Battle of Velikiye Luki

The Velikiye Luki offensive operation (Russian: Великолукская наступательная операция) was executed by the forces of the Red Army's Kalinin Front against the Wehrmacht 's 3rd Panzer Army during the Winter Campaign of 1942–1943 with the objective of liberating the Russian city of Velikiye Luki as part of the northern pincer of the Rzhev-Sychevka Strategic Offensive Operation (Operation Mars).

As part of Operation Barbarossa, the German army took Velikiye Luki on 19 July 1941, but was forced to retreat the next day due to Soviet counter-attacks breaking the line of communications in multiple places. A new attack was launched in late August, and the city was recaptured on Aug. 26. 
The city had great strategic value due to the main north-south railway line running just west of the city at Novosokolniki, as well as the city's own rail network to Vitebsk and bridges over the Lovat River. After its capture and with the German offensive running out of steam for the winter, the area was fortified. Marshy terrain extended to Lake Peipus from just north of the city defended by the German 16th Field Army, making operations in the region around the city difficult for both sides. Rather than maintaining a solid "front" in the area, the Germans established a series of thinly held outposts to the north and south of the city.
Battle of Velikiye Luki
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Eastern Front 1942-11 to 1943-03--Velikiye Luki.png
Velikiye Luki (red, upper left) and the nearby rail trunks, in the context of the Soviet 1942–1943 offensives.
Date19 November 1942 – 16 January 1943
LocationVelikiye Luki , Russian SFSR , Soviet Union
ResultSoviet victory
 Germany Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Nazi Germany Kurt von der ChevallerieSoviet Union Maksim Purkayev
LIX Korps – ~50,000 (on 19 Nov)
Reinforcement forces:~50,000 
3rd Shock Army – 95,608 (on 19 Nov)
Reinforcement forces:86,700 
Casualties and losses
Soviet estimate: ~60.000 killed, missing or wounded, 4.500 captured 104,022
31,674 killed or missing
72,348 wounded
Soviet counterattacks during the Winter Campaign of 1941–1942, especially the Battles of Rzhev just to the south, formed a large salient in the German lines. Velikiye Luki lay just on the western edge of the original advance, and was just as strategic for the Soviets as the German. The city dominated the region and would therefore be the natural point for fighting, offering the possibility of eliminating the German bridges on the Lovat, and to deny the Germans use of the rail line that provided communications between Army groups North and Centre. Furthermore, as long as the German Army occupied both rail junctions at Velikiye Luki and Rzhev, the Red Army could not reliably reinforce or resupply its troops on the north face of the massive Rzhev Salient.

In view of its strategic significance, the Germans heavily fortified the city over the course of 1942. The Soviets often raided into German-held territory around the town and the town could only be kept supplied by armoured trains.

Soviet offensive 
The Soviet offensive to retake the city was developed in mid-November 1942 using troops from the 3rd and 4th Shock armies, and 3rd Air Army. The city itself was defended by the 83rd Infantry Division commanded by Lieutenant General Theodor Scherer , the lines to the south held by the 3rd Mountain Division , and the front to the north held by the 5th Mountain Division. The city itself was provided with extensive prepared defenses and garrisoned by a full regiment of the 83rd Division and other troops, totaling around 7,000.

Rather than attacking the town directly, the Soviet forces advanced into the difficult terrain to the north and south of the town. Spearheaded by four rifle divisions to the south and one to the north, the operation commenced on 24 November. Despite heavy losses, they successfully cut the land links to the city by 27 November, trapping the garrison; by the next day they threatened to cut off other elements of the corps south of the city when the front commander released his 2nd Mechanised Corps into the breach created between the 3rd Mountain and 83rd Infantry Divisions. Army Group Centre 's commander asked the OKH for permission to conduct a breakout operation while the situation was still relatively fluid by pulling the German lines back by around ten miles (16 km). The request was dismissed by Hitler, who, pointing to an earlier success in a similar situation at Kholm , demanded that the encircled formations stand fast while the Gruppe "Chevallerie" from the north and 20th Motorised Division from the south counter-attacked to open the encirclement.

German relief attempts 
The garrison were ordered to hold the city at all costs, while a relief force was assembled. The remainder of the 83rd Infantry and 3rd Mountain Divisions, encircled south of Velikiye Luki, fought their way west to meet the relieving troops. Due to Army Group Centre's commitments at Rzhev, the only resources immediately available to man the lines opposite Velikiye Luki were those already in the area, which were organised as Gruppe Wöhler (291st Infantry Division). Later, other divisions were made available, including the understrength 8th Panzer Division from Gruppe Chevallerie, the 20th Motorized Infantry Division from Army Group Centre reserve, and the weak 6th Luftwaffe Field Division , and the hurriedly rushed to the front 707th and 708th Security, and 205th and 331st Infantry divisions although there was a corresponding build-up of Soviet strength.

Throughout December, the garrison – which maintained radio contact with the relief forces – held out against repeated Soviet attempts to reduce their lines, and in particular the rail depot in the city's southern suburb. The Soviet forces, attacking strongly entrenched troops in severe winter weather, suffered extremely high casualties, while conditions in the city steadily deteriorated despite airdrops of supplies, ammunition and equipment. In the meantime, Soviet attempts to take their main objective, the rail lines at Novosokolniki , had been frustrated by the counter-attacks of the relief force. An attempt by the Germans to reach Velikiye Luki in late December, ran into stubborn Soviet defence and halted, heavily damaged.

Operation Totila, the next attempt to break through to Velikiye Luki, was launched on 4 January. The two German spearheads advanced to within five miles (8 km) of the city, but stalled due to pressure on their flanks. On 5 January, a Soviet attack from the north split Velikiye Luki in two, isolating a small group of troops in the fortified "citadel" in the west of the city, while the bulk of the garrison retained a sector centred around the rail station in the south of the city. The former group broke out on during the night of the 14th; around 150 men eventually reached German lines. The German garrison surrendered on 16 January.

After the war, the Soviet authorities collected a representative set of men of various ranks from general to private who had fought at Velikiye Luki from prisoner of war camps and brought them to the city. A military tribunal held a public trial and convicted them for war crimes related to anti-partisan warfare. Nine were sentenced to death and publicly hanged in the main square of Velikiye Luki in January 1946. 

The battle is sometimes called "The Little Stalingrad of the North" due to its similarities with the larger and better-known Battle of Stalingrad that raged in the southern sector of the front. Judged purely by the numbers, this battle was a small affair by the usual standards of the Eastern Front (150,000 total casualties suffered by both sides as opposed to 2,000,000 total casualties at Stalingrad), but had enormous strategic consequences. The liberation of Velikiye Luki meant the Red Army had, for the first time since October 1941, a direct rail supply line to the northern face of the Rzhev Salient exposing the German troops at Rzhev to encirclement. 

Events at Velikiye Luki thus necessitated the withdrawal from Rzhev salient ending any German military threat to Moscow. However, even after withdrawing from Rzhev, possession of Velikiye Luki meant that the rail link between Army groups North and Centre was severed, preventing the German Army from shifting reinforcements between threatened sectors. Furthermore, the rail lines from Velikiye Luki led directly into the rear of Vitebsk, a critical logistics hub for Army Group Centre. 
The effects of this battle meant that Army Group Centre was exposed to attack from the north, east, and (after the Battle of Smolensk (1943) south, exposing the whole army group to encirclement, which is exactly what happened in the Operation Bagration the following year.

German relief attempts. 
(Notice that the order of battle given on this 1952 map is not accurate.)

Orders of battle 
While it is somewhat difficult to separate the actions of various Red Army and Wehrmacht units within the flurry of movements involved in the larger scope of the Soviet operations, for the most part these below are derived from Glantz and Isayev.

