Voronezh-Kastorno Offensive Operation

The 'Voronezh-Kastorno Offensive Operation' was the Soviet counter-offensive for the recapture of Voronezh (24 January/17 February 1943).

The undertaking was the second of the six sub-operations together constituting the 'Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation', whose other five elements were the 'Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Offensive Operation' (13/27 January), the 'Voroshilovgrad Offensive Operation, otherwise 'Skachok (29 January/18 February), the Kharkov Offensive Operation', otherwise 'Zvezda' (2 February/3 March), the 'Orel (Maloarkhangyel’sk) Offensive Operation' (5/28 February) and the 'Lwów Offensive Operation' (15 February/1 March).

The Germans had captured Voronezh in 1942, and Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s (from 15 July 1942 Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s) German 2nd Army of what was now Generaloberst Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe 'B' had occupied this important bridgehead on the eastern side of the Don river, together with those troops of Vezérezredes Gustáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army which had escaped destruction during the preceding 'Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Offensive Operation'.

The high successful 'Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Offensive Operation' had created conditions favourable for the defeat of the Axis forces in the Voronezh and Kastorno sector. Here, on a front of more than 185 miles (300 km), were concentrated the main forces of the German 2nd Army. comprising 12 divisions. As a result of the 'Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Offensive Operation', these Axis troops were now under Soviet pressure on three sides.

According to the Soviet plan, the 'Voronezh-Kastorno Offensive Operation' was to be a classic encirclement manoeuvre. The settlement of Kastorno and its railway junction, at the base of the German salient, were chosen as the point at which the main weight of the forthcoming Soviet operation was to be applied. The 13th Army of General Polkovnik Maks A. Reyter’s Bryansk Front and the 38th Army of General Polkovnik Filipp I. Golikov’s Voronezh Front were to attack the village from the north, and the 40th Army of the Voronezh Front from the south. The junction of these forces in the Kastorno area world make it possible to cut off the main forces of the German 2nd Army and to destroy them in the resulting pocket. At the same time, the 60th Army was to attack Voronezh directly from the east, engulfing the city from the south and north and catching the Axis forces in a pincer movement.

The operation was facilitated by the fact that after the 'Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Offensive Operation', the southern flank of the German 2nd Army was seriously weakened. Positions on the southern face of the salient were occupied by Generalleutnant Friedrich Siebert’s Gruppe 'Siebert' that included Generalleutnant Robert Meissner’s 68th Division and Siebert’s own 57th Division) which had failed in an attempted counterattack during the 'Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Offensive Operation'.

By that time, a situation no less favourable for the Soviets had emerged on the Voronezh Front’s left wing. In the offensive zone of this front’s formations, the Germans lacked the strength for a reliable closure of the gap that had had come into being in this sector of the front. The absence of any large German forces on the area of the Oskol and Seversky Donets rivers offered considerable prospects for the conduct of an offensive toward Kharkov.

The concept of ​​the 'Voronezh-Kastorno Offensive Operation' was based on the notion of encircling and then destroying the bulk of the German 2nd Army with a blow along the axes converging on Kastorno, on freeing the railway linking Yelets and Valuyki, and thus creating the conditions for an offensive against Kursk and Kharkov. The main blow toward Kastorno was to be delivered by General Major Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army of the Bryansk Front, as well as General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 40th Army and the IV Tank Corps of the Voronezh Front. In the latter’s sector, two auxiliary attacks were also planned for General Leytenant Nikandr E. Chibisov’s 38th Army and General Major Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 60th Army. Air support for the undertaking was the task of General Major Ivan G. Piatykhin’s 15th Air Army of the Bryansk Front and part of General Major Konstantin N. Smirnov’s 2nd Air Army of the Voronezh Front.

In total, the two fronts fielded 27 infantry divisions, seven infantry brigades, the entire artillery of the Soviet supreme command reserve, two tank corps, eight separate tank brigades, three separate tank regiments and two separate tank battalions, and it was planned that 72% of the infantry, 90% of the artillery and all of the tank forces would be concentrated on the primary attack axes.

The start of the offensive elements set by the two front commanders was 24 January for the 40th Army, 25 January for the 60th Army, and 26 January for the 38th Army and 13th Army. Except for the 38th Army, which was to attack in a single echelon, the armies were instructed to attack in two echelons.

The artillery preparation for both fronts involved 3,664 pieces of artillery and mortars, and the average artillery densities per kilometre of front in the breakthrough sectors were 92 for the 13th army, 50 for the 38th Army and 60th Army, and 40 for he 40th Army. The planning for the use of artillery on both fronts was carried out at army level, and the duration of the artillery preparation was to be 65 minutes for the 13th Army, 90 minutes for the 38th Army, 100 minutes for the 60th Army and 30 minutes for the 40th Army. Continued artillery support for the attack was planned in for only 13th Army.

To create artillery support groups for the infantry, each division was reinforced with an average of two or three artillery or mortar regiments.

