WIKING RUF Europäische Freiwilligen in der Waffen-SS
THE CHERKASSY a.k.a. KORSUN POCKET 1944
„Ungewöhnlich hohe Temperaturen führten plötzlich zu Tauwetter, welches jegliche Truppenbewegung hemmte und alles in eine Schlammwüste verwandelte.
Der Flugplatz im Kessel, zur Versorgung der eingeschlossenen Truppen aus der Luft, war unbenutzbar geworden. Ständige, konzentrische Angriffe der übermächtigen russischen Truppen drückten den Kessel ständig weiter ein, bis er schließlich am 9.Februar 1944 eine Fläche von nur noch 65 km2 hatte, die bis zum Ausbruchstag (16.02.1944) auf ca. 50 km2 schrumpfen sollte“.
Quote of Wiking’s Kriegstagebuch -
Following the Russian offensive in the Kiev area late December 1943 early January 1944, strong Russian K.Gr.s of the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian front - 7 Armies and 1 Cavalry Corps in total - surrounded the German 11th and 42nd Army Corps southwest of CHERKASSY. When the Russian 6th Tank Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Corps met at Swenigorodka, the pocket was closed. It seemed that the fate of 56,000 German soldiers was sealed…
EVENTS LEADING TO THE FORMATION OF THE POCKET
By the end of December 1943 with Kiev retaken by the enemy and a Russian bulge extending as far west as Zhitomir the German K.Gr.s in the Dnepr bend were ordered to hold their positions at all costs. XLII Corps, on the right flank of First Panzer Army, had been under persistent enemy attack since 26 December when some of the Russian K.Gr.s recently engaged in the battle for Kiev were shifted south and renewed their pressure against the corps sector. To the right, Eighth Army's XI Corps, the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking as its left flank, was likewise engaged in heavy defensive fighting along its entire front. Both corps had the specific mission of continuing to hold their front lines against superior Russian K.Gr.s in order to assure a favorable base for a projected German counteroffensive.
To the left of XLII Corps, VII Corps had been operating against the flank of the Russian bulge. Since about 20 December the corps had been attacking in a westerly direction, but without achieving any significant results. The situation of XLII and XI Corps, their most advanced elements fighting along the Dnepr and their long exterior flanks inadequately secured, was certain to invite attempts by the enemy to encircle and annihilate both corps. As early as mid-December the commander of XLII Corps had requested authority to fall back behind the Ross River. This would have meant that, instead of having to defend a frontage of seventy-five miles with two divisions, the corps would have been able to occupy a shortened defensive position behind a natural obstacle.
However, that request was turned down. Nevertheless, XLII Corps had taken a few precautionary measures during December. Two rear positions had been prepared north of the Ross River, east of Boguslav, which were to prove very useful later on in the withdrawal of the corps toward the south. Also, all food stocks of the former German civil administration in the corps area had been evacuated south of the Ross River, a move that turned out to be of decisive importance as these provisions soon became the sole source of supply for the German pocket Kampfgruppen.
THE POCKET WEST OF CHERKASSY
Day after day, from the end of December 1943 until 24 January 1944, Russian infantry, often supported by tanks, attacked the positions of XLII Corps. From mid-January on the enemy's main effort was clearly directed against the left flank of the corps. On 25 January Soviet K.Gr.s launched a large-scale attack against the adjacent VII Corps whose right flank division fell back toward the southeast and south, so that by the end of the same day the roads leading to the flank and rear of XLII Corps were open to the enemy. Over these roads the pursuing Russians pressed forward via Medvin toward Boguslav and Steblev. Simultaneously, XI Corps had suffered enemy penetrations on the right boundary and at the center of its sector. To escape the danger of envelopment and keep its front intact, the corps withdrew its right wing and center toward the west and northwest where it was eventually to form the eastern front of the German pocket. Before 24 January most enemy attacks against XLII Corps were blocked or repelled. These engagements, both in terms of battle casualties and lowered physical resistance of individuals, drained the fighting strength of the German K.Gr.s. Their commanders were under constant pressure, trying to seal off the daily penetrations by virtually uncovering other sectors which were not under heavy attack and by using all available trucks, horses, and horse-drawn carts to shift their units to the threatened points. Initially, each of the two divisions on line with a troop strength of six battalions had to defend a frontage of 35 to 40 miles, with weak artillery support and without tanks. Except for the Ross River sector, the area in which they were committed was almost completely flat and offered few terrain features favoring the defense. From mid-December 1943 until its breakout from the pocket on 16 February 1944, XLII Corps was actually never in a position to offer effective resistance to a far superior enemy who attacked with numerous tanks; if it could not dodge enemy attacks by timely withdrawal, it was constantly threatened by Russian penetrations of its lines.
Authority for any withdrawal, however, could only be granted by Adolf Hitler in person, and no such decision could be obtained in less than twenty-four hours. One can easily visualize the difficulties, mounting from day to day, which the corps had to face under these circumstances.
The Russian attacks on 25 January and the following days had produced a deep penetration separating XLII and VII Corps. With its left flank and rear threatened by the enemy, XLII Corps was K.Gr.d to establish a new front along the general line Boguslav-Steblev. For a short time it appeared that VII Corps would be able to close the gap and restore the situation, but after a few days, as the Russians succeeded in widening their penetration, it became evident that VII Corps was rapidly withdrawing toward the southwest. At this stage the German K.Gr.’s east of the Russian salient were ordered for the first time to make preparations for fighting their way out of the encirclement that was now taking shape. A breakout toward the west was clearly out of the question, thus southeast or due south were the only possible directions. During the first few days of February, however, another Russian penetration turned the right flank of XI Corps and made its position untenable. With its center withdrawing west and its right wing northwest the entire corps was rapidly moving away from its neighboring units adjacent to the southeast. In that area, too, a continuous German front had ceased to exist, and a breakout in that direction was no longer possible. Moreover, since 28 January the sole supply roads leading to XLII; and XI Corps (via Shpola and Zvenigorodka) had been cut. Supply by air was requested and furnished.
By 6 February, XLII and XI Corps were completely encircled. In shifting its main effort toward the south, XLII Corps had been K.Gr.d to weaken its northern and western fronts which were now slowly giving ground. This development, together with the withdrawal movements of XI Corps on the right, led to a gradual shrinking of the pocket, which in turn resulted in greater concentration an important prerequisite for the eventual breakout from encirclement. At the same time, it had become evident that the surrounded German units could escape annihilation only if they succeeded in breaking through the enemy lines on the southern front of the pocket. In weeks of defensive fighting, however, they had suffered excessive casualties, and the K.Gr.s that would have to be used for such an operation were obviously incapable of getting through the Russian encirclement on their own; it was clear that the breakout attempt would have to be supported by a relief thrust from the outside. Accordingly, the encircled units were informed that III Panzer Corps, located about twenty-five miles southwest of the pocket, would launch an attack toward Morentsy in order to establish a forward rescue position. Simultaneously, another panzer corps at about the same distance due south of the pocket was to thrust north in the direction of Olshana. On 6 February, in a radio message from Eighth Army, D Day for the breakout and rescue operation was set for 10 February. Because of the sudden start of the muddy season, however, the date had to be postponed for nearly a week. In order to establish unity of command inside the pocket, the two encircled corps were placed under the control of General Stemmermann, the commander of XI Corps, and designated K.Gr. Stemmermann.
Meanwhile, repeated Russian attacks from the southeast against Korsun and Shenderovka, and from the west against Steblev had threatened to split up the German pocket. Although all of these enemy thrusts were repelled, they further reduced the K.Gr.s available for the breakout and had a detrimental effect on the morale of the encircled troops. On 14 February elements of XLII Corps succeeded in taking Khilki and Komarovka, two to three miles west of Shenderovka, and thus reached a favorable jump-off line for the final break-through. It was high time indeed: The gradual restricting of the pocket had resulted in a dangerous massing of troops. The entire German-held area was now within range of the Soviet artillery; volume and intensity of enemy fire seemed to be merely a question of how much ammunition the Russians were willing to expend. It was feared that at any moment German casualties might amount to an unbearable level. The Russians themselves, however, were hampered by snowstorms and poor road conditions and could not use their artillery to full advantage.
Thus the German troops inside the pocket were able to rally for their last effort…
The breakout began, as ordered, on 16 February at 2300 hr. Jumping off from the line Khilki-Komarovka, three divisional columns struck in a southwesterly direction; their mission was to reach the forward rescue position established by the leading elements of III Panzer Corps at Lisyanka and Oktyabr, and to join K.Gr.s with First Panzer Army.
THE UNITS INSIDE THE GERMAN POCKET
The composition of the two German corps encircled in the pocket west of Cherkassy was as follows:
XI Corps consisted of three infantry divisions, the 57th, 72d, and 389th Divisions, each without tanks, assault guns, or adequate antitank weapons. Of these only the 72d Division was capable of aggressive combat. The two other divisions, with the exception of one good regiment of the 57th, were unfit for use in the attack. The 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking was part of XI Corps until the end of January. Corps troops comprised one assault gun brigade of two battalions totaling six batteries, and one battalion of light GHQ artillery.
XLII Corps included Task K.Gr. B, the 88th Infantry Division, and, from the end of January, the SS Panzer Division Wiking.
Task K.Gr. B was a cover name given to the 112th Infantry Division to hide its identity. Although the unit carried a corps standard, it was an ordinary infantry division consisting of three regiments, the normal complement of artillery, a strong antitank battalion, but no tanks or assault guns. Now at about four-fifths of its authorized strength, Task K.Gr. B had the combat value of one good infantry division. The 88th Division had been badly mauled during the preceding engagements. It consisted of two regiments totaling five battalions and its artillery was seriously depleted. In terms of personnel, weapons, and equipment the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking was by far the strongest division of XLII Corps. It was fully equipped as an armored division and consisted of two armored infantry regiments, one tank regiment with a total of 90 tanks, the Belgian volunteer brigade Wallonien, which was organized in three battalions, and one replacement regiment of about 2,000 men.
Accurate strength reports from that
division could not be obtained; its effective strength before the breakout was
estimated at about 12,000 men.
DIARY OF THE COMMANDER OF XLII CORPS
The tactical situation between 28 January and 16 February, as described above, was modified by a number of developments inside the pocket.
A record of these events is found in
excerpts from the diary kept by the commander of XLII Corps up to the time of
Communications to the rear along the road Shpola-Zvenigorodka have been cut. We are encircled. First Panzer Army to restore communication routes. Our defensive mission remains unchanged. Telephone request to Eighth Army: "Mission requires maintaining northeast front against strong enemy pressure. Russian advance against Steblev necessitates main effort on southern sector. Request authority for immediate withdrawal of northern and eastern fronts. This will permit offensive action toward southwest and prevent further encirclement and separation from XI Corps."
Radio message from Eighth Army: "Prepare withdrawal in direction Rossava up to Mironovka-Boguslav. Be ready to move by 1200 on 29 January upon prearranged signal. Authority for further withdrawal likely within twenty-four hours. Report new situation. "Requested additional ammunition for artillery and small arms. Food supplies in the pocket are adequate. XI Corps under attack by strong Russian tank K.Gr.s. Several of its regiments reduced to 100 men. Air supply beginning to arrive. Evacuation of casualties too slow. More than 2,000 wounded have to be removed.
Message from Eighth Army: XLVIII Panzer Corps will attack on 1 February toward Lozovatka [three miles northwest of Shpola] to relieve enemy pressure against XI Corps.
Daily losses 300 men. Fighter protection inadequate. Ammunition and fuel running low.
