Battle on the bridgeheads. A machine-gun crew renders fire support to the troops crossing to the other bank of the Dnieper..



The defeat of the German armies in the battle of Kursk had ultimately wrestled out the strategic initiative from the hands of the German command. The collapse of the offensive plans had forced the Germans to seek different objectives in the conditions of the Soviet strategic offensive. The German front was broken in two sectors: western and south-western. Since July Soviet armies were developing their success, and in August they liberated Orel and Kharkov. A big gap emerged between the Amy Groups Centre and South.

In those circumstances the German Chief Command of the Armed Forces (OKW) sought stabilization of the East front to hold the Donbass, Krivoy Rog, and economically important areas of the Ukraine. For that goal it started to transfer substantial forces drawn from reserves and other fronts of the war.

The response of the Soviet Supreme Command (Stavka) was immediate. To develop their success in the battle of Kursk, Soviet armies widened their offensive in the western and south-western sectors. Central, Voronezh, Steppe, South-Western and Southern fronts received orders to pursuit after the enemy to the Dnieper and seizing bridgeheads on its western bank. Meanwhile forces of the Bryansk, Western and Kalinin fronts had to strike in the area of Smolensk, liberate the city and push the enemy as far westward as possible.

That plan, grandiose by its design and forces engaged in its realization, was carried in the course of the following operations: Smolensk - from 7 August to 2 October (resulting in liberation of Smolensk and Roslavl, and beginning of the liberation of Byelorussia); Donbass - from 13 August to 22 September (liberation of the Donbass); liberation of the Left-Bank Ukraine - from 25 August to 30 September (break-through to the Dnieper); Chernigov-Pripet - from 26 August to 1 October (liberation of the province of Chernigov); Bryansk - from 1 September to 3 October (advance from the Central Russian Upland to the basin of the Desna); Novorossiysk-Taman - from 9 September to 9 October (liberation of the Caucasus completed); Melitopol - from 26 September to 5 November (exit to the Crimean isthmus); and Kerch-Eltigen seaborne (grasping bridgeheads in East Crimea). As we see, none of those operations commenced and concluded at the same time. They rather overlapped in time, remaining consecutive only in the strategic plane. That forced the enemy to atomize his reserves, while transferring them from one sector to another, and trying to plug here and there gigantic gaps that Soviet forces opened in his defences. [Василевский А. М. (1978).]

That great strategic offensive along almost whole German-Soviet front in the second half of 1943 was later called the Battle of the Dnieper.

On 21 September 1943 advanced units of the Central Front reached the Dnieper in the north of Kiev. On the next day they grasped a bridgehead on the river's right bank. Those were the troops of the 13th Army commanded by Gen. Nikolay Pukhov. Marshal Konstantin Rokossovskiy noted that important episode in his memoirs:

The 13th Army meanwhile reached the Dnieper, and on September 22 began to effect a crossing north of Kiev on the section Mnevo, Chernobyl, Stashev. Led by experienced and resolute officers, the men used all they could find on the bank - boats, rafts, and barrels - to cross the water barrier against stiff enemy resistance on a broad front. The crossing was supported by well organised plunging and direct artillery fire from the bank. Tanks kept up a steady barrage from the water's edge, while attack and fighter aircraft gave the ground forces support from the air. The advance infantry units swiftly crossed the river and gained a foothold on the far bank, repelling enemy attempts to push them back into the river. Artillery officers crossed the Dnieper together with the infantry and guided fire from the bridgehead. More and more men crossed under the protection of the advance groups, rapidly building up forces on the bridgehead. The enemy, taken by surprise, had no time to rush sufficient forces to oppose the crossing. [Rokossovsky K. K. (1970).]

Local partisans hastened with the aid to the regular troops. When the Soviet forces were approaching the Dnieper, the Ukrainian Partisan Movement Headquarters in Moscow issued orders to create and hold bridgeheads - two on the western bank of the Dnieper, and three on the western bank of the Pripet. Thanks to them regular troops were able to cross the rivers quickly and allocate main forces reinforcing the bridgeheads.

The units of the 60th Army and 7th Mechanized Corps of Guards achieved similar success. In the north of Kiev they grasped the bridgeheads and started widening them to create one big bridgehead of strategic importance.

On the right wing of the Central Front the 48th and 65th Armies advancing towards Gomel reached River Sozh and seized two bridgeheads on its western bank. Thanks to them Soviet forces gained the initial position for further advance towards the Dnieper. But not before regrouping and reinforcing of the units exhausted in several months of fights.

Advanced units of the Voronezh Front reached the Dnieper in the evening of 21 September. Those were the units of the 3rd Tank Army of Guards. The Soviet command transferred it to the Voronezh Front to augment the pursuit after the enemy retreating towards the Dnieper. Concentrated around Romny, on 19 September it saw action; while avoiding skirmishes with the German rearguards, it pushed vigorously ahead to grasp the crossings on the Dnieper as soon as possible, before the enemy would managed to rebuild its defences on the western bank.

