Wiking Waffen SS Division breaks out Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket.
Following Soviet attacks in the middle of December out of their bridgeheads south of Krementschug and at Tscherkassy, whereby the city of Tscherkassy also fell, they launched a large-scale offensive from out of the Kiev area during the last few days of December. They drove a wedge 300 kilometers wide between Heeresgruppe Süd and Heeresgruppe Mitte and advanced far to the west. By the middle of January 1944, Soviet forces that had pivoted south had reached a line running Berditschew-Bjelaja Zerkow.
The formations of the 2nd Ukrainian front, which were attacking from the east out of the Krementschug area, reached the city of Kirowograd on 9 January 1944, 100 kilometers south of Tscherkassy. On 28 January 1944, the lead Soviet spearheads of the gigantic pincers movement-heading from Bjelaja Zerkow in the north and from Kirowograd in the south-established contact at Swenigorodka, some 25 kilometers southwest of Tscherkassy on 28 January 1944. The divisions of the XI. Armee-Korps and the XXXXII. Armee- Korps, including the “Wiking” Division, were encircled.
THE TSCHERKASSY POCKET
In the 20 days that followed in the Tscherkassy Pocket, the 10 divisions proved their steadfastness in the face of deceptive enemy propaganda, proved their bravery against the suffocating superiority by the seven Soviet field armies participating in the encirclement and proved the exemplary leadership of the responsible officers.
For “Vikings” of long standing in the division, the names of the local villages-names such Taraschta, Boguslaw and Smela-conjured up memories of hard fighting two years previously. Back then it had also been a matter of standing fast in the face of powerful blows and pressure from enemy formations coming from the Tscherkassy area. The situation was the same; the roles had been reversed. The area of the German forces encircled to the west of the city was growing ever smaller. The relief efforts from the outside, those of the XXXXVII. Panzer-Korps and the III. Panzer-Korps, failed.
After being encircled for 10 days, the pocket was reduced in half from its original 60 kilometer diameter after the Dnjepr line was finally evacuated on 8 February. In addition to the weather conditions, the shallowness of the pocket made movements increasingly difficult. The enemy’s pressure grew accordingly.
Starting on 7 February, all of the measures taken in the pocket were conducted with an eye towards the intended breakout effort, which was to be accompanied by a relief effort from the outside.
Orders arrived at the command post of the tank battalion in Waljawskije at 0830 hours on 9 February to move all of its tanks and assault guns to Korsun. The tracked vehicles were there by 1400 hours; the wheeled vehicles arrived in the evening.
On the next day, feverish efforts were undertaken to prepare the vehicles operationally. In order to consolidate all excess personnel, all of the tank crews that no longer had any tanks were formed into an infantry company of four platoons, along with truck drivers and other men of the trains. The acting commander of the ad hoc unit was SS-Hauptsturmführer Wittmann.
The “infantry” company had a combat strength of four officers and 220 enlisted personnel. It was employed on 11 February against enemy forces at the Korsun train station. Each of the platoons had three machine guns above and beyond the small arms and hand grenades it had received. During the night of 11/12 February, the company closed a gap at Arbusino, about 1 kilometer east of Korsun. At the same time, it established contact with an Army unit.
Until the evening of 13 February, the “infantry” company of the battalion conducted defensive operations and launched immediate counterattacks against attacking company-sized enemy forces. The unit helped prevent the forward elements form being cut off. While that was happening, the operational tanks were sent to Jablonowka, about 4 kilometers west of Korsun, under the command of SS-Untersturmführer Schumacher.
The battle staff of the battalion had already been summoned to the command post of the XXXXII. Armee-Korps in Jablonowka the previous day.
An impressive indicator of the extraordinary difficulties was noted by von Manstein in his memoirs, when he described the effect of the dominant weather conditions of the time. For the forces in Tscherkassy, that was in addition to the difficulties of moving in the reduced pocket, which was also subjected to the strong pressure being exerted by the enemy. Von Manstein:
I attempted to get to the front lines of the assault groups on two occasions. I got hopelessly stuck each time in the snow or the mud. The weather changed daily between snowstorms and thaws.
In order to establish good jumping-off positions for breaking through the Soviet encirclement, the senior commander in the pocket, the Commanding General of the XI. Armee-Korps, General der Infanterie Stemmermann, attempted to push the southwestern tip of the pocket further in the direction of Schanderowka, since it was already pointing in that direction. From there, the lead elements of the assault detachments of the breakout forces would only have another 13 kilometers to advance to link up with the lead elements of the III. Panzer-Korps. The pressure to get to Schanderowka and the movements of the forces involved were expedited, since it could not be ruled out that the lead elements of the relief forces might be pushed back to the southwest themselves by the intensifying Soviet attacks.
