Battles of Rzhev
|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
|Commanders and leaders|
Fedor von Bock|
Günther von Kluge
Earmarked for Operation Jupiter:
13,000 guns and mortars
|Casualties and losses|
362,664 - 433,000 KIA
768,233 wounded or sick
Soviet sources: |
330,000 irrecoverable losses
450,000 wounded.German sources:
The Battles of Rzhev (Russian: Ржевская битва), also known by veterans and historians as the "Rzhev meat-grinder" or "slaughterhouse" ("Ржевская мясорубка") due to horrific losses suffered by the Red Army, were a series of Soviet operations in World War II between January 8, 1942 and March 31, 1943. The operations took place in the general area of Rzhev, Sychyovka and Vyazma against German forces.
The major operations that were executed in this area of the front were:
- Rzhev–Vyazma Strategic Offensive Operation (Russian: Ржевско-Вяземская стратегическая наступательная операция) (8 January – 20 April 1942) of the Kalinin Front, Western Front, Bryansk Front, and Northwestern Front
- Sychyovsk–Vyazma offensive operation (Russian: Сычёвско-Вяземская наступательная операция) (8 January – 20 April 1942) of the Kalinin Front
- Mozhaysk–Vyazma offensive operation (Operation Jupiter) (Russian: Можайско-Вяземская наступательная операция) (10 January – 28 February 1942) of the Western Front
- Toropets-Kholm Offensive Operation (Russian: Торопецко-Холмская наступательная операция) (9 January – 6 February 1942) of the Northwestern Front and reassigned to the Kalinin Front from 22 January 1942
- Vyazma airborne operation (Russian: Вяземская воздушно-десантная операция) (18 January – 28 February 1942) of the Western Front (see also Operation Hannover)
- Rzhev operation (3 march – 20 April 1942) (Russian: Ржевская наступательная операция)
- Operation Seydlitz and the Soviet defensive battles around Bely and Kholm-Zhirkovsky (Russian: Оборонительная операция в районе города Белый, Оборонительная операция под Холм-Жирковским, Холм-Жирковская оборонительная операция) (2–23 July 1942) launched by 9th Army of Germany to eliminate the salient in the vicinity between Bely and Kholm–Zhirkovsky and annihilate the 39th Army and 11th Cavalry Corps of the Kalinin Front
- First Rzhev–Sychyovka Offensive Operation (Russian: Первая Ржевско-Сычёвская (Гжатская) наступательная операция) (30 July – 23 August 1942, other sources say ending on 30 September or 1 October 1942) by forces of the Kalinin Front and Western Front
- Second Rzhev–Sychevka Offensive Operation (Operation Mars) (Russian: Вторая Ржевско-Сычёвская наступательная операция) (25 November – 20 December 1942) by the forces of the Kalinin Front and Western Front
- Third Rzhev–Sychevka Offensive Operation (Russian: Ржевско-Вяземская наступательная операция) (2–31 March 1943) by the forces of the Kalinin Front and Western Front, at the same time, the southern flank offensive operations on the Bryansk Front. These were operations that occurred during the planned German retreat from the salient known as Operation Büffel
Rzhev-Vyazma Strategic Offensive Operation
During the Soviet winter counter-offensive of 1941, and the Rzhev-Vyazma Strategic Offensive Operation (8 January 1942 – 20 April 1942), German forces were pushed back from Moscow. As a result, a salient was formed along the front line in the direction of the capital, which became known as the Rzhev-Vyazma Salient. It was strategically important for the German Army Group Centre due to the threat it posed to Moscow, and was therefore heavily fortified and strongly defended.
Initial Soviet forces committed by the Kalinin and Western Front included the 22nd, 29th, 30th, 31st, 39th of the former, and the 1st Shock, 5th, 10th, 16th, 20th, 33rd, 43rd, 49th, and 50th armies and three cavalry corps for the latter. The intent was for the 22nd Army, 29th Army and 39th Armies supported by the 11th Cavalry Corps to attack West of Rzhev, and penetrate deep into the western flank of the AG Centre's 9th Army. This was achieved in January, and by the end of the month the cavalry corps found itself 110 km in the depth of the German flank. To eliminate this threat to the rear of the Army Group Centre's 9th Army, the Germans had started Operation Seydlitz by 2 July. However, due to the nature of the terrain the supply route the troops of the Soviet 22nd Army, 29th Army and 39th Armies which attempted to enlarge the penetration became difficult, and they were encircled. The cutting of a major highway to Rzhev by the cavalry signalled the commencement of the Toropets–Kholm Offensive.
