The Battle of the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket
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The Battle of the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket

WWII

The Battle of the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket

Near Cherkassy, on the bend of the Dniepr River, surrounded German troops fought for their lives during the winter of 1943-1944.

Near Cherkassy, on the bend of the Dniepr River, surrounded German troops fought for their lives during the winter of 1943-1944.

by Pat McTaggart

It was the third winter in Russia for the men of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South, and things were going from bad to worse. Since the gigantic battle at Kursk in July 1943, von Manstein’s battered divisions had been steadily pushed to the west. In a massive counteroffensive after the battle, Soviet forces drove the Germans to the Dniepr River in the Ukraine with a series of shattering blows.

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Pausing to regroup after reaching the eastern bank of the river, the commanders of four Red Army fronts waited anxiously to continue the offensive while streams of supplies and replacements filled their depleted ranks. In Moscow, Joseph Stalin and his high command (STAVKA) were planning a drive that would not only liberate the Ukraine, but reclaim the Crimea as well.

A Better Plan on Paper

Even von Manstein would have approved the audacity of the operation. Spearheaded by armored divisions and motorized infantry, the Soviets planned a staggered attack by the four fronts, which would keep the Germans guessing as to where the main attack was taking place. After the German line was breached, regular infantry would surge through the gaps and hit any enemy units left in the main line from the rear. Taking a page from German armored doctrine, the Red Army tank units would keep going without worrying about their flanks until the Crimea was isolated. The following infantry and motorized units were to consolidate their gains, possibly encircling the three armies of Army Group South (1st and 4th Panzer and the 8th Army) in the process.

On paper, von Manstein had a powerful force with which to defend the Dniepr Line. In fact, many of his infantry divisions had an average combat strength of a thousand men. His panzer divisions were not in much better shape.

Von Manstein’s southern flank was protected by Col. Gen. Karl Hollidt’s 6th Army, consisting of 13 understrength divisions. The meandering Dniepr made it necessary for Hollidt’s divisions to defend the eastern side of the river in positions that had been hastily constructed and that were practically worthless in the face of overpowering Soviet superiority.

Slowly Pushed Back Across the Front

On October 1, the 3rd Ukrainian Front under Rodion Malinovsky began attacking German forces near Zaporozhye. While the Germans scrambled to send reinforcements to help, the 4th Ukrainian Front (Fyodor Tolbukhin) struck Hollidt on October 9. Supported by 400 batteries of artillery, Tolbukhin’s 45 infantry divisions, two guards mechanized corps, three tank corps, and two guards cavalry corps smashed through the almost useless defense works of the 6th Army.

The final blow came when the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts of Col. Gens. Nikolai Vatutin and Ivan Konev hit Army Group South on October 15. The Germans were slowly pushed back across the entire front of attack and were saved only by the rainy season, which began in mid-November. Casualties on both sides had been horrendous, and the Germans had little means of replacing their losses.

It was different for the Soviets. On their way westward, they immediately drafted any male of fighting age into their ranks. Few said no to the NKVD squads that roamed liberated areas on the prowl for new recruits. Taking advantage of the lull, Soviet commanders fleshed out their ranks, teaching the new soldiers the rudimentary basics of combat. At the same time, supplies poured into the battle area, bringing food and ammunition to continue the advance once the ground had sufficiently frozen.

Meanwhile, STAVKA revised its original plan, since annihilation of German forces on the entire southern front was no longer feasible.

Textbook Encirclement

Meanwhile, STAVKA revised its original plan, since annihilation of German forces on the entire southern front was no longer feasible. The bulge created in the October offensive, defended by General Erhard Raus’s 4th Panzer Army and the 8th Army under General Otto Wöhler, was tailor made for encirclement. Destruction of the two armies was assigned to Konev and Vatutin.

The Russians struck with with the onset of winter in early December. While Konev headed out toward the important communications hub of Kirovograd, Vatutin struck the 4th Panzer Army’s left flank and then headed for the Bug River. Both fronts were to link up on the Bug River at Pervoinaysk.

