Writing in the Time of COVID-19

It’s no joke. I hope everyone stays well in spite of the fact that we have lost more than 100k people in the United States and many more worldwide. Many of us have been sickened, and I know those numbers include writers.

Enter COVID-19 forcing me to self-isolate. Being introverted by nature, I have no problem social distancing. As a retired person, I spend most of my time at home in any event; reading and writing. The rough draft of my work in progress proceeded slowly, requiring much time doing research, thinking, planning and putting words on paper. Now I am beyond the rough draft. I am arranging the scenes, which requires a laptop. This is where the real creative work happens. Character development, adding action to dialogue, generating images to make the story come alive in the reader’s mind. 

My current struggle is getting my rough draft into some sort of order. I started with my opening scene–probably not surprisingly. The first page is in constant flux. Should I spend that page in setting the scene, introducing the main character, presenting the problem, or building the conflict? Mystery writers just need to have a body on the first page.

Moving beyond the first page I found the flow of the story moves in fits and starts, jerking from scene to scene like some Frankenstein’s monster learning to walk. For the reader the story must move freely, increasing the tension, challenging the main character to find solutions to problems, and then finding the solutions only complicate the problem. Most readers want relatable characters, conflict beyond World War II itself, a problem to solve, excitement along the way, and a believable and satisfying ending. Not too much to ask, is it?

Keeping the reader entertained and interested is the goal. I love a good dogfight, and the thrust of the battle to retake the Ukraine intrigues me. The Yakovlev fighter aircraft cries out for description. After all, it is one of the secondary characters, as is the Ukrainian Steppes. For some readers that may be enough, but, for those who are not World War II aviation aficionados, it just isn’t. 

And, when I feel I might be boring the reader, I procrastinate. I eat, nap, pet the cat, and watch the birds at my numerous bird feeders. I have hummingbirds, deer, and goslings in my back yard. Amazingly, I find my mind moves on resolving conflicts in the story line, and hearing the characters telling me more about themselves, even when I am apparently not listening.

Currently, I am re-writing the first third of the novel. The bones have arranged themselves. In some ways this part is easier and in other ways it’s more difficult. Fitting the pieces together to make a narrative challenges me. I must move some scenes forward in the manuscript and drop some later while maintaining the flow of the weather and the history of the battles in the correct sequences.

The main character’s love interest disappears in the smoke of battle and her heart breaks. But another two-thirds of the book looms ahead, so he must reappear. Right? And she is wrapped up in the battle herself, flying her fighter in the wild dogfights, and shooting down German aircraft.

For those of you working during this period, or, just as scary, not working during this period, and who can’t disappear into their writing, please know I salute your courage and willingness to carry on.

Characters

Creating memorable characters is not easy. They seldom appear full blown. Just like meeting someone new, it takes a while to get to know them. I’m sure my experience is not unlike that of many other writers. You may think you know a character when you first start to write about it, but, as scene follows scene and the writer puts the character in a number of different situations and makes it jump a number of hurtles, the individual begins to come through.

The main character in my work in progress is Katrina Safronova. As I introduced her I knew she flew Yakovlev fighters and had fought in the air war over Stalingrad in the fall and winter of 1942/43, that she had been wounded in combat, (splinter through the left bicep), and that she had two personal victories and one shared victory. That told me she was one tough cookie, especially since she wanted to go back into combat to drive the Fascist invaders from her homeland.

Success in the air in a fighter at any time in the history of air combat requires the mental agility of a cat, the physical strength of an athlete, the ability to think in three dimensions making mathematical calculations under unthinkable emotional and physical pressure and all in fractions of a second. Katrina has a core of steel and an indomitable spirit. As the saying goes, there are two types of fighter pilots: the hunter, and the one who knows in his heart he is the hunted.

After three months in hospitals, Katrina is ready and eager to go back into combat. At the beginning of my work in progress she is flying a replacement aircraft for a squadron based at Belgorod south of the Kursk salient in the Ukraine. Three other women, also flying replacement aircraft, accompany her as replacements of casualties the squadron suffered during the Battle of the Kursk Salient.