The offensive was conducted in late 1942.
Vyazma Airborne Operation
In the aftermath of the Soviet winter counteroffensive of 1941–42, substantial Soviet forces remained in the rear of the German Ninth Army. These forces maintained a hold on the primitive forested swamp region between Rzhev and Bely. On July 2, 1942, Ninth Army under General Model launched Operation Seydlitz to clear the Soviet forces out. The Germans first blocked the natural breakout route through the Obsha valley and then split the Soviet forces into two isolated pockets. The battle lasted eleven days and ended with the elimination of the encircled Soviet forces.
Rzhev-Sychyovka Strategic Offensive (Operation Mars)
The next Rzhev-Sychyovka Offensive (25 November 1942 – 20 December 1942) codenamed Operation Mars. The operation consisted of several incremental offensive phases:
- Sychyovka Offensive Operation 24 November 1942 – 14 December 1942
- Belyi Offensive Operation 25 November 1942 – 16 December 1942
- Luchesa Offensive Operation 25 November 1942 – 11 December 1942
- Molodoi Tud Offensive Operation 25 November 1942 – 23 December 1942
- Velikie-Luki Offensive Operation 24 November 1942 – 20 January 1943
This operation was nearly as heavy in losses for the Red Army as the first offensive, and also failed to reach desired objectives, but the Red Army tied down German forces which may have otherwise been used to try to relieve the Stalingrad garrison. An NKVD double agent known as Heine provided information about the offensive to the OKH as part of the plan to divert German forces from any relief of those trapped at Stalingrad.
Fighting in the area remained mostly static for 14 months. Losses and setbacks elsewhere along the front finally compelled the Germans to abandon the salient in order to free up reserves for the front as a whole.
Defending the salient required 29 divisions. Its abandonment freed up 22 of those divisions and created a strategic reserve which allowed the Germans to stabilize the front and somewhat recover from massive losses at Stalingrad.
German general Heinz Guderian had doubts about the strategic aims of the later Operation Citadel, since the Germans had to abandon the strategically important Rzhev-Vyazma salient for gathering troops to attempt to take a much less valuable one at Kursk. The retreat of the Germans in Operation Büffel was tactically and militarily successful, but the abandonment of "the Rzhev-Vyazma pistol" was a strategic loss for Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front.
The Soviet Army paid a high price in the battles of the Rzhev salients, but with the German withdrawal an important bridgehead which could enable the Germans to threaten Moscow was eliminated. The Germans had also moved back to defensive positions that were as strong as the ones they held within the salients.
Losses for the entire series of operations around the Rzhev salient from 1941 to 1943 are difficult to calculate. These operations cover an entire series of battles and defensive operations over a wide area involving many formations on both sides.
For the whole series of Rzhev battles, the numbers are not clear yet. But, since the mobilized manpower of both sides were enormous and the fighting is violent, casualties should be very high. According to A. V. Isayev, the Soviet losses from January 1942 to March 1943 is 392,554 irrecoverable and 768,233 sanitary. The Soviet losses during the beginning period of 1942 (including "operation Jupiter") are 272,320 irrecoverable and 504,569 sanitary; with 25.7% of total manpower participated in these battles killed in the battlefield. According to V. V. Beshanov, the casualties of the July–September Rzhev offensive are 193.683 all cases, and during Operation Mars the Soviet suffered 250.000 casualties with 800 tanks were damaged or destroyed. Isayev provided a lower number: 70,340 irrecoverable and 145,300 sanitary. The total gross casualties of Operation Mars is very high, but they only make up about 13.2% troop strength (and KIA is not over 6%); meanwhile, during the beginning phase of 1942 (including "Operation Juniper"), total losses are up to 75.2% troop strength (and dead rate 25.7%).
