Realizing that the first Western Front was shortly going to cease to exist, the Stavka committed virtually its entire strategic reserve (that existed on 22nd June 1941) to the Minsk-Smolensk-Moscow axis under the new and aptly named Reserve Front (formed on 11th July). The 16th Army (from Transbaikal) and 19th Army (from North Caucasus) immediately moved from the south of Kiev and were deployed south and north of Smolensk respectively. The 20th Army (from the Orel region) moved from the Moscow area and was deployed on the Dvina-Dnepr land bridge between Orsha and Vitebsk. The 21st Army (from the Volga region) was deployed on the Dnepr near Rogachev. The 22nd Army (from the Urals) was deployed on the Dvina River bend north of Vitebsk. The 24th Army moved from Siberia and was deployed west of Smolensk. In addition the newly mobilised 28th Army (the HQ formed after 22nd June) was deployed north of Briansk. The Stavka obviously realised (even if Hitler didn’t) that loosing the Moscow region would potentially result in loosing the war, and wholly expected the Wehrmacht to pursue this objective before the autumn of 1941. Consequently they realised that the ‘Battle of Smolensk’ was critical and assumed its outcome would determine if an offensive against Moscow could continue.
While the Bialystok-Minsk pocket was being eliminated, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups pressed on. On the northern wing 3rd Panzer Group’s 57th Panzer Corps (with only the 19th Panzer Division as the 12th had transferred to 39th Panzer Corps) reached the Disna and by 3rd July was fighting with 22nd Army to force a crossing. This battle would continue until 8th July by which time 57th Panzer Corps managed to cross the Dvina north of Polotsk. On 2nd July the 39th Panzer Corps (now with three panzer divisions) established another bridgehead over the Beresina River at Borisov and by 5th July the corps was heading north-eastwards towards Vitebsk. Meanwhile 47th Panzer Corps approached the Beresina at Brodets, had stormed across by 4th July and was heading for the Dnepr south of Orsha. The 46th Panzer Corps quickly moved up to create a link between the 47th Panzer Corps and the 24th Panzer Corps, which was already across the Beresina and had reached the Dnepr River on 5th July. In addition, the OKH had released its reserve, the 2nd Army, which was advancing behind the 2nd Panzer Group. Army Group Centre was racing forward as fast as possible to ‘jump’ the Dnepr, seize the Dvina land bridge, and pre-empt any attempt by the Soviets to establish a strong defence line along the Dnepr River and around Smolensk.
In the intervening period Timoshenko had become the commander of the ‘Western Strategic Direction’ which enabled him to take control of the new Western Front, appointing Eremenko (Pavlov’s immediate replacement) as his deputy, and incorporating most of the Reserve Front (under Budennyi) into Western Front. Timoshenko had planned a series of major counter-attacks with the strategic reserves. The two most important were the 20th Army attacking against the panzer corps in the Lepel area with the 5th and 7th Mechanised Corps, and 4th, 13th and 21st Army attacking against the south flank of 2nd Panzer Group.
The 5th and 7th Mechanised Corps (six divisions), which were by far the two strongest corps in Stavka reserves, were the main units in the Lepel Offensive Operation (also referred to as the Orsha Counter-Offensive) from 6th to 11th July 1941. On 22nd June these two corps had 2 094 tanks, which represented 80% of the tanks in the Reserves of the STAVKA GK on that date. The offensive was conducted by the reinforced 20th Army in Western Front in conjunction with the 44th and 69th Rifle Corps (with seven rifle divisions), elements of the 2nd and 4th Rifle Corps, and the 4th Airborne Corps. This major counter-offensive was in line with the Stavka pre-war plan to use its mechanised corps to halt, repel and destroy any invading forces. As such the Lepel Offensive Operation was a serious attempt to stop and then defeat the 3rd Panzer Group while it was still west of the Dvina-Dnepr River line. The 5th and 7th Mechanised Corps attacked with over 2 000 tanks on 6th July. It developed as a meeting engagement with the 3rd Panzer Group’s 39th Panzer Corps and the 2nd Panzer Group’s 47th Panzer Corps. In five days of fighting the 7th, 12th, 17th and 18th Panzer Divisions defeated and decimated the 5th and 7th Mechanised Corps and supporting rifle forces, and continued their advance on Vitebsk and Orsha. The 5th and 7th Mechanised Corps lost 832 tanks, many personnel and much heavy equipment in the battle, withdrawing in disorder eastwards across the Dnepr river.
