Tiraspol-Melitopol Defensive Operation

The 'Tiraspol-Melitopol Defensive Operation' was the Soviet fourth of the six sub-operations constituting the 'Kiev Strategic Defensive Operation' and was fought in the southern Ukraine (27 July/28 September 1941).

On 22 June 1941, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ comprised Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe, Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau’s 6th Army and General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel’s 17th Army in Poland, and was separated by Hungarian territory from its right wing in Romania, made up of Generaloberst Eugen Ritter von Schobert’s 11th Army and two Romanian armies, namely General de corp de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s 3rd Army and General de corp de armatâ Nicolae Ciuperca’s 4th Army. The armies in Poland were to attack from the area to the south of the Pripyet marshes to the south-east into Ukraine, while the two Romanian and single German armies in Romania moved to the north-east through Moldavia and Bessarabia round the north-west coast of the Black Sea to link with the German armies from Poland in the areas of Pervomaysk on the Yuzhny Bug river. Hungary was also to join the war against the USSR and put into the field a number of brigades forming the connecting link between the Polish and Romanian fronts. von Rundstedt had a total of about 14 Romanian and 41 German divisions, of which only five were Panzer formations and three motorised formations.

By the start of the 'Tiraspol-Melitopol Defensive Operation', the troops of 18th Army withdrew and occupied the Mogilev-Podolsk area, and the 9th Army managed to gain a foothold to the west of the Dniestr river. Tyulenev wished to withdrThe Soviet forces in this region were those of General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s South Front, which commanded two armies in its most southerly sector. The more northerly of these was General Leytenant Andrei K. Smirnov’s 18th Army (XVIII Mechanised Corps, XVII Corps and LV Corps) on the front between Gaisin and Olgapol via Ladyzhin, Trostyanets, Obodovka and Chechelnik. The 18th Army was opposed by General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel’s 17th Army, which comprised Generalleutnant Willi Schneckenberger’s 125th Division, Generalleutnant Werner Sanne’s 100th leichte Division, Generalleutnant Brauner von Hayringen’s 101st leichte Division, Generalleutnant Hubert Lanz’s 1st Gebirgsdivision, Vezérõrnagy Béla Miklós’s Hungarian Mobile Corps, units of Generalleutnant Karl Sachs’s 257th Division, Generalleutnant Maximilian de Angelis’s 76th Division, Generalleutnant Ferdinand Neuling’s 239th Division and General de brigadâ Gheorghe Avramescu’s Romanian Mountain Corps.

The more southerly of the West Front’s two armies was General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s 9th Army (II Cavalry Corps, XLVIII Corps and 95th Division) on the front between Balta and Tiraspol via Slobodka, Steep, Plot, Rybnitsa, Dubossary and Grigoriopol. The army was opposed by von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe, which comprised Generalleutnant Otto Röttig’s 198th Division, Generalleutnant Walter Wittke’s 170th Division, Generalleutnant Arnold Freiherr von Biegeleben’s 6th Division, Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s 22nd Division, General de brigadâ Alexandru Orasanu’s Romanian 8th Division, General de divizie Gheorghe Stavrescu’s Romanian 14th Division, General de brigadâ Petre Vladescu’s Romanian 5th Division, Generalleutnant Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 50th Division, Generalleutnant Franz Mattenklott’s 72nd Division, the Romanian Tank Brigade and General de brigadâ Emanoil Barzotescu’s Romanian 1st Division.

