Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket


Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket


caption=
partof=the Eastern Front of World War II
place=Cherkassy / Korsun, USSR
date=January 24, 1944 – February 16, 1944
result=|result=Soviet victory; German evacuation
combatant1=
combatant2=
commander1=
commander2= (2nd Ukrainian Front),

strength1=56,000 70 tanks and assault guns in pocket. Larger numbers when counting relief troops
strength2=200,000 500 tanks
casualties1= 55,000 killed in action, 18,000 captured (Soviet claims) 26,000 killed and wounded in action and captured (German claims) entire German equipment lost [Glantz & House, "When Titans Clashed", p. 188]
casualties2=24,286 killed and missing,
55,902 wounded and sick [Glantz & House, p. 298] |

The Battle of the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket took place from 24 January 1944 until 16 February 1944. The battle was fought on the Eastern Front between the forces of the German Army Group South and the Red Army's 1st Ukrainian and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts as a result of the Korsun-Shevchenkovsky Offensive Operation, itself a part of the much larger Dnepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation (24 December 1943 - 17 April 1944).

January 1944

In January 1944, the German forces of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South including General Otto Wöhler's 8th Army had fallen back to the Panther-Wotan Line, a defensive position along the Dnieper river in Ukraine. Two corps, the XI under Gen. Wilhelm Stemmermann, the XLII Army Corps under Lt.Gen. Theobald Lieb and the attached Corps Detachment B from the 8th Army were holding a salient into the Soviet lines extending some 100 kilometers to the Dnieper river settlement of Kanev, with the town of Korsun roughly in the center of the salient, west of Cherkassy. Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov realized the potential for destroying Wöhler’s 8th Army with the Stalingrad model as precedent and using similar tactics as were applied to defeat Paulus’ encircled 6th Army. Zhukov recommended to the Soviet Supreme Command (Stavka) to deploy 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts to form two armored rings of encirclement: an inner ring around a cauldron and then destroy the forces it contained, and an external ring to prevent relief formations from reaching the trapped units. Despite repeated warnings from Manstein and others, Hitler refused to allow the exposed units to be pulled back to safety.

General Konev held a conference at his headquarters at Boltushki on 15 January with his commanders and their political commissars to pass on the orders received from Stavka. The initial attack was to be performed by Konev’s own 2nd Ukrainian Front from the southeast by 53rd Army and 4th Guards Army, with 5th Guards Tank Army to exploit penetrations supported by 5th Air Army, to be joined in progress by 52nd Army, 5th Guards Cavalry Corps and 2nd Tank Army. Additionally, of Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front, 27th and 40th Armies were to be deployed from the northwest, with 6th Tank Army to exploit penetrations supported by 2nd Air Army. [Zetterling & Frankson, "The Korsun Pocket", p. 37-39] Many formations had received an inflow of new personnel – what these replacements lacked in experience and training was made up by zeal and hatred for the enemy inspired by their political commissars. Red Army planning further included extensive deception operations that the Soviets claimed were successful, however, the German 8th Army war diary shows clearly that the German staffs were more concerned with the real threat than the simulated one. [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 39]

Encirclement

On 18 January, Manstein was proven prescient when General Nikolai Vatutin’s 1st and General Ivan Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Fronts attacked the edges of the salient and surrounded the two German corps. The link-up on 28 January of 20th Guards Tank Brigade with 6th Guards Tank Army of the First Ukrainian Front at the village of Zvenigorodka completed the encirclement and created the cauldron or "kessel" that became known as the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket. Stalin expected and was promised a second Stalingrad; Konev wired: "There is no need to worry, Comrade Stalin. The encircled enemy will not escape." [Konev, "Battles Hitler Lost", quoted in Nash, "Hell's Gate", p. 200] Trapped in the pocket were under 60,000 men, a total of six German divisions at approximately 55% of their authorized strength, along with a number of smaller combat units. Among the trapped German forces were the 5th SS Panzer Division "Wiking" and the SS Sturmbrigade "Wallonien" (SS Assault Brigade "Wallonien"), and 5-6,000 Russian auxiliaries. The trapped forces were designated "Gruppe Stemmermann" and the commander of XI Corps, Gen. Wilhelm Stemmermann was placed in command. "Wiking" had 43 Panzer III/IV tanks and assault guns. Two assault gun battalions provided an additional 27 assault guns.

Response

Manstein moved quickly, and by early February the III and XLVII Panzerkorps were assembled for a relief effort. However, Hitler intervened and ordered the rescue attempt to be transformed into an impossible effort to counter-encircle the two Soviet fronts.

General Hermann Breith, commander of III Panzerkorps insisted that both the relief formations should unite and attempt to force a corridor to the trapped "Gruppe Stemmermann". Manstein initially sided with Hitler, although in deceptive fashion, and the attack was to be an attempt to encircle the massive Red Army force.

The XLVII Panzerkorps attack by the 11th Panzer Division quickly stalled. The veteran division had only 27 tanks and 34 assault guns, therefore its contribution was limited. [Perrett, "Knights of the Black Cross", p. 167] Realizing the encirclement was going to fail, Manstein ordered III Panzerkorps to attempt to relieve the beleaguered "Gruppe Stemmermann". Led by the 1st SS Panzer Division, the attack soon encountered heavy resistance from four Soviet Tank Corps and began to bog down with a change in weather in the thick mud of the rasputitsa.

On 11 February III Panzerkorps renewed its effort led by the 16th Panzer division. After heavy fighting, the exhausted force reached the Gniloy Tikich stream and established a small bridgehead on the eastern bank. The III Panzerkorps could advance no further, Group Stemmermann would have to fight its way out. [Group Stemmermann essentially consisted of six divisions: 57th, 72nd, 88th, 389th divisions, Corps Detachment B [Division Group 112] , all infantry formations with no armored components; and Panzer Division "Wiking" with the attached brigade "Wallonien". The only units considered still capable of aggressive, offensive operations were 72nd Infantry Division and "Wiking". Department of the Army Pamphlet 20-234, p. 19-20]

urrender Demand and Kessel Fever

Both antagonists realized that the Wehrmacht relief efforts had come to a critical stage; yet very few German soldiers and no Waffen-SS men in the cauldron had surrendered despite heavy Soviet propaganda inducements to do so. [Nash, p. 194] Zhukov thus decided to send "parlementaires" under a white flag with surrender demands. [Perrett, p. 167] A Red Army Lt.Col., translator and bugler arrived in an American jeep and presented letters for Stemmermann and Lieb signed by Marshal Zhukov and Generals Konev and Vatutin. The German officer on headquarters duty, a major at Corps Detachment B and a translator, received the emissaries. [DA Pamphlet 20-234, p. 22] After cordial talks, refreshments and a handshake, the Soviets departed without an answer – the “answer would be in the form of continued, bitter resistance.” [Nash, p. 198]

The forces of "Gruppe Stemmermann" had formed their defense around the town of Korsun, which had a single airstrip – the besieged unit's supply line. Junkers Ju-52 transports delivered fuel, ammunition, medical supplies and food – until the airfield was abandoned on 12 February – and flew out the wounded, an all-important morale consideration for German troops on the Eastern front.

Stemmermann began pulling back troops from the north of the cauldron, and attacking south to expand towards the relief forces on the north bank of the Gniloy Tikich. The frenetic maneuvering within the "kessel" confused the Soviets, convincing them that they had trapped the majority of the German 8th Army. The trapped forces, suffering from "kessel fever", were now to capture the villages of Novo-Buda, Komarovka, Khilki and Shanderovka at the southwestern perimeter of the pocket to reach a favorable jump-off line for the breakout. [DA Pamphlet 20-234, p. 19] On 11 February the 105th Grenadier Regiment [The regiment was raised in the city of Trier and the Mosel valley in western Germany] of the 72nd Infantry Division was to take Novo-Buda and move on to Komarovka. The understrength regiment would have to attack uphill over an area with no cover, and with the Soviets well entrenched. Major Robert Kästner, the 105th commander decided upon a night assault. With fixed bayonets, wearing white camouflage suits over their winter anoraks and white-washed helmets, the men moved silently forward, getting within meters of the Soviet trench before being challenged by a sentry. In fierce hand-to-hand combat, the 105th took the ridge in a matter of minutes. The following night the 105th captured Komarovka in similar fashion. [Nash, p. 212-214] On the evening of 15 February the 105th Regiment again, using its last reserves and with two assault guns secured Khilki, defeating a Soviet counterattack supported by armor. [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 245]

The pocket had “wandered” south and half-way towards its rescuers and rested on the village of Shanderovka. By nightfall on 16 February III Panzerkorps fought its way closer to the encircled formations, the spearheads were now within seven kilometers from Group Stemmermann. [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 255] Shanderovka was heavily defended by the Soviets; had been captured by 72nd Infantry troops, was retaken by the Soviet 27th Army and recaptured by the "Germania" regiment of "Wiking".

