April 1, 2014

The Cherkassy Pocket

After the battle of Kursk the Red Army was on the offensive. The Wehrmacht was retreating. By September 30, 1943 it had reached the Dnieper line. Two months later the German Army was forced to fall back. Kiev fell at 6 November. However a small portion of the Dnieper line was still held by the Germans. It stretched from Kanev (Kaniv) to Cherkassy (Cherkasy). The “Kanev salient” as it was called was the source of much concern to Army Group South. Unfortunately, Hitler believed that the salient would serve as the springboard for a grand attack against Kiev.

The battles west of Kiev
The German withdrawal created the Kanev salient, 
where XI and XLII ArmeeKorps were encircled. 

The “Kanev Salient”

The “Kanev salient” was 125 km wide by 90 km deep. Inside the salient were two Armeekorps; the XI and the XLII. The XI Armeekorps in the eastern half of the salient belonged to the Eighth Army, while the XLII Armeekorps to the First Panzer Army. The XI Armeekorps was commanded by General der Artillerie Wilhelm Stemmermann. It was composed of:
  • 57, 72, 389 Infanterie-Divisions
  • 5 SS-Panzer-Division “Wiking”
  • SS-Freiwillingen-Sturmbrigade “Wallonien”
The XLII Armeekorps was commanded by General der Infanterie Franz Matten Klott, who, at the time, was absent. Generalleutnant Theobald Lieb was replacing him. XLII Armeekorps was composed of:
  • Korps-Abteilung “B” (a mix of various units)
  • 88 Infanterie-Division
A total of some 65,000 men were in the salient.

The “Korsun – Schevchenkovsky” Operation
General Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin
2. General Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin
commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front.

Hitler’s stubbornness presented the Soviet High Command (STAVKA) with a new opportunity. The First and Second Ukrainian Fronts had the chance to encircle and annihilate the German forces in the salient. The upcoming Soviet operation would be known as the “Korsun – Schevchenkovsky” Operation. The Sixth Tank Army and the Fifth Guards Tank Army, respectively, would spearhead the advance. The operation was scheduled for 24 January 1944 and it was believed it would be over in 7-9 days.

Due to some delays the Soviet operation was launched on 25 January. After three days the two Tank Armies were met at Zvenigorodka (Zvenyhorodka). Despite the obvious need for a withdrawal from the salient, Hitler ordered the two Armeekorps there to hold on at all cost. The Germans were facing a new Stalingrad.

The German Reaction
AFV’s of the 1st Panzer-Division move towards the Korsun pocket
3. AFV’s of the 1st Panzer-Division on 
the move towards the Korsun pocket.

Erich von Manstein, Army Group South commander, was absent when the Soviets launched their offensive. He returned to his Command Post on 28 January. His first actions were to subordinate the XLII Armeekorps to the Eighth Army and appoint General der Artillerie Wilhelm Stemmermann commander of all the forces in the pocket. The German forces in the salient were stretched to the limit to defend their extended front. Now that they were encircled they had to be stretched even further to set up an all-round defense. The center of the pocket was the village of Korsun (Korsun-Shevchenkivskyi), while Cherkassy was not even inside the pocket. So it is much more accurate to talk about the “Korsun pocket”, but the phrase the “Cherkassy pocket” was used in a German Army communiqué and it stayed.

Immediately after his arrival von Manstein began to plan a relief attack. At the same time an air bridge was set up and some 100-185 tons of ammunition were delivered daily. 

4. Preparations inside the pocket for the break-out. The mud hampered any movement.

5. Ju-52 airplanes bringing much needed supplies in the pocket.

The German offense was launched on 4 February. The effort was made by First Panzer Army’s III Panzerkorps and Eighth Army’s XLVII Panzerkorps. III Panzerkorps was composed of:
  • 16th, 17th Panzer-Divisions
  • Schwere-Panzer-Regiment Bäke (an ad hoc unit with Panther and Tiger tanks)
  • These forces would be joined later by the 1st Panzer-Division and the 1st SS-Panzer-Division “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler”.
XLVII Panzerkorps was composed of three Panzer-Divisions (3rd, 11th, 14th) which were seriously under strength.

The two Panzerkorps inched their way forward through snow and mud. General Breith’s III Panzerkorps made better progress, but by 6 February it became obvious that it couldn’t make it to the pocket. General Stemmermann was advised that his force would have to fight its way to the German lines.

On 13 February the forward elements of III Panzerkorps crossed the Gniloy Tikich stream. Stemmermann was ordered to attack at 23:00 hrs on 16 February. By that time the pocket had shrunk to about six miles and it contained some 45,000 men, including Russian auxiliaries.  

The Cherkassy Pocket


6. The break-out.

The attack began as scheduled. Many men were drowned as they tried to cross the Gniloy Tikich stream. In the end some 36,000 managed to escape. Almost all of their heavy equipment, along with many wounded were left behind. General Stemmermann was killed during the escape, probably by an antitank round. Both sides celebrated their victory after the battle. The Germans for succeeding to extract the bulk of their encircled troops. The Soviets claimed that not a single man had managed to escape. Although that was not true, they had achieved a significant operational victory, having liquidated two German Armeekorps. From then on the initiative was clearly on the Soviet side.

Military museum at Korsun
7. Military museum at Korsun.

Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth, The Russian-German War 1943-1944. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1994.
Haupt, Werner. Army Group South – The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1998.
Nash, Douglas E. Hell’s Gate, The Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket January - February 1944. Southbury, CT: RZM, 2005.
Straßner, Peter. European Volunteers – the 5. SS-Panzer-Division “Wiking.” Winnipeg: J.J. Fedorowicz,2006.
Ziemke, Earl F. Stalingrad to Berlin - the German Defeat in the East. 1968. Reprint. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 2002.

Photos attribution
1. CMH Pub 30-5-1
2. Russia State Military Archive, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-090-3913-24/Etzhold/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
4. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-711-0438-05A/Menzendorf/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-1280/CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
6. CMH Pub 30-5-1
7. Віктор, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons