This was a German rearguard position of Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube’s (from 21 April 1944 General Kurt von der Chevallerie’s and from 18 May 1944 Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s) 1st Panzerarmee within Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in the north-west part of Ukraine near Kamenets-Podolsky in the Battle of the Kamenets-Podolsky Pocket (25 March/15 April 1944).
The Battle of the Kamenets-Podolsky Pocket resulted from a Soviet effort to destroy the 1st Panzerarmee after it had been enveloped in March 1944 to create a pocket in which some 200,000 Germans were trapped. Under the overall direction of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von von Manstein and then Model, and immediate command of Hube, the German forces were able to fight their way out of the pocket and escape by mid-April.
In February 1944 the 1st Panzerarmee had four corps, of which three were Panzer corps (totalling eight Panzer divisions and one Panzergrenadier division) and, together with attached formations and units, was the most powerful major formation of von Manstein’s (from 31 March Model’s) Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps of this Panzerarmee had recently fought extensively in operations to thwart an earlier Soviet attempt to trap and destroy two corps in the ’Korsun-Shevchenkovsky Offensive Operation’.
Appreciating the significance of the 1st Panzerarmee in the German defence of the southern portion of the Eastern Front, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces and, from 2 March, commander-in-chief of the 1st Ukrainian Front, began planning to bring about its destruction as the first step in encompassing the collapse of the entire German position in Ukraine. Zhukov planned an offensive by his own 1st Ukrainian Front and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front. This force of 11 reinforced armies, including two air armies, was to attempt to outflank and encircle the 1st Panzerarmee and reduce the resulting pocket until all the troops in it had been killed or had surrendered. The Soviet operations were to take place in the extreme north and south of the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’.
von Manstein was informed of major Soviet troop movements all along Hube’s front, which were in fact deceptions intended to suggest a single frontal breakthrough thrust rather than two outflanking movements, and was fully aware that a large-scale Soviet offensive was imminent, but could do little to improve the situation as Adolf Hitler had expressly refused to authorise any strategic withdrawal with a better line.
In the course of the Soviet ‘Proskurov-Chernovtsy Offensive Operation’ (4 March/17 April) and ‘Uman-Botosani Offensive Operation’ (5 March/17 April), Zhukov’s 1st Ukrainian Front and Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front encircled the 1st Panzerarmee in an area to the north of the Dniestr river, but most of the army’s manpower was able to escape the encirclement in April. In mid-February 1944, the 1st Panzerarmee was holding the German line in north-western Ukraine despite the fact that its III Panzerkorps had only just completed operations to rescue the two corps trapped by the Soviet ‘Korsun-Shevchenkovsky Offensive Operation’ and was therefore exhausted. At this time the 1st Panzerarmee comprised four corps in the form of Breith’s III Panzerkorps, von der Chevallerie’s LIX Corps, General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps and General Friedrich Schulz’s XLVI Panzerkorps, the four corps totalling 19 divisions and several powerful supporting elements 1. The 1st Panzerarmee thus totalled about 200,000 men and, as noted above, was the most powerful formation within Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. It was for this very reason that Zhukov conceived the 1st Panzerarmee’s destruction to trigger the collapse of the entire German position in the south-eastern USSR.
The Soviet offensives began early in March, with Zhukov taking personal command of the 1st Ukrainian Front, whose commander, Vatutin, had been severely wounded on 29 February. The massive concentration of Soviet troops (some 500,000 men) and matériel forced Hube to withdraw his northern flank to the south-west until it reached the Dniestr river. Despite constant Soviet attacks, the Germans were able to hold this position held until a time late in March. On 22 March, however, five Soviet tank corps of General Polkovnik Mikhail Ya. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and Marshal Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army penetrated the extreme northern flank of Hube’s position to the east of Tarnopol, and then advanced to the south between the Zbruch and Seret rivers.
The force crossed the Dniestr, and in an attempt to outflank and surround the 1st Panzerarmee, continued toward Chernovtsy with, in its wake, infantry corps that began to create defensive positions on the flanks of the breach created in the German front.
Both Hube and von Manstein fully appreciated the imminent danger of a major encirclement for, with the southern flank on the Dniestr river and the recent Soviet attacks in the north, the 1st Panzerarmee was now in a salient. von Manstein again asked for authorisation to begin a retreat and so avoid encirclement, but Hitler once more refused.
