Meanwhile the Panther battalion of Panzer Regiment Bäke had also been hotly engaged when a Soviet force, estimated to consist of about a dozen tanks by the Germans, attacked from the north. The attack was repelled and the Germans claimed to have knocked out eight tanks, but suffered losses too, as three Panthers were put out of action, one of them by a shot that ricocheted on the lower part of the gun mantlet and hit between the turret and the chassis, jamming the turret.627
In addition to the tanks put out of action, there were soldiers who had been wounded. They had to be evacuated, but this was not easy to accomplish. With Soviet tanks operating in the area it was risky to send them in SPWs without escort by tanks. For the moment the wounded had to wait, hungry and frozen, like the other soldiers who continued fighting. Since it left Frankovka, Bäke’s regiment had received no rations except the emergency rations kept in the tanks. They had gone without any real sleep for weeks, but it was realized that their comrades in the pocket were in an even worse condition.628
During the night, engineers of Kampfgruppe Frank had improved the bridge at Lisyanka. Thus it would be easier for Frank’s forces to continue toward the pocket, but only if the supply of fuel and ammunition could be ensured. A heavily protected supply convoy, led by Major Feig, managed to reach Lisyanka in the afternoon of 15 February. While Feig labored to get supplies forward, the fighting continued in Lisyanka. At the end of the day Frank’s soldiers had managed to get control over the entire village, and could spend the night preparing to attack toward Oktyabr the following day.629
Of course some hopes could be nurtured about the intention to attack from Lisyanka, over Oktyabr and toward Komarovka, but it was clear to the German commanders that the available forces were very weak. Kampfgruppe Pietsch did not bring much strength to the Lisyanka area. In the morning of 15 February it only counted one PzKw IV and one StuG III, plus some infantry from 17th Reconnaissance Battalion. The Kampfgruppe supported Kampfgruppe Frank in the fighting for the northern parts of Lisyanka, but clearly more forces were needed. As the situation in the sector held by the SS-Leibstandarte was not as difficult as it had been a few days ago, it was decided to detach elements of that division to reinforce the thrust toward the pocket. However, all the division could scavenge from its depleted ranks were four armoured fighting vehicles: one StuG III, one PzKw IV, one Panther, and one Tiger. A few Panzer grenadiers rode on top of the tanks. The difficult terrain and roads made travelling arduous. Late in the afternoon the battle group had only reached Shubennyi Stav. It would not be able to influence the situation at Lisyanka until the following day. In fact, the entire journey, of some 21 kilometers, required 36 hours.630
With such scant reinforcements to throw into the thrust toward the pocket, it was clear that time was running out for the Germans. At the same time, a breakout would be very hazardous. It would mean that many wounded men would have to be left behind, and probably much heavy equipment would be lost too, even if everything went as well as the Germans could hope. If the breakout failed, however, it could turn into a bloodbath. The fighting during the preceding days suggested that Soviet forces around the pocket had been reinforced, which would make a breakout very difficult. Nonetheless, there was no longer any viable alternative.
Early on 15 February, Stemmermann and Lieb met to discuss the breakout. Several measures had already been taken to enable the attempt. Secret papers had been burnt and many vehicles that could not be expected to accompany a breakout because of the terrain or the lack of fuel had been destroyed. Considerable amounts of other heavy equipment had been destroyed too.
The most difficult decision probably concerned the wounded. There were about 2,100 wounded men in Shenderovka, of whom 1,450 were in such condition that they could only either lie down or sit. Lieb and Stemmermann agreed that these men would have to be left behind. To bring them along would jeopardize the breakout without helping the wounded, since the transports to take them would most likely not be able to traverse the difficult terrain, especially in the prevailing bad weather. So it was decided that those who could not walk would be left at the provisional hospital, together with medical staff. A doctor from each division would stay behind. Hopefully the Soviet forces would treat them reasonably well.631
For the breakout it was envisaged that Lieb’s corps, with the Korps-Abteilung B, the 72nd Division, and the SS-Wiking division would constitute the vanguard, while Stemmermann’s corps, with 57th and 88th Divisions, would make up the rearguard. From the Komarovka–Khilki area the vanguard would break through the enemy defenses and take the shortest route toward Oktyabr, where III Panzer Corps was expected to be waiting. At 23.00hrs on 16 February the breakout would begin, hopefully benefiting from darkness and surprise.632
In principle the plan seemed simple, but of course the reality was more difficult. In the afternoon Lieb spent some time in the house he used as a command post. From there he could see the entire pocket, except when snow squalls reduced visibility. About 50,000 men were crammed inside the small area. To move them without disclosing their intentions to the enemy was not easily accomplished. But it must have been evident to the Soviet commanders that the Germans could hardly effect a link-up between the pocket and their outside forces except along the shortest route.633
The soldiers of the Red Army who had been taken prisoner by the Germans and who were cooperating with them, known as the Hillfswillig (abbreviated to HiWi), were of particular concern. Hundreds of thousands of HiWis were serving in German units on the Eastern Front. Unsurprisingly, they were regarded as traitors if they were captured by Soviet forces and the HiWis had even more reason than the German soldiers to fear Soviet captivity. Ten HiWi had served with Anton Meiser’s battery, but at the beginning of February they all disappeared. They had been doing good service with the Germans, but when they understood that the two German corps were encircled, they seem to have deserted. Meiser realized that they most likely would have been shot if captured, and he assumed that they had tried to find partisan groups to join.634
As is well known, the war in the East witnessed numerous atrocities against soldiers and civilians. This is perhaps reflected in the final paragraph of Stemmermann’s order for the breakout: “Violations of international law may under no circumstances occur, or else enemy acts of cruelty against the wounded are to be expected.”635
Ammunition, in particular for small arms, was of course an important prerequisite for the breakout. A night attempt that relied on surprise would not have much call for artillery, but if this attempt did not go according to plan, artillery might well prove necessary. Furthermore, more fighting was to be expected before the breakout, and Gruppe Stemmermann was already critically low on ammunition. More supplies by air were urgently needed.636