The overall German plan had originally been intended to use the tactics of the double envelopment, one armoured pincer from Poland converging with another from Romania in the area of Kiev on the Dniepr river. Three months before the start of ‘Barbarossa’, however, Adolf Hitler had changed his mind in favour of a single envelopment from Poland, giving as his rationale the fact that the Pruth and Dniestr rivers were formidable obstacles across the axis from Romania. This was only partially true as part of the real cause lay in his concern for the safety of the oilfields and associated facilities round Ploieşti in Romania: Hitler feared that a major drive across the Romanian/Soviet frontier might provoke a Soviet counter-offensive into Romania. Thus von Rundstedt’s primary thrust was now to be made by the 6th Army and the 1st Panzergruppe: the strength of von Reichenau’s formation was 20 divisions, of which five were Panzer and three motorised, and these were to drive as a concentration to the east from the area south-east of Lublin. The 6th Army was to have special responsibility for the drive’s left flank butting up against the southern edge of the Pripyet marshes, while the 1st Panzergruppe had as its objective the general area of Kiev. The armoured formations of the latter and the marching infantry divisions of the former following in the wake of the Panzer elements were then to turn to the south-east along the line of the Dniepr river toward the Black Sea in order to secure the Dniepr river crossings and prevent the Soviet forces from an opportunity to escape to the east. The [e[17th Army had 13 infantry divisions and was to move on von Reichenau’s right through Lwów to take Vinnitsa on the Yuzhny Bug river. Starting in north-eastern Romania, along the line of the Pruth river, the Axis forces were von von Schobert’s 11th Army of seven German infantry divisions between the Romanian 3rd Army and 4th Army totalling the equivalent of about 14 divisions. The 11th Army was centred between the two Romanian armies but had detached one corps to the Romanian 4th Army, one division to protect Ploieşti, and a number of smaller groupings to other Romanian formations. The task of the 11th Army and Romanian 3rd Army was merely to safeguard Romanian territory for an initial seven days after the start of ‘Barbarossa’, by which time it was hoped that the Soviet forces in Ukraine would be either withdrawing or tapped in encirclements. The 11th Army and Romanian 3rd Army were then advance toward Kamenets Podolsky and Mogilev Podolsky on the Dniestr river in Ukraine and pin the Soviet forces there even as the Romanian 4th Army advanced toward Odessa.

Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had the support of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV with about 600 aircraft deployed in General Kurt Pflugbeil’s IV Fliegerkorps and General Robert Ritter von Greim’s V Fliegerkorps. Between them, these two corps had six bomber and three fighter wings. The Luftflotte IV also controlled General Otto Dessloch’s II Flakkorps.

Although he believed a German attack on the USSR to be unlikely until Germany had defeated or made peace with the UK, Iosif Stalin had given as his opinion that when war did arrive on the borders of the USSR, the Germans would make their main thrust into Ukraine in order to seize the grain of Ukraine, the coast of the Donets river area, and the oil of the Caucasian region. This assumption was reflected in the Soviet defensive deployment of June 1941 inasmuch as the greater part of the Soviet army was located in Ukraine, where the Soviet forces were larger than than the combined strength of General Dmitri G. Pavlov’s West Front and General Polkovnik Fedor I. Kuznetsov’s North-West Front. The Soviet troops in Galicia and Bessarabia covering Ukraine were organised into the South-West Front and South Front. The South-West Front was commanded by General Polkovnik Mikhail P. Kirponos and, from north to south, comprised General Major Mikhail I. Potapov’s 5th Army, General Leytenant Ivan N. Muzychenko’s 6th Army, General Leytenant Fedor Ya. Kostenko’s 26th Army and General Major Pavel G. Ponedelin’s 12th Army extending approximately from the area of the Pripyet marshes to the northern edge of the frontier with Romania. After the first week of war the Romanian frontier was covered by General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s newly established South Front, which comprised General Leytenant Andrei K. Smirnov’s 18th Army and General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s 9th Army. The South-West Front had a strength of 32 infantry division, three cavalry divisions and eight mechanised corps, most of the last being concentrated in the areas of the 5th Army and 6th Army against the Soviet/German frontier.

