Book Review: Hell’s Gate: The Battle of the Cherkasy Pocket

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This is the story of the mini-Stalingrad that almost was. The battle of the Cherkassy pocket had all the ingredients of an epic battle: an encircled army battling against heavy odds, a relief force struggling to break the siege before it was too late, and finally a last do-or-die breakout. It would make a great Hollywood movie or History Channel documentary, except that few people know of the battle.

Hell’s Gate goes a long way toward redressing this. In fact, this large-size, 420-page tome will likely be the definitive work on this battle for years to come. The campaign begins in January 1944, when the German armies in the East had steadily been pushed back through southern Russia into the Ukraine. Despite their being driven out of Kiev and their Dnieper River defenses, Hitler’s suicidal never-retreat-an-inch dogma forced the exhausted, decimated Army Group South to hold the Kanev-Cherkassy salient bulging deep into Soviet lines. More than 130,000 men were in the bulge and along its flanks, including 65,000 within the salient itself.

Such a tempting target could not be ignored, and skilled Soviet commanders such as Zhukov and Konev didn’t. Their First and Second Ukrainian Fronts mustered nearly three hundred thousand men with a superiority of 2:1 in manpower, 5:1 superiority in armor, 4:1 in aircraft and a staggering 7:1 artillery.

In the bitter cold of January 24th, 1944, the armies began a pincers offensive that penetrated the weak German lines at the base of the bulge and trapped the forces inside. The encircled Group Stemmermann held tight on while Von Manstein – perhaps the most skilled of all German commanders – scraped together the last armor of Army Group South to break the ring.

This was the phase of the Russo-German war where a curious asymmetry arose. Soviet strategy had evolved from the fumbling of 1941into the marvelously planned offensive that destroyed the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. It was at the tactical and operational level that the Red Army lagged; it had progressed from rom the clumsy hordes of 1941, yet lacked the exquisite flexibility and finesse of their battle-hardened German opponents. The Wehrmacht remained masters of the battlefield into virtually the end of the war, but German strategy was corrupted by Hitler’s meddling and flaws in the German command structure. Thus the 24th Panzer Division was ordered to slog through the mud from Nikopol to the Cherkassy relief force, only to be ordered to slog back when a furious Hitler learned that the division had been removed without his approval.

On the inside of the pocket, Group Stemmermann (mainly consisting of rear-area support units backed by some infantry and the crack 5th SS Panzer Division Viking) stubbornly resisted Soviet efforts to entice them into digestible pieces. On the outside, the Soviet besiegers fought grimly to hold the relieving German armor at bay. The weather went beyond hideous into inhuman. The experience and skill of the panzer crews were pitted against tenacious resistance and snowy ground melting into thick, gluey mud in a Stalinist Russia with few and primitive roads.

“The Germans struggled to get fuel and ammunition to the tank units, which would quickly be immobilized without these critical supplies. Only tanks and other tracked vehicles, in addition to the venerable horse-drawn panje sled, could get through. Trucks, jeeps and motorcycles were either buried up to their fenders in mud or sidelined with mechanical problems.” The narrow tracks of the powerful German tanks bogged down, while the Soviets with their tough Lend-Lease Studebaker trucks and wide-tracked tanks fared better.

With the Luftwaffe airlift unable to deliver sufficient supplies (just as at Stalingrad), and the relief force stopped so tragically close, the pocketed troops conducted a mass breakout. Instead of Russian hordes, it was German hordes that literally steamrollered the surprised Russians, running a gauntlet of tank and artillery fire in virtually a human wave attack. The initial forces managed to cut their way through, but it was the disorganized mass of troops behind them that felt the wrath of the aroused Soviets. In a scene straight out of Napoleon at Waterloo, Soviet “guns ranging from 7.6 centimeter infantry howitzers to huge 15.2 centimeter howitzers were lined hub to hub, keeping up a steady barrage , often at small groups of men or individual soldiers. Many batteries rolled up the German columns and blasted at point-blank range and were overrun when the desperate enemy charged their positions.”

The breakout became a rout, a hellish scene of complete chaos. “Packets of T-34 and JS-IIs [tanks] began to wade into the infantry columns and attack the defenseless troops. Virtually all antitank guns and howitzers had been abandoned at this point, after becoming stuck in the steep ravines or balki that crisscrossed the escape corridor. Thousands of men leapt into snow-filled ditches or ravines to escape from them…”

Incredibly, many Germans did escape, despite Soviet claims to the contrary. The survivors were frozen wrecks, but they were alive. In the end, Nash estimates both sides suffered between sixty and eighty thousand casualties of peace. But it was the Germans who could least afford the slaughter. In addition, two vital panzer corps had been crippled. They were supposed to be the mobile, hard-hitting backbone of the German defense, and their lack would soon be felt as the Soviet relentlessly headed west.

Though not an exciting read, the author’s words and plentiful photographs capture the drama and tension of the battle. Nash offers a perceptive analysis of both sides. He credits the Soviets with preparing and executing a solid plan, yet also demonstrates the Red Army’s sluggishness in reacting to the breakout. Perhaps the real outcome of Cherkassy was that it set the pattern for the Soviet offensives that broke the back of the Wehrmacht. Deep armored thrusts and wall-to-wall artillery were used here, as well as the technique of lining up armies in deep echelons that would relentlessly assault like waves eroding a sand castle until it crumpled.

Hell’s Gate does suffer from the rosy view of Hitler’s armies that permeate so many western accounts of the Eastern front. A handful of riflemen or cooks repulse Soviet infantry companies. The SS troops are chivalrous knights, while Russian tanks crush ambulances and troops mow down helpless prisoners. How could it be otherwise, when most of the sources in this book come from German histories and survivor’s accounts? The author appears to have made a genuine attempt to interview Russian survivors, while Soviet archives are only slowly seeing the light of day. But a balanced picture would be nice, without the whiff of German supermen versus the Asiatic hordes. It is unnecessary; that so many Germans escaped from the cauldron speak volumes about their skill and valor.

Despite these blemishes, Hell’s Gate is a solid, well-researched book that will likely be definitive for years to come. It is a worthy attempt to illuminate a battle that deserves to be better known.

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