AFTER KHARKOV—RETREAT TO THE DNEPR IV

In spite of a few German tactical successes such as the above incident, the attack by the Soviets in the center of 6. Armee threatened to split the army in half and drive on to Stalin or even penetrate to the Dnepr. Already, there was the dangerous situation in the south in which Russian infantry built three bridgeheads over the Krynka River and were advancing once again on XXIX. Armeekorps. The Krynka, generally narrow and shallow, intersected the Mius River below Kuibyshevo, then meandered to the north. It flowed through Chistyakovo, which was roughly northeast of Kuibyshevo. Faced by the Soviet bridgeheads over the Krynka, 6. Armee first attempted to erase the still small Russian bridgeheads that were established on the west bank. With these enemy troops driven back over the stream, 6. Armee planned to rally at the Krynka and organize for defense. This small river, although not much of a physical obstacle, was to be used as a barrier to quickly build up a defensive line.

With this goal in mind, the army ordered 306. Infanterie-Division to free up enough troops to attack toward the river from the northern flank of the Soviet bridgeheads over the river. The attack was to provide time and opportunity for XVII. Armeekorps to extend its flanks westward along the northern shoulder of the penetration to banks of the Krynka. A German infantry division thus had to provide the limiting shoulder on the flank of a Soviet offensive when it could barely defend itself to the front. Time and time again, the army asked its divisions to accomplish tasks that were beyond their capabilities and yet, more often then not, the divisions accomplished them. By this date, all of the infantry divisions were little more than regiment-size battle groups except for those on the extreme northern flank.

Hollidt, perhaps too optimistically, planned to drive the Soviets back across the river and use the extension of the right flank of the XVII. Armeekorps by 306. Infanterie-Division as an assembly area for an attack to close the gap between the two corps. It was the objective of XXIX. Armeekorps to hold the Krynka and then extend its front along the Krynka to the north and establish a union with its neighboring corps. Whether either could withstand another strong attack by Southern Front forces that were pushing toward the Dnepr was another question.

In order to drive back the bridgeheads at the Krynka, 17. Panzer-Division was directed to swing behind Charzysak and attack the crossing sites on 1 September. This was in conjunction with the attempt of 306. Infanterie-Division to extend XVII. Armeekorps’ flank west to the town of Sugress. These desperate maneuvers were the last gasps of a severely wounded army, trying to maintain a continuous front without the manpower to accomplish the task. Every operation by 6. Armee was conducted with forces too small and too weak to be normally expected to succeed in their assigned mission. Miraculously, however, the makeshift battle groups and shattered divisions accomplished their tasks and enabled Hollidt’s army to piece together a front once again. It was a race against time for the army. If it was not allowed to withdraw in time and could not reach the Dnepr and relative safety, it would eventually be too weak to do anything but stand and die or disintegrate under Soviet assaults. This was the consequence of Hitler’s order to stand and fight regardless of the realities of the situation, ignoring the disparity in strength between the Russians with their almost limitless resources and the ever-shrinking German manpower base.

In Manstein’s mind, the situation was crystal clear and there was no question in regard to 6. Armee’s inability to resist the next Soviet attack from its present positions given the manpower situation. On 31 August, he gave the order to retreat to the Kalmius River to a hastily prepared line called the Tortoise Line (Schildkroten-Stellung), after which he communicated with Hitler that night on his decision to withdraw 6. Armee, hoping that it was not too late to save some remnant of Hollidt’s divisions. With little real choice, Hitler reluctantly approved the move, but only after insisting that it be done “provided, that the situation absolutely demands it and there is no other possible alternative.” There was, of course, no other real option remaining open to Manstein. In fact, there was serious doubt about whether the one remaining logical course of action, withdrawal, could be done successfully at that point. Manstein commented in regard to the lost opportunities to have salvaged the situation by prudent and timely decisions:

If only it had been given this freedom of movement a few weeks earlier, the army group would have been in a position to fight the battle on its southern wing more economically. It could have freed formations for the vital northern wing and still halted the enemy advance on a shortened front, possibly even forward of the Dneiper. Now, however, freedom of movement served only to preserve the southern wing from defeat. Even so, it remained doubtful whether a proper front could still be established forward of the river.

