1. GERMAN FAILURE BEFORE MOSCOW AND KIEV, AND PLANS FOR KIEV ENCIRCLEMENT. August 1941 saw
the German Center Group of Armies under von Bock halted in front of Moscow, and the South Group
of Armies under von Rundstedt halted in front of Kiev (see map at page 42 ). There
was now no chance for a quick seizure of the capital and a drive by armored spearheads to
other strategically important parts of the country as had been the case in France. Plans
were shifted to achieve a gigantic double encirclement, which would aim at the capture of
the great Ukranian city of Kiev and the destruction of Budenny's armies. The salient between
the Desna and the Dnieper, with Kiev at its apex, was to be cut off
in a wedge-and-trap operation. The holding attack would be made by the forces which were
already in position in front of Kiev. The northern wedge of the encirclement maneuver
would have to be driven across the Desna northwest of Konotov, and the southern wedge
across the Dnieper below Kremenchug. As preliminaries to the main operation, Uman to the
south of the proposed salient and Gomel to the north would have to be taken in order that
German troops might advance to the Desna and the Dnieper.
2. IN THE SOUTH -- THE UMAN OPERATION. While the Sixth Army under von Reichenau was
halted in front of Kiev, the German armies in the south had been moving forward in
conjunction with Hungarian and Rumanian troops. Von Stuelpnegel's Seventeenth Army
and von Kleist's First Panzer Army crossed the Bug west of Uman. They helped
von Schobert (who had crossed the Bug further south) in the encirclement of Uman and
then occupied the right bank of the Dnieper River.
3. IN THE NORTH -- THE GOMEL OPERATION. Von Bock kept up the feint of striking toward
Moscow, but shifted to the south the Second Panzer Army of Guderian and the Second Army
of von Weichs. These armies encircled Gomel, which fell on August 19, and moved
toward their new assembly areas. Guderian reached the Desna near Novogorod on
August 30 and immediately established a bridgehead on the south bank. The
advance of the von Weichs and Guderian armies toward the Desna also relieved Russian
pressure on German forces (von Reichenau's army) west of Kiev.
4. THE SITUATION. Thus, toward the end of August 1941, the situation was as follows: in
front of Kiev the strong army of von Reichenau was in position to launch a
holding attack; the von Weichs and Guderian armies some 125 miles to the
northeast, and the von Stuelpnegel and von Kleist armies some 190 miles to
the southeast, were the potential wedges for encirclement of the Kiev area.
But the maneuver could not be begun, much less completed, until a German
bridgehead was established east of the Dnieper. The crossing of this broad
and deep river, the third largest in Europe, would have to be attempted in the
vicinity of Kremenchug. The operation was entrusted to the Seventeenth Army
under von Stuelpnegel, but, according to German custom, the specially created
task force was composed of units deemed to be best qualified, irrespective of the
command to which they belonged.
THE KIEV ENCIRCLEMENT
(A) Von Bock's drive toward Moscow halted by Timoshenko's Group of Armies. (B)
(C) Von Rundstedt's drive toward Kiev halted by Budenny's Group of Armies. (D)
(E) The von Weichs and Guderian Armies (von Bock Group) advance to the Desna.
(F) The von Stuelpnegel, von Kleist, and von Schobert armies (von Rundstedt Group) advance to the Dnieper.
(G) The initial crossing of the Dnieper.
(H) The "wedge and trap" encirclement of the Kiev salient.
5. SELECTION OF A CROSSING POINT. The general considerations which influenced the
German choice of a point for this difficult operation can be seen by reference to
the map (see map at end of article).
The area between Kiev and Kremenchug was in every way ill-adapted to crossing
operations. From Kiev to Cherkasi, the eastern bank is swampy, and roads would
permit the Russians to move troops and supplies easily to a threatened
area. Furthermore, a wedge driven across in this area would fail to secure
the maximum strategic effect, in that fewer Russian forces would be cut off
in the resulting pocket. Between Cherkasi and Kremenchug a crossing is almost
impossible; the Dnieper wanders in numerous channels, much of the terrain is
marshy, and a tributary (the Tyasmin) parallels the Dnieper on the south.
The area chosen for the crossing, about 25 miles southeast of Kremenchug, possesses
several obvious advantages. The Dnieper flows in a single channel, 1,200 yards
wide; there are no tributary streams; and the banks are free from swamps. Moreover, in
this area the railroads and roads favored the Germans rather than the Russians. On the
German side of the river, the Dnieper valley road would be useful at all stages of the
operations; on the Russian side, there are no roads to bring reinforcements close to the
point of crossing.
