Marshal Georgy Zhukov had expected the main German summer offensive to try again for Moscow and the Stavka assessed that the most likely enemy avenue of approach was from the Bolkhov region, north of Orel. Consequently, Zhukov ensured that a great deal of the new tank production was sent to this sector and that he would have control over them. Yet when it became obvious by early July that the Germans were not going to try for Moscow again, Zhukov refused to allow his heavily-reinforced Western Front to stand idle while Heeresgruppe Sud crushed ” the Bryansk and Southwestern Fronts. With six tank corps under his command, Zhukov recommended to Stalin that the Western Front could mount a counter- stroke against the German 2. Panzerarmee guarding the northern part of the Orel salient. On 2 July, the Stavka authorized Zhukov to conduct a counteroffensive to help take some of the pressure off the Bryansk Front and possibly divert Hoth’s armour away from Voronezh. With minimal planning, Zhukov directed General-leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 16th Army to attack the Zhizdra sector held by General der Artillerie Joachim Lemelsen’s XXXXVII Panzerkorps and General-leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army to attack the Bolkhov sector held by the German LIII Armeekorps. These two Soviet attack sectors were 90km apart and hence not mutually supporting. Zhukov was hoping to execute something resembling Deep Battle, but in his eagerness to `do something’ before Voronezh fell, he opted to commit two of his armies to an operation with negligible logistical preparation or coordination between units.
Belov attacked first on the morning of 5 July, committing the 12th Guards Rifle Division and the 192nd Tank Brigade as his main effort against the boundary of the German 112 and 296. Infanterie-Divisionen. Over 250 artillery pieces were available to support the attack, but most of their ammunition was fired in the initial prep bombardment. Achieving local surprise, the Soviet guardsmen managed to create a 3km-deep dent in the German security zone before being stopped by mines and well-directed artillery fire in front of the German HKL (main line of resistance). Nor was Soviet air support very helpful and the 192nd Tank Brigade lost six of its tanks to fratricidal Soviet air attacks. When the Soviet attack stalled, the Germans were able to rush reinforcements, including Hauptmann Martin Buhr’s Sturmgeschutz-Abteilung 202, to strengthen their HKL. Despite failing to achieve a breakthrough, Belov decided to commit his armoured exploitation force – General-major Dmitri K. Mostovenko’s 3rd Tank Corps with 192 tanks – at 1400 hours on 7 July. By this point, the element of surprise was gone and the German HKL in front of Belov’s shock groups had been made nearly impregnable with assault guns, 8.8cm flak batteries and additional panzerjagers. Unsurprisingly, Mostovenko’s armour suffered heavy losses from anti-tank fire as they arrived on the battlefield and Belov’s artillery no longer had the ammunition to suppress the enemy guns. There is an important lesson in Mostovenko’s situation, in that an operational-level commander must ensure that he has sufficient fire support remaining when his exploitation force is committed. Instead, the 3rd Tank Corps was stopped cold and bloodied by determined German infantry divisions and could not advance. Although Belov continued attacking for another five days, he achieved nothing.
By waiting an extra day to attack, Rokossovsky’s 16th Army was able to make a considerably stronger opening effort, with three rifle divisions, five rifle brigades and three tank brigades in the first echelon. General-major Vasily G. Burkov’s 10th Tank Corps, with 152 tanks, waited to exploit the breakthrough. Rokossovsky used 400 artillery pieces to support the attack, as well as over 600 tactical air support sorties, but due to the difficult terrain in his sector he chose to attack across a fairly wide 20km frontage; this was the exact opposite of the German schwerpunkt, which committed all resources at a decisive point. The Zhizdra sector was also heavily wooded and marshy, which made armoured operations difficult – Zhukov apparently had not considered terrain in his decision to attack. Kicking off at 0800 hours on 6 July, Rokossovsky’s infantry managed to advance 3-5km into the 208. Infanterie-Division’s defenses before encountering the same determination as Belov had discovered. Even worse, the 17 and 18. Panzer- Division were both available to reinforce the front-line German infantry divisions in this sector. Unteroffizier Erich Hager, a Pz. IV driver in the 6./Pz. Regt 39, noted that his battalion had completed two days of gunnery training just prior to Rokossovsky’s offensives, so the crews were well-honed.
