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The Wehrmacht encircled in Ukraine: the Cherkassy Break-out

At the beginning of 1944 six divisions of the German Army Group South, some 56.000 men, were encircled by the Russian Army. They were stuck in a pocket of around 48 kilometres wide and 20 kilometres deep around the Ukrainian town of Korsun, in the South-West. What followed was a desperate fight of the Germans, fighting against the encirclement of Soviet forces outnumbering them. Eventually, the situation got so bad German General Wilhelm Stemmermann decided to group all the German combat troops inside the pocket, arrange them into two columns, and force a break-out of the Cherkassy pocket, straight through the surrounding Soviet lines.

Red Army assault force on T-26 light tank in Korsun-Shevchenkovski region.

The Soviets Attack

Once the German forces under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South had retreated back into Ukraine from Russia in late 1943, the Soviet Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov realized the potential a certain strategy had. He planned to encircle the German army, just as the Soviets had done at Stalingrad against General Paulus’s army, in order to crush the Germans. With diligent planning and quick mobilisation, the Soviets rushed their troops, some 80.000 men, to encircle the German pocket located near the city of Cherkassy. Commander of the German forces inside the Cherkassy pocket was General Wilhelm Stemmermann. German forces inside the pocket consisted of 56.000 troops, 30 operational tanks and over 200 artillery pieces.

On January 24th, at dawn, the Red Army launched their attack against the German troops. Thing is, the encirclement of the Germans, as was planned, wasn’t yet complete. Nevertheless, Soviet General Ivan Konev lead the attack with his 2nd Ukrainian Front. 

 At first, a massive artillery barrage lasted for several hours. The battalions of 4th Guards and 53rd armies followed up and throughout the day they broke through into the German forward positions. Up to 5 kilometres of depth was won. 

The next day Konev’s troops launched infantry attacks at dawn. Later that day, the fifth guards tank army, an elite tank division under the command of the highly capable general Pavel Rotmistrov, launched an attack at the base of the Cherkassy pocket. 

The Germans managed to halt Rotmisov’s advancement with heavy anti-tank fire, but the next day the northern line of the Cherkassy pocket was breached by General Nikolai Vatutin’s First Ukrainan Front. Here too a tank division took the lead role, namely the Sixth Guards Tank Army under General Andrey Kravchenko. The Germans managed to hold the breaches by the Soviets and fought for their dear lives. All the while, the Soviets managed to establish several strong points around the German troops.

By the end of January, the Soviets managed to establish both an outer and inner encirclement of the Cherkassy pocket. The Fifth Guards and Sixth tank armies, reinforced with rifle divisions, stood ready to fight the tanks of two German Panzer Corps from the outside. They were desperately trying to break through the Soviet lines to come to the aid of the Germans trapped in the pocket.

Next stage of battle

The relief attempt begins. Tanks and halftracks of 1st Panzer Division begin movements towards the pocket, early February 1944.

The conditions inside the pocket started to deteriorate rapidly. Now, the Germans were trapped in an area that housed several villages and forests, yet the area also had many ravines, marshland and streams of the Dnieper. Although it was still winter in Ukraine, a sudden thaw turned large parts of the area into a muddy mess. The Germans were rather immobile within their pocket. Landing zones washed away due to the thaw, and as such air support was impossible. Then again, the Soviets surrounding the pocket would fire at any aircraft approaching the area anyway. Ammunition and petrol supplies ran low, unable to be restocked. Germans guarding the frontlines of their pocket were subject to a near 24 hour a day broadcast of Soviet propaganda, urging the Germans to surrender. It wasn’t just Red Army commanders and soldiers that delivered the propaganda, though. German generals that were captured often were made to broadcast appeals to German soldiers to surrender.

Considering the situation the Germans found themselves in, when the Soviet forces began to launch direct attacks against certain weak points at the pockets defences, the Germans were quickly pushed back. When a scattered Belgian SS formation, the Wallonian Brigade, approached the small settlement of Moshny, they witnessed from closeby German artillery firing point-blank at waves of Red Army soldiers throwing themselves onto their position. Everyone in the village was fighting for their lives: from mud-clogged anti-aircraft guns to drivers, cooks, radio operators and quarter-masters. Abandoned trucks and field kitchens scattered around the area.

