The '2nd Donbas Strategic Offensive Operation' was a Soviet major undertaking to retake the Donbas industrial, resources and agricultural region to the east of the great bend of the Don river in southern Ukraine (13 August/22 September 1943).
The two primary sub-operations within the '2nd Donbas Strategic Offensive Operation' were the 'Barvenkov-Pavlograd Offensive Operation' (13 August/22 September) and the 'Mius-Mariupol Offensive Operation' (18 August/22 September).
The '2nd Donbas Strategic Offensive Operation' was fought at the same time as the 'Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation' and 'Chernigov-Poltava Offensive Operation', and overlapped these in time and, to an extent, place, and must be seen in the same context as these other two undertakings as part of the great Soviet summer offensive of 1943.
As the war on the Eastern Front entered its third year, two vital questions remained to be answered. First, could the German armies once more overcome the adverse effects of the preceding winter’s battles and make another and perhaps decisive bid for victory, and secondly if the answer to the first was 'no', could the Soviet armies show themselves capable of major offensive successes without their long-term ally 'General Winter'? The answer to the first was provided by the total defeat of the German 'Zitadelle' or Battle of Kursk, then in a period of less than three months the Soviet armies completely removed any doubts inherent in the second.
During the spring of 1943 Soviet planning for the forthcoming summer inevitably concentrated on a pair of possibilities: a German offensive in the manner of the previous two summers and, should that fail to eventuate or should it be stopped, a Soviet offensive similar in scale and overall ambition to that of the last winter. Although they would never have conceded the fact, the Soviets were already gaining the significant benefit from the course of Allied operations on the Mediterranean Sea’s coasts and the threats on invasions there and on the Atlantic coast. If he had been able to count on another respite in the south and in the west, Adolf Hitler might have laid considerably more ambitious plans for the summer of 194e on the Eastern Front. Hitler knew that, as matters stood, the likelihood was that Germany would not be able again to seize the complete initiative and prevent the Soviet forces from delivering powerful offensives of their own before the summer had come to an end.
For the Germans, their most vulnerable sector on the Eastern Front was still the southern flank. Below Kharkov the front of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' extended 150 miles (240 km)to the east along the Donets river and then veered to the south along the Mius river to the Gulf of Taganrog. Soviet forces held a number of small bridgeheads on the southern bank of the Donets river, of which the most important was that in the sharp bend of the river to the south of Izyum. To defend more than 250 miles (400 km) of front, Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had two armies in the form of Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee on the line of the Donets river and Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s new 6th Army, which had been upgraded and renamed from the previous Armeeabteilung 'Hollidt' on the line of the Mius river. The revived 6th Army was, however, a shadow of the original 6th Army in terms of its size and capabilities.
A Soviet advance of a little more than 100 miles (160 km) along the line linking Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk could cut off both of these armies, break open the Germans' southern flank and isolate Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe 'A' in the Kuban and Crimea. While the past winter’s experience had shown that the Germans' military skills and the Soviets' lack of subtler parts of the military art not infrequently combined to prevent such manoeuvres from achieving their full effect, it had also demonstrated that the dividends could nonetheless be substantial for the Soviets. Knowing that those considerations could not have escaped the Soviet high command, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s Fremde Heer (foreign armies east) intelligence branch of its general staff predicted in May 1943 that the main effort of any Soviet summer offensive would take place on the southern flank, either at Kharkov or against the 6th Army, and that it would be preceded or accompanied by a secondary offensive in the zone of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in order to tie down troops and eliminate the Orel salient as a threat to the flank of the offensive in the south.
Even if the operational and tactical advantages had been less obvious, the Stavka would still probably have given first priority to the southern flank in the summer of 1943. Of the shortages created by the German invasion following 'Barbarossa', those which were still being felt most problematically were coal, ferrous metals and foodstuffs, particularly grain and animal products, of which the offensive’s probable area had been a primary source before 'Barbarossa', and now could be most readily alleviated by the recapture of Ukraine: between Stalino and the Mius river lay somewhat more than half of the Donets basin’s coalfield; inside the great bend of the Dniepr river were the Krivoi Rog’s iron mines, which before the war had supplied two-fifths of the USSR’s iron ore; and, despite efforts in the past two years to open up new agricultural lands to the east of the Ural mountains, Ukraine’s black-earth region was needed if the Soviet food shortage was to be overcome in the near future.
So far as the two sides' comparative military strengths were concerned, by the summer of 1943 the Germans had succeeded, at least in the shower terms, in halting the decline of its troop strength on the Eastern Front, which was a factor which had caused very great concern to the German high command and senior field commanders during the previous autumn and winter. On 20 July the German troop strength in the east (exclusive of allies and the 20th Gebirgsarmee in northern Norway and Finland) was 3,064,000 men. This was only some 250,000 men fewer than the peak strength of 1941 and 574,000 greater than that of 1 September 1942. Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s Italian 8a Armata had been recalled to Italy in the spring, but Romania and Hungary still had between 150,000 and 200,000 men in the east, and to the south of Leningrad General de División Augustín Muñoz Grandes’s Spanish División Azul (250th Division to the Germans) held a sector of the front held by Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.
The improvement in German troop strength on the Eastern Front was achieved largely by the removal of 'surplus' men from the Luftwaffe, the Waffen-SS and the theatres supervised by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. Additionally, the three-month period of relative inactivity on the Eastern Front meant that for the first time in more than a year the number of men returning to duty from hospital exceeded the casualty rate. The 1943 draft class of boys aged 18 and the screening of deferred workers had produced enough men not only to cover the winter’s losses but also to yield a few hundreds of thousand men to spare.
On 20 July 1943, according to German estimates the Soviet strength had reached 5,755,000 men, a gain of 1,500,000 over the figure of September 1942 and about three times the German increase in the same period. Moreover, the Soviets had a front-line strength of 7,855 tanks and 21,050 anti-tank guns at a time when the Germans on the Eastern Front possessed 2,088 tanks and 8,063 anti-tank guns. Ordinarily, superiorities of 2/1 in men, almost 4/1 in tanks and more than 2/1 in anti-tank guns could in themselves be regarded as enough to justify an offensive, but on the Eastern Front this was not necessarily the case. The Germans had been operating against preponderant Soviet forces since the start of the war. It would take something more than weight of numbers and equipment if the Soviets were to beat the Germans at their own game, namely the annual summer offensive.
One factor which must inevitably have weighed heavily in the Stavka’s decision to undertake a summer offensive was the knowledge that its troops had passed to a new state of military capability. In two years Iosif Stalin’s generals had learned much and, but at the same time they did not limit themselves to blind imitations and had now adapted German methods to suit both their own capabilities and their own known limitations. While they had not yet risen to the same facility of mind and tactics as the Germans, they had, at the upper command levels, acquired the mental and tactical flexibility which had been so lacking in earlier campaigns, and had implemented major improvements in the tactics of large-scale offensive along the lines which had been usefully tested and refined during the winter campaign of 1942/43.
The 'Blitzkrieg' concept developed and use by the Germans had been to deliver the decisive stroke on a small front with precision, speed and economy of effort. Its key features had therefore been penetration and avoidance of broad frontal engagements. To the German staffs Schwerpunktbildung, the concentration of force at the most advantageous point) lay right at the heart of the military art of the 20th century. The Soviets instead opted for a broader attack frontage and a somewhat more conservative execution. The Soviets had now adopted the breakthrough and penetration as basic tactical manoeuvres but preferred to achieve the decisive effect by a a few deep thrusts. They also accepted the concept of the breadth of the front rather than by one or just a few deep thrusts. They also accepted the principle of the Schwerpunkt (point of main effort), but in general their concentration was less pronounced than in German practice, and almost always the main effort was built on the basis of a gradual generation of successive thrusts.
As a result, the Soviets did not make use of the double envelopment as frequently as did the Germans. More often they were content with a single thrust or multiple thrusts, the objective being not so much to achieve a deep penetration along one line of advance as to force the opponent back on a broad front. Those tactics were especially suitable for use in the southern part of the USSR, an area in which a succession of approximately parallel rivers afforded natural defence lines. Thrusts from one river line to the next would almost inevitably result in forcing the Germans to pull back long stretches of their front to keep ahead of the Soviet thrusts.
The first objective of German offensives had in general been the total and rapid destruction of the enemy’s main strength. The purpose was not to gain ground or merely gain a tactical advantage in terms of terrain, but rather to generate a decision. The Soviets, on the other hand, were less concerned for speed or delivery of a fatal stroke, but rather to degrade an enemy by the delivery of a series of blows. The Soviets were relatively indifferent to geographical space, and were therefore inclined to assess their victories in terms damage to the enemy as much as the ground regained or other tactical advantage. The Soviets' ultimate objective was the total destruction of the enemy, but by the cumulative effect of repeated offensives and not by the single battle: this was the concept of destruction by cumulative weight rather than the single skilful blow.