German relief attempts.
Kalinin Front ( Maksim Alekseyevich Purkayev ) engaged in the Second Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive to the south of Velikiye Luki.
4th Shock Army
3rd Shock Army (General Lieutenant Galitsky)
8th Estonian Rifle Corps (General Major Pärn)
7th Estonian Rifle Division (Colonel Vassil')
249th Estonian Rifle Division (Colonel I. Ya. Lombak)
5th Guards Rifle Corps (General Colonel Afanasy Beloborodov)
357th Rifle Division (Colonel Kronik)
257th Rifle Division (Colonel Dyakonov)
2nd Mechanised Corps (General Colonel Korchagin)
13th independent Guards breakthrough tank regiment (Sub-colonel Galkin) equipped with KV-1 tanks
34th independent tank regiment (Sub-colonel Bogdanov) equipped with T-34 tanks
38th independent tank regiment (Sub-colonel Zheleznov, after 30.12.42 Sub-colonel Khubayev) equipped with T-34 tanks
3rd Air Army
Long Range Aviation
3rd Long-range aviation division (Colonel Yukhanov)
17th Long-range aviation division (General Major of Aviation Loginov)
222nd Long-range aviation division (Colonel Titov)

Army Group Center
Group "Chevallerie" from (LIX Corps)
Wehrmacht's Velikiye Luki garrison
Gruppe "Wöhler"
83rd Infantry Division Lieutenant-General Theodor Scherer)
Operation "Totila" relief forces
II/ 11th Panzer Division
Two battalions/ 331st Infantry Division
8th Panzer Division (14 PzKW 38t, and one command tank)
20th Motorized Infantry Division
6th Luftwaffe Field Division
3rd Mountain Division (at Novosokol'niki to the rear of 83rd Infantry Division's positions)
291st Infantry Division
1 SS Infantry Brigade (mot)
Frikorps Danmark 
Most of Army Group Center was engaged in resisting the second Soviet Rzhev-Sychevka offensive throughout this period.

Almost half of the 83rd Infantry Division was assigned to the Velikiye Luki garrison.

The 3rd Mountain Division was at little more than half strength, since its 139th Regiment had been left in Lapland when the division withdrew from northern Finland. The 138th Mountain Regiment was the unknown unit of 3rd Mountain shown in Maps 2 and 3.

20th Motorized was from Army Group Center's reserve.


Swedish intervention in the Winter War

The Swedish Intervention in the Winter War was a short-lived but successful attempt by the Swedish Volunteer Corps, along with other Nordic volunteers, to prevent a Soviet invasion of Finland during the Winter War. The volunteers only engaged in a few skirmishes on ground and in the air, the only major battles they participated in being the battles of Salla and Honkaniemi. 
                               Swedish aa-cannon cleaned

                                   Swedish truck's

The term "volunteers" have often been used to describe the Nordic military support for Finland in the Winter War, although involvement by the government of Sweden has been debated over time. Nevertheless, the Swedish military sent enormous amounts of aid to Finland, including:
Approximately 2,000,000,000 crowns (US$ ~312,658,890) of financial aid - twice the size of the Finnish defense budget at the time

50,013,300 rounds of small arms ammunition
135,402 rifles
450 light machine guns
347 machine guns
301,846 artillery shells
144 field guns
92 anti-armor guns
100 anti-aircraft guns
300 sea mines
500 depth charges
83 motorcycles
83 cars
350 trucks
13 tractors
17 fighter aircraft
5 light bombers
1 transport aircraft
3 reconnaissance aircraft
Swedish Intervention in the Winter War
Part of Winter War and World War II
Swedish soldiers inspecting a destroyed Soviet tank
Swedish soldiers inspecting a disabled enemy T-26 tank
Date12 January – 13 March 1940
(2 months and 1 day)
LocationEastern Finland
ResultEnd of the Winter War with the Moscow Peace Treaty
Cession of the Gulf of Finland islands, Karelian Isthmus, Ladoga KareliaSalla, and Rybachy Peninsula, and rental of Hanko to the Soviet Union

Minor support from:
Hungary Hungary
 United Kingdom
 Soviet Union
 Terijoki Government
Commanders and leaders
Sweden Ernst Linder
Finland Carl Gustaf Mannerheim
Finland Kurt Martti Wallenius
Finland Voldemar Oinonen
Soviet Union Joseph Stalin
Soviet Union Kirill Meretskov
Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov
Soviet Union Semyon Timoshenko
10,397 men: Sweden 8,402
Denmark 1,010
Norway 895
Finland 13 tanks
Sweden 26 aircraft
Multiple Finnish armybattalions
20,000-30,000 men
58 tanks
29 aircraft in combat
Casualties and losses
245 killed
250 wounded
28 captured
6 fighters lost
640 killed
203 wounded
48 missing
9 tanks
4 fighters shot down
2 fighters damaged
6 bombers shot down
2 bombers damaged
7 more aircraft shot down
8 more aircraft damaged

The Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union began in November 1939 after the Finnish government had rejected the Soviet claims to the Karelian Isthmus and all islands in the Gulf of Finland, as well as a demand to dismantle the defences in Finnish Karelia. Finland at the time was only officially allied with Estonia, as Sweden had rejected participation in the anti-Soviet alliance. 

