The civilian casualties


This page gives another side to the battle of Rzhev: that it was also one of the more tragic humanitarian disasters of the Eastern Front. Almost all of it is based on German sources, which agree with Soviet accounts - approximately 2,000 civilians per district in the salient starved to death in 1942/43. As you will see, some German commanders sought to do something about it, but too often, it was forbidden to do anything at all.

Though targeted by no fewer than four Soviet offensives during 1942, in the summer of that year, the Rzhev salient was still home to approximately 360,000 civilians. The salient was held on its left flank and at the apex by 9th Army and on the right flank by 3rd Panzer Army. In September 1942, the estimated population of 9th Army’s rear area was 180,000; over 70,000 were children and more than 23,000 over 50, leaving 86,000 men and women of working age (between 14 and 50 years old). 3rd Panzer Army’s sector also contained an estimated 180,000 civilians, 50% of whom were children, 20% men and 30% women, with an average of 40% deemed to be fit for work. It was, though, highly questionable whether the Rzhev salient was capable of supporting this population. The hinterland of the salient had been severely disrupted by the heavy fighting of the winter and during the elimination of the Belyi and Yelnya pockets. During the winter, instances had occurred of civilians crossing the frontline from the east in search of food, indicating a general dearth of sustenance on the other side of the front as well. Soviet prisoners of war captured by German units were also found to be starving and often infected with typhus.

On the German side of the line, ruthless requisitioning had all but annihilated livestock herds and severely disrupted cultivation. In June 1942, shortly before the elimination of the Belyi pocket, a survey of all 1,000 villages in the rear of 9th Army found scarcely any animals left alive at all. On average, each village disposed of three horses and three cows. In Sychevka rayon, a pre-war cattle herd of 18,000 had been reduced to just 420. Quotas for agricultural produce were minimal by comparison with the more stable southern sectors: 3,750 ton of grain and 5,000 tons of potatoes, despite surprisingly high yields of up to 11 hundredweight per hectare of wheat and 120 hundredweight per hectare of potatoes, double the average in 4th Army’s sector around Roslavl. To compound the difficulties of bringing in the harvest, 130 La-Führer (Landwirtschaftsführer) were ordered out of 9th Army’s sector and sent to Kharkov, leaving just 38 La-Führer to supervise agriculture across the entire Armeegebiet. Only the exploitation of 23,000 hectares of winter wheat planted by the Soviets in the autumn of 1941 saved the region from total agricultural collapse. Yet even this bonus yielded just 3,700 tons for the Wehrmacht and 12,000 tons for the population, including the peasantry. The total acreage under plantation remained around one-third that of 4th Army.

On the right flank of the salient, 3rd Panzer Army also suffered from the after-effects of the heavy fighting of the winter and spring of 1941/42. Grain was in short supply. By midsummer of 1942, the population was observed digging up rotten potatoes left over from the previous harvest in the autumn of 1941, drying them and mixing in moss and clover to make ersatz flour for bread. In Vyazma, the army’s headquarters, around 2,000 pensioners and children were completely without food by July, and the town as a whole lacked even a fraction of the necessary stocks of grain and potatoes to see itself through to the new harvest, relying instead on a meagre yield of spring vegetables. Even after the 1942 harvest, there was a shortfall of 3,500 tons of potatoes, if civilian rations were to be maintained.

The town of Rzhev itself had fallen to the Germans in October 1941 along with 40,000 of its 55,000 pre-war inhabitants. By the spring of 1942, the town was once again near the front, in the rear area of VI Corps in 9th Army’s sector. At the same time, the Sauckel commissions moved in to recruit from the town’s population. Between May and July, VI Corps deported a total of 2,226 men and 1,969 women from Rzhev and Olenino as Ostarbeiter or to work for the Organisation Todt in Vyazma, Smolensk and Mogilev. In the first two weeks of July, 1,608 men and women were deported to Germany from Rzhev itself. This population reduction notwithstanding, German units still noted unimaginable privations among the remaining civilians. 6th Infantry Division, then fighting due north of Rzhev, reported in mid-July 1942:

“The division area encompasses around 60 villages with 6000 inhabitants and 3000 evacuees. 11 villages are situated in the 5km front zone and are thus unavailable for accommodation. The remaining localities are so overcrowded, that at least 10 to 12 people live in every house. The overcrowding aside, the food situation of the population grows more difficult by the day. A recent search of the localities and examination of the children up to four years of age gave a distinct picture of the intolerable conditions among the population. Completely undernourished, many people die daily from exhaustion. Others lay apathetically around their camps and have no energy to do anything.”

