The battle of Ternopol, or battle of Kamianets-Podilskyi pocket was a battle in which the Red Army tried to surround and destroy the German 1st Panzer Army. This Army was part of the Army Group South. It was under the command of Hans Valentin Hube. The Soviets managed to trap in a pocket about 200.000 enemy soldiers. Under the command of Hube, and supervision of Erich von Manstein, the Germans were able to fight their way out of the pocket. In the city of Ternopol however only a handful of German soldiers managed to make it back to the German lines outside the pocket.
During the spring the Soviets continued their offensive against the entire German Southern Front (Army Groups South and A) despite the onset of the muddy period. The Soviets attacked in several directions and pushed the German front back to Galicia, the edge of the Carpathians and the Dnestr River. The dramatic struggle for Ternopol was part of this ongoing heavy fighting. The Soviets attacked the region from 2 directions and started to surround the Germans in Ternopol. Hitler ordered the city be held at all costs. If the city fell the Germans would have had their supply lines cut.
The Sixtieth and First Guards Armies achieved breakthroughs that soon isolated the German LIX Corps at Staro Constantinov. Meanwhile, Ivan Konev’s Second Ukrainian Front had struck in the east. No less than three Soviet armies hit Eighth Army north of Uman. Within two days that city was in Soviet hands. As Konev’s drive gathered steam, its objective was clearly to link up with Zhukov’s forces—a move which would encircle the entire left wing of Army Group South. After Uman the next major objective for the Russians was Ternopol.
Army Group South suffered a series of reversals, although these were not the fault of Manstein. His northern flank was battered by Zhukov, who over the next three days advanced 100 miles to the Warsaw–Odessa railway line. Nikolayev on the Bug fell, and two days later, Hitler dismissed Manstein. Manstein’s command of Army Group South – renamed Army Group North Ukraine – was given to Walter Model, who was also promoted to field marshal, at fifty-three the youngest after Erwin Rommel. Paul Ludwig von Kleist was also dismissed from the command of the Army Group South Ukraine. He was replaced by Ferdinand Schörner.
Things moved quickly. The enemy was already on the east bank of the Seret, and Ternopol was partly encircled from the east. At first light the following day the Soviets broke into the city. Ternopol was surrounded for the first time. The available German garrison, which was quickly reinforced, began to offer determined resistance and soon heavy fighting had broken out in the city. The Russians were thrown out of the city again. Ternopol had been cleared of Russian forces, but from then on lay under continuous artillery bombardment. The scene of action was located in what had formerly been the Podolian District of Southern Poland.
Hitler had another of his "inspired" ideas, a new means by which he thought he could bring to a halt the steady Soviet advance on all fronts. The concept was defined in Führer Directive No. 11 in which he established "fortified places." The idea was first implemented at Ternopol. Despite its negative consequences Hitler made further use of it in the future. Larger towns and cities which had a certain significance, or which achieved such in the course of combat operations, were to consciously allow themselves to be surrounded with their garrisons. Acting as "breakwaters," they were to halt or delay the enemy's advance.
This strategy was attempting to make a virtue out of a necessity in some places. But its main effect was simply to prevent troops from giving up untenable areas and staying within the main body of the army when a front collapsed. While it might have worked as a desperate measure in medieval times, in modern warfare it allowed precisely the mass encirclement that had led the Soviets to such a series of disasters during Barbarossa three years earlier. A Soviet disinformation campaign could not have put out instructions more helpful to their cause than this.
The 48th Panzer Corps, strengthened by the arrival of two fresh infantry divisions, attacked southeast of Ternopol and succeeded in driving back the Soviet forces, closing the gap to the neighboring First Panzer Army and freeing Ternopol. Then, however, Marshal Zhukov resumed his offensive in the contested area between Ternopol and Proskurov with fresh, powerful forces. The soviets surrounded the city once again. This time however it was encircled beyond the German lines.
In an effort to replenish the city's inadequate stockpile of ammunition and medical supplies as quickly as possible, a supply convoy carrying 40 tons of ammunition was assembled in Lemberg, about 120 kilometers away. It was sent from the northwest through enemy-held territory toward Ternopol. The convoy was to be accompanied by an armored battle group from the 8th Panzer Division The battle group's task was to smash the enemy forces west of Ternopol and ensure safe passage for the convoy. Under heavy attack from the Russians, the German convoy failed to reach Ternopol.
After the failed relief attempt the Soviets started to attack the city wave after wave from all directions. Hard urban fighting took place in which both sides suffered heavy casualties. The soviets attacked in the west and south and managed to penetrate the southern defenses of the city. Efforts to seal off the penetration failed, and the main line of resistance had to be pulled back to the edge of the city.
As at Cherkassy, the Soviets employed psychological means in an effort to wear down the morale of the defenders. They encouraged the Germans to desert or surrender promising good treatment as POW’s.
