In the wet snows of late November 1942, the Soviet army struck at the thinly manned German front lines north and south of the city on the river, surrounding the vital supply center and trapping its garrison while threatening to cut off and encircle an entire German army group.
Adolf Hitler forbade a breakout and ordered that the surrounded troops be supplied by air. Relief attacks never quite had the necessary strength to break through the encircling Russians, and by late January 1943 the city was again in Russian hands, the German defenders either dead or taken prisoner.
The German commander was General Hellmut von der Chevallerie, not Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus. His opponent was the Third Shock Army, not General Lieutenant Vasily I. Chuykov’s Sixty-second Army, and the army hemorrhaging German blood was the Ninth, not the Sixth. Nevertheless, the encirclement of Velikiye Luki bore a strong resemblance to the well-known Nazi debacle that was unfolding at the same time at Stalingrad.
Located on the Lovat River at a triangulated point south of Leningrad and west of Moscow, Velikiye Luki was a small city with a prewar population of 30,000. The road and rail network west of Novosokolniki converged there; supplying forces either to the east or west required control of the city. Unlike other Russian cities of similar size, Velikiye Luki was heavily influenced by Western Europe, since it was the point of conversion from the wide West European rail gauge to the narrower East European gauge. Western diplomats and VIPs regularly passed through the city on their way to Moscow. For their use the Soviets maintained a Western-style hotel, named the Hotel Moscow. Luxuries were available there that were unknown throughout the rest of the Soviet Union.
Velikiye Luki was crucial to both sides. To the Germans it was a bulwark protecting the vital railway supplying Army Group North, which passed through Novosokolniki some 20 kilometers to the west. Loss of that rail line might have forced Army Group North to lift the siege of Leningrad. Given Hitler’s penchant for standing fast no matter what the military situation, this turn of events could have caused Army Group North to be trapped against the Gulf of Riga.
But if the German high command thought Velikiye Luki was important, the Soviet high command considered it crucial. Their efforts to recapture the city started in August 1941, soon after its capture, and continued almost without pause until January 1943. To the Soviets, the city’s recapture meant much more than threatening the supply lines of Army Group North. The Russians’ ultimate objective was to slice into the rear of Army Group Center, anchored 30 kilometers south at Velizh. Such a move would threaten to encircle and unhinge the entire German front. Smolensk would surely fall, and trapping Army Group North would merely be a bonus. The stakes were no less than the fate of two German army groups.
For a while it seemed a very different battle might take place. In early November 1942, the German Eleventh Army moved into the seam between Army Groups Center and North to shore up the hodgepodge of battered units that had been under almost continuous Soviet attack since the previous winter. German morale soared, for the Eleventh Army veterans were the conquerors of Sevastopol and were led by Germany’s most able field commander, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Surely, they believed, the formations necessary to defeat the Soviets in the sector between Kholm and Velizh would become available. Was not Manstein already a legend in the Wehrmacht? What else could his presence signify except a coming offensive? Unfortunately for the exhausted men of the LIX Corps, it was not to be. The Soviets struck first and far to the south, in a bend of the Don River on the flanks of the Sixth Army fighting in Stalingrad. The Eleventh Army and its illustrious commander, minus a few key units, were immediately transferred to the threatened area, and the LIX Corps was left to its fate.
The departure of the Eleventh Army meant there was no German front line from Kholm in the north to Velizh in the south. All that remained in the area was the 83rd Infantry Division screening Velikiye Luki in the center and the 3rd Gebirgsjäger (mountain troop) Division slightly to the south. The LIX Corps, renamed Group von der Chevallerie, was given the added responsibility for defense of the area the Eleventh Army had evacuated, without the benefit of any additional troops.
When Soviet infiltrators moved into jump-off positions north and south of Velikiye Luki, no German outposts were in position to oppose them. North of the city, the Germans wishfully believed that the dense forest was impassable. In the south, the 3rd Gebirgsjäger Division was stretched out to cover a front of more than 20 kilometers.
