AFTER KHARKOV—RETREAT TO THE DNEPR II

Early on the morning of 18 August, at 0500 hours, Soviet artillery began a massive bombardment of the German frontline positions, accompanied, in addition, by attacks from large groups of ground-attack planes. Air attacks were conducted against unit HQs and important strongpoints. Hundreds of Soviet guns and mortars pounded the frontline defensive positions of the infantry divisions into ruins. Concentrations of rockets howled over the river, impacting with thunderous destruction on second-line strongpoints and assembly areas. It was immediately evident that Tolbukhin had assembled an extremely large number of guns, due to the amount of shells falling on the front lines.

The Russian artillery strength was grouped most strongly opposite the positions of 336. and 294. Infanterie-Divisions and the right flank of 306. Infanterie-Division. Under the weight of this bombardment on the trench line and shallow bunkers, many sections were entirely destroyed and casualties were heavy in the units occupying the forward positions. The shelling collapsed any fortification not dug deeply into the ground or buttressed strongly with scarce heavy timbers on concrete. The shells blasted gaps in the wire and completely wrecked many forward-slope positions.

The 294. Infanterie-Division’s regiments crumbled under the intensity of the rocket fire, air bombardment and high-explosive shelling. Decimated by the weeks of intense fighting in the first defense of the Mius, the companies of the grenadier battalions were only a fraction of their established strength. The loss of junior officers and NCOs reduced unit cohesion and morale to a marked degree. All of these factors contributed to a sudden collapse of the regiments at the point of main effort. When 2nd Guards Army’s rifle divisions surged across the Mius following the end of the artillery preparations, the German defenders gave way quickly. The strongest attack was led by seventy tanks in close support of the Soviet rifle battalions and hit the front-line positions of 514. Grenadier-Regiment. Broken by the force of the shelling and the shock of the attack of tanks and hordes of Russian infantry, the regiment disintegrated. Although the units on either side of the breakthrough temporarily held firm, at least during the first hours, the collapse of this regiment created an initial breakthrough which was exploited skilfully by the Russians. Reserve armor and infantry was quickly thrown into the gap. This situation swiftly resulted in a crisis early on the first day, one that 6. Armee had few reserve forces to meet.

Tolbukhin’s attack tore a three-kilometer-wide hole in the front and subsequent attacks attempted to widen the breakthrough. The Soviet attack penetrated the German front lines in the center to an average depth of seven kilometers by the afternoon of 18 August, advancing to the west edge of Kalinovka. From there, the Soviets swung to the south toward Krynka, threatening the rear areas of 336. Infanterie-Division. This forced XXIX. Armeekorps to detach troops from frontline positions of that division in order to secure its northern flank with an attempt to build a firm shoulder along the flank of the penetration. The 336. Infanterie-Division was able to turn back all Russian attempts to break its frontline, but the division’s left flank remained seriously threatened by the penetration in the adjacent sector.

During the night, the Soviets continued to attack and shovel reinforcements into the gap, using the cover of night to their advantage. In addition, late on the first day, a second gap was punched in the German lines near Kalinovka, where 111. Infanterie-Division’s front was penetrated. This Russian attack struck toward Semenovsky, supported by armor that was brought up undetected under cover of darkness and thrown into the gap. In short order, the villages of Alexseyevka, Kamyschevaka and Jamschtschizky were overrun and occupied by the Russian infantry and tanks. The fighting continued into the night as the Soviets brought up more troops and armor.

The German troops in Kolpakovka were pressured by strong Soviet armored and mobile infantry elements in the early hours of 19 August and squeezed into a small perimeter around the village. At this village, the Germans managed to build a makeshift defensive strongpoint buttressed by a few antitank guns, but the defenders were isolated by the Soviet tide that swirled around it on both sides.