A collection of Organization Todt workers and whatever army engineers, conscripted civilians and rear-area men that could be put together, hastily worked to prepare the Tortoise defensive position. The new line was to protect the key city of Stalin and bar the rest of the Donets region from the Russian onslaught.

As if to underscore Manstein’s doubts about the ability of 6. Armee to successfully withdraw to the new line, the Russians launched an attempt to break XXIX. Armeekorps’ front on 3 September. An armored attack hit the corps with the objective of breaking through and driving toward the Dnepr. Once again, the emergency reaction battle groups and the battle-weakened, though still combat-worthy, 13. Panzer-Division saved the day, coming up with a stunning defensive effort that blunted the main Soviet tank attack against XXIX. Armeekorps. This gave the corps the desperatly needed time to continue to organize a cohesive front. The Russian armored spearhead was smashed and sixty-three Soviet tanks were listed as destroyed in what 6. Armee rightly considered a “great defensive success.” A smaller attack against 258. Infanterie-Division, which had by 3 September already reached the Tortoise Line, was also turned back. A counterattack by infantry of that division, supported by a Panther tank battalion, restored the situation on 4 September. This allowed the main part of XXIX. Armeekorps and most of XVII. Armeekorps to reach the Tortoise Line by the following day. The pursuit of the Russians was halted by the unexpected presence of German armor. The Panthers knocked out many Soviet tanks, which blunted the spearhead of the armored attack and forced the Soviets to pause. This second delay gave the last elements of XVII. Armeekorps the chance to conduct a fighting withdrawal. The remnants of the corps reached the line on 5 September, along with the survivors of 13., 17., and 9. Panzer-Divisions. Each of the three panzer divisions was reduced to the strength of a regimental battle group or smaller.

With the occupation of the Tortoise Line, the Germans withdrew from the Mius River area for the last time in the war in the East. The sacrifices of the troops of 6. Armee (over 23,000 total casualties), II. SS-Panzerkorps (over 2,500 casualties, including 1,458 in Totenkopf alone) and the additional losses of corps support troops during the combat from 17 July until 10 August served to delay the Soviet capture of the river and its defenses for little more than a month. In the end, the Germans had to give up the Mius line anyway and begin the retreat to the Dnepr when Tolbukhin made his second attack and overwhelmed Hollidt’s army. This time, there were insufficient available panzer reserves to send to the aid of 6. Armee. After the fighting of July and August, there was little fight left in the battered infantry divisions and their meager reserves were used up. Had Hollidt’s army been allowed to withdraw earlier in the summer before the hard fighting of 17–30 July, it could have made a coordinated retreat to the Dnepr and, with the aid of the panzer divisions, likely would have reached the river intact and with the ability to conduct an effective defense. Its losses would have been significantly reduced from the 23,000 that it lost in the defensive battles on the river and the subsequent counterattacks.

What could probably have been done with discipline and a reasonable chance of success in July was nearly impossible by mid-August. There was not enough infantry strength to even hold a defensive position then, much less to conduct a disciplined withdrawal in close contact with an aggressive enemy. However, perhaps unaware of the extent of German weakness, the last-gasp counterattacks by small German armored elements apparently stunned the Soviets on 4 September and there was no strong follow up of the attack on the next day. The Germans were allowed time to organize in their new position, although the temporary stabilization of the front did not last long. There were a few more days of calm, during which reports from deserters informed the Germans that the Soviet army had conscripted between 50,000 and 80,000 Ukrainian civilians in its march across the Ukraine. The forcibly drafted Ukrainians, civilian men of all ages, were given rudimentary training, then issued a rifle.

