Lieutenant Fritz Hahl was a 23-year-old officer who served as company commander in the Westland Motorized Infantry Regiment of the 5th SS-Panzer Grenadier Division Wiking. He had participated in the battles along the Mius and remained with the division when it retreated after the costly battles in eastern Ukraine. The retreat over the Dnepr meant that fighting became less severe, but the situation was far from safe. As he recalled:
On September 27 we crossed the Dnepr on a bridge near Cherkassy and reached the western bank. Due to incorrect situation estimates the higher headquarters had failed to provide enough bridges within the 8th Army area. At the few crossing points long queues appeared, several kilometers long, with vehicles from the combat units, tanks, artillery and the baggage. It borders on the miraculous that this traffic jam was not bombed by the Red Air Force. We had been left without any air cover, as not a single German fighter could be seen in the sky and no AA units had been deployed to protect the river crossing.
As the Germans were retreating towards the river, the Soviet forces pushed hard to create bridgeheads across it. The Germans pursued a scorched-earth policy when withdrawing so the Soviet forces experienced difficulties finding boats, ferries, or any floating craft. But everyone in the Red Army knew how important it was to gain a foothold on the western bank of the Dnepr. The initial crossings were all dependent on the limited resources available. However, soon engineers erected new bridges and began to operate ferries. German airpower and artillery harassed the bridgeheads, but were unable to halt the flow of Soviet troops.
By 1 October 1943, the Red Army had established several bridgeheads over the Dnepr, although an improvised attempt to use airborne forces had ended in failure. During the first week of October, the Soviet commanders brought up more troops and supplies before resuming the offensive. Their strike marked the beginning of several months of hard battles on the western bank of the Dnepr. In October, the 2nd Ukrainian Front, commanded by General Konev, cleared the western bank of the river between Dnepropetrovsk and Cherkassy. His troops gained a solid grip on the western bank, establishing a large bridgehead with a depth of about 100 kilometers.
In November the 1st Ukrainian Front, commanded by General Vatutin, attracted the most attention. His troops held two rather small bridgeheads, one at Bukrin, south of Kiev, and one at Lyutezh, north of Kiev.
The 3rd Guards Tank Army, commanded by General Rybalko, had withdrawn from the Bukrin bridgehead, taking great care to deceive the Germans about its true whereabouts. In fact, the Red Army made every effort to convince the Germans that the 3rd Guards Tank Army was still in the Bukrin bridgehead. German situation maps dated 3 November still indicated that the Guards tankers were in place at Bukrin. As General Zhukov admits in his memoirs, the weather had favored the Soviet regroupings: “To our good fortune the weather was unfit for flying, so during this movement enemy air reconnaissance was almost completely inactive.”20
The tanks had to cross the Dnepr River twice to reach their new staging area, but they were not alone as they moved into the Lyutezh bridgehead. As usual, the Soviet artillery moved up in huge numbers, reaching a density of 400 guns and mortars per kilometer of frontline. Most of the infantry in the bridgehead belonged to General Moskalenko’s 38th Army, and as he concluded after the war, the concentration of artillery here was so far the most massive in the war.21
To Vatutin, who had moved his headquarters into the Lyutezh bridgehead, it was very important that the Germans still thought his main attack would come from Bukrin. He had already tried twice from there, but failed. Vatutin needed a success very soon, because Stalin wanted Kiev to be liberated before 7 November, the anniversary of the Revolution of 1917. In addition, his fellow front commanders, Ivan Konev, Rodion Malinovskii, and Fedor Tolbukhin, had seen various successes to boast of during October, while his front was still fighting in its bridgeheads. Vatutin knew he had to try to outwit von Manstein, the opposing commander on the German side. Consequently, on 1 November he launched strong attacks from the Bukrin bridgehead in an attempt to distract German attention while the final preparations were underway for the main assault out of Lyutezh.
Vatutin began his attack from the Lyutezh bridgehead on 3 November, and, unlike his previous attempts, this one quickly met with success. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army was committed to create a breakthrough. By the morning of 5 November Rybalko’s tankers had reached Svyatoshino (west of Kiev) and were blocking the main road running west from the city. Rybalko established his command post in a small house outside Svyatoshino and ordered his subordinate commanders to attend a briefing. Colonel Yakubovskii, commander of 91st Independent Tank Brigade, was the first to arrive. Rybalko seemed more agitated and excited than normal.
He asked Yakubovskii: “Do you know whose house this is?”
Yakubovskii did not note anything special about the house. It seemed quite normal to him. He answered that he did not know. Rybalko said: “Before the war I lived here with my family.”22
The Soviet forces continued towards Kiev, which they entered on 6 November, just in time for the ceremonies in Moscow on the following day. Stalin was able to announce that the third largest city in the Soviet Union had been liberated from the enemy.
However, Vatutin’s offensive did not end with the liberation of Kiev. His armies continued west, pushing the Germans more than 60 kilometers from Kiev. As a result, the Germans were largely dislodged from the west bank of Dnepr, but they managed to hang on to a 100 kilometer stretch of the river near Kanev, south of Kiev.23 This German bulge was soon to be dented. Vatutin and Konev planned further offensives that would force von Manstein to react.
The fighting around Kiev had been costly for the 1st Ukrainian Front, not only for the infantry and tankers but also for the Communist Party members among the front troops. As Konstantin V. Krainyukov, political officer at the 1st Ukrainian Front wrote in his memoirs:
The heavy, prolonged offensive and offensive fighting around Kiev had hit the party organisation of communist and komsomol very hard. To replace losses we had to find reserves during the operations. Thus we mobilized, which was very unusual, party members in the rear areas to bring forward to the most important sectors at the front.24
Despite the losses sustained, Vatutin continued the preparations for his offensive, which were completed in the second half of December 1943.
The commander of Army Group South, Field Marshal von Manstein, intended to celebrate Christmas with the 20th Panzer Grenadier Division. However, the visit was disturbed by ominous reports suggesting that a Soviet offensive could have begun. When von Manstein returned to his headquarters, he realized that Vatutin was not making some sort of diversion; rather it was a major offensive. Vatutin attacked with substantial numerical superiority and the Germans could not withstand the onslaught.25
Vatutin opened up the offensive with a sequence of attacks on various sectors, as he wanted to make full use of his artillery and air power on each breakthrough sector. Konstantin V. Krainyukov from the staff of the 1st Ukrainian Front was visiting 18th Army’s headquarters when the offensive started. Colonel-General Lesselidse looked tensely at his wristwatch and said in a low voice: “Now, God of War, you have the first word.”