(1) The detailed information presented here is from the Soviet and German FILARM model (research) used in Operation Barbarossa: the Complete Organisational and Statistical Analysis.
The Period 6th August to 30th September 1941
In August Army Group North had two primary objectives. Firstly, to breach the Luga defence line, isolate and then hopefully capture Leningrad with the 18th Army, and secondly to advance 16th Army eastwards into the Valdai Hills and capture Demyansk.
The Germans planned to break the Luga line with three attacks. The 41st Panzer Corps was to attack northwards from the Kingisepp bridgehead, the 56th Panzer Corps would attack north-eastwards from Luga, and 1st and 28th Infantry Corps would attack (the Soviet 48th Army) northwards parallel to the Volkhov River. The 39th Panzer Corps from Army Group Centre was still in the early stages of relocating to the Luga area: it would have to move from the Yartsevo area (over 280 miles away) and would not be available until 24th August. This is especially paradoxical when one considers that the 39th Panzer Corps was being ordered to move mostly using its own motorised transport on poor roads while Moscow was only around 220 miles away on better roads!
The Germans launched their attack along the Luga line on the 8th and 9th of August, while 16th Army attacked south of Lake Ilmen on 10th August. All along the front the fighting was fierce and only 41st Panzer Corps (at Kingisepp) made much progress. By 14th August the Kingisepp bridgehead (defences) had started to collapse, by 16th August 41st Panzer Corps had broken out, and on 17th August Narva was captured. By 20th August 41st Panzer Corps (now reinforced with the 8th Panzer Division) and 18th Army had isolated the main elements of the Soviet’s Luga Operational Group and trapped 30 000 men. The remnants of the Luga Operational Group contained 9 divisions (including a tank division): the fact that the average division was down to regimental strength (around 3 300 men each) is an indication of the fierce fighting in this sector, the tenacity of the Soviet defenders, and the speed with which the German Army could wear down even a dug in enemy force.
Meanwhile on the southern wing the Soviets were planning their own offensive in what is known as the Staraya Russa Offensive Operation. This envisaged the newly formed Soviet 48th Army attacking from the Novgorod region along the west side of Lake Ilmen, while the newly formed 34th Army, supported by 11th and 27th Armies, would attack south of Lake Ilmen. The Soviets concentrated 8 rifle divisions, a cavalry corps and a tank division for the offensive, with the objective of capturing Staraya Russa and Dno station, and destroying 16th Army’s 10th Infantry Corps. The offensive commenced on 12th August and immediately threatened to overwhelm and trap 10th Infantry Corps against Lake Ilmen.
On 13th August the 56th Motorised Corps (now with only two motorised divisions) was ordered to disengage at Luga and transfer northwards on 15th August to Lake Samro (taking only 3rd Motorised Division). Once there 56 Corps would drive towards Leningrad in parallel with 41st Panzer Corps to its north. However, the Soviet Staraya Russa offensive had now panicked von Leeb, and the northward transfer of 56 Corps was reversed whilst still in progress. Instead, 56th Motorised Corps was sent south posthaste, simultaneously transferring from the command of Panzer Group 4 to 16th Army. 56 Corps (now again with two motorised divisions) was then redeployed by 16th Army to attack the Soviet 34th Army in flank whilst the rallying 10th Infantry Corps would continue to hold the line against the flagging Soviet push. The Luftwaffe’s I Fliegerkorps and VIII Fliegerkorps were also repositioned to provide air support.
On 19th August 56th Motorised Corps’ attack caught the 34th Army, as planned, in the flank and by surprise. The 34th Army was badly damaged and attempted to withdraw. By 22nd August the 56th Motorised Corps reached the Lovat river having captured 12 000 men from the retreating 34th Army. While fighting 10th Infantry Corps and 56th Motorised Corps from 10th August to 1st September, the Soviet 11th, 27th and 34th Armies sustained 128 550 casualties and lost 481 tanks. In late August the 16th Army, still with the 56th Motorised Corps, pushed deeper into the Valdai Hills. In early September they linked up with the 57th Panzer Corps, as Army Group Centre’s left wing drove north, and supported the capture of Demyansk on 7th September.
On 24th August the 41st Panzer Corps and 18th Army had started ‘probing’ the heavily fortified line through Krasnogvardievsk, only 20 miles from Leningrad. By this time the 39th Panzer Corps had arrived from Army Group Centre and its orders were to isolate Leningrad from the south-east while 41st Panzer Corps attacked the city’s defences from the south-west. On 25th and 26th August the two panzer corps attacked, and the with the deepening crisis the (Soviet) GKO assigned the newly mobilised 4th, 52nd and 54th Armies along and east of the Volkhov River. The Stavka also approved the formation of two new Armies: the 42nd and 55th, which would defend Leningrad itself. 39th Panzer Corps soon captured Lyuban and closed up to the Neva River, while 4th Panzer Group and 18th Army put pressure on the shrinking line around Leningrad and the Oranienbaum region.
From 30th August to 1st September, 39th Panzer Corps captured Mga and severed the last rail link to Leningrad. By 8th September 39th Panzer Corps and 28th Infantry Corps captured Schlusselberg on the south coast of Lake Ladoga, thereby cutting the last land route out of Leningrad. Shortly after, Army Group North began its assault on Leningrad with 41st Panzer Corps and 18th Army capturing Krasnoye Selo and threatening Leningrad from the east. In the meantime the Soviet 54th Army launched a series of ferocious attacks towards Schlusselberg and Sinyavino in an effort to break through to 55th Army in Leningrad, but to no avail.
