(July 16, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the 29th Motorized Infantry Division, commanded by Walter von Boltenstern, from Gen. Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzergruppe, entered the 1,000-year-old city of Smolensk, and captured it after three days of house-to-house fighting. The Soviets did not concede that the city had fallen for another 29 days.
Smolensk is located 224 miles west/southwest of Moscow, on the east side of the Dniepr River, between the Russian capital and the Belorussian capital of Minsk. Today it has a population of 325,000.
In July 1941, Smolensk lay directly in the path of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s onrushing Armeegruppe Center, whose objective was the capture of the Soviet capital.
Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center consisted of Second, Fourth and Ninth Armies, commanded by Baron Maximilian von Weichs, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge and General Adolf Strauß, together with Second and Third Panzergruppes, commanded by Gens. Guderian and Hermann Hoth, and Luftflotte (Air Fleet) Two, commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring.
At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center numbered more than one million soldiers, supported by 14,000 guns and 1,700 tanks.
By the time of the Battle of Smolensk, the Red Army was reeling, desperately trying to slow the Axis advance. Vilnius, Riga and Minsk, the capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus, had been captured, and the Soviet Air Force — Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily(VVS) — virtually destroyed.
The Red Army was a shambles. Commanders were being shuffled. New divisions were hastily created to replace those destroyed by the onrushing enemy. Because of its lack of air cover, the Red Army didn’t know the location of enemy units and was unprotected from the ravages of the Luftwaffe.
In 1941, Smolensk had a population of 140,000 and was an important port on the Dniepr River. The last time the city had faced such a trial was in 1812, when Napoléon’s Grande Armeé had invaded the Russian Empire.
As they had at Minsk, the Germans intended that the two Panzergruppes would advance around the enemy’s flanks, while the infantry advanced up the middle. The two Panzergruppes would then meet in the rear of the enemy, surrounding and annihilating it. Although this tactic had worked to perfection against the Belorussian capital, it was contrary to the advice of Gen. Guderian and others.
More than 300,000 Soviet troops were captured, and the Third, Tenth and Thirteenth Armies of the Western Front, commanded by Vasily Kuznetsov, Konstantin Dmitryevich Golubev, Pyotr Filatov, destroyed. Of course, that was in the first days of the blitzkrieg and the Red Army was in a state of shock.
Nevertheless, the Front’s commander, Dimitri Pavlov, together with his staff, was recalled to Moscow and shot. Two days later, Andrey Yeremenko was given his command, which he held until wounded in August, after which he was given command of the newly created Briansk Front.
Gen. Guderian believed that once the Panzer units had broken through the Soviet lines, they should make straight for the Soviet capital of Moscow, instead of encircling the Soviet troops. This was the tactic that had been used with devastating success in France.
Once the Panzer units had broken through at Sedan, and crossed the Meuse River, they headed straight for the English Channel. Of course, the spatial differences between France and the Soviet Union were enormous. What is more important, Hitler, mindful of the disaster that befell Napoléon’s Grande Armée when it captured Moscow, but failed to destroy the Imperial Russian Armies in the field, decreed that the Wehrmacht’s objective would be the destruction of the Red Army.
By the end of June, German troops were crossing the Berezina River. On July 3, 1941, the same day that Comrade Stalin addressed the Soviet nation and urged its citizens to fight a “Great Patriotic War” against the invaders, German Army Commander-in-Chief Franz Halder wrote in his diary, that, “... the objective to shatter the bulk of the Russian Army this side of the Dvina and Dniepr Rivers has been accomplished. East of these rivers, we will encounter nothing more than partial forces. It is probably no overstatement to say that the Russian Campaign has been won in the space of two weeks.”
On July 6, the Soviets hurled 700 tanks, from Lt. Gen. Pavel Kurochkin’s Twentieth Army at Third Panzergruppe’s XXXIX Panzerkorps, commanded by Rudolf Schmidt, in an effort to blunt the northern pincer’s advance. This was repulsed after three days, with the loss of much of the Soviet armor. But the advance was becoming more difficult for the invaders as bridges were blown, mines laid and resistance stiffened.
