Yelnya Offensive Operation

The 'Yelnya Offensive Operation' was a Soviet successful tactical offensive within the 'Smolensk Strategic Defensive and Offensive Operation' (30 August/8 September 1941).

The undertaking was one of nine sub-operations within what the Soviets designed as the 'Smolensk Strategic Defensive and Offensive Operation'. The other elements of this undertaking were the 'Polotsk Defensive Operation' (2 July/16 July), the 'Smolensk Defensive Operation' (10 July/10 August), the 'Smolensk Offensive Operation' (21 July/7 August), the 'Siege of Mogilev Operation' (3/26 July), the 'Rogachev-Zhlobin Offensive Operation' (13/24 July), the 'Gomel-Trubchevsk Defensive Operation' (24 July/30 August) and the 'Dukhovschina Offensive Operation' (17 August/8 September).

The 'Yelnya Offensive Operation' was thus a Soviet military undertaking in the early stages of the German 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR. The offensive was an attack against the semi-circular Yelnya salient which Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s German 4th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had extended some 50 miles (80 km) to the south-east of Smolensk, thus establishing a staging area which Generaloberst Heinz Guderian believed to be the ideal launch area for his 2nd Panzergruppe to launch its planned offensive toward Vyaz’ma and thence eventually toward Moscow. Under heavy pressure on its flanks, the Germans had evacuated the salient by 8 September, leaving in their wake a devastated and depopulated region. As the first significant reverse that the German army had suffered during 'Barbarossa' and the first recapture of Soviet territory by the Soviet army, the outcome of the battle was concealed by the Nazi propaganda machine, but constituted a morale booster for the Soviet armed forces and population.

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.

On 1 August the Stavka authorised the formation of the Reserve Front under the command of General Georgi K. Zhukov, with several new armies under his command. These formations were generally poorly trained and had few tanks and pieces of artillery. Two of the new formations, namely the 24th Army under the command of General Major Konstantin I. Rakutin and the 43rd Army under the command of General Leytenent Pavel A. Kurochkin, were to support the West Front under the command of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko by destroying the German forces at Yelnya and then advancing across the Desna river to retake Roslavl, which had been lost to the 2nd Panzergruppe early in August.

The commander of the 2nd Panzergruppe, Guderian 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, but this suggestion had been rejected.

On 26 August the Stavka ordered Rakutin’s 24th Army of Zhukov’s Reserve Front to begin an offensive against the salient on 30 August. This offensive was planned on the basis of attacks the 102nd Tank Division and part of the 303rd Division against the salient’s base 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 Division and 309th Division.

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 still 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 'Great Patriotic 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.