The 'Poltava-Kremenchug Offensive Operation' was one of the three Soviet operational-level undertakings that together constituted the 'Chernigov-Poltava Strategic Offensive Operation' (26 August/30 September 1943).
The strategic situation on the Eastern Front in this period was created by the Soviet defeat in July 1943 of the German 'Zitadelle' offensive in the Battle of Kursk, which permanently lost the Germans any possibility of regaining the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. The Germans thus had no alternative but to attempt to maintain their hold on the territory they still occupied and thus buy the time they needed in order to prepare more capable defences against the Soviet offensives which were now inevitable. Adolf Hitler understood that the German forces would not be able to hold back these Soviet offensives, and therefore ordered the construction of a solid line of defence in which the main focus was the exploitation of natural obstacles, of which the large rivers were the most important. The German command attached particular importance to the line of defence along the Dniepr river, which it considered the basis of the so-called 'Ostwall' (otherwise the the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung') in the area of Sozh, the Dniepr river and Bryansk.
On the other side of the front line, the Soviet supreme headquarters bent its every effort to the exploitation, with minimum delay, of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet forces were therefore to launch a very large array of offensives along the Eastern Front between Velikiye Luki in the north and the Sea of Azov in the south. These offensives were to be undertaken by forces including the Central Front, Voronezh Front and Steppe Front, which were tasked with the liberation of the occupied parts of Ukraine on the left (eastern) bank of the Dniepr river by advancing from Cherkassy to Poltava, reaching the Dniepr river, crossing this major water barrier and seizing bridgeheads on the river’s right (western) bank, thereby creating the conditions required for the liberation of those part of occupied Ukraine on the right (western) bank of the river.
For the 'Poltava-Kremenchug Offensive Operation', the Soviets committed General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front, which had at its disposal General Leytenant Mikhail N. Sharokhin’s 37th Army (from the Soviet supreme command reserve on 6 September), General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army (from the Voronezh Front on 6 September), General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, General Leytenant Vasili V. Glagolev’s 46th Army (from the South-West Front on 6 September), General Leytenant Ivan M. Managarov’s 53rd Army, General Leytenant Vasili D. Kryuchenkin’s 69th Army, and General Leytenant Sergei K. Goryunov’s 5th Air Army. The Steppe Front totalled 336,200 men in 30 infantry divisions, two mechanised corps, two tank corps and three separate tank brigades..
The operations of the three fronts were co-ordinated by the supreme command’s representative, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy supreme commander-in-chief.
On the other side of the front was Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' with Generaloberst Eberhard Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee and General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army and, for air support, Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s Luftflotte IV. Facing the Soviet onslaught, these two of von Manstein’s four armies totalled 20 divisions, of which three were Panzer divisions.
The balance of forces strongly favoured the Soviets, who at the start of their offensive had a superiority of 2.1/1 in men, 4/1 in pieces of artillery and mortars, and 1.4/1 in aircraft; the two sides were approximately equal in armoured strength. Each side built up its forces during the campaign.
The Steppe Front began its operation when it was already on the move, without preparation or regrouping from the time when, on 19 July, it had begin its counter-offensive in the direction of Belgorod and Kharkov. In the course of this counter-offensive, the front’s forces overwhelmed the deeply echeloned German defences, captured Belgorod and on 23 August stormed into Kharkov.
After the liberation of Kharkov, the Steppe Front was tasked with the development of the offensive in the direction of Poltava, Kremenchug, Krasnograd and Verkhnedneprovsk, with reaching the middle reaches of the Dniepr river, with forcing this water way and with the seizure of bridgeheads for the deployment of forces in the right-bank Ukraine. The front’s first objective was the capture of the railway nexus at Merefa, which opened the way for a rapid advance by the 57th Army and 7th Guards Army to the Dniepr river. The offensive of the 7th Guards Army, whose task was the liberation of Merefa, developed only slowly, and for five days the army fought hard battles to overcome the well-developed German defences at the bend of the Uda river. Only on 5 September did the 7th Guards Army achieve the town’s liberation. The Germans defeats near Kharkov and Merefa now opened the way for the Steppe Front’s forces to push forward first to Poltava and then farther to the Dniepr river. In combination with the successful efforts of its neighbouring fronts, the Steppe Front forced the Germans to retreat throughout the entire left-bank Ukraine.
As the situation changed, on 6 September the Soviet supreme command made changes to its earlier orders. Thus the task now the specified for the Steppe Front was to prevent the Germans from creating a stable front, a task which was to be achieved by a quick offensive in the general direction of Poltava and Kremenchug, and by the rapid defeat of the German groupings in these two areas.
Ahead of the Steppe Front was a battle with the strong Poltava grouping of the 8th Army, and in the Poltava and Kremenchug areas the hammer blows of the Steppe Front, the 8th Army's largest grouping, comprising General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps, General Erhard Raus’s XI Gorps and General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzerkorps, retreated.
Leaving rearguard units, the departing German forces sited separate groups of forces on heights, in settlements and at road junctions in an effort to check the Soviet advance of, and withdraw their main forces from immediate attack by the Soviets and attempted to maintain their hold on the Dniepr river’s crossing points until the last German troops had crossed to the river’s western bank.
The Germans had created in Poltava a potent defence centre, which served as the essential connection within the defensive lines and strongholds in left-bank Ukraine in order to delay the advance of Soviet troops.