Air supply improving. Radio message from Eighth Army: "Withdrawal of north front approved. Prepare for main effort on eastern flank of south front. Vormann [general commanding XLVIII Panzer Corps] is continuing the relief attack from the south. Breith [general commanding III Panzer Corps] will attack 3 February from southwest."
Air supply continues to improve. Unfortunately several transport aircraft with wounded aboard were shot down on the return flight. Have requested that air evacuations be made at night only unless adequate fighter protection can be provided. Message from Army: "To strengthen southern sector, occupy proposed line without further delaying action at intermediate positions."
Made a determined effort to take Boguslav. Commander of Task K.Gr. B seriously wounded. Now all the division commanders are artillerymen, including the present SS big shot. The north front is tottering. Russian tanks today captured a medium battery of Task K.Gr. B that was firing from every barrel without being able to score a single hit. Evidently we have too few experienced gunners. By nightfall our line is restored. Daily ammunition expenditure of the corps 200 tons. Casualties still 300 per day. This cannot go on much longer. Have requested 2,000 replacements, also 120 tons additional ammunition per day.
Radio message from Eighth Army: "Prepare breakout for 10 February. Further instructions follow."
Radio message to Eighth Army: "Roads deeply mired. Will require more time for breakout preparations." Message from Eighth Army: "At time of breakout the following units will attack from the outside: XLVIII Panzer Corps toward Olshana, III Panzer Corps toward Morentsy. Pocket K.Gr. will effect initial break-through and, covering its flanks and rear, concentrate its entire strength in attack across the line Shenderovka-Kvitki toward Morentsy, to link up with armored wedge of relief K.Gr.s. Regrouping must be completed in time to permit breakout on 10 February. Final decision will depend on progress of armored spearheads. Situation does not permit further delay."Stemmermann [general commanding XI Corps] assumes command of both corps in the pocket. Report to Army that because of road conditions attack impossible before 12 February. Had a look at the 110th Grenadier Regiment and Task K.Gr. B. Morale of troops very good. Rations plentiful. Enough sugar, sausage, cigarettes, and bread to last for another ten days. Army Group Commander radios that everything is being done to help us.
Radio message to Eighth Army: "Artillery, heavy weapons, and horse-drawn vehicles of 72d, 389th, and Wiking Divisions, as well as hundreds of motor vehicles of Wiking carrying many wounded, are stuck in the mud at Gorodishche. Withdrawal from line held today, to effect regrouping, would involve intolerable losses of men, weapons, and equipment. Line must be held at least twenty-four hours longer." Today I saw many casualties, including four officers; ordered more careful evacuation of wounded, and destruction of all classified documents we can possibly get rid of.
Generals Zhukov, Konev, and Vatutin have sent an emissary, a Russian lieutenant colonel, who arrived with driver, interpreter, and bugler at the position of Task K.Gr. B to present surrender terms for Stemmermann and myself. He is treated to champagne and cigarettes, receives no reply. Ultimatum remains unanswered. K.Gr.s for breakout dwindle from day to day. Inquiry from Army High Command about Leon Degrelle, commander of Brigade Wallonien. He is a young man, Belgian; I saw him a few days ago among his men. They are likeable fellows, but apparently too soft for this business. Approach of relief K.Gr.s delayed by necessary regrouping. Nevertheless Army now insists we break out on 12 February. Much as we would like to, we cannot do it by then. In this mud the infantry cannot possibly cover more than a thousand yards per hour.
My old division commander of 1940, General von Seydlitz [Edit: Captured at Stalingrad by the Russians. Thereafter leader of the National Committee "Free Germany" composed of German officers in Russian hands.] today sent me a long letter delivered by aircraft: He thinks I should act like Yorck during the campaign of 1812 and go over to the Russians with my entire command. I did not answer.Army inquires whether breakout in direction Morentsy still feasible, or whether the operation should rather be directed via Dzhurzhentsy-Pochapintsy toward Lisyanka. Reply to Army: "Lisyanka preferable if Breith [III Panzer Corps] can reach it. Situation on east front critical. Several enemy penetrations. For the past forty-eight hours XI Corps unable to establish new defense line. Troops badly depleted and battle-weary. XLII Corps front intact. We are attacking south of Steblev. Serious danger if east front cannot be brought to a halt. XLII Corps will break through in direction Lisyanka. The troops are well in hand. Early advance of Breith toward Lisyanka decisive. "Reply from Army: "Thanks for comprehensive information. In full accord concerning new direction of breakout. Breith will attack 11 February in direction of Lisyanka. Will do all we can. Good luck!
"Seydlitz today sent me fifty German prisoners with letters to their commanders; in addition they are supposed to persuade their comrades to go over to the enemy. I cannot understand Seydlitz.
Although the events at Stalingrad
must have changed him completely, I am unable to see how he can now work as a
sort of G-2 for Zhukov.
Breith has reached Lisyanka. Vormann is advancing in direction of Zvenigorodka. Our infantry has taken the northern part of Khilki. The regimental commander leading the attack was killed in action.
So goes one after another.
XI Corps has taken Komarovka. The
Russians, according to intercepted signals, are about to attack our left flank.
Radio message to Army: "Absolutely necessary that Breith advance to
Petrovskoye as quickly as possible, in order to effect link-up. Speed is
essential. Forward elements of XLII Corps now at Khilki." Reply from Army:
"Vor- Page 24mann southeast of Zvenigorodka. Breith will attack 13
February with strong armored wedge in direction Dzhurzhentsy."Was at
Khilki this afternoon. Things look bad. Our men are exhausted. Nothing gets
done unless officers are constantly behind them. Am now keeping my horses
inside the hut; they are in better shape than I. My orderly is burning my
papers and giving away my extra uniforms.
