The 3rd Army into the Ukraine and the return to Romania – 1943-44
Officers of the 104th Artillery Regiment from the 24th Infantry Division in November 1943
Romanian infantry marching on a mud road
Pontoon bridge over the Dnestr at Ovidiopol

Note: The localities for which the modern equivalent was not identified were marked with [*].

On 7 January 1943, the 3rd and 4th Army could only muster 73,062 men. There were also some Romanian units subordinated to German Kampfgruppe and probably a smaller number of isolated units or just groups of survivors who had lost contact with the headquarters. Two divisions, 20th Infantry and 1st Cavalry, were caught inside the Stalingrad pocket, but the other 16 divisions had to be brought back home and rebuilt. For this, 3rd Army's units were organized into marching groups. Brig. gen. Gheorghe Trestioreanu, the CO of the 7th Division, was the head of a grouping which consisted of the 7th, 11th and 15th Infantry and 7th Cavalry Divisions and maj. gen. Gheorghe Ionescu-Sinaia, CO of the 13th Infantry Division, brought home the survivors of the 5th, 6th, 9th, 13th and 14th Infantry Divisions. These troops marched over 1,800 km in three months, from January to April. The 1st Armored Division used its own motorized transport traveled separately and arrived in Romania at the end of March. The regrouping area of the 4th Army was South of Mariupol. What was left of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 18th Infantry, 5th and 8th Cavalry Divisions rallied there. The group's command was assigned to brig. gen. Dumitru Tudosie, the CO of the 2nd Division. At the end of March they started the trip back by train and reached the destination in April.

The headquarters of the 4th Army were demobilized on 1 April 1943, after it had reached Iasi. The 3rd Army's command stayed East of the Bug River, organizing the retreat of the Romanian troops who fought at Stalingrad. After the completion of this task, it took over the Romanian troops in the Kuban and Crimea and, on 1 May 1943, set up its command point in Simferopol, in Crimea. Obviously, this subordination was only administrative and disciplinary, because all these units were subordinated operationally to German commands.

The 5th, 6th, 9th and 15th Infantry Divisions remained in Trans-Dnestra for reorganization. To fill up the ranks, the existing occupation troops in the region were used. Thus, in May 1943, the 5th Infantry Division was reformed with the troops of the 1st Security Division, which was stationed in Northern Trans-Dnestra and had the task to secure the railway transport in the area and to fight against partisans in the area around Savran, Slobidka railway station, Pishchana, Kolodiorka, Starolug Forest and Bershad. The 6th Infantry Division merged with the 1st Fortification Division and received the mission to guard the area around Odessa and the beached between Luzanivka and Karolino-Buhaz. The 15th Division absorbed the 2nd Security Division and took over the defense of the seaside between the Tylihul'skyi Estuary and the Bug River, East of Odessa. The 9th Infantry Division was replenished by the 3rd Security Division and continued the latter's mission to keep order in the Tiraspol, Ananiev [Anan'iv], Balta, Golta [Pervomais'k] and Krivoe Ozero [Kryve Ozero] counties.

Back home, the 4th and 18th Infantry Divisions were rebuilt using the troops of the Frontier-guard Division, which was disbanded, as well as new recruits. The 18th Division was transformed into a mountain division. By the end of August, the ranks of the 1st, 2nd, 11th, 14th and 20th Infantry Divisions were filled with men from the home garrisons and fresh recruits. The 7th Cavalry Division, which had distinguished itself during the fighting in November 1942 – January 1943, was disbanded and its 5,000 survivors (out of the initially 6,500) were the core around which the 1st Cavalry Division, that had been lost in the Stalingrad pocket, was rebuilt. The 5th and 8th Cavalry Divisions were supposed to first be transformed into motorized cavalry divisions and then into armored cavalry divisions. Due to the delays in deliveries of equipment from Germany and the higher priority of refitting the 1st Armored Division, it was decided to transform first just the 8th Cavalry Division using also the existing vehicles of the 5th Cavalry Division. After the motorization process was finished, started its transformation into the second armored division by converting the 4th Rosiori Regiment Regina Maria into a tank regiment.

