It was less than a month since the great blood letting in the Orel salient in July 1943 had taken place. Both the German and Soviet armies that took part in the battle had suffered horrendous casualties. The losses of tanks and mechanized vehicles were also enormous as the German attack was met by a Soviet counterattack that left soldiers on both sides reeling like punch happy boxers.
Red Army units slowly pushed the Germans back to their start lines with both sides taking even more casualties. Ground troops were exhausted, and vehicles were worn out from constant use, yet the Red Army was preparing to launch its first summer offensive of the war.
In far off Berlin there were those at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW—the German Armed Forces High Command) who scoffed at the idea that the Russians could mount a major offensive after the bloody nose they had received in the July battle. The frontline generals, however, were under no such illusions. The commander of Army Group South, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, wrote, “On 2nd August we informed OKH [Oberkommando des Heeres—the German Army High Command] that we were expecting an immediate offensive against the Army Group’s northern front west of Belgorod. This, we thought, would probably be supplemented by an attack southeast of Kharkov with the aim of taking our forces round the town in a pincer movement and opening the enemy’s way to the Dnepr [River].”
Von Manstein was right on the money. On August 3 all hell broke loose as an intense artillery barrage hit General Eugen Ott’s LII Army Corps for five minutes. After a 30-minute lull, a two-hour barrage pounded the same sector, augmented by heavy air attacks. As the artillery ceased, infantry and tanks of the 5th and 6th Guards Armies hit the junction of Ott’s corps and the XLVIII Panzer Corps, splitting the front asunder and driving a wedge between the two corps. The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army exploited the breakthrough, and by the end of the day the Russians had penetrated up to 24 kilometers behind the German lines.
The offensive, code-named Rumyantsev after one of the foremost Russian generals of the 18th century, was only the first of several operations to pummel the Germans. During the following days, the Soviet 53rd Army was able to cut the vital Belgorod-Kharkov road, creating major supply problems for the enemy. On August 12, lead elements of the Steppe Front entered the outskirts of Kharkov, finally taking the city on August 23 after severe fighting.
Meanwhile, General Karl Hollidt’s 6th Army’s position on the Mius River was assaulted by Col. Gen. Fedor Ivanovich Tolbukhin’s South Front. Within a few days, Hollidt had been pushed back from his river defenses, and the Soviets retook the city of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov at the end of the month. The August offensive had cost Army Group South about 133,000 casualties, of which only 33,000 were replaced. On September 3, von Manstein flew to Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia to ask for either more replacements or permission to shorten his lines if replacements could not be provided. He later wrote that the meeting “proved quite profitless.”
The Russian juggernaut continued to roll forward in the first half of September. Railway and communications lines between Army Group South and Army Group Center were broken when the Soviets severed the Briansk-Konotop rail line. On September 4, Hitler gave permission for General Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army to retreat from the Kuban to the Crimea. Further north, the Soviet 3rd Guards Army opened a 45-kilometer gap between the 1st Panzer Army and the 6th Army, which was closed on September 11 after five days of heavy fighting. On September 8, the city of Stalino fell, followed by the capture of Mariupal on the 10th. In essence, the Red Army was threatening to break open the entire German southern front.
September 15 found von Manstein in another long discussion about the deteriorating situation. Pullbacks on Army Group Center’s right flank had left General Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army in a perilous position. Von Manstein pressed the issue of withdrawal to the Dnepr before a catastrophe ensued.
“The fate of the whole Eastern Front is at stake here,” he told Hitler. Finally Hitler relented and gave permission for Army Group South to withdraw to a line running from Melitopol along the Dnepr to above Kiev, and then running along the Desna River.
Ending Three Years of Terror in Kiev
The Soviet High Command (STAVKA) was watching events closely. When intelligence reports indicated German preparations for a retreat, it was generally acknowledged that the next German defensive line would be on the Dnepr. Orders from Moscow were soon issued.
