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

Advertisements

Slugfest at Kirovograd

Confusion reigned during the battle for Kirovograd, a city located west of the Dnieper between Cherkassy and Krivoy Rog. At several points German and Soviet forces surrounded each other and battle lines ceased to exist.

At the beginning of January 1944 Major General Nikolaus von Vormann, commander of 47 Panzer Corps was assigned to defend Kirovograd. North of the city General Vatutin’s First Ukrainian Front was making progress against the 4th Panzer Army west of Kiev.

On 5 January, 1944, General Konev’s Second Ukrainian Front, to the south, launched its attack to liberate Kirvograd from the four German Divisions that held it. General Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army sped west, passing south of Kirovograd, supported by the Fifth Air Army which flew 1,100 sorties. Germany’s Second Parachute Division opposed the attack fiercely, claiming the destruction of 120 Russian tanks on this first day.

The following day General Bayerlein counter attacked north of Letakova with the Third Panzer Division but the supporting divisional artillery and armor units experienced a shortage of munitions. Separated from their supporting Tenth Panzer Grenadiers, both units were isolated in separate pockets, incidentally also allowing the surrounding of Kirovograd by the Soviets.

Midday, 7 January, the Germans scheduled a breakout of the Third Panzer Division to begin at 1600 hours that same day. By dawn of the 8th the Panzers succeeded in breaking out of the pocket, reaching Ivanivka. The Tenth Panzer Grenadiers remained surrounded.

Fighting continued within the surrounded city of Kirovograd. The Second Parachute Division, holding the southern part of the city in 13 decree C weather, suffered 60 to 70% casualties. In spite of efforts by anti-tank Ju 87G Stukas commanded by Hans Ulrich Rudel, the Soviets took the airfield south of Mala Vyska.

Field Marshal von Manstein ordered 3 SS Panzer Division “Totenkopf” and Grossdeutschland SS Panzer Division to attack south of Kirovograd to join up with 2nd Parachute Division while Third Panzer Division and Tenth Panzer Grenadier Division attacked north of Kirovograd in an attempt to encircle Soviet forces who now held most of the city. Third Panzer Division took Ossikowata north of Kirovograd which allowed the German Tenth Panzer Grenadier Division to escape their pocket at Letekovka.

At first light on 10 January Grossdeutschland, supported by Stukas, attacked toward Karlivkha, providing relief for the 2nd Parachute Division and trapping Soviets in a pocket west of Kirovograd. The entrapped Soviets attacked west in the vicinity of Mala Vyska supported by another Soviet attack launched the next day north of Gruzkoye.

This attack was confronted by Grossdeutschland and the 2nd Parachute Division, accompanied by the Third SS Panzer Division, inserted between them on 12 January. The unexpected appearance of the Third Panzer Division brought the Soviet assault to a stop, succeeded in driving them out of Maryanrovka, and temporarily stabilizing the front line. Fighting continued in the neighborhood of Kirovograd until the 16th. The Russians held Kirovograd, but they paid a high price. Soviet losses included 490 tanks, 100 artillery pieces, 15 anti-aircraft guns, dozens of anti-tank guns and 3,871 prisoners.

The German losses were also severe. Regiments reported in at battalion strength and the panzers needed repairs.

Meanwhile, to the north-east, a bulge had developed in the German line in the Korson-Cherkassy area. Generals Vatutin and Konev received orders to encircle those German units.

Escape from Kirovograd, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, December 2015, Volume 15, Number 1

Crucible at Cherkassy, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, September 2005, Volume 4, Number 5

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

Battle for the Dnieper River

As the politically significant taking of Kiev unfolded, more dramatic, militarily significant battles erupted in the south. The Germans feared the result and the Soviets saw the benefit of sealing off large numbers of German units in the Crimea.

General Malinovsky, commander of the Third Ukrainian Front, attacked in the direction of Zaporozhye on 1 October, 1943. General Tolbukhin, commander of the Fourth Ukrainian front smashed the German Sixth Army and struck along the north coast of the Sea of Azov toward Melitopol. By the end of October the Fourth Ukrainian Army succeeded in sealing off the Crimea. As the Soviet armies moved forward they drafted all males of military age into the army.

In mid-November the rainy season began turning the Ukrainian Steppes into a sea of mud. This weather change slowed the Soviet advance, but did not stop it. First Ukrainian Front under General Vatutin, forced the Dnieper River line again south of Kanev, north of Cherkassy, at the end of November. General Konev with the Second Ukrainian Front engaged in a war of attrition west to the Dnieper River as they advanced on Kirovograd. Their goal was to encircle the German defenders, Erhard Raus’s Fourth Panzer Army and Otto Wohler’s Eighth Army in the vicinity of Korsun.

At the same time, General Tolbukin pushed the German Sixth Army away from the coast of the Sea of Azov.

By this time the German infantry units had been reduced to 50 to 75% of combat strength and their tanks were worn out. The rain hampered German aerial reconnaissance.

By the first week of December the Germans brought the Russian breakthrough to a halt near Dykivka, 53 kilometers northeast of Kirovograd. The Soviets used the weather to bring up supplies. Early in December the snow began falling, driven by gale force winds. General Konev moveed toward Kirovograd while Vatutin headed for the Bug River. They hoped to meet near Pervoinaysk. Konev knew there was good tank country east of Kirovograd and he hoped to take advantage of it. He positioned the General Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army and the Fifth Guards Army there.

General von Manstein received reinforcements in the second week of December. The second Parachute Division arrived in Kirovograd and the 11th Panzer Division positioned itself near Novhordivka. On 18 December the 11th Panzer Division attacked Norhordivka and took it.

At the beginning of January Major General Nikolaus von Vormann, commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, was assigned to defend Kirovograd. Adolf Hitler’s orders were to defend the city to the last man. General Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army possessed 500 tanks on 5 January, 1943, when Konev launched his attack, knowing the Germans were preoccupied with Vatutin’s  attack to the south, and hoping to catch them off balance.

Sources: Battle for the Dniepr, Grigory Utkin, History of the Second World War Magazine

Crucible at Cherkassy, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 4 Number 5, September 2005

Escape from Kirovograd, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 15, Number 10, December 2015

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

 

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