A particular feature of the terrain helped the Germans concentrate for attack at this
point. The area southwest included a watershed ridge running perpendicular to the
river. This ridge was wooded and had sandy soil. The Germans could bring men and
supplies by road and rail to a point 30 or 35 miles from the crossing point and
advance under cover of the woods, over what was in effect a natural highway
almost to the river. The absence of roads would not prevent armored and supply
vehicles from negotiating this route.
On the Russian side, the terrain was adapted to exploitation of a successful
crossing. Once a bridgehead was established, the Vorskla River would protect
it on the right flank, while on the left no natural barrier impeded a German
advance toward Kremenchug. North of Kremenchug, the terrain is ideal for a
maneuver of envelopment by armored forces. A watershed ridge gave a good
route for advance northward by armored units, regardless of damage done to
highways or railroads. Each flank of this route was protected by a swampy river.
6. PREPARATION. Very little information is available on the German preparations for
this crossing. In view of its difficulty, and of the importance attached to this
operation in the strategy of the campaign, there can be
little doubt that a task force was prepared for this assignment according to the usual
German principles. These may be summarized as follows:
a. A commander for the task force is selected and given sole responsibility
for the operation.
b. He is given troops and materiel according to his estimate of requirements. (This
would include, in an operation of this sort, all types of infantry and
artillery units, a heavy air component, and important pioneer and transport units.)
c. The commander organizes and trains the units for the specific task
assigned. If possible, this is done on terrain similar to that of the proposed
operation. The object of this training is to develop a combat team thoroughly
rehearsed in all stages of the assignment.
Preparation for the Dnieper crossing involved concentration of considerable
supplies of weapons and other necessary materiel. This concentration had to be
made as close as possible to the place of projected crossing.
The most serious logistical problem was that of bringing up boats and
bridging materiel. German accounts state that hundreds of assault boats were
used on the Dnieper River. These boats apparently were of two types--one capable
of carrying from 4 to 6 men, and one capable of carrying 10 to 16 men. Both were
driven by outboard motors. It is not known how many of these boats were
used in the operation, but if "hundreds" were used the problem of transporting and
concealing them was an operation of considerable magnitude. Equally difficult
was the problem of concealing sufficient pontons and platforms for the
construction of a 1,200-foot bridge. Apparently there were enough trees on
the sandy ridge to afford cover, yet not so many as to block the movement of
wheeled or tracked vehicles.
In this wooded area, camouflage by tree limbs was easy, effective, and
much used, as is shown by German photographs. German camouflage emphasizes
the value of dummy positions which cause the enemy to waste his ammunition and
reveal his position, and which divert suspicion from important concealed
installations or supplies. It is quite likely that such positions, with indications of
boats and bridging equipment, were constructed at other points on the Dnieper in
order to deceive the Russian observers as to the area chosen for the initial crossing.
Concentrations at secondary points along the Dnieper were apparently not
so well guarded from Russian air observation. These other concentrations were
made partly to divert suspicion from the preparations for the initial crossing, and
partly to have heavy weapons and supplies ready for later crossings which
would follow after the success of the initial operation.
7. THE JUMP-OFF. By the end of August, the subordinate commanders charged
with execution of the preliminary operations were able to report to the
task force commander that they were ready.
At dawn on the morning of August 31, German planes took possession of the
sky in the Kremenchug area. German artillery threw a heavy barrage across
the river against the Russian lines. At the same moment, hundreds of assault
boats were taken from their hiding places and carried down the gently sloping
sandy banks to the shallow water at the edge of the Dnieper. The boats, which
were designed for this particular type of operation, were probably similar to
those which crossed the Rhine in somewhat less than a minute in the Maginot
operation (June 1940). No reports have been seen on the time required for the
storm boats to cross the Dnieper, but their attainable speed is variously given
as 30 to 40 miles per hour.
The boats were not beached at the eastern bank but returned at once for
further loads. The speed of the turn-around is to be noted; it is said that the
men jumped from the boats as they turned without coming to a complete stop. The
small boats carried about 4 men, and the larger boats (judging from pictures) seem
to have carried 10 to 12 men. The carrying of less than the maximum
loads may have been designed to permit a speedier crossing.