Both the 83rd Infantry and 3rd Gebirgsjäger were veteran divisions, though badly understrength from the fighting the previous summer. The two divisions were dangerously overstretched, the 83rd in particular. Dug-in companies were each defending up to three kilometers of the front directly west of Velikiye Luki along the Kuban Stream. Worse, the 3rd Gebirgsjäger was split between Norway and Russia, having left one of its infantry regiments and an artillery battalion behind after being mauled in the drive on Murmansk. The area that it was tasked to defend was so desolate that there were not even farmhouses to provide shelter from the winter snows.
Spearheading the Soviet attack were four guards divisions, the 9th, 19th, 21st and 46th, as well as several ski battalions and tank brigades, with no less than nine rifle divisions following. Many of these divisions had been destroyed and reconstituted at least once, following the Soviet policy of burning out a unit and then withdrawing it for rebuilding. In January 1942, for example, the 249th Estonian Rifle Division was thrown into the fighting for Kholm, starting the battle with 8,000 effectives. By the end of the month, only 1,400 were left, a loss rate of more than 82 percent. Another division, the 28th Rifle, had been nearly destroyed during the summer and was still well below strength. Under such circumstances unit cohesion was almost impossible.
The 83rd Infantry Division was commanded by Maj. Gen. Theodor Scherer, who had received the Knight’s Cross for his defense of Kholm in the winter of 1941-42. Specifically charged with defending Velikiye Luki was the division’s 277th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. Freiherr von Sass, and the attached 336th Security Battalion. As commandant of the city, Sass also had several smaller units attached to his garrison, among them a Nebelwerfer (rocket launcher) multibarreled mortar battery. Including its garrison responsibilities, the combat sector of the 83rd Division totaled 125 kilometers.
But Velikiye Luki was ready for a siege. Since the 11th Panzer Division had captured the city in August 1941, the defenders had constructed numerous concrete bunkers and tank traps, each known by suitably Germanic names such as Bayreuth, Vienna or Nordlingen. Supplies of food and ammunition were stocked up and reserved for use only if the city was encircled. Key locations were also fortified. Among these were the misnamed West Railroad Station, which was located in the eastern part of the city and doubled as a bunker and supply depot, and the medieval fortress known as the Citadel, located in the western quarter. The Citadel, surrounded on three sides by the Lovat River and possessing thick earth-and-mortar walls, had a commanding view of the bridges over the Lovat and was nearly impervious to artillery fire. The plan of defense was simple: Fight to the death for each strongpoint, then fall back to the next prepared position, forcing the Soviets into a bloody battle of attrition. The presence of the resolute defenders ensured that any Russian attempt to recapture the city would be costly.
In early November the Soviets began interdicting German supply lines, harassing supply trucks and trains with artillery and air attacks. Unlike their Western Allies, however, the Soviet Army Air Force rarely flew more than 20 miles behind the front on interdiction missions. This limited area of operations meant that while the Germans might have trouble actually getting supplies to their most forward units, the rail network itself was largely undamaged.
The Soviet offensive began on November 24, with strong forces moving on Velikiye Luki from north and south, bypassing the screen of fortified positions in a semicircular arc east of the city. Encountering only scattered resistance and racing through the snow, by nightfall the Soviets had Velikiye Luki nearly surrounded. The German units dug in along the Kuban Stream were overrun so quickly that the Soviets were able to launch attacks against the city proper the next day. The attackers, however, were repulsed with heavy losses. More assaults came on the 26th, but again the Germans held. Russian attacks came almost daily in the following seven weeks. Although the Germans inflicted ruinous losses on the enemy, their own casualties mounted. On the 27th, the Soviet 357th Rifle Division completed the encirclement of the city. The last telephone call into Sass’ headquarters came that day. From then on, communication with the trapped defenders was by radio only.
By midday on the 28th, Soviet spearheads had cut the rail line south of Novosokolniki, their main objective. General Scherer now took over command of the city. Gathering units from anywhere he could find them, Scherer prepared to defend Novosokolniki to the last. From the start, the Germans realized the Soviet offensive was stronger than anticipated. Hitler’s headquarters, though, was in chaos trying to deal with the growing fiasco at Stalingrad, and scant attention was being paid to the threat to the German center.
