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Manstein’s Counter Stroke: Turning Certain Defeat into Victory

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m pullings something out of my archives today. It’s actually a paper I wrote for one of my Masters Degree Classes back in 2009 that I decided to post on the site. I have been reading Paul Carrell’s Unternehem Barbarossa Im Bild (Operation Barbarossa in Pictures) in German I decided to repost it today.  I could probably do more with it but except for more biographical work on Von Manstein I don’t expect that I will. For me character matters more than battlefield brilliance.

The article deals with the crisis that the German armies faced following Stalingrad and how Field Marshal Erich von Manstein succeeded in talking Adolf Hitler out of certain defeat and inflicting a massive defeat on the now overconfident and over extended Soviet armies.

Von Manstein was a brilliant strategist, his bold plan to conquer France in 1940 was a masterpiece, and his conduct of combat operations on the Eastern Front until his relief in March of 1944 for withdrawing (and saving) his armies from Soviet destruction without Hitler’s approval. Von Manstein was a brilliant commander at the operational level of war, but he also gave his approval and support to war crimes committed by the SS Einsatzgruppen against the Jews and others in his area of operations. He believed that Bolshevism and the Jews were linked, thus in his codicil to Von Reichenau’s Severity Order in November 1941 stated:

“Jewish Bolshevik system must be wiped out once and for all and should never again be allowed to invade our European living space … It is the same Jewish class of beings who have done so much damage to our own Fatherland by virtue of their activities against the nation and civilisation, and who promote anti-German tendencies throughout the world, and who will be the harbingers of revenge. Their extermination is a dictate of our own survival.”

He is a complex character, he defended German Jews in the Reichswehr yet went on to cooperate in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Russia. There is a decent possibility that he had some Jewish ancestry, he opposed the Aryan Paragraph which banned Jews from serving in the German armed forces telling General Ludwig Beck that anyone who had volunteered to serve had already proved their worth. Though tried and convicted of war crimes he was given an early release from prison at the behest of Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer and other notables; and went on to advise the German government on the organization of the new Bundeswehr. His post war writings were highly critical of Hitler and for the most part he succeeded in rehabilitating himself. When he died in 1973 at the age of 85 he was the last surviving German Field Marshal and was buried with full military honors .

He was a brilliant commander and strategist, but he aided and abetted one of the most criminal regimes in history. The German magazine Der Spiegel wrote of him: “He assisted in the march to catastrophe—misled by a blind sense of duty.”

My concern today is if American Generals will be misled by their blind sense of duty and assist in a march to catastrophe.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Introduction

After Stalingrad the Soviets followed up on their success and attempted to entrap the rest of Army Group South. Field Marshall von Manstein attempted to save the Army Group and perhaps prevent the Soviets from collapsing the entire German front.

Bild 101I-209-0086-12Manstein (center) planning at the front

Chaos and Peril in the South

As 6th Army died at Stalingrad field Marshall von Manstein was faced with one of the most challenging situations faced by any commander in modern times.  He faced strategic and operational “problems of a magnitude and complexity seldom paralleled in history.”[i] Manstein had to deal with a complex military situation where he had minimal forces to counter the moves of a superior enemy force that was threatening to entrap all German forces in southern Russia. Additionally Manstein had to deal with the “Hitler’s obstinate opposition to a maneuver defense and a Red Army flushed with the victory of Stalingrad.”[ii]Facing him were the six Russian armies of the Voronezh and Southwestern Front’s led by Mobile Group Popov[iii]. These Armies had broken through the Hungarian and Italian armies “making a breach 200 miles wide between the Donetz and Voronezh, and were sweeping westward past Manstein’s flank.”[iv]

flak in caucasus

The most dangerous threat that Manstein faced was to Army Group A in the Caucasus. This Army Group “found itself in danger of being cut off, forcing an immediate withdraw.”[v] Disaster was averted by the desperate holding actions of Manstein’s meager forces, Army detachment’s Fretter-Pico and Hollidt, and winter conditions that made “offensive operations extraordinarily difficult, even for the hardiest Soviet troops.”[vi] A smart withdraw executed by General von Kleist managed to extricate the Army group “just as the Stalingrad forces collapsed.”[vii] To parry the Soviet thrusts the Germans lacked forces to “establish a deeply echeloned defense” and “instead combined maneuver… with stubborn positional defense to give artificial depth to the battlefield.  In this way the Germans were able to break major Soviet attacks, preventing catastrophic breakthroughs….”[viii] The timely introduction of a battalion of Tiger tanks prevented the Russians from breaking through to Rostov and “cutting the rail and road lines on which First Panzer Army’s retreat depended.”[ix] Even so the escape of the Army Group was narrow. “In terms of time, space, force, and weather conditions it was an astonishing performance-for which Kleist was made a field-marshal.”[x] With the Russians only 70 kilometers from Rostov and his own forces 650 kilometers from that city Kleist executed a withdraw “which had appeared hardly possible to achieve.”[xi] The divisions extricated by Kleist would be instrumental in the coming weeks as Manstein moved to counter the Soviet offensive.

Ostfront, Adolf Hitler, Erich v. Manstein

Hitler and Manstein

Despite the successful withdraw the situation was still precarious in early February, Manstein had no effective contact with his left wing, the bulk of which was tied to Kharkov, The Russians had “virtually complete freedom of action across a fifty-mile stretch of the Donetz on either side of Izyum.”[xii] Manstein was hard pressed to “halt the raids of Mobile Group Popov and other exploiting Soviet tank corps in Operation Gallop.”[xiii] Manstein’s forces in the eastern sector had been divided by Russian penetrations, which threatened 1st Panzer Army’s western flank and blocked the Army Group’s main railway line.[xiv] On 15 February “the SS Panzer Corps withdrew from Kharkov-in spite of orders from Hitler…that the city was to be held to the last.”[xv] SS General Paul Hausser, the corps commander realized that the order to hold Kharkov was impossible and requested permission to withdraw. This was was refused by General Lanz. Under pressure from encircling Russian forces outside and from partisans inside the city, Hausser disobeyed the order and extricated his troops,[xvi] thereby saving thousands of German soldiers and preserved the SS Panzer Corps as a fighting unit.[xvii] Lanz was relieved by Hitler for the loss of Kharkov and although Hausser would escape immediate censure, “Hitler did see it as a black mark against his name.”[xviii] With Kharkov in Soviet hands the gap between Manstein’s army group and Field Marshal von Kluge’s Army Group Center increased to over 100 miles.[xix] It appeared that the entire German southern flank was disintegrating.  Manstein estimated the ratio of German to Soviet forces in his area at 1:8.[xx] He believed that the Soviets could advance and subsequently “block the approaches to the Crimea and the Dnieper crossing at Kherson” which would “result in the encirclement of the entire German southern wing.”[xxi] Popov’s Mobile Group crossed the Donets and reached Krasnoarmeiskaia by 12 February. Vatutin committed two additional fresh tank corps toward Zaporozhe, a critical transport node which was also the location of Manstein’s headquarters.[xxii]

SS-Tiger-LSAH-01Tiger Tanks assigned to 1st SS Panzer Division

Hitler arrived to consult with Manstein on 17 February and remained for three days with Soviet forces perilously close.  Manstein only had some flak units and the Army Group Headquarters Company between him and Popov’s advanced elements. On Hitler’s last day “some T-34’s approached to within gun range of the airfield.”[xxiii]

The conference of Hitler with Manstein at Zaporozhe as well as a previous conference at the Wolfsschanze on 6 February was critical to the development of Manstein’s plan to restore the front. Manstein had now gotten both the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies across the Don, and “with this striking force, he felt confident of smashing the Russian offensive if he was given a free hand to withdraw from the line of the Donetz, evacuate Rostov and take up a much shorter front along the Mius river.”[xxiv] The conference on the 6th was one of the “rare moments in the war where Hitler authorized a strategic withdraw on a major scale.”[xxv] Yet as the Russians continued to advance Hitler became concerned and came to Zaporozhe.  At first Hitler would not concede to Manstein, as he wanted to assemble the SS Panzer Corps for an attack to recapture Kharkov.[xxvi]Manstein explained the need for a counter stroke and through much explanation was able to convince Hitler that the capture of Kharkov was not possible unless “we first removed the danger of the Army Group being cut off from its rear communications.”[xxvii]

T34_Stalingrad-Offensive-px800Soviet formations advance

The Russian aim was now obvious[xxviii] and Manstein had correctly discerned their strategy.  Manstein knew that his Army Group had to hold the line on the Mius and then quickly defeat the enemy between 1st Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf[xxix] in “order to prevent its own isolation from the Dnieper crossings.”[xxx] The Soviets had outrun their logistics support and had suffered heavy losses of their own and had serious equipment shortages.[xxxi] Manstein explained to Hitler the opportunity offered as it was now the Russians who “were worn out” and far from their supply dumps as the Germans had been in November 1942.  Manstein “foresaw an opportunity to seize the operational initiative with a counter offensive of his own.  Manstein’s target was the Soviet armored spearheads, still careening southwestward between Kharkov and Stalino.”[xxxii] Manstein believed that when the Russian “spearhead lunged, as it must toward the crossings on the upper Dnieper,” then Hoth’s Army would be let loose again.  The three SS Panzer divisions could then “play their rightful role as avengers, and strike southeast to meet 4th Panzer Army, catching the Russian armour in a noose.”[xxxiii] Hitler agreed to Manstein’s plan and Manstein shifted 4th Panzer Army to assume control of the SS Panzer Corps, now reinforced by 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division “Totenkopf.” Hitler reinforced Manstein and released 7 battle worn Panzer and motorized divisions for his attack.[xxxiv]

Soviet Miscalculation

It was now Stalin’s time to miscalculate. He and his subordinates “continued to believe that they were on the verge of a great victory. German defenses in southern Russia appeared to be crumbling and the Stavka sought to expand that victory to include Army Group Center.”[xxxv] To this end they diverted armies to the north and launched attacks in that direction.  However German defenses were stiff and the plan was “predicated on the assumption of continued offensive success further south.”[xxxvi] Reinforcements from Stalingrad failed to deploy and “Army Group Center’s defenses, prepared for the past year and a half proved formidable.”[xxxvii]

In the south Stalin saw the Dnieper and almost “heedlessly drove his armies towards what he thought would be the decisive victory on the banks of this huge Russian river,”[xxxviii] but, Soviet “ambitions exceeded their available resources and the skill of their commanders.”[xxxix] The SS Panzer Corps withdraw from Kharkov “further heightened the Soviet’s intoxication with victory”[xl] and confirmed their beliefs that the Germans were withdrawing.  Stalin believed that “it was inconceivable that Hitler’s Praetorian Guard would abandon Kharkov except as part of a general order to retreat.”[xli] He believed that the encirclement of Army Group South would lead to a chain reaction and quick way to victory over German forces in the east.  Believing that there was no way for the Germans to recover and establish a solid front on the Mius,[xlii] Stalin continued to drive his forces to attack, yet the Russian offensive in the south had reached what Clausewitz had called the “culminating point” and Stalin’s armies were now extremely vulnerable. “The weather, the devastated communications, and their own inexperience in maintaining the traffic density required to support a deep penetration on a narrow front had combined to force a dangerous dispersal of effort on the Russian advance which had broken down into four separate groups.”[xliii]

panzer ivfPanzers assembling to attack

The Soviet forces were now in a dangerous predicament being spread out across the entire south of Russia.  One group, composed of the 69th Army and 3rd Tank Army pushed against Army detachment Kempf west of Kharkov.  To the south the badly depleted 6th Army and 1st Guards Army were now “strung out down a long corridor they had opened between Izyum and Pavlograd,”[xliv] Mobile Group Popov was lagging further east near Krasnoarmeiskaia.   Additional units were isolated behind the front of Army Detachment Fretter-Pico and near Matveyev.  Soviet commanders believed that the Germans were in worse shape and that “the risks of dispersal were justified.”[xlv] They had not anticipated or made allowance for Manstein’s coolness under pressure and actions to preserve his armor while thinning his front “well past the accepted danger limit.”[xlvi]Likewise the Soviets did not know that the Germans had cracked the code used by the Southwest front and from 12 February on “were now privy to Popov’s and Vatutin’s thoughts,” now knowing precisely where the Russians would attack.[xlvii] Manstein had withstood temptation and Hitler’s pressure to use his reserves “for a direct defense of the Dnieper line.”[xlviii] As such he was prepared to launch a devastating counter-stroke against the dispersed and weakened Russian armies which were still advancing into the trap he planned for them. He had managed to “save his counteroffensive plan from Hitler’s shrill demands that the new reserves be thrown into battle piecemeal to prevent further territorial losses.”[xlix] The stage was now set for a two classic mobile operations.[l]