The squadron they join has been all male. The squadron is happy to get the replacement aircraft but not so happy to get women pilots. They consider these women to be sub-standard replacements. As a male, telling this story from a woman’s perspective, I may seem under qualified. It takes a considerable amount of chutzpa to think I can take on this project and make it a success. As a writer, I took it on because I felt it was a story that needed to be told. Women now fly fighters in the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps, and fly a number of aircraft for the Army of the United States.

I am not a fighter pilot, but I am a life long student of war in the air. As a Naval Flight Officer in the United States Navy I was a navigator and an airborne anti-submarine warfare tactical coordinator. In training I was indoctrinated into formation flying and air combat maneuvers, so I have a platform with some credibility. And I felt a duty to tell this story, before the accomplishments of these women were totally forgotten.

Katrina has, for me, after writing some 95,000 words, become a complex, multi-faceted, 22 year old women tempered in the heat of combat, and unwilling to allow any man, anywhere in the world, to look down on her, in spite of the fact that she is short.

Researching for Historical Fiction

A fiction writer must know intimately the world he/she is trying to describe. Place, time, local culture, and the attitudes of the people of the time all play a part in the story. The best place to stage your story is a place that remains as it was at the time your action takes place. That’s usually not possible with historical fiction. Even stories about the recent past frequently involve changes in the places being described. More distant, yet still modern, times can be researched using photographs, paintings, or sketches. Descriptions of places, written by people who lived there at the time your story takes place, are helpful, but seldom provide the panoramic view that allows the writer to look around and feel part of the venue.

In addition to place, technology also changes over time. As obvious as that sounds, a few months or years during periods of rapid technological  change can make a tremendous difference. An example is the telephone, not to mention computers.

Finding sources useful in fleshing out a past period can be challenging. Diaries, interviews of people who lived at that time, and bureaucratic records, to name a few, can make a time in the past come alive. Unfortunately, people writing during that time take many common objects for granted and do not spell out how or when those objects may have been used. They may simply make reference to them feeling these items were too common to describe. Photographs can be helpful, but even a photograph doesn’t describe how an object was used.

My era of interest is World War Two, and specifically the aerial aspect of that war. I have found autobiographies by pilots of that era most helpful. Interviews done during the war or immediately after might be less valuable if classified material of the time is avoided, glossed over, or redacted.

The setting of my most recent writing, the Soviet Union, is particularly troubling for Americans because most of us, (myself included) do not speak or read Russian. We are dependent on translations of works. Another problem with documents written in the Soviet Union during the war, such as newspapers, and books published for mass distribution, were politicized. More recent documents, though more forthcoming, are frequently fogged by the passage of time.

Archives, available here in the west, are helpful, but these documents also suffered from political manipulation. More recent documentation released after the dissolution of the Soviet Union tends to be more realistic.

Walking the battlefields I describe would be helpful, except that several of them are battlefields once again. Regrettably, for me, the costs of travel are also a deterrent.

My main references are books about the aircraft and operations from Soviet sources translated into English. These books and articles provide very good information in most cases. I have spoken with, as opposed to interviewed, a very successful German fighter pilot from World War Two, and discussed the characteristics of a Yak-9 fighter with a pilot who flew a model provided with an Allison engine, rather than the original Klimov. Both discussions provided insight for me, colored, of course, by pre-conceptions based on my previous study.

Biographies of Russian pilots lack fine detail. One of my books includes interviews with twenty Soviet women who flew in combat with the Soviet Air Force. Bruce Myles, who interviewed these women in the 1970s, wrote the book Night Witches, telling the true stories upon which my fiction is based. Unfortunately, he barely touches upon the things most important to people, and which can be most revealing about their lives. Items such as food, hygiene, and personal care make a tremendous difference in morale and influence the attitudes of people, not just women, who put their lives on the line for their country.