Retired German general Horst Grossmann did not provide the total casualties of the German side in his book Rzhev, the basement of the Eastern Front. But according to his description, from 31 July to 9 August, one German battalion at the front line, after being exhausted in the violent battles, only had one commandant and 22 soldiers, and by 31 August there were battalions which had only one commandant and 12 soldiers (equal to one squad). According to Grossmann, during Operation Mars, the German suffered 40,000 casualties.
According to the German reports which are still stored at the Storage Center of National Documents of Germany, from March 1942 to March 1943, the casualties of the 2nd, 4th, 9th, 2nd Panzer, 3rd Panzer and 4th Panzer Army (The 4th Panzer Army only have data from March to April 1942) amount to 162,713 KIA, 35,650 MIA, 469,747 WIA. The number of soldiers that died during treatment in the hospital are still unknown. According to Mikhail Yuryevich Myagkov, the casualties of German forces from January 1942 to March 1943 are about 330,000 irrecoverable and more than 450,000 sanitary.
Before the war, Rzhev had more than 56,000 people, but when it was liberated on 3 March 1943, there were only 150 people remaining, plus 200 in the surrounding rural area. The inhabitants were transported to Germany and Eastern Europe. Out of 5,443 houses, only 297 remained. Material losses were estimated at 500 million rubles (1941 value).
Vyazma was also virtually destroyed during the war. In this city, two transit camps of Nazi Germany, named Dulag No. 184 and Dulag No. 230 were established. Prisoners in these camps were Soviet soldiers and Soviet civilians from the area of Smolensk, Nelidovo, Rzhev, Zubtsov, Gzhatsk, Sychyovka... According to German data collected by the Soviet counter-espionage agency SMERSH, 5,500 people died of their wounds. During the winter of 1941-42, in these camps, about 300 people each day were killed by diseases, cold, starvation, torture and other causes. After the war, two mass graves were discovered in the area, each a size of 4 × 100 m and in total containing an estimated 70,000 bodies, all of them unidentified. The German also discovered and executed 8 local political leaders, 60 commissars and political instructors, and 117 Jews at the Dulag No.230 camp.
Strengths and weaknesses in the Soviet and German tactics
The Soviet managed to exploit the earlier victory at the battle of Moscow and create some advantages in the critical sector of the front. Their attacks threatened the flanks of Army Group Center and forced the German to divert the forces to these areas, therefore reduced the pressure on Moscow. During this time, the USSR's Army commanders began to concentrate their main forces at the critical zones to strengthen their position in these areas, or to muster enough power for their assaults. In addition, the Soviet also started using tanks as a main assault force instead of a mere supporting tool for infantries. The Front commanders also got some important experience in commanding and coordinating a combined force. From May 1942, Soviet Fronts started to deploy their own air armies for supporting the land troops, reporting under the direct command of the Front commanders. Thus these commanders began to have some sort of full authority to use the air forces, except the long-ranged strategic bomber units which were still under direct command of the Soviet STAVKA.
After the "manpower crisis" of late 1941, in 1942 the Soviets had gathered enough strategic reserves, they also began to pay more attention to developing them. In 1942 the Soviets managed to build 18 new reserve armies and resupply 9 others. At Rzhev, the army received 3 reserve armies and had 3 others resupplied. Of course, in this period, many Soviet units still had inadequate strength and equipment, but with the more plentiful reserve force, they managed to somewhat maintain stable fighting capability and prevent the severe fluctuation in manpower. This enabled the Red Army to conduct active defenses and prepare for large-scaled offensives.
As the second top person of the STAVKA, G. K. Zhukov was one of the first Soviet military officer to admit and to make a strict self-criticism about the Soviet's and also his own faults in this period:
Today, after reflecting the events of 1942, I see that I had many shortcomings in evaluating the situation at Vyazma. We overestimated ourselves and underestimate the enemies. The "walnut" there was much stronger that what we predicted.
