Kremenchug-Pyatikhatka Offensive Operation

The 'Kremenchug-Piytikhatka Offensive Operation' was the Soviet fourth of the 10 sub-operations together constituting the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' (25 October/23 November 1943).

These sub-operations were the 'Kremenchug Offensive Operation' (26 September/10 October), the 'Melitopol Offensive Operation' (26 September/5 November), the 'Zaporozhye Offensive Operation' (10/14 October), the 'Kremenchug-Pyatikhatka Offensive Operation', the 'Dnepropetrovsk Offensive Operation' (23 October/23 December), the '1st Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation' (14/21 November), the 'Apostolovo Offensive Operation' (14 November/23 December), the 'Nikopol Offensive Operation' (14 November/31 December), the 'Aleksandriya-Znamenka Offensive Operation' (22 November/9 December) and the '2nd Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation' (10/19 December).

During the 'Chernigov-Poltava Offensive Operation', the forces of General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front crossed the Dniepr river in the Kremenchug area, and at the end of September 1943 seized several bridgeheads between Derievka and Verkhnedneprovsk. In the course of fierce fighting on 10 October, the bridgeheads were significantly expanded and then combined into a single large lodgement. By the beginning of October, Konev had prepared and agreed with Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the representative of the Soviet high command for the campaign along the lower part of the Dniepr river, the plan for an offensive operation in the Krivoi Rog and Kirovograd directions. It was envisaged that the front’s assault forces would attack from the Soviet bridgehead in the general direction of Pyatikhatka and Krivoi Rog, and after the capture of Pyatikhatka continue to develop the advance toward Apostolovo in order to cut the lines of retreat to the west of the German grouping in the area of Dnepropetrovsk, which was holding out to the south against the advances of General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front. The plan was approved by the Soviet high command on 3 October.

Lacking the strength that would be required, largely as a result of his front’s involvement in the non-step fighting of the previous two months and was still continuing, Konev made a decisive concentration of forces in the bridgehead. This was currently held by General Leytenant Mikhail N. Sharokin’s 37th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, which were now joined by General Leytenant Nikolai A. Gagen’s 57th Army and General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army. At the same time, this latter formation made a secret but decisive manoeuvre: it withdrew from the bridgehead in the Kremenchug area after exchanging position with the 4th Guards Army, crossed to the left bank of the Dniepr river, made a 60-mile (100-km) march along the front to the south-east, then crossed again to the right bank of the Dniepr river to a bridgehead at Kutsevolovka. (This manoeuvre was basically similar in concept to the well-known transfer of the 3rd Guards Tank Army from the Bukrinsky area to the Lyutezhsky bridgehead effected at about the same time, but has remained almost unknown.)

Additionally, the creation of front’s shock grouping, comprising General Polkovnik Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army and General Leytenant Ivan P. Korchagin’s VII Mechanised Corps, was another troop movement which was not noted by German intelligence. Air support for the imminent Soviet offensive was entrusted to General Leytenant Sergei K. Goryunov’s 5th Air Army.

On the front’s remaining sector, which in fact extended to more than half of its length, only two armies were left: these were General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army and General Leytenant Ivan V. Galanin’s 4th Guards Army. These were ordered to make an effective diversion by expanding their small bridgeheads and thus attracting the German response onto themselves. The 52nd Army was also to liberate Cherkassy.

The Steppe Front was opposed by formations of Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee and General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army, both of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Sd'. The Germans fielded 24 divisions, and air support was provided by the 700 warplanes of two corps of Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s Luftflotte IV. The bulk of the German forces was concentrated against the largest Soviet bridgehead, where strong defensive positions were hastily created. The axis of the Soviet main thrust was directed at the point where the two German armies abutted each other.

On the morning of 15 October, the Steppe Front’s forces followed an intense artillery and air preparation with the start of the ground offensive. Right from the start, the battle possessed a very stubborn character as the Germans immediately started to deliver armour- and air-supported counterattacks. Soviet aircraft were also very active over the battlefield: on the first day of the Soviet offensive, the Germans flew 250 sorties and those of the Soviets 470 sorties. The concealed concentration of Soviet forces on the start line immediately revealed its advantages as, with the forces to hand, the Germans could not hold their positions and the Soviet troops broke through the German defences at a fairly high rate.

