Encircled by an overwhelming and vengeful Soviet army, German soldiers on the Eastern Front desperately searched for a way out.

 

The calendar reads January 30, 1944. The clock says 2 p.m. The thermometer? Well, let’s just call it cold. A small group of German infantrymen—landser in the vernacular, “ground pounders”—are huddled around a map table in a small clearing in a forest west of Cherkasy, in central Ukraine.

“Damn it,” the captain shouts. “We have to get out of here now!”

He slams a fist down on the table, sending the map flying. He is big, raw, and fearless and has a Knight’s Cross—the coveted Ritterkreuz—to prove it. His men don’t see him as much of a talker, and most of what he does say is strewn with profanities.

But now, a tap seems to open and the words pour out of him. “We’ve got to get out of here while we’re still close to friendly lines and our horses and equipment are in good shape.” He pauses and looks around at the others. “It’s life or death.” He’s shouting now. “We can do it. One battle, one march, and we’re out of here!”

The captain is done talking. No one speaks. Somewhere in the distance, a machine gun barks. Theirs? Ours? The men stand rooted, eyes cast down. The captain has said everything there is to say. Every landser around the table knows exactly what the big man is talking about.

Two days ago, Russian attacks south of the Dnieper River drove into the Germans’ deep right flank and linked up with another Russian column coming around their left. The Germans are cut off, trapped, encircled. They all know the word: kessel, German for “cauldron” or “kettle.” They don’t need to read a map. They can feel it.

They are trapped in a filthy, freezing mud hole, and if they don’t break out soon, they are all going to die.

 

IT COULD HAVE HAPPENED ANYWHERE on the extended German front west of the Dnieper in the winter of 1944. The tattered divisions near Korsun just happened to draw the unlucky number.

The year had dawned with the Red Army on the march, pushing back the Wehrmacht from its long, meandering line along the Dnieper. While the Germans managed to make a stand here or there, the Soviets had learned to probe for weak spots and then smash into them with massive force. Take the German Eighth Army, under the command of General Otto Wöhler, for example. Thus far in the Soviet offensive it had remained untouched, but Red Army attacks had already gouged deep into the neighboring German armies on Wöhler’s flanks. As a result, most of the Eighth Army was now isolated in a kind of sack, its front still resting on the Dnieper but its flanks dangling far to the south. Wöhler had asked for permission to pull back from this dangerous perch, but Führer Adolf Hitler had given his by now customary answer, demanding that Eighth Army hold its position “to the last man and bullet.”

Sitting in that big bulge on the Dnieper, the German Eighth Army was a tempting target, and on January 24, the Soviets pounced. Under the inestimable Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov, two “fronts” (the Soviet term for army group) launched a coordinated assault on it. The Second Ukrainian Front of General Ivan S. Konev came down from the north and west; its partner, the First Ukrainian Front of General Nikolai F. Vatutin, did the same from the east and south. As always for the Soviets, the force levels were massive: five ground armies; 400,000 men; 500 tanks; 5,000 guns; at least 1,000 aircraft. The Germans, by contrast, were threadbare. With manpower stretched to the limit and matériel in short supply, the Wehrmacht could barely hold a cohesive front; reserves and air power were also scarce. While the Germans had three panzer divisions in play—their calling card for hard-hitting, mobile operations—all three were understrength. Together they didn’t even add up to a single full-strength division.

No surprise, then, that the initial assault broke through almost everywhere on the first day. The German commander of XXXXVII Corps, General Nikolaus von Vormann, was at the front and described how “the red flood rolled over the tanks and artillery of the 3rd, 11th, and 14th Panzer Divisions around noon, heading west.” The scene, he wrote, was “amazing, dramatic, shocking…the dam broke and a great unending flood inundated the plain.”

Over the next few days, that “great unending flood” rolled on. Soviet tanks were motoring in the clear, and on January 28 the two fronts joined near the village of Zvenigorodka, along a little river called the Gniloy Tikich. A huge German force lay surrounded in a roughly circular pocket centered on Korsun. Ever since Stalingrad in 1942, Soviet offensives had been beating the Germans badly and tearing great gaps in their defenses, but the Wehrmacht had managed to avoid a repeat disaster. Now, for the forlorn German divisions in the Korsun kessel, the hour had struck.

The forces trapped in the pocket belonged to two units: XXXXII Corps, lying to the west, and XI Corps, lying to the east. The German High Command now formed them into a single command under General Wilhelm Stemmermann of the XI Corps. This “Stemmermann Group” contained 60,000 men, including 5,000 Russian civilian auxiliaries (Hilfswilligen, or “Hiwis”). Parts of six divisions were present, though none was at full strength after the hard fighting of the past few months. Their matériel situation was woeful. Among them they had just 26 tanks and 14 self-propelled guns. That made 40 armored vehicles versus the 1,000 on the Soviet side.

While Soviet tanks completed the encirclement on January 28, their supporting infantry armies were still hustling up to the front to solidify the inner ring around their German quarry. A kessel has its best chance to break out in the first week, but the Germans failed to jump. With typical bombast Hitler had dubbed the Korsun pocket a “fortress on the Dnieper,” but a more elemental factor was at work. On the night of February 1, the winter cold suddenly broke and a warm front rolled over the battlefield. Warm weather is normally good news, but now along the Dnieper, it spelled trouble. The thaw melted the ground, and the result was an ocean of mud. Just when German troops in the newly formed kessel needed speed, they found themselves stuck fast.

 

MUD ALSO FOILED GERMAN RELIEF ATTEMPTS from outside the pocket. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the commander of Army Group South, reacted quickly to the encirclement, assembling III Panzer Corps and XXXXVII Panzer Corps for a relief effort. The two forces looked impressive on paper, with no fewer than nine panzer divisions. But churning through the mud wasn’t easy, and veterans still shuddered years later at memories of the “Mud March” (Schlamm-Marsch) at Korsun. One panzer battalion moved a grand total of eight kilometers in 12 hours. Panther tanks sank up to the hull during the day and were immobilized when the mud froze at night, and many tanks spent their days dragging others forward through the mud instead of getting at the enemy.

Still, the Germans came on gamely. Their target was close, just 25 miles away. The first relief attempt, on February 4, broke through the initial Soviet defenses but soon bogged down—literally. The Germans reinforced their second attempt on February 11 more heavily, and the result was one of the great tank melees of the war. In the van for the Germans was the heavy tank regiment of Lieutenant Franz Bäke, an experienced tank commander. Fighting alongside Bäke was a battle group from 1st Panzer Division, Kampfgruppe Frank. Their target was Hill 239.0, a dominant height southwest of the kessel. The Soviets understood its importance as much as the Germans, and a great armored brawl broke out there on February 16, with German Panthers and Tigers ranging against Soviet T-34s and the new “Josef Stalin” heavy tank.

The close-range fight left both sides bruised. Kampfgruppe Frank lost every company commander and platoon leader in the course of the day, and Soviet tanks learned to avoid Bäke if they could. Supply was the undoing of the Germans. A Tiger tank was a fearsome weapon, but keeping it in fuel and shells was a difficult task even over dry ground and good roads. Korsun had neither. As so often in this war, the German drive petered out excruciatingly close to a crucial objective, with Bäke’s Tigers reaching the village of Oktiabr, a little more than a mile from Hill 239.0 and just five miles from their trapped comrades.

Inside the kessel, the troops were enduring something akin to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, perhaps some private spiritual bargaining with the Almighty, depression, and acceptance of their fate. But morale in the ranks seemed to hold steady, even as Soviet attacks drove them into a smaller and smaller pocket under constant artillery bombardment, as the Soviet air force thundered overhead, and as the promised air supply of the pocket didn’t even come close to the target tonnage. Soviet aircraft also dropped into the pocket millions of propaganda leaflets from captured German officers, urging them to surrender and promising them humane treatment, but apparently without effect.

Likewise, Stemmermann and the other commanders resisted a personal appeal from a former brother in arms, General Walther Seydlitz, a genuine tough guy taken prisoner at Stalingrad who had turned against the Third Reich with a vengeance. Stemmermann refused to treat with a Soviet envoy who came into the pocket under a white flag of truce with a surrender ultimatum. A German regimental commander met the envoy, and the two men shared a bubbly glass of sekt. But the Germans never answered the ultimatum.

Doubt was taking hold among those trapped at Korsun. Rumors flew. Help was on the way, or it wasn’t. Their officers had a brilliant escape plan; their officers were idiots. Hitler had personally ordered a relief column sent up, or he hadn’t. And then there were the questions: Why haven’t we been mentioned in the Wehrmacht dispatch (Wehrmachtbericht) lately? Why haven’t they come for us yet? Have they written us off? In their uncertainty, the landsers groaned and grumbled, as soldiers have done from time immemorial: “We criticized, blamed, and scolded,” one of them recalled, “swearing like troopers.”

And then, suddenly, salvation: On February 15, headquarters gave Stemmermann permission for a breakout. Manstein had decided to defy Hitler and to issue the order on his own. The breakout would begin on the night of February 16, under the code word “Freedom.” By now there was no choice. The pocket was shrinking daily, as Soviet attacks along the perimeter reduced it to an oblong gash just five miles long by three wide, every inch of which was raked with fire. German troops had given up Korsun itself, losing their only workable airfield. With Soviet pressure building by the day, supplies running out, and the relief columns stalled, the choice was stark: Break out or die.

The news spread rapidly and worked like a tonic on the filthy, frozen Germans. “Enough of these broken men,” a survivor later wrote, “enough of all this talk about dying.” He knew they would get through—they had to. It was time, as he put it, to “throw your heart over the hurdle” and just do it. After weeks of sitting still, only one thing mattered: “We’re breaking out!”

Certainly, the plan was a desperate one. Stemmermann formed three assault columns: Panzergrenadier Division Wiking on his left, 72nd Division in his center, and a few shattered remnants combined as “Corps-Detachment B” on his right. Two divisions, the 57th and 88th, made up the rear guard, ready to follow on to the breakout point once the initial assault had pierced Soviet defenses. The assault wedges themselves were perhaps unique in German military history. Each had three waves: a first “bayonet echelon,” to launch the assault with no preliminary maneuver or fire; a second “heavy echelon,” arrayed around the tanks and mortars (at least the few that could be muscled out of the mud); and a third “supply echelon,” made up of the trucks and wagons in the German army’s rear area. All three echelons were to head for the same objective: Hill 239.0, the “receiving point” where friendly forces of the III Panzer Corps were ready to take them in. With speed and surprise of the essence, Stemmermann even decided to leave behind 1,500 severely wounded men, along with a handful of medics—a ruthless decision that didn’t sit well with anyone, least of all the medics.

By all odds, the Korsun breakout was doomed. But predictions are never certain in war. The first echelon charged forward late in the evening of February 16, shouting “hurra!” and brandishing their rifles and bayonets. Their initial rush, coming as it did out of nowhere, caught the Soviets napping. Almost before the Germans knew it, their first echelon was through the Soviet defenses and heading southwest.

The opening success marked the end of the operational plan for the breakout. No one in the rank and file cared any longer about the order of approach or the timetable. The second and third echelons spilled forward, and then the rear guard. It was a surging mass of humanity, all crammed into a box a couple of miles square and streaming down the few good roads toward Hill 239.0. Group Stemmermann, a military formation organized a few minutes earlier, fell apart. Stemmermann himself took a direct hit from Soviet artillery that killed him instantly. Command and control broke down at the very moment when it was most needed. The German force inside the Korsun pocket had exited the realm of “war” and had entered something like a state of nature, where survival is the imperative and rational thought recedes. As if part of some cosmic plan, the weather decided to frame the situation perfectly—unloading a furious blizzard onto the scene, adding to the yard or so of snow already on the ground.

 

ONE THOUGHT GUIDED THE FLEEING SOLDIERS: Hill 239.0 meant freedom. It was just a few miles up the road, and the surging German horde was nearing it in the early morning hours of February 17. They were under fire from both flanks, but no one expected that breaking through such a narrow corridor was going to be easy. Just a couple more miles, and they’d be out. They could make out the dim shape of the big height just ahead. Their comrades were waiting. The sense of euphoria grew.

Just then the hillside erupted with a roar, as Soviet artillery, machine guns, and tank rounds slammed into the defenseless mass of infantry. The scene was pure horror. Standing at the very gate of freedom was a wall of Soviet armor. Within minutes, the German dead covered the ground. Thousands more surged to the front, only to meet death in their turn. Soviet tanks ratcheted the terror by rolling forward to crush everything in their path: wagons, the dead and wounded lying on the ground, and men desperately trying to get away. The carnage peaked as the Soviet 5th Guards Cavalry Corps charged into the German mass, riding down their victims and hacking away with their sabers. The entire slaughter took place with heavy German forces sitting, quite literally, on the other side of the hill.

What had happened? It’s clear that the men in the pocket thought Hill 239.0 was in German hands. When Manstein and his staff sent Stemmermann his breakout orders on February 15, they believed that Bäke’s tanks would be taking the hill the next day—a tragic mistake. No one could have predicted the fuel shortages that cropped up at the worst possible moment or foreseen the unlucky breakdown in radio communications between III Panzer Corps and Stemmermann that prevented him from learning about Bäke’s failure. Even had he known, however, his breakout order had galvanized his men so strongly that canceling the breakout might have been impossible.

Staggered in front of Hill 239.0, the human flood turned away and swerved south. The survival instinct was in play: Desperate to remove themselves from Soviet fire to their west and facing the well defended village of Dzurzhentsy to the north, they had no choice. Onward they came, again like a wave, with two streams parting around the village of Pochapintsy, then rejoining once past it, heading south, now turning west, toward the village of Lisyanka. They had apparently hit a temporary seam in the Soviet defensive ring; the dark of night had made a confusing situation even more perplexing for both sides. They actually managed to get around the base of Hill 239.0, and once again, freedom beckoned.

All they needed to do now was cross a river.

The Gniloy Tikich was at high water, 7 to 10 yards deep and some 80 feet across. The water was icy, with jagged floes on the surface and a steep, slick western bank. As the numbers of men in the horde swelled on the eastern bank, they formed a choice target for Soviet artillery, and they could see Soviet tanks arriving from the north. Once again, there was no other option: Thousands of men plunged into the river’s icy waters. Many drowned in their panic; many were killed in the water, gunned down or blown apart; many got across to the other side but failed to gain a purchase on the icy bank and fell back into the water. Hundreds drowned within a few yards of safety.

As dawn broke over this chaotic, bloody field on February 17, III Panzer Corps launched yet another attack and finally took Hill 239.0. Bäke’s tanks could now provide covering fire for the scattered remnants of the breakout force, still milling around or hiding in various states of confusion. In the end, a surprising number of German soldiers—perhaps 30,000 men—managed to survive the ordeal and beat the odds. But turn that number over, and it means that some 20,000 men had perished in one horrible night. If the Germans could have coordinated their two operations—the relief column and the breakout—just a bit more effectively, they might have eluded disaster. Fine tuning of this sort, however, is exactly what separates successful operations from a debacle like Korsun.

Sadly for the Germans, Korsun wasn’t a one-time event. Over and over in 1944–1945, German forces on the Eastern Front found themselves in the same dire straits as XI Corps at Korsun: outnumbered, undersupplied, and encircled, with the only hope for survival being a desperate, against-the-odds breakout. The Wehrmacht may have had a chance to win the war in the Soviet Union early on, but those days were long gone. Korsun was the new normal for the last two years of the war, as the goal for the German soldier shifted from victory to survival. Trapped in an unwinnable war, the landser could read the signs on the sprawling Soviet landscape all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black, and they all said the same thing: No way out. MHQ

 

ROBERT M. CITINO is senior historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and the author of eight books, including The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich; Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942; and The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue (Vol. 29, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Korsun Noose.

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