As the Steppe Front approached the city, the 8th Army's resistance grew. On the axis of the main Soviet attack, the Germans committed fresh units of Generalleutnant Werner Forst’s 106th Division, SS-Obergruppenführer Walter Krüger’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and others from its reserve. On the approaches to Poltava, the Germans had sited many ditches and barbed wire entanglements, barriers, laid minefields and created other obstacles, and often launched counterattacks. The garrison of Poltava had been doubled, fixed positions had been readied along the right bank of the Vorskla river, and engineering fortifications had been constructed around the city. Within the town, stone buildings had been adapted for all-round defence, a pre-registered system of artillery and mortar fire had been created and also covered the approaches to the river, and all of the bridges and river crossings had been demolished.
The front’s right wing, which comprised the 5th Guards Army and the 53rd Army, bypassed Poltava to the north and south respectively with the object of capturing the town. In the front’s centre, on the axis to Kobelyak, the 69th Army and 7th Guards Army were driving straight forward. The 57th Army and 46th Army, which were the front left wing, drove the Germans toward Dniepropetrovsk.
Toward the end of 21 September, the 53rd Army reached the eastern bank of the Vorskla river, and at the same time the 5th Guards Army reached the river. However, it was not possible to seize Poltava straight off the march, however, but rather to force the Vorskla river and overcome the Germans defensive system near the river’s right bank.
At dawn on 22 September, the 5th Guards Army and 53rd Army began preparations for the crossing of the Vorskla river. By 07.00 the 9th Guards Airborne Division, 95th Division, 97th Division and 13th Guards Division of the 5th Guards Army had crossed to the river’s right bank.
At the same time, units of the 214th Division, 233rd Division and 299th Division also crossed the Vorskla river, followed by the 53rd Army’s 84th Division, 375th Division and 116th Division. The 53rd Army, overcoming German resistance despite the latter’s strong artillery, mortar and machine gun fire, attacked the German positions on the right bank of the Vorskla river. By the evening of 22 September, units of the 53rd Army had taken the river’s right bank in the area of Cherov, Klimovka and Vostochnaya Kozuba, and continued to press the Germans to the west. The reconnaissance units of the 95th Guards Division and 84th Division were the first Soviet troops to break into Poltava, and were followed by specially trained assault detachments of the 95th Guards Division, 84th Division and 9th Guards Airborne Division. In stubborn street fighting, elements of these divisions had by the morning of 23 September cleared Poltava of its German garrison.
After the Soviet capture of Poltava, the German forces in the Poltava area started to retreat to the crossings over the Dniepr river in the area of Kremenchug. German divisions also withdrew to this area from other parts of the front. Kremenchug was an important communications hub on the left bank of the Dniepr river, so after the Soviet liberation of Kharkov and Poltava, the Germans concentrated their efforts on holding the crossings and bridgehead, which ensured the withdrawal of their troops across the Dniepr river. The Kremenchug bridgehead was upgraded by the Germans to their latest defensive standards: on the nearest approaches to Kremenchug, anti-tank ditches were dug, ridges were entrenched, and barbed wire entanglements and minefields were installed. Among the forces holding this strategically vital bridgehead and thereby ensuring the German retreat to the right bank,the two most effective were probably Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich'.
At this time, the Steppe Front was stepping up its pursuit of the retreating Germans with the object of seizing bridgeheads across the Dniepr river by 24/25 September as the necessary first steps in the planned crossing of the river on an 80-mile (130-km) front.
The 5th Guards Army now advanced toward Reshetilovka, bypassing Poltava from the north. Between 24 and 29 September, the army’s vanguard detachments reached the Dniepr river in the area of Kremenchug. The 53rd Army bypassing Poltava from the south, and pushed the Germans in the general direction of Kashubovka and Koba. On 214 September, vanguard elements of the 53rd Army seized bridgeheads across the Dniepr river in the area of Sadki and Chikalovka. The 69th Army advanced in the direction of Breusovka. The 7th Guards Army had the task of reaching the Dniepr river near Perevolochna, Borodayevka and Stary Orlik, and of seizing bridgeheads on the right bank of the river. The 57th Army, developing an offensive in the direction of Shulgovka, on 23 September was supposed to seize the crossings in the Pushkarevka area and capture a bridgehead on the right bank of the Dniepr river. The 46th Army developed an offensive in the general direction of Dneprodzerzhinsk, Sofievka and Chaplinka, and was supposed to seize the crossings in the area of the village of Aula and Dneprodzerzhinsk, and also to seize a bridgehead in the Mironovka and Blagoveshchensk area. The 37th Army, in the front’s second echelon, was fully ready to enter the battle, and its formations and units were to cross the Dniepr river in the front’s centre. Until 28 September, 5th Guards Army and 53rd Army, pursuing the retreating Germans and destroying a considerable portion of the latter’s manpower and equipment, approached Kremenchug. Here the Germans again offered fierce resistance. With simultaneous attacks from all sides, the Soviets penetrated the German defences and destroyed parts of the German bridgehead. On 28 and 29 September, the 5th Army and 53rd Army completed the clearance of Kremenchug
Under the Soviet supreme command’s directive of 29 September, the Steppe Front was now to deliver the main blow in the general direction of Cherkassy, Novoukrainka and Voznesensk with the task of defeating the German forces centred on Kirovograd. The front’s left wing was ordered to advance in the direction of Pyatikhatky and Krivoi Rog with the object of reaching the rear of the German forces centred on Dniepropetrovsk.