liberated, in no place was it possible to carry out the encirclement and destruction of Germans forces as envisaged at lower levels (the encirclement of the German forces in Tikhvin) and higher levels (the encirclement of all the German forces to the east of Volkhov). Despite its considerable losses, including both men and matériel, the German command managed to effect a relatively organised withdrawal of its forces onto the western bank of the Volkhov river, on whose bank it rebuilt its defences.