Battle for the Donbass (1919)

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Battle for the Donbass
Part of the Southern Front of the Russian Civil War

Burial of miners killed by White forces
DateJanuary - May 1919
Location Yekaterinoslav Governorate and Don Host Oblast, Southern Ukraine and Southern Russia
Result White Army victory
Belligerents
Russia Armed Forces of South Russia
Commanders and leaders
Russia Anton Denikin
Russia Pyotr Wrangel
Russia Vladimir May-Mayevsky
Andrei Shkuro
Viktor Pokrovsky
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Vladimir Gittis
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Innokentiy Kozhevnikov
Nestor Makhno
Units involved

Don Army
Russia Caucasian Volunteer Army

  • 1st Kuban Cossack Division
  • 1st Terek Cossack Division

Southern Front

Black Army
Strength
26,000 40,000-50,000
Casualties and losses
Heavy Heavy

The Battle for the Donbass was a military campaign of the Russian Civil War that lasted from January to May 1919, in which White forces repulsed attacks of the Red Army on the Don Host Oblast and occupied the Donbass region after heavy fighting.

Contents

Background

In November 1918, the remaining German units started to withdraw from the Donbass and the collaborating Ukrainian State under Pavlo Skoropadskyi collapsed. The Ataman of the Don Army Pyotr Krasnov, with the consent of Hetman Skoropadskyi with whom he had good previous relations, advanced into the Donbass with parts of the 3rd and 2nd Don divisions, entered Lugansk (November 19) and took controle of the Lugansk and Slovianoserbsk districts. By December 3, the Cossacks had entered Debaltsevo, Donetsk and Mariupol. However, after the defeat in the Voronezh–Povorino Operation and retreat to the Don of the main forces of the Don Army, it became clear that the 2 Don divisions alone could not hold out in the Donbass.

That defeat and the successful advance of the Red Army in Northern Ukraine forced General Denikin to abandon the plan of an offensive up the Volga to Tsaritsyn, and he began transferring forces to support the retreating Don Army and to defend the Donbass and the Crimea, which had fallen under control of the liberal Crimean Regional Government. He did this to prevent the Red Army an access to the Northern Caucasus in the rear of his AFSR Army. Another consideration was the economic importance of the Donetsk basin. At the end of December 1918, Denikin moved parts of the 3rd division from Stavropol under the command of General Vladimir May-Mayevsky to the Donbass.

White offensive

On January 12, the Whites launched an offensive from Donbass to the area where Nestor Makhno's rebel detachments were deployed, took Polohy on January 20, and on January 21-22 attacked Gulyai-Polye. The fierce battles for Gulyai-Pole lasted several days, during which the village passed several times from hand to hand. The Black Guards took up to 1,000 casualties, and were forced to retreat to Gaichur station, after which the Makhno - White Guard front was stabilized.

The Kozhevnikov Group, which formed the right wing of the Southern Red Front launched an offensive from Kupyansk towards Lugansk and the Donbass in the first half of January. By January 14 the Reds occupied Starobilsk and entered the Northern Donbass, having seized the stations Logvinovo, Popasnaya, Kramatorskaya, Slavyansk and came within 12 km of Bakhmut. On January 16 the Reds took Bilovodsk. Parts of the Ukrainian Front, which by mid-January had taken the Lozovaya-Sinelnikovo line, could strike the Donbass from the West, but Central Command, which did not attach much importance to the appearance of Denikin's units, entrusted the conquest of the region to the Southern Front alone.

Kozhevnikov's units occupied Kostiantynivka and Bakhmut on January 20, and the next day they attacked towards the Don from Lugansk. On January 22-23, the Don Army counterattacked from Nikitovka, Lihoy, Millerovo and Debaltsevo, but were repulsed.

