Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Fight for Bolkhov (July 1943)

Following the successful defeat of the German attack on Kursk (Operation Citadel) the Soviet High Command launched the Kutuzov counter-stroke - as planned. Model, the German commander responsible for the force attacking the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient immediately realised that the substantial number of units within the Orel bulge were at risk of encirclement. In particular the 9th Army - exhausted after having been fought to a stand-still in the Ponyri area.

Otrada Station, Orel Oblast, Russia
The 3rd Guards Tank Army launched an attack on an East/ West axis towards Orel on the 16th July 1943. Just five days later the Soviet 2nd Corps had taken the strategically important town of Otrada. In doing so the railway line to the German forces in the vicinity of Plavsk was cut. As the German panzers began to move back across the Oka river bridges in Orel city the situation began to look increasingly desperate for the Germans.

Bolkhov after liberation in July 1943
The same scene in May 2016

Knowing that Bolkhov needed to be held in order to retain control of the north-eastern section of the battlefield and to facilitate an orderly withdrawal to the new constructed Hagen Line at the base of the Orel bulge, Model reorganised his command. Gruppe Harpe was an ad-hoc battle group consisting of the XLI, LII and XXII Corps. Amongst the forces committed to the newly formed battle group were the 9th and 20th Panzer Divisions. (Note: The blue building in the picture above is one of two such blocks built on the site of a wartime German cemetery in Bolkhov).

Capture of Bolkhov Convent on 26th July 1943
The same spot in May 2016

Bolkhov is a beautiful town and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in what appeared to be an old monastery. The town is dissected by the River Nugr (a tributory of the Oka) and whilst the main road bridge was rebuilt after the war, a second was not and is now marked by a rope bridge. Many of the churches in Bolkhov have been rebuilt and the golden domes are visible for many miles.

View of Bolkhov from the Officer's Cemetery 
T34 (correct vintage) at Bolkhov

We decided to walk the route of the German 20th Panzer Division which succesfully counter-attacked at the village of Wjasowaja on the 18th July. We also had every intention of getting to the villages of Betowo, Krasnikovo, Jatschnoje and Rylowo all of which saw heavy fighting involving the 9th and 20th Panzer Divisions during the third week in July 1943. The criticality of the sector to the Germans is evident in the fact that Model relieved General Scheller, Commander of the 9th Panzer Division on the 21st July for failing to execute a 'suicidal' night attack on Krasnikovo.

Abandoned houses at Wjasowaja
The road from Bolkhov to Wjasowaja has a good surface and few potholes. En-route we spotted a number of small battlefield cemeteries. The village was revitalised in the 1970s for Russian emigres returning from Poland. Unfortunately few came and most of the buildings in the village are derelict. The picture above shows unfinished blocks which stand empty next to the few traditional houses inhabited by today's tiny and aging population.

Unfortunately the end of the village meant the end of the metalled road. The routes through the forest to the other places we had intended to visit were very muddy tracks - many of which would be impassable even with a four wheeled drive vehicle. A villager and his wife had just returned from an exhausting trip - by horse and trailer - to the weekly market at Krasnikovo. Clearly the trip had been too much for them and for their horse. 

Only transport available at Wjasowaja 
The impassable road to Betowo

The 20th Panzer Division's War Diary for the 18th July 1943 reveals how difficult the fighting was in Wjasowaja. Kampfgruppe Demme (20th Pzr) launched an attack at 03:30 in the morning. By 6:05 the village was in German hands. Three Russian tanks broke through at 7:00 with another fifteen at 07:30. At 08:30 a German request for reinforcements was rejected. After heavy fighting through the afternoon, Demme consolidated his defending force on a line anchored on Hill 220.4 aided by 6 of the 20th Division's panzers.

The author explaining the actions in Wjasowaja

We visited two cemeteries in the village. The first is on a ridge overlooking the southern approaches. It's a contemporary battlefield plot with a private memorial to a Soviet Airman within the perimeter. The second is the village memorial and cemetery which can be found in the grounds of the local school. Both are carefully looked after by the local population.

