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Oktyabr was separated from Lisyanka by a stream that flowed to the Gniloi Tikich River. The stream was not wide, but would still be difficult for the tanks to cross. However, when darkness fell the platoon commanded by Sergeant Strippel captured a 40-ton bridge over the stream. The bridge was undamaged and Strippel’s tank and crew shot up two T-34s that had been tasked with protecting it. Thus Strippel was credited with the destruction of 60 enemy tanks so far in the war.609

The opening of the route to the northeast was an important achievement. Hitherto the 16th Panzer Division, with the attached Panzer Regiment Bäke, had attacked along the main axis, while 1st Panzer Division had a flanking role. However, on 14 February it was decided that the main effort would be made from the Lisyanka area due to both the difficult terrain east of Khizhintsy and the stiff Soviet resistance.610

To cover the gap between 1st and 16th Panzer Divisions, Kampfgruppe Pietsch from the 17th Panzer Division had been ordered to advance north of the Gniloi Tikich River late on 13 February, and to descend on Lisyanka from the northwest. Just before midnight the Kampfgruppe began to move from Frankovka, with one PzKw IV, three StuG IIIs from Stug.Abt. 249, and a few SPWs with infantry. However, soon one StuG and all the SPWs had broken down. The infantry—one officer, two NCOs, and 27 men—had to sit on the PzKw IV and the remaining two StuGs. After spending 10 hours moving to Chesnovka, a journey of less than 10 kilometers, the first goal was finally reached. Three Tigers from s.Pz.Abt. 506 joined Kampfgruppe Pietsch before the move toward Lisyanka was resumed, by following the main road toward Lisyanka.

Halfway between Chesnovka and Lisyanka the small German force met small arms fire from Soviet infantry. A commander of one of the Tigers was wounded in the head before the Soviet troops withdrew. When only two to three kilometers separated Kampfgruppe Pietsch from Lisyanka, more infantry opposed the German advance, but again were brushed aside. In the skirmish the turret on the PzKw IV jammed and rendered the tank unable to take part in further fighting. Also, a shot from a Soviet assault gun penetrated one of the Tigers, but its crew bailed out unharmed. After the brief action, Kamfpgruppe Pietsch struggled through the mud, and at twilight its armored vehicles were discovered by soldiers from Kampfgruppe Frank. Pietsch’s troops had by then reached a hill just north-northwest of Lisyanka. However, Pietsch and Frank did not link up until the following day.611

Even though Kampfgruppe Pietsch was not particularly strong, it was a welcome addition to the low combat strength of Kampfgruppe Frank. As we have seen, many tanks were inoperable, and the infantry was very week too. Casualties had not been particularly high, but there were many cases of frostbite, trench foot, and disease caused by the poor conditions. The infantry were the main sufferers, and their combat strength declined considerably. Kampfgruppe Bäke suffered from exactly the same problems, and soon various combat teams would be scrambled from units fighting further west.

To pull elements out of units at the flanks put those sectors in jeopardy, though as we have seen, on 13 February, Hube had instructed XXXXVI Panzer Corps to prepare pulling out one division. The issue was again discussed by Hube and von Manstein on 14 February. Von Manstein proposed that 6th Panzer Division should be sent to III Panzer Corps. Normally this would have been a logical choice, but Hube considered 4th Mountain Division to be a better candidate. The 6th Panzer Division was not very strong in tanks. It had 15 operational PzKw IVs, and on the muddy roads several would no doubt break down, but it possessed valuable infantry. However, Hube did not believe that 6th Panzer Division, delayed by its trucks that had only limited cross-country capability, could transfer east quickly enough along roads that were quagmires of mud. The fact that considerable parts of 1st Panzer Division still struggled on the roads was sufficient testimony to this belief. Instead, he preferred to pull out the 4th Mountain Division and send it to III Panzer Corps. Von Manstein asked Hube to examine this question more closely.612

After checking with the chief of staff of XXXXVI Panzer Corps (to which both divisions were subordinated) and the transport officer in 1st Panzer Army, Hube called von Manstein again and it was decided that 4th Mountain Division should be sent to III Panzer Division, largely by utilizing railroads. It was uncertain if it would arrive in time to assist in the rescue of Gruppe Stemmermann.613

Terrain, weather and the poor roads in eastern Europe often made it difficult for conventional trucks to move. Halftracks had better mobility in difficult conditions, but were expensive to produce and sustain. (SIPA PRESS)


Time Is Running Out

Breith’s III Panzer Corps made little progress on 14 February, thus further increasing the need for air supplies to reach Gruppe Stemmermann in the pocket. To help the aircraft find the drop zones for their cargo, three bonfires were lit in the shape of a triangle. The Luftwaffe had asked that headlights from vehicles should illuminate the area where loads were to be dropped, but the muddy roads proved so difficult that all attempts to get vehicles properly positioned failed. The fires were probably of some help to the aircrews, as 44 aircraft out of 74 dispatched dropped their loads, consisting of 20 tons of ammunition and 18 cubic meters of fuel. These supplies were very welcome, but if one considers that a single division could easily expend more than twice as much ammunition during a day’s fighting, it begins clear how precarious the situation was. Six divisions were located inside the pocket, although they were far from full strength. During the night, the weather deteriorated even further, making it impossible for more aircraft to reach the pocket.614

Mud also prevented XXXXVII Panzer Corps from having much of an impact on the positions of 2nd Ukrainian Front. Von Vormann observed that the fuel consumption of his tanks was five times higher than normal, due to the sticky mud. A Panther consumed one basic fuel load per 18 kilometers under the current terrain conditions. Other vehicles could hardly move at all, and there was simply not enough fuel available to get any significant attack moving. The XXXXVII Panzer Corps was plainly not in a position to exploit the fact that the Soviet defenses had been weakened by moving most of Rotmistrov’s armor to the region between III Panzer Corps and Gruppe Stemmermann.615

Already in the morning, the soldiers of Gruppe Stemmermann suspected that they would need all the ammunition they could get. Noise from approaching Soviet tanks could be heard south and east of Novo Buda. Probably these belonged to 29th Tank Corps, which had been sent to reinforce the 5th Guards Cavalry Corps and the 202nd, 254th, and 62nd Rifle Divisions that were already fighting in the Komarovka–Novo Buda area.616

The Soviet tanks were soon thrown into the fighting for the important villages at the southwestern perimeter of the pocket, while the Germans tried to continue further to the southwest. Neither side made much progress during the day, but casualties continued to mount. Lieb reported that there were around 2,000 wounded in the pocket. These had to be brought along as the pocket tried to wander southwestward, as its eastern and northern perimeters were gradually pulled back. Originally it had been hoped that this would free troops that could be used to attack toward III Panzer Corps, but in the end the added troops only compensated for losses suffered in the units already committed to the attack. The lack of ammunition seriously hampered the Germans. It been intended to attack from Khilki at noon, but this attack had to be postponed due to lack of ammunition. Thus, at the end of the day the positions were much the same as at the beginning of the day, a result that probably pleased Konev much more than his counterparts on the German side.617