From January 25, reinforcements for the May-Mayevsky detachment arrived. His task was to hold the Mariupol - Donetsk - Bahmut - Lugansk line.
On January 31, Kozhevnikov launched a new offensive at the junction between the Volunteer and the Don units, around Debaltsevo. Two weeks of heavy fighting followed with attacks and counter-attacks. On February 8, the Makhno brigade recaptured Polohy, creating a serious threat to the flank of the Volunteers.

On February 13-15, the Bolshevik High Command decided a gradual regrouping of the forces of the Southern Front from February 10 to March 6, in preparation for a final attack on the Donbass. The left flank of the Kozhevnikov group, together with the adjacent 8th Army, were to break through near Millerovo.

In mid-February, Denikin began the transfer to the Lugansk area, the 1st Caucasus Equestrian Division of Andrei Shkuro, the First Kuban Cossack Division of the Corps of Viktor Pokrovsky, the First Terek Cossack Division under S. M. Toporkov and other units. Pokrovsky took command of the Corps, composed of the First Kuban and one of the Don divisions. By mid-March, the Caucasian Volunteer Army, whose front ran from Kolpakovo station to Volnovakha and Mariupol, numbered 12,000 soldiers. She was opposed by 40-50 thousand Reds.

March offensive of the Southern Front

The Southern Front in March 1919

On February 24, the Reds attacked the Baronsky station on the Debaltsevo-Lugansk line.
Again, the area around Debaltsevo turned into the central point of the struggle in the Southern theater of the Civil War. After three weeks of almost continuous fighting in the Debaltsevo area, units of the 13th Red Army attacked from the Northwest on March 15 and forced the depleted Volunteer battalions to retreat from Debaltsevo.

The Red Commander-in-chief Jukums Vacietis on March 12 ordered the Ukrainian Front to join forces with the Southern Front to liquidate the White Army in the Donbass. But its commander, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, said he did not have the resources for this, since they were necessary to repulse Petliura's advance to Kiev and deal with the Entente troops on the Black Sea coast.

On March 20, the Red Army captured Donesk and by March 27 pushed the enemy towards the south and west of the Donetsk basin. The general situation at the front became unfavorable for the White Army. On March the Red 1st Zadneprovskaya division of Pavel Dybenko seized Melitopol, cutting the White Azov Front in two. Troops of the Entente left Kherson (March 8) and Nikolaev (March 16) and Makhno seized Berdyansk on March 15 and Mariupol on March 29. To the North, Makhno's detachments seized Volnovakha on March 17 and were preparing to advance on Taganrog.

The commander of the Red Army Vatsetis demanded more decisive actions from the Southern Front in the Donetsk and Lugansk area. On March 27, he issued an order to seize the Donbass in the shortest possible time. A renewed offensive by the forces of the Soviet 13th and 8th armies was to begin on March 29. Makhno's force was sent to the right flank of the 13th Army to attack the Donbass from the Southwest. The 9th Red Division, withdrawn from the Ukrainian front, was sent from Ekaterinoslav.

The 13th and 8th armies numbered 26,000 bayonets and 3,300 sabers, which were soon to be joined by the 12th Infantry Division (10,000 bayonets, 200 sabers). Makhno's force had another 10,000 soldiers, so the Reds could count on 40-50,000 soldiers, against 7,000 under May-Mayevsky and 19,000 under Pokrovsky.

The offensive began on March 29 before all reinforcements had arrived, and the plan did not take into account the real situation of the 13th Army, which had suffered heavy losses during a month of heavy fighting. The Whites knew the enemy's plan and counterattacked. The division of Pokrovsky defeated the 41st Division on the 29th and threw it back on Lugansk. The 8th Army came to its help, but Pokrovsky easily defeated them and on April 2 threw it also back on Lugansk, which was only held thanks to the approach of units of the 12th Division.
Shkuro broke through the front of the Reds at Krindachyovka and on March 30 took Debaltsevo. Then he turned south and surprised an enemy's division on the march, cut it to pieces and took 5,000 prisoners. For the next two weeks, Shkuro's force raged havoc in the rear of the Red Army.