The defeat forced Timoshenko to commit 19th Army to defend Vitebsk. It was still disembarking and attempting to fully deploy when it was hit by the rapidly advancing 39th Panzer Corps. After a furious battle 39th Panzer Corps seized Vitebsk, and by 13th July it had broken through and was heading eastwards to form the northern enveloping arm around Smolensk. Further north the 57th Panzer Corps had secured its crossings on the Dvina and by 13th July was heading towards Velikiye-Luki. By this time strong elements of 9th Army had moved up behind the two panzer corps, taking Polotsk and consolidating 3rd Panzer Group’s advance line. On the southern wing, 24th Panzer Corps had crossed the Dnepr south of Mogilev, defeated elements of the battered 13th Army defending the river, and by 13th July was advancing towards Roslavl. Similarly, the 47th and 46th Panzer Corps had crossed the Dnepr between Orsha and Mogilev. The 47th Panzer Corps immediately advanced along the Dnepr river line towards Smolensk, thus forming the southern enveloping arm around Smolensk, and on 13th July its 29th Motorised Division was only eleven miles from Smolensk. The 46th Panzer Corps meanwhile headed for the area El’nia-Roslavl. Moving up behind 2nd Panzer Group were elements of 2nd Army which had reached Rogachev and Zhlobin by 13th July.
On 13th July Timoshenko’s next major counter-attack began. It involved the reinforced 4th and 13th Armies (both ‘original’ armies having been virtually destroyed around Minsk), and the fresh 21st Army. This offensive, known as the Bobruisk Offensive Operation,(4) involved striking the south flank of the German advance (the 24th Panzer Corps) and the German 2nd Army in Rogachev and Zhlobin. The main strike forces consisted of: 21st Army’s 25th Mechanised Corps (from Stavka reserve with 250 tanks) and 67th Rifle Corps (in conjunction with the 4th Army) attacking into 24th Panzer Corps south flank, 13th Army elements (mostly retreating from Dnepr River line) attacking 24th Panzer Corps from the north-west, and 21st Army’s 63rd Rifle Corps attacking the German 2nd Army in Rogachev and Zhlobin. The attacks went in as planned at heavy cost, but only the 63rd Rifle Corps’ attack had any significant success: it succeeded in pushing the Germans out of Rogachev and Zhlobin before the line was stabilised. The more significant result of this melee was that 24th Panzer Corps kept its southern flank intact and broke out eastwards and north-eastwards to link up with 46th Panzer Corps encircling Mogilev from the north. In so doing the 13th Army’s 61st and 45th Rifle Corps, and remnants of the 20th Mechanised Corps, became isolated in and around Mogilev.
(4) Coined the ‘Timoshenko Counter Offensive’ by Guderian in his memoirs
On 16th July the 47th Panzer Corps’ 29th Motorised Division seized Smolensk in a remarkable coup de main. As 39th Panzer Corps was already at Yartsevo to the east of Smolensk, the result was a huge salient with a very narrow neck, stretching from Orsha, Smolensk, Yartsevo and south of Vitebsk. In the salient were the Soviet 16th, 19th and 20th armies. By 20th July on the northern wing the 3rd Panzer Group’s 57th Panzer Corps had captured Velikiye-Luki supported by 9th Army. The 39th and 47th Panzer Corps had consolidated their positions around the Smolensk salient but stiff Soviet resistance had prevented the neck of the salient from being closed. 47th Panzer had also cleared Orsha of Soviet forces. The 46th Panzer Corps had meanwhile advanced rapidly further east and seized El’nia by 20th July, while 24th Panzer Corps continued to defend its south flank and advanced to a line between Krichev and Mstislayl on the Sozh River. By this time a few complete German infantry divisions (not simply the more mobile reconnaissance and AT battalions) from 2nd, 4th and 9th Armies had crossed the Dnepr and were closing up on 2nd and 3rd Panzer Group’s advance line, as well as exerting pressure on the Mogilev pocket and the Smolensk ‘pocket’
By now Timoshenko had organised his forces for another series of counter-attacks along the front of 2nd and 3rd Panzer Group’s advance line, with the aim of “destroying the Smolensk grouping” and relieving the Smolensk pocket. On Stavka’s orders, the Western Front formed four ‘operational groups’ from the 24th, 28th, 29th and 30th Armies, and a fifth called group Rokossovsky. From north to south, the operational groups were:
Group Maslennikov, formed from 29th Army. It contained the 243rd, 252nd and 256th Rifle Divisions. It was ordered to attack south from Toropets to bring pressure to bear on the outer German perimeter.
