Army Group South 1944 Part II

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Generaloberst Hans Valentin Hube

Despite the human tragedy at Tarnopol, a larger drama was playing out at the same time just to the south, where the Soviet breakthrough at Yampol had left the First Panzer Army in a potentially disastrous position, threatened with encirclement and destruction. Even as elements of the Fourth Panzer Army were trapped at Tarnopol, the main Soviet thrust was directed against its neighbor to the south. Here, both the First and the Second Ukrainian Fronts aimed at nothing less than a double envelopment of the most powerful formation in Army Group South that, if successful, would shatter the entire southern wing of the eastern front. The Stavka had assembled overwhelming power to strike the decisive blow: 1.5 million men, over two thousand AFVs, and more than one thousand combat aircraft against a force a fraction of this size. Although Hube’s army had a preponderance of the armored strength of Army Group South, he could muster only ninety-six battle tanks and sixty-four assault guns to bolster his 211,000 troops. Nor could this smaller force respond more nimbly to an enemy attack, for the demotorization of the army meant that horses had to fill the role of trucks, effectively limiting its mobility.

Since the Eighth Army to the south was still reeling from the ordeal at Cherkassy-Korsun and had only 152,000 men and virtually no tanks, it could not be expected to provide its neighbor any help in an emergency. In any case, Konev’s offensive pushed it back through Uman to the Bug River, effectively eliminating the Eighth Army as an anchor for the First Panzer Army’s right wing. The chronic German lack of strength had by now reached alarming proportions, with the result that, even though a large proportion of the enemy infantry was composed of so-called booty Ukrainians, poorly trained recruits scooped up as the Red Army advanced westward, the sheer weight of numbers was too much for the overstrained German divisions. Manstein complained, to no avail, that, although his army group had lost over 405,000 men between July 1943 and January 1944, it had received barely more than half that number in replacements and that even these were primarily young, hastily trained boys rushed to the front. Given the growing reality of a multifront war, however, there was little Manstein could do but chafe as his replacements went increasingly to Western Europe while the Red Army was steadily bolstered with Lend-Lease deliveries from its Western allies. With the hand he was dealt, then, Manstein had little chance to prevent the enemy from encircling areas of its choosing.

The powerful Soviet attack on 4 March thus succeeded in opening a gap between the beleaguered First and Fourth Panzer Armies that, despite their frantic efforts, could merely be contained, not closed. The dam finally broke on the twenty-first, when the three tank armies of Zhukov’s First Ukrainian Front burst through the left flank of the First Panzer Army and began racing to the south, pushing the remnants of the German line in front of them. By the twenty-fourth, they had crossed the Dniester into Rumania and five days later reached Cernovicy (Chernovtsy) on the Prut. In the meantime, the Soviet Fourth Tank Army turned eastward and, on the twenty-seventh, met spearheads of the Thirty-eighth Army at Kamenets-Podolsky, thus closing the pincers around the First Panzer Army at Kamenets-Podolsky. Soviet losses had been noticeably high—the Third Guards Tank Army lost 70 percent of its tanks, while the Fourth Tank Army had only sixty remaining—but, despite their skill at shooting up enemy tanks, the Germans could not prevent their own encirclement. On the last day of the month, the situation grew even grimmer as units from both the First and the Second Ukrainian Fronts, the latter having shattered the Eighth Army’s defenses, joined at Chotin. The First Panzer Army and elements of the Fourth Panzer Army (Group Mauss, consisting of the Seventh Panzer Division, the First SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, and the Sixty-eighth Infantry Division) were now enveloped both north and south of the Dniester. Worse, within this double envelopment, Hube’s forces were initially split into at least three separate pockets. In all, the Soviets had bagged 220,000 troops, lacking artillery, munitions, and fuel, and possessing fewer than one hundred AFVs. In preparation for a breakout, Hube directed his troops to begin destroying nonessential vehicles and requisitioning every panje wagon they could seize. As always, however, Hitler’s initial instinct ran in a different direction: he was determined to hold fast and, despite the lessons of Stalingrad and Cherkassy-Korsun, supply the Kessel from the air.

