Note: Operations Sonja and Katja are the subject of a “battle game” in our Panzer Grenadier: Broken Axis game, a series of scenarios (in this case eight of them) that you can play individually just like those in any other Panzer Grenadier game, or together. The Axis is on the operational offensive in this battle game; others put the burden of attack on the Soviets.
While the rapid Soviet advance across Ukraine in early 1944 strained and often broke the Red Army’s supply lines, at the same time it pushed the Axis closer to their own home bases. German and Romanian divisions had better access to fuel, food and ammunition. Replacements even arrived at the front, both men and machines.
Gen. Otto Wöhler of Army Group Wöhler (consisting of the German Eighth Army and Romanian Fourth Army) understood that the Soviets were likewise mending their rear-area disarray and bringing up fresh troops and supplies for a renewed offensive. But they underestimated the damage that Sixth Army had inflicted on the Soviets in the Tashlyk Bridgehead; German and Romanian patrols and local Romanian residents had correctly reported a buildup of Soviet forces, but on 25 May 1944 Stavka, the Soviet General Staff, cancelled plans for a renewed offensive scheduled to begin on the 26th.
Inspired by Sixth Army’s success, Wöhler’s plan called for all of Eighth Army’s depleted panzer divisions to form a shock group led by Gen. Friedrich Mieth, commander of the German IV Corps. Mieth had the 23rd and 24th Panzer Divisions, plus the 14th Panzer Division transferred from Sixth Army. Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland joined the group as well. Support on the flanks of the attack would be provided by both German and Romanian infantry divisions.
Soviet armored vehicles captured by 23rd Panzer Division.
Reasoning that the opposing Second Ukrainian Front would either strike at Târgu Frumos for a third time or drive straight on Jassy, Wöhler chose a sector along the Jijia River between the two objectives for his counter-stroke. This would place tactically useful high ground on the Axis side of the front line, and give Wöhler’s troops full use of the rail line and good paved highway between Târgu Frumos and Jassy to shuttle troops between threatened sectors when the inevitable Soviet attack did come.
The offensive would take place in two phases. Operation Sonja would kick off first, on the German right and aimed at seizing several hills and driving up to the banks of the Jijia. Twenty-third and 24th Panzer Divisions would provide the armored punch, followed up by the German 79th and Romanian 11th Infantry Divisions. Fourteenth Panzer Division would form the reserve.
Operation Sonja would last for two days, concluding at nightfall on 31 May. Twenty-Fourth Panzer Division would have one day to withdraw and regroup, and then Operation Katja would commence on the German left, with similar objectives (though the river did not factor into them in this sector). Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland (in reality, wielding more tanks than an actual panzer division) would join the 24th to form the main attack force, with the Romanian 3rd Infantry Division and 18th Mountain Division (a mountain division in name only) providing the follow-up wave.
Gen. Rodion Malinovsky had just taken over Second Ukrainian Front from Ivan Konev, yielding his former command, Third Ukrainian Front, to Fyodor Tolbukhin. As a result, Soviet dispositions were still somewhat in flux as Malinovsky took stock of his command and began to make new deployments. The sector targeted for the Operation Sonja was held by three weak rifle divisions, with two more deployed behind them to provide defense-in-depth. On Operation Katja’s front, three more understrength rifle divisions held the line, with one more in echelon behind them.
Well aware of the German penchant for attacking in the least convenient place at the least convenient time, Malinovsky had arranged for each of his new command’s badly-depleted tank armies to concentrate all of their operable tanks in a single brigade each. That still didn’t yield much armor support (one brigade had 50 tanks, the other 60) but at least placed it all under a single command.
Operation Sonja jumped off on schedule, with a heavy preliminary artillery bombardment before the panzers passed through the Romanian 11th Infantry Division’s positions to attack. The attack went well in its first hours, but Soviet resistance grew increasingly fiercer as the day went on, with the riflemen rallying around their artillery and anti-tank guns to form tough hedgehog positions. By nightfall the panzers and the Romanian infantry had reached their objectives for the day, but Lt. Gen. Friedrich-August Weinknecht’s 79th Infantry Division lagged behind on the left flank of the assault.
That failure had left a Soviet-held salient pressing deeply into the German left flank, so on the offensive’s second day 24th Panzer wheeled left to deal with the problem and 14th Panzer moved forward from the reserve to join them. Attacked on three sides, the stubborn 254th Rifle Division finally gave way. Twenty-Third Panzer Division and the Romanian 11th Infantry Division meanwhile fought to push 48th Rifle Corps over the Jijia River, eliminating some but not all of their bridgeheads.
Eighth Army declared the operation a success, and 24th Panzer Division now withdrew from the front lines as planned. Late on 1 June they moved into their assembly areas for the new offensive, with about 40 tanks and assault guns. Grossdeutschland had about half again as many, most of them Panthers and Tigers, when they moved into their own assembly zones on the left of 24th Panzer Division.
On the Soviet side, 33rd Rifle Corps had suffered serious losses during the Târgu Frumos battles, and despite reinforcements in the form of the 54th Fortified Region (a division-sized grouping of fortress garrison troops including a large allotment of heavy machine guns) the Red Army was both outnumbered and outgunned in this sector. Reinforcements would take several days to arrive, though the Germans don’t seem to have been aware of this. Nevertheless, they attacked anyway.
Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland's command staff discusses Operation Katja.
Operation Katja began just before dawn on 2 June without the bombardment that had heralded Operation Sonja. The panzers quickly broke through the surprised Soviets, shattering the front-line divisions and driving between two and five miles forward. The Romanian infantry trailing behind them dealt with bypassed pockets of Soviet troops. Malinovsky had scheduled a counter-attack for the same morning to re-take the hills lost a few days previously in Operation Sonja, but quickly cancelled the assault and shifted his reserves to meet the new threat.
Fighting grew even heavier as Malinovsky fed reinforcements into the threatened sector and the Germans deployed their own reserve, 14th Panzer Division. German progress slowed, and by 6 June it was coming to a close, though Soviet counter-attacks continued on the 7th as well. This time Eighth Army had been denied all of its objectives; in typical fashion, the Germans blamed Romanian troops for the lack of complete success.
Had Malinovsky actually been about to launch an offensive, the twin operations would have disrupted his plans. However, in that case many more fresh reserves would have been close to hand, and even the limited success of Operation Katja might not have been possible. Romanian troops had fought well, despite German cattiness (most of which came from Grossdeutschland’s staff); a pleased Wöhler pinned the German Knight’s Cross on Gen. Edgar Radelscu of the Romanian 11th Infantry Division.
For the moment, the Axis had stalemated the Soviets on this front. The quiet would not last.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.