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Outside the pocket, many measures were taken to receive the soldiers of Gruppe Stemmermann. If all of the estimated 50,000 men made it to the III Panzer Corps it would be a considerable task to accommodate them. The local population was evacuated from villages near the front line, to provide housing for the soldiers who had broken out. Dressing stations had to be prepared to deal with the anticipated significant number of wounded. Near the front they would only receive first aid. As quickly as possible the wounded would be brought to the rear area, where trains were ready to take them to hospitals. Further preparations were made to evacuate the wounded by air.637

Soviet Forces on the Eve of the Breakout

Whether these German measures were to prove useful was of course at least partly up to the Soviet forces. Konev had three armies—the 4th Guards, 27th, and 52nd—surrounding the two encircled German corps. The 5th Guards Cavalry Corps had been fighting together with these armies for more than two weeks, and elements of 5th Guards Tank Army had recently been added. The units were worn from prolonged combat, however, in particular the corps of Rotmistrov’s tank army. Lazarev’s 20th Tank Corps only mustered six operational tanks on the evening of 15 February. Kirichenko’s 29th Tank Corps was marginally better off, counting 15 operational tanks.638

Still, Konev had more forces to play with than Stemmermann and Lieb. The three armies around the pocket numbered 11 divisions and were supported by Selivanov’s Cavalry Corps and Kirichenko’s Tank Corps. Even though comparisons based on the number of divisions should always be done with caution, it seems clear that the forces constituting the ring around the pocket were stronger than the surrounded force. Furthermore, it seems that the most powerful Soviet units, in particular armor, were placed between Gruppe Stemmermann and the III Panzer Corps. The odds did not favor the planned German breakout, as Konev and Zhukov must have known.639

Build-up to the Breakout

Twenty-four more hours remained before the breakout began. Under better weather conditions much could happen in that time span, but with the poor ground condition, low supply levels, and exhaustion that afflicted the soldiers, no dramatic changes could be expected. On the other hand, the distance between Gruppe Stemmermann and III Panzer Corps was such that even small changes could be significant. Especially important were the villages Khilki, Komarovka, and Novo Buda, which were on the southwestern perimeter of the pocket. It would be valuable for either side to hold them and hard fighting was to be expected, which would cause ammunition stocks to shrink to dangerously low levels.

Fortunately for the Germans, the Luftwaffe made a considerable effort to provide more supplies. During 15 hours, from 15.00hrs on 15 February to 06.00hrs on 16 February, Ju-52 and He-111 aircraft flew repeatedly to drop supplies to Gruppe Stemmermann. Indeed some of the air crews made seven sorties in this brief period. The efforts paid off, and 140 tons of ammunition, 57 cubic meters of fuel, and other valuable items were dropped. General Lieb noted in his diary on 16 February that his corps was considerably better supplied with ammunition after the efforts by the Luftwaffe on the preceding night.640

Perhaps the Germans received the ammunition in the nick of time. On the evening of 15 February the 105th Infantry Regiment had assembled for a night attack on Khilki. The soldiers were physically exhausted, but the importance of the attack was clear to anyone who wanted to get out of the cauldron, and the troops arrived at the staging area in time. Since the attack on Nova Buda four days ago, the regiment had gained experience in night fighting and it succeeded in capturing the objective this night too, helped by the fact that the village was not particularly strongly defended by Soviet forces. A Soviet counterattack, supported by armor, was launched in the morning, but was repulsed. However, at 16.00hrs a more determined Soviet attack was launched, again with armor support. It managed to penetrate into the southwest part of Khilki, but that was as far as the Soviet success extended. Major Kaestner, the commander of the 105th Regiment, committed his reserve, including assault guns, and counterattacked. In the evening the village was in German hands.641

Further south, at Komarovka, the roles were reversed. At dawn on 16 February the Germans held the village, but at noon the German XI Corps reported that Soviet infantry and tanks had penetrated into the village. Heavy fighting continued to rage from house to house, and by the afternoon the western half of Komarovka was in Soviet hands while the eastern part was controlled by the Germans. At Nova Buda too, intense fighting raged during the day, but the soldiers from SS-Wallonien and the SS-Wiking Division managed to keep their grip on the village.642

Thus the positions along the vital southwestern edge of the pocket changed slightly but not to such an extent that they affected the German breakout plans. However, Stemmermann felt certain that the III Panzer Corps would have to defeat the Soviet forces defending to the northeast of Lisyanka. At most, he expected his own troops to be counted upon to break the inner ring around the pocket, not the outer ring. His skepticism may have reinforced the doubts, held by some of the higher German commanders, that Stemmermann was capable of leading his force in such an exceptionally difficult situation. At 10.00hrs von Manstein again said to Speidel that he doubted that Stemmermann had the necessary energy and drive to conduct the breakout. Speidel replied that Wöhler had already ordered that Lieb should lead the breakout.643

As we have seen, Wöhler nurtured doubts about other commanders too. In the morning he flew to Verbovets and from there continued by a Kübelwagen to Yerki, where the command posts of Kampfgruppe Haack and 11th Panzer Division were located. Also, present were von Vormann and the commanders of the 13th and 14th Panzer Divisions, Major-Generals Mikosch and Unrein. The assembled officers testified that they lacked critical supplies, not only fuel and ammunition but also bread, boots, socks, and other items. The troops were simply worn out and suffered terribly from lice, since a further consequence of the poor supply situation was that it made it difficult for the soldiers to maintain their personal hygiene. Furthermore, the number of tanks and towing machines that had broken down, due to mud and lack of maintenance, was higher than ever before. Together with infections, all these factors combined to render combat power at a level lower than experienced before.644

As we have seen, disease also affected the commanders. Von Wietersheim, who suffered from “Volhynian fever,” received injections in order to stay in command of 11th Panzer Division. His chief of staff, Major Drews, suffered from the same disease and was confined to bed. Martin Unrein was afflicted by some kind of stomach disease, but stayed in command of 14th Panzer Division, even though he was clearly weakened by the illness. Von Vormann was not necessarily ill, but cold and nervous strain seemed to have exhausted him, or at least this was Wöhler’s impression. Despite all these difficulties, Wöhler demanded that XXXXVII Panzer Corps should continue to attack. In particular hill 208.9, east of Zvenigorodka, was to be taken. Spoiling attacks should also be made, in order to prevent 2nd Ukrainian Front from shifting troops to other areas.645