Battle for Cherkassy and the Korsun Pocket

As the politically significant taking of Kiev unfolded, a more dramatic, militarily significant battle exploded near Cherkassy to the south. The Germans feared the result and the Soviets saw the benefit of sealing off two German corps in the Cherkassy bulge. The Soviet Air Force assisted by providing units of the Second and the Fifth Air Armies totaling 768 aircraft against 1,000 opposing German aircraft.

General Konev’s Second Ukrainian Front kicked off the battle against stubborn resistance on 24 January, 1944, with the support of the Fourth Fighter Air Corps. Low ceilings, fog and snow prevented air cover the next day.

General Vatutin’s First Ukrainian Front struck on 26 January opening a gap with the Sixth Tank Army. Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army, under General Konev, moved toward the Sixth Tank Army to enclose the Korsun pocket on 27 January, trapping the Fifth SS Panzer Division (Wiking) and SS Wallonian. Due to the poor weather conditions only experienced Soviet flight crews provided support in groups of four to eight aircraft.

The next day SS Wiking attacked Oschana, operating with little or no shelter from the weather. The Luftwaffe flew supplies in to the encircled troops and picked up the wounded, landing at two airfields within the pocket. The Soviets did what they could to eliminate the pocket under blizzard conditions and freezing temperatures. During the period from 29 January to 4 February the Luftwaffe lost forty aircraft to anti-aircraft fire or accidents. The Soviet Second and Fifth Air Armies flew 2,800 sorties during the same period. More than 120 air battles were fought and Soviet pilots claimed 130 German aircraft downed.

General von Manstein built up a relief force which included the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler SS Panzer Division. The relief attempt was scheduled for 3 February. On 1 February, just before the attack was to jump off, there was a sudden thaw, with temperatures dropping below freezing at night. On 2 February the aircraft of the First Guards Attack Corps of the Fifth Air Army attacked a column of tanks and other vehicles causing great damage to German forces. The German relief attempt started on schedule with the forces inside the pocket attempting to break out at the same time. The breakout forces were thrown back.

Konev and Vatutin rearranged their battle lines to further obstruct the relief attempt. By 5 February the mud caused by the thaw closed both airfields in the pocket and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’s panzers became bogged down.

On 6 February Adolf Hitler authorized a breakout from the Korsun pocket to begin on 10 February. Just as the relief force resumed their attack, temperatures plunged again and the mud re-froze. At this point Field Marshal Georgi Zhukov of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad fame, took command of the Soviet outer ring while Konev continued commanding the inner ring.

The breakout attempt began with Wiking, still trapped inside the pocket, taking Schenderovka on 11 February. SS Wallonian, in Novo Buda, attacked toward Komarovka on 12 February and took the village the next day, but Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, part of the relief force, was pushed out of Repki on the same day. German armor of the relief forces captured a bridge over the Gniloy Tikich River at Lisyanka, near Dzhurzhentsy, but a Soviet counter attack brought the relief attempt to a halt preventing contact with the surrounded forces.  The German forces trapped inside the pocket had to take Dzhurzhentsy themselves to break out.

By this time the pocket had been reduced to an area five by seven kilometers. Another breakout attempt was scheduled for 16 February. At dawn on 17 February the temperature dropped to -7 degrees Celsius in blizzard conditions. The engineers of the relief forces pushed two temporary bridges across the Gniloy Tickich River two kilometers upstream from the captured bridge but the escaping Germans could not reach them. Ice floes drifted down the river. Where the Germans attempted to cross, the river was two meters deep and several meters across. Under constant artillery and tank fire the Germans abandoned their equipment and swam to the other side. Only 35,000 of them were able to escape.

Two German corps had been destroyed. More than 3,000 Germans were captured near Schendorovka.

Sources: Crucible at Cherkassy, Pt McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 4, Number 5, September 2005

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

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Drive to Kiev

The drive to Kiev began as a result of the Soviet victory at Kursk. Soon after the taking of Kharkov on 23 August, 1943, the Soviet attack severed the Konotop-Bryansk rail line, breaking the connection between the German Army Group Center and Army Group South. Things were no better for the Germans in the south. Malinovsky’s South-west Front and Tolbukin’s South Front swept forward toward Zaporozhye on the lower Dnieper River. Stalino fell on 8 September and Mariupol on 10 September. von Manstein advised Hitler on 15 September, 1943, that Army Group South had to fall back to the Dnieper- Desna River lines to prevent the collapse of the Wehrmacht’s right flank. After much argument Hitler finally gave the order.

Soviet General Konev’s Steppe Front took Romny on the 16th September. Five days later Lt. General Pavel Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Dnieper River.  Soviet fighters protected the troops on the right bank and supported the crossings of the Dnieper. A bridgehead was established in the Bukryn area south of Kiev on 21 September, and another north of Kiev near Lyutich on 26 September. German assaults against the Bukryn bridgehead threatened to eliminate it. An attempt to drop Soviet paratroops into the Bukryn bridgehead on 24 September resulted in disaster.

Two hundred kilometers to the north, the Soviet Central Front under General Rokossovskii crossed the Desna River and headed south toward Gomel, another  key communications link between Army Group Center and Army Group South. On 6 October the 16th Air Army attacked this important railway and road center with 250 aircraft. The German resistance stymied Rokossovski’s advance, but, on 15 October Rokossovski’s men were able to cross the Dnieper River at Loyev, 55 kilometers south of Gomel. The Germans succeeded in containing this bridgehead as well.

