This Soviet Airborne Operation Ended in Tragedy—but Helped Defeat Nazi Forces in Ukraine

February 4, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIKurskUkraineSoviet UnionRed ArmyWehrmacht

This Soviet Airborne Operation Ended in Tragedy—but Helped Defeat Nazi Forces in Ukraine

In 1943, after the Battle of Kursk, the Red Army launched a series of operations, resulting in the liberation of Nazi-occupied Soviet territory.

Here's What You Need to Know: By the end of September 1943, the Soviet offensive ground to a halt against the great Ukrainian river Dnieper.

This major river was the centerpiece of the Panther-Wotan Line, or Eastern Wall, a grandiose German scheme to halt the Red Army. Adolf Hitler, in his directive on August 11, 1943, ordered the creation of the Panther-Wotan Line as the last bulwark stopping the Soviet onslaught. He was echoed by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, who wrote in his diary on September 24: “We must try under all circumstances to hold the Dnieper line; in case we lose it, I wouldn’t know where we might gain a new foothold.”

The Panther section was the portion of the envisioned German line running north roughly from the area of Smolensk to the Baltic Sea. The Wotan portion, the larger segment, extended south from Smolensk to the Black Sea. Even though the Wehrmacht did not have the time, resources, or manpower to turn this into the impregnable wall envisioned by Hitler, it was a formidable natural obstacle, with the high western bank of the Dnieper River overlooking the other side.

Situated on the west bank of the Dnieper was the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, a major highway and railroad nexus. Rapid capture of this strategic objective would allow Soviet forces several options for further operations. The offensive in a northwesterly direction would threaten to cut the German front in two and drive a wedge between the German Army Groups Center and South. The advance southwest would position the Red Army at the Hungarian and Romanian borders. Turning south along the Dnieper River would threaten to cut off and destroy the bulk of the German forces in the Ukraine.

Two Soviet army groups, known as fronts, were advancing in the direction of Kiev. The Central Front, under General Konstantin K. Rokossovski, would brush north of Kiev with its extreme left flank. However, the bulk of operations against Kiev would be conducted by the Voronezh Front under General Nikolai F. Vatutin. The two fronts were renamed the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian, respectively, on September 20.

Race to the River

The Soviet offensive began on September 9, 1943, with the objective of reaching the Dnieper River by October 5. Unexpectedly, after securing Hitler’s permission, the commander of Army Group South, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, gave orders on September 15 to retreat to the western side of the river.

As the German forces rapidly pulled back, the dash to Dnieper became a race as both Soviet and German units attempted to reach the river first, with combatants often moving along parallel routes. Even falling back rapidly, the Germans fought a series of sharp rearguard actions. Still, the leading elements of the 1st Ukrainian Front began approaching the river in the afternoon of September 21, ahead of schedule.

The jubilant but exhausted Red Army suffered heavy casualties during its summer offensive. Supply lines were overstretched, and many units were in dire need of refit and replacements. Skilled bridging units were lagging behind. Fuel was in such short supply that General Konstantin Malygin, commanding the IX Mechanized Corps in the Third Guards Tank Army, gave orders to take fuel from all nonessential vehicles, even artillery, to ensure that tanks and vehicles carrying motorized infantry had enough fuel to make the last jump to the Dnieper. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, representative of the Supreme Command overseeing operations of the 1st Ukrainian Front, wrote in his memoirs: “There was no opportunity for detailed preparation for the advance to the Dnieper. The forces … were extremely fatigued by constant fighting.”

The leading units of Soviet Fortieth Army and Third Guards Tank Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front approached the river in the area of the so-called Bukrin Bend, roughly 180 miles south of Kiev. This east-facing bend in the river, named after two villages, the Big Bukrin and the Little Bukrin, was one of the few areas allowing the Soviet artillery to dominate the opposing bank. However, the rugged terrain within the Bukrin Bend, intersected by a multitude of deep ravines, prohibited maneuvers by mechanized units and greatly impeded all others. Still, the Soviet command concentrated one of its major efforts at this location because the terrain on the eastern bank allowed them to stage large forces unobserved by the Germans.