Breakout through Hell’s Gate

The northward thrust towards the pocket by III Panzerkorps had been halted by Red Army determination, the landscape and fuel shortages. After several failed attempts by German armored formations to seize and hold Hill 239 and advance on Shanderovka, Soviet counter attacks by 5th Guards Tank Army forced III Panzerkorps into costly defensive fighting. 8th Army radioed Stemmermann:

:"Capacity for action by III Panzerkorps limited by weather and supply situation. Gruppe Stemmermann must perform breakthrough as far as the line Zhurzintsy-Hill 239 by its own effort. There link up with III Panzerkorps." [Nash, p. 258]

The message did not specify that Zhurzintsy and the hill were still firmly in Soviet hands. 8th Army appointed Lt.Gen. Theobald Lieb to lead the breakout. Only seven kilometers lay between Group Stemmermann and III Panzerkorps, but in between were also elements of three Soviet tank armies. General Stemmermann elected to stay behind with a rearguard of 6,500 men, the remaining, combined strength of 57th and 88th Infantry Divisions. [Carell, "Scorched Earth", p. 418] The cauldron was now a mere 5 kilometers in diameter, depriving Stemmermann of room to maneuver. Shanderovka, once seen as a gate to freedom, now became known as "Hell’s Gate". The Red Army poured intense artillery and rocket fire on the area around the encircled troops, nearly every round finding a target. "Sturmoviks" of the Red Air Force bombed and strafed, only infrequently challenged by "Luftwaffe" fighters. Various unit diaries described a scene of gloom, with fires burning, destroyed or abandoned vehicles everywhere and wounded men and disorganized units on muddy roads. Ukrainian civilians were caught between the combatants. During the 16th of February 1944, Field Marshal von Manstein, without waiting for a decision by Hitler, sent a radio message to Stemmermann to authorize the breakout. It said simply:

:"Password Freedom, objective Lysyanka, 2300 hours." [Carell, p. 417]

With extreme reluctance, Stemmermann and Lieb decided to leave 1,450 non-ambulatory wounded at Shanderovka attended by doctors and orderlies. [Perrett, p. 168] [Nash, p. 283] [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 242] The troops then began to assemble at dusk into three leading assault columns with Division Group 112 to the north, "Wiking" to the south and 72nd Division in the center with the reinforced 105th Regiment in the first echelon to provide the assault power. [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 257] “By 2300 the [105th] regiment – two battalions abreast – started moving ahead, silently and with bayonets fixed. One-half hour later the force broke through the first and soon thereafter the second [Soviet] defense line.” [DA Pamphlet 20-234, p. 27] All went well for several battalions and regiments who reached the German lines at Oktyabr by 0410. Major Kästner and his 105th grenadiers reached friendly lines by cautiously approaching the forward position of Panthers of III Panzerkorps, bringing their wounded along and their heavy weapons, but losing the trailing, horse drawn supply column to Soviet artillery. The 105th entered Lysyanka at 0630. [Nash, p. 300] On the opposite front of the cauldron, General Stemmermann and his rear guard held fast and thus assured the success of the initial breakout. [DA Pamphlet 20-234, p. 40]

At the left flank column, a reconnaissance patrol returned bearing grim news. The geographic feature Hill 239 was occupied by Soviet T-34's of the 5th Guards Tank Army. Despite energetic efforts to capture Hill 239 now from the inside of the cauldron, the high ground remained in Soviet hands and had to be bypassed. "As more and more units ran up against the impregnable tank barrier atop the ridge dominated by Hill 239," [Nash, p. 301] the German escape direction was pushed to the south, thus ending for the bulk of troops at the wrong position of the Gniloy Tikich stream with disastrous consequences to come. When daylight arrived, the German escape plan began to unravel. Very few armored vehicles and other heavy equipment could climb the slippery, thawing hillsides and the weapons had to be destroyed and abandoned "after the last round of ammunition had been fired." [DA Pamphlet 20-234, p. 40]

