Army Group North cyclist column of German soldiers entering Novgorod Aug 1941.
This Sd.Kfz. 253 light armored observation post from Sturmgeschütz-Batterie 666 was photographed during the fighting for Novgorod in August 1941.
Under the terms of their general orders the 4th Panzer Group intended to make Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps drive towards Leningrad along the Pskov-Luga-Leningrad road, and to send Manstein’s Panzer Corps along the second road to Leningrad, that from Opochka via Novgorod. Those two great roads were the only ones leading through the extensive marshy area which shielded Leningrad towards the south and south-west.
On 10th July 1941 the Panzer Group mounted its attack along the whole front. The LVI Panzer Corps, which had pierced the Stalin Line at Sebezh on 6th July with the motorized “Death’s Head” SS Infantry Division, and after hard fighting had taken Opochka on the Velikaya river, was now to make an outflanking movement to the east and, advancing via Porkhov and Novgorod, cut the big lateral road from Leningrad to Moscow at Chudovo. The 8th Panzer Division and the 3rd Motorized Infantry Division were employed in the front line. Their task was to advance across very difficult wooded ground.
Ground and aerial reconnaissance of 4th Panzer Group, on the other hand, discovered that the left wing, on the lower Luga, was held by weak enemy forces only. Clearly, because of the bad roads there, the Russians did not expect an attack. The only other enemy force of any size was on the eastern shore of Lake Peipus, near Gdov.
Colonel-General Hoepner was faced with a difficult decision: was he to stick to his orders and keep the main weight of his attack on the right, in the direction of Novgorod, and allow Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps to batter their heads against the strong defences at Luga, or should he make a bold left turn towards the lower Luga, strike at the enemy where he was weak, and in this way promote an attack on Leningrad from the west, parallel to the Narva-Kingisepp-Krasnogvar-deysk railway?
Hoepner decided on the latter alternative. He switched the 1st and 6th Panzer Divisions to the north under cover of the combat group Westhoven, which was fighting east and north of Zapolye, and replaced them with infantry divisions along the main road to Luga, The two Panzer .divisions, followed by the 36th Motorized Infantry Division, then moved off to the north, on 13th July, over difficult roadless terrain.
General Reinhardt’s diary shows the following entry under 30th July, when he had been waiting for the resumption of the attack for a whole fortnight: “More delays. It’s terrible. The chance that we opened up has been missed for good, and things are getting more difficult all the time.”
Events were to prove Reinhardt right. While XLI Corps, favoured by good fortune, had crossed the lower Luga, but was pinned down by orders from above, a crisis was brewing up in the eastern sector of the Panzer Group, at Manstein’s LVI Corps. Manstein’s orders were to capture Novgorod and then to tackle the important traffic junction of Chudovo in order to cut the road and railway from Leningrad to Moscow.
The 8th Panzer Division had pushed forward beyond Soltsy to form a bridgehead over the Mshaga. The 3rd Motorized Infantry Division had moved up on its left, covering the flank of 8th Panzer Division and fighting its way forward to the north-east and north. Enemy opposition, however, was getting stronger and stronger, and the marshy ground here too was getting less and less negotiable. Moreover, the shunting away of XLI Corps from Luga had released Soviet forces in that area, with the result that Manstein’s Corps, which had run well ahead of the general line, although consisting only of 8th Panzer Division and 3rd Motorized Infantry Division, without any reserves and without flank cover, suddenly found itself under attack by numerous divisions of the Soviet Eleventh Army. Voroshilov hurled himself with all available forces against the dangerous German armoured spearhead which was aimed at Novgorod, his command post, and at Chudovo, a vital traffic junction. The Soviet 146th Rifle Division succeeded in making a penetration between the two German divisions and in cutting off their supply route. Man-stein instantly made the correct counter-move: he withdrew 8th Panzer Division and prepared for all-round defence.
Three critical days followed. Voroshilov needed a success and tried at all costs to annihilate the surrounded German divisions. He employed half a dozen rifle divisions, two armoured divisions, and strong artillery and air force units. But the steadfastness of the German formations and Manstein’s superior generalship prevented a catastrophe. The fierceness of the fighting is attested by the operations report of 3rd Motorized Infantry Division, which had to repel seventeen enemy attacks in a single day. Even the artillery was fighting in the foremost line.
The success of Sixteenth Army meant that the threat to the right flank of Army Group North was averted for the time being. But there could be no question of Manstein’s Panzer Corps returning to Leningrad to rejoin Hoepner’s offensive forces, for Voroshilov did not give up trying. He brought up three more Soviet Armies in order to reach his operational objective-blocking off the neck of land between Lakes Pei-pus and Ilmen. It was another alarming illustration of Russian resources. The bulk of one Army had just been annihilated, yet units of three new Armies, reinforced to full strength, were being employed at the focal point of the defensive fighting between Luga and Lake Ilmen.
And what had happened meanwhile outside the much contested town of Novgorod “the Golden,” situated on the northern shore of Lake Ilmen, exactly opposite Staraya Russa?
There, at the original focal point of the German offensive against Leningrad, at the southern cornerstone of Leningrad’s defences, the German Command had been trying for weeks to pierce the Soviet lines in order to reach Chudovo, a railway junction on the Leningrad-Moscow line. At Chudovo the Murmansk railway, coming down from the Arctic Sea, ran into the so-called October Railway. Along this lifeline came the supplies and aid shipped by the Western allies to Murmansk, the supplies of British and, even more, of American tanks, lorries, foodstuffs, ammunition, and aircraft for the entire Soviet front from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
During the night of 9th August, a clear, starry summer night, the divisions of I Corps from East Prussia silently moved into their jumping-off positions for the offensive across the wide, marshy Mshaga river. The cornerstone of Leningrad’s defences was to be overturned at last.
The main weight of the attack was borne by General Sponheimer’s 21st Infantry Division, which, reinforced by 424th Infantry Regiment, 126th Infantry Division, was to advance along the strongly fortified main road towards Novgorod. The ground was tricky even for infantry. Swamps, thick undergrowth, and numerous streams and river-courses made movement difficult. The Russians, moreover, had developed the whole area into a fortress: there were pillboxes, minefields, machine-guns nests, and mortar positions blocking what few roads and paths led through the swampy ground.
In the grey light of dawn formations of VIII Air Corps had set out from their bases and had been dropping their bombs since 0400 hours on the enemy positions on the far bank of the Mshaga. Stukas made screaming low-level at-attacks, skimming across the river at barely 150 feet, dropping their bombs on dug-outs, gun positions, and machine-gun posts.
The military machine was working with great precision. No sooner had the last bomb been dropped than 200 guns of all calibres opened up. It was a classic preparation for an attack.
At 0430 hours exactly the company commanders of 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 3rd Infantry Regiment, as well as 1st Battalion, 45th Infantry Regiment, leapt out from their hideouts. The men dragged inflated dinghies to the river-bank and, under cover of the artillery umbrella, ferried themselves across. Together with the infantry the sappers also crossed the Mshaga, and on the far bank cleared lanes through the minefields for the assault detachments following hard on their heels.
To start with everything went surprisingly smoothly. The enemy seemed to have been utterly shattered by the preliminary aerial and artillery bombardment. His heavy weapons and artillery were silent.
Ducking low, the assault detachments ran along the white tapes with which the sappers had marked out the cleared lanes through the minefields. The bridgehead was secured. The first heavy weapons were ferried across the river. Then the barges were linked to form a bridge. By twelve noon it was ready. The division moved into the bridgehead.
The 24th Infantry Regiment was now also brought forward. Slowly the enemy recovered from his shock. Resistance was getting stiffer. In the late afternoon the 24th Infantry Regiment took the village of Mshaga. By nightfall the Soviet defences had been pierced to a depth of five miles. The following day Shimsk, at first to be bypassed, fell to the Germans.
On 12th August the Ushnitsa River was forced by a frontal attack. The infantrymen were weighed down by their weapons and ammunition-boxes. Everything had to be carried. The Russians were resisting stubbornly. Along the railway embankment especially they contested every inch of ground.
The Soviet soldiers continued to fire until they were killed in their foxholes or blown up by hand-grenades. In the face of such opposition how was progress possible? Furious battles were waged for every inch of ground.
The regimental headquarters of 45th Infantry Regiment was in a roadside ditch before Volinov. The mood was despondent. Reports of casualties were shattering. Colonel Chill, the regimental commander, used the field telephone, which had been laid right up to that point, to speak to division. “The Stukas must go in once more,” he implored his superiors.
Just then a runner jumped down into the ditch-Lance-corporal Willumeit. Somewhat out of breath, he saluted the regimental commander. “Message from 2nd Battalion, sir: Lieutenant-Colonel Matussik sends this captured enemy map. It was taken from a Soviet major killed in action. Evidently he was ADC to a senior commander.”
Colonel Chill cast one glance at the map and looked up in amazement. “My friend, for that you shall have my last cigar but one,” he said to the runner, pulling out his cigar-case.
Willumeit beamed, accepted the cigar, and said, “I shall take the liberty of swapping it, Herr Oberst-I don’t smoke.” Everyone joined in the laughter.
The map was a precious find. It showed the Soviet Forty-eighth Army’s entire position along the Verenda, until then unknown, complete with all strong-points, dummy positions, gun emplacements, and machine-gun posts.
It was largely due to this captured map that on the following day these positions were pierced in a bold action. That is how fate-or, if you prefer it, blind luck-takes a hand in battle. That was what Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, meant when he said, “Generals must not only be brave, they must also have la fortune.”
General Sponheimer could not complain of any lack of la fortune before Novgorod. In addition to the captured map, Fortune-again in the form of the 45th Infantry Regiment- sent him a priceless prisoner. He had been found with a column of Soviet supply lorries by a bicycle reconnaissance detachment. He was a sapper officer from the staff of the Soviet 28th Rifle Division-a man from Karelia, Finnish by birth, and with no love for the Bolsheviks.
“Nix Bolshevik,” he kept assuring the German second lieutenant. Shortly afterwards, when an interpreter had been fetched, an amazing sequence of events began. “I know all the fortifications,” said the Karelian. “The papers are hidden in the forest,” he added slyly.
“You trying to pull our leg?” the second lieutenant asked.
The Karelian raised three fingers. “I swear by my mother!”
The lieutenant threatened him with his pistol. “Don’t try anything funny-an ambush or something of that kind! Or you’d better start praying.”
The interpreter translated. The Karelian nodded. “Let’s go then,” the lieutenant decided. He himself led his platoon into the near-by forest, cautiously, covering the Karelian all the time. The Karelian did not have to search long. In a thick clump of shrubs, underneath a large boulder, was his sailcloth bag-a big parcel. It contained all the fortification maps of Novgorod as well as the plans of the minefields.
The lieutenant took the packet, complete with the Karelian, straight to the divisional Intelligence officer. The Intelligence officer grabbed it and raced across to the chief of operations, Major von der Chevallerie. The major was almost beside himself with delight. The maps clearly showed the entire defences outside Novgorod, including the defences of the city itself and the fortifications on the small island in the Volkhov between the two main parts of the city.
After that it was not difficult to pierce the Russian positions at the crucial points and to get to the edge of the city itself without too many casualties.
On the morning of 15th August the 3rd Infantry Regiment saw the famous “Novgorod the Golden” spread out in front of them in the morning sun. Novgorod-one of the most ancient Russian settlements, founded by Rurik the Conqueror as his residence in the ninth century, administered in the Middle Ages in accordance with Lübeck city law, depopulated several times by black death and cholera, always rising anew from its ashes. Novgorod, known as “the Golden” because of its important and profitable fur and salt trade with the Hanseatic cities of Germany. Because of its wealth the city was twice sacked completely within a century, by Ivan III and Ivan the Terrible, and its citizens deported or slaughtered. Forty-seven magnificent churches with fine old frescoes surrounded the Kremlin of Novgorod which commanded the bridges over the Volkhov. A proud city, never conquered. Throughout its thousand-year history Novgorod had never, until 1941, been occupied by a foreign enemy, apart from a very brief episode in the Nordic War at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But now Russia’s golden city was about to suffer that humiliation.
On 15th August 1941 the 21st Infantry Division from East Prussia intercepted a signal from Moscow to the Soviet Forty-eighth Army. It ran: “Novgorod is to be defended to the last man.” As chance would have it, it was the Soviet 21st Armoured Division which was to defend Novgorod to the last man, against the attack of the German 21st Infantry Division.
At 1730 hours on 15th August VIII Air Corps began a heavy air raid on the Russian positions along the city’s battlements, and kept it up for twenty minutes. Novgorod stood in flames. The three infantry regiments of 21st Infantry Division lined up for the assault. From the edge of the ancient moat came the stutter of machine-guns, the crash of guns, and the plop of mortars.
To be held to the last man! “To the last man,” repeated the commissars. With their pistols drawn they stood at their posts until death relieved them of their duty.
At first light on 16th August the German assault companies were inside the blazing city. At 0700 the 1st Battalion, 424th Infantry Regiment, of 126th Infantry Division-for this attack under the command of 21st Infantry Division-hoisted the swastika over Novgorod’s Kremlin.
But there was no time for victory celebrations. The objective was Chudovo and the October Railway.