In a matter of days, Zhukov’s and Konev’s Ukrainian fronts had crossed the Dniestr river and were poised to complete the encirclement. On 25 March, the last line of communications corridor out of Hube’s bridgehead on the northern bank of the Dniestr river was cut at Khotyn. The whole of the 1st Panzerarmee was now encircled in a pocket centred around the city of Kamenets-Podolsky.
While the encircled forces had food and ammunition sufficient for two weeks or more, their vehicles were precariously short of fuel. The delivery of more fuel by the Luftwaffe was hampered by heavy snow, and soon only the combat vehicles were still in running condition. Meanwhile, Hube had ordered all service units to the south of the Dniestr river to withdraw from the primary Soviet penetration, which was taking place to the south on the front of General Polkovnik Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s 40th Army of the 2nd Ukrainian Front.
Learning of this movement to the south, Zhukov decided that Hube was in full retreat and would soon attempt a break-out to the south. To prevent this, Zhukov stripped units from the encircling forces and sent them to the southern side of the pocket and this, when he attempted to attack to the south, Hube encountered increasing resistance from 2nd Ukrainian Front’s infantry and artillery.
Hube now ordered the pocket to be reduced in size, so shortening its front and increasing the density of its defence. Just before the 1st Ukrainian Front had completed the encirclement, Hube had requested from the Oberkommando des Heeres the authority to use mobile defence tactics during the breakout, but this request was refused. However, once the encirclement was complete, the situation changed. The heavy snow meant that the limited weight of supplies which could be delivered were insufficient to maintain the fighting strength of the 1st Panzerarmee. The neighbouring German armies, which were General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army to the south-east and Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 4th Panzerarmee to the north-west, were unable to attempt a major relief operation.
At this point the Germans received from Zhukov an ultimatum to surrender, or be captured and killed. Hube responded by reorganising his forces within what was now deemed a Kessel (cauldron). The original four corps were re-formed into three Korpsgruppen (corps groups), namely General Hans Gollick’s Korpsgruppe ‘Gollick’, Breith’s Korpsgruppe ‘Breith’ and von der Chevallerie’s Korpsgruppe ‘von der Chevallerie’. As the forces in the pocket were being revised, von Manstein had been arguing with Hitler for the trapped 1st Panzerarmee to be allowed to break out, and that a relief force should be sent to assist the effort. After one heated argument, Hitler finally agreed and ordered Hube to attempt a break-out.
However, the decision about the direction the break-out was to take was difficult. Hube wished to move to the south, across the Dniestr river and into Romania. von Manstein realised that such a move would rob his army group of a Panzer army which it so desperately needed, because a long withdrawal would be required in order to move the 1st Panzerarmee from Romania back to the front line. Vezérõrnagy István Kiss’s weak Hungarian VII Corps was holding a sector to the west of the Kamenets-Podolsky pocket, however, so a break-out to the west would allow the 1st Panzerarmee to rejoin the front almost immediately. von Manstein therefore ordered Hube to break out in this area and thus provide support for the Hungarian troops. So the 1st Panzerarmee was to break out toward Tarnopol, where relief forces, led by SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, were to meet them.
From Kamenets-Podolsky to Tarnopol is about 150 miles (245 km) across several river lines and, at this time, through muddy terrain. The west was also where Hube expected to meet the strongest Soviet resistance, but nonetheless Hube divided his forces into two columns and prepared to move to the west.
On 27 March the advance guard of the 1st Panzerarmee began to move toward the Zbruch river, while the rearguard began a fighting withdrawal, with the rest of the 200,000 troops between them. The advance guard’s attack went well. The northern column quickly captured three bridges over the Zbruch river, but the southern column was battered by a counterattack delivered by the 4th Guards Tank Army, which penetrated deep into the pocket, capturing Kamenets-Podolsky. The loss of this major road and rail hub meant that the escaping Germans had to detour around the city, inevitably slowing their progress. A counterattack soon cut off the Soviets in the city, however, and the break-out began to regain momentum. Moving by day and night, the Kessel kept moving, and soon secured bridgeheads over the Seret river.
