The 'Vitebsk Defensive Operation' was a tank battle fought in the area to the south-west of Vitebsk by two Soviet mechanised corps of the West Front’s 20th Army and the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' within the context of the 'Belorussian Strategic Defensive Operation' (6/16 July 1941).
The other sub-operations of the 'Belorussian Strategic Defensive Operation' were the 'Belorussian Border Defensive Operation' (22/25 June), the 'Defence of Brest Fortress Operation' (22/30 June) and the 'Borisov-Lepel Offensive Operation' (6/9 July).
The crossing of the Zapadnyi Dvina river and the capture of Vitebsk by the Germans between 9 and 11 July was seen by the Soviets as an undertaking separate from all the other hostilities in the Vitebsk region between 12 and 16 July, which were seen as part of the 'Smolensk Strategic Defensive Operation'.
Following the start of their invasion of the USSR in 'Barbarossa' on 22 June, the German forces struck deeply into the western USSR on three primary but divergent axes toward Leningrad to the north-east, Moscow to the east and Kiev to the south-east.
After the capture of Minsk by the forces of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and the defeat of the main forces of General Dmitri G. Pavlov’s West Front in the Białystok and Minsk pockets, the German armoured corps began to advance to the line of the Zapadnyi Dvina and Dniepr rivers in order to gain the starting points for the launch of a renewed offensive toward Moscow.
With most of the infantry formations of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' still involved in the destruction of the Soviet forces trapped in Minsk pocket, it was only the mobile formations, under the operational supervision of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army, which were available for the continued advance to the east. These mobile forces were Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe in the north and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe in the south.
Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe comprised General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) (19th Panzerdivision and 18th Division (mot.), later joined by the 14th Division (mot.) that moved to the area of Polotsk; and General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) (7th Panzerdivision, followed by the 20th Panzerdivision and 20th Division (mot.)) that headed for Vitebsk. The 12th Panzerdivision and 18th Division (mot.) were later added to the two corps.
Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe comprised General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) (18th Panzerdivision and 17th Panzerdivision followed by the 29th Division (mot.)) that moved in the direction of Orsha; General Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s XLVI Corps (mot.) (10th Panzerdivision and SS Division (mot.) 'Das Reich') that moved toward Mogilev; and General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) (3rd Panzerdivision and 4th Panzerdivision, followed by the 1st Kavalleriedivision and 10th Division (mot.)) that advanced in the direction of Rogachev and Bykhov.
In the area between the upper reaches of the Zapadnyi Dvina and Dniepr rivers, the Soviet forces' Second Strategic Echelon (22nd, 20th and 21st Armies supplemented by the 19th and 16th Armies) was completing its concentration, and on July 2 this echelon was subordinated to the West Front, which since 28 June had been commanded in succession to Pavlov, who had been executed, by General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko and from 2 July by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko, who reached the front two days later). This strengthening of the Soviet grouping came as a considerable surprise to the Germans as they encountered it.
General Leytenant Filipp A. Ershakov’s 22nd Army comprised the LI Corps (98th, 112th and 153rd Divisions) and the LXII Corps (170th, 174th and 186th Divisions), and held the right flank of the West Front in a designated defence zone which also included the Sebezh Fortified Area and extended in a line along the Zapadnyi Dvina river, Kraslava, Drissa, Disna, the Polotsk Fortified Area, Usvitsa, Ulla, Beshenkovichi and Gnezdilovo, with its left flank to the south-west and south of Vitebsk along the line between Gnezdilovo, Sosnovka station and Krynki station.
General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 20th Army initially comprised the LXI Corps, LXIX Corps. VII Mechanised Corps and several separate infantry divisions. The army occupied the defence zone from an area outside Vitebsk to Mogilev, and was soon reinforced by the V Mechanised Corps. The XLI Corps and the Mogilev defence zone were then subordinated to General Leytenant Piotr M. Filatov’s 13th Army, which was moved from the Minsk area.
General Leytenant Ivan S. Konev’s 19th Army was transferred to the Vitebsk region from Ukraine and and possessed a notional establishment of seven infantry, one motorised infantry and two tank divisions, but by the beginning of active hostilities the army had not reached its designated area.