Tyulenev’s South Front was weak in infantry divisions but had two mechanised corps deployed against the Romanian border. Kirponos had more troops and tanks than his fellow commanders to the north of the Pripyet marshes, and was also somewhat better prepared for battle. According to Zhukov, Kirponos was already at his battle headquarters at Tarnopol by 00.000 on the night on 21/22 June, when he informed the high command in Moscow that a second German deserter had arrived and offered the information of the imminent German start of war. This incident may possibly have happened, although the regiment and division from which Zhukov said the deserter came are not to be located in German army lists. Whether or not there was such a deserter, Kirponos was the only front commander who recovered immediately from the shock of the German invasion and controlled his defence with skill. In this Kirponos was aided by the nature of the country, which comprised broken swampland to the south of the Pripyet marshes and the woodlands of Galicia and western Ukraine. Tyulenev’s South Front on the Moldavian uplands of Bessarabia was not brought into action until the end of June and there, with its strong tank and mechanised forces, it had an advantage over the German marching infantry and Romanian horsed cavalry. The campaign might have gone very differently, however, had the Germans not been essentially passive but used a right enveloping armoured pincer from Romania from the first day of ‘Barbarossa’. In north-western Ukraine, von Rundstedt’s army group had almost undisputed air superiority, and ‘diversionists’ were particularly active in the rear of the Soviet forces, cutting telephone and rail communications so that there was much Soviet confusion and loss of control. (The Germans made use of more native-born ‘diversionists’ in Ukraine than elsewhere in the western USSR. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr intelligence service, sponsored a Ukrainian nationalist organisation known as Bergbauernhilfe, composed mainly of Ukrainian Galicians. A number of armed units were raised, including the notorious Nightingale battalion, which was anti-communist but also settled a number of private and personal scores when it took the law into its own hands against Russians, Poles and Jews. There were a number of civil uprisings in the rear of Soviet forward-based forces, especially in the area of Lwow, and these were suppressed by the Soviet army and the NKVD internal security service with the utmost severity. von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe was therefore able to break through without undue difficulty in the gap of some 30 miles (50 km) along the boundary of Potapov’s 5th Army and Muzychenko’s 6th Army in the direction of Rovno on an axis lying across the concentration areas of some of the Soviet mechanised corps.

On 23 June there began a series of tank engagements in the area between Luck and Rovno as the XXII Mechanised Corps, IX Mechanised Corps and XIX Mechanised Corps were committed to the fighting, and until 28 June the 1st Panzergruppe fought its way forward at only a slow pace in a series of local tactical battles rather than advancing at speed, as had been expected, toward deep tactical or strategic objectives. There was some lack of co-ordination between the 5th Army ands 6th Arm, however, the former falling back to the north-east on the Pripyet marshes, where it was to live to fight another day, while the latter was pushed to the south. By 1 July the Germans had reached the area of Rovno, Dubno and Krzemieniec.

On 1 July the Germans and Romanians started to cross the Pruth river in their advance toward the Dniestr river. This advance began the campaign known to the Soviets as the ‘Tiraspol-Melitopol Defensive Operation’, and in this the German and Romanian forces were opposed by Soviet Army troops who were combat-ready and well equipped with armour. von Schobert’s divisions were of marching infantry and Romanian cavalry with little or no air support and, as they moved steadily forward, they typically covered no more than 8 miles (13 km) per day in the face of the aggression and mobility displayed by the Soviet armoured rearguards: in the type of open terrain well suited to armoured warfare, the Soviet armoured formations and units compelled the invading Axis forces to deploy several times a day. Soviet bombers and fighters carried out harassing raids, and the frequent and sudden torrents of rain also played their part by turning the area’s thick black soil into cloying mud which halted all wheeled movement for hours at a time. Even field guns drawn by six pairs of horses came to a standstill.

After the Germans and Romanians had crossed the Dniestr river and the so-called ‘Stalin Line’ on the Soviet frontier of 1939, which consisted of nothing but a few deserted and isolated earthworks, the Soviet resistance became much stronger, the rearguards falling back skilfully and leaving in their wake neither dead nor wounded. Soviet armoured counterattacks were made with great determination, and the Germans found that the 37-mm anti-tank equipping their infantry was of no use against on the heavier Soviet tanks despite the latter’s technical obsolescence. The wooded and hilly country of Moldavia and Bessarabia then gave way to the flat steppe of Ukraine, where the only features were the little agricultural villages, from which the men and horses had all disappeared. It took the 11th Army two months to skirmish and march the 400 miles (650 km) of this flat and featureless terrain to the Dniepr river. Regiments marched in independence of each other, each accompanied by its own small artillery and anti-aircraft detachments. There was neither reconnaissance in depth nor liaison with flanking units. Every day there was heat, dust and rain, the steady march and action with the Soviets. Supply was difficult, so ammunition had not to be wasted, and this meant that mortars and guns were used only sparingly, and increasing reliance was placed on the machine gun. The German and Romanian ranks were slowly but nonetheless steadily eroded by the daily losses of men killed, wounded or taken ill.

