Vyaz'ma Airborne Operation

This was a Soviet unsuccessful and costly airborne operation within the 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strateigic Offensive Operation' in the rear of the German lines during the Battles of Rzhev with the object of aiding the ground forces of the Kalinin Front and West Front to encircle and destroy Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' (18 January/28 February 1942).

The 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation' had begun on 8 January to encircle and then to destroy Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s (from 17 January Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s) Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in a large-scale pincer movement, each with inner and outer arms to create a double envelopment. In the first phase of the undertaking, the Soviet formations achieved some successes, and as a result of the attacks by General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Kalinin Front and General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front, the German line was broken in several places, and the northern arm moved to the south-west while the southern arm struck straight to the west with the object of meeting on the strategic road linking Smolensk and Moscow and trapping major parts of two Panzer and two infantry armies. In order to facilitate the final junction of the northern and southern advance, the Stavka decided to land paratroops of General Major Aleksei F. Levashev’s IV Airborne Corps in an area some 25 miles (40 km) to the to the south of Vyaz’ma with the objective of cutting the road linking Vyaz’ma and Yukhnov and the railway line linking Vyaz’ma and Bryansk. The planned drop zone was held by scattered German units.

The first group of airborne troops, comprising the 201st Airborne Brigade and the 250th Airborne Regiment, was landed in the rear of German troops to the south of Vyaz’ma from 18 to 22 January. The landing was made at night, and the presence of the paratroopers in the German rear helped the attacks of General Leytenant Mikhail G. Efremov’s 33rd Army and General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps.

At the end of January, the I Guards Cavalry Corps broke through the German lines. To prevent a German retreat from the planned encirclement, the Stavka decided to land more paratroops in the Vyaz’ma area to cut the road and rail lines between Vyaz’ma and Smolensk. On 27 January, the dropping of the IV Airborne Corps round the village of Ozerechnya was made more complex by the fact that a shortage of transport aircraft made it necessary for the paratroop drops to be made in an alternating order, starting with 8th Airborne Brigade. German fighters intercepted the transport aircraft, and a German bombing raid destroyed seven Tupolev TB-3 transport aircraft on the ground. There was also very little fighter cover for the transport aircraft, so many of them were shot down. As a result of this and deteriorating weather conditions, the Stavka was forced to suspend further drops. However, three battalions of the 8th Airborne Brigade (2,100 paratroopers) had been landed by 1 February, along with 34.4 tons of supplies. The landing itself was unsuccessful, as a large part of the supplies were lost, and the airborne troops were scattered over a wide area in winter weather conditions. As a result, only 1,320 paratroops were able to re-form into coherent units. The airborne troops attempted to cut the German lines of communication in the area to the west of Vyaz’ma, and in a few days severed parts of the rail and road lines, and captured the headquarters of some German units.

On 31 January, Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, wrote that 'The position of the troops of the 4th Army is very serious. There have been difficulties with supply.' By 6 February, the survivors of the 8th Airborne Brigade had linked with the I Guards Cavalry Corps, which absorbed the airborne units.

By the middle of February, the area round Vyaz’ma had emerged as the scene of a complex military conundrum. The Soviet forces failed to encircle the German troops and the fighting dragged on. The Stavka therefore decided to drop the main strength of the IV Airborne Corps into an area to the west of Yukhnov with the task of cutting the road link with Warsaw and linking with parts of General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army. The landing of the 9th Airborne Brigade and 214th Airborne Brigade occurred at night between 16 and 24 February. During this period, 1,525 paratroops and 7373 bales of supplies were dropped in the area of Zelanye in the face of string German opposition, and on 23 February Levashev was killed when his transport aeroplane was shot down. The corps' chief-of-staff, Polkovnik Aleksandr F. Kazankin, thereupon assumed command. On the ground, the airborne troops faced strong German opposition, but were able to link with the 50th Army on 28 February. The ground troops were unable to break through the German lines, however, and the Soviet offensive stalled.

Left in the German rear, the IV Airborne Corps, in conjunction with the I Guards Cavalry Corps and elements of 33rd Army, conducted active military operations, in which parts of airborne force were destroyed during 'Hannover I'. Early in April, the combined forces were placed under Belov’s command, and seized the area to the south of Vyaz’ma, which they held it until the end of May, pinning down a few German divisions. On the night of 26 May, the group broke through the encirclement and joined the 10th Army, now commanded by General Leytenant Vasili S. Popov, in the area to the north of Kirov on 24 June.