Autumn and Winter 1943–44

The Soviet juggernaut got rolling in earnest with the advance into the Germans' Orel salient. The diversion of the well-equipped Grossdeutschland Division from Belgorod to Karachev could not stop it, and a strategic decision was made to abandon Orel (retaken by the Red Army on 5 August 1943) and fall back to the Hagen line in front of Bryansk. To the south, the Soviets blasted through Army Group South's Belgorod positions and headed for Kharkov once again. Though intense battles of movement throughout late July and into August 1943 saw the Tigers blunting Soviet tanks on one axis, they were soon outflanked on another line to the west as the Soviets advanced down the Psel, and Kharkov had to be evacuated for the final time on 22 August. The German forces on the Mius, now comprising the 1st Panzer Army and a reconstituted 6th Army, were by August too weak to repulse a Soviet attack on their own front, and when the Soviets hit them they had to fall back all the way through the Donbass industrial region to the Dnieper, losing the industrial resources and half the farmland that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union to exploit. At this time Hitler agreed to a general withdrawal to the Dnieper line, along which was meant to be the Ostwall, a line of defence similar to the Westwall of fortifications along the German frontier in the west. The main problem for the Germans was that these defences had not yet been built, and by the time Army Group South had evacuated eastern Ukraine and begun withdrawing across the Dnieper during September, the Soviets were hard behind them. Tenaciously, small units paddled their way across the 3 km (1.9 mi) wide river and established bridgeheads. A second attempt by the Soviets to gain land using parachutists, mounted at Kanev on 24 September, proved as luckless as at Dorogobuzh eighteen months previously, and the paratroopers were soon repelled – but not until still more Red Army troops had used the cover they provided to get themselves over the Dnieper and securely dug in. As September ended and October started, the Germans found the Dnieper line impossible to hold as the Soviet bridgeheads grew, and important Dnieper towns started to fall, with Zaporozhye the first to go, followed by Dnepropetrovsk. Finally, early in November the

oviets broke out of their bridgeheads on either side of Kiev and captured the Ukrainian capital, at that time the third largest city in the Soviet Union. Soviet sniper Roza Shanina in 1944. About 400,000 Soviet women served in front-line duty units.[46] Eighty miles west of Kiev, the 4th Panzer Army, still convinced that the Red Army was a spent force, was able to mount a successful riposte at Zhytomyr during the middle of November, weakening the Soviet bridgehead by a daring outflanking strike mounted by the SS Panzer Corps along the river Teterev. This battle also enabled Army Group South to recapture Korosten and gain some time to rest; however, on Christmas Eve the retreat began anew when the First Ukrainian Front (renamed from Voronezh Front) struck them in the same place. The Soviet advance continued along the railway line until the 1939 Polish-Soviet border was reached on 3 January 1944. To the south, Second Ukrainian Front (ex Steppe Front) had crossed the Dnieper at Kremenchug and continued westwards. In the second week of January 1944 they swung north, meeting Vatutin's tank forces which had swung south from their penetration into Poland and surrounding ten German divisions at Korsun-Shevenkovsky, west of Cherkassy. Hitler's insistence on holding the Dnieper line, even when facing the prospect of catastrophic defeat, was compounded by his conviction that the Cherkassy pocket could break out and even advance to Kiev, but Manstein was more concerned about being able to advance to the edge of the pocket and then implore the surrounded forces to break out. By 16 February the first stage was complete, with panzers separated from the contracting Cherkassy pocket only by the swollen Gniloy Tikich river. Under shellfire and pursued by Soviet tanks, the surrounded German troops, among whom were the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, fought their way across the river to safety, although at the cost of half their number and all their equipment. They assumed the Soviets would not attack again, with the spring approaching, but on 3 March the Soviet Ukrainian Front went over to the offensive. Having already isolated the Crimea by severing the Perekop isthmus, Malinovsky's forces advanced across the mud to the Romanian border, not stopping on the river Prut.