On 10 July, Marshal Semyon M. Budyonny assumed command of the newly created South-West Theatre, which controlled the South-West Front and the South Front. At much the same time, luck began to desert the South-West Front and the South Front. Within a week of assuming command, Budyonny transferred two of the principal armies in the centre, namely Muzychenko’s 6th Army and Ponedelin’s 12th Army, from the command of Kirponos to that of Tyulenev by moving the inter-front boundary to the north. This change had not ever been explained, but was probably the Soviet appreciation that von Kleist’s thrust was threatening to cut through the South-West Front and Tyulenev was therefore made responsible for the defence of Ukraine on the right bank of the Dniepr river and to the south of the drive of the 1st Panzergruppe, while Kirponos was to concentrate on the defence of Kiev and assume responsibility for operations against the 1st Panzergruppe’s left flank. This caused some confusion and disorganisation in control. Budyonny was twice permitted by Moscow to withdraw to the east, but these permissions appears to have been given only reluctantly as the extent of the withdrawal was merely tactical and did in fact not accord with the dangers of the current situation.

The main problem faced by the South Front was the gap which had emerged and was continuing to grow between the 9th Army and the 18th Army. Between the front of the 9th Army on the Dniestr river and the 18th Army which had few left-flank formations (51st, 150th and 95th Divisions) from the encirclement that was beginning to develop. These Soviet divisions suffered heavy losses, but the Axis forces on the sector of the front between Kiliya and Leovo, a distance of about 168 miles (270 km) could penetrate it.

The group of Soviet forces in the area of Primorsky began to retreat behind the Dniestr river and took up defensive positions on the river’s eastern bank in the sector between Dubossary and Tiraspol. On 24 July, Smirnov allocated an offensive mission to the XLVIII Corps, namely to defeat the Balta-Kodym group of General Hans von Salmuth’s German XXX Corps of Stülpnagel’s 11th Army advancing eastward along the Black Sea’s northern coast toward the Perekop isthmus, and to support the 6th Army and 12th Army, now threatened with encirclement. The II Cavalry Corps was to take its starting position on the 9th Army’s right flank, facing to the north-west. To close the breakthrough area, the 150th Division was instructed to load as quickly as possible onto the vehicles of the 9th Motor Transport Regiment for redeployment from Tiraspol to Kotovsk in order to hold the city. The 150th Division was to occupy the defences of Kotovsk, and 51st Division the defences of Ananyev.

On 28 July, the 5th Cavalry Division, initially disposed on the corps' right flank, successfully attacked the Axis forces some 1.85 to 3.1 miles (3 to km) west of Balta, and in this Soviet undertaking the headquarters of the 198th Division was battered. At this time, however, on the corps' left flank, the 9th Cavalry Division had a gap between itself and the 150th Division, its neighbour on the left, and was struck in its flank and rear by an attack delivered by two infantry battalions with tank support. As a result, the gap in the front at the junction of the 9th Army and 18th Army was not eliminated by the counterblows of the II Cavalry Corps and the 150th and 51st Divisions.

