Operation Mars

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Operation Mars
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Operation mars schema.JPG
Date25 November – 20 December 1942

German victory

  • Soviet operational failure
Flag of the Soviet Union (1936-1955).svg  Soviet Union Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg  Germany
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the Soviet Union (1936-1955).svg Georgy Zhukov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1936-1955).svg Ivan Konev
Flag of the Soviet Union (1936-1955).svg Maksim Purkayev
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Walter Model
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Günther von Kluge
702,923 personnel,
1,718 tanks [1]
3 combined corps
(with 13 infantry divisions
and 2 paratrooper divisions)
2 panzer corps
(5 panzer divisions,
3 motorized divisions)
1,615 tanks [1]
Total forces:
~ 350,000 troops.
Casualties and losses
70,373 irrecoverable
145,301 sanitary [2]
100,000 killed
235,000 wounded
1,600 tanks [3]
Grossmann: 40,000 casualties [4]

Operation Mars (Russian: Операция «Марс»), also known as the Second Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive Operation (Russian: Вторая Ржевско-Сычёвская наступательная операция), was the codename for an offensive launched by Soviet forces against German forces during World War II. It took place between 25 November and 20 December 1942 around the Rzhev salient in the vicinity of Moscow.


The offensive was a joint operation of the Soviet Western Front and Kalinin Front coordinated by Georgy Zhukov. The offensive was one in a series of particularly bloody engagements collectively known in Soviet and Russian histories as the Battles of Rzhev , which occurred near Rzhev, Sychevka and Vyazma between January 1942 and March 1943. The battles became known as the "Rzhev meat grinder" ("Ржевская мясорубка") for their huge losses, particularly on the Soviet side. For many years they were relegated to a footnote in Soviet military history.

Soviet plans

Soviet collective farmers hand over KV-1S tanks to their crews RIAN archive 87961 Collective farmers from the Moscow suburbs handing over tanks to Soviet servicemen.jpg
Soviet collective farmers hand over KV-1S tanks to their crews

In Operation Mars, planned to commence in late October, forces of the Kalinin and Western Fronts would encircle and destroy the powerful German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient. The basic plan of the offensive was to launch multiple, coordinated thrusts from all sides of the salient, resulting in the destruction of the Ninth Army. The offensive would also tie down German units and prevent them from being moved south. [5]

The Kalinin and Western Fronts were directed by Stalin and Zhukov "to crush the Rzhev-Sychovka-Olenino-Bely enemy grouping." The Western Front was to "take Sychovka no later than the 15th December." The Kalinin Front's 39th and 22nd armies were to take Olenino by 16 Dec. and Bely by 20 Dec. [6] :121–122,129–130

Operation Mars was to be followed soon there after by Operation Jupiter, which was to commence two to three weeks later. The Western Front's powerful 5th and 33rd armies, supported by 3rd Guards Tank Army, would attack along the Moscow-Vyazma highway axis, link up with the victorious Mars force, and envelop and destroy all German forces east of Smolensk. Once resistance around Vyazma was neutralized, the 9th and 10th Tank Corps and the 3rd Tank Army would then penetrate deeper into the rear of Army Group Centre.[ citation needed ]

Offensive is launched

The offensive was launched in the early hours of 25 November 1942. It got off to a bad start, as fog and snowy weather grounded the planned air support. It also greatly reduced the effect of the massive artillery barrages preceding the main attacks, as it made it impossible for the forward artillery observers to adjust fire and observe the results. The northern thrust made little progress. The eastern attack across the frozen Vazuza river slowly ground forward. The two western thrusts made deeper penetrations, especially around the key town of Belyi. Still, the progress was nowhere near what the Soviets expected.

The German defenders fought stubbornly, clinging to their strong-points, which were often centered on many of the small villages dotting the area. In some cases, the German strong-points remained manned for a time after the Soviets advanced past them, creating more problems for the Red Army in their rear areas. Despite repeated, persistent Soviet attacks, small-arms fire and pre-planned artillery concentrations cut down the attacking infantry. Soviet tanks were picked off by anti-tank guns, the few German tanks, and in close combat with infantry.

One part of a small wood... had been a battlefield; the trees blasted by shells and mines looked like stakes driven in at random. The earth was criss-crossed by trenches; dugouts bulged like blisters... The deep roar of guns and the furious barks of mortars were deafening. [7]

Ilya Ehrenburg

The relative lack of initial success compounded the Soviet problems. The minor penetrations and the resulting small bridgeheads made it difficult to bring forward reinforcements and follow-up forces, especially artillery so critical for reducing the German strong-points. The Germans reacted by shifting units within the salient against the points of the Soviet advance and pinching off their spearheads. With limited reserves and reinforcement unlikely due to Soviet offensives elsewhere, the Ninth Army was placed under great pressure.

Eventually the shifting of German forces, coupled with Soviet losses and supply difficulties, allowed the German forces to gain the upper hand. Their lines held, and much of the lost ground was retaken. The counterattacks against the Belyi (western) and the Vazuza (eastern) thrusts resulted in several thousand soldiers being trapped behind German lines. A few of these would manage to break through to Soviet lines, some after fighting in the German rear for weeks. Almost all vehicles and heavy weapons had to be left behind. Though the Germans were not able to remove Soviet forces from the Luchesa valley in the northwest of the salient, this was of little significance since the Soviets there were unable to press their attack through the difficult terrain.


"The Western Front failed to penetrate enemy defences", according to Zhukov. The Germans were able to hit the flank of the Kalinin Front and trapped Maj.-Gen. M.D. Solomatin's Mechanized Corps for three days before they were relieved. [6] :131

Operation Mars was a military failure, and the Soviets were unable to accomplish any of their objectives. However, in the aftermath of Operation Mars General Von Kluge recommended the salient be abandoned to economize on manpower and to assume more defensible positions. Hitler refused. His denial of a major withdrawal in the winter of 1941–42 had ultimately stabilized the army when it was on the edge of a collapse. Subsequently, he was less willing to heed the advice of his commanders. In addition he was unwilling to give up any ground he had won, and saw usefulness in retaining the jump off point for a future thrust upon Moscow. However, in the Spring of 1943 his desire to move back onto the offensive made him more receptive to withdrawing forces from the salient to free up manpower. A staged withdrawal was begun at the beginning of March 1943. By the 23rd of that month the withdrawal was complete.

Historian A. V. Isayev has pointed out that together with influences on other sectors during the winter of 1942, Operation Mars had an effect upon the strategic situation in 1943. In the plan for the large offensive at Kursk in July 1943, the German Ninth Army was located in the southern area of the Orel salient. It delivered the assault upon the Kursk salient from the north. However, losses suffered at Rzhev during Operation Mars resulted in the Ninth Army being short of forces, particularly infantry formations, and it could not muster enough force to fulfill its task. [8]


In the final assessment, Operation Mars was a failure for the Soviet forces. [9] However, the unintentional result of the battle were losses to the reserves of Army Group Center which reduced the forces which could be redirected against the more successful Soviet operations against Army Group South. About this matter, German Colonel-General Kurt von Tippelskirch commented:

In order to confine the German forces in every sector of the front and prevent the large reinforcement to the critical sectors, and in order to strengthen their (Soviet) position in the places which were suitable for future offensives in the following winter, the Russians renewed their offensives in the central sector. Their main efforts focused on Rzhev and Velikye Luky. Therefore, our three panzer divisions and several infantry divisions – which were planned to be used in the southern sectors – had to be kept here to close gaps in the front and to retake lost territories. This was the only method for us to stop the enemy breakthrough.

Kurt von Tippelskirch [10]

An area of controversy is whether the operation was intended as a major offensive, or whether it was really intended to simply divert German attention and resources from Stalingrad to prevent the relief of their Sixth Army. The forces concentrated for Operation Mars were much larger than the ones used in Operation Uranus. [11] Military historian David M. Glantz believes that Operation Mars was the main Soviet offensive, and that the narrative that it was intended as a "diversion attack" was a propaganda effort on the part of the Soviet government. He termed Operation Mars as the "greatest defeat of Marshal Zhukov."

In the unlikely event that Zhukov was correct and Mars was really a diversion, there has never been one so ambitious, so large, so clumsily executed, or so costly.

David M. Glantz

British historian Antony Beevor disagrees with Glantz, citing that Zhukov spent less time planning Mars than Uranus, and that the artillery shell allocation was much smaller for Mars than for Uranus. Operation Uranus received "2.5 to 4.5 ammunition loads [per gun]... compared with less than one in Operation Mars." [12] In addition, the Russian historian M. A. Gareyev, citing Stavka orders, asserted that the goal of Operation Mars was to tie down German forces in the Rzhev sector, preventing them from reinforcing Stalingrad. Thus, it ensured the success of Uranus and the Soviet offensives in the south. [13]

According to P. A. Sudoplatov, Soviet intelligence intentionally leaked the plan of operation Mars to the Germans, this was part of a series of deception "radio games" named "Monastery" (Монастырь). One of the "Monastery" operations was intended to lure the German attention to the Rzhev sector. During this intelligence operation, the Soviet double agent Aleksandr Petrovich Demyanov (code name "Heine") sent information about a large-scaled Soviet offensive at Rzhev area in order to make the Germans believe that the next main blow of the Red Army would occur in the central sector. Aside from the Soviet intelligence agency, only Joseph Stalin knew about this "Monastery" operation. [14] [15] [16] [17]

Zhukov concluded the main reason the Soviet forces were unable to destroy the Rzhev salient "was underestimation of the rugged terrain", and "the shortage of supporting armour, artillery, mortars, and aircraft to pierce the enemy defences." He also did not expect the Nazis to bring "up considerable reinforcements to this sector from other Fronts." [6]



