Mirgorod Direction Offensive Operation

The 'Mirgorod Direction Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking fought as part of 'Polkovodets Rumyantsev', and was thus one of the operations that followed the Battle of Kursk. In the offensive, the Soviet forces pushed through the German lines after the Germans had retreated in the aftermath of the Battle of Kursk within 'Zitadelle' (3/25 August 1943).

During the Battle of Kursk, German armoured formations in the south-eastern corner of the Kursk salient had failed to penetrate the defences between the Voronezh Front and the Steppe Front (in total the 1st Guards Tank, 5th Guards Tank, 6th Guards Army, 5th Guards Army, 40th Army and 27th Army) in the Belgorod sector on 8 July. The Soviet 'Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Counter-Offensive' then followed, and included as its objectives the immediate liberation of Belgorod and Kharkovby the same two Soviet fronts. On 23 July, the German forces of General Dietrich von Choltitz’s XLVIII Panzerkorps and General Eugen Ott’s LII Corps of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee within Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' pulled back to their previous, well-fortified positions stretching to some 37 miles (60 km) to the west of Tomarovka. Their combat strength had been reduced by as much as 50% in the Battle of Kursk.

Early on 3 August, following a heavy 2.5-hour artillery barrage and under cover of overwhelming air support, the forces of the General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front and and General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front began to advance to the south-west from the road linling Kursk and Belgorod on a front, 110 mules (175 km) wide, between Sumy and Vovchansk, crossed the Vorskla river and quickly penetrated the defences of Generalmajor Adolf Trowitz’s 332nd Division to the north of Tomarovka and Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division of the LII Corps to a depth of 62 miles (100 km) between Tomarovka and Belgorod on the northern flank, and as far as Okhtyrka.

To the west of Belgorod, Generalmajor Wilhelm Crisolli’s (from 21 August Generalleutnant Rudolf Freiherr von Waldenfels’s 6th Panzerdivision deployed hurriedly and counterattacked the penetration in the 167th Division's area, but was unable to check the Soviet progress. The 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung and Generalleutnant Hans Källner’s 19th Panzerdivision were also swept aside by the strength of the attack. The 19th Panzerdivision had only 28 tanks, the 6th Panzerdivision which was in reserve and about 5 miles (8 km) behind the front had 50 tanks. Both were reinforced by the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung, which had 10 PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks. Thus the entire German tank strength was 90 operational tanks in this sector.These divisions were high-quality units and not badly understrength for this period of the war on the Eastern Front, but the enormous weight of Soviet firepower, mass of infantry and hundreds of tanks simply overran them.

In Tomarovka, German units threatened with encirclement retreated along a narrow corridor to Grayvoron. The shattered formations of the LII Corps began a desperate fight through the Soviets toward the south-west and their own line, searching throughout for a gap in the noose quickly closing behind them. Right through this process, Soviet aircraft were fell on the retreating columns, wreaking destruction and confusion. To counter the breakthrough at the boundary of his armies, von Manstein drew in armour from all other of his area of command. By 5 August the four divisions of General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps (3rd Panzerdivision, 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich', 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and 5th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Wiking'). The SS divisions were severally weakened after the failure of the 'Kursk Offensive Operation' and more recently the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' had sustained heavy losses opposing the failed Soviet breakthrough on the Mius river in the 6th Army's sector. The 5th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Wiking') had also suffered heavy losses at Izyum in the 8th Army's area. These four formations were deploying to the north and west of Kharkov in preparation for a counterattack on the eastern flank of the Soviet armoured spearheads driving towards Bogodukhov.