General Konev, now realizing that the Germans were escaping, was enraged and then resolved to keep his promise to Stalin not to let any “Hitlerites” or “Fascists” escape "unichtozhenie" (total annihilation). Soviet intelligence, however, at this stage vastly overestimated the armored strength of III Panzerkorps, and Konev therefore proceeded in force. At this time the 20th Tank Corps brought its brigade of the new Joseph Stalin-II’s to the Korsun battlefield. [Nash, p. 267] Konev ordered all available armor and artillery to attack the escaping units, cut them into isolated groups and then destroy them piecemeal. [One such isolated group of stragglers from the "Wallonien" brigade was set upon by a “swarm of Cossacks” [Carell, p. 430] . The vengeful cavalry hacked at the escapees with their sabers in “an orgy of slaughter” [Perrett, p. 169] ] The two blocking Soviet infantry divisions, 206th Rifle and 5th Guards Airborne, had been smashed by the German assault forces; without infantry support Soviet tanks then fired into the escaping formations from a distance. Sensing that no anti-tank weapons were in the field, T-34s commenced to wade into unprotected support troops, headquarters units, stragglers and red-cross identified medical columns with their wounded charges. [Nash, p. 308] [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 267]

By mid-day, the majority of the now intermingled divisions had reached the Gniloy Tikich stream, turbulent and swollen by the melting snow. Despite the fact that 1st Panzer Division had captured a bridge, and engineers had erected another, the panicking men saw the river as their only escape from the rampaging T-34s. Since the main body was away and south of the bridgeheads, the last tanks, trucks and wagons were driven into the icy water, trees were felled to form make-shift bridges and the troops floundered across as best as they could, with hundreds of exhausted men drowning, being swept downstream with horses and military debris. Many others succumbed to shock or hypothermia. Groups of men were brought across on lifelines fashioned from belts and harnesses. Others formed rafts of planks and other debris to tow the wounded to the German side, at all times under Soviet artillery and T-34 fire. Gen. Lieb, after establishing a semblance of order at the banks throughout the day, crossed the Gniloy Tikich swimming alongside his horse. [DA Pamphlet 20-234, p. 31] When "Wiking" commander Herbert Otto Gille attempted to form a human chain across the river, alternating between those who could swim and those who could not, scores of men died when someone’s hand slipped and the chain broke. Several hundred Soviet prisoners of war, a troupe of Russian women auxiliaries and Ukrainian civilians who feared reprisals by the Red Army, also crossed the icy waters. [Carell, p. 430]

That so many reached the German lines at Lysyanka was due in great measure to the exertions of III Panzerkorps as it drove in relief of Group Stemmermann. The cutting edge was provided by Heavy Armored Regiment Bäke ("Schweres Panzer Regiment Bäke"), named for its commander Lt.Col. Dr. Franz Bäke (a dentist in civilian life). The unit was equipped with Tigers and Panthers and an engineer battalion with specialist bridging skills. [Perrett, p. 169]

The Outcome

The Red Army encirclement of Cherkassy-Korsun inflicted serious damage on six German divisions, including "Wiking"; these units were nearly decimated and had to be withdrawn, requiring complete re-equipping after this military disaster. Most escaped troops were eventually shipped from collection points near Uman to rehabilitation areas and hospitals in Poland, or were sent on leave to their home towns. The Soviet forces continued their steamroller drive westward with massive tank armies of T-34's, Joseph Stalin-II’s, and trucks and Shermans supplied by their American allies under Lend-Lease.

