This was the Soviet offensive which led to the Battle of the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket (24 January/16 February 1944).
The undertaking was an intrinsic part of the ‘Dniepr-Carpathian Offensive Operation’, and in this General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front and General Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front trapped major elements of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in a pocket near the Dniepr river. During a period of more than two weeks, the two Soviet fronts tried to eradicate the pocket before the some of the encircled German force managed to break out in concert with a relief attempt by other German formations. Even so, the Soviet victory opened a large gap in the German defence line in Ukraine, creating the situation in which the Soviets could exploit in several directions and cut Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in half, thereby forcing the German retreat from Ukraine three months later.
In the autumn of 1943, the forces of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, including General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army, had fallen back to the ‘Wotan-Stellung’ part of the north/south ‘Panther-Wotan-Linie’, the Eastern Front defensive position which in Ukraine followed the line of the Dniepr river. By 1 December the line had been broken and the Soviet forces had crossed the Dniepr river in considerable strength. Only two corps, General Wilhelm Stemmermann’s XI Corps and Generalleutnant Theobald Lieb’s XLII Corps, together with Generalleutnant Wolfgang Lange’s attached Korpsabteilung ‘B’ of the 8th Army were holding the German salient left penetrating to the east into Soviet-held territory. To the west of Cherkassy this salient extended some 60 miles (100 km) to the Dniepr river settlement of Kanev, with the town of Korsun in its approximate centre, with the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts to its left and right respectively.
Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet forces, realised that there now existed the potential for destroying Wöhler’s 8th Army, with the Stalingrad model as precedent and using tactics similar to those which had been applied to the defeat of Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s encircled 6th Army. Co-ordinating the two fronts’ operations, Zhukov recommended to the Stavka that the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts form two pairs of armoured pincers for the encirclement; an inner and inward-facing pair to surround the pocket and destroy the forces it contained, and an outer and outward-facing pair to prevent relief formations from reaching the trapped formations.
Despite repeated warnings from von Manstein and others, Adolf Hitler refused to allow the exposed units to be pulled back to safety.
Konev held a conference with his subordinate military and party commanders at his headquarters at Boltushki on 15 January to pass on the orders he had received from the Stavka. The initial attack was to be undertaken by Konev’s own 2nd Ukrainian Front from the south-east using General Leytenant Ivan M. Managarov’s 53rd Army (under the temporary command of General Major Ivan V. Galanin) and General Major Aleksandr I. Ryzhov’s 4th Guards Army, with General Leytenant Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army to exploit penetrations, with air support to be provided by General Leytenant Sergei K. Goryunov’s 5th Air Army, these formations to be joined progressively by General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army, General Leytenant Aleksei G. Selivanov’s V Guards Cavalry Corps and General Leytenant Semyon I. Bogdanov’s 2nd Tank Army. Additionally, from Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front, General Leytenant Sergei G. Trofimenko’s 27th Army and General Leytenant Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s 40th Army were to be deployed from the north-west, with General Leytenant Andrei G. Kravchenko’s 6th Tank Army available to exploit penetrations supported by General Polkovnik Stepan A. Kravsovsky’s 2nd Air Army. Many of these formations had been boosted in basic strength if not combat experience by the arrival of significant reinforcements.
The Soviet planning also included extensive maskirovka (deception) operations which the Soviets later claimed had been notably successful.
The Soviet offensive began on 24 January as Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front attacked the German salient from the south-east. A breakthrough was quickly achieved, and the penetration was exploited by the 5th Guards Tank Army and the V Guards Cavalry Corps during the following day. Despite its knowledge that a Soviet offensive was imminent, the 8th Army’s commander was surprised by the appearance of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s newly formed 6th Tank Army. This had 160 tanks and 50 self-propelled guns, but lacked battlefield experience and took longer than expected to penetrate the western flank of the German salient. A mobile group of the V Mechanised Corps’ 233rd Tank Brigade, under the command of General Major Mikhail I. Savelev, with 50 tanks and 200 tank-riding infantry all armed with sub-machine guns, occupied Lysyanka and moved into the outskirts of Zvenyhorodka by 28 January, when they linked with the leading elements of General Leytenant Ivan G. Lazarev’s XX Tank Corps of the 2nd Ukrainian Front. For the next three days, the two tank armies constituted a thin outer ring around what was now the Korsun pocket while an thicker inner ring was formed by the 27th Army, 52nd Army and 4th Guard Armies.
The Soviets were well satisfied with the the progress of the operation to date, and Iosef Stalin expected and was promised a ‘second Stalingrad’. Trapped in the pocket were some 58,000 men of of six divisions at about 55% of establishment, together with a number of smaller combat units. Also caught in the pocket were 59 tanks and 242 pieces of artillery. Among the trapped German forces were SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s 5th SS Panzerdivision ‘Wiking’, with SS-Sturmbannführer Lucien Lippert’s attached niederlandisches Freiwilligen-Bataillon der SS-Sturmbrigade ‘Wallonien’, estnisches SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadierbataillon ‘Narwa’, and several thousand Russian auxiliaries. The trapped forces were designated as the Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ as they were commanded by Stemmermann, commander of the XI Corps. The 5th SS Panzerdivision, with some 11,400 personnel, had 30 serviceable PzKpfw III medium tanks, PzKpfw IV battle tanks and assault guns, with another six vehicles under repair. The division also had 47 pieces of artillery including 12 self-propelled guns.
The Soviet besieging force totalled 336,700 men with 524 tanks, 5,300 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 1,054 aircraft; during the battle the Soviets were reinforced by another 400 tanks.
As was his well-established habit, von Manstein reacted to the situation with considerable speed, and by a time early in February General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps and Generalleutnant Nikolaus von Vormann’s XLVII Panzerkorps had been assembled for a relief effort: the former had 201 armoured fighting vehicles and the latter 58. However, Hitler intervened and ordered the transformation of the rescue attempt into an attempt to counter-encircle the two Soviet fronts. Breith insisted that both the relief formations should unite and attempt to force a corridor to the trapped Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’. von Manstein initially sided with Hitler, although in a deceptive manner, and the attack was nominally an attempt to encircle the massive Soviet besieging force.
The attack by Generalmajor Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision of the XLVII Panzerkorps on the south-eastern flank of the pocket quickly stalled, largely as a result of the fact that the division had only 27 tanks and 34 assault guns, and could therefore offer only the most limited contribution.
The misguided use of the III Panzerkorps to attempt an encirclement of the Soviet forces lasted until 8 February when, realising that the encirclement effort was going to fail, von Manstein ordered the corps instead to attempt the relief of the beleaguered Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’. Pulling the III Panzerkorps back over difficult terrain, and the task of repositioning the corps, into an area some 9.33 miles (15 km) to the south of Boyarka, for the new attack took until 11 February, and a week had thus been lost because of the misguided initial assault.
Breith then began a drive with General Major Hans-Ulrich Balck’s 16th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Hans Tröger’s 17th Panzerdivision toward the Gniloy Tikich river. The two divisions made good progress, with Generalmajor Richard Koll’s 1st Panzerdivision then moving up and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Theodor Wisch’s 1st SS Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ arriving to cover the northern flank.
After being initially surprised by the attack, Zhukov ordered Vatutin to assemble troops and armour of four tank corps as rapidly as possible ‘with the object of cutting off the German spearhead and destroying it’. All progress began to bog down as the weather warmed, resulting in the cloying mud of the rasputitsa, and here the tactical limitations of Germany’s wheeled vehicles became evident. The Soviet four-wheel and six-wheel drive trucks, supplied by the USA, were largely able to get through, whereas the German two-wheel drive vehicles were soon rendered immobile in the mud.
For the night of 5/6 February, Konev issued orders to the 4th Guards Army and V Guards Cavalry Corps to split the pocket and the two German corps it contained. In intense fighting that followed, the Soviet goal became clear to Stemmermann and Lieb. Stemmermann ordered the 5th SS Panzerdivision’s armour to the scene, and together with Generalleutnant Dr Hermann Hohn’s 72nd Division this helped to ward off an immediate disaster. The Soviets renewed their efforts during the period 7/10 February, but were now beginning to experience supply shortages. The mud affected the situation, but this was not the only cause of the diminution of the Soviet effort. The III Panzerkorps’ penetration toward the Gniloy Tikich river made it necessary for the Soviet supply echelons to travel more circuitous routes, and this had a particularly adverse effected on the 6th Tank Army. The Soviet air forces then began to supply some units by air using Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft, but these light biplane machines could deliver only light loads.