The Destruction of Mobile Group Popov, 6th Army and 1st Guards Army

Manstein launched his counter-stroke on 21 February against Popov’s Mobile Group using XL Panzer Corps under the command of General Henrici composed of the 7th and 11th Panzer Divisions and SS Motorized Division Viking. Popov’s Group was exposed. Popov had “succeed in cutting the railway from Dnepropetrovsk to Stalino and was itching to push further south to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.”[li] The Soviets once again had failed to discern German intentions, believing that the Germans were retreating.[lii] Likewise the Soviet high command did not fully understand Popov’s situation. His force was weak in tanks and low on fuel and his Mobile Group was defeated in detail by the German Corps.  Popov’s immobilized tank and motorized rifle formations resisted desperately but were bypassed by the panzers.  The 330th Infantry Division mopped up the remnants of these formations.[liii] The key battles took place around the town of Krasnoarmeiskaia and the battle became a running battle between that town and the Donets River.[liv] Popov requested permission to retreat, but still believing the Germans to be retreating Vatutin gave a categorical “no.” The terrain in the area was “almost completely open”[lv] and “Popov’s proud Armoured Group was cut up like a cake.”[lvi] Popov extricated some of his units but “only after serious losses in manpower and equipment.”[lvii] Despite this it would not be until the 24th that Vatutin would order a halt to offensive operations.[lviii]

kharkovSS Panzers in Kharkov

As Popov sought to get his units out of the German scythe Manstein set his sights on 6th Army, 1st Guards Army and 25th Tank Corps which was approaching Zaporozhe.[lix] He assigned the task to Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army and its XLVIII Panzer Corps under General Knobelsdorf composed of the 6th and 17th Panzer Divisions and the SS Panzer Corps comprising SS Divisions LiebstandarteDas Reich and Totenkopf.[lx] Manstein gave Hoth a brief but explicit order: “The Soviet Sixth Army, now racing towards Dnepropetrovsk through the gap between First Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf, is to be eliminated.”[lxi] The XLVIII Panzer Corps and SS Panzer Corps were unleashed against the exposed flank of the 6th Army and 1st Guards Army.   XLVIII Panzer Corps quickly “seized bridgeheads over the Samara River, and prepared to move north into the rear of the exhausted Soviet Sixth Army.”[lxii] The two Panzer Corps then made a coordinated concentric attack northwest which “came as a complete surprise to the Russians.”[lxiii] Das Reich thrust deep into the flank of 6th Army supported by Stukas from Richthofen’s 4th Air Fleet.  This attack dislodged one Soviet Rifle Corps and destroyed another allowing the division to capture Pavlograd while XLVIII Panzer Corps led by 17th Panzer Division pushed from the south linking up with the SS Corps. This cut off the Soviet 25th Tank Corps and threatened 6thArmy.[lxiv] What followed was a disaster for the Russians.        Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary the Stavka and Front commanders still believed that the Germans were retreating.  6th Army was ordered to continue its advance by the front commander who believed that the two German Panzer Corps were withdrawing.[lxv] In a few days the 17th Panzer Division “gained the Izyum-Protoponovka sector on the Donetz River, while the SS Panzer Corps took Losovaya and established contact with Army Detachment Kempf, which had joined the attack from the west.”[lxvi] XL Panzer Corps with the 3rd and 7thPanzer Divisions and 333rd Infantry Division joined in the attack on Popov’s remaining forces completing their destruction.[lxvii] As Hoth and Hausser converged on Pavlograd, Das Reich and Totenkopf “swung left to the east and then wheeled back north again running parallel to the Russian divisions fleeing from Forty-eighth Panzer Corps. What ensured was a turkey shoot.”[lxviii]Fleeing Russian forces on the open steppe were visible and engaged at long range.[lxix] Leibstandarte helped by holding the left flank against Russian counter attacks from the units now isolated in the west,[lxx] and Totenkopf’sgrenadiers fanned out supported by Stukas to “kill or capture as many Russians as possible.”[lxxi] By 1 March the Russian penetrations had been eliminated. Popov’s Mobile Group was smashed, 6th Army and 1st Guards Army badly mauled. 25th Tank Corps and three Rifle divisions had to be completely written off and numerous other corps and divisions took heavy casualties.  Two additional corps, encircled before the offensive began were eliminated by German forces.[lxxii] The Germans counted 23,000 Russian dead on the battlefield, and Manstein noted that “the booty included 615 tanks, 354 field pieces, 69 anti-aircraft guns and large numbers of machine guns and mortars.”[lxxiii] The Germans only took 9,000 prisoners as they were too weak, especially in infantry to seal off the encircled Soviet forces.[lxxiv] Yet the forces that escaped they were in no condition to “block the continued progress of the Panzers and SS.”[lxxv] Now there was a 100 mile gap in the Russian lines with nothing no troops to fill it and only “General Mud” could stop the Germans.[lxxvi] Manstein was not yet finished and the next phase of his operation against the Soviet formations west of Kharkov and that city were about to commence.

The Destruction of 3rd Tank Army

With the immediate threat to his Army Group eliminated and having regained the initiative, Manstein and Army Group South now “proceeded to deliver the stroke against the ‘Voronezh Front’– i.e. the forces located in the Kharkov area.”[lxxvii] But the Russians had not been idle. In order to attempt to assist 6thArmy 3rd Tank Army moved two tank corps and three Rifle divisions south and these ran into Manstein’s advancing panzers.[lxxviii] Manstein’ noted his objective now was “not the possession of Kharkov but the defeat-and if possible the destruction of the enemy units located there.”[lxxix] Between March 1st and 5th his forces advanced on Kharkov. Not knowing the Germans dispositions[lxxx]3rd Tank Army made the mistake of moving between the Leibstandarte’s defensive positions and the attacking divisions of the SS Panzer Corps. Hausser wheeled Totenkopf around and completed an encirclement of these units near Bereka on 3 March.[lxxxi] The Russians made futile attempts to break out but the SS Divisions tightened the noose around them and they were eliminated by the SS Panzer Corps which “engaged in concentric attacks during the three days of hard fighting.”[lxxxii] Even Regimental commanders like Heinz Harmel of Das Reich’s Der Fuhrer regiment became engaged in close combat with the Russians.[lxxxiii] The battle was fought in “snowstorms whose intensity caused the SS severe privations.”[lxxxiv] Totenkopf and Das Reich slammed the Russians “back against the Tiger tanks and assault guns of the Leibstandarte.”[lxxxv] The elimination of these units netted another 12,000 Russians killed,[lxxxvi] knocking “out the last remaining obstacle between the Germans and Kharkov.”[lxxxvii]

Return to Kharkov and Controversy

Manstein turned his attention to Kharkov, supported by Richthofen’s 4th Air Fleet which for the last time in Russia “provided undisputed air superiority for a major German mechanized operation.”[lxxxviii] He decided to “roll up the enemy from the flank and force him away from Kharkov in the process.”[lxxxix]He ordered a “pincer on the town, sending Grossdeutschland around to the north with a reinforced Kempf detachment and the combined force of Hoth and the SS to attack the town from the south and rear.”[xc] Manstein planned to make a wide envelopment to avoid embroiling his panzers in costly urban combat stating “that at all costs the Army Group wished to avoid Kharkov’s becoming a second Stalingrad in which our assault forces might become irretrievably committed.”[xci] To this end he sent Das Reich and Totenkopfapproaching from the south to west of the city[xcii] while XLVIII Panzer Corps swung east toward the Donetz.[xciii] As Hoth’s forces came up from the south to envelope the city, Grossdeutschland and the XI and LI Corps fought the Russians to the north and west,[xciv] eventually moving up to Belgorod.  By 8 March lead elements of the SS Panzer Corps were on the outskirts of the city.

At this point there is some controversy as to German actions. As noted Manstein wished to avoid urban combat and desired to surround the city and force its surrender.  According to one writer Hoth ordered Hausser “to seal off the city from the west and north and to take any opportunity to seize it.”[xcv] Others including Glantz and House and Murray and Millett state that Hausser “ignored a direct order” and attacked into the city.[xcvi] Manstein does not explicitly say that there was a direct order but notes that the Army Group “had to intervene vigorously on more than one occasion to ensure that the corps did not launch a frontal attack on Kharkov.”[xcvii] Sydnor states that Hausser ignored a direct order by Hoth on the 11th by detailing a battalion of Totenkopf to assist Das Reich and Leibstandarte in retaking Kharkov by direct assault. The order entailed pulling Das Reich out of the city and taking it to the east.[xcviii] Lucas adds that this order came in the midst of hard fighting in the city and could not be carried out by the division.[xcix]Carell notes that on 9 March Hoth instructed Hausser that “opportunities to seize the city by a coup are to be utilized,”[c] and goes into detail regarding how Hoth’s 11 March order applied to Das Reich. It was to be pulled out of action and brought east, but division was heavily engaged and in the process of breaking through Soviet defenses “quicker in fact than if he had pulled “Das Reich” out of the operation and led it all the way round the city along those terrible muddy and time wasting roads.”[ci] In the end the SS took Kharkov, Manstein said that the city “fell without difficulty”[cii] while others note the difficulty of the action and the casualties suffered by the SS.  Kharkov’s capture; the defeat of Rokossovsky’s campaign against Orel and the beginning of the spring Rasutitsa ended the winter campaign and stabilized the front.

Analysis

The Russian winter offensive following Stalingrad had great potential.  Manstein said: “the successes attained on the Soviet side, the magnitude of which is incontestable.”[ciii] The greatest Soviet shortcomings were inexperience in conducting deep mobile operations and the inability of their logistics system to keep up with their advance.  Clark notes that this was their “first experience of an offensive war of movement on a large scale.[civ] Glantz and House are not alone in noting that the “Stavka continued to undertake operations that were beyond its resources.”[cv] Murray and Millett state that they “lacked the operational focus that had marked the Stalingrad offensive.”[cvi] Had they had the resources and ability to execute their plans they might have destroyed all German forces in the south.  They misread German intentions based on their own over-optimistic expectations opened their forces to Manstein’s devastating counter stroke.  Von Mellenthin, possibly showing some prejudice commented that the Russian soldier “when confronted by surprise and unforeseen situations he is an easy prey to panic.”[cvii]

The Germans snatched victory out of what appeared to be certain defeat aided by Russian mistakes and operational shortcomings.  Manstein refused to panic and conserved his forces for his counterattack.[cviii] Kleist brought his Army Group out of what might have been encirclement worse than Stalingrad.  Hitler for the most part gave Manstein operational freedom which he had not provided other commanders.  German Panzer forces conducted mobile operations against superior enemy armored forces and bested them.  Landsers held their own in at critical junctures, especially on the Mius and gave Manstein the opportunity to employ the panzers in the mobile defense.[cix] The Luftwaffe recovered its balance and the coordinated operations between it and German ground forces gave them an edge at a point where the Red Air Force was unable to support the Red Army.[cx] Above all the Germans still maintained the edge in both overall quality of generalship, especially that of Manstein and Kleist, but not to exclude Hoth, Hausser and lower level commanders.  Additionally the average German soldier still maintained an edge over his Soviet adversary in the confusion of mobile operations in open terrain.   Manstein and his forces gave Hitler breathing room on the eastern front.[cxi] As Clark notes: “few periods in World War II show a more complete and dramatic reversal of fortune than the fortnight in February and the first in March 1943…it repaired its front, shattered the hopes of the Allies, nipped the Russian spearhead. Above all it recovered its moral ascendancy.”[cxii]

Notes 


[i] Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated by H. Betzler, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1971. Originally Published University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. p245

[ii] Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995. p.143

[iii] Ibid. Glantz. P.143. These units include 3rd Tank Army, 1st and 3rd Guards Armies and the 6th, 40th and 69th Armies.