There is all probability no better historical example of offensive tactics tailored successfully to the limitations of an army than that of the Soviet forces in World War II. Despite their use of high-level theories, the Soviets thus used two primary elements of the military art, namely the single-thrust offensive and the broad-front offensive, which both accorded nicely with shortcomings. The Soviets saw the encirclement as the optimum means of destroying large enemy forces and, at the practical level, seem to have regarded the double envelopment as unreliable and therefore modified their high-level planning to the concept of the single thrust. To complete a double envelopment required co-ordination and a high degree of skill at all leadership levels, and in particular needed at the lower command levels troop commanders who possessed the initiative and ability to seen and master unforeseen developments without disruption of the overall plan. The Soviets lacked adequate numbers of this superior type of middle- and low-ranking commander. Additionally, the double envelopment required troops of a uniformly high quality, and these too the Soviets lacked.
On the basis of the conclusion it drew from its analysis of the disasters of 1941, the Soviet army had concentrated on developing its artillery and armour. In both of these, the emphasis was placed on increased numbers of weapons and machines, and on their organisation for mass employment.
By the middle of 1943 the Soviet artillery arm had been enlarged to a huge degree, was equipped with reliable weapons and, though not always capable of accurate fire against pinpoint targets, was capable of laying down preparatory fire as intense as those of the great battles in World War I. In the 'Orel Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Kutuzov') of July 1943, to take a single example, the 11th Guards Army deployed 3,000 pieces of artillery and heavy mortars, almost double the standard issue of armies in the operations round Stalingrad and three times the allocations to armies in the 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation' in the winter of 1941/42. At the end of 1942 the Soviet army had 17 rocket-launcher brigades and had started to create an initial 30 self-propelled artillery regiments. In the spring of 1943 it began forming artillery brigades and anti-tank artillery regiments and in the second half of the same year organised 26 artillery divisions.
The Soviet armoured forces were now well trained and, for the most part, equipped with the the T-34 medium tank, which was designed and manufactured in the USSR. US and British tanks were still employed, but were regarded as too light. The earlier practice of scattering armoured unit piecemeal among infantry formations had been abandoned, and the tank brigade and the tank corps had become the standard armoured organisations. The tank armies, of which there were five by the end of the summer of 1943, each had two tank and one mechanised corps, and were fully capable of undertaking independent tactical missions.
By early summer of 1943 the Soviets had an advantage of at least 2.5/1 over the Germans in the air. The Soviet air forces were still subordinate to the army and concentrated almost exclusively on air defence, close ground support and tactical bombing. At the end of 1942 each front had been assigned an air army for support.
In 1943 all infantry units, and in particular guards units, received increased numbers of anti-tank weapons and began to receive the PPS sub-machine gun and the new SG-43 air-cooled medium machine gun, the latter replacing the distinctly elderly M1910 machine gun. These were excellent weapons, but the development and manufacture of these and other such weapons had led to the neglect of the infantry, which received recruits of the most indifferent quality, least competent officers, and very little training. In 1943 the Germans observed that the quality of the Soviet infantry was lower than in 1941 and that the decline was continuing. While in massed attacks the infantry could be stunningly effective, it lacked all capacity for manoeuvre at the tactical level. On its own the infantry lacked endurance, for unless supported by tanks and artillery it quickly lost momentum; moreover, its progress was often erratic.
The deficiencies which made the double envelopment unreliable also limited the efficacy of the single thrust. Aware of their own weaknesses and those of their troops, Soviet commanders almost always displayed an overly cautious sensitivity to flank defence. Following the breakthrough, which resulted largely from the strength of the armour and artillery branches, the infantry had a lack of enthusiasm for the advance and often began to move out on all sides in an attempt to keep its flanks open: this inevitably led to a loss of momentum. On the occasions in which the armour was able to maintain the speed of its progress, the infantry all too often could not match this and deep thrusts tended to become tank raids of the type that often ended in disaster or near-disaster for lack of infantry support, as had happened to the Mobile Group 'Popov' during the post-Stalingrad campaign of February 1943.
The depth of the single thrust was also limited by the limitations of the Soviet control and supply systems. By its very nature, the offensive was difficult to plan in any detail beyond its first few days as an ever-increasing number of imponderables accrued as the advance proceeded, thereby increasing the burden imposed on the field commander for initiative and judgement, and also on the troops themselves. Given the weaknesses of the Soviet army, therefore, the likelihood of success for a single thrust declined as the length of the advance increased.
While the Soviet supply system could occasionally deliver master strokes of improvisation, it was neither equipped nor organised for the routine handling of the logistics of rapid advances over long distances. The Soviet soldier generally survived on what he could carry in the sack he customarily slung over his shoulder or tied to his belt, was one of the least demanding in the world in terms of his logistical requirements: moreover, he preferred German boots, hand weapons and other items of equipment to his own, and out of necessity as much as by inclination was a skilled scrounger. The men of Soviet armies were therefore expected to forage and collect booty with great diligence. An example of what could thus be garnered is provided by an army in the winter of 1942/43, which moved through an area in which retreating Germans had scorched the earth, and yet gathered, in terms of its monthly requirement of staples, 54% of its flour, 97% of its vegetables, 108% of its meat, 140% of its hay and 68% of its oats. Modern armies cannot survive and operate exclusively off the land, however, and Soviet armies were therefore generally provisioned and supplied adequately with ammunition and motor fuel in advance of offensives: the typical standard was that each army should have on hand stocks for a 10-day operation involving an advance of between 60 and 70 miles (100 and 115 km). Beyond this distance (and indeed not infrequently somewhat leads than it), lack of adequate transport capability and a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward logistics hampered Soviet mobile operations. Before the July 1943 offensive in the Orel bulge, for instance, the infantry had been somewhat neglected in the preparations, and later had to be supplied by air with ammunition. This resulted in the despatch to all commands of an admonition that 'Experience…shows that it is necessary to arrange for supplies and ammunition for the infantry as well as for the artillery.' Even so, it should be noted, mobile forces were on many occasions limited by logistical limitations, as expressed in a warning that 'Disregard of the necessary supply planning for the mobile group may lead to its extinction or, at best, failure to achieve success.'
As the single thrust presented fewer difficulties than the double envelopment, the idea of multiple thrusts on a broad front avoided the ultimate problems of the single thrust. The broad front possessed the great advantage of extending the offensive laterally, which enabled the Stavka to bring strength to bear on a number of points and thereby eliminate the risks intrinsic to any attempt to pursue any single closely defined axis of advance. The offensive was also straightforward to control as success was not dependant on manoeuvring one or a few advancing formations, but could be attained instead by a series of drives committed when demanded from convenient positions. The logistic problems might not be eliminated but were significantly eased: the assembly could be carried out over a number of rail lines, and none of the thrusts had to proceed so deep as to outrun its supplies. The broad-front offensive was, of course, a modified linear method of warfare. It still required the massing of troops, repeated frontal encounters, and an enemy such as Adolf Hitler willing to respond with a linear defence.
So far as psychological warfare was concerned, 'Zitadelle' was a complete and final Soviet victory. German psychological warfare and propaganda, always hobbled by Hitler’s racial theories and the extremes of his war aims, had declined gradually declined in success since the winter of 1941/42, but as late as the spring of 1943 the 'Smolensk manifesto' had given the Soviet leadership some cause for concern and the 'Silberstreif' (ii) propaganda effort had shown some promise despite the fact that even its failure to achieve practical results. In the aftermath of 'Zitadelle', German psychological warfare was completely on the defensive while that of the Soviets had the overall initiative. The Soviets could and indeed did now exploit two years of German atrocities and the desire of the Soviet population to believe that things would become better after a Soviet victory. Perhaps most importantly, Soviet propagandists could realistically promise an early end to the war.
Thus 'Zitadelle' and its aftermath placed Soviet anti-German propaganda on a new and more substantial footing. In the late summer the Soviets created the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland (National Committee for a Free Germany) and subsidiary Bund Deutscher Offiziere (League of German Officers). The former was based mostly on émigré German communists, but the latter was presented as voluntary, non-communist and devoted exclusively to overthrowing Hitler and restoring the traditional social order in Germany. Headed by General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, the Bund Deutscher Offiziere had an original membership of three other Generals captured at Stalingrad and 100 officers of lower ranks. The organisation issued a newspaper to be dropped behind the German lines, and von Seydlitz-Kurzbach on occasion wrote personal letters to German army and army group commanders urging them to join the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland.
To the north-west of Belgorod on the right flank of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and connecting with the left flank of General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' was Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division. By the standards currently prevailing on the Eastern Front, this was a good division, inasmuch as it was not severely understrength and thus fit for battle. On the morning of 3 August, entire artillery strength of General Leytenant Ivan T. Schlemin’s 6th Army dropped a barrage of several hours' duration onto the division’s area of responsibility. As the bombardment lifted, 200 tanks surged into the German line, followed by waves of close-packed infantry. Before the fall of night, what was left of the 167th Division had been shredded into a series of disconnected groups: its infantry regiments had been wholly smashed, and the men who were left were dazed and shaken.
Near the centre of the 4th Panzerarmee's front a secondary attack struck Generalmajor Adolf Trowitz’s 332nd Division, and by the end of the day the front of this division had also started to crumble. On the following day, two Soviet tank corps pushed to the south, brushing aside the shattered 167th Division and Generalmajor Wilhelm Crisolli’s 6th Panzerdivision, which had been sent forward during the night in a vain attempt to close the breach which the Soviets had blown through the German line. During the day the advance of the Soviet armour opened a 7-mile (11.25-km) gap between the 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf', and driven the German line on the east back to the outskirts of Belgorod.
An offensive against the northern flank of von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd', designed to retake Kharkov and break through to the Dniepr river, had been considered one of the most likely possibilities in all of the German forecasts for the summer of 1943. On 21 July von Manstein had requested from the Oberkommando des Heeres a decision either to hold the line of the Donets river, which would require more troops, or to start preparations for a gradual withdrawal to the line of the Dniepr river and thus 'gain' a troop strength adequate for the prevention of a breakthrough on his northern flank. No such decision was made, let alone passed to von Manstein.
At this time Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had 822,000 troops with which to oppose an estimated 1,713,000 Soviet troops. The army group also had 1,161 tanks, of which only about one half were serviceable, while the Soviets could call on 2,872 tanks.
Against the 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf', the Stavka had committed General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front and General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front, each of them reinforced with armies which had been held in reserve during 'Zitadelle'. In the last two weeks of July, the Steppe Front had taken over the left flank of the Voronezh Front’s left flank in the area to the east and south of Belgorod, taking under command the two armies there and bringing with it two armies from the reserve.
The Soviet plan was based on a grouping of four armies (General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, Shlemin’s 5th Guards Tank Army and General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army) striking to the south-west between Akhtyrka and Kharkov in the direction of Poltava. While Vatutin thus divided the 4rth Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf', this pushing the 4th Panzerarmee toward Akhtyrka, Konev was to sweep down on Kharkov from the north. General Leytenant Nikolai A. Gagen’s 57th Army, the South-West Front’s right flank formation, was to close on Kharkov from the east.
On 1 August von Manstein informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that he foresaw an attack on Kharkov as the inevitable next step for the Soviet forces facing his front. Even so, when two days later an attack did come it achieved considerable surprise and caught both the 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' standing forward of the fronts they had held before 'Zitadelle'. After the failure of this German offensive, von Manstein had come to the conclusion that the offensive of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had upset the Soviet dispositions sufficiently to cause a delay of several weeks' duration on the Soviet plan for a counter-offensive. On 2 August, believing that there was still time, von Manstein had decided 'to await more definite signs of an impending offensive' before pulling back to the original line.
On 5 August the Soviets took Belgorod, and on the same day, and still in the Heeresgruppe 'Süd' zone, General Polkovnik (from 26 August General) Markian M. Popov’s Bryansk Front captured Orel. To celebrate the twin victories Stalin ordered an artillery salute of 12 volleys from 120 guns. It was the first time in the war that such a salute had been fired, and some of Moscow’s citizens, thinking it was an air raid, took shelter in their cellars. In the coming months the booming of victory cannon would become commonplace in the Soviet capital. As an added honour, the first divisions into Belgorod and Orel were authorised to include the names of these cities in their unit designations. In his order of the day Stalin stated that 'In this way the German legend that Soviet troops are supposedly incapable of waging a successful offensive in the summer has been dispelled.' Stalin thus revealed that the Soviet high command had reached an optimistic assessment of its military prospects and had decided to commit itself publicly to a full-scale summer offensive.
With a total of 15 divisions between them, only three of them Panzer divisions, the 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' were now faced by two entire Soviet fronts and part of a third. Together, the three fronts could commit 11 armies against the two German armies. Even after factoring into the equation the fact that Soviet formations and units were smaller than German formations and units of the same type, these were very disadvantageous odds.
One of Hitler’s first decisions after the start of the Soviet offensive had been to order Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' back from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and to return Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision which was being held as the Oberkommando des Heeres’s reserve. On the second day Hitler additionally decided to leave SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Walter Krüger’s SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Max Simon’s SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' with Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. As the headquarters of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS-Panzerkorps and SS-Oberstgruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' had already been transferred to Italy, von Manstein placed the two SS Panzer divisions under Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Corps (Gruppe 'von Mackensen', together with Generalleutnant Franz Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision). Hitler ordered these and SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Wiking' into the zone of the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf'.
In the first six days of the fighting Heeresgruppe 'A' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' sent one and three infantry divisions respectively, but on 7 August von Kluge reported to the Oberkommando des Heeres that the fighting in the Orel bulge was clearly approaching its climax and insisted that no more divisions could be withdrawn from his army group without impairment of defence of the 'Hagen-Stellung', for which his army group was responsible. Several days later Generaloberst Walter Model submitted a similar report about the 2nd Panzerarmee and the 9th Army, both of which were under his command. Inevitably, therefore, during the critical early days of the battle Heeresgruppe 'Süd' received only minimal aid from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', while the 2nd Panzerarmee and 9th Army, the single largest potential reservoir of reserves on the Eastern Front, fought a secondary battle in the Orel bulge with 45 divisions.
In the breakthrough area the most which Heeresgruppe 'Süd' could manage during the first days was to commit limited obstacles in the way of the outpouring from the Soviet line. To gain room to manoeuvre, the 4th Panzerarmee extended its boundary to the north, taking some 40 miles (65 km) of front and four weak divisions from the 2nd Army. While three divisions, cut off in the first stage of the Soviet offensive, fought their way out to the west, Hoth moved the newly arrived SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' into a bridgehead to the east of Akhtyrka as an anchor for his right flank and to prevent any Soviet attempt to roll up his line farther to the north and west. But Hoth could do nothing about the gap to the flank of the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf', which by 8 August had opened to a width of about 35 miles (55 km) and, except for one infantry division deployed to the north-west of Poltava, offered the Soviets a clear run to the line of the Dniepr river some 100 miles (160 km) to the south-west.
On the right-hand side of the gap, Kempf fought determinately to avoid encirclement as the Steppe Front forced his northern front toward Kharkov and, on the west, the Voronezh Front’s 1st Tank Army attempted to push to the south past the city. The Waffen-SS divisions coming from the right flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had to be committed in order to screen the rear of the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' in the area to the west of Kharkov. von Manstein had planned to make use of the Waffen-SS divisions in a concentrated counterattack to close the gap, but these formations were tied down singly on reaching the front. The most they could achieve was to carry the line forward to a position parallel with the Merlya river on each side of Merefa, which narrowed the gap only slightly but did serve to deflect the Soviet advance to the south-west and thus away from Kharkov.
On 12 August Kempf, worried by the rapid decline in his infantry strength, proposed an evacuation of Kharkov on the following day and a withdrawal to a shorter line to the south of the city. von Manstein had no objection, but Hitler immediately ordered that Kharkov was to be held under any and all circumstances, and demanded the 'severest measures' against any formations or units which did not execute their assigned tasks. Kempf, who expected that at any moment the Soviets would break-through in the east, where the 57th Army had already crossed the river and taken Chuguyev, believed that Hitler’s stand-fast order for Kharkov would produce another Stalingrad. On 14 August, von Manstein replaced Kempf with General Otto Wöhler. A few days later the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' was redesignated as the [er]8th Army.
Meanwhile, von Manstein and General Kurt Zeitzler, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, had tried once more to persuade Hitler to adopt a coherent plan. On 8 August Zeitzler visited the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', where von Manstein informed him that the continued existence of his whole army group was under threat. The alternatives, according to von Manstein, were either an immediate cession of the entire Donets river front and thereby generate a pool of divisions for use on the northern flank, or the provision of a minimum of 20 fresh divisions for the army group: these were to be 10 divisions for the 4th Army and 10 to reinforce the rest of the army group’s front.
As he had on other occasions when confronted with choices he did not want to make, Hitler avoided the decision through the adoption of an altogether different course. The German leader now, and completely without warning, revived the concept of an 'Ostwall', something which he had totally rejected earlier in the year. On 12 August he ordered the immediate start of work on such a wall, which was to stretch from the Kerch peninsula in the south, continue on the mainland across the Sea of Azov at Melitopol, extend in an almost straight line northward to the Dniepr river near Zaporozhye, swing eastward around Zaporozhye in a large bridgehead and follow the Dniepr river north-west to Kiev with bridgeheads to the east of the major cities. North of Kiev the planned wall was to follow the Desna river to Chernigov and then run almost due north along a line somewhat to the east of Gomel, Orsha, Vitebsk, Nevel and Pskov, and thence to the southern tip of Lake Pskov. From there it would continue to the north along the western shore of the lake and the Narva river to the Gulf of Finland. As the term 'Ostwall', as applied to a line whose southern half might have to be occupied even before work on it had started, could prove psychologically dangerous, the Oberkommando des Heeres decided later in the same month to adopt two more innocuous codenames: 'Wotan-Stellung' in the sectors of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Heeresgruppe 'A', and 'Panther-Stellung' in the zones of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.
