As in the other sectors, the relentless Soviet attacks had reduced the strength of Army Group South to the point that Manstein could not adequately man the entire front. The problem was not just a lack of troops, or the fact that almost all his men were “apathetic . . . [and] completely indifferent whether they were shot dead by their own officers or the Russians,” but the very course of the front line itself. On its northern flank, German forces had been pressed back (where a dangerous gap of sixty miles separated Army Groups South and Center), while, in the south, as always, Hitler insisted on clinging to as much of the great bend of the Dnieper as possible (and refused to evacuate the Crimea). Since the Eighth Army still held a front of some twenty-five miles along the Dnieper in the center (which Hitler hoped to use as the launch pad for a new offensive), this meant that Soviet forces at Korosten in the north were already some three hundred miles to the west of the dangerously exposed German troops at Nikopol and, thus, in a position to strike south toward the Carpathian Mountains and Black Sea and completely envelop Army Group South. Manstein was fully aware of this peril and implored Hitler to allow a withdrawal in the Dnieper bend as well as the Crimea in order to free troops to stabilize the northern flank, but the dictator time and again refused this request.
Until now, the Germans had been lucky that Vatutin, the commander of the First Ukrainian Front, had not tried to exploit the gaps in their lines. Their luck ran out on 24 December, when the Soviets launched their strongest offensive to date in the direction of Zhitomir and Berdichev. Despite the pounding the Soviets had taken in reaching the Dnieper and the poor weather conditions that hampered all movement, Vatutin had assembled over 2 million men and two thousand tanks (supplemented by thousands more during the operation) for this assault. Given their marked superiority, the Soviets splintered German defenses and achieved a breakthrough in a very short period. In some sectors of the front, German forces were so thin that the men could not see their neighbor in the next foxhole, while the elite Grossdeutschland Division reported that in one area sixty-five men had to hold a position of almost one and a half miles. As Manstein also feared, Vatutin aimed to reach the Carpathians and block the line of retreat of the German forces to the south. After the first week, this appeared very likely since Soviet forces had driven sixty miles west, while, on 3 January 1944, they reached the prewar Polish border at Gorodnitsa, northwest of Zhitomir. German forces were now so depleted that, on 4 January, the Thirteenth Corps reported that its divisions had a frontline infantry strength of only 150–300 men and that the entire corps had the infantry strength of only one regiment.
As the gap in the north along the Pripet Marshes between the army groups grew even wider and the situation developed in a very precarious fashion, Manstein saw the only solution in giving up his positions on the lower Dnieper in order to free troops for a counterattack. His plan, similar to the one that had achieved such success a year earlier at Kharkov, was to blunt the enemy advance by striking him in the flanks and destroying a considerable portion of his exposed forces. Manstein’s first mention of this idea, in late December, provoked only a furious outburst in Hitler, who claimed that the field marshal had lost his nerve and wanted only to run away. On 4 January, Manstein flew to Hitler’s headquarters to make a personal attempt to persuade the Führer to sanction a withdrawal in the south. Although Hitler likely understood the need for thoroughgoing measures, he again refused even to consider, allegedly for economic and political reasons, giving up the Dnieper bend. Moreover, he now invoked the threat of an Allied invasion in the west to resist any transfer of troops to the east, effectively leaving Manstein to his own resources to deal with the situation. Since by 9 January the Soviet breakthrough in the north had reached truly alarming proportions, with advance units within twenty miles of Uman and threatening his former headquarters at Vinnitsa, Manstein did just that, acting decisively to deal with the crisis. Having already ordered the First Panzer Army to disengage at Nikopol and move north, with its positions to be covered by the newly obtained Sixth Army (from Army Group A), he now resolved to conduct the defensive battle in the north by offensive means. Striking into its flanks and rear, his forces were able to destroy a good portion of the Soviet Fortieth Army, on 15 January even managing at Zvenigorodka and Uman to sever its connections to the rear. Only the lack of infantry prevented a complete exploitation of this triumph. To the north, another counterattack launched on the twenty-fourth led, four days later, to the destruction of further enemy forces at Oratov. In all, some seven hundred Soviet tanks had been destroyed or captured, but, to Manstein’s great frustration, the lack of German strength meant that these operations served only to avert catastrophe, not as a springboard for a new offensive.
