On Feb. 22, 1942, Soviet Maj. Gen. A.F. Levashev was sitting inside a TB-3 bomber as it carried the Fourth Airborne Corps’ senior officers to their landing zone — part of a major operation to relieve the Eighth Airborne Brigade, which had been trapped behind German lines at Vyaz’ma, near Moscow, for a month.
Levashev would not reach his destination alive.
During the flight, a German fighter strafed the TB-3, killing Lavashev and wounding several others, according to David Glantz’s The Soviet Airborne Experience. A second source, Aleksander Maslov’s later Fallen Soviet Generals: Soviet General Officers Killed in Battle — which Glantz edited — stated that the TB-3 landed when soldiers noticed the motionless Levashev.
“I saw a bloody patch on his temple and observed that a bullet had exited from the back of his head,” a Soviet major recalled, according to Maslov.
It was an unfortunate start to the operation — the largest Soviet airborne operation during World War II, and a follow-up to the failed, piecemeal and aborted drop intended to isolate German Army Group Center during the Red Army’s Moscow counter-offensive. That left the Eighth Airborne Brigade stranded in the cold while hounded by German tanks without the rest of the Fourth Airborne Corps there to help.
To make matters worse, the Germans in the area were being reinforced, and had dug themselves into a series of fortified villages — surely the warmest places to be in the winter — near their supply lines, which they intended to protect from the marauding, freezing paratroopers.
“Where possible, the Germans had built breastworks and, often, snow and ice barricades and ramparts,” Glantz wrote.
Stavka, the Russian high command, was intent on rescuing the stranded paratroopers and clearing German forces from Vyaz’ma. The job fell to Gen. Georgy Zhukov, who was in overall command, with Levashev in command of the Fourth Airborne Corps until his untimely death.
Above and at top — Soviet troops during the battle of Moscow. Photos via Russian Internet
The second and larger airdrop by the full Fourth Airborne Corps was initially much more successful than it first. Around 7,000 paratroopers made it to their drop zones, with 5,000 formed up to attempt a rescue of the 2,000 — which had likely been reduced after a month of fighting — who landed prior.
Paratroopers landed at night away from the drop zones and failed to link up with the main body of troops on the ground. Supplies again became lost in snow. Fires lit by partisans to guide the night-flying transport aircraft blended in with fires used throughout the region by soldiers keeping warm.
Once on the ground, the difficulties of the first operation repeated themselves on larger scale. The paratroopers soon overran several village strongpoints, but a hasty link-up with the Soviet 50th Army — which would punch through the German lines from the east — failed, given tough resistance.
German reinforcements gradually mounted, leading to a series of counter-attacks that forced the paratroopers to establish several defensive lines. They endured freezing cold and German artillery.
By April-May, most of the paratroopers were sick or wounded and growing desperate to escape as the snow melted. In one case, the Soviets fended off attacks by German troops wearing Soviet uniforms. Most of their supplies came via air, including periodic reinforcements.
Finally, in early June, the 4,000 survivors of 14,000 paratroopers who dropped over the preceding months broke out to the east under “a gauntlet of of heavy German machine gun and mortar fire … that stripped the trees of their leaves and took a frightful toll of casualties,” Glantz wrote.
Post-war assessments from the German side noted a frightful mood as the Soviet paratroopers marauded behind their lines, but ultimately concluded there was no strategic effect on the outcome of the battle. On the Soviet side, blame fell on inadequate planning, the winter weather which made it difficult for Soviet tanks to push from the west, and a lack of equipment such as radios and air support.
Nevertheless, the winter of 1941-1942 was a desperate time for the Red Army and the Soviet Union, and the lessons learned would contribute to the later Soviet victories that destroyed the German army. For the paratroopers, “their personal sacrifice and endurance left a legacy of lessons, a step in the education of an army,” Glantz concluded.