Polesskoye Offensive Operation

The 'Polesskoye Offensive Operation', also known as the Battle of Kovel, was the Soviet ninth of the 10 sub-operations together constituting the 'Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation', and was launched by General Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 2nd Belorussian Front at the junction of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s (from 31 March Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s) Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' with the object of striking deep into the flank and the rear of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in Kovel area of Right-Bank Ukraine (15 March/5 April 1944).

The other sub-operations were the 'Zhitomir-Berdichev Offensive Operation' (24 December 1943/14 January 1944), the 'Kirovograd Offensive Operation' (5/16 January), the 'Korsun-Shevchenkovsky Offensive Operation' (24 January/17 February), the 'Rovno-Lutsk Offensive Operation (1st Stage)' (27 January/11 February), the 'Nikopol-Krivoi Rog Offensive Operation' (2nd Stage)' (30 January/29 February), the 'Proskurov-Chernovtsy Offensive Operation' (4 March/17 April), the 'Uman-Botoşani Offensive Operation' (5 March/17 April), the 'Bereznegovatoye-Snigirevka Offensive Operation' (6/18 March) and the 'Odessa Offensive Operation' (26 March/14 April).

The scene for the 'Polesskoye Offensive Operation' early in March 1944, when the Soviet forces renewed their offensive in Right-Bank Ukraine against the forces of Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. In order to prevent Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' from aiding its southern neighbour, the Soviet supreme command decided to strike in the direction of Kovel and Brest-Litovsk on the junction of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd', and the offensive which was planned was facilitated by the success achieved by General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s (from 1 April Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s in the 1st Ukrainian Front in the 'Rovno-Lutsk Offensive Operation'. As the Kovel axis was seen by the Stavka as independent of others in the larger region, the Stavka decided to form a separate front: a Stavka directive of 17 February grouped three combined-arms armies and one air army to come under the command of the new 2nd Belorussian Front, which was led from 24 February by General Polkovnik Pavel A. Kurochkin.

On 4 March, the new front was instructed to prepare an offensive, in which the primary axis was toward Kovel, with the immediate task of seizing the line between Lyubeshov and Kovel via Kamen-Kashirsky and then an advance toward Brest-Litovsk and the Zapadny Bug river in the area of Brest-Litovsk, and the area just short of Gorodlo. At the same time, the right wing of the front was to undertake an auxiliary offensive to reach the line of the Pripyat river and to take Turov, David-Gorodok, Rubel and Stolin. The new offensive was to be launched between 12 and 15 March without waiting for the full concentration of the front’s forces, which amounted to 25 divisions and 181 aircraft of General Leytenant Fyedor P. Polynin’s 6th Air Army.

On 6 March, the 2nd Belorussian Front’s military council presented the Stavka with its plan for the operation, which was based on a main strike by the forces of General Leytenant Vitali S. Polenev’s 47th Army, which were to envelop Kovel from the north and south. In parallel, General Leytenant Ivan F. Nikolayev’s (from 28 March General Major Aleksandr I. Ryzhov’s) 70th Army was to advance toward Kamen-Kashirsky, cut road linking Brest-Litovsk and Kovel, and thus prevent any German attack from the direction of Kobrin and Brest-Litovsk. General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army was to clear the southern bank of the Pripyat river of any German forces. On 7 March, the front’s plan was approved by the Stavka.

To opposed this new Soviet grouping, Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had elements of Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army (Generalleutnant Fritz-Georg von Rappard’s 7th Division, the Gruppe 'Khashge' and the Gruppe 'Agricola' and elements of Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 4th Panzerarmee (Generalleutnant Alex Göschen’s 213rd Sicherungsdivision, SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s 5th SS Panzerdivision 'Wiking', the SS Gruppe 'Bille' and the Gruppe 'Goof'. To the immediate rear of these formations and unit were the Hungarian 1st Division, 9th Division, 12th Division, 19th Division and 23rd Division.

