Now and Then - Rzhev mine clearance

Rzhev mine clearance sappers combat engineers

Bolshaya Spasskaya street, Rzhev. October 2022 / Commune street, Rzhev. March 1943


Soviet sappers searching for mines on one of the main streets of the town. Pokrovskaya church, mentioned below, is just one block to the back from where this photo was taken.

After 17 months of heavy fighting the Red Army finally entered Rzhev. While reading about this battle one can't help finding parallels to the battle of Leningrad: same kind of positional fighting with hundreds thousand casualties and minimal territorial gains, same frustration of General Zhukov which often grew into fury when he tanks couldn't make rapid dashes across vast bogs and thick forests, same kind of numerous unsuccessful operations the history of which was swept under the carpet after the war.

When the battle of Stalingrad was nearing its denouement the Germans realised the impossibility of a new offensive on Moscow and decided that holding the Rzhev salient was no longer strategically feasible. Starting from February 1943 they started thoroughly preparing for their withdrawal and on March 1 began a rapid and well-executed retreat with minimal casualties. Only a handful of rear guard units remained in Rzhev and around it to maintain the visibility of German presence in the area. Unfortunately, the Red Army was still lacking troop mobility in order to cut off and encircle the retreating Germans. Nevertheless, this could not detract from the joy of liberation for the local civilians who endured severe hardships of Nazi punishments, executions and starvation policies.

operation buffel rzhev
Map of Operation Buffel

Just like in the area around Leningrad an year later, the Germans worked hard to deport all able-bodied population to the West to deny their labour to the Red Army and to burn down everything of value. Just like in Gatchina, a town south of Leningrad, the Germans herded the local population in a big church, intending to burn it down during their retreat. Thanks to the information the NKVD received from their agent planted in the ranks of the town's auxiliary police, this plan was foiled in a special operation.

Early in the morning of March 1, 1943 the Germans herded 248 people, mostly old men, women and children, in the Pokrovskaya church in the town center and locked its iron padded doors. The basement of the church was rigged with explosives and the shot exploder was located in the basement of a warehouse 200 meters away. Soviet commanders learned about this plan late in the night of March 2, when they were about to enter the town, and at 3am on March 3 a heavy mortar battery was ordered to open fire at the warehouse while a special assault company from the 965th Rifle Regiment and a group of NKVD agents and sappers made a desperate dash across the streets of the city to save the civilians. While the German resistance was very light, the town was densely littered with mines, and the small rescue force suffered 18 casualties to mine explosions. Thankfully, the fuse on the explosives wasn't triggered, the sappers safely extracted and disabled it, saving all civilians who stayed inside for 2 days without bread and water.

The ruined town was turned into one big minefield by the retreating German force. Even the river Volga, covered with a thick layer of ice and snow, was thickly covered with mines. Demolition experts cleared the way to rifle units, making passages in minefields. The town literally became a workplace to a number of combat engineer units. For example, on March 19 alone, two weeks after the liberation, one company of sappers found 6 anti-tank minefield placed on street intersections and right in the place of destroyed city blocks.

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