This was a Soviet part of the 'Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation' 1 by General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front in the western part of Ukraine (24 December 1943/14 January 1944).
The operation was designed to inflict a crushing defeat on Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 4th Panzerarmee of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, and to advance to the Yuzhny Bug river while preventing new attempts by the Germans to retake Kiev.
At this time the Soviet fronts in Ukraine were not without their operational and logistical problems. The winter had been very mild in the south, and the rain and mud of the spring thaw had begun exceptionally early at the end of December. The Soviets’ lines of communication extended some 300 miles (480 km) and as a result there were major supply, maintenance and repair difficulties. In General Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front, for example, only 50% the motor transport was roadworthy and of the 168 infantry divisions in the western part of Ukraine most were much under strength in spite of the energetic measures taken to make good the deficiencies by rounding up and impressing the men of the local Ukrainian population. Airfields were particularly badly affected by the rain and flooding. Undeterred by these problems, the Soviet high command urgently renewed its offensive along the whole of the front, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov remaining as the high command’s co-ordinator with 1st Ukrainian Front and 2nd Ukrainian Front, while Marshal Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky co-ordinated the 3rd Ukrainian Front and 4th Ukrainian Front.
The 1st Ukrainian Front and 2nd Ukrainian Front were to make parallel thrusts to the south-west on the axes from Vinnitsa to Mogilev-Podolsky and from Kirovograd to Pervomaysk, while somewhat farther to the south the 3rd Ukrainian Front and 4th Ukrainian Front were to deliver concentric blows on Nikopol and Krivoi Rog.
The first phase of the offensive was to be undertaken by the 63 infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions, six tank corps and two mechanised corps of the 1st Ukrainian Front. On the morning of 24 December the attack began against the 4th Panzerarmee, and as it developed the frontage of Vatutin’s offensive broadened to 200 miles (320 km), the main thrusts being made by General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s (later General Polkovnik Andrei A. Grechko’s) 1st Guards Army, General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guard Tank Army and General Polkovnik Konstantin N. Leselidze’s 18th Army toward Zhitomir, and by General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army toward Vinnitsa.
Vatutin’s main thrust, therefore, was to come in the centre with two tank armies and three combined arms armies striking to the south-west while the two combined arms armies on each flank fanned out to the west and south.
At the end of 1943 von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ comprised Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee, Raus’s 4th Panzerarmee and General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army, in all the equivalent of 43 infantry, 15 Panzer and seven Panzergrenadier divisions. von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ comprised Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army in Crimea and General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army and Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 6th Army in the Dniepr river bend, in all the equivalent of eight German and 10 allied divisions.
Although at this time the German leader maintained the fiction of good relations with von Manstein, Adolf Hitler was in fact very hostile toward him, and von Manstein’s proposals to evacuate the Dniepr river bend and move his own army group headquarters from Vinnitsa to Lwów were discussed by Hitler with Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler (chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres), Generaloberst Alfred Jodl (chief of the operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) and other senior staff officers and ridiculed. von Manstein had earlier requested from Hitler the authorisation to move the 1st Panzerarmee to his left flank and evacuate the Dniepr river bend, but the Hitler had refused and instead promised the speedy delivery by rail of single divisions from each of Heeresgruppe ‘A’, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
As these formations could not arrive in time to be of any real use, on 29 December von Manstein on his own responsibility moved the headquarters of the 1st Panzerarmee, together with three Panzer divisions and one infantry division, from the Dniepr river bend to his left wing. von Manstein did nonetheless conform with Hitler’s strategy inasmuch as Wöhler’s 8th Army continued to hold that part of the area of the Dniepr river bend to the west of Hollidt’s 6th Army, which was deep in the Nikopol pocket.
Although the headquarters of Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee organised the relief of the heavily pressed 4th Panzerarmee, taking over its right-hand sector while Raus took over more ground to the left, both had to fall back in the face of Vatutin’s offensive, which threatened the key rail line linking Lwów and Odessa, vital to both the right wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’.
The 1st Ukrainian Front continued to fight its way forward, at first steadily and then rapidly: the front’s formations took Korosten, Novograd Volynsk, Zhitomir, Berdichev and Belaya Tserkov in the first two weeks of its offensive.
On 5 January, the day after von Manstein had returned from East Prussia after another fruitless visit to Hitler’s headquarters to seek permission to evacuate the Dniepr river bend and also to be allocated Jaenecke’s 17th Army from Crimea, Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front began its offensive in a thick fog, the attack of this 'Kirovograd Offensive Offensive' falling on Wöhler’s 8th Army farther to the east.