Finally, combat is a supremely messy affair. Many veterans decline to discuss their feelings while in combat. Many times the events in which they partake occur so quickly that analysis of those feelings doesn’t take place until after the events they describe. Even if they relate those events to others, they hide the feelings they have as they reflect on those events. Only those who actually participate can know how those feelings actually temper and change the person involved. Any writer who wasn’t there can only imagine, probably unsuccessfully, their reaction. Consequently, I have only my books, my own flight experience, and my imagination to attempt to re-build the world of fighter pilots on the Eastern Front of World War Two, known to the Russians as the Great Patriotic War.

Sources: Night Witches, Bruce Myles, Presidio Press, 1981

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

Yakovlev Fighters of World War Two, Yefim Gordon, Sergey Komissarov, Dmitriy Komissarov, Hikoki Publications Ltd, Manchester, England, 2015

Yakovlev Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2005

Destruction of the Korsun Pocket

General Breith’s Three Panzer Corps made good progress against heavy Soviet opposition, but shortage of fuel for his armored fighting vehicles as well as the opposition of 6 and 2 Soviet Tank Armies brought his advance to a halt. On 12 February he was able to get his tanks refueled and resumed his attack. At Dadushkova he ran into the 50 Tank Brigade. After the battle, he resumed his advance another twelve kilometers to Khizhintsy where he again ran out of fuel.

Inside the cauldron General Stemmermann began moving his forces to the west, closer to the units sent to rescue him, in preparation for the breakout. His forces took Nova Buda and Schenderovka. By 13 February he was able to take Komarovka. He simultaneously withdrew from Korsun, which fell to the Soviets the same day. General Konev attempted to retake Nova Buda but was blocked by SS Wallonien.

General Beith’s 3 Panzer Corps, now lining the west banks of the Gniloy Tikich River, attempted to take Hill 239 near the village of Oktybar overlooking the projected river crossing for Gruppe Stemmermann. A bridge at Lisyanka, strong enough to allow tanks to cross the river, was taken, but the bridgehead across the river was not secure enough for them to make contact with the isolated forces. Konev blocked the relief effort with the 16 Tank Corps and the 13 Guards Heavy Tank Regiment equipped with 21 IS-1 (IS-85) heavy tanks.

At this point the thaw ended. Snow resumed. Temperatures fell to -7 degrees Celsius. By now the cauldron measured five by seven kilometers. Generals Bake and Frank, at Oktyabr were within seven kilometers of Gruppe Stemmermann, which was notified on 16 February that now was the time to break out. The attempt began that night.

Stemmermann’s forces were greatly weakened. The Soviet Forces lining the east riverbank were dug in and supported by artillery. The battle went on all night and through the following day in blizzard conditions. German soldiers, making their way to the river were unaware of the bridge available to the north. At this point the river was two meters deep and several meters wide with a strong current carrying chunks of ice. Attempts to form a bridge by driving tanks into the river failed miserably.

Russian tanks were met by German tanks in battles around the perimeter of the cauldron. The German tanks, seriously outnumbered, were destroyed. By midday on 17 February the Soviets drove their tanks into the collapsing cauldron shelling the soldiers on the riverbank. Desperate German soldiers in naked or nearly naked conditions attempted to swim across the river. General Stemmermann himself was killed.

Of the 35,199 Germans who attempted to flee the pocket, 19,000 were killed or captured, including 3,000 surrounded at Shandorovka.

On 17 and 18 February the German Transportgruppen flew 1,500 sorties carrying 2,026 tons of supplies and evacuating 2,400 wounded. Thirty-two aircraft were lost and 113 were damaged.

During the period 31 January to 18 February the Soviet Air Force flew 210 sorties against airfields and engaged in 75 air battles.

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

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

Closing the Korsun Pocket

Closing the Korsun Pocket, and the German attempt to rescue the forces trapped inside, resulted in intense combat in the air and on the ground.