Rokossovsky’s first echelon included the 94th, 112th and 146th Tank Brigades and the 519th Tank Battalion with flamethrower tanks, a total of 131 tanks, while Lemelsen decided to initially commit only small armoured kampfgruppen into battle to stabilize the front, but kept some armour in reserve to deal with the Soviet tank corps. Both panzer divisions had been forced to contribute a Panzer- Abteilung to reinforce the divisions involved in Blau, leaving only seventy-one tanks in the 17. Panzer-Divisionen and forty-seven tanks in the 18. Panzer- Division. Hager’s 6. Kompanie was committed, but quickly lost three of its eleven Pz. IV (short-barreled) tanks. Hager noted that the Soviets had a 4-1 superiority in tanks in his sector. On 7 July, Lemelsen committed more of his armour to prevent a breakthrough of the infantry HKL, resulting in a brutal nine-hour battle between the opposing tanks and artillery. Hager’s Pz. IV was hit three times, once in the hull and twice on the turret, but only one crew member was injured by spalling (splinters from the armour). Some tank-vs.-tank combat occurred as close as 200 meters. Hager noted,
Thirty enemy tanks were destroyed and one Pak. Lots of the Russian tanks were USA (American M3 Lees). Attack continues with infantry on the HKL. Whole Abteilung shoots, shoots, shoots. Russian artillery and tanks shoot straight at us. We cannot do anything about it as they are further away than 3,000 meters . . . All in all, 6 of our tanks are hit but they do not burn up so can be recovered . . . Return to refuel and rearm at 2000 hours. What a day!
The 17 and 18. Panzer-Division managed to prevent a breakthrough and shot up most of Rokossovsky’s infantry support tanks in the process. As Hager noted, German tank losses were also significant, but since they held the ground most damaged tanks could be recovered and repaired. Despite lack of a breakthrough, on the evening of 7 July Rokossovsky decided to commit Burkov’s 10th Tank Corps, but their night deployment was seriously hindered by the marshy terrain in the sector. Whenever near the front, large armoured units are frequently moved at night in order to avoid detection by the enemy and thereby gain the maximum advantage of surprise. A well-trained armour unit will send a quartering party ahead to reconnoiter the route of march from the assembly areas all the way up to the front, leaving traffic control personnel along the way to ensure that vehicles stay on the correct path. However, the Red Army of mid-1942 had not yet learned these lessons and instead, tanks and vehicles of Burkov’s 10th Tank Corps blundered off the road and got stuck in marshes. When daylight on 8 July arrived, Burkov’s armour was still all bunched up in column formation on trails just behind the front and Lemelsen requested Luftwaffe air strikes on the mass of Soviet armour. German air superiority over the Zhizdra sector was absolute and Rokossovsky later wrote, `before the battle I had never seen the Germans throw so many aircraft into such a small sector as the one in which the 16th Army was operating.’ Burkov’s armour was badly knocked about by the Luftwaffe and entered battle piecemeal, not as a corps.
During the night of 7-8 July, the 17. Panzer-Division dug in a number of its tanks along the HKL to protect them from Soviet artillery fire and they awaited Burkov’s armour. Hager’s Pz. IV knocked out a T-34 but was hit on the hull by an HE round that damaged the track and engine. Nevertheless, Hager’s Pz. IV kept firing until all ammunition was expended and remained in the fight for eight hours. One German tank platoon of three tanks knocked out ten attacking Soviet tanks and, overall, Burkov’s corps lost about fifty tanks on its first day in action. Even though it was clear by 8 July that neither Belov nor Rokossovsky was going to achieve any worthwhile success, Zhukov ordered the offensive to continue and 9 July was a repeat of the previous day. Hager noted,
The battle begins at 1200 hours. We have to stay in the same position and fire until our ammunition runs out. Russian tanks are driving around in front of us but do not see us luckily . . . 35 tanks attack us and 35 tanks are knocked out and burning. At 1700 hours we finally leave the battle and make our way to refuel and rearm with 4. Kompanie. Also make repairs.
After two days of battle Hager’s Pz. IV was still combat-capable, but operating in degraded mode. Statistics about numbers of `operational tanks’ should con- sider that many in this category were actually rather marginal. After firing some- thing like 200 rounds in two days, the recoil system on the 7.5cm cannon was malfunctioning and finally broke down altogether. The tank’s radio was also non- operational after repeated hits on the hull and turret and the running gear was in poor condition. Nevertheless, Hager’s degraded-mode Pz. IV was committed into action again on 10 July, when 17. Panzer-Division mounted a counterattack against the off-balance 10th Tank Corps. Oberstleutnant Otto Busing led a kampfgruppe from his II/Pz. Regt 39, which included Hager’s 6. Kompanie:
The same attack again. The whole Abteilung. Now the fun starts . . . The regimental commander[Busing] took a hit, bailed out. Hauptman Karen ” arrived. Took a hit, bailed out. Hauptmann Borsch came up, took a hit, bailed out . . . Hit in the steering, move on a bit and then back. Track torn off. Have to bail out.
Hager and his crew walked on foot back to their battalion assembly area – a not unusual occurrence for tankers on the Eastern Front – and admitted that `not one Pz. IV came back’ from the attack. The men of II/Pz. Regt 39 spent all of 11 July recovering their knocked-out tanks with the battalion’s Sd. Kfz. 9 (FAMO) semi- tracks and, amazingly, the I-Gruppe mechanics repaired six of the Pz. IVs by the end of 12 July. By that point, Zhukov’s offensive had failed to seriously dent 2. Panzerarmee’s front or to inconvenience German plans. Although PzAOK 2 suffered about 5,000 casualties, both the 3rd and 10th Tank Corps were rendered combat-ineffective for some time. Soviet C2 was abysmal during the offensive and inter-unit coordination non-existent. Despite much heroism and bloodshed, the Red Army had not yet learned how to break an entrenched German defensive line, particularly one supported by panzers and assault guns.
Although Zhukov’s Zhizdra-Bolkhov offensive failed, he was quick to urge more offensive action in this sector as well as against the German 9. Armee in the exposed Rzhev salient. Zhukov still had four intact tank corps under his immediate control and General-leytenant Petr L. Romanenko’s 3rd Tank Army was nearby in the RVGK. However, the Germans noted that the recent bungled Western Front offensive presented Heeresgruppe Mitte not only with an opportunity to mount a riposte to eliminate all or part of the Sukhinichi salient before the Red Army recovered, but also to distract Zhukov’s remaining armour away from the vulnerable Rzhev salient. Despite the priority of Blau, Hitler and the OKH authorized a limited offensive known as Wirbelwind, set to begin in early August. Schmidt’s 2. Panzerarmee would form the schwerpunkt of its offensive with General der Infanterie Heinrich Cloßner’s LIII Armeekorps, which was given 11 and 20. Panzer-Divisionen, the 197 and 202. Sturmgeschutz-Abteilungen and four infantry divisions. In addition, Schmidt retained Lemelsen’s XXXXVII Panzerkorps with the 18. Panzer-Division and gained Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s XXXXI Panzerkorps, with the 9, 17 and 19. Panzer-Divisionen. Schmidt’s divisions also received their first Pz. IIIJ and Pz. IVF2 replacement tanks, putting them on a more equal footing with Zhukov’s T-34s. Despite the concentration of six panzer divisions in a fairly small sector north of Bolkhov, Operation Wirbelwind has been overshadowed by Operation Blau and the Battle of Stalingrad. Cloßner’s LIII Armeekorps attacked the boundary of the Soviet 61st Army north of Bolkhov on the morning of 11 August and achieved some initial success. In particular, the 11. Panzer-Division was able to advance up to 25km in heavily wooded terrain toward the intermediate objective – Sukhinichi. Thereafter, Soviet resistance hardened quickly and the Red Army was particularly formidable in forest-fighting. German tankers were wary of moving along narrow forest tracks that were usually mined and covered by anti-tank ambushes. While the 2. Panzerarmee succeeded in gaining a small bridgehead over the Zhizdra river, the 16th Army blocked any further advance toward Sukhinichi by moving Burkov’s rebuilt 10th Tank Corps and General-major Aleksei V. Kurkin’s 9th Tank Corps to contain the German advance. Three Soviet rifle divisions were cut off and destroyed and the two Soviet tank corps lost about 200 tanks, but Wirbelwind failed to seize significant terrain or seriously impair Zhukov’s freedom of action. Instead, it was the German panzer units that suffered heavy losses in the ill-judged offensive and diverted resources that could have been better used elsewhere. The 9. Panzer Division, which started the operation with 110 tanks, lost forty-four tanks in Wirbelwind. Although difficult terrain was certainly a factor in the failure of Wirbelwind, this was the second time since the beginning of Blau that a German panzer schwerpunkt had been stopped cold by determined Soviet resistance, which was an ominous portent of the Red Army’s growing competence.
