The First Battle of Smolensk (German : Kesselschlacht bei Smolensk ("Cauldron-battle) of Smolensk)"; Russian : Смоленская стратегическая оборонительная операция, Smolenskaya strategicheskaya oboronitelnaya operatsiya, "Smolensk strategic defensive operation") was a battle during the second phase of Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, in World War II. It was fought around the city of Smolensk between 10 July and 10 September 1941, about 400 km (250 mi) west of Moscow. The Wehrmacht had advanced 500 km (310 mi) into the USSR in the 18 days after the invasion on 22 June 1941. During the battle the German Army encountered unexpected resistance, leading to a two-month delay in their advance on Moscow.
German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol (Italy), the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.
Encirclement is a military term for the situation when a force or target is isolated and surrounded by enemy forces.
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.
Three Soviet armies (the 16th, 19th and the 20th army) were encircled and destroyed just to the south of Smolensk, though significant numbers from the 19th and 20th armies managed to escape the pocket. Some historians have asserted that the losses of men and materiel incurred by the Wehrmacht during this drawn-out battle and the delay in the drive towards Moscow led to the defeat of the Wehrmacht by the Red Army in the Battle of Moscow of December 1941.
The 16th Army was a Soviet field army active from 1940 to 1945.
The 19th Army was a field army of the Soviet Union's Red Army, formed in 1941 and active during the Second World War. The army was formed three times, although only two of its formations saw combat.
The 20th Army was a field army of the Red Army that fought on the Eastern Front during World War II.
On 22 June 1941, the Axis nations invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. At first, the campaign met with spectacular success, as the surprised Soviet troops were not able to offer coordinated resistance. After three weeks of fighting, the Germans had reached the Dvina and Dnieper rivers and planned for a resumption of the offensive. The main attack aimed at Moscow, was carried out by Army Group Centre (Fedor von Bock). Its next target on the way to the Soviet capital was the town of Smolensk. The German plan called for the 2nd Panzer Group (later 2nd Panzer Army) to cross the Dnieper, closing on Smolensk from the south, while the 3rd Panzer Group (later 3rd Panzer Army) was to encircle the town from the north.
The Axis powers, also known as "Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis", were the nations that fought in World War II against the Allies. The Axis powers agreed on their opposition to the Allies, but did not completely coordinate their activity.
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 slave labour force for the Axis war effort, and to seize the oil reserves of the Caucasus and the agricultural resources of Soviet territories.
The Dnieper is one of the major rivers of Europe, rising in the Valdai Hills near Smolensk, Russia, and flowing through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. It is the longest river of Ukraine and Belarus and the fourth-longest river in Europe. The total length is approximately 2,200 km (1,400 mi) with a drainage basin of 504,000 square kilometres (195,000 sq mi). The river is noted for its dams and hydroelectric stations. The Dnieper is an important navigable waterway for the economy of Ukraine and is connected via the Dnieper–Bug Canal to other waterways in Europe.
After their initial defeats, the Red Army began to recover and took measures to ensure a more determined resistance and new defensive line was established around Smolensk. Stalin placed Field Marshal Semyon Timoshenko in command and transferred five armies out of the strategic reserve to Timoshenko. These armies had to conduct counter-offensives to blunt the German drive. The German high command was not aware of the Soviet build-up until they encountered them on the battlefield.
Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko was a Soviet military commander and Marshal of the Soviet Union.
Facing the Germans along the Dnieper and Dvina rivers were stretches of the Stalin Line fortifications. The defenders were the 13th Army of the Western Front and the 20th Army, 21st Army and the 22nd Army of the Soviet Supreme Command (Stavka) Reserve. The 19th Army, was forming up at Vitebsk, while the 16th Army was arriving at Smolensk.
The Stalin Line was a line of fortifications along the western border of the Soviet Union. Work began on the system in the 1920s to protect the USSR against attacks from the West. The line was made up of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements, somewhat similar to, but less elaborate than the Maginot Line. It was not a continuous line of defense along the entire border, but rather a network of fortified districts, meant to channel potential invaders along certain corridors.
The 13th Army was a name given to several field armies of the Soviet Union's Red Army, first created during the Russian Civil War. Later armies existed until the 1990s, and the army survived as part of the Ukrainian Ground Forces for some years.
