The Center and the North

At the End of Summer 1942

Army Group Center

Army Group Center had borne the main weight of the Soviet 1941-42 winter offensive. On both sides of the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary the Russians had broken through to depths of 150 miles and more and for a time had nearly encircled Ninth and Third Panzer Armies. In fighting that lasted well into the summer, the army group, Generalfeldmarschall Guenther von Kluge commanding, had destroyed or pushed back the most advanced Russian elements and had set up a front anchored on Velikiye Luki, Velizh, Bely, and Rzhev. That left the Russians in possession of a gigantic bulge around Toropets, about one-third (Demyansk-Kholm) in the Army Group North zone and two-thirds in the Army Group Center zone. (Map 9)

The western rim of the bulge from the army group boundary to a point several miles east of Demidov was held by LIX Corps, renamed in October 1912 Gruppe (Group) von der Chevallerie (Generalleutnant Kurt von der Chevallerie). With five divisions and more than 100 miles of front it could not establish a continuous line and, instead, had to depend on a strongpoint system that thinned out dangerously on the left flank. During the summer the swampy, wooded terrain and poor roads made a Soviet breakthrough attempt unlikely, but in the winter conditions would favor another thrust deep between the two army groups.1

On the eastern rim of the bulge, Ninth Army held the Rzhev salient. On Ninth Army's right, Third Panzer Army, in a narrow sector, straddled the Warsaw-Moscow highway eighty miles west of Moscow. On Third Panzer Army's right the Fourth Army-Second Panzer Army line extended south to the army group boundary below Orel. On the boundary between the latter two armies the Russians held a deep salient east of Sukhinichi, not as large as the bulge in the north, but enough to pose an obvious threat of thrusts from the north and southeast to cut off the Ninth, Third Panzer, and Fourth Armies east of Smolensk. In the summer the Russians had launched strong attacks against Ninth Army, Third Panzer Army, and Second Panzer Army. When those failed to gain ground they were broken off in the Third Panzer and Second Panzer Army zones early in September but continued with unabated violence against the Ninth Army line at and south of Rzhev until 7 October.

By the time the Rzhev fighting had ended it was apparent that the Russians were getting ready for a new offensive after


Map 9
Soviet Offensive Against Army Groups Center and North
November-December 1942



the fall rains. One strong force was assembling in the area west of Sukhinichi and a second in the Toropets bulge on the north flank.2 The concentration around Toropets was obviously the more dangerous. On 5 October Kluge promised von der Chevallerie a panzer division from Army Group North and three Air Force field divisions, which would have to be provided with training cadres since they were newly formed and had no training in ground warfare. On 14 October Hitler ordered von der Chevallerie to begin planning for a pre-emptive attack east from Velikiye Luki to Toropets. At the end of the month three additional divisions were moved into the Gruppe von der Chevallerie zone and the Headquarters, Eleventh Army, was transferred from the sector around Leningrad to plan and command the operation.3

Army Group North

The Army Group North front was a not very satisfactory legacy of the unfinished 1941 operations and the subsequent Soviet winter offensive. On the left flank the Eighteenth Army front formed an arc around Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland


and bent eastward south of Leningrad, anchoring on Lake Ladoga at Schluesselburg. East of Schluesselburg the army held six miles of the Ladoga shore; then its line dropped off sharply southeastward to the Volkhov River and followed the river south to the northern tip of Lake Ilmen. South of Lake Ilmen, Sixteenth Army held a scalloped line; its main feature, projecting from the front like a misplaced thumb, was the Demyansk pocket. South of Demyansk the line curved west anchoring on Kholm. From Kholm to the army group boundary, north of Velikiye Luki, the front was a loose chain of strongpoints.

In July 1942 Hitler ordered Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Kuechler, commanding Army Group North, to prepare an operation against Leningrad. He wanted the city taken by early fall in order to free Finnish forces for an operation against the Murmansk Railroad.4 In August Hitler took the Leningrad operation out of Kuechler's hands and gave it to Manstein, who had conducted a similar operation against Sevastopol. Manstein, bringing with him the Headquarters, Eleventh Army, two corps headquarters, and four infantry divisions, assumed command of the front facing Leningrad and was made directly subordinate to OKH. Before the preparations could be completed, the Russians opened an offensive on the line facing east just south of Lake Ladoga and quickly scored a breakthrough that threatened the German hold on Leningrad. On 4 September Manstein took command in the breakthrough area, and thereafter his first concern was to restore the front, which, in the face of stubborn Russian resistance, was not accomplished until 15 October. By that time all hope that the Finns would execute their projected operation that year had vanished, and it had been decided that the attack on Leningrad could not begin before freezing weather set in. On 20 October the OKH announced that the Leningrad offensive was postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, the heavy siege artillery, which had also been brought up from Sevastopol, was to be used to smash the city's defenses and inch the line forward gradually. Postponement of the offensive freed Headquarters, Eleventh Army, for the shift to the Velikiye Luki area.5

