During the Proskurov-Chernovtsy Offensive Operation (4 March-17 April 1944) and the Uman-Botosani Offensive Operation (5 March-17 April 1944) the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts encircled Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube's 1st Panzer Army north of the Dniester river. The 1st Panzer Army's about 200.000 personnel were largely able to escape the encirclement in April.
In mid-February 1944, the 1st Panzer Army found itself defending the line in the north-western Ukraine. The Army had just completed operations to rescue the two Corps trapped in the Korsun–Shevchenkovsky Offensive, which had exhausted the army's III Panzer Corps.
In February 1944, the 1st Panzer Army—commanded by Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube—consisted of four Corps, three of which were Panzer Corps (comprising 20 Panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions). Together with the attached Army units, the 1st Panzer Army included over 200,000 troops, and was the most powerful formation of Generalfeldmarshall Erich von Manstein's Army Group South.
Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov realized the role of the 1st Panzer Army, and began planning to bring about its destruction that could, and did, result in the collapse of the entire South-Eastern Front. Zhukov planned a multi-Front offensive, involving his own 1st and Marshal Ivan Konev's 2nd Ukrainian Front. This force of over eleven Armies (including two Air Armies), was to attempt to outflank and encircle Hube's Army, and, in a repeat of the Battle of Stalingrad, reduce the resulting pocket (in German, kessel meaning "cauldron") until all troops in it have surrendered. The operations were to take place on the extreme north and south of the Army Group South's front.
Manstein was informed of large, but deceptive, troop movements all across Hube's front; however, with Adolf Hitler's refusal to allow strategic withdrawals, there was little he could do. The Soviet offensives began in early March, with Zhukov taking personal command of Vatutin's 1st Ukrainian front. The Red Army's massive concentration in troops and material forced Hube to withdraw his northern flank to south-west until it reached the Dniester river. Despite constant Red Army attacks, this position held until late March. On 22 March, following an operational switching maneuver, five Red Army Tank Corps of the 1st and 4th Tank Armies and the 3rd Guards Tank Army penetrated the extreme northern flank of Hube's position east of Tarnopol, and advanced south between the Zbruch and Seret rivers. The force crossed the Dniester, and in an attempt to outflank and surround Hube's Army, continued toward Chernivtsi, while being followed by infantry Corps which began establishing defensive positions on the flanks of the breach created in the German front.
Both Hube and Manstein realized the danger of encirclement. With the southern flank on the Dniester, and the recent Soviet attacks in the north, the 1st Panzer Army was now in a salient. Manstein requested that the position be withdrawn to avoid encirclement, but Hitler refused, persisting with his "no retreat" orders. In a matter of days, Zhukov and Konev's forces had crossed the Dniester and were in position to complete the encirclement. On 25 March, the last line of communications corridor out of Hube's bridgehead located on the northern bank of the Dniester was severed at Khotyn.
The entire 1st Panzer Army was now encircled in a pocket centred around the city of Kamenets-Podolsky. While the encircled forces had food and ammunition enough to support them for over two weeks, the vehicles were extremely low on fuel. Supply by the Luftwaffe was hampered by heavy snow, and soon only the combat vehicles were running. Meanwhile, Hube had ordered all service units south of the Dniester, to withdraw away from the main Red Army penetration which were taking place to the south on the 2nd Ukrainian Front's 40th Army front. Zhukov—seeing this movement to the south—decided that Hube was in full retreat and would soon attempt a breakout to the south. To prevent this, Zhukov stripped units from the encircling forces and sent them to the south side of the pocket. When Hube attempted to attack south, he met with an increasing resistance from 2nd Ukrainian Front's infantry and artillery.
Hube now ordered the pocket to be reduced in size, shortening the position's lines to increase defence density. Just before the 1st Ukrainian Front had completed the encirclement, Hube had requested from the OKH the authority to use mobile defence tactics during the breakout, a request which was quickly turned down. However, once the encirclement was complete, the situation changed. The heavy snow meant that the few supplies which were delivered, were insufficient to maintain the Army's fighting strength. The neighbouring German Armies—the 8th Army to the south-east and 4th Panzer Army to the north-west—were unable to attempt a full-scale relief operation. Then, Zhukov sent a terse ultimatum: surrender, or every German soldier in the pocket would be shown no quarter.
Hube responded by ordering that the organization of the forces in the kessel be restructured. The four Corps were to be dissolved, and reformed into three Korpsgruppen (corps groups): General der Infanterie Hans Gollnick—commander of XLVI Panzer Corps—was to form Korpsgruppe Gollick; General der Panzertruppen Hermann Breith of III Panzer Corps was to form Korpsgruppe Breith; LIX Army Corps′ General der Infanterie Kurt von der Chevallerie was to form Korpsgruppe von der Chevallerie.
While the composition of forces in the pocket was being reorganized, Manstein had been arguing with Hitler for the trapped Army to be allowed to attempt a breakout, and that a relief force should be sent to assist in the breakout. After one heated argument, Hitler gave in and ordered Hube to attempt a breakout. The decision for the direction of the breakout was difficult. Hube wanted to attempt to head south, over the Dniester and into Romania. Manstein realized that such a move would rob his Army Group of a Panzer Army which was desperately needed, because a long withdrawal would be required in order to move the Army from Romania back to the front line. The weak Hungarian VII Corps was holding a sector of the front to the west of the Kamenets-Podolsky pocket. A breakout to the west would allow the 1st Panzer Army to rejoin the front almost immediately. Manstein ordered Hube to break out to this area to provide support for the Hungarian troops.
Hube's Army was to break out toward Tarnopol, where relief forces—led by Paul Hausser′s II SS Panzer Corps—were to meet them. From Kamenets-Podolsky to Tarnopol was a distance of over 250 km (160 mi), over several rivers, and across muddy terrain. To add to this, the west was where Hube expected to meet the strongest enemy resistance. He divided his forces into two columns and prepared to head west.
On 27 March, the advance guard of the 1st Panzer Army moved west toward the Zbruch river, while the rearguard began a fighting withdrawal, with the rest of the 200,000 troops between them. The advanced guard attack went well. The northern column quickly captured three bridges over the Zbruch River, while the southern column was battered by a Red Army's 4th Tank Army counterattack which penetrated deep into the pocket, capturing Kamenets-Podolsky. The loss of this major road and rail hub meant that the escaping Germans had to detour around the city, slowing the movement to a crawl. A counterattack soon cut off the Russians in the city, and the breakout recommenced. Moving by day and night, the kessel kept moving. Soon bridgeheads were formed over the Seret river.
While Hube's army escaped west, Zhukov and Konev continued to believe that the major breakout attempt would be to the south. He ordered the attacks on the north and eastern flanks of the pocket stepped up. These attacks achieved little, and many fell on positions which had been abandoned as the German troops withdrew to Proskurov. Despite the attacks to the West, the Red Army kept increasing troop density to the southern flank of the pocket in anticipation of an attack that would never come.
On 30 March, Manstein was informed by the OKH that he had been relieved of command. His many heated arguments with the Führer had not been forgotten. Hube was on his own.
The next day, the Red Army began to react. A strong armored force from the 4th Tank Army launched an assault in the north between the Seret and Zbruch. Hube's southern advanced guard turned and halted the Red Army assault, severing its supply lines and rendering the T-34s of the 4th Tank Army immobile. Despite the fact that he was now taking the breakout attempt seriously, Zhukov did not move to block the escaping Germans. The way to Tarnopol was still open.
Completing the breakoutEdit
Despite heavy snowfalls, low supplies, and encirclement, the constant movement of Hube's Army meant that "pocket fever" did not set in. The troops were still moving in good order and obeying discipline, while desertions were almost non-existent. This was a stark comparison to the panicked situation within the Stalingrad and Korsun encirclements.
By 5 April, the advanced guards of both the northern and southern columns had reached the Strypa River, and on the 6th, near the town of Buczacz, they linked up with the probing reconnaissance elements of Hausser's SS Divisions. In over two weeks of heavy combat, during horrid weather and with few supplies, the 1st Panzer Army had managed to escape encirclement while suffering only moderate casualties. The Army was put back into the line and established itself between the Dniester and the town of Brody. During the two week escape, Hube's men had destroyed 357 tanks, 42 assault guns and 280 artillery pieces, as well as causing severe casualties to the enemy's attacking forces. The quick thinking of Manstein, and the operational planning and skill of Hube had resulted in the 200,000 troops of the Army escaping the fate of Stalingrad. While Hube's troops were still disciplined, and equipped with light and personal weapons, only 45 armoured vehicles had escaped. Despite the escape and low casualty rate, the 1st Panzer Army was no longer able to perform large scale offensive operations and required thorough refitting.
The Kamenets-Podolsky pocket is still studied in military academies today as an example of how to avoid annihilation when forces are trapped in a pocket.
Order of Battle for 1st Panzer Army, March 1944Edit
1st Panzer Army (Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube)