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ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
With the collapse of the front at Korsun, it became obvious to the German command that their lines had to be shortened. The Northern Front, which had been relatively quiet since the Spring of 1942, began to crumble during the winter of 1943-44. Nordland had been fighting there since November, in retreat since mid-January. Because of an almost total lack of tactical reserves in that area, OKH was forced to move some mobile units to the North. Anticipating a Russian drive on the Vistula, the nearly demolished Wiking and the relatively stronger Totenkopf were sent to Warsaw along with 19. Panzer-Korps. LAH along with K-Gr. Lamerding of Das Reich was pulled back to a new defensive line the Germans were trying to establish in the Western Ukraine.
It was a surprise to no one that the next Russian attacks in the South came as a pincer movement piercing the German front at Uman and Rovno. What was a surprise was when it came. A dry and early Spring limited the mud that would normally have halted all major operations for at least a month. Rather than April or May, the Russian Spring Offensive commenced on 4 March 1944, catching the Germans completely unprepared.
The German forward positions were overrun with little difficulty. Though Leibstandarte, part of 4. Panzer-Armee, began an immediate counterattack toward Rovno, it was not only unable to seal off the break caused by the attack of a Russian Tank Army, but was soon forced onto the defensive, retreating to the West. K-Gr. Lamerding of Das Reich, part of 1. Panzer-Armee, retreated Southward with the rest of that encircled army toward the Dniester and Kamentz-Podolsk. Within days the Russian wedges had driven over 50 miles deep into German-held territory, forcing the two Panzer Armies further apart. Manstein, commanding Armee-Gruppe Slid, was disturbed by the widening separation between his armies. If 1. Panzer-Armee continued to retreat to the South, it would be forced through the Carpathians into Rumania, cutting it off from the main front. And Manstein was unwilling to lose a force of 18 divisions, eight of which were armored. He ordered 1. Panzer-Armee to breakout to the West.
The task was to be formidable. A gap of 75 miles now existed between 1. and 4. Panzer-Armee, a gap held by four Russian armies. For the attack, slated for 29 March, the two armies were to push toward each other, hopefully to meet at Buchach on the Strypa. Two of the new SS divisions [9. SS-Panzer-Division "Hohenstaufen" & 10-SS-Panzer-Division "Frundsberg"] were reluctantly allocated to the attack from the West. After seven days of hard fighting the linkup was effected, Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg [2.SS-Panzer-Korps] taking Buchach on 6 April. But as was the case in too many other such battles, the losses were appalling. The SS divisions, particularly LAH, were again in need of refitting.
Simultaneous with the encirclement of 1. Panzer-Armee in the South, the enemy also launched a minor pincer attack against German positions in Eastern Poland, surrounding Kovel. The subsequent relief attacks, involving first Totenkopf and Wiking, later on also Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg, were successful in re-establishing the link with the beleaguered city and holding the line which held until mid-July.
Das Reich Kursk marking
On paper, the Waffen SS was now a formidable force, comprising 17 divisions, 12 of which were at least nominally armored. In reality, it was not even close to this supposed strength. Of the armored divisions, none were at full complement. The most badly shot up were pulled back to the West to refit in anticipation of the Allied invasion. Leibstandarte and a reunited Das Reich joined the still forming Hitlerjugend and Gotz von Berlichingen in France. RFSS, having fought US troops at Anzio, was briefly back in the Balkans along with Prinz Eugen, while Nordland, Florian Geyer, Hohenstaufen, Frundsberg, Totenkopf and Wiking remained in the East. The Waffen SS was obviously no longer the small elite force that represented the Nazi racial ideal. The attrition of war and the manyfold expansion had long since diluted the ideologically-pure cadre that the Waffen-SS was to have been. The only attribute of its elite status it could still claim was that it was now, and until the end of the war, better equipped than equivalent army units. During this brief lull in the early Summer of 1944, the SS could still be considered a tremendously powerful force, if no longer the weapon it had been a year before.
An interesting series of photos showing the Tigers of Das Reich in action.
A captured Russian BA 64 light armored car follows a Tiger into the fight. This tank has already been through some action as can be seen from the damage to the Feifel system. [Bundesarchiv]
Advancing across the rolling hills north of Belgorod, this grenadier leads a group of Tigers while more advance on the opposite ridge. The tanks of the Heavy Detachment were Sand Yellow oversprayed with Red Brown. [Bundesarchiv]
An excellent closeup of the turret of "S13" [S = Schwere = Heavy], The "Gnome" painted on the turret side was carried on most tanks of the sPz-Abt. [Bundesarchiv]
Das Reich Kursk marking