Winter deepened its grip on the approaches to SMOLENSK as Soviet forces ground slowly east. 35th Infantry Division Landsers shivered in their dugouts and shell scrapes on the approaches to VYAZMA in a more heavily wooded broadleaf landscape than the southern steppes. Although this afforded more timber for defences, it did little to provide overhead cover.*
Sitting midway on the MINSK highway between MOSCOW and SMOLENSK, both sides saw VYAZMA as a vital regional hub.
“Where is my air support?” was the cry from both commanders. The Luftwaffe were frozen in to their meagre forward airstrips, but Soviet Sturmoviks were seen flying in regimented formations to attack the enemy.
The scouts of 38 and 40 Rifle Divisions were barely slowed by the German forward outposts, and with little by way of artillery to oppose them, soon overran the southern regiment in their main defensive line. In the absence of effective anti-tank guns, even T-60s provided armoured support.
As the south of the main defensive line collapsed, the central and northern regiments fell back in good order without managing to delay the Soviet infantry to VYAZMA. Here, they at least had effective Flak, artillery and shelter. As the last troops entered the city, engineers sealed off the defensive minefields protecting the eastern approaches.
Soviet airstrikes pounded the town, answered by Flak that may have had a dissuasive effect, but did little damage. This prelude to the main infantry assault did nothing to dismay the defenders, and a robust defence held the first two waves of Soviet infantry.
After a sustained firefight, 40th Rifle Division broke into the south of VYAZMA, unleashing armoured forces from 5th Shock Army, 4th Mechanised Corps through the minefields but stripping their motor rifle support from them.
These tanks, on finding themselves unsupported, turned north to attack VYAZMA linking back with 40th Rifle Division, but being engaged by a static and self-propelled antitank gun screen.
Difficulties with snow and supplies had delayed the counterattack of 7th Panzer Division and 20th Panzer Grenadier Division, but it appeared from the southeast of VYAZMA, having conducted a wide outflanking march, but having failed to catch the head of the Soviet southern pincer that was burrowing into the suburbs of the city.
Although the attack reached the main MINSK highway, by this stage the defenders in the city centre were collapsing or pulling out of the centre, with little left to oppose the enemy.**
A northern pincer from the Soviet 7th Tank Corps crashed into the city defences at about this time, sealing the defender’s fate. Flurries of Little Führer directives ordering a defence to the last man had no effect on the masses of Germans fleeing west, but sealed the fate of headquarters 35th Infantry Division and its accompanying divisional troops. Counterattacks by 9th Infantry Division failed to break back in to the city to relieve them.
*I had put the fir trees out before I toured VYAZMA on Google Map. Yesthat Phil shrugged it off as an annoying fact that gets in the way of a good story. Everybody knows that Russia in Winter is full of nothing but snow, fir trees and wolves. You can’t argue with that.
** Morale was universally high throughout this game, with the exception the Soviet troops to the north of the city, who were content to let their countrymen to the south do the hard work. German shooting was mostly poor, with the exception of the defenders to the north, and the engineers. The two states were not unconnected.
The armoured troops that closed on VYAZMA were previously unknown to Oberkommando Heer but were eventually identified as being part of Lt. General Popov’s 5th Shock Army, previously thought to have been on the Stalingrad Front.
The game was fought over 2 evenings, fuelled by well-preserved Stollen, on a 5 x 3 foot table, hence the rather crowded area around VYAZMA, which would ideally have occupied four times the real estate.