This basic dilemma was illustrated with great clarity in the center of his front where, on the twenty-fourth, despite the German success in stemming the enemy breakthrough just to the north, Soviet forces launched an attack aimed at cutting off the German salient on the Dnieper at its base. By the twenty-eighth, enemy troops had closed the encirclement, ironically at Zvenigorodka, trapping two German corps, some fifty-six thousand men plus five thousand Soviet Hiwi’s, in a pocket roughly forty miles wide and 150 miles in circumference. In all, six weak divisions had been surrounded, the strongest of which was the Fifth SS Viking Division. Manstein’s concern now was whether the Soviets would strike deeply into the German rear, as the Wehrmacht had done in 1941, or content themselves with destroying German troops in the Kessel. Perhaps mindful of their ongoing difficulties just to the north as well as Manstein’s habit of pulling off painful surprises, the Soviets chose the latter option. In opting for caution, the Red Army leadership seems also to have vastly overestimated German strength in the pocket, claiming that over 130,000 men and 230 armored vehicles were trapped when, in reality, the Germans had less than half that number of men and only twenty-six operational tanks and fourteen assault guns. The weather might also have played a role in the Soviet decision since the unusually warm winter and frequent downpours of rain had turned all roads into muddy quagmires, ensuring that the Germans could not react swiftly, but also slowing Russian advances.
Hitler reacted to this development in typical fashion. Not only did he refuse to allow a breakout, declaring the Cherkassy-Korsun pocket a “fortress on the Dnieper” that had to be held at all cost; he also ordered a wide-ranging operation that went far beyond the relief of the troops in the pocket. Instead, he hoped first, in an attack from the south, to encircle the encirclers and then to exploit the momentum of this presumed success with a further attack in the direction of Kiev to trap enemy forces west of the Dnieper, thus reversing, with this one bold stroke, his fortunes in the east. Manstein protested against this “utopian” plan from the lost world of 1941 but himself conceived a relief operation that was too clever and ambitious. While the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps of the Eighth Army would spearhead a relief assault from the southeast to make contact with the Kessel, the Third Panzer Corps of the First Panzer Army had the task of driving north through Medvin before turning east to the pocket, thus encircling a portion of the enemy force to the south. Because of Soviet pressure elsewhere that tied down German units earmarked for the relief attack, when it began on 1 February the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps could spare only two units, the Eleventh and Thirteenth Panzer Divisions, which between them could muster only thirty-six operational AFVs. In the following days, the Third and Fourteenth Panzer Divisions, with a mere twenty-two AFVs, joined the assault but made little progress against enemy resistance and the unpredictable weather, with its bouts of freezing, thawing, rain, and snow that turned the countryside into a vast mud bog. The hopes placed in the powerful Twenty-fourth Panzer Division, which had been sent north from Nikopol, also came to naught, for en route it had been ordered by Hitler back to its old positions because of a Soviet attack on the lower Dnieper. Because of the miserable weather and mud, however, it arrived back in the Nikopol region too late to participate in the battle there, with the result that one of the strongest units in Army Group South had been of no use anywhere.