Just as Hitler decided to abort Wirbelwind, Zhukov made the surprise decision to commit Romanenko’s 3rd Tank Army to the Bolkhov sector in an effort to cut off 2. Panzerarmee’s spearhead. Romanenko’s 3TA had moved by rail from Tula and assembled on the eastern flank of 2. Panzerarmee’s salient, near Kozel’sk. Zhukov assembled a force of 218,000 troops and 700 tanks to crush the German forces in the salient, which were outnumbered by 3-1 in armour. Romanenko attacked at 0615 hours on 22 August, committing three rifle divisions and a rifle brigade in the first echelon to claw their way through the defenses of the German 26 and 56. Infanterie-Divisionen. After the infantry had advanced 4-6km through the outer German defenses – but not achieved a real breakthrough – Romanenko committed the 3rd, 12th and 15th Tank Corps into the battle. Once again though, the Red Army’s use of large armoured formations was marred by the lack of pre-battle reconnaissance; Romanenko’s tanks ran into swamps, enemy mines and generally got lost in the forest trails. Even after moving forward for twelve hours, Romanenko’s tanks had not yet encountered the enemy and were behind the forward line of their own infantry. The Luftwaffe managed to gain and keep local air superiority over this sector, enabling Stukas and bombers to mercilessly hammer the stalled columns of Soviet armour. Romanenko was finally able to get some of his armour, in piecemeal fashion, into battle on 23 August, but by that time Cloßner had shifted the 11 and 20. Panzer-Division to bolster the flagging ” German infantry. The Red Army had little experience supplying a formation of 600 tanks and Romanenko’s tank corps suffered from fuel shortages, even though they never gained more than 2-3km into the German line. An effort by Rokossovsky’s 16th Army to assist Romanenko by attacking the western side of the German salient was quickly snuffed out. Gradually, the combination of German panzer divisions in defense and Luftwaffe overhead reduced the immobilized 3rd Tank Army into wreckage. By the time that Zhukov finally ended the offensive in early September, the attacking Soviet forces had lost 500 of 700 tanks and Romanenko’s 3rd Tank Army had been rendered hors de combat. Afterwards, both sides shifted to the defense and much of the remaining armour was transferred elsewhere.
Even though the fighting around Bolkhov-Zhizdra in July-August 1942 is not well known, it involved six of the nineteen panzer divisions and five of the twenty- two Soviet tank corps on the Eastern Front, making these battles one of the largest clashes of armour in 1942. Neither side enjoyed any real offensive success in these battles, mostly due to restrictive terrain, and German air power played a prominent role in equalizing the Soviet numerical superiority in manpower and tanks. It is also noteworthy that Zhukov’s use of large armoured formations and efforts at conducting set-piece offensives had no more success than other Soviet commanders at that time. The Bolkhov-Zhizdra offensives were an amateurish waste of armour, costing the Red Army another 1,000 tanks for no gain at all. On the other hand, Hitler’s willingness to commit so much armour to a secondary theater violated the principle of concentration of force, when he needed every Panzer-Abteilung, Stuka sortie and liter of petrol available to support Heeresgruppe Sud’s drive for the Caucasus.