Attacking through the initial assault by 2nd Guards Army, 5th Shock Army extended the penetration to ten kilometers in depth by the end of the first day. There was nothing tactically complex in the Soviet tactics. They simply bludgeoned straight ahead until they broke the defender’s will to fight, without regard to losses of men or machines. However, once a gap was created, the Soviets reacted quickly and were able to exploit the situation before the Germans could react.

Instead of advancing on a broad front as was normal Soviet practice, Tolbukhin began to push one division after the other into the larger of the existing gaps. The Soviets were well aware of the fact that there was no German armor at hand to pinch off the neck of the penetration by counterattacks from the shoulders. Unconcerned by any threat of counterattack from the German infantry divisions, the Russians flowed into the narrow gap like a flood and spread out behind the German front.7 Once the crust of the defense was broken, there was little to stop the Soviet advance. To the west, the way was open toward Artemovka and beyond to the major rail center of Stalino. The Germans reacted with weak counterattacks by small infantry units that were ineffectual.

The Soviets repulsed the feeble attempts to close the gap by elements of 294. Infanterie-Division and 3. Gebirgs-Division. As 5th Shock Army pushed west in the breakthrough area, the defending German units on the penetration shoulders were gradually rubbed out and the gap expanded to a width of twelve kilometers by 20 August, more as a result of German losses than efforts of the Soviet to widen the rift. By that date, a bridgehead was pushed over the Krynka River, which lay approximately fifteen kilometers west of Dmitrievka. Soviet forces occupied Krinitschka and Artemovka. This was the first major breakthrough into the rear areas of 6. Armee and caused serious disruptions, aggravated by the lack of sufficient motor transport to relocate German troops and the meager reserves of the army. The speed with which the Soviet advance was accomplished was an ill omen of worse to come for Hollidt’s troops. The rampaging battle groups of Soviet tanks and infantry overran German units so quickly that they were not able to withdraw and they were often cut off and forced to surrender or were destroyed.

In one such incident, the majority of the artillery strength of 294. Infanterie-Division was destroyed when overrun in its positions due to the speed of the Russian advance. By late 19 August, the Soviets were for the first time threatening to completely sever the communication lines of XXIX. Armeekorps from its supply bases at Stalino-Uspenskaya.8 The XXIX. Armeekorps scoured its rear areas for all the men it could find, giving bakers, guard detachments, village security units and butchers weapons and sending them to the front in a last-ditch effort to delay the Russians. There were no reserves left. No more telling example is necessary to illustrate the critical lack of manpower on the Eastern Front and the effect this shortage had on the combat effectiveness of the German infantry divisions. These makeshift reserves tried to hold the shoulders of the penetration in combat against battle-hardened infantry and tanks of 4th Guards Mechanized Corps. They were swept aside quickly.

  1. Armee moved combat units of 3. Gebirgs-Division, then commanded by Generalmajor Picker, to the Saur Mogilsky area to serve as the basic unit of a Kampfgruppe for a counterattack on the northern edge of the Russian penetration. The elements of the division that left the divisional sector and moved to the penetration area could not be replaced. The remaining units of the division merely stretched their fronts to cover the gap created when the troops were withdrawn to the Dmitrievka sector. Attached to the battle group were six batteries of artillery, one assault gun battery and two tank destroyer companies. Late on 20 August, the Germans, aware of the narrowness of the penetration, which lay between the flank of 111. Infanterie-Division on the north and Kalinovka to the south, made an attempt to cut through the base of the Soviet penetration and close the gap. As unsatisfactory as this expedient measure was, having no significant motorized elements or armor, it remained the only course open to the army. The fate of 6. Armee clearly depended on the success of its emergency improvisational tactics which had become necessary due to the powerful Soviet force operating in the depth of the sector. With even a small amount of armor, the German command would have felt more confident that they could have dealt some damage to the Russian lines of communication and supply. Intelligence information obtained from a captured Russian officer with documents concerning the tank strength of 5th Shock Army indicated that the Russians did not have as much armor as first suspected. Significant tank losses had already been inflicted on the Soviets, further reducing the number of operational tanks available to Tolbukhin.

Weak as it was, the counterattack by XXIX. Armeekorps was able to gain some ground in the initial stages of the operation on 20 August. As usual, the German assault troops were well supported by their artillery, which was to a significant degree responsible for the initial gains of the attack. Semenovsky was recaptured early in the day, but the attack slowed down at Hill 188.4, just south of that village, when it was delayed by hard fighting before fmally driving the Russians off the hill. The Germans destroyed a number of Russian tanks even without strong armored support, claiming a total of forty-three tanks knocked out in the early hours of the advance, most probably due to the operations of assault guns or tank destroyer companies.

Once the Soviets were aware that their lines of communication were threatened by the German counterattack, 4th Mechanized Corps, which had passed through the hole punched in 6. Armee’s front, turned around and attacked the German forces from the west on 21 August. Kampfgruppe Picker, the 3. Gebirgs-Division’s battle group, was unexpectedly attacked on its flank by Soviet armor but fought back bitterly, destroying more Russian armor in close combat and with heavy weapons. However, the overwhelming strength of the Soviets was too great. By evening, 4th Guards Mechanized Corps tanks and infantry rolled over the German infantry, pushed through to the east and reopened the gap, enlarging it to nearly nine kilometers in width.9 Semenovsky and Hill 188.4, the scene of such heavy fighting and sacrifice on the day before, were both lost again to the Russian attack.

Not until 20 August was Manstein able to find a panzer division that could be spared for duties with 6. Armee. 13. Panzer-Division, from Heeresgruppe A, was ordered to move from the Crimea to Heeresgruppe Süd’s command. Elements of the division were on the way almost immediately. However, it was to be several days before the units of the division arrived in Heeresgruppe Süd’s area. By that time, it was too late to provide the armored punch that would have been so valuable earlier in the fighting. Had it been available to 6. Armee in time for the first counterattack, it would have been almost sure to have been able to seal off the Russian penetration, given the progress made by even weak German infantry elements in the failed counterattack. Whether the Germans could then have prevented 4th Guards Mechanized Corps from reopening the penetration again is problematic. It can be assumed that the Russian attacking force, confronted by even a small amount of German armor, would have suffered heavier tank losses. 6. Armee’s counterattack, with only a makeshift battlegroup available on 20 August, supported with just a single assault gun battery and some antitank guns, destroyed nearly fifty Russian tanks. A few tanks and additional assault guns would have almost certainly have inflicted heavier losses on the Soviet armor.

After the failure of the counterattack of 20 August, XXIX. Armeekorps was forced to extend the flank of 15. Luftwaffe-Felddivision and 336. Infanterie-Division to the west, paralleling the breakthrough in an attempt to provide a defensive front strong enough to keep the gap from widening in the rear of the army. The two already weak divisions spread themselves even thinner, extending to the west at a 90-degree angle to the river in order to channel the Soviet penetration. Hollidt was undoubtedly aware that at some point, the divisions would not be able to continually extend their defensive lines to the rear and hold ground to the front as well. The army desperately fought to survive until German armor could arrive.

THE COUNTERATTACK OF 13. PANZER-DIVISION

Elements of 13. Panzer-Division, a battle group of regimental strength, made up of one panzergrenadier regiment and three companies of tanks, were the first mobile reinforcements to arrive in 6. Armee’s area to counter Tolbukhin’s new offensive on the Mius River. The division vanguard arrived in XXIX. Armeekorp’s area on 22 August, assembling southwest of Saur Mogilsky. It received attack orders as soon as its vehicles and men unloaded from the train. The division immediately prepared to counterattack the northern flank of the penetration. The attack direction was to be toward Krinitschka with the objective of destroying 4th Guards Mechanized Corps elements at that point, some of which were taking on supplies and were stationary. The main objective was to close the gap between XXIX. and XVII. Armeekorps north of Semenovsky.10 Kampfgruppe Picker of 111. Infanterie-Division was again to support the attack of 13. Panzer-Divison by advancing west of Semenovsky and attacking Hill 188.4. This force was given the mission of serving as flank security for the Panzer division’s advance.

