CDG 64 – Battle of Cholm Pocket, 1942
The article below is an abridged version of Combat Decision Game #64, “Battle of Cholm Pocket, 1942,” written by Andrew H. Hershey. Additional text and illustrations appear in the September 2014 edition of Armchair General® magazine, where you’ll also find additional interactive articles based on the Screaming Eagles’ attack on Carentan, 1944, and the Battle of Culloden, 1746. In stores now.
This CDG places readers in the role of German Major General Theodor Scherer, leading a surrounded battle group in a desperate attack against Red Army forces.
Armchair General® challenges YOU to take command of this historical battle. Here’s how to get in on the action:
READ the article carefully
DEVELOP your own solution to this tactical dilemma
RECORD your solution on the CDG map and form from the attached PDF
SEND to Armchair General®; entry must be received by AUGUST 29, 2014 (information on submission methods included on the PDF)
Winners of CDG #64 will receive the Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit DVD, distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Winning solutions will be announced in the JANUARY 2015 issue. However, those eager to read the historical outcome and analysis can log on to armchairgeneral.com/cdg after SEPTEMBER 1, 2014.
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Operation Barbarossa, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union that began World War II on the Eastern Front, launched nearly 4 million German troops and 4,300 panzers supported by 7,200 artillery guns and 4,400 aircraft into western Russia along a 2,900-kilometer front on June 22, 1941. The three-pronged German advance targeted Leningrad (Army Group North, supported by the Finnish army), Moscow (Army Group Center) and Kiev (Army Group South). The first five months of Operation Barbarossa resulted in stunning successes for the German invaders; entire Soviet field armies were destroyed, with a million Red Army soldiers killed and another 3 million taken prisoner. German forces besieged Leningrad, overran Kiev and Ukraine, and their spearheads reached the gates of Moscow, the Soviet capital.
Yet the German offensive to capture Moscow – a bitter struggle in miserable weather that raged from October to early December – failed. On December 5, with the German attack on Moscow stalled, the Red Army launched a powerful counteroffensive along the north and center portions of the front line that took Hitler’s commanders by surprise. The Soviet counterattack sent the forward units in Army Group North and Army Group Center reeling back, as they desperately tried to regroup and establish defensive positions to resist the Red Army onslaught. The Soviet effort was greatly aided by deep snow and the coldest winter in decades, for which the German army was ill equipped to handle. Despite Hitler’s order for his armies to “hold at all costs,” the Soviets pushed deep into German lines in several places.
By late January 1942, the Soviet winter offensive had punched two huge bulges in the Army Group North sector of the German front line: one between Spasskaya Polist and Novgorod, and the largest between Staraya Russa and Velikiye Luki. Within the larger area formed by the Soviet advance, the Red Army had surrounded German units that were holding out in pockets near Demyansk and at Cholm (“Kholm” in Russian). Maintaining control of these pockets until German forces could rescue the isolated units was vital to slowing the Soviet counteroffensive and stabilizing the front line. Yet with the Red Army continuing to batter the Germans, the surrounded units faced having to hold out for weeks or perhaps even months before relief was possible.
Armchair General® takes you back to January 26, 1942, inside the Cholm Pocket, where you will play the role of German Major General Theodor Scherer, commander of Kampfgruppe (Battle Group) Scherer. Your mission is to attack and defeat Soviet units in the western half of Cholm that are occupying key positions whose capture will enable your encircled German units to continue to hold out within the pocket. Unless German forces can enlarge the pocket by seizing the Soviet-occupied territory – particularly the all-important airfield there – the supplies necessary to continue holding out can’t be flown in. Moreover, western Cholm gives the Red Army a dangerously close jumping-off point from which to launch powerful attacks that could likely overrun and destroy Kampfgruppe Scherer.
The 160-kilometer-wide by 240-kilometer-deep bulge created in German 16th Army’s front line by Soviet Northwest Front’s powerful attacks contains two pockets of surrounded German forces. The larger pocket at Demyansk measures 56 kilometers by 40 kilometers and is defended by 3d SS Panzer Division Totenkopf and elements of five German infantry divisions (approximately 90,000 combat troops) trapped by the rapid Red Army advance. In contrast, the Cholm Pocket is extremely small, measuring approximately 2,000 meters by 1,200 meters and containing only about 3,000 German soldiers, the majority of which are noncombat support troops. Thus the Cholm Pocket defenders, lacking the greater numbers of combat troops and the more extensive maneuver space available to the Demyansk Pocket defenders, face daunting challenges if they are to hold out until a relief force can rescue them.
