Chernigov-Poltava Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'Chernigov-Poltava Strategic Offensive Operation' was a Soviet major undertaking by the forces of three fronts as part of the strategic summer offensive of 1943 (26 August/30 September 1943).

The operation is sometimes called the Battle for the Dniepr River, and ended with the almost complete liberation of those parts of Ukraine on the eastern bank of the Dniepr river and the seizure of bridgeheads on the western bank of this river. The strategic offensive comprised three operational-level undertakings, namely the 'Chernigov-Pripyat Offensive Operation' by the Central Front, the 'Sumy-Priluki Offensive Operation' by the Voronezh Front and the 'Poltava-Kremenchug Offensive Operation' by the Steppe Front.

During the 'Battle of Kursk', occasioned by the German 'Zitadelle', the Soviet high command had ordered the preparation of a strategic offensive along the length of the Eastern Front between Velikiye Luki in the north and the Sea of ​​Azov in the south. Within this concept, the Central Front, Voronezh Front, Steppe Front, South-West Front and South Front were tasked with the crushing of the Axis main forces on the southern sector of the Eastern Front, the liberation of the left-bank area of Ukraine and the Donbass, the advance to the Dniepr river, the seizure of bridgeheads on this river’s western bank, and thereby the creation of the situation that would allow the liberation of the right-bank area of Ukraine. The South-West Front and the South Front began to fulfil their tasks on 13 August with the 'Donbas Strategic Offensive Operation', itself comprising the 'Barvenkovo-Pavlograd Offensive Operation' (13 August/18 September) and the 'Mius-Mariupol Offensive Operation' (18 August/22 September). The other three fronts were were to undertake their own offensives farther to the north from Cherkassy to Poltava. The overall plan conceived by the Soviet high command was based on the concept of the delivery of several powerful attacks simultaneously by the forces of the three fronts in order to break through the German defences and to prevent the Germans from achieving any form of new consolidation along the banks of the Desna and Dniepr rivers.

The Soviet preparations for the offensive were undertaken in difficult conditions and in the shortest possible time after six weeks of continuous combat in and around the Kursk salient. In this fighting, the Soviet troops had been operating at a considerable distance from their supply bases and had already expended most of their ammunition and much of their matériel strength. The railway network was only just being restored, so the bulk of required resupply was carried largely by road transport, which was inadequate for the task. The strong point of the Soviet arsenal was the very high morale of the men, who had developed the taste for victory. Another advantage which the Soviets used to maximum benefit was the declining capabilities of the German air arm, especially for longer-range aspects such as reconnaissance, and this now made it possible for the Soviets to carry out generally covert regroupings, which made the strength of the forthcoming Soviet offensive wholly underestimated by the Germans.

After the defeat of their 'Zitadelle' offensive at Kursk and the success of the Soviet offensives that immediately followed this, the German high command had decided to go over to the defensive along the entirety of the Eastern Front, but nonetheless firmly to hold the current front line. At the same time, new defensive lines along large rivers were hastily prepared: within this, special importance was attached to the Dniepr river defences. In German thinking, the Dniepr river was to become a barrier insurmountable by the Soviets: in German propaganda it was the impregnable 'Ostwall', though this was in no way comparable with the 'Westwall' and 'Atlantic Wall', and the Germans began to construct and equip this line only with great delay.

For the 'Chernigov-Pripyat Offensive Operation', the Soviets committed General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front, which had at its disposal General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov’s 65th Army, General Leytenant Aleksei G. Rodin’s 2nd Tank Army, General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 60th Army, General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army (from the Stavka reserve on 6 September), General Leytenant Prokofi L. Romanenko’s 48th Army, General Major Vladimir M. Sharapov’s 70th Army (withdrawn to the Stavka reserve on 1 September), the IX Tank Corps and General Leytenant Sergei I. Rudenko’s 16th Air Army. The Central Front totalled 579,600 men.

For the 'Sumy-Priluki Offensive Operation', the Soviets committed General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front, which had at its disposal General Leytenant Nikandr E. Chibisov’s 38th Army, General Leytenant Kyrill S. Moskalenko’s 40th Army, General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army, General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army (until 6 September), General Leytenant Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s 47th Army, General Leytenant Sergei G. Trofimenko’s 27th Army, General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army, General Leytenant Aleksei I. Zygin’s (from 27 September General Leytenant Ivan V. Galanin’s) 4th Guards Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army (from 9 September in the Soviet supreme command’s reserve), the IV Guards Tank Corps, General Leytenant Viktor S. Baranov’s I Guards Cavalry Corps, and General Stepan A. Krasovsky’s 2nd Air Army. The Voronezh Front totalled 665,500 men.

