What Next, General? Marshal Konev’s East Front Offensive, 1944 | HistoryNet MENU

What Next, General? Marshal Konev’s East Front Offensive, 1944

By Richard N. Armstrong
7/24/2017 • HistoryNet

As the famed Red Army commander, YOU must defeat Adolf Hitler’s armies and liberate Ukraine.

JUNE 1944, THE KREMLIN, MOSCOW

It is mid-June 1944 as you assume the role of Marshal of the Soviet Union Ivan Stepanovich Konev, commander of the Red Army’s powerful 1st Ukrainian Front. You have been summoned to Moscow’s Kremlin by Soviet Dictator Josef V. Stalin to present your plan to the Stavka (Soviet high command) for the upcoming offensive you will lead.

As your footsteps echo through the cavernous Kremlin corridors during your walk to Stalin’s private office, you cannot help but think of the fate of many other high-ranking Red Army officers who strode these same hallways only a few years ago – but who fell victim to Stalin’s ruthlessness in his murderous Great Purge (1937-41). Displeasing Stalin always carries with it the risk of a bullet in the back of the neck in the Lubyanka Prison’s basement execution chambers or a one-way ticket to a Gulag concentration camp. Even marshals of the Soviet Union are not immune. In 1937, Stalin executed three of the Soviet Union’s first five marshals, sparing only the sycophantic toadies Kliment Voroshilov and Semyon Budyonny. Although in the three years since Adolf Hitler’s German armies invaded the USSR Stalin has become more tolerant of criticism from his senior military commanders and increasingly works closer with them to develop operational plans, too much criticism or stubborn opposition to Stalin’s wishes still holds potentially fatal consequences.

Once you reach the door to Stalin’s office, the dictator’s private secretary, Alexander Poskrebyshev, snaps at you impatiently, “Get in there. He’s waiting.”

LVOV-SANDOMIERZ OFFENSIVE

The German defeat at the massive Battle of Kursk (July 1943) shifted the strategic initiative on World War II’s vast Eastern Front to Stalin’s Red Army.  Since Kursk, resurgent Soviet armies have been on the offensive, while German forces, stretched thinly along a thousand-mile front from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, attempt to slow or stop the Red Army’s hammer blows. By mid-1944, Hitler’s“Thousand Year Reich”is hemorrhaging to death on the Russian Front. Yet the tactical and operational skills of the German army make it a formidable enemy, even as its panzers and infantrymen grudgingly retreat from the huge territorial gains won in the lightning campaigns of 1941-42.

At the Allies’ Tehran Conference (November 28-December 1, 1943) attended by the“Big Three” – Stalin, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – an unusually cooperative Stalin agreed to time his major Red Army East Front offensives during summer 1944 to coincide with Western Front operations, particularly the June 6 D-Day invasion of Normandy. Soviet pressure in the East, tying down the bulk of Hitler’s armies, prevents significant transfers of German forces to oppose Allied operations in the West. Your 1st Ukrainian Front’s upcoming Lvov-Sandomierz offensive, coordinated with the massive, four-front Operation Bagration offensive to the north in Belorussia, will accomplish the Tehran Conference objective of tying down German forces in the East while fulfilling Stavka’s goal of liberating Ukraine and Belorussia.

As the four Soviet fronts in Operation Bagration face German Army Group Center in the north, your 1st Ukrainian Front faces Army Group Northern Ukraine, consisting of 1st Panzer Army, 4th Panzer Army and 1st Hungarian Army (totaling 43 divisions, including one panzer grenadier division, six panzer divisions, two divisional panzer groups and five divisional infantry groups).Your front comprises seven rifle armies, three tank armies, one air army and two cavalry-mechanized groups (each with a cavalry and a tank corps). Although your force outnumbers the enemy by substantial ratios – 1.4-to-1 in combat troops, 2-to-1 in tanks and self-propelled guns, 2-to-1 in artillery and mortars, and 4-to- 1 in combat aircraft – successful Soviet deception operations to shift German attention away from Operation Bagration have resulted in the enemy expecting an attack by your front. While strategic surprise is now impossible, you can still achieve tactical surprise through the timing and location of your main attacks.

