Thursday, 26 May 2011

Battle Group Scherer - 105 days in Cholm, Russia (1942)

Or as the Russian's call it, 'Kholm'. During the first week of December 1941 Marshall Zhukov launched Operation Typhoon and, in combination with appalling weather, pushed the invading German army back from the gates of Moscow. In the North on the Southern Flank of Heeresgruppe Nord the German 16th Army reeled under the blow, conceding ground but not the two primary routes through the swamps covering the area between the lakes of Seeliger and Ilmen. These routes ran through the towns of Demjansk and Kholm. At Kholm a force of just 5,500 men under the command of Major General Theodor Scherer, though completely surrounded, held out for 105 days withstanding 100 infantry attacks (42 of which were supported by tanks). When the garrison was relieved, only 1,200 survivors remained. Throughout the ordeal the besieged men were supplied by air, and in the absence of heavy weapons, were supported by artillery 10 miles away in the main German lines. Following this epic battle Scherer was awarded a Knight's Cross and his men were feted as heroes all over Germany.

Kholm War Memorial
Nowadays Kholm is a sleepy provincial Russian town. The road down from Demjansk is pitted with potholes and bordered on both sides by swampy ground - dark, wet and inhospitable. The few villages on patches of higher ground still show the scars of WWII - particularly churches which, damaged in the war years, remained uncared for during the Soviet era.

Our small group walked the line of the final 'kessel' perimeter. It rained all day long but that didn't dampen our spirits - for, with a little imagination, it was easy to project back to the time of the siege Dec 1941 to May 1942. The huge Soviet War Memorial lies close to the site of the original GPU (during the siege a hugely important  German strongpoint). I found myself reflecting on the appalling fate of the local Jewish population noting that the site of their destroyed synagogue was nearby.

The Soviet war memorial is sited on the eastern bank of the River Lovat and walking north, one can quickly discern some of the features apparent in contemporary photographs and first hand accounts; the 'Rote Ruine', 'Lausepelz', the site of the original church and the depths of the 'Policeman's Ravine'. Standing on the cliff top one can gaze across the Lovat to the eastern bank and reflect on the epic 105 day siege. it is relatively easy to scramble down to the river bank and see where the 1941/42 bailey bridge was sited.

River Lovat Crossing, Kholm (1942)

Most of the original town has been destroyed but there is one recognisable building remaining - solidly built and easily spotted through referencing contemporary photographs. Behind the house there is a memorial to the victims of political repression.

One of the few surviving houses in Kholm

Students of the battle will know that on the eastern bank, the town cemeteries were scenes of heavy fighting. We were unable to find either and concluded the sites had been swallowed up by new housing.

To the north of the site of the original crossing there is an impressive modern bridge. Crossing over to the western bank there is plenty to see since it was here that Scherer set up his Headquarters - accessible from the town centre via the bailey bridge. A swift walk to the high ground revealed plenty of features associated with the siege  - trenches, gun positions and evidence of dugouts. The old road down to the western end of the old bridge is easily found.

Site of Lovat Crossing (2011)

The striking thing about the landscape here, is the cliff on the eastern bank which seems almost out of place in a landscape characterised by lakes and swamps. It is obvious why Kholm was so important to the invading German Army.

On the extreme west of the 'kessel' area lies the old airfield. During the conflict some 2,000 sorties were flown - initially by JU-52's and then gliders. The change of approach was forced by a 30% loss rate in aircraft. As the 'kessel' area was compressed because of the intensity of the fighting, the airfield became part of 'no mans' land and each glider landing was greeted by frantic efforts from both sides to retrieve the valuable contents.

Anti Tank Gun, Kholm Airfield

For more photographs please go to the 'Kholm Pocket' link on my Index Page (see tab at the top of this page). For  an incredibly vivid description of the siege I recommend Russ Schneider's excellent semi fictional account - 'The Siege'.