This was a German and Romanian defence line in northern Romania, designed as the main defence line for Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ (August 1944).
The line covered the northern approaches to the Romanian coastal plain along the Black Sea, but Adolf Hitler forbade any withdrawal to the line until it was too late, for the main offensive of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front coincided with Romania’s surrender on 23 August and then declaration of war on Germany on 25 August. This was the first stage in the Battle of Romania, generally known to the Soviets as the 'Iaşi-Chişinău Strategic Offensive Operation' as its two initial objectives were Iaşi and Chişinău (otherwise Jassy and Kishinev). The offensive was designed to capture Romania and destroy the German forces in this area, and was a total success for the Soviets, leading to the switch of allegiance by Romania.
During 1944, the German army had been driven back along the whole of the Eastern Front, and by May of that year Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’, then commanded by Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner, had been pushed back to the pre-war Romanian frontier, but nonetheless managed to establish the ‘Trajan-Linie’ defensive positions along the Dniestr river. This line was then punctured in two places by Soviet forces which established significant bridgeheads on the southern side of this major river barrier. Romanian oil was not wholly essential to the German war effort, but was nonetheless important to Germany, and in 1943 about 2.4 million tons of petroleum products had been exported to German or straight to German troops in the field. On 5 April Mediterranean-based bombers of the USAAF began a series of attacks on the Ploieşti oilfields and the traffic on the Danube river, resulting in a halving of Romanian oil production by 20 May, and the availability of strategic materials to German war industries had been further affected by Turkey’s decision of 21 April to halt exports of chrome ore to Germany.
At the start of April the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, broadcast a message assuring the Romanians that the USSR had no territorial claims on Romania other than the return of Bessarabia, and that the USSR would in no way interfere with Romania’s social structure. Secret peace talks began in Cairo on 12 April between Romania and the USA, UK and USSR, the Soviet ambassador giving the Romanian Prince Barbu Ştirbey a list of six conditions, which had also been provided to Iuliu Maniu, the leader of the National Smallholders Party which was the Romanian opposition. Romania desired peace but asked for an airlift of Anglo/US formations into the country as security for its future. On 19 April Maniu offered counter-proposals, but after protracted delays the negotiations were finally broken off by Maresal al România Ion Antonescu, the Romanian dictator, on 15 May. It is believed that further talks between Romania and the USSR continued in Stockholm, these being kept secret from both Germany and the Western Allies.
The Romanian nobility, intelligentsia and opposition elements were now decided on extricating Romania from the war with or without Antonescu’s agreement and, with the supposed reassurance of Soviet promises, started to plot the removal of Antonescu and a Romanian defection from the German alliance.
The deterioration of the relations between Romania and Germany, first evident in 1943, continued during 1944. Antonescu demanded an equality of command between Romanian and German troops, and refused permission for German forces to be included in Romanian formations except in the cases that the Germans were under Romanian command. The presence of Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ in northern Romania also raised major logistical problems and strained the Romanian economy. Additionally, Romania wanted German weapons and equipment for which it lacked the financial resources, and Germany was not prepared to meet this need without recompense.
The German forces in Romania were all too aware of the nature of the total war being waged on the Eastern Front, and had thus become very unhappy with the apparent ignorance of the realities expressed by the Romanian forces and people. Even so, Hitler constantly denied Schörner’s requests for authorisation to improve his army group’s defensive position, which was beset by many adverse factors including the divided and often warring nature of the German political, economic and military teams in Romania. Moreover, as a result of Antonescu’s demand for equality in command, major Romanian formations could no longer be coupled with and put under command of relatively subordinate German headquarters, and Schörner had to accept Romanian command over two armies, one of them German, on the right wing of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s (from 16 August Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s) Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ in return for German tactical control of a Romanian army on the left. For the first time in the war, therefore, German corps and divisions were under practical rather than nominal Romanian command.
The German position in northern Romania was worsened by the fact that its lines of communication were wholly reliant on the Romanian and Hungarian railway systems, which were too limited in capacity to handle the task and also very inadequately operated, and further complicated by the effects of the long-standing enmity between the Romanian and Hungarian peoples.
When Friessner, commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, exchanged places with Schörner on 25 July, he found a high level of disquiet among his new subordinates about Romania’s willingness to remain in the Axis camp, and the increasing unwillingness of the Romanians to follow Antonescu’s orders. Many newly appointed Romanian commanders were hostile to Antonescu’s government, and the Germans rightly came to believe that some of these were passively if not actively preparing to welcome the Soviets, while others were angling for British and US support. Friessner reported his findings to Hitler, who was advised to the contrary by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, which remained sure of Romania’s loyalty.