Cholm, whose prewar population was 12,000, is important to both the Germans and the Soviets since it is a major transportation hub that lies at the intersection of five principal roads and at the confluence of the Lovat and Kunya rivers. The rivers bisect the town, with the largest part of Cholm lying along the east bank and a smaller portion on the west bank. The confluence of the two rivers forms a hairpin curve, within which lies flat, low-lying, sparsely populated terrain. Although Cholm has a few dozen stone or brick structures (government offices, churches, etc.), the majority of the town’s buildings are homes constructed in a log-cabin style with wooden-shingle or thatched roofs.
Ever since the Germans captured Cholm in 1941, the town has remained in the relatively quiet rear area. It therefore contains almost no fortified positions or defensive works, except a few haphazardly constructed Russian trench lines left over from the summer fighting. Now, with a half-meter or more of snow blanketing the frozen ground, digging entrenchments is impossible. However, the town boasts one natural defensive feature: it sits on the highest elevation within many kilometers and is surrounded by 800-1,000 meters of flat, open terrain that offers defenders excellent fields of fire.
You are a veteran of World War I combat, and during the interwar period you spent 15 years as a police officer before rejoining the German army in 1935. You commanded an infantry regiment in the 1940 campaign that conquered France, and in October 1941 you were promoted to command of 281st Security Division on the Eastern Front. For the past several months your lightly armed division has operated in rear areas, securing supply routes and logistical facilities against attacks by Russian partisans. However, on January 19, 1942, as the Soviet counteroffensive’s spearheads were closing the ring around Cholm, you were ordered to the town to take command of the diverse collection of combat and noncombat units there and to organize them as a battle group under your command, now called Kampfgruppe Scherer. On January 21, two days after you arrived, Soviet forces cut off Cholm and completely surrounded the town.
Perhaps no more than 500 of the 3,000 German troops comprising Kampfgruppe Scherer are combat soldiers; most are support troops such as medical, veterinary, supply, transportation and signal specialists. Moreover, your six combat units are small formations (platoons and companies) from several different parent commands. Your three smaller units are platoons from Machine Gun Battalion 10, Reserve Police Battalion 65, and combat engineers of Pioneer Battalion 656. Your three larger units are companies from Jagd Kommando 8; 2d Battalion, 386th Infantry Regiment; and 4th Battalion, 123d Artillery Regiment (artillerymen fighting as infantrymen).
You are also counting on the arrival of Gruppe Treu, which consists of 130 soldiers of Kompanie 3, Machine Gun Battalion 10, with eight MG34 machine guns and a 50 mm anti-tank gun. Part of 218th Infantry Division, whose advance to break through enemy lines and relieve Cholm has been stalled about 10 kilometers west by Soviet forces (including 73d Infantry Regiment), Gruppe Treu is being sent ahead to reinforce Kampfgruppe Scherer.
Your soldiers are armed with K98 bolt-action rifles and some MP40 submachine guns. Heavier weapons are limited to three MG34 machine guns in each company-sized unit, one in each of the Reserve Police and Pioneer platoons, and four in the Machine Gun Battalion 10 platoon. Except for two 75 mm “infantry guns” (light, short-ranged cannon) you have no artillery, although when Gruppe Treu arrives it will be able to call in artillery fire from 218th Infantry Division’s 105 mm howitzers that are within range of targets in Cholm.
The Cholm Pocket was created by the advance of masses of infantry, tanks and artillery of Soviet 3d Shock Army as the Red Army counteroffensive swept deep into German lines. At Cholm, two Soviet infantry regiments and a reinforced rifle platoon directly confront Kampfgruppe Scherer. Along the southwest outskirts of town, elements of the kampfgruppe are currently holding at bay Soviet 82d Infantry Regiment, which is supported by a few tanks of 146th Independent Tank Battalion and hundreds of Russian partisans. The most immediate threat is Soviet 164th Infantry Regiment and a reinforced platoon of 73d Infantry Regiment that in a surprise assault have seized the west bank portion of Cholm. Thus defeating the west bank force is Kampfgruppe Scherer’s most pressing mission.
The Soviet infantrymen on the west bank are armed with M91/30 Mosin Nagant bolt-action rifles, and the force has about a half-dozen Maxim heavy machine guns and is well supported by 82 mm and 50 mm mortars. Fortunately for Kampfgruppe Scherer, however, at this early stage in the Soviet siege of the Cholm Pocket, the west bank force does not yet have any artillery or tanks.
