Kirovograd Offensive Operation

The 'Kirovograd Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking by General Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front against the German forces of General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army in the Kirovograd area of central Ukraine as the second of the 10 sub-operations together constituting the 'Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation' and as such part of this wider offensive designed to defeat Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and retake the rest of Ukraine that fell to Germany in 1941 (5/16 January 1944).

After crossing the Dniepr river in September 1943, the 2nd Ukrainian Front driven back the German forces in a series of fierce battles and advanced between 18.5 and 62 miles (30 and 100 km) on the right bank of the river while capturing Cherkassy, Znamenka and Aleksandriya by the middle of December. On 20 December, Konev reported to the Stavka that, as a result of the preceding fighting, Soviet troops had cleared the right bank of the Dniepr river in his front’s sector, and asked for permission to switch his front’s centre and left flank temporarily to the defensive in order to receive and integrate reinforcements and to replenish his front’s equipment pending an attack towards Krivoi Rog between 5 and 10 January 1944. The Stavka approved, setting the date of the offensive between 5 and 7 January. The front was reinforced by the V Guards Cavalry Corps of General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front, which arrived at about the end of December, as well as 300 tanks and 100 self-propelled guns.

In accordance with instructions received from the Stavka, Konev and his staff developed a plan for the 'Kirovograd Offensive Operation'. This plan was based on the delivery of an attack towards Kazanka and Bereznegovatoye in the rear of the German troops around Nikopol. The 2nd Ukrainian Front would then defeat the German troops around Nikopol in conjunction with General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front and the 4th Ukrainian Front. However, as a result of the advances by the 1st Ukrainian Front in the 'Zhitomir-Berdichev Offensive Operation', the Stavka decided to change the plan and, on 29 December, issued a new directive ordering the front to resume the offensive by attacking toward Kirovograd with at least four armies, of which one was to be a tank army, by a date no later than 5 January. The attack was designed to destroy the German forces in the Kirovograd area and to capture the city with attacks from the north and the south. The front was to then liberate Novoukrainka and Pomoshnaya, advancing to Pervomaysk on the Yuzhny Bug river, where it was to seize a bridgehead. Simultaneously, the front was to mount a secondary attack with two armies towards Shpola and Khristinovka.

The attack toward Kirovograd and Pervomaysk was intended to split the German forces in the Right-Bank Ukraine into two, thereby assisting the 1st Ukrainian Front and 3rd Ukrainian Front. The secondary attack was meant to support the 1st Ukrainian Front as it encircled and defeated the German forces in the area of Kanev and Zvenigorodka. In accordance with the directive, Konev modified his own plan for the offensive. General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army was to attack towards Balakleya, Shpola and then Khristinovka, turning its axis toward Korsun-Shevchenkovsky. General Leytenant Ivan V. Galanin’s 53rd Army, supported by General Major Boris M. Skvortsov’s V Guards Mechanised Corps, was to attack towards Mala Vyska.

For the main attack toward Kirovograd, the front created a pair of shock groups. The northern shock group, including General Leytenant Aleksey S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army and General Major Fyedor A. Katkov’s VII Mechanised Corps, was to attack the city from the north-west. The southern shock group, with General Polkovnik Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army and General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, was to attack from the south-west, tasked with encircling and destroying the German troops in the Kirovograd area, then developing the offensive towards Novoukrainka and Pomoshnaya.

By the beginning of January, the 2nd Ukrainian Front included the 4th Guards Army, 5th Guards Army and 7th Guards Army, the 37th Army, 52nd Army, 53rd Army and 57th Army, the 5th Guards Tank Army, the V Guards Cavalry Corps, the XX Tank Corps, and the I Mechanised Corps, 7th Mechanised Corps and VIII Mechanised Corps. Air support was provided by General Leytenant Sergei K. Goryunov’s 5th Air Army. The front fielded a total of 59 rifle divisions, three cavalry divisions, and three tank and four mechanised corps. Before the operation, the VII Mechanised Corps was transferred to the 5th Guards Army, and the VII Mechanised Corps to the 5th Guards Tank Army. By 1 January, the front had 550,000 men, 265 tanks, 127 self-propelled guns, 7,136 pieces of artillery and mortars, 777 anti-aircraft guns, and 500 combat aircraft.