The Soviet Army suffered terribly from severe deficits in weapons and equipment due to the tremendous losses during the German onslaught in 1941. Meanwhile, during the first half of 1942, the reserved source of equipment was still not adequate. For example, during January and February 1942, the Western Front only received 55% of needed 82mm mortar rounds, 36% needed 120mm ones and 44% needed artillery munitions. On average, each artillery battery only had 2 rounds per day. The weapons deficit was so severe that the Front commanders had to make occasional appeals for equipment. The serious lack of ammunition hampered Soviet efforts in neutralizing German strongpoints, leading to heavy casualties in the assaults.
The lack of munitions did not only occur in the case of cannons and mortars, but also for small arms. During "the ammunitions famine" at Rzhev salient, on average, the Red Army only had 3 bullets for each rifle, 30 bullets for each submachine gun, 300 bullets for each light machine gun and 600 bullets for each heavy one. The "famine" of munitions in firearms and artillery pieces forced the Soviet army commanders, in many cases, to use tanks in the role of artillery; such inappropriate usage together with the outdated military thinking (which did not pay enough attention to the assault role of tank forces) sharply reduced the effectiveness of the tank units, rendered them from conducting deep penetration into the German defensive line. For the tank forces, although the Soviet possessed a large number of tanks, the numbers of low quality, damaged and outdated ones were also large. In the Bryansk, Western and Kalinin Front, the proportion of low quality tanks was 69% and the rates of damaged tanks about 41-55%. All the above facts mean that the Red Army in Rzhev area did not have adequate preparation in terms of equipment, weapons and logistics.
The worst mistakes of the Red Army in 1942 at the Rzhev salients lies in the coordination and cooperation between its Fronts and the control of STAVKA towards them. During the offensives in January and February 1942, instead of establishing a centralized command and control with tight cooperation between the Fronts, the Soviet STAVKA and I. V. Stalin let each Front carry out their own assault without notable cooperation between the Fronts. Such separated and uncooperative assaults failed to achieve their goals and lead to the total failure of the whole offensives. To make matter worse, on 19 January 1942 Stalin suddenly retook the 1st Shock Army from the Western Front with a "very nonsense" reason. That unreasonable act severely weakened the right wing of the Western Front and lead to the failure of the offensive at the area Olenino - Rzhev - Osuga.
Further errors in the Soviet's tactics and commands were the ambitious and unrealistic goals of the offensives. Early 1942, the Red Army had just recovered from the disastrous losses during the late half of 1941, therefore it was still very weak. Even the victory at the previous battle of Moskva was already a miracle for the Soviet Union. In every offensive, the aims and scale have to be correlative with the army's strength, but at the battles of Rzhev, the Soviet commanders demanded too much from their subordinates.
Last but not least, another "palindromic disease" of the Red Army in 1942 is the hesitation in retreating from threatened sectors. As a results, many Soviet units were trapped in a notable number of "pockets" when the Germans counter-attacked. In these cases, only the troops of 11th Cavalry Corps and 6th Tank Corps managed to escape successfully. The escape of 33rd and 41st Army was conducted on time, but they failed to keep it secret and chose the wrong direction to move, leading to considerable casualties. And in the case of 11th Cavalry and 39th Army, the STAVKA made a serious mistake when they planned to keep them in the Kholm-Zhirkovsky bridgehead for future attacks; however not only they failed to conduct any attacks but also they were surrounded and nearly destroyed during the Seydlitz operation.
After the Soviet winter counter-offensive of 1941–42, the Germans were able to securely hold and defend the salient against a series of large Soviet offensives. The operations led to disproportionately high Soviet losses and tied down large numbers of Soviet troops. The defense of the Salient provided the Germans with a base from which they could launch a new offensive against Moscow at a future time. The defensive positions created by the Germans after the retreat from Moscow were well constructed and placed. The Germans eventually withdrew from the positions only due to losses elsewhere in the war and were able to withdraw from the salient with minimal losses.
German operations in 1941 directed at Moscow lasted too late into the year. Rather than stabilize the front and create defensive positions, the Germans pushed their forces forward and left them poorly prepared for the Soviet winter counteroffensive. The losses in men and equipment to Army Group Centre were considerable. The Army group lacked the strength to go back on the offensive in 1942.