EAST BANK HEADQUARTERS
On the afternoon of January 26, you summon your subordinate commanders to your kampfgruppe headquarters, located in a brick building on Cholm’s east bank. Since you must reclaim the Soviet-occupied west bank area as soon as possible, you intend to launch your attack tomorrow morning, January 27, thus allowing you to use the cover of darkness to move your units into position.
Once your subordinates arrive, you explain to them: “Gentlemen, unless we can recover Cholm’s west bank section, it will be impossible to hold the Cholm Pocket. The airfield in particular is vital, since the only way we can receive ammunition, food and supplies is for the Luftwaffe to fly them in. We have no way of knowing how long we must hold out before German forces can break through and relieve us, but we must be prepared to be here for weeks or perhaps even months.
“One bit of good news is that I have received a radio message from 218th Infantry Division informing me that Gruppe Treu should arrive at Cholm’s western outskirts early tomorrow morning; therefore, I am including it in our attack plans. Listen as I explain the three courses of action I am considering.”
COURSE OF ACTION ONE:
“The first option,” you begin, “is to attack the Soviet defenders from both the right and left flanks simultaneously. This double envelopment entails the company from 386th Infantry Regiment linking up with Gruppe Treu and hitting the enemy from our left flank, while the Jagd Kommando 8 company and the Pioneer platoon attack from our right flank. The company from 123d Artillery Regiment will be held in reserve, ready to reinforce either of the flank attacks or possibly to strike in the center if the enemy begins to waver. The remainder of Kampfgruppe Scherer will fire in support of these attacks from positions along the east bank of the Lovat River.”
Major Graff, the kampfgruppe’s operations officer, replies, “General, I like this plan of hitting both flanks simultaneously, as it forces the Russians to split their troops and firepower to face both attacks.”
Lieutenant Colonel Bodenhausen, acting as the kampfgruppe’s chief of staff, disagrees. “We may split the Russian defenders,” he points out, “but we will certainly split our force into two widely separated attack components – with the Russians holding the commanding central position! I think this plan is too risky.”
COURSE OF ACTION TWO:
“The second plan under consideration,” you continue, “is to envelop the enemy position with a powerful ‘left hook.’ The two companies from Jagd Kommando 8 and 386th Infantry Regiment will link up with Gruppe Treu, and together they will deliver the main attack on our left flank. Meanwhile, the Pioneer platoon will conduct a diversionary attack on our right flank, which will confuse the enemy as to our intentions. The Reserve Police platoon will be held in reserve, and the remainder of Kampfgruppe Scherer will provide supporting fire from positions along the east bank of the Lovat River.”
“General,” says Captain Heister, who will be in overall command of the two infantry companies conducting the main attack, “since much depends on Gruppe Treu arriving in time to join the main attack, I am worried about our chances for success if it is delayed or halted.”
Captain Spitaller, who will lead the Jagd Kommando 8 company, is less concerned. “Even if Gruppe Treu is delayed,” he replies, “I am confident that by striking the Russians on their vulnerable flank our two infantry companies will succeed.”
COURSE OF ACTION THREE:
“The final course of action,” you conclude, “is aimed at overwhelming the Soviet defenders by striking at multiple locations along the front line. The Jagd Kommando 8 company will link up with Gruppe Treu, and together they will hit the Russians from our left flank. Meanwhile, the 386th Infantry Regiment company will attack from the center, and the 123d Artillery Regiment company, along with the Pioneer platoon, will strike from our right flank. Again, the Reserve Police platoon will be held in reserve, and the Machine Gun Battalion 10 platoon will provide fire support.”
Frowning, Captain Heister responds, “General, I think this plan dissipates the strength of our attack by failing to concentrate our forces at one or possibly two vulnerable points. Moreover, by advancing along such a broad front, we unnecessarily expose nearly all of our combat troops to heavy enemy fire. Even if this plan succeeds, we may suffer so many casualties that it could prove impossible for us to hold the Cholm Pocket for any extended period.”
Glancing at your watch, you realize the time for discussion is over. With darkness approaching, you must make a decision now in order for your units to move to attack positions and prepare for tomorrow’s action.
What is your decision, Major General Scherer?
Click here to download a pdf of the map and submission form for Combat Decision Game No. 64.
About the Author
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
Find earlier Combat Decision Games by clicking here.