This was the Soviet strategic offensive to drive the German forces back to the western bank of the lower reaches of the Dniepr river on a broad front, and then to liberate Kiev, the Ukrainian capital (24 August/23 December 1943).
One of the largest and bloodiest strategic operations of World War II, this Soviet undertaking involved almost 4 million men on both sides over a front some 870 miles (1400 km) long. During this four-month operation, the eastern bank of the Dniepr river was recovered from the Germans by the forces of five Soviet fronts, which then undertook river assault crossings to establish several bridgeheads on the western bank. Kiev was liberated in a separate strategic operation following the success of the ‘Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation’ 1. Taking place over the same period but considered independent operations were the ‘Dniepr Airborne Operations’, ‘Kiev Strategic Offensive Operation’ (3/13 November) and ‘Kiev Strategic Defensive Operation’ (13 November/22 December).
With the defeat of their ‘Zitadelle’ offensives on the northern and southern corners of the salient centred on Kursk, the Germans had failed in their final attempt to wrest the strategic initiative from the Soviets, and the Oberkommando des Heeres could no longer attempt to mount large-scale offensives on the Eastern Front. During the long retreat after Kursk, the German army and supporting Luftwaffe forces had managed to cross the Dniepr river back to the west and then to re-establish themselves along the ‘Wotan-Stellung’ defences after the crossing of the Dniepr river had been made by very large numbers of soldiers on rafts and in small boats while under continuous air and ground attacks by the pursuing Soviet forces. The German losses in men and matériel had been considerable, and many of the German army’s most experienced and capable formations had been weakened. This meant that the Germans now had to go over to the operational defensive, although they still possessed the capability for tactical counterattacks that met with considerable success.
None of this meant, though, that the Germans could regain the strategic initiative they had lost at Kursk. While the strength of the German forces in manpower, matériel and logistical support declined, that of the Soviet forces steadily increased, increasing their numerical and matériel superiority over the Germans and thereby opening the way to further offensives.
By the middle of August 1943, Adolf Hitler understood that the Soviet offensive capability could not be contained and accordingly ordered construction of a series of fortifications to slow the Soviet forces’ offensive capability, and demanded adamantly that the German forces hold the ‘Wotan-Stellung’ positions along the Dniepr river at all costs.
On the Soviet side, Iosif Stalin was determined to pursue the recovery of lands which had been taken by the Germans earlier in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, a process which had started in earnest at the beginning of the year. The Ukrainian industrial region was the first priority, since it was a densely populated area, and its coal and metal ore mines would provide precious resources for the Soviet war effort.
The main weight of the Soviet offensive was in the south-eastern theatre on an essentially south-westerly axis, the northern flank being largely stabilised and the southern flank resting on the Sea of Azov. Thus the 'Lower Dniepr Offensive Operation', which began on 24 August 1943, covered a sector of the Eastern Front some 870 miles (1400 km) long and stretching between Smolensk in the north and the Sea of Azov in the south. The operation would involve five Soviet fronts, in the form of General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front, General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front, General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front, General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front and General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front: on 20 October, these major formations were redesignated as the Belorussian and the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts respectively.
In overall terms the forthcoming operation would be executed by 36 combined-arms armies and four tank armies with the support of five air armies. The total Soviet strength was in the order of 2.65 million men, 51,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, 2,400 armoured fighting vehicles and 2,850 warplanes.
The German defence was based on the southern part of the ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’, which was the defensive line of which only part had built from a time earlier in 1943: the first part of the name referred to the short northern section of the line between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland at Narva. With this defensive line Adolf Hitler hoped to repeat the success in World War I of the Hindenburg Line on the Western Front, which had allowed the Germans to shorten their line, and thus release substantial numbers of troops as reserves or for operations elsewhere. In this case the German army was no longer capable of launching a strategic offensive against the Soviet forces, so Hitler wished to force a conclusive draw with the USSR before the Allied armies in the west became a major threat.
It should be noted that with the ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’, Hitler intended a return to the type of attritional warfare which had characterised the West Front in World War I and suited Imperial Germany as it was prepared economically for a long conflict. Hitler had ordered the construction of the ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’ in August 1943 following the disastrous end of the ‘Zitadelle’ operation, otherwise the Battle of Kursk.
As revealed in a speech by Dr Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, on 18 February 1943, Hitler had now abandoned the concept of the Blitzkrieg, and anticipated ‘bleeding’ the Soviet forces as they dashed their forces against the defences of the ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’. Hitler hoped that the USSR, having suffered appalling casualties in 1941/42 during the German forces’ successful Blitzkrieg campaigns, would suffer a similar fate against a strong German defensive line. The effort of planning, constructing and defending the line was a failure. Most of the line ran along the Dniepr river from a point just to the west of Smolensk to the Black Sea, and in September 1943 Hitler told his generals that the Dniepr river defensive line was to be the last barrier against Bolshevism. The line left the banks of the Dniepr river only where another major tributary offered similar defensive capabilities, and in the south, where the Dniepr river bends to the west and did not offer protection to Crimea’s land link with the mainland across the Isthmus of Perekop.
In the north, the line was to have been constructed roughly from Vitebsk to Pskov, where it then followed the western bank of Lake Peipus and the Narva river to the latter’s delta on the southern side of the Gulf of Finland at Narva.
When the order was signed for the construction of the ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’ defences on 11 August 1943 the German armies held positions generally along the Donets river in the south and along a line approximately from Smolensk to Leningrad in the north. Retreating to the ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’ defences would entail the loss of considerable Soviet territory, including major cities such as Smolensk and Kharkov, which had only recently been recaptured by the Soviets in the 'Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation', as well as smaller cities including Kholm, Novgorod, Orel and Bryansk. In addition, the siege of Leningrad would have to be abandoned.
The order to construct the Dniepr defensive complex, alternative known as the Ostwall (east wall), was issued on 11 August, as noted above, and work began immediately. Fortifications were erected along the length of the Dniepr river. However, there was no hope of completing such an extensive defence line in the short time now available to the Germans. Therefore, the completion of the Ostwall was in no way uniform in its density and in the depth of its fortifications. Instead, the fortifications were concentrated in the areas where Soviet assault crossings were most likely to be attempted, such as the areas near Kremenchug, Zaporozhye and Nikopol.
After the Germans had been driven back to the line of the Dniepr river by the Soviet 'Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation' of 13 August to 22 September, on 7 September the German forces and economic exploitation teams were ordered to strip the areas they had to abandon of everything which could be of use to the Soviet forces, the object being to slow any Soviet advance and attempt to create supply shortages for the Soviet forces by implementing a scorched earth policy.
From north to south, the formations of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ primarily responsible for this sector of the Eastern Front were Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army, General Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army, Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee and Generaloberst Karl Hollidt’s 6th Army.
Despite their great numerical superiority in men and matériel, the Soviets did not find their ‘Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation’ an easy undertaking. The German opposition was ferocious, and there was savage fighting for every city, town and village. The German forces made extensive use of rear guards, leaving some troops in each city and on each hill, to slow the Soviet offensive. Three weeks after the start of the offensive, and despite heavy losses on the Soviet side, it became clear that the Germans could not hope to contain the Soviet offensive in the flat, open terrain of the steppes, where the Soviet numerical superiority would inevitably prevail. von Manstein asked for as many as 12 new divisions in the hope of containing the Soviet offensive, but German reserves were virtually non-existent. On 15 September, therefore, Hitler ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to fall back to the Dniepr river defence line. The battle for Poltava was especially bitter. The city was heavily fortified and its garrison well prepared. After a few inconclusive days that greatly slowed the Soviet offensive, Konev decided to bypass the city and push forward with all speed toward the Dniepr river. After two days of violent urban warfare, the Poltava garrison was overcome.
During the last week of August, in spite of a momentary improvement on the northern flank, the situation in which Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ found itself had also become worse to a markedly alarming degree. On 13 and 18 August Malinovsky’s South-West Front and Tolbukhin’s South Front extended the Soviet offensive into the sectors of von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee and Hollidt’s 6th Army, and drove to the south of Izyum and the east of Golodayevka: these were exactly the places at which their attempted breakthrough efforts had failed in July. For the second time the 1st Panzerarmee managed to hold its positions, even though extremely heavy Soviet artillery and mortar fire caused so many casualties that the army was forced to demand replacements after the first two days of the Soviet offensive. The 6th Army fared worse. Instead of following the usual Soviet practice of bringing up fresh divisions before the start of an offensive, Tolbukhin had bulked up the units in his front’s line: this had the effect of leading the German intelligence officers, awaiting the previously infallible sign of a forthcoming Soviet offensive, to seen in the absence of changes in the orders of battle of General Leytenant Georgi F. Zakharov’s 2nd Guards Army and General Leytenant Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’s 5th Army. When the Soviet offensive began on 18 August it repeated the pattern of overwhelming concentration, particularly of artillery, on a narrow front, and by the end of the day the 5th Shock Army’s spearheads had penetrated to a depth of 3.4 miles (5.5 km) through a gap 1.5 miles (2.5 km) wide. Aided by the light of a full moon, the Soviet forces then spread out to the north and south behind the German front.
Commanding the 6th Army, Hollidt decided not to essay any attempt to stem and halt the breakthrough, but rather to try to seal the gap in his front. This was the sort of bold decision which had earlier in the campaign proved fruitful for comparatively little effort, but now had the appearance of ‘do-or-die’ thrown of the dice. The 6th Army could spare very little infantry, and had no tanks at all. On 20 August the German attack began from both sides of the gap and initially made adequate progress, so that by the fall of night the two forces had almost met, but during the night General Major (from 30 August General Leytenant) Trofim I. Tanaschishin’s IV Guards Mechanised Corps had seen what the Germans were attempting to achieve and, turning round, attacked from the west during the following morning. The Soviet superiority was too great for the Germans to withstand, and by the fall of night the gap had reopened and indeed increased in width to almost 5 miles (8 km).