Hitler ordered Velikiye Luki held at all costs, hopefully until it was relieved, but held all the same. The Germans scraped together what units they could, though there were precious few available to seal the breach, much less fight through to the relief of Velikiye Luki. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was asked for permission to use the 1st Fallschirmjäger (parachute) Division, formerly known as the 7th Flieger Division, then in reserve 30 kilometers to the southwest, but he refused.
The German units now surrounding the open terrain south of Velikiye Luki formed two Kampfgruppen, named Klatt and Meyer, and began fighting their way west to link up with relieving units near Novosokolniki. Front-line infantry battalions of the 3rd Gebirgsjäger and 83rd Infantry divisions made up both Kampfgruppen (battle groups), and their destruction would be devastating to the German defense. Few reinforcements were available, but what could be found were rushed to the threatened sector. Units scheduled for Manstein’s canceled offensive were put into the line.
The 8th Panzer Division was ordered south from Leningrad with orders to fight through to Velikiye Luki. Already understrength, the division’s panzer regiment had only 32 operational tanks, 27 of which were prewar Czechoslovakian models. The 8th Panzer was also known as a problem unit that never seemed to perform up to expectations. On the road to Velikiye Luki, however, its tankers would fight well. In addition, the 20th Motorized Division, which was already scheduled for transfer from Leningrad, was also sent south. The 291st and 205th Infantry divisions had been earmarked for Manstein’s canceled offensive and were now committed to action southeast of Velikiye Luki in the area of the two Kampfgruppen.
The 1st SS Motorized Brigade had been formed in late 1941 from surplus SS personnel to perform rear-area security duties, but the Eastern Front’s insatiable demand for fighting troops soon landed it in combat. By the time of the Velikiye Luki relief expedition, the unit was badly depleted but still battleworthy and went to the relief of Novosokolniki. The recently formed 6th Luftwaffe Field Division was committed to the area just north of Velizh, but Göring’s restrictions on its use and its overall poor level of training made it of little use. The last regular unit involved was the 331st Infantry Division. Comprised of overage reservists rushed into action during the previous winter, the division was at best a second-line unit. According to one source, two of its three regimental commanders were so decrepit they could not leave their command posts unaided.
From the beginning of the battle, both sides recognized that Velikiye Luki might well hold out until German relief forces could fight through to the embattled garrison. Even before the outlying strongpoints along the Kuban Stream were overwhelmed, the Soviets were launching costly frontal attacks on the city from the west, east and south, in an effort to wear down the defenders before help could arrive.
Soviet attacks were almost continuous and often had strong tank support. Casualties were heavy on both sides, but especially so for the attackers. As usual, losses did not deter the Soviets. Fierce attacks continued on the city from all sides, gaining little ground against the well-designed defenses but inflicting irreplaceable losses. Figures for German wounded were especially high, as Soviet artillery pounding the city produced a hail of steel that filled the air with concrete splinters.
The intensity of the fighting destroyed many Soviet units. By November 30, the 21st and 46th Guards divisions were so burned out that they had to be withdrawn for rebuilding. In others, notably the 249th Estonian, morale was so low that hundreds of Estonians actually changed sides during the battle, deciding to fight under Wehrmacht command rather than continuing to serve as Soviet cannon fodder.
The relentless Soviet attacks were, however, beginning to have the desired effect. The German 343rd Security Battalion was so chewed up that its remnants were withdrawn from the city after only three days of combat. Sass realized that unless help arrived, the Soviets’ sheer numbers would eventually overwhelm the city.
On December 15, Sass radioed Scherer: ‘The defenders are maintaining their morale…losses are very high. Reserves are in short supply…the ammunition situation is strained…Russian losses are apparently very high. The morale in the Estonian divisions is very low. We will not let it degenerate into guerrilla warfare…Sass.’
With Velikiye Luki surrounded, the Soviets pushed on to Novosokolniki. From November 24 through December 10, strong Soviet columns swept around Velikiye Luki and cut Novosokolniki off from both north and south, in the process hammering away at Kampfgruppen Klatt and Meyer, which were caught between the two trapped cities.