In the two days after the earlier counterattack by 6. Armee, the Russians continued to push west and frustrate the feeble attempts of the Germans to limit the width of the breakthrough. By the time 13. Panzer-Division began its counterattack, the gap in 6. Armee’s front was again over twelve kilometers in width. The seriousness of the situation that 6. Armee found itself in on 22 August was underscored by communication from Heeresgruppe Süd, which made it clear to Hollidt that he could expect no more help after the arrival of 13. Panzer-Division. His army had to survive by its own efforts in the meantime. It was a familiar message.

The attack began well enough, supported by accurate artillery fires and the panzers gained six to seven kilometers before encountering stiff reaction from the Soviets. Once the Russians were aware that German armor was moving in the area, armored elements from the spearhead groups turned around again and attacked back to the east. Under heavy assaults by Soviet armor and infantry, and having encountered a strong defensive position west of Alexseyevka at Hill 157.3, the division’s attack ground to a halt. One regiment-size battle group was not enough to close the gap and the remaining six kilometers proved too much for the German forces to cover.

It was a case of too little, too late—just two days late, in the opinion of the command of 6. Armee. What small resources the army had been able to throw at the Russians were used up and the continuing Russian expansion of the bridgehead left Hollidt without enough men to physically man a constantly lengthening defensive line. In fact, under the unrelenting Soviet pressure, there was fast becoming no position left to defend as the rear areas of the army were carved up. Communication and supply were increasingly disrupted, resulting in lack of ammunition and food. On 22 August, the Soviets built a bridgehead over the Krynka River, west of Saur Mogilsky, and were obviously planning to encircle German elements attempting to stop the attack west of the river. Hollidt’s army was in danger of being overrun and cut up into isolated fragments before it could withdraw from its positions. From 22 to 25 August, 13. Panzer-Division continually made thrusts that occupied the Russians in the area of the base of the gap in determined attempts to keep the Soviets off balance. The division continued to tie down Soviet armor and thus delay the westward progress of the Soviet flood.

By 25 August, much of the strength of the division had been used up. However, the unit was well led, evidently had good morale and was still dangerous in the right circumstances. One such incident took place near the village of Lissitschj when elements of the division took a group of Russian tanks and infantry by surprise. Due to poorly organized perimeter security, the Soviets were surprised when the panzers struck without warning, promptly scattering men and machines and knocking out many tanks. The Russians lost 300 men as prisoners and much of the equipment of the Soviet unit was captured or destroyed.11 The panzer division, over the next three days, skilfully operated as best it could considering its declining strength, making raids and parrying Soviet advances on the flank of XXIX. Armeekorps. Hollidt knew that these were stopgap measures and that his army could not seal off or contain the Soviet attack. Disaster was the only possible outcome if the army was ordered to hold the present position to “the last man.”

The decline in the numbers of German infantry, serious in July, was by then disastrous. The infantry of XXIX. Armeekorps were spread out with a density of only 86 men per kilometer of front, while IV. Armeekorps was a little better off, with about 100 men per kilometer of front. 6. Armee estimated that the Russians still had approximately 100 tanks in XXIX. Armeekorps’ sector, while 13. Panzer had only a handful of tanks left by 24 August. The Russian rifle divisions outnumbered the German infantry by a margin of eight to one. The Russians were forced to pause for a short time after the counterattacks by 13. Panzer-Division, and 2nd Guards and 4th Guards Mechanized Corps regrouped on 24 August. To add to Hollidt’s concerns, air reconnaissance spotted a new Soviet mobile unit assembling in the southern sector of the breakthrough. These were identified as elements of 4th Guards Cavalry Corps and were obviously preparing for commitment in the near future.

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