Another message from General von Seydlitz, this time addressed to the commander of the 198th Division. Not bad: they think we are stronger than we really are. The letter was attached as usual to a black, red, and white pennant [German colors] and dropped from a plane. These people never fail to find my headquarters. Breakout further delayed because of heavy enemy attacks against XI Corps' east front. Radio message to Army: "Concentration for breakout prevented by heavy Russian flank attacks and final mopping up at Shenderovka. Will shorten east front, involving evacuation of Korsun, during night of
13-14 February. K.Gr.s thereby released will not be available for breakout before 15 February. Intend to continue attack throughout 14 February. Breakthrough of Breith's armored K.Gr. toward Petrovskoye indispensable to success.
"Reply from Army Command: "Breith under orders to thrust toward Petrovskoye. His forward elements now on line Lisyanka-Khichintsy." Have requested strong fighter protection for 14 February.
Russian strafing attacks are getting
increasingly serious in view of the growing congestion in the pocket. I am most
afraid that Army Command cannot comply with this oft-repeated request.
Breith will have to arrive soon. Last night the Luftwaffe dropped ammunition over the Russian lines instead of ours. Now they are trying to put the blame on us, claiming the drop point was inadequately lighted. Stemmermann has just issued orders for the breakout. The date: 16 February. Radio message to Army: "North front will be withdrawn during the night of 14-15 February to the south bank of Ross River. Main attack ordered for 16 February. Further advance of tank K.Gr. for direct support absolutely necessary. "We are destroying all excess motor vehicles and equipment. I have prohibited burning activities.
Our pocket is now so small that I can practically look over the entire front from my command post, when it is not snowing. Enemy aircraft are hard at work; lucky for us it is snowing most of the time. I was once more at Khilki to reconnoiter the terrain selected for the breakout. Then issued final order. Since this morning there is trouble at the SS Division. The Walloons and the Germania Regiment are getting fidgety. They must hold only until tomorrow night.
Final instructions from Stemmermann: We are to jump off on 16 February at 2300, with Task K.Gr. B. 72d Division, and SS Panzer Division Wiking from Khilki-Komarovka across the line Dzhurzhentsy-Hill 239 to Lisyanka; 57th and 88th Divisions will cover the flanks and the rear. With me, at my command post, are the three division commanders with whom I am supposed to perform the miracle tomorrow. One of them is doing this for the first time, the two others are old hands.
I left no doubt in their minds that,
in my opinion, this is going to be one giant snafu, and that they should not
get rattled, no matter what happens. You need a guardian angel to bring you
through this kind of thing. Have given my second mount to my G-3.
Ample supply of ammunition dropped in aerial delivery containers as late as last night. In this respect we are now well off if we can take it along. After consulting Stemmermann I decided to hand over to the Russians some 2,000 wounded together with medical personnel and one doctor from each division. This is a bitter decision, but to take them along would mean their certain death. Saw Stemmermann once more to say good-bye. My orderly takes my diary; he is a crafty fellow and will get it through somehow.
During the day General Stemmerman had been killed by anti-tank fire as he attempted to change command posts and General Lieb had assumed command.
BREAKOUT ORDER OF XLII CORPS
On the evening of 15 February, at his command post at Shenderovka, the commander of XLII Corps had issued verbal and written instructions to his division commanders. The breakout order for XLII Corps read, in part, as follows:For days the enemy has been attacking continuously along our entire defense perimeter, with tanks and infantry, in an attempt to split up the pocket and destroy our K.Gr.s.
At 2300, on 16 February, Task K.Gr. B. 72d Division, and 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking will attack in a southwesterly direction from the line Khilki-Komarovka, break the enemy's resistance by a bayonet assault, and throw him back in continuous attack toward the southwest, in order to reach Lisyanka and there to join K.Gr.s with elements of III Panzer Corps. Compass number 22 [Edit.: The magnetic compass carried by the German soldier had 32 consecutively numbered gradations. Number 22 equals an azimuth of about 236°.] indicates the general direction of the attack. This direction is to be made known to each individual soldier. The password is: "Freedom" [Freiheit].
For the attack and breakout each division will be organized in five successive waves, as follows: First wave: one infantry regiment reinK.Gr.d by one battery of light artillery (at least eight horses per gun, plus spare teams) and one engineer company. Second wave: antitank and assault gun units. Third wave: remainder of infantry (minus one battalion), engineers, and light artillery. Fourth wave: all our wounded that are fit to be transported, accompanied by one infantry battalion. Fifth wave: supply and service units.The rear guard, under the direct command of General Stemmermann, will be formed by the 57th and 88th Divisions, which will protect the rear and the flanks of the K.Gr.s launching the breakout attack.
By 2300 on 16 February, the rear guard divisions will withdraw from their present locations to a previously determined defense line; further withdrawals will be ordered by General Stemmermann, depending on the progress of the breakout.
The entire medium artillery and certain specifically designated units of light artillery will support the attack. They will open fire at 2300 on 16 February, making effective use of their maximum range. Subsequently, all artillery pieces are to be destroyed in accordance with special instructions.The radios of each division will be carried along on pack horses. To receive signal communications from corps, each division will, if possible, keep one set open at all times, but in any event every hour on the hour.
The corps radio will be open for
messages from the divisions at all times. The corps command post will be, until
2000, 16 February, at Shenderovka; after 2000, at Khilki. From the start of the
attack the corps commander will be with the leading regiment of the 72d
Division. The order was explained orally to the division commanders, and all
details of the operation were carefully gone over, especially the difficult
relief of the SS Division near Komarovka by the 57th Division, whose GO was
present during the briefing conference.
Despite persistent enemy attacks against the pocket perimeter, constant Russian shelling of Komarovka, Khilki, and Shenderovka, churned up roads, and numerous traffic bottlenecks, the German K.Gr.s inside the pocket 2000 hrs on 16 February, to report their readiness for the breakout. Determination was the prevailing mood. Apparently the large majority of the troops was not influenced by Russian propaganda, nor by the hundreds of leaflets dropped from Russian planes were able, by on behalf of the Free Germany Committee (General von Seydlitz) they wanted to fight their way through.
