This was the German attempt by Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to consolidate the sector of the Eastern Front to the west of Kiev after the end of the 'Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation' 1 (6/17 December 1943).
For about one month after the end of the first phase of the ‘Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation’, Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s (from 26 November Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s) 4th Panzerarmee of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had managed to preserve a balance, albeit an uneasy balance, along its front to the north and south of Kiev in Ukraine. On the German army’s flanks the Soviets held two large bridgeheads, one in the area round the outflow of the Pripyet river into the Dniepr river, and the other below Kiev at Bukrin. During the first week of October the Soviets had also taken two smaller bridgeheads, one at Lutezh, some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Kiev, and the other around Yasnogorodka some 25 miles (40 km) to the north of the same city.
The Stavka had first instructed General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front to take Kiev by means of a wide sweep to the west and north out of the Bukrin bridgehead. From 12 to 15 October and then from 21 to 23 October three Soviet armies had attempted to break out of this bridgehead but, as a result of the Soviets’ lack of the bridging material to get their heavy artillery across, and of the fact that the fields of observation on that stretch of the river were too limited to permit accurate fire from the left river’s bank, these attempts were unsuccessful. In the meantime, however, the two bridgeheads to the north of Kiev had been enlarged, that at Lutezh being extended to the south to within easy artillery range of Kiev.
After the failure of the second attempt to break out of the Bukrin bridgehead, the Stavka ordered Vatutin to redeploy General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and artillery to the north into the area of the Lutezh bridgehead, from which another attempt was then to be made. On 3 November, after several days of intense activity behind the front, within the bridgehead, and in the area to the east of the river, the Soviets began the second phase (3/13 November) of the ‘Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation’.
This stage of the offensive began with a large-scale artillery preparation followed by the advance of six infantry divisions and one tank corps, elements of the 3rd Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army, which struck the centre of the German defensive line around the Lutezh bridgehead and broke through. At the same time General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 60th Army broke out of the bridgehead at Yasnogorodka. Within two days the 4th Panzerarmee’s front around Lutezh had collapsed. During the night of 5/6 November the battle swept through the streets of Kiev, and in the course of the following morning the last German forces retreated to the south.
The 4th Panzerarmee possessed no reserves of any kind and was therefore helpless to deny the pressure of the Soviet thrust. At first Hoth had thought that Vatutin might content himself with the capture of Kiev, but by 5 November both he and his immediate superior, von Manstein, had come to the inevitable conclusion that the Soviets were about to swing wide to the south-west and, if they could achieve it, outflank the entire German front along the line of the Dniepr river. The Soviets’ first objective, therefore, would be Fastov, some 40 miles (65 km) to the south-west of Kiev, as this was the vital railway junction controlling the important double-track line feeding the centre of the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, and then Zhitomir, Korosten and Berdichev. On 6 November von Manstein ordered the 25th Panzerdivision, arriving from the west under the command of Generalleutnant Adolf von Schell until he was taken ill on 15 November and succeeded on a temporary basis by Generalleutnant Georg Jauer pending the arrival of Generalmajor Hans Tröger on 20 November, to deploy immediately and hold Fastov. Here the division was faced by General Major Kirill F. Suleikov’s (from 14 December General Major Sergei A. Ivanov’s) VII Guards Tank Corps, which blunted the German effort.
Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army was soon just 40 miles (65 km) from Berdichev, Zhitomir fell to the 38th Army, the 60th Army was at the gates of Korosten, and the 40th Army was moving to the south from Kiev. The only respite for the Germans came when the 27th Army exhausted itself and went over to the defensive in the Bukrin river bend. Yet the 4th Panzerarmee was in acute difficulties, and the situation was remedied, if only for a short time, only by the later arrival of General Hermann Balck’s XLVIII Panzerkorps (SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Theodor Wisch’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, Generalleutnant Walter Krüger’s 1st Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Hasso von Manteuffel’s 7th Panzerdivision). Balck drove his forces to the north to Brusilov and then to the west to retake Zhitomir. Rybalko sent the VII Guards Tank Corps to check the German attack, and there followed a major armoured battle, which lasted into the later part of November, when the arrival of the rasputitsa period of autumn mud halted all operations after each side had suffered heavy losses. The casualty ratio was fairly balanced, though the Soviets lost slightly more than the Germans. With the recapture of Zhitomir and Korosten the 4th Panzerarmee had gained some breathing room, and with the 1st Ukrainian Front halted, the Stavka released substantial reserves to Vatutin.
On 21 November, at Adolf Hitler’s headquarters, von Manstein learned how much of a mistake had been his plan for a counterattack in the Nogay steppe. As he had since the start of the year, von Manstein argued that the main effort of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had to be made on the army group’s northern flank: he therefore wished to shift two divisions of General Sigfrid Henrici’s XL Panzerkorps and the three Panzer divisions (including Generalmajor Hans Tröger’s 25th Panzerdivision) arriving from the west, into the Kiev area. But Hitler was wholly unwilling to forego his ambition of a major success in the area to the south of the Dniepr river’s great eastward in order to generate fresh confidence in the troops and enable him to retain Nikopol and Crimea. He agreed to let von Manstein divert the three new Panzer divisions to the 4th Panzerarmee as the XLVIII Panzerkorps, but demanded that the divisions of the XL Panzerkorps be left with Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee away to the south. To offset the loss of these latter divisions, Hitler promised von Manstein reinforcements in the form of Generalmajor Walter Barenthin’s (from 14 November Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke’s) 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Fritz Scholz’s 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’ and the 4th Panzerdivision, the last under the temporary command of Oberst Dr Karl Mauss: these formations had earlier been promised from Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, but not been transferred.
von Manstein accepted these terms, but this caused considerable irritation within the Oberkommando des Heeres. After the conference, in a telephone conversation with Busch, the operations chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres stated that von Manstein could have had the five Panzer divisions for which had originally asked if he had not, by agreeing to take fewer divisions, undercut General Kurt Zeitzler, who had ben ready to give him unqualified support.
For a time von Manstein considered starting the attack to reopen overland access to Crimea as it appeared that Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army could not hold out the three or four weeks he expected the battle around Kiev to
last, for in their ‘Novorossiysk-Taman Strategic Offensive Operation’ (10 September/9 November) the Soviets had landed on each side of Kerch and on the south coast of the Sivash near the base of the Perekop isthmus. Although he was encouraged by a small but successful attack by Generalleutnant Maximilian Freiherr von Edelsheim’s 24th Panzerdivision out of the Nikopol bridgehead several days before, on 8 November von Manstein came to the inevitable conclusion that the 1st Panzerarmee lacked the strength to handle the breakthrough on its own front and also to attack to the south. On the following day von Manstein ordered von Mackensen to plan an attack to be implemented when more formations and units became available. In the succeeding weeks, when the Soviets revealed no sense of urgency in retaking Crimea, von Manstein, who was fully occupied with the course of events on his own front, let the plan for an operation in the area to the south of the Dniepr river disappear into oblivion.
During November’s second week, while Krüger’s 1st Panzerdivision, von Schell’s 25th Panzerdivision and Wisch’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ laboured to regroup and reload those of their elements which had already unloaded at the 1st Panzerarmee and also to redirect to the 4th Panzerarmee the troops still on trains en route from Germany, the 1st Ukrainian Front continued its advance to the south-west past Kiev against a patchwork German resistance. By this time, the 4th Panzerarmee was divided into three isolated major groupings which were moving away from each other. The army’s left-flank formation was General Kurt von der Chevallerie’s LIX Corps, which was being driven to the north-west in the direction of Korosten. The two formations in the centre were General Anton Dostler’s VII Corps and General Arthur Hauffe’s XIII Corps, which were falling back to straight to the west in the direction of Zhitomir. In the south General Walter Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, which was still holding part of the river line, had swung back its left flank to block the Soviets in the area immediately to the south of Kiev. On its left, the headquarters of Balck’s XLVIII Panzerkorps, transferred from the 1st Panzerarmee, was seeking to bring the advance elements of the divisions coming from the south into position to establish a line flanking Fastov.
On the morning of 7 November, when von Schell moved up with as much of his division as he could muster to attempt the defence of Fastov, he discovered that the 3rd Guards Tank Army’s mobile units had arrived there before him. For the next three days, much hampered by having to fight in wet snow and rain, the division, which was untrained for fighting on the Eastern Front and still lacked much of its equipment, tried in vain to retake the town even as the Soviet advance passed Fastov to the west and gathered momentum. von Manstein decided that Fastov would have to be abandoned as he tried to reduce the Soviet pressure of the VII Corps and XIII Corps. On 12 November the LXVIII Panzerkorps committed its three divisions, all of which were still without vital components, in an attack to the north-west from the area of Fastov into the rear of the 38th Army’s spearhead, then attempted to push into Zhitomir some 90 miles (145 km) to the west of Kiev. The attack made little progress. In the north the 60th Army was rapidly driving the LIX Corps back toward Korosten and threatening to sever its connection with the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Then, as had happened before, it was the Soviets who provided the 4th Panzerarmee with its best chance for recovery: Vatutin had divided his effort and was attempting to advance simultaneously in two divergent directions, namely to the south-west and west. von Manstein decided to concentrate first on Zhitomir and then turn to the east behind Fastov.
From 14 November the LXVIII Panzerkorps tried once more, with von Manteuffel’s experienced 7th Panzerdivision from the XXIV Panzerkorps in place of the 25th Panzerdivision. On this occasion the corps fared better. After the first day the Soviets, as ever very concerned for their flanks and rear, hesitated and started to slow. Even so, it seemed that the counterattack had come too late to save the LIX Corps which, fighting alone, was almost entirely surrounded in Korosten and had to be supplied by airdrops. von der Chevallerie, the corps’ commander, wished to pull back farther to the west while he still had the opportunity, but on 16 November Hitler ordered that Korosten was to be held regardless of the cost.
On 19 November the XIII Corps and XLVIII Panzerkorps retook Zhitomir, and the next day the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ turned to the east and reached Brusilov, to the north and slightly to the west of Fastov, on 23 November. By this time several days of rain had turned the roads to mud. In the north the LIX Corps, after being pushed out of Korosten despite Hitler’s order, was able to capitalise on the Soviets’ increasing uncertainty and retake the town on 24 November. On the next day von Manstein called a temporary halt because of the weather.
The last two weeks of November sealed the fate of the German forces on the Dniepr river line. What time was left to them could be credited in part to the master class in concentration and manoeuvre which von Manstein had given to Vatutin in the area to the east of Zhitomir, but mostly to the fact that Vatutin, waiting for more settled weather, held back from delivering a weightier blow. Had the two Panzer divisions which Hitler insisted on keeping on the army group’s right flank been available, the 4th Panzerarmee might have been able to inflict a major defeat on the three Soviet armies. As it was, Hoth and von Manstein decided late in the month that there was no point even in discussing the possibility of returning to the Dniepr river at Kiev. While the 4th Panzerarmee was occupied in the area to the west of Kiev, the situation across the area for which Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was responsible had continued to worsen steadily. After gaining small bridgeheads on both sides of Cherkassy on 13 November, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front had quickly expanded that in the north until it threatened to engulf the city and tear open the front of General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army. To the north and east of Krivoi Rog and against the Nikopol bridgehead, for whose defence the 1st Panzerarmee had succeeded Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s (from 22 November General Maximilian de Angelis’s) 6th Army, the Soviets maintained a steady pressure. On 20 November General Hans Hube, who on 29 October had replaced von Mackensen in command of the 1st Panzerarmee, reported to the army group that his infantry strength had now declined to the lowest tolerable level. The front could not be completely manned, and on days of heavy fighting casualties were running at the rate of one battalion per division under attack, and therefore that without an extraordinary supply of replacements by air he did not believe that a defence of the Dniepr river line could no longer be sustained.
