Operation Mars, also known as the Second Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive Operation (Russian: Вторая Ржевско-Сычёвская наступательная операция), was the codename for an offensive launched by Soviet forces against German forces during World War II. It took place between 25 November and 20 December 1942 around the Rzhev salient in the vicinity of Moscow.
The offensive was a joint operation of the Soviet Western Front and Kalinin Front coordinated by Georgy Zhukov. The offensive was one in a series of particularly bloody engagements collectively known in Soviet and Russian histories as the Battles of Rzhev, which occurred near Rzhev, Sychevka and Vyazma between January 1942 and March 1943. The battles became known as the "Rzhev meat grinder" ("Ржевская мясорубка") for their huge losses, particularly on the Soviet side. For many years they were relegated to a footnote in Soviet military history.
In Operation Mars, planned to commence in late October, forces of the Kalinin and Western Fronts would encircle and destroy the powerful German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient. The basic plan of the offensive was to launch multiple, coordinated thrusts from all sides of the salient, resulting in the destruction of the Ninth Army. The offensive would also tie down German units and prevent them from being moved south.
The Kalinin and Western Fronts were directed by Stalin and Zhukov "to crush the Rzhev-Sychovka-Olenino-Bely enemy grouping." The Western Front was to "take Sychovka no later than the 15th December." The Kalinin Front's 39th and 22nd armies were to take Olenino by 16 Dec. and Bely by 20 Dec.
Operation Mars was to be followed soon there after by Operation Jupiter, which was to commence two to three weeks later. The Western Front's powerful 5th and 33rd armies, supported by 3rd Guards Tank Army, would attack along the Moscow-Vyazma highway axis, link up with the victorious Mars force, and envelop and destroy all German forces east of Smolensk. Once resistance around Vyazma was neutralized, the 9th and 10th Tank Corps and the 3rd Tank Army would then penetrate deeper into the rear of Army Group Centre.
The offensive was launched in the early hours of 25 November 1942. It got off to a bad start, as fog and snowy weather grounded the planned air support. It also greatly reduced the effect of the massive artillery barrages preceding the main attacks, as it made it impossible for the forward artillery observers to adjust fire and observe the results. The northern thrust made little progress. The eastern attack across the frozen Vazuza river slowly ground forward. The two western thrusts made deeper penetrations, especially around the key town of Belyi. Still, the progress was nowhere near what the Soviets expected.
The German defenders fought stubbornly, clinging to their strong-points, which were often centered on many of the small villages dotting the area. In some cases, the German strong-points remained manned for a time after the Soviets advanced past them, creating more problems for the Red Army in their rear areas. Despite repeated, persistent Soviet attacks, small-arms fire and pre-planned artillery concentrations cut down the attacking infantry. Soviet tanks were picked off by anti-tank guns, the few German tanks, and in close combat with infantry.
The relative lack of initial success compounded the Soviet problems. The minor penetrations and the resulting small bridgeheads made it difficult to bring forward reinforcements and follow-up forces, especially artillery so critical for reducing the German strong-points. The Germans reacted by shifting units within the salient against the points of the Soviet advance and pinching off their spearheads. With limited reserves and reinforcement unlikely due to Soviet offensives elsewhere, the Ninth Army was placed under great pressure.
Eventually the shifting of German forces, coupled with Soviet losses and supply difficulties, allowed the German forces to gain the upper hand. Their lines held, and much of the lost ground was retaken. The counterattacks against the Belyi (western) and the Vazuza (eastern) thrusts resulted in several thousand soldiers being trapped behind German lines. A few of these would manage to break through to Soviet lines, some after fighting in the German rear for weeks. Almost all vehicles and heavy weapons had to be left behind. Though the Germans were not able to remove Soviet forces from the Luchesa valley in the northwest of the salient, this was of little significance since the Soviets there were unable to press their attack through the difficult terrain.
"The Western Front failed to penetrate enemy defences", according to Zhukov. The Germans were able to hit the flank of the Kalinin Front and trapped Maj.-Gen. M.D. Solomatin's Mechanized Corps for three days before they were relieved.
