Radio-telephone operators from Division Großdeutschland run a cable through the snow.
Lutschessa-Valley. December 1942. Source: Spaeter, Helmuth: Die Einsätze der Panzerdivision Großdeutschland.

What was the problem in the Lutschessa-Valley

The valley cut through the German front line from West to East. Here was the interface of the 110th and 86th Infantry Divisions. It was not long ago that the Russians had broken through exactly here and penetrated deep into German-held territory. They intended to cut the German supply line which here ran parallel behind the front. The divisions depending on the supply line would thus be in great danger. Alarm bells ringing!

Quickly General Walter Model – the brain behind the German bastion – had sent his fighting cells into the open wound. For rapid reaction in fast developing operational scenarios the Generals had perfected the “Battle Group” concept which entailed the detachment of available units of required arms into such temporary Groups for immediate battle commitment. After the operational goal was achieved, the Battle Group would be dissolved.

Battle Group Hoernlein was tasked with restoring the dented frontline in the Lutschessa Valley. The Battle Group was subordinated to Division Großdeutschland under General Hoernlein.

The Group consisted of units below:

  • A few Battalions, Artillery and Flak from Division Großdeutschland.

  • Further Battalions, Artillery, Anti-tank units and Pioneers from the 86th, 101st and 253rd Infantry Divisions.

  • The III. Battalion of 278th Grenadier Regiment from the 95th Infantry Division.

  • Artillery, Flak and a POW Construction Company from XXIII Army Corps.

The Plan

Originally the critical front section reached down to the river Lutschessa. Now the German positions were further back. Hoernlein planned to hammer out the dent in three stages.

Stage 1 – Attack line from Pustoschka to Wereista.
Stage 2 – Establish blocking position on the ridge at Prudjanka.
Stage 3 – Push the front line forward to the narrow forest near Merkuschi.

Time required for the Battle Group (“Kampfgruppe”) mission could not be estimated. This would of course depend on Russian resistance. But one thing was clear in advance: The Germans would have to fight for each metre of land at high cost in both men and material.


Stage 1 – Attack at Pustoschka – Wereista
4th December 1942
Company CO Captain Regner warmed himself up in the house used by the Hoernlein-staff. An officer gave him a general situation report:
”Our state here is completely different to yours in Rshew. We have no fixed trenches. We don’t have a clear front line at all. Everything is fluid. In one village there may be Russians and in the next the Germans are defending.”
He turned to a military map on his desk.
”We are here. There you see the lines of a hill which slopes down to a basin where the Russians are well dug-in. We did not succeed in wiping them out by frontal assault. – You will now form a raiding party of four sections and proceed behind the hill. From the rear you will have a good view down the basin and from this position you attack the Russians.”

Regner felt very uneasy. He did not know the surroundings and had so far no experience of fighting in open terrain. Both officers left the building for a closer inspection. Check the scenery with binoculars.
Tactics for the attack.
Siting of the main dressing station.

Regner felt queasy. It was his first personally led attack. Now he knew how his soldiers must have felt when he ordered the attack on the enemy trench in patrol raid “Vienna”.
He picked four sections which he believed capable enough to handle the mission. Their ability would be his strength.
“Forward; move out!”
The men shouldered their assault packs and began moving in the direction of the jumping-off point for the attack.
In front of them hovered a hilly, nearly treeless landscape, covered with snow.
”Where is the front?” a soldier asked.
”There are no trenches. The front is constantly changing and permeable. In one valley there might be Russians and the next valley we may hold.”
Regner could only repeat what he had been told . He pointed towards the horizon. Snowy hills and depressions.
”In a hollow over there the Russians are well entrenched.”
Fully concentrated the men followed his arm movement.
”The division had already attacked the Russians frontally from here but did not succeed to break through.
We are now ordered to move around the hill and attack the Russians in the hollow below it from behind.”
His arm circled through the air to illustrate the general march direction.
Why did Regner not have a map which would allow them all to get properly orientated?
The soldiers got nervous.
What sort of flimsy and unclear description of the situation was this?
Was this wishy-washy summary supposed to be a plan of attack ?

The lack of information just spread unnecessary worry and tension.
The impression was of bad preparation and imprecise action.
The men felt treated like automated morons unable to use own initiative.
Accordingly unmotivated they followed their Company Commander through the snow.
They had fully grasped that there now was a completely new fighting situation. The term “mobile warfare” was mentioned, but what did it really mean?
Suspense and stress were written over all faces.

The path was leading down the hollow of a valley. Suddenly a tank appeared in the distance. It raced up the path towards the men.
One could not tell from the silhouette whether it was a Russian or a German tank.
”Up the hill on your right at the double! Now!” Captain Regner yelled.
Panic-stricken the soldiers scrambled up the slope and pressed their bodies into the snow. Whoever was sitting in that tank could not possibly overlook the dark coats of the men in the white snow. Camouflaging was impossible because the snow cover was not thick enough to dig into.
The men pressed themselves with all their might into the snow. Gasping from exertion they awaited their fate.
”At least the tank cannot roll over us”, Clemens thought; the slope was so steep that the tank would topple over if it tried to do so.
”But he may easily eradicate us with his cannon and machine gun”, he knew.
These were horrible seconds.
They could not run away, nor dig into the soil or hide.
They were like targets on a firing range.

In sheer panic they stared at the cannon muzzle to see if it would turn towards them.
The tank was churning up the valley at high speed.
A German model.
Wait and see. It could be a captured tank manned by Russians.
Out of the corner of his eye, Clemens glimpsed that his neighbour held a  magnetic mine on his chest. His hand firmly gripped the mine handle. Obviously he was determined to fight. If the tank indeed were to crawl up the steep slope to squash them flat, then he would attempt to throw the mine under the tracks.
”He will never be able to throw his mine”, Clemens figured. “If there are really Russians in that German tank they will fire at us without going up the hill. We’ll be mince meat for sure.”
Breathless and deep down in the snow they watched the tank.
With enormously loud engine noise it roared through the hollow. It passed them all and disappeared down the valley.
”What luck!”
Palpable stress was etched into their faces.
”We’re off! Up the crest to the right!”
Panting they forced themselves up the hill. Not everyone wore his helmet since it became far too cold at low temperatures chilling the skull badly. The assault pack with extra ammunition and weapon weighed a lot.  On top of that the machine gun crew carried additional ammunition boxes, tripod and rifle. The body steamed under the clothing. Faces were red hot.
Short break.
Landscape orientation.
”When we continue in this direction”, the CO pointed with his finger, “we should find the Russians beyond that crest over there. So let’s move on!”
”Well, but what then!” Clemens thought. “What about a briefing on the actual attack?”

They stalked up the hill beyond which they assumed the Russians to be dug-in. Theoretically, they would be attacking the Russians from behind and from a higher position.
In fact a very advantageous approach.

In disorganised order the Germans crawled up the slope. Clemens peered carefully over the crest.
Yes, really.
Down in the hollow, there were the Russians squatting with their backs towards the Germans. They all were armed to the teeth and seemed tense. One man was smoking. Silence. They focussed their eyes in the other direction from where they assumed the Germans to be coming.
Silently Clemens slid back. Not all the soldiers had yet arrived on the peak.
Suddenly a shrill voice cut through the still air:
”There are the Russians!!!”
Horrified Clemens stared over at the idiot in question. It was Schmitt!
Like in some action film he started  firing his sub-machine gun at the Russians.
Is he crazy???!!!
The Germans were thus discovered long before a single man could get his weapon aimed.
The Russians however turned round fast as lightning and fired everything they had at their disposal;
grenades flew up over the crest accompanied by heavy MG-fire. That was not a Russian machine gun, one could tell from the sound. The very rapid firing revealed that it could only be a German MG42. A captured weapon.
Not one second was left for the 9th Company to use its original, advantageous situation, meaning to coordinate the attack in silence, place all weapons in position and then to attack.

The men could have used this unique situation in their favour if Schmitt had not messed up in his panic.
How could he believe that he alone could win against a large group of fully armed men?! If he had positioned  a heavy machine gun silently, perhaps he would have stood a chance. But with an under-powered sub-machine gun he obviously could not achieve anything at all!!!
Schmitt had revealed their position and the Russians fired back accurately like world champions.
The Germans had lost all advantage and just pressed down in the snow. There was no opportunity to fire back, especially as nobody dared to crawl back up to the crest.
The Germans had lost the battle.
The snow coloured red.
Everybody thought of himself first and crawled out of the line of fire. Some were lucky, some were not.
Flight was the only way out.
Between the detonations one threw oneself down the hill diving protectively into the snow.
The iron shrapnel of Russian shells and grenades showered the hillside hitting any obstacle.
A blow struck the back of Clemens’ head.
”Now it’s my turn!” Like lightning this awareness rushed through his brain causing shock.
Move, move; get out of the line of fire at any cost! He jumped up and raced down to the bottom of the valley.
Clemens felt the back of his head under the helmet. Blood was running down his neck.
He felt blood pumping in his skull caused by the race down the hill but the cold weather dampened his pain.
Only a few men had escaped the slaughter.  Most remained back in the snow. Those who were able to walk had anyway got their scars.
In deep shock the little crowd marched down the valley in the direction they had come. They followed the tracks of the tank.
”All these losses were so unnecessary!” Clemens was truly upset. “Schmitt so desperately wanted to become a hero!”
The others agreed by silently nodding their heads.
Dejection all-round.

Wounded soldiers in a stable which served as First Aid Post.
All 3 pictures are from the 260th Infantry-Division near Juchnow in the Bulge of Rshew in start of 1943.
Source: www.260id.de


Excerpt from the situation map of Division Großdeutschland on 1st December 1942 at Gussewo, South of Olenin. The black line shows the dented German front. The red arrows mark the direction of Russian attacks and pressure. Their units are recognized and noted on the map with divisional numbers.


The photo further up shows a German Panzer with white camouflage at full speed in the snow. Photo from the 260th Infantry-Division in the Rshew-salient in winter 1942. Source: www.260id.de