Front moves westwards. Soviet troops in the streets of a liberated city.



Yet before the battle of Kursk, Soviet armed forces went through cardinal transformations. First of all, reinstating corps, as an intermediate unit between division and army, improved troops' combat efficiency, co-ordination and communication. There were formed tank armies - strong and manoeuvreable units, which became the core of so-called break-through corps, - as well as medium calibre artillery divisions.

In 1943 the Soviet industry used to produce up to 3,000 planes and 2,000 tanks monthly. Fighting troops were receiving new or improved models of weapons.

In the beginning of the summer of 1943 the German army numbered 10,300,000 men, out of which 6,700,000 in active service. On the Eastern Front were deployed 4,800,000 German troops, which made 70% of the German armed forces, without counting armies of their allies. It was a power comparable with that to strike against the Soviet Union two years earlier, yet the real proportions turned to be much less favourable to the invaders.

The Red Army had 6,400,000 men at arms without counting troops left to guard the Far East frontiers. It also had mounted superiority in equipment. Against 58,000 enemy guns and mortars fought 103,000 Soviet ones; about 6,000 German armoured vehicles faced 9,900 Soviet ones; against 3,000 German aircraft were deployed 8,300 Soviet ones. For a while the Germans were able to compensate the inferiority in numbers with heavier equipment; while 76mm guns and 82mm mortars were making half of the Soviet artillery, most of the German artillery was composed of the guns of larger calibres. Light tanks were still making up to 30% of the Soviet armoured units, while the Germans were already introducing powerful medium tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-V Panther and heavy tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-VI Tiger. The Soviet heavy tank IS-2, which was bound to rule the battlefields with time, in 1943 was delivered in scarce quantities yet.

So, the superiority, achieved by the utmost mobilization of the Soviet society and resources, was not the absolute superiority yet, and did not forecast an easy victory. Yet, nobody would doubt it was coming. The proof was obvious: the German retreat, which began at Stalingrad, at Kursk became irreversible. What characterized the offensive operations of the Soviet Armed Forces in the summer of 1943 was their increasing scope and momentum, wrote the Chief of the Operations Division of the General Staff, Gen. Sergei Shtemenko. Blows were struck one after another, taking in an ever wider area. This was because the enemy had to be routed on two sectors at once to prevent them switching their forces from one sector to another. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]

On 7 August 1943 the battle of Kursk was not over yet, when the Western Front (Gen. Vasiliy Sokolovskiy) and forces of the Kalinin Front started an advance on Smolensk. This way the Russians undertook a strategically important offensive parallel to another one. There began a massive revenge, during which the Germans would be beaten i operations launched simultaneously on two or more sectors of the gigantic front.

On 18 August the Southern Front (Gen. Fyodor Tolbukhin) struck across the River Miuss into the Donbass, and on 26 August, three days after the liberation of Kharkov, the Central, Voronezh and Steppes Fronts rushed towards the Dnieper. Their goal was Kiev.

In the south the Germans delivered a particularly hard defence, as they tried to fence the menace looming on the northern face of their grouping in the Donbass. However, their desperate defence fell apart: on 30 August Soviet armies liberated Taganrog on the Sea of Azov, and on 2 September - Sumy, on the way to Kiev, some 100km east to the capital of the Ukraine. On 8 September Soviet forces liberated Stalino (Donetsk), and on 21 September units of the Central Front reached Dnieper in the confluence of the Pripet. Advanced troops immediately started forcing the river in order to grasp bridgeheads, from which they could develop further advance on Zhitomir and Korosten. They managed to wedge into the enemy defences as far as 35km. Till the end of September, Soviet forces had crossed the Dnieper in a 90km-wide sector south of the mouth of the Pripet. Although the Germans were counter-attacking fiercely, they did not manage to throw the Russians back into the river.