An officer sent out to inspect conditions in the corps areas recommended that 4,000 civilians be evacuated from Rzhev and a further 2,000 from Olenino and the rear of the neighbouring XXVII Corps. His recommendations were soon carried out. On July 15, 400 civilians from 6th Division’s rear and a further 600 from the town of Rzhev were evacuated to Slonim. On July 17 and 19, two further transports totalling 1900 evacuees departed for Lida. The transports were routed via Vyazma and Smolensk, where the local rail authorities failed to provide any food for the journey. Though the evacuees had been medically examined by the doctor attached to the town commandant, the first transport to Slonim included a woman ill with typhus, who when her illness became apparent to the refugees, was thrown from the train by her fellow passengers out of fear of infection. The train itself was subsequently sent to Warsaw for disinfection. The passengers of the second and third transports were housed upon their arrival in Lida in homes left vacant by the massacre of Jews in the town in March 1942. At least one of the transports passed through Vitebsk, where Feldkommandantur 815 reported feeding some 2,100 evacuees travelling through the town in the month of July from Rzhev and Velikie Luki on their way to the Reichskommissariat Ostland. On July 28, Army Group Centre ordered the cessation of all evacuation transports to the GK Weissruthenien: despite medical examinations prior to departure, the evacuees had brought typhus with them into the civilian zone.

Two days later, the Soviet Western and Kalinin Fronts began a month-long offensive against the Rzhev salient which would eventually cost the Red Army nearly 200,000 casualties. The German frontline was driven back almost to the city outskirts; the town itself was heavily bombed on August 4 and came under artillery fire by August 13, causing numerous civilian casualties and prompting the evacuation of all German supply units from the town. Over the course of August 15-18, through constant phone calls between their respective quartermasters, VI Corps, 9th Army and Army Group Centre negotiated the evacuation of a further 6,000 inhabitants of Rzhev. Around 4,000 were evacuated to the Heeresgebiet, mostly to the vicinity of Smolensk, a smaller number to Borisov, some were displaced to Vyazma in 3rd Panzer Army’s sector, while 2,000 were resettled in the rear area of 9th Army in Andreyevskoye rayon and near Sychevka. All told, during August and September, 9th Army evacuated 10,400 civilians from its forward areas. In September, the Economics Leader of 9th Army predicted that a further 30 to 35,000 evacuees, almost exclusively peasants from the forward combat zone, would shortly have to follow.

By October, the army group was fully aware of the burgeoning crisis in the Rzhev salient. Alongside the population uprooted by combat in 9th Army’s sector, a further 7,000 refugees were registered in 3rd Panzer Army’s area. There, IX and XX Corps had each displaced up to 5,000 civilians from their forward divisional areas, but was refused permission to evacuate them further to the rear. 3rd Panzer Army also faced an even worse crisis in the feeding of its prisoners of war. In September, there were up to 70 deaths a day in Dulag 184 in Vyazma, and a total of 1,292 deaths among 23,000 Soviet POWs for the whole of 3rd Panzer Army in the month, a mortality which Colonel-General Reinhardt blamed on the absolute lack of food in the region and on the effects of a typhus epidemic. To counter the food shortage, he ordered the provision of rations from Army stocks. While the famine among the prisoners of war in 3rd Panzer Army abated, the refugee crisis in the sector of 9th Army continued to degenerate. By the end of the month, the AWiFü now spoke of 40-50,000 refugees.

The remaining population of Rzhev, meanwhile, had begun quite literally to starve to death. The 256th Infantry Division, fighting to the west of the city, reported a sharp increase in the number of civilians arrested wandering through its rear area, all of whom hailed from Rzhev, “where the population must shortly be left to the mercy of a certain death from starvation.” In October, the chief of staff of VI Corps, Colonel Mantey, requested ‘urgent’ permission to evacuate a further 6,000 civilians from the town. 9th Army then petitioned Army Group Centre to evacuate 12,000 refugees. In November, just 1,831 evacuees were resettled from 9th Army to the army group area. 600 came from Rzhev, and were sent to Borisov, where they were quarantined in a camp neighbouring the peat works at Beloe Boloto, as the majority were ill with typhus. A further 5,000 were resettled with the army’s own rear area. That month, the commander of 256th Infantry Division wrote to XXVII Corps, which had taken over the Rzhev sector, to report on the ever-worsening situation:

"As before, the civilian population wanders around begging, starving and in rags. They consist of up to 80% women, children and the sick, thus unusable elements for labour. The scenes that are occurring are deplorable and unworthy of the German Wehrmacht as a ‘bringer of culture to the East’. The refugees live in earth holes etc. With certainty they form a source of disease, as they are in rags and starving, and therefore a serious danger to the troops. The first deaths from starvation have been observed. These will rapidly increase with the coming frost and snows."

In response, XXVII Corps created a refugee camp in its rear to accommodate 7,500 more refugees. By the winter of 1942/43, the SD reported that 10 civilians were dying each day in Rzhev. The population in the countryside was openly discussing eating into the seedstocks. Bread was being baked from flour made of potato peel or even from moss. According to the calculations of the Soviet Extraordinary Commission, between 15,000 and 20,000 civilians died of disease and starvation in the town and rayon of Rzhev under the German occupation. In the whole of Kalinin oblast, 34,817 died of starvation and disease between 1941 and 1943: somewhere between a half and two-thirds of the death toll was concentrated into one single area. At the end of 1942, Rzhev had been reduced through evacuation, epidemic and famine to 3,000 inhabitants. The town had lost 93% of its population in just thirteen months. Social taboos among the Russian population collapsed under the weight of desperation. On Christmas Day, 1942, two starving women murdered a ten-year old boy in the town, in order to cut the body up for meat. Caught red-handed by German military police, they were publicly hanged.