Attempting to capitalize on their momentum, small units of Red Army soldiers began crossing to the western bank almost as soon as they arrived. Due to the availability of only a few boats, some of the first assault parties were as small as five or six men. The next morning, September 22, the soldiers located a sunken ferry. It was raised and quickly patched up, and platoon-sized groups began moving across. German forces in the area were no more than a few scattered pickets, and a battalion of Soviet motorized infantry was able to occupy the village of Zarubentsy, at the tip of the bend, practically without firing a shot.

However, the Germans reacted quickly to this development, and the 19th Panzer Division was rushed south from Kiev. At the same time, the German XXIV Panzer Corps was retreating in good order to the east side of the river in the vicinity of Kanev, south of Bukrin Bend. Its leading division, the 34th Infantry, also hurried to the Soviet beachhead. By the end of the day, they began probing Red Army positions around Zarubentsy.

A Plan to Support the Beachhead

The fighting began in earnest on the morning of September 23. The two German divisions were greatly aided by difficult terrain and Soviet logistical challenges. The lack of sufficient river craft slowed Soviet buildup on the beachhead, while the Germans rushed forward elements from the XXIV and XLVII Panzer Corps. By September 26, nine German divisions bottled up and stalemated the Soviet forces in the Bukrin Bend, preventing them from breaking out.

Chief of Red Army General Staff, Marshal S.M. Shtemenko, wrote in retrospect: “It wouldn’t have been superfluous to plan an additional crossing of the Dnieper in the vicinity of Kiev in case of a setback of the offensive from Bukrin beachhead. However, neither the General Staff, nor Front command, unfortunately, prepared this in advance.”

In mid-September, as the forces of the Voronezh Front were still hundreds of miles from the Dnieper, the Soviet Supreme Command ordered an airborne operation prepared in support of the ground forces. Three elite Guards airborne brigades, the 1st, 3rd, and 5th, from the Supreme Command reserve and totaling some 10,000 men, were grouped into a provisional corps under Major General Ivan Zatevakhin. A small number of staff officers was seconded from the Directorate of Airborne Troops to form Zatevakhin’s command element.

Commander of the Voronezh Front, General Nikolai F. Vatutin, was given the operational control of the airborne corps. His political deputy was none other than the future Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Planning for this operation was shrouded in utmost secrecy, with Marshal Zhukov, who was present at the headquarters of the Voronezh Front, signing off on the finished product on September 19.

The plan was extremely ambitious, given the level of equipment, supplies, and capabilities of units tasked with carrying it out. Still, it was very thorough, with the smallest detail meticulously worked out. General Vatutin’s task for the airborne corps was to drop during the night of September 23-24 and establish a defensive perimeter immediately west of the Bukrin Bend to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the beachhead.

Planning the Operation

Aerial reconnaissance was to locate German forces in the area of the drop zones. Immediately prior to the commencement of operations, the Second Air Army supporting the 1st Ukrainian Front was to attack and suppress ground targets. Immediately after the drop, the front air forces were to switch to close support of paratroopers on the ground. Teams of liaison officers with their own radios and dedicated and redundant radio frequencies were established to ensure cooperation among the paratroopers, supporting aviation, and artillery assets. The landing itself would be conducted during two nights, with the 1st and the 5th Guards Airborne Brigades dropping first, followed by the 3rd Brigade the next night. The first two brigades were to be dropped at night 15 miles west of the Dnieper River and establish a defensive perimeter roughly 10 miles long by 15 miles deep.

The Long-Range Aviation Command provided the bulk of the 180 aircraft required to transport men and equipment. They were mainly Lisunov Li-2 planes, a licensed copy of the American Douglas DC-3 plane, as well as 35 gliders. The aircraft would fly from a complex of five airfields near Lebedin, 110 to 140 miles from the proposed drop zones. To facilitate navigation and approaches to the target area, the aircraft were to utilize radio beacons that were already installed at the airfields. The reciprocal beacons were to be set up in the drop zones by the first elements of paratroopers to land.