By 20 August, von Manstein had secured Generalleutnant Hellmuth von der Chevallerie’s 13th Panzerdivision from Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in the deep south, but when this formation reached the 6th Army it was found to comprise only one regiment and three companies. Moreover, Soviet their espionage system was now working so well that the Soviets knew about the division’s movement almost as soon as the 6th Army did. On 23 August, the 13th Panzerdivision attacked from the northern side of the gap, which by then had widened to 6.75 miles (11 km). For the division to have closed the gap would have been an extraordinary feat, and as it was, the 3.2 miles (5 km) the division gained before being stopped by two mechanised corps was a startling success. Even though he was attacking with caution as a result of his concerns about the threat in his rear, Tolbukhin had expanded the breakthrough to the point at which the 6th Army could no longer even attempt to contain it.
By 23 August the 1st Panzerarmee was also in severe difficulty. It reported that its corps to the south of Izyum now had a combat strength of only 5,800 men, which was inadequate to maintain a continuous line. All which von Manstein could do was issue a prediction that the battle was approaching its climax, and the victory would go to the side with greater perseverance.
On 25 August the operations officers of the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army flew to the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ with the proposal for a withdrawal. At the army group headquarters, the two officers discovered that von Manstein had told Hitler that unless five fresh divisions, at least two of them Panzer divisions, were made available to his army group, a short-term retreat and a longer-term retirement from the Donets river basin would be necessary. von Manstein did not believe that Hitler would accept that estimate, but nonetheless gave the armies permission to start preparations to fall back to the general line of the Kalmius river, just to the east of Stalino. Two days later, at Hitler’s headquarters near Vinnitsa, von Manstein once more told the German leader of the two alternatives again, and this time requested 12 divisions. Hitler promised von Manstein all the formations which could be spared by von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’: each of these army groups instantly responded that it could spare nothing.
While Hitler was still present in Vinnitsa, on 27 August the 6th Army’s plight increased still further. General Leytenant Karp V. Sviridov’s II Guards Mechanised Corps wheeled to the south out of the Soviet breakthrough area and began a dash to the north coast of the Black Sea behind General Hans von Obstfelder’s XXIX Corps on the right flank of the 6th Army. This latter was almost entirely incapable of checking, let alone halting, the Soviet assault as it had only 35,000 combat troops and a mere seven tanks against 130,000 Soviet troops and between 160 and 170 tanks. von Manstein allocated Hollidt single weak infantry and Panzer divisions recently arrived from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and one weak Panzer division from the 1st Panzerarmee. Hollidt organised these into an extemporised corps and used this to reduce the pressure on the XXIX Corps.
Even so, on 29 August the Soviets reached the Black Sea coast to the west of Taganrog, driving the XXIX Corps into a pocket at the mouth of the Mius river. On the following day the 13th Panzerdivision, coming from the west, drove a narrow gap in the Soviet line as the XXIX Corps assembled its 9,000 men into three columns headed by its few serviceable self-propelled assault guns. Deceived by the heavy dust cloud raised by the movement of the German columns, the Soviets believed that the Germans were launching a major armoured attack and gave way after the assault guns had fired only a few rounds: during the night, therefore, the German columns moved to the west with almost no losses.
On 31 August von Manstein gave his permission fop the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army to fall retire to the line of the Kalmius river, and during the night of 31 August/1 September approved the retreat ‘if it was absolutely necessary and no other course was open’.
von Manstein and von Kluge travelled to Hitler’s headquarters on 3 September in the knowledge that it was now time for radical measures. The two army group commanders wished to convince Hitler that the situation demanded a complete revision of the German strategy on the Eastern Front and a top-level command which was both unified and militarily competent. von Manstein had called several times during August for the establishment of a strategic primary effort, in the process suggesting that all the theatres commanded by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, namely the Balkans, Italy and both northern and western Europe, be stripped of their forces so that the totality of the German army could be committed on the Eastern Front against the Soviets. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had given some thousands of men to the Eastern Front in the form of replacement battalions, but resisted strongly the notion of giving up whole divisions, insisting that the theatres for which it was responsible were already under-defended. Late in August, perhaps influenced by Stalin’s incessant demands that the Americans and British open a second front ands so relieve the pressure of the Soviets, the operations branch of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht claimed that there was the distinct possibility of an Anglo-US amphibious descent on France’s Atlantic coast in the autumn. On 2 September the deputy chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations branch wrote a memorandum anticipating Allied attacks on the Atlantic coast, in Italy and in the Balkans, and that by contrast with the situation on the Eastern Front and its scope for manoeuvre, any such attacks by the Western Allies would pose a direct threat to Germany’s frontiers. The officer therefore concluded that the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s theatres could spare no more troops for the East. Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief of the operations staff in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, initially did not fully agree, but in the next few days used his own calculations and came to essentially the same conclusion.
On 3 September, von Manstein and von Kluge asked Hitler to remove the division between the Oberkommando des Heeres’ and Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s theatres and to give Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff, overall responsibility for all theatres. von Kluge had reported to Hitler several days earlier that he believed Germany’s current military problems stemmed from the lack of a single military adviser responsible to the Hitler for all theatres.
The idea of a single chief-of-staff was completely reasonable in purely military terms but, as the army group commanders must have known, was unacceptable to Hitler: responsibility for the conduct of operations in all theatres through the Oberkommando des Heeres would inevitably increase the power of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff; at the same time it would weaken Hitler’s personal control by nullifying the claim that he alone could form a complete strategic picture and at the same time by depriving him of the device, in whose use he was a master, of playing the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and Oberkommando des Heeres against each other; and it could result in Hitler losing his grip on the control of the Eastern Front. An Oberkommando des Heeres chief-of-staff more forceful and capable than Zeitzler might therefore deliver overall control on the Eastern Front into the hands of the army general staff and bring to an end the process of compartmentalisation which Hitler used to maintain his position as the supreme arbiter over the Oberkommando des Heeres and the army groups on the Eastern Front.
It was inevitable, therefore, that Hitler would accept any change which would curtail his personal authority. Hitler finally opted to consider the problem on the Eastern Front a purely logistical matter of co-ordinating troop transfers between the theatres controlled by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the Oberkommando des Heeres, and indeed went further by ordaining that all decisions by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and Oberkommando des Heeres affecting each other’s strength must be submitted personally to him in the presence of the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres.
Thus, after demonstrating that he would remain total master of Germany and all its affairs, Hitler turned to the situation on the Eastern Front. Hitler gave von Manstein nothing, rejecting his pleas for large-scale reinforcement of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ from other theatres, and to von Kluge he gave permission to move the 2nd Army and right flank of the 9th Army behind the line of the Desna river. During the afternoon of the same day Hitler met Maresal al România Ion Antonescu, the Conducător of Romania, and then ordered Heeresgruppe ‘A’ to start the evacuation of the ‘Gotenkopf’ lodgement, which contained many Romanian formations, from the Taman peninsula to Crimea, leaving the Soviets to re-enter what would be nothing more than an uninhabitable desert.
From 3 September the weight of the Soviet offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ diminished for a short time. To the west of Yel’nya the 9th Army and 4th Army were able to re-establish a continuous front. On the southern flank, Rokossovsky shifted his offensive to the left flank of the 4th Panzerarmee and this facilitated the withdrawal of the 2nd Army to the Desna river. The 4th Panzerarmee took control of the XIII Corps and, after replacing Siebert with General Arthur Hauffe, employed this formation to shield the army’s lengthening left flank.
The Soviet offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had clearly gone astray to a certain extent, despite the fact that it had probably accomplished the short-term objectives set for it. By this time the Stavka had probably come to appreciate the fact that the superiority of the Soviet forces, though substantial, was inadequate to sustain simultaneous advances into Belorussia (‘Suvorov’) and Ukraine, and on 4 September the Stavka decided that the primary Soviet effort was to be that in Ukraine against the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. On that day General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front, reinforced by General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army transferred from the Central Front, General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army, and several tank and mechanised corps, began a potent broad-front offensive between the Psel and Vorskla rivers, and this threatened to break open the 4th Panzerarmee’s right flank and thus leave this army with both flanks hanging in the air.
During the night of 4 September, the 6th Army and 1st Panzerarmee reached the line of the Kalmius river, and Hollidt declared there would be no more withdrawals and the front was therefore to be held without thought of further retirement. Hollidt could not have been more wrong. As long as it had the protection of the Donets river along nearly all of its front, the 1st Panzerarmee had at least the semblance of strength, but after it had pulled its right-hand corps back from the river even that semblance was lost. Severely strained by battles of attrition since July, the army had requested nine or 10 days to move into its new line, but was given only three. The Malinovsky’s South-West Front followed 1st Panzerarmee closely, and opened a fresh attack during the morning of 6 September. In just a few hours General Leytenant Ivan N. Russiyanov’s I Guards Mechanised Corps and nine infantry divisions smashed their way forward to the north of the boundary between the 1st Panzerarmee and the 6th Army. In the night which followed, von Mackensen told Generalleutnant Theodor Busse, the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, that a retreat to the Dniepr river was essential, as neither his army nor the 6th Army possessed the strength to restore the front. On the next day General Leytenant Yefim G. Pushkin’s XXIII Tank Corps passed through the gap and linked with the I Guards Mechanised Corps. Leaving their infantry behind, the two armoured corps broke away to the west. By 8 September their reconnaissance detachments were approaching Pavlograd and Sinel’nikovo, 100 miles (160 km) behind the front and about 32 miles (50 km) to the east of the Dniepr river.