Your sector is 440 kilometers wide and 350 kilometers deep with varying terrain: open plain cut by numerous rivers in the north to the west of Lutsk; hilly ridges with steep slopes in the center around Rava-Russkaya and Lvov, changing to a plain with many intersecting swamp-bordered streams east of Lvov; and in the south, a dense pattern of Dnestr River tributaries. The large number of water obstacles – including the Vistula, San, Western Bug and Dnestr rivers – means your front requires substantial engineer support for the tanks to be able to cross.

German Army Group Northern Ukraine has prepared in-depth zone defenses in the Lvov sector, incorporating hundreds of thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Successive trench lines guard the approaches to Lvov, which the enemy considers your most likely avenue of attack. Yet the Germans have not completed their echeloned defenses in their second and third defensive zones, making the German line vulnerable to a breakthrough. The enemy has only a small operational reserve, and all panzer divisions are positioned in the second defensive belt in preparation for launching counterattacks. The defenses are strongest at Lvov and weakest in the Rava-Russkaya area.

Using the available information, you and your staff develop three possible courses of action, which you will now present to Stalin and the Stavka staff.

UNDER STALIN’S GAZE

As you enter Stalin’s office, a Stavka staff officer directs you to a large, green-baize covered table along one side of the long, rectangular-shaped room. Other Stavka officers look on with stern faces as they watch you spread the operational maps across the table’s surface.

Stalin, who was engrossed in reading reports at his desk at the far end of the room when you entered, now rises, walks to the table and makes a stabbing gesture toward you with his pipe. Taking this as his signal to begin your presentation, you immediately start to explain the three courses of action under consideration for 1st Ukrainian Front’s Lvov-Sandomierz offensive.

COURSE OFACTION ONE: SIMULTANEOUS ATTACKS IN NORTH AND CENTER entails launching two powerful strike forces to simultaneously penetrate German defenses at separate locations. While one strike group attacks from Ternopol toward Lvov, the other will advance from west of Lutsk in the direction of Rava-Russkaya. Forced to defend against two major attacks, the thinly stretched German defenders will be overwhelmed and then annihilated.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: ATTACK IN CENTER calls for a single, massive attack in the center, led by the front’s three tank armies. This plan concentrates your force’s combat power to punch an opening in German defenses to achieve a strategic breakthrough and places the front’s main effort solely against a greatly outnumbered German 1st Panzer Army. Additionally, this avenue of attack is the shortest route to seize crossings over the major barrier of the San River behind enemy lines.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: ATTACK IN NORTH calls for an attack close to Operation Bagration to maximize the impact of both Red Army offensives.  The attack will proceed along that area’s more open terrain and target 4th and 1st panzer armies’ unit boundary, where enemy troop density likely is weak. A rapid advance to the Vistula River will cut off major German units to the south, pinning them against the Carpathian Mountains.

During your 20-minute presentation of the three courses of action, Stalin paces back and forth across the room, puffing on his ever-present pipe in complete silence. When you finish your briefing, he stops abruptly and turns toward you with a steely gaze. “Ivan Stepanovich,” he barks, “why do you complicate matters with all these different plans? It is clear you should adopt course of action two and strike these fascist invaders with one powerful, knockout blow in the center. Don’t you agree?”

Stalin promoted you to marshal of the Soviet Union in February for your outstanding leadership in the stunning victory over German forces in the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket. Naturally, he also wields the power to take away that promotion as well as order other unpleasant consequences. You therefore must tread carefully.

What next, Marshal Konev?

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: SIMULTANEOUS ATTACKS IN NORTH AND CENTER

You surprise Stalin by answering, “No, Josef Vissarionovich, I do not agree.” Stalin gives you a menacing look, puffing even harder on his pipe. Yet instead of exploding in a rage, he listens quietly as you explain why you reject his choice. You tell him that advancing on a single axis maximizes the enemy’s ability to maneuver while restricting that of your force; the exposed flanks of a center attack invite strong enemy counterattacks from both the north and south; and such a plan runs the risk of appalling casualties as your troops batter head-on at the center of the enemy line. You then propose initiating simultaneous attacks in the north and center. Once Stavka officers voice support for this plan – along with suggesting that your front be reinforced with 5th Guards Army – Stalin finally gives his consent. He reminds you, however, that the operation’s success or failure rests solely on your shoulders.

