Saturday, 30 January 2016

World of Tanks History Section: Liberation of Novgorod

Early 1944 was a difficult time for forces of Army Group North. They were in well prepared defensive positions and they avoided difficult crises that befell the central and southern German groups. However, other defeats had a negative impact on Georg von Küchler's forces. He lost several of his units, including mode tank and mechanized ones. German high command also had no reserves in case the situation at Novgorod and Leningrad turned sour.

Meanwhile, the Red Army was preparing future offensives, the famous Stalin's Ten Blows, the series of attacks that defeated 140 divisions (half of which were destroyed completely) and chased the Germans out of the USSR. The first of them was the Leningrad-Novgorod operation, carried out in the middle of January, 1944.

Target: Novgorod

Stavka of the High Command tasked Army General K.A. Meretskov's Volkov Front with the task of defeating the German Novgorod group. To do this, he had about 260,000 men, over 3600 guns, and about 400 tanks and SPGs. Most of these forces were a part of the 59th Army, which was to deliver the main blow. In its sector, the Soviet forces surpassed the Germans 3.3 times in infantry, 3.5 times in artillery, and 11 times in armour.

The offensive towards Novgorod was scheduled for the morning of January 14th. For the first time in history, Soviet command included the actions of partisans in its plans. About 40,000 men were supposed to destroy railroads and bridges, damage wires and telegraph poles, create chaos in German communications.

Meretskov picked a direction north of Novgorod for his 59th Army, a foothold on the western shore of the Volkhov river. After an artillery barrage, specially formed infantry assault groups reinforced with tanks would attack here. A group composed of a reinforced infantry brigade and motorized sled units would deliver an auxiliary attack. This group would stealthily cross the ice of lake Ilmen south of Novgorod, distract a part of German forces, and finally join up with the rest of the Front west of the city.

German intelligence supplied von Küchler with enough information for him to foresee a Soviet attack. However, the Germans did not properly predict the scale of the attack, expecting to be able to contain it. On the other hand, von Küchler was careful enough to have prepared a plan of retreat just in case in December of 1943. He was sceptical about being able to keep the attackers at existing positions and proposed falling back to defensive line "Panther", but Hitler demanded that he hold on. The Germans at Leningrad were forced to wait and see what would happen.

Soviet disinformation led German attention away from Novgorod. Even when Küchler was told that Soviet forces are concentrating at the Volkhov foothold, he expected it to be an easily contained local offensive.

On the morning of January 14th, he realized his mistake.

Main Secondary Direction

The morning of the offensive was met with a heavy snowfall. This almost completely prevented Soviet bombers from taking any action, and complicated matters for Soviet artillery. Guns and mortars were forced to fire at general areas, and even though about 133,000 shells landed on the German lines, it was not possible to fully suppress their firing positions.

Infantry and tanks, attacking from the activated foothold, started off poorly. Many units reached the front lines late, giving the Germans a chance to organize a resistance. Reconnaissance and engineering support were also lacking. As a result, tanks got stuck in craters and in swamps. For example, out of 29 tanks that were sent to reinforce the 310th Infantry Division, only 11 reached the front lines. Individual battalions acted passively when met with German resistance and took unreasonably heavy losses. Battles in the main direction became long and arduous.

The secondary attack was much more successful. Even though the ice on lake Ilmen wasn't robust, the southern group managed to secretly cross the lake and surprise the enemy, destroying several of his strongholds and capturing a foothold 6 km wide and up to 4 km deep by the end of the first day. The Germans counterattacked several times, trying to drive the Soviets back into the lake, but they were not successful. Finally, they started to bomb and fire at the ice to at least prevent reinforcements.

Knowing about this and trying to maintain success, Meretskov gave engineers the order to build a crossing with portable bridges. In difficult conditions, working in ice cold water, engineering units managed to complete the task and allowed the southern group to be reinforced with an impressive amount of infantry and 20 armoured cars. Forces north of Novgorod also received reinforcements. Meanwhile, von Küchler started pulling out everything he could and moving it to the endangered section of the front. The Germans counterattacked, trying to prevent the south and north groups' meeting.

Through Mud and Snow

The slowly progressing offensive annoyed the Volkov Front commander. On January 17th, Meretskov chewed out the commander of the 59th Army in writing and demanded that his forces be more active.

Meanwhile, the Red Army penetrated German defenses north of Novgorod across a 20 km front. However, daily progress amounted to no more than 6 km. The fierce German resistance wasn't the only problem. Melting snow, a lack of roads, and swamps made things very difficult. Forces could often only move through one road. Tank tracks would beat it up so badly that even infantry, let alone artillery or trucks, could not use it. It was hard to deliver fuel, ammunition, supplies. Soldiers marched knee deep in mud pushing their guns and mortars, carrying crates of supplies on their backs.

Slowly but surely, the German front was collapsing. North of Novgorod, Soviet forces surrounded and fully defeated a Jaeger division, and then swept through positions of German forces protecting the Finev Lug-Novgorod railroad. Increasing the pressure on the enemy, Meretskov send the second echelon of the 59th Army and the 54th Army into battle. The latter only managed to move forward several kilometers, but its attack prevented the German 38th Army Corps from reaching the city.

By January 19th, Novgorod was surrounded by Soviet forces from the north and south. One infantry corps penetrated through west of the city. Threatened by encirclement, von Küchler asked Hitler for permission to retreat. By this time, the only road that could allow this was within the range of Soviet guns. The weather improved, and the retreating enemy could be attacked by aircraft.

Sadly, the slow pace of the offensive did not allow for encirclement of the Germans in Novgorod. Before a tight ring could be formed, the Germans blew up the bridge across the river and left the city before the Red Army reached it on January 20th and took it without a fight. Individual German units were encircled west of Novgorod and were defeated. That day, a salute in Moscow announced the liberation of the ancient city.

Original article available here.

1 comment:

  1. On the other hand, von Küchler was careful enough to have prepared a plan of retreat just in case in December of 1943. He was sceptical about being able to keep the attackers at existing positions and proposed falling back to defensive line "Panther", but Hitler demanded that he hold on.

    Ziemke covers what was happening on the German side in more detail. Turns out one of Küchler and Zietzler had already talked Hitler into a grudging retreat to the Panther position previously. But during a meeting with AG North's command, one of Küchler's subordinates, the commander of the 18th Army Georg Lindemann, saw his chance to look good in front of der Fuhrer and (knowing Hitler's adversion to any retreats) bragged on his army's ability to stay in their current line. This appalled Zeitzler and Küchler, who tried to talk Hitler back around, but Hitler wouldn't hear of it save from Lindemann himself, and Lindemann, seizing the opportunity for self-promotion, refused to yield.

    The resulting Russian offensive was a disaster for AG North, as this article details. By the end of the retreat to the Panther position, the AG was so weakened that the ostensible reason for pulling back (to maintain or increase manpower density on the line) was already defeated. Küchler himself lost his position and was replaced by Walter Model, who fought this battle to its conclusion.

    After the fighting died down, Model in turn was to be transferred to AG North Ukraine by the end of these battles and tried to raid AG North of further resources to benefit his new command, AG North Ukraine. He was stopped by Zietzler, but after he left AG North received its new commander--Georg Lindemann, the very man whose self-promotion and obstinacy had contributed mightily to the disaster! I see this little drama as typical of a losing organization, which the German military was by 1944--where the participants are all concerned more with their own careers and their own promotions than the well-being of the organization in their custody.