Thus Hitler and the armed forces’ high command appreciated that while King Michael and his mother were Anglophiles, and that the palace was a hotbed of anti-Axis intrigue, Antonescu was nonetheless entirely loyal to the Axis and in firm control of Romania. The German foreign ministry was less convinced, and Joachim Ribbentrop, the foreign minister, suggested to Hitler that a Panzer division be stationed in Bucharest to ensure the loyalty of Antonescu’s government and also to secure its safety. Hitler probably had a niggling doubt about Antonescu’s loyalty, however, for when the Romanian leader arrived at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters on 5 August, Hitler asked Antonescu whether or not Romania would stay the course with Germany, and received an answer which satisfied him.
Meanwhile, on arriving in Romania, Friessner discovered that Hitler, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the army’s chief-of-staff, were using Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ as a source of reinforcements for other army groups: one complete Luftwaffe Geschwader, for example, had been transferred to the Latvian front, and of the nine Panzer divisions originally available to Schörner some had already been transferred to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, with another three Panzer, one Panzergrenadier and two infantry divisions under orders to move. So far as armour was concerned, therefore, this left Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ with just Generalleutnant Hans Tröger’s 13th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant August Schmidt’s 10th Panzergrenadierdivision and General de brigadâ Radu Korne’s Romanian 1st Armoured Division.
In overall terms Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ comprised two German and two Romanian armies, which were deployed operationally in two groupings. In eastern Bessarabia, the Gruppe ‘Dumitrescu’ was commanded by General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu, controlled Dumitrescu’s own Romanian 3rd Army and General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s German 6th Army, and held the line of the lower Dniestr river, except where the Soviet forces had already gained bridgeheads across this waterway. In western Bukovina and Moldavia, the Gruppe ‘Wöhler’ was commanded by General Otto Wöhler, and controlled Wöhler’s own German 8th Army and General de corp de armatâ Mihail Racovita’s Romanian 4th Army. The total strength of Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ was the equivalent of 23 German and 23 Romanian divisions numbering more than 800,000 men, of whom 360,000 were German.
Compounding the problems Friessner faced from the huge strength of the Soviet forces facing him and the Germano-Romanian difficulties within Romania was the unsatisfactory combat readiness of Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’. Arriving on 25 July, Friessner found that Guderian had ‘appropriated’ his chief-of-staff, Generalleutnant Walther Wenck, to the Oberkommando des Heeres, and Wenck’s replacement, Generalmajor Helmuth Grolman, did not arrive until 31 July. Assuming command of the 6th Army at the end of July, Fretter-Pico had also lost his chief-of-staff, Generalmajor Helmuth Voelter, who was wounded and replaced by Generalmajor Ludwig Heinrich Gaedcke only on 17 August. Thus two commanders-in-chief and two chiefs-of-staff had been in Romania only a few weeks before the Soviet storm broke on them.
Further problems arose from the real strength of the German divisions within Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’, which had adequate numbers on paper, but only very small numbers of fully effective soldiers with significant combat experience within a complement boosted during the previous two months by the arrival of drafts of elderly, very young, unfit and/or poorly trained men. Most infantry divisions had up to 6,000 horses but a mere 400 motor vehicles, for which fuel was becoming notably scarce, and on the march these formations were reminiscent of those of World War I rather than of World War II. Artillery and mortars, together with their ammunition, were in notably short supply, this shortfall being offset to only a partial extent by the use of obsolete German and captured Soviet artillery and mortars. The Soviet guns were notably effective, but the Germans had little ammunition and virtually no tractors for them.
However, the most serious deficiency within Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ was in armoured fighting vehicles and warplanes.
The army group had as its only German armoured formations Schmidt’s 10th Panzergrenadierdivision and Tröger’s 13th Panzerdivision, the latter with fewer than 40 tanks. Of the army group’s total of 120 tanks fit for battle on 19 August, more than half belonged to the Romanian armoured division. The Germans did also have an armoured force of 280 assault guns, however.
Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s (from 25 August to 28 September Generalleutnant Alexander Holle’s) Luftflotte IV had the task of supplying Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ with air support, but had a mere two Flak divisions and General Paul Deichmann’s I Fliegerkorps with fewer than 300 serviceable warplanes, including a mere 50 or so Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircraft as its only modern single-seat fighters, on 19 August. One of the Flak divisions had no experience in the engagement of armour and other surface targets, and half its gun crews were Romanians.
Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ was extended over a front of 400 miles (645 km), of which some 240 miles (385 km) were held by German divisions. The Romanian 3rd Army was on the extreme right near the Black Sea on the lower reaches of the Dniestr river, with the German 6th Army to its left covering the area of Chişinău, the capital of Bessarabia. Farther to the west were the Romanian 4th Army in the area of Iaşi, and on the extreme left the German 8th Army held the lower slopes of the Carpathian mountains' eastern end. The Romanian 3rd Army included a German corps of three divisions, and of the 14 divisions in the German 6th Army all but one were German. Gruppe ‘Wöhler’ had six German divisions including the two in General Hans Kreysing’s XVII Corps, which provided the flank link with Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’.
The lie of the land is basically north-west/south-east along the line of the country’s rivers and marshes and, extending as they did to the west, the German lines of communication were both parallel with the front and at right angles to the line of the rivers, swamps and forested hill ridges of the area. Antonescu had suggested somewhat earlier in the summer that the Axis forces should evacuate Bessarabia and withdraw into Transylvania along the line of the Carpathian mountains, the lower reaches of the Sereth river, Focşani, Galati and the Danube river estuary. Antonescu’s thinking was centred on his belief that the current front line was long and vulnerable in general because of the grain of the country and, in particular, the valleys of the Sereth and Pruth rivers ran to the south-east from the Soviet positions in the area to the north of Iaşi through the Romanian 4th Army’s sector of responsibility, which offered the Soviets an approach to the rear of the German 6th Army and Romanian 3rd Army on the lower reaches of the Dniestr river. Though supported by Schörner and then Friessner, Antonescu’s concept had been flatly rejected by Hitler, and this failure was to cost the Germans dearly.
At the beginning of the summer of 1944, the German high command had believed that the Soviets’ primary offensive of the season would be made in the Balkans rather than in Belorussia, but this was in fact the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Bagration') which struck Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, then commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch, in Belorussia, and the German high command reached the conclusion that the Soviets had used all their available strength in this undertaking and would therefore be incapable of mounting another major offensive in the south.
The Germans gave little though to the possibility that an operation toward the Balkans would come soon after the end of the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation'. During this period Romanian elements established close links with the Soviets, and by August some Romanian army officers were in touch with their Soviet counterparts via the agency of couriers who crossed the front line and/or the Dniestr river at night. As a result of these early thoughts about a defection to the Soviet camp, anti-Antonescu officers arranged for the removal from important positions of commanders thought to favour the Axis cause, and also for the implementation of measures designed to allow the isolation of German commanders from control of Romanian formations. Racovita appears to have possessed some knowledge of the plot, but was suddenly replaced by General de corp de armatâ Gheorghe Paramecium only a few days before the start of the Soviet offensive and returned to Bucharest as head of the Romanian general staff’s operations department. Friessner and Wöhler were not informed of these changes. On 22 August, almost immediately after the start of the Soviet offensive, Avramescu was himself replaced by General de corp de armatâ Ilea Şteflea, who had been the Romanian chief-of-staff from 20 January 1942.
The Soviets planned that their offensive into Romania, along a 250-mile (400-km) front, would be undertaken by Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front on the left beside the coast of the Black Sea and Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front on the right farther inland 1. Between them, the two Soviet fronts had some 90 infantry divisions, six tank and mechanised corps, 1,400 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 1,700 aircraft, and their manpower was in the order of 900,000, of whom more than one-third were Ukrainian recruits conscripted between March and May 1944.
The Stavka officer tasked with the co-ordination of the two fronts was Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko.
The plan developed for the Soviet offensive was for the 2nd Ukrainian Front to break through the junction of Gruppe ‘Wöhler’ and Gruppe ‘Dumitrescu’ at a point to the north-west of Iaşi and then to drive in the direction of Vaslui and Falcui along the western bank of the Pruth river, before linking in the area of Kagul with the 3rd Ukrainian Front, which was meanwhile to have advanced from its bridgehead over the lower reaches of the Dniestr river to the south of Bendery and Tiraspol, though the Romanian 3rd Army, in the direction of Selemet and Huşi. This double envelopment was schemed at the optimum way of encircling the German 6th Army in the area of Chişinău. The 3rd Ukrainian Front was then to advance to the south, crossing the Danube river into the Dobrudja region, while the 2nd Ukrainian Front on its right flank moved to the south-west to Ploieşti and Bucharest, and then wheeled to the west in the direction of the Oituz pass through the Carpathian mountains and the Predeal, Turnu Rosu and Vulcan passes though the Transylvanian Alps.
There was nothing essentially novel in the Soviet operational and tactical plans, and the offensive therefore adhered to the Soviets’ now well-established concept of striking at the Germans’ inevitably weaker allies. Thus it was the areas held by Romanian formations which were selected for the initial penetration in order to envelop the German 6th Army located between the Romanian 3rd Army and Romanian 4th Army.
