(Aug. 13, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the Battle of Kyiv began, pitting the German Wehrmacht against the Red Army.
The ancient city of Kyiv, located on the Dnieper River, is the largest in Ukraine, serves as its capital and currently has a population of approximately three million. Before the war, its population was approximately one million.
As the summer of 1941 wore on and the Wehrmacht churned east, extending its lines of communication and supply ever further, some on the German side began to be concerned with what they were facing. The Army Chief, Gen. Franz Halder, who the previous month had thought the war all but won, began to reconsider, saying,
“The whole situation makes it increasingly plain that we have underestimated the Russian Colossus. The Soviet Divisions are not armed and equipped according to our standards, and their tactical leadership is often poor. But there they are, and if we smash a dozen of them, the Russians simply put up another dozen. They are near their own resources while we are moving further and further away from ours. And so our troops, sprawled over an immense front line, without any depth, are subjected to the excessive attacks of the enemy.”
By Aug. 2, the Wehrmacht had suffered 179,500 casualties, but received only 47,000 replacements. Of greater concern than the men were the machines, which were wearing out and not being replaced. Meanwhile, the advance was halted while the Germans argued amongst themselves about the next objective.
Facing Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Armeegruppe South and the Romanian Armeegruppe Antonesqu, was the Soviet Southwestern Front commanded by Col.-Gen. Mikhail Kirponos and the smaller Southern Front, commanded by, first, Ivan Tyulenev, and from Aug. 30, Dmitri I. Ryabyshev. All Soviet forces facing Axis forces were placed under the command of Marshal Semyon M. Budyonny on July 11. By now the Soviet Sixth and Twelfth Armies, commanded by Ivan N. Muzychenko and Pavel G. Ponedelin and most of the Soviet armor in that area had been destroyed. Both Generals Muzychenko and Ponedelin were captured. Upon their release after the war, both were accused of treason and arrested. Gen. Muzychenko was released but General Ponedelin was executed.
Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s Armeegruppe South had not advanced as far as Armeegruppe Center, commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. The fronts facing Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s Armeegruppe South had been allocated more armor than the other fronts and its commanders had reacted quicker, more energetically and more competently, and had therefore responded better to the Axis’ assault.
In addition, Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s Armeegruppe South had more allied troops (Slovakian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian), with soldiers and equipment of inferior quality than the Germans, than the other two armeegruppes.
Therefore, Hitler saw an opportunity, by peeling off the armor from Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center and directing it behind the Soviet Southwestern Front, to encircle and destroy a significant amount of the enemy as well as conquer the resource-rich Ukraine.
In addition, the corresponding danger to Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center would also be eliminated. Hitler was determined that, even though he had repeated Napoleon’s mistake of invading Russia, he was not going to repeat the emperor’s mistake of leaving the enemy’s field armies intact.
It also had the further benefit of protecting the Rumanian oil fields of Ploieşti from bombing by the Soviet Air Force, by putting more distance between the two. This decision was taken against the advice of the Panzer commanders, Gens. Heinz Guderian and Hermann Hoth, who wished to continue the drive on Moscow with Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center. In addition to being the Soviet capital, Moscow was also the communications and transportation hub of the country.
Of course, this, effectively, stalled Armeegruppe Center’s drive on Moscow, and has left historians debating the wisdom of the strategy. Though the Germans achieved a stunning victory over the Red Army, it undoubtedly cost them the opportunity to capture the Soviet capital.
As the Germans were occupied in the Ukraine, the Soviets were busy strengthening the defenses of the capital — while Russia’s historical ally, “General Winter,” was rapidly approaching.
Armeegruppe Antonesqu, under the nominal command of the Conducător of the Kingdom of Romania, Marshal Ion Antonesqu, consisted of the Third and Fourth Romanian and Eleventh German Armies commanded by Petre Dumitrescu, Nicolae Ciupercă and Baron Eugene von Schobert.