General Leytenant Mikhail F. Lukin’s 16th Army, transferred like the 19th Army from Ukraine, was concentrated in the area of Smolensk region. After its V Mechanised Corps had been subordinated to the 20th army, the 16th Army had a mere two infantry divisions.
General Leytenant Vasili F. Gerasimenko’s 21st Army was a powerful grouping on the West Front’s southern flank near Gomel, and comprised four infantry corps and one mechanised corps totalling 12 infantry divisions , one motorised infantry and two tank divisions.
In the air, the West Front was supported by six air divisions: the 22nd Army by the 12th Bomber Division and 46th Mixed Air Division; the 20th Army by the 23rd and 47th Mixed Air Divisions; and the 21st Army by the 13th Bomber Division and 11th Mixed Air Division.
As the German mobile formations and units moved to the east toward the starting points for what the German anticipated would be the final assault on Moscow, the Soviet supreme command was not prepared to wait on the defensive and merely watch the German advance. The Soviet supreme command was of the opinion that the physical separation of the Germans mobile formations from the marching infantry divisions provided the opportunity to defeat first the Germans' mobile forces and then their infantry formations. Thus a counterattack was planned for the Lepel area, at the junction of the two Panzergruppen, for the defeat of the German armoured thrusts and the halting of the entire offensive toward Moscow.
Also known as the Battle of Senno, the Soviet forces' Lepel counterattack was undertaken by two mechanised corps in the direction of Lepel and was launched on 6 July with the object of halting the German drive toward Moscow. The counterattack was the final sub-operation of the 'Belorussian Strategic Defensive Operation', and also one of the largest armoured battles fought on the Eastern Front. The counterattack ended in Soviet defeat, and as reported by Kurochkin, the commander of the 20th Army, 'the lack of success in the corps [resulted from] the inability of the command to organise the battle, the lack of co-operation between the artillery and armour, the poor work of headquarters, and the insufficient support and cover [by Soviet aircraft], which allowed [German] aircraft to bombard corps' units with impunity…'.
As noted above, the Germans followed their capture of Minsk and their defeat of the West Front’s main forces in the Białystok and Minsk pockets by pressing their shock formations toward the Zapadnyi Dvina and Dniepr rivers as the launch area for the renewed offensive on Moscow. Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) advanced toward Vitebsk. Generalmajor Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision, which was in the van, took Lepel on 4 July and continued to advance to the east toward Vitebsk, and thence Smolensk and, it was hoped, Moscow.
To the south, along the 'Moscow Highway' from Brest-Litovsk, Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) was advancing with Generalleutnant Walther Nehring’s 18th Panzerdivision in the lead with the object of reaching the area of Orsha. To provide a link between the XXXIX Corps (mot.) and XLVII Corps (mot.), Generalmajor Karl Ritter von Weber’s 17th Panzerdivision was sent to Senno.
In furtherance of the Soviet plan to strike at the German advance with two fresh mechanised corps, Timoshenko on the night of 5 July ordered the preparation of a '…counterattack by the VII and V Mechanised Corps in co-operation with aviation in the Ostrovno and Senno directions, for which the VII Mechanised Corps should be concentrated in the Liozno area and the V Mechanised Corps in the Devino area, Flocks and Orekhovsk… to develop success with the VII Mechanised Corps in the direction of Kamen and Kublichi, and the V Mechanised Corps in the direction of Lepel…'
The Soviet plan called for the V Mechanized Corps to advance up to 87 miles (140 km) from the Vysokoye area to Senno and Lepel, and for the VII Mechanised Corps to advance up to 81 miles (130 km) from the Rudnya area to Beshenkovichi and Lepel . After reaching the Lepel area, the VII Mechanised Corps was to strike at the flank and rear of the German forces of the LVII Corps (mot.) in the Polotsk area, and the V Mechanised Corps was to develop an offensive to the west in the direction of Glubokoye and Dokshitsy.
From the south, the counterattack was supported by the 1st Motorised Division, which defended along the 'Moscow Highway' against the 18th Panzerdivision and was reinforced by the 57th Tank Division’s 115th Tank Regiment. This part of the operation resulted in the 'Borisov Defensive Operation'.
