Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation' was the first of the Soviet undertakings in the complex series of military battles together constituting the 2nd Battle of Kiev within the considerably larger Soviet offensive in Ukraine known as the Battle of the Dniepr River between 1 October and 22 December 1943, and involving three strategic-level operations by the Soviet forces and one operational-level counterattack by the German forces (1/24 October 1943).

After their defeat of the German 'Zitadelle' offensive in the Battle of Kursk, the Soviet forces launched the 'Belgorod-Kharkov Offensive Operation', pushing Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' back toward the Dniepr river. The Stavka (Soviet high command) ordered the Central Front and the Voronezh Front to force crossings of that river and seize substantial bridgeheads on its western bank. When this effort proved unsuccessful in October, the task was passed to General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front (latterly the Voronezh Front) with some support from General Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front (latterly the Steppe Front). The 1st Ukrainian Front was able to secure bridgeheads to both the north and the south of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.

The strategic structure of the Kiev operations were, in Soviet thinking, the '1st Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation' (1/24 October) by the Central Front and the Voronezh Front, the '2nd Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation (3/13 November) and the 'Kiev Strategic Defensive Operation' (13 November/22 December). The first of these incorporated the 'Chernobyl-Radomysl Offensive Operation' (1/4 October), the 'Chernobyl-Gornostaipol Defensive Operation' (3/8 October), the 'Lutezh Offensive Operation' (11/24 October) and the two-part 'Bukrin Offensive Operation' (12/15 October and 21/24 October).

Between the '2nd Kiev Strategic Offensive' and 'Kiev Strategic Defensive Operation' came the German counterattack by Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee.

In October 1943, several of Vatutin’s armies were experiencing acute difficulties as they attempted to break out of the rugged terrain of the 'Bukrin bend', the Soviet southern bridgehead near the village of Veliki Bukrin on a peninsula in the Dniepr river. General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, which was holding an effective defensive position with its four divisions of which none was of the armoured type, severely squeezed the the opposing Soviet forces, and as a result, Vatutin decided to concentrate his strength in the northern bridgehead at Lutezh

General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army moved to the north in the direction of the Lutezh bridgehead under cover of darkness and diversionary attacks out of the Bukrin bend bridgehead. The Soviet preparations were considerable, including the installation of 26 bridges and 87 ferries. Many of the Soviet bridges were built underwater, making them difficult to detect and thus for the Germans to interdict with artillery fire. Feint attacks and the construction of fake bridges may have fooled the Germans for a short while. Fire support was provided by 7,000 guns and mortars, and air support was provided by 700 combat aircraft. General Leytenant Sergei G. Trofimenko’s 27th Army and General Leytenant Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s 40th Army launched the Soviet diversionary attack at Bukrin on 1 November, two days ahead of schedule, but managed to advance a mere 0.93 miles (1.5 km) before being driven back.

Soviet historians later claimed complete success for the Soviet maskirovka deception measures, but in fact the Germans correctly identified the sector in which the Soviet assault was to be made, and had sent armoured reinforcements to the area. The war diary of the 4th Panzerarmee referred to the main Soviet push in the area to the north of Kiev on 3 November as 'the offensive we have been expecting'. However, the Germans were uncertain whether the anticipated Soviet assault had far-reaching objectives from the outset or was intended merely for the capture of an initial bridgehead for later exploitation.

In the early morning of 3 November, the 4th Panzerarmee was struck by a massive artillery bombardment. The Soviet 38th Army and 60th Army then attacked in the first wave but failed to break through the positions of General Anton Dostler’s VII Corps. One day later, the 3rd Guards Tank Army and I Guard Cavalry Corps were added to the assault, forcing the VII Corps to retreat and evacuate Kiev. The Soviets then took Kiev on 6 November. The second phase of the Soviet offensive now began, with the 1st Ukrainian Front’s initial objectives being the liberation of Zhitomir, Korosten, Berdichev and Fastov and the cutting of the railway link to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', so paving the way to the ultimate objective of encircling Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. By 7 November, the Soviet spearheads had reached the important railway nexus at Fastov, some 30 miles (50 km) to the south-west of Kiev.

