The fighting around Rzhev in 1942 and early 1943 isn’t amongst the better known battles of the Second World War, but the area saw massive armies clash repeatedly, mainly as a result of Soviet attacks aimed at pushing the Germans away from Moscow. For the Russians this was one of the key fronts, and the fighting here probably cost them over one million casualties. This included Operation Mars, launched alongside the more famous Soviet counterattacks around Stalingrad, and which ended as a costly Soviet defeat.
Most of the book follows a similar pattern. The Soviets launch a massive attack, which normally achieves some early successes, including at least one breakthrough. However the Germans hold most of their line, the breakthrough is cut off, and isolated Soviet units then have to fight to survive while further attacks fail to achieve much, normally at great cost to the Soviets. On the German side the story is normally one of desperate defensive battles, and the timely arrival of small scale but crucial reinforcements. On both sides the leadership causes problems for the men at the front – Hitler by refusing to allow any retreats, the Soviet leadership by insisting on endless attacks and blaming more junior leaders for the failure of their attacks.
Here are some exceptions to this pattern. The Soviet counter-offensive of December 1941 was largely successful, and saw the Germans pushed back some way from Moscow. Under General Belov a larger than normal Soviet force broke through into the German rear areas, and held quite a sizable area for some five months before eventually being forced to attempt to escape to reach Soviet lines. Finally the Germans carried out a successful retreat from the salient, but one marred by massive war crimes against the remaining civilian population. The second of these is a particularly interesting episode, demonstrating how tenuous the German hold on much of the occupied territory actually was.
We finish with an in-depth analysis of the reasons for the Soviet failures of 1942, looking at their failure to learn from earlier mistakes, the policy of the high command (Zhukov in particular), the over-ambitious nature of many of their plans, and the difficult terrain and poor communications. We also look at what the Soviets were attempting to achieve, and how they later chose to portray these battles. This is a valuable conclusion, and helps explain the failures of most Red Army offensives of 1942.
1 – Barbarossa and Taifun
2 – The Red Army’s Counteroffensive, December 1941
3 – Frustration, January 1942
4 – Snow, Mud and Confusion
5 – Hannover
6 – Belov’s Escape and Seydlitz
7 – The First Rzhev-Sychevka Operation
8 – Grinding Through Summer
9 – 1942, Preparing for Operation Mars
10 – The Commencement of Mars, Western Front, 25-30 November
11 – The Commencement of Mars, Kalinin Front, 25-30 November
12 – December: The Vazuza Valley and the Bely Sector
13 – December: Exhaustion in the Luchesa and Northern Sectors
14 – Buffel: The End of the Salient
15 – Lessons Imperfectly Learned
16 – Remembering the Past
Author: Prit Buttar