While Hube’s army escaped to the west, Zhukov and Konev continued to believe that the major break-out attempt would nonetheless be to the south, but Zhukov nonetheless instructed that the attacks on the north and eastern flanks of the pocket be stepped up. These attacks achieved little, and many of them fell on positions which had been abandoned as the German troops withdrew toward Proskurov. Despite the German attacks to the west, Zhukov kept increasing the Soviet troop density on the southern flank of the pocket in anticipation of an attack that would never come.
On 30 March von Manstein was informed by the Oberkommando des Heeres that he had been relieved of command, and Hube was on his own pending the arrival of Model to assume command of the army group in succession to von Manstein.
On the following day the Soviets began belatedly to react to the actuality of the situation. A strong armoured force of the 4th Guards Tank Army launched an assault in the north between the Seret and Zbruch. Hube’s southern advanced guard turned and halted the Soviet attack, cutting its supply lines and thus rendering the army’s T-34 tanks immobile. Despite the fact that he was now taking the break-out attempt seriously, Zhukov nonetheless did not move to block the escaping Germans, and the way to Tarnopol was still open. Despite heavy falls of snow, shortage of supplies and total encirclement, the constant movement of Hube’s army meant that spirits were still high, with the men moving in good order and obeying discipline; there were almost no desertions. This was all a very stark comparison with the dispirited and defeatist situation that had characterised the earlier encirclements at Stalingrad and Korsun-Shevkenkovsky.
By 5 April, the advance guards of the northern and southern columns had reached the Strypa river and on the following day, near the town of Buchach, linked with the probing reconnaissance elements of Hausser’s eastward-moving SS divisions. In something more than two weeks of heavy combat in bad weather and with few supplies, the 1st Panzerarmee had managed to escape from its encirclement while suffering only moderate casualties (14,242 men including 5,878 killed or missing in action).
The 1st Panzerarmee was put back straight back into the line between the Dniestr river and the town of Brody.
During their escape, Hube’s forces had destroyed 357 tanks, 42 assault guns and 280 pieces of artillery, and had also inflicted considerable though unspecified manpower losses (perhaps more than 50,000) on the Soviets, who had committed as many as 500,000 men. von Manstein’s quick thinking had combined with Hube’s operational planning and skill to allow almost 200,000 men to avoid surrender or destruction. However, while Hube’s troops were still disciplined, and equipped with light and personal weapons, they had escaped with only 45 armoured vehicles, and the 1st Panzerarmee was thus unable to undertake large-scale offensive operations before being refitted.
Breith’s III Panzerkorps comprised Generalmajor Hans-Ulrich Back’s 16th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision, one Kampfgruppe of the 1st SS Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’, Major Kurt Schäff’s 249th Sturmgeschützbrigade, Oberst Franz Bäke’s schwere Panzerregiment 'Bäke’ and Oberleutnant Dr König’s 509th schwere Panzerabteilung (Tiger).
von der Chevallerie’s LIX Corps comprised Generalleutnant Richard Wirtz’s 9th Division, Generalmajor Oskar Eckholt’s 291st Division, Generalleutnant Walter Denkert’s 6th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Hans Källner’s 19th Panzerdivision, SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Weidinger’s Kampfgruppe ‘Weidinger’ of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision ‘Das Reich’, Major Norbert Braun’s 276th Sturmgeschützbrigade, Major Kurt Kühme’s 280th Sturmgeschützbrigade, the 616th schwere Panzerjägerabteilung, the 88th schwere Panzerjägerabteilung and the 509th schwere Panzerjägerabteilung.
Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps comprised the remnants of Generalleutnant Hans Tröger’s 25th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Georg Jauer’s 20th Panzergrenadierdivision, Generalleutnant Werner Schmidt-Hammer’s 168th Division, Generalleutnant Heinz Piekenbrock’s 208th Division, Generalleutnant Hermann Niehoff’s 371st Division, Major Herbert Martin’s 300th Sturmgeschützbrigade, the 731st schwere Panzerjägerabteilung and the 473rd Motorcycle Battalion.
Schulz’s XLVI Panzerkorps comprised Generalleutnant Ernst-Anton von Krosigk’s 1st Division, Generalleutnant Hans-Walter Heyne’s 82nd Division, Generalleutnant Helmuth Beukemann’s 75th Division, Generalleutnant Alfred Thielmann’s 254th Division, Generalleutnant Emil Vogel’s 101st Jägerdivision, Generalleutnant Karl Thoholte’s 18th Artilleriedivision and the 300th Sturmgeschützabteilung.