By the morning of 29 July, the position of the 18th Army had become very unstable. Having captured Balta, the Germans had created a threat to the flank of the II Cavalry Corps, which by order of the 9th Army on 1 August was allocated the defensive mission of holding the Pasat area near Balta. The entire 9th Army also went over to the defensive at this time, but on 2 August the corps was subordinated to Tyulenev’s direct control, and was ordered to concentrate to the south of Pervomaysk

Occupying a wide front, the XVIII Mechanised Corps was scattered and retreated to the east to the eastern bank of the Bug river, and could offer no cohesive defence against the advance of the 17th Army's advancing divisions of the 17th Army. On the army’s right flank, the so-called Operational Group 'Goltsev', which comprised consolidated units of the 218th Motorised Division, 47th Tank Division, 145th Tank Regiment and 757th Anti-Tank Regiment, was also withdrawing. By 3 August, the group numbered only 300 men with 14 guns. It was this detachment that on 3 August was offering minimal opposition to the Kampfgruppe of Generalleutnant Hans-Valentin Hube’s 16th Panzerdivision, which was closing on Pervomaysk.

On 2/3 August, Soviet troops abandoned Pervomaysk and Kirovograd. The Soviet front was already moving some 100 to 125 miles (160 to 200 km) to the east from the area to the north of Kotovsk. Pervomaysk had already been occupied by units of General Gustav von Wietersheim’s XIV Corps (mot.). The Soviets attempted unsuccessfully to retake the city with a counterattack by the XVII Corps, and units of the 16th Panzerdivision continued to advance to the south.

German divisions also drove the 18th Army to the south of Pervomaysk, clearly revealing their intention to pass round the 18th Army’s right flank. The road from Pervomaysk to Nikolayev passed through Voznesensk along the left bank of the Yuzhny Bug river. This meant that if the Germans occupied Voznesensk and moved on Nikolayev, the South Front’s main forces would be driven against the coast of the Black Sea and cut off from the east. In an effort to divert a breakthrough, the 9th Army’s 51st Division had been withdrawn from the Primorsky area on 29 July and allocated to the front reserve.

On 6 August, the Germans launched a major offensive along the entire left flank of the South Front. Having crossed the Dniestr river, 10 German divisions broke through the 9th Army’s defences and by 8 August had cut the front at the junction between the 30th Division in the south and the 51st Division in the north in the direction of Berezovka. Between these two divisions was the 150th Division.

Having broken the resistance of the 6th Army and 12th Army by 8 August, the Germans were able to advance unhindered to the Dniepr river and onto the South Front’s rear. The withdrawal of the South Front to the left bank of the Yuzhny Bug river now began. The 16th Panzerdivision neared Voznesensk from the east, and the Soviets could no longer hold the town. General Major Aleksandr F. Bychkovsky’s 9th Cavalry Division did not manage the crossing to the east, while the 72nd Cavalry Regiment came under attack by tanks, was driven back and then scattered. The remaining two regiments of the 9th Cavalry Division, which had already crossed the Bug river, together with the divisional headquarters and its commander, were thrown back to the village of Voznesensk to the north-east of Voznesensk. The division’s fourth regiment did not manage to cross the Bug river and remained on the right bank. The 5th Cavalry Division and 9th Cavalry Division were now disengaged from the battle. At the same time, the Germans broke through at the junction of the 9th Army and the Soviet grouping round Primorsky, forcing these latter to retreat in diverging directions: the Primorsky grouping to the south toward Odessa, and the 9th Army and the 18th Army to the east toward Nikolayev.

On 8 August the German advance severed the main road linking Odessa and Nikolayev.

As soon as the true German intention became clear, Kirponos mounted strong attacks on the northern flank of the 1st Panzergruppe with General Leytenant Fedor Ya. Kostenko’s re-formed 26th Army across the Dniepr river from the area between Kiev and Cherkasy. These attacks were fended off by a grouping of infantry divisions under General Viktor von Schwedler, commander of the IV Corps in the 17th Army, and did not halt von Kleist’s Panzer advance toward Pervomaysk. On 2 August Pervomaysk was taken and large parts of the 6th Army and the 12th Army, together with some elements of the 18th Army, the equivalent of about 20 divisions, were cut off from the east in a large pocket near Uman. Soviet resistance continued until 8 August, when the surrender of some 103,000 Soviet troops included the two army commanders and seven corps headquarters. More than 300 tanks and 800 pieces of artillery also fell into German hands. The rest of Tyulenev’s South Front, which stretched forward in a great salient along the coast of the Black Sea coast, was by then in danger of being cut off by a thrust from the north, and fell back rapidly to the east leaving behind a number of troops to garrison Odessa as General Leytenant Georgi P. Sofronov’s Independent Coastal Army. The Soviet forces in Ukraine had been routed, although at some cost in casualties to the Germans, and by the end of the month the Soviet forces had lost their last foothold to the west of the Dniepr river at Kherson, Berislav and Dnepropetrovsk.

