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Vitebsk, the Fight and Destruction of 3rd Panzer Army

Otto Heidkamper, Chief of Staff of Georg-Hans Reinhardt's 3rd Panzer Army, Army Group Centre stationed near Smolensk and Vitebsk from early 1942 to June 1944 wrote this valuable first hand account of the defence of Vitebsk through winter 1943 up to the Soviet summer offensive including anti-partisan operations behind German lines.


Berndt-Freytag Autokarte of Vitebsk and surrounds, these roads did not exist in 1941, mostly sandy tracks in marshy ground


Vitebsk, capital of White Ruthenia with its Latin sounding words - terra nostra, our land, was destroyed by Young Communists who set the city ablaze, summer 1941. The 3rd Panzer Army consisted of VI Corps with 3 divisions, LIX Corps with 2 divisions and XLIII Corps with 2 divisions.


Heavy losses were incurred in May and June 1943 to the northeast of Nevel and on both sides of Vitebsk. A Soviet offensive was expected through Vitebsk onto Dunaburg (modern Dangavpils) and the Baltic States. This was the time of Zitadelle, the German offensive at the Orel/Kursk salient. Zitadelle commenced July 5 and by July 23 the entire OstFront was ablaze with Soviet attacks from Leningrad to the Kuban. The Vitebsk-Smolensk witnessed many Soviet frontal assaults along with a Soviet penetration at Nevel.


The lakelands near Nevel were the focus of attempts to interdict the breakthrough of Soviet forces west of Nevel. Supply lines through Gorodok and Sirotino were threatened by enemy cavalry and tanks. The 20th Panzer Division challenged the Soviets from taking Gorodok and the 252nd Infantry Division attacked southwestwards between Lakes Chenovo and Kosho against overwhelming Red Army assaults.


The Soviets incurred heavy losses with repeated frontal assaults and despite being repulsed time and time again the Soviet frontal assaults continued. German forces, with little prospect of reinforcements, were capable of holding the Soviets to account with Hornisse self propelled guns, artillery, panzer, panzerjager and assault artillery units along with the Luftwaffe which were concentrated at the expected point of attack accounted for c. 190,000 red Army men, 2,250 prisoners were captured, Soviet losses included 1,203 tanks, 349 artillery guns captured or destroyed. Vitebsk was declared a fortress by Hitler thereby condemning the 3rd Panzer Army to certain defeat. Tactical retreat to the fortified Tiger line shortening the defence line by 70km was ignored by Hitler.


Three German Corps with 19,150 men confronted six Soviet armies with 152,500 men during the battle for Vitebsk. Southeast of Vitebsk, three German Divisions with 4,700 men faced Soviet forces amounting to 48,000 men. Anti-partisan operations to the rear of 3rd Panzer Army were highly successful proving that well armed regular troops dominated the poorly disciplined partisans. There was a 2 month lull in fighting in this sector until Operation Bagration fully destroyed Army Group Centre June, 1944.


1944 began with the German Army holding vast tracts of Russian territory, yet, within seven months the collapse of Army Group Centre was to begin with the destruction of 3rd Panzer Army. Despite the loss of 380,000 German soldiers they managed to keep the soviets off German soil.


Source: Vitebsk, The Fight and Destruction of the Third Panzer Army, Otto Heidkamper, Casemate 2017

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