On the night of 19 August there were German reports of Soviet light signals and flares being answered by the Romanians, and also of an increasing number of men deserting to the Soviets. In the Soviet historical accounts of the battle there is no mention of the Soviet/Romanian conspiracy, for the intention was to emphasise the excellent planning and execution of the Soviet offensive. The Soviets also stressed in their histories that the Axis forces were taken completely be surprise as a result of the very thorough Soviet camouflage and deception measures. The reality is that the Romanians were kept comparatively well informed so that they could switch sides at the appropriate moment, and that German intelligence and reconnaissance efforts had revealed that a major offensive was in the immediate offing. The two primary Soviet concentrations in the Iaşi and Tiraspol areas were detected by German aerial reconnaissance, and in the tactical area many Soviet commanders made little effort to conceal their build-up. At the strategic level, however, the Soviets achieved a notable deception success in persuading Friessner that the main weight of the forthcoming offensive would be delivered by the 2nd Ukrainian Front on the Soviet right between the Pruth and Sereth rivers, with the 3rd Ukrainian Front tasked merely with pinning the Axis forces across the lower reaches of the Dniestr river.
There were a large number of Soviet probes, at company and battalion strengths, along the whole length of the front on 19 August. During the evening of the same day the chiefs-of-staff of the German 6th Army and German 8th Army, and of Luftflotte IV, met at Friessner’s headquarters and agreed that the main Soviet offensive was to be expected on the following day. The ‘Bär’ staff plan for a withdrawal had been drafted, but had not been disseminated to lower formations as the decision on implementation was reserved to Hitler.
On the morning of 20 August a short but notably heavy artillery barrage paved the way for the advance of the 5th Shock Army of the 3rd Ukrainian Front as it sought to pin General Erich Buschenhagen’s LII Corps of the 6th Army in the area forward of Chişinău, while the 57th and 37th Armies on the left flank drove through the 3rd Army. Two Romanian divisions of General Anton Richard Freiherr von Mauchenheim und Bechtolsheim’s XXIX Corps (part of the 3rd Army) disappeared and Generalleutnant Georg Postel’s XXX Corps, on the right flank of the 6th Army, was heavily attacked.
Considerably farther to the west, the 2nd Ukrainian Front swiftly drove though the 4th Army’s defences in the area to the north-west of Iaşi. Several Romanian divisions decamped, leaving the German formations divided and isolated. By the afternoon of the first day the 27th Army and 52nd Army had advanced 12.5 miles (20 km). The 6th Tank Army was then sent into the battle, quickly taking Iaşi and reaching open country on the following day. The Germans were still convinced that the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s attack in the east was subordinate to that of the 2nd Ukrainian Front in the west, but by the evening of 21 August the 3rd Ukrainian Front had separated the 6th Army and 3rd Army, and the on the next day the 46th Army, on the left wing of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, had encircled the 3rd Army and pinned it against the coast of the Black Sea. A notable factor in the Soviet success up to this time, and indeed during the rest of the offensive, was the weight and accuracy of the Soviet air effort in tactical support of the ground forces.
In closer detail of just one sector of the front, the main effort of the 3rd Ukrainian Front was made by the 37th Army, with General Major Dmitri A. Kuprianov’s LXVI Corps and General Major Grigori P. Kotov’s VI Guards Corps as its core for an assault on a front only 2.5 miles (4 km) wide. The army attacked with these two corps up and another corps in reserve, and was to break through the German and Romanian defence in seven days to a depth of some 68.5 to 74.5 miles (110 to 120 km), the advance during the first four days being 9.5 miles (15 km) per day. Kuprianov’s LXVI Corps comprised two subordinate groups in the form of the 61st Guards Division and 333rd Division up, and the 244th Division in reserve. Support for these formations was provided by attached elements including the 46th Gun Artillery Brigade, 152nd Howitzer Artillery Regiment, 184th and 1245th Tank Destroyer Regiments, 10th Mortar Regiment, 26th Light Artillery Brigade, 87th Recoilless Mortar Regiment, 92nd and 52nd Tank Regiments, 398th Assault Gun Regiment, two assault pioneer battalions, and two light flamethrower companies. With the exception of the 61st Guards Rifle division, with up to 9,000 men, each division had a strength of between 7,000 and 7,500 men.
