The launch of the Soviet Korsun–Shevchenkovskiy offensive led to the battle of the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket. In this battle the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Front, led by Nikolai Vatutin and Ivan Konev, encircled the German Army Group South in a pocket close to the Dnieper river. The victory of the Soviet Red Army in this battle marked a significant change in the strength and numbers of the german forces.
The Soviets launched an offensive thrust in the direction of Uman and Vinnitsa with the First Ukrainian Front. This was halted and thrown back after heavy fighting. Uman, the supply base for Army Group South, was saved. Following this setback the Soviets turned to the bulge in the German front near Cherkassy. A major offensive followed. The Fifth Guards Tank Army of the Second Ukrainian Front attacked from the east against the German 11th Corps. Following a violent artillery bombardment, Army General Vatutin's First Ukrainian Front resumed its breakthrough attempt. In the east the Soviets succeeded in breaking through Eighth Army's front.
Army Group South was not disinclined toward the first part of Hitler's plan, to encircle the Soviet pincers around the two German corps. Nine panzer divisions were to be committed. But the First Panzer Army had only the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions ready for action. Both divisions were battle-weary and had received barely two days rest since their transfer from the previous area of operations. The other two panzer divisions had not yet arrived. The 8th Army, separated from the 1st Panzer Army by a large gap and itself hard pressed by the Soviets, could provide little in the way of help. These were hardly ideal conditions for an attack.
The German 6th and 42nd Army Corps had been surrounded in an initially huge pocket, whose northern front was still on the Dniepr. The major enemy penetrations against the 42nd Corps accelerated the withdrawal of the front in the north, in the course of which the Dniepr positions were abandoned. In the southeast, the 11th Corps withdrew from one intermediate position to the next. Contrary to expectations, the German forces had succeeded in establishing a continuous, temporary pocket front of 150 kilometers. The focal point was the large town of Korsun with the pocket's lone airfield, through which supplies were at first flown in.
The Soviets employed every available psychological means to break down resistance. Loudspeakers droned day and night over the front lines, urging the soldiers to desert, employing a mixture of promises and threats. Leaflets containing a map illustrating the desperate situation in the pocket were also dropped by airplanes. Arriving daily by the same route were photos of German soldiers already taken prisoner by the Soviets, sitting at fully spread tables. Individual captured German soldiers were sent back with chocolate and cigarettes in their pockets, telling of the extremely comradely reception they had received at the hands of the Russians.
While conditions inside the pocket were growing worse daily, The 3rd Panzer Corps was preparing to launch another relief attempt. This attack was to be carried out by four panzer divisions and was to be launched from the Vinograd area, the shortest route to the pocket. In the meantime the 1st Panzer Division and the "LAH" SS-Panzer Division had arrived, but regrouping cost two valuable days. Vehicles sank to their axles in the mud and a march of 15 to 20 kilometers was the most which could be achieved in one day. Even this required a maximum effort, and often all movement was impossible. This attempt will also fail in this conditions.
The dramatic events increased from day to day, while the distress inside the pocket grew by the hour. General Stemmermann began to steadily reduce the pocket and alter its shape toward the southwest. From this direction the relief attack by the German armored forces was expected. In order to create a favorable base from which to launch the breakout attack, territory occupied by the Russian encircling forces had to be recaptured and various villages taken from the enemy. In the course of these operations important villages were captured by the Germans. The city of Korsun was abandoned.
The Luftwaffe, whose capabilities at that time were somewhat limited, tried to intervene in the land battle as best it could. It had two tasks to perform - maintain an adequate level of supply to the divisions surrounded in the pocket, and take over the job of supplying the relief groups, whose own supply routes were strained by the prevailing poor weather and terrain conditions. In addition, the Luftwaffe was to support the ground forces wherever possible. The Luftwaffe however did not have enough strength to make a significant difference for the trapped Germans inside the pocket.
