Army Group South Ukraine, 19 August-26 September 1944
The summer offensive against Army Groups Center and North Ukraine drove an enormous blunt wedge into the center of the Eastern Front. The flanks, reaching out to the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, still held up, but they were stretched taut and ready to snap under the slightest pressure. Though much of the strain was beneath the surface, it was not on that account any the less acute.
ARMY GROUP SOUTH UKRAINE
By 23 July, when Schoerner was called in the early morning hours to take command of Army Group North, Army Group South Ukraine had experienced more than two months of deepening quiet ruffled only by Schoerner’s strenuous training and fitness programs. The Russians had taken so many divisions off the front that the OKH directed the army group to do something about tying down those that were left.
The front had not changed since the Soviet spring offensive had stopped. On the left, in a very rough arc from Kuty to east of Iasi, Armeegruppe Woehler, Eighth Army with Rumanian Fourth Army sandwiched in its middle, held a sector—about half in the eastern Carpathians and half east-west across Moldavia north of Targul Frumos and Iasi. Sixth Army reached from east of Iasi to the Dnestr River below Dubossary and then followed the river to about the center of the Soviet bridgehead below Tiraspol, where it tied in with the left of Rumanian Third Army on the lower river line. Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army formed the Armeegruppe Dumitrescu under the Commanding General, Rumanian Third Army, Col. Gen. Petre Dumitrescu.
Two large rivers, the Prut and the Siret, cut the army group zone from north to south, and the Russians were across the upper reaches of both. Rugged, wooded terrain in the Targul Frumos-Iasi area partly compensated for that disadvantage, at least as long as the army group retained enough German divisions to backstop the Rumanians. The biggest tactical change during the early summer was Army Group North Ukraine’s retreat deep into Poland, which left Army Group South Ukraine virtually stranded east of the Carpathians. Malinovskiy’s Second Ukrainian Front opposed Armeegruppe Woehler and Tolbukhin’s Third Ukrainian Front, Armeegruppe Dumitrescu.
At the time of the change in command, the Army Group South Ukraine staff’s foremost concern was to determine how dangerous were the strains beneath the thin veneer of the quiet front and what could be done before they reached the breaking point. Two days before he was transferred, Schoerner wrote Hitler that leading personalities in Rumania were wavering and trying to establish contacts with the Allies, and that Antonescu was losing his hold on the country. Schoerner thought a personal interview with Hitler might strengthen Antonescu’s position. On 25 July the army group staff drafted a report stating that after being forced to transfer 6 panzer divisions, 2 infantry divisions, and 2 self-propelled assault gun brigades in the past month, the army group could no longer hold its front against a full-fledged attack. The staff recommended that the army group be authorized in advance to pull back as soon as such an attack developed. That report was not sent, apparently because the estimate of the new commanding general, Friessner, was more optimistic.
The most pressing worry for the moment was the internal condition of Rumania. Army Group South Ukraine, although entirely dependent on the Rumanian railroads and forced in large part to subsist off the local economy, had no executive authority in Rumania. Everything had to be decided between Bucharest and Berlin; and the army group staff by late July was convinced that on the most important question, Rumanian loyalty to the alliance, something was seriously out of tune. That Antonescu, on whose personal authority alone the alliance was based, no longer possessed that authority, seemed to be no secret to anyone in Rumania except three persons: the Marshal himself, Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, the German Minister to Rumania, and General der Kavallerie Erik Hansen, the chief of the German military mission. The latter two were the responsible German representatives in Rumania. Both von Killinger, a World War I U-boat commander and long-time Nazi turned diplomat, and Hansen, an energetic but inflexible officer, were blinded by their own faith in Antonescu. Consequently, they reinforced the already strong tendency in Hitler’s circle to confuse Antonescu’s personal loyalty with that of the Rumanian Army and people. The Army Group South Ukraine staff was certain that Antonescu was being kept in power only by his opponents’ rapidly diminishing unwillingness to take the risks of an attempt to remove him, and that the country, Antonescu included, was staying in the war solely because its fear of the Russians still slightly exceeded its desire for peace.
On 1 August, anticipating repercussions throughout southeastern Europe when Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Germany, which it did the next day, Friessner ordered each of his two armies to set up a mobile regiment that could be used to counter “possible surprises in Rumanian territory.” Strangely and, as it later proved, fatefully, the army group concentrated its attention almost exclusively on the dangers which would arise if Rumania defected. It did not pursue the, for it, equally vital question, What, if anything, remained of the Rumanian Army’s never very strong will to fight? And the Rumanians held 160 miles of the army group’s 392-mile-long front.