The casus belli for the Soviet invasion was a claimed Finnish attack against the Russian village of Mainila, although it was later revealed that this was a false flag action conducted by the military of the Soviet Union.
                       Kuvahaun tulos haulle Swedish intervention in the Winter War
                       Kuvahaun tulos haulle Swedish intervention in the Winter War


                        Danish  (danish pilot too, Morane and Gladiator pilots)

The battle of Salla was fought by Finnish-Swedish forces against the Soviet Union, beginning with a massive Soviet attack against the outnumbered Finnish defenders. Major General Kurt Martti Wallenius, the Finnish commander, ordered his men to retreat up the Kemijoki river where a defensive line could be easily maintained. After numerous suicide charges by the Soviet army, the sudden arrival of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian troops forced a Soviet withdrawal with heavy casualties of up to 500 men, compared to 187 among the Finns and 23 among the reinforcements.
                                    Ex BT-5 tank

                    Kuvahaun tulos haulle battle of honkaniemi
                                Soviet BT-5 and T-26
The battle of Honkaniemi was fought between Finnish and Soviet forces on 26 February 1940 and was the only tank battle of the Winter War. The Finns were supported by Swedish, Danish and Norwegian volunteers from the Nordic volunteer corps and had an unknown amount of infantry at their disposal (although it is known that they were much fewer than their Soviet enemies), as well as 13 Vickers 6-ton tanks. 
                    Kuvahaun tulos haulle battle of honkaniemi
Soviet tank men are looking destroyed Finn Vickers tanker's helmet

The Soviet corps of 58 tanks was able to beat back the attackers, losing 3 (Soviet sources) to 9 (Finnish sources) of their armored vehicles while Finland and its allies lost six. Added to that, 87 Finns and 140 Soviets were killed in the battle, while no casualties were reported among the volunteer corps. Although the Soviet casualties were larger than that of their adversaries, the Finnish colonel Voldemar Oinonen ordered a full retreat when he begun to doubt the chances of defeating the enemy.


Kemijoki river battle, January 1940

The Battle of Salla was fought between Finnish and Soviet troops near Salla in northern Finland during the Winter War. The Soviets had orders to advance through Salla to Kemijärvi and Sodankylä, and from there to Rovaniemi in just two weeks. From there they were to advance to Tornio and cut Finland in two. The Finnish troops managed to stop the Soviet advance just east of Kemijärvi. During the last days of February 1940 the Finnish troops were replaced with the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish volunteers of the Stridsgruppen SFK.
                    Swedish soldiers inspecting a destroyed Soviet tank
                Swedish soldiers inspecting a disabled enemy T-26 tank
Soviet preparations 
                      File:Salla Phase1.png
                         Initial Soviet advance November 30 – December 17

By 1938 the Soviet Union had decided to conquer Finland. Relying in part on the information provided by Finnish communists, detailed intelligence on Finnish infrastructure had been prepared by the summer of 1939 in a 200-page book that was distributed to the invasion force. The Soviet 9th Army was tasked with invading Finland between Kuhmo and Salla and cutting the country in half by advancing to the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia. 

As part of the 9th Army's offensive, the 122nd Rifle Division, having arrived from Poland on 8 November 1939, was supposed to capture Salla and Kemijärvi and advance to Rovaniemi within two weeks, from where it would continue to Tornio near the Finnish border with Sweden. The Soviets were only expecting light resistance and the troops were ordered not to cross the Swedish frontier. 

