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July 16th, 1941 was a banner day in the German operation Barbarossa. In less than 30 days, the Wehrmacht had surrounded close to 500,00 Red Army troops and destroyed most of the Soviet Western Front.

It was a military feat for the ages to be eclipsed only by the Soviet Operation Bagration three years later.

Smolensk fell July 16, 1941, but unlike Minsk only weeks before, a deliberate failure by Gernamn Panzer General Heinz Guderian to fully close Soviet forces trapped in Smolensk led eventually to the mini-offensive in Yelnia, just 25 miles southeast of Smolensk itself. The gap left by Guderian in the east of the caudron saved some elements of the Soviet 16th and 20th Armies and placed his forces out of position to rapidly reduce the cauldron.

The (partial) encirclement at Smolensk also took place at a time of two major strategic decisions by both sides.

The first was what we now call an operational pause while the German General Staff (OKH) decided what to do next. Minsk and Smolensk each had fallen to quick armor thrusts by the Wehrmacht, however, the infantry remained at least two weeks to the rear still trudging and trying to catch up to the current lines.

Forces back in WWII weren't like most modern forces today. Major portions of modern armies were still leg infantry, meaning troops had to march whereever they were ordered to go. No way could they catch up to fast mobile forces. And leg infantry are a necessary element even in modern warfare today.

Tanks can take territory and they can hold territory but nowhere hear as efficiently as infantry.

What came up during the brief lull in operations by the German Army was two decisions: 1) Turn mobile forces southward and drive them due south, past the Pripyat Marches towards to middle Dnepr River to link up with Army Gorup South to take Kiev and if possible surround even more Soviet troops.

And 2) Hold Yelnia for the purpose of maintaining a "springboard" for further operations towards Moscow.

While the battle shaped up in the south, the Soviet General Staff tried in vane to stop German attacks with the forces of the High Command Reserve, a group of five armies already raised by June 1941 and deployed partly at Smolensk, and partly to the east of the Pripyat Marchs. The southern concentration of these forces were intended to provide a basis for a counter offensive once German forces continued their movement towards Moscow.

But almost six months before Barbarossa, the great German wargame at Zossen determined that were the Soviets to have a large reserve, and since the spaces in Soviet Russia were so large, it would likely be necessary that a seperate operation be mounted behind the Pripyat Marshes in order to make the whole front contiguous and easier to continue operations against.

For the purposes of this new operation, the German General Staff, with the assent of Army Group Center Commander Field Marshal von Bock, stripped the western lines west of Smolensk of nearly every mobile formation and much of its artillery to be turned south.

This left the rear of this line bereft of any mobile reserves to deal with any Soviet counterattacks, which would surely come.

This is the first part in a series of articles exploring the circumstances which led to the Soviet operational victory at Yelnia and which, according to Brian Fulgate and Lev Dvoresky, authors of the 1997 military study "Thunder on the Dnepr," possibly saved Moscow in the German campaign Typhoon.

We will also be drawing information from three other sources, by German military historian Paul Carrell, Scottish military historian John Erickson and Col Albert Seaton.

We will conclude this series with a description of how this battle could be depicted in an East Front II tactical game.


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