This was the German evacuation of the bridgehead on the eastern side of the Dniepr river at Nikopol on the Eastern Front being held by General Ferdinand Schörner’s XL Panzerkorps of Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 6th Army (31 January/1 February 1944).
In Ukraine at this time the situation of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had worsened sharply. The army group was still extended altogether too thinly right right across the southern part of Ukraine from a point to the north of Korosten as far to the south as the great bend of the Dniepr river in a disposition with offered the Soviets a huge eastward salient for attack. Nikopol and Krivoi Rog were still being held at the insistence of Adolf Hitler for their iron and manganese mines, which had been of considerable economic importance for Germany but were now military liabilities as ore was now longer being mined and the loss of the area would not have presented German industry with anything in the way of an insoluble problem. Meanwhile another threat had emerged on the northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in the area where the Soviet salient to the south-west of Kiev made by General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front appeared likely to separate Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ from Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
The Soviet fronts in the Ukraine were not without their difficulties, however. The winter in the south had been very mild and was was followed by a spring thaw with rain and mud beginning notably early at the end of December 1943. The lines of communication between the Soviets’ forward forces and their logistic bases stretched more than 300 miles (485 km), and as an inevitable result there were major difficulties in supply, maintenance and repair. In General Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front only 50% of the motor transport was roadworthy, and of the 168 infantry divisions in western Ukraine most were considerably below establishment strength despite the energetic measures taken to make good the deficiencies by impressing large numbers of men from the newly ‘liberated’ Ukrainian population. Airfields were especially had hit by the rain and flooding.
Little deterred by these problems, though, the Soviet high command without hesitation renewed its offensive along the whole of the line in the first phase of the ‘Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation’, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet forces, remaining as co-ordinator with Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front and Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Fronts while Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksander M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the general staff, performed the same task with General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front and General Fedor I. Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front. Operating to the north of the great German eastward-facing salient, the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts were to make parallel thrusts in a south-westerly direction on the axes from Vinnitsa to Mogilev via Podolsky and from Kirovograd to Pervomaysk, while the 3rd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts delivered concentric blows on Nikopol and Krivoi Rog. The first phase of the offensive was to be undertaken by the 63 infantry divisions of Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front. The offensive began during the morning of 24 December against Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 4th Panzerarmee, and as it developed the front of Vatutin’s assault widened to 200 miles (320 km) as its main thrusts being made by General Polkovnik Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s (later General Polkovnik Andrei A. Grechko’s) 1st Guards Army, General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Konstantin N. Leselidze’s 18th Army on Zhitomir, and by General Polkovnik Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army towards Vinnitsa. Vatutin’s main thrust was therefore to be made in the centre with two tank and three infantry armies advancing to the south-west while the two infantry armies on each flank moved to the west and south.
At the end of 1943 Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ comprised Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee, Raus’s 4th Panzerarmee and General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army with the overall strength of 43 infantry, 15 Panzer and seven Panzergrenadier divisions or their equivalents. Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ comprised Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army in Crimea and General de corp de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army and Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 6th Army in the Dniepr river bend with a total of eight German infantry and 10 allied divisions.
Although he continued to feign a good relationship with von Manstein, Hitler was in fact very hostile toward him, and von Manstein’s proposals to evacuate the Dniepr river bend and move his the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ from Vinnitsa to Lwów were discussed by Hitler with General Kurt Zeitzler, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the armed forces operations staff, and others in derogatory terms. Before this time, von Manstein had asked Hitler for authorisation to switch the 1st Panzerarmee to the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and to evacuate the dangerously exposed Dniepr river bend, but Hitler had refused, instead promising the despatch by rail of single divisions from Heeresgruppe ‘A’, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. None of these formations could arrive in time to be of practical importance, so five days after the start of Vatutin’s offensive, von Manstein had on his own responsibility moved the headquarters of the 1st Panzerarmee, three Panzer divisions and one infantry division from the Dniepr river bend to his left wing. von Manstein nonetheless conformed with Hitler’s strategy inasmuch as Wöhler’s 8th Army continued to hold part of the Dniepr river bend area to the west of Hollidt’s 6th Army, which lay deep in the Nikopol pocket.
