World War II in Europe. From Warsaw to Berlin. Part 8-Rzhev

The only loss of Marshal Zhukov.

Soviet soldiers attacking at the battle of Rzhev. Summer, 1942

Soviet soldiers attacking at the battle of Rzhev. Summer, 1942


Just after the the start of the Moscow Counter-offensive, the small town of Rzhev suddenly became the center of action on the Soviet western front. This town was a strategic point. It had big railroad station. Whoever controlled it, had access to many other strategic points. When Soviet troops left the city they destroyed it. But now, in the winter 1941-42, they needed to get it back. But, this operation would not succeed. Soviet troops lost 620,000 people (300 thousand were lost under Zhukov’s command and 320 thousand were lost under Konev’s command), while Nazis lost only 305,000 people. This was the “first mark” that Moscow’s Counter-Offensive was coming to its stop.

In 1942, however, the USSR had new opportunities, new plans. This time, the USSR would attack the small town of Sychevka, which was along the railroad exactly half way between the towns of Rzhev and Vyazma. If the Soviets succeeded in taking the road, the German troops would HAVE to leave Rzhev to survive! At first, everything was going excellent! The German defenses crumpled! By August (the operation was launched in July), Zhukov’s troops were just a few kilometers (not hundreds of kilometers) away! But then, Zhukov was sent to save Stalingrad and Konev became commander of the Western Front. Konev immediately changed the offensive goal from Sychevka to Rzhev itself, where the majority of the Nazis troops were located. This resulted in a failed operation, thousands of deaths, and Konev loosing the trust of the State Defense Committee, which he didn’t regain until 1944.

Soviet soldiers in the trenches during the Battle of Rzhev. Summer, 1942

This was not the end of the battle though. In November 1942, Operation “Mars” started. Its main goal was to prevent Nazis from sending troops to Stalingrad, where the USSR was planning massive offensive (operation Uran or Uranus). But starting here, we enter the strange part of the battle-a double spy who pretended to work for the Nazis and work for USSR in reality, told Germans that Soviet main offence in winter, 1942 will be at Rzhev, so Nazis concentrated most of their army at Rzhev. Russians prevented the transportation of German troops to Stalingrad, but losses were so high, that some people question its actual success. Even Zhukov himself, said that “Mars” was ineffective. But this allowed USSR to destroy Nazis’ army at Stalingrad.

The end of the battle came in spring, 1943, after Soviet Army liberated Velikiye Luki, cutting off supply line (there were two total-the first was going through Vyazma). In April, all German troops left Rzhev and Vyazma, leaving the cities TOTALY annihilated. That was the start of the German “scorched earth tactics”-the full destruction of the land Nazis left behind-villages, towns, cities bridges, and so on. Ironically, the commander of those troops, Walter Model, was successful at Rzhev, but in just 2 months, failed at the second WWII turning point… at the battle of Kursk…

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