In the first week of August, Antonescu went to Rastenburg to talk to Hitler. The two met under a darkening cloud of German reverses in France and the East and in an atmosphere of mutual complaints and suspicions; yet, in the last analysis, neither had any real choice but to tell the other what he wanted to hear. In May, after more or less open negotiations in Cairo with the Americans, British, and Russians, Antonescu had rejected one set of armistice terms. When secret negotiations conducted at the same time in Sweden with the Soviet Union alone had brought a somewhat more lenient offer, he had again not been able to steel himself to take the plunge. The report on the conference at Fuehrer headquarters which reached Army Group South Ukraine described the results as “very positive.” Hitler had told the Marshal what was being done to restore the German situation, and both parties had promised each other “everything possible.” In the transmission, someone had added, “It now remains to be seen how far the promises will be carried out.”
Because many of the individual points to be discussed arose out of its presence on Rumanian territory and because the time appeared ripe for raising fundamental questions, the army group had sent its operations officer to Fuehrer headquarters while Antonescu was there. Friessner had sent along a letter for Hitler in which he stated that the army group could hold its front if it did not lose any more divisions but had to be prepared for all eventualities. He recommended giving the army group control of all German military activities in Rumania and the appointment of a single, responsible political agency with which the army group could collaborate. The operations officer, on Friessner’s instructions, told Guderian that the OKH would have to reconcile itself to permitting the army group to go back to a line on the Carpathians and lower Danube if the army group had to give up more divisions or if the Rumanians became unreliable. After talking to Hitler, Guderian replied that he “hoped” if events took such a turn to be able “to give the necessary order in time.” The prospect that such an order would be given, however, faded after the talks with Antonescu revealed that, even though he had argued in the spring for going back to the Carpathians-Danube line, he had in the meantime convinced himself that for Rumania to sacrifice any more territory would be fatal.
To Keitel the army group operations officer broached the question of having Friessner named Armed Forces commander in Rumania and proposed replacing Hansen with an officer “who would represent the German interest more emphatically.” Keitel appeared impressed at first but, after the talks with Antonescu, said he saw no need for any changes because Rumania would stand by Germany “through thick and thin” In sum, the tottering alliance was patched together for a last time at Army Group South Ukraine’s expense.
THE OFFENSIVE BEGINS
On 8 August air reconnaissance for the first time detected Soviet troop movements east of the Prut. Heavy traffic toward and light traffic away from the front confirmed that the troops were coming in, not going out. On the 13th the OKH took another division from the army group, bringing the total transfers since June to eleven divisions and the overall strength reduction to nearly one-third—much more, almost three-fourths, in terms of panzer divisions. On that day, too, a rumor that Antonescu had been overthrown touched off a spell of confusion and near panic in the army group rear area.
Armeegruppe Woehler reported on the 16th that the Russians would be ready to attack in a day or two, probably west of Iasi, to drive a wedge between Iasi and Targul Frumos. The Rumanians, the Armeegruppe declared, were “completely confident” (See Map 30.) By the afternoon of the 19th, after Second Ukrainian Front, Malinovskiy commanding, had launched artillery-supported probing attacks along the Armeegruppe Woehler front, the army group expected to be hit heavily the next day west of Iasi and predicted a secondary attack south of Tiraspol.
The day dawned hot and sunny on 20 August 1944. The Soviet artillery laid down heavy barrages on two fairly narrow sectors, one northwest of Iasi, the other south of Tiraspol. By the time the infantry of Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts jumped off, several Rumanian divisions were about to collapse.
Two of Armeegruppe Woehler’s Rumanian divisions protecting Iasi abandoned their positions without a fight. On the west side of the gap left by the Rumanians, German reserves threw up a screening line, but on the east the Russians continued south, turning into Iasi in the afternoon. South of Tiraspol the attack struck the Sixth Army-Rumanian Third Army boundary. Sixth Army’s right flank corps, the hardest hit, held its ground, but the Rumanian division tying in on the boundary collapsed, carrying with it its neighbor on the south. By day’s end Friessner realized that the Rumanian’s performance would fall below even their customary low standard. How far below he had yet to learn.