Though it would seem at first glance that in the 'Ostwall' order Hitler accepted the inevitability of a general retreat on the Eastern Front, the decisions which then streamed from his mind indicate that what he actually wished to create was an impenetrable barrier behind which the armies could not retreat farther and, as no work had yet been done, provide himself with an excuse for making no retreat in the meantime. The one major withdrawal he approved, and then only tentatively, after the issue of the 'Ostwall' order, was the evacuation of the 'Gotenkopf' lodgement on the western tip of the Kuban, but then on 14 August he postponed this in the grounds that its implementation would have unfavourable repercussions among Germany’s allies and in neutral Turkey.
While Hitler was attempting a diversion in the running dispute with his generals, the battle on the northern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' continued unabated, acquiring toward the end of the second week of August something of a shapeless nature largely as a result of the Soviets' indecisive operational methods. The route toward Poltava remained open, but Vatutin hesitated to push his forces through along this Axis as long as the Germans flanking the gap held firm. Instead, he turned his left-flank major formations, the 5th Guards Army and the 5th Guards Tank Army, against the 8th Army's west front, where the Waffen-SS divisions fought to keep the front angled to the south-west, and thus away from Kharkov. On the 8th Army's weaker eastern front the 57th Army cleared the right bank of the Donets river between Chuguyev and Zmiyev, but the army command inexplicably did not attempt a full-scale breakthrough.
Although compelled by Hitler’s order to undertake the dangerous and ultimately futile attempt to hold Kharkov, von Manstein concentrated on the tactically decisive point, which was the gap between the 4th Panzerarmee and the 8th Army. After the Waffen-SS divisions became tied down on the 8th Army's west front, von Manstein transferred responsibility for the counterattack to the 4th Panzerarmee. On 18 August the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' and the 7th Panzerdivision broke out of the Akhtyrka bridgehead, and in two days cut across the gap and established contact with the SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf', which had landed to extend its left flank across the Merlya river. This counterattack removed the direct threat to Poltava but in the meantime the 4th Panzerarmee's front had been torn open farther to the north.
On 18 August Vatutin, once again making use of the tactics he had employed in starting the offensive, brought the 57th Division, which was holding a sector half-way between Akhtyrka and Sumy, under concentrated artillery, mortar and tank fire. By the middle of the afternoon the division had lost all of its lieutenants and most of its senior non-commissioned officers, and now reported that the battalion commanders had shouted themselves hoarse but could not prevent the men from retreating. During the next two days the Soviet forces ripped open some 10 miles (16 km) of the front, driving aside what was left of the 57th Division, which was so reduced that it was redesignated as a Kampfgruppe.
On 20 August, the day on which the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' and the SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' met and thus closed the gap in the area to the west of Kharkov, Wöhler requested permission to evacuate the city that night. After the first few days in his new command, Wöhler was now no more optimistic than Kempf had been. General Erhard Raus’s XI Corps, which was holding the front on the northern outskirts of Kharkov, now possessed an infantry strength of just 4,000 men, equating to one man for each 10 yards (9.15 m) of front. Even as the infantry strength declined, the artillery had been compelled to assume the main burden of the fighting, was rapidly exhausting its supply of ammunition. The army’s supply depots in Kharkov had five trainloads of spare tank tracks initially earmarked for 'Zitadelle' but almost nothing else. The high rate of ammunition consumption over the course of the last six weeks had cut into supplies which had been put aside for the last half of August and the first two weeks of September, so until the end of August the army was faced with the situation in which it would have to survive on half of its average daily needs in artillery and tank ammunition.
It was now that Hitler, very grudgingly, finally authorised von Manstein to evacuate Kharkov but asked that the city be held if it was at all possible. Hitler claimed the loss of this important Soviet city would damage German prestige, particularly in Turkey: in the spring the Turkish commander-in-chief had inspected the city’s 'impregnable' defences at the invitation of Kempf.
On 20 August von Manstein had still believed it possible to hold Kharkov, and had ordered the SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' to be shifted to the north in order to bolster the XI Corps. On the next day he had changed his mind and gave Wöhler permission to withdraw 'if necessary'. The following morning the SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' began a counterattack in the area he XI Corps, but Wöhler told von Manstein that he nonetheless intended to abandon Kharkov as his artillery situation mandated this. The artillerymen fired their last rounds and abandoned their weapons to fight as infantrymen. von Manstein responded that 24 trainloads of ammunition were on the way from Germany, but was forced to agree that they could not arrive in time to salve the situation. In the afternoon Hitler inevitably asked that, in the eventuality that the counterattack by the SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' impeded the situation, Kharkov not be yielded. Wöhler and von Manstein agreed that this was no longer a possibility, and during the night the city changed hands for the fourth and last time.
While the 8th Army pulled back to to the south of Kharkov, the Soviets expended massive effort to the expansion of the breakthrough in the 4th Panzerarmee's zone and the reopening of the route to Poltava. This forced Hoth to fall back to the south of Akhtyrka on each side of the Vorskla river. By 25 August Hoth had regained a measure of short-term stability sufficient to permit his commitment of two divisions for a counterattack into the gap. This proved successful, and by 27 August the [e[4th Panzerarmee and the [e[8th Army held a continuous line along an arc bending to the south-west between Sumy and Zmiyev.
The re-establishment of a continuous front on the left flank go Heeresgruppe 'Süd' meant that the 4th Panzerarmee and the 8th Army had for the moment checked the massive Soviet thrust, but to the north and south of this area the German forces had already suffered or were about to suffer other major blows. Employing the rippling offensive tactic, the Soviets, checked in one place, had shifted their efforts to other areas, adding weight to the offensive laterally. For the first time in the war the Soviets were able to exploit their possession of the strategic initiative, and grasped the opportunity with no regard for economy of effort, tactical sophistication or the danger of overreaching themselves. Apparently worried that the Germans would try to achieve a stalemate, the Stavka aimed to keep the Germans off balance and unable to establish a stable front anywhere in sectors of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the general stage and deputy people’s commissar for defence, co-ordinated the fronts on the southern flank and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov,the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces, performed the sane task for those opposite the right flack of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and left flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.
At tis time. only the outer flanks of the Eastern Front remained quiescent. On 23 August, on the front of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front and General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Volkhov Front finally brought to an end the expensive and increasingly unpromising '1st Mga Offensive Operation' which they had launched some four weeks earlier against the Mga bottleneck to the south of Lake Ladoga. This had scarcely worried the Germans at it was a poorly conceived and executed effort right from the start. The German estimated that the main purpose of the offensive was to prevent the Germans from redeploying reserves to the south. In the last two weeks the Soviet offensive had degenerated into a series of random assaults by units of divisional size or smaller. In the south, the greatest concern of Heeresgruppe 'A' was to secure a decision to withdraw from 'Gotenkopf' lodgement before the advent of the autumn rains. Hitler insisted that before any decision could be made, he had first to discuss the matter with Maresal al România Ion Antonescu, the Conducător of Romania, as many Romanian troops were involved. At the end of August and on his own initiative, Zeitzler told Heeresgruppe 'A' to proceed with the preparations for an evacuation, as such a decision was inevitable.
From 20 August, the pressure on Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' declined for a week. Popov’s Bryansk Front and General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front closed to the 'Hagen-Stellung', and the Stavka had directed Marshal Nikolai N. Voronov to abandon the thrust he was currently directing toward Roslavl and to regroup for an attack toward Smolensk via Yelnya. The Oberkommando des Heeres was quick to take advantage of the pause to transfer five more divisions from the 9th Army to Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. As the last of these divisions departed on 23 August, von Kluge told the Oberkommando des Heeres that his army group could no longer guarantee to prevent a breakthrough on its front. He offered as alternatives either the allocation to his army group a large number of replacements and substantial quantities of new matériel, or permission for it to withdraw some 45 miles (72.5 km) to the planned 'SDB-Stellung', a recently surveyed but not yet built line along the Seym, Desna and Bolva rivers. von Kluge was rightly concerned, for all the signs indicated that the Soviets were about to move the weight of their effort away from 9th Army toward the armies on its flanks. On the German left, Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s [e[4th Army had only just been able to hold its line earlier in the month, and on the right Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army had enjoyed a 'quiet' time of it but as a result had fallen into a considerable measure of neglect. This army had been mauled during the winter battles and later savaged because its front on the western edge of the Kursk salient in July was expected to be destroyed in 'Zitadelle'. The strength of the 2nd Army was seven divisions and two Kampfgruppen, and that of the 4th Army 11 divisions and seven Kampfgruppen. The 9th Army still had about 26 divisions, six Kampfgruppen and a number of miscellaneous smaller units, but von Kluge could not necessarily draw on this army’s strength to bolster the other two armies. As a favourite of Hitler, Model could operate with a degree of greater independence than the average army commander, and was known to be parsimonious when it came to weakening his own army to strengthen others. This was not a tendency which had not discommoded von Kluge earlier when it was a question of transferring divisions to Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.
