Zhitomir Redux

The first snows fell on 6 December, 1943. The ground hardened. The 48 Panzer Korps resumed its counteroffensive. 1 and 7 Panzer Divisions and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler attempted to outflank the 60th Army from the west at Radomyschl. Das Reich and 8 and 19 Panzer Divisions attacked from the southeast. The terrain in this area is heavily forested and rugged. The objective was to surround three Soviet rifle divisions. von Manstein declared victory, though the small number of Soviet prisoners taken indicates the difficulty the Germans experienced. Additionally, Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler ran out of fuel for their tanks on the second day of the operation.

Improved weather during the period from 12 to 15 December allowed the Second Air Army to operate in large groups supporting Soviet forces.

von Manstein’s next objective was the surrounding of the Soviet 38th Army, dug in near Meleni. On 18 December Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler and the 1 Panzer Division attacked Meleni. Vatutin pulled Rybalko’s 3 Tank Army back and allowed von Manstein’s attack to spend itself on anti-tank mines and guns. By 20 December the attack was suspended, although the Panzer Korps continued attacking for six days. The attempted surrounding failed.

Das Reich returned to France to rebuild and prepare for the Second Front promised by the Western Allies. Rybalko’s 3 Tank Army, meanwhile, was also brought up to full strength. Katukov’s 1 Tank Army moved forward to cover 38 Army in the Fastov area. General Vatutin’s objective was to take on 42 Army Korps near Brusilov.

The weather on 24 December was overcast and raining as 38 Army began their artillery barrage at 0600 hours. The attack fell on the junction between the 19 and 25 Panzer Divisions, supported by the 5 Air Army flying from airfields in the Kiev area. The 19 Panzer Division fell back exposing the right flank of the 8 Panzer Division. By nightfall 42 Army Korps was retreating.

At that point Vatutin committed the 1 and 3 Tank Armies. The tank armies passed south of Zhitomir. By 30 December Zhitomir was surrounded and General Raus fell back to Berdichev. This operation split open the German defenses, creating a gap more than 300 kilometers wide and 95 kilometers deep. The Germans struck back fiercely with twelve divisions from southeast of Vinnitsa to northwest of Uman to restore a continuous front.

Luftwaffe strength on the Eastern Front at the end of 1943 was 1,732 aircraft. Of those, 966 flew with Army Group South. Soviet strength in Ukraine was 1,953. On 23 December the Soviet Air Force declared the battle for Kiev ended. Approximately 20,000 sorties had been flown.

Sources: Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943–1945: Red Steamroller, Robert A. Forczyk, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 2016

War Over the Steppes: The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Front, 1941–1945, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday& Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

The Red Army’s Drive to Rumania, A. N. Shimansky, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s.

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