Battle of the Dnieper
The Lower Dnieper Offensive took place in 1943 during the Second World War. It was one of the largest operations in the Second World War, involving almost 4,000,000 troops on both sides and stretching on a 1,400 kilometres (870 mi) long front. During its four-month duration, the eastern bank of the Dnieper was recovered from German forces by five of the Red Army's Fronts, which conducted several assault river crossings to establish several bridgeheads on the western bank. Subsequently, Kiev was liberated in a separate offensive.
One of the costliest operations of the war, the casualties of the Chernigov-Poltava Strategic Offensive are estimated at being from 1,700,000 to 2,700,000 on both sides. The operation consisted of several operational phases. The first phase of the battle :
- Chernigov-Poltava Strategic Offensive 26 August 1943 – 30 September 1943
- Chernigov-Pripyet Offensive 26 August – 30 September 1943
- Sumy-Priluki Offensive 26 August – 30 September 1943
- Poltava-Kremenchug Offensive 26 August – 30 September 1943
The second phase of the operation includes :
- Lower Dnieper Offensive 26 September – 20 December 1943
- Melitopol Offensive 26 September – 5 November 1943
- Zaporizhia Offensive 10–14 October 1943
- Kremenchug-Pyatikhatki Offensive 15 October – 3 November 1943
- Dnepropetrovsk Offensive 23 October – 23 December 1943
- Krivoi Rog Offensive 14–21 November 1943
- Apostolovo Offensive 14 November – 23 December 1943
- Nikopol Offensive 14 November – 31 December 1943
- Aleksandriia-Znamenka Offensive 22 November – 9 December 1943
- Krivoi Rog Offensive 10–19 December 1943
The following took place at the same time but are considered independent operations.
- Dnieper airborne operations
- Kiev Strategic Offensive (November 1943) 3–13 November 1943
- Kiev Strategic Defensive (1943) 13 November – 22 December 1943
- 1 Strategic situation
- 2 Planning
- 3 Description of the strategic operation
- 4 Western bank operations
- 5 Outcomes
- 6 Casualties debate
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
Following the Battle of Kursk, the German High Command was no longer in a position to mount large-scale offensives against the Red Army in the East. During the long retreat after Kursk, the Wehrmacht's Heer and supporting Luftwaffe forces had managed to cross the Dnieper river to the West and reestablished the defences along the Wotan fortified line. The crossing of the Dnieper was accomplished by thousands of German soldiers in small rafts and boats while under continuous air and ground attack by pursuing Soviet forces. German losses in men and materiél had been considerable, many of the experienced units were weakened. This meant that the Wehrmacht forces had to adopt an operational sustained defence against the Soviet Fronts. On occasions Wehrmacht tactical counter-attacks did meet with considerable success, but this could not be translated into a return of the strategic initiative lost at Kursk. While the strength in personnel, materiél and logistical support of the Wehrmacht forces declined, that of the Red Army steadily increased, allowing the latter to create an ever larger numerical superiority for further conducting offensives.
By mid-August, Adolf Hitler understood that the Soviet offensive could not be contained and he ordered construction of a series of fortifications to slow down the Red Army's offensive capability, demanding that the Wehrmacht defend the Wotan Line positions on the Dnieper at all costs.
On the Soviet side, Joseph Stalin was determined to pursue the recovery of the occupied territories, started at the beginning of the year. The Ukrainian industrial region was the first priority, since it was a densely populated area, and its coal mines and other ores would provide precious resources for the Soviet state. The main thrust of the offensive was in a southwesterly direction; the northern flank being largely stabilised, the southern flank rested on the Sea of Azov.
The operation begun on 24 August 1943 with divisions starting to move on a 1,400-kilometer front stretching between Smolensk and the Sea of Azov.
The operation involved five fronts:
- Central Front (known as the Belorussian Front after 20 October 1943)
- Voronezh Front (known as the 1st Ukrainian Front after 20 October 1943)
- Steppe Front (known as the 2nd Ukrainian Front after 20 October 1943)
- Southwestern Front (known as the 3rd Ukrainian Front after 20 October 1943)
- Southern Front (known as the 4th Ukrainian Front after 20 October 1943)
Overall, the operation would be executed by 36 Combined Arms, four Tank and five Air Armies.