With the Russians sure to resume their offensive within days, Hollidt was not sure how long his army could hold out when finally attacked. His neighbor to the north, 1. Panzerarmee, was by then also in a crisis situation and could not furnish any help to 6. Armee. When 1. Panzerarmee was forced to withdraw from its positions along the western bank of the Donets River, the divisions were too weak to hold a line in open country. Southwest Front advanced quickly over the river and allowed 1. Panzerarmee no rest. While Southern Front temporarily gathered itself, Southwest Front continued to exert pressure against 1. Panzerarmee and did not let the army establish itself in the Tortoise Line position north of the section of the line held by 6. Armee.

Southwest Front, on 6 September, maintained its attacks on the Germans, striking just north of the southern boundary of 1. Panzerarmee, that adjoined the left flank of 6. Armee. In a matter of hours, a full Soviet mechanized corps, with overwhelming infantry support, broke through the German lines and created a bridgehead. Neither 6. Armee nor 1. Panzerarmee had the strength to do much about it. On the following day, 23rd Tank Corps rammed its way out of the gap along with 1st Guards Mechanized Corps and drove hard to the west. The Soviets were led by a strong tank group and soon penetrated nearly fifty kilometers behind the German front lines, reaching the village of Postyschevo in a largely unopposed advance. Faced with the prospect of being encircled again by this deep penetration, 6. Armee began to abandon the Tortoise Line, with assault gun detachments anchoring one flank of the withdrawal and 33. Panzer-Regiment of 9. Panzer-Division the other flank. XVII. Armeekorps and troops of Kampfgruppe Sieler also began to pull out of the line, withdrawing behind weak rear guards. The German defensive line melted away, and when rear-guard units on the flanks of the penetration disintegrated, a gap opened up to over twenty kilometers wide. Only the remnants of a few German units still fighting on hopelessly or disorganized groups of survivors scrambling to reach German lines remained in the gap. Soviet troops drove west, sometimes encountering no German resistance at all for many miles. There was no organized effort by an adequate rear guard and the Soviet tanks and motorized infantry flowed through the gaps between each division.

By 8 September, the lead elements of the two Russian mobile corps were only thirty miles east of the the Dnepr, approaching the Pavlograd area. Once again, due to insufficient numbers of trucks and infantry personnel carriers, the main body of infantry attached to the Soviet tank and mechanized corps was left far behind. While the Soviet tanks pushed forward, the infantry of the rifle divisions and slower heavy artillery formations were still consolidating the situation in the breakthrough area. The lack of progress of these units was surely not helped by the great numbers of inexperienced infantry just integrated into the Soviet rifle divisions. The familiar Soviet problem of sustaining deep penetrations by mobile groups was still evident. The mechanized spearheads lost their tank strength due to attrition of armor and normal wear and tear. The problem of the lack of sufficient motorized infantry and heavy weapons was still not solved. Had a few normally equiped panzer divisions been available, it is likely that the Soviet spearheads would have been chopped off and destroyed piecemeal. But there were no panzer divisions available except those that were mere remnants of their former strength. The Soviet penetrations were not as effective as they might have been because they continued to lose tank strength due to either mechanical and supply problems or German pockets of resistance. However, regardless of this situation, the prospect of mobile Soviet formations reaching the Dnepr before the German divisions were able to withdraw behind the river constituted a genuine crisis. All along the front of the two armies, Soviet attacks shattered German defensive positions. When a tank corps faltered, a mechanized corps or cavalry corps took its place, advancing through the stalled unit and continuing the attack.

In response to Manstein’s urgent request of 7 September, in which he evidently successfully conveyed the seriousness of the situation to Hitler, the German leader met with Manstein at Zaporoshye. Also attending this meeting with Hitler were Kleist, commander of Heeresgruppe A, and the commander of 17. Armee in the Kuban, General Ruoff. Manstein explained again the desperate straits of Heeresgruppe Süd and the enormous numerical advantage of the Soviets. Hitler, evidently sufficiently impressed by the reports of Manstein and the other generals, agreed to allow Heeresgruppe Süd to withdraw toward the Dnepr if “absolutely necessary.” The fact that Hitler did not recognize that the withdrawal was absolutely necessary at a point much earlier in the summer illustrated the degree to which he was out of touch with the situation as it existed. It is another example why the German commanders were forced into reacting too late with too little on the Eastern Front. By this date, of course, the question was not whether the German forces should withdraw, but whether they still could successfully withdraw at all. In order to help conduct the retreat to the Dnepr, Manstein again hoped to receive reinforcements from Heeresgruppe Mitte, which was in his mind the only way that he would be able to stop the Russians east of the river. Failure to reach the Dnepr before the Soviets took the main crossings and their invaluable bridges would constitute a disaster of the highest order. Manstein told Hitler that he needed additional forces to secure the main crossings as well as reinforcements to delay the Soviet pursuit of 6. Armee and 1. and 4. Panzerarmee.