The Soviet 21st Army was a field army of the Red Army during World War II.
In Soviet histories, the battles around Smolensk are divided into phases and operations to halt the German offensive and the pincers
The pincer movement, or double envelopment, is a military maneuver in which forces simultaneously attack both flanks (sides) of an enemy formation.
Prior to the German attack, the Soviets launched a counter-offensive; on 6 July, the 7th and 5th Mechanized Corps of the Soviet 20th Army attacked with about 1,500 tanks near Lepiel. The result was a disaster, as the offensive ran directly into the anti-tank defenses of the German 7th Panzer Division and the two Soviet mechanized corps were virtually wiped out.
On 10 July, Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group began a surprise attack over the Dnieper, his forces overran the weak 13th Army and by 13 July, Guderian had passed Mogilev, trapping several Soviet divisions. His spearhead unit, the 29th Motorised Division, was already within 18 km (11 mi) of Smolensk. The 3rd Panzer Group had attacked, with the 20th Panzer Division establishing a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dvina river, threatening Vitebsk. As both German panzer groups drove east, the 16th, 19th and 20th armies faced the prospect of encirclement around Smolensk. From 11 July, the Soviets tried a series of concerted counter-attacks. The Soviet 19th Army and 20th Army struck at Vitebsk, while the 21st and the remnants of the 3rd Army attacked against the southern flank of 2nd Panzer Group near Bobruisk.
Several other Soviet armies also attempted to counter-attack in the sectors of the German Army Group North and Army Group South. This effort was apparently part of an attempt to implement the Soviet prewar general defense plan. The Soviet attacks managed to slow the Germans but the results were so marginal that the Germans barely noticed them as a large coordinated defensive effort and the German offensive continued.
Hoth's 3rd Panzer Group drove north and then east, parallel to Guderian's forces, taking Polotsk and Vitebsk. The 7th Panzer Division and 20th Panzer Division reached the area east of Smolensk at Yartsevo on July 15. At the same time, the 29th Motorized Division, supported by the 17th Panzer Division broke into Smolensk, captured the city except for the suburbs and began a week of house-to-house fighting against counter-attacks by the 16th Army. Guderian expected that the offensive would continue towards Moscow as its main focus and sent the 10th Panzer Division to the Desna River to establish a bridgehead on the east bank at Yelnya and cleared that as well by the 20th. This advanced bridgehead became the center of the Yelnya Offensive, one of the first big coordinated Soviet counter-offensives of the war.
This objective was 50 km (31 mi) south of the Dnepr and well clear of the objective of liquidating the armies trapped at Smolensk. Under Fuhrer Directive 33 issued on July 14, the main effort of the Wehrmacht was re-orientated away from Moscow towards a deep encirclement of Kiev in Ukraine and Bock was becoming impatient, wanting Guderian to strike north and link up with Hoth's Panzer Group so resistance in the city could be mopped up.
On July 27, Bock held a conference at Novy Borisov, which was also attended by Commander-in-Chief Walther von Brauchitsch, the head of the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the Supreme High Command of the Wehrmacht. The generals were required to sit without an opportunity to comment, while a memorandum was read to them by one of Brauchitsch's aides, instructing them that they were to strictly follow Fuhrer Directive 33 and were under no circumstance to try to push further east. They were ordered to concentrate on mopping up, refurbishing equipment, restocking supplies and straightening the German front line, which had become more of an "S" shape, due to the advances of Guderian and Hoth. Coming away from this meeting, Hoth and Guderian were angry and frustrated. Guderian wrote in his journal that night that Hitler "preferred a plan by which small enemy forces were to be encircled and destroyed piecemeal and the enemy thus bled to death. All the officers who took part in the conference were of the opinion that this was incorrect". Whether or not this was true, it was this meeting that some have pointed to that marked a critical point where the Wehrmacht leadership broke trust with Hitler. After returning to his post, Guderian conspired with Hoth and Bock to "delay the implementation" of Directive 33, in defiance of the orders of the Fuhrer and OKH. Guderian hastily put together a plan of attack for his and Hoth's forces for August 1, the Roslavl-Novozybkov Offensive Operation.