For the 'Poltava-Kremenchug Offensive Operation', the Soviets committed General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front, which had at its disposal General Leytenant Mikhail N. Sharokhin’s 37th Army (from the Soviet supreme command reserve on 6 September), Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army (from the Voronezh Front on 6 September), General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, General Leytenant Vasili V. Glagolev’s 46th Army (from the South-West Front on 6 September), General Leytenant Ivan M. Managarov’s 53rd Army, General Leytenant Vasili D. Kryuchenkin’s 69th Army, and General Leytenant Sergei K. Goryunov’s 5th Air Army. The Steppe Front totalled 336,200 men.

In all, the three fronts had 1,581,300 men, 30,300 pieces of artillery and mortars, 1,200 tanks and self-propelled guns, 690 rocket-launchers and 1,450 aircraft. The operations of the three fronts were co-ordinated by the supreme command’s representative, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy supreme commander-in-chief.

On the other side of the front were Generalfeldmarschall Hans-Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' with General Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army and elements of Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte II in the north; and Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' with Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Panzerarmee, Generaloberst Eberhard Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee, General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army, Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 6th Army and Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s Luftflotte IV in the south.

In overall terms, the Germans fielded 38 divisions, of which eight were Panzer divisions and two motorised. The German strength totalled 700,000 men, 1,200 armoured vehicles, 7,200 pieces of artillery and mortars, and more than 900 aircraft.

The balance of forces favoured the Soviets, who possessed an advantage of 2.1/1 in men, 4/1 in artillery and mortars, and 2.1/1 in aircraft. The two sides' armoured strengths were approximately equal. During the battle, each side steadily increased its forces. Thus the Soviets brought into the battle one mechanised corps, two cavalry corps, 14 divisions and five brigades, and the Germans 27 divisions, including Panzer and one motorised formations.

On 26 August, the Central Front went onto the offensive in the 'Chernigov-Pripyat Offensive Operation', which delivered its primary blow with the 65th Army toward Novgorod-Seversky, with the further task of breaking through to Konotop, Nezhyn and Kiev. The Germans fought a stubborn resistance, making 12 counterattacks on the first day of the offensive. In this circumstance, the Soviet advance was slow. On 27 August, the 2nd Tank Army was committed, and this liberated Sevsk before being brought to a halt at the Germans' next line of defence. By 31 August the Soviet advance was in the order of 12.5 to 15.5 miles (20 to 25 km), but all the Soviet attempts to create greater success in this sector proved fruitless.

In the area of the Central Front’s subsidiary offensive, however, the Soviets gained greater success as the 60th Army quickly broke through the German defences and by the end of 31 August had advanced to a depth of 37.5 miles (60 km), and then expanded the penetration to 62 miles (100 km). The German front-line defences were ripped open and the Soviet forces advanced into the German rear areas. On 30 August, the Soviets liberated Glukhov and one day later Rylsk. Flying to the area of his front’s breakthrough, Rokossovsky immediately undertook a regrouping of the front’s main forces and despatched the 13th Army, 2nd Tank Army, IX Tank Corps, IV Artillery Corps and the main aviation forces to the sector in which success had been achieved. After the arrival and commitment of these forces, the 2nd Army's front collapsed completely. Rokossovsky’s armies advanced at a pace hitherto not achieved, in the order of between 18.5 and 31 miles (30 to 50 km) per day. On 3 September, the Soviet forces crossed the Seim river off the march and liberated Konotop.

The German command now committed two more Panzer and three additional infantry divisions, as well as a number of smaller ground and larger air elements, to the battle against the Central Front. However, the commitment of these additional forces without adequate preparation and at different times failed to achieve the desired effect: the Soviet troops smashed them in detail through the use of deep penetration and flanking tactics.

The Voronezh Front tasked with the implemented of the 'Sumy-Priluki Offensive Operation' did not act so effectively, but by 31 August had advanced 18.5 miles (30 km) and on 2 September liberated Sumy. With the left flank of their forces deeply engulfed by the Central Front, and fearing that the Soviets would move into their rear areas, the Germans began a hasty withdrawal.

The pace of the Steppe Front’s 'Poltava-Kremenchug Offensive Operation' was still slower, and it was only on 4 September that, after fierce fighting, the Soviets liberated Merefa, which was an important junction of roads on the way to the Dniepr river.

On 6 September, the Soviet high command allocated new tasks to all three fronts: the Voronezh Front was to advance on Kiev and was reinforced by the 3rd Guards Tank Army from the headquarters reserve; the Central Front was to change its axis of advance from Kiev to Gomel, and received an additional combined-arms army and a cavalry corps; and the Steppe Front was now to drive on Poltava and Kremenchug with the aid of three additional armies.

The Soviet offensive continued in its revised pattern. By 7 September the Central Front had advanced 112 miles (180 km) to the south-west, reached the Desna river on a wide front and crossed it from the march. The Voronezh Front was concentrating on its right wing a strike force comprising one tank army and two combined-arms armies, and three tank and cavalry corps. Unfortunately for the Soviets, this redeployment further reduced the front’s already modest rate of advance. The gap between the Voronezh Front and the Central Front continued to widen. The Steppe Front became embroiled in stubborn fighting on the approaches to Poltava, which the Germans had fortified into a powerful defensive area. To the north and south of Poltava, however, the front’s armies bypassed the flanks of the Poltava area and were pushing forward toward the Dniepr river. The Soviet command urged all its forces to advance as rapidly as possible with the object of reaching the Dniepr river before the Germans. The headquarters ordered all three of the front commanders to form a mobile detachment in each of their aereas, group all available tanks and vehicles for them, and quickly reach the Dniepr river, bypassing fortified areas and settlements. The Germans now arrived at the inevitable conclusion that it was no longer possible to check the Soviet onslaught on the approaches to the Dniepr river, and on 15 September ordered their forces to withdraw from the battle under the cover of strong rearguards, and to fall back swiftly to the Dnieper river and occupy the prepared defences on the river’s western bank. There they were to prevent the Soviets forces from crossing the Dniepr river. Another 12 divisions, transferred from the reserve, from Europe and from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' hastily occupied the defensive positions.

The first winner of the Soviet 'run to the Dniepr' was the Central Front. Between 7 and 15 September, the front’s forces advanced more than 125 miles (200 km) in continuous fighting, and also liberated Nezhyn on 15 September and Novgorod-Seversky on the following day. The German attempt to stop elements of the Central Front crossing the Desna river failed. In the days which followed, Rokossovsky’s armies fought their way for another 60 miles (100 km), and on 21 September the 13th Army liberated Chernigov, the most important German stronghold a mere 25 miles (40 km) from the Dniepr river.

Farther to the south, by 10 September the right wing of the Voronezh Front had broken the stubborn German resistance in the area of Romny, and on 13 September crossed the Sula river and liberated Lokhvitsa. On the left flank of the Voronezh Front and on the Steppe Front, the Germans suffered heavy losses as they checked the Soviet onslaught, but in the process exhausted their defensive capabilities. An important role in disrupting the German defence was played by the Soviet partisan forces, which launched the major 'Concert' offensive in the course of September to disrupt the German lines of communication.

On 21 September, the first Soviet elements to reach the Dniepr river were the advanced units of the left wing of the Central Front’s 13th Army in the area to the north of Kiev, near the mouth of the Pripyat river. By this time there were only sparse German units on the river’s western bank, so Rokossovsky ordered that the river be cross straight off the march the river without any means of ferrying or reinforcement and with only a small allocation of ammunition: Rokossovsky had appreciated that a more formally organised river crossing would take time which the Germans would use to reinforce their river defences. On 25 September, a similar order was issued by the Soviet high command , which demanded that the armies reach the Dniepr river and 'immediately force it on a wide front in order to disperse the [German] attention and forces'. On 22 September, forces of the Central Front seized the first Dniepr river bridgehead, which was 15.5 miles (25 km) wide and between 1.25 and 6.2 miles (2 and 10 km) deep, and on the following day passed the confluence of the Dniepr and Pripyat rivers to seize a bridgehead on the latter to the south of Chernobyl. Thus began the Soviet crossing of the Dniepr river.

On 19 September, at the headquarters of the Voronezh Front, Vatutin learned that the German resistance on his front’s line of advance had weakened sharply, and rapidly created a mobile group comprising the 3rd Guards Tank Army and the I Guards Cavalry Corps. On 20 September this group launched an offensive from the Romny area in the direction of Pereyaslav on a narrow 41.5-mile (70-km) corridor. The advanced detachment broke away from the main force and, advancing at the rate of 46.5 miles (75 km) per day, on the night of 22 September, reached the Dniepr river in the area of Rzhishchev and Veliki Bukrin, and with partisan support crossed the Dniepr river in the Bukrin bend on the same night. On the same day, the 40th Army’s forward detachment also reached the Dniepr river near Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky. In the ​​Veliki Bukrin area fierce fighting erupted in and round the Bukrin bridgehead. At the end of September, the 38th Army seized a bridgehead at Lyutezhsky to the north of Kiev.