To speed the breakthrough, during the afternoon of 15 October Konev ordered the commitment of the entire shock group based on the 5th Guards Tank Army and the VII Guards Mechanised Corps. During 16 October, the Soviets completed their breakthrough of the German line, and the attack on Pyatikhatka began. To support the strike grouping, the full strengths of General Major Ivan S. Polbin’s I Bomber Corps and General Major Vasili G. Ryazanov’s I Assault Air Corps were committed. On 18 October, the Soviets took the village of Deriyevla, which was a key point in the German defence arrangements as it retention by the Germans would have threatened the flank of the advancing Soviet troops. On 19 October, the 5th Guards Tank Army liberated the city and the large railway junction of Pyatikhatka, and here the Soviets seized a large quantity of German weapons and food items as well as a elevator full of grain.

According to on Manstein, 'A wide passage has formed between the armies. Before the [Soviets] there lay open the way into the depths of the Dniepr river bend to Krivoi Rog and thus to Nikopol, whose retention Hitler considered extremely important from a military-economic aspect.' In his efforts to stop the Soviet offensive, von Manstein hastily brought into the battle four divisions (Generalleutnant Friedrich Sieberg’s 14th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Maximilian Freiherr von Edelsheim’s 24th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Arnold Szelinski’s 376th Division and Generalleutnant Hans de Salengre-Drabbe’s 384th Division that had arrived from Italy and France, and hastily transferred his army group’s remaining reserves to Krivoi Rog.

The introduction of fresh forces allowed the Germans to slow the Soviet offensive. By 23 October, the main strength of the 5th Guards Tank Army had reached the approaches to Krivoi Rog, and rest had reached the Mitrofanovka area some 18.5 miles (30 km) to the east of Kirovograd. Moreover, on the morning of the same day, units of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s XVIII Tank Corps, with infantry support, made a raid into Krivoi Rog. A fierce battle broke out on the city’s streets, in which Soviet tanks suffered significant losses. Thus the Soviets could not gain a foothold in the city and were driven back to the north over a distance of some 5 to 6.2 miles (5 to 10 km). Infantry of the 37th Army, advancing in the wake of the 5th Guards Tank Army, was also checked on the approaches to Krivoi Rog by German armoured counterattacks.

Another reason for the failure was the intervention of Iosif Stalin, the Soviet leader, who at the height of the battle on 22 October demanded the development of the undertaking along diverging axis including an attack on Kirovograd, which seriously decreased the Soviet strength for the assault on Krivoi Rog.

To the south of the main attack, on 22 October the 57th Army liberated Verkhnedneprovsk.

Konev tried to bypass Krivoi Rog from the north-west, and this was partially successful inasmuch as the German defence was deeply outflanked. However, von Manstein managed to bring forward two new armoured divisions (Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Nikolaus von Vormann’s [from 25 October Generalmajor Ewald Kräber’s] 23rd Panzerdivision) and redeployed two more divisions from other sectors, having managed to take advantage of the delay of the Soviet attack toward Krivoi Rog. This group, with strong air support, went onto the offensive during the morning of 28 October. To the north-west of Krivoi Rog, a major battle developed in the valley of the Ingulets river. In this, the Germans managed to push the 37th Army and 7th Guards Army back some 9.33 to 12.5 miles (15 to 20 km), but were then spent. In the first two days of the battle the Germans lost 150 armoured fighting vehicles. The Soviets also suffered heavy losses.

The Germans were also able to stop the Soviet onslaught on Kirovograd.

Subsequently, Soviet troops fought with success to expand the breakthrough they had achieved, but a repeated attempt to capture Krivoi Rog, as demanded in a Soviet high command directive of 5 November, by means of a deep offensive to the south failed. Here protracted and bloody, but undecided, heavy fighting ensued.

In this situation, Konev asked Stalin to end the operation so that his formation, which had been redesignated as the 2nd Ukrainian Front on 20 October, to bring up rear-echelon forces and regroup, citing the fact that the delivery of his supplies of fuel, ammunition and food had been severely disrupted. At the same time, Konev proposed the improvement of front’s position by transferring the main weight of his offensive to another direction and prepare for an attack toward Znamenka. Stalin approved the request, and on 23 November the 2nd Ukrainian Front went over to the defensive.

In general, and despite the failure near Krivoi Rog, the 'Kremenchug-Pyatikhatky Offensive Operation' was a Soviet success. The 2nd Ukrainian Front had advanced almost 60 miles (100 km) and reached the approaches to Krivoi Rog and Kirovograd, driving deeply into the front of Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. At the same time, the German forces in the Dnepropetrovsk and Kirovograd areas were enveloped from the north south respectively, which led to the later defeat of these two groups. The Soviet bridgehead on the lower reaches of the Dniepr river became of strategic importance, which made the liberation of the entire south of right-bank Ukraine a matter for the very near future. The southern section of the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' had ceased to exist.