Outside the pocket another rescue attempt was about to get under way. The 3rd Panzer Corps set out on a final attempt to break through. While the 16th Panzer Division protected their rear and northern flank, the 17th and 1st Panzer Divisions were to drive from Lysyanka toward the commanding Hill 239, south of Dzhurzhentsy. Heavy Panzer Regiment Bäke was to set out through Chishintsy toward Komarovka in the direction of the pocket. Help for the pocket had come too late and had been too little. The climax of the catastrophe was near.
Once again inside the pocket. The situation of the surrounded troops was coming to a head. Events were beginning to overtake them. General Stemmermann's staff came up with a plan to break out of the pocket. The breakout was to take place under the cover of darkness with three spearheads. The attack was to begin without artillery preparation. The forward troops were to work their way forward quietly, launch a surprise attack against the enemy with fixed bayonets and overrun him, forcing gaps in the enemy encircling ring and opening the way for the remaining forces to reach the anticipated positions of the German relief force.
The pocket had become so small, now only 3.5 kilometers in diameter, that it could be brought under fire from all sides. Shenderovka, which had only been taken a few hours before, and in which the dead of friend and foe still lay in the streets, became the focal point of the entire breakout operation. Streets, gardens and farm cottages were crammed with command posts, guns, damaged tanks, vehicles and horse-drawn carts, as well as the arriving, assembling and waiting units.
The attacking spearheads of the first wave set out, without artillery preparation as planned, their rifles unloaded and with fixed bayonets. Korpsabteilung B was organized with the 258th Regiment Group forward on the right, in the center the 72nd Division led by the 125th Regiment, and in front of the Wiking Division on the left was the 5th Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. The troops advanced straight across the open terrain, with its large valleys, ridges and deep ravines. The 105th Infantry Regiment was, with the Wallonie Brigade, the only German unit which succeeded in breaking out as a unit with its small arms.
After the initial wave, the Soviets were now awake and on the alert. The attackers had failed to achieve general surprise. More searchlights were switched on, signal flares were fired and wild firing began. Suddenly there was fighting everywhere. The German units who didn't manage to escape during the initial attack were now trapped in the pocket.
When morning dawned the men of the breakout force realized that it was not the tanks of the German relief force which were waiting for them on both sides of Hill 239, but a fully alerted enemy. Russian tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery fired into the already confused and exhausted elements of the first wave and the steadily growing stream of approaching columns from the second and third waves. Everything became inextricably entangled, was seized by an unholy disorder and began to disintegrate. Any semblance of command ceased to exist.
For the German units who managed to break through there was still one terrible obstacle - the Gniloy Tikich. In summer it would have been little more than a large brook, but after the previous three weeks of warm weather it had become a rushing torrent, twenty to thirty meters wide and more than two meters deep. There was no bridge, and there were no boats to be seen anywhere. Hundreds of German soldiers died while trying to cross the river, just a few hundred meters from the German forces that were outside the pocket.
For the soldiers escaping from the pocket, reaching the 1st Panzer Division's bridgehead did not mean an end to their flight. Lysyanka could not be held. There was time for a little sleep before the exhausted men set out the next day to march the many kilometers to the actual German front and the first rations distribution centers and, finally, the planned reception area. In long columns, half frozen, tired and hungry, but lucky to have escaped the pocket, they withdrew through the barely 600-meter-wide "corridor" along the road from Lysyanka. They were threatened from both sides and under fire from Soviet artillery. German tanks covered the flanks.
Following the reception and evacuation of the troops from the pocket the four German panzer divisions had to pull back. It was high time too - the withdrawal route already lay under heavy enemy fire. The survivors from the pocket were assembled in prepared reception camps north of Uman - from the approximately 56,000 who had been trapped in the pocket. There are no exact figures, and various sources do not agree. It had not become a second Stalingrad, but two German army corps had ceased to exist and the better part of six divisions, which were soon to be bitterly needed, had been destroyed.