By this time however the German Fuhrer had changed his mind again. Having moved a significant proportion of Army Group Centre’s offensive capability all the way to Leningrad, he now decided (from 6th-12th September) that Army Group North should not actually take the city but starve it into submission. Accordingly, Leeb was now ordered to hand over all his armoured units to Army Group Centre, except the 39th Panzer Corps (with 1 panzer and 2 motorised divisions). From 13th to 19th September the 18th Army continued to push the Soviet perimeter inwards, finally isolating the Soviet 8th Army in the Oranienbaum pocket (against the Gulf of Finland). During this period the 41st, 56th and 57th Panzer Corps, and the HQ of 4th Panzer Group moved southwards to redeploy for Operation Typhoon. This removed any chance 18th Army had of storming the city in 1941 because the remaining 39th Panzer Corps was destined for operations east of the Volkhov River. For the remainder of September the Leningrad sector remained fairly quiet and 18th Army settled into besieging the city whilst preparing to repel any relief attempts.
Apart from the battles around Leningrad and south of Lake Ilmen, Army Group North was also involved in two other notable operations in August and September 1941. These involved capturing Tallinn and Operation Beowulf.
In early August 1941, 18th Army’s 26th Infantry Corps laid siege to the port city of Tallinn (capital of Estonia). In mid August the 42nd Infantry Corps arrived (initially in OKH reserves and then 9th Army) with 3 infantry divisions, while 26th Corps headed eastwards to Narva. By this time the Soviet 10th Rifle Corps defending Tallinn had 3 rifle divisions reinforced with several naval infantry brigades and other units (around 50 000) personnel. The main German offensive to capture the city commenced on 19th August. The fighting was fierce; it took the Germans four days to overcome the first defensive line and by 24th August the German infantry had got to within six miles of the city. From 25th-26th August there was fighting in the city streets, and the Soviets decided to evacuate the defending force by sea. This commenced on 27th August with around 30 000 Soviet troops evacuated, and the city falling on the 28th. However around 11 400 soldiers were left behind and captured, and the evacuation proved to be rather disastrous. This was because the Baltic Red Banner Fleet still controlled the sea area but not the airspace above it. From two great convoys of 84 and 78 ships which conducted the evacuation, 5 destroyers and 41 other ships were sunk by enemy aircraft and minefields. Even worse, around half of the evacuated personnel were lost.
Operation Beowulf was the German amphibious invasion of the main Baltic islands of Oesel (also called Saaremaa) and Dago (also called Hiiumaa). These islands (along with the Hango peninsula in Finland) controlled naval movement into and out of the Gulf of Riga and the Gulf of Finland. The islands were garrisoned by 23 700 men of the 3rd Rifle Brigade and support units (originally assigned to 27th Army), and had been heavily fortified. Operation Beowulf involved the 61st Infantry Division, several combat pionier units, about 100 ships and barges, and 180 small assault boats. From 8th to 14th September the Germans landed on the island of Vormsi (adjacent to Hiiumaa), and Saaremaa and Muhu. By 5th October all three islands had been cleared. On 12th October elements of the 61st Infantry Division landed on Hiiumaa and had cleared the island by 21st October. Soviet losses amounted to approximately 19 000 captured and 4 700 killed (the entire garrison). German killed, wounded and missing amounted to 2 850.
While Army Group North approached Leningrad from the south and east, the Finnish Army continued to fight over territory lost in the Winter War. On 6th August the Karelia Army (on the Karelian Isthmus) achieved a breakthrough against the Soviet 23rd Army defending Leningrad. The Finnish 2nd and 4th Corps pushed on to Lake Ladoga near Khitola, isolating elements of 23rd Army north of the lake. In this sector the Finns now formed the 1st Corps with three divisions to assist 4th Corps and destroy the isolated Soviet divisions (parts of two were trapped at Kexholm and one at Sortavala). By 23rd August the 1st Corps had cleared the area north of Lake Ladoga, but the bulk of Soviet forces had already been evacuated by boat across the lake. Meanwhile 2nd and 4th Corps progressed down the Karelian Isthmus and threatened the rear of 23rd Army, so that by 20th August 23rd Army was ordered to withdraw to a shorter line between Lake Pukya and Vuoksa. 4th Corps kept up the pressure and on 24th August crossed the Gulf of Vyborg (with its 8th Infantry Division) which threatened to isolate three Soviet divisions in Vyborg. By 26th August the 4th Corps reached the Vuoksi River, seven miles from Viipurii. The Soviet 23rd Army was subsequently ordered to pull back to the Mannerheim Line and Viipurii fell on 29th August, although a Soviet counter-attack ensured the ‘trapped’ divisions managed to escape. By 1st September the 23rd Army was pulling back to the 1939 Soviet-Finnish border which was on Mannerheim’s ‘stop line’.
By this rime the situation in northern part of the Soviet-Finnish border had become serious enough for the Soviets to form the new Karelian Front controlling the 7th Army in North Karelia, and 14th Army defending Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula. The front took up blocking positions eastwards and south-eastwards between Lake Ladoga and Onega. On 3rd September the Karelia Army (north of Lake Ladoga) attacked again with nine divisions, and on 5th September Olonets fell as the 7th Army started falling back to the Svir River. On 8th September Finnish forces captured Lodenoye Pole, severing the Murmansk railway across the Svir River. From 12th September the Finns launched limited attacks across the Svir River but had now reached Mannerheim’s ‘stop line’ in the south. The Finnish forces in the south were now content to sit on the old Soviet-Finish border and the Svir River line, and made no attempts to assist 18th Army to further isolate or take Leningrad.
Following Hitler’s Directive No 33, Army Group Centre planned to send its mobile offensive forces northwards and southwards in early August.
Having shattered the 28th Army around Roslavl, the 2nd Panzer Group’s 24th Panzer Corps was already in a good position to advance eastwards or southwards by 8th August. In conjunction with the German 2nd Army attacking towards Gomel, the 24th Panzer Corps started advancing south-west towards Starodub. Army Group Centre’s objective was the destruction of the 21st Army (in the Central Front which was formed on 24th July), and in so doing effect a junction with Army Group South to destroy the Southwestern Front. The Stavka were still generally unheeding of this danger as they believed the main German offensive would be directed towards Moscow. Accordingly they continued to deploy the large majority of newly mobilised and newly arriving forces along the Moscow-Smolensk axis, whilst supplying Central Front with only limited resources and ordering Southwestern Front to dig in around Kiev and along the lower Dnepr River.