[iv] Liddell-Hart. B.H. Strategy.  A Signet Book, the New American Library, New York, NY 1974, first published by Faber and Faber Ltd. London, 1954 and 1967. p.253

[v] Raus, Erhard. Panzer Operation: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945. Compiled and Translated by Steven H Newton. Da Capo Press a member of the Perseus Book Group, Cambridge, MA 2003. p.185

[vi] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. 2000. pp.291-292

[vii] Liddell-Hart, B.H. History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, New York, NY. 1970  p.478

[viii] Wray, Timothy A. Standing Fast: German Defensive Doctrine on the Russian Front in World War II, Prewar to March 1943. U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS. 1986. p.161

[ix] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.292

[x] Ibid. Liddell-Hart, Second World War. p.479

[xi] Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishing, New York, NY. 1979. Copyright 1948 by B.H. Liddell-Hart. pp.211-212.

[xii] Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45.Perennial, an Imprint of Harper Collins Books, New York, NY 2002. Originally published by William Morrow, New York, NY 1965. pp.299-300

[xiii] Glantz, David M and House, Jonathan. The Battle of Kursk.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1999. p.11

[xiv] Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories. Translated by Anthony G. Powell, Zenith Press, an imprint of MBI Publishing Company, St Paul, MN. 2004. First Published as Verlorene Siege Athenaum-Verlag, Bonn, GE 1955, English edition Methuen & Company Ltd. 1958  p.417

[xv] Ibid. Clark. p.300

[xvi] Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth: The Russian German War 1943-1944. Translated by Ewald Osers, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, published in arrangement with Little-Brown and Company. pp.196-199

[xvii] Lucas, James. Das Reich: The Military History of the 2nd SS Division.Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, UK, 1999. First published by Arms and Armour, 1991. p.91  Glantz and House criticize Hausser saying that the SS Panzer Corps Staff lacked the experience to perform its mission.  (Titans Clashed p.144) Most other commentators agree with the necessity of his withdraw.

[xviii] Messenger, Charles. Sepp Dietrich: Hitler’s Gladiator. Brassey’s Defence Publishers, London, 1988. p.113

[xix] Ibid. Clark. p.300

[xx] Ibid. Manstein. p.419

[xxi] Ibid. Manstein. pp.418-419

[xxii] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.144

[xxiii] Ibid. Clark. p.300

[xxiv] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.251

[xxv] Ibid. Carell. p.191

[xxvi] Ibid. Manstein. p.424.

[xxvii] Ibid. Manstein. p.428

[xxviii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. Second World War. p.481

[xxix] This had previously been Army Detachment Lanz, but Lanz had bee relieved over the loss of Kharkov.

[xxx] Ibid. Manstein. p.429

[xxxi] Ibid. Murray and Millet. p.292

[xxxii] Ibid. Wray. p.162

[xxxiii] Ibid. Clark. p.302.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.145

[xxxv] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed . pp.144-145

[xxxvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.146

[xxxvii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.293

[xxxviii] Ibid. Carell. p.191

[xxxix] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.292

[xl] Ibid. Carell. p.199

[xli] Ibid. Carell. p.199

[xlii] Ibid. Carell. p.193

[xliii] Ibid. Clark. p.303

[xliv] Ibid. Clark. p.304

[xlv] Ibid. Clark. p.304

[xlvi] Ibid. Clark. p.304

[xlvii] Ibid. Carell. p.210

[xlviii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. Strategy p.253

[xlix] Ibid. Wray. p.163

[l] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.147. Note comments by Glantz and House in footnote 31 on relative strengths of forces involved, especially the weakness of German forces.

[li] Butler, Rupert. SS Wiking: The History of the Fifth SS Division 1941-45.Casemate, Havertown, PA. 2002. p.93

[lii] Ibid. Carell. p.211

[liii] Ibid. Carell. p.210

[liv] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.147

[lv] Ibid. von Mellenthin. p.253

[lvi] Ibid. Carell. p.210

[lvii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.293

[lviii] Ibid. Carell. p.213

[lix] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.147

[lx] There is difference in various accounts as to which units composed these Panzer Corps. Von Mellenthin adds 11th Panzer to the XLVIII Panzer Corps and some accounts do not list the Liebstandarte as part of the SS Panzer Corps.

[lxi] Ibid. Carell. p.211

[lxii] Sydnor, Charles W. Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death’s Head Division 1933-1945. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 1977. p.268

[lxiii] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.252

[lxiv] Ibid. Carell. p.212

[lxv] Ibid. Carell. p.212

[lxvi] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.252

[lxvii] Ibid. Carell. p.213

[lxviii] Ibid. Sydnor. pp.268-269

[lxix] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.253

[lxx] Meyer, Kurt. Grenadiers. Translated by Michael Mende and Robert J. Edwards. J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Canada. 2001. pp.180-181

[lxxi] Ibid. Sydnor. p.269

[lxxii] Ibid. Manstein. p.433

[lxxiii] Ibid. Manstein. p.433. Sydnor lists an addition 600 anti-tank guns and notes that the tanks were almost all T-34s. (Sydnor. p.269)

[lxxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.147

[lxxv] Ibid. Clark. p.306

[lxxvi] Ibid. Carell. p.216

[lxxvii] Ibid. Manstein. p.433

[lxxviii] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.187

[lxxix] Ibid. Manstein. p.433

[lxxx] Ibid. Meyer. p.181

[lxxxi] Ibid. Carell. p.216

[lxxxii] Ibid. Meyer. pp.181-182

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Lucas. p.95

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Lucas. p.95

[lxxxv] Ibid. Sydnor. p.277

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Manstein. p.434

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Sydnor. p.277

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.13

[lxxxix] Ibid. Manstein. p.435

[xc] Ibid. Clark. p.306

[xci] Ibid. Manstein. p.435

[xcii] Ibid. Sydnor. p.278

[xciii] Weingartner, James. J. Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler: A Military History, 1933-45. Battery Press, Nashville, TN.(no publication date listed)  p.75

[xciv] Ibid. Raus. pp.189-192

[xcv] Ibid. Messenger. p.114

[xcvi] See Glantz and House p.187 and Murray and Millett p.293

[xcvii] Ibid. Manstein. p.436

[xcviii] Ibid. Sydnor. p.278

[xcix] Ibid. Lucas. p.96

[c] Ibid. Carell. p.216

[ci] Ibid. Carell. p.219

[cii] Ibid. Manstein. p.436

[ciii] Ibid. Manstein. p.437

[civ] Ibid. Clark. p.303

[cv] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.143

[cvi] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.292

[cvii] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.254

[cviii] A comment by Von Mellenthin commenting on Manstein’s coolness in the conduct of his operations compares him to Robert E. Lee. “To find another example of defensive strategy of this caliber we must go back to Lee’s campaign in Virginia in the summer of 1864. (Von Mellenthin. p.245)

[cix] For some additional comments along these lines see vn Mellenthin who notes four points in regard to the counter stroke: 1. High level commanders did not restrict the moves of armored formations, but gave them long range tasks. 2. Armored formations had no worries about their flanks because the High Command had a moderate infantry force available for counterattacks. 3. All commanders of armored formations, including corps, conducted operations not from the rear, but from the front. 4. The attack came as a surprise regarding the time and place. (Von Mellenthin p.254)

[cx] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.293

[cxi] Despite his success Hitler was not happy with Manstein in regard to giving up ground for operational purposes and Manstein would lose much of the freedom that he enjoyed by March. Wray has a discussion of this.  See Wray. pp.162-163.  The Nazi hierarchy actively promoted the exploits of the SS Panzer Corps and its leaders, especially the commander of the Leibstandarte Sepp Dietrich. (see Weingartner pp. 76-77) The recognition of Hausser would be delayed, some speculate as a result of his disobedience in giving up Kharkov in February.

[cxii] Ibid. Clark. p.306

Bibliography

Butler, Rupert. SS Wiking: The History of the Fifth SS Division 1941-45.Casemate, Havertown, PA. 2002

Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth: The Russian German War 1943-1944. Translated by Ewald Osers, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, published in arrangement with Little-Brown and Company

Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45. Perennial, an Imprint of Harper Collins Books, New York, NY 2002. Originally published by William Morrow, New York, NY 1965

Glantz, David M and House, Jonathan. The Battle of Kursk.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1999

Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995

Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishing, New York, NY. 1979. Copyright 1948 by B.H. Liddell-Hart.

Liddell-Hart, B.H. History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, New York, NY.

Liddell-Hart. B.H. Strategy.  A Signet Book, the New American Library, New York, NY 1974, first published by Faber and Faber Ltd. London, 1954 and 1967

Lucas, James. Das Reich: The Military History of the 2nd SS Division. Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, UK, 1999. First published by Arms and Armour, 1991

Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories. Translated by Anthony G. Powell, Zenith Press, an imprint of MBI Publishing Company, St Paul, MN. 2004. First Published as Verlorene Siege Athenaum-Verlag, Bonn, GE 1955, English edition Methuen & Company Ltd. 1958

Messenger, Charles. Sepp Dietrich: Hitler’s Gladiator. Brassey’s Defence Publishers, London, 1988

Meyer, Kurt. Grenadiers. Translated by Michael Mende and Robert J. Edwards. J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Canada. 2001

Raus, Erhard. Panzer Operation: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945. Compiled and Translated by Steven H Newton. Da Capo Press a member of the Perseus Book Group, Cambridge, MA 2003

Sydnor, Charles W. Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death’s Head Division 1933-1945. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 1977

Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated by H. Betzler, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1971. Originally Published University of Oklahoma Press, 1956

Weingartner, James. J. Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler: A Military History, 1933-45. Battery Press, Nashville, TN.(no publication date listed)

Wray, Timothy A. Standing Fast: German Defensive Doctrine on the Russian Front in World War II, Prewar to March 1943. U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS. 1986

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, war crimes, world war two in europe

What if Hitler was assassinated in 1943? An Alternative History of Kursk and the End of World War II in Europe

This is an alternative history of how the Germans might have avoided the disaster at Kursk. It looks at what might have happened if an actual assassination attempt on Hitler had succeeded in March 1943 and how Manstein might have been able to execute the “backhand” strategy that he favored using a mobile defense.  This is predicated by Hitler’s death, based on Hitler’s actions and control of operational decisions Manstein would never have been allowed the freedom to conduct operations in this manner.  In eliminating Hitler I have also included personnel changes and the overall strategy for the German High Command, and the probable response of Stalin to Hitler’s death had it occurred in the spring of 1943. I have tried to be faithful to known historical opinions and actions of the participants and likely reactions to such a situation although one cannot predict precisely what people would have done.  Thus I have documented the article with footnotes as if it were an actual history. It would have been interesting to be able to lengthen this and included sections on tactical actions based on memoirs of German and Russian soldiers. I wrote it as at the behest of one of my Master’s Degree Professors and first published it in August of 2009 on this site under the title of Operation “Dachs” My First Foray into the Genre “Alternative History.” I believe that history is history and this despite what the term “alternative history” implies is fiction.  Though it is based on my belief of how German leaders might have reacted in the spring of 1943 and references actual events that I have altered for the sake of the story it is not history. But one has to wonder what would have happened had the plot to kill Hitler by blowing up his aircraft on its return to Germany from a conference with the commanders of Army Group Center succeeded.

