Yelnya Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet offensive within the 1st Battle of Smolensk 1(30 August/8 September 1941).

The ‘Yelnya Offensive Operation’ was directed against the semi-circular salient, centred on Yelnya, which Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had driven to a depth of some 30 miles (50 km) to the east of Smolensk and now constituted a launch area for the German assault on Moscow via Vyaz’ma. Initially located in the salient were Generalleutnant Ferdinand Schaal’s 10th Panzerdivision, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s SS Division ‘Das Reich’, Generalleutnant Erich Straube’s 268th Division and Major Dr Hans Marder’s 202nd Sturmgeschützabteilung among other elements, but the first two of these were replaced by Generalleutnant Friedrich Bergmann’s 137th Division, Generalleutnant Curt Gallenkamp’s 78th Division and Generalleutnant Martin Dehmel’s 292nd Division in addition to the 268th Division, for a total of about 70,000 men, some 500 pieces of artillery and the 40 StuG III assault guns of the 202nd Sturmgeschützabteilung, the last three part of General Friedrich Materna’s XX Corps.

The northern and southern shoulders of the salient’s base were held by Generalleutnant Ernst-Eberhard Hell’s 15th Division and Generalleutnant Eccard Freiherr von Gablenz’s 7th Division respectively.

Although Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, commander of the 2nd Panzergruppe, had proposed a withdrawal during a meeting with Adolf Hitler and other senior German commanders on the Eastern Front at Novy Borisov on 4 August, this had been rejected.

On 26 August the Stavka ordered General Major Konstantin I. Rakutin’s 24th Army of General Georgi K. Zhukov’s Reserve Front to start an offensive against the salient on 30 August. The offensive was planned on the basis of attacks the 102nd Tank Division and part of the 303rd Division against the base of the salient as the outer pincer arms of a planned double encirclement, with the 107th and 100th Divisions and the 106th Mechanised Division and part of the 303rd Division as the northern and southern arms of the inner pincer. Containing the salient from any further advance to the east were the 19th and 309th Divisions.

The 103rd Motorised Division and 120th Division were deployed on the northern and southern sides of the salient in heavily fortified field positions to prevent possible routes of escape by the German forces. However, the 24th Army was allocated only 20 aircraft for reconnaissance and artillery fire correction, but without dedicated fighter or attack units.

On 3 September, under the threat of encirclement, the Germans started to retreat from the salient while sill maintaining resistance on its shoulders and flanks, and on 6 September the Soviet forces retook Yelnya. The Soviet offensive continued until 8 September, when it was stopped at the new German defence line.

This was the most substantial reverse that the German army had suffered up to that date, and was also the first successful planned Soviet offensive operation in the Soviet-German war. German losses were in the order of 45,000 men killed, wounded or captured. The ‘Yelnya Offensive Operation’ is also associated with the creation of the elite Guards units within the Soviet forces to reflect a high level of combat performance under arduous operational conditions: the 100th and 127th Divisions were renamed as the 1st and 2nd Guards Divisions, and soon after this 107th and 120th Divisions were designated as the 5th and 6th Guards Divisions.

back to text
The 1st Battle of Smolensk otherwise comprised the ‘Smolensk Defensive Operation’ (10 July/10 August), ‘Smolensk Offensive Operation’ (21 July/7 August), ‘Rogachev-Zhlobin Offensive Operation’ (13/24 July), ‘Gomel-Trubchevsk Defensive Operation’ (24 July/30 August), ‘Dukhovskina Offensive Operation’ (17 August/8 September) and ‘Roslavl-Novozybkov Offensive Operation’ (30 August/12 September 1941).