Ep. 45 Battle for Yelets pt. 2

Gerhard’s division was routed from Yelets and on the run. Yesterday they received some fuel and supplies but they were still encircled by enemies.

On December 13 Gerhard awoke to an alarm – Soviets were in the village and orders were given to depart with only “necessary baggage.” The command post was being moved six kilometres west to Rossoshnoye [52°47’15.21″N, 37°42’16.42″E], but the road was blocked. In their haste to escape, remnants of the 134th and two other infantry divisions blocked the road in three slow columns so the still mobile fighting units could not get through. Five kilometres further down the road the Russian encirclement waited.

At noon General von Cochenhausen ordered a breakout. Infantry Regiment 446 was to attack the Russians blocking the escape, followed by the motorized columns. Infantry Regiment 445 was to protect against an attack from the rear. The battle lasted all afternoon and finally they broke through. The infantry companies moved to Verkhnyaya Lyubovsha [52°48’17.69″N, 37°31’45.48″E], five kilometres further west but the motorized and towed vehicles could not follow through the snow filled ravines in the area. They traveled north over a temporary bridge toward an enemy of unknown force. Soon this column was mired in front of a ravine and could not move. In desperation, General von Cochenhausen ordered all baggage and documents to be destroyed, including the war diaries of 134th. They would attempt a breakout in the morning, a morning he would not live to see. Stuck in the ravine, the Germans were repeatedly attacked by assault troops and artillery fire and suffered numerous casualties. The Stalin organ with its screaming whistles strained the nerves and many a soldier resigned himself to die.

grl-cochenhausen.jpg

Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen

Von Cochenhausen’s staff officer provided the following report to the High Command of the 34th Army Corps:

On December 13, 1941 sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight, Lt. General von Cochenhausen shot himself in his staff car parked next to the railroad tracks approximately three kilometres west of Krasnaya Zarya [52°46’56.90″N, 37°41’44.08″E].

It is my conviction he took this step because he considered our situation as hopeless and he did not wish to be taken prisoner.

When I first met Lt. General von Cochenhausen on September 30, 1941 he expressed great pessimism regarding the overall military situation in the east, and great concern for his beloved 134th Infantry Division which was at that time already exhausted and battle-weary. Since I was aware  Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen had survived a serious motor vehicle accident several years ago, I believed his negative outlook to be temporary. Later however, I became convinced he saw everything as hopeless, and I was prepared to ask for his recall. Since the beginning of December the present situation did not permit me to proceed. As it turned out, due to the forceful breakthrough of the enemy on our long southern flank at Jelez [Yelets] and even more so, due to the complete failure of our supply troops, Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen was denied a graceful exit. On December 13, I accompanied our forward regimental troops on their march. In Rossoshnoye, Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen met with the Division staff. We were to reach Verkhnyaya Lyubovsha, but southwest of Rossoshnoye we were attacked by enemy tanks, including a heavy tank. Immediately Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen spoke of the heavy fire and complained that he had nothing to return fire with because of the ammunition shortage and the muddy, snowy and icy conditions prevented positioning artillery guns. As it happened, the bridge at Rossoshenskiy was not passable, so I decided, with Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen’s approval (“There’s nothing else we can do,” he said), to attach part of our staff  to the infantry and explore other means of getting the motor vehicles out. Marching from 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. through the cold and wind, in complete darkness over extraordinarily difficult terrain was a great strain which affected each of us. We came upon a deep ravine but it could not be crossed by the artillery in darkness.  Two-and-a-half kilometres east of the Lyubovsha sector we ran into the enemy in a wide front. We were attacked by machine guns and rockets and not only from the front but also from both flanks. Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen and I were of the opinion, and 1st Lt. Reinert, regimental commander, agreed with us, that our two battalions were only at the strength of two companies [200-500 men] without heavy weapons, it would not be possible to join the battle during the night. In the morning we could bring up the heavier weapons and move some of the guns.

Thereafter I went back behind the ravine and gathered between the vehicles and the baggage train. Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen also joined us there. From this description it can be seen that Lt. Gen. von Cochenhausen broke down due to his pessimistic outlook and the impact of recent events, although he appeared outwardly calm. The strenuous physical activity of the night could also have contributed.

[signature illegible]

Fortunately for Gerhard, other leaders of the division had a more positive view of their dire circumstances. As the remaining senior officers met to discuss the tactics of a breakout, the Russians attacked with the Stalin organ and killed the commander of 1st Company of Infantry Regiment 446. Instantly the order was given: “Move out! Tempo! Lying down is forbidden!” The soldiers of the exhausted infantry regiment threw themselves into battle and surprised the Russians, crossed the Lyubovsha River and threw the Russians out of Verkhnyaya Lyubovsha, capturing dozens of horses and vehicles.

By now the regiments were separated and fighting battles in different directions. Infantry Regiment 439 had lost contact with the main division and was suffering repeated attacks from Russian cavalry. Eventually the regiment, though scattered, moved in a northwesterly direction and disengaged from the Russian cavalry.

When the promised air support finally arrived the way to Verkhnyaya Lyubovsha was cleared. By the evening of December 14, the road from Rossoshenskiy to Verkhnyaya Lyubovsha was secured and the remainder of the troops found themselves in relative safety.

