Operation 2nd Battle of Kiev

The '2nd Battle of Kiev' was fought between Soviet and German forces a part of the great Soviet offensive in Ukraine known as the 'Battle of the Dniepr' involving three strategic operations by the Soviets and one operational counterattack by the Germans (3 November/22 December 1943).

Following the 'Battle of Kursk' in 'Zitadelle', the Soviets launched the 'Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation', driving Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' back toward the Dniepr river, which the Stavka, the Soviet high command, ordered the Central Front and the Voronezh Front to cross. When this effort was unsuccessful in October, it was reallocated to General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front, with some support by General Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front. The 1st Ukrainian Front was able to secure bridgeheads across the Dniepr river in the areas to the north and south of Kiev.

From the Soviet aspect, the structure of the strategic operations was the 'Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation I' (1/24 October 1943) by the Central and Voronezh Fronts, the 'Chernobyl-Radomysl Offensive Operation' (1/4 October 1943), the 'Chernobyl-Gornostaipol Defensive Operation' (3/8 October 1943), the 'Lyutezh Offensive Operation' (11/24 October 1943), the 'Bukrin Offensive Operation' (12/15 October and 21/24 October 1943), the 'Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation II' (3/13 November 1943), Rauss’s November 1943 counterattack and the 'Kiev Strategic Defensive Operation' (13 November/22 December 1943).

In October 1943, several of Vatutin’s armies were encountering major problems as they attempted to break out of the rugged terrain of the Bukrin bend, the Soviet forces' southern bridgehead over the Dniepr river. General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, located in a good defensive position, had the opposing Soviet forces effectively trapped, and as a result, Vatutin decided to concentrate his strength in the northern bridgehead at Lyutezh.

General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army moved to the north in the direction of the Lyutezh bridgehead under cover of darkness and diversionary attacks out of the Bukrin bend bridgehead. The Soviet preparations were considerable, including the installation of 26 bridges and 87 ferries. Many of the Soviet bridges were built underwater, making them difficult to detect and therefore relatively immune to attack from the air. Feint attacks and the construction of dummy bridges may also have deceived the Germans for a short time. Fire support was provided by 7,000 guns and mortars and 700 combat aircraft. General Leytenant Sergei G. Trofimenko’s 27th Army and General Leytenant Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s 40th Army launched the Soviet diversionary attack at Bukrin on 1 November, two days ahead of schedule, but advanced only 0.9 mile (1.5 km) before being driven back.

Soviet historians claimed complete success for their forces' deception measures, but the Germans nonetheless correctly identified the Soviet assault sector and committed armoured reinforcements to the area. The war diary of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s (from 26 November Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s) 4th Panzerarmee referred to the main Soviet push in the area to the north of Kiev on 3 November as 'the offensive we have been expecting'. The Germans were uncertain whether the anticipated Soviet assault had far-reaching objectives from the outset or was merely intended to secure an initial bridgehead for subsequent exploitation.

Early in the morning of 3 November, the 4th Panzerarmee was subjected to a massive Soviet artillery bombardment. General Polkovnik Kyrill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army and General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 60th Armies attacked in the first wave but failed to break through the positions of General Anton Dostler’s (from 30 November General Ernst-Eberhard Hell’s) VII Corps. On 4 November, the 3rd Guards Tank Army and I Guards Cavalry Corps were added to the assault, compelling the VII Corps to retreat and evacuate Kiev, which the Soviet forces took on 6 November. The second phase of the Soviet offensive now began, with the 1st Ukrainian Front’s objective consisting of the capture of Zhitomir, Korosten, Berdichev and Fastov and the severance of the railway link to Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte': the ultimate objective was the encirclement and subsequent destruction of Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. By 7 November, the Soviet spearheads had already reached the important railway nexus at Fastov, 31 miles (50 km) to the south-west of Kiev.