 

Background: The Strategic Situation Spring 1943

In April 1943 the German High Command faced a decision on which the fate of Nazi Germany would hinge, but for the first time in the war it was not under the thumb of Adolf Hitler. Following Manstein’s counter-stroke following the Stalingrad disaster there was considerable pressure to follow up with that success with a continued offensive. Manstein himself had proposed this but Field Marshal Von Kluge refused to agree to an immediate offensive because he felt his troops needed rest and refitting.

Hitler’s Fw-200 “Condor” before its fatal flight

On March 13th Hitler flew out to meet with Von Kluge at Army Group Center HQ at Smolensk.  On the flight back Hitler’s FW-200 was racked by an explosion crash landing near Minsk, taken down by a bomb planted on the plane by Colonel Henning Von Trescow of Kluge’s staff.[i] While Hitler survived, he remained in critical condition, barely alive at a SS hospital until his death on 20 April 1943, his 54th birthday. The crash landing was reported by the escorting ME-109s of JG-53, and a Alarm Company from a Security Division at Minsk rescued Hitler but were driven off the crash site by a large force of Soviet Partisans who destroyed the aircraft and any evidence to the cause which the escorting fighters attributed to mechanical problems. 

There were no other survivors. Von Kluge, expecting to be implicated the Fuhrer’s death committed suicide after visiting troops on the front line, and was succeeded at Army Group Center by Field Marshal Model the commander of 9th Army. The other conspirators were frozen into inaction when Hitler survived the crash and made no attempt to take over the government, realizing that “our plans for seizing power in Berlin and other large cities were still not adequate to the task.”[ii] In the absence of Hitler Reichsmarschall Goering, Hitler’s designated successor, took action to secure his power and using contacts in the GESTAPO accused Himmler of treason for making contact with Neutral intermediaries in Sweden[iii] and replaced him with SS General Kurt Wolfe, and reappointed Rudolf Diels, the former head of the GESTAPO when it was still under his control[iv], to head it again.  Himmler attempted to flee and was caught near Luneburg when he committed suicide with a cyanide capsule before he could be interrogated. Other potential rivals were eliminated; Martin Bormann, who Goering hated, was arrested on charges of exceeding his authority, embezzlement, and harming the war effort and was executed.[v] Joseph Goebbels swore his loyalty to Goering even before Hitler’s death.  He and Albert Speer were directed to arrange the state funeral for the late Fuhrer. Berlin Radio announced the Fuhrer’s death on the 21 April, Hitler’s body was prepared and lay in state at the Chancellery.   A period of mourning was declared 21 April to 1 May on which the State Funeral took place. On 2 May Goering announced that Field Marshal Von Rundstedt was the new Chief of OKW and would coordinate strategy on all fronts. The next day Goering called together a meeting of the heads of OKH, OKW, the Inspector General of Panzer Troops, and the commanders of the Eastern Front Army Groups, Western Europe and Africa as well as Reichsfuhrer Karl Wolff, Admiral Donitz and Field Marshal Von Richthofen[vi] representing the Luftwaffe to decide on a course of action for the summer. It was the first time that all had been called together to discuss the overall situation since Barbarossa began in 1941, and the first true attempt to formulate a grand strategy during the war.

Options and Decision: The Zossen Conference 3 May 1943[vii]

Goering meeting Diplomats following Hitler’s State Funeral

Herman Goering looked up from the maps spread out on the conference table.  He looked surprisingly fit, somehow between the crash of Hitler’s aircraft and his death he had pulled himself together and out of his drug induced malaise.  It was as if he again had a purpose. Field Marshal Von Rundstedt now Chief of OKW following Goering’s relief of Field Marshal Keitel, and General Jodl had just finished briefing the situation in western and southern Europe, following briefings by Colonel General Zeitzler of OKH, the Inspector General of Armored Troops, General Guderian and Field Marshal Von Manstein of Army Group South.  Albert Speer briefed tank and aircraft production numbers while the Chief of the Army personnel office noted the requirement for 800,000 replacements “but even the most ruthless call-up was able to produce only 400,000.”[viii] Looking from the table he spoke: “Gentlemen, the situation is critical and I have to admit that I have thought so for a number of months but have been unable to speak out.   Our political situation is perilous, the Italians are ready to abandon our cause. Our forces in North Africa will soon be unable to hold out as our Italian friends have let us down again.[ix] I expect that if Jodl and Kesselring are right about Allied intentions that we will have our hands full in the west shortly.  Kesselring and Arnim, you need to evacuate as many German soldiers from Africa as possible,[x] use all air and naval forces that you can, I know it will be difficult, especially with the heavy losses we have taken in transport aircraft and the pathetic Italian Navy.”  Goering paused, his gaze passing around the room.  “In the west we need to assume that the Allies will invade and the ‘very real danger that the enemy may turn against Brittany and Normandy,’ Field Marshal Rommel will take command of OB West to build up the Atlantic Wall in these sectors.”[xi] “Zeitzler, Manstein, we need to shore up the eastern front.”

“Herr Reichsmarschall, the Fuhrer had approved the plan called ZITADELLE, to attack the Russians here in the Kursk salient.” responded Zeitzler.[xii] “We should be ready to begin the offensive this month.”  Goering raised his hand stopping Zeitzler.  “I know, but I have considered that plan and I cannot support it. Richthofen briefed me on it prior to the Fuhrer’s death and general, we must have another plan, and an attack on Kursk is so obvious the Russians will be ready to meet it.  I have considered what the General Guderian and Minister Speer said regarding tank production and the state of the Panzer arm.  I cannot approve Zitadelle, but we must find a way to deal the Russians a defeat without squandering our strength attacking such an obvious target. Model too is dubious of the prospects; he believes that the Russians know our intentions and has requested a delay to strengthen his forces.”[xiii] “Reichsmarshall.” chimed in Jodl. “You are correct, the premature commitment of central reserves in such an offensive will not help our cause, in fact only local success is what can be expected from Zitadelle.”[xiv]

Colonel General Heinz Guderian 

“But Reichsmarshall, we must recapture the initiative in the east, we must take the offensive!” retorted Zeitzler. “Our new units of Panthers and Tigers will give us a decisive technical advantage.”[xv] Guderian now joined in. “But the Panthers still have many technical problems, it would be better to wait until they are worked out before we commit them to a major offensive, and besides, how many people do you think even know where Kursk is?”[xvi]

“Zeitzler, I appreciate your zeal.” Interrupted Goering, “But Jodl and Guderian are correct, even a successful attack at Kursk will not alter the strategic situation. We must work to stave off defeat.  Manstein has a plan that may help, there is some risk, but I see no other way. An offensive at Kursk would require tanks and aircraft that must be used to combat the Allied bombing of the Reich and to safeguard withdraw of our units from Africa, it would force us to commit everything with little gain.” Goering paused and said to Manstein, “Go ahead Manstein.”

“Reichsmarshall, Gentlemen.  Our situation in the east is not hopeless, in March I felt that an immediate offensive would succeed in pinching off the Kursk bulge, but I think now that the moment of opportunity has passed for such an attack.  Instead we should fight a defensive battle of maneuver as called for byTruppenführung that we have developed from the days of the Reichswehr.  We should build up our forces; give ground where we can, and when we have the chance strike the enemy on the backhand, as we did at Kharkov.”[xvii]

Zeitzler jumped in. “But how can we do that? If we don’t strike now while we have the opportunity the Russians will grow stronger, and how can we know where they will strike?”[xviii]

“General Zeitzler, the Russians are already building up heavy armored forces in the area of Kursk, and diverting forces from other sectors of the front to that area.  The south offers them the best opportunity to finish what they started in the winter.  They will come and it will be in the south, they will want Kharkov and they will again attempt to envelop our forces in the south. If they succeed they will follow up and rapidly move into the Balkans, Romania and Hungary will turn on us and it will be a disaster, we cannot afford that.”  Manstein looked up, Jodl nodded and Model said “Once that is done they will push to Kiev and Poland.” Goering interjected “Thank you Model, you are right, Field Marshal Manstein; please go on with your plan.”

Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein at the Front

Motioning to the map Manstein continued. “We will concentrate the majority of our Panzer forces here, just west of Kharkov and another group here west of Orel.  We will also build fall back positions for our infantry forces here along the Dnieper.  We should be ready to withdraw from the Crimea should the need arise, we cannot afford another encirclement.  When the Russians attack we will give ground, even Kharkov if needed. Our infantry divisions will fight a delaying action supported by Jagdpanzer and Sturmgeschutzen, the Luftwaffe will need to give us good close air support from Stukas and as the Russians outrun their supply depots and their offensive loses momentum we will attack, like a badger defending itself.  Our Panzers will cut off their spearheads west of Kharkov while we bleed them dry in the north; we will then roll them up, stabilize the line and prepare for the winter.”  Manstein sounded confident; those in the room began to sense that his plan could work.  Rundstedt spoke up: “That will give us the chance to transfer forces to other fronts and, maybe, since Hitler is dead there might be a chance for Reichsmarschall to negotiate a settlement,[xix] otherwise gentlemen the Allies will destroy our cities from the air and grind our armies down until we have no recourse but surrender.”

“Right” added Goering, making eye contact with each man in the room. “We must have success in the defense, we must buy time and we must work to end this war before Germany is destroyed. ‘We will have reason to be glad if Germany can keep the boundaries of 1933 after the war.”[xx] He paused and said “General Zeitzler, you are relieved of your duties at OKH, General Guderian, you are now the Chief of OKH.[xxi] Manstein, you will command the East, General Hoth will take your Army Group. You will work with Guderian and Model to flesh out this plan.  We must get the Panther, Tiger and Ferdinand units operational as soon as possible.  I believe that the Russians will attack by June. Richthofen, I need you to look to the Luftwaffe. We have not had a good year and we have to succeed in defending the Reich from Allied bombers and provide support to the ground forces. Of course flak needs to be built up. The Luftwaffe Field Divisions with the exception of the Fallschirmjaeger and Herman Goering Panzer Division need to be transferred to Army control.”  He looked at Speer: “Herr Speer, the Fuhrer entrusted you with our war production program, you must increase production of tanks and aircraft. Speed the production of the ME-262 and cancel all programs that take away from the panzers, fighters and ground support aircraft that we need now.” He put his hands on his hips and took a deep breathe. He looked at Wolfe, Himmler’s successor.  Wolff, the Reich needs the Waffen SS, the Panzer troops are exceptional, but I want all Waffen SS Formations, with including the Panzers turned over to Army control, we cannot keep dividing our resources. With the personnel from the Luftwaffe Field Divisions we should be able to provide the Army with excellent troops to rebuild experienced formations.”  Goering looked around the room; “Are there any questions Gentlemen?” Putting his arm across Manstein’s soldier and said: “I think that Badger is a fitting name for your plan. Our little Dachs will tear them to pieces.”   Later, Goering met with Foreign Ministry officials emphasizing the need to strengthen German Allies and seek peace with the west. He “admitted that he was worried about the future. ‘It’s not quite clear to me how we are going to end this war.’”[xxii] Those present could not believe how Goering had conducted himself, and all left the meeting thinking that it might be possible to stave off defeat.  It was an incredible performance. After Hitler’s crash he had secretly undergone a “systematic withdraw cure which had ended his drug addiction.”[xxiii] The change was marked.

