Battle for Velikiye Luki

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Battle of Velikiye Luki
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Eastern Front 1942-11 to 1943-03--Velikiye Luki.png
Velikiye Luki (red, upper left) and the nearby rail trunks, in the context of the Soviet 1942–1943 offensives. (click to enlarge)
Date19 November 1942 – 16 January 1943
Result Soviet victory
Flag of German Reich (1935-1945).svg  Germany Flag of the Soviet Union (1936-1955).svg  Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Flag of German Reich (1935-1945).svg Kurt von der Chevallerie Flag of the Soviet Union (1936-1955).svg Maksim Purkayev
LIX Korps – ~50,000 (on 19 Nov)
Reinforcement forces: ~50,000 [1]
3rd Shock Army – 95,608 (on 19 Nov)
Reinforcement forces: 86,700 [2]
Casualties and losses
Soviet estimate: ~60.000 killed, missing or wounded, 4.500 captured [3] 104,022
31,674 killed or missing
72,348 wounded [4]
Situation after the initial Soviet advance. OEF-map-2.jpg
Situation after the initial Soviet advance.

The Velikiye Luki offensive operation (Russian : Великолукская наступательная операция) was executed by the forces of the Red Army's Kalinin Front against the Wehrmacht's 3rd Panzer Army during the Winter Campaign of 1942–1943 with the objective of liberating the Russian city of Velikiye Luki as part of the northern pincer of the Rzhev-Sychevka Strategic Offensive Operation (Operation Mars).

Russian language East Slavic language

Russian is an East Slavic language, which is official in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was the de facto language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution on 25 December 1991. Although, nowadays, nearly three decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian is used in official capacity or in public life in all the post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in Israel and Mongolia, the rise of state-specific varieties of this language tends to be strongly denied in Russia, in line with the Russian World ideology.

Red Army 1917–1946 ground and air warfare branch of the Soviet Unions military

The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, frequently shortened to Red Army was the army and the air force of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and, after 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The army was established immediately after the 1917 October Revolution. The Bolsheviks raised an army to oppose the military confederations of their adversaries during the Russian Civil War. Beginning in February 1946, the Red Army, along with the Soviet Navy, embodied the main component of the Soviet Armed Forces; taking the official name of "Soviet Army", until its dissolution in December 1991.

The Kalinin Front was a major formation of the Red Army active in the Eastern Front of World War II. It was formally established by Stavka directive on 17 October 1941 and allocated three armies: 22nd, 29th Army and 30th. In May 1942, the Air Forces of the Kalinin Front were reorganised as the 3rd Air Army, comprising three fighter, two ground attack, and one bomber division.



As part of Operation Barbarossa, the German army took Velikiye Luki on 19 July 1941, but was forced to retreat the next day due to Soviet counter-attacks breaking the line of communications in multiple places. [5] A new attack was launched in late August, and the city was recaptured on Aug. 26. [6]

Operation Barbarossa 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War

Operation Barbarossa was the code name for the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, which started on Sunday, 22 June 1941, during World War II. The operation stemmed from Nazi Germany's ideological aims to conquer the western Soviet Union so that it could be repopulated by Germans (Lebensraum), to use Slavs as an unfree labour force for the Axis war effort, and to seize the oil reserves of the Caucasus and the agricultural resources of Soviet territories.

The city had great strategic value due to the main north-south railway line running just west of the city at Novosokolniki, as well as the city's own rail network to Vitebsk and bridges over the Lovat River. After its capture and with the German offensive running out of steam for the winter, the area was fortified. Marshy terrain extended to Lake Peipus from just north of the city defended by the German 16th Field Army, making operations in the region around the city difficult for both sides. Rather than maintaining a solid "front" in the area, the Germans established a series of thinly held outposts to the north and south of the city.