For the initial attack the 333rd Division moved forward with all three of its regiments up, while the 61st Guards Division attacked in a more orthodox deployment with two regiments up and one in reserve. This proved to be a fortunate choice, for the division’s right-wing unit, the 188th Guards Regiment, was checked in front of an Axis strongpoint as the 189th Guards Regiment on the left wing made good progress, as did the 333rd Division on its left. The commander of the 61st Guards Division therefore committed his reserve unit, the 187th Guards Regiment, behind the 189th Guards Regiment to exploit the break-in. When darkness came, the 244th Division was inserted to break through the second line of defence. It lost its way, however, and arrived only at 23.00, by which time the 13th Panzerdivision was counterattacking.
The Axis opposition on this sector was provided by two German formations, namely Postel’s XXX Corps and von Mauchenheim und Bechtolsheim’s XXIX Corps, with Generalmajor Rudolf Sperl’s 15th Division, Generalleutnant Karl-Erik Köhler’s 306th Division, General de brigadâ Alexandru Nasta’s Romanian 4th Mountain Division, and General de divisie Atanasie Trincu’s (from 27 August Colonel Virgil Georgescu’s Romanian 21st Division. The 13th Panzerdivision was in reserve.
At the end of the first day of the Soviet offensive, the two Romanian divisions had been almost completely destroyed, the two German infantry divisions very severely handled, and the German and Romanian artillery almost wholly destroyed in the Soviets’ initial barrage. The 13th Panzerdivision counterattacked the LXVI Corps on the first day of the Soviet offensive, and continued its counterattack, with no significant result, on the second day. By the end of the second day’s fighting, the 13th Panzerdivision, equipped only with obsolescent PzKpfw IV battle tanks, assault guns and self-propelled anti-tank guns, had been reduced to an effective impotence.
By the end of the offensive’s second day the Soviet forces had driven though the 6th Army and deep into its rear areas, presaging the imminent creation of the pocket which would result in the destruction of this second 6th Army. It is often alleged that the extraordinarily rapid collapse of the German defence resulted almost entirely from the defection of its Romanian allies. This clearly played a major part in the course of events, for while many Romanian formations and units readily disintegrated as the Soviets advanced, others did not. But even where they did stand and fight, the Romanian formations and units were ill-equipped for combat with what was now a well-equipped as well as numerically superior opponent. Thus while it tried to fight the Soviets, the Romanian 1st Armoured Division was rapidly beaten.
By this time it was clear that many of the Romanian formations were yielding without any effort to fight, and there also began to arrive a number of disturbing accounts of the disarmament and even the arrest of German liaison staffs and detachments by Romanian troops, the cutting of German telephone communications, and the refusal to obey any but Romanian-generated orders. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that most German front-line formations did not know that the Soviets were already many miles into their rear areas. On 21 August Generalleutnant Friedrich-August Weinknecht’s 79th Division near Iaşi first became aware of the true situation from the sounds of battle and Soviet air attacks some 12.5 miles (20 km) to its rear. Generalleutnant August Wittmann’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision was attacked by several hundred men in Romanian uniforms, but these attackers were so determined that they may well have been Soviet troops in Romanian uniforms.
The Axis defence along the ‘Trajan-Linie’ defences had fallen apart, and on 21 August Friessner, fully appreciating the danger to which the 6th Army would be exposed unless it crossed to the western bank of the Pruth river, on his own responsibility ordered the necessary withdrawal. Motorised units with heavy Flak guns, to be used in a ground role, were despatched to hold and protect the Pruth river crossings, and on the following day the Romanians were cut out of the command system when the German 6th Army reverted to army group control. This army took back the XXIX Corps from the Romanians, and an attempt was made to bring under command the scattered German divisions formerly included in Romanian corps. The 6th Army and 8th Army were already falling back when Hitler’s belated order to begin the retreat reached Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’.
On the evening of 21 August the Soviet fronts were instructed to complete their encirclement of both the 6th Army and the German formations on the right flank of Gruppe ‘Wöhler’ by effecting the inner pincer movement directed on Huşi just to the west of the Pruth river. Soviet tank and motorised groups moved swiftly to the south-east along the few good roads, which in general extended along the river valleys, and took much of the Pruth river’s western bank some 40 miles (65 km) in the rear of the 6th Army before the German withdrawal had fully started. By 23 August six corps headquarters and some 20 German divisions were almost encircled in a great pocket between the Dniestr and Pruth rivers, although the headquarters of the 6th Amy escaped the encirclement but in the process left most of the army’s strength without effective leadership.
On 24 August the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts met in the area of Huşi and Leovo, but there was no pause in the intensity of the Soviet offensive to the south and south-west, and Friessner now faced the extremely difficult additional task of defending and then evacuating the numerous German military and civilian organisations in Romania, and also of creating a new front to impede the Soviet advance to the west and into Hungary.
