In consequence, Hitler decided on 19 July, in Führer Directive 33, to divert substantial panzer units from Army Group Center, thereby postponing the drive on Moscow. He sent Colonel General Hermann Hoth's 3rd Panzer Group north to assist in the drive to Leningrad and Colonel General Heinz Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group south to deal with the bulge created by Soviet Colonel General M. P. Kirponis's Southwestern Front with its mechanized corps. The German generals argued against this decision, pointing out that Moscow was the more important objective. Not only the political capital of the Soviet Union, it was also a major industrial area and transportation nexus. Attempts to convince Hitler that the advance on Moscow was more important failed, and he issued a final directive on 21 August that ordered a major encirclement operation, with the goal of destroying Soviet forces in northern Ukraine.
On July 10, Soviet leader Josef Stalin had appointed the barely competent Marshal S. M. Budenny to command the Southern and Southwestern Groups. German forces advanced under the capable leadership of Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South. Stalin poured troops into the new command, amounting ultimately to almost 1 million men, insisting that the Dnieper River Line be held at all costs.
Budenny's forces in Uman—the Sixth, Twelfth, and Eighteenth Armies—were encircled, and he remained stationary as Colonel General Ewald von Kleist's 1st Panzer Group drove around his flank to the southeast. Kleist's panzers advanced north even as Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group attacked south through the weakly held northern flank of the Southwestern Front, aiming for a linkup east of Kiev. When the Soviet army chief of staff, General Georgii Zhukov, tried to point out the dangers of encirclement to Stalin on 5 August, the latter sent him to Leningrad's defense and appointed Marshal B. M. Shaposhnikov in his stead.
By early September, Kiev was a salient endangered by advancing German troops to the north and the south. An attempt by Lieutenant General A. I. Yeremenko's newly formed Bryansk Front to halt Guderian's push south failed on 2 September, and by 11 September, the German pincers were closing on Kiev. Budenny requested authority to retreat, but Stalin preferred to replace him with Marshal S. K. Timoshenko. On 12 September, Kleist's panzers broke through the Soviet Thirty-Eighth Army, attacking north from bridgeheads at Cherkassy and Kremenchug.
Despite the onset of the rainy season, the 1st and 2nd Panzer Groups linked up at Lokhvitsa, 125 miles east of Kiev, on 16 September. Timoshenko and Nikita Khrushchev, representing the War Council of the Southwestern Direction, authorized a Soviet withdrawal, but General Kirponis feared Stalin's reaction and refused to move until Moscow confirmed the orders near midnight the next day.
The encirclement was still sufficiently porous to allow some Soviet forces to escape, including Timoshenko, Khrushchev, and Thirty-Seventh Army commander Andrei Vlasov (whose forces had defended Kiev skillfully), but Kirponis was among the dead. The Soviet Fifth and Twenty-First Armies were destroyed, along with major portions of the Thirty-Seventh and Fortieth Armies. Army Group South also claimed 665,000 Soviet prisoners taken, along with 3,500 guns and 900 tanks. For all practical purposes, the Soviet Southwestern Front ceased to exist. It had to be entirely reconstructed from the nucleus of the 15,000 men who escaped the disaster.
Ironically, this major German success, one of the greatest tactical victories of the war—despite opening a 200-mile gap in Soviet defenses and permitting the investment of the eastern Ukraine—had long-range strategic consequences. Senior German commanders, including Halder and Guderian, concluded that this diversion from the drive on Moscow had been a major blunder, ultimately dooming the German attempt to take the Soviet capital in 1941.
Claude R. Sasso and Spencer C. Tucker
Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941–1945. New York: Quill, 1965.; Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983.; Glantz, David M., and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.; Mellenthin, F. W. von. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Trans. H. Betzler. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.