Early on the morning of 8 September an aeroplane carrying Hitler and Zeitzler landed at Zaporozhye, the location of von Manstein’s headquarters. A realistic decision now had to be made. von Manstein pressed that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ should be pulled back to the ‘Panther-Stellung’ to shorten its front by about one-third and thereby free several divisions for reallocation to his Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. Hitler objected that such a withdrawal would take too long, and instead ordered von Kleist, who was also present, to accelerate the ‘Krimhilde’ evacuation of the ‘Gotenkopf’ lodgement, which was expected to free three divisions for redeployment. As far as the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was concerned, the patching of the line on the Kalmius river was clearly impossible, and Hitler therefore approved ‘in principle’ the withdrawal of the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army to the ‘Wotan-Stellung’ between Melitopol and the Dniepr river in the area to the north of Zaporozhye. For the army group’s northern flank, Hitler promised reinforcements in the form of four infantry divisions for the Dniepr crossings and a corps headquarters with two infantry and two Panzer divisions from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to close the gap between the the flanks of the 2nd Army and 4th Panzerarmee.
von Manstein immediately instructed the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army to go over to a mobile defence, and with that the German withdrawal to the Dniepr river started.
As usual, Hitler’s main concern in the 8 September meetings had been to avoid any decision which events had not already rendered inevitable. Finding himself forced to give up the Donets basin, Hitler was doubly reluctant to concede the necessity for a similar decision about the 4th Panzerarmee and General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army, and instead had recourse to his standard practice of clearly impractical promises, of which one disappeared on the following day when Hitler discovered that of the four divisions designated for the defence of the Dniepr river crossings only one would be available, and would have to come all the way from Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. The other promise he gave somewhat more substance by issuing specific orders to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ about the transfer of a corps headquarters and four divisions, which were to come under command of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ as soon as they crossed the Desna river. Three of the divisions were to be released by the 2nd Army, which was so weak that it could not realistically afford to spare the divisions on 8 September, and on 9 September, after formations of Rokossovsky’s front crossed the Desna river in the area to the south of Novgorod-Seversky and at Otsekin, could not spare them at all. Generalleutnant Sebastian Fichtner’s (from 20 September Generalmajor Gottfried Frölich’s) 8th Panzerdivision, the one division which the 2nd Army did release, it used to protect its own flank in the area to the south of the Desna river.
In the south the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army quickly began their retirement to the Dniepr river. In two days the two armies inner flanks covered 71.5 miles (115 km), about half the distance to the new river line, and on 12 September Panzer units of the 1st Panzerarmee pushed to the south to re-establish contact with the left flank of the 6th Army. As the gap between the armies closed, the I Guards Mechanised Corps and XXIII Tank Corps, moving in the direction of Pavlograd and Sinel’nikovo, slowed. On the night of 12 September the headquarters of the South-West Front ordered the two corps to turn back and escape to the east. During the next two days the 1st Panzerarmee defeated several Soviet break-out attempts, but in the night of 14 September remnants of the two Soviet corps slipped through a gap in the 6th Army’s line.
The experience of the I Guards Mechanised Corps demonstrated once more the difficulties the Soviet forces still experienced in making fully effective use of their armour. After the breakthrough at Golodayevka, Tolbukhin had been criticised for using his armour too cautiously and also for dissipating their strength in numerous small skirmishes. In order to avoid making the same mistake, Malinovsky had used a greater armoured strength when he committed the I Guards Mechanised Corps and XXIII Tank Corps to operate together. The two corps’ dash toward the Dniepr river had been spectacular but tactically useless: in the process it had emphasised the weakness of the two German armies, which was already obvious, but but this could probably have been done to greater effect by keeping the two corps in contact with the front. As soon as their lines of communication and supply were severed, the two corps had lost momentum, and when the front closed behind them they had had to fall back in haste, taking a beating as they did so.
From 12 September the 1st Panzerarmee and 6th Army felt that they could slow the rate of their withdrawal. Behind the 6th Army, which to protect the land routes into Crimea would have to hold a line whose only natural advantage was the small Molochnaya river, Heeresgruppe ‘A’ began moving in men and artillery. Concerned lest von Manstein might later yield to the temptation to relocate these off to other sectors of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, von Kleist asked for command of the 6th Army as soon as it had reached the ‘Wotan-Stellung’, and in the middle of the month Hitler agreed that Heeresgruppe ‘A’ would assume command of the headquarters of the 6th Army and this army’s two southern corps, the third then being reallocated to the 1st Panzerarmee.
On its northern flank, the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was becoming steadily more strained. The 8th Army reported shortly after the turn of the month that it could no longer hold a continuous line, had instead established a system of strongpoints with connecting trenches for patrols, and its rear-echelon troops comprised sole surviving sons and fathers of large families, which were two categories still exempted by Hitler from front-line duty. Even so, one infantry division now had a strength of only six officers and 300 men. Exhaustion and apathy were evident everywhere, and even the ‘most severe measures’ no longer sufficed to stiffen the troops’ resistance.
The condition of the 4th Panzerarmee was still worse. On the 32-mile (50-km) front between the Vorskla and Psel rivers, its front was being pressed by six tank and mechanised corps and an estimated 19 infantry divisions, and in the gap off its left flank the most it could do was to try to create a blocking position centred on Nezhin, the last obstacle on the Central Front’s advance on Kiev. There the slow arrival of the promised divisions from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ exasperated Hoth to the extent that on 12 September he claimed command of all formations and units to the south of the Desna river, in accordance with Hitler’s order, and took the 8th Panzerdivision off the 2nd Army’s flank.
von Kluge made a conscientious but indifferently pressed attempt to get the four divisions which Hitler had promised to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. On 10 September, when he asked Weiss to reconsider whether or not his 2nd Army could spare two more divisions, Weiss replied that his army was down to an average combat strength of 1,000 men per division. On the following day, after Weiss reported that the Soviets now had six bridgeheads across the Desna river, von Kluge decided to take the required two divisions from the 4th Army. von Kluge informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that the Soviet path to Smolensk now stood open. On 12 September the army group commander informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that his command could not supply a fourth division.
In the sector of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, on 14 September the 4th Panzerarmee was on the verge of collapse. On its left the forces of the Central Front were advancing into Nezhin, and in the centre the forces of the Voronezh Front had broken through. This the 4th Panzerarmee had been split into three portions, and Hoth could only report that the Soviets were in a position to march on Kiev without hindrance. Hoth added that the situation was akin to that which his army faced to the south of Rostov-na-Donu during the winter, when the only major difference was that its still possessed some combat-capable formations and units with which to manoeuvre. The greatest danger faced by the 4th Panzerarmee was that it would be driven to the south, along a line parallel with the Dniepr river, and thereby leave exposed a considerable length of the river above and below Kiev.
von Manstein ordered Hoth to break contact with the 8th Army and swing his right flank to the west, so aligning his front on a north/south axis to cover Kiev. von Manstein ordered Wöhler to pull back his 8th Army as rapidly as he could without impairing his formations’ combat capabilities, and thereby release enough strength to screen the gap that would open between the 4th Panzerarmee and the 8th Army. Reporting developments to Hitler, von Manstein stated that on 15 September he intended to order the 4th Panzerarmee to fall back across the Dniepr river as only this would prevent the army’s destruction. von Manstein added that as he would have to take divisions from the 8th Army and 1st Panzerarmee to strengthen the 4th Panzerarmee, he saw no chance of holding any territory to the east of the Dniepr river.
During the night of 14 September Hitler informed von Manstein and von Kluge that they were to report in person on the next day.
Meanwhile, the loss of Nezhin early on 15 September triggered what was almost a panic at Führer headquarters. The Oberkommando des Heeres instructed Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to accelerate the withdrawals already in progress in order to free formations and units for Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. After the arrival of von Manstein and von Kluge, Hitler told the latter to transfer four divisions to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and agreed to a general retreat to the ‘Wotan-Stellung’ on the Dniepr river and to the ‘Panther-Stellung’. By the end of the day, though, Hitler had started to reconsider, and before von Kluge left his headquarters the German leader instructed him to execute Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’’s withdrawal by slow and considered phases. Hitler added that he was not interested in completing the withdrawal at speed, and that every major rearward step must have his prior approval.
For Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, the decision to fall back to the western side of the Dniepr river was welcome, but raised problems which tax the capabilities of the leadership and formations as severely as anything they had yet attempted. The first task was the disengagement of the scattered elements of the 4th Panzerarmee, which was accomplished on the nights of 16 and 17 September, as a result of which Hoth’s army regained some freedom of manoeuvre and restored contact between its formations and units. Next came the more difficult, and indeed more dangerous, task of getting the 4th Panzerarmee, 8th Army and 1st Panzerarmee across the wide Dniepr river. Spread along almost 400 miles (645 km) of front, the three armies had available to them only five crossings (at Kiev, Kanev, Cherkassy, Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk), and this meant a division of the forces and the establishment of bridgeheads which could be held until the formations had reached them, crossed and then spread out once more behind the river before the Soviets could create bridgeheads of their own onto the undefended areas of the western bank.
Up to this time, very little had been done to improve the crossings. In the matter of Cherkassy, which was rapidly being congested by evacuated cattle, matériel and supplies, the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and 8th Army argued over the source of the required the necessary engineers and bridging equipment. Hitler now added another complication by insisting that the 1st Panzerarmee strengthen the bridgehead to the east of Zaporozhye to protect the nearby manganese mines at Nikopol. Hitler’s propensity for placing economic objectives above operational and tactical considerations was once again to have an adverse effect, for in following this order von Manstein had to move nearly all of the few formations and units he could spare, and which would otherwise have been available to strengthen the army group’s weak left flank, into the operationally worthless Zaporozhye bridgehead.
