Course of Operations
By early August, the Red Army had sustained heavy losses as its 1st and 2nd strategic echelons were decimated by the Wehrmacht. Although the situation seemed desperate, salvation was at hand. The massive mobilisation efforts that had begun in June-July were finally starting to bear fruit. The Soviets transferred roughly 30 divisions from the Eastern USSR to the Western USSR. Moreover, they mobilised some 50 new divisions in July and deployed them to the frontlines. This brought relief to the decimated ranks of the Red Army, bringng up the number of formations to a level not much lower than when the war started. Although Western and SouthWestern Fronts had both been destroyed in the intense fighting of July, the mobilisation efforts enabled the Russians to reconstitute these fronts. This by itself invalidated the German hopes for a victorious summer campaign and a short war. It was now apparent to the OKH that the Red Army was far larger than they had anticipated; the pre-war estimates that put their strength at only 227 divisions were grossly mistaken.
After the battle of Smolensk, Army Group Center conducted an operational pause. They had outrun their supply lines and were forced to come to a halt, so that the Russian railways they depended on could be regauged. It would take time before the trains could resume their delivery of supplys to the frontlines. More time would be needed to build a supply stockpile enabling them to resume the offensive to the East. In early August, the OKH was already planning to launch an attack on Moscow; General Franz Halder had been scheming this for an entire year. His plans were dashed by the commander in chief, however. Adolf Hitler observed how the progress on Army Group Centers flanks were lagging, and how this compromised the OstHeers offensive goals. Army Group North was bogged down in Estonia and on the Luga river, while Army Group South was stuck on the Dnieper river. The Fuhrer planned to rectify this situation by dispatching elements of Panzer Group 2 and 3 to clear the flanks and eliminate the Soviet resistance. Halder protested this decision, but it was to no avail. The Panzer Groups would be given 10 days to refit, and would then be sent on their way. Meanwhile, Army Group Center was busy tying up loose ends all across the front. They launched a local offensive against Roslavl, taking the city and battering 28th Army in the process. Further north, they were fending off counter-attacks along the Smolensk-Moscow highway. Stavka was determined to halt the German attack on the capital city that they felt was imminent. 30th and 24th Armys went on the offensive at Yartsevo and Yelnia, but these isolated efforts made no headway.
On August 5, Panzer Group 2 and 3 withdrew from the frontlines and commenced their refit. During this time of relative stability, Army Group Center brought up its reserves, deploying 2nd Army along its southern flank. The Soviets had relatively few troops within the Pripyat marshs, and were unable to prevent the capture of Gomel. This move alarmed the Red Army, prompting them to pull 5th Army out of the Pripyat marshs in order to shorten their front. They also deployed 34th Army to the area to reinforce them. By this time, they had a total of 4 Armys in the region of Kiev, which had formed into a salient. New Armys were being hastily mobilised. Joseph Stalin wanted the Ukrainian capital to be held as long as possible, in order to forestall an attack on Moscow. Contrariwise, Adolf Hitler wanted to capture Kiev for economic reasons; the arable land and the iron and coal mines of the Ukraine were of great importance. General Halder continued to try and delay the implementation of the Fuhrers edict; due to a favourable turn of events, he was partly successful. Army Group North had renewed its advance on Leningrad, and would no longer require any assistance to reach its objectives. Panzer Group 3 would therefore not be redeployed to the north. However, Army Group South still needed support to destroy the Kiev salient with a pincer movement. As a result, Panzer Group 2 would still embark on its planned detour to the south. By August 15, they had completed their refit and were ready for action. General Heinz Guderian ordered his troops on the march, and they arrived at Starodub by the next day. It was then that the real fighting began.
After the battle of Vinnitsia and Nikolaev, Army Group South had secured a dominant position in the Ukraine, chasing the battered remnants of the Red Army up to the Dnieper river. Although Kiev remained in Soviet hands, other citys on the Dnieper were taken after minimal fighting. Panzer Group 1 spearheaded the attack and captured Kremenchuk on August 8; Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporozhye fell soon after. Panzer Group 5 took Kherson against a rearguard, and the infantry Armys raced to catch up with them. Army Group South was in a very secure position, with multiple bridgeheads along the river, and numerical superiority over the Russians. Their rapid march had overstretched their supply lines, however, forcing them to come to a halt. This gave the infantry Armys a chance to catch up, but it also gave the enemy time to rebuild SouthWestern Front. General Ewald Von Kleist wanted to cross the Dnieper river with Panzer Group 1, but was hamstrung by shortages of fuel and ammunition. They were forced to wait until the logistical situation rectified itself. 17th and 11th Army took up positions along the Dnieper, while 6th Army continued its attack on Kiev with renewed ferocity. Although the Soviets had demolished all the bridges near the capital, many of the other citys had been captured with their bridges still intact. This facilitated the expansion of the bridgeheads in preparation for an attack. By this time, Panzer Group 2 was now making a strong push into the Ukraine, with 2nd Army securing its flank along the Pripyat marshs. They were more than a match for the Russian forces opposing them, who were unable to hold back the assault. The armored spearheads made a succesful crossing of the Desna river.