On 26 August the Central Front resumed the offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', the rented Soviet blow falling on the 9th Army's right flank to the east of Karachev and near the 2nd Army's centre at Sevsk and to the east of Klintsy. During this day the Central Front’s forces took Sevsk and made a deep penetration to the east of Klintsy. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and the 2nd Army believed that Rokossovsky’s advance was about to wheel to the north and strike at the 9th Army's rear, and therefore decided their first priority was handling the threat at Sevsk. This was a decision which was in all probability correct, even though it helped increase the chance of an equal danger elsewhere. At that time Rokossovsky had two tank armies in reserve behind his right flank, and he probably intended to commit them at Sevsk. Several days earlier, von Kluge had redeployed one Panzer and two infantry divisions to the south from the 9th Army, and these he committed in a counterattack to the north-west of Sevsk on 29 August. This counterattack was only modestly successful, and together with a sudden advance by General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 60th Army to Yesman' on his left flank, was sufficient to persuade Rokossovsky into a change of plan. Rokossovsky started to regroup General Leytenant Aleksei G. Rodin’s 2nd Tank Army and General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army from the right to the left flank. Regardless of which direction the Soviets took, the 2nd Army was in trouble. At Yesman', the 60th Army was 25 miles (40 km) behind the 2nd Army's southern flank, where there was no possibility of a German counterattack.
von Kluge allowed the army draw back General Friedrich Siebert’s XIII Corps back to the south-west of Yesman', and at the same time warned the Oberkommando des Heeres that the 2nd Army would soon have to withdraw still farther and thus affect the north flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. The Germans possessed no reinforcements with which to restore the situation. All that von Kluge could do was to transfer two more divisions from the 9th Army, which was itself facing difficulties of it own. On 28 August two of the West Front’s main formations, General Leytenant Kuzma P. Trubnikov’s 10th Guards Army and General Leytenant Nikolai I. Krylov’s 21st Army, had attacked at the junction of the 9th Army and 4th Army, and in just two days punched through to a depth of 18.5 miles (20 km) toward Yelnya, forcing the German armies to bend their flanks back to maintain contact with each other.
On 29 August von Kluge requested authorisation to pull back the 9th Army and 2nd Army into the 'SDB-Stellung'. The 2nd Army had been divided into two, and it seemed that with a little determination the West Front would quickly push past Yelnya to Smolensk, the eastern gateway to the gap between the Dvina and Dniepr rivers.
General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Kalinin Front had failed to break open the flanks of Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee and Heinrici’s 4th Army, but was regrouping for another attempt to do so. Hitler asked for an opinion on another 'stand and fight' order similar to that of the winter of 1941/42, and von Kluge responded that such an order would be futile: the troops would not carry it out, and the Soviet capabilities were vastly greater than they had been at the time of the first such order. Hitler finally agreed with a half-measure instruction allowing Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd' to angle their adjacent flanks as far back to the west as Krolevets.
Two days later, on 2 September and after Model had reported that his 9th Army could not establish a permanent front to the east of the Desna river, von Kluge issued preliminary orders for a general withdrawal to the 'SDB-Stellung'. In the area of the 2nd Army it was already too late. Ordered to fall back to the west but maintain contact with Heeresgruppe 'Süd', the XIII Corps allowed itself instead to be driven to the south across the Seym river into the sector the 4th Panzerarmee, thereby opening an 18.5-mile (20-km) gap between the flanks of the two army groups. Ignoring this fresh crisis, Hitler cancelled the withdrawal orders for Heeresgruppe 'Süd'm and on 3 September, both near to despair, von Kluge and von Manstein travelled to Hitler’s headquarters for a personal meeting.
During the final week of August, and despite of a momentary improvement on the northern flank, the situation of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had worsened alarmingly. On 13 and 18 August the South-West Front and the South Front extended their offensive into the area of the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army, and driven to the south of Izyum and to the east of Golodayevka, both of these being the places where the Soviet breakthrough attempts had failed in July.
For the second time, the 1st Panzerarmee's line held the Soviet pressure despite the fact that the Soviet artillery and mortar fire, described as the heaviest yet seen, resulted in so many casualties that the army was forced to call for replacements after the first 48 hours. Even so, the 6th Army fared sill worse.
Instead of following the Soviet standard practice of deploying fresh divisions before an offensive, General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Tolbukhin, commander of the South Front, had instead reinforced his existing front-line formations, and as a result German intelligence, watching for what had come to be regarded as an infallible sign of an imminent offensive, misappreciated the absence of changes in the orders of battle of the 2nd Guards Army and 5th Shock Army. When the attack began on 18 August it was of typical Soviet concept based on an overwhelming concentration of force, especially in terms of artillery, committed on a narrow front. Before the end of the day the 5th Shock Army’s spearheads had penetrated some 3.5 miles (5.5 km) across a frontage of 1.55 miles (2.5 km) wide. During the night the Soviet forces fanned out to the north and south behind the German front. The commander of the 6th Army, Hollidt decided against any attempt to seal off the breakthrough, and instead try to close the gap in the front. This was the type of bold decision which had in the past yielded a handsome reward for comparatively little effort, but under present circumstances it was little more than an all or nothing gamble. The 6th Army had very little infantry to spare, and possessed no armour. On 20 August the Soviet attack began from both sides of the gap and made comparatively good progress. By the fall of night on this day, the two Soviet two forces had almost linked, but during the night General Major Viktor T. Obukhov’s III Guards Mechanised Corps saw what the Germans were trying to achieve and, turning back, attacked from the west during the following morning. The Soviet superiority was too great for the Germans to handle, and by the fall of night the III Guards Mechanised Corps had reopened the gap to a width of almost 5 miles (8 km).
By 20 August, von Manstein had secured the services of Generalleutnant Hellmut von der Chevallerie’s 13th Panzerdivision from Heeresgruppe 'A', but when this formation reached the 6th Army it was found to consist of only one regiment and three companies. Moreover, the Soviet intelligence network of agents was working so well that the Soviets knew about the division almost as soon as the 6th Army did. On 23 August the 13th Panzerdivision attacked from the northern side of the gap, which by then had been widened to 7 miles (11.25 km), but the most the division could manage was advance of 3.1 miles (5 km) before it was checked by two mechanised corps. Meanwhile, and even though he operated with caution, Tolbukhin was concerned by the threat in his rear, but had nonetheless expanded the breakthrough to the point at which the 6th Army could no longer concentrate the strength for another attempt to contain it.
By 23 August the 1st Panzerarmee was also in difficulty, having to report that the corps to the south of Izyum had been reduced to a combat strength of 5,800 men, which was insufficient to maintain a continuous line. All which von Manstein could do was to promulgate an unconvincing prediction that the battle was approaching its climax, and the victory would go to the side whose strength lasted 'one minute longer than that of its opponent'. On 25 August the senior operations staff of the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army flew to the headquarters of the army group with a proposal for a withdrawal. There they learned that von Manstein had told Hitler that unless the army group could be reinforced by five fresh divisions, at least two of them Panzer formations, a retreat and an eventual evacuation of the Donets river basin would become necessary. von Manstein did not believe Hitler would accept that estimate, but authorised the armies to begin preparations for a withdrawal to the line of the Kalmius river just to the east of Stalino.
Two days later, at Hitler’s headquarters near Vinnitsa, von Manstein once more presented the alternatives, on this occasion asking for no fewer than 12 divisions. Hitler promised 'all the divisions that could possibly be spared' by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. Both of these army groups immediately protested that they could not give up as much as one division.
While Hitler was at Vinnitsa on 27 August, the 6th Army's problems worsened. General Leytenant Ivan P. Korchagin’s II Guards Mechanised Corps shifted its axis to the south out of the breakthrough area and began a dash to the coast behind General Erich Brandenberger’s XXIX Corps on the 6th Army's right flank, the army was thus left all but helpless. The Germans had 35,000 first-line troops and a mere seven tanks against 130,000 Soviet with something between 160 and 170 tanks. Somewhat reluctantly, von Manstein gave Hollidt two weak divisions, in the form of single infantry and Panzer formations recently arrived from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', and one weak Panzer division from the 1st Panzerarmee. Organised into a corps, these were used by Hollidt to divert some pf the Soviet pressure on the XXIX Corps. On 29 August the Soviets reached the coast of the Sea of Above to the west of Taganrog, driving the XXIX Corps back into a pocket at the mouth of the Mius river. On the following day, coming from the west, Generalleutnant Hellmut von der Chevallerie’s 13th Panzerdivision forced a narrow gap in the Soviet line while the XXIX Corps assembled its 9,000 surviving men into three columns headed by its few serviceable self-propelled assault guns. The Soviets were misled by the heavy cloud of dust the German assembly raised and, in the belief that a strong tank attack was in the making, fell back after the assault guns fired their first rounds and, during the night, the German columns were able to march out to the west with hardly any losses.
