Moscow, Soviet Union February 28, 1942

On this date in 1943 the 13-day Battle of Demyansk ended with the evac­u­a­tion of the last batch of German armed forces from the Dem­yansk sali­ent. Begin­ning the pre­vious Febru­ary 96,000 (even­tu­ally 131,000) German troops and aux­il­iary ser­vice per­son­nel forced them­selves into what was a rela­tively insig­nif­i­cant village that lay a little over 200 miles/­322 km south­east of the German-besieged city of Leningrad (present-day St. Peters­burg) in the Soviet Union. Dem­yansk’s impor­tance at the time was both its loca­tion on high ground surrounded by forested marsh­land and its prox­im­ity, 20 miles/­19 km away, to the stra­te­gic Staraya Russa-Valdai rail­way and points east, including the Soviet capital, Moscow.

The fighting in the Demyansk salient stretched back to early 1942 following the German defeat after the Battle of Moscow (Octo­ber 2, 1941, to Janu­ary 7, 1942). At 13 months Dem­yansk was one of the longest encircle­ment battles of the Euro­pean Theater. Orig­i­nally the German 16th Army, deployed as part of Army Group North oper­a­ting to the south of Lenin­grad, occupied Dem­yansk in the fall of 1941 in support of Operation Barbarossa, Adolf Hitler’s ill-fated attempt to liquidate the Soviet Union, Germany’s power­ful neigh­bor to the east. The Red Army’s winter cam­paign (Decem­ber 5, 1941, to May 7, 1942), intended to drive the inva­ders away from Moscow, wit­nessed the Soviets’ North­western Front (army group) enclosing tens of thou­sands of German fighters in what became known as the Dem­yansk Pocket in Febru­ary 1942 (see map below). A tiny pocket of 5,500 Germans was iso­lated sepa­rately at Kholm (Cholm) to the south­west. Empha­sizing the impor­tance of the Dem­yansk bridge­head to the success of his war in the East, Hitler desig­nated the Soviet village a “Festung” (fortress) on February 22, 1942, to be held against all opposition.

It was a costly conversion, pocket to fortress. Sustaining the entrapped garrisons required Hermann Goering’s Luft­waffe to con­duct months of never-before-tried air­lift oper­a­tions (in Kholm’s case, gliders and para­chute drops). Each day the Luft­waffe flew over 100 flights of Junkers Ju 52 trans­port air­craft, carrying a daily average of 300 tons of food and matériel to sus­tain the defen­ders and evac­u­ate the criti­cally wounded and sick to field hos­pitals in the rear. On April 22, 1942, a task force of Dem­yansk defenders broke the siege of five Soviet armies by reopening a land corri­dor to the north, for a loss of 11,777 dead (thou­sands simply frozen to death), 40,000 wounded, and 2,739 missing. Kholm’s for­lorn defenders held out till May 5, 1942, when it was relieved, for a loss of 1,500 defenders dead and 2,000 wounded. Soviet losses during this period (Janu­ary 7 to May 20, 1942) were nearly 89,000 dead and missing and 156,603 wounded.

But this was not the end of the Demyansk tragedy. As part of Oper­a­tion Polar Star, the Soviet offen­sive early the next year (Febru­ary 10 to April 1, 1943), the North­western Front, in a joint oper­a­tion with two other Soviet army groups, tried for the fifth time to cut the land route to Dem­yansk. On Febru­ary 17, after receiving Hitler’s autho­ri­za­tion 2½ weeks earlier in the wake of the Stalin­grad dis­aster, the main Dem­yansk gar­ri­son began with­drawing west­ward. Five days later the Germans had com­pletely aban­doned the sali­ent for a loss of nearly 7,000 killed, wounded, and missing versus 33,663 killed, wounded, and missing on the Soviet side. The Red Army called off its offen­sive on Febru­ary 28, 1943. The threat of another enemy attack in the Moscow area also ended. Not until February 21, 1944, did the Red Army liberate Kholm.

Demyansk Pocket: Tragedy on the Eastern Front, 1941–1943

Demyansk Pocket: Soviet encirclement of Demyansk and Kholm (Cholm), February–April 1942

Above: Map (in German) showing the encircle­ment of Dem­yansk and Kholm (Cholm), two German gar­ri­sons south of Lake Ilmen, Febru­ary to April 1942. (Dem­yansk and Kholm are now in Nov­go­rod Oblast in Western Russia.) Opposing Soviet forces are indi­cated by broad red arrows. The broken black line repre­sents the east-west Staraya Russa-Valday rail line. The Dem­yansk Pocket (German, Kessel von Dem­jansk) was roughly 1,150 sq miles/­2,978 sq km in size, with a porous front line of 187 miles/­301 km. The tiny Kholm (Cholm) pocket was only 1.24 miles/­1.9 km wide. The “II. AK” inside the Dem­yansk Pocket stands for II (2nd) Army Corps (II Armee­korps), a constit­u­ent of the German 16th Army. Also trapped in the pocket were men from the X Army Corps and auxil­iary units, among them police ser­vices, Reich Labor Ser­vice, SS Frei­korps Dan­mark, and Waffen-SS Divi­sion “Toten­kopf.” The siege of Dem­yansk was second in length to the 872‑day siege of Leningrad.

Demyansk Pocket airlift January 1942Demyansk Pocket breakout, March–April 1942

Left: Taken in January 1942, this photo shows a three-engine Junkers Ju 52 emptying its cargo. The Dem­yansk Pocket had two viable air­fields capa­ble of receiving the garri­son’s daily require­ments of 300 short tons of food, medi­cine, munit­ions, wea­pons, fuel, replace­ment troops, etc., and evac­u­a­ting the wounded and sick to field hos­pi­tals in the rear. One air­field with a 2,600‑ft/­792‑m run­way could ser­vice 20 planes at a time. Despite freezing and snowy and foggy weather much of the time, the aerial resupply life­line was modestly suc­cess­ful. The Luft­waffe flew 33,086 sorties, bringing in 64,880 tons of supplies and evac­u­a­ting 35,400 wounded. The air bridge defi­nitely kept the pocket from dying of attri­tion. That said, 387 air­men and 265 air­craft were lost in the course of the air­lift and Soviet air strikes on the air­fields. Among the lost air­craft were 106 Junkers Ju 52s, 17 Heinkel He 111s, and 2 Junkers Ju 86s, which added together repre­sented over half of Germany’s annual pro­duc­tion of trans­ports. By con­trast, the failed Stalin­grad air­lift in late 1942–early 1943 cost the Luft­waffe well over twice the air­craft lost in Dem­yansk’s air­lift, and it only supplied a frac­tion of what the trapped German Sixth Army needed to survive the siege of Stalingrad (today’s Volgograd).

Right: Colorized photo titled “Opening the Demyansk Pocket. Panzers in snow and German soldiers in winter camou­flage.” Photo taken on March 21, 1942, by a relief force (Group Seyd­litz) pushing south along the Staraya Russa-Ramu­shevo road. Exactly one month later a task force from Dem­yansk moving north linked up with the rescue party in the face of stiff Soviet counter­attacks. On May 1 Dem­yansk was declared “lib­er­ated.” Soviet troops tried five times between May 1942 and February 1943 to cut the Demyansk-Ramu­shevo cor­ri­dor, but their attempts were fiercely rebuffed. Between Febru­ary 17 and 28, 1943, the belea­guered Germans emptied their Dem­yansk bridge­head (but not Kholm) just as the Red Army was set to launch a renewed offensive to annihilate the enemy garrison.

Undated Silent German Footage of Horrific Conditions Inside the Damyansk Pocket (Suggest muting the audio)