Operation Mars I

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the audacity of Stavka’s grand strategic design in autumn 1942. The aim was not only substantial encirclements in the Rzhev-Viazma and Stalingrad areas but even more gigantic encirclements of both Army Group Center and Army Group South. As the planetary nomenclature suggested—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus—it was a breathtakingly cosmic strategic design. Stalin, Zhukov, and Vasilevsky intended not only to turn the tide of battle in autumn 1942 but to win the entire war. Such ambition was way beyond the capabilities of the Red Army at that time but the breadth of strategic vision was an augury of the massive offensives of 1943–1944 that were to drive the Wehrmacht out of the USSR and all the way back to Berlin.

Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Colonel-Generals N.N. Voronov, Head of Red Army Artillery, and A.A. Novikov, Head of Air Forces, arrived at the South-West Front on 30 October and spent a week there briefing and preparing the commanders down to division level for the counter-offensive. On 6 November they moved on to the Don Front, and on the 9th to the Stalingrad Front, returning to Moscow on the evening of the 12th and reporting to Stalin the next morning. They told him that delays in the arrival of troops, food, ammunition, fuel and anti-freeze at the Stalingrad Front, and in arranging air support for the Stalingrad and South-West Fronts, would necessitate postponing the offensive by a few days. Stalin raised no objections and ordered them both to fly back to Stalingrad to check once more that the forces and commanders were adequately prepared. On the 14th Zhukov was with Vatutin and Vasilevsky with Yeremenko, and on the 15th they received a message from Stalin authorising Zhukov to set the start date. After consulting Vasilevsky, he set it as 19 November for the South-West and Don Fronts and the 20th for the Stalingrad Front, then on the 17th he was summoned back to Stavka to finalise preparations for the offensive (Operation ‘Mars’) against Army Group Centre by the Kalinin and Western Fronts, which he was to direct.

Naturally the Soviet General Staff could not simply rely on the Germans failing to detect signs of imminent action at Stalingrad; steps must also be taken to mislead them by drawing their attention elsewhere. The most important, and most credible, of these diversions would be the mounting of an apparent third attempt to eliminate Army Group Centre’s potential threat to Moscow by expelling it from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient. The actions taken in this direction have spawned two controversies in post-Soviet times; first, whether the offensive against that salient in November–December 1942 (Operation ‘Mars’) was a diversion, to prevent Army Group Centre sending troops south to Stalingrad (Operation ‘Uranus’), as Zhukov’s and other Soviet-period accounts maintained, or whether, as David Glantz has claimed, it was meant to be the main assault of the winter campaign, or alternatively, as Aleksey Isayev contended, it was linked with and implicitly equal to ‘Uranus’, then, as both argue, was subsequently ignored or played down only because it was a disastrous failure.

Both claims rest largely on data showing the numbers of troops, tanks, guns and aircraft allocated to the Fronts (Kalinin and Western) engaged in ‘Mars’ as much exceeding those allocated to ‘Uranus’, on the paucity of mentions of ‘Mars’ in Soviet-era accounts, most of which ignore it completely, on the unfavourable descriptions of it in participants’ recollections, and, not least, on Zhukov’s extraordinary economy with the truth in the brief account in his memoirs of the date and circumstances of its origin.

Taking that last item first, Zhukov presented ‘Mars’ as almost a last-minute afterthought. He wrote that on the evening of 13 November 1942 he and Vasilevsky met Stalin, who confirmed their plan for the counter-offensive to be launched at Stalingrad in the next few days, and that they both then drew his attention to the likelihood that

as soon as a serious situation developed at Stalingrad and in the North Caucasus, the German high command will be forced to re deploy some of its forces from other areas, especially from the Vyazma area, to help the southern group. To prevent that happening, an offensive operation must be urgently prepared and conducted in the area north of Vyazma, in the first instance to smash the Germans in the area of the Rzhev salient. For this operation we proposed drawing on troops of Kalinin and Western Fronts.

‘That would be good,’ said Stalin. ‘But which of you will undertake this affair?’ Alexander Mikhailovich and I had agreed on our proposals about this beforehand, so I said, ‘The Stalingrad operation is already prepared in all respects. Vasilevsky can take coordination of actions of the forces in the Stalingrad area on himself, and I can take preparation of the offensive by Kalinin and Western Fronts on myself.’