STAVKA Headquarters Moscow: 7 May 1943

Josef Stalin was ecstatic.  His agents reported that Hitler was dead even before the announcement from Berlin.  Partisans had confirmed that it was Hitler’s aircraft that they found and recovered some of Hitler’s personal belongings, including his cap, which they presented to Stalin.  Intelligence reported that Goering had taken power, and Stalin was sure that his position was weak and many believed that Goering, was not up to the task, and that a renewed offensive could bring down the Nazi regime.  Now was the time to bring the Nazi terror to an end and Stalin called his key leaders together.  While Stalin wanted an immediate offensive his generals wanted to wait just in case the Germans attacked Kursk.  “Zhukov, Vasilevsky, and various General Staff officers urged caution and recommended that the Red Army remain on the defensive until the Germans expended their offensive strength.”[xxiv] Stalin supported by commanders, like Vatutin, “argued for a resumption of offensive action in early summer to preempt German action and regain the momentum lost in March 1943.”[xxv] In the end a compromise was reached and despite the temporary defensive stand “Russian strategic planning in the summer of 1943 was inherently offensive in nature.”[xxvi] The new offensive would be launched on 15 June if the Germans had not attacked before.  It would be named Operation Kutuzov[xxvii] and be aimed at the Orel salient and Kharkov.  The northern prong under Rokossovsky’s Central Front would destroy the Germans around Orel and drive west while Vatutin’s Voronezh and Konev’s Steppe Front would take Kharkov and drive toward the Dnieper.[xxviii] The Southwest Front and South Fronts would attack and destroy the German forces along the Mius, the goal: “collapse of the German defenses and an advance to the line of the Dnieper River from Smolensk in the north southward to the Black Sea.”[xxix]

Sturmgeschutzen and SdKfw 251 APCs moving into position

Manstein met with Model, Hoth and Guderian to develop DACHS. They had  to play for time and deceive the Russians as to their true intent so they could build up their forces.  Deception operations were mounted on both sides of the Kursk bulge to give the impression of attack preparations.  1st Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf  were to launch a diversion called Operations HABICHT and PANTHER southeast of Kursk  “designed to push the Soviets back from the industrial area of the Donets River.”[xxx] The defensive plan called for the infantry supported by tank destroyers, assault guns the heavy Ferdinands as well as mobile Pioneer units to conduct a withdraw to delay and disrupt the Russian attack.  Bridges were prepared for demolition, defensive positions constructed at choke points which would be defended and then abandoned when no longer defensible, and minefields laid to slow the Russian advance.  This was critical for 9th Army now commanded by General Henrici in the Orel salient north of Kursk.  Henrici, a defensive master constructed a series of defensive belts to allow his army to withdraw from the bulge without being cut off and inflict heavy casualties on the Russians through skillful deployment of anti-tank weapons, especially self propelled guns.[xxxi] In the south 4th Panzer Army, now commanded by SS General Paul Hausser[xxxii] and Army detachment Kempf made preparations to allow the Russians to advance past Kharkov using the same defend and delay tactics and then counterattack. As the armies prepared, Speer and Guderian’s efforts to rebuild the Panzer force were bearing fruit.  By 15 May the first brigade of Panther tanks was activated and began training west of Kharkov.[xxxiii] Two battalions of Ferdinands, one for 9thArmy and one for 4th Panzer Army were activated.[xxxiv] Sturmgeschutzbattalions were assigned to each infantry corps. Panzer divisions built up so that all had an average of 130 tanks, with the SS Divisions and Gross Deutschland receiving more.  Tiger battalions were assigned to each Panzer Corps.

The Summer Campaign

German Infantry

On 1 June Operations PANTHER and HABICHT hit the unfortunate Soviet 6thArmy, which had been victimized by Manstein’s counter-stroke in March.  III Panzer Corps of Army Detachment Kempf supported by Corps Raus (IX Corps) linked up with 1st Panzer Army at Kupiansk on 3 June.  The Russian counterattacked with 8th Guards Army and the 2nd and 23rd Tank Corps. The battle of Kupiansk resulted in the destruction of 6th Army and the 23rd Tank Corps which was surprised by the 503rd Panzer Detachment’s Tigers. 2nd Tank Corps received a similar mauling at the hands of the 6th Panzer Division.  On 9 June the Germans returned to their start positions.

Soviet Tanks and AT Guns at Kupiansk

The attack at Kupiansk surprised STAVKA which had been deceived by the build up of Panzers around the Kursk salient.  Stalin continued to hound his generals to begin Kutuzov on time, but the generals were “chastened” by the defeat at Kupiansk and “earlier experiences”[xxxv] and wanted to delay. Stalin forced them to begin Kutuzov on 22 June, the 2nd Anniversary of Barbarossa.  Manstein and his Eastern Front commanders held their breath.  Teams of Brandenburger commandos operating in the Soviet rear and Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft reported Russian units moving to advanced positions to the north and south of Kursk.  Vatutin commanding the Voronezh Front was ambushed and killed by a Brandenburger detachment supporting Ukrainian irregulars[xxxvi] as he returned from visiting 69th Army near Prokhorovka station on 19 June and was replaced by Lieutenant General Katukov of 1st Tank Army.  Katukov “was one of the Red Army’s most accomplished and experienced armor officers.”[xxxvii]

Manstein with Tigers

In the north Rokossovsky’s Central Front and Popov’s Bryansk Front supported by 11th Guards Army[xxxviii] began concentric attacks on the German 9th and 2nd Panzer Armies and ran into Henrici’s labyrinth on 22 June.  They hit the first line they found it empty, the Germans having repaired to secondary positions,[xxxix] German 88’s and self propelled guns took a heavy toll on the tanks of 2nd Tank Army.  The 3rd Tank Army under General Rybalko’s army committed after the initial assault “attempted a fresh penetration instead of exploiting the earlier efforts of the 3rd and 63rd Armies… Rybalko’s force included 698 serviceable tanks…but lacked the artillery and engineers for such a deliberate assault.”[xl] Popov telephoned Stalin at noon on 25 June “to report that Rybalko was practically stalled and suffering heavy losses in tanks.”[xli]The Germans committed the 5th and 8th Panzer divisions[xlii] against 3rd Tank Army. The fresh Panzers inflicted painful losses on Rybalko.  On 27 June Stalin called to complain about the handling of the army, demanding a direct assault.[xliii] The battle turned into a “grinding battle of armored attrition.”[xliv] After “a few bloody days bereft of any success, Rybalko’s tank formations had to be pulled out of the line into reserve.”[xlv] The “battle for the Orel salient ended three weeks later with a German defensive victory, as Army Group Center extricated its two armies from the box prepared for them while inflicting heavy casualties on three Soviet Fronts.”[xlvi] The Soviets lost over 629,000 men and 3,500 tanks.[xlvii] In comparison German losses were light and by falling back they shortened their line freeing units for other operations.  Stalin had Orel but failed to destroy the Germans and lost heavily in the attempt.

Panzer IV’s engaging Soviet forces

In the south Konev’s Steppe and Katukov’s Voronezh Fronts prepared their assault on Kharkov.  They attempted to deceive the Germans by simulating the massing of a “notional tank and combined-arms army” in the western side of the Kursk bulge.[xlviii] The deception was unsuccessful as reconnaissance by Luftwaffe aircraft and Brandenburgers failed to uncover any troop concentrations and Russian deserters, talked of a strike at Kharkov. The offensive “Rumiantsev” was opened by the 5th and 6th Guards armies supported by 53rd and 69th Armies on 21 June; a day later 7th Guards Army jumped off, two additional armies supported the west flank of the offensive.[xlix] The Russians in the two fronts began the operation with 980,000 men and 2,500 tanks.[l] Opposing them were 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf’s 350,000 men and 1,750 tanks and assault guns including 100 Tigers and 192 Panthers.[li]

T-34 towing disabled T-34 near Orel

STAVKA “chose to strike the strongest portion of Hoth’s defense head-on, to engage and defeat the German force and avoid the problems of flank threats.”[lii] Unfortunately they complicated the attack by focusing it at “precisely the boundary between the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts, causing increased coordination problems from the start of the operation.”[liii] The Germans used Ferdinands, Jagdpanzers and Sturmgeschutz in a mobile defensive role, as infantry fought delaying actions as they withdrew to successive defensive lines, inflicting brutal losses on the Russians.  Aided by massive artillery preparation the Russians broke through the weakened Army Detachment Kempf near Belgorad[liv] taking the city on 24 June.  Corps Raus’ 167th Infantry Division was taken on its exposed left flank forcing Raus to “fight a delaying action…until the withdraw reached Kharkov.” [lv] The Germans reacted to the threat by committing the “veteran 5th SS Panzer Grenadier Division Wiking” to reinforce Army Detachment Kempf.[lvi] Despite the success “the German defenses proved so tenacious that the leading brigades of the two tank armies had to enter the fray.”[lvii]

Destroyed column of T-34s

As the Russians advanced the German fell back.  Hoth directed Hausser to wait before counterattacking with XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps.  Katukov pushed the 1st and 5th Tank Armies into the hole in the German lines and moved toward Kharkov which was liberated by the 89th and 183rd Guards Divisions[lviii] on 2 July.  The liberation of Kharkov and Belgorad while exhilarating had cost Katukov over 250,000 casualties.  Skillful employment of mobile defense and local counterattacks by mixed Panzer battlegroups, such as one by Grossdeutschland on the flank of 5th Tank Army caused panic and some units withdrew “leaving behind masses of equipment of every description.”[lix]The tank armies had lost upwards of 50 percent of their tanks, infantry divisions were now down to half strength, some down to 3000 men.[lx] Yet the Soviets attempted to drive south to trap the Germans.  They were hit by XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps, both of which had seen little action thanks to Hoth’s conservation of strength. XLVIII Panzer Corps hit the 1st Tank Army at the “key road junction of Bogodukhov, 30 kilometers northwest” of Kharkov “severely mauling the leading three brigades”[lxi] forcing 1st Tank Army to withdraw towards Kursk. 5th Tank army moved to support but was taken in the flank by II SS Panzer Corps.  The SS Corps encircled the remainder of 5th Tank Army. Hunted by the SS on the open steppe the survivors slipped through gaps in the encirclement but both armies were ravaged.  By 15 June 1st Tank Army was down to 120 tanks and 5th Tank Army had “50 of its original 503 tanks and self-propelled guns serviceable.”[lxii] XLVII Panzer Corps took Kharkov on 18 July.

SS Panzer Grenadiers and Panzertrüppen Tigers of 3rd SS Panzer Division prepping for battle

The victory paid dividends for the Germans. The Front held and the Russians had taken nearly a million casualties and lost almost 6000 tanks and self-propelled guns.  Three Tank Armies had been smashed, 5th Tank Army would not be fit for field duty for two months.[lxiii] 3rd Tank Army earned a Guards designation but was withdrawn from combat.[lxiv] 6th Army, victimized by PANTHER was destroyed while the 5th, 6th and 7th Guards Armies were shattered. Additionally, the Germans decimated two independent tank corps.  Stalin reacted by halting operations, cancelling follow on offensives and rebuilding the Red Army’s tank armies and mechanized forces.  He realized that his Generals had been right in not wanting to undertake offensive operations until the Germans had been weakened, but the German insistence on not going on the offensive caused him to ignore their arguments. He decided to wait until winter to launch his next offensive, but that offensive would never be launched as by the time he was ready the war was over.

German Tank Commander as Panzers mop up

The elimination of the Russian threat enabled Italy to be reinforced as well as the reinforcement of the Atlantic Wall.  The Salerno landings were a disaster, the Allies driven into the sea by Panzer Divisions released from the Eastern Front.  The disasters at Salerno and the Russian debacle brought overwhelming domestic political pressure on Roosevelt and Churchill to end the war. Clandestine talks began in Switzerland between Avery Dulles and Karl Wolff[lxv] while Walter Schellenberg met with Count Bernadotte.[lxvi] Despite the previous demand for unconditional surrender the Allies decided to negotiate with the new German leadership might end the war in Europe.  Goering surrendered power to General Beck and gave himself and other accused war criminals up to the Allies. Beck took power, withdrew to 1939 borders, dismantled the death camps and disbanded the Nazi Party, and its police apparatus.[lxvii] Peace came to Europe on 9 November 1943, 25 years after Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdicated his throne.