At the turn of the year the 8th Army held a 100-mile (160-km) sector of the Eastern Front from Kanev to a point about 20 miles (32 km) due east of Kirovograd. In the area to the south of Kanev, the army still held 20 miles (32 km) of the original Dniepr front. From the river the front angled away to the south-west, its configuration determined by successive Soviet thrusts and by Adolf Hitler’s insistence on defending every yard of ground won by 'German blood'. In effect it was nothing more than the line where Hitler’s will temporarily offset the Soviet pressure against the army.

On 5 January, three days after the 8th Army had eliminated a Soviet breakthrough some 15 miles (35 km) to the north of Kirovograd, the 2nd Ukrainian Front took the offensive directly at the boundary between the 8th Army and its southern neighbour, Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 6th Army. Rapidly developing their attack to the north, the Soviet forces penetrated almost to Kirovograd in a matter of only a few hours, and on the following day swept to the north and the south around the city, encircling General Nikolaus von Vormann’s XLVII Panzerkorps, which was attempting to make a stand beyond the town’s eastern suburbs. The speed and strength of the Soviet attack indicated that Konev and Vatutin, or rather Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov as the co-ordinator of the two fronts' offensives. might be trying for an encirclement of Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee and the 8th Army in the area to the east of the Bug river. Acting both swiftly and decisively, von Manstein gave the 8th Army two Panzer divisions and the left-flank corps of the 6th Army. On 8 January the XLVII Panzerkorps had to fall back to the west, thereby abandoning Kirovograd. Once that had been accomplished, the 8th Army regained its equilibrium and in a few days had managed to throw a screening line in a semi-circle behind Kirovograd.

If Zhukov and Konev had originally meant to advance farther, they were probably dissuaded by the speed of the German reaction and by the weather, which was appallingly bad: rain and wet snow had turned the ground into thin, watery mud, temperatures of about freezing point coated artillery and tanks with ice, which had to be knocked off before they could go into action, and the men’s clothing, soaked during the day, froze stiff at night.

On 10 January, Wöhler told Generalleutnant Theodor Busse, the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', that the bulge on the inner flanks of the 1st Panzerarmee and 8th Army was becoming a matter of the gravest concern to him. His army’s combat strength, Wöhler added, was very low, and he cited as evidence one infantry regiment which had been reduced to two officers and 50 enlisted men. On this same day, the 1st Panzerarmee, which held the most exposed part of the bulge, urged that the line be taken back. The army group was in full agreement, but Hitler, as von Manstein had foreseen four days earlier, would not countenance any such retirement.

Although they had kept several armies concentrated near Kirovograd, Zhukov and Konev did not attempt to get the offensive there moving once more: even under the best of situations, Soviet commanders generally shied away from large-scale envelopments. When the weather continued rainy but warm, the 1st Panzerarmee began to slow the Soviet southward advance past Vinnitsa, Zhukov waited at first and then shifted to other objectives, which were more modest but also more certain of attainment. An obvious move was to cut off the bulge in the German line, not at its base but farther to the east where the distances were shorter and the tactical problems fewer. By the middle of January something of the sort had, in fact, become necessary in order to shorten the front. The 1st Ukrainian Front had extended from a little more than 100 miles (160 km) to more than 250 miles (400 km), and could not continue its advance to the west for much longer without closing up from the east. Moreover, even though it is difficult to discover any basis for such fears, the Stavka apparently had become worried about the flanks of the 1st Ukrainian Front and 2nd Ukrainian Front. In purely tactically terms, the Soviet forces had not possessed so decisive an opportunity for a set-piece double envelopment since the Battle of Stalingrad. The 1st Panzerarmee and the 8th Army had their main forces committed and tied on their outer flanks, and their inner flanks, projecting to the east, were depleted and exposed. Thus was set the scene for the 'Korsun-Shevchenkovsky Offensive Operation'.