By 12th August 24th Panzer Corps had encircled elements of Central Front near Krichev, and the German 2nd Army already had 3 divisions across the Dnepr south of Zhlobin. On this date Keitel (OKW) issued another supplement to Directive No 34 (first issued on 30th July) detailing the objectives of Army Group Centre. It reiterated Hitler’s previous directives and essentially stated that the infantry in 4th and 9th Army would go on the defensive, 3rd Panzer Group would move north to assist Army Group North’s assault on Leningrad, and 2nd Panzer group and 2nd Army would operate in conjunction with Army Group South in its operations to conquer the Kiev region, Kharkov and the Donbass.
Meanwhile the Stavka continued to believe Moscow was the primary objective, but as a precautionary measure they formed the new Briansk Front (Eremenko) south of Reserve Front on 14th August. The Briansk Front (initially allocated the newly mobilised 50th, and the 13th and 3rd Armies) was tasked with protecting Kiev from an attack from the north, and preventing any eastward advance of 2nd Panzer Group and 2nd Army, and so protect the southern flank of the Moscow approaches.
However, by 16th August the 2nd Panzer Group was already placing the junction of Central Front and the newly forming Briansk Front under pressure with 24th Panzer Corps, while 47th Panzer Corps was moving southwards in support. By 17th August 24th Panzer Corps had captured Unecha, and on this date Brauchitsch and Halder tried one last appeal to resume the advance towards Moscow (in the centre). Their arguments (to no avail) were set forth in a memorandum detailing why the advantage gained by the Wehrmacht on the road to Moscow should not be squandered. By now however the 3rd Panzer Group’s 39th Panzer Corps was already moving northwards to join Army Group North near Leningrad (see Northern Sector). Also 3rd Panzer Group’s 57th Panzer Corps was preparing to move north-eastwards to attack and retake Velikiye Luki in conjunction with 9th Army.
By 19th August elements of the German 2nd Army were fighting their way into Gomel, 24th Panzer Corps was advancing on Starodub (into the rear of 21st Army), and 47th Panzer Corps was on the eastern flank of the advance. The latter came under Soviet counter-attack but continued to push back the 13th Army in fierce fighting around Pochep and Unecha. The Germans had effectively created a breach between Central and Southwestern Fronts, as well as severing 21st Army from Central Front. By 24th August, 24th Panzer Corps had captured Novo Sybkov and Central Front was in real danger of collapse: it had already lost over 80 000 POWs (the equivalent of 6 full strength pre-war rifle divisions) in recent fighting with the 2nd Panzer Group.
On 25th August the 2nd Panzer Group’s 47th Panzer Corps (in the south) captured Trubchevsk near the Desna River, and Starodub also fell. The Central Front was now severely depleted, its 21st Army was threatened with encirclement, and the 2nd Panzer Group was deep into the northern flank of Southwestern Front.
At this point the Stavka may have started to realise the real danger facing the Soviet forces on the southern flank of the front. The decimated Central Front HQ (Kuznetzov) was disbanded (its key armies were no longer in communication or supply with the HQ anyway), and its armies were transferred to the Briansk Front (Eremenko). The latter now controlled the 50th, 13th, 3rd and 21st Armies. However the Soviet dispositions at this point are enlightening because they indicate that they still didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the danger facing Southwestern Front and still perceived a German advance in the centre as the main immediate threat. Most notably:
- Briansk Front’s main strength (including the new reinforcing 50th army) was still eastwards of the German’s southerly thrust: its focus was still on a possible easterly thrust by 2nd Panzer Group. Briansk Front was in a position to (and ordered to) counter-attack 2nd Panzer Group’s flank, but was not in a position to block any southerly thrust by 2nd Panzer Group should the counter-attacks fail (which is what actually occurred, refer The Roslavl-Novozybkov Offensive Operation below). It would have been more prudent to reinforce the disbanding Central Front’s 21st Army, and allocate it directly to Southwestern Front with orders to protect its northern flank.
- The bulk of the newly mobilised armies were still being sent to Western and Reserve Fronts. The latter were now ordered (in mid August) to counter-attack German forces along the line Smolensk-Elnya. This led to a series of offensives against the infantry forces of Army Group Centre (in the centre) which were holding the line during late August and September 1941. (Refer to The Dukhovshchina Offensive Operation and The Elyna Offensive Operation below).
- The only real concession to Southwestern Front’s increasingly dangerous position was to deploy the newly mobilised 40th Army (formed on 28th August) on the northern wing of Southwestern Front, east of 21st Army. However this army had to draw forces from other front sectors and initially only had 2 rifle divisions, 1 (depleted) tank division, and a small paratroop corps attached: far too little to stop the 2nd Panzer Group’s southerly push.
On 26th August the 2nd Panzer Group’s 24th Panzer Corps stormed across the Desna River at Novgorod-Seversky and started to secure a bridgehead. Meanwhile the 47th Panzer Corps (with infantry divisions in support) continued on the eastward flank of the advance (against persistent Soviet counter-attacks from Briansk Front). By now however the 2nd Panzer Group’s 46th Panzer Corps was starting to move up behind 47th Panzer Corps, so any possible Soviet breakthrough on the advance’s flank was likely to be short lived. The Soviets (principally 40th Army) counter-attacked the bridgehead at Novgorod-Seversky but by 30th August the 24th Panzer Corps was ready to resume its offensive southwards.