During this period the Soviet high command had been creating new formations, and the South-West Front and South Front had thus 10 and 12 newly formed divisions respectively, and three new or re-formed armies, the 26th Army, 37th Army and 38th Army, had appeared on the Dniepr river front from the interior of the USSR. A new 6th Army, under the command of General Major Rodion Ya. Malinovsky, was already defending the Dniepr river front in the area to the north of Dnepropetrovsk.

Despite some failures, by this time the German armies on the Eastern Front had completed the first part of their mission. Leningrad had not been taken, a junction had not been made with the Finns, and many Soviet troops had escaped from the Baltic and Ukrainian theatres. On the other hand, German troops had taken the ‘land bridge’ between Orsha and Smolensk, had crossed the Dvina river, and were on or across the Dniepr river. The German forces on the Eastern Front now waited for Hitler’s orders for the continuation of the campaign. The German leader had always planned that Leningrad should be taken before an assault on Moscow was delivered, and at an early juncture he had come to regard the seizure of the whole of Ukraine, the Donets river basin and even the Caucasus region as more important than an advance to the east from Smolensk. On 30 June he had stressed the economic significance of Ukraine and the Baltic region. A week later he had proposed that Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe should move away from Smolensk to the north-east as flank protection for von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, while Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe should move to the south-east into Ukraine. His attention was now focussed on Crimea, which he had come to see as a Soviet ‘aircraft carrier’ for air attacks on the Ploieşti oilfields, and the occupation of the Crimea would, he believed, make it feasible for German troops to invade the Caucasus by the shorter route across the Strait of Kerch. On 19 July he issued Führerweisung Nr 33 ordering Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to advance on Moscow, using only its infantry formations, as the Panzer formations were to be transferred to the north and the south. Four days later, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s chief-of-staff, on Hitler’s instruction issued a very optimistic supplement to Führerweisung Nr 33, ordering the transfer of Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe[ to the Baltic for the outflanking of Leningrad, after which it would be returned to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ for the advance as far as the Volga river, while Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe and other forces would be withdrawn to Germany. Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe was to join von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe in Ukraine.

At conference between 23 and 26 July, Generaloberst Franz Haider, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff, emphasised the need for a final autumn thrust on Moscow. Halder himself believed that Hitler’s Leningrad and Ukraine objectives to be of secondary importance, and that the result of Hitler’s plan would be to pin the German forces into positional warfare. Halder himself now doubted about the purpose and direction of the war. Hitler had also had second thoughts, but only insofar as he would permit Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to go over to the defensive after its armoured formations had been removed instead of using its infantry to fight its way to Moscow. Meanwhile the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe were to be withdrawn temporarily for refit and rest. von Bock had been pressing that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ should retain its Panzer groups and make an early advance on Moscow, and in this view he had been vociferously supported by Guderian and Hoth. Between 4 and 6 August Hitler visited the headquarters of both Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to canvass the opinions of the army group and Panzer commanders, all of whom advised the immediate resumption of the offensive toward Moscow. This advice did not accord with Hitler’s own views, and he therefore rejected it and lectured these senior field commanders on the economic aspects of war. Halder then attempted to pin Generaloberst Alfred Jodi, the chief of the Oberkommando dee Wehrmacht’s operations staff, with the direct question as to whether Hitler’s immediate aims were military conquest or economic exploitation, and received the reply that Hitler saw both to be war objectives of equal importance. On 12 August Keitel signed a supplement to Führerweisung Nr 34 confirming the intention of moving the armour from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and attacking toward Leningrad, Crimea, Kharkov, the Donets river basin and the Caucasus after destroying the heavy concentrations of Soviet troops which had come into being on the flanks of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. The concentrations of Soviet forces in the Pripyet region to the north of Kiev was singled out for destruction.

