- Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin
Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin
Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin, Commander-First Ukrainian Front, January, 1944
Born 16 December 1901
Chepuhino, Voronezh Governorate (now in Belgorod Oblast), Russian Empire
Died 15 April 1944
Kiev, Ukrainian SSR
Years of service 1920-1944 Rank Army General Commands held 1st Ukrainian Front Battles/wars Battle of Stalingrad
Battle of Kursk
Relations Tatiana Romanovna Vatutina (wife)
Elena (daughter, 1930-?)
Viktor (son, 1932-?)
Before World War II
Vatutin was born in Chepuhino village near Valuiky in Voronezh Governorate (now Vatutino in Belgorod Oblast), into a Russian peasant family. Commissioned in 1920 to the Red Army, he fought against the Ukrainian peasant partisans of Nestor Makhno. The following year, he became a member of the Communist party, and served diligently in junior command positions. Starting in 1926, he spent the next decade alternating service with studies in the elite Frunze Military Academy and the General Staff Academy. The 1937–1938 purge of Red Army commanders opened the road to promotion – in 1938, he received the rank of Komdiv, and was appointed Chief of Staff of a key Kiev Special Military District. Throughout this period, Vatutin combined military service with intensive Party activities.
In 1939, Vatutin planned operations for the Soviet partition of Poland with Nazi Germany, and served as Chief of Staff of the Red Army Southern Group. In 1940, under the command of Georgy Zhukov, this group seized Bessarabia from Romania. As a reward for these non-combat campaigns, Stalin promoted Vatutin to the rank of Lieutenant General and appointed him to the critical post of Chief of the Operational Directorate of the General Staff. Vatutin was however, not up to his new appointment: while innovative and hard-working, he lacked any combat experience and his knowledge of operational art and strategy was too abstract. Still, his peasant roots, relative youthful age, and party zeal made him one of Stalin's few favorites in the Soviet military. Vatutin, together with the rest of the Red Army high brass, failed to prepare the army for the German attack of 22 June 1941.
On 30 June 1941, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the North-Western Front, (see Soviet Fronts in WWII) which showcased his better qualities. Vatutin did not try to claim success for himself in the battles, but rather focused on discerning and promoting others' talent. Another of his remarkable qualities was his audacity. At that stage of war, most of the Soviet generals, shattered by defeats, were reluctant to carry out offensive operations but Vatutin thrived on attack.
The Battles in the North
The Northwestern Front was defending Leningrad against approaches by the German Army Group North, spearheaded by armored corps led by Erich von Manstein. Vatutin took command of the Soviet forces near Novgorod and rallied them for offense, attempting to encircle a large German force. He surprised Manstein, put him on the defensive, and forced the entire German Army Group North to regroup its troops to halt the Soviet offensive. The Wehrmacht lost the precious summer season needed for an effective attack on Leningrad, while the Red Army got additional time to strengthen the fortifications of the city. Due to this, the Germans failed in their best shot to capture Leningrad, one of the key German strategic failures during the early phase of war. Vatutin's immediate operational results were far less impressive. Vatutin overestimated the capacities of his troops and created overly ambitious objectives, while his coordination of his forces and control over the unfolding of the battle were poor. Additionally, he did not take into account the difficult terrain which benefited German defenses and slowed his attack. Vatutin's casualty figures were staggering, in one army nearly reaching 60%. The ineptitude of his subordinate commanders exacerbated Vatutin's own shortcomings. There was one striking exception though, the brilliant actions of Ivan Chernyakhovsky, an obscure young Colonel in command of 28th tank division. The men had much in common, most prominently their penchant for unorthodox approaches to military art; they soon became close friends.
In January 1942, during the Soviet winter offensive following the Red Army victory in the Battle of Moscow, Vatutin trapped two German corps in Demyansk, and achieved the first large Soviet encirclement of German forces. The German and Soviet armies were equal in size. During the battle, Vatutin employed innovative tactics and actions, while Germans responded more conventionally. Vatutin was unable to destroy the German defenses, mainly due to the weakness of the Soviet air-force. In April 1942, Vatutin finally breached the German lines, just as a German relief force arrived. However, post-World War II American experts have evaluated the result of this operation as a draw. The German command drew self-congratulatory and misleading lessons from their narrow escape, concluding that they could overcome Soviet encirclements with supplies from the air while mounting a relief operation. This thinking contributed to the Wehrmacht disaster at Stalingrad.
Voronezh and Stalingrad
From early May to July 1942, Vatutin served briefly as deputy of the Chief of the General Staff of the Red Army until the German Army Group South embarked on its huge strategic offense, "Operation Blau". Initially, the German assault focused on Voronezh, they wanted to breach the Soviet front line at the Battle of Voronezh and then attack the Soviet Southern Front and Southwestern Front from the rear. On 1 July 1942, Stalin sent Vatutin as an all-powerful Stavka representative, to the critical Bryansk Front, which within a few days was renamed as Voronezh Front and placed under Vatutin's command.