Shortly after 2000 hrs, the commander of XLII Corps appeared at the command post of the 105th Grenadier Regiment which was to spearhead the attack of 72d Division. He was on horseback, accompanied by members of his staff, several aides, and radio operators with their equipment. The events that followed are illustrated by a personal account of the corps commander, written from memory at a later date, and presented here in his own words: By 2300 the regiment; two battalions abreast started moving ahead, silently and with bayonets fixed. One-half hour later the K.Gr. broke through the first and soon thereafter the second Russian defense line. The enemy was completely caught by surprise. Prisoners were taken along. Not until the following day did it become evident that the Russians, under the protection of heavy snowfall, had pulled out most of their troops from the south front of the pocket in order to use them in an attack, on 17 February, from the area west of Steblev. The advance toward the southwest continued. No reports from either Task K.Gr. B on the right or the 5th SS Panzer Division on the left. That they were making some progress could only be inferred from the noise of vehicles due north and south of us, and from the sounds of firing that indicated the location of their leading elements.
Over roadless, broken terrain traversed by numerous gullies, our march proceeded slowly. There were frequent halts. Here and there, men and horses suddenly disappeared, having stumbled into holes filled with deep snow. Vehicles had to be dug out laboriously. The slopes were steeper than could be presumed from looking at the map. Gradually the firing decreased until it broke off entirely by 0200. About two hours later the leading elements of 72nd Division were approximately abreast of Dzhurzhentsy. Still no reports from Wiking and Task K.Gr. B. I could not give them my position by radio because by now my headquarters signal unit was missing and could not be located. Shortly after 0400 hrs enemy tanks ahead opened fire. They were joined by Russian artillery and mortars operating from the direction of Dzhurzhentsy, at first without noticeable effect. The firing increased slowly but steadily, and was soon coming from the south as well. We began to suffer casualties. The advance, however, continued. By about 0600 the leading units reached a large hollow southeast of Dzhurzhentsy. Enemy fire, getting constantly heavier, was now coming from three directions. Elements of Wiking could be heard on the left, farther back. No message, and not a trace of Task K.Gr. B. Day was dawning. The difficult ascent out of the hollow began. The climb was steep and led up an icy slope. Tanks, guns, heavy horse-drawn vehicles, and trucks of all kinds slipped, turned over, and had to be blown up. Only a few tanks and artillery pieces were able to make the grade. The units lapsed rapidly into disorder. Parts of the Wiking Division appeared on the left.
Between 0700 and 1000 the 72nd Division made several attempts to mount a coordinated attack toward southwest. It did not succeed. The few guns and most of the tanks that were still firing were soon destroyed by the enemy. Armored cars and motor vehicles suffered the same fate. Except for a few tanks that had managed to keep up, there were now only soldiers on foot and on horseback, and here and there a few horse-drawn vehicles, mostly carrying wounded. In the protection of a ravine I was able to collect a small K.Gr. of about battalion size, mainly stragglers from Task K.Gr. B and the Wiking Division. With them I moved on toward the line Hill 239-Pochapintsy, which was visible from time to time despite the heavy snowfall, and from where the enemy was firing with great intensity. Russian ground support planes appeared, opened fire, and disappeared again. They were ineffective, and did not repeat their attack, probably because of the difficult weather conditions. There was no longer any effective control; there were no regiments, no battalions. Now and then small units appeared alongside us. I learned that the commanding general of the 72d Division was among the missing. My corps staff still kept up with me, but the aides who had been sent on various missions did not find their way back. On the steep slope northwest of Pochapintsy, defiladed from enemy fire, I found the G-3 of the 72d Division. He reported that infantry units of his division had penetrated the enemy line along the ridge south of Hill 239.
Nevertheless, enemy fire was still coming from there, maintained principally by about ten Russian tanks.
Behind and alongside me thousands of men were struggling south-west. The entire area was littered with dead horses, and with vehicles and guns that had either been knocked out by the enemy or simply abandoned by their crews. I could not distinguish the wounded; their bandages did not show, as we were all wearing white camouflage clothing. Despite the general confusion and complete lack of control one could still recognize the determination in the minds of the troops to break through toward the southwest, in the direction of III Panzer Corps.
During a lull in the firing I readied my battalion for the attack across the line Hill 239 Pochapintsy which unfortunately could not be bypassed. My staff and I were still on horseback. After leaving the draw that sheltered us against the enemy, we galloped ahead of the infantry and through the gaps between our few remaining tanks, The enemy tank commanders, observing from their turrets, quickly recognized our intention, turned their weapons in our direction, and opened fire. About one-half of our small mounted group was able to get through. The chief of staff and the G-3 were thrown, but later found their way back to us. The greater part of the infantry battalion was still following behind me. While riding through the enemy sector, I noticed a few German soldiers surrendering, but the main body was pushing southwest without letup. Soviet tanks were now firing at us from the rear and quite a few men were still being hit. From the eastern edge of the forest south of Hill 239 came intensive enemy fire. I led my battalion in an attack in that direction and threw the Russians back into the woods. Rather than pursue them into the depth of the forest, we continued advancing southwest, still harassed by fire from Russian tanks. Gradually, between 1300 and 1500, large, disorganized masses of troops piled up along the Gniloy Tikich River, east of Lisyanka. Units from all three divisions participating in the breakout were hopelessly intermingled.
A few medium tanks had been able to get through to the river bank, hut there were no heavy weapons and artillery pieces left. The river, below and above Lisyanka, was 30 to 50 feet wide, had a rapid current, and reached a depth of about 10 feet in most places. The banks were steep and rocky, with occasional shrubs and trees. Several tanks attempted to drive across, but the river was too deep and they failed to reach the opposite bank.
Heavy fire from Russian tanks located southeast of Oktyabr set the congested masses into forward motion. Many thousands flung themselves into the river, swam across, reached the opposite shore, and struggled on in the direction of Lisyanka.
