One of several massive, rolling offensives that together retook western Ukraine from the Germans by April 1944. An initial thrust was launched toward the lower Dnieper on August 13, 1943. This was intended to take advantage of RUMIANTSEV and the Donbass offensive operation elsewhere on the Eastern Front, while preceding the awkwardly named Offensive in Right-Bank Ukraine (1944). The attack bogged down by the first week of September, stymied in the attempt to fight directly across the Dnieper. The Stavka therefore settled on an alternative stratagem: on September 24-25 a large airborne assault was undertaken in an effort to leap the Dnieper, with major ground forces to follow once a lodgement was established on the far bank. Unfortunately as well as unwisely, a scratch and temporary airborne corps was used: most men involved made their first jump of any kind, not just their first combat jump. They dropped across the river at Kanev in support of a ground assault already underway. The airborne assault was repelled with such heavy losses that Joseph Stalin forbade all future night jumps. Land forces that had crossed three days earlier managed to hold onto a small bridgehead, but came under sustained German counterattack over the next several weeks. The bridgehead was saved by success elsewhere, notably in the Second Battle of Ukraine (1943-1944). That fight drew off German reinforcements and supplies while the Soviets slung to the western bank of the Dnieper. Reinforced over the winter, the position provided a base for more offensive operations in 1944.
Russian Paratroopers in crossing of Dnieper.
When in autumn 1943 Russian forces were advancing towards river Dnieper, Stavka realised that airborne forces could be used to get a stronghold from Western side of the river. In early September, 1st, 3rd and 5th Guards AB Brigades, who were still in training, were subordinated to Voronez Front. Half of men did have 7-10 training jumps but half were without jump training. Medical staff were women. A Corps was formed from them and CO was vice-commander of airborne troops General Major I. I. Zatevakh.
On 16th September a detailed plan was made with air force transport units. The drop was scheduled for 26 September in West of Kanev and Bukrin in Dnieper. The distance from airfields to drop zone was 175-200 km, some 1 hour flight time. The drop zone was 20km West of river and 30 x 25 km wide. Much too big. The drop was scheduled for 2 nights with 200 planes and 21 gliders. Aerial recon was flown 5 days before and air force was supposed to attack German units in the area. Zhukov approved the plan on 19.September.
On night of 21/22 September 3rd Guards Tank Army crossed Dnieper at Bukrin, but Germans mounted a rapid counterattack. Germans did bring more units and the Russian bridgehead was under great pressure. Vatutin met airborne commanders on 23 September and ordered a drop of 2 brigades for night of 25/25 to different zones than that they had planned.
3rd Guards Airborne Brigade new drop zone was South-West of Popatsy and 5th Guards Airborne Brigade West of Koval. Brigades were supposed to hold a line of 50km and check Germans attack from West and South, until 40th Army comes to their rescue.1st Airborne Brigade was held in reserve, it was planned to be dropped North of Kanev in 27-29 September.
Those last minute changes caused a massive chaos. Airborne troops were 200 km from airfields and trucks were in short supply. Roads were full of traffic and in bad shape. Brigade commanders did give orders to Battalion commanders 1 1/2 hours before takeoff and Company commanders to Platoon leaders 15 minutes before takeoff. Men were briefed on flight!
There was no intell about enemy forces in drop zones, data from aerial recon was 5 days old, because of bad weather and no confirmation date was available from partisans. Seeds for disaster were sown.
In airfields fuelling of planes that were slow, old and in bad shape. So it was for planned 20 men/plane but only 15-18 was loaded. Many commanders left radio teams on the ground, which made communications hard later on. At 18.30 on 24 September first planes carrying 3rd Airborne left. 5th Airborne was late and didn’t leave until 1.am on 25.
3050 men from 3rd Airborne and 1525 from 5th Airborne and 660 parachute units of supplies flew towards Dnieper. 2017 men and 45mm at-guns of 3th Airborne remained on airfields. The planes flew in at 600 meters height and searched their drop zones with searchlights. 1 plane dropped its men into Dnieper, 1 onto Russian side of river, 2 planes dropped their men far too the rear on the Germans side and 13 planes returned because they failed to find drop zone. Parts of 3rd Airborne was dropped in middle of the German 19th Panzer division, as they were coming into fight Russian bridgehead. The division’s 4 x 20mm AA-guns were ready and opened fire. Some planes were shot down, others dropped men over the area. Because of the flak some planes rose to 2km altitude and dropped men from there, so men were scattered in wide area. The drop lasted 1-1.5 hours.
On the ground men started to regroup. They were scattered over 90 km long and 30km wide area. A big area for 4500 men.1500 of them were dropped over 19th Panzer division. After one day, Germans had killed 692 and captured 209 of them. In 25 September there were some 2300 Russian paratroopers in the Germans rear.
