The First Battle of Smolensk was the first major battle during Operation Barbarossa in World War II that significantly delayed the advance of Hitler's Wehrmacht in the USSR. It took place in the region around the city of Smolensk between July 10 and September 10, 1941, i.e., it raged for two full months about 400 km west of Moscow. At that point the Wehrmacht had advanced 500 km into the USSR without major difficulties in the mere 18 days that had elapsed since the initial invasion of June 22, 1941.
The Wehrmacht fielded Army Group Centre's 2nd Panzer Group and the 3rd Panzer Group and the Red Army fielded the Western Front, the Soviet Reserve Front, the Soviet Central Front, and the Soviet Bryansk Front.
Albeit a huge temporary success for Hitler, the losses in terms of men and materiel incurred by the Wehrmacht during this drawn-out battle were enormous and—together with the 2-month delay in the march towards Moscow—proved decisive for the Wehrmacht's defeat by the Red Army at the end of the Battle of Moscow three months later in December 1941.
Background and PlanningEdit
On 22 June 1941, Axis nations invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. In the opening phase, the campaign met with spectacular gains, as the surprised Soviet troops were not able to offer coordinated resistance. After 3 weeks of fighting, the Germans had reached the Dvina and Dnieper Rivers and planned for a resumption of the offensive effort. The main effort, targeted towards Moscow, was carried out by Army Group Centre commanded by 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.
After their initial defeats, the Red Army sought to reorganise itself and established several measures to ensure a more determined resistance. A new defensive line was established around Smolensk. Stalin placed Field Marshall Timoshenko in command, and transferred five armies out of the strategic reserve to Timoshenko's control. These armies had to conduct a series of counteroffensives to blunt the German offensive. The German high command was not aware of the Soviet build-up until they encountered them on the battlefield.
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. Another army, the 19th Army, was forming up at Vitebsk, while the 16th Army was arriving at Smolensk.
In Soviet historiography, the Battle of Smolensk (actually a full campaign) would take place in several phases, divided into distinct operations to halt the German offensive and the pincers.
Prior to the German attack, the Soviets launched their counter-offensive. On 6 July, the Soviet 20th Army's 7th and 5th Mechanized Corps launched an attack 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.[note]On 10 July, the Germans started their own offensive, when Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group launched its surprise attack over the Dnieper. His forces literally overran the weak 13th Army, which opposed his forces. By 13 July, Guderian had passed Mogilev, trapping several Soviet divisions there. His spearhead unit, the 29th Mot. Division, was already 18 km (11 mi) short of Smolensk. Meanwhile, 3rd Panzer Group had also launched its offensive, with 20th Panzer Division establishing a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dvina river, threatening Vitebsk. As both German Panzer Groups drove east, three Soviet Armies, the 20th, 19th, and 16th, faced the prospect of encirclement around Smolensk. From 11 July on, the Soviets tried a series of concerted counterattacks. 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.
At the same time, several other Soviet armies also attempted to counterattack in the sectors of German Army Group North and South. This effort was apparently part of an overall attempt to implement the Soviet prewar general defense plan. However, although the Soviet attacks managed to slow the Germans down, their results were so marginal that the Germans barely noticed them as a coordinated large-scale defensive effort. The German offensive therefore continued.
Meanwhile, Hoth's 3rd Panzer Group drove north, paralleling Guderian's forces, and taking Polotsk and Vitebsk. The spearheads of his forces reached the area east of Smolensk on 14 July. At the same time, Guderian's forces broke into the town and took it after three days of heavy house-to-house combat. Guderian expected that the offensive would continue towards Moscow as its main focus, and therefore sent the 29th Mot. Division to the Dvina River to establish a bridgehead on the eastern side of it at Yelnya. However, Hitler and the German high command wanted to trap the Soviet forces in Smolensk and therefore ordered Guderian to seal the encirclement. Guderian did not believe he could split his forces this way, and this was affirmed when the Soviets attacked this bridgehead two months later during the Yelnya Offensive.
In the north, 3rd Panzer Group was moving much more slowly. The terrain was swampy, rain was still a problem, and the Soviets were fighting desperately to escape the trap that was developing. On 18 July, the armored pincers of the two German Panzer Groups came within 16 km (9.9 mi) of closing the gap. However, Timoshenko had built up a hastily assembled force, which stopped the German advance and was continuously reinforced. The open gap allowed a number of Soviet units to escape. 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 counterattack 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. However, under the leadership of 20th Army, significant Soviet troops managed to break out of the pocket in a determined effort a few days later, assisted by the ongoing Soviet offensive efforts along the Smolensk front line. In the end, about 300,000 men were taken prisoner when the encirclement was subsequently reestablished and the pocket eliminated.
After the OperationEdit
The Battle of Smolensk was another severe defeat for the Soviets in the opening phase of Operation Barbarossa. However, this Axis victory did not come without strategic implications. For the first time, the Soviets tried to implement a determined coordinated counterattack against a large part of the front, although its main immediate result was that the battle did not end even more badly. Nevertheless, the increasing resistance showed that the Soviets were not yet defeated, and that the Blitzkrieg towards Moscow was not going to be an easy task. This exacerbated a division between the German high command and political leadership. The leaders of the General Staff, Franz Halder and Walter von Brauchitsch, and frontline commanders like von Bock, Hoth, and Guderian counseled against dispersing the German armored units and to focus directly on Moscow. Hitler reiterated the lack of importance of Moscow and strategic encirclements, and ordered a concentration on economic targets such as Ukraine, the Donets Basin, and the Caucasus, and more tactical encirclements to weaken the Soviets further. As a result, the German offensive effort became more fragmented, leading to the battles at Kiev and Uman. Those battles were also German victories, but also cost them vital time, men, and material on their approach towards Moscow, allowing the Soviets time to prepare the defenses of the city.