At the same time Friessner also had to extricate the 6th Army from the pocket in which it was now trapped, and was faced with a steadily deteriorating military situation in which his forces had only 45 tanks and 78 assault guns left to them.
During the evening of 23 August Antonescu and two of his ministers were arrested, but when the chief of the Romanian secret police reported his suspicions to the German embassy, he was sent away as a mischief maker. Later in the evening of the same day King Michael announced the formation of a new government under General de corp de armatâ Constantin Sănătescu, commander of the 4th Army up to January 1944, in a radio broadcast announced the end of war so far as Romania was concerned, and ordered all Romanian troops to stop fighting.
It was intended that German troops should be allowed 14 days to pull out of Romania. The night of 23/24 August was extremely busy as a stream of often contradictory orders emanated from Hitler, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the Oberkommando des Heeres. Şteflea and Dumitrescu, commanding the two Romanian armies in the field, appeared to be surprised by the course of events, but Friessner nonetheless decided that he could not longer place any reliance on either of these officers. At 23.00 Friessner telephoned Hitler to inform him that Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ had assumed control of all the German forces in Romania, and Hitler confirmed this. But when the commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ followed with the suggestion that all German forces, equipment and installations should forthwith be evacuated to Hungary, Hitler responded with the concept of arresting the king and his advisers, and of establishing a pro-German general as head of the Romanian state. Friessner said that he was not in any position to attempt any such undertaking, and was instructed to await further instructions, which would be forthcoming within the hour. Meanwhile communications to and from the German embassy had been cut.
During this same night Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief of the operations staff of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, ordered General Erik Hansen, commanding the German military mission in Romania, to arrange the occupation of Bucharest by Generalmajor Julius Kuderna’s 5th Flakdivision, and at the same time to seize and hold the oil pipe lines and railway. Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs, commander of Heeresgruppe ‘F’ in Yugoslavia and who was with Hitler at this moment, was to direct a mobile group from the area of Belgrade to Bucharest.
Friessner meanwhile awaited further orders, which reached him early in the morning of 24 August and did not meet with his approval. On the morning of 24 August the embassy and other German buildings in Bucharest were surrounded by Romanian troops, and at 10.30 Romanian forces started to fire on buildings occupied by the Luftwaffe. The German air attaché was given permission to leave Bucharest on the condition that he made arrangements for the 5th Flakdivision to turn back. Under the immediate command of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Horst Hoffmeyer, this formation was advancing on Bucharest from its normal location at Ploieşti, and was eventually halted by the overall deterioration of the situation everywhere in Romania and by the presence in Bucharest of Romanian armour, including a number of PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks.
On 25 August some 150 German aircraft bombed Bucharest, and this gave the Romanians all the pretext they needed to declare war on Germany.
Friessner’s difficulties now seemed to increase by the hour. With the Romanians in the war as enemies, the German withdrawal was likely to become ever more taxing, all the more so as Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ lacked air and armoured support, and as there were no troop reserves to help extricate the 6th Army and General Friedrich Mieth’s (from 2 September General Ulrich Kleemann’s) IV Corps of the 8th Army from the pocket in which they were now trapped. Friessner decided to leave the encircled formations to make their own efforts to break out, and refused Fretter-Pico permission to rejoin his beleaguered 6th Army.
Friessner then embarked on the creation of a new force for the defence of Hungary, and the army group and army headquarters swiftly pulled back to the west and soon lost radio touch with the forces trapped in the pocket.
Hitler meanwhile tried to supervise the course of events from his map table: on 26 August he ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ to take up a new defence line from the mouth of the Danube river to Galati, Focşani and the Carpathian mountains, which was the line which had been urged on him at an earlier date by Schörner, Friessner and Antonescu. With the exception of the flanking corps, which could not break away, the withdrawal of the German forces from the pocket had started in good order. First away was the 79th Division, which departed it positions, long months in the preparation, only with some reluctance during the early morning of 21 August. Other divisions followed in the following night, but an early problem was the need to destroy a number of guns as horses could not tow them through the thick mud of the oncoming autumn. Some formations managed to get away in good order, others lost cohesion and others still disintegrated.
The IV Corps of the Gruppe ‘Wöhler’, originally comprising the 79th Division, Generalleutnant Otto Schwarz’s 376th Division and General de brigadâ Edgard Radulescu’s Romanian 11th Division, was located to the west of the Pruth river near Iaşi and was able to pull back to the south on an axis parallel with the river. The 2nd Ukrainian Front’s advance soon outflanked the corps to the west, and the IV Corps was thus separated from the 8th Army and was encircled together with the 6th Army. On 21 August the 79th Division had already evacuated its original positions, taking with it two battalions which had been detailed to stay in Iaşi and hold it as a fortress. A new and unsatisfactory defensive line was occupied to the south of the Bahliu stream as a temporary measure, but this was held for too long in the face of Soviet probing attacks.
