The siege of Velikiye Luki is a significant but relatively unknown battle on the Eastern Front, fought on the section of the front between Moscow and Leningrad. For the first time a reasonably well prepared German garrison was forced to surrender after a brutal siege and the costly failure of several relief efforts, but understandably this battle has always been overshadowed by the much larger and significant siege of Stalingrad, which ended a few weeks later with the same result.
The ‘origins of the campaign’ chapter turns out to be rather more complex than I’d expected. Velikiye Luki was a key location, west of Moscow and south of Leningrad. Early in the German invasion it was in the gap between the German armies heading for those cities, and was the site of significant early fighting before the Germans secured it (at one point becoming the first Soviet city to be liberated, before falling again). The Soviets attempted to recapture the city early in 1942, but without success. The area was quiet for most of the rest of 1942. Late in the year the Germans planned to use the area to launch a spoiling attack if the Soviets attacked in the area, but the forces that had been gathered for that operation then had to be rushed south to try and retrieve the situation around Stalingrad. The battle examined in this book was one of the Soviet offensives launched in November 1942, starting with Operation Uranus, the attack on the German lines west of Stalingrad.
The Soviet attack on Velikiye Luki was one of a number of smaller attacks launched alongside Operation Mars, the main Soviet offensive on the central part of the front. As a result very few of the commanders detailed in the Opposing Commanders section are familiar names (although on the German side Erich Brandenberger commanded an army during the battle of the Bulge and on the Soviet side General Zakharov eventually rose to become a Marshal of the Soviet Union).
The opposing forces section demonstrates how badly outnumbered the Germans were becoming on secondary parts of the front. In this battle the Soviets had around 96,000 infantry, half of which took part in the initial attacks. In contrast the Germans had 3,000 combat troops in the city and a similar number close by. The Germans were badly outnumbered in the air and in artillery, and had almost no armour. It is a sign of how badly the German army had been depleted that when the 8th Panzer Division joined the relief efforts it only had twenty-five Panzer 38ts.
The opposing plans show an increasing level of realism on the Soviet part – the attack on Velikiye Luki was acknowledged as a small scale diversion, with no grand exploitation plans, a distinct improvement on the similar attacks at the start of the year. On the German side we see am example of Hitler’s insistence that every bit of ground should be defended, which prevented his commanders from conducting the sort of flexible defence that would have played to their strengths.
The attack itself begins very differently to most Soviet offensives – no large scale artillery bombardment and mass attack here, but instead a stealthy infiltration of the German lines that helped catch them by surprise. After the initial Soviet offensive ran out of steam, the battle developed into two related fights – first the Soviet siege of Velikiye Luki and second the German relief attempts. These develop into brutal, costly fights, with the German garrison slowly ground down. They only survived into 1943 because supplies were flown in by glider. The Germans made a series of costly relief efforts, and the final one actually got to within 2,200m of the Germans trapped in the city’s citadel. This final relief effort even included a daring armoured raid that saw a small force break through the Soviet lines to reach the citadel, only to be trapped there themselves. This section of the book is supported by a series of very clear maps, that help sense of the various relief efforts and the siege itself.
By Eastern Front standards this was a relatively minor battle (although if a battle on this scale had happened in Normandy it would have been one of the larger ones of the campaign!), but at the time it was significant as the first time a German garrison had been forced to surrender after almost being wiped out and for the failure of the relief effort, a sign that the Soviets were becoming much more of a threat. This is a well written account of what was seen as a significant battle by both sides at the time.
Origins of the Campaign
Author: Robert Forczyk