Operation "Mars" - Was it Large Disaster or a Part of the Victory in Stalingrad?

Updated Aprli 26, 2004

Colonel Orlov Alexander Semenovich
Doctor of History Science, leading research officer of Military History Institute of Ministry of Defense of Russia, Academician of the Russian Academy of Native Sciences


published in journal "Mir Istorii", No. 4, 2000

Original in Russian: http://www.a2.ru/~historia/archive/04-00/orlov.htm

"55-year anniversary of the WWII end in Europe for some last years attracts attention of historians in many countries of the world. Publication of a set of documents, which were secret recently, let to increase our knowledge about many operations of the Great Patriotic War, which were not described enough earlier.

It is related and to operation "Mars" (second Rzhev-Sychyovka operation (Nov. 25 - Dec. 20.1942)). This operation was described very small in the Soviet historiography: diversionary operation of the Western and Kalinin Fronts having mission to prevent transferring of the German reserves from Western direction to the South where huge Stalingrad battle was taking place that time.

But in 1999 in the USA a book of well-known American historian David Glantz, who specializes in history of the Great Patriotic War have been published. Its title pretends to sensation and is "Zhukov's Greatest Defeat. The Red Army's Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942."

What is conception of Glantz, which let him to give such a conclusion about the results of this operation? He writes that in September of 1942 Stavka of Supreme Command developed two strategic advance operations: one in the Western and other in the Southern direction. Every operation had to create conditions for new operation on the same direction after its end. Both operations got code names: on the Western direction - "Mars", on the Southern - "Uranus". Following, next operations got code names "Jupiter" and "Saturn" respectively.

The author supposes that operation "Mars" was the main operation. It had to be performed by forces of the Western (commander - I. S. Konev) and Kalinin (commander - M.A. Purkaev) Fronts. G.K. Zhukov had to coordinate their efforts. In the Southern direction operation "Saturn", which was an auxiliary one, according to Glantz, had to be performed by forces of the South-Western, Don and Stalingrad Fronts. A.M.Vasilevskiy had to coordinate their efforts.

The goal of the "Mars" operation was to crush the 9th German Army, which formed the basis of the Army Group "Center" in Rzhev, Sychyovka, Olenino, Belyi area. Fronts, which had to take part in operation "Uranus", had missions to encircle and to destroy the German 6th Field and a part of the 4th Panzer Armies and later, during operation "Saturn", to crush the main troops of German Army Groups "A" and "B".

It is Glantz's description of the goals of these operations. Then he analyzes forces, which were used for performing of advances tasks. He writes that 6 Armies and 9 [mobile] Corps of the Red Army took part in operation "Uranus", which operated against the 6th Field and 4th Panzer German Armies and the 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies. 6 Armies and 7 mobile corps took part in operation "Mars", 2/3 of the German 9th Army (commander - V. Model) defended against these forces. Moreover, positions of the 9th Army in Velikiye Luki vicinity were attacked by the Soviet 3rd Shock Army, and 3 other Soviet Armies - the 4th Shock, 43rd and 29th - were covering flanks of advancing forces.

During analysis of the Red Army strength which took part in both operations Glantz writes that in November of 1942 the Soviet forces which operated against the German 9th Army contained 1,890,000 men, 24,682 guns, 3,375 tanks and 1,170 planes. Forces which took part in operation "Uranus" contained 1,103,000 men, 15,501 guns, 1,463 tanks (1,150-1,200 tanks following V. Goncharov’s article in N. K. Popel "Tanki povernuli na zapad", Moscow, 2001. pp 433 - 453 [title translation: "The Tanks Turned to the West"-AMVAS]) and 1,463 planes. At that, 668,000 men and 2,000 tanks were directly used for "Mars" operation, 700,000 men and 1,400 tanks – for the "Uranus" operation.

Then Glantz compares results of operations and gives his own appraisals for their coordinators - Vasilevskiy and Zhukov. According to his opinion, in Stalingrad region the Soviet troops broke through a frontline in zones, which were defended by Romanians, and accomplished their task quickly. Before the commencement of the Soviet counter-offensive, the main German tank forces were destroyed in Stalingrad and Germans had only two tank divisions (the 22nd German and the 1st Romanian) as a reserve.

In Rzhev area defending troops were not Romanians but battle-hardened German divisions (for example, the 102nd) in preliminarily fortified positions. The 5th Panzer Division defended positions in breakthrough direction of the Western Front, Model had four more divisions (1st and 9th Panzer, "Gross Deutschland" and the 14th Motorized in reserve. And 3 other panzer divisions were ready for actions - the 12th [in original text - 9th (wrong) - remark of Andrey], 19th and 20th. Moreover, German intelligence knew reliable information about plans, dates and strength of the Western and Kalinin Fronts. All these factors made preconditions for "Mars" operation failure.

Thus, according to Glantz, two known Soviet military leaders commanded troops in different directions and got different results.

Vasilevskiy coordinated actions of 3 Fronts, for 2,5 months successfully finished "Uranus" and "Small Saturn" (instead of "Saturn") and got excellent results with far less casualties than Zhukov and with even somewhat less forces than Zhukov. Troops under command of Zhukov could not fulfill their missions for 3 weeks and got more casualties than the troops in Stalingrad advance.

It is a short description of Glantz's conception. But how does his conception compare with facts, does it confirmed by the Soviet Military Archives data? Did really Soviet troops get large disaster in operation "Mars"? It is question for investigation.