Goering Surrenders to the Allies


[i] Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian German Conflict, 1941-45. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY 1965. Pp.307-311. There was an attempt on Hitler’s life on his return from Kluge’s headquarters.  Only the bomb did not go off, all components had worked but the detonator did not fire.  Clark notes that “the Devil’s hand had protected Hitler.” (p.311)

[ii] Galante, Pierre. Operation Valkyrie: The German Generals’ Plot Against Hitler. Translated by Mark Howson and Cary Ryan. Harper and Row Publishers, New York, NY 1981. Originally published as Hitler est il Mort? Librairie Plon-Paris-Match, France. 1981. p.167

[iii] Padfield, Peter. Himmler. MJF Books, New York. 1990. p.474.  Himmler had a number of contacts and intermediaries who he used to attempt contact with the Allies as early as 1943.

[iv] Höhne, Heinze. The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. Translated by Richard Barry. Penguin Books, New York and London, 2000. First English edition published by Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd. London 1969. Originally published as Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf, Verlag Der Spiegel, Hamburg 1966.  Diels remained an ally of Goering even marrying his sister in 1943.

[v] Von Lang, Jochen. The Secretary: Martin Bormann: The Man Who Manipulated Hitler. Translated by Christa Armstrong and Peter White. Random House Inc. 1979. Originally published as Der Secretär. Deutsche-Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart. 1977 p.9.  At his trial Goering remarked to other defendants. “If Hitler had died sooner, I as his successor would not have had to worry about Bormann. He would have been killed by his own staff even before I could have given the order to bump him off.”

[vi] Irving, David. Göring: A Biography. William Morrow and Company, New York, NY 1989. Richthofen had succeeded Jeschonnek in March when Goering relieved him. Goering believed that Jeschonnek “was too pliable at the Wolf’s Lair.” Goering had actually considered this a number of times but postponed it several times. p.388

[vii] Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. (abridged) Translated from the German by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Ballantine Books, New York 1957. pp.244  Hitler conducted a similar conference involving many of the same people in Munich.

[viii] Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth: The Russian German War 1943-1944. Translated by Ewald Osers, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, published in arrangement with Little-Brown and Company. p. 336

[ix] Ibid. Irving. pp. 377-379.

[x] Ibid. Guderian. p.243

[xi] Ibid. Irving. p.378

[xii] Glantz, David M and House, Jonathan. The Battle of Kursk.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1999. pp.21-25.  Operations order 5 had been approved by Hitler on and issued by OKH on 13 March. It was followed by Operations Order 6 on 15 April.

[xiii] Ibid. Clark. p.324.

[xiv] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45. Translated by R.H. Berry, Presido Press, Novato CA, 1964. p.334 These objections of Jodl were from June, but indicate the feeling of Jodl for the Zitadelle as planned and when would have likely been his response in such a situation.

[xv]Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995. p.157 Zeitzler had been a consistent advocate for Zitadelle since he heard Manstein’s initial proposal in March.

[xvi]Macksey, Kenneth. Guderian: Creator of the Blitzkrieg. Stein and Day Publishing, New York, NY 1975 p.206

[xvii] Ibid. Clark. p.322

[xviii] Ibid. Clark. p.323.  Zeitzler made this argument with Jodl during a briefing in April 1943.

[xix] Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1981, Copyright 1959 and 1960. p.1115.  Hitler had told Keitel and Jodl that “When it comes to negotiating [for peace]…Goering can do much better than I. Goering is much better at those things.”

[xx] Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Collier Books, a Division of MacMillan Publishers, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.245.  From a conversation with Speer in late 1942.

[xxi] Ibid. Glantz and House. Clash of Titans. pp. 216-217. Hitler would replace Zeitzler with Guderian in June 1944.

[xxii] Ibid. Irving. p.379 From a conversation with State Secretary Ernst von Weizäcker 11 February 1943.

[xxiii] Ibid. Speer.  p.512. The ending of the addiction took place at Nurnberg and Goering surprised many of his co-defendants with his “remarkable energy.”

[xxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.28

[xxv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.28.

[xxvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.264

[xxvii] Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945. Penguin Books, New York NY and London, 1997. pp.211

[xxviii] Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin. Cassel Military Paperbacks, London, 2003. First Published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983. p.76

[xxix] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.265

[xxx] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.23.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishing, New York, NY. 1979. Copyright 1948 by B.H. Liddell-Hart. p.215  Henrici describes the methods that he used in 1944 as Commander of 1st Panzer Army and as Commander of Army Group Vistula during the defense of Berlin.

[xxxii] Hausser would actually command 7th Army in Normandy in 1944.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Glantz and House Kursk. p.53 This was the 10th Panzer Brigade assigned to XLVIII Panzer Corps.  Additionally Clark notes production figures for Panthers from Speer that indicate that 324 Panthers would be available by 31 May. (Clark. p.325)

[xxxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.52.  At Kursk the two Ferdinand detachments were both assigned to 9th Army.

[xxxv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.28.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Carell. p.510.  Vatutin was killed by Ukrainian irregulars in April 1944.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.62

[xxxviii] Newton, Steven H. Hitler’s Commander: Field Marshal Walter Model, Hitler’s Favorite General. DeCapo Press, Cambridge MA 2005. p. 256

[xxxix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.215.

[xl] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.236

[xli] Ibid. Erickson. p.113. At Kursk the call took place on 20 July when Rybalko was in this situation.

[xlii] Ibid. Newton. p.256

[xliii] Ibid. Erickson. p.114

[xliv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.236

[xlv] Ibid. Erickson. p.114

[xlvi] Ibid. Newton. p.256

[xlvii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.345. The actual losses were 429,000 men and 2,500 tanks against a German force significantly weakened by Zitadelle.  Had the Russians attacked the Germans rather than receiving the German attack first their losses in men and machines would have been far higher.  I have reflected that in the alternative numbers.

[xlviii] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.168  The Soviets did try this in their counter offensive following Zitadelle.

[xlix] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.169

[l] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.344. Actual figures for beginning of offensive.

[li] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.338.  Figures from beginning of Zitadelle.

[lii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.244 The actual text reads “Manstein’s defense” not Hoth’s.

[liii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.244

[liv] Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated by H. Betzler, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1971. Originally Published University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. p.286

[lv] Raus, Erhard. Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945. Compiled and Translated by Steven H Newton. Da Capo Press a member of the Perseus Book Group, Cambridge, MA 2003. p.214

[lvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.247

[lvii] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.169

[lviii] Ibid. Erickson. p.121  These were the actual divisions that liberated Kharkov.

[lix] Ibid.  Von Mellenthin . p.287

[lx] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.252

[lxi] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.170

[lxii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.252

[lxiii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.252

[lxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.237

[lxv] Ibid. Hohne. p.572

[lxvi] Ibid.  Hohne. p.570

[lxvii] Ibid. Galante. pp 69 and 207

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth: The Russian German War 1943-1944. Translated by Ewald Osers, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, published in arrangement with Little-Brown and Company

Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian German Conflict, 1941-45. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY 1965

Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin. Cassel Military Paperbacks, London, 2003. First Published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983

Galante, Pierre. Operation Valkyrie: The German Generals’ Plot Against Hitler.Translated by Mark Howson and Cary Ryan. Harper and Row Publishers, New York, NY 1981. Originally published as Hitler est il Mort? Librairie Plon-Paris-Match, France. 1981.

Glantz, David M and House, Jonathan. The Battle of Kursk.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1999.

Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995

Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. (abridged) Translated from the German by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Ballantine Books, New York 1957

Höhne, Heinze. The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. Translated by Richard Barry. Penguin Books, New York and London, 2000. First English edition published by Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd. London 1969. Originally published as Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf, Verlag Der Spiegel, Hamburg 1966.

Irving, David. Göring: A Biography. William Morrow and Company, New York, NY 1989

Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishing, New York, NY. 1979. Copyright 1948 by B.H. Liddell-Hart

Macksey, Kenneth. Guderian: Creator of the Blitzkrieg. Stein and Day Publishing, New York, NY

Newton, Steven H. Hitler’s Commander: Field Marshal Walter Model, Hitler’s Favorite General. DeCapo Press, Cambridge MA 2005

Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945.Penguin Books, New York NY and London, 1997

Padfield, Peter. Himmler. MJF Books, New York. 1990

Raus, Erhard. Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945. Compiled and Translated by Steven H Newton. Da Capo Press a member of the Perseus Book Group, Cambridge, MA 2003

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1981, Copyright 1959 and 1960.

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Collier Books, a Division of MacMillan Publishers, Inc. New York, NY 1970.

Von Lang, Jochen. The Secretary: Martin Bormann: The Man Who Manipulated Hitler. Translated by Christa Armstrong and Peter White. Random House Inc. 1979. Originally published as Der Secretär. Deutsche-Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart. 1977

Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated by H. Betzler, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1971. Originally Published University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.

Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45. Translated by R.H. Berry, Presido Press, Novato CA, 1964.

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Manstein’s Counter-Stroke: Pulling Victory from Certain Defeat

Introduction

After Stalingrad the Soviets followed up on their success and attempted to entrap the rest of Army Group South. Field Marshall von Manstein attempted to save the Army Group and perhaps prevent the Soviets from collapsing the entire German front.

Bild 101I-209-0086-12Manstein planning at the front

Chaos and Peril in the South

As 6th Army died at Stalingrad field Marshall von Manstein was faced with one of the most challenging situations faced by any commander in modern times.  He faced strategic and operational “problems of a magnitude and complexity seldom paralleled in history.”[i] Manstein had to deal with a complex military situation where he had minimal forces to counter the moves of a superior enemy force that was threatening to entrap all German forces in southern Russia. Additionally Manstein had to deal with the “Hitler’s obstinate opposition to a maneuver defense and a Red Army flushed with the victory of Stalingrad.”[ii] Facing him were the six Russian armies of the Voronezh and Southwestern Front’s led by Mobile Group Popov[iii]. These Armies had broken through the Hungarian and Italian armies “making a breach 200 miles wide between the Donetz and Voronezh, and were sweeping westward past Manstein’s flank.”[iv]

flak in caucasus

The most dangerous threat that Manstein faced was to Army Group A in the Caucasus. This Army Group “found itself in danger of being cut off, forcing an immediate withdraw.”[v] Disaster was averted by the desperate holding actions of Manstein’s meager forces, Army detachment’s Fretter-Pico and Hollidt, and winter conditions that made “offensive operations extraordinarily difficult, even for the hardiest Soviet troops.”[vi] A smart withdraw executed by General von Kleist managed to extricate the Army group “just as the Stalingrad forces collapsed.”[vii] To parry the Soviet thrusts the Germans lacked forces to “establish a deeply echeloned defense” and “instead combined maneuver… with stubborn positional defense to give artificial depth to the battlefield.  In this way the Germans were able to break major Soviet attacks, preventing catastrophic breakthroughs….”[viii] The timely introduction of a battalion of Tiger tanks prevented the Russians from breaking through to Rostov and “cutting the rail and road lines on which First Panzer Army’s retreat depended.”[ix] Even so the escape of the Army Group was narrow. “In terms of time, space, force, and weather conditions it was an astonishing performance-for which Kleist was made a field-marshal.”[x] With the Russians only 70 kilometers from Rostov and his own forces 650 kilometers from that city Kleist executed a withdraw “which had appeared hardly possible to achieve.”[xi] The divisions extricated by Kleist would be instrumental in the coming weeks as Manstein moved to counter the Soviet offensive.