Finally, parts of the 7th and 13th Infantry Divisions had a different fate. On 20 February 1943, these were combined into the 11th operational Infantry Division, under the command of the newly arrived maj. gen. Radu Niculescu-Cociu. On 1 April it was designated as the 24th Infantry Division and was made up of the 111th and 112th Infantry Regiments, the 104th Artillery Regiment and the 36th Heavy Artillery Battalion (equipped with 105 mm Schneider model 1913 guns). To supplement the ranks of the 112th Regiment, the 995th Independent Battalion, made up of former convicts, became the second battalion of the regiment. The main mission of the division was to guard the seaside between Mariupol and Beryslav.

On 17 September 1943, it was subordinated to the German 29th Corps and set-up defensive positions on Western bank of the Molochnyi Estuary, South of Melitopol. Six days later, gen. Niculescu-Cociu received the order to liquidate a Soviet infiltration in isthmus East of Kyrylivka and the 24th Division carried it out successfully. Their performance was appreciated both by the CO of the 29th Corps, General der Panzertruppen Erich Branderberger, but also by 6th Army's CO, Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt, who gifted 130 watches to the division's officers. At the end of the month, the 4th Mountain Division arrived in the area, after having previously been evacuated from the Kuban to Crimea. It had marched 500 km in 11 days to get to the North of the Azov Sea, were it was subordinated to the German 44th Corps. Between 2 and 6 October it replaced the 24th Division on the front line. The latter was taking over the defense of the seaside between the Syvash Lake and Henices'k Isthmus.

The offensive of the Soviet Southern Front against the flank of Army Group South began on 13 October. In the sector of the German 336th Infantry Division the first attacks occurred on 16 and after a couple of days it gave in. An enemy mechanized group broke through the lines and the 44th Corps had to begin its retreat. The 4th Mountain Division fought several fierce engagements with the Soviet troops in pursuit. The situation became critical on 31 October, when the retreat was cut by a tank group and the Romanian 24yj Infantry and 4 Mountain Divisions and the German 153rf Infantry Division were encircled at Pavlivka (Northeast of the Perekop Isthmus). Maj. gen. Radu Niculescu-Cociu obtained the permission from the 44th Corps to attempt a breakout during the night. The Romanian troops were organized into four echelons and broke through the front and made their way to Kherson. The losses, however, were very heavy, up to 15-20% of the men engaged. The 153rd Infantry Division refused to join in the night attack, kept its positions and was annihilated in the following days. On 2 November, during the march towards Kherson, the infantry was protected from above by the relentless HS-129Bs of the 8th Assault Group. Several aircraft constantly attacked the Soviet pursuers and pinned them down. This resulted in up to 15-16 sorties per pilot, a huge effort from their part. Four Hs-129Bs were lost to light AAA fire and one pilot was KIA. The other three were rescued by their colleagues, who landed and picked them up in the aircraft's fuselage. During the night of 2/3 November, the Romanian soldiers crossed the Dnepr. Because of the losses suffered by the two Romanian divisions, they were merged into one formation on 4 November: the 4/24th Infantry Division. It was subordinated to the German 72nd Corps and on 16 November it took over the defense of the Azov Sea shore between Kasperovka [*] si Oleskandrivka. There it repulsed the Soviet landings from the Kinburn Peninsula together with the 15th Infantry Division, which had been brought in the area between 5 November and 5 December.