Velikiye Luki could not be relieved until Novosokolniki was first secured, so German efforts early in the battle concentrated on defeating the Soviets there. The 3rd Gebirgsjäger recaptured the rail lines south of the city in early December. Attacks by units of the 83rd and 291st divisions northeast of Novosokolniki drove the Soviets back 10 kilometers by December 12.
The 8th Panzer assembled near Gorki farther north and drove on Velikiye Luki, fighting for every yard. To defeat this threat, Red Army units were pulled in from both Novosokolniki and Velikiye Luki and thrown into the path of the 8th Panzer’s attack. Halfway to the city the division faltered, with heavy infantry casualties and only a few tanks remaining serviceable, but the shifting of forces away from Novosokolniki was fatal to Soviet efforts to capture that vital supply center. By December 14, the Soviet high command had called off further attacks on Novosokolniki.
The line had now stabilized between Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki. A lull followed in which both sides rested their exhausted troops and tried to replace losses. Soviet casualties had been horrendous. The 21st and 46th Guards divisions were destroyed, the 9th and 19th Guards divisions were almost burned out and the 249th Estonian Rifle Division had suffered 1,100 desertions. German casualties were, relatively speaking, even worse. For example, one mountain regiment lost 20 out of 22 officers, and an enlisted strength of 786 men before the battle was down to 60. By December 18, the 20th Motorized Division and 291st Infantry Division had a combined strength of only 6,200 men.
Few replacements were forthcoming. Far to the south, the fighting at Stalingrad sucked everything that the LIX Corps needed to survive into the life-and-death struggle of the Sixth Army. In the place of food, ammunition and medical supplies, the German high command sent slogans. On December 16, Hitler radioed Sass: ‘I commend you and your soldiers for holding so bravely. I am convinced that you will hold like iron, just as General Scherer did in Kholm, until you are relieved.’ A brave and loyal officer, Sass replied, ‘Velikiye Luki will be held until the last man.’ Further messages from the beleaguered city begged for supply drops by the Luftwaffe.
Despite the drain of its strength into the cauldron of Stalingrad, there were some Luftwaffe units flying on the Velikiye Luki front. And if their numbers were small, they still managed minor miracles in supplying the city with even the most meager of essentials, for there were no airfields within the garrison perimeter. Parachute drops helped, though much of the critical materiel fell within Red Army lines. The bulk of useful supplies that made it to the garrison came from glider pilots steering through a forest of anti-aircraft guns placed specifically to prevent such missions, then landing their fragile craft amid the rubble of the city streets.
In such a manner light anti-tank guns, artillery, Nebelwerfer ammunition and even squads of specialists were flown into the city. Such efforts undoubtedly kept the city fighting long after it should have fallen, but in the end it was not enough. Luftwaffe losses were very high. More than 80 aircraft, including a number of priceless Heinkel He-111 bombers and Junkers Ju-52 transports, were lost during efforts to free the city.
A second army corps was now organized to relieve Chevallerie’s burden at the LIX Corps. Known as Group Wohler and commanded by the chief of staff of Army Group Center, Lt. Gen. Otto Wohler, the formation pushed from the southwest toward Velikiye Luki. From November 25 through December 18, it suffered 9,940 casualties, with the only replacements coming from the wounded who could be quickly returned to action.
Despite horrendous losses, Wohler’s men were determined to rescue their surrounded comrades. January 4, 1943, was the launch date for Operation Totila, the offensive designed to fight through to the city. The depleted German divisions, while still understrength, were at least rested, with many of the wounded healed enough to return to action. Tanks and assault guns were in short supply, the weather was bad and ammunition and other supplies were less than adequate, but if the city was to be saved the offensive would have to begin on schedule. Blood and courage would have to replace tanks and shells.
In the city itself, the last half of December saw renewed Soviet efforts to crush the remaining defenders with heavy attacks. On the last day of 1942, contact was lost between the Citadel and the eastern part of the city. Velikiye Luki was now split in two. The German defenders of Velikiye Luki were given no respite. Soviet attacks varied in strength from company to brigade level, and while the attackers suffered heavy losses they could afford it more than the defenders. Little by little, the city was falling.
