The Nikopol Offensive: Hitler and Stalin's Struggle for Iron

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September 12, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IISoviet UnionNazi GermanyIronEastern Front

The Nikopol Offensive: Hitler and Stalin's Struggle for Iron

Russian iron ore and magnesium fueled the German war machine.

Here's What You Need To Remember: Although Schörner was completely loyal to Hitler, even he would have been astounded at the fairy-tale world that was Hitler’s headquarters.

At first, it was all about the ore. Magnesium, iron, and manganese ore were the lifeblood of German industry, especially the armaments industry, which used the iron and manganese to produce steel for Hitler’s war machine. Magnesium was one of the main aerospace construction metals and was used extensively in German aircraft production. It was also used as a lining for the massive furnaces in the iron and steel works.

Nikopol: A Town Rich With Ore

Located in the southern Ukraine, the town of Nikopol was the center of one of the largest manganese ore basins in the western Soviet Union. Some 50 miles northwest of Nikopol, the town of Krivoi Rog sat atop an equally large iron ore basin. The entire area had been developed under the czars, and after the Communist takeover the ore taken from its mines served to build up the Red Army, Air Force, and Navy.

When German forces crossed the Soviet border on June 22, 1941, the forces of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South smashed through Russian frontier defenses and fanned out across the steppe, taking hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers and leaving thousands more dead on the battlefield.

One of the units in von Rundstedt’s army group was General Werner Kempf’s XLVIII Panzerkorps. In August, Kempf’s armored and motorized forces were moving toward the ore-rich areas at Krivoi Rog and Nikopol. As the Germans advanced, Soviet troops and civilians worked frantically to dismantle entire factories and transport them to locations east of the Ural Mountains. Kempf’s Panzerkorps stood on the west bank of the Dnieper River by the end of the month, having taken both towns as his troops drove further eastward.

Close on the heels of the victorious German troops came teams of engineers tasked with repairing the devastation left behind by the Russians. They were part of the Hermann Göring Werke, an organization formed by Luftwaffe chief Göring and some industrial cronies in the early days of Hitler’s regime. A Reich- owned enterprise, the Hermann Göring Werke operated mines, steel works, and other industries in conquered countries across Europe.

Once the Krivoi Rog and Nikopol operations were running again, Russian iron ore and magnesium fueled the German war machine. A huge factory in Nikopol was adorned with the Hermann Göring Werke logo, and trains filled with ore left the town daily, headed west toward the furnaces of the Reich.

Von Manstein’s Battered Army

The waning months of 1943 saw German fortunes in Russia turn dramatically from those heady days of 1941. After the massive battle at Kursk in July, the Soviets launched a series of attacks in southern Russia that sent the Germans reeling westward. By late August, Red Army forces were nearing Smolensk on Army Group Center’s right flank.

Farther south, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South was forced to give up Kharkov on August 23. The wily field marshal immediately ordered General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps to counterattack the Soviet forces that were pushing west from Kharkov. In a series of sharp, bloody engagements, the III Panzerkorps hit the 1st Tank and 6th Guards Armies near Bododukhov, stopping them dead in their tracks. The commander of the Voronezh Front, General Nikolai Fedorovich Vatutin, was forced to move his 5th Tank Army into the fray, effectively bringing plans for a quick thrust westward to a halt for several days.

When Vatutin resumed his offensive, the III Panzerkorps kept nipping at the Russian flanks like a terrier. Meanwhile, Hitler flew to meet von Manstein at Vinnitsa, which had once been the Führer’s headquarters in the Ukraine. Von Manstein, blunt as ever, gave Hitler the cold, hard facts. His army group had suffered 133,000 casualties in August alone but had received only 33,000 replacements. The Soviets, while suffering greater casualties, could replace them with men pressed into service from the newly liberated areas and by transferring units from other sectors.

“Summing up the present situation, I insisted that while the Donetz [River] could not be held with the forces now available, the far greater danger for the German southern wing as a whole lay on the northern wing of our Army Group,” von Manstein later wrote in his memoirs. “[The] 8th and 4th Panzer Armies would be unable in the long run to prevent the enemy from breaking through to the Dnieper [River].”

The field marshal then gave Hitler a choice—send at least 12 new divisions to the Army Group immediately and replace worn-out divisions with ones from quieter sectors on the front or abandon the Donetz Line. Hitler agreed with von Manstein and promised more forces. The promise was never kept.