Controversy exists to this day over casualties and losses. Soviet historian Vladimir Telpukhovsky claims that the Red Army killed 52,000 Germans and took 11,000 prisoners, other Soviet sources claim 57,000 killed and 18,000 prisoners - with Soviet casualty numbers officially unpublished. The high numbers given are attributed by sources to the erroneous Soviet belief that all German units were at their full establishment and that most of the German 8th Army was trapped - so that a second Stalingrad could be presented to the Soviet dictator. [These Soviet claims can be safely questioned. The numbers appear in a Soviet General Staff Study of the 1944 Korsun operation with after-war amendments. The study is critiqued by Swedish historian Niklas Zetterling as “anything but accurate” and “completely unreliable.” See [http://www.militaryhistory.nu/critiques/PDF/korsunstudy.pdf “Comments on the Soviet General Staff Study on the Korsun-Shevchenkovskii Operation”] September 2002.
David Glantz now generalizes that “Soviet and Russian estimates of German losses are wildly inaccurate since these sources routinely inflate German and Axis losses as greatly as they understate their own.” (David M. Glantz. "Red Storm over the Balkans". Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 2007, p. 381)
] German accounts state that the under 60,000 men originally inside the cauldron had shrunk in heavy fighting to less than 50,000 by 16 February, that 45,000 took part in the breakout and that 36,000 got through, with a total of 19,000 dead, captured or missing. [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 277] Douglas E. Nash’s Appendix 7 “German Present for Battle Unit Strengths after the Breakout” in "Hell’s Gate" lists per unit survivors, with total survivors of 40,423, including wounded flown out of the pocket and evacuated from Lysyanka. [Nash, p. 398] By 19 February III Panzerkorps began a pullback from the Lysyanka salient; it was assumed that no more soldiers from "Gruppe Stemmermann" would be rescued. [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 281]

General Stemmermann died fighting among his rear guard. Gen. Lieb survived the war and died in 1981. The commander of 2nd Ukrainian Front, Gen. Konev, was made a Marshal of the Soviet Union for his great victory. Gen. Vatutin was shot by Ukrainian Nationalist UPA insurgents on 28 February 1944 and died on 15 April 1944.

Assessment

“In the context of World War II, the battle at Korsun was a minor one, but with an unusually high degree of drama. The Soviet commanders took advantage of their considerable numerical superiority on the Eastern Front and decided to attack an exposed German position, which Hitler stubbornly decided to hold.” [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 297] Yet German field commanders inside and outside the cauldron grasped when a “now or never” order had to be given. [Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and General Hermann Breith gave such orders, as well as numerous other officers and NCO's with their own micro-view during the battle] The German disaster, "a major defeat," [Nash, p. 382] and escape is documented. On the Soviet side the attacks to eliminate the pocket did not work out as intended, did not proceed as planned, the Wehrmacht relief attempts could not be repelled as designed and the forces inside the cauldron were not annihilated as promised to Stalin or asserted in propaganda messages to the western Allies or penned in memoirs and staff studies. "There was no Stalingrad on the Dnieper, as the Soviets claimed ..." [Nash, p. 382] “Nevertheless, the Soviet position, relative to the Germans, was stronger after the battle than before, so Korsun may be viewed as a Soviet victory, even though it was bought at a considerably higher price than it ought to have been.” [Zetterling & Frankson, p. 298]

Quotation

“Cherkassy was no military victory – but was not our salvation from certain destruction a kind of victory?” "Wiking" Division Veterans Association, 1963. [Nash, p. 374]

Footnotes

Bibliography

*Armstrong, Richard N. "Red Army Tank Commanders. The Armored Guards". Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1994. ISBN 0887405819
*Carell, Paul. "Scorched Earth". New York: Ballantine Books, 1971. ISBN 0345022130
*Department of the Army Pamphlet 20-234. "Operations of Encircled Forces: German Experiences in Russia". Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952.
*Glantz, David & House, Jonathan M. "When Titans Clashed. How the Red Army Stopped Hitler". Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. ISBN 070060717X
*Nash, Douglas E. [http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbninquiry.asp?r=1&ean=0965758435 "Hell's Gate: The Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket, January-February 1944 "] . Southbury, Connecticut: RZM Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0965758435
*Perrett, Bryan. "Knights of the Black Cross, Hitler's Panzerwaffe and its Leaders". New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. ISBN 0709028067
*Shukman, Harold, ed. "Stalin's Generals". New York: Grove Press, 1993. ISBN 1842125133
*Zetterling, Niklas & Frankson, Anders. "The Korsun Pocket. The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944". Drexel Hill (Philadelphia), Pennsylvania: Casemate Publishers. 2008. ISBN 978-1-932033-88-5


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