While implementing extensive deception operations to direct the enemy’s attention to your left flank and away from the center and north, you organize two powerful strike groups that include a total of 1,300 tanks. The northern strike group that will launch from Lutsk toward Rava-Russkaya includes 3d Guards Army, 13th Rifle Army, 1st Guards Tank Army and General Viktor Baranov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group (25th Tank Corps and 1st Guards Cavalry Corps). Striking in the center sector from Ternopol toward Lvov will be three rifle armies (60th, 38th and 5th Guards), two tank armies (3d Guards and 4th Tank Army), and General S.V. Sokolov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group (31st Tank Corps and 6th Guards Corps). Meanwhile, secondary advances in the south, by 1st Guards Army and 18th Rifle Army threatening Stanislav and Stry, will divert the enemy’s attention away from the main attacks.

Your offensive begins July 13 with a reconnaissance in force toward Rava-Russkaya, closely followed by 3d Guards Army and 13th Army. First echelon divisions of the two armies quickly penetrate 8-15 kilometers, and main forces continue advancing the next day. However, the July 13 strikes toward heavily defended Lvov are unsuccessful. More 1st Ukrainian Front forces add weight to the offensive July 14. On July 15, the Germans counterattack 38th Army’s left flank, while 60th Army stops to repel enemy attacks. For the next three days, the commitment of 3d Guards Tank Army helps your forces create an 18-kilometer-deep by almost 6-kilometer-wide corridor through the German defenses.

Meanwhile, your northern wing’s first echelon corps penetrate German defenses 25- 30 kilometers by the close of July 15. Over the next two days, you commit 1st Guards Tank Army and Baranov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group. On July 18, 1st Guards Tank Army crosses the Western Bug River, while Baranov’s group turns south to help encircle a major German force of eight divisions around Brody. On the southern wing, 1st Guards Army attacks Stanislav from the north, while 18th Army slogs slowly through the Carpathian foothills.

In the center sector on July 18, 3d Guards Tank Army sends a tank corps in coordination with Baranov’s group to complete the encirclement of the eight trapped German divisions, creating the Brody pocket. The remainder of 3d Guards Tank Army maneuvers to capture Lvov from the north. You switch 4th Tank Army from behind the stalled 38th Army into the Koltov corridor behind 3d Guards Tank Army, while 4th Tank Army advances to the southern side of Lvov. The two tank armies blow a hole through the defending XLVIII Panzer Corps.

By July 22, your forces, assisted by powerful aviation support, destroy enemy forces in the Brody pocket, eliminating this potential threat to your front’s rapid advance. Baranov’s group and 1st Guards Tank Army pursue withdrawing enemy forces and advance to Yaroslav, capturing a bridgehead over the San River. At the same time, 3d Guards Tank Army cuts off enemy defenders in Lvov, preventing them from withdrawing westward. A combined assault by 3d Guards Tank Army and 4th Tank Army along with 3d and 60th rifle armies captures Lvov July 27. The same day, your men capture Peremyshl on the San River. Army Group Northern Ukraine is smashed as your forces complete Ukraine’s liberation and gain a vital bridgehead in southeast Poland over the Vistula River at Sandomierz.

Stavka sends you a directive to concentrate your forces on the right wing and cooperate with 1st Belorussian Front to your north to drive on Warsaw. You have achieved a stunning victory.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: ATTACK IN CENTER

You decide that it is eminently prudent not to oppose Stalin’s wishes. You therefore reply, “Yes, Josef Vissarionovich, I agree that a massive attack in the center gives 1st Ukrainian Front its best chance to punch through the fascists’ defenses. We will launch a powerful hammer blow that will be felt all the way to Berlin!”

While this attack will require minimal regrouping of your units, achieving tactical surprise will still be difficult since the Germans have come to expect this sort of head-on breakthrough effort from the Soviets. Yet in a bid to achieve some degree of deception, you shuffle your tank armies, pulling them back from the front line to elude German intelligence.