On 29-30th August, Eremenko (Briansk Front) was ordered to conduct an all out offensive with the aim of destroying the 2nd Panzer Group grouping around Starodub and closing up the 13th and 21st Armies. In so doing the threat to Southwestern Front around Kiev would be eliminated, and Moscow’s southern axis would be protected. In order to facilitate this offensive the Briansk Front would be reinforced with the newly mobilised 43rd Army from Reserve Front. These attacks were planned along two principal axes: the 43rd and 50th Armies (deployed from north to south) would strike along the Roslavl axis, while the 3rd, 13th and 21st Armies would attempt to encircle the German forces around Starodub, Novgorod-Seversky and Trubchevsk. The front’s mobile group was to be called ‘Group Ermakov’ and would consist of a tank division, a cavalry division and a tank brigade. It would attack from 3rd Army’s sector and spearhead the advance on Novgorod-Seversky from the north-east. Meanwhile the 40th Army was tasked with holding the 24th Panzer Corps spearheads and filling the vulnerable gap between 21st and 13th Army.
The main offensive started on 2nd September with both shock groups attacking into the teeth of the advancing German forces. With hindsight it is apparent that this plan completely underestimated the power of the 2nd Panzer Group (and to a lesser extent the German 2nd and 4th Armies) and overestimated the strength and experience of the attacking forces. Although 47th Panzer Corps was placed under pressure around Trubchevsk it was never in real danger of a breakthrough and inflicted heavy casualties on its attackers (particularly the 3rd Army). In addition Guderian by now also had the 46th Panzer Corps in reserve (after a short rest) just behind the front. By 6th September mobile Group Ermakov had been decimated and almost cut off, with only 54 tanks left. Despite the obvious failure of the offensive the Stavka ordered the attacks to continue until 12th September. The human and material cost of this decision was immense: of the 261 700 men (39 divisions) and 259 tanks committed to combat during the operation, the Briansk Front suffered about 100 000 casualties and lost at least 140 tanks.*
* D.M. Glantz, Forgotten Battles of the German-Soviet War, Vol I, The Summer-Fall Campaign (22 June-4 December 1941), white paper David. M. Glantz 1999, p. 103.
Despite the Briansk Front’s best efforts, Guderian’s panzers continued their advance relentlessly; brushing aside Eremenko’s attacking force. By 1st September the 24th Panzer Corps had secured and extended its bridgehead around Novgorod-Seversky and was pushing southwards; capturing Krolovetz on 3rd September. On 24th Panzer Corps’ west flank the 2nd German Army attacked towards Chernigov, pushing back the 21st Army which was to all intents and purposes now isolated from Briansk Front. By 6th September the depleted 21st Army and 40th Armies had belatedly been placed under Southwestern Front’s control, but by now 2nd Panzer Group and 2nd Army were rolling up the whole northern flank of Southwestern Front. On 8th September Chernigov was captured by 2nd Army, and by 10th September 24th Panzer Corps had crossed the Seim River and had captured Konotop and Romny (pushing back the 40th Army). At the same time the 46th and 47th Panzer Corps also pushed south-eastwards and captured Putivl and Glukhov.
By 12th September Southwestern Front’s dire situation must have been apparent to all, especially when viewed with Army Group South’s breakthroughs further south. However Stalin continued to refuse to sanction a withdrawal of Southwestern Front (giving up Kiev), although Marshall Budenny (commander southern theatre) and Kirponos (commander Southwestern Front) had both requested permission to withdraw. Instead, Budenny was dismissed (largely for making such an intelligent but apparently defeatist suggestion), to be replaced by Timoshenko who had been commander western theatre. In all likelihood however, even if the Stavka had sanctioned a withdrawal on 10-11th September it would already have been too late to save the vast majority of forces in Southwestern Front. (Refer Breaching the Dnepr River Line for more on why this was the case).
By 13th September lead elements of the 3rd Panzer Division (Army Group Centre’s 2nd Panzer Group/24th Panzer Corps) reached Lubny from the north, while elements of 16th Panzer Division (Army Group South’s 1st Panzer Group/48th Panzer Corps) reached the outskirts of the town from the south. On 14th September the 3rd and 16th Panzer Divisions linked up near Lokhvitsa. Southwestern Front was now effectively isolated in what became known as the Kiev Pocket.
From mid September until the beginning of Operation Typhoon (the offensive towards Moscow), the 2nd Panzer Group was essentially working for Army Group South in containing and assisting in the liquidation of, the Kiev Pocket, and preventing any Soviet counter-attacks relieving the pocket. (Refer Southern Sector, The Kiev Pocket for details on the containment and liquidation of the Kiev Pocket in the second half of September 1941).
From mid to late August the Stavka issued directives to Western and Reserve Fronts to conduct major offensives towards Dukhovshchina and against the Elnya salient. The cumulative effects of these attacks was to apparently force Army Group Centre to keep its mobile forces (3rd and especially 2nd Panzer Groups) pinned down and prevent them conducting dangerous operations further north and south. However the scale of these attacks, their persistence in the face of horrendous casualties, and released archival command documents (command directives), indicate that these offensives were deliberate attempts to forestall any German offensive eastwards and severely damage Army Group Centre in the process.
The Dukhovshchina Offensive Operation involved the Western Front’s 30th, 19th, 16th and 20th Armies (deployed from north to south) attacking towards Dukhovshchina, north of Smolensk. The 22nd and 29th Armies (further north) were to support the main offensive by attacking towards Belyi and Velizh. Western Front’s aim was to ultimately sever German communication lines with Smolensk and recapture the city. The first stage of the Dukhovshchina Offensive Operation commenced on 17th August and initially 19th Army made good progress: forcing the Vop River and penetrating 10kms into the German infantry defences. Note, 3rd Panzer Group’s 39th Panzer Corps was already moving northwards to join Army Group North at this time. Nevertheless stiffening resistance by 9th Army’s infantry divisions stalled any further advance.
