In the wake of the failed German offensive at Kursk, the Soviets launched their first summer offensive of the war, pushing Manstein's battered Army Group South back towards the Dniepr River. There Manstein intended to rest and refit his troops, but that was not to be: STAVKA ordered the First and Second Ukrainian Fronts to force crossings of the Dniepr before the Germans could catch their breaths. The First Ukrainian Front, commanded by Nikolai Vatutin, was able to secure bridgeheads north and south of Kiev. His opponent would be the veteran 4th Panzer Army, commanded by Hermann Hoth.
In October 1943 several of Vatutin's armies were having serious trouble trying to break out of the rugged terrain of the Bukrin bend, the southern bridgehead. The 24th Panzer Corps of Walther Nehring, in an excellent defensive position, had the opposing Soviet forces squeezed in. As a result, Vatutin decided to concentrate his strength at the northern bridgehead, at Lyutesh.
The powerful 3rd Guards Tank Army, commanded by Pavel Rybalko, moved northwards towards the Lyutesh bridgehead under cover of darkness and diversionary attacks out of the Bukrin bend. Masses of artillery were shifted northwards, unnoticed by the Germans.
First Stage (November)
On the morning of 3 November 1943, the 4th Panzer Army awoke to a massive Soviet bombardment. The German forces screening the bridgehead were smashed, and Kiev was liberated in short order. 1st Ukrainian Front's objectives were to drive quickly westwards to take the towns of Zhitomir, Korosten, Berdichev, and Fastov. This would cut the rail link to Army Group Center and would be the first step towards the encirclement of Army Group South.
The plan was ambitious, but nonetheless was proceeding very well for Vatutin. Manstein, normally calm and collected, was worried. As Rybalko's tanks marched through the streets of Kiev on 5 November, Manstein pleaded Hitler to release the 48th and 40th Panzer Corps in order to have sufficient force to retake Kiev. The 48th Panzer Corps was committed, but Hitler refused to divert the 40th Panzer Corps. In addition, he relieved Hoth of his command and replaced him with Erhard Rauss. The new commander was ordered to blunt the Soviet attack and secure Army Group South's northern flank and communications with Army Group North.
It was a tall order, even with the new Panzer Corps attached. But 4th Panzer Army was soon reinforced, especially with artillery and rockets. Despite heavy casualties in the initial stages of the Vatutin's offensive, the German divisions were brought up to reasonable strength. The first unit to arrive from 48th Panzer Corps was the newly formed 25th Panzer Division, on 7 November. Its drive on Fastov was halted by the 7th Guards Tank Corps. Rybalko was soon merely 40 miles from Berdichev. Zhitomir was taken by the 38th Army. The 60th Army was at the gates of Korosten. 40th Army was moving south from Kiev. The only break that the Germans caught was that 27th Army burned itself out and went over to the defensive in the Bukrin bend.
4th Panzer Army was in deep water. But the situation changed with the arrival of the elite 1st SS Division, 1st and 7th Panzer Divisions, under the command of 48th Panzer Corps. These new forces drove north to Brusilov and then west to retake Zhitomir. Rybalko sent his armor to counter the German assault, and a huge tank battle ensued, although not quite on the scale seen at Kursk. This continued for the latter part of November, until the autumn mud halted all operations.
Both sides suffered huge losses. The casualty ratio was about even, though the Soviets lost slightly more than the Germans. 4th Panzer had gained some breathing space with the recapture of Zhitomir and Korosten. Vatutin, while temporarily halted, had given a good account of himself during the German counterattack. STAVKA was also releasing substantial reserve forces to First Ukrainian Front.
Second stage (December)
By 5 December the mud had frozen with the chills of the Russian winter. 48th Panzer Corps conducted a wide sweeping attack north of Zhitomir. Catching the Soviets by surprise, the Germans sought to trap the 60th Army, and the 13th Corps, reinforced with the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division, drove eastward. In a dangerous position, the 60th Army withdrew from Korosten. Fastov also being threatened, the Soviets were now the ones in a desperate situation.
Reluctant but with no other choice, Vatutin asked STAVKA for more reserves. He was granted 1st Tank Army and 18th Army. These new units, along with additional Corps from other sectors, were hastily rushed westward to stem the German advance. With more than enough strength, the Soviets went back over to the offensive, and retook Brusilov. Both sides were exhausted by late December and the battle for Kiev was over.
Though the Soviets had failed to break the rail link with Army Group Center or envelop Army Group South, they had liberated Kiev, broken the Dniepr line, and inflicted massive casualties on the 4th Panzer Army. The Germans, for their part, had destroyed several sizable Soviet formations and kept the vital rail link open. But there was to be no rest. A few days after 48th Panzer Corps was pulled out to rest and refit, the Soviets launched their winter offensive on Christmas eve.
Battle of Kiev, 1943
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