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The WWII Battle of Korsun Offers a Glimpse Into Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Russian T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The Battle of Korsun Meets Russia’s 2022 Invasion of Ukraine – What Can We Learn from History? As Russian tank columns swarm across Ukraine in an apparent bid to encircle the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, they evoke the specter of the bloody World War II battles that raged across Ukraine in 1943-1944.

In particular is the Battle of Korsun-Cherkassy in February 1944, when the Red Army conducted a pincers offensive to encircle a Nazi army in what was supposed to be a second Stalingrad. Instead, the “Korsun pocket” became a grim deathmatch — fought in snow and mud — that cost more than 100,000 German and Soviet casualties.

Fast forward to 2022, and Russian troops are advancing into Ukraine from north, east and south. As in 1944, the defenders are outnumbered and outgunned, and the Ukrainian plains are hardly optimum defensive terrain. But like 1944, the defense may have a powerful ally in the weather.

A Battle of the Bulge in Ukraine

By early 1944, Nazi Germany was clearly losing the war. After the devastating German disaster at Stalingrad and the failure of Hitler’s Kursk offensive in 1943, the Red Army had launched a relentless series of attacks through southern Russia and Ukraine that irrevocably shifted the momentum on the Eastern Front. Despite nearly capturing Moscow in 1941, the Germans had been reduced to the strategic defensive where they could only respond to Soviet moves.

By November 1943, the Red Army had crossed the Dnepr River and recaptured Kyiv, though at a heavy cost. Yet the Soviets could not land a decisive knockout blow against the German Army Group South: despite steadily retreating, the Germans used their elite panzer divisions as a fire brigade to seal off penetrations and rescue surrounded troops.

The result was a German salient jutting into Soviet lines near the Ukrainian town of Korsun, about 75 miles southeast of Kyiv. Though military logic demanded a withdrawal from the Korsun bulge, Hitler forbade his armies to retreat throughout the war. Such a tempting target could not be ignored. The Soviet high command planned a pincer offensive that would “pocket” the Germans inside in a mini-Stalingrad.

The Russian Plan

Korsun was part of the Soviet deep battle concept that characterized Soviet offensive operations in the last half of World War II, through the Cold War and Russian operations in Ukraine today. Similar in many ways to  Germany’s blitzkrieg concept, Soviet armored columns would strike the enemy at multiple points, penetrating deep into rear areas to sever supply lines and disrupt command and control.

The plan devised by the Soviet high command (Stavka) called for First Ukrainian Front to attack from the northwest, while Second Ukrainian Front advanced from the southeast to link up at the base of the salient at the town of Zvenigorodka. The goal was to create a double ring around the German salient, to keep the trapped defenders in, and the inevitable German relief force out.

“The operations by the 1st and 2d Ukrainian Fronts’ forces were directed toward a swift meeting attack by the two tank armies and their link-up in the Zvenigorodka region,” according to a Soviet General Staff study of the battle. “These powerful mobile groups were to carry out the initial encirclement of the army forces occupying the Korsun’-Shevchenkovskii salient and create an external encirclement front. The rifle divisions which were following them were to create an internal encirclement ring and splinter and destroy the encircled enemy forces.”

At first glance, the Red Army had an overwhelming advantage. The two depleted German corps in the pocket – eventually designated Group Stemmermann – comprised 55,000 to 60,000 men, with about 50 tanks and 500 artillery pieces. That force included the elite 5th SS Panzer Division Viking and its Nazi volunteers from Belgium, Norway, Denmark and other Western nations. The Red Army eventually committed 337,000 soldiers, according to a Soviet book on Red Army casualties published in the 1960s. The Soviets also enjoyed a 5 to 1 superiority in tanks and a 7 to 1 superiority in artillery, historian Douglas Nash, who authored a book on the Battle of Korsun, told 1945.

Stuck in the mud

Despite resistance from the entrenched Germans, the Soviet spearheads quickly linked up to seal off the salient. What ensued was a race against time: the Soviets attempting to wipe out the pocket, while the defenders – sustained by a trickle of supplies via airlift – waited for rescue. The Germans assembled a powerful relief of eight panzer divisions and a heavy tank regiment of Tiger and Panther tanks. With characteristic megalomania, Hitler ordered that the counter-offensive not just relieve the pocket, but turn into a counter-encirclement that would destroy the Soviet spearheads.

But the best-laid plans of generals are undone by weather. “Precipitation in the form of drizzle, rain, and snow fell almost every day, particularly in the later days of the operation,” the Soviet General Staff study noted. The snowy ground thawed after the first week of the battle, which “had an immediate negative effect on road conditions.”

That was an understatement. One theme that constantly appears in accounts of the Battle of Korsun is mud. It not only complicated tactical maneuver, but it also made logistics a nightmare.

Soviet commander Ivan Konev complained that the mud “hindered our maneuvering, and maneuvering was necessary. The unpaved roads could not withstand heavy use. In some places it was impossible to move even with oxen. Lack of roads and mudslides were a common phenomenon. in Ukraine. But even the bad roads, which the troops unbelievably stirred up with their tanks, tractors, and machines, were too few. The troops experienced particular difficulties when overcoming heights and ravines, of which there was an abundance. Not only artillery or vehicles, tractors with engineering equipment and ammunition, but even tanks sometimes got stuck.

Nor did the German relief force have an easy time. The German III Panzer Corps ordered that attack routes to be chosen not on their tactical value, but whether they were muddy. “Churning through the mud wasn’t easy, and veterans still shuddered years later at memories of the ‘Mud March’ (Schlamm-Marsch) at Korsun,” writes U.S. historian Robert Citino. “One panzer battalion moved a grand total of eight kilometers in 12 hours. Panther tanks sank up to the hull during the day and were immobilized when the mud froze at night, and many tanks spent their days dragging others forward through the mud instead of getting at the enemy.”

The Stalingrad That Wasn’t

Just as encircled Soviet troops had done during the German invasion of 1941, Group Stemmerman became a moving pocket, drifting toward the southwest and closer to German lines. But plagued by mud, stubborn Soviet defense, and persistent Soviet counterattacks, the relief force ground to a halt at Hill 239 – just five miles from where Group Stemmerman awaited rescue.

Finally, Group Stemmermann was told to break out on its own and hope to reach German lines. While some managed to escape – minus their vehicles and equipment — for others Korsun was a massacre. A flood of desperate German soldiers tried to escape across the swollen Gniloy Tikich river as Soviet tanks fired into the packed columns and Soviet cavalry charged.

“Under the yellow sky of early morning and over ground covered with wet snow Soviet tanks made straight for the thick of the column, plowing up and down, killing and crushing with their tracks,” wrote British historian John Erickson. “Almost simultaneously massed Cossack cavalry wheeled away from the tanks to hunt down and massacre men fleeing for the refuge of the hills: hands held high in surrender the Cossacks sliced off with their sabers.”

Nash says that “36,263 men made it out on foot, and 4,161 were flown out, meaning that 40,423 men survived out of 56,000 or so encircled.  So roughly 15 to 16,000 Germans and their allies did not make it out. Soviet losses were between 80,000 to 88,000 men killed, wounded, and missing.”

Korsun and today’s Ukraine war

What does the Battle of Korsun mean for today’s Russian invasion of Ukraine? Technology has changed since 1944, even if the mud has not. Drones, guided missiles and all-weather airpower have transformed warfare, especially for a Russia that has a high-tech military.

Some Western experts believe that mud wouldn’t hamper a Russian invasion of Ukraine today. Instead of horse-drawn wagons, the Russian army has a range of trucks and vehicles designed to operate in mud. In addition, Russian tanks are lighter and handier in mud than Western models: a T-72B3 weighs in about 45 tons, compared to around 70 tons for a U.S. M1A2.

And the Russian army is certainly cognizant of bad weather. “Russian units appear to be bringing a great deal of logistical and engineering equipment with them that helps them cope with these kinds of terrain challenges,” Dara Massicot, a RAND Corp. expert on the Russian military, told 1945.

Yet as military theorist Carl von Clausewitz pointed out 200 years ago, the friction of war – the chain reaction of unexpected mischance and error – means “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” And if there is one factor throughout history that has derailed the best-laid war plans, it is weather. While it may be a while before details of the current Russian invasion come to light, it seems quite likely that mud will have hindered Russian operations, such as confining armored vehicles to roads.

In the end, the Battle of Korsun was a battle with no real victors. The Soviets proclaimed it a great victory, but the majority of German troops in the pocket had escaped. For the Germans, a partially successful breakout could not disguise the fact that the Soviets had effectively erased a German army, which brought the Red Army one step closer on the long road to Berlin.

A seasoned defense and national security writer and expert, Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.

Written By

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.