The start of the 'Lepel Offensive Operation' was scheduled for the morning of 6 July. The two primary Soviet formations committed in this undertaking were General Major Ilya P. Alekseyenko’s V Mechanised Corps and General Major Vasili I. Vinogradov’s VII Mechanised Corps.
The V Mechanised Corps comprised Polkovnik F. U. Grachev’s 13th Tank Division, Polkovnik I P. Korchagin’s 17th Tank Division and a detachment of the 109th Motorised Division. The corps had been transferred from Ukraine to the area lying to the east of Orsha: the tank units had arrived by 4 July, other elements continued to unload until 8 July, and the main forces of the 109th Motorised Division, rear and repair units did not arrive at all. The 13th Tank Division’s reconnaissance battalion and communications battalion remained in Ukraine. In total, the corps had 927 tanks.
The V Mechanised Corps comprised Polkovnik Ivan D. Vasiliev’s 14th Tank Division and General Major Fyedor T. Remizov’s 18th Tank Division. At the start of hostilities, the corps began move to the west from the Moscow Military District, and by 30 June had concentrated in the Liozno area. The 1st Motorised Division had been withdrawn from the corps and transferred to the Borisov area, where it immediately entered combat at the core of the 'Borisov Defensive Operation'. By the beginning of the Lepel undertaking, the corps had 507 tanks.
As well as the V and VII Mechanised Corps, the 20th Army also included part of the LXIX Corps (153rd, 229th and 233rd Divisions), which corridor between Vitebsk and Orsha, several separate infantry divisions and, according to some sources, four artillery artillery regiments and five anti-aircraft artillery units. In total, the 20th Army had more than 130,000 men, more than 1,000 tanks, about 900 pieces of artillery, more than 600 mortars and 500 anti-tank guns.
The two mechanised corps had more than 1,400 tanks, including 47 KV heavy tanks and 49 T-34 medium tanks, as well as about 330 other armoured vehicles.
The 20th Army had the air support of the 23rd Mixed Air Division (169th and 170th Fighter Aviation Regiments, 213rd and 214th Bomber Aviation Regiments, 430th Oznaz Attack Aviation Regiment and 401st Oznaz Fighter Aviation Regiment), which controlled 124 aircraft of which 26 were unserviceable. The 112th Bomber Aviation Regiment, based in the Vitebsk area, was also ordered to support the offensive but had by this time already suffered heavy losses. According to the report of the West Front Air Force, on 8 July the aircraft available for the support of the 20th Army comprised a mere 58 aircraft; another 166 aircraft were controlled by the West Front.
On the German side the two primary formations involved in the Lepel operation in the area to the south-west of Vitebsk were the 7th Panzerdivision and 17th Panzerdivision.
von Funk’s 7th Panzerdivision included Oberst Eduard Hauser’s 25th Panzerregiment of three battalions in its composition: of the 265 tanks it had fielded on 22 June, 149 remained in service. Some or the regiment’s damaged tanks may have been repaired and placed back in service: only 25 tanks had been recorded as wholly lost by 30 June, so the increase in the regiment’s tank strength could have been significant as it may have been as many as 90 vehicles. The 7th Panzerdivision had also been allocated the 101st Panzerabteilung (F), which reached the division on 6 July with about 70 Flammpanzer flamethrower tanks. von Weber’s 17th Panzerdivision included the 39th Panzerregiment of two battalion, and on 4 July may have possessed only 80 tanks and armoured personnel carriers of the 239 tanks with which it had embarked on the campaign in the USSR. Thus the two Panzer divisions facing the Soviet mechanised corps had between 300 and 400 tanks.
On 9 July, Generalleutnant Josef Harpe’s 12th Panzerdivision was approaching the battle area: by 4 July this formation had lost 11 of the 220 tanks on its strength at the beginning of the war, and this finally tipped the scales in favour of the Germans.
The German ground forces were supported by General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II.
As a result of the lack of effective communications between the headquarters of the two mechanised corps and their subordinate divisions, and between and/or among the divisions themselves, the fighting became a series of scattered battles along the Chernogostnitsa river, in the Senno area in the VII Mechanised Corps' sector and in the Tolpino and Tsotovo area in the V Mechanised Corps' sector.
