After the Soviet victory at Kursk, culminating in the liberation of Orel and Karkhov, German forces on the Russian Front were completely unable to regain the initiative in the war. Two years of ferocious, continuous fighting and several strategic defeats at Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk had stretched the Nazi war machine to its breaking point.
German Field Marshall Manstein made an assessment of the situation in the east in the wake of Kursk and realized that all along the 2100 mile front the German forces were perilously weak. With Hitler's consent he ordered that the Wermacht and SS armies in the south of Russia pull back behind the Dnieper River.
The Dnieper, like all the rivers in Eastern Europe, is a massive 1400-km-long river that is more than a mile wide. It cuts the Ukraine nearly in half in the center before bending north-east at Kiev. It was behind this natural barrier that the German forces dug in, hoping to break any Soviet attacks.
In Moscow, Stalin and the Stavka (Soviet High Command) were also looking at the situation. After Kursk they knew that Germany could not win the war. Russian industry, which was surpassing German industry in the amount of arms and material produced by nearly 30-1, was in full swing and Red Army morale and confidence was high after Stalingrad and Kursk. 1943 had been an incredibly succesful year for the Red Army thus far. Stalin decided that it was time for the Soviet Union to go on the offensive.
The Soviet plan called for the liberation of the Ukraine, which would overrun the rich agricultural and industrial areas of the Donbass as well as threaten the entire southern flank of the German northern army group. Stavka's plan was incredibly ambitious and awesome in its size and scope.
5 Soviet fronts (army groups), consisting of 2.6 million men, 12,000 tanks and 30,000 artillery guns, as well as 2,000 aircraft, would smash through the German lines, force a way across the Dnieper River, and drive deep behind the German forces, thus cutting them off from their supply bases, communications and command, and effectively destroying the entire German Army Group South. Kiev, as a major transportation, communication and industrial hub, was to be one of the main objectives. The operation was set for August of 1943, a mere 2 weeks after the Battle of Kursk had ended.
On August 24, 1943, at 7 in the morning all five Soviet army fronts launched their attacks simultaneously, from Smolensk in the north to the Azov sea in the south. The German forward defences were completely destroyed, but professional planning had ensured that there were plenty of reserves in each sector and the Soviet offensive encountered ferocious German counter-attacks. Entire regiments or even divisions (20,000 + men) would charge at newly captured positions, with German infantry and Tiger and Panther tanks fighting desperately to push the Russians back. It wasn't enough in the face of such a gigantic offensive, and the Russian steamroller moved forward.
Despite their vast numerical superiority, the Soviets suffered appalling casualties in their drive to the Dnieper River. The Germans clung on to every hill and town and in many cases the Russians were forced to by-pass strongly defended areas and leave their rear-echelons to deal with them. After 3 hard weeks of fighting, Soviet forces finally reached the great river.
The German defences on the west bank of the Dnieper were well-prepared. Manstein had stripped other fronts to reinforce Army Group South, but it wasn't enough to hold back the flood of Soviet strength assembling on the east bank. On September 23rd the Red Army launched its attack with a massive airborne drop of paratroopers behind the German lines (which landed on top of SS Panzer Divisions on full alert and were slaughtered).
The sky lit up with a massive Soviet artillery bombardment: it is estimated that 2 million shells of all calibres were fired at the German positions in the first hour of the bombardment. Amidst the shelling was the devestating attacks by Russian Katyusha rocket launchers, nicknamed "Stalin's Organ" by the German troops because of the sound it made when firing.
The Katyusha was a rack of rockets attached to the back of a truck (mostly American lend-lease Fords and Chevys). Each truck fired 24 rockets in quick succession, and the Soviets lined the trucks up wheel to wheel. The Katyusha had no accuracy, but a small group of them could devastate a whole square mile of ground, killing and destroying every thing in it. On the morning of the 23rd, the Soviets let loose with 1,300 of them.
Immediately after the intense artillery and rocket barrage, Soviet stormtroopers threw inflatable boats into the water and, under heavy machine gun and artillery fire, paddled like mad to gain the west bank of the river. Casualties were extremely heavy but for the Germans defending the far bank, dazed and deaf after the terrible bombardment, it seemed that no matter how many men they killed in the water more kept coming. After what must have seemed like an eternity to both attacker and defender alike, but was in fact only 15 minutes, the Soviet assault groups gained the west bank of the Dnieper and began to clear the German trenches and pillboxes with submachine guns, grenades and bayonets. Intense hand-to-hand fighting took place.
Russian combat engineers bridging the Dnieper under fire. The sign reads "To Kiev".
As the assault groups were struggling up the banks of the Dnieper, Soviet combat engineers hit the water and, still under fire, began constructing pontoon bridges for Soviet tanks to get across. Within the first hour of the assault on the river they had put up 11 bridges at different points along the front, and the feared T-34 and KV-1 tanks began to roll across. By noon there were 2 entire Soviet armies driving deep within the German rear and the entire front began to collapse.
As command and control began to break down, groups of German soldiers started to panic and run. Others, mainly SS divisions, fought to the death once they were surrounded while others simply threw down their weapons and put their hands in the air.
By mid-October the Red Army was surging forward across the river, with only small pockets of German resistance. Stalin gave the order for Kiev to be taken by direct assault, rather than encircled as originally planned. This decision has come under critiscism because in the ensuing battle (the second battle of Kiev) Soviet casualties were incredibly high. Nevertheless, by early November the great city, one of the oldest in Europe, was back in Russian hands.
By the middle of November, 1943, the crossing was over. Most of the Ukraine, which had endured two years of Nazi atrocity and terror, was back under Soviet control. The German Wermacht had lost nearly 300,000 troops and thousands of vehicles, an irriplaceable loss for the bomb-torn German industry to deal with, and they had been forced back. For the Soviets, who had suffered nearly 500,000 casualties in the offensive, the crossing of the Dnieper gave them the springboard the next phase of the war: the drive to Germany and the end of the Second World War.