Army artillery groups were formed in the 13th Army, 40th Army and 60th Army, and included two regiments in the 40th Army and one division for the 13th Army. The 13th Army also created an army rocket artillery group consisting of one artillery division, two rocket artillery regiments and one separate rocket artillery battalion.

Air support for the 15th Army was 407 serviceable aircraft, and about 120 aircraft were drawn from the 2nd Air Army. The plan for the combat use of the 15th Air Army envisaged an air preparation for the attack in the 13th Army’s breakthrough sector.

In the 13th Army, operating on a 28.5-mile (46-km) front, the strike group was concentrated on an 11.25-mile (18-km) front between the Kshen and Olym rivers. In the strike group’s first echelon there were four infantry divisions, one tank brigade and three tank regiments, and in its second echelon three infantry divisions and the 129th Tank Brigade. The front’s reserve of two infantry divisions and one tank corps was concentrated in the 13th Army’s sector.

In the 38th Army, the strike group was deployed on an 8.75-mile (14-km) front from Kozinka to Ozerka and had two infantry divisions, one tank brigade and one tank battalion, with all of these forces in a single echelon. Behind the shock group in army reserve were one infantry division, a school for junior lieutenants and one tank battalion.

The 60th Army took over from the 40th Army a 13.67-miles (22-km) sector of the front between the Don river and Semidesyatsk, and deployed its strike group on the left flank, on a 7.5-mile (12-km) sector, a first echelon with two infantry divisions, one infantry brigade and three tank brigades; in the second echelon was one infantry division.

The 40th Army operated on a front of 31 miles (50 km) and in its first echelon deployed five infantry divisions, one infantry brigade and one tank brigade; the second echelon comprised three ski and infantry brigades and the 305th Division, which was moving out of the Alekseyevka area into the army’s offensive zone. The IV Tank Corps took up its initial positions in the area of the 309th Division and 107th Division, and had been allotted the immediate task, together with these divisions, of breaking through the Axis forces' defences and then developing any initial success toward Kastorno. The main forces of the 40th Army were concentrated in the centre on an 18.5-mile (30-km) front with four infantry divisions and all its armoured strength in the first echelon.

The first stage of the operation began on 24 January on the southern flank as the 40th Army and IV Tank Corps attacked. The 40th Army’s offensive developed only slowly. A blinding blizzard reduced the effectiveness of the artillery barrage, and the attackers had to overcome deep snow drifts. Because of the snow’s depth, the fighting was fought mainly along the roads. The Germans, lacking prepared defensive lines, nevertheless offered stubborn resistance in settlements, all of which which had been turned into centres of resistance. By the morning of the next day, therefore, the 40th Army’s infantry divisions had been able to advance only some 3.1 to 3.7 miles (5 to 6 km). The IV Tank Corps also failed to fulfil its role as it was unable to break away from the infantry units as they all moved along a single road, which was passable only by medium tanks. Therefore, all of the light tanks, as well as wheeled vehicles, lagged behind. Even so, on 25 January the German resistance was broken.

On the morning of 25 January, the front commander demanded that the 40th Army and IV Tank Corps increase the pace of their offensive. The infantry and armour soon broke the enemy’s resistance, and by the end of the day had advanced to a depth of between 12.5 and 15.5 miles (20 to 25 km). The rapidity of the tank and infantry formations' advance threaten to encircle the Axis forces in the area of Voronezh, and the latter began a hasty withdrawal. On the same day Voronezh was liberated.

On 25 January, the 60th Army launched its offensive from the east, and completely cleared Voronezh of German troops.

On 26 January, the offensive on the Soviet forces' northern flank began as the 13th Army and 38th Army moved forward. By this time the weather had improved, and this made it possible for the 15th Air Army to provide a useful level of support. By the end of the day, the German defences had been broken.

By the evening of 26 January, a corridor about 37.25 miles (60 km) wide still remained behind the German troops to the west of Voronezh, but the Soviets saw the opportunity for their armoured forces to seal this possible escape route. On the following day, the 13th Army, 38th Army and 60th Army went onto the offensive. The 13th Army and 38th Army broke through the German defences, and by the end of 27 January had advanced between 6.1 and 12.5 miles (10 and km) in various sectors. The 60th Army’s efforts to advance were less success, its divisions managing to penetrate the German defences to a depth only only between 1.85 and 3.1 miles ((3 and 5 km). At the same time, the 40th Army liberated Gorshechnoye, an important centre of German resistance, and captured the garrison of Stary Oskol in an attack on three sides. On the same day, General Major Andrei G. Kravchenko’s IV Tank Corps, reinforcing the 40th Army, struck out to the north in a deep penetration. As the supply of fuel was hampered by drifting snow, the delivery of fuel for immediate needs was partially undertaken by Polikarpov U-2 light biplane aircraft. By the evening of 27 January, the IV Tank Corps had managed to reach the southern outskirts of Kastorno, which was the rendezvous fixed for the linking of the convergent attack axes. On the following day, the advance detachments of the 13th Army and 38th Arm approached the village from the north and east respectively, and the Soviet assault on the village began. On 29 January, Kastorno was liberated, and thus the communications of eight German and two Hungarian divisions of General Ernst-Eberhard Hell’s VII Corps and General Erich Straube’s XIII Corps were cut.