Battlefield cemetery at Wjasowaja
Village cemetery at Wjasowaja school

Our visit to the Bolkhov, Krasnikovo and Wjasowaja was considerably enhanced thanks to a terrific briefing pack prepared by my friend Martin Nevshemal, author of Objective Ponyri: The Defeat of XXXXI Panzerkorps at Ponyri Train Station (ISBN 978-0-9922749-1-7.

The full photo set for Bolkhov can be found here on Flickr.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Victory Day in Russia (9th May 2016)

Over the years I have had the immense privilege of attending Victory Day celebrations in a variety of cities and towns in Russia. The memory of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War is still very strong - fanned, as it is, by a political establishment which finds it helpful to invoke memories of the huge sacrifices made during the Second World War and the exceptional men and women who secured a stunning military victory for the Soviet Union.

Victory Day Parade - Orel, Russia (2016)
Head of Victory Day Parade, Bolchov, Russia (2016)

It is tempting to compare Victory Day (9th May) with the British institution of Remembrance Day (11th November). Superficially there are similarities - both mark the end of a conflict which had a drastic impact on the countries involved (albeit the quantum of Russian losses dominates in terms of pure numbers). Victory Day in Russia is marked as a national holiday. It is a joyous occasion during which the generation that fought the Nazis are respected and celebrated. The tone is triumphalist, joyous and patriotic. Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom is equally respectful of course but the tone is sombre with a focus on those who died as exemplified through the emblematic poppy.

A veteran joined by teenagers in Bolchov

Going back a few years the veterans would march through the streets of Russian cities and towns. By the time they reached the end point they would have armfuls of flowers and they would be glowing with pride. Nowadays the flowers and the pride are still very much evident but the number of veterans is much smaller and those that do attend invariably view the parade from comfortable viewing platforms.

Victory Day in Bolchov
This year, along with a small group of friends, I was able to attend two events. Firstly in the lovely little riverside town of Bolchov and then - a couple of hours drive away - in the bustling city of Orel. Both places were occupied by the Germans from 1941 to 1943 before being liberated during the Kutuzov offensive. It was a lovely sunny day and both events were hugely impressive.

Bolchov presents itself as a small sleepy place with few people around. This was not so on Victory Day. By 10:00 in the morning the main street was thronged with local people. Surprising given the vast numbers in the parade - uniformed service men and women, costumed groups, school classes and - in a throwback to the Soviet era - young pioneers dressed in uniforms reminiscent of the All-Union Leninist Communist Youth League - popularly known as the Komsomol.

Last Minute Touches at Bolchov on Victory Day

During the second world war it was common practice for the Soviet authorities to inter fallen officers in town centre parks - the other ranks were buried in traditional cemeteries on the outskirts of town. The Officer's Cemetery in Bolchov was a focus point on Victory Day with uniformed Russian teenagers mounting an honour guard. The picture above shows a youth leader adjusting the uniform of one of these 'guards'. After the march the entire population - or so it seemed - gathered in the main square for speeches and communal singing - Katyusha being a firm favourite.

The End of the Parade - Bolchov, Russia

The afternoon parade in Orel was on an even bigger scale. We arrived to a scene of joy and celebration - there was an air of expectation and the city centre and bridges had been cleared of traffic. In the parks there were small scale exhibitions relating to the Second World War and people of all ages were dressed up in their finery and - in many instances - replica uniforms of those who fought to liberate the city in 1943.

Weapons display - Central Park, Orel, Russia
Three generations celebrate a fourth 

We were astonished by the scale of the Victory Parade in Orel - tens of thousands of local people in family groups clutching pictures of relatives who had served in the Soviet Army. For hour after hour they streamed past - spontaneously bursting into patriotic songs and acknowledging us with big smiles when they heard the English accents of myself and two others in our small group.

The Victory Parade - Orel, Russia (2016)
Waiting for the speeches - Orel, Russia (2016)

I took two short clips of the parade where the viewer can get a sense of the atmosphere. They are available here and here. The stream of people seemed never ending and it was humbling to see how proud people were of their relatives who served. A sea of vibrant faces and faded photographs - for mile after mile after mile!