At the meeting of 15 September, von Manstein had insisted that Heeresgruppe Mitte transfer the newly promised four divisions to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ as soon as possible, and before the end of the day the transfer of two divisions had been ordered. However, by the time von Kluge left the Führer headquarters Hitler had given him a pair of incompatible missions: to release the divisions for Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ quickly, but also undertake the retirement to the ‘Panther-Stellung’ as a steady rate. The latter accorded with von Kluge’s own thinking, so he was in no hurry to get the general withdrawal under way and waited three days before he issued the basic order. In this von Kluge emphasised that the armies would remain forward of the ‘Panther-Stellung’ to 10 October if not later. The army group consequently remained involved in heavy fighting, and the transfer of two of the four divisions promised to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was first postponed and then cancelled.
At the operational level, von Kluge’s decision to proceed only slowly offered the Stavka the chance to continue the development of what were currently its two most threatening thrusts, namely those toward Smolensk and toward the Dniepr river between the flanks of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. In the last week of September, the retreat of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ degenerated into a race with the Soviet forces to reach and occupy the western bank of the Dniepr river. At the confluence of the Pripyat and Dniepr river some of Rokossovsky’s formations had crossed as early as 19 September, and before the end of the month the Soviets had established a bridgehead extending 15.5 miles (25 km) to the west along both banks of the Pripyat river.
The Stavka was determined to prevent the Germans from establishing themselves along the Dniepr river, an event which might have led to at least a temporary stalemate, and had therefore ordered the fronts and their armies to ‘bounce’ across the river straight from the march. The Soviet river-crossing tactic was the same everywhere, and while crude was undertaken on so large a scale and with such persistence that it proved effective. Near Bukrin, for example, at a location some 50 miles (80 km) to the south-east of Kiev, four men crossed the Dniepr river in a small boat after dark on 22 September, waded ashore, climbed the bank, at this point steep and several hundred of feet high, and from the gullies near the top drew fire from the German outposts. Other small parties followed, and by the break of day a complete company had crossed and gained a foothold at the top of the bank. Then the main strength of Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army began to cross the river, the infantry using anything that would float as the engineers built causeways over which the heavy equipment crossed, and gunners established the artillery on the eastern bank to deliver covering fire.
On 26 September the Voronezh Front seized a bridgehead in the bend of the Dniepr river below Pereyaslav. General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front made three smaller crossings between Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk, enlarging these in the next few days to create a single bridgehead 32 miles (50 km) wide and a maximum of 9.33 miles (15 km) deep. Established almost exactly half way between the German crossing points, the bridgeheads were each established in locations the Germans would have trouble and time reaching.
The Soviet bridgehead about which Hitler was most concerned was that at the mouth of the Pripyat river, and on 25 September he ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to eradicate it without delay. This was more easily said than done. While the two army groups despatched the few and very tired divisions they could spare probing into the swamps edging the rivers, the Soviets brought up fresh divisions and ensured that they could not be dislodged.
By the end of September Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had managed to get the last of its formations across the river and was struggling to re-establish a firm front. After entering the ‘Wotan-Stellung’ below Zaporozhye on 20 September, the 6th Army was already having difficulty in checking a Soviet armoured punch at the centre of its front, and the Germans rightly appreciated that this was clear evidence that the Soviets had no intention of relaxing the pressure, at least as long as the good weather lasted. On 2 October the last formations of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ moved into the ‘Panther-Stellung’, which followed the general line of the Sozh and Pronya rivers about 32 miles (50 km) to the east of the Dniepr river. In the south Heeresgruppe ‘A’ completed its ‘Krimhilde-Bewegung’ evacuation of the ‘Gotenkopf’ lodgement on 29 September: the army group still retained a small beach-head on the Taman peninsula, but evacuated this during the next 10 days.
In a period of some 10 weeks, therefore, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had been driven back a distance of about 150 miles (240 km) along a front 650 miles (1050 km) long. In the process, the Germans had lost the economically most valuable territory they had taken in the USSR in and after ‘Barbarossa’ in June 1941. Attempting to deny the USSR the benefits of these rich areas, Hitler had ordered a scorched earth policy, but even that was denied him. At the end of September, for example, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ reported that it had succeeded in evacuating only between 20 and 30% of the economically important goods in its rear area.
In the sector of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, the German scorched earth policy was still less effective. The economic staffs lacked adequate numbers of personnel to accomplish total destruction, and also lacked the equipment to remove more than a part of the useful goods. Large numbers of factories, power plants, railways and bridges were destroyed, but many of these had not been fully restored after the Soviet retreat in 1941. Influenced by Soviet propaganda promising that there would be no reprisals, the local population sabotaged the evacuation to save their own possessions and to establish alibis that would be useful after the German departure. The only voluntary evacuees were the outright collaborators, those from some of the districts along the Donets river who had suffered the Soviet ‘liberation’ of the previous winter, and the residents of the few areas which were completely laid waste. The armies and economic staffs organised caravans of as many as 600,000 persons, about 10% of the population, and later estimated later that about 280,000 of these crossed the Dniepr river. Some 268,000 tons of grain and 488,000 cattle and horses were taken across the river, and the Germans destroyed 941,000 tons of grain and 13,000 cattle. However, they were forced to leave 1.656 million tons of grain, much of it standing in the fields ready to be harvested, and 2.988 million cattle and horses.
The Soviets quickly began to exploit the literal and metaphorical fruits of victory. As they pursued the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ across the southern part of Ukraine, the Soviets impressed many of the local population as replacements. The 6th Army estimated that about 80,000 men were drafted, given at least part of a uniform and a rifle, and committed to combat.
As they reached the Dniepr river, the Soviet fronts and their subordinate armies had achieved the original objectives of the summer offensive. At this time, the shortening of the German front, the defensive advantages of the river, the lengthening of the Soviet lines of communication, and the high losses the Soviets had suffered should have resulted in a temporary balance of forces and thus a period of regrouping and rehabilitation. Early in October the Germans still believed they had a chance of achieving a balance of this nature, but the combination of their own errors and the Soviet numerical superiority militated against this. In attempting not to yield the territory to the east of the Dniepr river, Hitler had sacrificed too much of the strength of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, and as a result the so-called ‘Ostwall’ could be neither fortified nor manned, and was accordingly penetrated by the Soviets in several places while the front was still moving. The Soviet manpower superiority, on the other hand, had made it possible for formations and units to be rested and rehabilitated in a steady succession. As a result, the Soviet forces reached the Dniepr river with their offensive capability largely intact, and even before the last German formations had crossed the river the battle for the Dniepr line had begun.
Thus it was toward the end of September that the Soviet forces reached the lower reaches of the Dniepr river. The hardest part was still to come, though, as the ‘Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation’ became the ‘Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation’ after an interval of only four days.
The Stavka had detached General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army from the Central Front to the Voronezh Front to race the weakening Germans to the Dniepr river, to save the invaluable cereal crop, and to win bridgeheads before a German defence could be stabilised there. The 3rd Tank Army, plunging headlong to the west, reached the river during the night of 21/22 September and, on 23 September, small numbers of Soviet infantry crossed by swimming and makeshift rafts to secure small, fragile bridgeheads, opposed only by 120 NCO candidates of the German Flak academy at Cherkassy who, with the hard-pressed reconnaissance battalion of Generalleutnant Hans Källner’s 19th Panzerdivision, were the only Germans within 37 miles (60 km) of the Dniepr river loop. Only heavy German air attack and a lack of bridging equipment kept Soviet heavy weaponry from crossing and expanding the bridgehead.
The Stavka had already appreciated that this was a critical point in the offensive and ordered a hasty airborne corps assault to increase the size of the bridgehead before the Germans could counterattack. On 21 September the 1st, 3rd and 5th Guards Airborne Brigades of the Voronezh Front received orders that two days later they were to secure an airhead 9.33 to 12.5 miles (15 to 20 km) wide and 18.5 miles (30 km) deep on the Dniepr river loop between Kanev and Rzhishchev, while front elements forced the river. Assembly at the airfields was slow, necessitating a one-day delay and omission of 1st Guards Airborne Brigade from the plan. Consequent mission changes caused near chaos in the chain of command and barely allowed for propagation of changed orders, which got to company commanders on 24 September just 15 minutes before their units, not yet provisioned with spades, anti-tank mines, or ponchos for the autumn night frosts, formed on airfields to load for take-off at 18.30. As a result of the weather not all the aircraft had arrived at the relevant airfields for loading, while others were late, so ruining loading plans and causing many radios and supplies to be left behind. It would take at least three lifts to deliver the two airborne brigades. Units still arriving by the over-burdened railway were loaded piecemeal onto returned aircraft, whose refuelling was slow as a result of the limited numbers and capacities of the fuel trucks, while already-arrived troops changed aircraft in search of earlier flights. The critical nature of the situation and the fuel shortage made it possible for the aircraft to assemble in the air, so most aircraft, as soon as they had been loaded and fuelled, flew to their drop points in a linear stream rather than the planned line-abreast disposition, and the overall result was that the assault waves became as intermingled as the units they carried.
As the airborne troops, some 50% of whom had never before jumped, made their flights of 105 to 135 miles (170 to 220 km) from four of the designated five airfields (one field received no fuel), the men were briefed on drop zones, assembly areas and objectives only poorly understood by platoon commanders still studying their new orders. Meanwhile, Soviet aerial photography, suspended several days by weather, had missed the strong reinforcement of the area early in the afternoon of the same day. Non-combat cargo pilots ferrying the 3rd Guards Airborne Brigade through drizzle expected no resistance beyond river pickets but, instead, were met by Flak and star shell fire from the 19th Panzerdivision, which happened to be passing through the drop zone, and was just one of six divisions and other elements ordered, on 21 September, to fill the gap in front of the 3rd Tank Army. Lead aircraft, disgorging paratroopers over Dubary at 19.30, came under small arms, machine gun and quadruple 20-mm cannon fire from the armoured personnel carrier battalion of the 73rd Panzergrenadierregiment and elements of the divisional staff of the 19th Panzerdivision: some paratroopers began returning fire and throwing grenades even before landing. Following aircraft increased speed, climbed and tried to fly evasive manoeuvres, and therefore dropped their loads well wide of the designated DZs. Through the night, some pilots wholly avoided DZs illuminated by star shells, and 13 aircraft returned to airfields without having dropped at all. Intending a drop measuring 6.25 by 8.75 miles (10 by 14 km) over largely undefended terrain, the Soviets instead achieved a drop measuring 18.5 by 56 miles (30 by 90 km) over the fastest mobile elements of two German corps.
