The Winter of 1943-44 saw a continuation of the fierce fighting in the Ukraine. For Wiking (was on the inside) and Leibstandarte (part of the relief force) it meant the bloody battle of the Korsun pocket, called Cherkassy by the Germans.
In January 1944 Wiking Division was encircled in the pocket at Cherkassy along with four other German divisions. An unseasonal rise in temperature caused a sudden thaw which turned the terrain into a boggy morass, making movement all but impossible. The airfield within the pocket, which the Luftwaffe was using to resupply the beleaguered divisions, was rendered unusable. Constant pressure from the Soviets saw the salient shrink rapidly, until it measured 65 square kilometres (40 square miles) by 9 February. This time, unlike Stalingrad, Hitler authorized a breakout by the trapped units. The Soviets, however, had thrown a ring of more than 35 divisions around the salient, and any escape attempt by the trapped forces looked unlikely to succeed. The only armoured unit in the pocket, the 5 SS Panzer Division Wiking, commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Herbert Otto Gille, would cover the flanks, while SS Sturmbrigade Wallonie (which was attached to Wiking Division) formed the rearguard.
Escape from the Cherkassy Pocket
On the night of 16 February, the breakout began. Movement over the waterlogged terrain was difficult, and once the Soviets became aware of what was happening a murderous barrage of artillery and rocket fire was laid down on the retreating soldiers. SS Sturmbrigade Wallonie suffered dreadful losses covering the rearguard. As the remnants of the brigade drew near to the German lines, they were in danger of being swamped by the mass of pursuing Soviets. In a typical example of the type of self-sacrifice to which the Waffen-SS units would become accustomed, Wiking’s few remaining panzers turned back and held off the enemy for just long enough to allow the last of the brigade to reach the German lines, before being overrun.
Of about 56,000 troops trapped in the pocket, some 40,000, including the wounded flown out of the pocket, escaped with their lives, and despite the fact that a great deal of equipment had been left behind, a major disaster had been averted. If the pocket had been totally destroyed, Manstein’s Army Group South would have been dealt a fatal blow.
For the distinguished performance of their troops, both Gille and SS-Hauptsturmführer Léon Degrelle, commander of the Walloons, were summoned to Hitler’s headquarters in Prussia and decorated. Gille received the Swords, and Degrelle the Knights Cross.