Demyansk: The Template for Hitler’s Disaster at Stalingrad

In many ways, the Demyansk Pocket [German: Festung Demjansk or Kessel von Demjansk] was the forerunner of what was to occur later in 1942 except that in the latter instance, the outcome was tragic. Hitler, the Commander of the German Wehrmacht, had drawn the wrong conclusions from this action. The consequences of Stalingrad were immense: the elimination of Germany’s strategic initiative in the war forever.

Main picture: Like Napoeon’s forces before them, the Germans during the winter of 1941/1942 literally freeze to death in inappropriate clothing.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler had speculated that the solution to Germany’s lebensraum problem was imperial expansion in the East. That dream from 1923 could only be actualised after the vanquishing of the Western Powers excluding Great Britain.

Demyansk#02

The actual offensive against Russia only commenced on the 22nd June 1941. It should have commenced earlier in the spring to allow sufficient time before the onset of winter. This delay was due to the Balkans campaign which in turn arose due to an inconclusive campaign by his Italian allies against Albania & Greece. As usual Germany had to bail out his congenitally incompetent ally.

Italians march to Greece

Italians march to Greece

At first the German offensive drove all before it encircling vast hordes of Russian troops pushing ever eastwards. In spite of their sparkling successes, the whole campaign together with the whole basis of their previous victories being the Blitzkrieg – Lightening War – concept, the distances to be covered were vast & the German forces were not equipped to handle such a war.

With a front extending 1500 miles from the Baltic to the Black Sea something would have to give, and that was the timetable.

Like all their victories, this one was predicated on speed. From the initial invasion, Hitler undermined this requirement. This came to a head with the elimination of the pocket in Southern Russia west of Kiev.

German forces make steady progress during the summer of 1941

German forces make steady progress during the summer of 1941

With the approach of the notorious Russian winter, which had derailed Napoleon’s 1812 Campaign, the Germans too were just as unprepared. As the first snows fell on the German’s still in their summer uniforms, frantic calls were made for winter gear. The response was that no further requests of this nature were to be made again.

The snow in November 1941 came at the onset of a freezing winter, the worst experienced in years. German equipment froze to a halt as did the German soldier. Deaths due to hypothermia rose steadily & overtook those relating to military action.

After the initial light snows melted, the ground turned into mud

After the initial light snows melted, the ground turned into mud

With the German forces espying the spires of Moscow, the Russian forces struck. Using fresh Siberian troops drawn from the Manchurian border, they lashed the German forces. Hitler’s pejorative name for the Slavs was the Untermenschen. Now he had to watch enraged as these sub-humans as they overwhelmed his Germanic Übermensch [super humans].

Map of Russian advance at Demyansk

Map of Russian advance at Demyansk

The Generals requested a tactical retreat so as to limit their losses but Hitler forbad it. In epic terms he demanded that the men sacrifice their lives as all soldiers were supposed to & as he would do, if need be.

German World War 2 Colour Panzer III Tank In Russia In 1941

The first thrust was made by the 11th Army, 1st Shock Army and the 1st and 2nd Guards Rifle Corps released for the operation from Stavka reserve. A second thrust was executed on 12 February by the 3rd and 4th Shock Armies of the Kalinin Front, with the additional plan of directly attacking the encircled German forces by inserting two airborne brigades to support the advance of the 34th Army.

Due to difficult terrain and bad weather, the front soon settled as the Soviet offensive petered out.

Panzer III in Russia

Panzer III in Russia

With the German forces being surrounded, Herman Goering came to Hitler’s rescue. With 90,000 troops trapped together with 10,000 support staff, he assured Hitler that the pocket could be supplied with its daily requirement of 240 tons of supplies by air. Based upon this commitment, Hitler ordered that the encircled divisions to hold their positions until relieved. Fortunately the pocket contained two fairly capable airfields at Demyansk and Peski. From the middle of February, the weather improved significantly, and while there was still considerable snow on the ground at this time, resupply operations were generally very successful due to the weakness of the Red Air Forces in the area. However the operation did consume all of the Luftwaffe‘s transport capability, as well as elements of their bomber force.

Russland, Cholm, Soldat mit Feldstecher

In total, it is claimed that five Soviet Armies composed of 18 rifle divisions and three brigades were tied up for four months. However, by the end of May, the Stavka reconsidered the overall situation and decided to shift its attention to the Moscow sector, where a new German offensive was expected in the summer.

Between the forming of the pocket in early February to the virtual abandonment of Demyansk in May, the two pockets received 59,000 tons of supplies both through ground – a narrow corridor – and aerial delivery, 31,000 replacement troops, and 36,000 wounded were evacuated. However, the cost was significant. The Luftwaffe lost 265 aircraft, including 106 Junkers Ju 52, 17 Heinkel He 111 and two Junkers Ju 86 aircraft. In addition, 387 airmen were lost.

It had been a close-run thing with Luftwaffe resources stretched to the limit of their capability.

Russian soldiers

Russian soldiers

Thus when the Red Army launched Operation Uranus to encircle Stalingrad on 19th November 1942, Hitler would reflexively respond in a similar manner as in Demyansk. The Red forces targeted the weaker Romanian & Hungarian forces protecting the 6th Army’s flanks. Both forces were swiftly demolished & Stalingrad was surrounded trapping an estimated 200,000 German troops inside the kessel.

Stalingrad

Stalingrad

The previous success of the Luftwaffe convinced Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Hitler that they could conduct effective airlift operations to sustain Stalingrad while a rescue operation was mounted. Göring proposed a similar “solution” to supply the 6th Army. In theory the outcome could be equally advantageous; with the 6th Army trapped, but still in fighting condition, the Soviet army would have to use up much of its strength to keep the pocket contained. This could allow other German forces to re-group and mount a counterattack. However, the scale of the forces trapped in the two operations differed greatly. While a single corps (about ⅓ of an army) with about six divisions was encircled in Demyansk, in Stalingrad, an entire and greatly reinforced army was trapped.

Whereas the Demyansk pocket required around 265 t of supplies per day, the 6th Army required an estimated daily minimum of 800 t, delivered over a much-longer distance and faced by a much better organised Red Air Force. The air transport force had already suffered heavy losses, and was much further away from good infrastructure. The Luftwaffe simply did not have the resources needed to supply Stalingrad.

Attempted resupply at Stalingrad

Attempted resupply at Stalingrad

Needlessly to say, Germany paid the price for such a reckless undertaking rashly given without due consideration of the differences in terms of distances, quantities of supplies required & availability of aircraft.

The men on the ground paid the ultimate price: their lives with 90,000 being captured but only 5,000 returned to Germany in 1953.

This was a fatal blow for Nazi Germany from which it would not recover. The baton of strategic initiative in the war had finally & firmly been passed to the Allies.

Russian victory at Stalingrad

Russian victory at Stalingrad

A long road lay ahead but the prospects were bright.

Never again would the German Wehrmacht win another battle.

As an aside, the Deutsche Radiofunck broadcast a supposed Christmas message from the trapped forces in Stalingrad on the 25th December 1942 whereas in fact radio contact had already been lost.

My late father in law, Jens Jessen, being German, served in the Wehrmacht. As such he served most of his military career in Russia and was trapped in the Demyansk Kessel. I would love to interview him regarding his experiences


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