The Germans report that the Russians, taken by surprise, nevertheless immediately
organized a determined resistance. Since the steersmen of the German boats
stood up, many were killed by the Russian machine-gun fire, which was withheld
until the boats were near the shore, but in each instance another soldier took
the helm. Preparations had been made for plugging bullet holes immediately, and
many boats that received hits were thus enabled to continue across the river. German
photographs show spouts of water in the Dnieper caused by Russian artillery
shells, and also show sand clouds produced by Russian shells bursting only a
few yards from German concentrations on the eastern side. Russian resistance
cost the Germans many assault troops, but not enough to endanger the success
of the operation.
8. FORMATION OF A BRIDGEHEAD. As soon as the German assault troops reached
the far bank, they immediately began to overcome enemy resistance. The boats crossed
the river again and again. The special river-crossing units were followed by more
assault troops and by pioneers, and then by the infantry. By noon, enough troops
had been ferried over to make the Germans feel that their position was secure. During
the afternoon they transported more infantry and further organized their bridgehead. All
these operations were continuously reconnoitered and protected by units of the German
The passage of troops and materiel was now increased by the use of
additional, more vulnerable transport. Inflated rubber boats were used for
ferrying more men--some 10 to a boat--and ammunition. Large rubber rafts were
loaded with heavy infantry weapons, especially antitank guns. These rafts were
towed to the eastern side of the river by motor boats. The Germans
also prepared ferries consisting of pontons lashed together to support a
platform on which heavy guns were towed across the river to be used in neutralizing
and capturing the field fortifications of the Russians.
In the meantime the troops which had been transported earlier in the day
advanced and took the sand dunes and low hills beyond the opposite shore. The
enemy line of artillery observation was thus in German hands. Many troops were
now on the Russian side of the river and much materiel had been transported. Since
the area was not occupied in force by the Russians, and possessed neither
roads or railroads, there was no possibility of an immediate heavy Russian
counterattack. Thus, in a single day, a strong German bridgehead had been
established. Since they had been carefully rehearsed by specially trained troops,
the crossing operations were carried out successfully without great losses.
9. CONSTRUCTION OF THE BRIDGE. Transport by storm boats, inflated
rubber boats, and pontons had been effective, but loading and unloading was
necessarily slow. The bridge was needed and, with air superiority in the area
and artillery already in place on the Russian side of the river, the Germans did
not hesitate to proceed with its construction. This was accomplished in a single
night (August 31-September 1), and the next day supplies and troops were pouring
across the bridge.
It seems certain that the bridging equipment used in the crossing below
Kremenchug was of the type which the Germans refer to
as "bridge-gear B": equipment tried out in Poland, perfected, and
used for the crossing of the Rhine in the Maginot operation in France.
The basic unit in the construction of a German military bridge is the
half–ponton. This is built of metal except for strips of wood on the
gunwales. It is 25 feet long, 6.3 feet broad, and 3.3 feet deep. The
weight is not known. Half-pontons are used in constructing 4-ton
and 8-ton ferries, and sections of 8-ton bridges. Two half-pontons
locked stern to stern form a full-ponton. The full-pontons are used in
constructing 8-ton and 16-ton ferries and sections of 16-ton bridges. As
soon as the pontons are in the water by the shore, the Germans
construct platforms on them.
The maneuvering of the bridge section or the ferrying of a ponton-supported
raft is accomplished by rowing, by the use of storm boats, by the use of
"M" boats (a powerful light motor boat of 100 h.p.), or by the use of outboard
motors on the pontons themselves.
German bridging equipment includes prefabricated metal material for
building piers at the shore. However, such piers were not needed at Kremenchug.
Photographs show that the bank was well drained and sloping, and ramps could
easily be used to connect the shore with the ponton-supported bridge.
10. ENLARGEMENT OF THE BRIDGEHEAD. By the end of August 31, the
Russians realized that a major threat had developed. Russian planes made repeated
but unsuccessful efforts to destroy the bridge, and also attacked the
points of German advance. Hastily assembled Russian reserves made heavy
counterattacks with tanks. The Germans, however, maintained their bridgehead,
and extended it upstream to threaten the Russian position at Kremenchug.
11. ADDITIONAL BRIDGES AND BRIDGEHEADS. The Germans gradually
enlarged their tactical bridgehead on the east bank of the Dnieper into a strategic
bridgehead. Land operations to the northwest reduced enemy resistance 15 miles
upstream, at another area free from swampy banks and multiple channels. To
gain another route across the river, a second bridge was built at this point, apparently
during the night of September 2-3. German reinforcements poured across the
new bridge, only 10 miles below Kremenchug. Under their flank attack and a
frontal attack from the west, Kremenchug fell on September 8, and the Germans
had secured the controlling center of a road and railroad net.
Whether or not the Russians had destroyed existing bridges is not clear. In
any case, the Germans felt the need of better transportation across the
Dnieper at Kremenchug, and decided to move to that point the bridge which had
been constructed 10 miles downstream. The sections were detached and towed
upstream during a single night, in a rainstorm, and the bridge was rebuilt at a
place where it could serve the Kremenchug road net.
Meanwhile, the Germans had established other bridgeheads across the Dnieper
further down the river. These bridgeheads doubtless had the double purpose of
paving the way for further operations in the Dnieper Valley and of preventing
the reinforcement of Russian troops further north.
12. THE PINCER MOVEMENT BEGINS. With the eastern bank of the Dnieper
at Kremenchug in their possession, and a strong bridgehead established, the
Germans had accomplished the most difficult part of the large-scale pincer
movement which was to isolate Kiev and destroy a considerable portion of
Budenny's armies. The way was now clear for the southern wedge to move. With
the First Panzer Army on the right and the Seventeenth Army on the left, the
Germans advanced northward along the strategic ridge of high ground from
Kremenchug toward Lubni and Lokvitsa, their flanks protected by marshy tributaries
of the Dnieper. Meanwhile, from the Desna, the Second Panzer Army moved
southward protecting the advance of the Second Army. At Lokvitsa and at Lubni the
armored spearheads which had crossed the Dnieper met those which had crossed the
Desna, to complete a gigantic double encirclement. The Russians of the Kiev
salient were in a trap. The Sixth Army joined the Second and the Seventeenth in the
annihilation and capture of Russian forces, while the two Panzer armies protected
the operation and moved toward their next objectives. This
successful wedge-and-trap maneuver had been made possible by the
river crossing at Kremenchug.
13. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION. Air superiority is absolutely essential
to the success of an operation such as the initial German crossing of the Dnieper
below Kremenchug. Airplanes were used in the initial phases for reconnaissance, and
to deny reconnaissance to the Russians. Combat aviation guarded the sky
above the bridge. Bombardment aviation was doubtless used to harass and neutralize
the Russian lines as German troops moved across the newly constructed bridge.
The German success in the Kremenchug operation especially in the initial stages, owed
much to surprise, which they achieved by the secrecy of preparations, by
deception, and by very rapid execution.
Deception was achieved by obvious preparations for a river crossing at other
points in order to draw the defending forces out of position. The incomplete
evidence suggests that either actual attempts or feints at crossings may have
been made at points other than the one described above. An attempt at
Dnepropetrovsk, of uncertain date, is known to have been repulsed.
Speed of execution aided the Germans enormously. By the end of the the first
day (August 31), the Russians knew that the operation was of major
importance, but the speed with which the Germans built the bridge and moved their
forces across the river enabled them to establish a large bridgehead, and prepare
to extend it, before adequate Russian forces could be brought up.
In river crossings the Germans send over antitank guns very early in the
operation in order to neutralize local tank attacks. Infantry supporting
weapons (75-mm and 150-mm howitzers of the infantry regiment) are also ferried over
early to support the operation of enlarging the bridgehead.
In the Kremenchug operation, the construction of the first bridge did not
commence until after the assaulting formations on the far bank had captured the
line of artillery observation; even then the construction was carried out under
cover of darkness. Normally, in crossing smaller streams, the bridge-building
operations start much sooner, in some cases before the site is clear of
small-arms fire. When speed of execution is being employed to achieve surprise, as is
often the case with armored forces, much time can be saved by an earlier start
even though a few casualties must be accepted. The over-all gain justified those losses.
The German forces employed in the difficult initial crossing of the Dnieper
below Kremenchug attribute their success to the secrecy of their preparation, thus
exploiting the principle of surprise to the maximum; to good staff work
in the careful tactical and technical preparation; and, finally, to boldness and
skill in the execution of the plans.
KREMENCHUG BRIDGE OPERATION
A. Site selected for crossing. Here river is narrow and has neither multiple channels nor swampy banks.
B. Watershed on which Germans concentrated men and material.
C. Bridgehead area. Protected on east by Vorskla River and has no roads or railroads for use of Russians in bringing up troops and equipment.
D. Enlargement of bridgehead. Flanks Russian position at Kremenchug.
E. Site of second bridge across Dnieper.
F. Germans take Kremenchug and move bridge from "E" to "F", in order that it may serve Kremenchug road net.
G. Advance of German armored troops northward to Lokvitsa and Lubni where they effect junction with similar
spearheads moving south from the Desna River, thus completing the meeting of the wedges in the "wedge and trap" maneuver.