The front’s principal effort will be toward Lvov, with supporting flank attacks targeting Stanislav and Rava-Russkaya. Your main attack, in the sector from Brody to Ternopol, will be delivered by 5th Guards Army, 38th Army and 60th Army in the first echelon, with 1st Guards Tank Army behind 38th Army and 3d Guards Tank Army behind 5th Guards. Meanwhile, 4th Tank Army will be held in reserve. For the supporting flank attacks, 3d Guards Army, 13th Army and Baranov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group will advance in the north, while 1st Guards Army, 18th Army and Sokolov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group advance in the south.

The offensive begins July 13 with a reconnaissance in force probing the main and supporting sectors to determine the enemy’s defensive strength. However, progress is stalled immediately by minefields and concentrations of heavy enemy artillery fire. At dawn on July 14 you launch the full offensive. The rifle armies advance but make little headway. You direct the tank armies to commit brigade-size detachments to help speed up the rifle armies’ advance.

The front’s slow progress allows the German defenders to shift their artillery fire and counterattack with panzer units and assault-gun teams to shore up threatened defensive positions. You order additional air attacks to catch German panzers in the open. After three days, your troops manage to batter small cracks in the German defense. Although the overwhelming weight of your tanks and infantrymen inevitably drains German defensive strength, the enemy’s skillful withdrawal prevents your forces from achieving a serious breakthrough.

You commit your tank armies, but they immediately incur heavy losses. German infantrymen fighting from well-prepared positions exact a heavy toll for each kilometer gained.

In Operation Bagration to the north, 1st Belorussian Front’s attack with its 2d Tank Army draws off from your front some German panzer and panzer grenadier units. This welcome development, however, is counterbalanced by the strong enemy presence at Brody which shifts forces to its flank to prevent your intended encirclement and provides units for counterattacking the vulnerable flanks of your main attack. German units skillfully maneuver to stay in front of your forces, avoiding all attempts to cut them off or encircle them.

Supported by heavy Soviet air attacks and massive artillery fire, your forces finally begin to penetrate German defenses. You commit your reserve tank army toward Lvov, blocking German forces attacking from the Brody grouping. You encourage the tank army commanders to keep driving to the San River to cut off Army Group Northern Ukraine units in the south. You cannot reinforce the tank army with the two cavalry-mechanized groups because they must maintain pressure on the withdrawing Germans in the north and south. Since your frontal attack makes it impossible to maneuver to turn the flank of 1st Panzer Army that you are battering head-on, enemy units in the south avoid being pinned against the Carpathian Mountains and escape to the northwest.

Ignoring your front’s appallingly heavy losses in soldiers and tanks, you ruthlessly continue to push forward your offensive. By the beginning of August, your lead elements finally reach the San and Vistula rivers, but your forces suffer even more casualties seizing crossings at Peremyshl and Sandomierz.

Attacking on a single axis in the center of the enemy line – an operational method the Germans had anticipated and that struck where they had predicted – eventually pushed the enemy out of its last foothold in Ukraine, but at a heavy cost. Yet German Army Group Northern Ukraine was not annihilated; it was merely pushed back into southeastern Poland, where it will certainly be reorganized to fight again. Additionally, the slow pace of your Lvov-Sandomierz offensive failed to maintain the momentum achieved by the success of Operation Bagration.

Your victory was won with oceans of Russian blood. However, Stalin – who once allegedly claimed that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of millions is a statistic – likely will only care that you have succeeded.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: ATTACK IN NORTH

In response to Stalin’s question, you reply, “I agree, Josef Vissarionovich, that your idea of a single, powerful stroke to crush the fascists is best. But it should be delivered in the north, not in the center.” You emphasize a northern strike’s ability to cooperate with and complement Operation Bagration, quickly seize Vistula River crossings and pin major enemy forces against the Carpathian Mountains. Interpreting Stalin’s silent nod as approval, Stavka officers quickly agree with your plan.

Launching the main attack in the north requires a significant regrouping of your forces from the front’s southern wing to the north. This demands a major deception operation to keep German intelligence in the dark as to your strike’s timing, strength and especially location.

