The Russian city of Rzhev was founded by the Kievan Rus’ in the Middle Ages. Control over the city was bitterly contested by the Novgorod Republic, Principality of Smolensk, and the Grand Duchy of Vladimir. Following the invasion by the Mongols, the city was made the capital of the Principality of Smolensk. The city would later be conquered by the Grand Duchy of Moscow, and absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1721. By 1941, the city had grown to a population of 56,000.
On 14 October 1941, the city was captured and occupied by German troops in Operation Barbarossa. The Germans shipped of one-sixth of the population to forced labor camps, and over 9,000 residents were shot, starved, and tortured in a concentration camp located in the center of the city. During the Soviet winter counter-offensive in 1941, the Germans were pushed back from capturing Moscow. The retreat of German forces led to a salient being formed near Rzhev; that was heavily defended by both Soviet and German forces. In November 1942, the Soviets launched Operation Mars. Heavy fighting occurred near Rzhev, and the battles became known as the “Rzhev meat grinder” for the huge losses inflicted on Soviet troops.
During the Battle of Rzhev, the city was nearly wiped out. Nearly all the medieval architecture was destroyed. Of the 5,443 houses in the city, only 287 remained. The population of the city was decimated, and when it was finally liberated by Soviet troops on 3 March 1943, only 150 residents remained. The material losses in the city were later estimated to be upwards of 500 million Rubles. After the war, two mass graves were found near the city with an estimated 70,000 unidentified bodies (more than the pre-war populace of Rzhev).
In 2007, the city was conferred the status of “City of Military Glory” (similar to the “Hero City” award during the Soviet-era) by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the decades following the Battle of Rzhev, the city has been rebuilt and the population today numbers nearly 62,000 inhabitants.
Look for more information regarding the Battle of Rzhev in World at War issue #47 with the article “Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat” and join the conversation on Facebook!