Despite its supply difficulties, the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s units were able to close on Korsun by 10 February, compressing the German pocket to an area of 6 by 7 miles (10 by 11.25 km). On 11 February, spearheaded by the heavy tanks of Oberstleutnant Franz Bäke’s schweres Panzerregiment 'Bäke', with Generalmajor Hans-Ulrich Balck’s 16th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Karl-Friedrich von der Meden’s 17th Paznerdivision on the left and and Generalmajor Richard Koll’s 1st Panzerdivision and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Theodor Wisch’s 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' on the right, the III Panzerkorps continued its drive to the north-east and, on the verge of exhaustion, reached the Gniloy Tikich river and established a small bridgehead on the river’s eastern bank in the north-eastern part of Lisyanka, just short of Dzurzhentsy.
The III Panzerkorps could advance no farther, however, and it was now evident that the Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ would have to fight its way out of the pocket to meet the III Panzerkorps' spearheads.
Each side now appreciated that the German relief effort had reached a critical stage, yet despite heavy Soviet propaganda inducements, very few German soldiers and no Waffen-SS men in the cauldron had surrendered. Zhukov therefore decided to send a team under a white flag with surrender demands. A Soviet lieutenant colonel, translator and bugler arrived in a US-supplied Jeep and presented letters for both Stemmermann and Lieb signed by Zhukov, Konev and Vatutin. The German officer on headquarters duty, a major of Korpsabteilung ‘B’, and a translator received the emissaries. After cordial talks, refreshments and a handshake, the Soviets departed without an answer.
The Luftwaffe tried to deliver supplies to both the encircled forces and the relief columns. On 28 January General Hans Seidemann’s VIII Fliegerkorps began an operation which eventually involved 832 transport aircraft, 478 bombers from which supplies were thrown at low altitude, 58 fighter-bombers and 168 fighters. Of these, 32 transport aircraft, 13 bombers and five fighters were lost. After the Korsun airfield had to be abandoned on 12 February, the supplies were parachuted, and fuel drums and ammunition crates were dropped into snowbanks by transport machines flying just above the ground. Luftwaffe transport aircraft were also used to evacuate Wöhler and the senior officers of the 5th SS Panzerdivision from the pocket. The German air effort delivered 69,070 Imp gal (313400 litres) of fuel, 868 tons of ammunition and four tons of medical supplies to the encircled forces, and 61,860 Imp gal (281215 litres) of fuel, 325 tons of ammunition and 24 tons of food to the relief columns’ spearheads, as well as evacuating 4,161 wounded while the Korsun airfield remained operational. Even so, this major effort met only about half of the encircled formations’ daily requirements as estimated by the 8th Army headquarters.
Stemmermann now began to pull troops back from the northern side of the pocket, reorienting his disposition toward the planned escape axis, and attacking to the south in order to expand the perimeter in the direction of the relief forces on the northern bank of the Gniloy Tikich river. The manoeuvring within the pocket confused the Soviets, who were now sure that they had trapped the bulk of the 8th Army in the pocket. The trapped forces were now to capture the villages of Novo-Buda, Komarovka, Khil’ki and Shanderovka on the south-western edge of the perimeter to create a start line for the break-out effort. On 11 February Major Robert Kästner’s 105th Grenadierregiment of the 72nd Division captured Novo-Buda in a night assault, and on the following night Komarovka fell in similar fashion. On the evening of 15 February the 105th Grenadierregiment, using its last reserves and supported by two assault guns, secured Khil’ki, defeating a Soviet armour-supported counterattack. Of all the German divisions in the pocket, however, it was the 5th SS Panzerdivision which achieved most to ensure the continued survival of the Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ as the division was the only truly mobile force inside the pocket: the division’s tracked units were constantly shifted from one end of the pocket to the other to shore up crumbling lines. The pocket had by now drifted south and was mid-way toward its rescuers, and rested on the village of Shanderovka. The settlement was heavily defended by the Soviets, was captured by men of the 72nd Division, was retaken by elements of Trofimenko’s 27th Army, but then recaptured by the 9th SS Panzergrenadierregiment ‘Germania’.
By the fall of night on 16 February the III Panzerkorps had fought its way to a point within 4.35 miles (7 km) of the Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ before being halted by Soviet resistance, the nature of the terrain and shortage of fuel. After several failed German attempts by armoured elements to seize and hold Hill 239 and advance on Shanderovka, Soviet counterattacks by 5th Guards Tank Army forced the III Panzerkorps into bitter and therefore costly defensive fighting.