After the Crimean Peninsula was isolated by the 4th Ukrainian Front, on 9 December the Romanian 3rd Army took over the German 72nd Corps, which included the 4/24th Infantry Division. It was located West of Kherson and was in defensive positions on the lower Dnepr. Later, in January, the Romanian 3rd Corps was also subordinated to the 3rd Army. It was made up of the 14th, 15th and 21st Infantry Divisions and was stationed on the seaside between the Bug and Dnestr Rivers, on security duty in Southern Trans-Dnestra (Tiraspol, Ovidiopol, Odessa, Ochakiv and Berezivka). Likewise, the 5th Infantry Division, which was stationed in Northern Trans-Dnestra was put under the command of general Dumitrescu's 3rd Army. The 9th Infantry Division had been transferred from Trans-Dnestra to Dobrogea in September 1943 and the 6th Infantry Division returned home at the end of October.

The first two months of 1944 were calm in the sector held by the Romanian troops, the only notable actions being the anti-partisan operations carried out by the 5th Infantry Division and a detachment from the 14th Division (one battalion of the 6th [i]Vanatori[/i] Regiment. The 14th Reconnaissance Group and a battery of the 24th Artillery Regiment) in Northern and central Trans-Dnestra

The Soviet offensive was renewed in March. Under the pressure of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, the German 6th Army withdrew to the Dnepr line, using the 72nd Corps as a pivot in the extreme South of the front. The 4/24th Division began to fall back to the Bug River in evening of 13 March, being in constant contact with the enemy during the entire time. On 15 March it attacked the Soviet troops that had taken the villages of Jefrimovka [*] and Kisliakovka [*] on the Eastern bank of the Bug and managed to retake them the following day and then to cross the river. Beginning with 18 March it was subordinated to the 3rd Corps that was in defensive position on the Bug Estuary South of Mikolaiv. The latter was made up of the 5th Luftwaffe Field Division immediately South of the city, the 4/24th Division next to it along the river bank and the 15th Infantry Division along the Black Sea coast near Oceakiv.

Because of the defeat suffered by Army Group South in front of the Soviet 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts, it became clear that Trans-Dnestra had to be abandoned in order to concentrate the forces for the defense of Romania. On 23 March, the 14th Infantry Division was withdrew across the Dnestr to the West of Bender.

The Red Army continued its offensive and on 25 March the 3rd Corps began to fall back to the Dnestr, followed closely by the Pliev Cavalry Group, formed from the 4th Guards Cavalry Corps and the 4th Mechanized Corps, which obviously had superior mobility. The retreat was covered in the first phase by the 4/24th Division, which broke contact during the night of 28/29 and marched and fought in the blizzard on impractical mud roads all way to the Berezans'kyi Estuary. There it passed behind the 15th Infantry Division, which was fighting against forward Soviet elements in the area in order to allow the withdrawal of friendly troops and depots. Left in the rearguard, the 15th Division held the bridgehead at Kobleve, on the Eastern bank of the Tylihul'skyi Estuary until the retreat was completed.

Behind the front, the 21st Infantry Division, which was guarding the seaside around Odessa, started to move to the Dnestr on 3 April and crossed it at Ovidiopol and Zatoka. It took up defensive positions between Palanca and Moloha on the Dnestr Estuary.

Odessa was going to be abandoned without a fight. In the evening of 8 April, the 4/24th Infantry Division withdrew North of the city towards Usatovoe, then to Dal'nyk and from there to the Dnestr, which it crossed at Zatoka. On 13 April it occupied positions in the area around Bilhorod Dnistrovs'kyi, between Moloha and Zatoka, to the South of the 21st Division.

The 15th Infantry Division left Odessa for Yas'ki, on the Dnestr, where it again held the bridgehead as the allied troops withdrew to Romania. Once it crossed to the Western bank it was positioned in the area between Rascaeti – Purcari – Crocmaz – Tudora – Palanca, to the North of the 21st Infantry Division.

After two years and 8 months of war, the front line was again on the Dnestr and the following battle will prove decisive for the future of Romania in the following 45 years.

Author: Victor Nitu

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Avram V., Aviatia de asalt. Grupul 8. Documente si memorii inedite, 1943-1945, Modelism International, 1994

Glantz D., House J., When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, Kansas University Press, 1995

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