This was was a Soviet offensive by the forces of the Kalinin Front against the 3rd Panzerarmee in the course of the winter campaign of 1942/43 with the object of liberating the city of Velikiye Luki as part of the northern pincer of the 'Rzhev-Sychevka Strategic Offensive Operation', otherwise 'Mars' (19 November 1942/16 January 1943).
As part of 'Barbarossa', the Germans had taken Velikiye Luki on 19 July 1941, but were compelled to retreat on the following day in the face of Soviet counterattacks, which severed the German liner of communications in several places. A new German attack was launched at a time late in August, and the city was recaptured by the Germans on 26 August.
The city was of major strategic importance as the primary north/south railway line passed just to the west of the city at Novosokol’niki, and also as there was the city’s own railway system to Vitebsk and bridges over the Lovat river. With 'Barbarossa' slowing in the early stages of the winter of 1941/42, the Germans fortified the area. Marshy terrain extended to Lake Peipus from an area just to the north of the city, which was held by Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army, making operations in the region around the city difficult for both sides. Rather than maintaining a solid front, the Germans established a series of lightly held outpost positions to the north and south of the city.
Soviet counterattacks during the winter campaign of 1941/42, especially the Battles of Rzhev just to the south, then created a large Soviet salient into the German line. Velikiye Luki lay just on the western edge of the Soviet advance, and had a strategic significance for the Soviets as much as the Germans. The city dominated the region and would therefore be the natural point of military operations in the region, offering the Soviets the possibility of destroying the German bridges across the Lovat river, and of denying the Germans use of the railway link that provided communications between Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', of which the 16th Army was a component, and Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Moreover, so long as the Germans held the railway junctions at Velikiye Luki and Rzhev, the Soviets lacked any fully reliable means of reinforcing or resupplying their formations on the northern face of the massive Rzhev salient.
In view of Velikiye Luki’s strategic significance, the Germans undertook an urgent and major fortification of the city over the course of 1942. The Soviets often raided into German-held territory around the city, which could be kept supplied only through the use of armoured trains.
The plan for the Soviet offensive to retake the city was developed in middle part of November 1942, and was based on the use of General Leytenant Nikolai K. Klykov’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Vladimir V. Kurasov’s 4th Shock Army, with air support by General Leytenant Mikhail M. Gromov’s 3rd Air Army. The city itself was defended by Generalleutnant Theodor Scherer’s 83rd Division, while the German lines to the north and south were held by Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Kreysing’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision respectively. The city itself was shielded by major prepared defences and garrisoned by an entire regiment of the 83rd Division and other troops, totalling some 7,000 men.
Rather than undertaking a direct assault on the city, the Soviet forces advanced into the difficult terrain to the north and south of the town. Spearheaded by the 9th and 46th Guards Divisions and 357th Division of the V Guards Rifle Corps to the south and the 381st Rifle Division to the north, the Soviet operation began on 24 November. Despite heavy losses, the Soviet formations succeeded in cutting the land links to the city by 27 November, trapping the garrison, and by the next day threatened to cut off other elements of General Kurt von der Chevallerie’s LIX Corps in the area to the south of the city when the Soviets released General Major Ivan P. Kochagin’s II Mechanised Corps into the breach created between the 3rd Gebirgsdivision and 83rd Division. The commander of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' now sought the authorisation of the Oberkommando des Heeres to make a break-out effort while the situation was still relatively fluid: what von Kluge planned was a local retreat of about 10 miles (16 km). The request was refused by Adolf Hitler who, on the basis of an earlier success in a similar situation at Kholm, ordered that the encircled formations stand fast while the Gruppe 'von der Chevallerie' from the north and Generalleutnant Erich Jaschke’s 20th Division (mot.) from the south counterattacked to break the Soviet encirclement.
The units of the German garrison were ordered to hold the city at all costs while a relief force was assembled. The remainder of the 83rd Division and 3rd Gebirgsdivision, encircled in the area to the south of Velikiye Luki, fought their way west to meet the relieving troops. As a result of the current commitments of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' at Rzhev, the only resources immediately available to hold the line opposite Velikiye Luki were those already in the area, which were organised as Generalleutnant Otto Wöhler’s Armeegruppe 'Wöhler' (based on Generalleutnant Werner Göritz’s 291st Division and supplementary units). Later, other divisions were made available, including Generalleutnant Erich Brandenburger’s the understrength 8th Panzerdivision from the Gruppe von der Chevallerie', the 20th Division (mot.) from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' reserve, and Generalmajor Rüdiger von Heyking’s weak 6th Luftwaffe Felddivision and, now quickly rushed to the front, Generalmajor Gustav Freiherr von Mauchenheim’s 707th Division, Generalleutnant Hermann Wilck’s 708th Division, Generalleutnant Paul Seyffardt’s 205th Division and Generalleutnant Dr Franz Beyer’s 331st Division. There was a corresponding build-up of Soviet strength.
Throughout December, the garrison held out against repeated Soviet attempts to reduce its perimeter, and in particular the railway depot in the city’s southern part. Attacking entrenched troops in severe winter weather, the Soviets suffered very high losses, while conditions in the city steadily deteriorated despite airdrops of supplies, ammunition and equipment. Meanwhile the Soviet attempts to take their main objective, the railway lines at Novosokol’niki, had been defeated by the counterattacks of the relief force. An attempt by the Germans to reach Velikiye Luki late in December ran into stubborn Soviet defence and was halted with heavy losses.
The next German attempt to break through to Velikiye Luki was 'Totila'. which was launched on 4 January. The two German spearheads advanced to within 5 miles (8 km) of the city, but were halted by Soviet pressure on their flanks. On 5 January, a Soviet attack from the north split Velikiye Luki in two, isolating a small group of troops in the fortified 'citadel' in the western part of the city, while the bulk of the garrison retained a sector centred around the railway station in the southern part of the city. The former group broke out on during the night of 14/15 January, and about 150 men eventually reached the German lines. The rest of the German garrison surrendered on 16 January.
After the war, the Soviet authorities collected in Velikiya Luki representative group of German prisoners of various ranks from general to private who had fought in the battle. A military tribunal held a public trial and convicted them of war crimes related to anti-partisan warfare. Nine were sentenced to death and publicly hanged in the main square of Velikiye Luki in January 1946.
The battle is sometimes called 'The Little Stalingrad of the North', this reflecting its similarities with the larger and better-known Battle of Stalingrad that raged in the southern sector of the front. Judged purely on the basis of the numbers involved, this battle was a small affair by the usual standards of the Eastern Front (150,000 total casualties suffered by both sides as opposed to 2 million total casualties at Stalingrad), but had enormous strategic consequences. The liberation of Velikiye Luki meant the Soviets possessed, for the first time since October 1941, a direct rail supply line to the northern face of the Rzhev salient, and this exposed the German forces at Rzhev to encirclement. Events at Velikiye Luki thus necessitated the withdrawal from Rzhev salient, and thereby ended any German military threat to Moscow. However, even after withdrawing from Rzhev, the German loss of Velikiye Luki meant that the railway link between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' remained severed, preventing the Germans from shifting reinforcements between threatened sectors. Moreover, the railway lines from Velikiye Luki led directly into the rear of Vitebsk, a critical logistics hub for Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', so the effect of this battle was that Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was left vulnerable to attack from the north, the east and, after the Battle of Smolensk, the south, exposing the whole army group to encirclement, which is exactly what happened in 'Bagration' in the following year.