In the meantime 3rd Panzer Group’s 57th Panzer Corps (19th and 20th Panzer Divisions) supported by two infantry divisions prepared to launch a counter-attack against the Soviet 22nd and 29th Armies and retake Velikiye Luki. This attack was unleashed on 22nd August and rapidly sliced through the Soviet defences, outflanking the forces in Velikiye Luki. By 25th August the Germans had isolated large elements of the 22nd Army in Velikiye Luki. By 29th August the 57th Panzer Corps and supporting infantry corps had forced the remaining elements of the 22nd and 29th Army back over the Western Dvina River. Despite a series of counter-attacks, most notably by the newly mobilised and adjacent 30th Army, the 22nd Army forces left in Velikiye Luki were not relieved and were eliminated by early September.
Despite the setbacks further north, the 19th, 16th and 20th Army re-launched their attacks along the Dukhovshchina-Iartsevo line on 28-29th August. These extremely bloody attacks continued for nine days and one has to wonder why, given the overall situation and obvious failure to make any significant progress against dug in German infantry. On 8th September, Marshal Shaposhnikov finally ordered Western Front to go over to the defence. By any standards the Dukhovshchina Offensive Operation was a very costly military failure, and only served to weaken Western Front and help facilitate its collapse in October 1941 during Operation Typhoon.
The second major offensive conducted against Army Group Centre’s holding infantry in August-September was by the Reserve Front against the German forces in the Elnya salient. This small salient represented a German bridgehead across the Desna River, although by mid August events elsewhere had rendered this position only one of many potential ‘jumping off points’ for any offensive against Moscow as demonstrated in October 1941. Thus the ‘Elnya bulge’ was largely symbolic to both sides: the Germans wanted to hold it while the Soviets were determined to ‘flatten’ it.
The task of retaking Elnya fell to the Reserve Front’s reinforced 24th Army (Rakutin). The first assaults began on 17th August against the five German infantry divisions defending the exposed salient on the east bank of the Desna River. However these attacks achieved only limited gains at high cost and were called to a halt on 21st August. The 24th Army was then seriously reinforced with replacements and new divisions. By 23rd August the 24th Army contained 10 divisions, including 2 tank and 1 motorised division (effectively an armoured corps), as well as no fewer than 21 corps and RVGK artillery units. This massive artillery force was going to pound an exposed salient only 20km wide at the neck and 32km deep! The new offensive was scheduled to commence on 30th August, planned to coordinate with the much larger Western and Briansk Front’s offensives further north and south.
Unsurprisingly the 24th Army succeeded in penetrating the salient defences, but only after extremely heavy fighting. By 4th September the northern and southern shock groups had penetrated and deeply enveloped the German 20th Corps (defending the salient), threatening the defenders with encirclement. Unable to reinforce the defenders, especially with any armoured forces as they were all committed elsewhere, Army Group Centre ordered the infantry divisions in the salient to conduct a fighting withdrawal. On 6th September Elyna was recaptured, and by 8th September the 24th Army had cleared the salient and closed up to the German’s prepared defences on the Ustrom and Striana Rivers (on the neck of the salient).
Some post-war literature, particularly Soviet era, has hailed the Elyna Offensive Operation as a clear Soviet victory. One author has even gone as far as to claim that it demonstrated Zhukov’s skill in the use of combined arms because the Soviets used infantry, tanks and artillery in the battle! However, a more objective perspective shows that in fact the relatively minor Elyna Offensive Operation demonstrated many of the weaknesses in the Red Army in 1941. Firstly, the Soviet casualties were excessive even by Red Army standards: of the 103 200 men committed to battle from 30th August to 8th September, 31 853 (almost a third) became casualties. Not for the first time, a Stavka directive of 13th September rebuked Zhukov for crudely organising an offensive and suffering excessive casualties. Secondly, it took a force with a 2-3 to 1 superiority in infantry, and a much higher superiority in tanks and artillery, 8 days of fierce fighting to clear an exposed salient only 20km wide at the neck and 32km deep. The 24th Army was probably the strongest army in the Red Army in early September 1941, and yet it was used to clear a minor salient while elsewhere entire Soviet fronts were under threat of encirclement and destruction. Even worse, when Operation Typhoon commenced in early October 1941, the 24th Army was already severely weakened. This very likely contributed to its destruction in the Briansk pocket later that month.
With the 6th, 12th and a large part of 18th Army destroyed in the Uman pocket by 8th August, the whole south flank of Southwestern Front and the northern flank of Southern Front were now shattered, making any defence of the territory west of the Dnepr untenable.
From north to south, the Southwestern Front now deployed the 5th Army (north of Kiev and in the Pripet Marshes), the new 37th Army in Kiev, the 26th Army south of Kiev behind the Dnepr, the new 38th Army at Kremenchug behind the Dnepr, and the mobilising (second) 6th Army at Kharkov. From north to south, the Southern Front now deployed the mobilising (second) 12th Army near Dnepropetrovsk, the remains of 18th Army retreating towards Nikopol on the Dnepr, and 9th Army retreating towards Nikolayev on the Bug River. In addition the 51st Separate Army was mobilising to defend the Crimea.
By 8th August Army Group South was moving to clear the Soviet forces west of the Dnepr and making preparations to cross the river south of Kiev. The 6th Army was exerting significant pressure on the 5th and 37th Armies around Korosten-Kiev, with the Soviets having to launch counter-attacks to keep the Germans out of Kiev itself. The 17th Army was advancing eastwards, north of the Bug River towards Kremenchug on the Dnepr. The 11th Army and Rumanian 3rd Army were marching south-east towards the Black Sea coast and Nikolayev, and the Rumanian 4th Army was ingesting Odessa. Meanwhile Army Group South’s main mobile offensive force (1st Panzer Group) was somewhat dispersed. The 3rd Panzer Corps was moving south-eastwards along the Dnepr River line towards Cherkassy and Kremenchug. The 48th Panzer Corps was at Kirovograd and advancing towards Krivoirog. The 14th Panzer Corps was near Pervomaisk and was planning to wheel eastwards and head for Dnepropetrovsk. Evidently Rundstedt was attempting to catch the Southern Front’s 18th and 9th Armies before they could retreat over the Dnepr, as well as planning for a breakout across the Dnepr River.
By 10th August Southern Front’s 9th Army had begun the difficult task of evacuating its forces to the eastern bank of the Bug River at Nikolayev. This operation was successfully completed by 14th August, with the 9th Army also destroying the naval installations at Nikolayev. Meanwhile the 18th Army was attempting to prevent the premature capture of Krivoirog and used the 2nd Cavalry Corps (a premier pre-war unit rushed north by Southern Front) in attempts to block the 48th Panzer Corps’ advance.
On 16th August (at the request of the theatre commander Budenny) the Stavka ordered the withdrawal of Southwestern and Southern Front units behind the Dnepr, with the exception of 37th Army which was to defend western Kiev. This meant that the 5th Army, isolated in the Pripet Marshes, was to fall back across the Desna-Dnepr Rivers and join the main combat line. Also by this time the new 6th Army (from Kharkov) was deployed around Dnepropetrovsk and the new 12th Army was deployed further south around Zaporozhe. Both these armies were assigned to Southern Front which now controlled 4 armies from the Black Sea coast to just north of Dnepropetrovsk.
By 17th August German forces had reached Krivoirog and on 18th August Soviet engineers blew the dams at Dnepropetrovsk. This prevented the dams and the vital crossing from falling into German hands, but the rising water levels destroyed the remaining crossings points for the retreating 18th and 9th Armies further downriver (and presumably lowered the water level upriver). Fortunately the bulk of 9th Army had already crossed and was now deploying around Kherson. However the depleted 18th Army (a large part being caught in the Uman pocket) was still mostly on the west bank of the river and faced a very difficult time retreating across the river while fending off the Germans. On this date the SS LAH Brigade (detached from the 48th Panzer Corps main body) also reached Kherson, near the mouth of the Dnepr, and started fighting for the town.
By 19-20th August forward elements of the 3rd and 14th Panzer Corps were near Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe, and were already engaging with the 6th Army. In the north the Soviet 5th Army was pulling out of Korosten, although the 6th Army’s 17th and 51st Infantry Corps realised what was happening and attacked; inflicting heavy casualties on the retreating 5th Army. On 21-22nd August Kherson was captured by 1st SS LAH but by this time the 18th and 9th Armies had managed to evacuate across the Dnepr. In the north 6th Army launched a concerted attack against the retreating 5th Army: 51st Corps rushed the retreating defenders (the 27th Rifle Corps) and gained a crossing (of the Dnepr) at Okuminovo, north of Kiev. By 23rd August the 5th Army was in full retreat with elements of 6th Army already crossing the Dnepr and reaching the Desna River at Oster north of Kiev. This now threatened 5th Army’s line of retreat across the Desna as the situation around Kiev went from bad to worse. This sudden development threatened to undermine the entire Dnepr position because 5th and 37th Army were now under real pressure to hold on to Kiev and the Dnepr-Desna river line north of the city.
By 28th August 12th Army had fallen back from Zaporoche, under pressure from 14th Panzer Corps, and destroyed the hydroelectric dam which flooded large parts of the town. At around this time the Stavka decided to remove Tyulenev (Southern Front’s commander) and replace him with Ryabyshev (38th Army’s commander). The reason for this is unclear, and is surprising after Tyulenev had just successfully conducted a fighting withdrawal with 18th and 9th Armies behind the Dnepr: this type of military operation is always one of the most difficult, especially when being pursued by a German panzer corps. Rundstedt now issued orders for 17th Army and 1st Panzer Group to concentrate and cross the Dnepr south of Kiev (around Kremenchug), while 6th Army was to do the same north of Kiev and in Kiev itself.
On 31st August the 17th Army’s 52nd Corps and elements of 3rd Panzer Corps assaulted the Soviet 38th Army across the Dnepr River around Kremenchug. The Germans rapidly established a bridgehead and the infantry from 52nd Corps poured across. Over the next few days the fighting raged around Kremenchug as the 26th and 38th Armies struggled to contain the German build up in the bridgehead. Meanwhile in the north, 6th Army hit the 37th Army in Kiev and the 5th Army north of Kiev. The latter attack with 6th Army’s 51st Corps made headway across the Desna just north of Kiev, pushing back 5th Army’s southern flank.
By 7th September, after a week of heavy fighting, the best efforts of 26th and 38th Armies could not contain the Germans around Kremenchug. The bridgehead had steadily expanded principally due to the efforts of 17th Army’s infantry divisions which had successfully beat off all Soviet attempts to counter-attack and eliminate or contain the bridgehead. At around the same time 14th Panzer Corps (with 5th SS Motorised Division Wiking) launched strong attacks further south against the 6th Army around Dnepropetrovsk. It is not clear whether Rundstedt was attempting to form another ‘breakout bridgehead’ or simply draw Soviet forces away from the main effort around Kremenchug.
In the far north the German 6th Army was also piling on the pressure north of Kiev: its attacks (along with the 2nd Army’s attacks coming down from the north) threatened to trap the Soviet 5th Army. Despite 5th Army’s increasingly untenable position, the Stavka refused 5th Army permission to withdraw.
By 8th September the entire Southwestern and Southern Front’s Dnepr defensive line was in tatters; even without the attentions of Army Group Centre coming down from the north. Up till this time Army Group Centre’s 2nd Panzer Group and 2nd Army had been defeating and breaking through Central and Briansk Fronts, and were only now starting to come into direct contact with Southwestern Front’s northerly forces. Army Group South now had four bridgeheads across the Dnepr: the main ones around Kremenchug and north of Kiev, and two lesser ones at Dnepropetrovsk and Berisalav. By 10th September the 17th Army had the 52nd, 55th and 11th Corps across the Dnepr and in the (by now large) Kremenchug bridgehead. The regrouped 48th Panzer Corps was now also deploying into the bridgehead with 16th Panzer Division leading the way. In the north the 5th Army had been belatedly ordered to fall back behind the Desna; only to find its line of retreat cut by 2nd Army moving southwards. 5th Army was now trapped between the German 6th and 2nd Armies.