During the night of 11-12 February, the tank battalion moved forward into the area around the Sawdski brickworks and then reached Nowo Buda, about 3 kilometers south of Schanderowka, around 0900 hours that morning. It established contact there with the local-area commander, Major Brese.
The lingering thaw made movements across the terrain, which could be observed by the enemy, very difficult. An assault gun was knocked out. The tanks screened towards the northwest from the Nowo Buda-Schanderowka road. They were refueled with captured fuel.
Enemy tanks that had penetrated through the German lines in the Nowo- Buda area lent an additional air of uncertainty. The enemy was also exerting pressure from the northwest.
On 13 February, SS-Untersturmführer Schumacher ejected the Soviets from the eastern portion of Nowo-Buda with two tanks. The enemy had succeeded in making several small penetrations there with two battalions.
On 14 February, the Soviets launched another attack, this time with 11 tanks. Schumacher advanced with two tanks into the southern portion of the village, which had been reoccupied by the enemy. One of his tanks was hit by an antitank gun and damaged.
Schumacher then proceeded to knock out seven enemy tanks with his own tank. He expended all of his armor-piercing rounds; with his remaining high-explosive rounds, he forced the crews of three more tanks to abandon their vehicles. When a second tank came to the aid of Schumacher, the three abandoned tanks were set ablaze. Then a fourth one was set alight, when it attempted to approach Schumacher from the rear.
On the same day, however, four friendly tanks, including the one of SS-Oberscharführer Fiebelkorn, were knocked out while screening. Another battle group under the command of SS-Oberscharführer Schweiss knocked out four enemy tanks in the Komarowka area, 3 kilometers west of Nowo-Buda.
Despite taking extraordinary losses, the Soviets continued their heavy attacks on Nowo-Buda the next day. At 1545 hours, they once again assaulted the southern portion of the village. Once again, Schumacher made a name for himself by knocking out two enemy tanks with his Panzer III.
The tanker “infantry” company of SS-Hauptsturmführer Wittmann, which had been defending in the area around Arbusino, pulled back as ordered during the night of 13-14 February to positions on the high ground west of Korsun. The pursuing enemy was pushed back in some areas by means of immediate counterattacks. At 2200 hours, Wittmann’s men pulled back again and reached Schanderowka on 15 February, in accordance with their orders.
On 16 February, the enemy renewed his attacks on Nowo-Buda with reinforced forces. The enemy attacks led to the loss of the southern portion of the village at first light. The 1st Battalion of the “Germania” Regiment, which was reinforced with two tanks, held its positions, however.
At 1500 hours, the liaison officer of the “Germania” Regiment brought the tank battalion the order to break out. It stated that the battalion was to disengage from the enemy at 1900 hours and move to Schanderowka. It would receive further orders from the division there.
After the battalion commander returned from the division headquarters- he had gone to Schanderowka at 1700 hours with his adjutant-he issued the following order:
The tank battalion immediately moves to the western portion of Schanderowka after the return of the battle group from Nowo-Buda and immediately prepares to break out from there.
All armored elements move out at 1920 hours, organized as follows: 1 Command Tank; 2 Panzer IV’s; 4 Panzer III’s; 6 assault guns; the wheeled elements immediately follow the armored elements.
The movements of the troop elements into the designated areas were made very difficult by the prevailing bad weather conditions, but they were made decisively difficult by the fact that some 50,000 encircled men had been pressed into an area roughly 7×8 kilometers.
At 2100 hours, the battalion arrived at the western edge of Schanderowka. The first tank in the march order, the command tank, broke through the bridge that led over the creek there. It took hours before the bridge was repaired enough that the individual tanks could cross, assisted by an 18-ton prime mover. The last tank crossed the bridge at 0145 hours on 17 February.
The tanker “infantry” company was given the mission of screening the flanks of the breakthrough group west of the village.
Half an hour remained after the successful occupation of the staging area and the scheduled start of the attack. Everyone was acutely aware of what was at stake. The hope that relief forces on the outside would move towards the breakout point helped encourage the soldiers. On that 13 February, the chief of staff of the 8. Armee, General Speidel, radioed the pocket commander, General Stemmermann: “Breith with forward-most elements at Lißjanka. Vormann advancing from the bridgehead at Jerki in the direction of Swenigorodka. What is the situation there? Best wishes for success!”