On the ground, Germans used discarded white parachutes as beacons to hunt down and kill disorganised groups and to gather and destroy air-dropped supplies. Captured documents gave Germans enough information about the Soviet objectives to reach most of them before the disorganised paratroops. Back at Soviet airfields, the fuel shortage made it possible to despatch only 298 of 500 planned sorties, leaving 45-mm anti-tank guns and 2,017 paratroopers undelivered. Of 4,575 men dropped, some 2,300 eventually assembled into 43 extemporised groups, their designated missions abandoned as hopeless, and spent most of their time seeking supplies not yet destroyed by Germans. Others joined forces with the nine partisan groups operating in the area. About 230 men made it back across the Dniepr river to front units, or were originally dropped there. Most of the rest were almost casually captured during that first night or killed on the following day. The Germans believed that between 1,500 and 2,000 paratroopers had been dropped, and recorded some 900 paratroopers captured and killed in the first 24 hours. Thereafter, the Germans largely ignored the paratroopers in their concentration to counterattack and destroy the Soviet bridgeheads across the Dniepr river. The Germans deemed their anti-paratrooper operations completed by 21.00 on 26 September, though a small number of opportunistic actions against garrisons, railway lines, and columns were conducted by remnants in the period through to the early part of November. For lack of German manpower to clear all areas, the forests of the region remained a minor threat. The Germans called the operation a fundamentally sound idea destroyed by the dilettantism of planners lacking expertise, but nonetheless praised individual paratroopers for tenacity, bayonet skills, and effective use of broken ground in the sparsely wooded northern region.
The Stavka deemed this second and, ultimately, last airborne drop a complete failure: the lessons they had learned from their winter offensive drop at Vyaz’ma had not been translated into an effective capability, and it was decided not attempt no further airborne operations. The commander of the 5th Guards Airborne Brigade, withdrawing into the forests to the south, eventually amassed a brigade-size command, half paratroops, half partisans, obtained air supply, and assisted the 2nd Ukrainian Front over the Dniepr river near Cherkassy finally to link with front forces on 15 November. After 13 more days combat, the airborne soldiers were evacuated, ending a harrowing two months. More than three-fifths of them did not return.
The second largest Russian waterway after the Volga river, and the third largest in Europe after the Volga and Danube rivers, the Dniepr river affords the strongest natural defence line in the western part of Russia, especially in a campaign moving from east to west. At its confluence with the Pripyat river, the Dniepr river broadens to a width of about 900 yards (825 m), and downstream of this point the river’s main channel varies in width from 600 yards (550 m) to more than 1,800 yards (1645 m). In its lower part, its width can be as much as 3,280 yards (3000 m), and the fact that it was dammed in several places made it even wider at this time. Below Kiev the river flows through a valley between 18.67 and 25 miles (30 and 50 km) wide, and the eastern bank is swampy and divided by a host of secondary channels. This makes eastward movement difficult, and then the attacker is faced by the fact that at Kiev the western bank rises nearly 330 ft (100 m) in a long series of steep cliffs. Below Kiev the western bank is also high, averaging between 150 and 330 ft (45 and 100 m) along most of its lower length. The eastern bank is flat and treeless, and the bare steppe stretches away to the east.
Had it been fortified and adequately manned, the Dniepr river line would have represented an almost ideal defensive position. However, the condition of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in the autumn of 1943 was so poor that the river provided merely a very modest degree of natural protection. Having been told of the creation of an ‘Ostwall’ in their rear, the Germans troops were shattered to discover after they had crossed the river that no defensive works had been built and even that much of the proposed front had not even been surveyed.
During October’s first week, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ could muster 37 divisions each possessing an average front-line infantry strength of 1,000 men: representing about 80 men per mile (50 men per km) of front, this very poor troop/frontage ratio was the price the army group had to pay for the protection of the river, and the value of any such effort was moot right from the start. Below Kiev the Dniepr river flows to the south-east for 250 miles (400 km) as far as Zaporozhye, it veers to the south-west for another 150 miles (240 km) before reaching the Black Sea below Kherson. In making this great bend the river flows nearly double the straight-line distance between Kiev and the coast.
The front of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and the 6th Army, extending to the south from Zaporozhye to Melitopol, did not follow the lower run of the river, but even so it was more than 33% longer, for instance, than a line linking Kiev and Nikolayev. In purely operational and tactical terms, the Dniepr river faced Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ with the problem which had beset it since the German failure at Stalingrad at the beginning of the year, namely the defence of a front which was angled away to the east.
At this point, the Soviet command had two options. The first was to give itself time to regroup its forces, find one or two weak points to exploit (not necessarily in the lower reaches of the Dniepr river), achieve a breakthrough and encircle the German defenders, rendering the defence line next to useless. This would give Germans time to bring up more reserves, however, and would also expose the Soviet troops to attacks by German mechanised forces on their flanks, which had been the nightmare of every Soviet commander since 1941. The second option was to stage a massive assault without waiting, and force the Dniepr river on a broad front. This offered no additional time for the German defenders, but would lead to much larger Soviet casualties. As Stalin wished Kiev to be retaken on 7 November, which was the anniversary of the revolution of 1917, the choice fell on the second option. The assault was staged in a large number of places almost simultaneously on a 185-mile (300-km) front. All available means of transport, including small fishing boats and improvised rafts, were be used to move the assault forces across the river. The crucial issue would obviously be heavy equipment as, without this, the bridgeheads could not long survive.
The first bridgehead on the Dniepr river’s western bank was established on 22 September at the confluence of the Dniepr and Pripyet rivers, in the northern part of the front. On 24 September another bridgehead was created near Dneprodzerzhinsk, another on 25 September near Dnepropetrovsk, and yet another on 28 September near Kremenchug. By the end of the month, 23 bridgeheads had been established on the western bank, some of them 6.25 miles (10 km) wide and 0.6 to 1.25 miles (1 to 2 km) deep. The soldiers used every available floating device to cross the river, under heavy German fire and taking heavy losses, and after reaching the western bank had to dig themselves into the clay ravines composing Dniepr river’s right bank.
The German forces immediately launched strong counterattacks against almost every bridgehead, hoping to annihilate them before heavy equipment could be transported across the river. The Borodayevska bridgehead, for instance, came under heavy armoured and air assault. Bombers attacked both the bridgehead and the reinforcements crossing the river. Konev complained at once about a lack of organisation in the Soviet air support, set up air patrols to prevent bombers from approaching the bridgeheads and ordered forward more artillery to counter tank attacks from the opposite shore. When Soviet air support became more effective, and hundreds of pieces of artillery and Katyusha rocket-launchers started firing, the situation started to improve and the bridgehead was eventually preserved.
Such fights were common in every bridgehead. Although the Soviets managed to hold all their bridgeheads, their losses were very high. At the beginning of October, as an instance, most divisions were at only one-quarter or, at best, one-half of their establishment strength. By mid-October the Soviet forces accumulated in the bridgeheads across the lower reaches of the Dniepr were now strong enough to undertake a first massive attack to secure the river’s right bank in the southern part of the front. A strong attack was staged on the line linking Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk line and, simultaneously, a major diversion was conducted in the south to draw German forces away from both the lower line of the Dniepr river and Kiev.
On 1 October the South-West Front launched a major assault on the Zaporozhye bridgehead, making a small penetration which the 1st Panzerarmee wiped out before the end of the day. But in reporting the success to the army group, von Mackensen nonetheless requested permission to abandon the bridgehead on the grounds that any attempt to hold it would require, and then consume, too many troops. On the following day the Soviets, realising that they had reached the line which the Germans meant to hold, halted their offensives along the entire Eastern Front for a week while they regrouped and brought up fresh units. To underscore the victories achieved so far, and to mark the start of a new phase of the war, the Stavka began to redesignate the front commands. Opposite Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and the 6th Army, the Voronezh, Steppe, South-West and South Fronts became the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts.
After a conference at the Führer headquarters on 8 October, Busse, the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, informed von Mackensen that Hitler had refused his request for the evacuation of the Zaporozhye bridgehead as, Hitler believed, to do so would expose the left flank of 6th Army. Hitler’s thinking accorded precisely with that of the Stavka, which saw the bridgehead as the key to clearing the eastern bank of the lower Dniepr river and allocated to the 3rd Ukrainian Front the task of destroying it.
On the morning of 10 October General Leytenant (from 27 October General Polkovnik) Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army and General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 3rd Guards Army renewed the Soviet offensive against the German bridgehead, whose defenders were by this time well emplaced. The renewal of he offensive was presaged by an extraordinarily powerful artillery preparation, and this and the other battles currently developing along the front demonstrated that the Soviet forces had now attained a new level in the employment of of their artillery. Artillery divisions made their first appearance, and the duration and weight of the barrages indicated that the Soviets now had enough guns and ammunition to employ them lavishly to level the defences and thus facilitate the advance of the armour and infantry. Even so, the German bridgehead line held, but on 11 October von Mackensen reported that the scale of his losses was so great that his army could hold out for no more than a few days. On 12 October von Mackensen reported that gaps had appeared in the line and could not be closed, and that by holding the bridgehead he was risking not having enough troops left to establish a front behind the river.