The 8th Army radioed Stemmermann that the III Panzerkorps had been brought to a halt by the weather and lack of supplies, and that the Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ had therefore to break through as far as the line linking Dzhurzentsy and Hill 239, and there link with the III Panzerkorps. However, the message made no reference to the fact that both Dzhurzentsy and Hill 239 were still in Soviet hands, and this led to severe casualties as the Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ broke out of the pocket to the south-west under the tactical command of Lieb.
While the gap between the Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ and the III Panzerkorps was relatively small, Konev was readying his front for a final attack scheduled for 17 February. Thus the 4th Guards Army, 27th Army and 52nd Army and the V Guards Cavalry Corps surrounded the encircled German forces, and elements of the recently added 5th Guards Tank Army interposed their armoured units between the Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ and the III Panzerkorps. Stemmermann himself chose to remain with a rearguard of 6,500 men, which was all that was left of Generalmajor Adolf Trowitz’s 57th Division and Generalleutnant Georg von Rittberg’s 88th Division. The pocket was now just 3.1 miles (5 km) in diameter, depriving Stemmermann of any room to manoeuvre.
Shanderovka, once seen by the trapped German forces as the gate to freedom, now became known as the Tor zur Hölle (hell’s gate). The Soviet deluged the area with artillery and rocket fire, while Ilyushin Il-2 ground-attack aircraft bombed and strafed, only infrequently challenged by German fighters.
On 16 February von Manstein, without waiting for Hitler’s authorisation, sent a radio message to Stemmermann ordering the break-out. Stemmermann and Lieb decided very reluctantly to leave 1,450 non-walking wounded, together with doctors and orderlies, in Shanderovka. The troops then began to assemble at dusk into three assault columns with the 112th Divisionsgruppe in the north, the 72nd Division in the centre with the reinforced 105th Grenadierregiment in the lead, and the 5th SS Panzerdivision in the south. At 23.00 the 105th Grenadierregiment, with two battalions abreast, moved off silently and with bayonets fixed. Some 30 minutes later the force broke through the first and then the second Soviet lines. All went well for several battalions and regiments which reached the lines of the III Panzerkorps' 1st Panzerdivision at Oktyabr by 04.10. Kästner and his 105th Grenadierregiment reached the relief force with their wounded and heavy weapons, but lost their slower-moving horse-drawn supply column to Soviet artillery.
On the cauldron’s north-eastern and therefore opposite front, Stemmermann and his rearguard held fast and thus assured the success of the initial break-out. On the left flank of the break-out, a reconnaissance patrol returned with the news that Hill 239 was occupied by T-34 medium tanks of the 5th Guards Tank Army. Despite strenuous efforts to capture Hill 239, the high ground remained in Soviet hands and had to be bypassed, the column veering to the south in the direction of the Gniloy Tikich river, with disastrous results to follow. When daylight arrived, the German escape plan began to unravel. Very few armoured vehicles and other heavy equipment could climb the slippery, thawing hillsides, so the weapons were destroyed after firing their last rounds of ammunition.
Now fully aware of the German break-out, Konev resolved to keep his promise to Stalin not to let any Germans escape. Soviet intelligence vastly overestimated the armoured strength of the III Panzerkorps at this time, however, and Konev therefore moved forward in force. At this time the XX Tank Corps brought its brigade of the new IS-2 heavy tank into action on the Korsun battlefield. Konev ordered all available armour and artillery to attack the escaping units, cut them into isolated groups and then destroy them piecemeal. The two blocking Soviet infantry formations, the 5th Guards Airborne Division and 20th Division, had been smashed by the German assault forces, and without infantry support the Soviet tanks then fired into the escaping formations from a distance. Sensing that the Germans now possessed no anti-tank weapons, the T-34 medium tanks began to drive into the effectively unprotected support troops, headquarters units, stragglers and columns of the wounded with their medical teams.
The Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’ was now paying a truly grisly price for the vague nature of the radio message which had ordered the break-out. By 12.00 the majority of the now intermingled German divisions had reached the Gniloy Tikich river, which melting snow had swollen and made turbulent to a width of 50 ft (15 m) and depth of 6 ft 6 in (2 m). Despite the fact that the 1st Panzerdivision had captured a bridge, and engineers had erected another, the panicking men saw the river as their only escape from the rampaging Soviet armour. Since the main body was away and to the south of the bridgeheads, the last tanks, trucks and wagons were driven into the icy water, trees were felled to form makeshift bridges and the troops floundered across as best as they could. Hundreds of exhausted men drowned, and many others succumbed to shock or hypothermia. Even so, groups of men were brought across on lifelines fashioned from belts and harnesses, and others formed rafts of planks and other debris to tow the wounded to the German side, at all times under Soviet artillery and tank fire. After establishing a semblance of order on the river’s banks throughout the afternoon, Lieb crossed the Gniloy Tikich river swimming alongside his horse. When Gille, commander of the 5th SS Panzerdivision, tried to create a human chain across the river, alternating between those who could swim and those who could not, scores of men died when the chain broke. Several hundreds of Soviet prisoners of war, as well as a troupe of Russian women auxiliaries and Ukrainian civilians who feared Soviet reprisals, also crossed the icy waters.
Toward the end of the break-out, engineers built several more bridges and rearguard units of 57th Division and 88th Division, together with some 600 wounded, then managed to cross the river. The fact that so many men actually reached the German lines at Lysyanka was attributable largely to the efforts of the III Panzerkorps. The cutting edge was provided by the schweres Panzerregiment ‘Bäke’, which was equipped with PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks and PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks; the regiment also included engineer battalion with specialist bridging skills.
In overall terms, the Soviet encirclement of Korsun-Cherkassy inflicted serious damage on six German divisions, including the 5th SS Panzerdivision. These six formations had been so severely mauled that they had to be withdrawn for complete rehabilitation. Most of the men who managed to escape were gradually evacuated from collection points near Uman to rehabilitation areas and hospitals in Poland, or were sent on leave to their home towns. General Franz Mattenklott, commander of the XLII Corps, was among the survivors, and later wrote that he assumed command of what was left of Gruppe ‘Stemmermann’, noting that the 72nd Division and 5th SS Panzerdivision were completely intermingled and had no tanks, artillery, vehicles or rations. Many soldiers were entirely without weapons, indeed, and not inconsiderable numbers were without footgear. Neither division could be considered in any way able to fight.
One regiment of Korpsabteilung ‘B’ was intact and still possessed some of its artillery support, but had neither vehicles nor rations. All the wounded, estimated at about 2,000 men, were gradually sheltered in the houses of Lisyanka in preparation for air evacuation. For lack of vehicles and fuel, the III Panzerkorps was unable to reinforce its units in the area of Lisyanka and Oktyabr, and Breith told Mattenklott that he had been forced to assume the defensive against heavy Soviet attacks from the north-west in the area immediately to the west of Lisyanka. He had no extra supplies of any kind, and his forward elements were unable to provide rations for the troops emerging from the pocket. Thus Mattenklott had to order his survivors to move on to the west as he asked for supply, evacuation of casualties by air, and vehicles and weapons from the rear.
With German armoured reserves drawn to the Korsun pocket, the Soviets took the opportunity to attack Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in two other sectors. The 13th Army and 60th Army of Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front advanced in the area to the south of the Pripyet marshes, capturing the remnants of General Arthur Hauffe’s XIII Corps in the Battle of Rovno and advancing to Lutsk. Farther to the south, General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front and General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front attacked along the bend of Dniepr river, capturing Krivoi Rog.
Back in the disintegrating pocket, Stemmermann had been killed when Soviet anti-tank gun fire struck his command car during the break-out.
There is still controversy about casualties and losses. Soviet sources claim 57,000 men killed and 18,000 men taken prisoner, it being suggested that these large numbers reflected the erroneous Soviet belief that all German units were at their full establishment and that most of the 8th Army was trapped. German accounts state that the total of slightly less than 60,000 men originally inside the pocket had shrunk in heavy fighting to fewer than 50,000 by 16 February, that 45,000 took part in the break-out and that 27,703 German soldiers and 1,063 Russian auxiliaries had broken out unscathed, together with 7,496 wounded; added to this should be the 4,161 wounded previously evacuated from the pocket by air. This left 19,000 dead, wounded, missing and captured for an overall total of 31,000 casualties. The Soviets admitted losses of 24,286 killed and missing, and 55,902 sick and wounded, for a total of 80,188 casualties for the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts over the period from 24 January to 17 February 1944.