Your main attack will strike from the sector between Lutsk and Brody, with 3d Guards Army, 13th Rifle Army and 60th Rifle Army in the lead. Behind them will be 1st Guards Tank Army, 3d Guards Tank Army and Baranov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group. Advancing on the flank of the main attack, from Brody to Ternopol, will be 5th Guards Army, 38th Rifle Army and Sokolov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group, with 4th Tank Army held in reserve. To the south, 1st Guards Army and 18th Rifle Army will conduct a supporting attack to fix the southern wing enemy units in place.

The offensive begins July 13 as the rifle armies advance behind a reconnaissance in force to probe defenses and expose enemy artillery positions. The following day, 3d Guards Army and 13th and 60th rifle armies push into German defenses, drawing counterattacks by enemy panzer divisions. Your armies advance in hard fighting, penetrating the enemy’s first tactical zone by late afternoon. On July 15, you commit 1st and 3d Guards tank armies, and their forward detachments rapidly advance. The tank armies hit the unit boundary between 4th and 1st panzer armies, leaving the enemy unable to respond effectively. The tank armies easily slice through German reserves and cut a several kilometer-wide breakthrough zone.

On July 16, your tankers move ever deeper, expanding the breakthrough zone. Your 3d Guards Tank Army and Baranov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group swing southwest toward Rava-Russkaya to trap the remainder of 1st Panzer Army, and the maneuver also traps the strong enemy grouping at Brody. Meanwhile, 1st Guards Tank Army swings northwest, widening the breakthrough and engaging 4th Panzer Army, preventing it from moving north to oppose 1st Belorussian Front’s attack in Operation Bagration.

On July 18, you commit 4th Tank Army in the direction of southeastern Poland to seize a bridgehead over the Vistula River. Sokolov’s Cavalry-Mechanized Group becomes your mobile reserve to react to any surprises or eliminate pockets of resistance.

With your offensive closely complementing 1st Belorussian Front’s July 18 attack, German forces are driven out of Belorussia and western Ukraine. Your forces destroy a German pocket east of Lvov, driving enemy remnants southwest against the Carpathian Mountains and well away from your advance into southeastern Poland. On July 22, 3d Guards Tank Army crosses the San River and then moves on to seize a bridgehead at Sandomierz across the Vistula River.

While 1st Guards Tank Army advances in tandem with 1st Belorussian Front, 4th Tank Army grabs a bridgehead over the Vistula, north of its confluence with the San. Your front’s advance is so rapid that your supply services are unable to keep up. You realize you may have to airlift fuel to your tank armies.

Your offensive has been phenomenally successful, exceeding even Stalin’s expectations. You hope that Stalin will keep your triumph in mind when he decides which Soviet marshal will be given the honor of capturing Berlin.

HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS

Konev firmly resisted Stalin’s pressure to mount a single attack in the center. Instead, he chose COURSE OFACTION ONE: SIMULTANEOUS ATTACKS IN NORTH AND CENTER, and the fighting unfolded as described in the COA One narrative. Konev’s defiance of Stalin was morally courageous, but his plan had the single cardinal virtue the Soviet dictator valued most: It worked.

Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front cleared German forces from Ukraine and gained the Red Army a strategically important foothold across the Vistula River barrier in southeastern Poland that would be a vital launching pad for the final, war-winning drive into Germany. The spectacular success of this startlingly swift offensive owed much to Soviet deception operations and the increasing skills of Red Army commanders at all levels.Yet, although Konev’s Lvov-Sandomierz offensive was one of World War II’s major operations on the Eastern Front, it has unfairly been overshadowed by the more famous Soviet Operation Bagration offensive (June-August 1944) in Belorussia, during which German Army Group Center was annihilated.

Regarding the Big Three’s Tehran Conference objective, the Red Army’s summer 1944 offensives contributed immensely to final Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The Soviets engaged approximately 80 percent of all German army divisions, while the Allies in France and Italy faced only the remaining 20 percent.

Marshal Konev was twice awarded a Hero of the Soviet Union gold star (the USSR’s highest decoration), the first one for the Lvov-Sandomierz offensive. He sent the first Red Army troops into Berlin in April 1945, although his rival, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, was given the singular honor of capturing the Reichstag. Konev’s troops made the first linkup with advancing U.S. Soldiers near Torgau, Germany, on the Elbe River, April 25, 1945. Konev retired from the Soviet army in 1962, died in 1973, and is buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

 

 Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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