Tula Offensive Operation

The 'Tula Offensive Operation' was the Soviet fourth of the six sub-operations which together constituted the 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation (6/16 December 1941).

In this undertaking, the left wing of General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front attacked Generalfeldmarschall GŁnther von Kluge’s 4th Army and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the Tula region to the south of Moscow.

For a period of 43 days between October and December 1941, the key Soviet city of Tula was partially encircled, subjected to attacks by German artillery and mortars. bombed by German warplanes and attacked by German armour. Despite the weight of the German assaults, the Soviets succeeded in holding and stabilising their defences round Tula, and thereby safeguarded the approaches to Moscow from the south. The retention of Tula ensured the stability of the West Front’s left flank as it drew off the entire 4th Army and thwarted the German intention of using the 2nd Panzerarmee to bypass Moscow from the east. During the 'Wotan' component of their 'Taifun' (i) second general offensive, in the period between 18 November and 5 December, the German enjoyed some successes but also failed to make any decisive breakthrough to Moscow in the southern direction.

On 5 December, the 2nd Panzerarmee, which was scattered along a 220-mile (350-km) front 350 km, was instructed to go over to the defensive. Having exhausted their offensive capabilities, the formations and units of the 2nd Panzerarmee therefore began to withdraw from the dangerously exposed bulge which they had created to the north-east of Tula, to the line of the railway linking Tula and Uzlovaya, and the Don river. As the Germans were starting to settle in the area of Tula, on 6 December reinforced Soviet forces launched the 'Tula Offensive Operation' with the object of defeating the German shock group operating in the Tula area and of eliminating the threat of a German outflanking of Moscow from the south.

The offensive of General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s 10th Army began on the night of 7 December with an attack by Polkovnik Piotr A. Eremin’s 328th Division and the 330th Division in the direction of Mikhailov on the very forward edge of the German bulge. The success of this initial attack paved the way for the start of the counter-offensive by General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army. According to the combat logs of the formations involved, Mikhailov was liberated by the 328th Division, but the mounted signalman sent to divisional headquarters with a report on the town’s capture failed to locate the divisional headquarters and thus returned with the report. At this time, the 330th Division reported by radio to the 50th Army’s headquarters about the town’s seizure, and this further affected the accuracy of the Soviet coverage of events outside Mikhailov.

Between 8 and 10 December, the 10th Army advanced more than 43.5 miles (70 km) and began to approach the Don river. By the end 10 December, the 50th Army had advanced to the south to a depth of 2.5 to 10 miles (4 to 16 km). The 50th Army had been weakened by its commitment in earlier defensive battles, but the similarly affected divisions of General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) nonetheless offered fierce resistance. Thus parts of the 50th Army were unable to take the areas designated for them in a timely manner and thus sever the escape routes for the elements of the 2nd Panzerarmee retreating from the line linking Venev and Mikhailov.

On 9 December, General Major Pavel A. Belov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps, together with the 9th Tank Brigade, liberated Venev, and by 10 December its forward units were on the outskirts of Stalinogorsk (now Novomoskovsk). Despite the relatively high rate of advance of the forces of the 10th Army, in the order of 6.2 and 7.25 miles ( (10 and 12 km) per day, this was clearly insufficient to encircle the German forces retreating from the Venev and Tula area. This was explained by several factors including insufficient concentration to bypassing and covering German strongholds. During 9 December, therefore, the 328th Division sought to recapture the village of Gremyacheye some 14.9 miles (24 km) to the south-west of Mikhailov. It was only in the evening that the Soviet forces bypassed this German strongpoint from the north and south, after which the German resistance collapsed. This shortcoming was repeatedly pointed out by the front to Golikov. On 10/11 December elements of the 10th Army became bogged down in fighting for Epifan and Stalinogorsk, in both of which the Germans offered fierce resistance.

At the same time, it became more than clear that a major Soviet deficiency was the 10th Army’s lack of mobile formations and units. The 10th Army lacked powerful tank, motorised and cavalry forces of the types which were clearly required for a successful encirclement operation. The 10th Army did possess cavalry in the form of the 57th and 75th Cavalry Divisions, but these were small formations and were used mainly as flank cover at the junction with the neighbouring army on the left. Parts of the I Guards Corps went over the offensive from their defensive lines. There was no opportunity to transfer the formations of the cavalry corps to create a mobile group as part of the 10th Army, and the cavalry corps had therefore to overcome the stubborn resistance of Guderian’s Panzer army, which was retreating from Venev. Thus Belov’s units covered 62 to 75 miles (100 to 120 km) during the 'Tula Offensive Operation', which represents a rate of only 5 to 6.2 miles (8 to 10 km) per day, which is notably small for a cavalry force. The ideal solution would have been to replace Belov’s cavalry corps with infantry divisions and send parts of the corps into the 10th Army’s breakthrough on the line linking Mikhailov and Stalinogorsk.

By 14 December, the forces of the left wing of General Leytenant Ivan G. Zakharkin’s 49th Army had also joined the Soviet counter-offensive. The 49th Army had received four fresh infantry brigades (the 19th, 26th, 30th and 34th Brigades) before being committed, had had been further bolstered by the transfer of the 133rd Division from General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Shock Army. For three days, elements of 49th Army covered 6.2 to 12.5 miles (10 to 20 km), liberating Aleksin and seizing bridgeheads on the left bank of the Oka river to the north of Tarusa and near Aleksin.

Boldin’s 50th army was the slowest of all, since the German command did everything to hold onto the Shchekino area and thereby prevent Soviet troops from reaching the main road linking Tula and Orel, and thus save German forces from possible encirclement. Only on 17 December did elements of the 50th Army recapture Shchekino. By this time, however, the Germans had been able to withdraw their formations from this area to the north-east of Shchekin, Uzlovaya and Lomovka to the south-west. During the 10 days of the operation, the 50th Army advanced 15.5 to 18.5 miles (25 to 30 km) at a rate with averaged no more than 1 to 1.15 miles (1.55 to 1.85 km) per day.

As a result of the 'Tula Offensive Operation' by the left-flank formations of the West Front, the Soviets eliminated the threat of an encirclement of Moscow from the south, and the German forces had been compelled to fall back some 80 miles (130 km) to the west. In addition, the 'Tula Offensive Operation' is of interest as a result of the fact that it was carried out without an operational pause: the Soviet troops had gone over to a general offensive after a difficult defensive battle and in the same direction. This gave the offensive some peculiarities: Belov’s cavalry corps was used not as a shock group to develop success, but for communication between the 10th Army and 50th Army in its own offensive zone. Despite the fact that formations and units of the 2nd Panzerarmee managed to escape from the 'bag' that came into being to the east of Tula, they had been compelled to abandon much equipment. The 'Tula Offensive Operation' created opportunities for the further development of the offensive in the direction of Kaluga and Sukhinichi, and in overall terms the Tula area came to become one of the most promising for the Soviet high command.

However, as a result of their implementation of the policy of total war, the Germans inflicted great socio-economic damage on the Tula region: 19,164 collective farms had been burned in 25 districts of the region, 316 villages had been completely burned and destroyed, the towns of Epifan, Venev, Bogoroditsk and Chern had been almost completely destroyed, and in 27 of the region’s districts 299 schools had been destroyed and burned. There were also mass shootings of the local population.