Melitopol Offensive Operation

The 'Melitopol Offensive Operation' was the Soviet second of 10 undertakings within the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' by the South Front (from 20 October the 4th Ukrainian Front) against the 6th Army of Heeresgruppe 'A' (26 September/5 November 1943).

The other sub-operations were the 'Kremenchug Offensive Operation' (26 September/10 October), the 'Zaporozhye Offensive Operation' (10/14 October), the 'Kremenchug-Pyatikhatka Offensive Operation' (15 October/3 November), the 'Dnepropetrovsk Offensive Operation' (23 October/23 December), the '1st Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation' (14/21 November), the 'Apostolovo Offensive Operation' (14 November/23 December), the 'Nikopol Offensive Operation' (14 November/31 December), the 'Aleksandriya-Znamenka Offensive Operation' (22 November/9 December) and the '2nd Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation' (10/19 December).

The operation was designed to expel the German forces holding the northern part of the Ukrainian region of Tavria, and was centred on the defeat of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 6th Army which, as a result of the German defeats in the summer of 1943, had withdrawn behind the defences on the Molochna river: this was one of the most heavily fortified sections of the 'Ostwall' (or 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung'), and covered the approaches to the North Tavrian and Crimean peninsulas. The offensive was also tasked with the liberation of the rest of northern Tavria and reaching the lower reaches of the Dniepr river in order to cut off a major grouping of German forces from the armies to the north of it and isolating it in Crimea .

On 21 September, one day before the end of the 'Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation', elements of General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front reached the German defensive position on the Molochna river. Centred on the city of Melitopol, this German position comprised two or in some places three lines with a well-developed system of trenches, barbed wire entanglements, strongly constructed firing positions for artillery, mortars and machine guns, and interlocking fields of anti-tank and anti-personnel obstacles and mines.

The Soviets planned that in the course of their offensive, which began on 26 September, two attacks would be launched: these comprised the main attack by the strongest of the Soviet forces (four armies, two tank corps and two cavalry corps) in the area to the north of Melitopol, and an auxiliary attack by General Leytenant Vasili F. Gerasimenko’s 28th Army from the region to the south of Melitopol and bypassing the city from the south-west.

The offensive was planned and implemented on the orders of the Soviet high command in order to prevent the Germans from consolidating their position in the defensive line. However, such was the urgency attached to the 'Melitopol Offensive Operation' that it was planned and executed without any appreciable operational pause after the 'Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation' and thus without proper preparation, reconnaissance, the exhaustion of the troops and the depletion of material resources. These factors combined to cause the offensive to falter after a mere five days and with a penetration of only 1.25 to 6.2 miles (2 to 10 km) into the German defences.

Between 30 September and 9 October the offensive was temporarily stopped with such fighting as there was being limited to local positional combat. After a thorough analysis of the situation and discovering that Lemelsen was transferring significant parts pf his 6th Army from the southern to the northern flank, Tolbukhin regrouped his strength to add more weight to his southern flank and delivered a massive blow to the now-weakened German grouping. The transfer of forces of General Leytenant Yakov G. Kreizer’s 51st Army, tank corps and cavalry corps to the 28th Army’s zone made it possible for the Soviets to achieve greater success on the southern flank. Two weeks after the resumption of the operation, on 23 October, Melitopol was liberated by the 51st Army in co-operation with the 28th army. At the same time, Soviet forces advancing in the area to the north of the city also broke through the defences and severed the railway line connecting Zaporozhye and Melitopol.

The breakthrough in the area to the south of Melitopol was made by the Mobile Mechanised Cavalry Group 'Burya', which combined elements of the IV Guards Kuban Cavalry Corps and XIX Tank Corps and had strong air support. On 24 October, the Germans were forced to start a general retreat. The pursuing Soviet forces on 30 October liberated Genichesk, a port on the north-western coast of the Sea of Azov, and reached the shore of Sivash Bay on the same coast opposite the north coast of Crimea. On 1 November, Soviet forces broke through the Turkish Wall defences and entered the Perekop isthmus. By the night of 5 November, the Soviets had reached the lower reaches of the Dniepr river and seized a bridgehead on the southern shore of Sivash bay.

In their advance, however, the Soviet troops failed to dislodge the Germans from the bridgehead they held on the left bank of the Dniepr river in the area to the south of Nikopol.

As a result of the operation, the Soviet forces advanced to the west and south-west to a depth of between some 30 and 200 miles (50 and 320 km), liberated almost all of northern Tavria and cut off the German and Romanian forces in Crimea from the mainland, thus creating the conditions necessary for the liberation of Crimea and the southern part of right-bank Ukraine.