Before leaving the meeting, Hitler promised Manstein that he would see to several measures that would alleviate the problems of Heeresgruppe Süd substantially. First, he agreed to order Heeresgruppe Mitte to assemble two more panzer divisions and two infantry divisions on Manstein’s north flank and relieve pressure at that point by executing a counterattack on the north flank of the Soviet attack. Second, Hitler agreed to provide more divisions for Heeresgruppe Süd—if necessary, taking them from Kluge—in order to secure the Dnepr crossings. Manstein knew that if the Soviets took the bridges over the river, cutting off both supply and retreat, the destruction of the southern wing of the German Army in Russia was likely. In that event, the entire Eastern Front would collapse. Hitler also promised that he would evacuate the Kuban, thereby allowing the escape of 17. Armee and the use of these divisions in Heeresgruppe Süd’s area of operations.

After Hitler left the meeting, Manstein and his staff, much relieved that decisions had apparently been made to help the army group, ordered 6. Armee and 1. Panzerarmee to begin to withdraw to the west. It appeared that Heeresgruppe Süd would be able to conduct the withdrawal as it saw fit and the crossings of the Dnepr would be defended and held until the arrival of Manstein’s tired and weakened divisions. This was not to be the case, however.

On the following day, it became apparent that the appropriate orders had not been issued, Hitler having either changed his mind or again delayed decisions that he did not want to make. Again the dictator abandoned thousands of his soldiers to their fate. There was no counterattack by Kluge on the northern flank. Kluge insisted that he could spare no more than three divisions although at the time he was under less pressure than Manstein. The only person who could have ordered Kluge to provide a few divisions, Hitler, remained unable or unwilling to unequivocally make that decision and issued contradictory orders to Kluge.

The race to the river was on, with some doubt as to who would get there first, the Germans or the Russians. The key bridges across the Dnepr were held only by security detachments and whatever scraps of units could be made available. If Soviet tanks reached them before 6. Armee and 1. Panzerarmee, the entire southern wing of the Eastern Front would be encircled. Disaster loomed for Heeresgruppe Süd. The southern Ukraine east of the Dnepr was already lost irrrevocably before this point, after “Citadel” failed and 4. Panzerarmee and 8. Armee subsequently could not regain the territory lost to “Rumyanstev.” But now, in addition to these ultimately decisive setbacks of the summer of 1943, the German armies east of the river faced the prospect of their utter destruction.

By the middle of the month, Heeresgruppe Mitte was being pushed back after a renewal of Soviet offensives in its sector. 9. Armee’s front was penetrated by a Russian cavalry corps and 4. Armee expected an attack toward Smolensk at any time. Kluge’s 2. Armee front was on the verge of collapse as well.