On this same day, von Manstein told the Oberkommando des Heeres that besides their reserves, which were estimated as 44 infantry divisions and an unknown but large number of tank brigades created in 1943, the Soviets had 33 infantry divisions and 11 tank and mechanised corps resting behind the front. With these they would be able to mount a full-scale winter offensive, against which Heeresgruppe ‘Sud’, now wholly committed along at the front, would effectively be powerless. The army group, von Manstein continued, therefore needed ‘adequate and potent reserves’ which, unless provided from other theatres, would perforce have to be created by the shortening the southern flank of the Eastern Front and the evacuation of the 17th Army from Crimea. While von Manstein’s assessment of the slightly distant future was decidedly pessimistic, it was nonetheless more optimistic about near future than those of his subordinate army commands. The 8th Army was characterised by gaps in its front around the Cherkassy bridgehead and in the area to the north of Krivoi Rog: on 24 November, Generalmajor Hellmuth Reinhardt, the 8th Army’s chief-of-staff, asked whether ‘large operational decisions’ (in fact a general withdrawal) could be expected when the winter freeze began. To this von Manstein could reply only with the statement that the side which held its positions a minute longer would have won. Two days later Hube, now commander of the 1st Panzerarmee, warned that the decision to give up the Nikopol bridgehead and the Dniepr bend would have to be made soon or the army would have to be allocated major replacements. On the following day, 27 November, Hube informed von Manstein that the 1st Panzerarmee had exhausted all avenues of self-help and now needed to know as a matter of urgency how much longer it would be required to hold the Nikopol bridgehead, adding that the Soviets were refilling their formations and units with men from recently retaken areas, and that while these fresh draftees were by no means high-grade troops, the need to cope with their very numbers was creating a German ammunition shortage. von Manstein replied that he agreed but could persuade Hitler to change his earlier orders.
At the end of November Hitler wished to remove formations and units from the 4th Panzerarmee with which to strengthen the front around Cherkassy, but von Manstein insisted that should the Soviets break loose once again on either the army group’s northern or southern flank, the retention of Cherkassy would be pointless.
In the first week of December the weather turned cold, and in a few days the roads had hardened sufficiently for the Panzer divisions to get on the move once more. von Manstein now ordered the XLVIII Panzerkorps to relocate into the area to the north of Zhitomir, push eastward to the line between Radomyshl and Malin, and then turn to the north-east into the flank of the 60th Army operating against the LIX Corps at Korosten. Now with a strength of only about 200 armoured fighting vehicles, the XLVIII Panzerkorps began this ‘Advent’ (ii) offensive to the north of Zhitomir on 6 December, and for two days made good progress against gradually stiffening resistance, partially trapping seven Soviet corps (three tank and four infantry) in the area of Meleny. By 10 December the Soviet resistance had become strong, and after maps recovered from the body of a dead Soviet officer revealed that the Soviets were soon to launch another major offensive, Hoth, who was unwilling to take unnecessary chances, ordered the XLVIII Panzerkorps to restore contact between the XIII Corps and LIX Corps as its most important task after the capture of Radomyshl, thereby foregoing the chance to close the pocket round Meleny. On 19 December the XLVIII Panzerkorps was ready to execute the second part of its original mission, namely the turn into the flank of the 60th Army. In the three days which followed, however, the XLVIII Panzerkorps was able to make almost no advance toward Kiev, for it was now meeting the forces which the Soviets had grouped for another advance toward Zhitomir, and on 21 December the 4th Panzerarmee ordered the XLVIII Panzerkorps go over to the defensive.
Through November and the first three seeks of December, to the south in the sectors of the 8th Army and 1st Panzerarmee, the Soviet forces fought a battle of attrition, for they could afford the losses which the Germans could not. The two German armies managed to keep their fronts fairly stable until the second week of December, when the north-western side of the line around the bridgehead above Krivoi Rog collapsed. Before a new front could be established, the 2nd Ukrainian Front had cleared the Dniepr river from as far to the north as Cherkassy. After the middle of the month, therefore, all that Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ retained of the original ‘Wotan-Stellung’ was a 50-mile (80-km) stretch of the Dniepr river between Kiev and Cherkassy.