Firstly, in spite of statement of Glantz, operation "Mars" was an auxiliary operation having a task to provide success of "Uranus" operation. And date of operation "Mars" beginning was delayed not because troops of the Western direction were not ready, it depended from situation in the South. Therefore this operation began on the 25th of November, i.e. two days after that time when the South-Western and Stalingrad Fronts finished encirclement of Paulus troops. And "Mars" operation began in inauspicious weather conditions: there was powerful snowfall, aircraft couldn't operate, tanks and artillery didn't see targets. But this operation began in such conditions because it was necessary at any price to hold the main forces of the Army Group "Center" and to prevent Germans to redeploy reserves from the Western to Southern direction. And even in spite of bad beginning and large casualties operation continued until the 20th of December. Why did it continue? It continued because it was necessary to deprive troops of Manstein, which went to save Paulus possibility to get reserves. Manstein desperately needed reserves and couldn't save Paulus without reinforcements.

So actions of the Soviet troops which took part in "Mars" operation didn't permit Germans to reinforce Southern direction at the expense of the Western direction. But it was main strategic task of Stavka of Supreme Command. It was because German Army Group "Center" had 79 divisions, it was 30% of all Axis divisions in Soviet-German Front or 41% of only German divisions. Operation "Uranus" was made against the Army Group "B" which had the same amount of divisions, but 50 divisions were divisions of German satellites (Hungary, Romania and Italy). This difference in troop's quality predetermined different scale of success in Stalingrad steppe and Vyazma forests. And it is reason of different casualties level of Soviet troops in operations "Mars" and "Uranus". So comparisons of Glantz which were made without taking these circumstances into consideration are not correct. Also there are other errors in his book. He writes that in operation "Mars" took part 7 mobile Soviet corps but actually there were 5 of them (1st and 3rd Mechanised, 5th and 6th Tank, 2nd Guardian Cavalry). And amount of directly advancing troops was far less than digits of Glantz. These troops contained 362,000 men, 1,300 tanks and 3,940 guns and mortars (according to data from the Central Archive of Ministry of Defense of Russia). First date of readiness troops for advance was 21st of October (not 12th of October like in the book of Glantz). And date of operation "Mars" beginning delayed depending from date of operation "Uranus" beginning, it shows what operation was the main one.

Yes, it is difficult to say that troops of the Western and Kalinin Fronts completely reached the operational objectives. Troops of the Western Front broke through the enemy positions in front of 8 km in about of 10 km depth, the 39th Army of Kalinin Front abolished Urdom fortified region of the Rzhev salient, the 22nd Army of this Front broke-through 16 kms inside of enemy defense in region Karskaya. The troops of both Fronts couldn't break disposed in depth enemy defense, to reach lines, which were indicated by Stavka, to encircle enemy forces, these troops got large casualties (but less than Glantz writes). Irretrievable casualties were 70,400 men, 1,366 tanks (according to data from Central Archive of Ministry of Defense of Russia). Yes, it was unsuccessful advance operation but it was not defeat like disasters in Crimea or Kharkov one in spring of 1942, especially it is wrong to call it Zhukov's defeat, because he visited the Western direction only from time to time because of Stalingrad battle. And when he made sure that strategic goal - to hold about 30 enemy divisions in Rzhev direction and to force Wehrmacht Command to reinforce Rzhev-Sychyovka bridgehead by reserves of Army Group "Center" and OKH (four panzer and one motorized division) - was performed, he ordered to stop unneeded more "Mars" operation.

At the same time it is useful to accentuate that unsuccessful results of advancing operation are explained in many respects by exactly that strategic goals of Stavka didn't exclude possibility of failure of performing of operational goals by the Western and Kalinin Fronts during "Mars" operation.

Really, the date of "Mars" operation beginning had been delayed for more than one month in spite of the fact that troops were concentrated and were under intense spying of German intelligence. Before the commencement of advance, enemy knew (from words of POWs and turncoats) about advance zones, Soviet forces and their approximate formations and plans. And moreover, Pavel Sudoplatov, one of the famous Soviet intelligence leaders during WWII [he was a Chief of the 4th Department (Intelligence) of NKVD - remark of Andrey], writes that the Soviet command wanted to be well-provided for preventing transferring of the German reserves from the Western to Southern direction. For that purpose, the Soviet command used "double agent" Alexander Dem’yanov for sending for Wehrmacht command "information" that Red Army begins the main advance in Rzhev region on November 15th. (According to memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov "Intelligence and Kremlin", M, 1966, p.187-188 [translation of Russian name - remark of Andrey]) Draw attention that it is the same data which Glantz found in German archives and used as a base for his book! So Stavka sacrificed operational success on the Western direction to strategic success on the Southern direction! As a result, the huge strategic advance of the Soviet troops on Stalingrad direction was completely unexpected for Wehrmacht - element of surprise was achieved. General Jodl wrote: "We completely didn't know about the power of Russian troops in this region. It was quiet part of frontline and suddenly we got here power blow, which had decisive significance."

But even and on Rzhev direction, in spite of many imperfections of "Mars" operation, the Soviet troops caused sensitive casualties to opposite German troops. German historian Brent Vicker speaks that "Casualties of Germans on Rzhev direction were huge".

Here are real data about "Mars" operation. Of course, every historian has right in own explanation of historical events. But his books have to be based on reliable facts, exact digits, unbiased appraisal. The book of Glantz is disputable from this point of view."

Translated in English by Andrey and AMVAS.