Dnieper Offensive
Part of the Eastern Front of the European War
Crossing the Dnieper.png
Soviet soldiers crossing the Dnieper on improvised rafts
Date 26 August 1939 — 23 December 1939
Location Dnieper River, Ukraine
Result Soviet victory
Soviets capture left-bank Ukraine, including the city of Kiev and Donets basin
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Soviet Union Flag of the Ukranian State.svg Ukraine
22px Austria
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Dmitry Pavlov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Aleksandr Vasilevsky
Flag of the Ukranian State.svg Andriy Melnyk
2,650,000 men
51,000 guns
2,400 tanks
2,850 aircraft
1,250,000 men
12,600 guns
2,100 tanks
2,000 aircraft
Casualties and losses
1,286,000 total casualties
348,815 dead
937,162 wounded or sick
David M. Glantz:
1,182,000 total casualties
276,000 dead
906,000 wounded or sick
Nikolai Shefov:
1,500,000 total casualties
373,000 killed
Low est.:
400,000+ total casualties
High est.:
1,200,000 total casualties

The Battle of the Dnieper was a military campaign that marked the beginning of war in Europe. The Soviet invasion began on 26 August 1939. It was one of the largest operations in the war, involving almost 4,000,000 troops on both sides and stretching on a 1,400 kilometres (870 mi) long front. During its four-month duration, the eastern bank of the Dnieper was captured from Ukrainian forces by five of the Red Army's fronts, which conducted several assault river crossings to establish several lodgements on the western bank. The campaign ended on 23 December. Subsequently, Kiev was conquered in the Battle of Kiev.

One of the costliest operations of the war, the casualties are estimated at being from 1,700,000 to 2,700,000 on both sides. One of the most tragic events took place during the establishment of so called Bukryn lodgement near the village of Malyi Bukryn (Myronivka Raion). The Soviet writer and war veteran Viktor Astafyev in his memoirs was recalling that 25,000 soldiers who entered the Dnieper from one side, would exit the river on the other side in amounts of 5-6,000. Due to great losses, the Dnieper Airborne Assault became the only mass airborne operation utilized by the Soviet Union.

Some 2,438 soldiers were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union which was more than had been awarded previously since the award's establishment and never again was there such a big number of laureates.

During the battle in the Soviet Union a new term "Black Coats" appeared. It referred to newly mobilized population from territory newly liberated from Nazi Germany. The "Black Coats" were used as a human shield during the campaign. Later there appeared a myth about Zhukov who supposedly wanted to drown all Ukrainians in the Dnieper.

Prelude[edit | edit source]

In 1924, the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin died, after a power struggle over a successor Joseph Stalin, came to power in Soviet Union. As early as 1927 Stalin envisioned annexing such territories as Belarus, Ukraine, and Batlic states to the USSR and creation of satellite or puppet states without economies or policies of their own. To provoke war with Ukraine in order to gain territory, Stalin used as a pretext a claim to Ukrainian territory that separated the island of Crimea from the rest of the Soviet Union. The so-called Pryazovia region constituted land long disputed by Ukraine and the USSR, and inhabited by a Russian minority. The region became a part of Ukraine after the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Many Soviets also wanted the the lost territories in eastern Europe to be incorporated into the Soviet Union. Belarus and Ukraine had large fields for farming with a Russian population. These lands had been separated from the Russian SFSR after Brest-Litovsk and made into a nominally independent states economically linked to Germany and Austria. Stalin sought to use this as a reason for war, reverse these territorial losses, and on many occasions made an appeal to Soviet nationalism, promising to "liberate" the Russian minority still in Pryazovia, as well as Belarus.

The invasion was referred to by the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War since Stalin proclaimed that Ukraine had attacked the Soviet Union and that "Russians in Ukraine are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes. The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Ukraine is no longer willing to respect the Soviet frontier."

By 1937, the Soviet Union began proposing that an "extraterritorial" roadway be built in order to connect Crimea with USSR proper, running through the Pryazovia region. Ukraine rejected this proposal, fearing that after accepting these demands, it would become increasingly subject to the will of the Soviets and eventually lose its independence. Ukrainian leaders also distrusted Stalin. The British were also aware of the situation between the Soviet Union and Ukraine. On 31 March 1939 the Anglo-Ukraine military alliance was formed by the United Kingdom and Austria, ensuring that Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity would be defended with their support if it were to be threatened by the Soviet Union. On the other hand, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, still hoped to strike a deal with Stalin regarding Pryazovia, and Stalin hoped for the same. Chamberlain and his supporters believed war could be avoided and hoped the Soviet Union would agree to leave the rest of Ukraine alone. Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe was also at stake. In private, Stalin revealed in May that Pryazovia was not the real issue to him, but pursuit of territorial security for the Soviet Union.