On 31 August von Manstein gave permission for the 6th Army and the 1st Panzerarmee to withdraw to the line of the Kalmius river. That night, Hitler approved 'if the withdrawal was absolutely necessary and no other course was open.'
When von Manstein and von Kluge arrived to speak with Hitler on 3 September, they believed the time had come for radical measures. The two field marshals wanted to convince Hitler that the situation demanded nothing less than both a major overhaul of German strategy and the creation of a unified and militarily competent high=level. command. During August, von Manstein had several times called for the creation of a strategic main effort, and had also urged that substantial forces should be shifted to the Eastern Front from the theatres supervised by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, namely France, Italy and the Balkans, so that almost the full weight of the German war machine could be committed against the Soviets. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht head already given some thousands of men to the Eastern Front, in the form of replacement battalions, but resisted the idea of yielding complete divisions, insisting that the theatres for which it was responsible were already under-defended. Late in August, and perhaps influenced by Stalin’s steady stream of demands that the Western Allies launch a 'second front' to relieve the German pressure on the Soviets, the operations branch of he Oberkommando der Wehrmacht claimed that it already knew of the danger of an Allied invasion on the Atlantic coast in the forthcoming autumn. On 2 September the deputy head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations branch wrote a memorandum maintaining that attacks on the Atlantic coast, in Italy and in the Balkans were to be expected. In contrast with the Eastern Front, he pointed out, where there was still ample room for manoeuvre, these attacks would directly threaten the borders of Germany. The memorandum therefore concluded that the the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s theatres could spare no more men for the Eastern Front. The The chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations branch, General Alfred Jodi, dud not wholly agree with this conclusion, at least at first, but in the next few days developed his own estimates, in which he reached basically the same conclusion.
In the meeting of 3 September, von Manstein and von Kluge asked Hitler to remove the separation of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s and Oberkommando des Heeres’s theatres and make the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff responsible for all theatres. von Kluge had reported to Hitler several days earlier that he saw the main source of the present troubles as lying in the lack of a single military adviser responsible to the supreme commander for all theatres.
The idea of a single chief-of-staff was, in purely military terms, unexceptionable. As the two field marshals must have known, however, this concept could not be presented in any form which Hitler would accept. Most significantly, the conduct of operations in all theatres through the Oberkommando des Heeres would inevitably increase the power of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff, and thus effectively weaken Hitler’s personal control by nullifying the claim that he alone could form a complete strategic picture, by depriving Hitler of the frequently used device of playing off the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the Oberkommando des Heeres against each other. Finally, it could result in Hitler losing his personal grip on the Eastern Front. A create of a more powerful Oberkommando des Heeres chief-of-staff might result in overall authority over the Eastern Front and thus bring to an end the current level of compartmentalisation which Hitler used to maintain himself as supreme arbiter over the four army groups and the Oberkommando des Heeres. That Hitler would reject any such curtailments of his personal authority was a foregone conclusion. In the end, he chose to consider the problem as a purely technical matter of co-ordinating troop transfers between the Oberkommando des Heeres and Oberkommando der Wehrmacht theatres, and ordered that henceforth all decisions by the Oberkommando des Heeres and Oberkommando der Wehrmacht affecting each other’s strengths would be communicated to him personally in the presence of the chiefs-of-staff of both the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the Oberkommando des Heeres.
Thus after confirming that, regardless of the state of the war, he would remain the master of German fortunes, Hitler turned to the situation on the Eastern Front. To von Manstein he conceded nothing, rejecting his pleas for large-scale reinforcement of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' from other theatres, and to von Kluge he gave permission to take the 2nd Army and the right flank of the 9th Army behind the line of the Desna river. During the afternoon of 3 September Hitler conferred with Antonescu, and then ordered Heeresgruppe 'A' to start the evacuation of its 'Gotenkopf' lodgement in the Kuban as the 'Krimhilde-Bewegung': all civilians were to be evacuated to Crimea, and the Soviets were to be left with only an uninhabitable desert.
After 3 September the Soviet offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' subsided briefly. To the west of Yelnya. the 9th Army and the 4th Army could this re-establish a continuous front. On the southern flank, Rokossovsky shifted his attack to the left flank of the 4th Panzerarmee, and as a result the ]e]2nd Army's withdrawal to the Desna river proved fairly easy. The 4th Panzerarmee assumed command of Siebert’s XIII Corps which, with Siebert replaced by General Arthur Hauffe on 7 September, was employed to screen the army’s lengthening northern flank.
The Soviet offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had now strayed from its ordained task, although it had nonetheless in all probability achieved all that was required for the time being. The Stavka had probably appreciated that although it was substantial, its superiority was not sufficient to sustain simultaneous advances into Belorussia and Ukraine. On 4 September, therefore, the Stavka committed itself to a main effort in Ukraine against the left flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. On that day the Voronezh Front, reinforced by the 3rd Tank Army transferred from the Central Front, the 52nd Army and several tank and mechanised corps, launched a powerful attack on a broad front between the Psel and Vorskla rivers. This threatened to break through the right flank of the 4th Panzerarmee and leave the army with both flanks exposed.
During the night of 4/5 September, the 6th Army and 1st Panzerarmee withdrew into the Kalmius river line, and Hollidt, the 6th Army's commander, instructed that there to be no more withdrawals as the current front was to be held without thought of farther retirement. Hollidt was totally wrong. As long as it had the protection of the Donets river along nearly all of its front, the 1st Panzerarmee offered the appearance if not the reality of strength, but after it had bent its right-hand corps back from the river even that was lost. Weakened severely by battles of attrition since July, the 1st Panzerarmee had asked for nine or 10 days to move into its new line, but was given only three. The South-West Front, after following close in the Panzerarmee’s wake, opened a slashing attack on the morning of 6 September. In a few hours the I Guards Mechanised Corps and nine infantry divisions punched through to the north of the boundary between the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army. That night von Mackensen told Generalleutnant Theodor Busse, the army group’s chief-of-staff, that he was left with now option other than a retreat to to the Dniepr river as neither his army nor the 6th Army had the strength to restore the front. The next day the XXIII Tank Corps passed through the gap and linked with the I Guards Mechanised Corps. Leaving the infantry behind, the two corps broke away to the west, and, by 8 September, their reconnaissance detachments were approaching Pavlograd and Sinelnikovo, about 100 miles (160 km) behind the front and about 31 miles (50 km) to the east of the Dniepr river.
Early on the morning of 8 September, the aeroplane carrying Hitler and Zeitzler landed at Zaporozhye, where von Manstein’s headquarters were sited. The urgency about reaching a comprehensive decision was now of paramount importance. During the day’s meetings, von Manstein argued that Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' should be pulled back to the 'Panther-Stellung' to shorten its front by about one-third and free several number of divisions for reallocation to Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. Hitler objected that any such a withdrawal would take too long, and instead ordered von Kleist, who was also present, to speed the 'Krimhilde-Bewegung' evacuation of the 'Gotenkopf' lodgement, a move expected to yield three divisions for redeployment. As far as the right flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was concerned, to patch the line on the Kalmius river was clearly out of the question, so Hitler approved in principle the withdrawal of the 1st Panzerarmee and the 6th Army to the 'Wotan-Stellung' position between Melitopol and the Dniepr river to the north of Zaporozhye. Hitler promised reinforcements for the norther flank of the army group, four infantry divisions for the Dniepr crossings, and a corps headquarters with two infantry and two Panzer divisions from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' with which to close the gap between the flanks of the [w]2nd Army and the 4th Panzerarmee. von Manstein immediately instructed the 1st Panzerarmee and the 6th Army to go over to a mobile defence. With that the retreat to the Dniepr river had started.
As usual, Hitler’s main concern at the 8 September conference had been to avoid any decision that was not already inevitable. Finding himself forced to give up the Donets river basin, Hitler was still more reluctant to accept the need for a similar decision with respect to the 4th Panzerarmee and the 8th Army, and instead offered promises that were had to believe, of which one disappeared on the following day when he discovered that of the four divisions designated for the protection of the Dniepr river crossings only one would actually become available, and would have to come the major distance from Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. The other promise he gave fleshed out a degree before departing from Zaporozhye by issuing specific orders to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' with regard to the transfer of the corps headquarters and four divisions, which were to come under command of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' as soon as they crossed the Desna river. But three of the promised divisions were to be provided by the 2nd Army, which in its weakened state could hardly spare the divisions on 8 September, and on the following dat, after Rokossovsky’s forces had crossed the Desna river to the south of Novgorod-Seversky and at Otsekin, could not spare them spare them at all. Generalleutnant Sebastian Fichtner’s (from 20 September Generalmajor Gottfried Frölich’s) 8th Panzerdivision, the one formation which the 2nd Army did release, it used to protect its own flank to the south of the Desna river.