On 28 January, shock groups of the 13th Army, 40th Army and 38th Army began a rapid advance toward Kastorno, and this was soon cleared of all Axis forces. Thus the encirclement of the Axis forces in the area of Voronezh and Kastorno had been completed.

However, the Soviet forces had not yet been able to establish a continuous front around the Axis group, and no measures had yet been undertaken to destroy the tapped forces. Between Kastornoye and Bykovo, that is the area between the IV Tank Corps in the area of Kastorno and Lachinovo, and the 40th Army’s 25th Guards Division in the area of Bykovo, there was a gap of 15.5 miles (25 km) not occupied by Soviet troops. A gap of the same size also remained between Gorshechnoye and Stary Oskol. On the entire 31-mile (50-km) front between Kastorno and Stary Oskol, there were only overstretched units of the 25th Guards Division. In this situation, the Soviet supreme command ordered Golikov and Reyter to leave only the smallest forces possible to complete the destruction of the encircled Axis forces, and thus to concentrate their efforts in the development of success toward Kursk and Kharkov with their main forces.

Golikov set new tasks for his forces: the 38th Army was to strike at Oboyan, the 40th Army at Belgorod, and the 60th Army at Kursk. Thus the destruction of the trapped Axis forces was relegated to a secondary significance, for it was believed that this task would be completed in a short time by limited forces and without detriment to the pace of the main offensive. Thus only part of the 38th Army was involved and, as a result, no continuous Soviet front could be created round the pocket.

The encirclement of a large Axis force between Kastorno and Voronezh opened the prospect of liberating a large area of Soviet territory, and the Soviet supreme command continued to believe that it was of primary importance for the two fronts to advance deeply before the Axis forces were able to stabilise their front and thus replace that which had just been lost. For this reason, the Soviet forces involved in the operation deployed to the west to attack Stary Oskol, Kursk and Kharkov, leaving the destruction of the Axis pocket to the 38th Army. After it had achieved this, the 38th Army was to join the attack on Kharkov.

This dislocation of the Soviet forces paved the way to a relatively successful break-out by the remnants of the German 2nd Army. On 29 January, they managed to drive the Soviet units from Gorshechny, to the south of Kastorno, and then the break-out from the 'cauldron' was effected by three separate groups. Generalleutnant Helmuth Beukemann’s Gruppe 'von Beukemann' included the remnants of Beukemann’s own 75th Division, Generalleutnant Otto Butze’s 340th Division, Generalleutnant Adolf Lechner’s 377th Division and the Hungarian 6th Division and 9th Division, a total of some 10,000 men; the Gruppe 'Siebert' comprised the remnants of Siebert’s own 57th Division, Generalleutnant Robert Meissner’s 68th Division and Generalmajor Andreas Nebauer’s 323rd Division, a total of about 8,000 men; and Generalleutnant Friedrich Gollwitzer’s Gruppe 'Gollwitzer' comprised the remnants of Generalleutnant Friedrich Wiese’s 26th Division and Gollwitzer’s own 88th Division. The encirclement gradually moved to the west and, as a result, between 12 and 15 February, the battered Gruppe Gollwitzer' and Gruppe 'Siebert' emerged from the encirclement in the area of Oboyan. The Gruppe 'Beukemann' was not as fortunate, for it was cut off and destroyed. Thus, out of an initial strength 125,000 men, fewer than 25,000 men were able to escape from the encirclement. The Axis forces lost all of their supplies and heavy weapons.

While the battle for the encircled formations continued, the 40th Army and 60th Army cleared Belgorod and Kursk, and on 16 February the 38th Army neared Oboyan and by the morning of 18 February had destroyed the remnants of the formations and units which had escaped from the encirclement.

As a result of the 'Voronezh-Kastorno Offensive Operation', a significant force if German and Hungarian divisions had been defeated, and most of the Voronezh and Kursk regions, in particular the cities of Stary Oskol and Voronezh, had been liberated . The German front in this sector had collapsed, and a rent of 250 miles (400 km), between Lieven and Kupyansk, had been torn in it. The German and Hungarian forces lost 'only' 86,000 men taken prisoner. In addition, the encirclement of the Axis forces had made it possible to liberate Kursk and Belgorod with relative ease. In overall terms, the Axis troops had suffered extremely heavy losses, losing vast quantities of equipment and most of their personnel.

The operation had defeated 11 divisions of the German 2nd Army and Vezérőrnagy János Dömötör’s III Corps of the Hungarian 2nd Army, and the Germans finally lost their foothold on the Don river as an advantageous line for defence. The conditions necessary for subsequent offensive operations in the Kursk and Kharkov regions had been created.