In the Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 21 you will find about the same situation mentioned:


Some documents of the Soviet Prosecution, including USSR-291, Pages I to 3, allege that atrocities were committed in the area of Vyasma and Rizhevska, and also in the area of Rzhev.

Affidavit 1633 by General Praun deals with the accusation made against General Weiss that he ordered people in Rzhev to be hanged. Two women were sentenced to death at that time and were hanged publicly. Reason: The murder of 15 children and the sale of the flesh of these children on the market. For that reason two women were hanged publicly at Rzhev.

Though in November 1942, the civilian authorities in the RK Ostland were able to turn down Army Group Centre’s request to transport 12,000 evacuees to the GK Weissruthenien, renewed pressure from OKH broke down the five month-long ban on deportations between the military and civilian zones. Not only XXVII Corps at Rzhev but many other corps in 9th Army faced an identical evacuee problem: 1,500 refugees needed to be displaced from XXXIX Panzer Corps. The evacuation of 6,000 refugees from VI, XXVII and XXXIX Corps to Baranovichi, Stolbtsy and Ivatsevichi was authorised. In December, 4,200 civilians were evacuated to the civilian zone. Simultaneously, 3,000 tons of potatoes and 1,000 tons of wheat were supplied from the Heeresgebiet to 9th Army in order to bridge the growing food deficit for the civilian population. Despite these shipments, the army spoke of “disaster areas” in the regions of XXIII, XXVII and XLI Corps as well as around Iartsevo in the army rear area. In January and February 1943, a further 8,000 civilians were evacuated to the GK Weissruthenien’s newly established refugee camp in Slutsk. 2,700 of the evacuees came from the sectors of the 6th and 129th Infantry Divisions in Rzhev. A mere 300 civilians, all of whom were too weak or too ill to be evacuated, remained of the 55,000 pre-war inhabitants of the town.


Special thanks to:


Nicholas Terry,

The German Army Group Centre and the Soviet Civilian Population 1942-44, PhD, King's College London, 2005, Chapter 7


From the AOK records (T312) and PzAOK records (T313), plus corps records (T314), division records (T315), OKW (Economics) records (T77), reports of the Soviet Extraordinary Commission (USHMM RG22.002M) and SS reports (T175).


The deportation of civilians.

The occupational order established by the aggressors, was characterized by robberies, arrests, executions and gallows. Any infringement of the established rules was punished by death.

So, in the regional centre the Germans have forbidden to city dwellers to pass the rivers Volgas and River Tvertsa on ice. Everyone who broke this interdiction was shot without warning.

More than 40 thousand citizens were killed, tortured and were lost during the occupation of Kalinin (Tver) region and (Kalininskaya (Tverskaya) oblast') areas. In many settlements the invaders have created combined teams to fight the local residents. From some areas up to 80 thousand people were deported by the Germans. In Rzhev there was a big concentration camp for surrendered / captured people. On different sources indicated that in it some 10 up to 50 thousand Soviet soldiers died.


text from (this site appears to be closed)


It did not end with one evacuation, but during the years 1943-1944 there were multiple waves. Since the autumn of 1943 the German ARLZ-measures (Auflockerung, Räummung, Lähmung, Zerstörung) were conducted so systematically and pragmatically that the civilians from large parts of the country were transported way behind the front.

From the Rzhew-Wjasma area about 130.000 people were evacuated.


Forced Laborers in the "Third Reich" - an Overview

By Ulrich Herbert
The enlistment of millions of workers to forced labor during the Second World War was one of the essential characteristics of national socialistic work policy - in Germany itself, as well as in all of German-occupied Europe

Individuals signed up voluntarily, particularly during the first few weeks of German occupation. Yet already by August 1941, the German labor deployment staffs reported that there were practically no more volunteers for work in Germany.
During the forcible transfer of portions of or the entire local population in conjunction with Wehrmacht pullbacks, especially from 1942-1943 on: some of those brought back with the retreating armies were then deported as forced laborers to Germany. Thus, during the collapse of the Army Group Center, large segments of the population were evacuated westward, particularly from the area controlled by the Second Army. To cite some figures: this amounted to 130,000 persons, 41 percent of the total population, just in the area Rzhev-Vyazma; in the evacuation of the Orel Salient, some 220,500 persons were evacuated (22.2 percent); in the Operation Panther pullback to the Dnieper-Dvina line, 535,000 (22.5 percent of the population).

Forced Laborers in the "Third Reich"

From: International Labor and Working-Class History. No. 58, Fall 2000, S. 192-218.