Hundreds of men and horses drowned in the icy torrent. An attempt by a small group of officers to create an emergency crossing for casualties succeeded only after several hours. Toward 1600 the enemy fire ceased. I crossed the Gniloy Tikich swimming alongside my horse, traversed the snowy slope southeast of Lisyanka which was covered with moving men, and finally reached the town. There I found the commander of the 1st Panzer Division, the forward element of III Panzer Corps. I learned that no more than one company of armored infantry and three companies of tanks of 1st Panzer Division were now at Lisyanka, while one armored infantry battalion consisting of two weak companies was established at Oktyabr, the village immediately north of Lisyanka. A reinK.Gr.d regiment of Task K.Gr. B had made its way into Lisyanka, and I received the report that the commander of Task K.Gr. B had been killed in action.
Next, the chief of staff of XI Corps appeared; he had lost contact with General Stemmermann in the morning of 17 February, while marching on foot from Khilki to Dzhurzhentsy. He reported that the rear guard of the pocket K.Gr. was in the process of withdrawal and that some of its units would soon appear. I assumed command of what was left of K.Gr. Stemmermann. By now the situation was the following: The 72nd and Wiking Divisions were completely intermingled. No longer did they have any tanks, artillery, vehicles, or rations. Many soldiers were entirely without weapons, quite a few even without footgear. Neither division could be considered in any way able to fight. One regiment of Task K.Gr. B was intact and still had some artillery support. However, this regiment also had no vehicles and no rations left. All wounded, estimated at about 2,000, were being gradually sheltered in the houses of Lisyanka, and later were evacuated by air.
For lack of vehicles and fuel, III Panzer Corps was unable to reinforce its units in the area of Lisyanka and Oktyabr. The corps commander, with whom I conferred by telephone, informed me that he had been forced to assume the defensive against heavy Russian attacks from the northwest in the area immediately west of Lisyanka. He had no extra supplies of any kind, and his forward elements were unable to provide rations for the troops emerging from the pocket. Thus I had to order the pocket force in its miserable condition to move on westward, while I requested supply, evacuation of casualties by air, and the bringing up of vehicles and weapons from the rear.
The march toward the main rescue area continued throughout the night, despite frequent bottlenecks, and was not completed until noon of 18 February. Renewed Russian flank attacks from the north endangered the roads to the rear and necessitated further withdrawal southwest and south during the following day.
In the afternoon of 20 February,
having clarified the question of food supply for the pocket K.Gr. and dealt
with a number of other problems, I was instructed to proceed to headquarters of
Army High Command in East Prussia. From that moment on I had no further
connection with XLII Corps or K.Gr. Stemmermann.
Of the 35,000 men launching the breakout from the pocket about 30,000 successfully fought their way out. 5,000 were killed or captured. The Kampfgruppe lost all of its heavy weapons, artillery, tanks, vehicles, horses, equipment, and supplies.
The second Russian winter offensive of 1943-44 was launched early in January 1944 against the German Eighth Army sector in the Dnepr bend. The First and Second Ukrainian Fronts, the latter consisting of four armies, including one tank army’s attempted to cut off German forces deployed from a point southeast of Kiev to the Dnepr estuary. The Soviet offensive fell short of accomplishing its purpose, but in twelve days of fighting the Russians drove a deep wedge southwestward across the Dnepr and captured the town of Kirovograd. Two large German salient remained, one to the northwest, the other to the southeast of the Kirovograd area.
Despite heavy tank losses, the Russians could be expected to reorganize their armored forces in the shortest possible time and continue their heavy attacks designed to push Army Group South farther back in the direction of the Romanian border. It was evident that the enemy would bend every effort to destroy the German bulge northwest of Kirovograd, held by elements of Eighth Army and First Panzer Army.
The commander of Eighth Army sent urgent messages to army group; he expressed grave doubts about continuing to hold the curving line of positions northwest of Kirovograd which committed an excessive number of men. Pointing out the Russian superiority in strength, he recommended withdrawal of the interior flanks of Eighth Army and First Panzer Army by retirement to successive positions, first behind the Olshanka-Ross River line, and eventually to the line Shpola-Zvenigorodka-Gorniy Tikich River. Permission for such a withdrawal, however, was denied on the grounds that the salient had to be held as a base for future operations in the direction of Kiev. The expected attack was launched by the Second Ukrainian Front, on 24 January, against the right flank, and by the First Ukrainian
Front, on 24th January, against the left flank and the rear of the German salient. By 28th January the armored spearheads of both Russian army groups met in the area of Zvenigorodka and thereby accomplished the encirclement of XI and XLII Corps. Having erected the original link-up with elements of two tank armies, the Russians rapidly committed strong infantry units from four additional armies which attacked toward the west, southwest, and south in order to widen the ring of encirclement and provide effective cover against German counterattacks from the outside.
*This description of the encirclement west of Cherkassy was prepared by a German staff officer at army group level on the basis of his personal recollections and is presented as a supplement to the preceding narrative.
PLANS FOR THE BREAKOUT
In this situation the German Army High Command directed Army Group South to assemble the strongest available armored units along the boundary between Eighth Army and First Panzer Army. These forces were to execute converging counterattacks, encircle and annihilate the enemy units that had broken through, re-establish contact with the pocket force, and regain a favorable jump-off base for the projected counteroffensive.
Actually, the assembly of the German attack force presented the greatest of difficulties. Two of the panzer divisions of Eighth Army designated to take part in the operation were still in the midst of heavy fighting in the area of Kapitanovka. They had to be replaced by infantry units with frontages extended to the utmost. Two additional panzer divisions, recently engaged southeast of Kirovograd, were on the march toward the left flank of Eighth Army. Of these four armored units, only one was at full strength, while the others, after weeks of uninterrupted fighting, were actually no more than tank-supported combat teams.
