The Road to Kishinev, 1944

The massive Soviet summer offensive of 1944 rolled forward from north to south in a series of five distinct operations. First came the attack on Finland, then Operation Bagration in Belarus, both taking place in June. Two further operations in Poland followed in July. Finally came the invasion of Romania in August.

The Romanian operation - it never had a code name, but became known as the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive - would push off on 20 August 1944. Two fronts, as the Red Army named its army groups, with 1.2 million men and over 2,000 tanks would seek to eliminate the three Axis armies guarding the front and knock Romania out of the war.

F.I. Tolbukhin’s Third Ukrainian Front had responsibility for the southern wing of the two-pronged offensive. Tolbukhin’s staff worked out a careful plan to maximize their force. Careful reconnaissance identified Axis formations, strong points and artillery positions. These would be smothered with a massive artillery bombardment, and then the first-wave divisions would go forward with an entire army aimed at each of two vulnerable Axis divisions.

A German Panther tank in Romania, August 1944. A rare photo indeed.

The 37th Army Attacks
The initial attacks would hit the German 306th Infantry Division and Romanian 4th Mountain Division at the boundary between them and also at the boundaries with their neighboring divisions (German 15th Infantry and Romanian 21st Infantry respectively). Mikhail Sharokhin’s 37th Army would make the main effort, striking 306th Infantry Division.

Each flank of the German division would be struck by a rifle corps with two rifle divisions in the first line and a third in the second line. The army’s third rifle corps with three more divisions would remain in reserve, and 7th Mechanized Corps would enter the combat zone after the rifle divisions had opened a breach and exploit into the Axis rear areas.

On the army’s right flank, facing 306th Infantry Division, 66th Rifle Corps had 61st Guards Rifle Division and 333rd Rifle Division in the first line, with 244th Rifle Division behind them. On the left, Sixth Guards Rifle Corps sent in 10th Guards Airborne and 20th Guards Rifle in the first echelon and 195th Rifle Division behind them. Sharokhin stripped the artillery and mortars from the second-line divisions and his reserve 82nd Rifle Corps to bolster the assault formations, and added his own army artillery plus additional tubes supplied by the front command. Sixty-sixth Rifle Corps would be supported by 508 guns and Sixth Guards Rifle Corps by 480, with 56 more heavy pieces retained under army control.

The attack began at 0500, with a five-minute rolling barrage followed by assaults by punishment companies - special units comprised of military prisoners deployed for suicidal missions. The Germans and Romanians shot them to pieces, but they did their job, luring the Axis troops into their firing positions and confirming the location of trenches and strongpoints.

The Soviets then gave the Axis troops a chance to relax, and at 0800 opened the true bombardment: 105 minutes of intensive fire ranging from the big 203mm howitzers of the army-level long-range batteries to the 82mm mortar teams targeting individual machine-gun nests and rifle pits. Many of the front-line defenders were still in their firing positions rather than their bombproof shelters, and died as these fortifications were blown apart

The assault troops went forward at 0945. Both Axis divisions had already suffered heavy losses in the bombardment, and neither held up well to direct attack. The German division fled for the most part, and where they stood as at the fortified village of Leuntea the Soviets rolled over them. The Romanian division attempted to fight but by mid-morning was disintegrating; with large drafts of conscripted criminals having replaced the experienced mountaineers lost in forlorn battles far from home, the troops had little will to stand against the onslaught.

Unloading tanks of 4th Guards Mechanized Corps before the offensive.

Throughout the morning the Soviets advanced, encountering scattered resistance from surviving remnants of the two Axis divisions. The Soviets had struck directly at the seam between the German Sixth and Romanian Third armies, and as their planners had hoped this slowed and complicated the Axis reaction. A German punishment battalion entered the front lines, to be destroyed by an two-division assault. Regiments from neighboring divisions were stripped away to plug the gap, along with an infantry division from the army reserve and Army Group Dumitrescu’s sole mobile reserve, 13th Panzer Division. By nightfall these emergency reserves had seemingly stemmed the advance, but the Soviets had only paused to re-form their divisions and bring up their artillery and supplies.

Night-time attacks made little progress, but that changed when the sun rose. The infantry again went forward after a heavy artillery barrage, but this time they made little progress. Sharokhin had pressed his divisions to keep moving during the night, and now his urgency was proven correct - given even a few hours to re-form, the Axis had made use of the third-line positions prepared during the months of static activity along this front and once again presented a formidable barrier.

Worse from the Soviet perspective, the expected advance of 7th Mechanized Corps failed to materialize. Its commander, Maj. Gen. Fyodor Katkov, blamed fuel shortages and road conditions, the same excuses he would offer a year later for his formation’s lagging performance in Manchuria. His tanks ran into 13th Panzer Division’s anti-tank battalion and suffered losses, and not until the 22nd did 7th Mechanized Corps begin their planned advance.

Assisted by large-scale air attacks, Katkov’s tanks made up for their initial slowness, advancing 80 kilometers in a single day. The infantry struggled to keep up, but the Axis had already fallen into rapid retreat and soon the tanks had cut off the German Sixth Army.

The 46th Army Supports
On the left (southern) flank of 37th Army, Lt. Gen Ivan Shlemin’s 46th Army likewise had nine rifle divisions divided into three corps, supported by one mechanized corps. Shlemin had even more heavy guns than Sharokhin, spreading 1,315 tubes along his front, and as in 37th Army the second-line divisions gave up their artillery and mortars to increase the assault divisions’ firepower.

Shlemin’s plan differed slightly from Sharokhin’s, deploying one division from his reserve 34th Rifle Corps for a spoiling attack on the German 9th Infantry Division to hamper any efforts to reinforce the Romanian divisions targeted for the assault. The other two divisions covered just over 100 kilometers of front along the Dnestr River. Otherwise it was very similar, with initial probes by punishment companies followed by a 105-minute barrage.

Romanian infantry retreat from Moldavia, August 1944.

Forty-Sixth Army targeted the seam between the Romanian 4th Mountain and 21st Infantry Divisions where 31st Guards Rifle Corps would strike with 4th and 34th Guards Rifle divisions in the first echelon and 40th Guards Rifle Division in reserve behind them. The corps had been in front reserve until the evening before the assault, when it moved into the front line under cover of darkness. Thirty-Seventh Rifle Corps would cover the corps’ left flank as it advanced, with 4th Guards Mechanized Corps poised to exploit the expected breakthrough.

Fourth Mountain Division quickly gave way on its right flank as it did before 37th Army’s attack on its left. On its right, the Romanian 21st Infantry Division fell back from the front line in surprisingly good order, retreating into the forests south of the Dnestr. The disintegration of one Romanian division and retreat of the other opened the desired breach and on the next morning 4th Guards Mechanized Corps crossed the Dnestr. Poor march discipline slowed the deployment, but once the corps got moving the Axis had nothing that could stop it.

Petre Dumitrescu, commander of the Axis army group, committed his last reserve, the Romanian 1st Cavalry Division, in a vain attempt to halt the mechanized corps along the Cogîlnic River. The horsemen barely slowed the advance at the cost of one-fifth of their numbers. The army group command ordered a general retreat to the west, but by this point both the German Sixth and Romanian Third armies were either surrounded or on the verge of being cut off.

By the 24th Romania was ready to surrender. Three years of war had been resolved in just three days.

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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.