Baron von Schobert’s Eleventh Army also contained two Romanian Corps, commanded by Gheorghe Avramescu and Florea Mitrănescu. In addition to Armeegruppe Antonesqu, Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s Armeegruppe South included Sixth and Seventeenth Armies and First Panzergruppe, commanded by Field Marshal Walther von Reichnau and Gens. Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel and Ewald von Kleist.
In addition to its German soldiers, Seventeenth Army also contained a Hungarian Corps, commanded by Béla Miklós and Gen. von Kleist’s Panzergruppe contained the Italian Expeditionary Corps commanded by Giovanne Messe.
When Gen. Georgii Zhukov spotted the danger of encirclement, and suggested withdrawal, he was replaced as chief-of-staff by Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov and sent to Leningrad on Aug. 5, where he replaced Stalin’s incompetent crony, Marshal Kliment I. Voroshilov, as commander of the forces defending the beleaguered northern city.
Marshal Shaposhnikov is credited with saving the Soviet Union by rebuilding the Red Army after it had been shattered by Stalin’s maniacal purges. Although the rebuilding was not complete, it was just far enough along to allow the Red Army to survive the Axis onslaught, rebuild and successfully counterattack. Marshal Shaposhnikov would, literally, work himself to death in defense of his country.
As ordered by der Führer, Gen. Guderian’s Second Panzergruppe peeled off to the right from Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center, and sliced behind the Soviet armies, to the east of Kyiv. Meanwhile, Col.-Gen. von Kleist’s First Panzergruppe was coming from the opposite direction.
By Sept. 11, the danger to the Southwestern and Southern Fronts was apparent. Gen. Kirponos, Marshal Budyonny and Commissar Nikita Khrushchev all told Stalin that Kyiv must be evacuated. Stalin’s response was delivered to Gen. Kirponos by Marshal Shaposhnikov on the evening of the 11th:
“A retreat along the entire Front is not so simple. It is a very complicated and delicate matter. Apart from the fact that any retreat reduces the unit’s fighting capacity, in this particular war the enemy moves its motorized groups in-between the retreating units, involving them in fighting when they are least prepared for it, that is when artillery is on the move and not in combat position. The supreme command believes it necessary to go on fighting in the same positions the troops of the Southwestern Front now occupy.”
Marshal Budyonny was replaced by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko on Sept. 13. Three days later, elements of the First and Second Panzergruppes met near Lokhvitsa — behind the Soviet forces. Nearly 50 divisions from five Red armies — Fifth, Twenty-First, Twenty-Sixth, Thirty-Seventh, and Fortieth, commanded by Ivan Sovetnikov, Vasili Kuznetsov, Fedor Kostenko, Andrei Vlasov and Kuzma Podlas — were trapped.
Finally, late the next day, authorization arrived from Moscow to withdraw. By then it was too late for most. Gen. Kirponos paid the ultimate price, when he stepped on a mine, while the two marshals and Commissar Khrushchev were barely able to escape.
Another 665,000 Soviet soldiers were not so lucky, and marched into German captivity. Less than one-sixth of these prisoners would survive the year. It was/is the largest battle of annihilation in the history of the world. It had been a stunning success.
German troops occupied the Ukranian capital on Sept.19, 1941. But before the occupation, the Red Army had sown 10,000 mines throughout the city. They were detonated on Sept. 24, setting fires which raged for five days, killing more than 1,000 Germans.
Behind Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s Armeegruppe South came SS Einsatzgruppe C, commanded by Dr. Otto Rasch. Its mission was to kill Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and undesirable Slavs.
After the fire, Dr. Rasch’s SS Einsatzgruppe C herded 33,771 Jews to a place known as Babi Yar, where over a two-day period — Sept. 29 to Sept. 30 — they were all murdered. It was the largest single massacre in the war and the Holocaust. Dr. Rasch died in prison, in 1948, awaiting trial.
The Red Army liberated Kyiv in December 1943.
Kyiv was named a “Hero City” on June 22, 1961 — the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Barbarossa - by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
Next week: Iran.
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.