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The Battle of the Kamenets-Podolsky pocket (or Battle of Tarnopol) was a Soviet effort to surround and destroy the Wehrmacht's 1st Panzer Army of Army Group South. The envelopment occurred in March 1944 on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. The Red Army successfully created the pocket, trapping some 220,000 German soldiers inside. Under the command of General Hans-Valentin Hube and with the direction of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, German forces in the pocket were able to fight their way out by mid-April. This breakout is sometimes referred to as Hube's Pocket.
In February 1944, the 1st Panzer Army—commanded by Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube—consisted of four Corps, three of which were Panzer Corps (comprising 8 Panzer and 1 Panzergrenadier divisions). Together with three attached Fourth Panzer Army division, rear service units, Organization Todt personnel, police, paramilitaries and assorted forces the 1st Panzer Army included 220,000 men but only 43 tanks and 50 assault guns. It was nevertheless the most powerful formation of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein's Army Group South. The formation's III Panzer Corps had recently fought extensively in operations to thwart an earlier Soviet attempt to trap and destroy two corps in the Battle of the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket,
Realizing the significance of the 1st Panzer Army, Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov began planning to bring about its destruction with hopes of creating a collapse of the entire South-Eastern Front. Zhukov planned a multi-Front offensive, involving his own 1st and Marshal Ivan Konev's 2nd Ukrainian Front. This force of over eleven armies, including two air armies, was to attempt to outflank and encircle Hube's Army, and, in a repeat of the Battle of Stalingrad, reduce the resulting pocket (in German, kessel) until all troops in it have surrendered. The operations were to take place on the extreme north and south of the Army Group South's front.
Manstein was informed of large troop movements all across Hube's front and was aware of an impending operation, however, with Adolf Hitler's refusal to allow strategic withdrawals, there was little he could do.
Start of the operation
The Soviet offensives began in early March, with Zhukov taking personal command of Vatutin's 1st Ukrainian front. The Red Army's massive concentration in troops and material forced Hube to withdraw his northern flank to south-west until it reached the Dniester river. Despite constant Red Army attacks, this position held until late March. Five Soviet Tank Corps of the 1st and 4th Tank Armies and the 3rd Guards Tank Army penetrated the extreme northern flank of Hube's position east of Ternopil and then turned south, advancing behind the 1st Army along the corridor between the Zbruch and Seret rivers. The force reached the Dniester and continued toward Chernivtsi. Behind them followed infantry and antitank units which began establishing defensive positions along the path of the advance behind the German positions.
With the Soviet advance along the southern flank near the Dniester, and the recent Soviet attacks to the north and west and now southwest, the 1st Panzer Army was confined to a salient with a supply line that was tenuous. Manstein requested that the position be withdrawn to avoid encirclement, but Hitler refused, persisting with his "no retreat" orders. Hube ordered all non-combat personnel out of the salient along the last remaining open roadway. Seeing this movement to the south Zhukov concluded that Hube was in full retreat. In a matter of days, Zhukov and Konev's forces had crossed the Dniester and were in position to complete the encirclement. On 25 March, the last line of communications corridor out of Hube's bridgehead located on the northern bank of the Dniester was severed at Khotyn.
The entire 1st Panzer Army was now encircled in a pocket centered around the city of Kamianets-Podilskyi. While the encircled forces had food and ammunition enough to support them for over two weeks, the vehicles were extremely low on fuel. Hube had ordered all service units south of the Dniester to withdraw away from the main Red Army penetration which were taking place to the south on the 2nd Ukrainian Front's 40th Army front. Zhukov believed Hube would attempt to breakout to the south. To prevent this, he stripped units from the encircling forces and sent them to reinforce the south side of the pocket.
Hube organizes move west
Hube now ordered the pocket to be reduced in size, shortening the position's lines to increase defence density. As the 1st Ukrainian Front prepared to complete the encirclement Hube requested the authorization to use mobile defence tactics, a request which was quickly denied. However, once the encirclement was complete, the situation changed. Manstein had been arguing with Hitler for the trapped Army to be allowed to attempt a breakout, and for a relief force to be sent to assist them. With the loss of the entire Panzer army in the balance, Hitler finally gave in and ordered Hube to attempt a breakout.
Though supplies were still being brought in, they were insufficient to maintain the Army's fighting strength. Zhukov sent a terse ultimatum: Surrender, or every German soldier in the pocket would be shot.
Moving west would mean fighting through the Soviet armoured forces that created the breach and crossing a number of rivers. Hube preferred to head south, over the Dniester. Manstein believed that this is what the Soviet command expected, and would be the most heavily resisted line of escape. Also, such a move would push the 1st Panzer Army into Romania, making defending the southern Ukraine sector quite difficult. The Hungarian VII Corps was holding a sector of the front to the west of the Kamianets-Podilskyi pocket. Manstein ordered Hube to break out to this area.
The threat of panic among his troops within the pocket was a grave concern. As a means of maintaining control and simplifying the chain of command, Hube consolidated his forces into provisional corps groups. Each corps group, within its zone, was to be responsible for both the conduct of the attack to the west and the rear guard action in the east. The armored divisions of each corps group were to spearhead the army's attack, while the infantry divisions covered the rear. Two columns would fight their way west. The northern column was Korpsgruppe von der Chevallerie under command of Kurt von der Chevallerie and the south column was Korpsgruppe Breith under command of General Hermann Breith. A third corps under command of General Hans Gollnick of the XLVI Panzer Corps formed Korpsgruppe Gollnick.
The first objective of the breakout was to be the capture of crossing sites over the Zbruch River. Corps Group Chevallerie was to establish contact with the 1st Panzer Division at Gorodok and Task Force Mauss in the area between the Ushitsa and Zbruch Rivers. It was then to cover the northern flank of the army between the Ushitsa and Zbruch Rivers and establish a bridgehead across the latter at Skala. Corps Group Breith was to recapture Kamianets-Podilskyi, regain control of the Kamianets-Khotyn road, and establish a bridgehead across the Zbruch River northwest of Khotin. Task Force Gollnick, in close contact with the south flank of Corps Group Breith, was to delay the Soviets below the Dnestr River and was to retire to and hold a bridgehead at Khotin.
Hube's Army was to break out northwest toward Tarnopol, where relief forces from Paul Hausser′s II SS Panzer Corps were to meet them. Air Supply Arrangements were made with the German Fourth Air Fleet to assemble five air transport groups and a number of bomber wings at L'vev in Poland to fly essential supplies into the pocket. From Kamianets-Podilskyi to Ternopil was a distance of over 250 km (160 mi), over several rivers, and across muddy terrain. In addition, he believed the Soviets would act as they had at Stalingrad, and make their strongest resistance along this line.
On 27 March, the advance guard of the 1st Panzer Army moved west toward the Zbruch river, while the rearguard began a fighting withdrawal, with the rest of the 220,000 men between them. The advanced guard attack went well for the German forces. The northern column quickly captured three bridges over the Zbruch River, while the southern column was battered by a Red Army's 4th Tank Army counterattack which penetrated deep into the pocket, capturing Kamianets-Podilskyi. The loss of this major road and rail hub meant that the escaping Germans had to detour around the city, slowing the movement to a crawl. A counterattack soon cut off the Russians in the city, and the breakout recommenced. Moving by day and night, the kessel kept moving. Soon bridgeheads were formed over the Seret river.
While Hube's army escaped west, Zhukov and Konev continued to believe that the major breakout attempt would be to the south. He ordered the attacks on the north and eastern flanks of the pocket stepped up. These attacks achieved little, and many fell on positions which had been abandoned as the German troops withdrew to Proskurov. Despite the attacks to the West, the Red Army kept increasing troop density to the southern flank of the pocket in anticipation of an attack that would never come.
On 30 March, Manstein was informed by the OKH that he had been relieved of command.
The next day, the Red Army began to react. A strong armored force from the 4th Tank Army launched an assault in the north between the Seret and Zbruch. Hube's southern advanced guard turned and halted the Red Army assault, severing its supply lines and rendering the T-34s of the 4th Tank Army immobile. Despite the fact that he was now taking the breakout attempt seriously, Zhukov did not move to block the escaping Germans. The way to Tarnopol was still open.
Completing the breakout
Despite heavy snowfalls, low supplies, and encirclement, the constant movement of Hube's Army meant that "pocket fever" did not set in. The troops were still moving in good order and obeying discipline, while desertions were almost non-existent. This was a stark comparison to the panicked situation within the Stalingrad and Korsun encirclements.
By 5 April, the advanced guards of both the northern and southern columns had reached the Strypa River, and on the 6th, near the town of Buczacz, they linked up with the probing reconnaissance elements of Hausser's SS Divisions. In over two weeks of heavy combat, during horrid weather and with few supplies, the 1st Panzer Army had managed to escape encirclement while suffering only moderate casualties. The Army was put back into the line and established itself between the Dniester and the town of Brody. The quick thinking of Manstein and Hube meant that 1st Panzer Army had lost only 14,242 men of its 220,000. However, while Hube's troops were still disciplined, and equipped with light and personal weapons, only 45 armoured vehicles escaped. Despite the escape and low casualty rate, the 1st Panzer Army required thorough refitting.
The Kamianets-Podilskyi pocket is still studied in military academies today as an example of how to avoid annihilation when forces are trapped in a pocket.
Order of battle for 1st Panzer Army, March 1944
1st Panzer Army (Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube)
- III Panzer Corps (General der Panzertruppe Hermann Breith)
- 16th Panzer Division (Generalmajor Hans-Ulrich Back)
- 11th Panzer Division (Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim)
- Kampfgruppe from 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler
- 249th StuG Brigade
- Heavy Tank Regiment Bäke (Oberst Franz Bäke)
- 509th Heavy Panzer Battalion (Oberleutnant Dr. König)
- LIX Army Corps (General der Infanterie Kurt von der Chevallerie)
- 96th Infantry Division (Generalleutnant Richard Wirtz)
- 291st Infantry Division (Generalmajor Oskar Eckholt)
- 6th Panzer Division (Generalleutnant Walter Denkert)
- 19th Panzer Division (Generalleutnant Hans Källner)
- 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich - Kampfgruppe (SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Weidinger)
- 276th StuG Brigade
- 280th StuG Brigade
- 616th Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion
- 88th Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion
- 509th Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion
- XXIV Panzer Corps (General der Panzertruppen Walther Nehring)
- 25th Panzer Division (remnants) (Generalleutnant Hans Tröger)
- 20th Panzergrenadier Division (General der Panzertruppen Georg Jauer)
- 168th Infantry Division (Generalleutnant Werner Schmidt-Hammer)
- 208th Infantry Division (Generalleutnant Heinz Piekenbrock)
- 371st Infantry Division (General der Infanterie Hermann Niehoff)
- 300th StuG Brigade
- 731st Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion
- 473rd Motorcycle Battalion
- XXXXVI Panzer Corps (General der Infanterie Friedrich Schulz)
- 1st Infantry Division (Generalleutnant Ernst-Anton von Krosigk)
- 82nd Infantry Division (Generalleutnant Hans-Walter Heyne)
- 75th Infantry Division (Generalleutnant Helmuth Beukemann)
- 254th Infantry Division (Generalleutnant Alfred Thielmann)
- 101st Jäger Division (General der Gebirgstruppen Emil Vogel)
- 18th Artillery Division (General der Artillerie Karl Thoholte)
- 300th StuG Battalion
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