In the southern sector of the front, the 1st Panzerarmee and the 6th Army immediately began their withdrawal to the line of the Dniepr river. In two days the two armies' inner flanks covered about 70 miles (135 km). which was about half the distance they had to march, and on 12 September Panzer units of the 1st Panzerarmee, pushing to the south, re-established contact with the left flank of the 6th Army. As the gap between the armies narrowed, the I Guards Mechanised Corps and XXIII Tank Corps, operating toward Pavlograd and Sinelnikovo, slowed. On the night of 12/13 September the headquarters of the South-West Front ordered the two corps to turn back and escape to the east. During the next two days the 1st Panzerarmee drove off several break-out attempts, and on the night of 14/15 September remnants of the corps slipped through an accidental gap in the 6th Army's line.
The experience of the I Guards Mechanised Corps at this time once more revealed the Soviet forces' difficulties in the exploitation of their armour to its full extent. After the breakthrough at Golodayevka, Tolbukhin had come under a measure of criticism for using his armoured units too cautiously, and also for dissipating these units' strength in numerous small skirmishes. Apparently determined not to make the same mistake, Malinovsky had unleashed the entire I Guards Mechanised Corps and XXIII Tank Corps. Their dash toward the Dniepr river was spectacular, but in tactical terms was unproductive. The undertaking had emphasised the already obvious weakness of the two German armies, but this could probably have been done with greater effect by keeping the corps in contact with the front. As soon as their lines of communication were interrupted, the corps had lost momentum, and when the front closed behind them they had been compelled to fall back in great haste, suffering severe loss on their way.
From 12 September onward, the 1st Panzerarmee and the 6th Army fell back more steadily. Behind the 6th Army, which in order to protect the land routes into Crimea, would have to hold a line whose only natural advantage was the small Molochnaya river, Heeresgruppe 'A' began moving in troops and artillery. Worried that von Manstein might later be tempted to take control of these forces for the benefit of his Heeresgruppe 'Süd', von Kleist asked for command of the 6th Army when it reached the 'Wotan-Stellung'. In the middle of the month, Hitler agreed that Heeresgruppe 'A' would assume command of the headquarters of the 6th Army and its two southern corps, while command of the third corps would be assumed by the 1st Panzerarmee.
On its northern flank, the front of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was tightening and becoming more frangible by the hour. The 8th Army had reported shortly after the start of the month that it could no longer hold a continuous line. It had established a system of strongpoints with connecting trenches for patrols, and that its rear-echelon troops consisted exclusively of 'sole surviving sons' and 'fathers of large families', which were the two categories that were still, by order of Hitler, exempt from front-line duty. Even so, one infantry division had been reduced to a strength of six officers and 300 men. Exhaustion and complete demoralisation were now rife, and the threat of the 'most severe measures' no longer helped to stiffen the men’s resistance.
Bad as was the situation of the 8th Army, that of the 4th Panzerarmee was worse. On the 30-mile (50-km) front between the Vorskla and Psel rivers, the [1st Panzerarmee's was strained by the weight of six tank and mechanised corps and an estimated 19 infantry divisions. In the gap off its left flank, the most that the 1st Panzerarmee could do was attempt the creation of an area of resistance around Nezhin, the last obstacle on the Central Front’s approach to Kiev. There the slow arrival of the promised divisions from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' so harried Hoth’s thinking that on 12 September he claimed command of all units to the south of the Desna river in accordance with Hitler’s order, and took the 8th Panzerdivision off the 2nd Army's flank.
von Kluge made an obedient, though hardly heroic, attempt to get the four divisions promised to Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. On 10 September, when he asked Weiss, the commander of the 2nd Army to reconsider his early statement that he could provide just two of the four divisions he had been instructed to release, Weiss responded that his army possessed average combat strength of only 1,000 men per division. On the next day, after Weiss had reported that the Soviets had seized more bridgeheads across the Desna river, raising the total to six, von Kluge decided to take the two divisions from the 4th Army. At the same time he told the Oberkommando des Heeres that 'the door to Smolensk now stands open'. On 12 September von Kluge informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that the army group could not supply a fourth division. The pause in the offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had come to an end as the Soviets started to enlarge their bridgeheads on the Desna river, an attack by a cavalry corps to the south of Kirov had cut through behind the centre of the 9th Army, and an offensive against the 4th Army toward Smolensk was to be expected any day.
By this same date, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was deep in danger. The Stavka was obviously determined to prevent the army group from stabilising its position. The cavalry corps that had penetrated the 9th Army's left flank, driving deep to the south-west, and captured Zhukovka on the rail line lining Bryansk and Roslavl. Model began to close the gap in his army’s front, but the effort served only to illustrate still more starkly the futility of 9th Army's continued commitment to holding a rigid line when it has become clear that the two German armies on its flanks would give way before the next onslaught: the build-up opposite 4th Army had proceeded to the state that the army could not hope to meet the impending attack head-on' and the 2nd Army's front on the Desna river was packed by Soviet bridgeheads, and to man its lengthening right flank it had committed two security divisions and a Hungarian division, none of them equipped or trained for front-line fighting.
On 13 September von Kluge therefore issued the warning order for a withdrawal to the 'Panther-Stellung'. In a meeting at army group headquarters, Generalleutnant Hans Krebs, the army group’s chief-of-staff, informed those present an idea of the magnitude of such an operation. It would mean, he stated, relinquishing not only half, but qualitatively the better half, of the territory the army group still held. Work on the 'Panther-Stellung' would require the use of 400,000 civilian labourers. Between 2.5 and 3 million persons would have to be evacuated to the west, as compared with about 190,000 civilians evacuated from the Orel bulge. About 600,000 cattle would have to be herded to the rear, and the army group would have to move all of its rear-area installations. The last, for example, would involve the creation of new hospital facilities with 36,000 beds.
In the morning of the following day, the West Front renewed the thrust toward Smolensk, and in the afternoon the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief of operations contacted the army group headquarters to inform von Kluge that von Manstein intended to order the 4th Panzerarmee to withdraw behind the Dniepr river. The chief pf operations believed the time had come for Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to start its withdrawal to the 'Panther-Stellung'. The chief of operations wished to know whether or not von Kluge felt that he possessed the authority to issue such an order, and on Kluge responded that he did not: such an order would have to come from Hitler through the Oberkommando des Heeres. Certain that the relevant order would arrive within a matter of hours, von Kluge that night directed Model to start the withdrawal of the the 9th Army's centre to positions behind the Desna river, and authorised Weiss to begin pulling his [4th Army back to the west of the Desna river.
In the sector of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', on 14 September the 4th Panzerarmee hovered on the edge of collapse. On its left the Central Front was driving into Nezhin, and in the centre the Voronezh Front had broken through, thereby dividing the army into three parts. Hoth reported that the Soviets could now advance toward Kiev unhindered, and that the situation was similar to that the army had already faced once before to the south of Rostov-na-Donu during the winter of 1942/43, the only difference being that then it had some effective formations with which to manoeuvre. Both added that the greatest danger was that the army would be pushed to the south in parallel with the Dniepr river and thus leave a long stretch of the river on each side of Kiev completely exposed.
von Manstein ordered Hoth to break contact with the 8th Army and swing his right flank to the west, aligning his north/south axis to cover Kiev. At the game time, von Manstein ordered Wöhler to draw his 8th Army back as quickly as he could without degrading his formations' combat capabilities, and thereby release sufficient strength to screen the gap that would open between the two armies. In his report to Hitler, von Manstein stated that on 15 September he would order the 4th Panzerarmee to retreat behind the Dniepr river, or the army would soon be destroyed. Since he would have to take divisions from the 8th Army and the 1st Panzerarmee for the 4th Panzerarmee, he saw no chance at all of holding any ground to the east of the river. On the night of 14/15 September Hitler told von Manstein and von Kluge to report in person to him on the next day.
Meanwhile, the loss of Nezhin early on 15 September had triggered a near panic at Hitler’s headquarters. The Oberkommando des Heeres urged Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to accelerate the withdrawals already under way in order to free formations with which to bolster Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. After von Manstein and von Kluge arrived as ordered, Hitler told von Kluge to transfer four divisions to Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and agreed to a general retreat to the 'Wotan-Stellung' and 'Panther-Stellung' positions. By the end of the day, however, Hitler almost inevitably started to have second thoughts, and before von Kluge left Hitler’s headquarters he was instructed to execute the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' as a series of phased retreats, so avoiding 'excessive speed'. He was not interested, Hitler stated, in executing the operation quickly, and every major step back would therefore require his permission.
For Heeresgruppe 'Süd', the decision to pull back to the west of the Dniepr river was welcome, but nonetheless posed problems that would test the skill and stamina of the leadership and the troops as severely as anything they had yet undertaken. The first of the problems was how best to disengage the scattered elements of the 4th Panzerarmee, a move accomplished on the nights of 16/17 and 17/18 September in what Hoth described as 'two great leaps backward' through which the army regained some freedom of manoeuvre and restored contact between its formations and units. Next came the task, both more difficult and more dangerous, of getting the 4th Panzerarmee, 8th Army and 1st Panzerarmee over the river. Occupying a front almost 405 miles (650 km) long. the three armies had at their disposal only five crossing points: Kiev, Kanev, Cherkassy, Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk. This required that the forces be divided and instructed to head for these crossing points, where bridgeheads had to be created and held until the German forces had been channelled across the river to spread out on the western side of the river before the Soviets could win bridgeheads of their own in the undefended areas on the western bank.