At this time von Manstein informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that he planned to yield the bridgehead on 14 October, and Hitler summoned von Kleist to a meeting. The commander of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was deeply concerned by events on his northern flank, and both he and Hitler suspected that von Manstein was merely trying to rid himself of a task he had never wanted. Hitler ordered von Kleist to investigate, without informing von Manstein, whether or not Heeresgruppe ‘A’ could assume responsibility for the bridgehead. On 13 October von Kleist reported that to hold the bridgehead he would need a reinforcement of one or two divisions. Since the fighting on the 6th Army’s front was straining the army group’s reserve strength, von Kleist added that in the event he had to supply the divisions from his own resources, he would be compelled to evacuate Crimea. This was a concept which Hitler currently refused to contemplate, so the German dictator inevitably reverted to his habitual device of refusing to approve any withdrawal.
Rested and rehabilitated after the reverses to which they had been subjected during September, the XXIII Tank Corps and I Guards Mechanised Corps now decided the matter with a dashing armoured attack on the night of 13 October, in which they punched through the north-eastern corner of the bridgehead, drove into the outskirts of Zaporozhye, and forced 1st Panzerarmee back into a shallow arc around the city. On the next day the German rear guard crossed to the western bank after holding around the bridges and the dam to the south of the city long enough to ensure that these would be destroyed.
On 9 October von Kleist had real cause for concern about his left flank for, following a one-week pause in which it had built local superiority of troops and matériel, the 4th Ukrainian Front had resumed the offensive against the 6th Army. Against 13 German divisions, which constituted the total strength of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in German formations except for three divisions on the Crimea, supplemented by two Romanian divisions, Tolbukhin massed three tank corps, two guards mechanised corps, two guards cavalry corps, 45 infantry divisions and 400 batteries of artillery. In terms of armour, this gave the Soviets 800 tanks against the German strength of 83 tanks and 98 self-propelled assault guns.
In tactical terms, the Nogay steppe, which was one of the least hospitable regions of the southern USSR, presented the defence with all manner of difficulties. The 6th Army’s front extended across the open end of the V formed by the Dniepr river on the northern side and the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea on the southern side. The 6th Army’s lines of communication comprised three single-track railways which crossed the Dniepr river at Nikopol, Berislav and Kherson. The steppe was wholly barren and afforded neither cover nor natural defences. On the roads, the thick dust slowed traffic and billowed above moving columns, choking the men and horses as well as penetrating into engines. The 6th Army’s sole advantage was a fairly well-fortified front: as the line above Melitopol was naturally weak, the Germans had put more effort into this than on the rest of the ‘Wotan-Stellung’.
The Soviet offensive began on an 18.67-mile (30-km) front above and below Melitopol, and started with a devastating artillery preparation: within one hour each of two German divisions counted the detonations of 15,000 shells in its sector. The German batteries responded, but could not match the weight of the Soviet artillery fire. On each side the artillery attempted no counter-battery fire, but instead concentrated its fire on the infantry.
Tolbukhin’s task was to dislodge the 6th Army from Melitopol, the southern anchor of the army’s front, and to drive it to the north and therefore away from the Isthmus of Perekop, the sole overland link with Crimea. By 12 October General Leytenant Ya. G. Kreizer’s 51st Army had advanced into the city from the south, but there followed 12 days of vicious urban combat before the German hold on the city was broken on 23 October. This was the signal for the 4th Ukrainian Front’s main forces to begin the primary offensive, and two days later General Leytenant Vasili F. Gerasimenko’s 28th Army and Keizer’s 51st Army drove out to the south-west and south of the city, splitting the 6th Army into two. To the south of the breakthrough the 6th Army had four division (two German and two Romanian), and as these were incapable of establishing a line to protect the Isthmus of Perekop, the 6th Army opted to make an attempt to close the gap from the north. On 27 October the 13th Panzerdivision, now commanded by Oberst Eduard Hauser, struck to south into the gap, but lacked the strength to complete the task. As the 13th Panzerdivision made its fruitless attempt, the 6th Army moved its heavy weapons into position for another attempt several days later.
Before that attack could be launched, however, on 30 October the 28th and 51st Armies destroyed the 6th Army’s weak southern flank and began swift assaults to both the Isthmus of Perekop and Kherson at the mouth of the Dniepr river. Over the following two days the remnants of the 6th Army’s southern flank abandoned all their heavy equipment and most of their vehicles as they fell back behind the line of the Dniepr river. At much the same time the stronger northern flank forces pulled back into a large bridgehead to the south of Nikopol, which Hitler then ordered held both to protect the city and to serve as a springboard for a counterattack to reopen the Crimea.
From the middle of October, Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had become ever more deeply worried about the future of Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army in Crimea. On 18 October, when it appeared that the Soviets might penetrate the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and strike out toward the coast of the Black Sea to the west of the Dniepr river estuary, von Kleist had warned the Oberkommando des Heeres that it was now essential for Crimea to be evacuated. The battle on the 6th Army’s front, he reported, was drawing strength from the 17th Army, which would inevitably become too weak to defend itself. On 19 and 24 October von Kleist requested Zeitzler to obtain a decision on the matter, but Zeitzler responded that Hitler would not allow any mention of Crimea in his presence. On 26 October, when the 6th Army’s front broke into two parts, von Kleist declared that he was having to transfer another division from the 17th Army to the 6th Army, and that with one German and seven unreliable Romanian divisions the 17th Army was incapable of holding Crimea. von Kleist added that he therefore intended to begin the withdrawal by evacuating the Kerch peninsula, on the eastern tip of Crimea, during the night of the same day. Hitler promptly forbade any withdrawal.
Worried about the effect on Romania of the the loss of another seven divisions, on 28 October Antonescu appealed to Hitler for the evacuation of Crimea, but Hitler merely attempted to justify his decision to hold Crimea. His most powerful reasons were that, should the German and Romanian forces abandon Crimea, the Soviets would use it as the base for air attacks on the Romanian oil fields and as a staging area for landings on the Romanian and Bulgarian coasts, and moreover that it was too late to undertake an evacuation.
On the night of 28 October Jaenecke refused to take the responsibility for another battle of the Stalingrad type, and informed von Kleist that he proposed to execute the evacuation order which the army group had issued on 26 October and Hitler had cancelled. von Kleist now ordered that Crimea was to be held regardless of the cost, and explained that Hitler had informed him that matters would be improved within two weeks and overland access to Crimea could be reopened with fresh forces. Jaenecke refused to accept the order, and von Kleist then telephoned the commander of the 17th Army to demand compliance with the order, When Jaenecke then asked for time to consult Oberst Helmuth Voelter, his chief-of-staff, von Kleist ended the call. After this, Generalmajor Hans Röttiger, the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe ‘A’, called the 17th Army’s chief-of-staff and operations officer to admonish them to give Jaenecke ‘proper’ advice: Röttiger added that the matter was purely one of obedience. If Jaenecke refused, a new commander would be sent, and he would be less well acquainted with local conditions and the consequences would fall entirely on the troops. One hour later Jaenecke acceded to von Kleist’s remand and rescinded his evacuation order. In informing Zeitzler of the incident, von Kleist said that he did not wish to have Jaenecke court-martialled, but could not keep him as an army commander. Jaenecke remained, however, possibly because Zeitzler and von Kleist reconsidered and decided it would be better not to bring before Hitler another example of a general’s alleged unreliability.
It is likely that no amount of rational argument would have persuaded Hitler to yield Crimea for, as always, he expected his luck to change and had vague plans to recover the situation. For their part the generals were usually unwilling to admit that any cause was lost as long as there remained any glimmer of hope, no matter how remote it might be.
At the end of October, Hitler received support from von Manstein, who was receiving five Panzer divisions from the Italian and Western Fronts in order to control the Soviet breakthrough in the sector of his own Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. von Manstein proposed to allocate the newly arrived divisions to the 1st Panzerarmee for a quick counterattack and then, as soon as the Soviet advance had been halted, to shift them southward to the Dniepr river bend for an assault into the flank of the Soviet thrust against the 6th Army. Seeing in this scheme not only a chance to keep Crimea open but also the prospect of a full-scale victory, Hitler gave his immediate assent. For von Manstein, too, the plan seems to have possessed an extraordinary attraction, as an exercise in military virtuosity and as yet another opportunity to demonstrate the tactics he had long advocated of using the retreat to trap and then ambush significant Soviet forces.
Before von Manstein could execute his plan, he had first to halt a Soviet thrust to the west of the Dniepr river which was threatening to cut off the 1st Panzerarmee and also Heeresgruppe ‘A’. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front had grouped four armies, including General Leytenant (from 20 October General Polkovnik) Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, behind its bridgeheads below Kremenchug, and during the middle of the month was bringing General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army from the bridgehead above the city.
During the morning of 15 October 12 infantry divisions attacked out of the larger of the bridgeheads, during the afternoon of the same day Konev committed 5th Guards Tank Army, and by the following day the 2nd Ukrainian Front had pushed three armies across the river. That night von Manstein and von Mackensen agreed that what was required was to yield the Dniepr river bend and pull the 1st Panzerarmee and Heeresgruppe ‘A’ back to the Bug river above Nikolayev, but von Manstein added that such move was unlikely to receive Hitler’s authorisation.