Blowing snow whipped by gale-force winds prevented either side from using air support, and the battle soon became hopelessly confused as marauding groups of Soviet tanks and mechanized infantry clashed with columns of German troops attempting to form a new line. Many of the German units soon found that they had been cut off and surrounded.

Described in a Letter Home

One of these units was commanded by 22-year-old Sergeant Franz Hofbauer. In a letter to the author, Hofbauer described those first harrowing days of the Soviet attack:

“I had barely taken over command of the 3/Fusilier Battalion 72 when the Russians attacked. Our company commander had been killed a few days earlier. By December 3, I realized that Ivan had us surrounded, so I formed the company into a Hedgehog [all around] defensive position. This was near the town of Cherkassy. We were attacked again and again by the Russians, but our position held long enough for the battalion to occupy a new defensive line.

“Our ammunition was almost nil, and I realized that the only thing that we could do is [sic] attack. We formed a wedge and struck Ivan in an area closest to our own main line. Luckily, the Russians were caught by surprise, and we were able to break through, taking our wounded and our weapons with us. I received the Ritterkreuz [Knight’s Cross] for this action, but it was the courage of my men that really saved us.”

The Red Army Continues its Attack

The Soviet attack continued, with Vatutin creating more havoc with the 4th Panzer Army. Von Manstein tried to convey the seriousness of the situation to Hitler, but the German dictator would not listen, calling the field marshal a defeatist and threatening to relieve him. Seeing the writing on the wall, von Manstein decided to take matters into his own hands by reshuffling his forces. He handed over the 1st Panzer Army’s sector to Hollidt’s 6th Army and ordered it to Uman. There, the 1st Panzer Army would add to its ranks the XXIV Panzer Corps and the VII Army Corps of the 4th Panzer Army.

The commander of the 1st Panzer Army, the one-armed General Hans Hube, was also ordered to created a reserve armored force around the headquarters of the III Panzer Corps, which would soon be commanded by General Hermann Breith. The force included the 6th and 17th Panzer Divisions, the 16th Panzergrenadier Division, and the 101st Jâger Division.

The move was justified when on January 3, 1944, Soviet advance units were caught and mauled a mere 30 miles from Uman. As that engagement was taking place, Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front made a thrust toward Kirovograd. Led by Col. Gen. Pavel Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, the Soviets fought through the German defenses and encircled the four divisions now trapped inside the city.

Against Adolf Hitler’s orders, General Fritz Bayerlein led the four divisions in a successful breakout, giving von Manstein a new force to use against the Russians.

Soviets Struggle to Maintain Momentum

Against Adolf Hitler’s orders, General Fritz Bayerlein led the four divisions in a successful breakout, giving von Manstein a new force to use against the Russians. They succeeded in stemming the Soviet advance, but the Red Army offensive had gained important ground and had created a dangerous bulge in the German line on the Dniepr bend. Von Manstein repeatedly called for the withdrawal of the units inside the bulge, but Hitler steadfastly refused.

Throughout January, the Soviets tried to keep their momentum going, but German counterattacks seemed to thwart them at every turn. In Moscow, STAVKA decided to shift the focus of the offensive and ordered Vatutin and Konev to concentrate on eliminating the Dniepr Bulge. With those orders, the two Soviet generals devised a plan similar to the double encirclement used so effectively at Stalingrad. The inner ring would be formed by infantry units supported by some tanks, while an outer ring, with the purpose of meeting enemy counterattacks, would be composed of mechanized and armored corps with infantry support. For the operation, the Soviets would enjoy an overall superiority of 7:1 in artillery, 5:1 in tanks and 2:1 in men.

Pressed into the bulge were General Theobald Lieb’s XLII Army Corps (5th SS Panzer Division “Wiking,” SS Brigade “Wallonien,” and the remnants of the 112th, 255th, and 332nd Infantry Divisions known as Corps Abteilung B) and General Wilhelm Stemmermann’s XI Army Corps (57th, 72nd, and remnants of the 389th Infantry Division). Joining them were the 88th Infantry Division and elements of the 167th, 168th, and 323rd Infantry Divisions, the 213th Sicherungs (Security) Division, and the 14th Panzer Division.