The relief attack from the right flank of First Panzer Army was to be carried out by the four armored divisions of III Panzer Corps. They were still engaged in defensive operations on the left flank of the army sector, and could only be brought up after they had completed their previous missions.
The two corps inside the pocket were to attack at the appropriate time in the direction of the Eighth Army and First Panzer Army units approaching from the south and west. It was clear that any build-up on the southern front of the pocket could only be accomplished at the expense of other sectors. Still, Army High Command insisted on holding the entire pocket area, and not until the situation of the encircled forces became far more critical was permission obtained for successive withdrawals on the northern sector. Even then, the pocket had to be kept sufficiently large to afford a certain freedom of movement. Also, despite the effort on the southern sector, adequate forces had to remain available to seal off enemy penetrations elsewhere.
The plan for a two-pronged drive by III Panzer Corps of First Panzer Army from the southwest and XLVII Panzer Corps of Eighth Army from the south, to coincide with an attack launched by the pocket force, was adopted on 1st February. The units concerned were ordered to complete their assembly for the proposed operation during the following two days. Then XLVII Panzer Corps was to jump off from the area of Shpola, thrusting into the rear of the Russian forces that were threatening the southern front of XI Corps. Simultaneously, III Panzer Corps was to launch a surprise attack in the general direction of Medvin, where enemy units were operating against the southwest front of the pocket defended by XLII Corps. After destroying these Russian units, III Panzer Corps was to pivot due east to effect close co-operation with the attacking elements of XLVII Corps coming from the south.
During a commanders' conference on 3rd February, the Eighth Army commander voiced serious doubts whether, in view of the limited forces available and the muddy roads, this ambitious plan was practicable. He recommended instead that the attack by III Panzer Corps be led in a more easterly direction which would assure early co-operation with the advancing elements of XLVII Panzer Corps. This recommendation was turned down.
Meanwhile, the enemy had committed strong infantry and armored units in an attack toward Novomirgorod, temporarily tying down two of the panzer divisions that were to take part in the relief operation from the south. The muddy season was rapidly taking effect and as the roads deteriorated all movements became extremely difficult.
Similar conditions prevailed in the area of III Panzer Corps. Engaged in continuous fighting on its left flank, this corps also suffered considerable delay in the assembly of its units for the projected relief thrust and could not be expected to launch its attack until 4 February. The forces inside the pocket, in an attempt to keep the enemy from separating XI and XLII Corps, had shifted their main effort to the south front of the perimeter. Despite heavy losses in defensive engagements they could not afford to give ground in that sector, as their only remaining airfield, at Korsun, had to be kept out of range of the Russian artillery. At the high rate of casualties, however, a continued stand along the entire perimeter of positions was obviously out of the question. To conserve its strength and reduce the threat of Russian penetrations, the pocket force eventually obtained permission to execute limited withdrawals on the northern and eastern sectors while bolstering its defenses to the south.
The full impact of the muddy season soon made itself felt on all fronts and, in addition to causing losses of motor vehicles and other equipment, began to endanger German air supply operations. The requirements of the encircled force called for supplies to be flown in at the rate of 150 tons daily. Despite the most determined efforts of the Luftwaffe units, this quota was never reached. Enemy antiaircraft fire from at least three flak divisions in the Russian-held strip of terrain and interception by enemy fighter planes had seriously reduced the number of available transport aircraft. To prevent further losses, strong German fighter forces had to be committed in protection of the vital air supply line instead of supporting preparations on other sectors for the impending relief operation.
With the start of the muddy season, the lack of paved runways further aggravated the situation. One airfield after another became unusable, and even the Korsun field, the only one inside the pocket, had to be partially closed. Airdropping supplies, because of a shortage of aerial delivery containers, met only a small part of the actual requirements. Eventually, because of the road conditions, the two corps approaching from the outside also became dependent in part upon airborne supply, which forced a wide scattering of the air effort.
Time was obviously working against the Germans. As their difficulties continued to increase, it became clear that each day of delay further reduced their chances for success.
THE RELIEF OPERATION
of an attack force on the western flank of XLVII Panzer Corps (Eighth Army)
bogged down in a series of heavy local counterattacks south of Lebedin and
Shpola. A small German force gained a temporary bridgehead at Izkrennoye and
inflicted serious losses on the enemy. In all these engagements, however, the
strength of XLVII Panzer Corps was constantly being whittled down until,
by 3rd February, it had only 27 tanks and 34 assault guns left. At that point it became clear that Eighth Army could do no more than to tie down enemy forces by continued holding attacks. Thus the original plan which provided for two converging relief thrusts had to be abandoned.
Nevertheless, on 4th February, First Panzer Army attacked toward the north in order to take advantage of favorable tank terrain, achieve surprise, and avoid any further loss of time. Successful during the first day, it was, however, unable to maintain this direction of attack, as terrain and road conditions grew worse by the hour.
Meanwhile, the situation inside the pocket had become more critical and made it imperative to establish contact with the encircled forces over the shortest possible route. Therefore, on 6 February, Army Group South issued new orders to First Panzer Army. After regrouping its units III Panzer Corps was to attack due east, its right flank advancing via Lisyanka toward Morentsy. At the same time the encircled corps were ordered to prepare for an attack in the direction of III Panzer Corps, the attack to be launched as soon as the armored spearhead of the relief force had approached to within the most favorable distance from the pocket.
Planned for 8th February, the attack of III Panzer Corps, because of unfavorable weather conditions, did not get under-way until three days later. It was initially successful and, by the end of the first day, led to the establishment of three bridgeheads across the Gniloy Tikich River. Concentrated enemy attacks, however, prevented any further advance. In the difficult terrain east of the Gniloy Tikich, the German armored units were unable to make any progress, and this attack also came to a halt in the mud.
Army group now realized that it could no longer accomplish a reinforcement of the pocket. The encircling ring, therefore, had to be broken from the inside. The divisions of III Panzer Corps were ordered to engage and divert the Russian forces located in the area of Pochapintsy-Komarovka-Dzhurzhentsy, and to establish on the high ground northwest of Pochapintsy a forward rescue position that could be reached by the units breaking out of the pocket.