Although the headquarters of Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee had started to organise the relief of the hard-pressed 4th Panzerarmee, assuming control of its right-hand sector while Raus took over more ground to the left, both had to retreat in the face of Vatutin’s attack, which threatened the German railway link from Lwów to Odessa, vital to the right wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and the whole of Heeresgruppe ‘A’. The 1st Ukrainian Front continued to advance, initially at a steady pace but then more rapidly, and took Korosten, Novograd Volynsk, Zhitomir, Berdichev and Belaya Tserkov within a fortnight of the offensive’s start. On 5 January, the day after the return of von Manstein from a visit to East Prussia to request once again the evacuation of the Dniepr river bend and the transfer to his command of the 17th Army from Crimea, Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front began its offensive against Wöhler’s 8th Army farther to the east. The offensive took the form of a single thrust on a 60-mile (100-km) front between Cherkassy and Starodub well to the east of the sector of Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front, its main axis in a south-westerly direction toward Kirovograd. The main attack was made by General Leytenant Ivan M. Managarov’s 53rd Army, currently under the temporary command of General Leytenant Ivan V. Galanin, and General Polkovnik Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, and the subsidiary flank attacks were delivered by General Major Aleksandr I. Ryzhov’s (later General Leytenant Ilya K. Smirnov’s) 4th Guards Army, General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7 Guards Army, while General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army took the far northern flank. By attacking east toward Kirovograd and Malaya Viska, the Soviets hoped to outflank part of the 8th Army holding the southern bank of the Dniepr river in the area between Cherkassy and Korsun, and thus complete a double envelopment by linking with Vatutin’s forces in the German rear.
Konev’s offensive fell initially on opened on General Erich Buschenhagen’s LII Corps and General Nikolaus von Vormann’s XLVII Panzerkorps. Having arrived to take up his new command only a few days earlier, von Vormann later recorded the state of his three Panzer, one Panzergrenadier and four infantry divisions: the Panzer divisions were little more than Panzer groups and the infantry divisions nothing but reinforced regiments. This situation was typical of that right along the southern part of the Eastern Front: Generalleutnant Bernhard Ramcke’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision of the LII Corps had a combat strength of 3,200 men with which to hold a 13-mile (21-km) front, for example, and Generalleutnant August Schmidt’s 10th Panzergrenadierdivision of the XLVIII Panzerkorps had 3,700 men with which to hold a 10-mile (16-km) front. Everywhere there was deep snow and the temperature was -4° F (-20° C). In these conditions, even the smallest change in an infantry unit’s position meant that it had to attempt, but often fail, to create new firing positions as well as shelter from artillery fire and the cold.
Intercepted radio traffic had provided clear indications that the Soviet offensive was about to start, especially as this Soviet traffic made little effort to conceal the preparations for the attack.
The offensive opened in what was now the usual Soviet fashion with devastatingly concentrated 30-minute artillery bombardment followed by powerful tank and infantry attacks. von Vormann later recorded that although the Soviets had created their higher-level plan with skill, the Soviet ground forces were still prone to many of its characteristic earlier weaknesses, lack of flexibility and co-ordination in its artillery fire, some rigidity among lower-level commanders, and poor performance by the largely untrained infantry. This last outnumbered the Germans by a ratio of some 8/1, but for the most part comprised local and often unwilling levies, which were known to the Germans as 'booty troops'. On 5/6 January the artillery of the XLVII Panzerkorps fired some 177,000 rounds in its efforts to cover with defensive fire the many gaps in the German front line, but in the absence of reserves at army and corps level the corps fronts were in severe danger of disintegration. Thus on 8 January the Soviets took Kirovograd, during the night of 9 January the headquarters of the XLVIII Panzerkorps was dispersed, with major losses of men and equipment, by Soviet infantry carried on the vehicles of a tank brigade, and several German divisions were encircled, fought their way out and were then enveloped once more as they fought their way back.