Happy to Have Only a Single Line to Occupy

“We had no second or third line of defense, as was usual in the preceding years,” General Heinz Gaedke, who as a colonel had been Stemmermann’s chief-of-staff, wrote to the author. “But our corps was so depleted that our divisional commanders were happy that we even had a single line to occupy.”

The battle for the Cherkassy bulge began on January 24 with an attack by Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front against a 12-mile front that had no more than one German infantryman for every 15 yards. Penetrations in the German line were soon made, although it was not the knockout blow that the Soviets had expected.

STAVKA had hoped for a penetration of at least 30 kilometers on the first day, but steadfast German resistance upset the timetable. Interior communications and accurate artillery fire allowed German units to slowly retreat. Konev threw Maj. Gen. A.I. Ryzhov’s 4th Guards Army and Co.l Gen. Pavel Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army into the fray, but only four kilometers were gained for a heavy price.

The 1st Ukranian Front Attacks the Border

On January 26, the 1st Ukrainian Front attacked the border of the 88th and 198th Infantry Divisions. Supported by tanks, three and a half Red Army divisions smashed into the 198th, forcing it to retreat to the west. The 6th Tank Army under Col. Gen. A.G. Kravchenko exploited the gap, pushing the 88th to the northwest and breaking communications between the XLII Army Corps and the remainder of the 1st Panzer Army.

In the 2nd Ukrainian Front sector, Konev succeeded in expanding his previous gains, but an attack by the 14th and 11th Panzer Divisions almost succeeded in driving the Russians back. While the fighting continued, Rotmistrov, in a Guderian-style thrust, sent two tank corps (20th and 29th) on an end run. Disregarding his flanks, Rotmistrov pushed his armor westward to meet the 6th Tank Army. The outer ring of what would be called the Cherkassy Kessel (Cauldron) was almost complete.

Near Cherkassy, on the bend of the Dniepr River, surrounded German troops fought for their lives during the winter of 1943-1944.

Originally Published August 14, 2014

Add Your Comments

3 Comments

  1. Roger Barton
    Posted August 4, 2016 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    The style of writing in this article is, in my opinion, an example of the prejudiced, ahistorical and unpleasant way the role of Russia in World War Two is portrayed. Throughout the article the story appears to be from a brave German point of view, struggling against enormous odds. “things were going from bad to worse.” “The Germans were slowly pushed back”, …”harrowing days of the Soviet attack” are all phrases that convey a sympathy for the German side. By contrast the Soviets are described quite differently. “It was different for the Soviets. On their way westward, they immediately drafted any male of fighting age into their ranks. Few said no to the NKVD squads that roamed liberated areas on the prowl for new recruits”.
    Yet the author should be aware of the terrible atrocities of the German Army and its auxiliary units in murdering countless numbers of civilians, particularly Jews. The unit mentioned in passing without any comment, 213th Sicherungs (Security) Division, was a particularly murderous unit, and their commanding officer was hung for war crimes in 1946. The Soviet State committed many atrocities too, but the one sided style of writing, which I presume to be an unconscious attitude by the writer, creates a pro-German sympathy, and is no credit to your magazine.

    • Gary Daniel
      Posted August 8, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

      I noticed all ther SS units involved. They were not nice people.

    • David Sharon
      Posted December 7, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps I am slightly biased as well, but I too am annoyed how pro-German almost every article on the Eastern Front becomes. This was a war of genocide against both Slavs and Jews waged by a brutal mechanized military, and yet for some reason the Germans are heroes because they were often outnumbered by equally desperate Soviets?

      I understand there is major implicit bias against Russia, due both to a surplus of German autobiographies and Cold War & Putin aggressive realpolitik. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep in perspective how truly barbaric the German war goals were, and that both sides’ claimed kill ratios should be taken with a grain of salt. All we really know for sure of Korsun is that a strong mechanized encirclement bloodied the Germans. All the rest is just filler.

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