The Eastern front had seen dramatic Soviet successes throughout 1943. After the disaster at Stalingrad, the Germans had been pushed further and further back. Hitler’s last throw of the dice, at Kursk, had been a costly failure with the Soviet follow up demonstrating that they were far stronger than had been expected. In the Autumn the Red Army had re-occupied much of Ukraine.
The Germans were only moving in one direction and there could be no rational expectation that the situation would be reversed in the coming year. Yet they remained a potent fighting force all across the front. There was no sign that their forces were ready to acknowledge they were losing. At whatever the level the Germans always sought to counter any reverse with a swift counter-attack, either to regain ground or to knock the enemy off balance. An attack was the best form of defense.
They had some advantages, not least the formidable firepower of the Tiger tank which was used to spearhead this new assault. Taking part in this attack was the famous Tiger commander Michael Wittman and his crew, who already had destroyed dozens of T-34s and anti-tank guns, and would now add to their score over the following days. They were under no illusions about the nature of the fighting – a fellow tank commander from the Leibstandarte shot himself when his Tiger was disabled, rather than allow himself to be taken, prisoner.
For their senior commander it was a satisfactory episode:
At 0600 hours on 6 December, the spearheads of all three panzer divisions crossed the Zhitomir—Korosten road. Contrary to what we expected, there was a strongly manned position running along the road, although it was still in course of construction. The Russians were taken completely by surprise as they had seen absolutely nothing of our outflanking maneuver.
On this line, they offered brave but unco-ordinated resistance which was speedily broken down, particularly on the front of the 7th Panzer Division. From then onwards the thrust went on smoothly and penetrated far into hostile territory. At no time was there any crisis.
In those days we were really good at intercepting Russian wireless traffic; enemy messages were promptly deciphered and passed to Corps in time to act on them. We were kept well informed of Russian reactions to our movements, and the measures they proposed to take, and we modified our own plans accordingly.
At first, the Russians underestimated the importance of the German thrust. Later a few antitank guns were thrown into the fray. Then slowly the Russian Command got worried. Wireless calls became frantic. “Report at once where the enemy comes from. Your message is unbelievable.” Reply: “Ask the Devil’s grandmother; how should I know where the enemy comes from?” (Whenever the Devil and his near relations are mentioned in Russian signals one can assume that a crack-up is at hand.)
Towards noon the Russian Sixtieth Army went off the air, and soon afterward our tanks overran the army headquarters. By evening the Russian front had been rolled up for a length of twenty miles. The attack was brilliantly supported by the aircraft of General Seidemann, who had established his H.Q. in close vicinity to that of the 48th Panzer Corps.
The Air Liaison Officer from the 8th Fliegerkorps traveled in an armored car with our leading tanks and kept in direct wireless contact with the air squadrons. The advance continued without a halt.
During the night 7/8 December, “Leibstandarte” thrust deeply through the Russian lines. Unfortunately, the success could not be exploited, as the tanks ran out of gasoline and “Leibstandarte” was kept busy the whole day rescuing immobile tanks. First Panzer Division broke down all resistance and pushed through as far as the Teterev river. Fighting stubbornly the 7th Panzer Division smashed the Malin bridgehead on the banks of the Irscha and on 9 December the area between the two rivers was mopped up. The seventh Panzer eliminated the bridgehead south of Malin while the divisions of the 13th Corps took up positions in rear of our armor.
The results so far achieved were satisfactory. The Russian Sixtieth Army had been completely disrupted, and it was clear from their huge ammunition dumps and the intricate roadnet they had developed that we had forestalled an offensive of gigantic dimensions.