General Konstantin Konstantinovich Rokossovskii’s Central Front and General Nikolai Fedorovich Vatutin’s Voronezh Front were tasked with converging on Kiev and destroying the 4th Panzer Army. Col. Gen. Ivan Stepanovich Konev’s Steppe Front was ordered to advance on Kremenchug, and Col. Gen. Rodion Iakovlevich Malinovskii’s South West Front would keep exerting pressure on Hollidt’s 6th Army, which occupied Army Group South’s right flank, pushing him back toward Kherson with the objective of isolating the 17th Army in the Crimea.
Kiev had been in German hands for three years. The great battle of encirclement that took place in the area in August and September 1941 had cost the Soviets approximately 450,000 casualties. One of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe, Kiev is believed to have been founded in the 9th century. It had seen conquerors such as the Khazars, Varangians, Mongols, and Tatars come and go. On September 19, 1941, a new conqueror entered what was now the capital of the Soviet Ukraine as German troops marched through the city.
The soldiers were followed by the SS killing squads of the Einsatzgruppen, who rounded up the city’s Jews after parts of the city had been set alight September 25 by troops of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, still hidden in the area. The fire gave the Germans a pretext for what became a name synonymous with the Holocaust.
On September 29-30, approximately 34,000 Jews were marched to a ravine outside the city known as Babi Yar. There they were met by the men of SS Colonel Paul Blobel’s Sonderkommando 4a, which was part of SS Brig. Gen. Otto Rausch’s Einsatzgruppe C. Backed up by SD and SS police battalions and local police, the Jews were systematically marched into the ravine and shot. Only a few were able to escape. It was the beginning of a three-year reign of terror that Konev and Rokosovskii were ordered to end.
Pressure On the Dnepr Line
Their first problem, of course, would be to breach the Dnepr and Desna River defenses, which were rapidly filling up with retreating Germans. To do this they had to overcome fierce resistance from German rear guards. On September 16, Konev took Romny. Hollidt pulled his 6th Army back to the Melitopol Line the following day.
September 21 saw Lt. Gen. Pavel Semenovich Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army reach the eastern bank of the Dnepr opposite Kaniv. Vatutin immediately ordered a bridgehead to be established on the western bank by any means. The next day Rybalko’s men crossed the river north of Kaniv and secured a bridgehead in the Bukryn area. Rybalko was reinforced by Lt. Gen. Sergei Georgivich Trofimenko’s 27th Army and Lt. Gen. Kiril Semenovich Moskalenko’s 70th Army and quickly expanded the bridgehead while fighting off German counterattacks. Spending the next few days consolidating their gains, the Soviets planned their next move.
On September 26, two Soviet airborne brigades were dropped into the Bukryn bridgehead. Dropped at night, the 3rd Brigade landed on top of General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzer Corps. The ensuing slaughter decimated the Soviet paratroopers. The 5th Brigade also suffered severe casualties during its drop, rendering it virtually useless.
The 26th was not a total day of disaster for the Soviets. Lt. Gen. Nikander Evalmpievich Chibisov’s 38th Army forced a bridgehead about 20 kilometers north of Kiev at Lyutich. Soviet forces also established bridgeheads farther south in the Dnepropetrovsk area. The vaunted Dnepr Line was beginning to crack!
On September 27, the Russians received another bloody nose that showed them the Germans were still intent on holding their river defenses. Von Knobelsdorff launched a fierce counterattack on the Bukryn bridgehead, achieving several penetrations in the Russian line. The attack surprised Soviet commanders inside the bridgehead. With the German line stretched so thin a concentrated assault was considered extremely unlikely.
During the next few days the German assault continued. Several Soviet units simply ceased to exist, and many more were mere shadows of themselves. Von Knobelsdorff almost succeeded in clearing the entire bridgehead, but the stubbornness of the surviving defenders and Soviet artillery superiority helped the Red Army to maintain a fragile toehold.
Understrength German Defenders
By September 30, Army Group South had succeeded in withdrawing behind the Dnepr. The west bank of the river was considerably higher than the eastern bank, which was a large flat area laced with swamps and streams. Looking from west to east, the Germans had an unhindered view of the treeless Steppe that stretched for several kilometers.