Vasiliev’s 14th Tank Division launched its offensive on 6 July but was unable to overcome the German defences at the bend of the Chernogostnitsa river in the area to the east of Beshenkovichi. Despite this, right through the following day the 14th Tank Division continued its unsuccessful attack on the Chernogostnitsa river. According to its commander’s report, 126 tanks (including 11 KV-1 and 24 T-34 machines) took part in the fighting on 7 July, and half of these were lost in the battle and more than 200 men were killed and wounded.
German sources claim the destruction of 74 Soviet tanks, which generally coincides with the Soviet data.
Some have claimed that the two main reasons for the 14th Tank Division’s lack of success were its mission’s incorrect objective and the lack of fire support for the offensive. The division attacked German defences well supplied with anti-tank weapons and located behind the natural anti-tank line represented by a river with swampy banks. An attempt to establish crossings under German fire and attack the Germans with the main strength of tank regiments led to major losses of equipment even in the offensive’s initial stage of attempting to cross the river and falling on the German forces.
During the evening of 7 July, the 14th Tank Division was ordered to change the direction of its main attack, but by this time its losses had cost the division its combat effectiveness.
On 6 July, advance elements of the 17th Panzerdivision captured Senno, but in the evening were driven back by the approach of Remizov’s 18th Tank Division. On the following day there erupted severe fighting for possession of Senno, but on 8 July the 19th Tank Division, without waiting for the support of other units, was forced to retreat.
The divisions of Alekseyenko’s V Mechanised Corps also launched their offensive on 6 July, but because the roads of the area had turned to mud after summer rain storms they advanced very slowly and by 20.00 were able to progress only some 8.1 to 9.33 miles (13 to 15 km in the direction of Lepel. On 7 July, the Soviet divisions attacked the extended marching columns of the 17th Panzerdivision advancing on Senno, and the advance detachment (Major D F. Mikhailovsky’s reinforced 17th Motorised Regiment) broke through to the area of Tsotovo and Tolpino. As a result of the day’s fighting, the Panzer division lost a large measure of its cohesion. However, the abandonment of Senno by units of the VII Mechanised Corps on 8 July sharply worsened the position of the V Mechanised Corps' divisions. Parts of the 7th Panzerdivision and 17th Panzerdivision attacked from Senno into the flank and rear of the V Mechanised Corps, and as a result the Soviet corps' forward units were surrounded.
At 16.30 on 9 July, as a result of the success of the German offensive to the north of Vitebsk, the Soviet offensive was suspended, and the order was issued for units of the mechanised corps to be withdrawn from the battle. The remnants of the V Mechanised Corps withdrew to the Orsha area where, as ordered by Kurochkin, they took up the 'infantry' line of defence The remnants of the 17th Tank Division’s motorised infantry regiment broke out of the encirclement only on 20 July.
The Lepel counterstrike had cost the Soviet forces dearly, the highest estimate being something in the order of 832 tanks. Excluding the encircled part of the 17th Tank Division, the V Mechanised Corps lost 646 men including 138 killed and 357 missing. According to its combat diary, in the fighting of 8/10 July in the area of Tolpino and Tsotovo, the losses of the V Mechanised Corps were, for the 13th Tank Division, 82 tanks, 11 vehicles, three tractors and one other armoured vehicle, while for the 17th Tank Division they were 244 tanks, eight tractors and 20 vehicles. Other elements of the V Mechanised Corps lost 40 tanks and 11 other armoured vehicles.
The German losses are unknown. In 1992 a Russian study estimated that they were as much as four infantry regiments, several artillery batteries and up to 300 tanks, but this is clearly a major overestimation as four infantry regiments and 300 tanks represented almost the entire German strength in the zone of the Soviet counterattack and with which the Germans were able to continue their offensive toward Smolensk.
The Soviet counterstrike thus ended in failure. Having pinned the Soviet forces with only a modest part of its own strength, the XXXIC Corps (mot.) now drove forward to cross the Zapadnyi Dvina river on 8 July in the are of Ulla with three divisions. On 9 July, the corps' 20th Panzerdivision into Vitebsk.