Meanwhile the order was awaited to retire to the prepared ‘Trajan-Linie’ positions to the rear. Although Mieth succeeded in keeping his corps together, there was little or no contact with the flanks, and on 22 August the corps was forced back to the ‘Trajan-Linie’ position, still in good order, in spite of continuous fighting and a steadily increasing casualty list, perhaps as a result of the fact that the Soviet infantry was revealing a certain reluctance to push home its attacks. Like other infantry divisions, the 79th Division now had two rather than the earlier establishment of three grenadier regiments, and this grouping made for difficulties in the withdrawal, the place of a third regiment being assumed by the division’s fusilier and engineer battalions fighting as infantry. During the day reports were received of Soviet armour attacking vehicle columns some 20 miles (32 km) farther to the rear near Trestiana on the corps’ axis of withdrawal toward Huşi, and Soviet warplanes were very active with bombing and strafing attacks on anything which moved on the area’s roads and tracks. Except for an occasional reconnaissance aeroplane, there was no sign of Luftwaffe involvement from 23 August.
The 11th Division still existed, but wholly failed to comply with the plans of the IV Corps. On 22 August Mieth ordered Weinknecht to pay a visit to the Romanian commander with a view to improving German/Romanian co-ordination and bring the Romanian formation back into the battle. As they talked, the two divisional commanders were surprised by a mass of Romanian troops, officers as well as other ranks, rushing to the rear in total disorder and shouting that they had been attacked by tanks, although not a single engine could be heard. Absolutely furious, the Romanian divisional commander took his whip to the deserters in the hope of restoring a sense of order, but on the following day the Romanian officer, wholly distraught, reached the headquarters of the 79th Division with the news that his division had melted away.
On 23 August the withdrawal continued, the German division being unaware of the fact that it was in the encircled pocket. During the previous night the flashes and sounds of artillery in the east and south-east indicated heavy fighting, but in the west there was now darkness and absolute silence. To the front, however, the Soviets were now revealing a greater determination with attacks using armour and motorised infantry, which were driven back by the German field artillery in the direct-fire role. The IV Corps clearly had to strike out toward the south-west, but the area’s roads and tracks were all aligned to the south-east down the Pruth river valley. The roads were also effectively blocked by destroyed or abandoned vehicles, and deployment or movement off the roads was made exceptionally demanding by the wooded ridges flanking these same roads. On 24 August the German troops were suffering badly from exhaustion and the heat, and their spirits were disheartened by the presence of increasing numbers of wounded, for whom little or no treatment was possible. In overall terms, though, the Germans’ morale was still comparatively high, but on that day a radio message revealed that the rear divisional headquarters and the logistical column had been attacked and dispersed by Soviet armour at Huşi, removing all change of ammunition resupply. The men’s primary foodstuff was now maize collected from the fields.
On 25 August the headquarters of the IV Corps ordered that all carts were to be burned and unwanted horses shot, but the 79th Division did not comply with this instruction as it still had with it some 600 wounded men. Elements of five infantry divisions had by then grouped just to the north of Huşi, and could not effectively move because they were trapped by blocked roads and surrounding swampland, and unable to take Huşi and the main road to the south from the Soviet forces which had seized them.
On 27 August all organised German resistance in the area to the east of the Pruth river ended, and late in the evening of the same day Mieth decided that his three German formations, namely the 79th Division, Generalleutnant Botho Graf von Hülsen’s 370th Division and the 376th Division, should change direction and attack to the west across the Berlad river. Once over the river, all remaining equipment was to be destroyed and the divisions were to divide into small parties whose men would try to make their way independently as best they could to the Carpathian mountains, now about 70 miles (115 km) distant. Mieth himself had received no orders for the past several days, there was no contact with the neighbouring corps, and no information was available about either the Germans or Soviet situation. No reconnaissance was possible, and Mieth’s freshest unit, a detachment of four assault guns with the two engineer companies, was to spearhead the attack. Most of the infantry were completely exhausted, and all for which Mieth could hope was that as many of these as possible would follow the spearhead, with the vehicles carrying the wounded moving behind the first wave.
