Upon entering Russia on June 22, 1941, the German Center Group of Armies
under Marshal von Bock had little difficulty in effecting a double
encirclement of the cities of Bialystock and Minsk. After this victory, von Bock again
pushed his group of armies eastward and effected the encirclement of
Smolensk, a strategically important city known as the "western gate of Moscow". Despite
the fact that the capture of Smolensk (August 6) had proved
costly, von Bock again thrust forward--this time apparently in an
attempt to encircle Viazma. The fighting was bitter. The German Second Panzer Army was
cut off by the Russians and was rescued only by a lavish use of air power. The
spearhead of the Center Group of Armies was definitely brought to a halt
by Marshal Timoshenko before Moscow.
THE KIEV OPERATION
After the failure of the German Center Group of Armies to make further
gains toward Moscow, and after the similar failures of the North Group of
Armies approaching Leningrad and the South Group before Kiev, the Germans
initiated the great double encirclement, which is generally referred to as the
Kiev Operation. It is not known whether this operation was envisioned before
June 22, or whether it was attempted as the only large operation possible after
the failure of the frontal attacks against the three great cities.
In any event, the plan was as follows: Kiev was to be enveloped and as
many as possible of Marshall Budenny's armies were to be trapped and
destroyed in a gigantic double pincers envelopment, or wedge and trap operation (see
map at end of article). The holding attack, and the two southern pincers arms
or the southern wedge were to be from the South Group of Armies under
Marshal von Rundstedt. Von Reichenau's Sixth Army, which had been halted on
the Irpen River west of Kiev, was to launch the holding attack. The Seventeenth Army
of von Stuelpnegel and the First Panzer Army of von Kleist were to
constitute the two southern pincers arms of the southern wedge. The wedge
from the north was to be formed from the Center Group of Armies of Marshal von Bock. The
Second Panzer Army under General Guderian and the Second Army under
General von Weichs constituted the northern pincers arms. The outer pair of
pincers, the two Panzer Armies, was to close about 125 miles east of Kiev.
Of course, no two double pincers or wedge-and-trap (Keil and Kessel) operations
are exactly alike, but the Kiev operation may be regarded as typical. The
scheme of maneuver was basically the same on both flanks. The outer
pincers arm (a panzer army) drove forward to meet the approaching arm. As
the armored spearhead moved on, small task forces were thrown off on the outer
flank for security, and on the inner flank to drive the Russians toward troops of
the inner pincers arm (composed chiefly of infantry divisions) or against natural
obstacles, or to envelop them, and, in any case, to destroy them. Simultaneously
with the advance of the armored pincers arm, infantry armies broke through
to form the inner pincers and devoted themselves primarily to the annihilation
of pockets of troops cut off by the outer Panzer pincers arms. To sum up, between
the jaws of the closing pincers--in this case two pairs, an outer and an
inner--the enemy is crushed. Or, in the other figure of speech, when the wedges
meet, the trap is closed and the enemy is exposed to total annihilation.
TWO "MOSCOW" ARMIES TURN TO THE SOUTH
The southern flank of von Bock's armies extended from the apex of his
advance at Roslavl through Rogachev to the Pripet Marshes. On the eastern end
of this long flank, Guderian's Second Panzer Army faced to the south and
von Weich's Second Army which had advanced in the rear of Guderian's forces, also
faced south on the western end of this flank. The mission of both armies was to
drive southward, capture the city of Gomel, trap the Russian forces in that
area, and seize bridgeheads across the Desna. The Second Panzer Army was to
protect the east flank of the southward moving forces from Russian counterattack. The
Second Army was to establish contact across the east end of the Pripet Marshes
with von Reichenau's Sixth Army, the most northern army of
von Rundstedt's South Group of Armies. The German advance was in general over
thickly wooded and marshy terrain. Prior to August 12, the Germans were
advancing on the entire Russian front.
THE EASTERN ARM OF THE DOUBLE PINCERS IN THE NORTH
At the beginning of the Kiev Operation, the Second Panzer Army was in
the vicinity of Roslavl, a railroad junction on the old Post Road which led south
from Smolensk. Its main body apparently advanced south from Roslavl, over the
only motor road leading in that direction. Soon after the advance in the new
direction began, another element moved southwest, probably with the double
purpose of cutting Russian supply lines and shielding more closely the Second Army's
left flank. Concerning this advance, there are no available details from Russian
sources, but German claims, that the Second Panzer Army rolled back the
Russians by a flanking movement to the west before reaching the Gomel-Bryansk
railroad, would indicate that the Panzer elements left the south road at Mglin
and pushed toward Gomel. The Panzer elements which occupied Chernigov (see p. 53) probably
left the Post Road further south at Starodub, but some or all of them
may have left the Post Road at Mglin and may have turned south from
the Mglin-Gomel road.