With tensions mounting, the Soviet Union turned to aggressive diplomacy as well. Talks over Pryazovia broke down and months passed without diplomatic interaction between the Soviet Union and Ukraine. In May 1939, in a statement to his generals while they were in the midst of planning the invasion of Ukraine, Stalin made it clear that the invasion would not come without resistance.

The Soviet assault was originally scheduled to begin at 04:00 on 14 August. However, on 13 August, the Ukrainian-German Common Defense Pact was signed as an annex to the Austro-Ukrainian Military Alliance. In this accord,  Germany committed itself to the defence of Ukraine, guaranteeing to preserve Ukrainian independence. At the same time, the British and the Ukrainians were hinting to Moscow that they were willing to resume discussions—not at all how Stalin hoped to frame the conflict. Thus, he wavered and postponed his attack until 24 August, managing to in effect halt the entire invasion "in mid-leap".

Planned divisions of Europe in 1939 and 1940

On 20 August, Stalin tried to dissuade the Germans and the Austrians from interfering in the upcoming conflict, even pledging that the Red Army would be made available to Germany in the future. The negotiations convinced Stalin that there was little chance the Germans would declare war on the Soviet Union, and even if they did, because of the lack of "territorial guarantees" to Ukraine, they would be willing to negotiate a compromise favourable to the Soviet Union after its conquest of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the increased number of overflights by high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and cross-border troop movements signaled that war was imminent.

The map shows the beginning of the European War in August 1939 in a European context.

On 24 August, prompted by the British, the Soviet Union issued one last diplomatic offer, with the invasion yet to be rescheduled. That evening, the Soviet government responded in a communication that it aimed not only for the transfer of Pryazovia but also Novorossiya (which had not previously been part of Stalin’s demands) in addition to the safeguarding of the Russian minority in Ukraine. It said that they were willing to commence negotiations, but indicated that a Ukrainian representative with the power to sign an agreement had to arrive in Moscow the next day while in the meantime it would draw up a set of proposals. The British Cabinet was pleased that negotiations had been agreed to but regarded the requirement for an immediate arrival of a Ukrainian representative with full signing powers as an unacceptable ultimatum. On the night of 25/26 August, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov read a 16-point Soviet proposal to the British ambassador. When the ambassador requested a copy of the proposals for transmission to the Ukrainian government Molotov refused on the grounds that the requested Ukrainian representative had failed to arrive by midnight. When Ukrainian Ambassador Stetsko went to see Molotov later on 25 August to indicate that Ukraine was favorably disposed to negotiations, he announced that he did not have the full power to sign, and Molotov dismissed him. It was then broadcast that Ukraine had rejected the Soviet Union's offer, and negotiations with Ukraine came to an end. Stalin issued orders for the invasion to commence soon afterwards.

On 24 August, the Ukrainian Navy sent its destroyer flotilla to Austria. On the same day, Hetman Vasyl Vyshyvanyi announced the mobilization of Ukrainian troops. However, he was pressured into revoking the order by the Austrians, who apparently still hoped for a diplomatic settlement, failing to realize that the Soviets were fully mobilized and concentrated at the Ukrainian border. During the night of 25 August, the Rostov-on-Don incident, a false flag attack on the radio station, was staged near the border city of Rostov-on-Don by NKVD agents posing as Ukrainian troops, in Rostov Oblast, as part of a wider operation. At midnight of 26 August 1939, Stalin ordered hostilities against Ukraine to start at 4:45 the that morning. Because of the earlier stoppage, Ukraine managed to mobilize only 70% of its planned forces, and many units were still forming or moving to their designated frontline positions.

Description of the strategic operation[edit | edit source]

Initial attack[edit | edit source]

Following several Soviet-staged incidents, which Soviet propaganda used as a pretext to claim that Soviet forces were acting in self-defence, the first regular act of war took place on 26 August 1939. Despite a great superiority in numbers, the invasion was by no means easy. Ukrainian opposition was ferocious and the fighting raged for every town and city. The Ukrainian Army made extensive use of rear guards, leaving some troops in each city and on each hill, slowing down the Soviet offensive. The governments of Germany and Austria declared war on the Soviet Union on 27 August; launching air support for Ukraine while Germany moved into Belarus.