2,650,000 personnel were brought into the ranks for this massive operation.
The operation would use 51,000 guns, 2,400 tanks and 2,850 planes.
Red Army forces involved
The order to construct the Dnieper defence complex, known as "Eastern Wall", was issued on 11 August 1943 and began to be immediately executed.
Fortifications were erected along the length of the Dnieper. However, there was no hope of completing such an extensive defensive line in the short time available. Therefore, the completion of the "Eastern Wall" was not uniform in its density and depth of fortifications. Instead, they were concentrated in areas where a Soviet assault-crossing were most likely to be attempted, such as near Kremenchuk, Zaporizhia and Nikopol.
Additionally, on 7 September 1943, the SS forces and the Wehrmacht received orders to strip the areas they had to abandon from anything that could be used by the Red Army to slow it down, and to try to create supply shortages for the Soviet forces by implementing a scorched earth policy.
Description of the strategic operation
Despite a great superiority in numbers, the offensive was by no means easy. German opposition was ferocious and the fighting raged for every town and city. The Wehrmacht made extensive use of rear guards, leaving some troops in each city and on each hill, slowing down the Soviet offensive.
Progress of the offensive
Three weeks after the start of the offensive, and despite heavy losses on the Soviet side, it became clear that the Germans could not hope to contain the Soviet offensive in the flat, open terrain of the steppes, where the Red Army's numerical strength would prevail. Manstein asked for as many as 12 new divisions in the hope of containing the Soviet offensive – but German reserves were perilously thin. Years later, Manstein wrote in his memoirs:
After analysing this situation, I concluded that we can't keep the Donbass with the forces that we already possess, and that even a greater danger for the whole Eastern Front is being created on the north flank of the group. The 8th and 4th Armies won't be able to contain the Soviet offensive for very long.
As a result, on 15 September 1943, Hitler ordered Army Group South to retreat to the Dnieper defence line.
The battle for Poltava was especially bitter. The city was heavily fortified and its garrison well prepared. After a few inconclusive days that greatly slowed down the Soviet offensive, Marshal Konev decided to bypass the city and rush towards the Dnieper. After two days of violent urban warfare, the Poltava garrison was overcome.
Towards the end of September 1943, Soviet forces reached the lower part of the Dnieper. The hardest part was still to come, though.
Dnieper airborne operation
STAVKA (the Soviet high command), detached the Central Front's 3rd Tank Army to the Voronezh Front to race the weakening Germans to the Dnieper, to save the wheat crop from the German scorched earth policy, and to achieve strategic or operational river bridgeheads before a German defence could stabilize there. The 3rd Tank Army, plunging headlong, reached the river on the night of 21–22 September and, on the 23rd, Soviet infantry forces crossed by swimming and by using makeshift rafts to secure small, fragile bridgeheads, opposed only by 120 German Cherkassy flak academy NCO candidates and the hard-pressed 19th Panzer Division Reconnaissance Battalion. Those forces were the only Germans within 60 km of the Dnieper loop. Only a heavy German air attack and a lack of bridging equipment kept Soviet heavy weaponry from crossing and expanding the bridgehead.
STAVKA, sensing a critical juncture, ordered a hasty airborne corps assault to increase the size of the bridgehead before the Germans could counterattack. On the 21st, the Voronezh Front's 1st, 3rd and 5th Guards Airborne Brigades got the urgent call to secure, on the 23rd, a bridgehead perimeter 15 to 20 km wide and 30 km deep on the Dnieper loop between Kaniv and Rzhishchev, while Front elements forced the river.
The arrival of personnel at the airfields was slow, necessitating, on the 23rd, a one-day delay and omission of 1st Brigade from the plan; consequent mission changes caused near chaos in command channels. Mission change orders finally got down to company commanders, on the 24th, just 15 minutes before their units, not yet provisioned with spades, anti-tank mines, or ponchos for the autumn night frosts, assembled on airfields to load for an 1830 take-off. Owing to the weather, not all assigned aircraft had arrived at airfields on time (if at all). Further, most flight safety officers disallowed maximum loading of their aircraft. Given fewer aircraft (and lower than expected capacities), the master loading plan, ruined, was abandoned. Many radios and supplies got left behind. In the best case, it would take three lifts to deliver the two brigades. Units (still arriving by the over-taxed rail system), were loaded piecemeal onto returned aircraft, which were slow to refuel owing to the less-than-expected capacities of fuel trucks. Meanwhile, already-arrived troops changed planes, seeking earlier flights. Urgency and the fuel shortage prevented aerial assembly aloft. Most aircraft, as soon as they were loaded and fueled, flew in single file, instead of line abreast, to the dropping points. Assault waves became as intermingled as the units they carried.
As corps elements made their 170 to 220 km flights from four of five fields (one of which received no fuel), troops (half of whom had never jumped, except from training towers) got briefed on drop zones, assembly areas and objectives only poorly understood by platoon commanders still studying new orders. Meanwhile, Soviet aerial photography, suspended several days by bad weather, had missed the strong reinforcement of the area, early that afternoon. Non-combat cargo pilots ferrying 3rd Brigade through drizzle expected no resistance beyond river pickets but, instead, were met by anti-aircraft fire and starshells from the 19th Panzer Division (only coincidentally transiting the drop zone, and just one of six divisions and other formations ordered, on the 21st, to fill the gap in front of the 3rd Tank Army). Lead aircraft, disgorging paratroopers over Dubari at 1930, came under small arms, machine gun, and quad-20 anti-aircraft fire from the armored personnel carrier battalion (Pioneers) of the 73rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment and elements of the division staff of 19th Panzer Division. Some paratroops began returning fire and throwing grenades even before landing; trailing aircraft accelerated, climbed and evaded, dropping wide. Through the night, some pilots avoided starshell-lit drop points entirely, and 13 aircraft returned to airfields without having dropped at all. Intending a 10 by 14 km drop over largely undefended terrain, the Soviets instead achieved a 30 by 90 km drop over the fastest mobile elements of two German corps.
On the ground, the Germans used white parachutes as beacons to hunt down and kill disorganized groups and to gather and destroy airdropped supplies. Supply bonfires, glowing embers, and multi-color starshells illuminated the bizarre and macabre battlefield. Captured documents gave the Germans enough knowledge of Soviet objectives to arrive at most of them before the disorganized paratroops.
Back at the Soviet airfields, the fuel shortage allowed only 298 of 500 planned sorties, leaving corps 45mm anti-tank guns and 2,017 paratroops undelivered. Of 4,575 men dropped (seventy percent of the planned number, and just 1,525 from 5th Brigade), some 2,300 eventually assembled into 43 ad-hoc groups, with missions abandoned as hopeless, and spent most of their time seeking supplies not yet destroyed by the Germans. Others joined with the nine partisan groups operating in the area. About 230 made it over (or out of) the Dnieper to Front units (or were originally dropped there). Most of the rest were almost casually captured that first night or killed the next day (although, on that first night, the 3rd Co, 73rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment, suffered heavy losses while annihilating about 150 paratroopers near Grushevo, some 3 km west of Dubari).
The Germans underestimated that 1,500 to 2,000 had dropped; they recorded 901 paratroops captured and killed in the first 24 hours. Thereafter, they largely ignored the Soviet paratroopers, to counterattack and truncate the Dnieper bridgeheads. The Germans deemed their anti-paratrooper operations completed by 2100 on the 26th, although a modicum of opportunistic actions against garrisons, rail lines, and columns were conducted by remnants up to early November. For a lack of manpower to clear all areas, forests of the region would remain a minor threat.
The Germans called the operation a fundamentally sound idea ruined by the dilettantism of planners lacking expert knowledge (but praised individual paratroops for their tenacity, bayonet skills and deft use of broken ground in the sparsely wooded northern region). STAVKA deemed this second (and, ultimately, last) corps drop a complete failure; lessons they knew they had already learned from their winter offensive corps drop at Viazma had not stuck. They would never trust themselves to try it again.
Soviet 5th Guards Airborne Brigade commander Sidorchuk, withdrawing to the forests south, eventually amassed a brigade-size command, half paratroops, half partisans; he obtained air supply, and assisted the 2nd Ukrainian Front over the Dnieper near Cherkassy to finally link up with Front forces on 15 November. After 13 more days combat, the airborne element was evacuated, ending a harrowing two months. More than sixty percent never returned.
Assault-crossing the Dnieper
The Dnieper is the third largest river in Europe, second only to the Volga and the Danube. In its lower part, its width can easily reach three kilometres, and being dammed in several places made it even larger. Moreover its western shore —the one still to be retaken— was much higher and steeper than the eastern, complicating the offensive even further. In addition, the opposite shore was transformed into a vast complex of defenses and fortifications held by the Wehrmacht.
Faced with such a situation, the Soviet commanders had two options. The first would be to give themselves time to regroup their forces, find a weak point or two to exploit (not necessarily in the lower part of the Dnieper), stage a breakthrough and encircle the German defenders, rendering the defence line next to useless (very much like the German Panzers bypassed the Maginot line in 1940). This, however, would give them time to get more reserves and furthermore, would expose the Soviet troops to out-flanking mechanized attacks - every Soviet commander's nightmare since 1941.
The second option would be to stage a massive assault without waiting, and force the Dnieper on a broad front. This option left no additional time for the German defenders, but would lead to much larger casualties. For political reasons (Stalin wanted Kiev to be retaken on 7 November), the second option was chosen.
The assault was staged on a 300-kilometer front almost simultaneously. All available means of transport were to be used to transport the attackers to the opposite shore, including small fishing boats and improvised rafts of barrels and trees (like the one in the photograph). The preparation of the crossing equipment was further complicated by the German scorched earth strategy with the total destruction of all boats and raft building material in the area. The crucial issue would obviously be heavy equipment. Without it, the bridgeheads would not stand for long.
The first bridgehead on the Dnieper's western shore was established on 22 September 1943 at the confluence of the Dnieper and Pripyat rivers, in the northern part of the front. On 24 September, another bridgehead was created near Dniprodzerzhynsk, another on 25 September near Dnipropetrovsk and yet another on 28 September near Kremenchuk. By the end of the month, 23 bridgeheads were created on the western side, some of them 10 kilometers wide and 1-2 kilometres deep.
The crossing of the Dnieper was extremely difficult. Soldiers used every available floating device to cross the river, under heavy German fire and taking heavy losses. Once across, Soviet troops had to dig themselves into the clay ravines composing the Dnieper's western bank.
Securing the bridgeheads
German troops soon launched heavy counterattacks on almost every bridgehead, hoping to annihilate them before heavy equipment could be transported across the river.
For instance, the Borodaevsk bridgehead, mentioned by Marshal Konev in his memoirs, came under heavy armored attack and air assault. Bombers attacked both the bridgehead and the reinforcements crossing the river. Konev complained at once about a lack of organization of Soviet air support, set up air patrols to prevent bombers from approaching the bridgeheads and ordered forward more artillery to counter tank attacks from the opposite shore. When Soviet aviation became more organized and hundreds of guns and Katyusha rocket launchers began firing, the situation started to improve and the bridgehead was eventually preserved.
Such battles were commonplace on every bridgehead. Although all the bridgeheads were held, losses were terrible – at the beginning of October, most divisions were at only 25 to 50% of their nominal strength.
Western bank operations
Lower Dnieper Offensive
By mid-October, the forces accumulated on the lower Dnieper bridgeheads were strong enough to stage a first massive attack to definitely secure river's western shore in the southern part of the front. Therefore, a vigorous attack was staged on the Kremenchuk-Dnipropetrovsk line. Simultaneously, a major diversion was conducted in the south to draw German forces away both from the Lower Dnieper and from Kiev.
At the end of the offensive, Soviet forces controlled a bridgehead 300 kilometers wide and up to 80 kilometers deep in some places. In the south, the Crimea was now cut off from the rest of the German forces. Any hope of stopping the Red Army on the Dnieper's east bank was lost.
Battle of Kiev
Stalin's determination to recover Kiev before 7 November has raised quite a few criticisms among historians. It is commonly accepted now that the bridgeheads on the Lower Dnieper were deliberately "left alone" to draw German forces from Kiev, resulting in heavy losses. While this hypothesis could be true to some extent, one must not forget that the action of establishing a bridgehead alone is dangerous enough and can (and usually does) lead to heavy casualties.
The Battle of Dnieper was another defeat for the Wehrmacht that required it to restabilize the front further West. The Red Army, which Hitler hoped to contain at the Dnieper, forced the Wehrmacht's defences. Kiev was recaptured and German troops lacked the forces to annihilate Soviet troops on the Lower Dnieper bridgeheads. The west bank was still in German hands for the most part, but both sides knew that it would not last for long.
Additionally, the Battle of Dnieper demonstrated the strength of the Soviet partisan movement. The "rail war" operation staged during September and October 1943 struck German logistics very hard, creating heavy supply issues.
Incidentally, between 28 November and 1 December 1943 the Teheran conference was held between Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Stalin. The Battle of Dnieper, along with other major offensives staged in 1943, certainly gave Stalin a dominant position for negotiating with his Allies.
Casualties during the Battle of Dnieper are still a subject of heavy debate. Some sources give very low figures (200,000 to 300,000 total casualties), which is much lower than for instance, the Battle of Kursk. However, given the duration of the campaign and the huge area involved, more than one historian argues that the losses involved were huge, easily reaching or even surpassing those at the Stalingrad, but going "unnoticed" because of the large operational area (and of the aura of fame enveloping the latter). The death toll also depends on the time frame considered. It also depends on whether the toll of the Battle of Smolensk, which was fought to draw German forces away from the area in which the Dnieper battle would be held, is included in the total.
On the subject of Soviet casualties, Nikolaï Shefov in his Russian fights puts the figure of 373,000 killed in action (KIA) and more than 1,500,000 total Soviet casualties. British historian John Erickson, in his Barbarossa: The Axis and the Allies, puts a figure of 173,201 Soviets KIA, during a time frame from 26 September to 20 December 1943, therefore not taking into account the period from 24 August to 26 September. Glantz/House 'When Titans Clashed' put a figure of 428,000 total losses (103,000 KIA) during 26 August to 30 September (Chernigov-Poltava Operation) and 754,000 total losses (173,000 KIA) during 26 September and 20 December.
Given the heavy German resistance even before the Dnieper forced-crossing, this figure seems a low estimate (Soviet sources estimate casualties from the post-Kursk offensive alone at 250,000 killed, wounded and captured), the figure of over 300,000 KIA could seem correct, with the wounded in action number following the 3:1 empiric ratio.
German losses, however, are more difficult to evaluate. The simple rule of 3:1 losses during an offensive operation against a heavily defended enemy would lead to a 500,000 toll, matching the one at Kursk. Shefov and other Soviet/Russian historians quote casualties as high as 1,500,000.
The Battle of the Dnieper is listed among the most lethal battles in world history.
- Nikolai Shefov, Russian fights, Lib. Military History, Moscow, 2002
- Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories, Мoscow, 1957.
- The History of Soviet Airborne Forces, Chapter 8, Across The Dnieper (September 1943), by David M. Glantz, Cass, 1994. (portions online)
- 1943 Dnepr airborne operation: lessons and conclusions Military Thought, July 2003, by Nikolai Viktorovich Staskov. (online) See ref at Army (Soviet Army) under 40th Army entry.
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (February 2008)|
- David M. Glantz, Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed:how the Red Army stopped Hitler, University Press of Kansas, 1995
- Nikolai Shefov, Russian fights, Lib. Military History, Moscow, 2002
- History of Great Patriotic War, 1941 — 1945. Мoscow, 1963
- John Erickson, Barbarossa: The Axis and the Allies, Edinburgh University Press, 1994
- Marshal Konev, Notes of a front commander', Science, Moscow, 1972.
- Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories, Мoscow, 1957.