The advance of the Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front continued against a grim and determined German opposition which, the Soviets later conceded, made excellent tactical use of the area’s many villages and gullies to create a skilled defence. Farther to the west, Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front continued to drive a wedge between the 1st Panzerarmee and 4th Panzerarmee until the two armoured formations were some 40 miles (65 km) apart.
In the second half of January, however, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ delivered a pair of powerful counterattacks, using two Panzer and one infantry corps, on the 1st Ukrainian Front in the area between Uman and Vinnitsa. The first forced back General Leytenant Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s 40th and Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army in the area to the north of Uman, while the second cut off part of Moskalenko’s 38th Army and Katukov’s 1st Tank Army, in the process inflicting on the Soviets heavy losses, especially in armour. The 1st Ukrainian Front lost ground, if only temporarily, and fell back some 20 miles (32 km).
The penetration by the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts to the east and west of the area of Korsun left a vulnerable German salient, to the south-west of Cherkassy, held by formations and units of the 1st Panzerarmee and 8th Army. In the ‘Korsun-Shevchenkovsky Offensive Operation’ that now began, the Soviet offensive was then renewed by the flank formations of both the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts with the object of completing a double envelopment of the salient. First to attack, on 25 January, was the 2nd Ukrainian Front, which took Shpola and Zvenigorodka deep in the German rear on 27 and 28 January respectively despite strong counterattacks by German armour, which succeeded in enveloping and isolating the attacking forces for three days.
The 1st Ukrainian Front renewed its effort from the west on 26 January, and on 28 January elements of d all his army group and army commanders to East Prussia to hear a lecture on the virtues of National Socialism within the German Army, elements of General Leytenant Andrei G. Kravchenko’s 6th Tank Army met Rotmistrov’s 5th Tank Army of the 2nd Ukrainian Front in the region of Zvenigorodka to complete a double envelopment which cut off General Franz Matenklott’s XLII Corps and General Wilhelm Stemmerman’s XII Corps. The 57th Division, 72nd Division, 88th Division, 389th Division, 5th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Wiking’ that was in the process of being converted into a Panzer division, one SS brigade and other elements, totalling some 60,000 men, were therefore cut off in the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket by Soviet forces totalling some 27 infantry divisions, four tank corps and one mechanised corps.
Within Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ there immediately began a concentrated effort to assemble a relief force, for the Germans had learned from experience that the longer the relief effort was delayed the more difficult the task became. The situation was rendered the more complicated by the fact that all major decisions had to be made by Hitler, who was informed of the encirclement by a telephone call from Zeitzler at 17.00 on the same day, and then started to extract a division here and a Kampfgruppe there. Hitler told Zeitzler that infantry was no longer of any utility in battle unless it was supported by armour, in the form of tanks or assault guns. Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee was to break off its battle against Katukov’s 1st Tank Army on the far left, and the 8th Army was to make available von Vormann’s XLVII Panzerkorps. von Manstein ordered Generalleutnant Maximilian Freiherr von Edelsheim’s 24th Panzerdivision to move from Hollidt’s 6th Army sector in the Dnieper bend, but Hitler ordered the formation back, after it had begun to attack at Cherkassy, on the grounds that the area of Nikopol was under threat. After travelling about 500 miles (800 km), the division arrived in the Nikopol area too late, and had therefore been of no use in either sector.
