The 'Yelets Offensive Operation' was the Soviet third of the six sub-operations together constituting the 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation' (6/16 December 1941).
The other sub-operations were the 'Kalinin Offensive Operation' (5 December 1941/7 January 1942), the 'Klin-Solnechnogorsk Offensive Operation' (6/25 December 1941), the 'Tula Offensive Operation' (6/16 December 1941), the 'Kaluga Offensive Operation' (17 December 1941/5 January 1942) and the 'Naro-Fominsk Offensive Operation' (24 December 1941/8 January 1942).
The undertaking was the responsibility of the right-wing forces of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s South-West Front during the Soviet strategic counter-offensive to the west of Moscow, and its purpose was the encirclement and subsequent destruction of the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the region of Yelets, which lies to the south of the Soviet capital. This was intended to pave the way for continued offensive undertakings into the rear of Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzerarmee. In this operation, the Soviet forces advanced between 50 and 62 miles (80 and 100 km), eliminated the shallow Yelets salient and surrounded and then destroyed more than two divisions, thereby inflicting a major reverse on the 2nd Panzerarmee. The Soviet success saw the diversion of a major part of the 2nd Panzerarmee from its planned 'Schlussjagd' advance, and thus provided substantial assistance to the left-wing forces of General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front, which was undertaking the main part of the Soviet counter-offensive in the area to the south of Moscow.
A notable feature of the 'Yelets Offensive Operation' was the speed with which it was prepared, and also the speed with which the operation was undertaken in very difficult winter conditions.
The situation in which the 'Yelets Offensive Operation' was planned and executed arose from the continued pressure which was being exerted on General Major Avksenti M. Gorodnyansky’s 13th Army, which was responsible for the area to the north of General Major Yakov G. Kreizer’s (from 13 December General Leytenant Piotr S. Pshennikov’s) 3rd Army. To the south, in the area of Kastornoye, Generalleutnant Alfred Ritter von Hubicki’s 9th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Sigfrid Henrici’s 16th Division (mot.) of General Werner Kempf’s XLVIII Corps (mot.) could not advance. The South-West Front’s military council then decided to undertake the defeat of the German grouping in the area of Yelets as this would improve the situation on the neighbouring West Front. In the 13th Army’s rear, in the Terbuna area, a mechanised cavalry group was created as rapidly as possible from the front reserves under the command of General Leytenant Fedor Ya. Kostenko: this new group comprised the V Cavalry Corps (3rd, 14th and 32nd Cavalry Divisions, the 1st Guards Division, the 129th Tank Brigade, the 34th Motorised Brigade, the 4th and 7th Guards Mortar Regiments and the 642nd Cannon Artillery Regiment). On 6 December the 121st Division was also subordinated to Kostenko’s group.
The counter-offensive against Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Army, which was the 2nd Panzerarmee's northern neighbour, began on the northern flank of the 13th army with the attack of a mobile group commanded by General Major Kirill S. Moskalenko, which drove back part of the German forces opposing it. From the line of the city of Efremov, the Germans were engaged by the formations of Kreizer’s 3rd Army, the primary assault being struck by Kostenko’a grouping. The appearance of this group on 7 December came as a complete surprise to the Germans: the V Cavalry Corps and the 1st Guards Division broke through to the flank and rear of the German grouping in the general direction of Yelets, on the Sosna river that is a west-bank tributary of the great Don river, and farther to the west. The 34th Motorised Brigade was despatched toward Livny, farther up to Sosna river, for deep coverage of the German forces, and at the same time the 13th Army advanced to the south-west: these movements threatened a complete encirclement of the German group. During the battles in the area of Yelets , two German infantry divisions were completely defeated, the Germans losing 12,000 men killed or wounded on the battlefield. On 12 December, General Major Vasili D. Kryuchenkin’s V Cavalry Corps destroyed the local corps headquarters, from which the commander escaped by air. The encircled German forces attempted to break free to the west, attacking the 3rd and 32nd Cavalry Divisions. On 15 December, Generalleutnant Conrad von Cochenhausen, the 134th Division's commander, personally led the Germans break-out effort: the Soviet cavalry stood firm, and after von Cochenhausen had been killed, the remaining Germans surrendered or fled through the forests.
On 18 December, the Bryansk Front was recreated out of parts of the 61st, 3rd and 13th Armies. The front was commanded by General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko, who regrouped his forces and took them onto the offensive, and by the beginning of January the Bryansk Front had reached the line linking Belev, Mtsensk, Verkhovye and a point to the north-west of Lieven.