Simultaneously, on 21 September was liberated Poltava, and on 25 September divisions from three armies of the Central Front entered ruined Smolensk. In October the advance of the Western Front stalled, but it was of no consequences on the events in the south. There the battle of the Dnieper was coming to its climax. On 8 November Soviet troops started surrounding German forces operating near Kiev, and three days later liberated the capital of the Ukraine.

Earlier, on 20 October, the structure of the Soviet forces was re-organized according to the current situation. The Voronezh Front became the 1st Ukrainian Front, the Steppes, South-Western and Southern Fronts became respectively the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Fronts, and the Central Front became the 1st Byelorussian Front. The Bryansk Front was disbanded, and its units were handed over partly to the 1st Byelorussian Front, and partly to the Baltic Front. On 10 November divisions of the 1st Byelorussian Front from bridgeheads on the Dnieper struck towards Gomel. On 15 November they crossed River Berezina and soon reached the area of Mozyr. The summer campaign was over, but the winter campaign was looming.

After the defeats in the summer and autumn of 1943, the German command had to completely abandon offensive strategy. From then on German war directives were only speaking about stalwart defence of every inch of ground. Surely, those documents contained chatters about "regaining initiative" for "ultimate victory in the war", yet those chatters were not written in language of military doctrine any more, but rather turbid fiction. The German propaganda more and more wielded the slogan of "European Fortress" (Festung Europa), and the authors of that term unwittingly revealed that the German expansion came to its end; from then on Germany could only fight in defence of the area that was shrinking by week.

At the end of autumn 1943 the German command pulled out all armoured and units from the first line. This way it formed rapid reserves to plug breaches in the front. The problem was that temporarily stabilized frontlines tended to break again, and in many places.

The Soviet side was intensively preparing the winter campaign. It started on 24 December with the advance of the 1st Ukrainian Front (Gen. Nikolay Vatutin) ramming with five armies from Kiev to Vinnitsa and Berdichev. They were followed by two armies striking on the northern wing from Korosten to the River Sluch, and to Rovno and Shepetovka. Whereas on the southern wing another two armies drove their thrusts via Belaya Tserkov to Zashkov and Shenderovka.

On 5 January the 2nd Ukrainian Front (Gen. Ivan Konev) stroke in the direction of Kirovograd with the bulk of its forces aiming at linking with the southern wing of the 1st Ukrainian Front. This way it started closing the ring around the core forces of the Army Group Centre near Korsun-Shevchenkovskiy. The German command too late realised the disaster looming over the huge "cauldron". At the end of January the Germans counter-attacked with the forces of eight armoured and six infantry divisions; at the final phase of the battle only 12 kilometres separated the encircled troops and the troops running the encirclement. Yet, the Germans failed to make it. The finale of the battle took place at night to 18 February in the heavy snow-storm. The invaders lost 55,000 killed, 18,000 taken prisoners, and all the equipment.

At the same time the remaining forces of the 1st Ukrainian Front advanced across the Volhynia and Polesye. With efficient support of the local partisan forces on 1 February they liberated Lutsk and Rovno, and on 11 February - Shepetovka with its important railway node.

The Soviet offensive unfolded along the whole front from the Black Sea to the Lake Ladoga, and the scale of the offensive just astonished the Nazi command. While the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts were liberating southern Russia, on 14 January in the north moved the Leningrad Front, followed by the Volkhov and 2nd Baltic Fronts. Advancing troops were fighting in very difficult conditions - against harsh northern winter and well fortified defences. Nevertheless, Soviet forces made quick progress and on 20 January liberated Novgorod. The enemy hastily brought in reinforcements and counter-attacked. In the south of Luga the Germans managed to encircle two Soviet divisions and a big partisan grouping. The battle lasted two weeks before the main forces came with aid. By 1 March the Army Group North was driven back all the way to the Lake Chud, Pskov and Lettonia, that is 250km in average from the initial positions.