In the Sixteenth Army zone the Demyansk pocket was a source of constant concern. On 14 September Kuechler in a personal letter attempted to persuade the OKH that to continue to hold the pocket was useless. II Corps, in the pocket, he wrote, had been fighting under adverse conditions since the last winter, and with the known superiority of the Russians in winter warfare serious developments could be expected in the coming months. Operationally, the pocket performed two services: it kept Russian troops tied down; and it might be used as one arm of an encircling operation against the Toropets bulge, but the question was whether anything of the sort was intended or could be executed. If not, Kuechler maintained, the pocket's value was practically nil.


A week later Halder answered that he was not convinced that the reported endurance of the Russians in winter was as great as had been claimed, and, in any case, the II Corps would not be the only unit having to endure hardships. To pull the corps back would gain Army Group North 12 divisions but would also free 26 divisions and 7 tank brigades for the Russians; anyway, Hitler completely rejected the idea of withdrawing the corps. Subsequently, in October and early November, Army Group North executed two small operations, which were only moderately successful, to widen the corridor leading into the pocket and braced itself for the expected Soviet winter offensive.6

Finland--Twentieth Mountain Army

On the extreme left flank of the Eastern Front, Twentieth Mountain Army and the Finnish Army held the line they had occupied at the end of the 1941 campaign. In the Far North, forty-two miles northwest of Murmansk, XIX Mountain Corps faced the Soviet Fourteenth Army across the Litsa River. The corps' primary mission was to protect the Kolosyoki nickel mines. The idea of an overland advance to Murmansk had not been revived during the year; and while a thrust into the Rybatchiy Peninsula remained vaguely under consideration, the likelihood of its being attempted was slight because of the difficulty of assembling and maintaining sufficient forces.

In the roadless Arctic forests between the Litsa River and the Salla-Kandalaksha rail line no front existed--neither side bothered with more than scattered patrols. Astride the railroad XXXVI Mountain Corps held a line it had taken a year earlier a few miles east of the 1939 Finnish border and forty-five miles west of Kandalaksha. On the Twentieth Mountain Army right flank XVIII Mountain Corps occupied a short front straddling the Kesten'ga-Loukhi spur line about twenty miles west of the Murmansk railroad.

The Finnish Army, which had assumed responsibility for all operations out of Finland south of the line Oulu-Belomorsk, held three fronts: one (the Maaselkä Front) running north from the northern tip of Lake Onega; the second (the Aunus Front) between Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga along the general line of the Svir River; and the third (the Isthmus Front) across the Isthmus of Karelia north of Leningrad, approximately following the 1939 Finnish border.

In the Finnish Army and Twentieth Mountain Army zones there had been no combat activity worthy of note since the spring; and although the German and Finnish forces enjoyed an almost 2:1 superiority over their Soviet opponents, the chances of resuming the offensive in the foreseeable future were slim. For nearly a year the Finns had displayed extreme reluctance to assume any new military commitments and had insisted on the capture of Leningrad as an absolute prerequisite to new offensive operations. In August 1942 the Finns had agreed to take part in a two-pronged attack to the Murmansk railroad by Finnish forces (to Belomorsk) and XXXVI Mountain Corps (to Kandalaksha), but in October


the OKW was forced to cancel the plans when the preliminary Army Group North operation to capture Leningrad was abandoned.7

Partisan Warfare

Communist tradition and the experiences of the civil war made it a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union would attempt to exploit to the utmost all forms of irregular and clandestine warfare for both military and political reasons. However, although the Russians had created partisan units in large numbers immediately after the war started, the partisan movement in 1941 had remained ineffectual and by the late fall of that year was, if anything, on the downgrade. The impact of the rapid German advance and the apparent helplessness of the Soviet regime had made it difficult to kindle, even artificially, a spirit of resistance. Those partisan units that did appear were small, ineffective, usually isolated, and in constant danger of disintegrating. Communist Party and NKVD (secret police) attempts to leave behind a network of Party and partisan groups had failed because of lack of time and because the local Party authorities, on whom the burden of the work fell, either had no clear conception of what was required or lacked enthusiasm for underground activity. It was clear that, contrary to propaganda claims, neither the masses nor the Party elite would voluntarily spring to the defense of the Soviet system in a time of crisis.