Vitebsk City in Viciebsk Region, Belarus

Vitebsk, or Viciebsk, is a city in Belarus. The capital of the Viciebsk Region, it had 342,381 inhabitants in 2004, making it the country's fourth-largest city. It is served by Viciebsk Vostochny Airport and Viciebsk Air Base.

Lovat River river in Belarus and Russia, tributary of Lake Ilmen

The Lovat is a river in Vitebsk Oblast of Belarus, Usvyatsky, Velikoluksky, and Loknyansky Districts, as well as of the city of Velikiye Luki, of Pskov Oblast and Kholmsky, Poddorsky, Starorussky, and Parfinsky Districts of Novgorod Oblast in Russia. The source of the Lovat is Lake Lovatets in northeastern Belarus, and the Lovat is a tributary of Lake Ilmen. Its main tributaries are the Loknya (left), the Kunya (right), the Polist (left), the Redya (left), and the Robya (right) Rivers. The towns of Velikiye Luki and Kholm, as well as the urban-type settlement of Parfino, are located on the banks of the Lovat.

Lake Peipus lake in Estonia and Russia

Lake Peipus is the largest transboundary lake in Europe, lying on the border between Estonia and Russia.

Soviet counterattacks during the Winter Campaign of 1941–1942, especially the Battles of Rzhev just to the south, formed a large salient in the German lines. Velikiye Luki lay just on the western edge of the original advance, and was just as strategic for the Soviets as the German. The city dominated the region and would therefore be the natural point for fighting, offering the possibility of eliminating the German bridges on the Lovat, and to deny the Germans use of the rail line that provided communications between Army groups North and Centre. Furthermore, as long as the German Army occupied both rail junctions at Velikiye Luki and Rzhev, the Red Army could not reliably reinforce or resupply its troops on the north face of the massive Rzhev Salient.

Battles of Rzhev series of Soviet Operations in World War II

The Battles of Rzhev were a series of Soviet operations in World War II between January 8, 1942 and March 31, 1943. Due to the high losses suffered by the Red Army, the campaign became known by veterans and historians as the "Rzhev Meat Grinder".

In view of its strategic significance, the Germans heavily fortified the city over the course of 1942. The Soviets often raided into German-held territory around the town and the town could only be kept supplied by armoured trains.

Soviet offensive

The Soviet offensive to retake the city was developed in mid-November 1942 using troops from the 3rd and 4th Shock armies, and 3rd Air Army. The city itself was defended by the 83rd Infantry Division commanded by Lieutenant General Theodor Scherer, the lines to the south held by the 3rd Mountain Division, and the front to the north held by the 5th Mountain Division. The city itself was provided with extensive prepared defenses and garrisoned by a full regiment of the 83rd Division and other troops, totaling around 7,000.

83rd Infantry Division (Wehrmacht) division

The 83rd Infantry Division,, was a German reserve and security formation during World War II.

Theodor Scherer German general

Theodor Scherer was a German general and divisional commander in the Wehrmacht during World War II.

3rd Mountain Division (Wehrmacht) division

The 3rd Mountain Division was a formation of the German Wehrmacht during World War II. It was created from the Austrian Army's 5th and 7th Divisions following the Anschluss in 1938.

Encirclement of German forces

Rather than attacking the town directly, the Soviet forces advanced into the difficult terrain to the north and south of the town. Spearheaded by four rifle divisions to the south and one to the north, the operation commenced on 24 November. Despite heavy losses, they successfully cut the land links to the city by 27 November, trapping the garrison; by the next day they threatened to cut off other elements of the corps south of the city when the front commander released his 2nd Mechanised Corps into the breach created between the 3rd Mountain and 83rd Infantry Divisions. Army Group Centre's commander asked the OKH for permission to conduct a breakout operation while the situation was still relatively fluid by pulling the German lines back by around ten miles (16 km). The request was dismissed by Hitler, who, pointing to an earlier success in a similar situation at Kholm, demanded that the encircled formations stand fast while the Gruppe "Chevallerie" from the north and 20th Motorised Division from the south counter-attacked to open the encirclement.