Over the next few days Konev continued to pass divisions across the river, allowing his front to rip open the 1st Panzerarmee’s left flank. On 18 October Konev’s forces took Pyatikhatka, some 34 miles (55 km) to the south of the Dniepr river, and severed the main railway links to Dnepropetrovsk and Krivoi Rog. For a time von Mackensen believed that the Soviets had gone as far inland as they had planned, and would now seek to roll up his army’s front from the north. von Mackensen decided to wait until he could assemble a force of four Panzer divisions (two which the army group was transferring from the 8th Army, Generalmajor Friedrich Sieberg’s 14th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Nikolaus von Vormann’s 24th Panzerdivision arriving from Italy and the West) for a powerful counterattack. By 20 October von Mackensen had revised his opinion and now believed that the Soviets had it in mind to advance on Krivoi Rog, whose seizure would cut the 1st Panzerarmee’s lines of communications, or maybe even Kherson or Nikolayev. Whatever the Soviets’ objective, though, Krivoi Rog had to be held as through it passed all the railway lines running east to the 1st Panzerarmee’s front and was the location of sizeable ammunition and supply dumps whose evacuation would require several weeks. von Mackensen therefore decided to counterattack with the two Panzer divisions coming from the 8th Army and not to wait for the two others, which were not scheduled to arrive for another eight to 12 days.
For once the Oberkommando des Heeres could offer effective help, though only somewhat belatedly. Earlier in the month the operations branch of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had decided that the immediate possibility of an invasion in the West had passed, and therefore that the Eastern Front could be reinforced, even if this meant that risks had to be taken in other theatres. It was this which prompted the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht to release the 14th Panzerdivision and 24th Panzerdivision. On 20 October it also offered another four formations in the form of Generalleutnant Walter Krüger’s 1st Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Adolf von Schell’s (from 15 November Generalleutnant Georg Jauer’s and from 20 November Generalmajor Hans Tröger’s) 25th Panzerdivision, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Theodor Wisch’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’, and Generalleutnant Karl Gümbel’s 384th Division. The five Panzer divisions (the Waffen-SS formation becoming the 1st SS Panzerdivision in October) were thus a very potent reserve force, but only if they could be delivered to the Eastern Front in time to sway the course of current operations.
As the Soviet forces pushed toward Krivoi Rog on 21 October, von Mackensen had to give up his plan for a counterattack with the divisions from 8th Army (Oberst [from 1 November Generalmajor] Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision and SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s 3rd SS Panzerdivision ‘Totenkopf’) and put these divisions separately into the line in an effort to break the momentum of the Soviet offensive. von Mackensen told von Manstein that, should they so desire, the Soviets could also turn to the east into the Dniepr river bend to fall on the rear of the 1st Panzerarmee’s line on the river. He therefore proposed yielding the eastern half of the river bend and pulling back to a line anchored on the river and the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ near Nikopol. von Manstein agreed but passed the proposal to the Oberkommando des Heeres, and in the middle of the night contacted von Mackensen with the almost inevitable information that Hitler insisted on holding the Dniepr river front.
Two days later Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army fought its way out of a small bridgehead around Voyskovoye in the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s sector mid-way between Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye, and at the same time General Leytenant Vasili V. Glagolev’s 46th Army advanced on the same town from the north. Such was the speed of the Soviet advances that von Mackensen had only just enough time to get his forces out of Dnepropetrovsk and away from the river on what was left of his front upstream of the town.
The scale and weight of the Soviet offensive were now all too evident, and the Germans hastened to retrieve the situation as best they could. On 24 October von Manstein transferred General Ferdinand Schörner’s XL Panzerkorps from the 1st Panzerarmee to the 8th Army on the northern flank of Konev’s drive in the direction of Krivoi Rog with instructions to counterattack to the south-east across the Soviet spearhead using the 14th Panzerdivision, 24th Panzerdivision and 3rd SS Panzerdivision ‘Totenkopf’. At this time the other three divisions being provided by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht were still on their way to the Eastern Front. As the XL Panzerkorps deployed for its task, the leading elements of the 2nd Ukrainian Front entered the outskirts of Krivoi Rog on 25 October. Moving off one day earlier than had been planned, because of the threats to the city, the XL Panzerkorps attacked on 27 October, and in the following three days destroyed most of two mechanised corps and nine infantry divisions, in the process forcing the front’s armour out the city and back about 18.67 miles (30 km).
von Manstein now wished to relocate the XL Panzerkorps and two of its divisions to the 6th Army’s bridgehead below Nikopol for the attack into the Nogay steppe. On 2 November von Mackensen protested that he had thought the objectives were to hold Krivoi Rog and Nikopol, and that if the XL Panzerkorps was moved the Soviets would revive their offensive and take Krivoi Rog, followed by Nikopol as well. von Manstein’s response was that unless contact with Crimea could not be re-established, the whole line of the lower Dniepr river would have to be held, a task for which there were insufficient troops. Two days later, however, von Manstein revised his thinking, and informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that his initial concept had been based on an assumption that the 6th Army would keep strong forces forward of the Dniepr river. He now had no confidence that a counterattack by the XL Panzerkorps could succeed, and instead suggested that two of the corps’ divisions be held as a reserve for the Nikopol bridgehead and the Krivoi Rog bridgehead. Less than one day later, von Manstein’s attention was necessarily refocused onto his army group’s left flank, where another catastrophe was imminent.
For a month the 4th Panzerarmee had maintained a precarious balance along its front on each side of Kiev. On this army’s flanks the Soviets had established two large bridgeheads, around the mouth of the Pripyat river and below Kiev at Bukrin. In the first week of October the Soviets had established two smaller bridgeheads, one at Lutezh, some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Kiev, and the other around Yasnogorodka, another 12.5 miles (20 km) farther to the north. The Stavka had first instructed Vatutin’s Voronezh Front to take Kiev by a wide sweep to the west and north out of the Bukrin bridgehead. Between 12 and 15 October and between 21 and 23 October, three of the front’s armies had tried to break out of this bridgehead, but because they lacked the bridging material to get heavy artillery across the river, and also because the fields of observation on that stretch of the river were too limited to permit accurate fire from the eastern bank, the Soviets were unable to succeed. Meanwhile, the two bridgeheads to the north of Kiev had been enlarged, that at Lutezh sufficiently far to the south that Kiev then lay within easy artillery range. When the second attempt to break out of the Bukrin bridgehead failed, the Stavka had ordered Vatutin to move Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and the artillery northward to the Lutezh bridgehead and make another attempt from that bridgehead.
It was on 3 November that the new offensive surged into motion after several days of intense activity behind the front, in the bridgehead and to the east of the river. Following a massive artillery preparation, six infantry divisions and one tank corps, elements of the 3rd Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army, impacted the centre of the German line around the Lutezh bridgehead and broke through. At the same time, General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 60th Army broke out of the Yasnogorodka bridgehead. In two days the 4th Panzerarmee’s front around Lutezh had collapsed, and in the course of the night of 5 November the battle swept through the streets of Kiev, and during the morning which followed the last Germans retreated to the south.
Lacking any form of reserve, the 4th Panzerarmee was helpless. Hoth had initially thought that Vatutin might content himself with the recapture of Kiev, but by 5 November both he and von Manstein had come to the conclusion that the Soviets would advance in a wide swing to the south-west with the object of outflanking the whole Dniepr front if they could. If Hoth and von Manstein were right, the Soviets’ first objective would be Fastov, some 40.5 miles (65 km) to the south-west of Kiev and the site of the railway junction which controlled the strategically vital double-track line which supplied the centre of the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. On 6 November von Manstein ordered the 25th Panzerdivision, which was just arriving from the west, to deploy and hold Fastov.
On the following day, at Führer headquarters, von Manstein learned just how mistaken had been his plan for a counterattack in the Nogay steppe. As he had done since the beginning of 1943, von Manstein argued that Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ should make its main effort on the northern flank, and wished to move two of the XL Panzerkorps’ divisions and the three Panzer divisions (including the 25th Panzerdivision) arriving from the west, into the area of Kiev. Hitler ad no intention of being deprived of his ambition of a major success in the area to the south of the Dniepr river bend, however, and thereby instil fresh confidence in the troops and make it possible to retain Nikopol and Crimea. Hitler allowed von Manstein to divert the three new Panzer divisions to the 4th Panzerarmee, but insisted that the divisions of the XL Panzerkorps be left with the 1st Panzerarmee. To make up the difference, Hitler promised von Manstein Generalleutnant Gustav Wilke’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision, the SS Brigade ‘Nordland’ and Oberst Dr Karl Mauss’s 4th Panzerdivision, which had been promised from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ at an earlier date but not transferred. The fact that von Manstein accepted Hitler’s ‘offer’ aroused considerable irritation in the Oberkommando des Heeres: in a telephone conversation with von Kluge at Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, the operations chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres said that von Manstein could have had the five Panzer divisions which he had originally requested if he had not, by prematurely agreeing to take less, undercut Zeitzler, who was ready to give him unqualified support.
For a time von Manstein considered an immediate start to the attack he had planned for the reopening of the overland link with Crimea as it appeared that the 17th Army could not survive for the three or four weeks he expected the battle around Kiev to last: the Soviets had landed on each side of the Kerch peninsula, at the eastern end of Crimea, in the ‘Kerch-Eltigern Operation’ and also on the south coast of the Sivash near the base of the Isthmus of Perekop. An encouraging sign was a small but successful attack the 24th Panzerdivision out of the Nikopol bridgehead several days earlier, but on 8 November von Manstein decided that the 1st Panzerarmee lacked the strength to handle the breakthrough in its own front and also to attack to the south. On the following day von Manstein ordered von Mackensen to plan an attack to be effected one more formations had become available.
In the following weeks, when the Soviets showed no urgency in the reconquest of Crimea, von Manstein was fully occupied with the demands of his own front, and let the plan for an operation to the south of the Dniepr fall into oblivion.