Thus the Germans had not even been forced to modify their plans. On 9 July, Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, note that 'on the northern flank of the 2nd Panzergruppe, the [Soviets] launched a series of strong counterattacks from the Orsha direction against the 17th Panzerdivision. These counterattacks were repelled. Our losses in tanks are insignificant, but human losses are quite high…In view of the weakening of the enemy’s pressure in the Senno area, the 2nd Panzergruppe will be able to go over to the offensive in accordance with the plan of 10 July in the sector from Stary Bykhov and to the north…'
In short, the heavy losses suffered to no good effect by the two Soviet mechanised corps made it easier for the Germans in the following days to break through to the Smolensk region.
Starting on 2 July before the 'Lepel Offensive Operation' and continuing to 16 July after this ill-conceived offensive’s defeat, the 'Polotsk Defensive Operation' was the Soviet attempt to hold the key city of Polotsk on the northern flank of the German drive toward Moscow. The Soviet defence was centred on the fortifications of the Polotsk Fortified Area with a total length of about 34.8 miles (56 km).
During the defensive battles in the area of Polotsk, elements of the 22nd Army were able to effect a significant reduction in the pace of the German offensive and inflict significant damage on its high-quality mobile forces, thereby easing the task of the defending Soviet forces in the forthcoming Battle of Smolensk. Polotsk was in itself an important transport nexus, whose speedy seizure would greatly facilitate the supply situation of the rapidly advancing German forces.
The defence of the Polotsk Fortified Area actually became part of the start of the Battle of Smolensk.
As noted above, late in June and early in July, the main forces of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were still fighting to eliminate pockets of encircled Soviet troops. For the offensive toward Moscow through Smolensk, Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe and Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe were placed under the general command of von Kluge’s 4th Army.
Hoth proposed the seizure of Minsk through a very deep outflanking movement through Glubokoye, Postavy, Polotsk and Beshenkovichi to reach Orsha, but Adolf Hitler insisted on a less risky outflanking movement to Minsk through Traby and Molodechno to reach Smolevichi, and this was in fact what the Germans did. Near Trabs, however, Generalleutnant Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 19th Panzerdivision of the LVII Corps (mot.) ran into stubborn Soviet defence, and Hoth decided on an outflanking manoeuvre, and the forward detachment of the 19th Panzerdivision exploited the good roads from Vilnius through Glubokoye and Postavy to cover some 125 miles (200 km) and reach the Zapadnyi Dvina river.
On 27 June 27, the advance detachment reached the point at which the Ushacha river was to be crossed, but was here detected by an observer in a pillbox near the village of Kutnyany. The Germans were then halted by the fore of a Soviet howitzer detachment. During the later interrogation of German prisoners, the Soviets learned that the Germans had expected to meet no resistance and therefore advance to seize the bridges over the Zapadnyi Dvina river in Polotsk and hold them until the main forces arrived.
But here, as a result of delaying actions fought in the Minsk Fortified Area, the Soviets were able to check the German advance for a time long enough to allow the arrival from the Ural Military District of Ershakov’s 22nd Army of six fully-equipped infantry divisions. More than 10,000 local civilians were also mobilised to strengthen the Polotsk Fortified Areas’s defences,
By 12 July, the Germans had concentrated 16 divisions against the 22nd Army’s six divisions. At dawn on 13 July, the Germans had completed the concentration of elements of two divisions of General Albrecht Schubert’s XXIII Corps facing the Polotsk Fortified Area, after which von Knobelsdorff’s 19th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Friedrich Fürst’s 14th Division (mot.) began an offensive toward Nevel from Vladychino, from the bridgehead to the north of Polotsk. Taking advantage of their almost 3/1 superiority of strength, the Germans broke through the Soviet defences to the north of Polotsk on 13 July and began a rapid advance towards Nevel, while continuing to attack toward Borovykh direction. A breakthrough here would have provided the 3rd Panzergruppe with the shortest possible supply route, something which it lacked at the height of the Battle of Smolensk.