On 27 January, 1944, Kravchenko’s 6th Tank Army crossed the Guiloy Tikich River at Lysyanka establishing a bridgehead on the eastern side of the river. On 28 January Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army joined up with the 6th at Zvenigorodka closing the Kessel (cauldron) on the 28th, effectively sealing off the German forces trapped in the Dnieper River bend.

The German response was immediate. On the same day the 5th Panzer Regiment “Wiking” attacked at Olschana, striking north toward Kapitanovka. The next day the Germans expanded their offensive at Kirillovka, but a Soviet response from northeast of Olschana forced them back.

The Soviets endured small encirclements of their attacking forces. General Vatutin lost 513 tanks and 146 self-propelled guns during the last ten days of January.

At about this point the weather turned cold. Temperatures dropped to -5 degrees Celsius in blizzard conditions. von Manstein requested permission to have the units surrounded in the pocket, 7th and 42nd Army Corps, make an attempt to break out. Hitler, predictably, refused, leaving von Manstein to plan a rescue operation. In the meantime, three Transportgruppen were moved to the concrete airfield at Uman. Using the airfield at Korsun, they attempted to keep the surrounded units supplied. These operations were hampered by the heavy snow and low clouds.

General von Manstein pulled together the 3rd and 47th Panzer Corps and the SS Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler to assist in breaking the Soviet stranglehold. The attack was planned for 3 February.

The Russians continued to reduce the German defenses around the edges, attacking Bogluslav on 31 January, assisted by the Second and Fifth Air Armies. Fifth Air Army was assigned to support of the ground forces while the Second Air Army and the Tenth Fighter Air Corp blockaded the front against enemy attacks. From 29 January to 3 February these units flew 2,800 sorties, engaged in 120 air battles and downed 130 enemy aircraft.

A sudden thaw, with daytime highs at 5 degrees Celsius, on 1 February caused difficulty for German troops and equipment attempting to withdraw from the eastern edge of the cauldron. Observing the German retreat, the Soviets launched an attack and broke through the German line at Losovsk.

Outside the cauldron, the Germans concentrated their forces at Zvenigordka and attacked from the southwest over muddy roads. On 1 February, General von Vormann  advanced 31 kilometers over frozen ground to the Shpolka River at Iskrennoye approaching within 20 kilometers of Stemmermann’s surrounded forces. During this advance the First Guards Ground Attack Corps kept the column under constant attack. The bridge over the Shpolka River collapsed. Pioneers were called forward but their building materials could not provide a bridge allowing passage of 60 ton vehicles.

On 3 February General von Manstein’s attempt to relieve German units in the Kosun pocket began. The Soviet line was breached at Vesely Kut on the Guiloy Tikich River. At the same time, the Soviet Air Force began night and day operations to support and supply the Soviet troops moving to destroy the enemy forces inside the pocket, while repelling German counter attacks in the Tolmach and Lisyanka regions.

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

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

War Over the Steppes, the Air Campaign on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

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

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

 

Development of the Korsun Pocket

Though Kirovograd was liberated by the Soviets on 8 January, 1944, the battle continued. General Beyerlein sent Deichen to re-take Mala Vyska airfield, now occupied by the 67 Tank Brigade. With the support of Colonel Rudel’s anti-tank kanone Ju-87 Stukas, Deichen’s forces pushed the 67 Tank Brigade back and occupied Griezkoye on 9 January. The next day SS Grossdeutschland took Karlivkha, again with Stuka support. When they were driven out, they retained control of the southern half of the village.

The luck of 67 Tank Brigade continued poor. They escaped from Mala Vyska only to run into German forces at Maryanovka 28 kilometers north of Kirovograd.

On the First Ukrainian Front the Germans launched two attacks. One near Vinnitsa where von Manstein maintained his headquarters, and the other northwest of Uman, a rail and road junction. By 10 January General Vatutin had lost 314 tanks. The Second Air Army struck tank concentrations and fought air battles completing 4,200 sorties from 10 January to 24 January

A thaw began on 10 January which, after a week, left roads muddy and difficult to travel. The thaw put many field airports out of action. With only one or two open airfields many different regiments, operating different types of aircraft, worked out of one field.

General Vatutin, commanding the First Ukrainian front, and General Konev, commanding the Second Ukrainian Front, received orders to surround the Korsun–Shevchenovsky salient. The air armies assisting these fronts in their tasks, the Second and the Fifth Air Armies, together commanded 768 aircraft. The Germans now possessed 1,000 machines. The two to one odds had been reduced.

General Konev’s attacks southwest of Kirovograd met the Third SS Panzer Division five kilometers northwest of Kanizh on 13 January. Moving through the mud the Third SS Panzer Division struggled to take Rymentarovka, but, separated from their Grenadiers, they couldn’t take the village until 16 January.  

By 20 January General Vatutin had formed an armored force of 160 tanks and 50 self-propelled guns.  At 0600 on 24 January General von Vormann attacked Gerneral Katukov’s right flank east of Vinnitsa. Soviet troops were thrown back 25 to 30 kilometers while the Fourth Fighter Air Corp fought off large groups of German aircraft. On the German side General Desloch’s forces were reduced to 849 combat aircraft.

General Konev’s forces southwest of Kirovograd gained four kilometers by 24 January. On January 25 Konev launched another attack north of Kirovograd.

General Vatutin’s strike began on 26 January attacking from southeast of Belkaya Tserkov over disintegrating roads. This attack forced the Germans to retreat. Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army moved west to meet up with General Kravchenko’s Sixth Tank Army.

During 25 and 26 January bad weather consisting of cloud decks at 100 to 150 meters above ground level with fog and snow required fighter units flying reconnaissance missions to send only the most experienced pilots in groups of four to eight.

Sources: ‘Escape from Kirovograd’, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, December 2015

‘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

The Soviet Winter 1944 Offensive Begins

The First Ukrainian Front’s advances to Zhitomir and Fastov attracted German attention. They quickly moved troops and aircraft into the area, though the movements were confused and poorly planned. At the beginning of January, 1944, the Germans achieved nearly a two to one superiority in aircraft. These movements proved none to soon.

With the First Ukrainian Front at Zhitomir and Fastov and the Second Ukrainian Front threatening Kirovograd, the situation of German forces still holding Cherkassy on the Dnieper River, though not dire, looked perilous.

On 5 January Vatutin and Konev launched their attacks. Konev began with a heavy artillery bombardment of German forces protecting Kirovograd. Troops north and south of the city advanced westward, supported by the Fifth Air Army and Rotmistrov’s 5 Guards Tank Army. Rotmistrov’s advance in the south took him beyond the support of Soviet infantry.

On the first day of the attack the Germans claimed 120 tanks destroyed, however, communications between General Vormann’s headquarters and Kirovograd were cut.

The First Ukrainian Front, commanded by General Vatutin, captured Berdichev and Belaya Tserkov, and advanced toward Uman, assisted by the Second Air Army attacking railroad targets and airfields. Fog and low cloud hindered air support. Ice restricted telephone communications so most orders were given by radio. 

The German air force were particularly affected by poor airfields, frequent moves, and the transfer of infrastructure to Poland. They flew only 300 to 350 sorties per day.

The next day General Beyerlein attacked Konev’s forces north of Lelekova in an attempt to cut Soviet supply lines of the Soviet forces west of Kirovograd, but his movement was hindered by the deep snow.

By 7 January the Soviet main front was 10 kilometers east of Kirovograd, and the southern suburbs had been penetrated. The rail junction at Shepetovka was hammered by Il-2s. The Third Panzer Division  attempted to move northwest into the Kirovograd under heavy cloud cover. A withdrawal of German forces was scheduled to begin at 1600.

