As a World War II Red Army general, YOU must lead an attack to encircle German defenders in a crucial East Front battle.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment in our trilogy of What Next, General? interactive articles in which we put readers in command of Soviet and German forces in some important but unfairly overlooked battles on World War II’s Eastern Front. Previously, we published “Manstein at Stalingrad, 1942” (November 2012) and “Marshal Konev’s East Front Offensive, 1944” (January 2013).
11 P.M. JANUARY 26, 1944, NEAR OSITNYAZHKI, UKRAINE
As you assume the role of General Pavel Alekseevich Rotmistrov, commander of the Red Army’s 5th Guards Tank Army, World War II on the vast Eastern Front has dramatically shifted in the Soviet Union’s favor. After Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s German armies swept to the gates of Moscow in December 1941, conquering much of western Russia and Ukraine, two massive battles marked stunning turning points. At Stalingrad on the Volga (August 1942-February 1943), the Germans erred badly by allowing the battle to be fought on Russian terms. Instead of executing the mobile, deep-thrusting panzer maneuvers at which they were proven masters, the Germans watched as the battle devolved into brutal street fighting in the city’s rubble, where their Red Army opponents’ incredible capacity to endure the horror of nightmarish urban combat proved the key to victory. At the July 1943 Battle of Kursk, however, Red Army troops beat their enemy in a battle fought on German terms, first stopping the surging panzer attacks and then launching a powerful Soviet counteroffensive that pushed the Germans back along a broad front. The Red Army has seized the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front.
Now, in a new Red Army offensive that began two days ago, your tank army has the opportunity to deal another stunning blow to German forces. As part of General Ivan Konev’s 2d Ukrainian Front, your 5th Guards Tank Army leads a breakthrough attack to link up with General Nikolai Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front forces in a pincer maneuver to encircle and trap German armies occupying the Korsun-Shevchenkovskii Salient.
Although the German army has lost the strategic initiative, it remains a skilled and dangerous foe. The Germans are particularly adept at conducting defensive operations, and as the second day of the offensive ends, they have again hammered home this fact. To successfully trap the enemy forces in the salient, you must call upon all your skill and combat experience.
When the Red Army crossed the Dnepr River in force in December 1943, large elements of German 8th Army and 1st Panzer Army (over 80,000 troops) remained in a northward-thrusting salient in the front line centered on the town of Korsun-Shevchenkovskii. Although German generals advised Hitler to withdraw the dangerously exposed units, he refused. He is adamant that the salient must be held as a springboard for future operations to re-establish the front line along the western bank of the Dnepr.
Hitler’s intransigence presented the Red Army with an opportunity to cut off and surround German forces in the Korsun-Shevchenkovskii Salient (which the Germans refer to as the Korsun-Cherkassy Salient). Stavka, the Soviet high command, has directed a pincer maneuver by 1st Ukrainian Front and 2d Ukrainian Front. Forces from each front will attack from their respective sides of the salient and link up at Zvenigorod.
Your 5th Guards Tank Army leads 2d Ukrainian Front’s attack and consists of 18th, 20th and 29th tank corps. However, your army is greatly understrength from previous fighting. Instead of its authorized 620 tanks and 188 self-propelled assault guns, it fields only 218 tanks and 18 self-propelled assault guns. The 20th and 29th tank corps are in the first echelon leading the attack, while 18th Tank Corps stands by as your second echelon.
German units opposing your army are 389th Infantry Division and 3d Panzer Division supported by a panzer battalion from 5th SS Viking Division. Other enemy units in the region, however, are within striking distance and could counterattack the flanks of your advance. German defenses in your sector consist of strongly entrenched positions with mines, barbed wire and other anti-tank obstacles. Yet experience has shown that exceptionally strong defensive positions typically represent an economy of force tactic meant to compensate for smaller troop strength. Thus you assume the Germans will have fewer troops facing your attackers in those positions.
