Originally planned for late-October 1942, but postponed until 25 November, Operation Mars was intended to be a companion piece to Operation Uranus, the code-name for the Soviet's Stalingrad strategic counteroffensive…. Zhukov considered… the Rzhev salient, a legacy of the chaotic fighting of winter 1941-42, which measured 150 x 150 kilometers and which contained Army Group Center's powerful German Ninth Army, represented a dagger aimed at Moscow. Therefore, argued Zhukov, the Soviet Union could best achieve strategic victory in 1942 by smashing German Ninth Army in the salient….
During the Stavka's deliberations, Zhukov emphasized Soviet force superiority in the decisive central sector of the front. Here the Soviet Kalinin and Western Fronts, supported by the Moscow Defense Zone, numbered almost 1,900,000 men with over 24,000 guns and mortars, 3,300 tanks, and 1,100 aircraft.9 On the other hand, in the southern Soviet Union, the 3 Soviet fronts in the Stalingrad region fielded over 1 million men with about 15,000 guns and mortars, 1,400 tanks, and over 900 aircraft…. On the evening of 26 September, the Generalissimo ordered major strategic counteroffensives be conducted at both Rzhev and Stalingrad. Appropriately, Zhukov would command the former, and his contemporary, General A. M. Vasilevsky, would command the latter…. In Operation Mars, planned to commence in late October, forces of the Kalinin and Western Fronts would encircle and destroy German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient. Two to three weeks later, in Operation Jupiter, the Western Front's powerful 5th and 33d Armies, supported by 3d Guards Tank Army, would attack along the Viaz'ma axis, link up with the victorious Mars' force, and envelop and destroy all German forces east of Smolensk. Vasilevsky's initial operation, code-named Uranus and tentatively timed for mid-November, was to envelop German Sixth Army in the Stalingrad region. In Operation Saturn, set to begin in early December, Vasilevsky's forces would seize Rostov, envelop German Army Group B, pin its remnants against the Sea of Azov, and cut off the withdrawal of German Army Group A from the Caucasus….
Zhukov's offensive began early on 25 November…. [I]nfantry and supporting tanks of Western Front's 20th and 31st Armies' struck hard at the defensive positions of German XXXIX Panzer Corps along and north of the Vazusa and Osuga Rivers…. Numbering well over 200,000 men and 500 tanks, the 2 Soviet armies faced about 40,000 German defenders. Despite this numerical superiority and initial German confusion, the violent attack achieved only mixed results since German forces occupied strong defenses, and Soviet forces had to assault across generally open and rolling terrain at a time when incessant fog and driving snow showers reduced the effectiveness of the Soviet artillery preparation…. Caught midst their complex regrouping, both 5th Panzer and 78th Infantry Division troops fought with grim abandon. Small ad hoc German combat groups [kampfgruppen] of infantry, tanks, and artillery in company and battalion strength fiercely defended their hedgehog defenses around the numerous log and stone villages that dotted the generally open, rolling, and snow-covered fields west of the Vazusa River. Attacking Soviet forces lapped around these defenses, overcame some, but left many as deadly obstacles strewn throughout their rear area. Beset by command, control, and communications problems, the German XXXIX Panzer Corps could not appreciate the chaos their fragmented resistance was causing in Soviet ranks. Nevertheless, the corps took desperate measures to shore up its sagging defenses and ordered its reserve 9th Panzer Division, then in camp west of Sychevka, to march to the sounds of the guns and plug the developing breeches…. Soviet second echelon and exploitation forces struggled forward. Under constant German artillery fire, over 200 tanks, 30,000 infantry, and 10,000 cavalrymen, with their accompanying logistical trains, moved inexorably forward through the murky darkness along 2 frozen dirt roads through the light forests to the east bank of the river. Since both roads had been unmercifully chopped up by artillery fire, and too many forces were using them at the same time, the consequences were predictable. Chaos ruled supreme….
By nightfall on 28 November, it was clear to all that the Soviet attack had faltered (see Map 4). Although the bulk of Colonel Arman's tank corps and three of General Kriukov's cavalry divisions had reached the forests across the Rzhev-Sychevka road, the attrition in armor and cavalry had been staggering, and German counterattacks along the Rzhev road had slammed the door on their withdrawal….
Zhukov's continued grim optimism was conditioned, in part, by his stubborn refusal to admit defeat and by the striking success Soviet forces seemed to be achieving to the west. There, in the Belyi and Luchesa River sectors along the western flank of the Rzhev salient, Major General F. G. Tarasov's 41st and Major General V. A. Iushkevich's 22d Armies had made striking progress in the first three days of battle and appeared close to reaching deep into the defending Germans' rear area. Once they had done so, thought Zhukov, the temporary difficulties along the Vazusa River would become irrelevant. The 90,000 men and over 300 tanks of General Tarasov's 41st Army struck at 0900 hours on 25 November after an artillery preparation had smashed German forward defenses south of the fortified town of Belyi…. Heartened by the first day's successes, at dawn the next day, General Tarasov ordered his entire mechanized corps into action. Marching in brigade column with his 65th and 219th Tank Brigades in the lead, the 15,200 man and 224 tank-strong 1st Mechanized Corps, commanded by the experienced General M. A. Solomatin, made spectacular initial progress. Moving painfully through the heavy and virtually roadless forests, by nightfall General Solomatin's tank force had torn a hole 20 kilometers wide and nearly 30 kilometers deep in the German defenses…. Solomatin's tank brigades succeeded in reaching the key communications road linking Belyi with the German rear area…. The credit for defending Belyi belonged to the commander of German XXXXI Panzer Corps, Colonel General Joseph Harpe, who decided to hold the city and relied on fate, luck, and anticipated German operational reserves to save the situation in the German rear. Harpe directed the infantry of his 246th Infantry Division to establish a strong point defense south of the city. He then requested and received a kampfgruppe each from Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland and 1st Panzer Division, which were located in reserve positions northeast and southwest of Belyi, respectively. Racing forward across the frozen snow-covered roads, 1st Panzer Division's Kampfgruppe von Weitersheim reached Belyi on late morning of 26 November, and Grossdeutschland Division's Kampfgruppe Kassnitz arrived several hours later.48 Together, the two groups began a bloody, but successful struggle to hold the city.
Meanwhile, an increasingly frustrated General Solomatin attempted to sever the crucial Belyi-Vladimirskoe road running northwest into Belyi, which was the only available German resupply route into the city.49 Now opposed by company and battalion combat groups from 1st Panzer Division, which were deployed along and for…. Solomatin consolidated his positions, went over to the defense, and awaited the German counterstroke, which he knew was inevitable. Solomatin was correct. The fresh German forces were the advanced elements of a force which General Harpe was frantically assembling to contain and, ultimately, defeat the Soviet offensive. Relying on 1st Panzer Division to hold the Belyi strong point and the thin defenses along the Belyi-Vladimirskoe road, Harpe requested all available reserves from higher headquarters. General Alfred Model, the Ninth Army commander, and Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge, the Army Group Center commander, responded quickly by ordering the 12th, 20th, and 19th Panzer Divisions to march to the sound of the guns. To reach the battlefield, however, these divisions had to march long distances over difficult routes in the harshest of winter conditions. Until they arrived, both XXXXI Panzer Corps and Ninth Army's fate hung in the balance…. General Solomatin's worst fears materialized. Not only were the Germans able to hold on to Belyi, but they were also able to orchestrate an effective counterstroke. The situation began deteriorating after 1 December, after Solomatin had shortened his corps' front and gone on the defense. First, between 2 and 6 December, the German XXXXI Panzer Corps' 1st Panzer Division and the newly arrived 12th Panzer Division regained firm control of the Belyi-Vladimirskoe road, cut off and destroyed Colonel Dremov's isolated 47th Mechanized Brigade northeast of Belyi, and began applying unremitting pressure to Solomatin's defense lines southeast of the city.64 Even more devastating for the Soviets, the German XXX Army Corps, with the 19th and 20th Panzer Divisions, began concentrating south of the Soviet Belyi salient. It was no mean task, since every German movement was contested by the terrible weather conditions, the abysmal roads, and intense resistance by Soviet partisans.65 Despite these difficulties, by 6 December XXX Corps units were in a position to strike back at the Soviet 41st Army. They did so on the morning of 7 December against the 41st Army's southern flank, while the 1st Panzer Division and the Grossdeutschland Division's Fusilier Regiment attacked southward from Belyi….