By now it was obvious to Budenny (southwest theatre commander) and Kirponos (Southwestern Front commander) that Southwestern Front was facing annihilation. They urgently requested permission to withdraw from what was now the ‘Kiev salient’. Stalin refused permission and insisted Kiev and the Dnepr line be held. In all likelihood however, even if the Stavka had sanctioned a withdrawal on 10th September it would already have been too late to save the vast majority of forces in Southwestern Front. There are several reasons for this including:
- The Southwestern Front’s overall supply and readiness condition. By now most units in Southwestern Front were short of supply and many were dispersed. The deteriorating supply situation (especially fuel and ammunition) was greatly exacerbated by Luftflotte 4 having now achieved air superiority over the southern theatre, and which was carrying out round the clock interdiction. Compounding this was the fact that by 10th September there was only one railway line left into the Kiev salient; via Lubny and Mirgorod.
- Southwestern Front had almost no intact mobile forces left. The many mechanised and cavalry corps present in June and July were now completely gone or were effectively infantry without tanks and trucks. Mobile forces would have been essential to block any panzer corps’ thrusts as well as to counter-attack. By now the large majority of Southwestern Front was only able to move on foot.
- Enemy air-superiority and subsequent air-interdiction. Any mass movement by Southwestern Front eastwards would have come under very intense interdiction attacks. This would have further delayed most units trying to move eastwards out of the salient. The last railway line into the salient (see above) was already broken.
- Most of Southwester Front’s forces were already very heavily engaged and effectively ‘pinned down’ by several German infantry armies. Any attempt to withdraw (which the German 6th and 17th Armies were expecting) would have come under immediate attack. Witness what happened to 5th Army when it started withdrawing north of Kiev: it never really managed to stabilise the front in its sector after this.
- The speed with which the encircling panzer corps could now move. By 10th September, 24th, 48th and 14th Panzer Corps were all in positions were they could easily ‘outrun’ any Southwestern Front forces attempting to withdraw. This was largely due to Southwestern Front having almost no effective mobile units left.
All these parameters meant that the massive Southwestern Front was already doomed.
On 12th September Army Group South sprung the trap. 1st Panzer Group launched its attack from the Kremenchug bridgehead and in short order 16th and 14th Panzer Divisions were pushing through the defences of 38th Army. By 13th September lead elements of the 3rd Panzer Division (Army Group Centre’s 2nd Panzer Group/24th Panzer Corps) reached Lubny from the north, while elements of 16th Panzer Division (Army Group South’s 1st Panzer Group/48th Panzer Corps) reached the outskirts of the town from the south. 1st Panzer Group’s 9th Panzer Division moved up on the east flank of the penetration and seized Mirgorod (east of Lubny) while 14th Panzer Division moved to protect the eastern flank of the penetration to protect the 16th’s flank and rear.
On 14th September the 3rd and 16th Panzer Divisions linked up near Lokhvitsa (directly east of Kiev). Southwestern Front was now effectively isolated in what became known as the Kiev Pocket.
The Kiev Pocket contained the entire Southwestern Front command along with the 5th, 37th, 21st and 26th Armies, and most of the 38th and 40th Armies: a total of at least 765 000 Red Army soldiers.
By 16th September the Germans started pulling 2nd Army back onto the Moscow axis, because Army Group South’s 6th Army was now able to link up with Army Group Centre’s 2nd Panzer Group. Meanwhile Southwestern Front attempted to organise itself and attempt a breakout. Unfortunately the armies in the pocket were already being force to fight in isolation as German pressure started to cut into and break up the pocket: 26th and 38th Army around Orzhitsa in the south, 37th in and southeast of Kiev, and (remnants of) the 5th, 21st and 40th Armies between Priluki and Lubny. By 17th September Stalin belatedly agreed to let Southwestern Front withdraw! Historically this could be considered a bad joke, except for the absolute tragedy now facing the Red Army soldiers in the pocket.
On 18th September elements of Briansk Front (and remnants of 40th Army) attempted to breakthrough 24th Panzer Corps around Romny and relieve the Soviet forces in the pocket. At the same time Southwestern Front forces were now all given a blanket order to fight their way out to the east. Fighting continued inside and outside the pocket over the next few days, but the perimeter steadily decreased as the pocket fractured, and the Soviets never got close to breaking into or out of the pocket. By 20th September the German 6th Army captured Kiev as the now isolated 37th Army attempted to withdraw eastwards and join the main body. On this date Kirponos and his staff attempted to infiltrate through the lines but the column of around a thousand men was ambushed near Lokhvitsa. Most of the column was wiped out or captured, and Kirponos was killed and Potapov captured.
By 21st September 2nd and 1st Panzer Groups were already counter-attacking the forces attempting to break into the pocket, and by 22nd September resistance in the pocket started to collapse. On 23rd September the isolated 37th Army surrendered and by then an estimated 290 000 men had already surrendered. On 24th September the main body of the 5th and 21st Armies surrendered, and on 26th September the last significant units in the pocket also surrendered. The Kiev Pocket remains to this day the largest single pocket of enemy combatants ever encircled in the history of warfare. It ultimately yielded over 665 000 POWs; the largest number of POWs ever captured during a single battle.* In excess of an additional 100 000 Red Army soldiers were killed in the pocket.
* The closest to this record being the 658 000 POWs captured in the Briansk-Viazma pockets in October 1941 during Operation Typhoon.
Army Group South’s main body now redeployed for the drive east. 6th Army deployed for a thrust towards Kharkov, 17th Army assembled for an advance into the Donbass, and 1st Panzer Group regrouped for a thrust south-eastwards towards the Azov Sea. The latter’s objective was the encirclement of Southern Front, now withdrawing eastwards from the attacking 11th Army in the south. 1st Panzer Group was now reduced to only two panzer corps (the 3rd and 14th) because the 48th Panzer Corps was transferred to 2nd Panzer Group. Army Group Centre’s 2nd Army was already redeploying east of Briansk, while 2nd Panzer Group was moving up south of 2nd Army to (finally) launch its offensive towards Moscow.
By 28th September Army Group South occupied a line from: the shores of the Sea of Azov, just east of Melitopol, the Dnepr bend bridgeheads at Zaporozhe and Dneprepetrovsk, through Krasnograd and Poltava, and just east of Romny. At Romny the new ‘border’ with Army Group Centre started, which was now preparing for Operation Typhoon.
While the main body of Army Group South was focused on destroying Southwestern Front, the German 11th Army, and the Rumanian 3rd and 4th Armies, were left to deal with Southern Front. They were tasked with breaching Southern Front’s defences on the Dnepr south of Zaporozhe, advancing on the Crimea, and capturing the fortress port of Odessa. By late August the 11th Army (with two infantry and one mountain corps) occupied a line on the Dnepr River opposite the Soviet 9th and 18th Armies from Kherson to Berislav, the small Rumanian 3rd Army was just north of this position, and the Rumanian 4th Army had surrounded Odessa.
In early September the 11th Army’s 30th Corps forced its way across the Dnepr at Berislav. The success of this operation was due to the 22nd (Air Landing) Infantry Division which undertook the hazardous assault crossing against the Soviet 9th Army. 30th Corps rapidly expanded the bridgehead and had captured the nearby town of Kachovka by 3rd September. By 10th September 30th and 54th Corps had consolidated and expanded the bridgehead, pushing back the 9th and 18th armies, so that the bridgehead was now over 50km wide and 25km deep. On 13th September Manstein was appointed commander of 11th Army and quickly set about the next phase of operations. At his disposal were the 30th and 54th Corps, and the 49th Mountain Corps.
By 17th September 30th Corps was advancing on Melitopol (against 9th Army) and had reached the shores of the Sea of Azov, 49th Mountain Corps was moving along the eastern bank of the Dnepr (against 18th Army), and 54th Corps was at Perekop on the isthmus of the Crimea peninsula (against 51st Separate Army). The small 3rd Rumanian Army moved up behind the 49th Mountain Corps with its three mountain and two cavalry brigades.
On 24th September 54th Corps launched a major attack with two infantry divisions against the 51st Army defending the Perekop isthmus (to the Crimea). The Germans could not outflank this fortified position because of the narrow confines of the isthmus, so the fighting was costly and the Germans made only slow progress. It wasn’t until mid October that 54th Corps (with support from major elements of 49th Mountain Corps pulled back from the Dnepr River) could break out into the Crimea proper. By 25th November 11th Army had cleared the Crimea, except for the fortified area around Sevastopol. Meanwhile 30th Corps and 3rd Rumanian Army were left holding the line north of the Sea of Azov, and had made only limited progress towards Melitopol by the end of September.
Having cleared Bessarabia in June-July 1941, the Rumanian 4th Army which represented the bulk of the Rumanian’s strength on the East Front, moved to surround the fortified area around Odessa. Their objective was to take the city and destroy the Soviet garrison. As the Black Sea Fleet was far stronger than any Axis naval presence in the Black See, the Odessa garrison was well supplied and even reinforced (to 86 000) by early August 1941. The Red Army and Navy personnel defending Odessa had already been ordered to fight to the last man.
By 26th August the Rumanian 4th Army was able to deploy 16 divisions (1 armoured) around the city in its 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 11th Corps. Thus the Rumanians enjoyed a considerable numerical superiority when they launched their assaults on the city’s defences in early September 1941. The slow progress made by the Rumanians has led some historical commentators to state the Rumanian 4th Army’s efforts to take Odessa were half-hearted. However the Rumanian force had several major problems including:
- The 4th Rumanian Army did not have sufficient artillery to effectively assist in assaults against prepared and fortified positions. Heavy and super-heavy artillery capable of reducing heavily fortified lines was mostly absent. German heavy corps artillery was busy supporting 11th Army.
- Infantry troops untrained, and not equipped, for infiltration and close assault operations (such as the German pionier troops). Generally the Rumanians appeared to have still followed obsolete French defensive theories of warfare, and accounts of the Battle of Odessa contain descriptions of WWI style costly frontal infantry assaults.
- Only air-parity at best over the area: the relatively small Luftwaffe force in the area gave priority to 11th Army’s operations further east. Thus the Royal Rumanian Air Force (FARR) and occasional German air support was unable to prevent Soviet naval support re-supplying and reinforcing the garrison.
Between 3rd and 17th September the Rumanians had reduced the Soviet occupied area around Odessa to around half its original size, but on 21st September the Soviet s launched a sharp counter-attack against their Rumanian besiegers and actually expanded their perimeter, advancing around Grigoryevka. This battle of attrition continued until the 11th Army broke out into the Crimea in October and threatened Sevastopol. The Soviet position in Odessa now became untenable as sea borne supplies would have bean easily blocked by Axis air superiority. Therefore on 15-16th October the Soviet Black Sea fleet evacuated the Odessa Garrison (now around 121 000 men) to Sevastopol.
The Battle of Odessa proved to be very costly for the Rumanians who suffered 92 545 casualties (17 729 killed), in the battle. Soviet casualties amounted 41 268 including 16 578 killed. The Battle for Odessa was arguably a defeat for the Axis forces during Operation Barbarossa. Although the city was captured it is doubtful that it was worth the cost in terms of casualties and the effect on Rumania’s ability (and motivation) to support Army Groups South’s drive east. After the battle 12 Rumanian infantry divisions, which represented the bulk of their armies in the East, were so torn up that they had to be withdrawn to Rumania for refit.