By 1105, on 15th February, the breakout order was transmitted by radio to General Stemmermann, the commander of the encircled German forces. It read, in part, "Capabilities of III Panzer Corps reduced by weather and supply difficulties. Task Force Stemmermann must accomplish break-through on its own to line Dzhurzhentsy-Hill 239 where it will link up with III Panzer Corps. The breakout force will be under the command of General Lieb [XLII Corps] and comprise all units still capable of attack."
Further instructions, radioed on 16th February, emphasized the importance of surprise and proper co-ordination: "During initial phase of operation tonight hold your fire so as to achieve complete surprise. Maintain centralized fire control over artillery and heavy weapons, so that in the event of stronger enemy resistance, especially at daybreak, they can be committed at point of main effort in short order. Air support will be available at dawn to protect your flanks."
During the operation that was to follow, two separate phases could be clearly distinguished. At first everything went according to plan. In the proper sequence and under perfect control, the troops moved
into position at night, despite the most difficult road and weather conditions. As they were compressed into a narrow area, unit after unit had to be channeled across the only existing bridge at Shenderovka which was under heavy enemy fire.
The bayonet assault started on schedule. The complete surprise of the enemy demonstrated that the attack had been properly timed. Without much action, and suffering but few casualties, the German breakout force penetrated the enemy lines and in a relatively short time reached the vicinity of Lisyanka. On the opposite front of the pocket the rear guards held fast and thus assured the success of the initial breakout.
The second phase, the evacuation of the remaining pocket force, rapidly deteriorated into a wild surge toward the west. Following closely behind the successful spearhead, altogether about 30,000 men broke through the Russian lines in front of the pocket. At daybreak, however, they ran into an unsuspected enemy front of antitank guns, tanks, and artillery, located on the line Dzhurzhentsy-Pochapintsy. Under massed enemy fire, enemy tank attacks, and infantry counterthrusts, the German force was split into numerous small groups, each attempting on its own to get through to the west wherever there might be a possibility. Their guns, tank destroyers, and heavy weapons, which up to now had been dragged along laboriously through snowdrifts and over broken terrain, had to be left behind and were destroyed after the last round of ammunition had been fired. Here too, as the last vehicles were blown up, the wounded taken along at the insistence of their comrades had to be left to their fate.
Meanwhile a new complication arose that was to have disastrous consequences. Subjected to heavy enemy fire, counterthrusts, and armored attacks, the great mass of German troops breaking out of the pocket had deviated from their original direction of attack. No longer did they advance according to plan toward the area northwest of Pochapintsy. Instead of approaching the forward rescue position established by III Panzer Corps, they passed by at a considerable distance farther south. Here, their advance to the west was blocked by the course of the Gniloy Tikich, the enemy holding the near bank of the river. There were no crossings, nor had III Panzer Corps established any bridgeheads, since a link-up in that area had not been foreseen.
Although greatly exhausted, the German troops were now forced to overcome the resistance of the Russian security detachments along the river and to swim across, leaving their last weapons behind. They suffered considerable losses as both banks of the river were under heavy enemy fire and not until they had placed this last obstacle behind them were they finally received by the forward elements of III Panzer Corps.
The German holding forces on the eastern sector of the pocket maintained contact with the enemy and successfully covered the breakout of the main body. This mission accomplished, they made their way westward according to plan and entered the lines of III Panzer Corps during the night of 17-18th February.
Contrary to expectations, the breakout had to be executed without air support. Unfavorable weather conditions during the entire operation made it impossible for the air force to play its part in the liberation of the encircled units.
The developments mainly responsible for the encirclement near Cherkassy and its serious consequences might be summarized as follows:
1. Only the insistence of Army High Command to hold the Dnepr bend northwest of Kirovograd led to the isolation of two German corps in that area. Despite repeated requests, permission for a breakout was not obtained until too late. The enemy had grown too strong along the entire ring of encirclement, while the German pocket forces had been weakened to such an extent, through losses of personnel and equipment and shortages of supply, that they were forced to surrender their freedom of action and maneuver to the enemy.
2. The two German corps encircled by the enemy were the flank corps of two adjacent armies. Immediately after their encirclement, XLII Corps, heretofore part of First Panzer Army, was placed under the command of Eighth Army. While this assured unity of command inside the pocket, the same was not true of the relief operation in which forces under the command of two different armies were involved. The absence of a unified command on the army level made itself felt particularly as the need arose to co-ordinate the actions of the pocket force (Eighth Army) with those of III Panzer Corps (First Panzer Army).
3. The mission of III Panzer Corps on the day of the breakout was to divert and tie down those Russian units that blocked the path of the German troops emerging from the pocket. Because of terrain difficulties and shortage of fuel, the corps' forward elements failed to reach and occupy the commanding ground originally designated as forward rescue area. Thus the enemy was able to throw considerable weight against the German units breaking out. Also as the breakout continued in an unexpected direction the exercise of command in the relief force was not flexible enough to adjust to the changed situation and improvise a new forward rescue position along the Gniloy Tikich River. As a result, the pocket force remained virtually un-assisted in its efforts at breaching the Russian lines and fighting its way out.
4. The Luftwaffe, as mentioned above, was prevented from taking any part in the operation; an effective means of support that had been counted on was thereby eliminated.
The two German corps succeeded, to be sure, in cracking the enemy ring and breaking out of the pocket; but they were so seriously weakened that they required a long period of rest and rehabilitation before they could again be committed on the Russian front. Their absence had an immediate effect upon the defensive effort of Army Group South which was trying to counter heavy Russian attacks aimed at a break-through in the Uman area. Soon the entire southern sector was split wide open and the German Sixth and Eighth Armies were pushed across the Yuzhny Bug (Ukrainian Bug River) into Romania.
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