For some reason Russian 40th Corps or 3rd Guards tank Army didn’t start an attack from bridgehead in same time as Airborne attack, neither did Russians tried to cross Dnieper from other places, so Germans had no problem in destroying the Russian paratroopers.
Surviving paras tried to regroup, but area was too big and only 5 of the radios were in working order. CO of 5th Airborne Lieutenant-Colonel Sidorshuh did establish a contact via radio to Russians in eastern bank of Dnieper on 28 September. That night 3 more radio teams were dropped. They vanished before they were found. Next night a plane was send to drop more radios. It was shot down. Germans started to comb area to find Russian paras but because of scattering are they were difficult to find. Wiking and parts of 7th Panzer division also were engaged against paras in South of Kanev.
Some 600 paras did join together in the woods of Kanev and Tserkassy. They fought with partisans against Germans. Some 200 men were in Tsernysh and there were also some Company sized and smaller units, who started to fight against Germans. Lack of ammunition and food made operations hard. In October some 1700 paras and partisans fought under Lieutenant-Colonel Sidorshuk. Planes flew supply drops to them and in 22 October one unit of it destroyed a HQ of German Battalion and blew up a train in Korsunj but it took heavy casualties. That was probably biggest success of paras.
On 11 October the unit was ordered to assist a Russian attack over Dnieper in Tserkassy. They had been in Germans rear 40 days and had moved 100km. Now they had to move tens of kms to South. 13th October they attacked the Germans, while 52nd Army tried to cross Dnieper. The crossing failed and Germans inflicted heavy casualties on the paras. Next day crossing was successful and paras made contact to main Russian forces. Even after that they fought on 13 days with 52nd Army! When they were send to rest, only 40% of them were left alive.
So ended the ordeal of 3rd and 5th Airborne Brigades. They had fought unbelievably hard for 2 months but had achieved little. If the drop would have been made closer the river and Russian had attacked at the same time cross Dnieper, the paras could have create enough confusion that a rapid Russian advance could have been achieved. Instead they fought alone and the operation was a disaster.
Soviet airborne operations
A Soviet corps-level airborne operation was assayed during a Red Army counteroffensive at Viazma in February-March, 1942. It formed part of the Rzhev- Viazma strategic operation (January 8-April 20, 1942). In the Demiansk offensive operation that spring, over 7,000 Soviet paratroopers died. They landed well enough behind German lines, but were overpowered when left without sufficient follow-on support. From 1942 the V VS employed its glider fleet mainly to resupply partisans in German rear areas and to fly in demolition specialists and explosives to assist partisans carrying out sabotage missions. NKVD men were also parachuted or glided behind German lines with instructions to establish tight central control over the partisans. Some Red Army airborne were employed in local attacks in the Crimea in 1943, during advances that retook part of the peninsula and surrounding Black Sea region. But most airborne were converted into rifle divisions and thrown into hard fighting as regular infantry. Another large Soviet airborne operation was tried at Kanev on September 24, 1943. Having broken up the prewar airborne divisions, the Stavka deployed a scratch corps of ill-trained or even untrained recruits. Some were making their first jump of any kind right into combat, over the Dnieper River at night. They were simply ordered into transport aircraft and told to jump. The operation failed with extremely heavy losses. The fiasco contributed directly to Soviet failure in the larger Battle of the Dnieper (1943), and Stalin forbade future night jumps. The most successful Soviet airborne assaults of the war came at its end, against the Japanese during the Manchurian offensive operation of August 1945. In that operation all three Red Army Fronts engaged against the Japanese employed airborne troops in, by then, well-practiced deep insertions.
Like other armies that had experienced the carnage of trench warfare during World War I, in the interwar period the Red Army sought to develop operational doctrine that would permit it to break through static defenses in any future war. It developed a combined-arms offensive operations doctrine that called for deep penetrations into the enemy’s flanks and rear areas by mechanized and airborne forces, interrupting resupply and communications and paralyzing any response to encirclement. This idea was closely associated with Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky and his circle, before he was purged. There is debate among military historians as to whether the idea itself became dormant as a result of the Red Army purges, with some arguing that the core problem caused by the purges was a disjuncture between Soviet doctrine and leadership capabilities. Another problem was that this doctrine assumed it would be the Soviet Union that chose the time and place of war and, therefore, that there would be time to fully mobilize. The events of BARBAROSSA left no time to do so in late June 1941, while the enemy seized the strategic and operational initiative. It was thus the Red Army that was surprised and stunned by the heaviness of an opponent’s opening blows and deep operational thrusts. However, by 1943 the Red Army was a much different and vastly more capable force: its men and commanders were experienced and more skilled, and better trained and armed. The Red Army therefore implemented a revised version of its prewar doctrine during the second half of the war, several times creating great kotel upon encircling whole German armies.