On 3 July, the 19th Panzerdivision fought a determined battle in which it cleared the southern bank of the Zapadnyi Dvina river in the area of the city of Disna, and on the following day received strong air support as it seized a bridgehead across this river. However, operating on the right, Generalmajor Friedrich Herrlein’s 18th Division (mot.) ran into the defences of the Polotsk Fortified Area in the area of Vetrino and Farinovo, and came to a halt in front of the 174th Division, which was commanded by Kombrig Aleksei A. Zygin, who also commanded the Polotsk Fortified Area.
After the German initial efforts to storm through the Soviet defences failed, Hoth committed Fürst’s 14th Division (mot.), which had just arrived. After creating a special mobile detachment based on a large number of trucks, pieces of artillery and one infantry battalion, Zygin moved this to the most threatened sector of the defence. This mobile detachment was especially useful in breaking through to bunkers and pillboxes which had been enveloped by the Germans, and also undertook reconnaissance, which provided information that allowed specifically aimed artillery fire to destroy a number of German units.
Given the stubborn resistance it faced outside Polotsk, the 18th Division (mot.) could not force a crossing of the Zapadnyi Dvina river.
Since 5 July, in the area of Disna, the 98th, 112th and 174th Divisions of the 22nd Army had been unsuccessfully counterattacking the German forces attempting to enlarge the bridgehead they had seized on 4 July. For two days the Germans employed heavy concentrations of aircraft bombing and artillery fire against the defenders of Polotsk.
By 7 July, German forces had entered into contact with the 22nd Army in the latter’s entire defence zone, and on the same day about 30 German tanks of the 19th Panzerdivision launched an attack in the area to the east of Disna, but this was beaten off by Zygin’s 174th Division, which captured one tank and two armoured cars. These were then pressed into service by Zygin’s mobile detachment.
On 8 July. the next German attempts to enlarge their bridgehead in the Disna area were also repulsed. At the same time, General Major Mikhail A. Kuznetsov’s 126th Division, which had arrived only one day earlier, suffered heavy losses in heavy fighting: Kuznetsov was mortally wounded, and two regimental commanders, the division’s chief-of-staff and the division’s chief of operations were all rendered hors de combat.
On 8 and 9 July the Germans tried to break through at Borkovichi, but were driven back by artillery fire. Infantry divisions of General Ernst Busch’s 16th Army, on the right wing of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', broke through the positions of the fortified area in the Sebezh area, but Eremenko, the West Front’s deputy commander, now arrived in the battle area and managed to stabilise the situation.
On 11 July the 22nd Army, which which was still fighting fierce battles with superior German forces flowing around the flanks of the Sebezh and Polotsk Fortified Areas, received fresh orders: the LI Corps was to prepare a new defensive line, and the LXII Corps was to leave no more than one infantry regiment and a garrison force, was to co-operate with the 19th Army in the elimination of the German breakthrough in the Ulla area. However, the main forces of the LXII Corps remained pinned in its current positions by German pressure. Its 174th Division desperately defended itself on the line of the Polotsk Fortified Area and attempted to restore the situation in the area of the penetration by German forces near Borovykha.
Meanwhile, the Germans planned to encircle the Soviet grouping on the area of Polotsk and Nevel using the forces of the adjacent wings of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. Against the 22nd Army’s six infantry divisions were pitted two corps of the 16th Army (General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps and General Georg Lindemann’s L Corps) and the 3rd Panzergruppe: these latter were Schubert’s XXIII Corps with three Infantry divisions, and Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) with one Panzer and one motorised divisions. In the Ulla area, the Zapadnyi Dvina river was crossed by three divisions of the XXXIX Corps (mot.).
On 12 July in the sector of the 22nd Army, the LVII Corps (mot.) (19th Panzerdivision and 14th Division (mot.)) struck from a bridgehead in the Disna area and broke through the front. Developing an offensive to the north-east, the 19th Panzerdivision took Dretun, captured the Soviet supply base and continued the attack on Nevel in the course of the following day, but element of the 22nd Army’s second echelon, in the form of the 48th Tank Division, defending here delayed the German offensive. The advance of the 18th Division (mot.) was slowed by the attack on its rear by parts of the LXII Corps from the area of Polotsk.