Up to this time, the Germans had expended little effort in the improvement of the crossings. As a result Cherkassy, for example, rapidly became an hugely congested by evacuated cattle and piles of goods, and here the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and the 8th Army argued about who would provide the necessary bridging equipment and engineers. At the last minute Hitler added another complication by insisting that the 1st Panzerarmee strengthen the bridgehead to the east of Zaporozhye in order to protect the nearby Nikopol manganese mines. Hitler’s tendency to place economic objectives above tactical considerations once again exercised a baneful effect, for in following orders von Manstein had to shift nearly all of the few units he could spare, and would otherwise have used to strengthen his army group’s weak left flank, to the tactically worthless Zaporozhye bridgehead.
At the conference of 15 September, von Manstein had insisted that Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' transfer the newly promised four divisions to Heeresgruppe 'Süd' as rapidly as possible. Before the end of the day, two of the divisions had been ordered to start their movement to the south. By the time von Kluge left Hitler’s headquarters, however, Hitler had given him two mutually contradictory tasks: to release the divisions for Heeresgruppe 'Süd' quickly, but at the same time make the withdrawal to the 'Panther-Stellung' at a deliberate pace. The latter coincided with von Kluge’s own thinking, and for this reason he took his time in getting the withdrawal under way and thus waited for three days before issuing even the basic order. In that order he emphasised that the armies would remain top the east of the 'Panther-Stellung' until 10 October at the earliest. As a result, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' remained tied down in heavy fighting at the front, and the transfer of two of the four divisions promised to Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was initially postponed and finally cancelled.
In tactical terms, von Kluge’s decision to tarry provided the Stavka with an opportunity to press ahead with the development of its two currently most dangerous offensive thrusts, namely that toward Smolensk and the other toward the Dniepr river between the flanks of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. While the West Front drove the 4th Army's right flank back in the area to the south-east of Smolensk, Eremenko’s Kalinin Front bore down to the north of the city on each side of the boundary between the 3rd Panzerarmee and the 4th Army. To the south of the Desna river, in the area off the 2nd Army's right flank, on 16 and 18 September the Central Front committed a fresh guards mechanised corps, and in the course of the next two days, and without slackening the advance toward the Dniepr river, it aimed a two-pronged thrust to the north across the Desna river on each side of Chernigov. The 2nd Army's flank collapsed under the weight of attack’s first wave. The army group recorded that on 19 September that the Hungarian division to the east of Chernigov had 'completely dissolved'.
Between 20 and 23 September the emergence of dire developments on each flank compelled von Kluge to abandon his plan for a paced withdrawal. To the north of Smolensk, the Kalinin Front broke through the right flank of the 3d Panzerarmee and thus took Demidov and threatened the 'Panther-Stellung'. To the south-east of Smolensk, the line of the 4th Army was now starting to crack. In the 2nd Army's zone, in the area to the east of Chernigov, the Central Front extended its advance to the north behind the army’s flank toward Gomel, the most important road and rail nexus on the southern half of the Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' front.
During the last week of September, the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' degenerated into a race with the advance of the Soviet forces for possession of the Dniepr river’s right bank. At the confluence of the Pripyet and Dniepr rivers, some of Rokossovsky’s troops had crossed as early as 19 September, and before the end of the month the Soviets possessed a bridgehead reaching 15.5 miles (25 km) to the west along each side the Pripyet river to Chernobyl.
Anxious to keep the German forces from holding the Dniepr river, and thereby possibly creating a stalemate, the Stavka had directed the fronts and armies to cross the river straight off the march. To the officers and men who distinguished themselves in river crossings, it offered the highest Soviet military decoration, Hero of the Soviet Union, which meant a life pension and public recognition by means of the erection of a life-sized bust of the recipient in his home town. The technique of the crossings was the same everywhere: crude but performed on a scale so large and with a determination so persistent that it was overwhelmingly effective. Near Bukrin, for example, 48 miles (77 km) to the south-east of Kiev, four soldiers of a guards sub-machine gun company crossed the Dniepr river in a rowing boat after dark on 22 September, waded ashore, climbed the bank, which was at this point steep and several hundred feet high, and from gullies near the top drew fire from the German outposts. Other small parties followed this pattern. By the break of day, the whole company had crossed and seized a foothold at the top of the bank. Then, in a little-by-little procession, the whole of the 3rd Guards Tank Army began to cross, the infantry using anything that would float even as the engineers built floating causeways for heavy equipment, and other troops sited artillery on the eastern bank and started to deliver covering fire.
On 26 September, the Voronezh Front seized a bridgehead in the bend of the Dniepr river below Pereyaslav, and the Steppe Front made three smaller crossings between Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk. Over the course of the next few days, it enlarged these to create a single bridgehead 31 miles (50 km) wide and at one point 10 miles )16 km) deep. Lying, as they did, almost exactly mid-way between the Germans' own crossing points, the bridgeheads were each established in places the Germans would have difficulty in reaching. Hitler was worried most by the Soviet bridgehead at the mouth of the Pripyet river. On 25 September he ordered Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd' to eliminate it immediately, but that was a task not easily achieved. While the two army groups sent the few, nearly exhausted, divisions they could spare to probe into the swamps fringed the rivers, the Soviets were fully determined not to be dislodged and moved fresh and well-rested troops into the bridgehead.
By the end of the month Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had brought the last of its troops across the river and was struggling to establish a front. Having gone into the 'Wotan-Stellung' below Zaporozhye on 20 September, the 6th Army was already under great strain in its effort to check an armoured thrust aimed at the centre of of its front. This could be construed only as a sign that the Stavka and no intention of easing the pressure its forces were exerting, at least as long as the good weather lasted. On 2 October the last units of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' moved into the 'Panther-Stellung', which followed the general line of the Sozh and Pronya rivers about 31 miles (50 km) to the east of the Dniepr river. In the south, Heeresgruppe 'A' completed its withdrawal from the 'Gotenkopf' lodgement on 29 September, but still held a small bridgehead on the Taman peninsula through which the last elements of its strength were evacuated the next 10 days.
Over a 10-week period, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had been driven back an average distance of 150 miles (240 km) on a front 650 miles (1045 km) wide. In economical terms, the Germans lost the most valuable territory they had taken in the USSR. In an effort at least to deny the USSR the fruits of their victories, Hitler had initiated a scorched-earth policy, but, in the end, even that satisfaction was denied him. At the end of September Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' reported that it had evacuated no more than 20% to 30% of the economic goods in its rear area. In the zone of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', the failure was still greater. The economic staffs lacked the personnel to accomplish total destruction, and the equipment to remove more than a part of the usable equipment. Many factories, powerplants, railways and bridges were in fact destroyed, but many of them had never been fully restored after the Soviet retreat from them in 1941. Influenced by Soviet propaganda promising that there would be no reprisals, Soviet civilians sabotaged the evacuation to save their own possessions and to establish alibis that they believed would be useful after the Germans had departed. The only willing evacuees were the outright collaborators, those from some of the districts along the Donets river who had suffered a taste of a Soviet 'liberation' during the previous winter, and those who lived in the few areas which had been totally laid waste. The German armies and economic staffs organised caravans of civilians totalling about 600,000 persons, or one-tenth of the population. They estimated later that about 280,000 of these eventually reached and crossed the Dniepr river. Some 268,000 tons of grain and 488,000 livestock animals (cattle and horses) were taken across the river, but the Germans otherwise destroyed 941,000 tons of grain and 13,000 cattle, but left behind 1,656,233 tons of grain, much of it standing in the fields ready to be harvested, and 2,987,699 cattle and horses.
The Soviets immediately began to exploit the fruits of victory. As they pursued the right flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' across southern Ukraine they impressed men of the local population for replacements, and the 6th Army estimated that about 80,000 men were drafted in recaptured area. handed some units of uniform and a rifle, and committed to the front line.
On reaching the Dniepr river, the Soviet forces had fulfilled the original objective of their summer offensive. The shortening of the German front, the defensive advantages of the river, the lengthening of the Soviet lines of communication, and the attrition of Soviet forces should now have effected something of a temporary balance, and early in October the Germans still believed they had a chance of achieving some sort of a balance, but their own mistakes and the Soviet numerical superiority were working against them. By trying to hold to the east of the Dniepr river, Hitler had sacrificed too much of the strength of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd', and as a result the so-called 'Ostwall' could be neither fortified not fully manned, and breached in several places while the front was still moving. The Soviet numerical advantage in manpower, on the other hand, had enabled troops to be rested and refitted in shifts. As a result, the Soviet forces reached the Dniepr river with their offensive capability largely intact, and before the last German troops crossed the river the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' had already started.