Manstein, realizing a catastrophe that would eclipse even Stalingrad was facing his army group, resolved on decisive action. Already on the twenty-third, even before the First Panzer Army had been fully encircled, he had demanded permission to order a breakout. In addition, he proposed that powerful forces be transferred from the west to plug the gap between the First and the Fourth Panzer Armies. At noon the next day, he went a step further, effectively presenting Hitler with an ultimatum: unless instructed otherwise, he would give the order to break out at 3:00 P.M. The answer from Führer Headquarters was both cryptic and cynical. Manstein received permission to allow the First Panzer Army to fight its way westward but was told that it was also to hold its present position. How to do this, given its lack of strength, was left unclear.

On the twenty-fifth, Manstein was summoned to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden, although before he left the field marshal gave orders to prepare plans for a breakout. That afternoon at the Berghof, Hitler and Manstein engaged in a stormy discussion. Challenging Hitler directly, the field marshal insisted that the First Panzer Army had to break out immediately and demanded that he be given fresh troops to open a path from the west. Hitler brusquely rejected any idea of retreat while ridiculing notions of operational maneuver as merely a ruse for withdrawal. Manstein, he said, had squandered all the troops he had been given and wanted always to go back but never hold anywhere. For his part, Manstein then openly confronted the Führer with a litany of his failed decisions over the previous weeks, which caused a furious Hitler abruptly to break off the discussion. Disgusted, Manstein demanded that Hitler’s adjutant, Schmundt, tell the Führer that he saw no purpose to continuing to lead the army group if Hitler did not approve his demands. Much to his surprise, however, when discussions resumed at the evening conference, not only was Manstein treated with outward friendliness by Hitler, but he was also given permission for a breakout. More astonishing, the Führer also agreed that the Second SS Panzer Corps was to be transferred immediately from France, along with two infantry divisions from Hungary. This latter decision must have been especially painful for Hitler since it not only flew in the face of Führer Directive No. 51 to give priority to the west but also jeopardized this strategy just when the Anglo-American invasion appeared imminent. Manstein, apparently, had triumphed across the board, but at a personal price that would soon be apparent.

The field marshal now hurried back to his headquarters to prepare an operation that would not only save the First Panzer Army but also deal his old adversary, Zhukov, one final surprise. Believing that the fate of the First Panzer Army had already been decided, the Stavka on 22 March had changed its operational plans, ordering the bulk of the Second Ukrainian Front to turn southeast in order to destroy Army Group A north of the Black Sea. At the same time, Zhukov, assuming that German forces would attempt to break out to the south, had placed the bulk of his forces in that direction. Manstein, however, realized that any breakout to the south would have to cross a double line of enemy forces and, even if successful, would result in the First Panzer Army being pushed to the south against the Carpathians, thus opening a gigantic breach between itself and the Fourth Panzer Army. Instead, the field marshal proposed a breakout to the west that would be the shortest route to the German front, cut across enemy supply lines, and, perhaps most importantly, take the Russians completely by surprise. Against Hube’s vehement opposition, but armed with intelligence information that confirmed his suspicions about enemy dispositions, Manstein ordered the breakout to the west to begin on 28 March. As the operation began that morning in a blinding snowstorm that provided cover, it soon became apparent that the Germans had achieved complete surprise. Not only were enemy positions quickly overrun, but the next day Zhukov also continued dispatching units to the south, evidently unaware of Manstein’s intention. Not until 1 April did he recognize his mistake, but by then it was too late. On the second, as he belatedly tried to turn his units around and send them north, his frustration showed in a futile attempt to persuade the escaping Germans to surrender by threatening all who did not with death. That his offer was rejected was no surprise. The true shock that day, the announcement that Manstein was relinquishing his command, was the result of a decision hundreds of miles to the west.