On 14 September, West Front’s attack on Smolensk began and Kluge received the news that Manstein had ordered 4. Panzerarmee to begin its withdrawal toward the Dnepr. By that evening, convinced that he had no other choice, Kluge ordered both Model’s 9. Armee and 2. Armee to retreat. The following day, after setbacks all along the front of both army groups, Hitler ordered Kluge and Manstein to meet with him again. At this meeting, he told Kluge to begin to conduct a slow pullback to the Dnepr in carefully executed phases of withdrawals. Manstein, although relieved that his army group was to be allowed to withdraw, faced a great challenge in pulling his armies out of their positions without precipitating a complete collapse. The 4. Panzerarmee, more mobile than the other armies, was able to fall back quickly. Beginning on 16 September, Hoth disengaged his divisions in two days and succeeded in restoring some order on his front. On the other hand, 1. Panzerarmee, 6. Armee and 8. Armee were all in various degrees of disarray and would have difficulty making the retreat to the river intact. There were only five crossings available to Heeresgruppe Süd across the wide Dnepr, which had bridges of sufficient strength to support tanks and other heavy weapons. These bridges were located at Cherkassy, Dnepropetrovsk, Kremenchung, Kiev, and Kanev. The military problems of the armies withdrawing to the Dnepr were increased by Hitler’s insistence that they evacuate thousands of cattle and tons of supplies taken from the countryside in attempts to deny the Soviets food and other goods.

On 19 September, at the section of the Dnepr where the Pripet River joined the larger river, Soviet troops began to cross the river. At first, only small units or groups of individuals crossed over, floating on barrels, using boats or makeshift rafts and clamoring ashore against little German resistance. When the company-size or smaller units linked up with each other, narrow bridgeheads took shape on the western bank. On 20 September, mobile groups of Kalinin Front and Central Front penetrated Heeresgruppe Mitte on each flank and Kluge’s gradual withdrawal turned into a precipitate retreat. Everywhere the Soviets pressed west as fast as they could, anxious to prevent the Germans from reaching the river and establishing a defensive position on the western bank.

Leading units of 3rd Guards Tank Army crossed the Dnepr on 22 September in small groups. From the east, Soviet engineers arrived and began to construct bridges, along with columns of infantry, tanks and artillery that gradually crawled toward the river as the army gathered itself. On 26 September, Voronezh Front built a bridgehead across the Dnepr and there were several small bridgeheads established by Steppe Front. To the east of the river, German troops fought and retreated to the west, while Soviet spearhead elements were already at the Dnepr. However, in spite of winning the race to the Dnepr at several points, the Russians were not able to bring enough infantry and artillery up to the river to keep the Germans from reaching the west bank.

In the last days of the month, Heeresgruppe Süd finally got the last of its battered divisions across the river. Once on the west bank, the weary troops spread out to either side, often too weak to eliminate even small Soviet bridgeheads. Shortly afterwards, Kluge’s Heeresgruppe Mitte completed its withdrawal to a new defensive position named the Panther Line, which was generally behind the Sozh River east of the Dnepr. The most valuable portion of the Ukraine, the grain-rich southern area, with its enormous harvests of corn and wheat, was lost to the Germans and there was no possible prospect of regaining it. The staffs of Kluge’s and Manstein’s armies, having watched the ragged, exhausted German soldiers that trudged across the Dnepr bridges, were under no illusions regarding their ability to retake the Ukraine, although they hoped to be able to defend the Dnepr.

However, the German withdrawal began too late, because of Hitler’s insistence on allowing no retreat until there was no other alternative. Even then, the divisions were often too weak or deficient in motor transport to conduct a organized withdrawal while in contact with the enemy. As a result, the Soviet tank spearheads were not to be delayed by the pitiful rearguard elements that opposed them. The T-34s, infantry clustered on their engine decks, broke through the German lines almost at will and motored to the west. Often they found undefended gaps between the retreating German divisions and encountered little resistance at all.

When the Russians reached the river ahead of the retreating German armies, Manstein did not have the strength to eliminate the bridgeheads, and thus, the Dnepr defensive position was penetrated before it was even occupied. Attempting to hold the territory east of the river, while lacking the strength to do so, cost the Germans men and equipment they could not afford and these losses doomed the defense of the river to failure. While the divisions of Manstein’s and Kluge’s armies were reduced to mere remnants, ruined by Hitler’s insistence on holding militarily valueless ground or standing fast when it was operationally suicide to do so, the Russians brought up fresh or rebuilt reserves constantly. The Führer’s orders to hold the southern Ukraine at all costs, the ruinous casualties of the summer of 1943 in the south and his interference with military operations during the period from July to August ultimately cost him the entire Ukraine and thereby the war.

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