Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' was a major Soviet undertaking on the lower reaches of the Dniepr river, and as such the second stage of the Battle for the Dniepr River (26 September/20 December 1943).

The operation was carried out by the Steppe Front (later the 2nd Ukrainian Front, the South-West Front (later the 3rd Ukrainian Front) and the South Front (later the 4th Ukrainian Front). Constituent elements of this undertaking 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-Pyatikhatky Offensive Operation' (15 October/3 November), the 'Dnepropetrovsk Offensive Operation' (23 October/23 December), the 'Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation (First Phase)' (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 'Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation (Second Phase)' (10/19 December).

During the first stage of the Battle for the Dniepr River (the 'Donbas Strategic Offensive Operation' and the 'Chernigov-Poltava Offensive Operation'), the Soviet forces inflicted heavy defeats on the German formations in the Left-Bank Ukraine and in the Donbas. Both of these areas were huge in terms of their territories and populations, and were also extremely important in economic terms. Along the 465-mile (750-km) length of the front line, the forces of three Soviet fronts had reached the Dniepr river almost simultaneously, crossed this great waterway off the march and seized a total of 23 bridgeheads. However, on the eastern bank of the Dniepr river, the Germans still held three large bridgeheads at Kremenchug, Nikopol and Zaporozhye. To the south, after the liberation of the Donbas the South-West Front and South Front reached the Germans' pre-prepared defensive line along the Molochnaya river. Right along the great width of the front there was a continuous spate of extremely difficult and bloody battles to hold and expand the bridgeheads. In the German complex of defensive lines along the Dniepr and Molochnaya rivers, Soviet troops opened several significant breaches, but the outcome of the Battle for the Dniepr River had not yet been decided. The long duration of the battles for the bridgeheads threatened to exhaust the shock groups of the fronts involved and thereby deprive them of offensive capability and, in the conditions of the winter which was approaching, give the Germans the time they needed to rebuild their strategic front in the southern sector of the Eastern Front. In these circumstances, the only possible solution available to the Soviet supreme command was the continuation of the offensive until it finally broke through what the Germans designated as the 'Ostwall'.

Given this situation, the Soviet supreme command set the relevant fronts the task of destroying the remaining German bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the Dniepr river, expanding the bridgeheads they had already seized on the western bank of the river and finally carrying out an operation to liberate the Right-Bank Ukraine and Crimea. A feature of the 'Lower Dniepr Offensive Operation' was that it was implemented without any preparatory period: the tasks of regrouping and rehabilitating the Soviet forces were effected in the course of the continuing offensive along the entire front zone. This left a number of problems such as the relative remoteness of airfields from the front, the acute shortage of ferry facilities, the backlog of replacement tanks and artillery, the distance between the front and supply bases, and the acute shortage of fuel and ammunition. The Soviet troops had been committed in heavy fighting for three months without rest and were therefore exhausted, the divisions had major shortages of men and now comprised on average no more than 5,000 soldiers. By the beginning of the operation, the Soviet troop number was 1,506,400 men in 112 divisions, eight tank and mechanised corps, 17 brigades and three fortified areas, m160 tanks and self-propelled guns, 24,437 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 2,000 combat aircraft.

On the other side of the front line, the Germans made determined efforts to eliminate the Soviet bridgeheads on the western side of the Dniepr river and to organise a solid defence along the Dniepr and Molochnaya rivers. The Germans hastened to restore their divisions, which had also suffered heavy losses in the previous fighting, and were exhausted in both physical and mental terms. At the same time, the Germans transferred to the Dniepr river front new formations from western Europe as well as the central and northern sectors of the Eastern Front. The comparative density of the lines of communication in the Right-Bank Ukraine allowed the Germans to cope with the movement of equipment and supplies to their forward formations, and to bring up reinforcements. Behind the front, defensive lines were hastily prepared in what seemed likely to be the Soviet primary axes of advance. The total number of men in Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s (from 29 October Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee and the right wing of General Otto Wöhler 's 8th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s (from 22 November General Maximilian de Angelis’s) 6th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe 'A' possessed between them as many as 770,000 men, 800 tanks and assault guns, and 8,000 pieces of artillery and mortars. These ground forces were supported by 1,000 aircraft of Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s Luftflotte IV.

The 'Lower Dniepr Offensive Operation' began on 26 September in two areas: the lower reaches of the Dniepr river and the Molochnaya river. General Fedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front, which was designated as the 4th Ukrainian Front on 20 October, started its 'Melitopol Offensive Operation' in the south, and farther to the north General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front, which was redesignated as the 2nd Ukrainian Front on 20 October, started its 'Kremenchug Offensive Operation'. The immediate object of these parallel undertakings was the destruction of the German forces on the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' defence line. In its first phase the 'Melitopol Offensive Operation' was unsuccessful: by 30 September, this front’s armies had managed to penetrate only between 1.25 and 3.1 miles (2 and 5 km) into the German defences, At this stage the offensive was paused to allow a hasty regrouping of the Soviet forces. In the Steppe Front’s zone, events developed differently: by 30 September, the German bridgehead at Kremenchug had been destroyed and the front’s forces crossed the Dniepr river in several more areas and seized new bridgeheads.