During the second week of November, as the 1st Panzerdivision, 25th Panzerdivision and 1st SS Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ slowly assembled and reloaded the units, weapons and equipment which had only recently been unloaded in the sector of the 1st Panzerarmee and re-routed to the 4th Panzerarmee the troops still aboard trains heading to the east from Germany, the 1st Ukrainian Front continued its advance to the south-west past Kiev against patchy German resistance. The 4th Panzerarmee had been driven into three isolated portions which were falling back along divergent axes. The army’s left-flank formation, von der Chevallerie’s LIX Corps, was being driven in a north-westerly direction toward Korosten. The two formations in the centre, General Anton Dostler’s VII Corps and Hauffe’s XIII Corps, fell back to the west toward Zhitomir. The army’s right-hand formation, General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, still holding part of the river line, had hinged its own left flank back to block the Soviet progress in the area due south of Kiev. On the left of the XXIV Panzerkorps, the headquarters of General Hermann Balck’s XLVIII Panzerkorps), transferred from 1st Panzerarmee, tried to bring the advance elements of the divisions coming from the south into position to establish a line flanking Fastov.
On the morning of 7 November, when he moved forward with as much of his 25th Panzerdivision as he could muster to undertake the defence of Fastov, von Schell discovered that the mobile forces of the 3rd Guards Tank Army had arrived before him. For the next three days, in half-melted snow and rain, the 25th Panzerdivision, which had not been trained for combat on the Eastern Front and lacked much of its equipment, tried vainly to retake Fastov.
Meanwhile the Soviet advance past Fastov to the west continued to accelerate. von Manstein decided that there was no advantage in attempting to retake Fastov and relieve the pressure on the VII Corps and XIII Corps. On 12 November the XLVIII Panzerkorps committed its three divisions, all of them still lacking much of their weapon and equipment inventories, in an attack to the north-west from the Fastov area into the rear of the 38th Army’s spearhead, which was then pushing into Zhitomir, some 90 miles (145 km) to the west of Kiev, but the attack made little progress. In the north the 60th Army was rapidly forcing the LIX Corps back toward Korosten and threatening to sever its contact with the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
However, as had happened before, it was the Soviets themselves who afforded the 4th Panzerarmee its greatest opportunity to effect a recovery. Vatutin had divided the effort of his 1st Ukrainian Front and was attempting to move in two directions, to the south-west and west. von Manstein now decided to concentrate first on Zhitomir and then turn to the east behind Fastov.
From 14 November the XLVIII Panzerkorps tried once again, this time with Generalmajor Hasso von Manteuffel’s experienced 7th Panzerdivision from the XXIV Panzerkorps in place of the 25th Panzerdivision. This time the German attack fared better, and after its first day the Soviets, worried for their flanks and rear, hesitated and started to slow. Even so, it seemed that the counterattack had come too late to save the LIX Corps which, fighting alone, was almost surrounded in Korosten and had to be supplied by air drops. von der Chevallerie wished to pull back farther to the west while the opportunity to do so was still available, but on 16 November Hitler ordered that Korosten was to be held at all costs.
On 19 November the XIII Corps and XLVIII Panzerkorps retook Zhitomir, and on the following day the 1st SS Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ turned to the east, reaching Brusilov, to the north and slightly to the west of Fastov, on 23 November, but by this time the steady rain had turned the roads to mud. In the north the LIX Corps, after being pushed out of Korosten despite Hitler’s stand-fast order, was able at the last minute to take advantage of the Soviets’ growing uncertainty and retake the town on 24 November. On the following day von Manstein decided on a temporary halt because of the weather.
It was the operations during the last two weeks of November which ultimately sealed the fate of the Dniepr river line. What time was left could be credited partially to the lessons in concentration and manoeuvre which von Manstein had given Vatutin in the area to the east of Zhitomir, but primarily to the fact that Vatutin, waiting for more settled weather, had held back a stronger punch. If the two Panzer divisions which Hitler insisted on keeping on the army group’s right flank been available, the 4th Panzerarmee might have been able to deal the three Soviet armies a major defeat. As it was, Hoth and von Manstein agreed late in the month that there was no point in considering ways of regaining the line of the Dniepr river at Kiev.
Even as the 4th Panzerarmee was occupied in the area to the west of Kiev, the situation in the rest of the sector in which Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was operating had deteriorated steadily and relentlessly. After gaining small bridgeheads to each side of Cherkassy on 13 November, the 2nd Ukrainian Front had quickly expanded that in the north until it threatened to engulf Cherkassy and rip open the 8th Army’s front. To the north and east of Krivoi Rog and against the Nikopol bridgehead, which the 1st Panzerarmee had taken over from the 6th Army, the Soviets maintained a constant pressure. On 20 November Generaloberst Hans Hube, who had replaced von Mackensen in command of 1st Panzerarmee, reported to the army group that his infantry strength had declined to the lowest tolerable level: the army’s front could not be completely manned, and on days of heavy fighting casualties were in the order of one battalion per division under attack. Without an extraordinary supply of replacements delivered swiftly by air, Hube believed that any further defence of the Dniepr line was impossible.
On the same day, von Manstein advised the Oberkommando des Heeres that as well as their reserves (an estimated 44 infantry divisions and an unknown but large number of tank brigades created in 1943), the Soviets had 33 infantry divisions and 11 tank and mechanised corps resting behind the front. With these the Soviets would be able to mount a full-scale winter offensive, and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, completely pinned at the front, would be at the mercy of the offensive. von Manstein added that his army group needed major reinforcements to strengthen the front and to create a powerful reserve, and unless these could not be supplied from other theatres, they would have to be made available by a shortening of the southern sector of the Eastern Front and by evacuating the 17th Army from Crimea.
von Manstein’s analysis of longer-term possibilities was grim reading, but was more optimistic with regard to the near future was concerned than the analyses of his subordinate armies. The 8th Army had gaps in its front around the Cherkassy bridgehead and in the area to the north of Krivoi Rog, and on 24 November Generalmajor Hellmuth Reinhardt, the 8th Army's chief-of-staff, asked whether or not ‘large operational decisions’ (i.e. a general withdrawal) could be expected when the winter freeze arrived and the probability of a Soviet winter offensive became a certainty. To this von Manstein could offer no answer. Two days later Hube warned that the decision to give up the Nikopol bridgehead and the Dniepr river bend would have to be made soon, or the army would have to receive substantial replacements. On the following day, Hube informed von Manstein that his army had exhausted all possible means of self-help and needed to know, as a matter of the greatest urgency, how much longer it would have to hold the Nikopol bridgehead. The Soviets were fleshing out their units with men drafted from the population of recently reoccupied territory, and while these men were no significant as soldiers, their very number was creating a German shortage of ammunition. von Manstein replied that he agreed but could not get Hitler to change his earlier orders.
At the end of November Hitler wanted to remove units from the 4th Panzerarmee and 1st Panzerarmee to strengthen the front around Cherkassy, but von Manstein insisted that if the Soviets broke loose once again, on either the northern or southern flanks of his army group, the retention of Cherkassy would be pointless.
The first week of December was marked by the arrival of considerably colder weather, and within just a few days the roads had frozen solid enough for the Panzer divisions to get under way once again. von Manstein ordered the XLVIII Panzerkorps to move to the north of Zhitomir, push to the east toward the line between Radomyshl’ and Malin, and then wheel to the north-east into the flank of the 60th Army operating against the LIX Corps at Korosten. The XLVIII Panzerkorps started its attack to the north of Zhitomir on 6 December, and for two days achieved good progress against steadily strengthening resistance. By 10 December the Soviet resistance had become strong and Hoth, loath to take a chance, ordered the XLVIII Panzerkorps to restore contact between the XIII Corps and LIX Corps as soon as it had taken Radomyshl’. On 19th December the XLVIII Panzerkorps was ready to undertake the second part of its original task, namely the wheel into the flank of the 60th Army. During the next three days, however, the Panzer corps made almost no progress as it had encountered Soviet forces which had been assembled for another drive toward Zhitomir. On 21 December the 4th Panzerarmee ordered the Panzer corps to go over to the defensive.
In the sectors of the 8th Army and 1st Panzerarmee, throughout November and during the first three weeks of December the Soviets were content to fight a battle of attrition, for they could afford the losses which the Germans could not. The two armies managed to keep their fronts fairly stable until the second week of the month, when the north-western side of the line around the bridgehead above Krivoi Rog broke. Before the Germans could establish a new front, the armies of the 2nd Ukrainian Front had cleared the line of the Dniepr river as far to the north as Cherkassy. After the middle of December, all Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ held of the original ‘Wotan-Stellung’ was a 50-mile (80-km) stretch of the Dniepr river between Kiev and Cherkassy.
The Battle of the Dniepr had been another strategic defeat for the German army, which was therefore compelled to attempt a stabilisation of the front still farther west. The Soviet forces, which Hitler had hoped to contain along the line of the Dniepr river, had forced their way into and through the German defences and, as the German lacked the strength to destroy the Soviets’ Dniepr river bridgeheads, the Soviets surged forward to liberate Kiev on 6 November. The western bank of the river was still largely in the hands of the Germans, but this was not a situation which could last long.
The Battle of the Dniepr also demonstrated the strength of the Soviet partisan movement: the ‘railway war’ during September and October 1943 struck German logistics very hard, creating major problems of supply.
Casualties during the Battle of the Dniepr are still the subject of debate. Some sources give very low figures, in the order of 200,000 to 300,000 total casualties, which is much lower than those for the Battle of Kursk, for instance. Given the duration of the campaign and the huge area involved, however, many have argued with considerable plausibility that the losses were vast, easily reaching or even surpassing those at the Battle of Stalingrad, but going ‘unnoticed’ because of the size of the operation’s area. The death toll also depends on the time frame considered. It also depends whether the toll of the 2nd Battle of Smolensk, which was a kind of deceptive manoeuvre for the Battle of the Dniepr, is included in the latter’s statistics. The lowest estimate for the Soviet losses is more than 500,000 total casualties, and the highest suggests 1.25 million. The German losses may have been in the order of 1.5 million, including 373,000 dead.