The Germans state that Unecha was bitterly contested. No further details
are available, except that the Second Panzer Army captured the junction and
pushed on to the south. Another German source states that on August 17, there
was a tank battle about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of
Roslavl. This was probably the fight for the Unecha junction.
Unlike the road followed by the Second Army from Mogilev to Gomel and
thence to Kiev, the Second Panzer Army's road via Unecha to Novgorod Syeversk
was not a first-class road, and the available German accounts of the fighting
deal in large part with bad road conditions brought about by heavy
rains. According to a German source, the vehicles literally had to grind their
way through deep mud. The ground was so soft, according to this source, that
log roads constructed by the Germans were pressed far into the mud and
rendered almost useless by the weight of the supply elements of the
German columns. Since the season was summer, it appears that the
drying-out of roads was rapid; in any event, Novgorod Syeversk on
the Desna was reached. Here bridgeheads were at once established south
of the Desna, and the Second Panzer Army was rapidly reorganized and
made ready for its part in the Kiev encirclement.
THE WESTERN ARM
At the time of its right turn to the south, the Second Army under von Weichs
was apparently concentrated about 100 miles west of Roslavl in the
Mogilev-Bobruisk area. A part of this army drove south toward Gomel over a
first-class road paralleling and east of the Dnieper. As in the case of the
advance of the Second Panzer Army, no details are available concerning this
drive to the south.
According to German sources, a flank attack was launched on Gomel by
troops which advanced via Jlobin (in some accounts south of Jlobin) and
struggled through the Pripet Marshes. Because of the difficult terrain and
lack of roads, these troops, however, were probably a relatively small part
of the Second Army. No road (according to available maps) leads directly
from the Bobruisk area to Gomel. Even the roundabout routes were over
poor roads. The road from Rogachev to Jlobin was worse than second-class; no
road led all the way from Jlobin to Gorval; and the road from Gorval to Gomel was
second-class or worse. Thus German troops, by whatever route they approached
Gomel from the west, faced bad road conditions.
The Second Army encircled and destroyed pockets of Russians at Rogachev
and Jlobin and soon struck at Gomel. Despite a strong Russian counterattack, the
maneuver, which was apparently an envelopment, was completely successful. The
defenders were trapped and the city fell on August 19. According to a
German source, infantry, artillery, and engineers had all played major roles; prisoners
numbered 84,000; 144 tanks, 949 guns, 38 airplanes, and 2 armored trains were captured.
It appears that von Reichenau's final campaign for seizing the Brest Litovsk-Kiev
railroad was not begun until after the success of the Second Army's drive
was indicated. Those Russians on the railroad who could not get
back to Kiev tried to escape through the marshes and across the Dnieper to
Chernigov, but elements of the Second Panzer Army, which presumably had
moved over the Starodub-Chernigov road, were already in that city, and the
retreating Russians were trapped. Since Chernigov dominated several routes to the
east, its loss was a serious blow to the Russians.
PREPARATIONS ARE COMPLETE
By August 21, the Germans held all territory north of the Desna, and both
of the northern pincers arms were ready for the final phase of the operation, the
advance southward below the Desna into the Russian-held Kiev salient.
While the Second Army and the Second Panzer Army were crossing the
Desna into their newly established bridgeheads, other related events had been
occurring. Northwest of Kiev, the holding forces of von Reichenau drew nearer
to the city after the defeat of the Russians along the Brest Litovsk-Kiev
railroad. Von Reichenau's forces had also approached nearer to Kiev on his south
flank and, though unsuccessful in an apparent effort at taking that city, had
developed strong bunker lines and other defenses behind which troops had been
brought up for the Kiev holding attack. This attack, coordinated with the
operations south of the Desna, was now launched. Simultaneously in the south,
von Rundstedt's South Group of armies had on August 31 thrown a bridge across the
Dnieper River below Kiev at Kremenchug, and had effected crossings at other
places. The troops of von Kleist's First Panzer Army became the outer pincers
arm and the troops of von Stuelpnegel's Seventeenth Army became the inner
pincers arm of the envelopment from the south.
THE SECOND ARMY CROSSES THE DESNA
No details are available in regard to the advance south of the Desna by
the German Second Army, but the road-net and the general tactical situation
would indicate that some elements drove south by Kozelets toward Kiev and that
others, further east, drove toward Priluki. Each of these roads was an
admirable route for the Kessel part of the wedge-and-trap (Keil
and Kessel) maneuver. The road via Kozelets for miles commanded
the double-track Kiev-Moscow railroad, and the junction at Brovari
commanded every highway available for a withdrawal from Kiev. The road
via Priluki at and south of Piryatin likewise intersected important
Russian roads and railroads, and continued southeast of Lubni (see below).
THE SECOND PANZER ARMY CROSSES THE DESNA
The Second Panzer Army crossed the Desna just beyond Novgorod Syeversk, the
first large town inside the northern boundary of the Ukraine. The
Desna, which is some 655 miles long, is the largest tributary of the Dnieper.
The river was defended by strong and extensive fortifications along the eastern
and southern banks. German sources state that the bunker walls here consisted
of two timbers, each 12 inches thick, with an intervening space of 24 inches
filled with sand.
As the Germans advanced, the service of engineers was constantly
needed. The Germans had to repair a damaged bridge across the Desna and
had to build a ponton bridge over the Seim.
At Konotop where the railroad from Kiev to Moscow intersected a north-south
highway, the Russians resisted stubbornly, for they realized that the loss
of Konotop would not only prevent supplies from being sent to the retreating
armies in the trap, but would imperil the retreat of these armies from the
trap. However, the Germans captured the city and the outer armored pincers arm
was free to advance the remainder of the distance across the northern half of the
Kiev salient. As the advance elements moved forward, other troops came up
and held the town and protected the rear.
After the Germans took Konotop, the Second Panzer Army drove straight
across country toward Romni. A very heavy rain began to fall as the leading
battalion entered the town. It rained continuously on September 11 and 12, and
German armored vehicles had great difficulty moving in the mud. Large
towing-machines and caterpillar tractors were the only vehicles which could
pull out the heavy trucks loaded with fuel, ammunition, and supplies. At times
the supply elements were completely out of contact with the combat elements. Even
the engineers, according to the Germans, were powerless because of the
mud. Drivers used tree trunks and branches, wire rolls, and wooden fences to
make wheels take hold, and yard by yard the vehicles moved forward.
The bad weather did not last long, and the main body of Germans reached Romni. German
tanks drove through the town and across the first bridge beyond without
much trouble. However, the Russians opened fire on the unarmored vehicles
following in the rear. A second bridge, at the exit of the town, was stubbornly
defended by snipers with automatic weapons in cleverly built
positions along the steep embankment on the far side of the river. German
engineers and riflemen finally drove the Russians out of the emplacements by
going around and attacking from the rear. Then the armored spearhead moved
on towards Lokhvitsa, farther to the south.
As the Germans moved south they met, with ever greater frequency, Russian
troops attempting to flee from the trap, the closing of which was by
now obvious to the Russian commander. Some Russians escaped, but the
rapid closing of the trap caught most of the Kiev defenders inside.
THE NORTHERN WEDGE MEETS THE SOUTHERN
As the Germans approached Lokhvitsa, they captured three bridges but
encountered resistance. The Soviet forces made a counterattack supported by
antiaircraft guns using direct fire. Some tanks and a truck with
quadruple-mounted machine guns attempted to take the bridges from the Germans. These
Russian vehicles approached to within 300 yards and then their attack slowed
down in the face of the fire of German antitank guns and howitzers. Since they
drove back but did not destroy the attacking Russians, the Germans protected
their positions by laying mine fields. On Friday, September 12, some of the
German armored vehicles entered the town, and on Saturday the 13th, they
pushed on to villages only some 25 miles from the northward-moving tanks of
the First Panzer Army of General von Kleist.
The closing of the armored pincers was to take place without delay. On Sunday,
September 14, a strong reconnaissance element of the Mark Brandenburg Panzer Division
from the Berlin area, cut the Kiev-Kharkov railroad, over which supplies
were brought for the Soviet armies in this area. This panzer division
continued to advance southward. By this time the advance elements of
a Panzer division from the Rundstedt South Group of Armies had penetrated as
far north as Lubin.