Sneaking a selfie with the girlfriend - Orel, Russia

I will cover our battlefield walks in Orel and Bolchov in later editions of this blog. Meanwhile click on the link to my Victory Day - 2016 photographs on flickr if you would like to see more images of these parades.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Objective Ponyri - The Battle of Kursk (July 1943)

Popular conception of the Battle of Kursk leaves the impression that the key to Soviet success was the 5th Tank Army's defence of Prokhorovka which - so it is said - thwarted the German attack from the south. The reality is somewhat different - putting aside the fact that the II Panzer Army in the south was in a defensive posture when the famous clash of armour occurred at Prokhorovka on the 12th July, the reality is that the Axis ambition to pinch out the Kursk salient had  already been shattered in the north several days earlier.

Ferdinand 501 - 1943 & 2016
Our journey to Ponyri had - in a sense - started a week earlier at the vast Kubinka Tank Museum, just a couple of hours by train from Moscow. The complex is massive with huge halls dedicated to different types of armoured vehicle. We were particularly interested in Ferdinand 501, one of 90 such vehicles deployed by Model's 9th Army in the northern sector of the Kursk battlefield.

We were seriously distracted at Kubinka - watching tanks running and firing contemporary weapons. However, for an overview of the Soviet and German armoured vehicles in use of Kursk and Kutuzov, the place is a 'must do'. Most of the armour is lined up in poorly lit hangers so it was difficult to capture decent images of this fantastic collection. When catching the train to Kubinka it is well worth seeking out the 'Farewell to Slavianka' monument in Belorussia station, Moscow (installed April, 2014).

Farewell for Kursk - Belorussia Station, Moscow
Post war, during the communist era, the 'defeat' of Hitler's elite Panzer Corps at Prokhorovka was celebrated with a plethora of memorials including the elegant bell tower. It is only now that the northern sector is gaining profile as a battlefield worthy of commemoration - and rightly so given the tremendous achievement of Rokossovsky's Central Army's in stopping Model's 9th Army in its' tracks (literally!).
Victory Column on Teploye Heights
A new iconic memorial on the Teploye Heights is under construction - it was Model's failure to capture and hold these heights on the 8th & 9th July which sealed the fate of Zitadelle.

The German 9th Army was well equipped with armour. Unlike Manstein in the south there were no Panther tanks but the Ferdinands were complemented by over 250 Panzer I, IIs, IIs, IVs and Tigers. There were to be no wedges of armour biting into the Russian lines though. The 9th Army dispersed its' armour amongst its formidable infantry formations which were operating in five Corps, three of which were designated 'Panzer'.

Facing the German attackers was the formidable Soviet 13th Army backed by the 2nd Tank Army and the central thrust of the German attack, led by the XXXXI Panzerkorps, was parried in the vicinity of Ponyri Railway Station. The station has been rebuilt and the booking hall is filled with spectacular murals. The surrounding area is marked by a number of small scale memorials and in the old schoolhouse there is an excellent museum. Much to our amusement during our visit one of the museum guides demonstrated how to navigate through barbed wire - quite an achievement given her advanced age and 'full' figure!

Interior of Ponri Station 
A Wet Day at Ponyri Station

Prior to our trip I had been given some great advice about the Ponyri battlefield from Marty Nevshemal whose book 'Objective Ponryri: The Defeat of XXXXI Panzerkorps at Ponyri Station' is a marvellous empirical study of the battle. I was happy to present the curator of Ponyri Museum with a copy of the book on behalf of the author. 

Presenting Marty's book to the Ponyri Museum

The modern day road north from Kursk to Orel runs through the old 1st defence line just south of the town of Trosna. There is a memorial complex there and we took the opportunity to undertake a field walk in the sunshine. From the low ridge to the east it is is just possible to see the area of the Soviet 70th Army's defences which were assaulted by the German 258th Infantry Division on the 5th July 1943. Unlike many of the other guns in place on the memorial the inevitable T34 is actually pointing in the right direction.

T34 on 1st Defence Line - Trosna

this was our final walk on the Kursk battlefield and our next destinations would be in the Orel area where, once the German attack on Kursk faltered, the Soviet High Command launched a massive counterattack. Next stop Bolchov.

For photographs of the Kubinka Tank Grounds click here.
For photographs of Ponyri click here.