In preparation for the forthcoming operation, during the first half of March Soviet troops seized bridgeheads on the western bank of the Stokhod river and fought small actions to improve their positions. The extremely short time allowed for the preparation of the offensive, the spring thaw and the very limited nature and quality of the local road network combined to prevent the 2nd Belorussian Front from achieving a full concentration of its troops, so by the operation’s start only 13 of the planned 25 divisions had been deployed, and by 18 March the 6th Air Army could provide only 18 Ilyushin Il-2 ground-attack, 14 Yakovlev Yak-9 fighter, five Petlyakov Pe-2 light bomber and 85 Polikarpov Po-2 light biplane aircraft. In fact, the concentration planned for the offensive neared achievement only toward the operation’s completion: while at the beginning of the 'Polesskoye Offensive Operation' the 2nd Belorussian Front could deploy 149,400 men, 120 tanks and self-propelled guns, 3,039 pieces of artillery and mortars and 122 aircraft, by the offensive’s end and despite the losses it had suffered, the 2nd Belorussian Front fielded 197,400 men, 191 tanks and self-propelled guns, 4,142 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 181 aircraft. The arrival of fresh strength during the course of the offensive offered no significant benefits, however, as the build-up took place spasmodically in both time and location.

On 15 March, the 47th Army and 70th Army went onto the offensive, and on the following day the 61st Army moved forward. Despite extreme difficulties posed by the implementation of the offensive in forested and swampy terrain and in the conditions of spring thaw, by 18 March the 47th Army had managed to advance some 18.5 to 25 miles (30 to 40 km) and encircle Kovel. The 70th Army had covered 37 miles (60 km) by 20 March. Fully appreciating the danger posed by the Soviet forces' arrival on the flank and rear of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', the Germans began to respond with vigour: nine divisions, of which two armoured, one heavy tank battalion and two assault gun brigades from the main front of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', as well as a single Panzer division from Poland were transferred to the threatened sector. In addition, to improve command and control in the area of Kovel, on 28 March part of the 4th Panzerarmee's strength was transferred to the 2nd Army by the movement to the south of the boundary between Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.

Kurochkin made two significant errors: he delayed the assault on Kovel, believing his garrison to be in panic, and did not create a strong perimeter round the encirclement.

On 23 March, after moving additional forces toward Kovel, a key city which had been declared a Festung (fortress) by Adolf Hitler, the Germans began counterattacks in order to drive a corridor through the the encircled garrison of Kovel. The Kampfgruppe 'Nicolussi-Leck', which comprised 17 PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks and one Bergepanther recovery tank, was despatched to save Kovel. After sustaining several loses, seven of the Panther tanks reached the defenders of Kovel, and on 4 April more reinforcements arrived, breaking the encirclement. With the arrival of these reinforcements, the German forces in Kovel was able to hold their position until a relief force, comprising elements of Gille’s 5th SS-Panzerdivision 'Wiking', Generalleutnant Dietrich von Saucken’s 4th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Karl Decker’s 5th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Friedrich Weber’s 131st Division, reached it on 5/6 April the Soviet forces were driven back to the outskirts of Kovel.

On the instructions of the Stavka, At the direction of the Stavka, General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky, commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, arrived at the front to undertake an assessment, and then stated his belief that the further prosecution of the offensive would offer no real benefit. By 5 April the front line had stabilised on a line to the east of Kovel and Ratno.

On the 2nd Belorussian Front’s right wing, in 10 days of fighting the 61st Army was able to advance only 2.5 to 5 miles (4 to 8 km) and clear the southern bank of the Pripyet river to the east of Stolin.

At the end of the operation, the 2nd Belorussian Front was temporarily disestablished and its troops transferred to the 1st Belorussian Front.

During the battle, the 2nd Belorussian Front lost 2,761 men killed or missing, and 8,371 men wounded or taken ill. The Soviets estimated the German losses as about 10,000 men killed or taken prisoner, as well as 100 pieces of artillery and mortars, 50 tanks and assault guns, and 36 aircraft.

The 'Polesskoye Offensive Operation' achieved only its initial task, namely an advance to the line from Lyubeshov and Kovel via Kamen-Kashirsky, but the Germans managed to retain their hold on almost all of the large settlements in the 2nd Belorussian Front’s zone of operations. The main reasons for the incomplete nature of the Soviet forces' partial success were the extremely short time allocated to the offensive’s preparation, the failure to take into account the difficulties of concentrating the allocated forces as a consequence of poor communication routes, the under-strength nature of the allocated divisions (on average, they were at about 40% of establishment strength), and the errors made by Kurochkin. These last included his failure to create a shock group, the commitment of his armies independently of each other on a very wide front, poor reconnaissance, inefficiency of command, and his attempt to fulfil the original plan without any attempt to take into account the changing situation.

Nevertheless, by forcing the redeployment of German forces from other sectors of the Eastern Front, the 2nd Belorussian Front contributed to a successful offensive in other areas, most especially the 1st Ukrainian Front’s 'Proskurov-Chernovtsy Offensive Operation'.