Operation Mars was a military failure, and the Soviets were unable to accomplish any of their objectives. However, in the aftermath of Operation Mars General Von Kluge recommended the salient be abandoned to economize on manpower and to assume more defensible positions. Hitler refused. His denial of a major withdrawal in the winter of 1941–42 had ultimately stabilized the army when it was on the edge of a collapse. Subsequently he was less willing to heed the advice of his commanders. In addition he was unwilling to give up any ground he had won, and saw usefulness in retaining the jump off point for a future thrust upon Moscow. However, in the Spring of 1943 his desire to move back onto the offensive made him more receptive to withdrawing forces from the salient to free up manpower. A staged withdrawal was begun at the beginning of March 1943. By the 23rd of that month the withdrawal was complete.
Historian A. V. Isayev has pointed out that together with influences on other sectors during the winter of 1942, Operation Mars had an effect upon the strategic situation in 1943. In the plan for the large offensive at Kursk in July 1943, the German Ninth Army was located in the southern area of the Orel salient. It delivered the assault upon the Kursk salient from the north. However, losses suffered at Rzhev during Operation Mars resulted in the Ninth Army being short of forces, particularly infantry formations, and it could not muster enough force to fulfill its task.
In the final assessment Operation Mars was a failure for the Soviet forces. However, the unintentional result of the battle was losses to the reserves of Army Group Center which reduced the forces which could be redirected against the more successful Soviet operations against Army Group South. About this matter, German Colonel-General Kurt von Tippelskirch commented:
In order to confine the German forces in every sector of the front and prevent the large reinforcement to the critical sectors, and in order to strengthen their (Soviet) position in the places which were suitable for future offensives in the following winter, the Russians renewed their offensives in the central sector. Their main efforts focused on Rzhev and Velikye Luky. Therefore, our three panzer divisions and several infantry divisions – which were planned to be used in the southern sectors – had to be kept here to close gaps in the front and to retake lost territories. This was the only method for us to stop the enemy breakthrough.
An area of controversy is whether the operation was intended as a major offensive, or whether it was really intended to simply divert German attention and resources from Stalingrad to prevent the relief of their Sixth Army. The forces concentrated for Operation Mars were much larger than the ones used in Operation Uranus. Military historian David M. Glantz believes that Operation Mars was the main Soviet offensive, and that the narrative that it was intended as a "diversion attack" was a propaganda effort on the part of the Soviet government. He termed Operation Mars as the "greatest defeat of Marshal Zhukov."
In the unlikely event that Zhukov was correct and Mars was really a diversion, there has never been one so ambitious, so large, so clumsily executed, or so costly.
British historian Antony Beevor disagrees with Glantz, citing that Zhukov spent less time planning Mars than Uranus, and that the artillery shell allocation was much smaller for Mars than for Uranus. Operation Uranus received "2.5 to 4.5 ammunition loads [per gun]... compared with less than one in Operation Mars." In addition, the Russian historian M. A. Gareyev, citing Stavka orders, asserted that the goal of Operation Mars was to tie down German forces in the Rzhev sector, preventing them from reinforcing Stalingrad. Thus, it ensured the success of Uranus and the Soviet offensives in the south.
According to P. A. Sudoplatov, Soviet intelligence intentionally leaked the plan of operation Mars to the Germans, this was part of a series of deception "radio games" named "Monastery" (Монастырь). One of the "Monastery" operations was intended to lure the German attention to the Rzhev sector. During this intelligence operation, the Soviet double agent Aleksandr Petrovich Demyanov (code name "Heine") sent information about a large-scaled Soviet offensive at Rzhev area in order to make the Germans believe that the next main blow of the Red Army would occur in the central sector. Aside from the Soviet intelligence agency, only Joseph Stalin knew about this "Monastery" operation.
Zhukov concluded the main reason the Soviet forces were unable to destroy the Rzhev salient "was underestimation of the rugged terrain", and "the shortage of supporting armour, artillery, mortars, and aircraft to pierce the enemy defences." He also did not expect the Nazis to bring "up considerable reinforcements to this sector from other Fronts."Soviet:
German: 40,000 casualties