Two days before the planned breakout, on 15 February, the 8. Armee sent the following message: “Capabilities of the III. Panzer-Korps restricted. Gruppe Stemmermann must break through at Dshurshenzy and reach Hill 239 with its own forces. Establish contact there with the III. Panzer-Korps.”
At 1500 hours on 16 February, 11 hours before the start of the attack, von Manstein radioed Stemmermann: “Watch word: Freedom. Objective: Lißjanka.”
Approximately 13 kilometers separated the breakout group and the hills at Dshurshenzy, where the lead elements of the III. Panzer-Korps awaited it. The daily logs of the battalion portrayed the breakout attempt thusly:
At 0210 hours, the battalion moved out to conduct the ordered breakthrough. Route in very bad condition. Initial enemy resistance southwest of Chilki. The last remaining wheeled vehicles of the battalion were blown up there, since it was no longer possible for them to move any farther (deep depressions, mud). Enemy tanks moved out from Komarowka and attempted to prevent the breakthrough by means of heavy fire.
Untersturmführer Schumacher was committed south of Chilki with all of the available vehicles to eliminate the [enemy] tanks appeared there from Komarowka. Two tanks were eliminated. The command tank had to be blown up because of differential and track problems.
The commander and the adjutant switched over to Untersturmführer Schumacher’s tank. Untersturmführer Schumacher assumed command of the remaining tanks.
The commander and adjutant attempted to hold together the men of the battalion, which was not possible due to the over-all murky situation. The commander then mounted an 18-ton prime mover, since it was the only vehicle capable of moving forward in that terrain.
Enemy tanks arrived, moving from north to south, and engaged the tanks advancing southwest in the direction of Lißjanka, along with the other vehicles that had made it that far, with machine guns and main guns.
At the patch of woods east of Dshurshenzy, where the prime mover had to cross an open area, it was engaged by enemy tanks. The prime mover received a direct hit right behind the driver’s seat. The commander, Sturmbannführer Köller, met a soldier’s end.
Enemy tanks appeared once more at the western tip of the woods, approaching from Dshurshenzy. The high ground at the tip of the woods could not be crossed by the tanks. As a result, they had to be blown up.
The men of the battalion fought their way through individually. Towards evening, the majority of the battalion arrived in Lißjanka. The adjutant was wounded during the breakout attempt.
The sober language of the daily logs allow the reader to somewhat imagine the difficulty of what was experienced and also the scope of the tragedy that unfolded. The following first-hand accounts are well suited to allow even those unfamiliar with war to picture the events of that day.
The Tscherkassy Pocket never turned into another Stalingrad. The forces in the field and their leaders resisted the promises made by the Soviet leadership on flyers and bills and the German generals who had joined the Soviet side. They did not give up hope on the hill at Dshurshenzy, when they ran into the fires of Soviet tanks instead of the passage points of the III. Panzer- Korps, as the radio message from the Chief-of-Staff of the 8. Armee had led them to expect. The decisive event of 17 and 18 February was the breaking through of the inner and outer encirclements by decisive leadership in the pocket that was prepared to do anything and an extremely capable and brave force in the field. Of the approximately 56,000 soldiers, who had been encircled at the end of January, some 30,000 made the breakthrough to friendly lines. Some 3,000 wounded were flown out of the pocket.
ZHITOMIR-BERDICHEV OPERATION (1943-1944)
General Nikolai Vatutin followed his early success in the Second Battle of Ukraine in November 1943 with this operation intended to expand his bridgehead over the winter of 1943-1944. It formed part of what Soviet historians called the “winter strategic offensive.” As Vatutin moved, his 1st Ukrainian Front faced repeated Wehrmacht counterattacks. Vatutin coordinated an enveloping attack with General Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front to the southeast. Their pincers closed around two corps of German 8th Army, trapping the Nordic-volunteer Waffen-SS “Wiking” Division and five Wehrmacht divisions inside a kotel 15 miles beyond the Dnieper River, around Korsun. As he had done at Stalingrad, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein once more tried and failed to fight his way through winter blizzards and hard Red Army resistance to relieve a trapped German army. Unlike the experience at Stalingrad, 30,000 of the nearly 50,000 men inside the pocket were able to fight their way out. By the middle of February 1944 it was over. Konev was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union and given command of both Ukrainian Fronts. The next planned offensive aimed to cut off all of Army Group South, but Vatutin-whose 1st Ukrainian Front was ahead of the pace set by Konev-was mortally wounded by anti-Soviet Ukrainian partisans a short while later.