The Relief of the Demyansk Pocket

Operation Typhoon, the failed German offensive to capture Moscow in the autumn of 1941, was defeated not only by bad weather and improved Soviet defenses in front of the capital, but also by massive Soviets counterattacks by hundreds of hastily trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led Soviet divisions all along the entire front. The Soviet casualties were enormous, but they relieved the pressure on Moscow, the cultural, economic, communications, and administrative center of the Soviet Union, and forced back the freezing German troops at the tail end of overwhelmed supply lines that stretched thousands of miles. In order to prevent a collapse of the front and the loss of too much hard won territory, and more importantly hard won prestige, Hitler issued the controversial “No Retreat Order”.

The No Retreat Order prevented the collapse of the front but only because the Soviets bit off more than they could chew. The order also placed significant hardship on the German soldiers, particularly those at the forward edges of the battle area. In several places, Germans held strongpoints as the Soviets streamed past. One such was at Demyansk, which controlled the rail line from Moscow to Leningrad. There the front resembled a finger jabbed directly into the Soviet lines. A combination of tenacious German resistance, bad weather, and defensible terrain prevented the Soviet Rzhev-Vyazma Offensive from capturing the vital town. However after a bitter fight the Soviets encircled Demyansk on 8 February 1942 and cut off the II Corps of the German 16th Army.

The 10th Army and the remainder of the 16th Army couldn’t break through to the defenders, but Herman Goring assured Hitler that the pocket could be sustained by airlift. The 90,000 trapped men needed at least 300 short tons of supplies daily. The Luftwaffe never approached that number. Nonetheless for two months, the embattled Germans fought off wave after wave of Soviet assaults. In one instance, the German 12th Infantry Division urgently requested ammunition and a livid II Corps supply officer refused, citing that the division was using too much ammunition. The 12th Division commander replied, “You calculations are of no consequence”. The fighting was so fierce that the commander of the SS Totenkopf (Death’s Head) Division, made a direct appeal to Himmler for replacements and material, and for the Luftwaffe to step up the number of sorties, lest his division be annihilated. They were fighting Soviet Guards divisions and it became an ideological imperative that the Totenkopf SS not be destroyed for fear that National Socialism seem inferior to Soviet Communism. (The Soviets awarded “Guards” status to divisions that distinguished themselves in battle and afterward received better pay, supplies, equipment, and replacements as a result.) Despite a maximum effort by Luftwaffe, 2/3rds of the encircled German troops were either dead, wounded, or no longer fit for duty by mid-April.

On 14 April 1942, German attacks to break the siege of the Demyansk Pocket reached the point where the troops inside could attempt to break out. That day, an ad hoc assault group consisting of the SS Totenkopf Division and about a kampfgruppe (an ad hoc battalion to regiment sized battlegroup) from each of the other divisions, attacked towards the German lines and on 21 April, broke through the Soviet encirclement. The Germans would hold Demyansk for another year.

Although the defense of the Demyansk Pocket was successful, it was a near run thing as the Luftwaffe didn’t deliver nearly the supplies needed. It also came at a great cost: all of the German divisions, including the SS, were combat ineffective by the end and would have to be reconstituted in their entirety. The defense was due more to the training, discipline, and quality of the average German soldier and leader than it was to the Luftwaffe’s aerial resupply. Additionally, the Luftwaffe lost nearly 250 JU-52 transport aircraft that weren’t easily replaced. German industry was not on a full war footing in early 1942 and the loss of so many transport aircraft (on top of the loss of so many in Crete in May 1941) was crippling. Nonetheless, the operation was a success, and gave the impression to Goering, and more importantly to Hitler, that encircled troops could be resupplied by air. This was not the case on the Eastern Front. Goering provided well below the bare minimum to the Demyansk Pocket; he would utterly fail trying to resupply another pocket four times its size months later at Stalingrad.

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