On January 24, Soviet 4th Guards Army and 53d Army began 2d Ukrainian Front’s offensive by conducting a reconnaissance in force that penetrated two to four kilometers into German defenses. Early January 25, a short, powerful artillery strike signaled the start of 2d Ukrainian Front’s main attack. By 2 p.m., however, the Soviet rifle divisions conducting the initial assault to clear the way for your tanks had lost their momentum. Despite the risk of heavy tank losses during an attempt to complete the breakthrough, you requested permission from Konev to commit your two first echelon tank corps. He concurred, and your lead corps advanced 18 kilometers through the German first line of defense.
Last night, during the evening briefing at your command post, the intelligence officer reported a German second line of defense held by two seriously depleted infantry divisions near the villages of Kapitanovka and Tishkovka. However, he also reported German 3d and 14th panzer divisions rapidly approaching from the south. Conferring with your chief of staff, Colonel Vladimir Baskakov, you decided not to wait for the rifle divisions to catch up and you continued your attack.
Early this morning, January 26, when 1st Ukrainian Front launched its offensive from the Korsun Salient’s other side, your lead tank corps struck out to exploit the tactical gains and reach Lebedin, in the direction of Shpola, before the arrival of German reserves. You visited 20th Tank Corps’ command post and oversaw the successful start of the corps’ attack. By noon, forward brigades had pushed German defenders from Kapitanovka and reached Tishkovka. Pleased with the progress, you encouraged the corps commander to reach Lebedin by nightfall. By 11 p.m., 20th Tank Corps had captured Lebedin.
Meanwhile, 29th Tank Corps reported that its advance had slowed. You traveled to its command post to review the situation. While the corps had captured Turiya, extremely heavy German resistance made further advance costly and difficult. Now, with reports of additional German panzer forces capable of launching strong counterattacks approaching your army’s southern flank, and with 29th Tank Corps’ commander requesting a transition to defense, you face a dilemma: How should your attack proceed? If your tank army fails, German forces will escape the Red Army’s trap.
COURSES OF ACTION
Gathering your tank army’s military council, you convene a briefing to discuss three possible courses of action. In explaining the tactical situation to council members – General Petr Grishin (chief political officer), Colonel Baskakov, and your operations and intelligence officers – you point out what seems starkly obvious to you: The Germans now know your army’s direction of attack and following their standard response will launch counterattacks to attempt to cut off your breakthrough attack.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: TEMPORARY DEFENSE. Advancing your army beyond the support of the infantry rifle divisions invites a German counterattack that could cut off your breakthrough attack. Therefore, under this plan your lead corps will halt and temporarily turn to the defense until the slower-moving infantry divisions catch up, before resuming the attack later. A temporary defense will protect the breakthrough’s depth until sufficient follow-on forces arrive to hold the shoulders of the penetration against enemy counterattacks.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COMMIT SECOND ECHELON. Under this course of action, you will commit 18th Tank Corps, your second echelon, to move forward, take the lead in your army’s attack and continue on to link up with units of 1st Ukrainian Front at Zvenigorod. Throwing these fresh troops against the German second line of defense will destabilize it, prevent the Germans from restoring a defense in depth, and increase the second line’s vulnerability to succumbing to a major breakthrough.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: CONTINUE THE OFFENSIVE. This course of action maintains the momentum of your army’s attack by continuing the offensive with the two lead tank corps. These two units will press on to link up with 1st Ukrainian Front at Zvenigorod to close the encirclement of German forces in the salient. You will hold back the second echelon tank corps to defend against enemy counterattacks or to be committed later to assume the spearhead of the army’s advance if the lead corps stall.
What next, General Rotmistrov?
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: TEMPORARY DEFENSE
Concerned that reduced combat strength and exposed lines of communications make your tank army extremely vulnerable to German panzer counterattacks, you decide to turn temporarily to the defense. You order 29th Tank Corps to halt its westward advance and face south to form an outer defensive ring, and then you direct 20th Tank Corps to face west and north to defend against enemy units in the salient to the north.
At 5:30 a.m. January 27, German counterattacks begin in the south with tanks from 3d, 11th and 14th panzer divisions. The violent counterattack by the strongest division, 11th Panzer, strikes a weak area around Kapitanovka and cuts your lead tank corps’ supply lines. Meanwhile, 3d Panzer Division continues to delay the advance of Soviet 53d Army rifle units, preventing them from protecting the shoulder of your breakthrough attack.
To the north, German 389th Infantry Division facing 4th Guards Army is reinforced by additional infantry units and an SS Viking Division armored element, and then it counterattacks south toward Kapitanovka. This northern counterattack threatens 20th Tank Corps’ lines of communications and has the potential to link up with German panzers attacking from the south. Within hours, you receive reports of German tanks shooting up your ammunition and fuel supply transports and effectively cutting off the lead corps’ supply lines. The situation is potentially disastrous.
Konev visits and tells you he is sending anti-tank, artillery and infantry reinforcements to contain and destroy the enemy counterattacks. You order a tank brigade from each forward corps to reopen the lines of communications. Konev also indicates 4th Guards Army is attacking toward Pastorskoye, while 53d Army maintains pressure on 3d Panzer Division. You continue holding 18th Tank Corps in reserve, prepared to resume the army’s westward advance, and Konev agrees to support your renewed advance with 5th Guards Cavalry Corps from the front reserve.
Your forces cannot dislodge German 11th Panzer Division, which now holds the southern half of Kapitanovka and the high ground to the east. The 11th Panzer supports 14th Panzer Division at Tishkovka, dominating your lines of communications and cutting off your headquarters from the lead tank corps. At midday, unable to wait for the advance of 4th Guards Army and 53d Army, you receive permission from Konev to use 18th Tank Corps to clean out the panzer units around Kapitanovka. He sends you 5th Guards Cavalry Corps, reinforced with an anti-tank gun brigade, to resume the advance once the lines of communications are open.
You send 18th Tank Corps to reopen the southern lines of communications to 29th Tank Corps and use 5th Guards Cavalry Corps against Kapitanovka to open supplies to 20th Tank Corps. Both units become engaged in heavy fighting, and scattered, confused combat continues throughout the night around Kapitanovka and Tishkovka.
Despite these difficulties in your army’s rear area, you alert the lead tank corps commanders to prepare to resume their advance. Yet they complain that their units lack ammunition and fuel. You can only promise to see what you can slip by the Germans that night.
Early January 28, you launch 18th Tank Corps to open the corridor to the forward tank corps so the advance can resume. Although fighting has been heavy around Kapitanovka and Tishkovka, the added weight of 18th Tank Corps’ anti-tank units makes you optimistic about continuing the offensive.
That afternoon, you receive reports of heavy German artillery fire and Stuka dive-bomber attacks in the contested area. Later, intelligence reports 50-60 PzKw V Panther tanks approaching Kapitanovka, suggesting a fresh panzer division is joining the fight. The battle in your rear area not only prevents a resumption of your army’s advance, but serious tank losses also deplete your fighting strength. While your army’s attack stalls short of Zvenigorod, a lead element from 1st Ukrainian Front’s 6th Tank Army captures the town and continues east to link up with your 20th Tank Corps. The encirclement is complete, turning the Korsun Salient into the Korsun Pocket.
However, due to your attack’s failure to make substantial forward progress, the encircling line is extremely thin. Any aggressive German counterattack will certainly break the encirclement and allow enemy forces in the Korsun Pocket to escape the Red Army trap.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COMMIT SECOND ECHELON
Impatient with the slow progress of your two lead tank corps, you decide to reinvigorate your army’s advance by committing your second echelon, 18th Tank Corps. You also ask Konev for 5th Guards Cavalry Corps and additional anti-tank, artillery and infantry units to hold an outer encirclement ring against German assaults. He wants your tank units to reach Zvenigorod first and ensure trapping the German units in the Korsun Salient. The 29th Tank Corps will advance while screening your southern flank against continued German counterattacks.