In the early hours of 28 August the headquarters of the IV Corps were overrun by the Soviets. Weinknecht decided to proceed as had been planned, but the difficulty of rousing the men and getting them on the move delayed the start until well into the day. During that night Mieth arrived at Weinknecht’s headquarters, exhaustion leading to a dispute between the commanders. That morning the remnants of the 79th Division, together with elements of other divisions, crossed the Berlad river under Soviet artillery and mortar fire, Mieth dying, probably of a heart attack, in the close-quarter fighting. On the western bank of the river, near the village of Chitcani, the 79th Division went out of existence, and just one man reached Hungary 12 days later.
In other parts of the pocket to the east of the Pruth, the withdrawal and attempted break-out were more frantic. Once the movement had begun, the units converging on the few available routes descended into a mixed bag of refugees fleeing to the west in the direction of the Pruth river crossings. All higher-level control gradually disappeared as the mass of troops moved on, most of them still with personal weapons, the wounded carried in carts, and the artillery drivers and gunners riding artillery horses with cut traces after the few surviving pieces of artillery had been discarded. There were a number of heavy Soviet air attacks, and the increasing intensity of Soviet artillery and massed rocket fire finally drove the great body of men away from roads and tracks into the forests. Any remaining sense of cohesion was lost in the woods and marshes, and the fleeing men arrived at the Pruth river in scattered parties, only to find that Soviet detachments had already reached the other side of the river. Soon there were tens of thousands of German troops thronging the eastern bank, and Buschenhagen, commanding the LII Corps, sought to reorganise the men into small detachments under officers and non-commissioned officers.
Soviet emissaries sometimes appeared under cover of a white flag, but were generally sent back unheard or scared off with rifle fire. An emissary from the headquarters of the 3rd Ukrainian Front tried to locate the German commanding officer, but was unable to find anyone in command or with any authority. By this time all heavy weapons and equipment, as well as the wounded incapable of walking, had been abandoned. Some of the men also discarded their personal weapons and surrendered, but most of the German troops were still determined to escape. The Soviet forces attempted to halt the German retreat, but the German soldiers knew that this was their last chance to escape Soviet captivity and hurled themselves on the Soviet forces through a hail of artillery and small arms fire, many managing to cross the Pruth river and find cover in the local forests.
Many parties, several of them including generals, started their treks to the west with a strength of 20 to 30 men, but in the following weeks were gradually whittled down to groups of two or three men passing over the Carpathian mountains toward Hungary and the supposed safety of the new German positions more than 310 miles (500 km) distant.
By 29 August the pockets on each side of the Pruth river had been cleared, and the Soviets claimed that their forces had taken 106,000 German prisoners and found 150,000 German dead. The real losses suffered by the Germans are likely never to be known, but were probably no fewer than 180,000 men. The majority disappeared without trace, and the only formation to make some sort of escape was the XXIX Corps with elements of Tröger’s 13th Panzerdivision and Schmidt’s 10th Panzergrenadierdivision under command.
The loss of the 6th Army and part of the 8th Army in Romania was in some respects a greater catastrophe than the disaster to the earlier 6th Army at Stalingrad. The earlier army had survived and fought for two and a half months in the bitter cold of a Russian winter, but its later counterpart had survived a mere nine days in the heat of a Romanian summer.
Elsewhere in Romania there were major problems with the personnel of the German rear-area installations, supply and service units, Luftwaffe ground crew, and both staff and patients of the German hospital services: these had to be removed from the threat of the rampant Soviet advance, and also from the uncertain attitude of an increasingly hostile Romanian population. The evacuation was laborious, slow and uncompleted, and the Soviet forces reported that they had taken prisoner some 53,000 Germans, including 14 generals, during the completion of their occupation of eastern and southern Romania as far to the west as the Carpathian mountains.
The Soviet forces were accompanied by Colonel Nicolae Cambrea’s Romanian 1st ‘Tudor Vladimirescu’ Division, recruited during 1943 from communist sympathisers and Romanian prisoners of war. Soviet historians later claimed that the troops of the Romanian army were taken into Soviet service for employment against the Germans and Hungarians, but the reality is that most of the officers were arrested and the lower ranks men either demobilised or transported to the USSR. New Romanian units were raised by the usual method, namely the forced conscription of male civilians who were then despatched to fight the Hungarians for the return of Transylvania, which had been transferred from Romania to Hungary at German insistence in 1940.
The Black Sea port of Constanţa had been evacuated before being taken by the 3rd Ukrainian Front on 28 august, and part of the Germans’ naval forces in Black Sea attempted to sail up the Danube. The remainder transferred to Bulgarian ports from which about 16,000 men made their way overland to the west. On 30 August Soviet troops took Ploieşti and the next day entered Bucharest, the Romanian capital, only 50 miles (80 km) from the Bulgarian border.