Some four weeks earlier, on 10/11 January, and farther to south-east in the depths of the great bend of the Dniepr river, Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front and Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front had gone over to the offensive against Hollidt’s 6th Army, but this first stage of the assault was terminated after only five days as the Soviet attacks has achieved little in the way of any concrete success. The two fronts were then regrouped and reinforced in preparation for a new attack on 30 January. General Leytenant Vasili V. Glagolev’s 46th Army and General Polkovnik Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army delivered the primary attack in the centre of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, while General Leytenant Mikhail N. Sharokhin’s 37th Army and General Leytenant Ivan T. Shlemin’s 6th Army held the flanks. Using General Polkovnik Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’s 5th Shock Army, General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 3rd Guards Army and General Leytenant Aleksei A. Grechkin’s 28th Army, the 4th Ukrainian Front attacked the bridgehead to the east of Nikopol on the Dniepr river. Some weeks earlier, the 6th Army had taken command of the corps which had been left by the 1st Panzerarmee when it was moved to the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, and at the end of January the 6th Army comprised General Friedrich Mieth’s IV Corps, General Hans Kreysing’s XVII Corps, General Erich Brandenburger’s XXIX Corps, General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps and General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps under the temporary command of an officer who may have been General Hans-Karl Freiherr von Esebeck, totalling 18 infantry and three Panzer divisions.
At about this time, in the middle of the battle, Hitler switched command of the 6th Army from von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’, whose headquarters had just moved from Crimea to Nikolayev on the Ukrainian mainland.
The 3rd Ukrainian Front’s offensive fell on Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps, a formation which was drastically below strength and broke. The Soviets now cleared the left bank of the Dniepr river and took Nikopol taken by 7 February, and the German troops in the Dniepr river bend, abandoning all their heavier equipment and baggage as they moved, were soon in retreat as their line of withdrawal was threatened by Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army and Glagolev’s 46th Army to their rear. On 17 February the Soviets began their attack to take Krivoi Rog, and five days later the town was in Soviet hands once more.
In greater details, therefore, when Hollidt’s 6th Army assumed command of the sector previously controlled by Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee in the lower part of the Dniepr river’s great eastward bend, it was tasked firstly with holding an essentially indefensible front to protect an untenable position, namely that of Jaenecke’s 17th Army in Crimea, and secondly with keeping in German hands assets which had earlier been economic advantages but were now military liabilities, namely the iron and manganese mines at Krivoi Rog and Nikopol.
To ensure that the most crucial sector of the 6th Army’s front would be held under any and all circumstances, at the end of October 1943 Adolf Hitler had entrusted to General Ferdinand Schörner, commander of the XIX Gebirgskorps in northern Finland, overall command of the three corps including his own XL Panzerkorps in the loop inside the Dniepr river bend and in the bridgehead on this river’s eastern side. Hitler had faith in Schörner as he was a ‘new man’, a convinced Nazi whose military reputation up to this time was based on the qualities of energy and determination. Schörner had the knack of raising his men’s morale, which partially offset his considerable tendency toward ruthlessness and the severity with which he was wont to treat his subordinates.
By the end of 1943, the chances of Schörner’s capabilities being used in the manner Hitler wished had all but evaporated. To the north of the 6th Army the Soviets had cut into the German positions so deeply to the west of the Dniepr river that the army’s front was bent in the middle to a right angle. About half of the front, that held by Schörner’s three corps, was now aligned to the south-east. All that was left of the original Dniepr river line, this possessed good field fortifications, but in its rear lay the wide flood plain of the Dniepr river, with was an area that was marshy and divided by water courses which during that winter seldom froze. The exits from the bridgehead were a temporary bridge at its northern end to the east of Nikopol and two narrow pontoon bridges at its very southern end near Bol’shaya Lepatikha. The other half of the 6th Army’s front, aligned to the north and slightly to the east, was a thin line extending across the open steppe and severed at right angles by a number of gullies and the five large rivers. The line passed 18 miles (29 km) to the north of Krivoi Rog and 30 miles (48 km) to the north of Apostolovo Station, the railway junction where the one railroad still serving the army branched to the north and toward Nikopol.