On the thirtieth, Manstein, along with Kleist, the commander of Army Group A, who had also requested permission for his forces to pull back from the Black Sea to the Bug, had once more been summoned to the Berghof. Having on a number of occasions since January openly challenged Hitler’s military leadership in front of too many people, the field marshal had few doubts as to what was likely to transpire. Hitler had been fuming since the twenty-third, stung by Manstein’s criticisms, and resentful that concessions had been wrung from him. On his arrival, Manstein was told by Zeitzler that Goering, Himmler, and Keitel had been conspiring against him and that Zeitzler’s own offer to resign had been rejected. That evening, having indicated his desire to go in another direction, the Führer relieved Manstein and Kleist of their commands, replacing them with Model and Schörner, both tough generals and favorites of Hitler’s known for their tenacity and defensive prowess. They were not desk-bound leaders, what Goebbels scornfully termed “hemorrhoid generals,” but men who led from the front. Just as importantly, both were politically loyal. The time of operations, which he contemptuously regarded as a euphemism for retreat, Hitler clearly indicated, had come to an end. It was now time for rigorous measures to be taken and for the National Socialist fighting spirit to be instilled in the troops. More than just a change in operational styles was evident, for Hitler had never lost his aversion to the old military aristocracy, of whom Manstein and Kleist were prominent representatives. By contrast, Schörner, a convinced Nazi since the early 1930s, and Model, “a man with a National Socialist heart,” both had middle-class roots and were attuned to Nazi ideals. They, at least, could be trusted to do the Führer’s will, thus overcoming the crisis in confidence between Hitler and his army group commanders. The dismissal of Manstein and Kleist thus illustrated Hitler’s continuing makeover of the army into a National Socialist instrument.

Since Model’s arrival at Army Group South headquarters in Lvov was delayed by a snowstorm, the actual handover of power did not take place until 2 April. By then, Zhukov had responded with furious assaults in a futile attempt to stop the “wandering pocket” from moving westward toward German lines. His action, however, was too late. On the third, the Germans had thrown back the Soviet attacks, and, on the night of the fourth, ammunition and gasoline had been flown into the pocket, fortifying Hube’s forces. The next morning, the Ninth and Tenth SS Panzer Divisions of the Second SS Panzer Corps, which had been hurriedly dispatched from France, launched a powerful attack, supported by the two infantry divisions sent from Hungary, that resulted, the next day, in a linkup with the Sixth Panzer Division, the spearhead of the First Panzer Army. Not only was the enemy encirclement broken, but the First Panzer Army had also been able to bring out virtually all its tanks, artillery, heavy equipment, and wounded. Just as surprising, despite the hard fighting, its losses were not particularly high, with fewer than six thousand reported dead or missing. More importantly, it remained intact as an operational fighting formation. Indeed, in contrast with the units that emerged from the Cherkassy-Korsun pocket, the men of the First Panzer Army were sent immediately after their rescue back into the attack.

Although Hitler had issued an operational order that same 2 April hopefully declaring that the Russian offensive was spent and that the front would soon be stabilized, the reality was different as fighting continued through April into early May. Hitler’s determination to hold the Crimea had also yielded to reality. On 10 April, Odessa, the great port on the Black Sea vital to supplying the Crimea, had fallen, with the entire peninsula lost by early May. Although furious at events in the Crimea and threatening courts-martial of the “defeatist” generals involved, Hitler was, nevertheless, forced, in another painful humiliation, to authorize the evacuation of Sevastopol by sea on the night of 8–9 May. The brilliant triumphs of two years earlier were now nothing but a distant memory. By the time the Soviet offensive against Army Group South—the longest and bloodiest of the war, lasting from late December 1943 to early May 1944—had come to an end, the Germans had been pushed back, in places, some six hundred miles, with the physical and materiel strength of the troops exhausted. Soviet success, however, had been bought at an astounding price. Over half the 2,230,000 Soviet troops thrown into the offensive, some 1,192,900, had been lost as casualties, of whom 288,600 were dead or missing. The actual toll was almost certainly higher, however, since, as it moved through Ukraine, the Red Army typically pressed men of the liberated areas into immediate service. Hastily trained, and regarded as little more than cannon fodder, these unfortunate men died in great numbers without being reported. Soviet materiel losses were also extraordinarily heavy, with 4,666 AFVs and 676 aircraft lost. By contrast, German losses were relatively light, with “only” 250,956 men reported as casualties (of whom 41,907 were reported dead and 51,161 missing). Given the virtually complete lack of German reserves, however, these losses were crippling, a situation obvious to all but the Führer, who even now, with the eastern front finally restored to some semblance of stability, was again planning new offensives after the repelling of the Allied invasion of France.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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