On 18 August Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, the army’s commander-in-chief, and Halder made a final effort in support of the direct offensive on Moscow by sending to Hitler a memorandum detailing out their arguments. Three days later the German leader rejected this in a document which reproached von Brauchitsch for not really commanding the German army, but being influenced too strongly by the views of the army group commanders. An indignant Halder then proposed to von Brauchitsch that they should both resign, but the latter dod not agree.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Stalin was also facing differences of opinion with some of his leading commanders. On 1 July General Leytenant Nikolai F. Vatutin had left his position as first deputy to the chief of the general staff and become the North-West Front’s chief-of-staff, and was replaced by General Major Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky. At a meeting of 29 July, General Georgi K. Zhukov, the chief of the general staff, advised the withdrawal of Kirponos’s South-West Front from the line of the Dniepr river even though this would result in the loss of Kiev. This triggered an angry outburst, and Zhukov’s offer to give up his position as chief of the general staff was eagerly accepted. Zhukov then left to take command of the Reserve Front while Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Boris M. Shaposhnikov returned from the Western Theatre, of which he had been chief-of-staff, to become chief of the general staff once more.

In this period, as Hitler vacillated about the next step if ‘Barbarossa’, on the north-western coast of the Black Sea the 11th Army had bypassed the great port city of Odessa to be besieged by the Romanian 4th Army and crossed the lower reaches of the Yuzhny Bug river. The army had thus advanced far enough to start planning the seizure of Crimea and the driving of the South Front farther to the east. von Schobert, the 11th Army’s commander, had been killed on 12 September when his light aeroplane landed inadvertently in a minefield and was succeeded by General Erich von Manstein. The 11th Army deployed only General Erik Hansen’s LIV Corps against Crimea while the rest of his force, together with the Romanian 3rd Army, continued the advance to the east across the Dniepr river and then along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov in pursuit of the South Front. Crimea was held by the 51st Independent Army under the command of General Polkovnik Fedor I. Kuznetsov, formerly commander of the North-West Front and the Central Front. Providing the only land access to Crimea, the Perekop isthmus is only 5 miles (8 km) wide, was held in great depth by the Soviet forces, who exploited the presence of the ‘Tartar Ditch’, which was 40 ft (10.5 m) deep, the multitude of dry water beds and the many Tartar Moslem graves. These two last served as obstacles and also as observation posts. Elsewhere the terrain of the isthmus was bare of cover, the Sivash sea to the east of the isthmus being nothing more than a brackish salt marsh too difficult to wade and too shallow to allow the use of storm-boats. On this narrow front the attack of the LIV Corps on 24 September failed, primarily for lack of strength. von Manstein was unable to reinforce this formation, however, as the rest of the 11th Army and Romanian 3rd Army were making only slow progress farther to the east against the South Front, which on 26 September had undertaken a smartly conducted though limited counter-offensive against part of the Romanian 3rd Army. The Romanians were showing signs of disintegration and had to be buttressed by detachments of German mountain troops and SS-Obergruppenführer Joseph ‘Sepp’ Dietrich’s Leibstandarte SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ (mot.).

After its success in the capture of Kiev on 19 September, von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe, was ordered to advance to the south-east onto the rear of the South Front, which on 5 October saw he arrival of a new commander in the form of Cherevichenko, the former commander of the 9th Army, and which currently comprised the 12th Army, 18th Army and 9th Army. From his concentration area in Dnepropetrovsk, von Kleist crossed the Samara river and moved to the south behind Cherevichenko’s troops, and on 6 October linked with the 11th Army near Osipenko on the Black Sea coast. Parts of the 18th Army and 9th Army were encircled and the Germans took more than 106,000 prisoners. Among the many dead was Smirnov, the commander of 18th Army. The 1st Panzerarmee, as the 1st Panzergruppe had been redesignated on 25 October, then turned to the east and advanced rapidly and almost without opposition along the coast of the Sea of Azov in the direction of Rostov-na-Donu, the gateway to the Caucasus, while the 17th Army and 6th Army advanced on the left of the 1st Panzerarmee’s between Stalino and Kharkov.