The sole all-weather road in the 6th Army’s sector was the so-called Through Road IV, which by then lay too close to the front to be of practical service except locally around Krivoi Rog. The complete absence of any sort of gravel or suitable stone had prevented even an attempt to create surfaced roads over the region’s soft clay. In wet weather, when the ground was not frozen as was generally the case in the winter of 1943/44, the railway and tracked vehicles were the only practical means of transport. Thus the Soviet forces had to advance only the 30 miles (48 km) to Apostolovo Station, in the centre of the German eastward salient, to cut off Schörner’s three corps.
On the Soviet side, on the one hand the 6th Army’s front was a severe impediment to the deep right flank of Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front on the salient’s northern side, and kept Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front on the salient’s southern side from devoting itself to the destruction of the 17th Army in Crimea. On the other hand, though, the German salient provided the Soviets with an excellent opportunity for a double envelopment, and Vasilevsky, the chief of the Soviet general staff, was there to exploit it on behalf of the Stavka.
When the arrival of a period of cold wave in the first week of January solidified the ground sufficiently to allow the movement of armoured fighting vehicles, the 3rd Ukrainian Front started its offensive on 10 January with, from north-west to south-east, the 57th, 46th, 8th Guards and 6th Armies. Behind a barrage laid down by 220 pieces of artillery and a similar numbers of multiple rocket launchers, 80 tanks drive to the south on a front of 4.5 miles (7.25 km) in the area to the west of the Buzuluk river. Nine infantry divisions in two waves advanced behind the armour to exploit the breakthrough but, in one of the tactical errors to which the Soviet commands were still liable, the infantry failed to keep up with the armour. Some 3 miles (4.8 km) behind the front two Panzer divisions stopped the Soviet armour and in a few hours destroyed some 67% of it. Before the end of the day, and despite the efforts of the Soviet artillery to blown open the way for the infantry, the Germans managed to seal the front and to regain all but about 1 miles (1.6 km) of the ground they had lost earlier in the day.
Over the following three days, Malinovsky committed his infantry in a strength so great that its weight alone pushed the front back some 5 miles (8 km). This was a depth of ground which the 6th Army could not afford to lose, and Hollidt, decided to take Generalleutnant Maximilian Freiherr von Edelsheim’s 24th Panzerdivision from the eastern part of the bridgehead for a counterattack. Before the division could be moved, however, the 4th Ukrainian Front (from north-east to south-west the 3rd Guards, 5th Shock and 28th Armies) attacked to the south of Nikopol at the bridgehead’s narrowest point. Hollidt found himself faced with a choice of sacrificing the 5 miles (8 km) in the north or, possibly, losing ground in the bridgehead where the loss of 1 or 2 miles (1.6 or 3.2 km) might be fatal. He opted for the former, thereby accepting the consequences of a two-front battle in which neither front could support the other. On 16 January, after failing to achieve anything more than denting the bridgehead, the Soviets called a halt to their offensive both there and in the north.
During the next 10 days or so, the 6th Army’s chances of checking another Soviet attack declined strongly. Warm weather turned the ground to soft, soupy mud, and Vasilevsky took advantage of several days of heavy fog, starting on 19 January, to relocate one guards mechanised corps and two guards infantry corps from a point opposite the bridgehead to the 6th Army’s northern front, more than doubling the Soviet strength in this sector. To aid in concealing the movements, the 4th Ukrainian Front feigned heavy traffic toward the Crimea and positioned dummy tanks in the assembly areas of the units which had been redeployed.