Army Group Centre was the name of two distinct strategic German Army Groups that fought on the Eastern Front in World War II. The first Army Group Centre was created on 22 June 1941, as one of three German Army formations assigned to the invasion of the Soviet Union. On 25 January 1945, after it was encircled in the Königsberg pocket, Army Group Centre was renamed Army Group North, and Army Group A became Army Group Centre. The latter formation retained its name until the end of the war in Europe.

<i>Oberkommando des Heeres</i> Supreme High Command of the German Army during World War II

The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) was the High Command of the German Army during the Era of Nazi Germany. It was founded in 1935 as a part of Adolf Hitler's re-militarisation of Germany. From 1938 OKH was, together with OKL and OKM, formally subordinated to the OKW, with the exception of the Waffen-SS. During the war, OKH had the responsibility of strategic planning of Armies and Army Groups, while the General Staff of the OKH managed operational matters. Each German Army also had an Armeeoberkommando, Army Command, or AOK. Until the German defeat at Moscow in December 1941, OKH and its staff was de facto the most important unit within the German war planning. OKW then took over this function for theatres other than the German-Soviet front. OKH commander held the title Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres. Following the Battle of Moscow, after OKH commander Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch was excused, Hitler appointed himself as Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

Kholm Pocket conflict

The Kholm Pocket was the name given for the encirclement of German troops by the Red Army around Kholm south of Leningrad, during World War II on the Eastern Front, from 23 January 1942 until 5 May 1942. A much larger pocket was simultaneously surrounded in Demyansk, about 100 km (62 mi) to the northeast. These were the results of German retreat following their defeat during the Battle of Moscow.

German relief attempts

The garrison were ordered to hold the city at all costs, while a relief force was assembled. The remainder of the 83rd Infantry and 3rd Mountain Divisions, encircled south of Velikiye Luki, fought their way west to meet the relieving troops. Due to Army Group Centre's commitments at Rzhev, the only resources immediately available to man the lines opposite Velikiye Luki were those already in the area, which were organised as Gruppe Wöhler (291st Infantry Division). Later, other divisions were made available, including the understrength 8th Panzer Division from Gruppe Chevallerie, the 20th Motorized Infantry Division from Army Group Centre reserve, and the weak 6th Luftwaffe Field Division, and the hurriedly rushed to the front 707th and 708th Security, and 205th and 331st Infantry divisions although there was a corresponding build-up of Soviet strength.

Throughout December, the garrison – which maintained radio contact with the relief forces – held out against repeated Soviet attempts to reduce their lines, and in particular the rail depot in the city's southern suburb. The Soviet forces, attacking strongly entrenched troops in severe winter weather, suffered extremely high casualties, while conditions in the city steadily deteriorated despite airdrops of supplies, ammunition and equipment. In the meantime, Soviet attempts to take their main objective, the rail lines at Novosokolniki, had been frustrated by the counter-attacks of the relief force. An attempt by the Germans to reach Velikiye Luki in late December, ran into stubborn Soviet defence and halted, heavily damaged.

Operation Totila, the next attempt to break through to Velikiye Luki, was launched on 4 January. The two German spearheads advanced to within five miles (8 km) of the city, but stalled due to pressure on their flanks. On 5 January, a Soviet attack from the north split Velikiye Luki in two, isolating a small group of troops in the fortified "citadel" in the west of the city, while the bulk of the garrison retained a sector centred around the rail station in the south of the city. The former group broke out on during the night of the 14th; around 150 men eventually reached German lines. The German garrison surrendered on 16 January.


