Smolensk, Battle of 1941

Smolensk, Battle of (1941)

 

defensive and offensive operations by troops of the Western, Reserve, Central, and Briansk fronts against fascist German troops of Army Group Center along the central strategic axis, from July 10 to Sept. 10, 1941, during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45.

In July 1941 the fascist German command ordered Army Group Center, which at various times comprised 51 to 62.5 divisions and which was commanded by Field Marshal F. Bock, to encircle the Soviet troops defending the line of the Zapadnaia Dvina and Dnieper, to seize Vitebsk, Orsha, and Smolensk, and to open a path to Moscow. Beginning in late June, the Soviet Supreme Command concentrated a large part of the troops of the second strategic echelon along the middle courses of the Zapadnaia Dvina and Dnieper rivers. The troops were to occupy the line stretching from Kraslava to the Plotsk Fortified Region, Vitebsk, Orsha, and the Dnieper as far as Loev and prevent the enemy from breaking through to the country’s central industrial region and Moscow. The Twenty-fourth and Twenty-eighth armies, totaling 19 divisions, were deployed 210–240 km east of the principal line on the front between Neli-dovo and the area north of Briansk; the Sixteenth Army (six divisions) was concentrated near Smolensk. On July 10, the Western Front, under the command of Marshal of the Soviet Union S. K. Timoshenko, comprised the Twenty-second, Nineteenth, Twentieth, Thirteenth, and Twenty-first armies (37 divisions in all), not counting the troops that withdrew from western Byelorussia as the fighting progressed. However, by the time the battle of Smolensk began, only 24 divisions had reached the front between Sebezh and Rechitsa. By then, large units of the 2nd and 3rd German Tank Groups, combined in the Fourth Panzer Army, were advancing on the Dnieper and Zapadnaia Dvina; infantry divisions of the Sixteenth German Army of Army Group North, were advancing along the sector from Idritsa to Drissa. The Ninth and Second German armies of Army Group Center, numbering more than 30 divisions, delayed by fighting in Byelorussia, lagged 120-150 km behind the mobile forces. With more than double the troops, artillery, and aircraft and almost four times the tanks, the enemy launched an offensive along the Smolensk axis.

The battle of Smolensk may be divided into four stages. In the first stage—from July 10 to 20—the enemy offensive was repulsed on the right wing and center of the Western Front. The 3rd Tank Group, supported by the Sixteenth German Army, scattered the Twenty-second Army, broke the resistance of the Nineteenth Army in the vicinity of Vitebsk, and seized Polotsk, Nevel’, Velizh, Demidov, and Dukhovshchina. The Twenty-second Army broke out of encirclement and took up defensive positions on the Lovat’ River, holding Velikie Luki. The Nineteenth Army fell back toward Smolensk and, along with the Sixteenth Army, engaged in battle for the city. Part of the 2nd German Tank Group enveloped the Mogilev area; the main forces took Orsha, Smolensk, El’nia, and Krichev. The Sixteenth and Twentieth armies were surrounded. Part of the Thirteenth Army broke through beyond the Sozh River, and another part held Mogilev. The Twenty-first Army carried out an offensive, liberating Rogachev and Zhlobin and, by attacking Bykhov and Bobruisk, halting the main forces of the Second Germany Army.

In the second stage—July 21 to August 7—the troops of the Western Front, after receiving reinforcements, passed to the offensive from the Belyi, Iartsevo, and Roslavl’ areas in the direction of Smolensk. To the south—in the zone of the Twenty-first Army—a cavalry group (three cavalry divisions) moved against the flank and rear of the main forces of Army Group Center. The infantry divisions of the Ninth and Second German armies advanced to join the battle. On July 24, the Thirteenth and Twenty-first armies merged to form the Central Front, under the command of Colonel General F. I. Kuznetsov. After fierce fighting, Soviet troops thwarted the offensive of the 3rd and 2nd Tank Groups, helped the Twentieth and Sixteenth armies break out of encirclement and retreat beyond the Dnieper, and forced Army Group Center to pass to the defensive on July 30. At the same time, the Soviet Supreme Command merged all its troops deep within its own lines—the front of the reserve armies and the front of the Mozhaisk Defense Line, totaling 39 divisions—to form the Reserve Front, under the command of General of the Army G. K. Zhukov.

In the third stage—from August 8 to 21—the center of combat operations shifted to the south, to the zone of the Central Front and subsequently the Briansk Front, which was created on August 16 and commanded by Lieutenant General A. I. Eremenko; in this zone, from August 8, Soviet troops repulsed the thrusts of the 2nd German Tank Group and the Second German Army, which instead of attacking Moscow were forced to counter the threat of Soviet troops from the south. By August 21, the enemy had advanced 120-140 km to the Gomel’-Staro-dub line and had driven a wedge between the Central and Briansk fronts. Threatened by encirclement, the troops of the Central Front and, farther south, the troops of the Southwestern Front withdrew across the Dnieper, on orders from General Headquarters of August 19. The armies of the Central Front were transferred to the Briansk Front. On August 17, the troops of the Western Front and the Twenty-fourth and Forty-third armies of the Reserve Front passed to the offensive, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy near Iartsevo and El’nia.

In the fourth stage—from August 22 to September 10—the troops of the Briansk Front continued to repulse the offensive of the 2nd German Tank Group and the Second German Army. About 460 Soviet aircraft struck at the enemy’s 2nd Tank Group but could not halt its offensive in the south. On the right wing of the Western Front, the enemy delivered a powerful tank thrust against the Twenty-second Army, capturing To-ropets on August 29. The Twenty-second and Twenty-ninth armies withdrew to the eastern bank of the Zapadnaia Dvina. On September 1, the Thirtieth, Nineteenth, Sixteenth, and Twentieth armies passed to the offensive but with little result. Troops of the Twenty-fourth and Forty-third armies of the Reserve Front eliminated the enemy’s dangerous salient near El’nia. On September 10, troops of the Western, Reserve, and Briansk fronts passed to the defensive.

The battle of Smolensk was an important stage in thwarting Hitler’s planned blitzkrieg against the USSR. Through their heroic resistance and great sacrifices, Soviet troops forced Army Group Center to pass to the defensive along the Moscow axis in late July and pinned down the main forces of the 3rd Tank Group, which was to have taken the offensive against Leningrad. By July, the fascist German command had had to expend nearly half of its strategic reserve—10.5 divisions out of 24—in order to reinforce Army Group Center.

REFERENCE

Istoriia vtoroi mirovoi voiny 1939–1945 gg., vol. 4. Moscow, 1975.

K. A. CHEREMUKHIN

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