April offensive of the Southern Front

The actions of Pokrovsky and Shkuro had prevented the advance of the Southern Front in the Donbass, but on April 1 Gittis developed a new plan. Using the fact that the water in the Donets began to subside, he decided to include the 9th Army in the operations in the Donbass. The 16th and 23rd Infantry Divisions, together with the left flank of the 8th Army and the 12th Division, were to advance in the direction of the right flank and the rear of the Volunteer Army.

The April offensive had chances of success, as the forces of the Volunteer Army and the Shock Group of the Don Army did not exceed 15-16,000 soldiers, but then in the rear of the Reds the Vyoshenskaya Uprising began. To suppress it, it was necessary to divert 14,000 soldiers from the 8th and 9th armies.

The 23rd Red division, which came from Kamianske and occupied the Repnaya station, was attacked and defeated by the Don Army's horse brigade under N.P. Kalinin, suffering heavy losses. The 16th Red division managed to gain a foothold in the Kalitva bridgehead but was held there for 4-5 weeks, by Kalinins troops. By April 19, the 9th Army ceased operations.

On April 13, the 8th Army launched an offensive in the Kolpakovo district, but by April 26 had only advanced 10 km south of Pervozvanovka and 35 km southeast of Lugansk. There it was attacked by Shkuro's Corps, which inflicted several successive blows on the enemy, threw them back towards the west and took Lugansk on May 5.
Also the 13th Army attempted a new offensive on the 18th, but the Whites took Yenakiyevo and for several days repulsed constant enemy attacks.

May offensive of the Southern Front

After four months of fighting, the opponents were exhausted, however, the Red command made one last effort to launch an offensive in the Donbass, taking advantage of the fact that the 10th Army had pinned down significant forces of Denikin. The offensive was undertaken in unfavorable conditions, since by May 8 Denikin had chased the 10th Army out of Manych, the Vyoshenskaya Uprising had spread in the Don, in the beginning of the month Grigoriev had rebelled in the Ukraine, and the center could not send significant reinforcements to the Southern Front, since all forces were needed to fight with Kolchaks Siberian Army.

The 9th Army on May 10 crossed the Donets north of Gundorovskaya. The 8th Army launched the offensive on May 14, and on the next day retook Lugansk. The 13th Army attacked Ilovaisk and Kuteinikovo.

Because of the lack of reserves, the initial successes of the Red advance turned out to be temporary. On May 19, Shkuro's units attacked the 2nd Ukrainian Soviet Army (Makhno group) and the right flank of the 13th Army (9th Division). On the first day the cavalry broke through their front and penetrated some 45 km in the direction of the station Yelenovka. By May 23, the front was broken over a width of 30 km, and Makhno's troops were pushed back some 100 km to the West.

White victory

The defeat of the Red Southern Front and the defeat of the 8th, 9th, 13th and 2nd Ukrainian armies allowed the Volunteer Army to launch a major attack towards the North and West. In June, the Whites undertook a successful offensive in Northern Tavria and in the directions of Yekaterinoslav and Kharkov. The 13th Army, made ever weaker by failed attacks on the White's positions, were counterattacked on May 22nd on the Khartsyzsk-Krinichnaya line. Shkuro's cavalry captured Donetsk (Yuzovka) and Avdeevka and the Kornilov division took Debaltsevo.

The White cavalry broke through the front at the junction of the 13th and 8th armies, occupied Lugansk on 27 May and threatened to encircle the right flank of the 13th. On May 27-31, the 13th Army retreated in disorder to the North, stopping only a month later in the area of Novy Oskol, 250 km from the Donbass.

On May 24, the Don cavalry of General A.S. Secretev crossed the Donets in the village of Dubova and struck at the junction between the 16th and 23rd divisions of the 9th Army, and on the 29th she already reached the Millerovo station, situated some 75 km in the rear of the Red Army. The 9th Army was cut in two and ceased to exist as a combat unit.

Sources