Zhukov conducted Operation Mars in characteristic fashion. The Soviet assaults were massive and unsparing in manpower and material. Discounting the harsh terrain and weather conditions, he relied on pressure across the entire front and simple maneuver by his powerful mechanized corps and tank corps to achieve victory. Neither did. Skillful German tactical defense by relatively small but tenacious combat groups, which exploited terrain and man-made obstacles to maximum, bottled up attacking Soviet mobile forces before they reached key objectives in the German operational rear area. In the process the Germans inflicted maximum Soviet casualties by separating attacking Soviet infantry from their supporting mobile forces. Avoiding panic and holding only where necessary, the German command slowly assembled the reserves necessary to counterattack and achieve victory. Nevertheless, German victory was a "close thing." While causing catastrophic Soviet casualties, the German divisions themselves were fought to a frazzle. It was no coincidence that several months later Model asked for and received permission to abandon the Rzhev salient. He and his army could ill afford another such victory.
Operation Mars cost the Red Army nearly half a million men killed, wounded, or captured. Individual Soviet combat units were decimated in the operation. The Soviet 20th Army lost 58,524 men out of its original strength of over 114,000 men.72 General Solomatin's 1st Mechanized Corps lost 8,100 of its 12,000 men and all of its 220 tanks, and the accompanying 6th Stalin Rifle Corps lost over 20,000 of its 30,000 men…. Soviet tank losses, correctly estimated by the Germans as around 1,700, were equally staggering, in as much as they exceeded the total number of tanks the Soviets initially committed in Operation Uranus at Stalingrad. In Western armies losses such as these would have prompted the removal of senior commanders, if not worse. In the Red Army it did not, for when all was said and done, Zhukov fought, and the Red Army needed fighters.
Although far less severe than those of the Soviets, the Germans too suffered grievous losses in the operation, losses which they could ill afford given their smaller manpower pool and the catastrophe befalling them at Stalingrad…. The overall Soviet casualty toll, however, was at least 10-fold greater that the total German loss of around 40,000 men.
Zhukov said little about the defeat on his memoirs, and what he did say was grossly distorted. He mentioned only the December operation, and, without revealing its code name, he called it simply a diversion for the Operation Uranus. Among the many thousands of Soviet memoirs and unit histories, only a handful mention the operation, and these do so without revealing its full scope. Even formerly classified accounts avoid covering the operation in its entirety. Archival materials, however, do cover the operation in greater detail, but only in selective sectors.
In assessing blame for the failure, none of the few available Soviet accounts mention the role of key commanders such as Zhukov or Konev. For example, General Getman, commander of the 6th Tank Corps, who was ill in November and did not participate in the attack, wrote:
The offensive was conducted against fortified positions occupied by enemy tank forces and in swampy-forested terrain in complex and unfavorable weather conditions. These and other conditions favored the enemy. We lacked the required coordination with the infantry and reliable artillery and aviation support. The organized suppression of enemy strong points was inadequate, especially his antitank means by artillery fire and aviation strikes. This led to the tank brigades suffering great losses.
Other formerly classified Soviet sources and archival materials candidly critiqued the problems, and German reports echoed those critiques. A 15 December German Ninth Army report judged that the Russian operation had sustained a heavy defeat and "bled itself out," adding:
The enemy leadership, which demonstrated skill and adaptability in the preparation and initial implementation of the offensive… once again displayed its old weaknesses as the operation progressed. Indeed, the enemy has learned much, but he has again shown himself to be unable to exploit critical unfavorable situations. The picture repeats itself when operations which began with great intent and local successes degenerated into senseless, wild hammering at fixed front-line positions once they encounter initial heavy losses and unforeseen situations. This incomprehensible phenomenon appears again and again. But, even in extremis, the Russian is never logical; he falls back on his natural instinct, and the nature of the Russian is to use mass, steamroller tactics, and adherence to given objectives without regard to changing situations.
The manner in which Operation Mars was fought and the carnage the operation produced has few parallels in the later war years. In its grisly form, its closest peer was the famous Soviet frontal assault on the Zeelow Heights during the April 1945 Berlin operation. Not coincidentally, it too was orchestrated by Zhukov. Unlike the case in 1942, however, the victorious conclusion of the Berlin operation required no alteration of the historical record to preserve Soviet pride or commanders' reputations.
The legacy of Operation Mars was silence. Stalin and history mandated that Vasilevsky's feat at Stalingrad remained unblemished by the Rzhev failure. Stalin recognized Zhukov's greatest quality -- that he fought -- and, at this stage of the war and later, Stalin needed fighters. Therefore, Zhukov's reputation remained intact…