Broken Axis:
First Battle of Târgu Frumos

Note: The First Battle of Târgu Frumos is the first “battle game” in our Panzer Grenadier: Broken Axis game, a series of scenarios (in this case nine of them) that you can play individually just like those in any other Panzer Grenadier game, or together.

The Red Army opened its 1944 spring offensive in Ukraine with an ambitious objective: completely freeing Soviet soil of the Hitlerite invaders. While Fourth Ukrainian Front fought to liberate Crimea, the First, Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts opened a powerful offensive against the German Army Group South.

The offensive swept the Germans before it, pushing them out of Ukraine and into Romanian territory. The advance split the German Army Group South in two, with Army Group South Ukraine taking responsibility for defending Romania. Hoping to inflict further defeats on the Axis forces before they could regroup, the Soviet General Staff (Stavka) ordered a renewed offensive “on the fly,” this time aimed at the key cities of Jassy (Iasi in Romanian) and Kishinev (Chisinau in Romanian).

Jassy, known as the “cultural capital of Romania,” held powerful symbolic importance as the first capital of the united Romanian state and of the old Principality of Moldavia. As Romania’s fourth-largest city it was also an important communications and industrial center. Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia, had been taken by the Romanians in 1918 from the collapsing Russian Empire, taken by the Soviet Union in 1940 under threat of invasion, and captured by the Romanians in 1941 during their invasion of the Soviet Union in concert with the Germans. Kishinev had been badly damaged during the 1940 Soviet takeover, suffered even more from a massive earthquake in November 1940, and then saw heavy fighting and scorched-earth destruction in 1941 followed by the mass murder of most of its Jewish population. By 1944 the shattered city did not hold major economic value, but like Jassy was an important symbol to both sides.

Soviet T-34/85 tanks, early 1944.

Led by the newly-promoted Marshal of the Soviet Union Ivan Konev, Second Ukrainian Front had the task of capturing Jassy. Intelligence indicated that the Germans were digging in in front of Jassy and apparently planned to fight for the city. Konev therefore placed the emphasis of his attack on the small city of Târgu Frumos to the west of Jassy. A good paved road (today’s Highway E58) led southward from Botoshany, the final objective of the spring offensive, to Târgu Frumos and then turned eastward to Jassy. Another good road (today’s Highway E85; Romania’s highway managers apparently have no sympathy for dyslexic drivers) headed southward from Târgu Frumos to the town of Roman and on to Romania’s major urban/industrial centers.

Soviet intelligence apparently had not detected the extent to which Romania had re-built her army. The Armata Romana’s infantry divisions were all up to strength in enlisted personnel and small arms, though they lacked adequate anti-tank weaponry and all of the required junior officers and NCO’s (part of this last shortage was due to a new, German-influenced table of organization that called for a greater number of small-unit leaders). Following the disaster at Stalingrad, the Romanians had for the most part sat out the campaigns of 1943 and early 1944. Their return to the front greatly strengthened the battered Army Group South Ukraine, though the Germans were quick as ever to minimize their contribution.

Romania’s military dictator, Marshal Ion Antonescu, suggested falling back to the line of fortifications his engineers had been preparing since the Stalingrad disaster. Adolf Hitler adamantly refused, seeing Antonescu’s suggestion as a prelude to Romania’s seeking a separate peace with the Soviets. To bolster Antonescu’s will to fight, Hitler pledged to maintain Army Group South Ukraine’s panzer divisions in the theater to repel any Soviet offensive. All of the German divisions had been badly depleted in the preceding campaign, but had begun to receive a trickle of replacement men and machines.

If anything the Red Army’s divisions were even more worn down than those of the Germans, and they had received few reinforcements to restore their strength. The speed of their advance, German destruction of Ukraine’s transportation infrastructure and the springtime mud all combined to cut off Second Ukrainian Front from badly-needed re-supply. To make up for the personnel shortage, Red Army and NKVD detachments combed the liberated countryside, impressing all but the very young and the very old into uniform. These untrained and often unwilling new conscripts went directly into the front lines.

Balancing that to some extent, the surviving cadres represented a great deal of successful battle experience. The Red Army had finally honed its Deep Battle doctrine into a practical way of war, as the Germans and Romanians had already discovered.

The German Eighth Army held the area around Târgu Frumos with the IV Romanian Corps, which spread three infantry divisions (6th, 7th and 8th) across a broad front. All three had been rebuilt over the past year after catastrophic losses in the East (6th and 7th Infantry Divisions were annihilated at Stalingrad, while 8th Infantry Division suffered massive losses during the siege of Odessa). They had no armor of their own, much of their artillery consisted of light field pieces (French-made 75mm guns and captured Soviet 76.2mm pieces) and their anti-tank weapons were inadequate in both numbers and caliber (license-built 47mm guns, captured Soviet 45mm pieces and old French 75mm field pieces refurbished as anti-tank guns).

A Grossdeutschland Tiger tank.

Konev had never shown much operational subtlety, and the Eighth Army’s commander, Col. Gen. Otto Wöhler, believed he would strike directly at Jassy. He placed his best formations there: the German Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland, the depleted 24th and 14th Panzer Divisions, and the crack Romanian Royal Guard Division and 5th Cavalry Division (now fighting dismounted).

To confuse the Germans, Konev shifted his armies at the last minute. Fifth Guards Tank Army captured Botoshany and continued its drive southward toward Târgu Frumos. Second and Sixth Tank Armies, deployed in front of Jassy, shifted westward to join Fifth Guards, re-creating the armored fist that Konev had used to drive the Germans from Ukraine. His striking force was far less formidable than at the beginning of the spring offensive, but still numbered over 500 tanks and assault guns. They would advance in the second wave, after the rifle divisions of 27th Army finished pulverizing the “mush eaters.”

On 9 April 1944, Konev’s 27th Army struck the single Romanian division holding Târgu Frumos with four battle-tested rifle divisions, two in the first echelon and two more in the second. They ejected the Romanian 7th Infantry Division from the town and began to expand their lodgment in the Axis lines.

Recognizing the danger to his flank, Wöhler quickly deployed his reserves. Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland immediately hit the road from its bivouacs east of Jassy, while the Romanian Royal Guard marched to reinforce the 7th Infantry Division south of Târgu Frumos. The German division re-captured Târgu Frumos and cut off the leading Soviet divisions, who were now under pressure from the Royal Guard counter-attacking northward.

Faced with encirclement, the Soviets began a hasty withdrawal from their exposed positions. Now well aware of the threat to his flank, Wöhler left the Grossdeutschland Division at Târgu Frumos where they set up a defensive perimeter. Unwilling to abandon the offensive, Konev now ordered Second Tank Army to strike at Podu Iloaiei. This small town lay on the road about halfway between Târgu Frumos and Jassy, and was held by 24th Panzer Division (the best-known English-language work on the campaign mis-identifies this unit as the 1st Royal Romania Mare Armored Division, which had not yet been declared combat-ready). Though not a particularly good fighting formation, 24th Panzer repelled the Soviet assaults and the front settled down as the Soviets brought up fresh replacements and supplies in preparation for a renewed offensive.

Both sides prepared to renew the battle. They wouldn’t have long to wait.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his new puppy. He will never forget his dog, Leopold.

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