Zhukov went on to cite an order to the Kalinin and Western Fronts, issued on 8 December over his and Stalin’s signatures, leaving the reader to assume, though without actually saying so, that it was the first order relating to ‘Mars’, whereas archival evidence shows conclusively that ‘Mars’ was originally intended to start in mid-October, i.e. to precede the counter-offensive in the south, so planning for it must have begun in September, at the same time as that for ‘Uranus’ and ‘Saturn’. The primary evidence is a Western Front Directive dated 1 October, containing very detailed instructions to the commanders of the 20th and 31st Armies ‘for destruction of the enemy Sychevka-Rzhev grouping’, ordering them to ‘submit plans for Operation “Mars” by 5 October’, and be ready to attack by the 12th. This completely demolishes Zhukov’s presentation of it as first proposed only on 13 November, and there is further confirmation in Stavka Directive no. 170651, issued at 3.50 a.m. on 13 October, which ordered the transfer of five divisions from three other Fronts to the 43rd Army of the Kalinin Front, stating specifically that this was ‘for the forthcoming Operation Mars’.

Zhukov’s economy with the truth and the ignoring of ‘Mars’ in most descriptions of the Stalingrad campaign certainly indicate that something went wrong. It is clear that more was expected of ‘Mars’ than it delivered, and Drs Glantz and Isayev have performed a service to scholarship in drawing attention to this. However, the difference in context between ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus/Saturn’, and five very important pieces of evidence of which neither of those authors was apparently aware, tend to contradict Glantz’s argument that ‘Mars’ was more important than ‘Uranus’, and Isayev’s contention that it was equally important, and point to its being, at least in Stalin’s mind, a ‘diversion’, and acknowledged by Zhukov as such, as support for ‘Uranus’, though he may covertly have hoped to make it an equal partner to that offensive.

Taking first the difference in context, absolutely vital to success at Stalingrad was the basic assumption that the non-German forces guarding the German flanks – for ‘Uranus’ the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies, for ‘Little Saturn’ the Italian 8th and Hungarian 2nd Armies – were all much weaker than the German elements of Army Group B. They were specifically targeted for that reason, and the assumption was proven correct from the very first day of ‘Uranus’. No such assumption could be made in respect of ‘Mars’, as Army Groups Centre and North had no vulnerable non-German forces for it to exploit; the Rzhev-Vyazma salient was manned by 30 experienced German divisions, which had been in position for well over a year and had already withstood two previous major offensives, in January–April and July–August, both conducted by Zhukov. The smaller Demyansk salient, a little further north, had been held by Army Group North for even longer, and contained 12 divisions. Thanks to air supply it had survived being cut off for several weeks in February–April 1942, and since then had withstood repeated attempts by the North-West Front to eliminate it. In both salients the Germans had made good use of their time to prepare strong defensive positions, whereas in contrast the 20 German divisions of the 4th Panzer and 6th Armies that would be encircled in the Stalingrad area, and the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies immediately protecting their rear, had been in position only since mid-August or, in the Romanian case, September, and had had no time or opportunity – nor was there a perceived need – to establish solid defensive lines before they faced an unexpected Soviet onslaught of a magnitude they had simply not thought possible. Hindsight is not needed for this judgement; Stalin, Zhukov, Vasilevsky and the General Staff planners of both ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus/Saturn’ knew all these facts beforehand, and it strains credibility to assume that they would have given priority to the immeasurably harder and far less promising of the two tasks they faced.

It is also relevant that Stalin thought the original concept of ‘Uranus/Saturn’ itself very ambitious. ‘Uranus’ was to involve encircling most of Army Group B, and ‘Saturn’ to cut off Army Group A in the Caucasus. Granted the means of achieving these results would be initially at the expense of Germany’s allies, it would then be necessary to take on two of the four German army groups; in the event that plan did prove too ambitious, and Army Group A was allowed to escape for the time being. If, in addition, ‘Mars’ was really meant to be the most important operation of the 1942/3 winter, then Stalin, his two chief military troubleshooters and the General Staff were aspiring to destroy three of the four army groups, including the strongest, Centre, in two overlapping and almost simultaneous operations. Stalin certainly displayed at times a tendency to underestimate the Germans and set over-ambitious tasks; he did so in early 1942 and would do so again in early 1943. However, both those episodes followed successful Soviet counter-offensives; in contrast, when planning for ‘Uranus/Saturn/Mars’ began in September, he had little cause for euphoria. All offensives attempted during the previous six months had failed, two of them (Barvenkovo and Crimea) disastrously, whereas the Germans had advanced to the Volga and Caucasus in less than two months, and were still being held only with difficulty. When on 12–13 September Zhukov and Vasilevsky put their proposal for the Stalingrad counter-offensive to him, his initial reaction was to suggest that it should be scaled down somewhat. That he could move within a few days not only to approving an operation he at first thought might be over-ambitious, but also to adding an even larger preceding and/or simultaneous offensive against Army Group Centre seems unlikely; the limited evidence about his state of mind in that period provides no support for such a conclusion.

Another extremely important difference in the context is that Army Groups North and Centre had (and did in fact soon exercise, in February–March 1943) the option of controlled withdrawal from the two salients, a recourse not available to the forces at Stalingrad, first because Hitler had categorically forbidden it, and secondly because the Soviet encirclement was quickly made too strong to be broken through.

Another extremely important difference in the context is that Army Groups North and Centre had (and did in fact soon exercise, in February–March 1943) the option of controlled withdrawal from the two salients, a recourse not available to the forces at Stalingrad, first because Hitler had categorically forbidden it, and secondly because the Soviet encirclement was quickly made too strong to be broken through. This is discussed below.

Of the five important pieces of additional evidence, the first and most significant is the memoirs of former NKVD General Pavel Sudoplatov, published in English in 1994 and in Russian in 1996. Sudoplatov provided detailed evidence that ‘Agent Max’, cited by Dr Glantz as giving the Germans advance warning of ‘Mars’ in a message of 4 November 1942, was a Soviet-controlled double agent, and, having been his controller from July 1941 through most of the war, gave a comprehensive account of him and his activities. ‘Max’ was Alexander Demyanov, and he and his wife were both long-standing NKVD agents (in his case since 1929), with pre-revolutionary aristocratic and current artistic connections that made it easy for them to establish contacts during the 1930s with foreign journalists and diplomats in Moscow, including in the German embassy. Just before the war the Abwehr recruited Demyanov, as the NKVD intended it should, and in July 1941 Sudoplatov’s superior, Beria, agreed to his being used in operations ‘Monastyr’ (Monastery) and ‘Prestol’ (Throne), both fake anti-Soviet underground organisations created by the NKVD to attract and uncover collaborationist or espionage networks. After receiving training, Demyanov was ordered to ‘defect’ in December 1941, and did so by skiing across to the German lines outside Moscow at night, posing as an emissary of ‘Prestol’. The Germans initially distrusted him, but eventually accepted and trained him, then in February 1942 parachuted him back into Soviet territory, tasked to reestablish himself in Moscow, use his connections to penetrate Red Army staffs, and also organise sabotage on the railways. A ‘safe house’ was established at his apartment, through active participation by his wife and her father, a German-educated noted medical specialist. Couriers sent there by the Abwehr were mostly ‘turned’, but some were arrested and jailed for credibility’s sake. The ‘legend’ constructed for Max was that he was a disgruntled ex-Tsarist officer, currently a signals officer on the General Staff, who had sources of information among other equally disgruntled ex-Tsarist officers serving under Marshal Shaposhnikov (himself a former Tsarist officer, as was Vasilevsky, who succeeded him in mid-1942). He also created a mythical group conducting sabotage on the railways, and to enhance his credibility Sudoplatov had some items about official concern at such sabotage planted in Soviet newspapers that the Germans could acquire in neutral Stockholm or Lisbon.

Sudoplatov wrote that ‘disinformation transmitted by “Heine-Max” was composed in the Operations Directorate of our General Staff, with one of its leaders, General Shtemenko, taking part, then vetted in the General Staff Intelligence Directorate and handed over to the NKVD, to ensure it was received in convincing circumstances’. He specifically mentions the 4 November message, in order to emphasise that disinformation sometimes had strategic significance. Thus on 4 November 1942 ‘Heine-Max’ reported that the Red Army would strike a blow at the Germans not at Stalingrad but in the North Caucasus and at Rzhev. The Germans expected the blow at Rzhev and repulsed it. But the encirclement of Paulus’s grouping at Stalingrad was a complete surprise for them. Not suspecting this ‘radio game’ Zhukov paid a high price – in the offensive at Rzhev thousands and thousands of our soldiers died under his command. In his memoirs he admits that this offensive operation’s outcome was unsatisfactory. But he never realised that the Germans had been forewarned of our offensive on the Rzhev axis, and that was why they threw such a quantity of forces into it.

How seriously Gehlen took Max’s reports, and how thoroughly he was misled, can be seen from his report of 6 November 1942, which was based on Max’s message of the 4th. It referred to a fictitious ‘War Council’ meeting chaired by Stalin on 4 November that decided to ‘carry out all planned offensive undertakings, if possible before 15 November, insofar as the weather permits. Mainly from Grozny; in the Don area at Voronezh; at Rzhev; south of Lake Ilmen, and Leningrad …’.

All these offensives duly took place, though mostly not until January 1943. But ‘Uranus’, to be launched on 19 November, was not mentioned, and Gehlen’s report of 6 November stated unequivocally that ‘the point of main effort of the coming operations looms with increasing distinctness in the area of Army Group Centre’, while ‘the enemy’s attack preparations in the south are not so far advanced that one need reckon with a major operation here in the near future simultaneously with the expected offensive against Army Group Centre’. In a further report on 12 November Gehlen slightly qualified that assertion by mentioning a possible offensive in the south, but assessed it as only a flank attack intended to induce a German withdrawal from the Stalingrad area. In his post-war memoirs he inflated that qualification into an advance warning of ‘Uranus’, claiming that it began ‘precisely where we had predicted’, but he clearly had no idea of its intended scale, nor that its purpose was not to force the Germans to withdraw, but to encircle and destroy them, nor of the existence of its southern pincer; nor, even writing 25 years after the war, had he realised that Max was Soviet-controlled. On the contrary, he wrote that ‘events over the next months showed that this report of 4 November must have been genuine’. In fact the references in Max’s message to Rzhev and ‘south of Lake Ilmen’ were specifically intended to focus German attention on the two salients (that centred on Demyansk was indeed just south of Lake Ilmen), and thereby distract it from the preparations in the south. Incidentally Shtemenko, whom Sudoplatov mentions as vetting Max’s messages, was one of the most senior officers in the Operations Directorate; in fact he became head of it in May 1943. However, not even he could authorise a leak on this scale; the idea may not have originated with Stalin, but could not have been implemented without his endorsement.

The second important source is the memoirs, published in 1973, of Colonel-General K.N. Galitskiy, who in November 1942 was in command of the Kalinin Front’s 3rd Shock Army, tasked with taking the rail and road centres of Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki, on a sector of the front line between the two salients, in an operation to be conducted simultaneously with ‘Mars’. On 19 November Zhukov arrived at his headquarters, and Galitskiy outlined his plan for taking both centres in an operation lasting 10 to 12 days. To everyone’s surprise, Zhukov flatly rejected it, saying,

an army’s combat operations are organically linked to the operations of the Front’s forces and those of our armed forces as a whole. One plan, even if profoundly thought out, is in no position to change the situation suddenly and radically. Therefore the main thing in an army’s operations is its role and significance on the operational and strategic scales. All these blows, interacting among themselves, are securing the counter-offensive by Soviet forces at Stalingrad that has begun today; they are tying down the enemy’s reserves. That is also 3rd Shock Army’s basic role in the forthcoming fighting on the Velikiye Luki axis.

He went on: ‘To draw enemy forces onto itself is 3rd Shock Army’s main task. Whether or not you take Novosokolniki, we shall nevertheless consider the task fulfilled if you draw the enemy’s forces on to yourself and he is unable to take them away from your sector for transfer to the south … That is 3rd Shock Army’s main task.’

The context of Zhukov’s point was well enough known to Galitskiy not to need elaborating, but it is important to note. The 3rd Shock Army’s sector lay between the two salients, which were manned by 42 seasoned German divisions. The capture of Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki would deprive the Germans of an important lateral rail connection between Army Groups North and Centre, and would also lodge Soviet forces between the two salients, well placed for attacking either or both. Zhukov had only to look at a map of the front line to see that abandoning the salients would greatly shorten it, and thereby free up substantial German forces for deployment elsewhere; aware from prisoner interrogations, and from the entrusting of the long front along the Don to Romanian, Italian and Hungarian formations, that the Germans had serious manpower shortages, it would be reasonable for him to conclude that once Velikiye Luki fell, they might abandon one or both salients, and would send some or all of the ‘freed’ divisions to the south. If Galitskiy’s original plan worked, it would be completed by 4–6 December, and that might lead the Germans to cut their losses early. They would then have a number of divisions available for dispatch to the south soon enough to create problems for Operation ‘Uranus’, which had begun on the very day of Zhukov’s visit; so in effect he ordered Galitskiy to ‘win more slowly’.

Unfortunately Zhukov’s memoirs contain no discussion of his plans for ‘Mars’, other than the misleading statement about its origins mentioned above, and no precedent has so far been found in Soviet archives for his departure, mentioned by Galitskiy, from Stavka’s (and his own) normal requirement to have offensives conducted as strongly and quickly as possible. However, proof that Zhukov had yet again correctly foreseen a German course of action would soon be forthcoming. Galitskiy reduced the size and intensity of his attacks. Velikiye Luki held out until 17 January, and the operation was concluded on the 21st. Zhukov’s reasoning was then proved totally correct; Zeitzler, Chief of Staff at OKH since September, had already unsuccessfully sought Hitler’s consent to abandon the Demyansk salient in early December, but as soon as Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki fell, he renewed and increased pressure for abandonment of both salients, receiving Hitler’s permission for Rzhev-Vyazma on 25 January and for Demyansk on the 31st. The formal order for both withdrawals was issued on 6 February, four days after the final surrender at Stalingrad, and they were completed by 28 February (Demyansk) and 14 March (Rzhev-Vyazma). The consequent shortening of Army Group North’s line freed at least six divisions, some of which were immediately employed against Operation ‘Polar Star’, an attempt to follow up the January success of Operation ‘Iskra’ (Spark) in restoring Leningrad’s land connection to the ‘mainland’ by encircling a large part of Army Group North. ‘Polar Star’ used forces of three Fronts (from south to north North-West, Leningrad and Volkhov), Zhukov was again in charge, and perhaps it qualifies better than ‘Mars’ for the title of his ‘greatest defeat’. The weather was partly responsible; the spring thaw came early, and Zhukov, reporting to Stalin early in March, noted:

in the last 15 days, because of rain and thaws, the roads are becoming impassable. The marshes where the troops now have to function are beginning to show themselves, to flood and be completely covered with water. The forecast predicts warm weather from 15.3.43. I very much fear that we will be sitting with our groupings in the marshes here and in terrain hard to traverse, without achieving our aims under ‘Polar Star’.

He concluded by advising Stalin simply to set more modest limits of advance, and prepare the starting area for a spring offensive; Stalin accepted his advice, and ‘Polar Star’ was terminated on 17 March.

However, even granted the unfavourable weather conditions, the main reason for the operation’s failure was the North-West Front’s inability to break through the German defences; four successive attempts along the line of the River Lovat, on 28 February, 4, 6 and 11 March, were beaten off by German divisions that had just been withdrawn from the Demyansk salient and had taken up their positions along the river only on the day before the first Soviet attack. The Front’s commander, Marshal Timoshenko, ordered his troops onto the defensive on 18 March, and the front line in that sector remained practically unchanged for nine more months, until the siege of Leningrad was fully lifted in January 1944.

Zhukov’s reasoning in respect of Galitskiy’s operation applied even more strongly to ‘Mars’ proper; if the Germans assessed the early stages of it as too strong for successful resistance, it would be open to them to avoid a potential disaster by withdrawing from the 540-kilometre (340 mile) front in the salient to a line about 175 kilometres (110 miles) long across its neck, which could be defended by eight divisions, leaving up to 22 others free for use elsewhere, including in the south. That Zhukov was sensitive to the dangers of too-early success is shown not merely by his comments to Galitskiy but by the fact that only one-third of the Kalinin and Western Fronts’ forces were committed to ‘Mars’, whereas in the south at least half the available forces were committed initially, then further reinforced by two later-arriving armies (2nd Guards and 5th Shock) from Stavka Reserve. Intriguingly, the 43rd Army, to which the mid-October Stavka Directive cited above ordered five divisions sent specifically for use in ‘Mars’, did not in fact take part in it. That also tends to support Galitskiy’s account of Zhukov’s rejection of his original plan for a quick victory; the Germans must be pressed so generally that they could not disengage, but not so hard that they abandoned the salients.

Like Max’s message of 4 November, when interpreted in the light of Sudoplatov’s disclosures, Zhukov’s instructions to Galitskiy contradict the contention that ‘Mars’ was more important than ‘Uranus’. However, Zhukov’s references to ‘interaction’ between blows could perhaps be taken to imply linkage between ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus’ as equally important partners, as Isayev argued; but that interpretation too is contradicted by his explaining his decision exclusively in terms of the contribution the 3rd Shock Army’s efforts would make to ‘Uranus’, and not even mentioning ‘Mars’, which he himself would launch just six days later.

There is also a question whether stated aims are always to be taken literally. To ensure that the troops fought hard enough to convince the enemy, they would not be told that they were engaged in a ‘diversion’. Nor was such information withheld only from Soviet junior ranks. Two such instances, one from ‘Mars’, the other from Kursk, can serve to illustrate this. The first is in the memoirs of Marshal of Armoured Forces Babadzhanyan, who participated in ‘Mars’ as a colonel commanding the 3rd Mechanised Brigade of 3rd Mechanised Corps under General M.E. Katukov. At the end of October the corps began to redeploy from Kalinin (now Tver) to positions about 200 miles away, between Rzhev and Velikiye Luki. The move coincided with the autumn rains, the roads became almost impassable, vehicles, when not bogged down, moved at a maximum 10kph, and the corps arrived at its destination in sore need of time to overhaul and repair its equipment. ‘However, they hurried us – not much time had been allocated to prepare for an offensive.’ Babadzhanyan was taken to the commander of the 22nd Army, Lieutenant-General Yushkevich, whose infantry his brigade was to support, and briefed that ‘we are conducting an extremely serious operation – the enemy’s Rzhev salient must be liquidated. The defence must be broken through whatever happens.’ Babadzhanyan went on: ‘Only considerably later did we learn why they rushed us so, not letting us recover our wits after such a difficult march; in the south, at Stalingrad, our forces had gone over to the counter-offensive, and there must be no letting enemy forces be redeployed to the Stalingrad area. There was only one way to pin down enemy forces here – attack.’ Here too action in ‘Mars’ is defended as a contribution to the success of ‘Uranus’, but only as something Babadzhanyan learned after the event; Yushkevich’s briefing of him defined the operation in far more apocalyptic terms.

The implication is that even a brigade commander had no ‘need to know’ what the true objective was, and this interpretation finds support in the third piece of evidence, the memoirs of his corps commander in ‘Mars’, the future Marshal of Armoured Forces M.E. Katukov, promoted after ‘Mars’ to command the 1st Tank Army, which fought at Kursk in July 1943. Katukov wrote that in ordering a counter-attack during the defensive battle there, Vatutin told him ‘advance a kilometre then another, and that’s alright. The main thing is to tie up German forces.’ Katukov continued:

But in setting the task to Corps Commanders, Generals Kravchenko and Burkov, we didn’t confine their attacks to just those 2 kilo metres. On the contrary, we pointed them towards a deeper penetration of the fascist defence. We did this deliberately, taking account of purely psychological factors. If you tell people they are being sent into battle with very limited aims, just to attract the enemy’s attention to themselves, they won’t act as energetically as when it’s up to them to breach the enemy defence with the intention of smashing right through its entire depth.

Here even the two corps commanders who would have to carry out the assignment were deemed to have no ‘need to know’ its true objective, and, like Babadzhanyan, were told that it was more far-reaching than was actually the case.