During the battle, Vatutin met Cherniakhovsky – now the newly appointed commander of the 18th Tank Corps of the 60th Army – again. The massive German attack was on the verge of breaching the Soviet front line when Cherniakhovsky's corps arrived by train. Cherniakhovsky unloaded one of his brigades and, without waiting for the rest of his troops, led that brigade against the numerically superior German forces, throwing them back. After this action, Vatutin asked Stalin to give command of the 60th army to Cherniakhovsky. Initially, Stalin opposed the request, mostly because he had reservations about appointing such a young General to lead a field army. However, Vatutin finally convinced Stalin to promote Cherniakhovsky, who would rapidly rise to become one of the major Red Army field commanders.
Although the Germans captured the city, their attempt to breach Vatutin's front line failed. Following this debacle, the Germans abandoned their initial plan, and in one fateful misjudgment, shifted their efforts toward Stalingrad. On 22 October 1942, Vatutin received command of the newly formed Southwestern Front and played an important role in planning the Soviet counter-offensive and following encirclement of the German 6th Army in the Battle of Stalingrad. In December 1942, to secure the Soviet ring around Stalingrad, Vatutin encircled and destroyed two-thirds of the 130,000-strong Italian 8th Army in operation Little Saturn, contributing to the defeat of Manstein's Operation Wintergewitter ("Winter Storm"), the relief effort for the 6th Army.
Kharkov and Kursk
In January 1943, Vatutin relentlessly drove Germans from the Eastern Ukraine. His actions enabled the Voronezh Front under General Filipp Golikov to capture Kharkov, but he overextended his depleted troops and did not pay enough attention to the changing strategic situation. In February 1943, Manstein mustered a large force, and managed to surprise and defeat Vatutin, south of Kharkov, leading to encircling of Golikov's advance troops in Kharkov, and recapturing the city in the Third Battle of Kharkov. Stavka removed Golikov from his command, but did not see Vatutin's debacle as significant. For his audacity, Stalin awarded Vatutin the rank of Army General.
On 28 March 1943, Vatutin took command of the Voronezh Front, preparing for the momentous Battle of Kursk. In the battle of Kursk, he rejected conventional echeloning of armies; his innovative deployment allowed him to not only skillfully conduct defense against the technically superior Germans, but also to quickly switch from defense to offense. Following the Soviet victory at Kursk, Vatutin captured Belgorod.
Victories in Ukraine
Vatutin now aspired to liberate Kiev. He undertook a secret regrouping under an imaginative and deceptive plan. His forces surprised Manstein, attacking the Germans from an unexpected direction, and on 6 November 1943, he liberated Kiev. Vatutin relentlessly exploited his victory in Kiev, and pushed deep into the German defenses. When Vatutin overextended his armies, Manstein used the XLVIII Panzerkorps to counterattack. In the battle of Radomyshl (6–15 November 1943) and the battle of the Meleni pocket (16–23 December 1943) Manstein unleashed successful counterattacks which took terrain back and inflicted heavy losses on the Red Army forces. In January, Vatutin and the 2nd Ukrainian Front of Army General Ivan Konev carried out an encirclement of the Korsun salient in the Korsun-Shevchenko operation. Although Vatutin started the operation two days after Konev and his striking formation, and the 6th Tank Army was only recently formed, he achieved the element of surprise by committing his tanks to the battle from the first echelon. This allowed the 6th Tank Army to penetrate deep into German defenses and, on 3 February, it linked with the advancing armor of Konev's front and trapped 56,000 German troops. By 17 February, Vatutin and Konev had eliminated the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket.
On 28 February 1944 Vatutin, regrouping for a new operation and heading to Slavuta (Khmelnytskyi Oblast), was ambushed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) insurgents far behind the front lines near village of Mylyatyn in Ostroh Raion (Rivne Oblast). He succumbed to his injuries from sepsis in a hospital at Kiev six weeks later. Vatutin's brothers, Afanasy Fyodorovich and Semyon Fyodorovich, were killed in action in February and March 1944; his mother, Vera Yefimovna, buried her three sons in two months. Nikolai Vatutin was given a state funeral in Kiev. He was succeeded by Georgy Zhukov.
His influence on the Red Army strategic planning, operational, and tactical techniques continued even after his death. Following the post-Cold War decline in Germanocentric analyses of the Eastern Front, Vatutin has won recognition among Western military experts as one of World War II's most creative commanders.
- Vatutin is supposedly related to a KGB officer in Tom Clancy's novel The Cardinal of the Kremlin.
- The battle of the Korsun Salient is the basis for the award-winning computer wargame Decisive Battles of WWII: Korsun Pocket.
- David Glantz, "Vatutin" in Harold Shukman, ed., Stalin's Generals (NY, 1993, pp. 287–298).
- David Glantz, Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed. How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence, KS, 1995).
- David Glantz, Jonathan M. House, The Battle of Kursk (Lawrence, KS, 1999).
- David Glantz, The Battle for Leningrad, 1941-1944 (Lawrence, KS, 2002).
- ^ Newton, Steven H. (2005). Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945. Cambridge, MA.: Da Capo Press. pp. 256–262. ISBN 0306814099.
- ^ Russian: Каманин, Н.П., "Летчики и космонавты", М, 1971, p.269 Some sources give the date of the attack as 29 February and the date of Vatutin's death as 15 April.
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