Hitler’s fascination with the riches of the Ukraine and the Caucasus didn’t sit well with his generals. General Guderian, commander of Army Group Center’s Panzers, saw Moscow as his objective. He didn’t want to go back to deal with the Soviet 5th Army in the Pripet Marshes. General Reichenau, commander of the German VI Army, in Army Group South, remained reluctant to attack Kiev with the Soviet 5th Army behind him.
Soviet General Budenny requested permission to pull the 5th Army and the 27th Independent Corps back to plug the gap between Central Front and Reserve Front and form a block preventing Germany’s Army Group Center from sliding south behind his Southwest Front, isolating it from its supply line. STAVKA, instead, dissolved Central Front, gave its forces to General Budenny, and formed the Bryansk Front to prevent a German strike to Moscow, leaving 5th Army as a thorn behind the Germans.
On 18 August Marshal Zhukov, commanding Reserve Front guarding Moscow, wrote STAVKA suggesting he also thought the Germans would strike south behind Southwest Front and Kiev. The following day STAVKA allowed Budenny to withdraw Southwest Front behind the Dnieper River except for General Kirponos’ 37th Army, which was to remain in Kiev. General Yeremenko, assigned to command Bryansk Front, had instructions not only to block Army Group Center from striking south into Ukraine, but also to block any attempt of Army Group Center from striking for Moscow.
When General Guderian reluctantly launched his move south as the Soviets expected, General Budenny’s Southwest Front received instructions to use the forces from Central Front to thrust west against the flank of Guderian’s XLVII Mechanized Corps. This attack began on 30 August, but was blocked by II Army which pushed back, halting the drive. Guderian’s Panzers move southeast cut off Yeremenko’s 21st Army from contact with Bryansk Front. On 2 September Stalin advised Yeremenko he was not pleased that Guderian had not been stopped.
As General Guderian drove south behind Southwest Front, General Kleist’s I Panzer Gruppe and XVII Army, now across the Dnieper north of Kremenchug, drove north, to meet Guderian’s forces at Lokhvitsa.
General Budenny requested permission to withdraw Southwest Front east to avoid encirclement. On 14 September STAVKA was notified that Colonel General Kirponos’ unit would soon be cut off, but STAVKA insisted that Kiev be held at all costs. Kirponos suggested to Stalin his unit should be moved behind the River Psel. Stalin refused that request, removed Budenny from command of Southwest Front and appointed Marshal Timoshenko.
On 15 September, as Guderian’s forces met Kleist’s forces, they surrounded four Soviet Armies. On 17 September the surrounded forces were permitted to withdraw. Kirponos advised his army to fight their way out, but he lost contact with all of his commands within hours. 37th Army never received those orders. Only small groups accomplished their escape. 21st Army, led by General Kuznetsov, emerged with 500 survivors. Over 500,000 men, two thirds of Southwest Front, were dead or imprisoned.
During this period, operating against the overwhelmingly superior Luftwaffe, the Soviet Air Force flew 10,000 sorties, 80% against the First and Second Panzer Gruppen. They destroyed crossings over the Desna and Dnieper River.
Kiev was taken on 19 September and the encircled Russian forces were defeated by 26 September.
Sources: “Barbarossa: Drive to Kiev,” Geoffrey Jukes, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s
The Soviet Air Force in the Second World War, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973