February 12th, 2 weeks after the Soviets initial attack on the Cherkassy pocket. At this point four German panzer divisions stationed outside the pocket wanted to breach through the Soviet lines, including the Sixth Tank Army, that surrounded the pocket. The divisions in the south-west of the pocket, near Odessa, desperately attempted to break out of the pocket to join forces with the German panzer units. The columns of German trucks, soldiers and armoured vehicles were subjected to merciless bombing by the Red Air Force. But a blizzard later on the day forced the Soviet aircraft to abandon its bomber missions for now. It didn’t matter though. Within three days the pocket was reduced to around 90 square kilometres with its frontline rapidly decreasing, German forces desperately holding the lines were pushed back by the vast amount of Red Army soldiers throwing themselves at them.

Of the Germans still inside the pocket, only ⅓ were soldiers. There was barely any shelter and aside from the psychological torment the men must have gone through, I mean, constant shelling, bombarding, red army infantry on a suicide mission and German generals broadcasting their pleas for you to surrender… but the physical conditions were horrible as well. It was cold, mud caked to the soldiers and wherever you’d look, there were at least several bodies lying around. 

General Stemmermann, who had been trying to get relief forces to come to the aid of his troops since the beginning, now frantically tried to organise his best fighting units. The SS Panzer Division Wiking was among them. He rounded up his forces and did what he thought was their only option left: breakout to the west, through Lysyanka, towards the German 3rd Panzer Corps. 

The Cherkassy Break-out

General Stemmermann ordered the destruction of all vehicles except for tanks, self-propelled guns, tracked vehicles and enough horse-drawn wagons to carry the wounded. Though over 1000 wounded were left behind as there simply was no capacity to bring them along. The breakout was organised in two columns and by the night of the 16th of February the 3rd Panzer Corps managed to come closer from outside the pocket, towards the point where Stemmermann and his units were going to break out. Just before midnight, February 16th, the breakout was launched and as snowstorms raged over the troops, Stemmermann’s columns started to move. 

Two soviet armies, the 27th and 4th guards, were waiting for the Germans. Due to miscommunication Stemmermann wasn’t informed about the fact the hill they had to pass was occupied by the Soviets. At first the Germans seemed to be doing well, but it soon deteriorated into complete chaos.

The SS Wiking Division panzergrenadier regiment came under fire and was forced south, to the 15 meter wide river, the Gniloy Tikich. Under pressure from the barrage of fire by Soviet artillery, many saw the river as their only means of escape. Panicking, some men ran into the ice-cold water, others used tree trunks as makeshift rafts. Hundreds of Germans died, whether they were swept away by the stream or by hypothermia. That wasn’t the end of it though.

As the rest of the German columns emerged into open country, the columns behind the Wiking Division were flanked by Cossack cavalry and Tanks. Both the rear and flanks of the columns breaking out of the pocket were set upon by both. Those that raised their hands in surrender to the Cossacks were cut down by their sabres. On the banks of the Gniloy Tikich, troops were struggling to cross the river. They were bombarded by Soviet artillery, while Soviet tanks flanked them on both sides and rear. The SS Wiking Division had fallen apart and for most Germans 

During the breakout, the car of General Stemmermann was hit by a Soviet anti tank gun. With him, around 28.000 German soldiers died, were wounded or captured during the siege of the pocket. Some 30.000 German soldiers managed to break out, of whom 6.000 men were of the SS Panzer Division Wiking. Lieutenant General Theobald Lieb assumed command after Stemmermann’s death, though the SS divisions had disintegrated to the degree that most soldiers had left behind their weapons and simply tried to get away from the battlefield as fast as they could. On screen is footage from a German newsreel from 1944, where Theobald Lieb is given a medal by Hitler for his role in the Cherkassy breakout.

The Soviets suffered over 75 thousand casualties, of whom around one-third were killed. The Red Army commanders received a personal congratulations from Joseph Stalin and Konev was appointed as Marshal of the Soviet Union for his role during the siege. Nikolai Vatutin would be killed within 2 months by Ukranian nationalists and it would take a little more than a year for Hitler to take his own life and the Second World War to come to an end. This is an interesting tale of the horrors from the Eastern Front, especially because so much effort was put in avoiding this to become a second Stalingrad. Nevertheless, it turned out horrible for the Germans, and it would take little more than a year for General Alfred Jodl to sign the unconditional surrender of Germany. 

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