“Withdrawal in this situation will inevitably entail disaster”
August 1941 was hot throughout the Soviet-German front. In the northwestern direction, the troops of the Red Army tried to prevent the Wehrmacht from reaching Leningrad. In the western direction, the enemy offensive was delayed for two months during the battle of Smolensk. In the south-western direction, the question arose on the agenda whether it would be possible to defend the mother of Russian cities – Kiev.
Even at the height of the Battle of Smolensk, heavy fighting unfolded in the zone of the Central Front, where 25 divisions of the German Army Group Center, including six tank and motorized divisions, were deployed. They attacked the south with the aim of reaching the rear of the Southwestern Front, which stopped the advance of Army Group South on the Dnieper line. On August 8, with the support of large air forces, the 2nd Panzer Group of General Guderian went on the offensive.
The troops of the Central Front did not hold back a powerful tank strike and, under the threat of being enveloped by superior enemy forces, began to withdraw in the southern and southeastern directions. The headquarters of the Supreme High Command guessed the intentions of the Germans and, in order to prevent the encirclement of the front and the exit of the enemy in the rear of the troops that were defending Kiev, deployed the Bryansk Front between the Central and Reserve Fronts, headed by Colonel General A.I. Eremenko. Unfortunately, this measure has not yielded results. By August 21, Guderian’s formations had advanced to a depth of 140 km.
The headquarters, having detected the turn of the 2nd tank group to the south, on August 19 ordered the commander of the Southwestern Front, Colonel-General M.P. Kirponos to withdraw troops beyond the Dnieper, organize a defense along its left bank, and hold only Kiev on the right bank.
Kievans were ready to defend their city at any cost. Thousands of people joined the people’s militia. 200 thousand people voluntarily joined the Red Army. Tens of thousands of people worked on the construction of defensive structures.
The rate also did not intend to surrender the city. Even during Stalin’s meeting with Harry Hopkins, the envoy of US President F. Roosevelt, who arrived in Moscow at the end of July, the Soviet leader said that the front line would pass west of Kiev by the end of the year and the city would not be surrendered to the enemy.
The surrender of the city created a critical situation on the southern flank of the Soviet-German front, gave the Wehrmacht a chance already in 1941 to break through to the Kuban bread and Baku oil, complicated the international situation of the USSR, hurt the feelings of Soviet people who saw their city in Kiev, which should not be given to the enemy to be torn apart. Kiev had to be held. And in this sense, Stalin’s sharp refusal to heed the commonsense arguments of the Chief of the General Staff, General of the Army G.K. Zhukov, who proposed at the end of July to withdraw Soviet units to the left bank of the Dnieper and thereby evacuate the city. Zhukov proceeded from the categories of strategic necessity, Stalin – from a wider range of political and moral reasons.
The dispute with the leader ended for the general of the army with the removal from his post of the chief of the General Staff and the appointment to the post of commander of the Reserve Front.
Another reason for the reluctance of the Soviet commander-in-chief to withdraw troops to the left bank of the Dnieper should be named. He realized that most of the commanders of the Red Army at that time simply could not carry out major operations to withdraw troops to the rear lines. Only in the zone of the Southwestern Front, which was responsible for the defense of Kiev, at the end of July – beginning of August, the 6th and 12th armies of Generals I.N. Muzychenko and P.G. Ponedelina. There was no guarantee that a part of the Kiev fortified region would not be taken into account in the event of their retreat beyond the Dnieper from the capital of Ukraine. In addition, surrendering Kiev to the enemy meant ridding the flank of Army Group Center from the threat. In this case, Hitler could begin an offensive on Moscow at the end of August.
The fate of Kiev was decided not at the positions of the Kiev fortified area, but south and north of the capital of Ukraine. To counter the enemy’s breakthrough from the north to the rear of the Southwestern Front, a new 40th Army was deployed on the border of the Desna River. However, the withdrawal of troops across the Dnieper was not always organized in an orderly manner. Following the 27th separate rifle corps, the enemy broke through to the crossing north of Kiev, seizing a bridgehead on the left bank. And on the Southern Front, difficulties arose in connection with the premature explosion of the Dnieper hydroelectric dam on August 18. The rise of water in the river south of Zaporozhye, where even before the explosion its width exceeded 1.5 km, made it difficult for the 9th and 18th armies to cross. To the credit of the command of these troops, the crossing was clearly organized: by the end of August 22, the main forces were already on the left bank. By the end of August, the troops of the Southwestern and Southern Fronts withdrew across the Dnieper.
The troops of the German Army Group South, aimed at encircling the Southwestern Front, were more than twice as numerous in the number of aircraft and 4.2 times as in the number of tanks. The main danger came from Guderian’s tank group, which managed to capture two bridgeheads on the Desna near Korop and Novgorod-Seversky, threatening to go deep into the rear of the troops of the Southwestern Front. In early September, fierce battles unfolded here. In the area between the Seim and Desna rivers, north of Konotop and Bakhmach, divisions of the 40th Army (commanded by Lieutenant General K.P. Podlas) held back the onslaught of Guderian’s tanks.
Colonel-General F. Halder, chief of the General Staff of the Wehrmacht ground forces, wrote about these battles with concern: “The 2nd Panzer Group, during the offensive across the Desna, grabbed the enemy so tightly with its left flank that its advance to the south stopped.”…
To prevent the further withdrawal of the troops of the Southwestern Front to the east, the commander of Army Group South, Field Marshal G. von Runstedt, demanded that his subordinate formations start crossing the Dnieper in as many sectors as possible in the morning on August 29. On August 31, the Germans captured a bridgehead near Kremenchug. Marshal S.M. Budyonny immediately realized what a danger this bridgehead poses to his troops. He demanded that the Germans be immediately thrown off the left bank of the Dnieper. However, the enemy was rapidly expanding the bridgehead.
In early September, the command of the Southwestern Front and the General Staff sounded the alarm in full force. Now the new chief of the General Staff, Marshal B.M. Shaposhnikov and his deputy lieutenant general A.M. Vasilevsky proposed to Stalin to leave Kiev, to withdraw the troops across the Dnieper and thereby save the forces of the front.
But Stalin remained unconvinced: Kiev should not be surrendered! The same refusal was received on September 10 by the command of the front and the South-Western direction. Stalin still hoped that the commander of the Bryansk front, General Eremenko, would still manage to break through to the rear of Guderian, so he forbade the withdrawal of troops from near Kiev to localize the breakthrough. The encirclement of the Soviet group was a foregone conclusion.
Soviet troops delayed too much with the withdrawal across the Dnieper. In this situation, it was necessary to look for all possible options for continuing the defense. Marshal B.M. Shaposhnikov, telegraphing to the commander of the Southwestern Front (in a copy to Commander-in-Chief Budyonny) was right: “You all need to understand that your salvation is in firmly holding the flanks and closing the breakthrough. Withdrawal in this situation will inevitably entail disaster “… Alas, it was not possible to avoid the latter in September …
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