At the beginning of October, the Steppe Front and General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front, which was redesignated as the 3rd Ukrainian Front on 20 October, attacked in the sector to the north of the South Front, and in severe fighting expanded their bridgeheads. Some of these latter were combined into larger lodgements able to accommodate and support larger offensive forces. On 16 October, the Steppe Front launched its 'Kremenchug-Pyatikhatka Offensive Operation' as it struck from the Dniepr river toward Pyatikhatka and Krivoi Rog, and by 22 October the offensive had reached the approaches to Krivoi Rog after an advance of about 60 miles (100 km). On 10 October, the South-West Front launched its 'Zaporozhye Offensive Operation', and within four days had defeated and destroyed the German bridgehead at Zaporozhye. On 23 October, the 3rd Ukrainian Front (latterly the South-West Front) began its 'Dnepropetrovsk Offensive Operation' and two days later liberated Dnepropetrovsk and Dneprodzerzhinsk. These Soviet advance threat a deep envelopment of the 1st Panzerarmee's left flank and, hastily transferring to the area his reserves and forces from other sectors, von Manstein was able to drive the 2nd Ukrainian Front back some 6.2 to 12.5 miles (10 to 20 km) from Krivoi Rog and thereby established the situation for stubborn fighting in the immediate future. On the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s sector, after the liberation of Dnepropetrovsk the Germans also launched a major counterattack and brought the Soviet offensive to a halt. Fierce battles were fought for the Nikopol bridgehead, which was defended by the Germans with exceptional determination.

However, the severity of the battle near Krivoi Rog was exploited very cleverly by Tolbukhin. Having resumed their offensive, on October 9 Soviet forces broke through the German front, and this allowed the commitment of tank and cavalry corps into the breakthrough. Although the Germans hastily transferred to the area as many as nine divisions from Crimea and Taman, their piecemeal arrival in the fighting brought no success. On 23 October, Soviet troops liberated Melitopol, and there began a large-scale pursuit of the retreating German forces. On 30 October, Genichesk on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov was liberated and the coast of the Sivash was reoccupied, on 1 November the Soviet forces swept into the Isthmus of Perekop in northern Crimea, and on 1 November the Sivash was forced. By the end of 5 November. moreover, forces of the 4th Ukrainian Front reached the lower reaches of the Dnieper river and completely cleared its eastern bank in their zone. In the course of the 'Melitopol Offensive Operation', the 4th Ukrainian Front had completely defeated eight German divisions and partially defeated another 12 divisions, and liberated the whole of northern Tavria. However, the Stavka’s demand to break right through into Crimea off the march and then liberate the entire peninsula was a task altogether beyond the capabilities of the 4th Ukrainian Front.

Pressing ahead with active hostilities, during November and December the 2nd Ukrainian Front fought the 'Aleksandriya-Znamenka Offensive Operation' and significantly expanded the bridgehead in its sector, completely clearing the western bank of the Dniepr river along the entire length of its front. However, a new attempt to seize Krivoi Rog again failed.

In the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s sector near Dnepropetrovsk and in the Nikopol bridgehead, the Germans repulsed the Soviet offensive, inflicting significant losses. Iosif Stalin reacted extremely sharply to this failure, expressing his dissatisfaction with Tolbukhin and Malinovsky, the relevant front commanders, as well as Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the Stavka representative co-ordinating the two front’s actions. As a result, at the end of December it was decided to bring to a halt the actions of all the operation’s fronts in order to prepare a decisive offensive in the Right-Bank Ukraine.

In the course of the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation', the Soviet forces had achieved very significant successes despite the fact that they had not wholly fulfilled all of the tasks which had been assigned to them. The most significant achievements were the defeat of the 6th Army in northern Tavria, which trapped the German and Romanian forces of Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army in Crimea and Kuban, as well as the creation at Krivoi Rog of a strategic bridgehead which penetrated some 60 miles (100 km) into the defences of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and, in effect, sliced this army group into two parts. The immediate result of the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' was the large German defeats in the following 'Kirovograd Offensive Operation' and 'Nikopol-Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation' in the Right-Bank Ukraine within the 'Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation'. The German forces managed to hold only the Nikopol bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dniepr river to February 1944. Yet the Soviets forces had failed to encircle and trap the 1st Panzerarmee in the Dnepropetrovsk bend of the Dniepr river, but their offensives contributed to the success of their drive toward Kiev in the 'Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation' and the 'Zhitomir-Berdichev Offensive Operation' of the 'Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation'.

Each side sustained heavy losses during the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation'. More than 20 divisions, including four Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions, of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had been defeated, and German data indicate that Heeresgruppe 'Süd' between 20 September and 20 October were 165,253 men killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner. The Soviet losses in the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' were 173,201 men killed or missing and 581,191 men wounded or taken ill. The equipment losses were 2,639 tanks and self-propelled guns, 3,125 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 430 aircraft.