The Soviet plan initially proceeded well for Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front. However, von Manstein had become worried and, as Rybalko’s tanks moved through the streets of Kiev on 6 November, the commander of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' pleaded with Adolf Hitler to release General Heinrich Eberbach’s (from 15 November General Hermann Balck’s) XLVIII Panzerkorps and General Ferdinand Schörner’s (from 12 November Balck’s) XL Panzerkorps to provide the army group with strength sufficient for the recapture of Kiev. The XLVIII Panzerkorps was committed to von Manstein’s command, but Hitler refused to divert the XL Panzerkorps, and on 3 November had replaced Hoth as commander of the 4th Panzerarmee with Generaloberst Erhard Raus, who was ordered to blunt the Soviet attack and secure the northern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and communications with Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.

A number of sources give 6 November as the date for the liberation of Kiev, but in fact the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade seems to have started the assault earlier, at 12.30 on 5 November, reaching the Dniepr river at 02:00 on 6 November and, after sweeping through the western suburbs of the city, became the first unit to reach the city centre. Kiev was finally captured at 06.50 on 6 November.

Raus had experienced difficulties as his formations and units suffered heavy losses in the initial stages of Vatutin’s offensive. The 4th Panzerarmee was then reinforced, especially with artillery and rocket launchers. The German divisions were bolstered on 7 November by the arrival of Generalleutnant Georg Jauer’s newly formed 25th Panzerdivision, but this fresh division’s drive on Fastov was halted by the VII Guards Tank Corps. Only half-formed, the 25th Panzerdivision had completed only emergency individual training, lacked entire swathes of weapons and other equipment, and was committed over the protests of Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the inspector of Panzer troops. Thus the 25th Panzerdivision became the first Panzer division which failed to achieve at least initial offensive success on the Eastern Front. Despite its overall failure, however, the German offensive did stop the advance of the 3rd Guards Tank Army.

The rest of the Soviet forces continued their attacks: Rybalko’s army was soon a mere 40 miles (65 km) from Berdichev, and Zhitomir was taken by the 38th Army on 12 November. But the Soviet advance came to a halt as the men of the I Guards Cavalry Corps located and looted the alcohol stocks of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army. The 60th Army took Korosten on 17 November and the 40th Army was moving south from Kiev. The only respite for the Germans came when the 27th Army exhausted itself and went over to the defensive in the Bukrin bend. In 10 days the Soviets had advanced 95 miles (150 km) opened a gap some 60 miles (100 km) wide between Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.

The 4th Panzerarmee was now in deep trouble, though the situation started to change with the arrival of Balck’s XLVIII Panzerkorps, which comprised SS-Oberstgruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph (Sepp) Dietrich’s 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler', Generalleutnant Walter Krüger’s 1st Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hasso von Manteuffel’s 7th Panzerdivision. Balck drove his forces north to Brusilov and then west to retake Zhitomir. Rybalko despatched the VII Guards Tank Corps to counter the German assault, and there developed a major armoured battle that continued until the latter part of November, when the mud of the autumn rasputitsa brought all operations to a halt.

With the recapture of Zhitomir and Korosten, the 4th Panzerarmee had gained some respite. With Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front halted, the Stavka released to this formation substantial reinforcements with which to regain momentum.

By 5 December, the autumnal mud had frozen. The XLVIII Panzerkorps undertook a wide sweeping attack to the north of Zhitomir. Catching the Soviet forces by surprise, the Germans sought to encircle the 60th Army and the XIII Corps. Reinforced with the airborne troops of Generalmajor Walter Barenthin’s (from 9 December Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke’s) 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision, the Germans drove to the east, putting the Soviets on the defensive. With Fastov also under threat, the 60th Army withdrew from Korosten.

Vatutin was forced to request the Stavka for more reserves, and was allocated the 1st Tank Army and the 18th Army. These new formations, along with additional corps from other sectors, were hastily rushed to the west. Thus, the Soviets stopped the German advance, went back on the offensive, and retook Brusilov. Both sides were exhausted by late December and the battle for Kiev was over.

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