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Stalin and Molotov Lines in Combat

Encirclement and envelopment have been, and remain, extremely decisive forms of maneuver. The German Army Group Center incorporated the inherent advantages of mechanization and air support to revolutionize this form of warfare, to enhance opportunities to rapidly encircle and annihilate defending forces. As seen during Barbarossa, poorly led and equipped forces, defending well forward over dispersed frontages, are especially vulnerable to this form of exploitation. Even disregarding the quality of defending forces, forward defenses have inherent risks. In some present circumstances the close proximity of a strategically critical capital to a hostile border may mandate a strong forward defense. However, given Moscow's distance from the pre-war border, a very strong case could be made that the Soviets should have defended no further west than the Stalin Line. Regardless, a forward defense should be backed by a highly mobile reserve, capable of mounting decisive counter-attacks.

Soviet defenses were planned in-depth, much in line with previous theoretical development. Defenses along the initial line of contact with the Germans were designed only to slow the German advance. Zhukov realized before the war began that German technical superiority and experience would quickly overwhelm forward defenses. His and Stalin's calculated removal of artillery from these positions so it could be employed in depth rather than be destroyed or captured was a justified necessity.

The second echelon of defense was designed to absorb and blunt the momentum of the German Panzer groups. This echelon would be positioned initially on the Stalin Line, which was up to 300 miles behind the frontier defenses. Included were a number of detached tank brigades. The combination of strong points and counterattacks by the tanks was to deal serious blows to the Panzer Groups. The second echelon was then expected to continue an active defense. The third echelon strategic reserve was to deliver the final blow on the Germans.

The main line of defense, along the Stalin Line, was the second echelon. By design, it was to stop the German advance through the use of fixed fortifications coupled with counterattacks by combined arms units. The strategic reserve, eventually mobilized around Moscow, was to begin the counter-offensive when the enemy advances were halted due to the activities of the second echelon. This basic design, though unable to stop the German advance, was essentially the same description of defenses made by Tukhachevski. Defensive preparations were, insufficient, since the Soviets were constantly looking for opportunities to conduct offensive operations.

The Stalin Line consisted of towns, organized as strong points with modern fortifications, covering routes of approach and critical terrain features. It had been built before the war and should have been garrisoned, but was not completely so. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 during the course of Operation Barbarossa, most of the Molotov Line was not yet finished, and hence posed a negligible obstacle to the invading forces. Only the four southernmost regions, partly completed, were able to hamper the advance of the Wehrmacht for a few days.

The Molotov line failed to come up expectations : to defend the Soviet Union borders from the German invasion. The German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 took by surprise the builders and not numerous Russian military crews. Some of the pillboxes had not been finished yet and equipped, only some of them managed to hamper the advance of the Wermacht for a few days. Although the resistance was quite strong, German forward advance proceeded without any problems through the gaps between bunkers.

Some hypothesis say that the Molotov Line was not a defense line but it was constructed to make the Red Army assault on the Third Reich. Pillboxes were so camouflaged into the local relief in order to conceal their location so it is impossible to find them now. After the end of the war, they were renovated to make use of them by the Warsaw Pact in case of war. Nowadays pillboxes are greatly devastated and overgrown. The biggest concentration of pillboxes is located around the hills; Hrebcianka (331m ), Brusno, Wielki Dzial, Goraje.

The Soviets consider the unreadiness of their fortifications at their western frontier in 1941 to have been an important contributing factor in their initial defeat and the rapid penetration of European Russia by the German armies in Operation "Barbarossa." Many of the fortified areas built along the "old" frontier (the Stalin Line) were not functional in 1941. Their garrisons, armament, and equipment had been removed. A new line, located some 100 kilometers west of the Stalin Line, had been only partially completed, and the fortifications, in most cases, had not been occupied. In areas where the fortifications were complete and were garrisoned, the Germans met with stiff resistance which considerably delayed their advance.

On the 26-28th of June 1941 at the lines of the Minsk`s fortified region started fierce fights with the attacker units of the fascist army. The German advance was even more rapid than Zhukov and Stalin had foreseen. The 48 divisions positioned within 10 to 50 kilometers of the frontier were overrun almost immediately. The intermediate tactical zone, forward of the Stalin Line, was encircled within a matter of days. While the Germans were encircling the armies in the Bialystok Salient, the Red Army was still mobilizing and moving forces forward to the Stalin Line. The Stalin Line itself proved to be nothing more than a thin and incomplete belt of border fortifications, easily penetrated by the Germans.

As the Germans continued to advance beyond the Stalin Line, Stalin tried to rush replacements forward to slow the German advance. He could not use his strategic reserve to conduct a counter offensive, at least not in 1941.

The defenders played into the hands of the attacker by concentrating too near the Pripet marshes. These rendered any lateral shifting of forces impossible. Thus the Germans were able to attack large Russian units separately with superior strength and to apply Napoleon's strategy to tackle the different enemy armies at different times, and each of them with overwhelming force. The initial German strategy in the Russian campaign was a classical application of the principle of concentration. On the contrary, if the advanced flat regions were strongly held by the Russians, the Stalin line was undermanned. The large reserve forces were concentrated west of Moscow. The attacker could penetrate quickly into the Russian defense system, annihilate strong forces and considerable equipment and gain contact with the main line of resistance without loss of time. This line was almost as easily reduced as was the futile line of the Allies in 1940, the K.W. line between Antwerp and Sedan.

By 05 July 1941 the Russians were hurrying troops into the line, the main points of which were Dvinsk, which had already fallen, apparently not garrisoned in time; Polotsk; Vitebsk; Orsha; Mogilev; Rogachev; Zhlobin, where the line going south jumped over the Pinsk Marshes to Korosten; Novograd-Volynski, which was more of an advanced post or salient; Zhitomir; Berdichev. The Stalin Line was strong, and should have presented a strong resistance to an attack.

Some of the Germans arrived opposite the Line by 05 July 1941. The German 16th Army reached Ostrov with its left, while its right moved to attack Polotsk, in the Stalin Line, from the rear (north). This army had a front of about 150 miles. In pursuit, German and Soviet forces alike found it expedient to mount on tanks. This improvisation proved effective on innumerable occasions when a defeated enemy was to be pursued. For instance, when 6th Panzer Division spearheaded the drive of Army Group North during the first days of July 1941, it broke through the pillbox-studded Stalin Line after two days of fighting. The Soviets offered renewed resistance farther to the northeast but after a few hours the Russians were dislodged from the fortified frontier zone and dispersed into the surrounding forests.

By 08 July 1941 the 16th German Army was engaged in a battle near Sebezh and in attacking Polotsk. The Center Group's Panzers were rounding up the last of the Russians near Lepel and other Russian forces near Borisov and Bobruisk. In general, the Germans held the line of Dnepr River north of the Pinsk Marshes, less the fortified bridge heads of the Stalin Line. The large Russian force near Bialystock was still fighting, but was obviously approaching its end.

On 12 July 1941 a communiques of the German Army bragged: "In a brave assault the Stalin Line has been broken at all decisive points of the Eastern front." Although the Stalin Line hardly existed except in the German communiques, the world unhesitatingly accepted the picture of a powerful German Army irresistibly overwhelming a second Maginot line in its stride. Throughout the rest of the summer the German communiques continued to report German advances and great victories in Russia.

As German Army Group Center moved eastward, the Soviets, as early as August 1941, began constructing field fortifications around Moscow.The Soviets were able to build extensive defenses in three rings around Moscow as the Germans continued their advances. Most of the workers around Moscow were women who built trench lines, fortifications, and performed other menial labor to save the city and possibly the country. These defenses, along with the harsh winter conditions, finally stopped the German advance. Soviet military analysts point out that if it had not been for the thousands of kilometers of trenches, the antitank ditches, and the minefields of the Moscow defenses, the Germans might have taken the city. This would have had catastrophic consequences for the Soviet state.

During the first week of December, 1941, the German High Command issued orders to discontinue their offensive in Russia for the winter. The Germans envisaged some realignment of the front line to include substantial withdrawals in some sectors, should the enemy's actions require it. No important areas were to be abandoned. Russia decided not to accept the invitation to a quiet winter season. It seemed preferable to assume the offensive, and attack vigorously what appeared to be a weak and declining foe.

During the winter the Germans worked hard on the erection of three defensive lines in rear of the Russian front. These were:

  1. The old Stalin line, lying generally just west of the Dnepr River. This line already existed, consisting of rather extensive works around important railroad and road centers, with minor works between. This Russian line, however, faced to the west; it was necessary to correct this, making corresponding changes in the foreground.
  2. The Bug River Line was laid out immediately after the conclusion of the war in Poland in 1939, and after two years' labor was reported practically completed.
  3. The Oder River line, laid out in September and October, 1941. There is little reliable information concerning this line.

The labor for these defensive lines was obtained by employing prisoners of war and conscripted labor from Poland.

When the Germans launched their offensive toward Kursk in July 1943, they attacked what was perhaps the most elaborate system of field fortifications ever constructed. The basis of the work was an extensive system of trenches totaling nearly 6,000 kilometers in aggregate length, plus strongpoints, 1,000,000 mines, antitank ditches, and wire and other obstacles. This system determined the outcome of the battle. Despite their superiority along the axes of main effort, the Germans could not break through these powerful and deeply echeloned Soviet defenses. Counterattacked by strong Soviet reserves in the depth of the fortified area, the Germans were forced to withdraw. Had it not been for the foresight of the Soviet High Command in basing the defense of the salient on an elaborate fortified system, the Germans most probably would have broken through and encircled and destroyed nearly one million Soviet troops.

The Historical-cultural complex "Stalin's line" is one of the most powerful fortification ensembles on the territory of Belarus. It was created to mark the 60th anniversary of the victory of the Soviet people in the great patriotic war at the initiative of the Foundation for the memory Play "with the support of the President of the Republic of Belarus. Located near the village of Losany Minsk district, 6 km from Zaslavl aside Molodechno. Historical-cultural complex "Stalin's line" is a military-historical Museum of 600 hectares. Archival pre-war drawings were restored of some of the fortifications built in 1931-1932. The reconstruction included ventilation, exhaust gas and centralized water cooling machine guns. Installed here were 45 mm gun, and 82 mm mortar, and machine guns "Maxim". For the reconstruction of 76 mm guns, a ZIS-3 gun release of 1941 was used.




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