In Russia the Germans were now moving to straighten out their line even though it meant strategic withdrawals. From 1-22 March 1943 they moved back twenty-one divisions from the Rzhev salient in Operation Büffel and shortened the front line by 230 kilometres.
The Rzhev area had been the site of attack and counter attack throughout 1942 and had seen some of the worst casualty rates of the war for both sides, an estimated two million men from the Soviet Army, an unknown number for the Germans. Rzhev was known simply as ‘the slaughterhouse’ by some in the Wehrmacht.
The salient was the closest German position to Moscow, the remnants of all the progress they had made in 1941 before being pushed back by the Russian counter-attacks of the winter of 1941-2. Giving up the salient was an admission by Hitler that further strikes towards Moscow were out of the question, that all the sacrifices made in the last 15 months had been in vain.
For the men on the ground it was an appalling season to try to move. Boris Gorbachevsky was one of the men in the Red Army trying to keep the pressure up on the Germans:
After the liberation of Rzhev, our forces kept moving forward, pursuing the Germans as they withdrew from the Rzhev salient. We didn`t have time to stop and rest, for it was important not to let the enemy withdraw without hindrance and consolidate in new positions.
With constant skirmishing against enemy rear guard units, we advanced, winning back a mutilated and emptied native land. But we also confronted another familiar antagonist. The first warm breath of spring had melted almost all the snow, turning it into slush, and soon the roads turned into a swampy sludge – we marched, barely able to move our feet.
Overcoming with unbelievable labors the onset ofthe spring rasputitsa [literally the dissolution of roads, when the spring thaw turned Russian dirt roads into morasses], the division moved westward, approaching Smolensk.
The land around had been disfigured by the blasts of bombs and shells and had been filled with mines,There was a lot of trouble with the mines, which also slowed our movement. At the same time, we had to lug everything for ourselves-our rifle, cartridges, kit bag, gas mask, sapper’s shovel, canteen, and grenades.
As we labored to move forward, some men were most surreptitiously ridding themselves of one or another of these items. It was especially hard for the machine gunners, the anti-tank riflemen, and the mortar crews. Even horses could barely pull their cannons along, which kept getting stuck in the muck. We started off at dawn each morning and slogged along all day. At a short halt we would collapse, hardly finding a place even a bit drier, and our eyes would close of their own accord.
But it seemed that no sooner as that happened, someone would be nudging you in the side:“Get up, brotherl” and we would march wearily on.We encountered buildings or huts rarely. Forest after forest, road after road – or more precisely, lack of roads.
At first we battled only against rear guard elements. The Germans were retreating quickly, and whenever leaving an area, they left behind a barren wasteland.
Whenever they had time to manage it, they blew up, destroyed, torched, or mined everything: “Here you go, Ivan, take your prizes!” The detours – and you couldn’t avoid them-were all mined; the roads were also mined, and people occasionally triggered them. Between Gzhatsk and Viaz’ma alone, the Germans blew up fourteen bridges.
Whatever official Russian historians might say, this was one of the best planned and skillfully conducted withdrawal operations of the entire war. We were unable to trap the German Ninth Army and elements ofthe Fourth PanzerArmy in the Rzhev salient, as had long been our ambition.