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Liveblogging World War II: February 16, 2014

HISTORY IN IMAGES Downfall Slow Decimation Of The German Army Battle Of KORSUN CHERKASSY

Battle of the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

On the evening of 15 February the 105th Regiment again, using its last reserves and with two assault guns, secured Khilki, defeating a Soviet counterattack supported by armor.... The pocket had "wandered" south and half-way toward its rescuers and rested on the village of Shanderovka. The settlement was heavily defended by the Soviets; had been captured by 72nd Infantry troops, was retaken by units of the Soviet 27th Army and recaptured by the Germania regiment of 5th SS Panzer Division. By nightfall on 16 February, III Panzer Corps fought its way closer to the encircled formations, the spearheads were now seven kilometers from Group Stemmermann.

The northward thrust toward the pocket by the III Panzer Corps had been halted by Red Army determination, terrain, and fuel shortages. After several failed attempts by German armored formations to seize and hold Hill 239 and advance on Shanderovka, Soviet counterattacks by 5th Guards Tank Army forced III Panzer Corps into costly defensive fighting. 8th Army radioed Stemmermann:

Capacity for action by III Panzer Corps limited by weather and supply situation. Gruppe Stemmermann must perform breakthrough as far as the line Zhurzintsy–Hill 239 by its own effort. There link up with III Panzer Corps.

The message did not specify that Zhurzintsy and the hill were still firmly in Soviet hands—a failure that caused Group Stemmermann severe casualties during the German breakout of the pocket. Lt.Gen. Theobald Lieb was appointed by 8th Army to lead the breakout. Only seven kilometers lay between Group Stemmermann and III Panzer Corps, but in between Konev:

was in the process of repositioning forces for a final crushing attack which would take place [on] 17 February... three armies – the 4th Guards, 27th, 52nd ... and 5th Guards Cavalry Corps... elements of 5th Guards Tank Army had recently been added ... with the most powerful units, in particular armor, placed between Group Stemmermann and III Panzer Corps.

General Stemmermann elected to stay behind with a rearguard of 6,500 men, the remaining, combined strength of 57th and 88th Infantry Divisions. The pocket was now a mere 5 kilometers in diameter, depriving Stemmermann of room to maneuver. Shanderovka, once seen as a gate to freedom, now became known as Hell's Gate. The Red Army poured intense artillery and rocket fire on the area around the encircled troops, with nearly every round finding a target. Sturmoviks of the Red Air Force bombed and strafed, only infrequently challenged by Luftwaffe fighters. Various unit diaries described a scene of gloom, with fires burning caused by Soviet night bombing with incendiaries, destroyed or abandoned vehicles everywhere and wounded men and disorganized units on muddy roads. Ukrainian civilians were caught between the combatants. On 16 February 1944, Field Marshal von Manstein, without waiting for a decision by Hitler, sent a radio message to Stemmermann to authorize the breakout. It said simply:

Password Freedom, objective Lysyanka, 2300 hours.

With extreme reluctance, Stemmermann and Lieb decided to leave 1,450 non-ambulatory wounded at Shanderovka attended by doctors and orderlies. The troops then began to assemble at dusk into three leading assault columns with Division Group 112 to the north, 5th SS Panzer Division to the south and 72nd Division in the center with the reinforced 105th Regiment in the first echelon to provide the assault power. "By 2300 the 105th Regiment – two battalions abreast – started moving ahead, silently and with bayonets fixed. One-half hour later the force broke through the first and soon thereafter the second [Soviet] defense line." All went well for several battalions and regiments who reached the German lines at Oktyabr by 0410. Major Kästner and his 105th grenadiers reached friendly lines by cautiously approaching the forward position of Panthers of 1st Panzer Division of the III Panzer Corps, bringing their wounded along and their heavy weapons, but losing the trailing, horse drawn supply column to Soviet artillery. The 105th entered Lysyanka at 0630. On the opposite front of the cauldron, General Stemmermann and his rear guard held fast and thus assured the success of the initial breakout.

At the left flank column, a reconnaissance patrol returned bearing grim news. The geographic feature Hill 239 was occupied by Soviet T-34's of the 5th Guards Tank Army. Despite energetic efforts to capture Hill 239 now from the inside of the cauldron, the high ground remained in Soviet hands and had to be bypassed. "As more and more units ran up against the impregnable tank barrier atop the ridge dominated by Hill 239," the German escape direction veered off to the south toward the Gniloy Tikich River, thus ending for the bulk of troops at the wrong position of the stream with disastrous consequences to come. When daylight arrived, the German escape plan began to unravel. Very few armored vehicles and other heavy equipment could climb the slippery, thawing hillsides and the weapons had to be destroyed and abandoned "after the last round of ammunition had been fired."

General Konev, now aware of the German breakout, resolved to keep his promise to Stalin not to let any "Hitlerites" or "Fascists" escape annihilation. Soviet intelligence, however, at this stage vastly overestimated the armored strength of III Panzer Corps, and Konev therefore proceeded in force. At this time the 20th Tank Corps brought its brigade of the new Joseph Stalin-2's to the Korsun battlefield. Konev ordered all available armor and artillery to attack the escaping units, cut them into isolated groups and then destroy them piecemeal. The two blocking Soviet rifle divisions, 206th Rifle and 5th Guards Airborne, had been smashed by the German assault forces; without infantry support Soviet tanks then fired into the escaping formations from a distance. With no anti-tank weapons in the field, T-34s commenced to wade into unprotected support troops, headquarters units, stragglers and red-cross identified medical columns.

What followed was a scene illustrative of warfare at its most savage:

Under the yellow sky of early morning and over ground covered with wet snow Soviet tanks made straight for the thick of the column, ploughing up and down, killing and crushing with their tracks. Almost simultaneously massed Cossack cavalry wheeled away from the tanks to hunt down and massacre men fleeing for the refuge of the hills: hands held high in surrender the Cossacks sliced off with their sabres. The killing in this human hunt went on for several hours and a new round opened on the banks of the river Gniloy Tikich, where the survivors of the first collision of the German column with Soviet troops dragged and fought their way.

— John Erickson, in The Road to Berlin, p. 178.

Gruppe Stemmermann had paid a staggering price in casualties for the vagueness of the radio message that had ordered the breakout from the pocket. By mid-day, the majority of the now intermingled divisions had reached the Gniloy Tikich stream, turbulent and swollen to a breadth of 15 meters and a depth of two meters by the melting snow. Despite the fact that the 1st Panzer Division had captured a bridge, and engineers had erected another, the panicking men saw the river as their only escape from the rampaging T-34s. Since the main body was away and south of the bridgeheads, the last tanks, trucks and wagons were driven into the icy water, trees were felled to form makeshift bridges and the troops floundered across as best as they could, with hundreds of exhausted men drowning, being swept downstream with horses and military debris. Many others succumbed to shock or hypothermia. Groups of men were brought across on lifelines fashioned from belts and harnesses. Others formed rafts of planks and other debris to tow the wounded to the German side, at all times under Soviet artillery and T-34 fire. Gen. Lieb, after establishing a semblance of order at the banks throughout the afternoon, crossed the Gniloy Tikich swimming alongside his horse. When the 5th SS Panzer Division commander Herbert Gille attempted to form a human chain across the river, alternating between those who could swim and those who could not, scores of men died when the chain broke. Several hundred Soviet prisoners of war, a troupe of Russian women auxiliaries and Ukrainian civilians who feared reprisals by the Red Army, also crossed the icy waters. Toward the end phase of the breakout, engineers had built several more bridges and rear guard units of 57th and 88th Infantry Divisions crossed the river "dry", including "20 [horse drawn] panje wagons with ... about 600 wounded" aboard."

That so many reached the German lines at Lysyanka was due in great measure to the exertions of III Panzer Corps as it drove in relief of Group Stemmermann. The cutting edge was provided by Heavy Armored Regiment Bäke (Schweres Panzer Regiment Bäke), named for its commander Lt.Col. Dr. Franz Bäke. The unit was equipped with Tigers and Panthers and an engineer battalion with specialist bridging skills.

The Red Army encirclement of Cherkassy–Korsun inflicted serious damage on six German divisions, including the 5th SS Panzer Division; these units were nearly destroyed and had to be withdrawn, requiring complete re-equipping after this military disaster. Most escaped troops were eventually shipped from collection points near Uman to rehabilitation areas and hospitals in Poland, or were sent on leave to their home towns.

The commander of the German XXXXII Corps was among the escapees and noted:

I assumed command of what was left of Force 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 Force 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.

— General Theo-Helmut Lieb[75]

With German armoured reserves drawn to the Korsun Pocket, the Soviets struck Army Group South in two other sectors. The 13th and 60th Armies (General Vatutin's 1st Ukrainian Front) advanced south of the Pripiat' Marshes, capturing the remnants of the German XIII Corps at the Battle of Rovno and advancing to Lutsk. To the south, the 3rd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts (Generals Malinovsky and Tolbukhin) attacked along the bend of Dnepr River, capturing Krivoi Rog.

General Stemmermann died when Soviet antitank gun fire struck his command car during the breakout. General Lieb survived the war and died in 1981. The commander of 2nd Ukrainian Front, General Konev, was made a Marshal of the Soviet Union for his victory at Korsun. Konev also survived the war and died in 1973. General Vatutin was shot by Ukrainian Nationalist UPA insurgents on 29 February 1944 and died on 15 April 1944.