Timoshenko Takes the Offensive in the North
Marshal Timoshenko, it was announced on March 1, 1943, had launched an offensive against the German 16th Army in the region of Lake Ilmen, and had captured the towns of Demyansk, Lychkovo and Zaluchye. During the eight days of fierce fighting that ensued the Russians relentlessly pursued the enemy and liberated some 302 inhabited places, clearing an area of 2,350 sq. km. (about 900 sq. miles). During these same eight days the Red Army captured 3,000 German officers and men and a large quantity of war material, including some 78 aircraft, 97 tanks, 289 guns of various calibres, and 711 machine-guns.
German resistance at Demyansk was stubborn. The enemy used massed artillery, mortars and machine-guns, furiously counter-attacking with infantry supported by tanks. In order to avoid encirclement he began a hurried retreat, abandoning strong-points, dug-outs and trenches which it had taken him many months to build. Some 40 German planes were captured on Demyansk aerodrome.
The Germans set great store by what they called the "Demyansk fortress" area, but they endeavoured to minimize its loss by admitting on March 2 that it had been evacuated, while stating at the same time that "the Soviet offensive front in the Lake Ilmen sector has been extended to the south". The Demyansk bastion was, indeed, second only to Rzhev in the whole German front between Moscow and Leningrad. Marshal Timoshenko smashed that vast German padlock, which the enemy had put on Russian offensive action between Leningrad and Veliki Luki.
On March 6 the Russians recaptured Gzhatsk, an important German base S.E. of Sychevka (reoccupied by the Red Army two days later) and advanced in the direction of Vyazma – the remaining German "hedgehog" in the eastern part of the salient pointing to Moscow and the chief outpost of Smolensk, situated 140 miles west of the capital. Swiftly they fought their way along Napoleon's famous road of retreat in 1912, and on March 12 the Germans evacuated Vyazma. Thus the last enemy stronghold threatening Moscow was removed.