While the inhabitants of Ternopol who had not already fled to the west or to outlying villages sought cover in their cellars, the increasingly bitter battle continued. The Soviets closed in from all sides, indicating that another major attack was at hand. The expected assault began following a several-hour artillery bombardment. The Soviets attacked the city from all sides forcing the Germans to new defensive positions. The dwindling garrison thus found itself penned into the actual city area on the east bank of the Seret, an area of approximately one by one-and-a-half kilometers. The Luftwaffe tried to supply the Germans defenders by air.
The utter hopelessness of the situation became clear to Generalvon Neindorff, who had questioned the suitability of Ternopol as a "fortified place" from the beginning. He radioed: "Despite bitter resistance unable to hold on any longer. Request Führer's permission for a breakout attempt." Hitler's answer was not long in coming. That same day he decided that the "fortified place" was to continue to be held until it was possible to restore contact. But Ternopol had never been a "fortified place," and had now become a pocket. The Germans, using their last reserves, managed to stop the Soviets advance towards the city’s center.
The Soviets blanketed the city with fire from heavy batteries and aircraft showered the defenders with bombs. Nevertheless, the infantry assault which followed the bombardment was stopped. Afterward the Soviet infantry pulled back again, allowing their artillery to resume its bombardment of the city. The tightly-stretched German defensive ring held out against several subsequent attacks. This day was the most difficult so far in the fourteen-day siege. German casualties were very high. Nonetheless, Ternopol and its garrison were heading toward inevitable defeat.
Major Soviet troop movements were observed, indicating that another major attack was in the offing. These suspicions were heightened by the increasing number of air raids on the city and the growing intensity of the artillery barrage. Following an hours long bombardment, the troops of four Soviet divisions attacked the city from all sides. By now fire, shelling and demolitions had reduced the city to a pile of rubble. The Soviets managed to break into the city in several places in the east and south, but were repulsed in the north and west.
Von Neindorff received an order from the Fourth Panzer Army, which caused a resurgence in hope of rescue and freedom. The message read (excerpt): “Relief attack under the direction of 48th Panzer Corps will begin on. Prepare to break out taking all weapons and equipment, destroy all equipment which will not be taken on a timely basis. Prepare wounded for evacuation. Group by ambulatory and non-ambulatory. Report numbers by radio. Form a strong battle group to act as rearguard during the breakout. Breakout to begin only on radioed orders from the panzer corps. Password: No soldier better than we!”
This time the attack was to be made from the southwest. Chosen once again to take part was Panzerverband Friebe, which had been engaged in heavy fighting in the Brody area. Also brought in to add weight to the attack force was the 9th SS-Panzer Division Hohenstaufen. Starting positions were to be in the area around Horodyszcze. But this area, as well as the crossings over the Wosuszka and Strypa had to be won first. Weather conditions permitting, all available units of 8th Fliegerkorps were to support the relief attack.
In Ternopol the final battle had begun. The Soviets, who now intended to take the entire city, attacked with the same ferocity as before, achieving several penetrations into the German defensive positions. Although the outlook for a breakout to the west to meet the German panzer divisions which were expected to arrive soon was worsening, the garrison carried out all the necessary preparations as ordered with order and discipline. After a terrible three-week struggle the garrison's strength was beginning to sink more and more.
The relief attack got under way from the Mlynice pocket following a considerable improvement in the weather. The first panzers crossed the completed pioneer bridge to the other side of the Wosuszka. The infantry forces of the 9th SS-Panzer Division Hohenstaufen were assigned to provide flanking protection to the northeast as Battle Group Bittrich. Colonel Friebe set out with all the available tanks directly toward Ternopol. But it was already far too late. Of the German soldiers encircled at Ternopol, only 55 managed to breakthrough the Soviet lines and linkup with the German relief forces!
The last radio message from the Zagrobela pocket reported the death of the commandant. Generalmajor von Neindorff had fallen in close-quarters fighting. Following the death of General von Neindorff, Carl-August von Schönfeld assumed command of the remains of the garrison now squeezed into Zagrobela. There were about 1,500 men. But the situation in Zagrobela was hopeless from the beginning. It was a pocket about 1,000 meters in diameter in an area surrounding the open, village-like residential area. The area was under constant bombardment from Soviet heavy weapons and was subjected to waves of bombing and strafing attacks from the air.
Oberst von Schönfeld called a meeting of all remaining officers and gave the order for a breakout no matter what the cost. The order was made known only to the officers, none of whom managed to reach the German lines. It is therefore not known how the breakout took place and exactly what transpired, except for the descriptions of the 55 men who did make their way back. Two groups were formed of about 700 men each, under the command of the officers. The two groups set off in different directions.
By April the Russians were over the Dniester and Prut rivers, into Romania and Poland and threatening the borders of Hungary. Odessa was evacuated. In the spring, and especially after D Day, Hitler completely failed to rationalize his line in the east, preferring to issue “Stand or die” orders to his battlefield commanders. Yet all this was merely a prelude to the disaster that was to overtake Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, an engagement that can lay claim to be one of the most decisive campaigns in history.