Early January 27, 18th Tank Corps, with priority on the roads, pushes through 29th Tank Corps to advance on the left flank of 20th Tank Corps, which continues attacking from Shpola. You urge the tank corps commanders to bypass enemy resistance to gain Zvenigorod immediately for a linkup with 1st Ukrainian Front’s 6th Tank Army.
That afternoon, you receive reports of a strong counterattack by 11th and 14th panzer divisions from the south moving toward Kapitanovka and heavy fighting against German 3d Panzer Division near Tishkovka. Additionally, a strong infantry counterattack with SS panzers from the north is heading to Kapitanovka, where German tanks are moving up and down the lines of communications, shooting up your ammunition and fuel transports. The German counterattack strikes the tail of 18th Tank Corps as it moves to the attack and effectively cuts the lines of communications to your tank army from 2d Ukrainian Front.
Konev sends 5th Guards Cavalry Corps, reinforced with an anti-tank brigade and an infantry division with artillery from 4th Guards Army reserve, to clear a line of communications through Kapitanovka and to establish an outer encirclement ring. He also urges his rifle army commanders to advance their forward troops beyond Kapitanovka to relieve your cut-off tank army.
As the fierce rear area fighting continues January 28, 20th Tank Corps reports capturing Shpola, but the corps is running low on fuel and ammunition. You order the commanders of 18th and 20th tank corps to pool their fuel resources into reinforced tank brigades as forward detachments continue the advance to capture Zvenigorod. By early afternoon, both lead corps capture Zvenigorod’s outskirts. Meanwhile, rear area reports indicate a renewed German counterattack from the south with reinforcements of 50-60 PzKw V Panther tanks near Kapitanovka. You respond by turning back a tank brigade and rifle brigades from 29th Tank Corps to assist with opening your supply lines.
The 5th Guards Cavalry Corps with its anti-tank brigade blunts the attack of the newly arrived Panther tanks in 11th Panzer Division’s area, but it is unable to clear the enemy tanks with cavalry. As Konev makes extraordinary efforts to reconstitute a front reserve for clearing out the German units sitting astride your tank army’s supply line, he orders you to release 5th Guards Cavalry Corps minus the anti-tank brigade to move north against enemy infantry on the inner ring. He has pulled a rifle corps, a rifle division, a Katyusha rocket division, and anti-tank artillery from rifle armies across the front; however, they will not arrive until January 29 or 30.
Your tank army is now fighting in two directions and suffering from shortages of ammunition and fuel, but you have achieved your objective. You must use most of 29th Tank Corps to help clear your supply lines. Your army’s tank strength is dwindling rapidly in the fights with German panzers counterattacking your flanks, and by committing your second echelon corps early, you have no strong reserve force left to react to enemy counterattacks or threats to your supply lines.
Although a forward detachment from 1st Ukrainian Front’s 6th Tank Army links up with your forces in Zvenigorod, closing the encirclement and trapping German forces in the Korsun Pocket, the encirclement remains tenuous. You fear that any escape attempt by the Germans will succeed.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: CONTINUE THE OFFENSIVE
After discussing the tactical situation with the army’s military council, you decide to continue the offensive. You order 20th Tank Corps to seize Shpola and advance to Zvenigorod, and you direct 29th Tank Corps to defend the shoulder of the breakthrough to the south and southwest.
In a successful night attack, 20th Tank Corps captures Shpola to maintain your tank army attack’s momentum. Despite this success, the Germans launch a sweeping counterattack, retaking Tishkovka and part of Kapitanovka from the south and severing your army’s lines of communications. The command post of 20th Tank Corps is cut off, isolating it from its brigades. Groups of German tanks move up and down the supply routes destroying vital ammunition and fuel trucks destined for your forward tank units. Meanwhile, a counterattack from the north by German infantry supported by SS panzers threatens to cut off your entire tank army. The situation is critical.