In the north, the 3rd Panzer Group was moving much more slowly. The terrain was swampy, made worse by rain and the Soviets were fought to escape the trap. On 18 July, the armored pincers of the two panzer groups came within 16 km (9.9 mi) of closing the gap. Timoshenko put newly promoted Konstantin Rokossovsky, who had just arrived from the Ukrainian front, in charge of assembling a stopgap force, which held the attack of the 7th Panzer Division and with continuous reinforcements, temporarily stabilized the situation. The open gap allowed Soviet units to escape that were then pressed into service, holding the gap open.
The Soviets transferred additional troops from newly formed armies into the region around Smolensk, namely the 29th, 30th, 28th, and 24th Armies. These newly built formations would, immediately upon arrival, start a heavy counter-attack against the German forces around the Smolensk area from 21 July on. This put a heavy strain on the overextended Panzer forces, which had to cover a large area around the perimeter. However, poor coordination and logistics on the part of the Soviets allowed the Germans to successfully defend against these offensive efforts, while continuing to close the encirclement. The Soviet attacks would last until 30 July, when the Germans finally repelled the last of them.
Finally, on 27 July, the Germans were able to link up and close the pocket east of Smolensk, trapping large portions of 16th, 19th, and 20th Armies. Under the leadership of 20th Army, Soviet troops managed to break out of the pocket in a determined effort a few days later, assisted by the Soviet offensive efforts along the Smolensk front line. In the end, about 300,000 men were taken prisoner when the encirclement was re-established and the pocket eliminated.
The Battle of Smolensk was another severe defeat for the Red Army in the opening phase of Operation Barbarossa. For the first time, the Soviets tried to implement a coordinated counter-attack against a large part of the front; although the counter-attack was almost entirely a failure, the increasing resistance showed that the Soviets were not yet defeated and that the Blitzkrieg towards Moscow was not going to be an easy undertaking. Dissent within the German high command and political leadership was exacerbated. The leaders of the General Staff, Franz Halder and Brauchitsch and commanders like Bock, Hoth and Guderian counselled against dispersing the German armoured units and to concentrate on Moscow. Hitler reiterated the lack of importance of Moscow and of strategic encirclements and ordered a concentration on economic targets such as Ukraine, the Donets Basin and the Caucasus, with more tactical encirclements to weaken the Soviets further. The German offensive effort became more fragmented, leading to the Battle of Kiev and the Battle of Uman. The battles were German victories but costly in time, men and equipment on their approach towards Moscow, allowing the Soviets time to prepare the defenses of the city.
Hermann Hoth was a German army commander and war criminal during World War II. He fought in the Battle of France and as a panzer commander on the Eastern Front. Hoth commanded the 3rd Panzer Group during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, and the 4th Panzer Army during the Wehrmacht's 1942 summer offensive.
The Third Battle of Kharkov was a series of battles on the Eastern Front of World War II, undertaken by the German Army Group South against the Red Army, around the city of Kharkov between 19 February and 15 March 1943. Known to the German side as the Donets Campaign, and in the Soviet Union as the Donbas and Kharkov operations, the German counterstrike led to the recapture of the cities of Kharkov and Belgorod.
Operation Citadel was a German offensive operation against Soviet forces in the Kursk salient during the Second World War on the Eastern Front that initiated the Battle of Kursk. The deliberate defensive operation that the Soviets implemented to repel the German offensive is referred to as the Kursk Strategic Defensive Operation. The German offensive was countered by two Soviet counter-offensives, Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev and Operation Kutuzov. For the Germans, the battle was the final strategic offensive that they were able to launch on the Eastern Front. As the Allied invasion of Sicily began Adolf Hitler was forced to divert troops training in France to meet the Allied threats in the Mediterranean, rather than use them as a strategic reserve for the Eastern Front. Germany's extensive loss of men and tanks ensured that the victorious Soviet Red Army enjoyed the strategic initiative for the remainder of the war.
Moritz Albrecht Franz Friedrich Fedor von Bock was a German field marshal who served in the German army during the Second World War. Bock served as the commander of Army Group North during the Invasion of Poland in 1939, commander of Army Group B during the Invasion of France in 1940, and later as the commander of Army Group Center during the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941; his final command was that of Army Group South in 1942.