After the front stabilized, the German Army tied down enormous amounts of manpower in holding salients from which they did not intend to exploit. This reduced the amount of manpower the Germans could devote to operations elsewhere on the front. The Germans also used some of their best formations, such as 9th Army, in a strictly static defensive role. The Rzhev salient had value and tied down disproportionate numbers of Soviet troops, but it is unclear if the salient was worth the loss of around 20 high quality divisions for offensive or defensive operations elsewhere in 1942.
The abandonment of the salient was necessary in 1943 to create reserves for the front as a whole. But the reserves and the strength created were mostly used up in the costly offensive directed at Kursk in 1943 (Operation Citadel).
Controversies about the battles of Rzhev
This part of the Second World War was poorly covered by Soviet military historiography, and what coverage exists occurred only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when historians gained access to relevant documents. Exact dates of particular battles, their names, outcomes, significance, and even losses have not been fully clarified and there are still many controversies about these topics.
Casualties of the Soviet forces
In 2009, a television movie was aired in Russia entitled Rzhev: Marshal Zhukov's Unknown Battle, which made no attempt to cover up the huge losses suffered by Soviet forces. As a consequence, there were public calls in Russia for the arrest of some of those involved in its production. In the movie, the casualties of Soviet forces are given as 433,000 KIA. The journalist Alina Makeyeva, in an article of Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper which was published on 19 February 2009, wrote: "The number presented by the historian is too low. There must be more than one million Soviet soldiers and officers was killed ! Rzhev and its neighboring towns were completely destroyed."; however Alina could not present any proof. Journalist Elena Tokaryeva in her article which was published in the newspaper The Violin (Russia) on 26 February 2009 also claimed that more than 1,000,000 Soviet soldiers were killed at Rzhev. "The race of the numbers of casualties at Rzhev" continued with the data of researcher Svetlana Aleksandrovna Gerasimova from National Museum at Tver. In her thesis Rzhev-Sychyovka, the first offensive in 1942 under a new point of view, Gerasimova claimed that 1,325,823 Soviet troops lost their lives during the four offensives at that area. The number of casualties again was raised with the claim of journalist Igor Elkov in his articled published in the Russian Weekly on 26 February 2009. Igor said: "The accurate number of casualties of both sides is still dubious. Recently, there are some opinions about from 1.3 to 1.5 million Soviet soldiers was killed. It may reach the number of 2 million".
All this data was heavily criticized by Reserve Colonel, Doctor of History A. V. Isayev. By providing the data in the stored documents of Russian Ministry of Defence, Isayev stated that [Igor Elkov]'s estimates were judgment[s] of people without adequate knowledge of history, and are the results of demagogic motivation under the slogan "every information must be shown to the people". Using very detailed documents with clear origins, A. V. Isayev proved the casualties of the Soviet forces as below:
- Casualties of Western Front on Rzhev direction, from January to April 1942: 24,339 KIA, 5,223 MIA, 105,021 WIA. (data of Ministry of Defence, code name TsAMO RF, shelf 208, drawer 2579, folder 6, volume 208, pp. 71–99).
- Casualties of Kalinin Front on Rzhev direction, from January to April 1942: 123,380 irrecoverable, 341,227 sanitary. (data of Ministry of Defence, code name TsAMO RF, shelf 208, drawer 2579, folder 16, volume ll, pp. 71–99).
- Total casualties of Western and Kalinin front during Jan-Apr 1942: 152,943 irrecoverable, 446,248 sanitary (aboved sources).
- Total casualties of 29th and 30th Army (Kalinin Front), 20th and 31st Army (Western Front) in August 1942: 57,968 irrecoverable and 165,999 sanitary. (data of Ministry of Defence, code name TsAMO RF, shelf 208, drawer 2579, folder 16, volume ll, pp. 150–158)
- Total casualties of 20th, 29th, 30th, 31st (Western Front) and 39th Army (Kalinin Front) on September 1942: 21,221 KIA and 54,378 WIA.(data of Ministry of Defence, code name TsAMO RF, shelf 208, drawer 2579, folder 16, volume ll, pp. 163–166).
