Handwritten testimony of Field Marshal E. von Kleist regarding the German campaign in southern Russia: Parts I-III
23 February 1951
It is difficult to describe the operations in which I participated when these events occurred ten years in the past and I have neither maps nor additional materials at my disposal. I remember well only those for which I have given repeated evidence over the past years and which were also a topic of discussion at Nurnberg. Other events I remember only poorly - especially dates, and can no longer even recall in which month some events took place. I can only describe operations in the most general terms, otherwise I become lost in the details.
II. Between Two Campaigns
1. Field Marshal von Rundstedt makes a visit
On approximately 1 May 1941, I had arrived home from Balkans, having left my headquarters staff behind. I had only been home a few days before Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt and his wife dropped by for a visit (they were residing at the hotel Monopol' in Breslau). Our families had been friends for a long time. The main command of the army group was located at that time somewhere south of Krakow.
Feldmarschall Rundstedt took me aside a told me roughly the following: “War is unavoidable. Both armies are deployed along the border against each other. Military operations may begin any day now. We will begin our offensive when those formations earmarked for the Eastern Front are freed up from their present location in the Balkans – especially the panzer and motorised divisions. This may take an additional six weeks. If the Russians attack before this, we will be ready to go on the defensive.
As part of the army group, you will command three panzer corps comprising the 1st Panzergruppe. You will not take part in the border fighting, but you will still fall under my operational command. Accordingly, you will receive additions to your staff as well as your own quartermaster forces.
Hitler has categorically demanded that you and your staff not enter the operations zone until the very last moment. You may remain here at home at your leisure. We will move your headquarters to outside of Breslau so you may get to it quickly at any time. The motorised divisions, which will be gradually arriving into the operational zone, will be under the command of the 6th Army, but the latter will not involve them in the preparations for the offensive. Depending upon the outcome of the border fighting, I intend to make use of your panzergruppe for operational purposes. Your chief of staff may get in touch with General von Sonderstern upon arriving in Breslau.
If you have any special requests regarding the transfer of any divisions currently subordinated to other corps and whose commanders you are already acquainted with as a result of previous campaigns, feel free to bring this request to my attention. In the meantime, while on leave, you may freely grant furlough to those officers and officials of your staff who have been on continuous duty since last May.”
2. The middle of June
In roughly the middle of June, the headquarters of the 1st Panzergruppe was transferred to the army group's operational area and set up in a isolated forester's house between Zamost'e and Bil'gurai.
The chief of staff made a trip to the army group and brought back the following information: The 17th and 6th Armies had finished their offensive preparations. The 11th Army was deployed further back to be employed later. The panzer units, which were to be handed over to us later, had still not fully arrived. Some of them were still resting in Czechoslovakia or Silesia, while others were still on their way back from the Balkans. It was doubtful the latter would be at full-strength. Then he reported the army group's instructions regarding the operation, which were roughly as follows: 1) Major forces of the Red Army were situated in front of the army group and further back at the great bend of the Dnieper 2) The army group had the task of destroying these forces and preventing them from withdrawing beyond the Dnieper. 3) To this purpose, the army group would begin its offensive on a designated day and at a designated hour, deploying the 17th and 6th Armies. The 17th Army had the task of quickly seizing the city of L'vov, while the 6th Army was to cross the Bug river, establish a bridgehead, and breakthrough the enemy front. The 11th Army was to cover the deep right flank of the 17th Army and tie up enemy forces. One corps, deployed in the north, was to cover the left flank of the 6th Army against enemy attack from the Volhynian forests.
The panzergruppe, which will take command of all panzer and motorised divisions on a designated day, will be ready be ready for combat operations from that moment, in order to force the [Bug] river once the 6th Army has established bridgeheads in depth. It was very important that the panzergruppe advance eastwards quickly and move ahead of the 6th Army. Under no circumstances was it to allow itself to be pinned down or forced to fall back as a result of fighting those enemy forces which the 6th Army will engage. Moreover, the panzergruppe will have the task of searching out and engaging tank forces deep in the enemy rear. In this regard, the panzergruppe will be under the operational command of the army group.