As the northern arm moved south over the last miles, it encountered
Russian trucks and horse-drawn wagons. These were dispersed by fire and the
advance continued. A German reconnaissance plane was overhead. Radio
messages were constant. Shortly after 1430, the valley of the Sula was
entered. River crossings were necessary, and dangerous highway defenses
were encountered, but the heights at Luka were reached at 1620. Two hours
later the advance elements reached a demolished bridge on a small tributary
of the Sula. Across the stream was an armored reconnaissance detachment
of a Vienna regiment belonging to the First Panzer Army of the
South Group of Armies. The armored pincers arms from the north
had met the one from the south. The advance continued on to Lubni.
While the advance continued south from Lokhvitsa to Lubni, a spearhead
from the South Group of Armies were being driven north from Mirgorod along
the highway, to Lokhvitsa. No difficulties were encountered, since elements of
the Mark Brandenburg Division were already waiting for the advancing elements
of the Vienna Division. The wedge operation was completed.
According to German practice, the two outer encircling Panzer arms
threw out on their outer flanks enough tank elements to prevent a breakthrough
by any Russian forces to the east. Troops of the inner pincers arms were enabled
to devote themselves exclusively to entrapping and capturing the Russians. The
Second Army elements referred to above .as moving via Kozelets and
Priluki had the help of Von Stuelpnegel's Seventeenth Army which moved up
from Kremenchug. Crossing the Dnieper at Kiev, von Reichenau's Sixth Army
also attacked the Russians who were attempting a withdrawal. Hemmed in on all
sides, the Russians were soon defeated. The German mopping-up maneuvers
apparently consisted chiefly in minor wedge and trap operations in any area
where German forces could either encircle a body of Russians or pin it against
a natural obstacle. The Germans pronounced the Kiev operation officially
concluded on September 22, and claimed that 665,000 Russians, including four
or five of Budenny's armies, were captured.
The figure, however, seems excessively large unless (as is German custom) all
able-bodied men in the district were counted as prisoners of war. In
fact a German account intimates that women as well as men were counted in
the total: "female riflemen.... refused to be regarded as civilians. They were
soldiers and could shoot machine guns and pistols like a man. So they had to
march with the male prisoners."
Several conclusions can be drawn from the Kiev encirclement:
(1) A large encirclement operation is more than a simple advance by
armored troops. It generally begins by an initial breakthrough toward some
definite point, the occupation of which will threaten a vital line of
(2) Secondary pincers movements may be expected at any point as the
(3) Emergencies must be met by subordinate commanders on the spot
by intelligent action in harmony with the general plan.
(4) Superiority in the air, superior mobility on the ground, and smoothly
functioning radio communications are absolutely essential.
(5) Supply and vehicle maintenance agencies must be prepared to cope
with unusual and often precarious situations. Security must be carefully planned
and vigorously executed.
(6) From German accounts it would appear that Panzer forces often
operate with calculated recklessness and without flank protection. These
forces in fact operate ahead of the main body, but a study of an operation will
usually reveal that the exposed flank of the rapidly moving units is protected by
natural obstacles or by adequate forces assigned to this mission, or by both.
(7) An important principle of the successful encirclement is the application
of greatly superior combat power at decisive points. The German plan was
to immobilize, surround, and annihilate units before they could be thrown into
(8) The fundamental steps in the German plan of operations may be
summed up as follows: first, to locate the enemy through reconnaissance and
espionage; second, to disrupt enemy communications by air power; third, to
concentrate decisively superior strength at vital points, with full use of
secrecy, deception and speed of execution; fourth, to encircle and annihilate
the hostile forces.
1. Approximate routes of the Second Army of von Weichs.
2. Approximate routes of the Second Panzer Army of Guderian.
3. Spearheads of the First Panzer Army of von Kleist.
4. Spearhead of the Seventeenth Army of von Stuelpnegel.
5. The holding attack of the Sixth Army of von Reichenau.
*This is the third and last article of a series on the Kiev Operation,
June 22-September 22, 1941. For an account of the German advance
from the south, see "The German Crossing of the Dnieper in the
Kremenchug Area (Kiev Operation)," Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 7, p. 40. For
an account of the holding attack, see "A German
Spearhead in the Kiev Operation," Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 11, p. 47.