- Total casualties of Kalinin Front during Operation Mars: 33,346 KIA, 3,620 MIA, 63,757 WIA. (above source).
- Total casualties of 20th, 30th, 31st Army and 2nd Guard Cavalry Corps from 21 to 30 November 1942 (first phase of Operation Mars): 7,893 KIA, 1,288 MIA, 28,989 WIA. (data of Ministry of Defence, code name TsAMO RF, shelf 208, drawer 2579, folder 16, volume ll, pp. 190–200).
A. V. Isayev also used the research of Colonel-General G. F. Krivosheyev, his senior workmate at Russian Military History Institute and pointed out the common results between Isayev and Krivosheyev. On the Website "Soldier" of Russian Military History Institute, Isayev also said that the electronic draft of Krivosheyev was stolen and illegally used by the hackers, hence these drafts were completely deleted from the Institute Website. Nowadays, only the book whose copyright is held by Krivosheyev himself is recognized as legal document.
Finally, A. V. Isayev claimed that the Soviet casualties at Rzhev from January 1942 to March 1943 were 392,554 KIA and 768,233 WIA. The document film of Aleksey Vladimirovich Pivovarov was also heavily criticized by Isayev; he stated that in this film, many important events of the Rzhev battles is not mentioned such as the breakout of 1st Guard Cavalry Corps, the breakout of more than 17,000 remaining troops of 33rd Army during Operation Seydlitz, and the breakout of the 41st Army. According to A. V. Isayev, if the film of Aleksey Vladimirovich Pivovarov and the thesis of Svetlana Aleksandrovna Gerasimova were true, many living people should have been recorded as KIA. Until now, there has not been any Russian articles or works which objects the arguments of A. V. Isayev.
Role of G. K. Zhukov in Operation Mars
The role of Zhukov in this infamous offensive is also a debated topic. American military history, Colonel David M. Glantz (Hoa Kỳ) claimed that G. K. Zhukov had to take the main responsibility in the tactical failure of this operation, and this is "the greatest defeat of Marshal Zhukov". In more detail, David Glantz asserted that Zhukov's command in this offensive was not careful, too ambitious, too clumsy and all these lead to a disaster. However, Antony Beevor disagreed with Glantz's comment. According to Beevor, at that time Zhukov had to concentrate on Operation Uranus at Stalingrad battlefield hence he had little time to care for what was happening at Rzhev.
The Russian authors Vladimir Chernov and Galina Yaroslavovna also disagreed with Glantz. They asserted that from 26 August 1942 Zhukov did not command the Western Front, and that from 29 August he had his hand busy with the serious matters at Stalingrad. It has been asserted that Stalin was actually the commander in charge of all the fronts at the Rzhev salient. Zhukov only took part in the commanding at Rzhev during its later periods as a "firefighter" who was solving the serious problems of the battlefield at that moment. Therefore, Beevor asserted the comments of Glantz about Zhukov's responsibility were not correct.
The Title "City of Military Glory" of Rzhev
Rzhev was conferred the status of "City of Military Glory" by the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on October 8, 2007, for "courage, endurance and mass heroism, exhibited by defenders of the city in the struggle for the freedom and independence of the Motherland". This act also caused heated debate and controversy. Many people believed that Rzhev shouldn't be a "City of Military Glory" since it was under Nazi German occupation before being liberated. However, according to the law, being occupied does not prevent a city from receiving this honorary title. As long as its citizens, military personnel and government officers paid a large contribution for the Great Patriotic War and expressed great heroism, bravery and patriotism in these contributions, that is enough. Furthermore, the fierce and heroic resistance of Soviet citizens at Rzhev did not only occur during the 1942–1943 period, but also during the defence of Moscow in 1941. According to all these facts, Rzhev, Vyazma and many other cities have enough conditions to have the title "City of Military Glory," whether they were occupied or not.
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- Horst Grossmann Geschichte der rheinisch-westfaelischen 6 Infanterie-Division 1939–1945 (German)
- German war photos (Russian)
- Battles of Rzhev (Russian)