General Beyerlein reached Ivanivka by dawn of 8 January, still moving toward Lelekova. Fighting inside Kirovograd intensified though the Soviets now occupied most of the city. The Soviet 67th Tank Brigade destroyed the airfield at Mala Vyska northwest of Kirovograd.

General von Manstein felt confident that he could re-take Kirovograd. He had two Panzer divisions located north of the city and moved two SS Panzer Divisions (Totenkopf and Grossdeutschland) south of the city.

In the Korsun-Shevchenkovky area the Germans occupied the central position with nine Infantry Divisions, a Panzer division, and a Motorized Brigade. Soviet General Katukov’s First Tank Amy threatened Uman and Vinnitsa. General Hube, feeling the presence of the First and Second Ukrainian Fronts closing in on him, requested permission to evacuate the Korsun salient. In spite of the shattering of the German line, Berlin forbade any retreat.

Kirovograd was liberated by the Soviets on 8 January. As a reward for their support the First Guards Bomber Division, the 203rd and 302nd Fighter Air Divisions, and the First Ground Attack Air Corps were designated Kirovograd units.

Sources: ‘Escape from Kirovograd’, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, December 2015

‘Crucible at Cherkassy”, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, September 2005

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

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

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.

Fastov and Zhitomir

With Kiev captured by the Soviets and the Wotanstellung penetrated in at least four places, the Germans struck back fiercely. 1 Panzer Division, SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 25 Panzer Division, Schutzenpanzer Wagen Abteilung 509, and remnants of SS Das Reich, under the leadership of General von Mantein attacked near Fastov and its rail station on 7 November 1943.

By this point in the war the Stuka Gruppen were being replaced by the Slacht Gruppen. The Ju-87 Stuka, too vulnerable to fighter attack, was replaced by Fw-190 fighter bombers. Faster, more rugged, and more maneuverable than the Stuka, the Fw-190 was able to defend itself after the bombs were dropped. Beginning their shallow dives at 1,800 meters, they effectively delivered anti-personnel and armor piercing bombs.

A newer Ju-87G Stuka, armed with one 37 mm cannon under each wing, fired armor piercing shells. With only six shells per gun, their usefulness was proved by Hans-Ulrich Rudel, credited with destroying 519 tanks during a career that included 2,530 ground attack missions. His example was exceptional.

As the German assault got organized, the Soviets launched simultaneous attacks towards Zhitomir and Korsten. Another attack was begun on 9 November south of Fastov. All operations at this time were hindered by the autumn rains which turned the roads to mud. The rain brought low clouds, and fog which also hindered air operations.

The German line, weakened by losses and the concentration for their assault of Fastov, broke west of Kiev under General Vatutin’s attack. Vatutin aimed toward Zhitomir assisted by the Soviet Air Force which carried out heavy raids from 12 through 15 November. Zhitomir was captured by the Soviets on 13 November, including the vital rail junction and supply base. The resulting disruption of German activity between Fastov and Zhitomir halted the German offensive.

Not everything went the Soviet way. Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler blocked Gerneral Ribalko’s 3 Guards Tank Army near Brusilov, an area where heavy woods and many ravines interfered with armored movement. The Panzer Grenadiers attacked Zhitomir on 20 November attempting to retake the rail junction, surrounding Rybalko’s tankers on 23-24 November. In the rainy weather the cauldron was not easily closed and most of Rybalko’s forces were able to escape the trap. By the time von Manstein tried to destroy them on 26 November, it was too late. Manstein was able to re-capture Zhitomir.

The Germans faced another issue which haunted them during this period. Hitler and Goering, working to form a strategic bomber force for use against the Western Allies, issued an order on 26 November, calling for withdrawals of bomber units from the Eastern Front. This was not to begin until December, but the threat interfered with the use of those bombers during the German offensives to follow.

War Over the Steppes, The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Front, 1941-45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing , Oxford, UK, 2016

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943-45: Red Steamroller, Robert A. Forczyk, Pen & Sword Military, South Yorkshire, England, 2016

Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY 1972

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