In the history of the Great Patriotic War, the small Ukrainian town of Uman is usually associated with the tragic summer of 1941, when 20 Soviet divisions were encircled. Its name re-appeared in reports nearly three years later, but now the Germans were wearily marching Westward through the snowy plains, and in greatly reduced numbers. A large portion remained in the clutches of the pocket at Korsun-Shevchenkovskiy, surrounded by the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts in January of 1944.
No Rest for the Wicked
Erich von Manstein himself attempted to penetrate the pocket, but neither his experience nor the extra divisions or even heavy tank battalions were enough. Only a small portion of those encircled broke out, and at a heavy cost. German tank units were in very poor condition.
The Wehrmacht hoped that the spring mud will give them a chance to restore their battered forces. At the end of February, the snow was already melting, and the roads were impassable for anything without tracks or feet.
Soviet commanders understood what the Germans wanted, and weren't about to let them rest. The next offensive, titled Uman-Botoshani Offensive, was scheduled for early March. Heavy fighting at Korsun petered out only at the end of January, giving Marshall Konev only a month to prepare.
Formally, Konev's 2nd Ukrainian Front included three tank armies, half of what was formed in 1944. In reality, he only had 670 working vehicles, the equivalent of only one tank army.
Bogdanov and Rotmistrov's armies were supposed to take the lead. Kravchenko's army remained in the second echelon. Bogdanov's experience told him that attacking with 200 tanks into several entrenched infantry divisions backed by several tank divisions is a fruitless endeavour, but the Germans were not what they used to be in March of 1944.
The offensive began on March 5th. On the first day, Bogdanov's 2nd Tank Army broke through the German lines and reached the Gorniy Tikich river, the first serious water hazard in their path. Motorized infantry crossed it swiftly, establishing a foothold on the other side, allowing bridges for tanks to be constructed. Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army was also advancing successfully, with reasonable losses.
Things got harder the next day, partially due to German tank counterattacks. Losses increased, and a significant amount of tanks broke down due to difficult terrain. The most difficult battles of March 6th were fought by tankers and the limited number of motorized infantry that was riding on their tanks or managed to keep up on foot. Communications officers also walked, to areas where there were not enough radios and where communication airplanes did not reach. Meteorologists had little to say about the weather: "Road conditions have further deteriorated."
Elements of four German tank divisions assembled around Mankovka and Potash. After Manstein's "knocks" at the Korsun pocket, each consisted of only a handful of vehicles, but were reinforced with fresh tanks from Germany at the end of February. They could be a nasty surprise for attacking Soviet forces. Thankfully, the most combat capable units were sent to another section of the front, and Konev's armies were faced with rear line and repair units, with a generous amount of damaged tanks awaiting repairs or shipment to Germany. Counterattacks by a few hurriedly repaired tanks and SPGs had no chance against the Soviet tank armies.
After a half-hour long battle, Potash was taken from the Germans on March 7th, along with a large amount of tanks. Mankovka was lost soon after. Reports of the 2nd Tank Army read: "The enemy lost up to 500 tanks, up to 10,000 cars, and 37 warehouses with various goods near Mankovka and Potash station."
Seek and Destroy
Heavy losses and a collapse of the first line of defense meant that the Germans had nothing to stop the Soviet armoured steamroller. They had to retreat (or if you call things like they are, flee) across the accursed mud, racing Soviet tanks.
Meanwhile, tank armies turned to scavenging due to outrunning their supply lines. All food and a part of the fuel was captured. Where possible, ammunition was dropped from airplanes. Units that were less lucky had to use their tanks to carry supplies. Notes read that "tanks used for these tasks carry fuel and ammunition very slowly, as it is only possible to move in first gear".
The mud favoured the Germans, slowing down the Soviet offensive. Rotmistrov's army lost contact with the rear. Poor weather kept aircraft grounded, and HQ had to control the army through a single radio and officers on foot.
Nevertheless, the tanks pressed on. German columns sank in mud and turned the road from Potash to Uman into a scrapyard. Bogdanov's tankers reached Uman on March 8th, 1944, and began the encirclement. By next evening, the battles between Soviet tanks and German AA guns raged in the middle of the city. At the same time, Rotmistrov's T-34s "overtook and crushed retreating columns with their tracks", reaching the outskirts of Uman. On March 10th, the city was completely cleared.
The first stage of the operation was complete, but it lasted until April 17th. By the end of the Uman-Botoshani Offensive, the Red Army liberated a portion of Moldavia and Western Ukraine, and entered Romania.
Article authors: Andrei Ulanov and Aleksandr Tomzov.
Original article available here.