Hitler and Manstein

Despite the successful withdraw the situation was still precarious in early February, Manstein had no effective contact with his left wing, the bulk of which was tied to Kharkov, The Russians had “virtually complete freedom of action across a fifty-mile stretch of the Donetz on either side of Izyum.”[xii] Manstein was hard pressed to “halt the raids of Mobile Group Popov and other exploiting Soviet tank corps in Operation Gallop.”[xiii] Manstein’s forces in the eastern sector had been divided by Russian penetrations, which threatened 1st Panzer Army’s western flank and blocked the Army Group’s main railway line.[xiv] On 15 February “the SS Panzer Corps withdrew from Kharkov-in spite of orders from Hitler…that the city was to be held to the last.”[xv] SS General Paul Hausser, the corps commander realized that the order to hold Kharkov was impossible and requested permission to withdraw. This was was refused by General Lanz. Under pressure from encircling Russian forces outside and from partisans inside the city, Hausser disobeyed the order and extricated his troops,[xvi] thereby saving thousands of German soldiers and preserved the SS Panzer Corps as a fighting unit.[xvii] Lanz was relieved by Hitler for the loss of Kharkov and although Hausser would escape immediate censure, “Hitler did see it as a black mark against his name.”[xviii] With Kharkov in Soviet hands the gap between Manstein’s army group and Field Marshal von Kluge’s Army Group Center increased to over 100 miles.[xix] It appeared that the entire German southern flank was disintegrating.  Manstein estimated the ratio of German to Soviet forces in his area at 1:8.[xx] He believed that the Soviets could advance and subsequently “block the approaches to the Crimea and the Dnieper crossing at Kherson” which would “result in the encirclement of the entire German southern wing.”[xxi] Popov’s Mobile Group crossed the Donets and reached Krasnoarmeiskaia by 12 February. Vatutin committed two additional fresh tank corps toward Zaporozhe, a critical transport node which was also the location of Manstein’s headquarters.[xxii]

SS-Tiger-LSAH-01Tiger Tanks assigned to 1st SS Panzer Division

Hitler arrived to consult with Manstein on 17 February and remained for three days with Soviet forces perilously close.  Manstein only had some flak units and the Army Group Headquarters Company between him and Popov’s advanced elements. On Hitler’s last day “some T-34’s approached to within gun range of the airfield.”[xxiii]

The conference of Hitler with Manstein at Zaporozhe as well as a previous conference at the Wolfsschanze on 6 February was critical to the development of Manstein’s plan to restore the front. Manstein had now gotten both the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies across the Don, and “with this striking force, he felt confident of smashing the Russian offensive if he was given a free hand to withdraw from the line of the Donetz, evacuate Rostov and take up a much shorter front along the Mius river.”[xxiv] The conference on the 6th was one of the “rare moments in the war where Hitler authorized a strategic withdraw on a major scale.”[xxv] Yet as the Russians continued to advance Hitler became concerned and came to Zaporozhe.  At first Hitler would not concede to Manstein, as he wanted to assemble the SS Panzer Corps for an attack to recapture Kharkov.[xxvi] Manstein explained the need for a counter stroke and through much explanation was able to convince Hitler that the capture of Kharkov was not possible unless “we first removed the danger of the Army Group being cut off from its rear communications.”[xxvii]

T34_Stalingrad-Offensive-px800Soviet formations advance

The Russian aim was now obvious[xxviii] and Manstein had correctly discerned their strategy.  Manstein knew that his Army Group had to hold the line on the Mius and then quickly defeat the enemy between 1st Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf[xxix] in “order to prevent its own isolation from the Dnieper crossings.”[xxx] The Soviets had outrun their logistics support and had suffered heavy losses of their own and had serious equipment shortages.[xxxi] Manstein explained to Hitler the opportunity offered as it was now the Russians who “were worn out” and far from their supply dumps as the Germans had been in November 1942.  Manstein “foresaw an opportunity to seize the operational initiative with a counter offensive of his own.  Manstein’s target was the Soviet armored spearheads, still careening southwestward between Kharkov and Stalino.”[xxxii] Manstein believed that when the Russian “spearhead lunged, as it must toward the crossings on the upper Dnieper,” then Hoth’s Army would be let loose again.  The three SS Panzer divisions could then “play their rightful role as avengers, and strike southeast to meet 4th Panzer Army, catching the Russian armour in a noose.”[xxxiii] Hitler agreed to Manstein’s plan and Manstein shifted 4th Panzer Army to assume control of the SS Panzer Corps, now reinforced by 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division “Totenkopf.” Hitler reinforced Manstein and released 7 battle worn Panzer and motorized divisions for his attack.[xxxiv]

Soviet Miscalculation

It was now Stalin’s time to miscalculate. He and his subordinates “continued to believe that they were on the verge of a great victory. German defenses in southern Russia appeared to be crumbling and the Stavka sought to expand that victory to include Army Group Center.”[xxxv] To this end they diverted armies to the north and launched attacks in that direction.  However German defenses were stiff and the plan was “predicated on the assumption of continued offensive success further south.”[xxxvi] Reinforcements from Stalingrad failed to deploy and “Army Group Center’s defenses, prepared for the past year and a half proved formidable.”[xxxvii]

In the south Stalin saw the Dnieper and almost “heedlessly drove his armies towards what he thought would be the decisive victory on the banks of this huge Russian river,”[xxxviii] but, Soviet “ambitions exceeded their available resources and the skill of their commanders.”[xxxix] The SS Panzer Corps withdraw from Kharkov “further heightened the Soviet’s intoxication with victory”[xl] and confirmed their beliefs that the Germans were withdrawing.  Stalin believed that “it was inconceivable that Hitler’s Praetorian Guard would abandon Kharkov except as part of a general order to retreat.”[xli] He believed that the encirclement of Army Group South would lead to a chain reaction and quick way to victory over German forces in the east.  Believing that there was no way for the Germans to recover and establish a solid front on the Mius,[xlii] Stalin continued to drive his forces to attack, yet the Russian offensive in the south had reached what Clausewitz had called the “culminating point” and Stalin’s armies were now extremely vulnerable. “The weather, the devastated communications, and their own inexperience in maintaining the traffic density required to support a deep penetration on a narrow front had combined to force a dangerous dispersal of effort on the Russian advance which had broken down into four separate groups.”[xliii]

panzer ivfPanzers assembling to attack

The Soviet forces were now in a dangerous predicament being spread out across the entire south of Russia.  One group, composed of the 69th Army and 3rd Tank Army pushed against Army detachment Kempf west of Kharkov.  To the south the badly depleted 6th Army and 1st Guards Army were now “strung out down a long corridor they had opened between Izyum and Pavlograd,”[xliv] Mobile Group Popov was lagging further east near Krasnoarmeiskaia.   Additional units were isolated behind the front of Army Detachment Fretter-Pico and near Matveyev.  Soviet commanders believed that the Germans were in worse shape and that “the risks of dispersal were justified.”[xlv] They had not anticipated or made allowance for Manstein’s coolness under pressure and actions to preserve his armor while thinning his front “well past the accepted danger limit.”[xlvi] Likewise the Soviets did not know that the Germans had cracked the code used by the Southwest front and from 12 February on “were now privy to Popov’s and Vatutin’s thoughts,” now knowing precisely where the Russians would attack.[xlvii] Manstein had withstood temptation and Hitler’s pressure to use his reserves “for a direct defense of the Dnieper line.”[xlviii] As such he was prepared to launch a devastating counter-stroke against the dispersed and weakened Russian armies which were still advancing into the trap he planned for them. He had managed to “save his counteroffensive plan from Hitler’s shrill demands that the new reserves be thrown into battle piecemeal to prevent further territorial losses.”[xlix] The stage was now set for a two classic mobile operations.[l]

The Destruction of Mobile Group Popov, 6th Army and 1st Guards Army

Manstein launched his counter-stroke on 21 February against Popov’s Mobile Group using XL Panzer Corps under the command of General Henrici composed of the 7th and 11th Panzer Divisions and SS Motorized Division Viking. Popov’s Group was exposed. Popov had “succeed in cutting the railway from Dnepropetrovsk to Stalino and was itching to push further south to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.”[li] The Soviets once again had failed to discern German intentions, believing that the Germans were retreating.[lii] Likewise the Soviet high command did not fully understand Popov’s situation. His force was weak in tanks and low on fuel and his Mobile Group was defeated in detail by the German Corps.  Popov’s immobilized tank and motorized rifle formations resisted desperately but were bypassed by the panzers.  The 330th Infantry Division mopped up the remnants of these formations.[liii] The key battles took place around the town of Krasnoarmeiskaia and the battle became a running battle between that town and the Donets River.[liv] Popov requested permission to retreat, but still believing the Germans to be retreating Vatutin gave a categorical “no.” The terrain in the area was “almost completely open”[lv] and “Popov’s proud Armoured Group was cut up like a cake.”[lvi] Popov extricated some of his units but “only after serious losses in manpower and equipment.”[lvii] Despite this it would not be until the 24th that Vatutin would order a halt to offensive operations.[lviii]

kharkovSS Panzers in Kharkov

As Popov sought to get his units out of the German scythe Manstein set his sights on 6th Army, 1st Guards Army and 25th Tank Corps which was approaching Zaporozhe.[lix] He assigned the task to Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army and its XLVIII Panzer Corps under General Knobelsdorf composed of the 6th and 17th Panzer Divisions and the SS Panzer Corps comprising SS Divisions Liebstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf.[lx] Manstein gave Hoth a brief but explicit order: “The Soviet Sixth Army, now racing towards Dnepropetrovsk through the gap between First Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf, is to be eliminated.”[lxi] The XLVIII Panzer Corps and SS Panzer Corps were unleashed against the exposed flank of the 6th Army and 1st Guards Army.   XLVIII Panzer Corps quickly “seized bridgeheads over the Samara River, and prepared to move north into the rear of the exhausted Soviet Sixth Army.”[lxii] The two Panzer Corps then made a coordinated concentric attack northwest which “came as a complete surprise to the Russians.”[lxiii] Das Reich thrust deep into the flank of 6th Army supported by Stukas from Richthofen’s 4th Air Fleet.  This attack dislodged one Soviet Rifle Corps and destroyed another allowing the division to capture Pavlograd while XLVIII Panzer Corps led by 17th Panzer Division pushed from the south linking up with the SS Corps. This cut off the Soviet 25th Tank Corps and threatened 6th Army.[lxiv] What followed was a disaster for the Russians.        Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary the Stavka and Front commanders still believed that the Germans were retreating.  6th Army was ordered to continue its advance by the front commander who believed that the two German Panzer Corps were withdrawing.[lxv] In a few days the 17th Panzer Division “gained the Izyum-Protoponovka sector on the Donetz River, while the SS Panzer Corps took Losovaya and established contact with Army Detachment Kempf, which had joined the attack from the west.”[lxvi] XL Panzer Corps with the 3rd and 7th Panzer Divisions and 333rd Infantry Division joined in the attack on Popov’s remaining forces completing their destruction.[lxvii] As Hoth and Hausser converged on Pavlograd, Das Reich and Totenkopf “swung left to the east and then wheeled back north again running parallel to the Russian divisions fleeing from Forty-eighth Panzer Corps. What ensured was a turkey shoot.”[lxviii] Fleeing Russian forces on the open steppe were visible and engaged at long range.[lxix] Leibstandarte helped by holding the left flank against Russian counter attacks from the units now isolated in the west,[lxx] and Totenkopf’s grenadiers fanned out supported by Stukas to “kill or capture as many Russians as possible.”[lxxi] By 1 March the Russian penetrations had been eliminated. Popov’s Mobile Group was smashed, 6th Army and 1st Guards Army badly mauled. 25th Tank Corps and three Rifle divisions had to be completely written off and numerous other corps and divisions took heavy casualties.  Two additional corps, encircled before the offensive began were eliminated by German forces.[lxxii] The Germans counted 23,000 Russian dead on the battlefield, and Manstein noted that “the booty included 615 tanks, 354 field pieces, 69 anti-aircraft guns and large numbers of machine guns and mortars.”[lxxiii] The Germans only took 9,000 prisoners as they were too weak, especially in infantry to seal off the encircled Soviet forces.[lxxiv] Yet the forces that escaped they were in no condition to “block the continued progress of the Panzers and SS.”[lxxv] Now there was a 100 mile gap in the Russian lines with nothing no troops to fill it and only “General Mud” could stop the Germans.[lxxvi] Manstein was not yet finished and the next phase of his operation against the Soviet formations west of Kharkov and that city were about to commence.