As the 6th and 9th Tank Corps reached the Dnieper, their motorized infantry battalions started crossing the river right away near the town of Velikiy Bukrin. As they ran ahead of the main forces, they left the bridging equipment behind, and had to cross the river on improvised means, like boats and rafts. As soon as they grasped bridgeheads on the right bank, they started bringing there artillery, but it was impossible to ferry the tanks before the pontoon bridges arrived.

To relieve the troops fighting in the bridgeheads, and halt the enemy counter-attacks, on 24 September two airborne brigades were parachuted 30km behind the enemy lines. However, they were too weak to prevent regrouping of one German armoured division, one mechanized division, and two infantry divisions.

Although the bridgeheads were deepened and widened, and more troops and equipment were concentrated there to continue the advance, the 3rd Tank Army was not ready to resume its operations until 5 October, and the chance to catch the enemy by surprise in that sector was lost.

Units of the 38th Army of the Voronezh Front successfully crossed the Dnieper directly in the north of Kiev on 28-28 September, near the town of Lyutezh. At the same time they liquidated the enemy bridgehead near Darnitsa (a suburb of Kiev on the left bank) held by 7 German divisions. Elimination of the German bridgehead at Darnitsa enabled later to unfold a powerful offensive from the Lyutezh bridgehead.

The units of the Steppe Front had to overcome more difficulties, as they encountered a hard enemy defence around Poltava, to which the Germans attached a lot of importance. On 23 September the 53rd Army and the 5th Army of Guards liberated Poltava, and the German troops, weakened in the pitched street fights, started retreating towards Kremenchug. They managed to leave the Soviet far behind, so only the Soviet air forces were able to strafe retreating German troops, and bomb river crossings on the Dnieper, including the railway bridge near Kremenchug. Soviet forces started storming Kremenchug on 28 September. The fights were fierce and bloody before the assault driven from three sides eventually succeeded. The Germans left the city on 29 September.

Between 15 and 30 September the units of the Steppe Front grasped five bridgeheads on the right bank of the Dnieper and undertook actions to merge them together. At the same time forces of the Southern and South-Western fronts continued pushing the enemy in their sectors. On 22 September units of the South-Western Front reached the Dnieper in the south of Dnepropetrovsk, and on 25 September they crossed the river and grasped bridgeheads on its western bank. Farther to the south the Germans had consolidated their defences around Zaporozhye; they had transferred to that sector five fresh divisions. They stalled the Soviet offensive on the front between Zaporozhye and the Sea of Azov, as well as on heavily fortified positions on the River Molochnaya. Reaching the Dnieper and forcing it right away in that sector proved impossible.

The Supreme Command of the Red Army attached a big importance to the battle for crossing the Dnieper. Already on 9 September 1943, that is before the operation commenced, there was issued a special directive concerning the pending battle. It provided for decorating with highest orders, awarding the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union, and promotion to the higher ranks those servicemen, who showed outstanding performance and courage during the forcing of the water obstacles and seizing the bridgeheads. Masses of the Soviet soldiers earned those awards. Never during the Great Patriotic War so many soldiers and officers were decorated with the highest awards as during the battle for the Dnieper.

The classic example of their courage and skills was the action of a group detached from the 240th Infantry Division. On 26 September the units of the 38th Army started crossing the Dnieper in the vicinity of Lyutezh. The group under the command of Master Sergeant Peter Nefyedov was among the first ones to land on the western bank. For 20 hours they were holding their positions and repelling counter-attacks of the prevailing enemy troops. Most of the soldiers were killed in the unequal fight, but Sergeant Nefyedov with the handful of his men held till reinforcements arrived to the bridgehead.

Nefyedov and 35 other officers, NCOs and enlisted men of the 240th Division were awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union. And that division was not different in any respect from the other units of the Red Army. They all showed many other examples of courage and valour. On 18 October 1943 the newspaper Pravda praised them on its first column:

The Battle for the Dnieper became a real epic. Never before so many a bravest had emerged among the numerous brave Soviet soldiers. The Red Army, which had demonstrated to the whole world so many examples of the soldiers' gallantry, literally surpasses itself.

And yet, the Soviet offensive eventually had stalled. Exhaustion of the advancing troops, and necessity of their reinforcement in the whole southern sector of the Germano-Soviet front forced Stavka to order the commanders of the Central, Voronezh, Steppe, South-Western and Southern fronts to terminate further offensive operations, to consolidate their combat capacities, and to liquidate all the enemy bridgeheads remaining on the left bank of the River Dnieper. The commander of the South-Western Front received orders to clear the sector of Zaporozhye of the enemy forces.

There was coming a brief pause in the offensive of the Soviet forces, intended for rotation and reinforcement of the embattled divisions.