Surprised that the Soviets had not used greater strength in the area right from the start, Hollidt was fully aware that when the Soviets got their offensive under way once more, the fate of the bridgehead would be decided on the northern front. To give himself a strong mobile reserve, he decided to take his four Panzer divisions out of the line and concentrate them as a Panzer corps behind the northern front. On 24 January this seemed feasible, but in the course of the following four days he had to give up one infantry division for Crimea, then the equivalent of two infantry divisions to Wöhler’s 8th Army, another of the armies in von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ but farther to the north-west, and finally the 24th Panzerdivision, his strongest formation, to the 8th Army. Ultimately, therefore, all which Hollidt could spare for the creation of a reserve was Generalmajor Erwin Jollasse’s 9th Panzerdivision, which was weak in infantry and artillery and could muster a mere 13 tanks, which was only some 33% of its normal complement. After losing the four divisions, the 6th Army had 20 divisions each with a front-line strength of about 2,500 men. Against this German force, the 3rd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts could commit 51 infantry divisions, of which about 50% were at full strength, two mechanised corps, two tank corps, and six tank brigades.
On the morning of 30 January, after deluging the German front line with 30,000 artillery rounds in a single hour, the 3d Ukrainian Front began the second phase of the ‘Nikopol-Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation’ within the ‘Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation’ with a concentrated infantry assault on a 4-mile (6.4-km) length of the front held by Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps to the west of the Buzuluk river. This time the the Soviet armour was not initially committed, but kept back until such time as the infantry had breached the German line, but the German artillery laid down a barrage of its own that savaged the Soviet infantry before it could move off and threw it so completely off balance that the attack dissolved into a series of unco-ordinated skirmishes.
On the following day, Malinovsky tried once more, starting with heavier artillery fire and giving the infantry the support of 130 tanks and about 300 aircraft. This renewed effort advanced to the south on a 7-mile (11.25-km) from to a depth of 2.5 miles (4 km), but nonetheless failed to secure a breakthrough of the XXX Corps’ front. Hollidt now took Generalmajor Ewald Kräber’s 23rd Panzerdivision from the front farther to the west, and with this formation, the 9th Panzerdivision and one infantry division from the bridgehead planned to counterattack. Meanwhile the 4th Ukrainian Front had driven a deep wedge into the southern end of the bridgehead toward Bol’shaya Lepatikha. Once again, except for the two weak Panzer divisions, Hollidt had his entire strength on both fronts committed, and at the end of the day told von Manstein that if the Soviets managed to break through in the north the 6th Army would be left on a hopeless situation. Hollidt therefore sought authorisation to evacuate the bridgehead and to fall back to the line of the Kamenka river.
But it was already almost too late for this. On 1 February Soviet infantry-carrying tanks penetrated the XXX Corps’ line in a number of locations after the German tanks and assault guns had expended their last ammunition. By the fall of night the Soviets had opened a gap some 6.25 miles (10 km) wide in the front to the west of the Buzuluk river. In the mud, at this time 2 ft (0.6 m) deep, the Soviets had the benefit of superior mobility. Wide tracks gave their tanks some capacity to cross the mud, and their powerful US-manufactured trucks and half-tracks, though slowed, could advance across all but the worst stretches. Moreover, at the other end of the technical spectrum, the Soviets had numbers of small but high-riding, horse-drawn panje wagons, which could also cope with the mud to a limited extent. On the other side of the front, the Germans were decidedly handicapped by their trucks, which were mostly of the two-wheel drive commercial type and wholly incapable of moving in the mud. The Germans’ prime movers were good, but all too few in number. Most of the time the German tanks kept moving, though only just, but the self-propelled assault guns performed better in the conditions of the period.
On 2 February, while the 23rd Panzerdivision and 9th Panzerdivision struggled through the mud in a doomed effort to deliver a flank attack, the 8th Guards Army took Sholokhovo and one mechanised corps veered to the west and crossed the Kamenka river. At the end of the day the Soviet leading elements were 5 miles (8 km) to the north of the vital railway to Nikopol and 10 miles (16 km) to the north of the Dniepr river, and had gained a form grip on the proposed Kamenka line. At 18.45 Zeitzler spoke to von Kleist and tok him that his Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was to assume immediate command of the 6th Army. Hitler had approved the army’s withdrawal to the Kamenka river, but wished a small bridgehead to be held around Bol’shaya Lepatikha, and believed that by the shortening of its line the 6th Army would be able to spare two divisions, one for Crimea and the other for the lower line of the Dniepr river. It was in order to ensure that these divisions would be redeployed to the areas in which he wanted them that Hitler had switched command of the 6th Army from von Manstein, whom he now considered obdurate, to von Kleist, whom he saw as more pliable.
On 4 February the 6th Army ordered Schörner to begin pulling back his bridgehead front in ‘Damenwahl’, and in this Schörner was aided by the fact that two divisions were already in position to the east of Nikopol. On the previous day the 6th Army had managed to pass a train loaded with ammunition toward the front, and for two more days the rolling stock could be shuttled to collect men and equipment arriving back across the Dniepr river and to deliver these to the Buzuluk river, where they extemporised a westward-facing screening line. Schörner decided, inevitably, to order the destruction of all of his force’s heavy equipment except horse-drawn artillery and tracked vehicles. As a result, the troops were extracted more quickly and in better order than had they been compelled to waste effort on an almost certainly futile effort to manhandle trucks and artillery through the mud.
To the west of the Dniepr river, Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps had lost all of its trucks and had dissolved into a large number of small groups, almost all of them of platoon size or smaller. Every man of the corps, including Fretter-Pico, had nothing he could not himself wear or carry, and many of the soldiers had lost their boots in the sucking mud. Off the corps’ right flank, the 9th Panzerdivision entered Kamenka, which it held long enough to slow. though only to a modest degree, the Soviet thrust toward Apostolovo.
As his front’s supply lines lengthened, Malinovsky was also experiencing trouble with the mud, and in fact compounded his difficulties by tactical extravagance. On 4 February the leading units of the 8th Guards Army reached Apostolovo. During the next few days the 46th Army on the 8th Guards Army’s right moved up and began an attempt to sweep to the west of Apostolovo in order to envelop Krivoi Rog from the south. At the same time the 8th Guards Army, instead of advancing the 10 miles (16 km) from Sholokhovo to the Dniepr river, which would have cut off at least one of Schörner’s corps, headed from the Apostolovo area in the direction of the bridgehead’s lower tip some 25 miles (40 km) to the south.
By 4 February two of Schörner’s divisions were across the Dniepr river and in position to block the Soviet advance in the area to the south of Sholokhovo. Hollidt now had to decided whether to pull back the troops from the inside of the Dniepr river bend and the northern half of the bridgehead through the corridor below Sholokhovo, or to attempt a push to the north-west from the foothold on the lower Kamenka river toward the XXX Corps’ right flank, which was still on the Kamenka river to the north of Apostolovo. The former option, Hollidt decided, would mean the use of a considerable part of the 9th Panzerdivision and 24th Panzerdivision, which as noted above had been ordered back to the army on 4 February, in order to open an escape route in the south for Schörner’s units, and would accomplish nothing more than this. The latter option would extract Schörner’s divisions and provide a chance to fall back to the line of the Kamenka river. The latter option became more attractive during the next few days as Schörner’s movements proceeded without undue difficulty and the Soviet effort became dispersed.
By 5 February, following three days of heavy fighting at Kamenka and Apostolovo, the 9th Panzerdivision had reached its effective limit. Hollidt reported that Schörner could not make the break-out without external support, and proposed to yield the small bridgehead to the east of Bol’shaya Lepatikha to provide three divisions for an attack from the south. von Kleist forwarded the suggestion to the Oberkommando des Heeres, and in reply was informed that Hitler still wished to retain the small bridgehead, but authorised the army group to decide whether or not the divisions should be pulled back: during the morning of the following day, von Kleist ordered Hollidt to evacuate the Bol’shaya Lepatikha bridgehead.
On 7 February the last German troops in the area to the east of Nikopol crossed the Dniepr river, destroying the bridge behind them. On the next day one of Schörner’s formations, Mieth’s IV Corps, attacked to the west while General Paul Völckers’s XXVII Corps, as it fell back from the Dniepr river bend, screened the IV Corps’ rear. For three days the IV Corps continued to gain ground. On 10 February the 9th Panzerdivision and part of the 24th Panzerdivision drove into the open country to the south of Apostolovo, and here destroyed a guards infantry corps. Meanwhile, two of the three divisions from the Bol’shaya Lepatikha bridgehead had expanded along the western bank of the Dniepr river and the other was moving to the north into the area lying to the south of Apostolovo.
The mud and the Soviets were too much for the Germans, however. After the IV Corps had managed to make no progress at all on 11 February, the 6th Army called a halt, ordered the 9th Panzerdivision and 24th Panzerdivision to turn to the east and Schörner to turn to the south, skirt the Soviet advance’s southern edge, and thus establish contact with each other. During the night of 12 February, von Kleist informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that the 6th Army could cobble together a temporary front, but could not hold it: the Soviet forces were in the position to strike to the south as far as the line of the lower Dniepr river, and to the north past Krivoi Rog whenever they choose to do so. von Kleist therefore proposed that Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ back to the line of the Ingul river and the lower Bug river as what was clearly an initial move toward withdrawing both of the Germans army groups in the south back to the next defensible line, that of the Bug river.
During the latter part of February 1944, a state of semi-paralysis seemed to descend on the entirety of the German southern flank. On 18 February von Kleist suggested to the Oberkommando des Heeres that all of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and most of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ be permitted to pull back to the Bug river, though in an attempt to make the concept more palatable to Hitler, as ever averse to the yielding of ground won by German blood, also suggested the retention of several major bridgeheads from which later offensives could be undertaken to recapture some of the lost ground. The idea of a withdrawal to the Bug river was hardly novel, for both von Manstein and von Kleist had suggested it before. Both von Manstein and Zeitzler approved von Kleist’s proposal, and though Zeitzler appeared to believe that a major withdrawal of this type was inevitable, nothing happened.
On 19 February, the 6th Army closed the last gap in its front to the south-west of Apostolovo. One day earlier, Schörner had left the Eastern Front to become head of the Nazi Leadership Corps, the organisation which undertook political indoctrination in the army. On 21 February the Soviets broke into Krivoi Rog’s outer defences: as had earlier happened at Nikopol, the ore mines had been destroyed, the able-bodied population evacuated, and all movable goods except 100,000 tons of iron ore removed to the west. To avoid a bloody urban battle, von Kleist ordered the 6th Army to fall back into the area to the west of the city. As ever reluctant, Hitler then authorised the retirement of the 6th Army to positions behind the Ingulets river in an area as far to the south as Arkhangelskoye, but demanded that the army remain on the Dniepr river in the area below Dudchino. The Dniepr river provided a superior natural defence line than the meandering Ingulets river, but by keeping much of the army there, Hitler again created a large bulge to the east.
In the meantime new difficulties were emerging on the northern flank, where the 6th Army’s left-hand corps and the 8th Army’s right-hand corps held a shallow bulge between Kirovograd and Krivoi Rog. Promoted to Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza on 20 February, Konev deployed strong forces of his 2nd Ukrainian Front off the 8th Army’s right flank and seemed ready to attack to the south-west at any moment. Fully occupied by events on his army group’s left flank, von Manstein transferred the 8th Army’s right-hand corps to Heeresgruppe ‘A’. At the end of February, the Soviet offensive had yet to begin, the 6th Army was pulling back to the Ingulets river in stages, and in the south the front was still on the Dniepr river, where drifting ice prevented the Soviets from ferrying troops across and gave the Germans a moment in which to recuperate. In Berchtesgaden Hitler conferred with the Romanian leader, Ion Antonescu, and although the latter argued that despite of the political disadvantages which might result Crimea should be evacuated for purely military reasons, Hitler remained more than ever convinced the peninsula had to be held.