The encirclement of the Kiev salient was now underway, and Stavka realized its peril. They plan to withdraw SouthWestern Front to a more defensible position, but Joseph Stalin refuses to authorise this. The capital would be held at all costs. The situation rapidly spirals out of control. On August 23, Panzer Group 1 went on the offensive from its bridgehead at Kremenchuk. They quickly broke through enemy lines and drove into the vacuum, conducting a nearly unopposed march. Panzer Group 2 continues its sweep to the south, capturing Konotop on August 25. On the same day, 6th Army crosses through the Pripyat marshs to take Kiev from behind. German troops fight their way into the streets of the capital itself, and the Soviets detonate huge mines in the city. On August 28, Panzer Group 1 captures the city of Lokhvitsa. Only 60 km remains between the two spearheads, as they close in to cut the salient at its base. By this point, it is apparent that the fall of Kiev is imminent, as is the encirclement of its six Armys. Guderian and Von Kleists troops link up at Lokhvitsa on August 30, and with that, the forces of SouthWestern Front are surrounded. The Russians try to launch counter-attacks from both inside and outside of the pocket, but their efforts are uncoordinated. Stavka finally issues an order authorising a retreat, but by then it is too late. Desperate fighting continues for a week. The battle of Kiev ends on September 8 with the surrender of 450,000 soldiers. It is the largest prisoner haul of the war. 5th, 16th, 19th, 34th, 37th, and 38th Armys are destroyed. A huge gap has been torn in the Red Armys frontlines. And the Eastern Ukraine is now ripe for the taking.
Meanwhile, Army Group North has made considerable progress in its sector. 18th Armys renewed attack into Estonia flattens the Soviets, who are surrounded at Tartu and defeated. The remnants fall back towards the capital of Tallin. A great evacuation from the port city begins, and the Luftwaffe exacts a savage toll of the rescue ships. With Estonia now cleared, German troops resume their march to Leningrad. Panzer Group 4 breaks out from the Luga river on August 10, capturing the ancient city of Veliky Novgorod along the way. The two Corps are able to encircle and destroy the Luga operational group that had held up their advance for a month. 18th Army pours in from the west, forcing the Soviets into retreat. The entire front is unravelling. Panzer Group 4 sweeps towards Leningrad in a powerful drive. The Red Army is hurriedly mobilising all available forces to try and stop the Germans before the city. They had precious few reserves, as most of the newly mobilised divisions had been deployed to Western and SouthWestern Fronts. Civilians drafted into labour battalions have been busy constructing defensive works around Leningrad. 8th Army is caught up in the headlong retreat and destroyed at Oranienbaum. Panzer Group 4 severs the last railway connection to Moscow, isolating the city. They march into Schlisselburg on September 2. With that, Leningrad and its population is now completely surrounded, and a terrible siege begins.
When the war began in June, the Soviets had a total of 6 Armys deployed in their 2nd strategic echelon. There was 16th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 24th Army, along with several Corps. Of these, 20th and 21st Armys were destroyed at Smolensk. 16th and 19th Armys were destroyed at Kiev. 22nd Army was destroyed at Veliki Luki. Only 24th Army remained, launching futile counter-attacks at Yelnia. Although the Red Army was able to mobilise roughly 50 new divisions in July and form 13 new Armys from them, it must be acknowledged that these newly raised divisions did not have the same fighting power as the pre-war divisions. As more and more of the 1st and 2nd echelons were destroyed in June, July, and August, the burden of carrying on the fight would increasingly fall on the 3rd echelon. These divisions were smaller and more poorly armed than the pre-war divisions, with inadequate training and leadership. And with the heavier losses experienced by the Soviet Union, even these plentiful reserves would not be enough to plug the gaps that were forming in their frontlines.
In the Ukraine, the Red Army was badly overstretched. They had endured staggering losses, and did not have enough forces to cover the front. They had no choice but to try to reconstitute SouthWestern Front in August, by mobilising three new Armys in the Kiev salient, and one new Army in the Crimea. They were also forced to transfer 44th and 47th Armys from the Caucasus, deploying them to the Dnieper river to reinforce Southern Front. They arrived in mid August, taking up position across from Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporozhye. The redeployment of these two Armys led to complications in the Soviets plans. They had agreed to launch an invasion of Persia in concert with the British, in order to secure the oil fields of that country and neutralise them as a potential Axis ally. But after the disaster in the Ukraine, the Red Army had no choice but to redeploy the two Armys that were to spearhead the invasion. They did not have any suitable forces in the Caucasus that could replace them, and Stavka was forced to postpone the Persian operation. The British warned that any delays would only jeopordise their position in the Near East; but for the time being, there was nothing that could be done.
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