The Rise of the Soviet Partisan Movement

The Soviet 1941-42 winter offensive prepared the ground for a new, more purposeful approach to partisan warfare. In a few weeks victories restored the prestige of the Soviet Government. In the occupied territories the heightened awareness that the former regime was still to be reckoned with, aroused a nice mixture of fear and patriotism. Moreover, the population by then had been exposed to German rule long enough to know that it had nothing to look forward to from that quarter. While this psychological shift was not sufficient in itself to bring about active resistance, it could be exploited by the Soviet regime which, in any event, no longer toyed with the illusion of a spontaneous partisan movement.

Taking advantage of the great gaps torn in the German line, particularly in the zones of the Army Groups North and Center, and the virtual disappearance of security forces in the enemy rear, the Russians set about systematically organizing partisan forces. Soviet-trained organizers and cadres roamed the countryside recruiting men by the authority of the Soviet draft law. Air supply was stepped up; military organization was introduced in the partisan detachments; and regular army officers appeared as instructors, advisers, and members of the partisan command staffs. The surviving 1941 units and the new units were brought under direct Soviet control by radio and air and by the creation of army and front partisan control staffs. Partisan detachments that had averaged less than 100 men in November 1941 more than doubled in strength by February 1942, and in the spring and summer of that year the



"brigade" of 1,000 men or more, became the standard unit. By the late summer of 1942 the partisan movement was solidly established. The organizational work had been completed, and the lines of control were firmly in Soviet hands. The total partisan forces numbered between 150,000 and 200,000 men. The partisan movement had become a major prop of home front morale, and in August 1942 its more prominent leaders were called to Moscow, many of them flown in from behind the German lines, in order to be shown off at a conference.

Attempts by Soviet authorities to stir up partisan activity in all German-occupied areas, brought mixed success. Nearly nine-tenths of the partisan forces were located in the rear areas of Army Groups North and Center with the greatest concentrations behind Army Group Center, particularly in the Bryansk Forest north and south of Bryansk and behind the great Soviet salient west of Toropets. There vast stretches of forest and swamp provided cover for the partisan units. In the Ukraine and southern Russian the movement hardly gained a foothold before the late summer of 1943.8


Fuehrer Directive 46

On 18 August 1942, Hitler, confirming that the partisan movement had become much more than a local nuisance, issued a drastic order, Fuehrer Directive No. 46. The directive opened with the statement "The bandit monstrosity in the East has assumed a no longer tolerable scope and threatens to become a serious danger to front supply and exploitation of the land." Hitler wanted the partisans rooted out before winter "to avoid important disadvantages in the Wehrmacht's conduct of winter operations." He made the Reichsfuehrer-SS, Heinrich Himmler, responsible for collecting and evaluating information on antipartisan warfare and gave him sole responsibility for antipartisan operations in the territories under civil administration. He charged the Chief of Staff, OKH, with the conduct of antipartisan warfare in the zone of operations and ordered elements of the Replacement Army transferred east to be used as antipartisan forces while completing their training.9

Conceding that the partisan movement could not be mastered by military means alone, Hitler recognized for the first time that a successful antipartisan campaign would have to take into account the attitude of the population in the affected areas. It would, on the one hand, have to offer them at least a subsistence standard of living to prevent their going over to the partisans and, on the other, make active collaboration against the partisans attractive by the promise of substantial rewards. Also for the first time, he approved recruitment of indigenous military units from among prisoners of war for employment against the partisans.

The Army regarded the directive as a significant advance in Hitler's concept of antipartisan warfare, particularly because it permitted efforts to win over the population and the use of indigenous troops. The Organizational Branch, OKH, had long maintained that Germany did not have the manpower to stage an effective antipartisan campaign with its own forces.10 But, regardless of the directive, Hitler did not abandon his plans to reduce the Russians to servitude and subject them to the most ruthless exploitation; consequently, he refused to offer sufficient inducements to stimulate genuine popular support for the German cause. Furthermore, as the year drew to a close, the Russian people grew increasingly aware that the chances of a German victory were fading.

A Companion Piece to Stalingrad

Up to 19 November the Eastern Intelligence Branch, OKH, had predicted that the main Soviet winter offensive would be directed against Army Group Center. Later it defended the prediction by pointing out that the great success at Stalingrad obviously came as a surprise to the Russians and that they were at first clearly not prepared to exploit it by continuing the advance west of Stalingrad, where the road to even greater victories lay open.11 The Eastern Intelligence Branch was, perhaps, not as far wrong as might appear. Certainly,


the Stavka could not have fully anticipated the speed of the Rumanian collapse nor could it have counted in advance on Hitler's offering up a whole German army.

On the other hand, an element of self-deception in the German thinking was to have baneful and lingering effects. The conviction that the moment when the Soviet Union would have dredged up its last reserves must soon be reached was slow in melting away and kept alive the notion that the Soviet capability to stage a second winter offensive would have to fall within predictable limits. After Stalingrad the idea took hold that, because the Russians had attacked in the south, they could not do the same in the center. On 21 November, Ninth Army recorded, "Numerous signs indicate that major Soviet offensives in two separate sectors of the front are no longer possible."12 Actually, the Stavka was able to launch, almost simultaneously, two offensives of approximately equal scope, and later greatly expand one of them.

The Rzhev Salient

In the Army Group Center sector, as at Stalingrad, the front's configuration presented a ready-made opportunity for a large encirclement, yet one which would not require too high a level of tactical proficiency. On a 20-mile front due south of Rzhev the West Front deployed the heavily reinforced Thirty-first and Twentieth Armies--some 45 divisions and brigades, 2 tank corps, and 2 guards corps. On the eastern face of the Rzhev salient, Kalinin Front stationed Forty-first and Twenty-second Army--about 25 divisions and brigades plus 2 motorized-mechanized corps and the elite VI Stalin Corps, for attacks on either side of Bely. On the north, at the apex of the salient, Thirty-ninth Army concentrated a half dozen or so divisions for a thrust due south.

The offensive began on the morning of 25 November, repeating the pattern of Stalingrad in its initial phase. But the German position there was different than it had been on the Don. Ninth Army was a first-class force which, having weathered the summer battles successfully, was not to be overawed by numerical and matériel superiority. After a month's respite and with three panzer divisions in reserve, the army faced the attack with confidence, particularly since the Soviet main effort came exactly where it had been expected, south of Rzhev.13 After Twentieth Army, conducting the main effort, made the mistake of committing its armor in piecemeal breakthrough attempts that cost the Soviet units better than half their tanks, one panzer corps handled the defense with ease.14

On the west the defense was, at first, less successful; the Russians broke through on both sides of Bely, penetrating to within twenty miles of the town on the south and about ten miles along the valley of the Luchesa River in the north. But in ten days of fighting they failed to exploit their initial success, and on 7 December the Germans executed a surprise counterattack that turned the breakthrough south of Bely into a pocket. In another ten days the Germans cleaned out the pocket and regained their original front at a cost to Kalinin



Front of 15,000 men killed and 5,000 captured.15

On 11 December West Front launched a final attempt south of Rzhev which, in terms of sheer weight, surpassed anything Ninth Army had yet encountered. In the first two days of what the army described as the greatest defensive victory of the war thus far, the Russians lost 295 tanks without making any notable gains. During the next two days the offensive slackened rapidly, ending on 16 December, the day on which Ninth Army also finished mopping up the pocket south of Bely. Thereafter the last tangible remnant of the offensive was the penetration in the Luchesa River valley, where later, in fighting extending into the new year, Ninth Army also regained its original front. "General Winter" had for once failed the Russians: the Germans were better equipped than at the same time a year earlier, and the weather was milder--the lowest temperature reached by mid-December being about 15° F.16

Velikiye Luki

On the Ninth Army left flank, beginning on 25 November, Gruppe von der Chevallerie, holding the strongpoint line along the western rim of the Toropets bulge, also


MANNERHEIM (right) with Generalleutnant Erwin Engelbrecht, during the German occupation of Finland.

came under attack by Kalinin Front. In that area of forests, lakes, and swamps Velikive Luki constituted a kind of island base for the Germans. It anchored the center of the front in that sector; it was an important junction on the lateral railroad line closest to the front; and it straddled several east-west roads. In the two weeks before 25 November Kalinin Front had built up Third Shock Army to an absolute superiority in armor and better than 5:1 superiority in infantry and artillery. Bothered most by the forests and the swamps, which had not yet frozen solid, Third Shock Army in two days pushed through, encircled Velikiye Luki, and trapped 7,000 German troops in the town.17

On the 27th, with Novosokol'niki, fifteen miles west, similarly threatened, von der Chevallerie reported that if the troops in Velikiye Luki were to be saved they would have to break out immediately. Three days later Hitler countered with an order stating that to evacuate Velikiye Luki was out of the question. The garrison would have to hold out until contact was restored and the former front line retaken.18

In the third week of December, when the pressure abated slightly, von der Chevallerie began a relief operation; but his troops were worn out, and the attempt had to be abandoned after the second day. On 4 January 1943 a second attempt began. In the interval the garrison in Velikiye Luki had been split in two: a small group held out in the old kremlin (citadel) on the western edge of the town; the main body


had been driven back to the eastern suburbs. The relief column, it was clear, could hope to do no more than rescue the garrison. To open a permanent corridor into the town was impossible.