Early the next day several German Junker 52 aircraft landed on the snow and unloaded 800 litres of fuel so the vehicles moved again in a northwesterly direction, toward Novosil 40 kilometres away.

Cold soldiers winter of 1941-42

December 15 was the day the Russian encirclement was broken. Private First Class Kern describes the moment in a letter: “As December 15 broke, we moved further west. In the town of Khomutovo there were 4,000 Russians on the previous day. But our Luftwaffe had punched the way clear. And as I alone looked out on the Orel –Yelets rail line, seven men came out of the distance with snow smocks on. The troops marched in the shelter of an embankment. I wanted to sound the alarm. Then I saw that six men remained standing and one came closer … At a closer distance I recognized the German helmet. My heart hammered as I recognized an SS trooper. Then his Lieutenant from the patrol came forward. They were looking for the “C” Division, they were searching for us! They were supposed to bail us out, but we had managed to do it on our own. Like wildfire the word spread, from column to column, that we had met our own forces. We were free!”[1]

The defeat of the Germans at Yelets was a turning point for the Soviets in the Great Patriotic War, as World War Two is known in Russia.  It was one of the first Soviet  victories of the war and resulted in the near annihilation of two divisions of the German Second Army – the 45th and the 95th –  and set the tone for the rest of the war. The 134th was scattered:  Gerhard’s division would meet its final demise two and a half  years later, but the die was cast. From now on it was retreat and defeat for the Germans.

Here is a Russian report of the first day of the counteroffensive:

By the end of the day the enemy garrison in Yelets was already surrounded. Fearing complete encirclement, the Germans on the night of December 9, began to withdraw their units from Yelets. Leaving weapons and equipment, … the Nazis fled in panic from Yelets, paving the way of their retreat with hundreds of corpses. Our troops and guerrillas harassed and destroyed the retreating Nazis. In retreat, the Nazis covered in one day the distance that normally would have taken fifteen days.

By December 9, 1941 the city was completely liberated. The valiant troops of the Soviet Army in close cooperation with the guerrilla forces of our region, after fierce bloody battles forever banished from our ancient Russian city the Nazi occupiers and wrote a glorious page in the history of victories of our people.

By the end of day on December 10 enemy defense was broken along the entire front, German troops and units were mixed, command and control was broken.[2]

Soviet soldiers who inflicted this defeat were celebrated as heroes. Thousands of officers and men received special awards for valour. The victory over the Germans is one of the great battles in the 900 year history of the city. In 2007 President Vladimir Putin named Yelets a “City of Military Glory.”

Digging Tank Traps

October 1941, Near Moscow, USSR — Russians digging anti-tank trenches near Moscow. — Image by © Dmitri Baltermants/The Dmitri Baltermants Collection/Corbis.  Women and children of Yelets also dug these tank traps.

What the Germans may not have known is that on the day in June when they crossed the frontier into Russia, the people of Yelets already prepared for the attack. They built fortifications; every day 15,000 women and teenagers helped dig an anti-tank ditch that stretched twelve kilometres around the city. Those who hadn’t left for the front organized into guerilla groups known as “People’s Avengers” and were armed with rifles, machine guns, grenades and Molotov cocktails.

partisans

Partisans preparing an ambush.

The Avengers killed more than 300 German soldiers and officers, captured machine guns, grenades and thousands of rifles, and destroyed the bridges necessary to the German supply chain.

People’s Avengers, some of them children, carried out sabotage in factories and railways, conducted reconnaissance in the rear, threw grenades into the houses where the invaders stayed, staged armed raids on the German guards, and disseminated leaflets.[3]

German losses multiplied with the beginning of the Soviet counteroffensive which also coincided with the coldest winter in years. The Second Army, of which the 134th was a part, lost 12,000 men killed and wounded, 226 guns, 319 machine guns, 1,500 rifles and 907 vehicles.

Russian losses were also great.

Fascists were in Yelets for five days but in this short time they have brought the city huge distress and suffering, the first day of the occupation of the Nazis shot 77 captured soldiers and commanders, the same fate befell many innocent residents, 300 men, women and children were rounded up and deported to Germany. Huge damage of 167 million rubles was inflicted on our city. Nazis destroyed 547 buildings, the water supply, and the electricity. Especially hard hit was the railway junction. They destroyed nine kilometres of railway lines, and blew up the bridges over the river Don.[4]

In May 1945 this battle was keenly remembered by victorious Soviet soldiers who set fire to the Reichstag. Amid the mayhem of the battle, Boris Sidelnikov was one of the soldiers who inscribed the words “We are from Yelets” on the walls of the smoking ruins of the German parliament.

Yelets beauty

Yelets beauty 2

Yelets today is beautiful again.

 

NOTES

[1] All details regarding the battle for Yelets come from a forum entry by Robert Westby on November 6, 2007. https://forum.axishistory.com//viewtopic.php?f=55&t=129793&start=0&hilit=jelez, accessed April 6, 2018. Author edited details for brevity and clarity.

[2] http://elecrealty.ru/vov.html, translation by Google and Microsoft Translate, paraphrasing by the author.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://elecrealty.ru/vov.html, http://elzem.ru/statya-vypuska/zhizn-goroda-elca-v-gody-velikoj-otechestvennoj-vojny.html, translation by Google and Microsoft Translate, paraphrasing by the author.

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