The two Ukrainian fronts—Marshal Timoshenko co-ordinating for the Stavka—had, according to the Soviet figures, superiorities of slightly less than 2:1 in troops, better than 2:1 in artillery and aircraft, and better than 3:1 in tanks and self-propelled artillery. All together Malinovskiy and Tolbukhin had 90 divisions and 6 tank and mechanized corps, 929,000 men.
The main effort, by Sixth Tank Army and Twenty-seventh, Fifty-second, and Fifty-third Armies, was in Malinovskiy’s sector northwest of Iasi. There Sixth Tank Army went in on the first afternoon, and by nightfall it and Twenty-seventh Army were driving for an operational breakthrough. On the right, north of Targul Frumos, Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were poised for a thrust south along the Siret. Tolbukhin had the Thirty-seventh and Fifty-seventh Armies and two mechanized corps charging out of the Tiraspol bridgehead. On their left Forty-sixth Army had split its forces to envelop Rumanian III Corps on the lower Dnestr.
On the morning of the second day Friessner still thought the battle would develop about as had been expected. Although he did not have a clear picture of enemy strength, the army group’s intelligence seemed to confirm that the build-up had not been up to the previous Soviet level for an all-out offensive. Furthermore, the main effort was against Armeegruppe Woehler and there the second line, the TRAJAN position on the heights behind Iasi, was considered exceptionally good.
When Antonescu arrived at the army group headquarters in midmorning, Friessner told him that he would close the front below Tiraspol and, taking everything he could from Armeegruppe Dumitrescu, strengthen the north front enough to prevent a sweep behind the Prut. The Russians, he thought, could not bring as much strength to bear against Dumitrescu as they could against Woehler and, having gone deeper the day before than expected, would probably have to pause to regroup. Antonescu, formerly always the advocate of a flexible defense, insisted that the front, including Iasi, absolutely had to be held. He declared that he was personally answerable for every piece of ground lost and it was not the fate of Bessarabia that was being decided but the fate of the whole Rumanian people “forever.”
During the day every report from the front brought more alarming news than the last. In the north Iasi was lost and the offensive expanded west to Targul Frumos. Tanks of Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov drove through the TRAJAN position at a point near Targul Frumos, and tank-supported infantry drew up to it along most of the stretch west of the Prut. Armeegruppe Woehler reported that five of its Rumanian divisions had fallen apart completely. South of Tiraspol a 20-mile gap opened between Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army.
In the afternoon Friessner decided to take Armeegruppe Dumitrescu behind the Prut and try to free enough German troops to reinforce Armeegruppe Woehler. The army group and the Operations Branch, OKH, agreed that would be only a first step in a withdrawal which could not end forward of the Carpathians-Danube line. Hitler, after being assured that Antonescu was now “letting himself be guided solely by military considerations” and therefore had no objections, gave his approval during the night. By then an order was out to Sixth Army to get everything it could behind the Prut immediately. The Sixth Army staff was among the first elements to go, because Russian tanks were already closing in on its headquarters at Komrat.
For the next two days the battle continued as it had begun. The Rumanians, even the supposedly elite Rumanian Armored Division, refused to fight. The Russians moved south fast behind the Prut and through the torn-open center of Armeegruppe Dumitrescu without the Germans being able to commit anything against them. Behind the Prut the Soviet tank points reached Barlad and Husi on the 23d. Third Ukrainian Front’s advance west carried past Komrat nearly to the Prut, and Forty-sixth Army turned its left flank southeast and on its right attacked across the Dnestr Liman to encircle Rumanian III Corps and one German division. The main body of German troops, the whole front from the Prut east of Iasi to Tiraspol, was falling back to the southwest fast but not fast enough to outrace the Soviet pincers closing behind it.
In the early evening on 23 August army group headquarters heard that Antonescu had been called to an audience with the King in the afternoon; the government had been dissolved, and Antonescu and its members arrested. Later the chief of staff talked to von Killinger, who had returned from the palace where the King had informed him that a new government had been formed and it intended to sign an armistice. One condition that would not be accepted, the King had assured him, was that Rumania should take up arms against the Germans. But the King’s broadcast that night was less reassuring. In it he stated that Rumania would join the United Nations against the common enemy—Germany—and, in what practically amounted to a declaration of war against Hungary, that Rumania denounced the Treaty of Vienna of 30 August 1940 which had awarded the Szekler Strip in Transylvania to Hungary.
The contradiction in the King’s statements apparently arose from the existence of two sets of armistice terms. Although the Rumanian Government in the public statement accepted the more stringent terms which had been offered by the three powers—the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—at the negotiations which began that night in Cairo, the Rumanian delegation was instructed to secure amendments which would include the concessions the Soviet Union had offered in secret. The latter would have allowed Rumania to declare itself neutral in the conflict with Germany and, of much greater moment to the Rumanians, proposed arrangements which would assure the continued existence of an independent Rumanian state.
Shortly before midnight on the 23d, Friessner telephoned Hitler an account of the Rumanian coup and told him he had taken command of all Wehrmacht elements in Rumania and was going to take the front back to the Carpathians-Danube line. At midnight the Operations Branch, OKH, relayed an order from Hitler to smash the “Putsch,” arrest the King and “the court camarilla,” and turn the government over either to Antonescu or, if he were “no longer available,” to a pro-German general. On learning that von Killinger, Hansen, and the commanding general of the German air units in Rumania, General der Flieger Alfred Gerstenberg, were being held under guard in the legation, Friessner turned Hitler’s assignment over to an SS general whom he located in one of the installations outside Bucharest. The SS general reported at 0300 that troops would arrive from Ploeşti in an hour and a half and would then move into the city.
Before dawn Hansen called to tell Friessner that the Rumanian War Minister had declared that if the German measures against the new government were not stopped within air hour the Rumanian Army would turn its weapons against the German Army. Hansen added that he and the others with him were convinced the German forces were not strong enough to take Bucharest. When Friessner asked whether he was under restraint, Hansen replied that he was.
Friessner transmitted a résumé of the conversation to the Fuehrer headquarters along with a reminder that the King had allegedly promised not to fight the Germans. A few minutes later Jodl called to say that Hansen was not making a free decision, anyway the whole affair was bound to go awry sooner or later, so it was best to make a clean sweep right away. Almost simultaneously, a call came in from Gerstenberg, whom the Rumanians had released thinking he would attempt to stop the impending German action. He described the new Rumanian Government as a small, frightened clique, protected only by a thin screen of troops around the capital. Friessner thereupon gave him command in the Bucharest area.
At 0730 6,000 German troops began to march on the capital. Ten minutes later they met sharp resistance and were stopped. Shortly before noon, Gerstenberg admitted that so far he had not been able to get past the outlying suburbs. He had taken the radio station but nothing else worth mentioning. In the meantime, Friessner had learned that not a single Rumanian general was willing to go along with the Germans.
In the afternoon, on Hitler’s orders, Fourth Air Force bombed the royal palace and government buildings in Bucharest. The bombing not only gave the government an excuse for a complete, open breach with Germany, which it would probably have effected anyway, but also united national sentiment against the Germans. As the day ended, the deadlock around the capital continued while Gerstenberg waited for reinforcements from the Southeastern Theater. Friessner had asked for troops from Hungary as well, but the OKW had replied that it was also “getting strange reports” from that country.
SIXTH ARMY DESTROYED
The 24th and 25th were days of unmitigated disaster for Army Group South Ukraine. On the 24th the armored spearheads of Second Ukrainian Front took Bacau on the Siret River and crossed the Barladul downstream from Barlad. Sixth Army, all of it except service troops, was drawing together south and east of Husi. Parts of two corps were west of the Prut, but the main body was still east of the river. The army headquarters, which from its location in Focsani only had intermittent radio contact with its corps, wanted to command the whole force to turn south and try to escape across the lower Prut or the Danube. Friessner, assuming that the Russians would close the crossings before Sixth Army could reach them, ordered a breakthrough west past Bacau to the Carpathians.
On the 25th, when Rumania declared war, the destruction of the army group was nearly complete. It did not know what was happening to Sixth Army or what would happen to the numerous German units and installations in Rumania. Friessner told the OKH that what was left would have to retreat into Hungary and close the passes through the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps.
On the 26th Tolbukhin’s troops took Kagul, completing the ring around Sixth Army, and Malinovskiy’s forces began turning southwest across the lower Siret. From the right flank of the 3d Mountain Division in the mountains west of Targu Neamt to the mouth of the Danube 250 miles to the southeast, Army Group South Ukraine had no semblance of a front anywhere. In that fantastic situation Hitler intervened with an order to hold the line of the Carpathians, Focsani, Galatz, and the lower Danube.