Even after the first of the year, Sass was still sending out long, detailed situation reports, and so a clear picture from inside the city emerged. Based on those reports, the hundreds of wounded were protected as much as possible from the weather and the enemy, but ultimately there was little that could be done. The medical staff was so decimated that captured Estonians were pressed into service tending the injured, and there was almost no medicine. Food rations were minimal, and what little horse meat remained was tainted. Intestinal disease was rampant. Ammunition was in short supply. Artillery and mortar shells rained on the city by the thousands, while the Soviet air force bombed and strafed in any type of weather.
The renewed German offensive made immediate progress, as the Soviets did not have enough battleworthy units to defend everywhere along the line. To the southwest, the 1st SS Motorized Brigade and 20th Motorized Division battered against stubborn resistance, and to the north the 8th Panzer Division had too little strength to break through, but in the center the attack made progress. On January 9, a Kampfgruppe built around the 5th Gebirgsjäger battalion broke into the Citadel, heralding a crucial point in the battle.
The eastern garrison was being destroyed, but if the Citadel could be held and reinforced, Sass could lead the eastern survivors to a linkup with them. Properly defended, the Citadel could be defended against all attacks and at least part of Velikiye Luki could be retained until new forces were made available to recapture the rest. The entire Soviet offensive could be defeated, but only if the Citadel was held.
The forces available, however, were simply not up to the task. One more full-strength battalion might have done the trick, but that battalion was not to be had (see sidebar on P. 43). Soviet artillery fire was so intense that within hours of the breakthrough all 15 of the armored vehicles that accompanied the 5th Gebirgsjäger to the Citadel were destroyed, and the decision was made to evacuate to the west. The remnants of the German garrison were doomed.
On January 15, the last radio messages came from the eastern sector. At 0440 hours Sass radioed, ‘A breakout appears out of the question; because almost 2,000 wounded would fall into Russian hands…help must immediately come from the outside. Urgently request reply.’ Again at 0720 he sent: ‘We cannot break out. You must immediately break through to us.’ At 0840 came the last intelligible message from the beleaguered garrison: ‘Urgently request artillery fire.’ After that there was nothing. Velikiye Luki was officially declared lost on January 16.
Fighting continued along the new line west of the city for several more days as each side tried to straighten the line in its favor, but the worst was over. Velikiye Luki was again in Soviet hands. The 7,000-man German garrison had disappeared into the cauldron of history. The German front had finally held, though its position had been badly eroded.
Despite suffering heavy casualties, however, and losing a key transportation hub, the Germans could count Velikiye Luki as a tactical victory. Initially outnumbered 5-to-1, under almost constant air attack and with no coherent front line in place, Group von der Chevallerie prevented the collapse of the German defense with a hodgepodge of understrength first-line units, a nearly useless second-line infantry division, supply troops and overage reservists, while inflicting crippling losses on the Soviets.
German estimates of Soviet casualties claim more than 30,000 men were killed and thousands more wounded or captured. More than 600 Soviet armored vehicles and 400 guns were lost; 63 aircraft were shot down. A total of 31 Soviet units were considered destroyed. German losses were equally staggering–more than 17,000 men were killed or wounded and thousands more taken prisoner. The entire garrison of Velikiye Luki was lost. Several hundred armored vehicles and many precious bomber and transport aircraft were also destroyed.
After the battle, Leningrad remained under siege and Army Group Center was no longer threatened. From the Soviet viewpoint, the battle was a repeat of the failed tactics of the previous winter, with objectives that were too ambitious and reserves that were never committed. The 24th Cavalry and 360th Rifle divisions remained in close reserve throughout the battle. Had either of them, but especially the highly mobile 24th Cavalry, been used early in the fighting, Novosokolniki might have been entirely encircled, making the relief of Velikiye Luki impossible and the capture of Novosokolniki likely. The Soviet high command, however, elected not to do so, starving the front-line units of the support that might have ruptured the German line once and for all.
This article was written by William A. Webb and originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!