The Unstoppable Soviet Advance

While the Führer and his field marshal talked, the Soviets were once again on the move. During the final days of August, the Forty-Fourth Army of General Fedor Ivanovich Tolbukhin’s South Front took Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov. Battered elements of the German XXIX Armeekorps, ordered to hold the city, managed to make their way through the Soviet lines while suffering heavy casualties in the process.

As August drew to a close, Soviet forces on the southern wing of the Eastern Front outnumbered the Germans about two-to-one in manpower and had an even larger ratio advantage in tanks, aircraft, and artillery. While von Manstein continued to plead with Hitler for freedom of movement, his divisions were being bled dry by the Russian juggernaut. Worse was to follow.

During the first week of September, Army Group South was forced to give up the towns of Putivl (severing the Bryansk–Konotop rail line and breaking the communications line between Army Group Center and Army Group South), Artemovsk, Konotop, Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, and Konstantininovka. At the same time General Erwin Jaenicke’s Seventeenth Armee, which held a bridgehead on the Kuban Peninsula, was given permission to begin withdrawing across the Kerch Strait to the Crimea. Later in the war, a Soviet general would refer to the Crimea as “our largest prisoner-of-war camp.” When the Crimea was cut off by the Soviets later in the month, the Seventeenth Armee would be effectively out of the battle for good.

There seemed to be no stopping the Red Army as it continued to surge forward in the second week of September. First, the cities of Stalino and Krasnoarmyansk fell, followed by Mariupol and Barvenkovo. On the Kuban Peninsula, the 250,000 soldiers of the Seventeenth Armee continued their successful evacuation, giving more than half the coastline of the Sea of Azov to the Soviets.

During the second week of September, while city after city was being liberated by Russian troops, von Manstein met with Hitler at Zaporozhye. Von Manstein once again stressed the serious situation that Army Group South was facing. “I emphasized that the position on the Army Group’s right wing could not be restored forward of the Dnieper,” he wrote in his memoirs.

Once again Hitler listened, and once again he refused to face reality. He did, however, order Army Group Center to send von Manstein four divisions that would start moving south on September 17.

Before those divisions arrived, the situation in the south grew even worse. General Rodion Iakovlevich Malinovsky’s Southwest Front’s Sixth Army captured Lozovaya on the 16th and Tolbukhin’s South Front’s Forty-Fourth Army took Berdyansk on the 17th, forcing General Karl Hollidt’s Sixth Armee back to defenses near Melitopol. By September 21, the First Panzerarmee had been pushed back to the Dnepropetrovsk bridgehead and Sinelnikovo had fallen to the Southwest Front.

The final week in September saw the Germans in southern Russia lose even more ground. Although the Soviets paid a heavy price for their success, Poltava and Dnepropetrovsk were taken and Kremenchug was liberated after a bloody fight. Von Manstein was able to establish a tenuous line behind the Dnieper, but his army group had been severely mangled, with many of his divisions reporting a combat strength of less than a reinforced regiment.

Challenging the Zaporozhye Bridgehead

At the beginning of October, von Manstein moved his headquarters from Kirovograd to Hitler’s former headquarters at Vinnitsa as the Red Army continued to push westward. By October 5, General Vasilii Ivanovich Chuikov’s Eighth Guards Army was involved in heavy fighting near Dnepropetrovsk. In the Kuban, the final elements of the Seventeenth Armee evacuated the Taman Peninsula, making the short journey across the Kerch Strait to the Crimea.

On October 10, Malinovsky’s Southwest Front unleashed a three-pronged attack on the Zaporozhye bridgehead, about 20 miles northeast of Nikopol. While Chuikov’s Eighth Guards Army hit the center of the bridgehead, supported on his left flank by General Dmitrii Danilovich Leliushenko’s Third Guards Army, General Aleksei Ilich Danilov’s Twelfth Army attacked from the north. As the Soviets pressed forward, they were met by a steel curtain of fire from the Germans.

Defending the bridgehead were the men of General Ferdinand Schörner’s XL Panzerkorps and the XVII Armeekorps commanded by Maj. Gen. Hans Kreysing. An early Soviet penetration of the bridgehead’s perimeter was eliminated by a German counterattack. Regrouping, the Russians pounded the German positions with a massive barrage.