The Battle of Kursk was still raging on when the Red Army delivered a new strike against the Germans, this time at Smolensk. The region where the Suvorov Strategic Offensive Operation was to take place was called "the Gate of Smolensk", as it is the shortest path from the West to Moscow. The West and Kalinin Fronts were tasked with penetrating the deep German defensive line, defeating the left flank of Army Group Center, and slamming the gates shut.
The operation lasted 57 days, from August 7th to October 2nd 1943. The Soviet forces, numbering 1.2 million men, 1436 tanks and about 20600 guns were opposed by German forces, numbering 850,000 men, 500 tanks and SPGs, and about 8800 guns and mortars. The Germans held deep echeloned defensive lines, breaking through which would not be easy.
The tank units that participated in the Smolensk operation were formed from what was available. As a result, it turned out that the majority of the units were composed of obsolete and foreign vehicles: Matildas, Valentines, Stuarts. They were poorly armoured and weakly armed. For instance, in the 5th Mechanized Corps, 182 tanks out of 193 were British or American. In the 42nd Guards Tank Brigade, 22 tanks out of 51 were light T-60 and T-70 tanks.
The Soviet staff knew that the operation would be a long one, lasting at least a month. However, tanks only had 3-4 loads of ammunition and fuel. For a prolonged offensive, this is not enough. However, the Red Army fought through all of August in these difficult conditions. Despite the shortages, the Soviet forces reached the German positions around Smolensk.
In early September, the Red Army forces stopped to regroup. HQ finally managed to gather up reinforcements. The offensive resumed on September 15th. The Red Army penetrated the enemy lines in nearly all directions. When tanks and infantry would reach the first trenches, artillery would begin bombarding the second line. On September 16th, Yartsevo was liberated, on the 21st, Demidov. On September 25th, the Red Army displaced the Germans from Smolensk and Roslavl.
Despite all difficulties, tanks were able to provide help for infantry and artillery throughout the operation. The region was covered in rivers and swamps, and tank units were forced to serve as infantry support in a complete absence of roads. There were cases when heavy KV tanks would render a bridge or a road unusable after driving over it, making it necessary to discover new paths.
A story of one hero
Tens of thousands of soldiers earned orders and medals as a result of this operation. Among those that earned the title of Hero of the Soviet Union was the commander of the 242nd Tank Battalion of the 28th Guards Tank Brigade, Captain Georgiy Andreevich Ponomarev.
He passed his trial by fire in the fall of 1941 at Volokolamsk, as a BT-7 platoon commander. When fighting under Rzhev, Ponomarev's brigade excelled in battle, and earned the Guards title.
From September 14th, Captain Ponomarev participated in the breakthrough at Smolensk. In the outskirts of Rudna, his T-34 destroyed 7 anti-tank guns, one 150 mm gun, 5 trucks with infantry and cargo, 4 mortar batteries, and over 200 soldiers and officers of the enemy.
At Rudna, the Germans attempted to counterattack, but Soviet tanks deflected the attempt, and threw them back to initial positions. An artillery battery impeded further Soviet progress. Guards Captain Ponomarev destroyed two of its guns with return fire and crushed a third under his tracks, but a shell managed to penetrate his T-34. A fire started, but the crew kept fighting. The burning T-34 burst into the city. Hours later, the city was liberated. The heavily wounded Ponomarev was taken to the nearest hospital at Demidov, but he died on the way.
By October 2nd, forces of the West and Kalinin Fronts reached a line west of Velizh, Rudna and Proni river. Under orders from Supreme Command, they fortified for a defense. The Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation was completed.
Article author: Nikolai Nevskiy.
Nikolai Nevskiy is a historian, specializing in Soviet tank production in the Great Patriotic War.
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Geroi Sovetskogo Soyuza: Kratkiy Biograficheskiy Slovar, vol. 2. Moscow, Voyenizdat, 1988
Original article available here.