The plan initially proceeded well for Vatutin, and von Manstein became concerned. As Rybalko’s tanks moved through the streets of Kiev on 6 November, von Manstein pleaded with Adolf Hitler to release General Ferdinand Schörner’s (from 12 November General Hermann Balck’s and from 19 November General Heinrich Eberbach’s) XL Panzerkorps and General Heinrich Eberbach’s (from 13 November Balck’s) XLVIII Panzerkorps in order to have sufficient forces to retake Kiev. The latter corps was committed to von Manstein, but Hitler refused to divert the former corps, and replaced Hoth with Generaloberst Erhard Raus, who was ordered to blunt the Soviet attack and secure the northern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and communications with Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Although a number of sources give 6 November as the date for the fall of Kiev, it seems that the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade in fact began the assault at 12.30 on 5 November, reaching the Dniepr river at 02.00 on 6 November after sweeping through the western suburbs of the city. The Czech brigade was also the first unit to reach the city centre, and Kiev was finally in Soviet hands by 06.50 on 6 November.

Raus had some difficulty as his formations and units suffered heavy losses in the early stages of Vatutin’s offensive. The 4th Panzerarmee was reinforced, especially with artillery and rocket-launchers. The German divisions were bolstered on 7 November by the arrival of Generalleutnant Georg Jauer’s new 25th Panzerdivision, but its drive toward Fastov was halted by the VII Guards Tank Corps: only half-formed, the 25th Panzerdivision had only emergency individual training, lacked whole elements of its equipment, and was committed against the protests of Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the Inspector of Panzer Troops. The formation thus became the first committed Panzer division which failed to achieve at least initial offensive success on the Eastern Front. Despite failings, however, the German offensive stopped the advance of the 3rd Guards Tank Army.

The rest of the Soviet forces continued their attacks, and Rybalko’s army was soon a mere 40 miles (65 km) from Berdichev. Zhitomir was taken by the 38th Army on 12 November, but the Soviet advance came to a halt as the men of the I Guards Cavalry Corps looted the 4th Army's alcohol stocks. The 60th Army took Korosten on 17 November 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 bend. In 10 days the Soviets had advanced almost 95 miles (150 km) and opened up a gap 60 miles (100 km) wide between Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.

The 4th Panzerarmee was now in severe trouble. However, the situation changed with the arrival of Balck’s XLVIII Panzerkorps, which comprised SS-Brigadeführer Theodor Wisch’s 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', Generalleutnant Walter Krüger’s 1st Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Hasso von Manteuffel’s 7th Panzerdivision. Balck drove his forces northward to Brusilov and then westward to retake Zhitomir. Rybalko despatched the VII Guards Tank Corps to counter the German assault, and there followed a very large armoured tank battle that lasted until the latter part of November, when the autumn mud halted all operations.

With its recapture of Zhitomir and Korosten, the 4th Panzerarmee had gained some breathing room. With Vatutin halted, the Stavka released to his 1st Ukrainian Front substantial reserves with which to regain the momentum of the offensive.

By 5 December the mud had frozen and the XLVIII Panzerkorps undertook a wide sweeping attack to the north of Zhitomir. Catching the Soviet forces by surprise, the German forces sought to encircle the 60th Army and the XIII Corps. Reinforced with Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision, the Germans drove to the east, putting the Soviets on the defensive. With Fastov also under threat, the 60th Army withdrew from Korosten.

In these circumstances, Vatutin was compelled to request more reserves from the Stavka, and was allocated General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army and General Konstantin N. Leselidze’s 18th Army. These new formations, together with additional corps from other sectors, were pushed to the west as quickly as possible. The Soviets were thus able to stop the German advance, go back onto the offensive, and retake Brusilov. By a time late in December, each side was exhausted the '2nd Battle of Kiev' was over.

Although the Soviets had failed to break the railway link with Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' or to envelop Heeresgruppe 'Süd', they had broken the Dniepr river line, retaken Kiev, which was the third biggest city in the USSR, and inflicted significant casualties on the 4th Panzerarmee. For their part, the Germans had bloodied several sizeable Soviet formations and kept the vital railway link open, but failed in their attempt to encircle and destroy the Soviet spearheads. A few days after the XLVIII Panzerkorps was pulled out of he line to rest and refit, the Soviets launched their 'Dniepr-Carpathian Offensive Operation' on 24 December, and by 3 January 1944 the 1st Ukrainian Front had driven the Germans back to the 1939 Soviet/Polish border.