With your two lead corps isolated from 2d Ukrainian Front and the tank army’s rear support, you determine you must act decisively. You direct 20th Tank Corps to continue its attack toward Zvenigorod, and you turn 29th Tank Corps to hold your southern flank. You consider committing your second echelon, 18th Tanks Corps, to halt and throw back the counterattacking German panzer divisions; however, the corps has only 50 operational tanks. You believe the only way the operation will succeed is if you continue the attack to link up with 1st Ukrainian Front and fend off the counterattack.
When Konev visits your command post the morning of January 27, you tell him of your plan to commit 18th Tank Corps to clear the supply lines and then you ask for reinforcements. Konev believes your tank army should move forward regardless of the situation in the rear. He immediately puts under your command a rifle division from the second echelon of 4th Guards Army. From the front reserve he commits 5th Guards Cavalry Corps reinforced with an anti-tank brigade to work in conjunction with your tank army. The cavalry corps attacks toward Kapitanovka while 18th Tank Corps attacks around Tishkovka. Both units become heavily engaged in scattered battles lasting into the morning of January 28, but they finally begin clearing the breakthrough zone.
Meanwhile, 20th Tank Corps conducts a successful night attack that captures Shpola. You direct the corps to drive on to the primary objective, Zvenigorod, which the corps reaches at noon January 28. A forward detachment of 1st Ukrainian Front’s 6th Tank Army arrives a couple hours later. With this linkup, the two fronts have closed the encirclement, trapping German forces in the Korsun Pocket.
That afternoon, the Germans renew their counterattack at Kapitanovka with artillery preparations and Stuka air attacks reinforced by 50-60 PzKw V Panther tanks assigned to 11th Panzer Division. This fresh panzer force, consisting of a recently constituted panzer detachment from the Western Front, demonstrates its inexperience in Eastern Front fighting, taking heavy casualties by running into your artillery and anti-tank firing lines emplaced around the German penetration.
The next day, January 29, 5th Guards Cavalry Corps moves north to deal with the German counterattack from that direction, while 18th Tank Corps and additional reinforcements clear Kapitanovka and Tishkovka, opening the lines of communications.
Additional forces Konev pulls from other units enable the front to create a solid inner circle to prevent German forces from withdrawing from the Korsun Pocket, while your tank army establishes an outer ring repelling German relief operations from outside the pocket.
The boldness you have demonstrated in continuing the offensive proves decisive. After the initial German counterattack of January 27-28, the enemy attempts further panzer counterattacks (February 1, 4-5, and 11) against your tank army’s formidable outer ring, but they are unsuccessful. Your decisive leadership has helped achieve another stunning Red Army victory.
HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS
General Rotmistrov chose COURSE OF ACTION THREE: CONTINUE THE OFFENSIVE, and the battle played out as described in the COA Three narrative. Rotmistrov’s aggressive and decisive actions were key to completing the Red Army’s encirclement of a large group of German forces in the Korsun-Shevchenkovskii Salient (known as the Cherkassy Pocket to the Germans). Soviet military literature divides the Korsun-Shevchenkovskii operation into two distinct phases: The first stage (January 24-February 3) was the breakthrough and encirclement of the German grouping in the salient, forming an inner and outer ring to hold and defend the encirclement; and the second stage (February 4- 17) was the destruction of the trapped German forces. The exact number of German casualties is the subject of controversy. The Germans claim to have lost 30,000 in the encirclement, while Soviet sources cite 55,000- 80,000 Germans killed or captured.
Both sides used the battle for propaganda purposes. The Soviets justifiably celebrated the significant Red Army victory, while the Germans tried to make the best of their defeat by trumpeting their soldiers’ “heroic stand” and the battered survivors’ “daring breakout.” A senior German officer, however, accurately assessed the true nature of the German defeat, calling it a “miniature Stalingrad.” By carrying out a complicated encirclement operation at Korsun, the Red Army clearly demonstrated its mastery of highly effective combined arms operations.
General Rotmistrov, for his leadership in the operation, was awarded the Order of Suvorov, 1st Degree, and was promoted to Marshal of Tank Troops – the first person appointed to this rank. He served in the Soviet army until 1968 and died in 1982.
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 March 2013 issue of Armchair General.