Avoiding the Trap – Kirovograd, USSR, 6th January 1944
The Unrelenting Enemy
The winter weather seemed to have no effect on Soviet forces. As the German troops huddled for warmth against the sub-zero winds that seemed to congeal the blood, the Russians continued to attack. The Soviet High Command (Stavka) had an ambitious plan that called for a series of attacks intended to breach the Dniepr Line, isolate the Crimea and hopefully trap Four German armies, including the Eighth Army and the First and Fourth Panzer Armies.
It had begun in late October, and the fighting went on relentlessly through the harsh winter months. Reinforcements were sent in to strengthen German defenses, but they were soon worn down in the constant battles all along the southern front.
During the end of December, 1943, there was a sudden quiet that was enjoyed all along the battle line. It would not last. On January 5th, General Romistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army struck hard at the weakened German defensive positions. Breaking through with relative ease, they continued toward the West. South of this fighting, German General Fritz Bayerlein followed events closely from the headquarters of the 3rd Panzer Division at Kirovograd.
General Fritz Bayerlein
The general had only recently returned to the East Front. He had been a part of the initial invasion of Russia, but had been transferred to the Afrika Korps toward the end of 1941. Now he had returned to the Eastern Front only to find impending disaster waiting for him and his men. A very congenial commander, he had become acquainted with the men and officers of the 3rd Panzer Division in only a matter of days. This rapport would serve the division well in its coming ordeals.
Meanwhile, skillful tactics and unbending determination on the part of the Soviet army kept pushing the German forces back. Losses were heavy on both sides, but the Russians kept coming. General von Weitersheim, commander of the 11th Panzer Division was ordered to attack to the south to drive into the flank of the Russian marauders. At this point Bayerlein, on his own initiative and apparently in the face of orders by the Fuhrer to the contrary, began to attack to the north in order to secure a linkup with these forces.
Becoming impatient with the lack of success in late 1943, Konev ordered a massive attack toward Kirovograd on January 5th, 1944. This attack stopped the 11th Panzer Division, and forced Bayerlein and his tanks back into the city. Within a few days, over one half of the 47th Panzer Corps was trapped in and around Kirovograd. Now the assault upon the city itself began. One German defender described the scene. "All hell broke loose. Dark clouds of smoke hung over the city blocks. Everything seemed to be turned upside down."
There was no doubt but that this city was the key to the new Russian offensive. By smashing Army Group South and rendering it powerless, the following Soviet advance would cut off Army Group A in the Crimea and open the door to the Rumanian oil fields. It would be a disaster far exceeding the magnitude of Stalingrad and might mean the end of the war before the end of the year.
A German General’s Decision
General Bayerlein realized the only solution was to break out of the trap. The Russian attacks had an ominous feel of another Stalingrad and he was determined that such a fate would befall his men. His scouting units had reported a constant flow of Russian forces to the north, heading west, bypassing Kirovograd. The general realized that he was being cut off inside the city. He could not let this happen. In conferring with the other generals inside the city, whose forces were also trapped, he got no support. He then realized he would have to go it alone. The rest were too fearful of the Fuhrer’s "Stand fast or Die" order to disobey it.
After spending the day out on reconnoiter, Bayerlein realized the danger he and his men faced. Talking with his staff, he let them know that the purpose of leaving Kirovograd was to set the 3rd Panzer Division free. Then it could use its mobility and firepower to smash through the Russian encirclement. In his own words to his men, “The purpose of a Panzer division is mobile warfare, not defense of a fortified locality. We are breaking out tonight. Not in order to save us, but in order to regain our freedom of action.”
At 4PM, on January 7th, General Bayerlein gave the order to his units, "Panzers, forward!" He sent out one last radio signal announcing his attempted breakout to German forces outside the circle, then shut down all communications outside of the division. In this way, he could not receive any orders countermanding his own.
All during the night as the forces of the 3rd Panzer division fought their way northward, enemy resistance sought to slow them down. Continuing to the northwest, the panzers ran into a barrage of antitank fire. Three point vehicles burst into flame, and lit up the other units following them. A fierce fight ensued, and soon the Soviet positions were broken up. Even as the columns proceeded toward their goal, slicing flank attacks from Russian cavalry harassed them.
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