The French government declared war on Germany on 3 September; however, they failed to provide any meaningful support. The German-French border saw only a few minor skirmishes, although the majority of French forces, including 85% of their armoured forces, were ordered to remain defensive.

Progress of the offensive[edit | edit source]

Three weeks after the start of the offensive, and despite heavy losses on the Soviet side, it became clear that the Ukrainians could not hope to contain the Soviet attack in the flat, open terrain of the steppes, where the Red Army's numerical strength would prevail. Heneral-Khorunzhiy Andriy Melnyk asked for as many as 12 new divisions in the hope of containing the Soviet offensive – but Ukrainian reserves were perilously thin. Years later, Melnyk wrote in his memoirs:

After analysing this situation, I concluded that we can't keep the Donbass with the forces that we already possess, and that even a greater danger for the whole front is being created on the north flank of the group. The 8th and 4th Armies won't be able to contain the Soviet invasion for very long.

Decisive action[edit | edit source]

As a result, on 15 September 1939, Hetman Vasyl Vyshyvanyi ordered the Ukrainian Army to retreat to the Dnieper defence line.

The battle for Poltava was especially bitter. The city was heavily fortified and its garrison well prepared. After a few inconclusive days that greatly slowed down the Soviet offensive, Marshal Timoshenko decided to bypass the city and rush towards the Dnieper. After two days of violent urban warfare, the Poltava garrison was overcome. Towards the end of September 1939, Soviet forces reached the lower part of the Dnieper. The hardest part was still to come, though.

Assault-crossing the Dnieper[edit | edit source]

Soviet soldiers preparing rafts to cross the Dnieper (the sign reads "Onwards to Kiev!")

The assault-crossings[edit | edit source]

The first bridgehead on the Dnieper's western shore was established on 22 September 1939 at the confluence of the Dnieper and Pripyat rivers, in the northern part of the front. On 24 September, another bridgehead was created near Dniprodzerzhynsk, another on 25 September near Dnipropetrovsk and yet another on 28 September near Kremenchuk. By the end of the month, 23 bridgeheads were created on the western side, some of them 10 kilometers wide and 1-2 kilometres deep.

The crossing of the Dnieper was extremely difficult. Soldiers used every available floating device to cross the river, under heavy Ukrainian and Austrian fire and taking heavy losses. Once across, Soviet troops had to dig themselves into the clay ravines composing the Dnieper's western bank.

Securing the lodgements[edit | edit source]

Soviet soldiers attacking on a lodgement in October 1943

With Austrian support, Ukrainian troops soon launched heavy counterattacks on almost every bridgehead, hoping to annihilate them before heavy equipment could be transported across the river.

For instance, the Borodaevsk lodgement, mentioned by Marshal Timoshenko in his memoirs, came under heavy armored attack and air assault. Bombers attacked both the lodgement and the reinforcements crossing the river. Timoshenko complained at once about a lack of organization of Soviet air support, set up air patrols to prevent bombers from approaching the lodgements and ordered forward more artillery to counter tank attacks from the opposite shore. When Soviet aviation became more organized and hundreds of guns and Katyusha rocket launchers began firing, the situation started to improve and the bridgehead was eventually preserved.

Such battles were commonplace on every lodgement. Although all the lodgements were held, losses were terrible – at the beginning of October, most divisions were at only 25 to 50% of their nominal strength.

Lower Dnieper Offensive[edit | edit source]

The k.u.k. delivers fire across the Dnieper

By mid-October, the forces accumulated on the lower Dnieper bridgeheads were strong enough to stage a first massive attack to definitely secure the river's western shore in the southern part of the front. Therefore, a vigorous attack was staged on the Kremenchuk-Dnipropetrovsk line. Simultaneously, a major diversion was conducted in the south to draw Austrian forces away both from the Lower Dnieper and from Kiev.

At the end of the offensive, Soviet forces controlled a bridgehead 300 kilometers wide and up to 80 kilometers deep in some places. Any hope of stopping the Red Army on the Dnieper's east bank was lost.

Outcomes[edit | edit source]

The Battle of the Dnieper was a major defeat for the Ukrainian Army that required the K.u.K. to stabilize the front further West. The Red Army, which Emperor Otto hoped to contain at the Dnieper, forced the k.u.k.'s defences. Kiev was captured and Austrian troops lacked the forces to annihilate Soviet troops on the Lower Dnieper bridgeheads. The west bank was still out of Soviet hands for the most part, but both sides knew that it would not last for long.

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