The Soviets began building a railroad from Kandalaksha to the Finnish border in 1939 using 100,000 prisoners as slave labor. In the late 1930s, existing roads were improved and new ones built from the Murmansk Railway to the Finnish border, such as the road from Kandalaksha to Alakurtti.
Air surveillance, beard coat

women's coffee break

                                      reindeer skins are prepared
Finnish preparations 
                     File:Salla Phase2.png
                              Finnish counter-attacks and Soviet withdrawal

The improvements in Soviet infrastructure and demographics near the border that made it possible to supply 40,000 troops in the region had little effect on Finnish operational planning in northern Finland. The Finnish general staff did not believe the Soviets would launch a major offensive from the White Sea region to Finland. As a result, work on fortifying key road choke-points in northern Finland only began in the autumn of 1939. 

The forces in northern Finland were under the command of the staff of the Lapland Group , which in turn was led by the North Finland Group. The Finns had one detached battalion (Er.P 17) and one company (Er.K Kojonen) near Salla that were supposed to conduct an active defense by crossing the border, stopping the advance of the Soviet regiment that was expected in the area and harassing the Soviet lines of communications, thereby tying down Soviet forces. 

The Finnish general staff considered the force insufficient for even this mission, but could not spare any more troops from the more important Karelian Isthmus. As Finland undertook a general mobilization in October 1939, the troops had time to take stock of the situation and came to the conclusion that even limited offensive operations across the border were beyond their capabilities and afterwards only defensive and delaying operations were practiced in training. 

A Finnish intelligence estimate on 15 October placed one Soviet division in the Murmansk-Kandalaksha area. The Finns expected a larger Soviet force concentration in the future. On 30 November, the Soviets had four divisions in the area.
Battle of Salla
Part of Winter War
A Finnish guard during the Battle of Salla.jpg
A Finnish soldier on guard near Kemijärvi , 11 February 1940.
Date30 November 1939 – 13 March 1940
LocationSalla , Finnish Lapland
ResultFinnish victory
 Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Finland Kurt Martti Wallenius
Finland Ernst Linder
Units involved
Finland North Finland Group
Finland Lapland Group
Soviet Union 9th Army
c. 3,500
From 10 February 1940 9,400 Scandinavian volunteers
Two infantry divisions
Casualties and losses
650 dead or missing
450 wounded
33 dead
50 wounded
130 frostbitten
Southern Lapland is 80% covered by forests or swamps. The geography is dominated by forest-covered fells that surround large swamps and lakes. In December 1939 the lakes and swamps were not yet sufficiently frozen over to support motor vehicle movement but this became irrelevant as the winter progressed and the temperature dropped to -40°, which also made military operations more difficult. 

Movement outside roads was thus impossible for large military formations. Only one road existed from the Soviet border to Salla. The road network was better developed west of it, with numerous small roads to support lateral movements and the encirclement of defending forces. 

There were only a few Finnish troops in the area at the start of the war. The 17th Separate Battalion (Er.P 17) or the "Salla Battalion" was mobilized before the war. Its main components came from a company of the Frontier Guard . From 11 December 1939 onward the Finnish troops were part of the Lapland Group (Lapin Ryhmä) which was commanded by Major General Kurt Martti Wallenius . After 5 December infantry, artillery, mortar and anti-tank units were to reinforce the defenders. The total number of Finnish forces in the area was c. 3,500. 

The Soviets attacked with 122nd Rifle Division. The stalling of the offensive forced the Soviets to reinforce it in late December 1939 with the 88th Rifle Division.

                                Cossack sword and soviet cars full of American food

Soviet troops pushed the Finns up to the Kemijoki river, but were unable to break through the Finnish defences on the river. The Soviet supply lines were now 145 kilometers long. The Finns took advantage of the overstretched Soviet position by launching attacks with ski troops on the Soviet lines of communications. One third of Soviet troops were tied up guarding them. On January 13, the Soviet 9th Army ordered the 122nd Division to retreat to the Märkäjärvi village.

For the next two months the battle was a stalemate, apart from small skirmishes and exchanges of artillery fire. On March 13, the last day of the war, the Soviets initiated a major fire preparation with artillery, aircraft and infantry weapons as part of a planned renewal of offensive operations towards Rovaniemi. The Scandinavian volunteers suffered their most casualty-intensive day of the war, with 10 killed and 30 wounded. 

Overall, Finnish casualties were 1,100 men, including 650 dead or missing. Scandinavian volunteer casualties were 33 dead, 50 wounded and 130 frostbitten. Soviet losses are estimated at 4,000.