After the war, the Soviet authorities collected a representative set of men of various ranks from general to private who had fought at Velikiye Luki from prisoner of war camps and brought them to the city. A military tribunal held a public trial and convicted them for war crimes related to anti-partisan warfare. Nine were sentenced to death and publicly hanged in the main square of Velikiye Luki in January 1946. [7]

The battle is sometimes called "The Little Stalingrad of the North" due to its similarities with the larger and better-known Battle of Stalingrad that raged in the southern sector of the front. Judged purely by the numbers, this battle was a small affair by the usual standards of the Eastern Front (150,000 total casualties suffered by both sides as opposed to 2,000,000 total casualties at Stalingrad), but had enormous strategic consequences. The liberation of Velikiye Luki meant the Red Army had, for the first time since October 1941, a direct rail supply line to the northern face of the Rzhev Salient exposing the German troops at Rzhev to encirclement. Events at Velikiye Luki thus necessitated the withdrawal from Rzhev salient ending any German military threat to Moscow. [8] However, even after withdrawing from Rzhev, possession of Velikiye Luki meant that the rail link between Army groups North and Centre was severed, preventing the German Army from shifting reinforcements between threatened sectors. Furthermore, the rail lines from Velikiye Luki led directly into the rear of Vitebsk, a critical logistics hub for Army Group Centre. The effects of this battle meant that Army Group Centre was exposed to attack from the north, east, and (after the Battle of Smolensk) south, exposing the whole army group to encirclement, which is exactly what happened in the Operation Bagration the following year.

Orders of battle

While it is somewhat difficult to separate the actions of various Red Army and Wehrmacht units within the flurry of movements involved in the larger scope of the Soviet operations, for the most part these below are derived from Glantz and Isayev.


German relief attempts. (Notice that the order of battle given on this 1952 map is not accurate.) OEF-map-3.jpg
German relief attempts. (Notice that the order of battle given on this 1952 map is not accurate.)


Most of Army Group Center was engaged in resisting the second Soviet Rzhev-Sychevka offensive throughout this period.

Almost half of the 83rd Infantry Division was assigned to the Velikiye Luki garrison.

The 3rd Mountain Division was at little more than half strength, since its 139th Regiment had been left in Lapland when the division withdrew from northern Finland. The 138th Mountain Regiment was the unknown unit of 3rd Mountain shown in Maps 2 and 3.

20th Motorized was from Army Group Center's reserve.

See also


  1. Oldwitg von Natzmer. Operations of Encircled Forces. German Experiences in Russia. — Department of the Army, Washington, DC 1952. (Oldwitg von Natzmer). Washington DC. 1952
  2. Галицкий К. Н. Годы суровых испытаний. 1941—1944 (записки командарма) — М.: Наука, 1973. стр.185
  3. Великая Отечественная война. 1941—1945 гг. Справочное пособие/ Автор-составитель И. И. Максимов. — М.: Издательство «ДИК», 2005. ISBN   5-8213-0232-3
  4. Glantz (1995), p. 296
  5. David Stahel, Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2009, pp. 290-91
  6. Stahel, p. 409
  7. Paul Carell; Scorched Earth (1971) pp. 332–333
  8. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 4 October 2013. Retrieved 2013-05-18.
  9. Christensen, C.B.; Poulsen, N.B.; Smith, P.S.(1998) "Under Hagekors og Dannebrog" pp. 176–185

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The 373rd Rifle Division was raised in 1941 as an infantry division of the Red Army, and served for the duration of the Great Patriotic War in that role. It began forming in August 1941 in the Urals Military District. It was moved to the front northwest of Moscow while still trying to complete its training and went straight into action in mid-December during the winter counteroffensive. Until May 1943, it was involved in the bloody fighting around the Rzhev salient. After a period in reserve for rebuilding, the division's combat path shifted southward when it was assigned to 52nd Army, where it remained for the duration of the war. It won a battle honor in eastern Ukraine, then fought across the Dniepr River late that year, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner for its successes. Following this it advanced through western Ukraine, Romania and into Hungary during 1944. After again moving to the reserves the division shifted northwards with its Army to join 1st Ukrainian Front, fighting through Poland, eastern Germany and into Czechoslovakia. By then the 373rd had compiled an enviable record, and went on to serve into the postwar era.