For ten days the relief force inched its way eastward, being halted, finally, within a few hundred yards of the kremlin. On 15 January, when troops in the kremlin and east pocket were ordered to break out, the garrison commander, who was in the east pocket, radioed that this was not possible, and thereafter all contact was lost. The next morning 176 survivors broke through from the kremlin, and the relief column began to fall back.19

The Quiet Front

In the northern reaches of the Soviet Union, the Twentieth Mountain Army zone stayed quiet throughout the winter. In the Arctic Ocean, British and American convoys shuttled back and forth to Murmansk during the dark months carrying supplies to support the Soviet winter offensive. The Allied landing in North Africa in November 1942 had drawn off nearly all of the torpedo planes formerly employed against the convoys, and, in December, an unsuccessful sortie by the cruisers Hipper and Luetzow brought Hitler's wrath down on the Navy. As a consequence Raeder resigned and was replaced as Commander in Chief, Navy, by Grossadmiral Karl Doenitz, the submarine specialist. Hitler threatened to scrap all German heavy ships.

In southern Finland the Finnish Army fronts were also quiet. The Finns were less interested in their own than in the main sectors of the Eastern Front, and they watched the Soviet progress with mounting dismay. In January 1943, as Army Group North's hold on Leningrad began to slip, the Finnish Commander in Chief, Mannerheim, asked Twentieth Mountain Army to give back all Finnish troops still under its command. On 3 February, the day after the last German units surrendered at Stalingrad, Mannerheim, the Finnish President, Risto Ryti, and members of the Cabinet met and decided that the war had reached a decisive turning point and that it would be necessary for Finland to get out at the first opportunity. Six days later they informed a secret session of the Parliament that Germany could not win and Finland would have to accustom itself to thinking in terms of another Treaty of Mocow, the treaty which ended the Winter War of 1939-40. A month later a new Foreign Minister, Dr. Henrik Ramsay, appointed because he was reputed to have contacts in Great Britain and the United States, made the first move toward negotiating a separate peace.

To the Germans it was obvious that, for the time being, only fear of the Russians would keep Finland in the war. Fresh German victories in the coming summer might yet restore the Finns' morale, but the war had changed since 1941. It required resources, training, and masses of men which the Finns did not have. By the early months of 1943, the Twentieth Mountain Army staff had concluded that future offensive support was hardly to be expected of the Finnish Army and that the Finns probably could not withstand a full-scale Soviet attack.


Map 10
Army Group North
Winter, 1942-43


On the Defensive

Leningrad and the Demyansk Pocket

In Leningrad the second winter of the siege was not as bad as the first. While Lake Ladoga was open, boats had brought in supplies for the troops and civilians and had evacuated close to half a million persons. A German attempt to use the Siebel ferries--catamarans driven by airplane engines and mounting a light antiaircraft gun--to interdict the lake traffic had failed. In the fall of 1942 the Russians had laid an electric cable and a gasoline pipeline in the lake. When the lake froze, they built an ice road and set up high tension lines. In the city the people had enough food at least to survive and sufficient electricity to operate some industrial plants. But the five or six thousand tons of supplies trucks could haul across the ice per day could barely sustain the city and the front; and Leningrad, normally the second largest industrial center in the country, was capable of a far greater contribution to the Soviet war effort than it was now making--by operating plants within sight of the front for propaganda as much as for production. Consequently, after their first attempt to overcome the siege failed in October 1942, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had promptly begun the build-up for another try. When the winter darkness set in, reinforcements from the east crossed the lake and moved into the line.

Army Group North watched anxiously. Occupying a relatively inactive front, it had been neglected during most of 1942, had not fully replaced its losses of the previous winter, and was committed to a static defense that might be attacked at any of a number of critical points. Around Leningrad, particularly at the "bottleneck"--the narrow tie-in to Lake Ladoga--Army Group North functioned as the main support of German strategy in northern Europe. (Map 10) If the hold on Leningrad were broken, Germany would, in the long run, lose control of the Baltic Sea. Finland would then be isolated; the iron ore shipping from Sweden would be in danger; and the all-important submarine training program would be seriously handicapped.