  1. 1 2 Исаев, Алексей Валерьевич. Когда внезапности уже не было. История ВОВ, которую мы не знали. — М.: Яуза, Эксмо, 2006. (Alexey Valeryevich Isayev. When the sudden element was lost – History of World War II, the facts that we do not know. Yauza & Penguin Books. Moskva. 2006. Part II: 1942 Autumn-Winter Offensive. Sector 2: Operation Mars)
  2. 1 2 Гриф секретности снят: Потери Вооруженных Сил СССР в войнах, боевых действиях и военных конфликтах: Стат. исслед./ Г. Ф. Кривошеев, В. М. Андроников, П. Д. Буриков. — М.: Воениздат, 1993.
  3. 1 2 Glantz 1999, p. 308.
  4. 1 2 Гроссманн Хорст. Ржев — краеугольный камень Восточного фронта. — Ржев: «Ржевская правда», 1996. German name: Grossmann H. Rzhew: Eckpfeiler der Ostfront. — Friedberg : Podzun-Pallas-Verlag, 1980.
  5. Beevor 2012, p. 369.
  6. 1 2 3 Zhukov, Georgy (1974). Marshal of Victory, Volume II. Pen and Sword Books Ltd. pp. 131–132. ISBN   9781781592915.
  7. Beevor 2012, pp. 370-371.
  8. Glantz 1999.
  9. О провале операции пишут А. Исаев, В. Бешанов, Д. Гланц.
  10. Типпельскирх К. История Второй мировой войны. СПб.:Полигон; М.:АСТ,1999 /(Tippelskirch K., Geschichte des Zweiten Weltkrieges. — Bonn, 1954, Chapter VII (in Russian)
  11. Георгий Глебович Колыванов. «Марс», оказавшийся в тени «Урана» (Georgy Glebovich Kolyvanov. "Mars" in the shadow of "Uranus". Article published in the "Independent" 2 December 2005)
  12. Beevor 2012, p. 370.
  13. M. A. Гареев. Операция «Марс» и современные «марсиане» Archived 2010-04-01 at the Wayback Machine // Военно-исторический журнал № 10, 2003.]
  14. Судоплатов, Павел Анатольевич. Спецоперации. Лубянка и Кремль 1930–1950 годы. — М.: ОЛМА-ПРЕСС, 1997. (in Russian)
  15. Lyutmila Obchinikova. Secret activities at center of Moskva. at official website of FSB. 18-1-2002 (in Russian)
  16. Andrey Tyurin, Vladimir Makarov et al. The fight between Lyublyanka and Abwehr – The "Monastery" radio game. Newspaper "Independence". 22-4-2005. (in Russian)
  17. Eduard Prokopyevich Sharapov. Eltigen incidcent and the punishment blade of Stalin – The person of special goal. Neva Publisher. Sainkt Petersburg. 2003. (in Russian)

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381st Rifle Division (Soviet Union) Soviet infantry division during World War II

The 381st 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 first served in the bitter fighting around the Rzhev salient, deep in the German rear in the 39th Army and came close to being completely destroyed in July, 1942. The division's survivors were moved north well away from the front for a major rebuilding. It returned to the front in October, joining the 3rd Shock Army for the battle and siege of Velikiye Luki. The division remained in this general area in western Russia until March, 1944, when it was moved to the Reserve of the Supreme High Command and then to 21st Army north of Leningrad in April. It served in the offensive that drove Finland out of the war from June to September, winning a battle honor and the Order of the Red Banner in the process, before being transferred back to the Soviet-German front in October. As part of the 2nd Shock Army of 2nd Belorussian Front the 381st advanced across Poland and Pomerania during the winter of 1945, then joined its Front's advance across the Oder River into north-central Germany in late April, ending the war on the Baltic coast. In the summer of that year the division was disbanded.

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The 16th Guards Rifle Division was reformed as an elite infantry division of the Red Army in February, 1942, based on the 1st formation of the 249th Rifle Division, and served in that role until well after the end of the Great Patriotic War. It was in Kalinin Front when it was redesignated and remained in the northern half of the front throughout the war. In the summer it was assigned to Western Front's 30th Army to the north of the Rzhev salient and took part in the stubborn and costly struggle for the village of Polunino just east of that town in August. It returned to the fighting in March, 1943 in the followup to the German evacuation of the salient, then was reassigned to the new 11th Guards Army, where it would remain for the duration of the war. During the summer offensive against the German-held salient around Oryol it assisted in the liberation of Karachev and received its name as an honorific. By December, after fighting through western Russia north of Smolensk the division was in 1st Baltic Front, attacking south towards Gorodok and winning the Order of the Red Banner in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to seize Vitebsk. By the start of the offensive against Army Group Center in the summer of 1944 the 16th Guards had been redeployed with its Army to the south of Vitebsk as part of 3rd Belorussian Front, where it would remain for the duration. Driving westward during Operation Bagration the division helped to liberate the key city of Orsha and then drove on towards Minsk. With its Army it advanced through Lithuania to the border with East Prussia, being further decorated with the Order of Suvorov for its crossing of the Neman River. As part of the East Prussian Offensive the 16th Guards entered that heavily-fortified region and helped gradually break the German resistance there, particularly at Insterburg and Königsberg, ending the fighting at Pillau. The 16th Guards remained in the Kaliningrad Oblast well after the war until finally disbanded in September, 1960.

30th Guards Rifle Division

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