Yelnya-Dorogobuzh Offensive Operation

The 'Yelnya-Dorogobuzh Offensive Operation' within the 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise known as 'Suvorov') was the third of six sub-operations constituting the campaign’s three phases (28 August/6 September 1943).

The 'Yelnya-Dorogobuzh Offensive Operation' was seen by the Soviets as the key to Smolensk, which was seen by each side as a strategically vital objective, and the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall GŁnther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had therefore created a massive fortified series of defensive positions round the city. Swampy areas on the Desna and Ugra rivers were mined, and heavy artillery was sited on the hills overlooking the city.

By the middle of 1943, the situation on the Eastern Front had changed as the Soviets, now possessing the strategic initiative, initiated started a general offensive along almost its total length, beginning with the 'Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Polkovodets Rumyantsev' of 3/23 August) and the 'Orel Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Kutuzov' of 12 July/18 August) in the aftermath of the German defeat in the Battle of Kursk ('Zitadelle'). These were followed by Germany’s defensive Battle of the Dniepr River in northern Ukraine. Despite the significance and scale of these undertaking along the southern half of the East Front, Germany was still reinforcing its troops around the more northerly areas round Smolensk and Roslavl, in the process redeploying several divisions from the Orel sector. As a result, the two Soviet counter-offensives that followed the 'Kursk Strategic Defensive Operation' of 5/23 July) proceeded relatively easily for the USSR in the Orel region, creating a large salient in the area to the south of Smolensk and Bryansk.

In this situation, the former Soviet primary attack axis, directed south-west toward Roslavl and Bryansk, became useless, and the Stavka accordingly decided to shift the axis to the west toward Yelnya and Smolensk. The 'Yelnya-Dorogobuzh Offensive Operation' was now seen as the key to Smolensk. The Germans appreciated this fact, and had for some time been creating a massive series of fortified defensive positions around the city: swampy areas on the Desna and Ugra rivers were mined and heavy artillery was sited on the hills overlooking the city.

The Soviet armies, aware of the size and scale of the German preparations, were therefore reinforced with additional armour artillery during the week of 20/27 August.

The West Front, commanded by General Vasili D. Sokolovsky, who had been promoted from the rank of general polkovnik on only the previous day, finally launched the offensive against the positions of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army on 28 August. The three primary assault formations were General Leytenant Kuzma P. Trubnikov’s 10th Guards Army, General Leytenant Nikolai I. Krylov’s 21st Army and General Leytenant Vasili N. Gordov’s 33rd Army, supported on the ground by three tank corps and one mechanised corps, and from the air by General Leytenant Mikhail M. Gromov’s 1st Air Army. The three ground armies were deployed a front only 22 miles (36 km) wide, which created a very high concentration of troops who, however, had fuel and supplies for a maximum of only two weeks.

The Soviet assault troops moved forward after an intense 90-minute shelling. The combination of artillery bombardment and attacks by tactical warplanes inflicted significant damage on the German defensive fortifications, making it possible for the Soviets to effect a breakthrough on a front 16 miles (25 km) wide and then then advance between 3.7 and 5 miles (6 to 8 km) by the end of the day. In the course of the following day, Soviet infantry divisions advanced farther, creating a salient 18.5 miles (30 km) wide and between 7.5 and 9.3 miles (12 and 15 km) deep.

The exploitation of this breakthrough was entrusted to General Major Aleksei S. Burdeiny’s II Guards Tank Corps which, on the day of its commitment to the offensive, advanced 18.5 miles (30 km) to reach the outskirts of Yelnya. Giving the German defenders neither time nor opportunity to regroup, the Soviet forces attacked the town while also starting to create an encirclement. On 30 August, the Germans felt that they had no option but to abandon Yelnya after sustaining heavy casualties. This triggered a major German retreat from the area, and by the time of the operation’s end on 3 September, the Soviet forces had reached the eastern bank of the Dniepr river.