The Battle of Rzhev was actually a series of battles and operations lasting 14 months, from January 1942 to March 1943. After the German 9th Army under General Walter Model retreated from the outskirts of Moscow in late 1941, they took up positions around the town of Rzhev. As long as the Germans held the town, they were still within striking distance of the Russian capital, and General Georgy Zhukov decided to remove the German forces around Rzhev whatever the cost.

Rzhev, is the northernmost major town on the Volga River and had remained in German hands since 1941. A sizeable minority of the population had been taken to German as forced labourers, and the Germans had established prison camp in the town.

Gradually General Model gained the upper hand in the fighting, and launched Operation Hannover to clear the reaguard areas from Russian paratroopers, cavalry and partisans. Hannover with battlegroups from the 5th and 19th Panzer Divisions, cleared these areas in May and June. During the mopping up operations, Model was badly wounded on 23 May and replaced by General Heinrich von Viettinghoff.

As a result of Operation Hannover, seven rifle divisions from the Russian 39th Army were also isolated on the west flank and General Viettinghoff devised Operation Seydlitz to remove this force. Heeresgruppe Mitte sent the 1st and 20th Panzer Divisions to support Viettinghoff's operation.

The so-called Rzhev Meat Grinder resulted in over one million Russian casualties in 14 months of hard battles with 23 German divisions (six of them Panzer divisions). During the Battle of Stalingrad, the Rzhev defenders would be unable to spare reserves under constant Russian pressure.