Similarly, the main relief force belonging to the Third Panzer Corps, the heavy Panzer Regiment Bäke, with thirty-four Tiger and forty-six Panther tanks, also found itself helpless in the face of the unseasonably warm weather. On the night of 1–2 February, warm air and rain left a mucky morass that caused the heavy tanks to sink in the mud, consuming enormous quantities of fuel as they tried to churn forward. Even as civilians were commandeered as porters to move fuel and supplies forward, low-flying Ju-52s dropped gas canisters to the tanks below. To add further misery, in the following nights the temperatures again plunged below freezing, with the result that the entombed tanks now had to be hacked out of the frozen ground. The infantry also struggled forward through knee-deep mud, in soaked uniforms, with little food or water, tired, dirty, and hungry. By 4 February, when the attack finally commenced, only the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Panzer Divisions as well as a portion of Panzer Regiment Bäke, with eighty-five total AFVs, were available. Although it achieved an initial breakthrough, the attack bogged down over the next few days as a result of mud and furious Soviet counterattacks. Although the Germans destroyed a large number of enemy tanks, the Russians achieved their goal of delaying the attack.
By now, Manstein realized that his overly ambitious plan had failed and, thus, resolved on a straightforward relief operation from the southwest over Lisjanka. The units for this, however, could not be assembled before 11 February, and, in the meantime, the forces within the pocket, which were never particularly strong to begin with, had been progressively weakened by steady Soviet attacks. Despite the example of Stalingrad, Hitler still clung to the belief that pockets could be supplied from the air, but, given the weather conditions and the enemy defenses, this had never been likely. The Kessel needed 150 tons of supplies daily but received an average of only half that. Unable at times to use the nonasphalted runway at Korsun, the Luftwaffe resorted to dropping supplies, with many lost to the enemy. Having wasted seven days on a fruitless attempt to mitigate defeat, Manstein also recognized that it was now pointless to try to defend the Kessel and, thus, prepared plans for a breakout of the trapped troops.
By 15 February, German troops had fought their way into Lisjanka, slowed as much by the weather as the enemy, but because of a lack of fuel could not take Hill 239, a key enemy position barely more than a mile from the pocket. Ironically, Stalin’s impatience at Zhukov’s failure to reduce the Kessel quickly enough now offered the Germans an opportunity for escape. Angry that Zhukov had not properly planned joint action between Vatutin and Konev, on 12 February Stalin had given overall command of the encirclement to Konev. This resulted not only in a distinct humiliation for Zhukov but also a redisposition of Soviet forces that left a gap precisely at Lisjanka. Manstein now ordered the remaining forty-six thousand Germans in the pocket to break out on the night of 16–17 February. Commencing at 11:00 P.M. without an artillery barrage, the attack achieved initial surprise, but the first troops out had to pass by Hill 239, which was still in Russian hands. A bloodbath ensued, with many Germans machine-gunned to death or trampled into the ground by Soviet tanks.
The second wave followed ten minutes later, then, at a slower pace, the tanks, assault guns, prime movers, and horse-drawn wagons. As they piled up against the ridges flanking Hill 239 or simply got stuck in the mud, a huge traffic jam ensued that slowed the breakout. Further compounding the confusion, General Stemmermann, the commander in the pocket, was killed at 4:00 A.M. on the seventeenth. All semblance of order now disappeared as the Germans desperately sought to break out while the Russians, finally recognizing what was up, brought them under withering artillery, mortar, and tank attack. Because of the heavy fire from Hill 239, the fleeing Germans passed to its south, which led them to the swampy bottomland and icy cold waters of the Gniloy Tikich River, swollen to more than fifty feet by the recent rain. Even as Germans on the opposite shore watched, many of their comrades perished in the attempt to swim to safety. By midmorning of the seventeenth, however, Bäke’s tanks, now supplied with fuel, seized Hill 239, and later units had a relatively undramatic escape from the pocket.
By the eighteenth, with the last units extracted, an estimated thirty-six thousand men had been brought out, which, combined with the over four thousand wounded flown out earlier, meant that some forty thousand troops had been rescued, a figure that Manstein regarded with some satisfaction (although Hitler grumbled at the loss of equipment). The psychological state of those saved, however, was shocking. The relatively good physical condition of those coming out of the pocket surprised the troops of the heavy tank regiment, themselves in constant combat and without a hot meal for a week, but the latter were appalled that those rescued refused to stay and help their lagging comrades. On the seventeenth, fearing for their “inner substance,” Manstein decided to send all the survivors back to Poland to rest and recuperate. This was to be no “Stalingrad on the Dnieper,” but the Germans nonetheless suffered sizable losses of AFVs: 156 tanks and assault guns, with most disabled by mines and unable to be towed to safety. Similarly, Panzer Regiment Bäke lost twenty-three Panthers and seven Tigers, although only four of the former and one of the latter to enemy fire. Although Stalin celebrated a great triumph and claimed much higher German losses than there were in actuality, the Red Army had again lost disproportionate numbers of men and equipment, with over 80,000 casualties, of whom over 24,000 were killed or missing, and 728 tanks and assault guns destroyed. By contrast, total German casualties numbered less than 20,000, of whom roughly 14,000 could be counted permanent losses. Though heartened by their ability to rescue the majority of those trapped, the German commanders nevertheless faced the sobering realization that this should not have happened in the first place and that the Soviets were now in a position to fight an encirclement battle in addition to keeping pressure on in other areas of the front.
This was shown both by the enemy thrust toward Kovel at the southwestern edge of the Pripet Marshes and by a drive westward from Yampol at the boundary of the Fourth and First Panzer Armies. If successful, this latter thrust would not only shatter the northern wing of Army Group South but also cut the vital rail line running from Lvov to Odessa, thus opening the way through the Carpathians to Hungary and, most worrisome, the oil fields of Rumania. The continuous fighting over the previous months had left the Fourth Panzer Army in an extraordinarily critical situation. On 5 March 1944, after losing the units on its right flank to the First Panzer Army, it had a strength well below 100,000 men, with only thirty AFVs. Convinced that the Russians had to stop attacking eventually, Hitler refused any shortening of the line in order to gather sufficient forces to contest effectively the decisive points on the front. Contrary to the Führer’s expectations, however, the Soviets steadily pressed their advantage. The attack from Yampol on 4 March by the First Ukrainian Front had the immediate consequence of ripping a gap between the two panzer armies, although Manstein’s determined effort to hold the flanks kept the damage somewhat limited. Nonetheless, by the twenty-third, yet another German force had been encircled in a Kessel, this time at Tarnopol.
Although the force trapped at Tarnopol was much smaller than that at Cherkassy-Korsun, the episode illustrates clearly the direction of Hitler’s thinking. On 8 March, in Führer Order No. 11, he declared a new policy of festen Plätze (fortified places), the object of which was to deny the enemy key cities and junctions, tie down his forces, and blunt the momentum of his offensive, but which in reality merely preordained encirclements. As at Kovel, on 10 March, Tarnopol was declared a “festen Platz that was to be held to the last man” even though it had no fortifications or airfield, not to mention insufficient troops and supplies to defend against an aggressive Soviet attack. Although the city was not surrounded until the twenty-third, the Germans made few preparations for its supply. Not until the twenty-fifth was a relief attack mounted to bring a convoy of supplies into the besieged city, and even this quickly degenerated into a farce. Despite the fact that the supply trucks never arrived from Lvov and the roughly forty-six hundred men inside the city had not been given permission to break out, the battle group was, nonetheless, ordered to launch its attack. It encountered heavily mined roads, fierce antitank defenses, flank attacks from Soviet tanks, and aerial assaults that forced the Germans to give up the attempt. Since Tarnopol had no airfield, the Luftwaffe tried supplying the pocket by air drops, with the result that most of the supplies fell into enemy hands. The next relief attempt was not made until 11 April, when the Ninth SS Panzer set out in a driving rain and deep mud. Hitler at first refused to allow the besieged men to break out, then relented the next day. By this time, however, the Kessel had been reduced to a few thousand yards, with the German defenders fighting desperately from room to room under massive Soviet artillery fire. Although the remaining troops, some fifteen hundred, attempted a breakout on the fifteenth, it was too late: only fifty-five men were able to make it successfully out of the pocket.