By 20 September, the Steppe Front’s forces were fighting in an area between 43.5 and 74.5 miles (70 to 120 km) to the east of the Dniepr river. Only on 23 September was Poltava liberated. After that, there began another 'run to the Dniepr river' in the Kremenchug and Dneprodzerzhinsk areas. On 25 September, the Steppe Front’s leading units reached the eastern bank of the Dniepr river, and during the night of the same day seized its first bridgehead in the area to the north-west of Verkhnedneprovsk. From 28 to 30 September, the 5th Guards Army and 53rd Army destroyed the German defence of Kremenchug, and reached the Dniepr river along the front’s whole face.

With the widespread arrival of Soviet forces on the eastern bank of the Dniepr river and the crossing of this river from the march by all three fronts, the 'Chernigov-Poltava Strategic Offensive Operation' is considered to have been completed on 30 September. On this day, as ordered by the Soviet high command, all three fronts began to work on the retention of their bridgeheads, and this led to the cancellation of the planned offensive operations with which they had earlier been tasked. In total, by 30 September the Soviet forces had seized 21 bridgeheads: seven had been taken by the Central Front, nine by the Voronezh Front and five by the Steppe Front. Fierce fighting for the captured bridgeheads began, and continued throughout October.

Despite all the difficulties and numerous shortcomings by which it was beset, the 'Chernigov-Poltava Strategic Offensive Operation' was the most ambitious Soviet offensive after those associated with the defeat of the 6th Army at Stalingrad. Along a front of more than 435 miles (700 km), three Soviet fronts had advanced between 155 and 185 miles (250 and 300 km) to the west in one month at a rate that in some areas was 18.5 miles (30 km) per day. The offensive liberated regions of great economic importance, and also freed tens of millions of people from German rule. The German high command had wholly underestimated the level to which the Soviet military machine had by now risen, and also the much enhanced skill level of Soviet commanders. Thus the Germans were unprepared for the simultaneous and decisive blows of three Soviet fronts to so great a depth.

A feature characteristic of the bridgehead battles on the Dniepr river was the Soviet use of improvised means, this being a result not of any deliberate policy but rather of the delay in delivery and the shortage of river-crossing ferries. Inadequate air support was also a deficiency felt everywhere, and resulted largely from the inability of Soviet air units to effect timely redeployments to new airfields. The 'runs to the Dniepr river' were generally won by the Germans, whose forces possessed greater mobility, and this was exacerbated by the Soviets' acute shortage of armour. In the aftermath of the Battle of Kursk, all the Soviet tank armies had been reorganised as a result of their very heavy losses: it was only with great difficulty that the Soviet high command had been able to commit only one tank army, in the form of the 3rd Guards Tank Army, and even that was not up to strength in tanks and other vehicles. Of the three fronts, only the Central Front was able to complete its task of breaking through the opposing German formations, while the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front advanced mainly through frontal attacks. During the withdrawal of their troops, the Germans resorted to scorched-earth tactics, and this served to slow the pace of the Soviet offensive.

The next stage of the battle for the Dniepr river began with the Soviet struggle to retain and then to expand their bridgeheads. The large number of bridgeheads which the Soviets had taken made it impossible for the Germans to concentrate their forces sufficiently to ensure their destruction. But the small area of their bridgeheads and the acute problems of reinforcing them with men, armour and artillery compelled the Soviets into long and bloody battles to hold and expand the bridgeheads. The Soviet high command’s attempt to aid the Voronezh Front by airborne assault on 24 September in the 'Dniepr River Airborne Operation' was a failure characterised by the loss of many airborne troopers.

The Soviet high command’s plan to liberate the right-bank part of Ukraine before the advent of winter was therefore thwarted.

The Soviet victory was great, but was achieved only at a high price: the Soviet losses in men killed, missing and taken prisoner were 102,957, and their losses in men wounded or taken ill were 324,995. The Soviets also lost 1,140 armoured vehicles, 916 pieces of artillery and mortars and 269 aircraft. The German casualties amounted to about 321,000 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner.