The Cherkassy-Korsun cauldron. (J. Lopez)

After his works on Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin, the journalist and historian Jean Lopez deals this time with a less famous episode of the German-Soviet war, namely the battle for the " cauldron »From Cherkassy-Korsun, put in the larger context of the Soviet offensive to seize control of the Dnieper (September 1943-February 1944). Often relegated to the background by the other major conflagrations of 1944 and in particular Bagration, the battle of Cherkassy-Korsun It is no less interesting in several ways.

It is one of the last clashes of the war in the East, more or less balanced in terms of equipment and aligned formations. Claimed as a victory by both camps, it illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of their respective doctrines and functioning. Finally, it is revealing of the strategic and operational deadlock in which the Germans have found themselves on the Eastern Front since the end of Operation Citadel (Battle of Kursk).

The Dnieper Race

From August 1943, Joseph Stalin had a race in the Dnieper prepared, which for him was the top priority at the moment. The Soviet leader intends to capitalize on the successes of the summer to regain control of Ukraine, for several reasons, both military and political. If it is a question in particular of preventing the Germans from establishing a fortified defensive line (this famous Ostwall which Hitler actually refuses ...) on the great Ukrainian river, Stalin already sees this operation as a prelude to a surge of the Red Army on the Carpathians and south-eastern Europe. On the other hand, in a Soviet Union hit by shortages where famine is a reality, it appears essential to regain control of Ukraine, which is rich in food and energy resources. Finally the Soviet leader worries about the development of Ukrainian nationalism which (re) assumes considerable importance under the German occupation.

Opposed to Stalin's unwavering will is Hitler's, who intends to retain control of Ukraine and the Dnieper. Despite the recommendations of the command of Army Group South, Marshal Von Manstein, the master of the Third Reich refuses to play with space to buy time. For Hitler, to give up this land planned as a future region of Germanic colonization is to renounce the great enterprise of conquest and extermination which began on June 22, 1941. Thus, if the Germans will defend Ukraine step by step, it is is more for ideological than material considerations.

From September 1943 the Red Army launched three fronts (Army Groups) in the battle which was to bring it from eastern Ukraine, to the banks of the Dnieper, from Kiev in the north to Dnepropetrovsk in the south. For this offensive, the Red Army initially aligned nearly a million and a half men and some 60 armored and mechanized brigades. However, the importance of these figures must be put into perspective by emphasizing (and this will be one of the major data in the battle for the " cauldron Of Korsun) that these mechanical formations suffer from a significant deficit of armor which is explained by the bloodletting of the summer. While the Soviets had vast reserves of tanks in their depots (the result of impressive war production), they struggled to equip them with trained crews.

Faced with this Soviet unit mainly wielded by Vatutin and Konev (under Zhukov's supervision), Von Manstein's South German Army Group regroups three armies comprising some of the best armored units of the Wehrmacht. However, they too had incomplete troops (which would be the lot of most German units until the end of the war) and despite their leader's talent for maneuvering, they could only find themselves overwhelmed. Once again, there is a clash of style and thought between a German command with an eye on the tactical level and that of the Soviets, which envision deep operations, responding to operational goals. The flexibility and sense of improvisation of the Ostheer responds to the ruthless planning of the Red Army.

Shadow of Stalingrad

At the beginning of 1944, the attacks carried out by the troops of Vatutin and Konev finally pushed back Manstein's forces and in particular the 8e Army of General Wöhler on the Panther-Wotan line, along the Dnieper. If the Germans had to cede Kiev at the beginning of November to the Soviets, Hitler intends to use the salient occupied by the 8th Army known as the Kanev salient (compared to a "Balcony on the Dnieper" ) as a springboard for a future counteroffensive to regain control of Ukraine. Despite their tactical finesse, the German officers, full of contempt for their adversaries, considered the Soviets too exhausted to successfully encircle the salient.

Yet it is for this encirclement that the Red Army is preparing with determination. This is a trade of opportunity, an opportunity provided by Hitler’s stubbornness to hold a position on the Dnieper. Stalin knows that he may have a second Stalingrad there, a powerful propaganda tool to re-inflate a Red Army exhausted by uninterrupted months of offensive but also to impose it on Western allies who are struggling in Italy.

Operation Korsun – Shevchenkovsky began on January 18, 1944. Led by the 1er (Vatoutine) and 2th Ukrainian Front (Konev), it responds to the double encirclement methods (with outer and inner ring) developed during the Battle of Stalingrad. Each front attacks one side of the Kanev salient, all in an agricultural region marked by high density of habitat, many drops in height and a lack of modern roads. The Germans taken aback, defended as best they could, but on January 29, they had to see that the Soviets had just successfully encircled it. Konev promises Stalin that he will remain hermetic until the end ...

What we will call the "cauldron" of Cherkassy, ​​brings together around 60,000 German soldiers, from six divisions and two different corps, including Waffen SS units such as the Wiking or the Wallonia volunteer brigade. The whole represents a disparate whole, the unity of command of which will remain problematic. The cauldron owes its supply only to an expensive airlift set up by the Luftwaffe based on the Korsun airfield.

As the Soviets consolidate the rings of the encirclement, Manstein reacted with his usual liveliness. Determined not to be associated with a second Stalingrad (let's not forget that he had been tasked with rescuing the 6e Paulus’s army) he will do everything in his power to undo the encirclement, even if it means contravening (for once) Hitler’s orders for the surrounded troops to hang on. The rescue operation will be carried out by the IIIe and XXXXVIIe armored corps. These formidable formations on paper, diminished in reality (despite fine remains, like a heavy armored regiment combining Panthers and Tigers tanks), must lead an ambitious plan which should lead not only to restoring links with the Korsun pocket, but also to against encircling Soviet forces (sic.).

This overly ambitious operation is confronted with a fierce defense of Vatoutin's units but also with a weather marked by an exceptionally early warmth that transforms the battlefield into a mud field ... In the end, only the German IIIrd Armored Corps reaches a few kilometers away. from the southwest flank of the Kessel. The troops surrounded in full " Kesselpsychosis "And grouped into one Stemmerman Group will have to join the armored corps in abominable conditions. Wading through the mud, gradually abandoning most of their equipment and the seriously wounded, constantly bombarded everywhere by Soviet artillery, a little more than 45,000 men will break through, at the cost of incredible sacrifices.

When the battle ended on February 19, both sides claimed victory. Soviet propaganda speaks of " Stalingrad on the Dnieper »And 10 wiped out divisions. The Germans praise the audacity of a Manstein (whom Hitler will have the occasion to reproach him for) who would have inflicted a severe correction on the opposing troops. Despite everything, the results are largely in favor of the Soviets. Of the 45,000 German survivors of Korsun, very few will resume the fight, the two armored corps sent to their aid totally consumed in the battle, will not be able to prevent the Soviets from continuing to advance west and south. Manstein ultimately lost his last fight and will be sacked on March 30. For the Ostheer, the days of grand style operations are over, the days of defensive without recoil and without hope begin ...

Our opinion

With this book, Jean Lopez once again offers us a striking and uncompromising portrait of the German-Soviet war. He opposes and compares in great detail the two opposing forces. Whether it is political factors (and notably the many interventions of both Stalin and Hitler in the course of operations), doctrinal, psychological, logistical and material factors, the spectrum is complete.

From the reflections and rivalries specific to the staffs, to the sufferings of simple troops (we will also appreciate the extracts from testimonies of soldiers from both camps) the whole reconciles the simplicity of reading and the height of view as regards strategic analysis operational facts. The inevitable moments of bravery respond to more intellectual considerations which should allow this Korsun to attract readers with quite different profiles.

Perhaps less provided in theoretical digression with regard to Soviet military doctrine than its previous opus (Berlin), this work by Jean Lopez nonetheless presents interesting developments on two often neglected points of the German-Soviet conflict: the airborne operations of the red army and the problem of air transport in the Luftwaffe. Finally, with its chapter 5 (Does the Red Army know how to encircle?) We are offered a small essay on this type of maneuver, more favored by the Germans than by the Soviets.

We will also notice the author's paw in his careful and uncompromising portraits of the various unit commanders and more precisely that of Erich Von Manstein whose myth of a genius general almost opposing Hitler, never ceases to be demolished. .

In the end, Le Chaudron de Tcherkassy-Korsun, does not differ in the series that Jean Lopez devotes to the great battles of the German-Soviet war. Because it tackles a relatively untreated episode of this terrible conflict, it deserves to feature prominently in the bibliographies relating to this period.

J LOPEZ, The Cherkassy-Korsun cauldron (And the battle for the Dnieper, September 1943-February 1944), Economica, Paris, May 2011.

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