Meanwhile, the German pressure on the 22nd Army increased. On 15 July, the XXIII Corps occupied the left-bank part of Polotsk, and during the night of 16 July, its units entered the right-bank part of the city. The Soviets had already blown all three bridges across the Zapadnyi Dvina river. On this day, the 19th Panzerdivision broke into Nevel, and Heeresgruppe 'Nord' despatched Generalleutnant Walter von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s 12th Division of the II Corps to link with it.
The two infantry divisions of General Otto-Wilhelm Förster’s VI Corps approached the right flank of the XXIII Corps and was involved in the breakthrough of the Polotsk Fortified Area,
Threatened with encirclement, the 22nd Army was instructed to withdraw, but some of the Polotsk Fortified Area’s well-prepared defences of the pre-war era continued to fight until 19 July.
The 22nd Army’s stubborn defence of the Polotsk area delayed the advance of German forces on the northern wing of the Eastern Front’s central sector and thus rendered more difficult the supply of the German forces in the Battle of Smolensk. After they had bypassed Polotsk, the German forces came across the defence mounted by the second echelon of the 22nd Army in the area of Nevel and then of Velikiye Luki. The desperate resistance of encircled Soviet troops made it difficult for the Germans to manoeuvre freely, and the battles in the Velikiye Luki area contributed to the withdrawal of the 22nd Army’s surviving main strength.
The Germans suffered significant losses in the fighting for Polotsk. It is claimed, for instance, that Podpolkovnik I. T. Kitayev’s 474th Regiment killed more than 2,500 Germans, and destroyed as many as 30 tanks, 14 pieces of artillery, 15 mortars, 47 heavy machine guns, 21 cars and 90 motorcycles. The figures are doubtless over-optimistic, but characterise the fierce nature of the fighting.
On 20 July, the 22nd Army’s LI Corps (98th and 112th Divisions) broke out of the encirclement, and the remnants of the two divisions were consolidated into regiments that assumed defensive positions along the Lovat river. Formations of the LXII Corps, including the 174th Division, broke out of the encirclement on 21 July, the day on which, after many days of bloody battles, the 48th Tank Division, 126th Division and 179th Division drove the German troops out of Velikiye Luki.
To close the gap along the junction of the West Front and North-WestFront, two armies were sent forward from General Leytenant Ivan A. Bogdanov’s Front of the Reserve Armies: these were General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 9th Army and General Leytenant Vasili A. Khomenko’s 30th Army. The Battle of Smolensk was now entering a new phase.
After the 174th Division had broken out of the encirclement its commander, Zygin, was promoted to major general on 7 August, and one year and 10 days later the 174th Division became the 20th Guards Division.
Meanwhile, on 8 July, in the Ulla area, Generalleutnant Horst Stumpff’s 20th Panzerdivision of the LVII Corps (mot.) overcame the 22nd Army’s 186th Division and crossed the Zapadnyi Dvina river and on the following day seized the western part of Vitebsk and captured the railway bridge. In the wake of the 20th Panzerdivision, two motorised divisions crossed the Dvina river, and of these Generalleutnant Hans Zorn’s 20th Division (mot.) supported the Panzer division in the Vitebsk region.
It was as a result of the German offensive in the area to the north of Vitebsk that Kurochkin, commander of the 20th Army, ordered his forces to bring to an end, if only on a temporary basis, the offensive on Lepel.
On 10 July, fighting continued in Vitebsk. Konev’s 19th Army, to which the defence of Vitebsk had been entrusted, was just unloading: the army’s headquarters and three corps, as well as the 220th Motorised Division, the 102nd Tank Regiment and a number of smaller units had arrived in the Rudnya and Liozno area only on the previous day. Reaching the Vitebsk region, Konev found in the city only one Osoaviakhim (Society for the Assistance of Defence, Aircraft and Chemical Construction) battalion and militia units. On the same day, the 220th Motorised Division and the 102nd Tank Regiment (the only unit of the 51st Tank Division yet to have arrived), entered the battle for the city and in a rapidly organised and implemented night attack occupied the entire eastern part of the city and crossed the river, but by the end of the day the Germans had driven the Soviet force back.
On 11 July the Germans completed their seizure of Vitebsk, and on the following day the XXXIX Corps (mot.) concentrated vin Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision, Stumpff’s 20th Panzerdivision and Zorn’s 20th Division (mot.) in the Vitebsk area and launched an offensive toward Smolensk.
