Saturday 27 August 2011

The Volkhov Front - Novgorod Sector (1941 - 1944)

The lower reaches of the Volkhov River marked the South Eastern flank of the German 'Army Group North' for the duration of the siege of Leningrad. Behind the German lines on the West bank crucial supply lines snaked down from the Gatchina area to Lake Ilmen and beyond. German strongpoints at Demyansk and Staraya Russa were reliant on the 16th Army - entrenched on the Volkhov with its' Southern flank anchored in the Novgorod area.

We visited Novgorod in May - upon arrival there was snow on the ground but just one week later the weather was uncomfortably hot. Such is the climate of Russia. The picture above shows the spectacular War Memorial in the centre of town.From October 1941 to August 1942 the city was held by the Spanish Blue Division (Division Azul). The Division held a 50 km front from the shores of Lake Ilmen running North through the city. We were surprised to find a War Memorial dedicated to the Blue Division in the Novgorod German cemetery a couple of kilometres South of the city centre. The picture below shows the Memorial which lists the names of about 2,000 Spaniards buried in the cemetery.

When the Blue Division moved North in the summer of 1942 the Spanish engineers took the cross from the top of Saint Sophia cathedral in the city. The cross resided at the Spanish Engineers Academy in Hoyo de Manzaneras, Madrid for 60 years. It has recently been returned and can be seen in the cathedral.

South of the city is the superb Yuriev monastery. A German strongpoint in the war, the grounds are covered in vestiges of old bunkers and defensive positions. Across the water, but still on the West bank one can visit the remains of the original Lower Volkhov bridge, destroyed in 1941. The picture below shows a view looking South towards Lake Ilmen.

North of the city, much of the fighting in 42/43 was centred in the area of Myasnoy Bor. It was here that Vlasov's 2nd Shock Army broke through the German lines pushing forward to break the Leningrad Siege. Overall though the Lyuban Offensive failed as the German strongpoints along the river held fast in the face of the Russian onslaught. Vlasov's Army was surrounded and destroyed. Vlasov was taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht on July 6th 1942. The picture below shows a T34 just north of the point that formed the centre of the Lyuban jumping off point.

A few days before getting to Novgorod we had spent time in the bush around Demjansk (which will be the subject of a future blog entry). To the East of the town we had witnessed the excavation of fallen Russian (and German) soldiers. At Myasnoy Bor we felt honoured to be invited to the funeral and burial of other Russian heroes - this time from the area North of Volkhov where the Russian 52nd and 59th Armies were decimated. The picture below shows the ceremony at the impressive Myasnor Bor Memorial complex.

Travelling back to St Petersburg on the most direct route takes the traveller along the old German front line for about 100km. In 1942 because of shortages of personnel the 16th Army wasn't able to man an uninterrupted front line. Instead the Wehrmacht set up a series of interlocked strongpoints. We visited the sites of a few. In particular Spassky Politka which successfully held out for a couple of weeks during the Lyuban Offensive. The remnants of gun pits, bunkers and trenches were there - though inaccessible due to water logged ground.