In the 16 months they had held the "bottleneck" the Germans had built a tight network of defenses in the swampy terrain and had converted Schluesselburg, several small settlements, and scattered patches of woods into fortified strongpoints. But, with only six to eight miles between fronts, one facing west and the other east, the defenders had little room to maneuver. The Russians had found highly instructive their experience in the summer, and in the intervening months had rehearsed every tactic and maneuver for taking each individual German position. This method the Germans themselves had used in 1940 to train for the assaults on the Belgian forts.

The attack on the "bottleneck" began on 12 January. Sixty-seventh Army, its troops wearing spiked shoes to help them climb the frozen river bank, struck across the ice on the Neva River while Second Shock Army, on the east, threw five divisions against a 4-mile stretch of the German line. Methodically, the Russians chopped their way through, and by the end of the first week had taken Schluesselburg and opened a corridor to Leningrad along the lake shore. Thereafter, in fighting that lasted until the first week of April, the two Soviet fronts made little headway. When the



fighting ended, they held a strip 6 miles wide, all of it within range of German artillery. When the battle ended, Army Group North claimed a defensive victory, but its hold on the second city of the Soviet Union was not as tight as before.20

On the Army Group North right flank the Demyansk pocket had been under continuous attack since the end of November 1942. By mid-January the fighting in the pocket had drained off the last army group reserves. On 19 January, Zeitzler told Kuechler that he intended to take up with Hitler the question of evacuating the Demyansk pocket. He and Kuechler agreed that the principal reason for the setback the army group had just suffered south of Lake Ladoga was the shortage of troops and that the only way to avoid similar mishaps was to create reserves by giving up the pocket.21 That Hitler would bitterly resist any such proposal went without saying; and Kuechler, who had been sharply rebuffed in the fall of 1942 when he suggested abandonment, refused to take the initiative in reopening the question.22

On the night of 31 January, after a week-long debate, Hitler finally gave way to Zeitzler's arguments. The Operations Section, OKH, informed Kuechler that the struggle to get the decision had been unprecedentedly difficult and asked him to get the troops out fast in order not to give


Hitler a chance to change his mind.23 Kuechler, however, refused to risk losing the vast quantity of equipment and supplies poured into the pocket during the past thirteen months. He began pulling back the line on 20 February, after three weeks preparation, and then collapsed the pocket by stages, completing the last on 18 March.24

Army Group Center--Antipartisan Warfare

Through the winter Army Group Center stood as the bulwark of the Eastern Front, but its underpinnings were weak. Its front, projecting eastward--once a giant spearhead aimed at Moscow--was, under the influence of the second Soviet winter offensive, becoming badly eroded and an invitation to disaster. (Map 11) On the north flank, around the bulge west of Toropets, the army group had not had a secure line since December 1941. After mid-January 1943, the Soviet armies gouged deeply into the south flank, forcing it back west of Kursk.

On 20 January, to shore up what was then the weakest spot in his front, Kluge moved Headquarters, Third Panzer Army, into the sector on the western rim of the Toropets bulge. The attempt to relieve Velikiye Luki had failed five days earlier. After his first look at the front, the Commanding General, Third Panzer Army, Generaloberst Hans Reinhardt, reported that the sector was in "appalling condition." Gruppe von der Chevallerie had thrown every unit it could lay hands on into the thrust toward Velikiye Luki. In the army rear area an estimated 20,000 partisans roamed the countryside at will. The army's first task would be to gain enough troops to establish some sort of defensible line by pulling back and sorting out the jumbled units west of Velikiye Luki.25

In the first week of February, having set up a line of strongpoints, Third Panzer Army turned to the partisan menace. Throughout the zones of Army Groups North and Center, partisan activity had flared up dangerously since the beginning of winter. As in the previous year, the Soviet commands employed the partisans as an adjunct to the winter offensive. Again the conditions were favorable. Hard-pressed to man the front, the Germans could only commit second- and third-rate troops in the rear areas. The Soviet victories raised the partisans' morale and made the civilians in the occupied territory amenable to Soviet and partisan influences.

Hitler, as he had since the start of the war, called for the utmost severity. In January 1943 he decreed that soldiers could not be brought to trial for atrocities committed while fighting partisans. The Geneva Convention and the rules of chivalry, he declared, had no place in antipartisan warfare. The generals, on the other hand, were fully aware that they lacked the strength to master the partisan movement by Draconian methods and would, if they tried, only succeed in totally alienating the civilian population. Consequently, most


Map 11
Army Group Center
Winter, 1942-43


of them attempted, for humanitarian and practical reasons, to avoid interpreting Hitler's decree literally. The Commanding General, Second Panzer Army, General der Panzertruppen Rudolf Schmidt, for instance, directed that it would apply only to acts committed in the heat of battle and would, under no circumstances, be considered a license to kill and plunder wantonly.26

In late February Third Panzer Army conducted an operation (KUGELBLITZ) against the partisan center in the Surazh Rayon northeast of Vitebsk. Although it had little effect on the course of the war, the operation is worth examining for two reasons: it is representative of dozens of similar antipartisan operations the Germans conducted in the years 1942-44, and it gives an unusually clear-cut picture of partisan and antipartisan warfare. The area concerned, the Surazh Rayon, lay directly behind the Third Panzer Army front. It had been partisan-infested for more than a year and had won acclaim on the Soviet side for the so-called Vitebsk Corridor, where in the late winter of 1941-42 the partisans and the Red Army had maintained truck and horse-drawn supply traffic through the large gaps in the German line. By February 1943 the front had not greatly changed. The sector north of Surazh, a thin line of strongpoints spaced two to three miles apart, was held by German Air Force field divisions. In the gaps and in the extensive forests and swamps behind the front the Germans had been forced by lack of troops to permit the partisans virtually free rein. The partisans, numbering an estimated four to five thousand, were organized into brigades. They had built permanent, fortified encampments, and operated their own airfields.

To execute the antipartisan operation, Reinhardt detailed two security divisions. The first step, completed on 21 February, was to draw a skirmish line around the partisan area, which encompassed most of the Surazh Rayon. When that had been done, the troops began to advance inward, drawing the ring tighter and driving the partisans ahead of them toward the center. Contact was difficult to maintain, and the troops, pushing across rough terrain and through forests deep in snow, soon tired. The partisans, for their part, evaded pitched battles and, whenever they could, hid or slipped through the encirclement. When the operation ended, on 8 March, the army claimed 3,700 partisans killed, but it had no way of telling with certainty how many of the casualties were actually partisans and how many noncombatant civilians. As soon as the German units withdrew, the partisans reorganized and within a few months they had nearly regained their former strength.27

Operation BUEFFEL

Although the Army Group Center zone was quiet in the early winter of 1942-43 except for partisan activity, its front in the long run, clearly was untenable. The army group had no reserves. Its left flank was weak and, after the collapse of Second Army, its right flank was left dangling in a void. When Army Group North secured permission to evacuate the Demyansk pocket, the great eastward projection of



Army Group Center ceased to serve any, even remotely, useful purpose. To pinch off the Toropets salient was no longer possible, and no one was thinking seriously any more of an advance to Moscow. On 26 January Kluge recommended to Hitler a large-scale withdrawal that would shorten the front and eliminate the danger of the Ninth and Fourth Armies' being encircled. As was to be expected, Hitler resisted bitterly, but finally, on 6 February, he yielded to Zeitzler's and Kluge's arguments.28

During the rest of the month the army group readied itself for the withdrawal, which was given the code name BUEFFEL. The chief task was to build a fortified line in the rear between Velizh and Kirov. At midmonth the armies began combing the towns and the countryside for able-bodied men and others who might be useful to the Russians if left behind. Long columns of evacuees, whom one army commander described as presenting pictures of absolute misery, were marched off to the west through the dead, late winter cold. Fourth Army alone reported evacuating 45,000 persons.

On 1 March Ninth Army began drawing back its front north and west of Rzhev. In twenty-three days Operation BUEFFEL was completed.29 The units that originally


stood farthest east had covered a distance of 90 miles. The length of the front in the BUEFFEL area was reduced from 340 miles to 110 miles.

On his south flank, after 14 February, Kluge faced the problem of finding enough troops to halt Second Army's retreat and to man the lengthening line of Second Panzer Army, its neighbor on the north. As the Russians advanced west past Kursk, the army group front began to bulge dangerously east of Orel. On 20 February Kluge proposed pulling back the Panzer and Second Armies to the line of the Desna River, but Hitler was through retreating.30 He was already at work on other plans, and before many months had passed, the names of two provincial Russian towns, Kursk and Orel, would gain renown on the Eastern Front.


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (V) * Next Chapter (VII)


1. Gen. Kdo. LIX A.K., Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 4, 30 Sep, 14 Oct 42, LIX A.K. 30145/1 file.

2. AOK 9, Kriegstagebuch, Fuehrungsabteilung, Berichtszeit 1.7.-31.12.42, Band II, 5 Oct 42, AOK 9 31624/2 file; Pz. AOK 3, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 5, 28 Oct 42, Pz. AOK 3 29195/1 file.