Although there were now numerous leaks in the Dnieper River line, General Vatutin, commander of the Voronezh Front, could not get his bridging units up fast enough to take advantage of them. The German Fourth Air Fleet committed 867 aircraft while the Sixth Air Fleet committed another 960 aircraft in an effort to eliminate the Bukryn bridgehead, on 10 October. Orders were given for a breakout from the Bukryn bridgehead on 12 October. The night before the breakout attempt the Soviet Second Air Army bombers flew 272 sorties in preparation. German artillery fire made this breakout attempt very expensive and it was called off on 15 October. As a result, on the night of 24/25 October, Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army left the Bukryn bridgehead en route to the Lyutich bridgehead 150 kilometers to the north where the German forces were thinner. The marshy terrain made the transit difficult and resulted in the loss of a number of tanks.

On 29 October Stavka renamed the fronts. Voronezh front, commanded by Vatutin, became the 1st Ukrainian Front. Konev’s Steppe Front became the 2nd Ukrainian Front, and the Central front commanded by Rokosovskii became the Belorussian Front. Meanwhile, Stalin informed the commanders involved with the attempt to capture Kiev, that he wanted the city taken by 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

During this period another bridgehead was established 15 kilometers north of Lyutich at Yasnohorodka. On 1 November Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Lyutich bridgehead. The attack out of the Lyutich bridgehead began on 3 November with a huge artillery attack. Supported by the 2nd Air Army’s fighters and bombers, the Soviet Forces broke out. A simultaneous attack at Yasnohorodka struck west toward Zhytomyr. German counterattacks proved insufficient to stem the Soviet onslaught. Soviet infantry entered Kiev on 5 November and Stalin was informed that Kiev had been taken on 6 November though house to house fighting reminiscent of Stalingrad was still going on within the city.

Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army took Fastiv, 60 kilometers southwest of Kiev on 7 November threatening the rear of Army Group South.

Sources: ‘The Battle of Kiev: Ending the Nazi Terror’, Pat McTaggart, Warfare History Network, December 27, 2016

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

Kursk: The Clash of Armour, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, NY, 1968

 

Prokhorovka Pt. 2

World War II, Eastern Front, Russian and German Battle for the Kursk Salient.

General Vatutin’s attacks began all along the front at 0900 hours as scheduled. General Rotmistrov’s 9th Airborne Division, with Second Guards Tank Corps on its left, struck south in the direction of Komsomolets State Farm against SS das Reich. Against SS Leibstandarte and SS Totenkopf, Rotmistrov threw the 18th and 29th Tank Corps. Rotmistrov believed II SS Panzer Corps possessed scores of Tiger tanks so he ordered his T-34s to attack at full speed, firing on the run, and ramming enemy tanks as necessary. In fact Leibstandarte had only four Tigers and das Reich had one. Totenkopf, on the north side of the Psel River, had ten.

The 18th and 29th Tank Corps raced down a five kilometer wide corridor between the Psel River and the ten meter high railroad embankment to the southeast. Armored vehicles from both sides intermingled firing at one another at point-blank range. Smoke, flames, dirt, and debris filled the air. Under heavy air attack the 29th Tank Corps withdrew briefly, then turned south to take Leibstandarte in the flank, threatening their rear. This threat caused Leibstandarte to withdraw in their turn toward Oktiabr’skii.

Simultaneously, the Soviet 181st Tank Brigade moved along the south bank of the Psel River against Totenkopf’s lines of communication driving Totenkopf’s panzer grenadiers before them.

By noon the German command realized they had failed to reach Prokhorovka. They directed Totenkopf to move along the north bank of the Psel River. A shock group of 100 tanks, supported by close air support, penetrated 52nd Guards Rifle Division’s defenses by 1300 hours.

Heavy rain showers moved into the area in mid-afternoon and the exhausted and emotionally drained units of both armies accepted a brief pause in the fighting.

To the south III Panzer Corps’ 19th Panzer Division, advancing along the south bank of the Northern Donets River, seized Krivitsevo in the late afternoon.

In the west, south of Oboyan, Soviet forces pushed the 3rd Panzer Division out of Werchopenje  and Berezovka into the eastern suburbs by 1700 hours. By this time 3rd Panzer Division possessed fewer than 40 tanks.

Meanwhile, in the center, the 95th Guards Rifle Division halted Totenkopf’s shock group at 1800 hours. Two hours later, under massive air support, Polezhaev was taken.

Sunset at 51 degrees north latitude takes place at 2011 hours on 12 July. By this time II SS Panzer Corps’ SS Leibstandarte captured hill 252.2 less than three kilometers from Prokhorovka. III Panzer Corps, unable to take Alexandrovka, remained 15 kilometers from Prokhorovka, failing to close the gap.

Thunderstorms ended all fighting after dark.

Sources: David M. Glantz & Jonathan M. House, The Battle of Kursk, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence KS, 1999

Ludwig Heinrich Dyck, “Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian”, WW II History, September 2006

George M. Nipe, Jr., “Ribbintrop at Prokhorovka”, WW II History, July 2009