Despite previous days' failures, on 12 July the Soviet command ordered the 22nd Army, 19th Army and 20th Army to retake Vitebsk. Eremenko, the deputy commander of the Western Direction, was appointed to co-ordinate the actions of the three armies. Between 12 and 14 July, Konev and Eremenko committed strong forces in this effort to expel the Germans from Vitebsk. The initiative remained with the Germans, however, and on 13 July the XXXIX Corps (mot.), advancing on Smolensk from the north-west: the 7th Panzerdivision reached Demidov, the 20th Panzerdivision reached Velizh and (20th Panzer Division), and to the south of Vitebsk Generalleutnant Josef Harpe’s 12th Panzerdivision made its way to the 'Smolensk Highway' and took Rudnya. The German attack hit the 19th Army’s headquarters in the area of Rudnya, and Konev and Eremenko narrowly escaped seizure or death.
On 15 July, von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision of Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe reached the 'Moscow Highway' in the area of Yartsevo, and Generalmajor Walter von Boltenstern’s 29th Division (mot.) pf Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe, advancing from the direction of Kopys, smashed it way into Smolensk. Vitebsk thus became the base of a new pocket': the defeated elements of the 19th Army were retreating to the east, and large numbers of Soviet troops were taken prisoner. To the north of Smolensk, General Major Sergei M. Chestokhvalov, commander of the XV Corps, was reported missing.
The loss of Vitebsk had extremely serious consequences for the Soviet high command. Even before the Germans had crossed the Dniepr river, a gap had become evident in the defence zone of the West Front. The matter was further aggravated by the defeat of the 19th Army in detail as it was trying to concentrate its strength, while the continued Soviet attempts to retake Vitebsk even after the German Panzer and motorised forces had advanced to operate in the region of Smolensk led to the 19th Army’s final defeat.
After the loss of Vitebsk, Soviet troops continued fighting for Smolensk. The concentration of the Third Strategic Echelon' forces to the east of Smolensk gave impetus to a battle which seemed already to have been lost, and most of the avenues of escape from the Smolensk pocket were opened. On the other hand, however, as a result of the 20 Army’s Lepel counterstrike, the primary forces of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had suffered losses of men and matériel that the pace of their offensive slowed considerably by contrast with that of the first days of the Great Patriotic War: in fact the German strike forces had to mark time in their present positions for an entire week to rest, regroup and restock.
The Soviet tank divisions had been able to drove the Germans some 18.5 to 25 miles (30 to 40 km) back toward Lepel, and also to inflict very significant losses: some Panzer divisions had lost up to half of their equipment. At that moment, a very dangerous situation developed for the Germans in the form a real threat to their lines of communication and supply. The Germans had therefore to draw together into the area of the Soviet counter-offensive not only all the reinforcements available in the region, but also to call on neighbouring armies for support. To disrupt the offensive of the V Mechanised Corps, for example, the Germans had transferred to the Senno area Panzer divisions from the 2nd Panzergruppe and virtually the whole of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II.
The price that the Soviet tank formations had paid for the week of delaying the German offensive was very high. Without air cover and artillery support, and with only very limited supplies of fuel and ammunition, the V Mechanised Corps and VII Mechanised Corps lost more than 800 tanks and large numbers of men in fierce and bloody encounter battles.
On 14 July, the report of the military council of the Western Direction to the Soviet supreme command stated: 'The situation at the front shows that the [Germans] aimed to encircle our Vitebsk-Orsha grouping. Our troops, due to prolonged waste, stubborn battles in recent years, as well as their hasty manning and large losses of weapons, were not stable. This was especially true during the offensive. There were cases of flight of units from the effect of [German air attack] and [the Germans'] advanced tank detachments…The situation was complicated by the fact that the arrival of new [forces] was slowed and disorganized by the railways. Rear units arrived in the leading echelons, and combat units were delayed for a long time on the way…As a result, the front had no reserves and was forced hastily to bring to the front line organisationally ill-prepared units. Many divisions were made up of disparate units. As for the tank formations, they had no material spares and have turned, in essence, into technically poorly equipped infantry…'