Tightening the Ring

Once First Ukrainian and Second Ukrainian Fronts completed the encirclement of Gruppe Stemmermann, the difficult task of reducing the Korsun Pocket began.

General Breith, commander of III Panzer Corps, began Operation Wanda, attacking northeast from Novaya Greblya with the 16 and 17 Panzer Divisions supported by two infantry divisions. Soviet General Vatutin, commander of First Ukrainian Front, blocked this attack with the 6 Tank Army. Between III Panzer Corps and 6 Tank Army ran the Gniloy Tikitch River, which, in normal times, was not a serious obstacle. During the thaw of mid-winter 1944, this river, augmented by rain and snow melt, formed an impressive barrier. A series of tank battles stopped Breith’s attack 35 to 40 kilometers short of the pocket and held him there for a week.

Mud closed airfields supplying the German forces in the pocket, so German engineers built a new hard surface runway in four days. During the period from 29 January to 4 February the Luftwaffe lost 40 transport aircraft.

The most serious of the German attacks to free Gruppe Stemmermann took place in the 53 Army area near Lysyanka. It drew the attention of the Soviet Air Force which laid on constant attacks. From 4 February and 18 February the Fifth Air Army flew more than 1,400 sorties.

The Soviets also had supply problems. They began using a Night Bomber Air Division to fly fuel, supplies, and rockets from airfields at Fursy and Yanushevk to rail stations for transportation to the air divisions by rail. Railroad beds became so soft supply trains could not exceed 2 to 4 kilometers per hour.

The Soviet forces occupied the eastern bank of the Gniloy Tikich River as the German forces reached Veselyi Kut on the river itself. On 6 February Hitler authorized Gruppe Stemmermann‘s attempt to escape from the pocket. By this time the thaw made troop movement nearly impossible. Soviet ground attack and bomber units forced the withdrawal of German forces from the area of Gorodishche, then invited Gruppe Stemmermann to surrender. This invitation was rejected.

The 10 Fighter Air Corp of the Home Defense Forces joined the Second Air Army in blockading the front over the pocket. By this time only 100 to 185 tons of supplies per day were being received inside the pocket due to freezing rain and fog, though, unlike the situation during the Stalingrad operation, the troops were never in danger of starvation.

On 9 February, the weather turned cold, freezing the ground. At 0630 hours the artillery barrage began. III Panzer Corps launched their attack taking Bushanka on the Gniloy Tikich River under Soviet fire from the surrounding hills. Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and 1 Panzer Division reached Risino with 75 to 80 tanks. As the ground firmed up Stemmermann moved SS Wiking west toward III Panzer Corps in preparation for the breakout.

Marshal Zhukov, of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad fame, took command of the outer ring surrounding the Korsun Pocket. General Konev commanded the forces of the inner ring squeezing Gruppe Stemmermann. Stemmermann continued movement of his forces to the west in preparation for the breakout, taking Novo Buda and Schenderovka. Konev counterattacked but was blocked by SS Wiking.

III Panzer Corps was able to take a bridge crossing the Gniloy Tikech and continued to probe for weak spots in the Soviet defenses, finally taking Lysyanka, but the relief force was running out of fuel.

Sources: ‘Crucible at Cherkassy’, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, September 2005

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

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

War Over the Steppes, the Air Campaign on the Eastern Front, 1941-45, 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 & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

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