The fighting in southern and eastern Ukraine was different from that which had characterised the German and Romanian advance from the Push and Dniestr rivers, the latter the waterway on which Tiraspol lies. In eastern Ukraine the Germans now fielded a number of motorised formations and thus the advantage of superior mobility, while the Soviets were so low in morale that on the open steppe of the area great numbers of them surrendered without offering resistance. The German formations were, however, degraded by losses in what was becoming an increasingly protracted campaign, and therefore little capable of sustained combat. Even the most dedicated adherents of the Nazi concept began to reconsider the viability of the war on the Eastern Front as they could drive for hours without ever seeing other German troops in an area in which vastness and emptiness was depressing. Unit commanders were physically and mentally tired, and their state was further weakened by the fact that they could discern no end to their task.

Following its success near Osipenko, the 11th Army and one Romanian mountain corps returned to the Perekop isthmus, where by the end of October they had launched a carefully conceived attack to overcome the stubborn defence of the 51st Independent Army, which was being heavily reinforced by troops removed from Odessa. On 22 October the Soviet high command had set up a unified joint-services Crimea Command under Vitse Admiral Gordei I. Levchenko, with General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov as his deputy, but this belated reorganisation was made at a time too late to have any effect on the course of operations, and may indeed have complicated control. The 51st Army fought none the worse, however, since the terrain and combat were of a type in which the Soviets excelled.

The Soviet defenders of the open and flat Perekop isthmus occupied the entirety of the all prominent terrain which was heavily mined and thickly wired, and covered all the exposed approaches with pre-registered fire of machine guns and artillery. Delayed-action mines were also used, together with wooden box mines designed to escape the attention of the German electronic detectors, and the defences were bolstered by remotely controlled flame throwers, turreted emplacements and dug-in tanks. The Soviet air forces dominated the air and, given that he had no tanks, von Manstein relied on assault guns to support his infantry. The fighting was so intense that all German guns, horses and vehicles had to be dug into the marshy, waterlogged ground. It was in these conditions that Hansen’s LIV Corps had to attack once more, while General Hans von Salmuth’s XXX Corps was held in reserve for the exploitation of the expected breakthrough. The attacks were carried out in persistent rain, and this turned the ground into mud. There was at times also fog that lasted for several days. The fighting was bitter in the extreme, and to the Germans it seemed that their was no end to the Soviet field fortifications, many of which had been built by civilian labour and included electrically detonated sea mines had been built in the defences. The German divisions were physically and morally at the end of their tether and at least one divisional commander asked for the engagement to be terminated. Both encouraged and cajoled by von Manstein, however, the fighting lasted for 10 days and ended in the Soviet loss of more than 100,000 taken prisoner and 700 pieces of artillery destroyed or captured. The 11th Army punched its way into the Crimean peninsula on 28 October, only to become bogged down on two fronts in front of Sevastopol in the west and the Kerch peninsula in the east. As they had sea and air superiority, it appeared that the Soviets might be able to hold out indefinitely.

von Manstein noted with alarm the rapidity with which the German fighting strength was ebbing, a fact noted by smaller unit commanders who complained that while they were receiving replacements, whose limited training left them wholly inadequate for battle. von Manstein rightly blamed this situation on the inadequacy pf the training and forwarding systems. No longer were orders carried out automatically as a drill, and it was even difficult to get some men out of cover when under fire.

On 25/28 September, Soviet troops fought an offensive operation in the area of ​​the village of Balki, establishing a bridgehead which was quickly contained by the arrival of German troops otherwise earmarked for the advance on Sevastopol. The Soviet bridgehead was eliminated, but the 51st Army and the Primorsky grouping had received a break and thus the time they needed to strengthen their defences.

The Germans took Melitopol on 6 October.