The next day Malinovskiy’s spearhead across the Siret took Focsani. Headquarters, Sixth Army, after trying briefly to hold a line between Focsani and Galatz with rear echelon troops, fell back toward Buzau. Fragmentary radio reports from the army’s encircled divisions indicated that two pockets had formed, one, the larger (10 divisions), stationary on the east bank of the Prut east of Husi, the other (8 divisions) moving west slowly south of Husi. North of Bucharest the Rumanians had the German attack force surrounded. At Ploeşti the 5th Flak Division had lost the oil refineries and half of the city. Eighth Army, going back from the Siret, had barely enough troops to organize blocking detachments in the Oitoz Pass and the passes to the north. The mountains offered cover, but the deep flank, 190 miles in the Transylvanian Alps from the southeastern tip of Hungary to the Iron Gate, was entirely unprotected. The planes of Fourth Air Force were using their last gas to fly into eastern Hungary. On the south the Bulgarians, not officially at war with the Soviet Union and looking desperately for a way to keep the Soviet Army off their territory, were disarming and interning all Army Group South Ukraine troops who crossed the border.
RETREAT TO THE CARPATHIANS
During the night of 29 August OKH ordered Army Group South Ukraine to establish a solid front along the spine of the Transylvanian Alps and the Carpathians tying in with the Southeastern Theater at the Iron Gate and Army Group North Ukraine on the Polish border. Hungarian Second Army, forming in eastern Hungary, was placed under Friessner’s command.
The mountains, in fact, afforded the best defense line, provided that Friessner could muster enough strength to take and hold the passes on Rumanian territory in the Transylvanian Alps. How difficult that would be became clear the next day when he reported that of Sixth Army not a single complete division had escaped. What was left, the headquarters and service troops with some 5,000 vehicles, was jammed into the Buzaul Valley and was as yet by no means out of the Russians’ reach.
The army group had, all told, four full divisions; three had been on the left flank and not hit by the offensive and one had been on its way out of the army group zone and was returned after the offensive began. All the army group actually held was an intermittent front in the Carpathians. If the Russians decided to make a fast thrust north through the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes, the army group chief of staff added, “The jig will be up out here.”
On 30 August, Malinovskiy’s troops took Ploeşti and the next day marched to Bucharest. In carrying out Stavka’s orders, Malinovskiy, on 29 August, had split his forces. He had sent the Sixth Tank, Twenty-seventh, and Fifty-third Armies between the Danube and the Carpathians to clear southern Rumania to Turnu Severin. With the smaller half he undertook to force the Germans out of the eastern Carpathians. Fortieth Army moved against the relatively intact Eighth Army left flank. Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to force the Oitoz Pass and push across the mountains toward Sibiu and Cluj.
When the Russians began to move west south of the mountains, Friessner decided he might yet have a chance to close at least the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. (The Southeastern Theater Command had assumed responsibility for the Iron Gate.) The remaining pass, the Vulcan, was at the moment out of reach of both the Southeastern Theater and Army Group South Ukraine. At the same time, considering the chances of getting the passes slight, Friessner ordered the armies to reconnoiter a line on the Muresul River across the western end of the Szekler Strip.
On 5 September Hungarian Second Army attacked south from the vicinity of Cluj to close the Turnu Rosu Pass. The day before, air reconnaissance had picked up signs that Second Ukrainian Front was beginning to turn north, and Friessner had alerted the armies to get ready, if ordered, to act fast and get behind the Muresul in one leap. For the moment the order did not have to be given. Hungarian Second Army gained ground rapidly against feeble resistance by the hastily reconstituted Rumanian Fourth Army. (Rumanian First and Fourth Armies went under Malinovskiy’s command on 6 September.)
During the day Sixth Army brought its last troops out of the Buzaul Valley. But that and the Hungarians’ success were only minor bright spots on a predominantly dismal scene. After hearing nothing for several days, the army group was forced to write off as lost the five corps staffs and eighteen divisions in the two pockets. The Russians going west reached Turnu Severin, ten miles southeast of the Iron Gate, during the day. By evening Friessner had concluded he would have to take Sixth Army and Eighth Army behind the Muresul but decided to wait a day or two—long enough to mitigate the unfortunate contrast of German troops retreating while their Hungarian allies were advancing.