The Western Dvina River was crossed on July 7. The 1,000-year-old city of Vitebsk, birthplace of painter Marc Chagall, was captured two days later. On July 11, the Dnieper River was crossed by Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzergruppe and Marshal Timoshenko was given command of all forces facing Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center.
Two days later, the 700-year-old city of Mogilev was encircled, trapping two corps of Gen. Filatov’s Thirteenth Army. Gen. von Boltenstern’s 29th Motorized Infantry Division was only 11 miles from Smolensk. The next day, the Soviets first used the Katyusha rocket launchers. On July 16, supported by 17th Panzerdivision, commanded by Baron Karl von Weber, Gen. von Boltenstern’s 29th Motorized Infantry Division entered the city. The next day, Baron von Weber was mortally wounded and replaced by Baron Wilhelm von Thoma, who the following year would command the Deutsches Afrika Korps and be captured at El Alamein.
That same day, the Soviet dictator’s son, Lt. Jacob Djugashvili, was captured. After Field Marshal Frederic Paulus was captured at Stalingrad, Hitler suggested an exchange, to which Stalin replied that he wasn’t going to trade a field marshal for a Lieutenant! His son died in a German POW camp in April 1943.
By July 18, the two German pincers were only 10 miles from meeting, but the gap would not close for another eight days, thanks to the tenacity of troops under Gen. Konstantin Rokossovsky, and Gen. Guderian’s rush to get to the next objective - Yelnya. In that time, through that gap, 200,000 Soviet soldiers escaped.
On July 20, the USSR designated a new People’s Commissar for Defense - Joseph Stalin. Three days later, Gen. Kurochkin’s Twentieth Army launched a futile attack against Gen. Guderian’s Panzergruppe 2.
Mogilev finally fell on July 26. Today, it is the third largest city in Belarus, with a population of 367,000.
The next day, XXXIX Panzerkorps, of Panzergruppe 3, joined with XXXXVII Panzerkorps of Panzergruppe 2, east of Smolensk. Trapped were the Sixteenth and Nineteenth armies, commanded by Mikhail K. Lukin, Ivan Koniev, and Gen. Kurochkin’s Twentieth Army. An additional 10 days would be needed to liquidate the pocket, in which, at least, 300,000 Soviet soldiers, 3,400 tanks and 3,000 guns captured or destroyed.
Despite the apparent successes of the German blitzkrieg, with enormous amounts of prisoners taken, equipment captured and territory occupied, the invaders were suffering significant casualties. And the enemy had the space and soldiers to trade. Maj. Gen. Walther K. Nehring, commander of 18th Panzerdivision, observed that the heavy casualties must stop, “... if we do not intend to win ourselves to death.”
Total Soviet casualties for the Battle of Smolensk were 759,947, while German losses totaled 115,000. On Aug. 11, General Halder noted in his diary, that,
“The whole situation makes it increasingly plain that we have underestimated the Russian Colossus. Soviet divisions are not armed and equipped according to our standards, and their tactical leadership is often poor. But there they are, and after smashing dozens of them, the Russians simply put up another dozen. They are near their own resources, while we are moving further and further away from ours. And so our troops, sprawled over an immense front line, without any depth, are subjected to the incessant attacks of the enemy.”
By now, Gen. Guderian’s XLVI Panzerkorps had captured Yelnya, but found themselves on the defensive, trying to hold, until the infantry arrived. Five days later, Stalin, in his role as Commissar of Defense, issued Order # 270, which prohibited the surrender of Soviet soldiers. The penalty was death. Stalin commented, “There are no Soviet prisoners-of-war, only traitors.” This order would have serious repercussions on those Soviet POWs who survived German captivity and returned to the postwar Soviet state. As Stalin observed, “It takes a brave man to be a coward in the Red Army!”
Smolensk and Murmansk became the last two, of the 12 Hero Cities, when they were so designated by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on May 6, 1985. Yelnya was, on Oct. 8, 2007, named by President Putin a “City of Military Glory.”
Next week: Siege of Brest
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.