3. Gen. Kdo. LIX A.K., Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 4, 5, 14, 30 Oct 42 LIX A.K. 30145/1 file.

4. Der Fuehrer, OKW WFSt, Op. Nr. 551288/42, Weisung Nr. 45 fuer die Fortsetzung der Operation "Braunschweig," 23.7.42, OKW/291 file.

5. H. Gr. Nord, Ia Nr. 13000/43, Der Feldzug gegen die Sowjet-Union der Heeresgruppe Nord Kriegsjahr 1942, 10.5.43, H. Gr. Nord 75884/1 file; H. Gr. Nord, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 1, 4 Sep 42, H. Gr. Nord 75128/14 file; H. Gr. Nord, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 1, 20 Oct 42, H. Gr. Nord 75128/15 file; H. Gr. Nord, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 6 Nov 42, H. Gr. Nord 75128/16 file.

6. H. Gr. Nord, Ia, Nr. 3000/43, Der Feldzug gegen die Sowjet-Union der Heeresgruppe Nord, Kriegsjahr 1942, 10.5.43, H. Gr. Nord 75884/1 file; H. Gr. Nord, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 14, 23 Sep 42, H. Gr. Nord 75128/14 file.

7. OKW, WFSt, Op. (H) Nr. 551796/42, an (Geb.) AOK 20, 29.10.42, in Weisungen OKW, Fuehrer, 12.2.42-27.3.44, Band 3, OCMH files. For additional information concerning German and Finnish operations out of Finland, see Ziemke, German Northern Theater of Operations, 1940-45.

8. See also Earl Ziemke, The Soviet Partisan Movement in 1941 (Research Study 6, vol. 2), Earl Ziemke, Composition and Morale of the Partisan Movement (Research Study 6, vol. 5), and Earl Ziemke and Ralph Mavrogordato, History of the First Belorussian Partisan Brigade (Technical Research Report 24, vol. 3), Air Research and Development Command, Human Resources Research Institute, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

9. Der Fuehrer, OKW, WFSt, Op, Nr. 002821/42, Weisung Nr. 46 Richtlinien fuer die verstaerkte Bekaempfung des Bandenunwesens im Osten, 18.8.42, OKW/291 file.

10. OKH, GenStdH, Org. Abt., Kriegstagebuch, Band IV, 11-20 Aug 42, H 1/214 file.

11. OKH, GenStdH, Fremde Heere Ost, Anlage I zur kurzen Beurteilung der Feindlage vom 10.12.42, H 3/199 file.

12. AOK 9, Fuehrungsabteilung, Kriegstagebuch, Band 3, 21 Nov 42, AOK 9 31624/3 file.

13. Ibid., 25-30 Nov 42.

14. Sbornik Nomer 9.

15. AOK 9, Fuehrungsabteilung, Kriegstagebuch, Band 3, 1-7 Dec 42, AOK 9 31624/3 file.

16. Ibid., 11-16 Dec 42.

17. Sbornik Nomer 9.

18. Gen. Kdo. LIX A.K., Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 4, 25-30 Nov 42, LIX A.K. 30145/1 file.

19. Ibid., 14 Dec 42-16 Jan 43.

20. H. Gr. Nord, Ia Nr. 13000/44, Der Feldzug gegen die Sowjet-Union der Heeresgruppe Nord, Kriegsjahr 1943, 24.12.44, H. Gr. Nord 75884/1 file.

21. H. Gr. Nord, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 19 Jan 43, H. Gr. Nord 75128/18 file.

22. Ibid., 26 Jan 43.

23. H. Gr. Nord, Ia, Ferngespraech des Chefs des Generalstabes der Heeresgruppe mit Generalmajor Heusinger, 31.1.43, H. Gr. Nord 75129/52 file.

24. H. Gr. Nord, Ia Nr. 13000/44, der Feldzug gegen die Sowjet-Union der Heeresgruppe Nord, Kriegsjahr 1943, 24.12.44, H. Gr. Nord 75884/1 file.

25. Pz. AOK 3, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 6, 20-23 Jan 43, Pz. AOK 3 35568/1 file.

26. Pz. AOK 2, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 3, Band I, 3 Jan 43, Pz. AOK 2 37075/11 file.

27. Pz. AOK 3, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 6, 3 Feb-8 Mar 43, Pz. AOK 3 35568/1 file. See also Ziemke and Mavrogordato, History of the First Belorussian Partisan Brigade.

28. AOK 4, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 15, 26 Jan and 6 Feb 43, AOK 4 34579/1 file.

29. Ibid., 17 Feb-18 Mar 43.

30. AOK 2, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Russland, Teil 10, 20-23 Feb 43, AOK 2 37418/1 file.

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation