A Soviet army is trapped in the northern pine forests

SS troops patrolling in the snow of the Eastern front during the winter of 1941-42.

In the northern section of the Eastern front the temperatures were still stuck far below zero. A January attack by the Soviet army had pushed a large salient into the German lines near the Volkov river south of Leningrad. The Germans launched their counterattack on the 15th March with classic thrusts from north and south in an attempt at another encirclement. William Lubbeck had travelled with his artillery regiment almost 200 miles by train to join the attack. He describes the fighting in the week beginning the 20th March as the Red army sought to break out:

By the time our two pincers met on March 19, we had trapped almost 180,000 Red Army troops in a Kessel (pocket).

While the battle raged about a mile distant, our heavy gun company and artillery units trudged through waist-high snow and dense forest to reach the gun position selected by the regiment’s Vorkcommando (advance team). Located on ground that was slightly elevated above the surrounding flat terrain, the wisdom of their choice would become apparent when spring weather arrived and low-lying areas reverted to swamp.

As our forward observer, I took up my station beside the infantry on the nearby frontline, operating behind the log fortifications that formed the perimeter around the Kessel.

As soon as our howitzers fired the first ranging shot, it was apparent that the many tall trees in this virgin forest would pose problems beyond just obscuring my observation of enemy movement. If one of our shells prematurely collided with a tree on its ascent, its impact would cause the tree to fall or shower splinters that might injure or kill any friendly troops around it.

On its descent, meanwhile, a round had to be on a steep enough trajectory to drop unobstructed onto an enemy target moving through the dense woods in the area. To overcome these obstacles, the barrels of the guns were raised to their maximum elevation of about 45 degrees and essentially employed as mortars, which proved modestly effective.

Following their encirclement, the Russian forces reacted rapidly.

Even with the Red Army’s numerical superiority in troops and tanks, they had to struggle fiercely to break out of the Kessel. The main axis of their counterattack breached our lines about half a mile north of my location at the end of another week of intense combat, reestablishing a link to their forces on the eastern side of the Volkhov through a roughly mile-wide corridor.

Using the old logging paths that formed a grid pattern inside this Schlauch (land bridge), the still largely isolated Red Army troops could now potentially receive a constant flow of reinforcements and supplies.

The German force was able to bring around a hundred and twenty 105mm howitzers to bear on the Schlauch, which together with Stuka bomber attacks brought unrelenting fire down on the Russian positions.

See William Lubbeck: At Leningrad’s Gates – The Story of a Soldier with Army Group North.

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