Group Khomenko, formed from 30th Army. It contained the 242nd, 250th and 251st Rifle Divisions. It was ordered to attack the perimeter south-west from Belyi. It also had support from 50th and 53rd Cavalry Divisions stationed just west of Belyi.
Group Kalinin, formed from 24th Army. It contained the 53rd Rifle Corps with the 89th, 91st and 166th Rifle Divisions. It was ordered to attack westwards, and hit the perimeter just north of Yartsevo.
Group Rokossovsky. It initially contained the 38th Rifle Division, 101st Tank Division and 107th Mechanised Division. It was ordered to attack westwards towards Yartsevo in order to pin down the 7th Panzer Division their and help keep the neck of the salient open. It was reinforced after 22nd July.
Group Kachalov, formed from 28th Army. It contained the 145th, 149th and 222nd Rifle Divisions, and 109th Tank Division. It was ordered to attack from Roslavl in a north-west direction towards Smolensk.
On face value the above ‘operational groups’ appear as a significantly powerful offensive force. However, it is apparent that the Western Front was now scraping the bottom of the barrel to find mobile offensive units. The first thing that is apparent is that all the armies involved, except the 24th, were brand new. The 28th Army was mobilised in late June, and the 29th and 30th were only mobilised in July. They and just been assigned to Reserve Front when the situation demanded they move forward to support Western Front. In addition, of the 18 divisions involved (above), only 7 rifle divisions were per-war divisions: every other division had been mobilised from scratch in June or even July, many in a period of only two weeks. Consequently, even though they mostly used ‘trained’ reservists, the new units were barely formed, had never trained as a unit, and their equipment left a lot to be desired. Unsurprisingly when the various ‘operational groups’ carried out their orders from 21st July onwards, all the attacks except that by Group Kachalov (see below), were soon repulsed with heavy casualties.
The Kachalov operational group (28th Army) attacked towards Smolensk from Roslavl on 23rd July. It hit the weakest point in the German perimeter: a gap between 24th Panzer Corps’ 3rd Panzer Division near Mstislayl and 46th Panzer Corps’ 10th Panzer Division in El’nia. The defenders were thin on the ground and were principally from the Gross-Deutschland Motorised Infantry Regiment from 46th Panzer Corps. Group Kachalov initially made good progress and attempted to encircle the defenders, who soon received support from forward elements of 18th Panzer Division. By 24th-25th July the German 292nd and 263rd Infantry Divisions from 4th Army’s 9th Infantry Corps arrived and stabilised the front.
Meanwhile 24th Panzer Corps had not been idle. By 30th July most of the corps had regrouped between Krichev and Mstislayl on the Sozh River. On 31st July the corps broke out of its bridgehead on the Sozh River and by 1st August it hit the east flank of group Kachalov and 28th Army. By 3rd August it had encircled Roslavl from the south and linked up with 4th Army’s 9th Infantry Corps advancing south. The resulting Roslavl Pocket (eliminated by 6th August) yielded around 39 000 POWs; this was most of Group Kachalov as well as 28th Army’s offensive forces. The shattered 28th Army quickly withdrew behind the Desna River. In the meantime the German 4th Army had eliminated the forces still in Mogilev (later designated a hero city by the Soviets for its tenacious defence, unlike Smolensk) and captured another 35 000 POWs.
Further north, relieved by infantry divisions, the 20th Motorised Division (39th Panzer Corps) and 17th Panzer Division (47th Panzer Corps) had all but closed the Smolensk pocket by 27th July. By this time six German Infantry Divisions from 9th Army’s 20th, 5th and 8th Infantry Corps were pounding the pocket from the north, west, and south-west respectively, inflicting huge casualties in the pocket. Bitter fighting continued in and around the pocket’s very narrow neck, and a substantial number of Red Army soldiers escaped through the gap without much heavy equipment. However, when the Smolensk pocket was finally eliminated on 5th August the Soviet 16th, 19th and 20th armies within had ceased to exist, and another 309 000 POWs had been taken. By any assessment, the second Western Front that had been formed from the Stavka’s strategic reserves on 22nd June 1941 had been virtually eliminated by 5th August.