The Battle of Moscow was a military campaign that consisted of two periods of strategically significant fighting on a 600 km (370 mi) sector of the Eastern Front during World War II. It took place between October 1941 and January 1942. The Soviet defensive effort frustrated Hitler's attack on Moscow, the capital and largest city of the Soviet Union. Moscow was one of the primary military and political objectives for Axis forces in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
Günther von Kluge was a German field marshal during World War II who held commands on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. He commanded the 4th Army of the Wehrmacht during the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Battle of France in 1940, earning a promotion to Generalfeldmarschall. Kluge went on to command the 4th Army in Operation Barbarossa and the Battle for Moscow in 1941.
Konstantin Konstantinovich (Xaverevich) Rokossovsky was a Soviet and Polish officer who became Marshal of the Soviet Union, Marshal of Poland and served as Poland's Defence Minister from 1949 until his removal in 1956 during the Polish October. He was among the most prominent Red Army commanders of World War II, especially renowned for his planning and executing of Operation Bagration, one of the most decisive Red Army successes of the Second World War.
The First Battle of Kiev was the German name for the operation that resulted in a very large encirclement of Soviet troops in the vicinity of Kiev during World War II. This encirclement is considered the largest encirclement in the history of warfare. The operation ran from 7 August to 26 September 1941 as part of Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. In Soviet military history, it is referred to as the Kiev Strategic Defensive Operation, with somewhat different dating of 7 July – 26 September 1941.
Case Blue was the German Armed Forces' name for its plan for the 1942 strategic summer offensive in southern Russia between 28 June and 24 November 1942, during World War II.
The Western Front was a front of the Red Army, one of the Red Army Fronts during World War II.
The 4th Army was a field army of the Wehrmacht during World War II.
The Yelnya Offensive was a military operation by the Soviet Army during the Battle of Smolensk during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which began the German-Soviet War. The offensive was an attack against the semi-circular Yelnya salient which the German 4th Army had extended 50 kilometres (31 mi) south-east of Smolensk, forming a staging area for an offensive towards Vyazma and eventually Moscow. Under heavy pressure on its flanks, the German army (Heer) evacuated the salient by 8 September 1941, leaving behind a devastated and depopulated region. As the first reverse that the Heer suffered during Barbarossa and the first recapture of the Soviet territory by the Red Army, the battle was covered by Nazi and Soviet propaganda and served as a morale boost to the Soviet population.
The 1st Panzer Army was a German tank army which was a large armoured formation of the Wehrmacht during World War II.
The 2nd Panzer Army was a German armoured formation during World War II, formed from the 2nd Panzer Group on October 5, 1941.
The 4th Panzer Army was a German panzer formation during World War II. As a key armoured component of the Wehrmacht, the army took part in the crucial battles of the German-Soviet war of 1941–45, including Operation Barbarossa, the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the 1943 Battle of Kiev.
The Battle of Białystok–Minsk was a German strategic operation conducted by the Wehrmacht's Army Group Centre under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock during the penetration of the Soviet border region in the opening stage of Operation Barbarossa, lasting from 22 June to 9 July 1941.
The Battle of Bryansk was a twenty-day battle during World War II conducted in the Bryansk Oblast as a part of the overall Moscow campaign. Returning from the Kiev operation, Heinz Guderian attacked in an unexpected direction capturing Bryansk and Oryol with few casualties thereby encircling two Soviet formations, the 13th Army and 3rd Army. A third Soviet formation, the 50th Army was encircled by infantry of the German 2nd Army north of Bryansk. However the encircled Red Army units continued fighting, delaying the drive on Moscow for two weeks. This delay, as well as the casualties taken by the Wehrmacht liquidating the pockets contributed to the German collapse at the gates of Moscow. See also: Vyazma and Bryansk pockets. As a result of this battle, the Germans occupied Bryansk until they were expelled by the Red Army on September 17, 1943 as a part of the Smolensk campaign.
The 268th Infantry Division was a German Army division active and operating during the Second World War.
The 112th Infantry Division was a German Army infantry division active in World War II.