III. Operations in the great bend of the Dnieper
1. The war begins
In the early morning of 21.6.1941, the headquarters of the 1st Panzergruppe was transferred to a command post prepared by the 6th Army and situated alongside the Zamost'e-Tomashuv road. Here, it took command of three panzer corps, which were deployed side by side east of the road and echeloned in depth. The panzergruppe already had a working line to the corps' headquarters and to the staff of the 6th Army, and through the latter to the army group.
The 17th and 6th Armies began their attack at dawn, on 21.6.1941 [should obviously be 22.6.1941 - skoblin]. The battle for the frontier had begun, and the panzer forces awaited the outcome of the fighting. One resulting circumstance: around mid-day, I was informed that the 13th Panzer Division, which I had intended to leave in its deployment area far in the rear, was on the march in the direction of Vladimir-Volhynskiy under orders of the 6th Army command. Indignant, I contacted Field Marshal von Reichenau by telephone. Before I could tell him anything, however, he declared: “Kleist, the greatest battle of all time is occurring on the frontier. We are facing the whole Russian army”. “Take it easy...,” I thought to myself. When I asked him how it came to pass that he was in command of my forces, he muttered something about the necessities of war and that the 13th Panzer Division had still been under his authority only the day before. From this I formed the opinion that the fighting was going tough. I could not simply take command of the panzer division and have it turn back, as its marching columns were spread out over 120 km. I had to attach it to the III Panzer Corps, which it remained a part of until the winter of 1942-1943. Here is an example of how a chance event may turn out decisive in the long run.
2. How the army group command assessed the situation
After two weeks of fighting, the army group command had arrived at the following opinion:
The enemy is giving battle in order to gain time with the intention of either: a) transferring new major forces across the Dnieper which would be able to attack the army group's flanks, for example, with an attack from the vicinity of Kiev and the north-west [Kleist probably means the north-east - skoblin] towards the south-west with a simultaneous blow from the vicinity of Kherson to the north-west, or b) constructing a strong defense line along the Dnieper and the creating defended areas on the western bank with a subsequent withdrawal to these bridgeheads.
The task for the army group, however, remained the same: to smash the enemy forces standing before it before those forces could either be reinforced or withdrawn behind the Dnieper. Meanwhile, what was the army group's situation in relation to this?
The 17th Army was facing the mass of the enemy's forces. It was waging a frontal attack and was advancing only slowly.
The 11th Army was covering the right flank of the 17th Army and was trying to establish direct contact with the latter with its left flank.
The panzergruppe, after battling enemy forces near Dubno, Rovno and to the east [this would be the tank battle of Brody - skoblin], had overcome the defenses on the old Russian-Polish frontier at Tsviagel' and to the south, and had reached the area west of Kiev and Belaya Tserkov. Thus, it had already penetrated deep into the flank and halfway into the rear of the main Russian forces. However, the panzergruppe was now pinned down along the front and found itself in a dangerous position. It faced the threat of enemy forces in the Kiev bridgehead as well as Russian forces deployed in the forests of Volhynia, which threatened its left flank and supply routes. The panzergruppe's right flank, meanwhile, was threatened by new Russian forces, which had crossed the Dnieper south of Kiev and were attacking westwards.
The 6th Army, following behind the panzergruppe, was advancing faster than the 17th Army. It was positioned ahead of the latter army and could now advance southwards.
It was now necessary, however, the free up the panzergruppe for operational employment in the rear of the main Russian forces and against their rearward communications as well as for defending against new enemy forces, which may cross the Dnieper near Kremenchug, Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozh'e.
Thus, the 6th Army could not advance any further south, since it had to pick up the task from the panzergruppe of providing flank cover in the general vicinity of Korsun' – Kiev and to the northwest. The 6th Army, thus, had to move with great haste.
On 8.8.41], the battle against the main Russian forces deployed west of the Dnieper concluded in the vicinity of Uman'. Hitler and Mussolini were in attendance at the end of the battle. The 17th Army, and parts of the 11th Army and 1st Panzergruppe were involved in this engagement. The 6th Army had positioned itself near Kiev and to the south, facing those those Russian forces attacking from the east, while the panzergruppe lay further to the south and units of the 11th Army moved up against those Russian forces coming from the south-east.
The army group command now considered it necessary to destroy the Russian forces which were operating in the lower bend of the Dnieper and to claim the western bank of the river in its entirety. After that, the task placed before the army group in the middle of June was accomplished. The battle for the great bend of the Dnieper was over.