Meanwhile in the south, on 30 and 31 January, the 3rd Ukrainian Front (Gen. Rodion Malinovskiy) and 4th Ukrainian Front (Gen. Fyodor Tolbukhin) resumed the advance halted twenty days earlier. In the beginning of January the two fronts had to transfer some units to the other operations, and the Germans managed to hold against the weakened enemy. Now, however, the Russians rushed with bigger forces and wiped out the last German bridgehead on the Dnieper near Nikopol. On 5 February they liberated Apostolovo, and on 22 February - Krivoy Rog.

The smallest progress was done in the central Russia, where the 1st Baltic and the Western Fronts crossed the upper Dnieper, and liberated Mozyr and Kalinkovichi, but failed to liberate Vitebsk and Bobruisk, which made further advance on Minsk impossible. Both fronts had to transfer some units to the north and south for major operations, and the tasks they received exceeded their combat capabilities. Nevertheless, central fronts contained in fights forces of the Army Group Centre, and prevented their transfer to the Ukraine or Leningrad, that is where the decisive battles were waged.

And the advance in those sectors continued to prevent the Germans from breaking away from the enemy and consolidating their defences on new lines. In February 1944 the Supreme Headquarters gave the Soviet fronts new tasks. On 4 March moved the 1st Ukrainian Front. After Vatutin, killed in ambush by a band of marauders, the front was under command of Marshal Georgiy Zhukov. He was one of the senior commander of the Supreme Headquarters, who co-ordinated operations of several fronts, but at that moment there was no time to look for another front commander, as the offensive had to commence as planned.

The assault grouping of the front, built around two tank armies, within a week reached the line Ternopol - Volochisk - Ploskirov, and cut the railway Odessa - Lvov. On 5 March moved the 2nd Ukrainian Front. After the heavy battle for Uman, Soviet troops liberated that city on 10 March, and captured 500 tanks and 12,000 lorries. It was a catastrophic loss to the Germans, and their further retreat turned into a panic escape.

Now it became possible to reach Kamenets Podolskiy with co-ordinated thrusts of the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts. The Army Group South faced another gigantic "cauldron"; to avoid it, the German command hastily throw into counter-attacks all reserves it had, few divisions transferred from West Europe, and the Hungarian 1st Army. At the cost of bloody casualties German forces avoided encirclement, but they were not able to stop the Soviet offensive. On 26 March the Russians started pursuit after the enemy retreating to Chortkov, Zaleshiki and Chernovitsy. Chernovitsy was liberated on 30 March; there the Russians cut the last railway line between the German grouping around Lvov, and the troops still fighting in the southern Ukraine.

To liquidate the southern grouping of the Germano-Romanian forces, the 3rd Ukrainian Front launched its offensive on 6 March and despite very difficult weather conditions, which turned its sector of the front into swamps, quickly reached Southern Bug and grasped bridgeheads on its right bank. On 13 March Soviet forces liberated Kherson, and on 28 March - after very heavy fights - Nikolayev. Odessa was liberated on 10 April in concentric pursuit after the Romanian troops fleeing in panic. At that time the 1st Ukrainian Front already fought in Romania, on the River Seret.

Earlier, on 2 April, the Soviet government, through diplomatic missions in neutral countries, proposed the government of the Kingdom of Romania to cease fire and bail out of the war. Yet, the fascist dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu, who ruled in Romania by German grace, rejected the offer, and thus exposed his country to the protracted war and all its military, political and economical consequences.

In the central sector at the end of March the Western Front was split into two army groups: 2nd and 3rd Byelorussian Fronts. The 2nd Byelorussian Front followed its neighbours, moving across the Polesye some 70 kilometres westwards. For the time being it had no spectacular achievements comparable to the other fronts; nevertheless, the commander of the XII Army Corps, Gen. Kurt von Tippelskirch, in his History of the Second World War attached a big importance to those fights:

The area of Witebsk remained the smoldering point of fights during the first months of the new year. After the Russians in December got to the road Polozk - Witebsk, and approached the road Pleskau - Kiew with the railway line running farther to the west, they undertook two consecutive operations aiming at taking Witebsk through double envelopment. The first battle took place with short breaks, which the Russians used to have the crushed divisions replaced by fresh ones, between 23 December 1943 and 18 January 1944. The only success of their attacks, which the Russians repeatedly undertook after the strong artillery barrage, and with reckless use of massive manpower, was measured by cutting the road Pleskau - Kiew in the south to Witebsk. In some sectors they also reached River Lutschessa, and even moved across the railway Orscha - Witebsk.

The next battle took place between 2 and 17 February. This time they staged a number of attacks, probably with increased forces, which posed an enormous and mounting pressure on the German front in the north-west and south-east to the city, and inflicted huge losses. Nevertheless, German divisions managed to prevent major break-throughs of the enemy, which threw into assault 53 infantry divisions, 10 armoured brigades and 3 artillery divisions. Yet, the forces of few German divisions, holding the 70km-long perimeter around Witebsk, were exhausted. The Army urgently called for permission to withdraw to the 30km-long "Suburban" position. The permission was granted with the provision that Witebsk, "as the last major Russian city for the reasons of prestige had to be held at all costs." [Tippelskirch K. von (1959).]

Liberation of the Ukraine created the basis to liberate Crimea too. That decision was made after examination of another option: to leave Crimea temporarily in the German hands, blocked from land and the sea, which would release troops for other operations. Yet, at the Soviet General Staff prevailed the opinion that such a solution would let the Germans to menace from the south Soviet forces fighting in the Ukraine. Crimea was too big and too capacious a bridgehead to leave it in the hands of the enemy without a major risk.

Therefore, on 8 April the troops of the 4th Ukrainian Front stroke against the fortifications of Perekop blocking the access into the Crimean hinterland. General Tolbukhin intended to dwell on the experiences of the Russian Civil War and the battle for Crimea in 1920: attack across the Sivash Lagoon. Unfortunately, the winter happened too short that year, and Sivash in the beginning of April was not frozen. The troops had to advance in a heavily swamped terrain.

On 11 April the Independent Coastal Army stroke from the Taman Peninsula to Kerch from the little bridgeheads made yet in January. Kerch was liberated the same day, and the Soviet troops moved towards Akmanay (Kamenskoye), where the Germans had built a fortified line. But on 13 April troops attacking across the Sivash liberated Dzhankoy, in the rears of the Perekop and Akmanay positions, and the whole Germano-Romanian defence system fell apart. The commander of the German forces in Crimea, Gen. Erwin Jaenecke, ordered to build up new defences around Simferopol, but the city was liberated sooner than the Germans managed to concentrate their forces there. All they could do was flee in panic all the way to Sevastopol. But they did not hold there too long.

On 15 April, Soviet troops approached the outer line of the German defences in the Mackenzie Hills. There Tolbukhin stopped the advance in order to wait for arrival of heavy artillery, without which any attack on the German positions was out of question. The final battle commenced on 5 May with the assault on the Sapun Range, and on 9 May Sevastopol was free. That lightning campaign astonished ignorant war reporters:

It will remain one of the puzzles of the war why, in 1941-2, despite overwhelming German and Rumanian superiority in tanks and aircraft, and a substantial superiority in men, Sebastopol succeeded in holding out for 250 days and why, in 1944, the Russians captured it within four days. German authors now explain it simply by the great Russian superiority in effectives, aircraft and all other equipment. But did not the Germans and Rumanians enjoy much the same kind of superiority in 1941-2? [Werth A. (1984).]

Yet, professionals appraise it very highly:

Thus the Russian winter offensive of 1944 was ended by one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed campaigns of this remarkable year. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

After the fall of Sevastopol the remnants of the German forces in Crimea, without equipment allowing them to wage further fights, or sea transportation allowing them to evacuate from the peninsula, gathered on the Cape Khersones. There they capitulated on 12 May. Crimea was finally liberated.