Throughout the winter of 1943-1944 Stavka maintained a relentless pace, consistently ordering up sequential offensives that never allowed the Germans to effectively regroup and build up reserves. In the late winter and early spring of 1944 the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts, in opposition to German forces situated in the Western Ukraine, launched a massive series of offensives that would run along the breadth of the German defensive line south of the Pripet Marshes all the way to the Black Sea. In spite of the poor offensive conditions, stemming from continued snowfall followed by thaws producing mud and rain, the Russian high command sought to deny the Germans any respite whatsoever. These offensives featured the Red Army's primary striking power with each of the Red Army's six Tank Armies assigned to the Front's attacking the German armies in the Ukraine. In addition, Stavka sought to retake the Crimea from the German 17th Army; isolated from the main body of Army Group South by a Soviet offensive earlier during the winter.
The Soviet campaign commenced on March 4, 1944, with the 1st Ukrainian Front's assault, as the Red Army enjoyed an overall 2:1 superiority in both men and tanks over the thinly spread and greatly weakened German armies in the Ukraine with even greater advantages at the assigned breakthrough sectors of the front. Zhukov's 1st Ukrainian Front, including the 3rd Guards Tank Army and 4th Tank Army, unhinged the German defensive front between the 4th and 1st Panzer Army. Though struggling at times against fierce German resistance, Zhukov's Front penetrated deep into the German operational rear by flowing past the strongest part of the German defenses. Notable among the German defensive positions was the city of Tarnapol - which Hitler had declared a "fortress city" and whose defenders had not only blocked Zhukov's initial attempt to take the city but had launched an aggressive counterattack that slowed, but could not stop, Zhukov's advance. Temporarily bypassing Tarnapol, Zhukov's spearheads cut not only supply lines crucial to 1st Panzer Army's survival but also blew a massive whole between 1st Panzer Army and 4th Panzer Army to its north. Konev's 2nd Ukrainian Front, including the 5th Guards Tank Army and 2nd and 6th Tank Armies, likewise leveraged 1st Panzer Army away from the 8th Army to its south.
Recognizing a golden opportunity Zhukov and Konev moved to destroy the 1st Panzer Army. On March 25, 1944 the 1st and 4th Tank Armies from the 1st Ukrainian Front met the 40th Army from Konev's 2nd Ukrainian Front and completed the encirclement of the German 1st Panzer Army near the city of Kamenets-Podolsky; all told 200,000 men in approximately twenty divisions representing the strongest German army in the Ukraine. In spite of its imposing appearance on paper the 1st Panzer Army was less than the formidable force it seemed; many of the Panzer Army's actual panzer divisions were horribly understrength and had been worn down severely by the near constant combat throughout the first months of 1944. In addition, six Soviet armies, including the 3rd Guards Tank Army and 4th Tank Army, had surrounded the 1st Panzer Army. Even worse for the Germans, unlike in February when the 1st Panzer Army had been able to help free a significant portion of two trapped German corps near Korsun-Cherkassy, the nearest army even remotely capable of assisting, the 4th Panzer Army, was far too weak to provide much help to the isolated 1st Panzer Army.
However, the 1st Panzer Army, led masterfully by Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube, would successfully fight free. The Germans, led by Hube and Manstein, would use surprise, timely decision making and flexible organization to extricate the 1st Panzer Army from what initially seemed to be an impossible situation. First, Hube, having already sent many headquarters and other such personnel to safety when he had the chance, organized the remaining combat troops into two huge columns moving in parallel; with assault guns and infantry in the vanguard and the panzers guarding the rear. Most importantly, under Manstine's orders, Hube's pocket retreated west into Poland, not south into Romania as Zhukov and Konev expected given a southern move offered easier terrain for the Germans to negotiate. In addition, Hube also had support from outside the pocket; in the form of the II SS Panzer Corps, which included the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions and 100th Jager and 367th Infantry Divisions.
On the other side of the ledger, and from the beginning of the pocket's formation, the overall Soviet effort to eliminate 1st Panzer Army faltered badly. In the critical early days, as Hube's force began moving west, Zhukov and Konev mistakenly continued to bolster the pocket's southern flank believing that would be the direction of the main breakout and relief attempt - a belief abetted by successful German deception efforts. In addition, the ring around 1st Panzer Army was far from secure and took several days to tighten up. Moreover, the Soviet tank army's holding important sections of the encirclement had been horribly denuded in strength after a full month on the offensive and in taking tremendous losses against German tank crews and anti-tank weapons. This left many of the most important Soviet blocking armies vulnerable when the relatively fresh II SS Panzer Corps began to hammer eastward into them from outside the pocket.
That said, Hube faced considerable difficulties if for no other reasons than those posed by a lack of fuel and poor weather; the first days of the escape faced heavy snow followed by thaws producing a muddy mess of roads and exacerbating his losses in vehicles. Nevertheless, in an operation studied to this day and lasting nearly two weeks, 1st Panzer Army, while being partially resupplied by the Luftwaffe, moved west over 100 miles to reach safety on April 6th when its advance elements linked up with the II SS Panzer Corps. Though Hitler sacked Manstein, perhaps his best operational level commander, and though 1st Panzer Army only was able to bring out minimal amounts of heavy equipment Hube had lost only 6,000 men. Thus, 1st Panzer Army was able to move into the reformed German defensive lines as a coherent force; albeit one desperately in need of rest and re-equipping.
By Steven D. Mercatante