At the same time Generalleutnant Karl von Le Suire’s (from 20 August Generalleutnant Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Edelsheim’s XXIV Panzerkorps of the 4th Panzerarmee prepared to attack the western flank with Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland'. von Manstein planned to use his Panzer divisions to slice through the lines of communication nourishing the Soviets' spearhead mobile formations and thereby slow their momentum. The Soviet armoured forces advanced so quickly that their infantry divisions were left in their wake, first as a result of a lack of sufficient transport, and second to handle the clearance of all pockets of resistance in their rear. This left such elements vulnerable to isolation and destruction by the superior German mobile forces. Despite deep penetrations, the forces of the Voronezh Front had been frustrated along the banks of the Vorskla and Merla rivers by German armour operating in the 'fire brigade' role of the type which soon became standard for the Germans. Thus Waffen-SS armoured units isolated Soviet units which had penetrated too quickly, and this had halted the momentum of the assault.

To relieve these units and to prevent further German advances, General Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, General Leytenant Pavel P. Korzun’s 47th Army and General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 40th Army launched an assault on the left flank of General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzerkorps of the 4th Panzerarmee. In this sector the 57th Division and 68th Division had each been reduced to the strength of a Kampfgruppe. Hoth was now faced with a difficult decision: to cancel his planned assault to defeat the overextended Soviet armoured formations, or to move his armour to relieve his left flank. He opted for the more aggressive of these, gambling that the former would force the Soviets to move their forces to counter his threat. On 18 August the XXIV Panzerkorps (7th Panzerdivision with 40 tanks, 10th Panzergrenadierdivision with 40 tanks, Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland'[e/e] with 70 tanks and assault guns, and a heavy tank and several assault gun battalions) started its assault from Okhtyrka toward Parchomovka and initially achieved quick success: by the early afternoon of the first day, the German forces had penetrated to a depth of 12.5 miles (20 km), cut the line of communication serving the 27th Army and threatened to encircle the Soviet divisions to the south-west of Okhtyrka. At 18.30 on August, elements of Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' linked with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' at Parchomovka. The junction resulted in the tenuous encirclement of several large Soviet formations (IV Guards Tank Corps and the 166th and 71st Divisions), which were able to escape only with the loss of heavy vehicle losses and men. Increased Soviet assaults on the 4th Panzerarmee's left flank over the Psel river by the 40th Army and 47th Army later forced Hoth to withdraw Generalleutnant August Schmidt’s 10th Panzergrenadierdivision from the counterattack and finally the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' was compelled to switch the defensive at Parchomovka.

On 26 August, immediately to the north of the Voronezh Front, General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front resumed its 'Kutuzov' offensive against Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', out of the north of the Kursk salient. The offensive fell on Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army at Karachev and Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 2nd Army at Sevsk and in the area to east of Klintsy, and quickly secured a deep penetration. This eventually forced von Kluge and von Manstein to seek authorisation for a withdrawal to more secure defensive positions. Retreat to the Dniepr river was now inevitable: the only question was whether this would happen at a time of the Germans' own choosing or be headlong flight under intense Soviet pressure. The re-established 6th Army was also reeling from renewed blows on the Mius river.

The farthest Soviet penetration was to Gadyach on the Psel river, short of the final objective of Mirgorod, in an operation which cost the Soviets some 400 of the 600 tanks with which they had started, and the Germans about 80 tanks.

The constant fighting in this period had never allowed Adolf Hitler to build a reserve large enough to attempt to regain the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. Employing the peculiar rippling effect that marked their offensives, the Soviet forces, thwarted in one place, had shifted to others. For the first time in the war they possessed the full strategic initiative, and grasped it without regard for economy of effort, tactical sophistication, or the danger of overreaching themselves. The failure of 'Zitadelle' had doomed the Germans to the loss of operational initiative on the Eastern Front without any hope of regaining it, although Hitler seems to have been unaware or unwilling to recognise this reality. The huge losses in manpower which the Germans suffered in July and August were ultimately fatal and left the armies of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' too weak to achieve anything but delay the inevitable. 'Polkovodets Rumyantsev' marked the first time in the war that the Germans were not able to defeat a major Soviet offensive during the summer months and regain both lost ground and the strategic initiative.