The Destruction of 3rd Tank Army

With the immediate threat to his Army Group eliminated and having regained the initiative, Manstein and Army Group South now “proceeded to deliver the stroke against the ‘Voronezh Front’– i.e. the forces located in the Kharkov area.”[lxxvii] But the Russians had not been idle. In order to attempt to assist 6th Army 3rd Tank Army moved two tank corps and three Rifle divisions south and these ran into Manstein’s advancing panzers.[lxxviii] Manstein’ noted his objective now was “not the possession of Kharkov but the defeat-and if possible the destruction of the enemy units located there.”[lxxix] Between March 1st and 5th his forces advanced on Kharkov. Not knowing the Germans dispositions[lxxx] 3rd Tank Army made the mistake of moving between the Leibstandarte’s defensive positions and the attacking divisions of the SS Panzer Corps. Hausser wheeled Totenkopf around and completed an encirclement of these units near Bereka on 3 March.[lxxxi] The Russians made futile attempts to break out but the SS Divisions tightened the noose around them and they were eliminated by the SS Panzer Corps which “engaged in concentric attacks during the three days of hard fighting.”[lxxxii] Even Regimental commanders like Heinz Harmel of Das Reich’s Der Fuhrer regiment became engaged in close combat with the Russians.[lxxxiii] The battle was fought in “snowstorms whose intensity caused the SS severe privations.”[lxxxiv] Totenkopf and Das Reich slammed the Russians “back against the Tiger tanks and assault guns of the Leibstandarte.”[lxxxv] The elimination of these units netted another 12,000 Russians killed,[lxxxvi] knocking “out the last remaining obstacle between the Germans and Kharkov.”[lxxxvii]

Return to Kharkov and Controversy

Manstein turned his attention to Kharkov, supported by Richthofen’s 4th Air Fleet which for the last time in Russia “provided undisputed air superiority for a major German mechanized operation.”[lxxxviii] He decided to “roll up the enemy from the flank and force him away from Kharkov in the process.”[lxxxix] He ordered a “pincer on the town, sending Grossdeutschland around to the north with a reinforced Kempf detachment and the combined force of Hoth and the SS to attack the town from the south and rear.”[xc] Manstein planned to make a wide envelopment to avoid embroiling his panzers in costly urban combat stating “that at all costs the Army Group wished to avoid Kharkov’s becoming a second Stalingrad in which our assault forces might become irretrievably committed.”[xci] To this end he sent Das Reich and Totenkopf approaching from the south to west of the city[xcii] while XLVIII Panzer Corps swung east toward the Donetz.[xciii] As Hoth’s forces came up from the south to envelope the city, Grossdeutschland and the XI and LI Corps fought the Russians to the north and west,[xciv] eventually moving up to Belgorod.  By 8 March lead elements of the SS Panzer Corps were on the outskirts of the city.

At this point there is some controversy as to German actions. As noted Manstein wished to avoid urban combat and desired to surround the city and force its surrender.  According to one writer Hoth ordered Hausser “to seal off the city from the west and north and to take any opportunity to seize it.”[xcv] Others including Glantz and House and Murray and Millett state that Hausser “ignored a direct order” and attacked into the city.[xcvi] Manstein does not explicitly say that there was a direct order but notes that the Army Group “had to intervene vigorously on more than one occasion to ensure that the corps did not launch a frontal attack on Kharkov.”[xcvii] Sydnor states that Hausser ignored a direct order by Hoth on the 11th by detailing a battalion of Totenkopf to assist Das Reich and Leibstandarte in retaking Kharkov by direct assault. The order entailed pulling Das Reich out of the city and taking it to the east.[xcviii] Lucas adds that this order came in the midst of hard fighting in the city and could not be carried out by the division.[xcix]Carell notes that on 9 March Hoth instructed Hausser that “opportunities to seize the city by a coup are to be utilized,”[c] and goes into detail regarding how Hoth’s 11 March order applied to Das Reich. It was to be pulled out of action and brought east, but division was heavily engaged and in the process of breaking through Soviet defenses “quicker in fact than if he had pulled “Das Reich” out of the operation and led it all the way round the city along those terrible muddy and time wasting roads.”[ci] In the end the SS took Kharkov, Manstein said that the city “fell without difficulty”[cii] while others note the difficulty of the action and the casualties suffered by the SS.  Kharkov’s capture; the defeat of Rokossovsky’s campaign against Orel and the beginning of the spring Rasutitsa ended the winter campaign and stabilized the front.

Analysis

The Russian winter offensive following Stalingrad had great potential.  Manstein said: “the successes attained on the Soviet side, the magnitude of which is incontestable.”[ciii] The greatest Soviet shortcomings were inexperience in conducting deep mobile operations and the inability of their logistics system to keep up with their advance.  Clark notes that this was their “first experience of an offensive war of movement on a large scale.[civ] Glantz and House are not alone in noting that the “Stavka continued to undertake operations that were beyond its resources.”[cv] Murray and Millett state that they “lacked the operational focus that had marked the Stalingrad offensive.”[cvi] Had they had the resources and ability to execute their plans they might have destroyed all German forces in the south.  They misread German intentions based on their own over-optimistic expectations opened their forces to Manstein’s devastating counter stroke.  Von Mellenthin, possibly showing some prejudice commented that the Russian soldier “when confronted by surprise and unforeseen situations he is an easy prey to panic.”[cvii]

The Germans snatched victory out of what appeared to be certain defeat aided by Russian mistakes and operational shortcomings.  Manstein refused to panic and conserved his forces for his counterattack.[cviii] Kleist brought his Army Group out of what might have been encirclement worse than Stalingrad.  Hitler for the most part gave Manstein operational freedom which he had not provided other commanders.  German Panzer forces conducted mobile operations against superior enemy armored forces and bested them.  Landsers held their own in at critical junctures, especially on the Mius and gave Manstein the opportunity to employ the panzers in the mobile defense.[cix] The Luftwaffe recovered its balance and the coordinated operations between it and German ground forces gave them an edge at a point where the Red Air Force was unable to support the Red Army.[cx] Above all the Germans still maintained the edge in both overall quality of generalship, especially that of Manstein and Kleist, but not to exclude Hoth, Hausser and lower level commanders.  Additionally the average German soldier still maintained an edge over his Soviet adversary in the confusion of mobile operations in open terrain.   Manstein and his forces gave Hitler breathing room on the eastern front.[cxi] As Clark notes: “few periods in World War II show a more complete and dramatic reversal of fortune than the fortnight in February and the first in March 1943…it repaired its front, shattered the hopes of the Allies, nipped the Russian spearhead. Above all it recovered its moral ascendancy.”[cxii]


[i] Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated by H. Betzler, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1971. Originally Published University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. p245

[ii] Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995. p.143

[iii] Ibid. Glantz. P.143. These units include 3rd Tank Army, 1st and 3rd Guards Armies and the 6th, 40th and 69th Armies.

[iv] Liddell-Hart. B.H. Strategy.  A Signet Book, the New American Library, New York, NY 1974, first published by Faber and Faber Ltd. London, 1954 and 1967. p.253

[v] Raus, Erhard. Panzer Operation: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945. Compiled and Translated by Steven H Newton. Da Capo Press a member of the Perseus Book Group, Cambridge, MA 2003. p.185

[vi] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. 2000. pp.291-292

[vii] Liddell-Hart, B.H. History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, New York, NY. 1970  p.478

[viii] Wray, Timothy A. Standing Fast: German Defensive Doctrine on the Russian Front in World War II, Prewar to March 1943. U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS. 1986. p.161

[ix] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.292

[x] Ibid. Liddell-Hart, Second World War. p.479

[xi] Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishing, New York, NY. 1979. Copyright 1948 by B.H. Liddell-Hart. pp.211-212.

[xii] Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45. Perennial, an Imprint of Harper Collins Books, New York, NY 2002. Originally published by William Morrow, New York, NY 1965. pp.299-300

[xiii] Glantz, David M and House, Jonathan. The Battle of Kursk.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1999. p.11

[xiv] Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories. Translated by Anthony G. Powell, Zenith Press, an imprint of MBI Publishing Company, St Paul, MN. 2004. First Published as Verlorene Siege Athenaum-Verlag, Bonn, GE 1955, English edition Methuen & Company Ltd. 1958  p.417

[xv] Ibid. Clark. p.300

[xvi] Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth: The Russian German War 1943-1944. Translated by Ewald Osers, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, published in arrangement with Little-Brown and Company. pp.196-199

[xvii] Lucas, James. Das Reich: The Military History of the 2nd SS Division. Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, UK, 1999. First published by Arms and Armour, 1991. p.91  Glantz and House criticize Hausser saying that the SS Panzer Corps Staff lacked the experience to perform its mission.  (Titans Clashed p.144) Most other commentators agree with the necessity of his withdraw.

[xviii] Messenger, Charles. Sepp Dietrich: Hitler’s Gladiator. Brassey’s Defence Publishers, London, 1988. p.113

[xix] Ibid. Clark. p.300

[xx] Ibid. Manstein. p.419

[xxi] Ibid. Manstein. pp.418-419

[xxii] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.144

[xxiii] Ibid. Clark. p.300

[xxiv] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.251

[xxv] Ibid. Carell. p.191

[xxvi] Ibid. Manstein. p.424.

[xxvii] Ibid. Manstein. p.428

[xxviii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. Second World War. p.481

[xxix] This had previously been Army Detachment Lanz, but Lanz had bee relieved over the loss of Kharkov.

[xxx] Ibid. Manstein. p.429

[xxxi] Ibid. Murray and Millet. p.292

[xxxii] Ibid. Wray. p.162

[xxxiii] Ibid. Clark. p.302.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.145

[xxxv] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed . pp.144-145

[xxxvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.146

[xxxvii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.293

[xxxviii] Ibid. Carell. p.191

[xxxix] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.292

[xl] Ibid. Carell. p.199

[xli] Ibid. Carell. p.199

[xlii] Ibid. Carell. p.193

[xliii] Ibid. Clark. p.303

[xliv] Ibid. Clark. p.304

[xlv] Ibid. Clark. p.304

[xlvi] Ibid. Clark. p.304

[xlvii] Ibid. Carell. p.210

[xlviii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. Strategy p.253

[xlix] Ibid. Wray. p.163

[l] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.147. Note comments by Glantz and House in footnote 31 on relative strengths of forces involved, especially the weakness of German forces.

[li] Butler, Rupert. SS Wiking: The History of the Fifth SS Division 1941-45. Casemate, Havertown, PA. 2002. p.93

[lii] Ibid. Carell. p.211

[liii] Ibid. Carell. p.210

[liv] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.147

[lv] Ibid. von Mellenthin. p.253

[lvi] Ibid. Carell. p.210

[lvii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.293

[lviii] Ibid. Carell. p.213

[lix] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.147

[lx] There is difference in various accounts as to which units composed these Panzer Corps. Von Mellenthin adds 11th Panzer to the XLVIII Panzer Corps and some accounts do not list the Liebstandarte as part of the SS Panzer Corps.

[lxi] Ibid. Carell. p.211

[lxii] Sydnor, Charles W. Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death’s Head Division 1933-1945. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 1977. p.268

[lxiii] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.252

[lxiv] Ibid. Carell. p.212

[lxv] Ibid. Carell. p.212

[lxvi] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.252

[lxvii] Ibid. Carell. p.213

[lxviii] Ibid. Sydnor. pp.268-269

[lxix] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.253

[lxx] Meyer, Kurt. Grenadiers. Translated by Michael Mende and Robert J. Edwards. J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Canada. 2001. pp.180-181

[lxxi] Ibid. Sydnor. p.269

[lxxii] Ibid. Manstein. p.433

[lxxiii] Ibid. Manstein. p.433. Sydnor lists an addition 600 anti-tank guns and notes that the tanks were almost all T-34s. (Sydnor. p.269)

[lxxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.147

[lxxv] Ibid. Clark. p.306

[lxxvi] Ibid. Carell. p.216

[lxxvii] Ibid. Manstein. p.433

[lxxviii] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.187

[lxxix] Ibid. Manstein. p.433

[lxxx] Ibid. Meyer. p.181

[lxxxi] Ibid. Carell. p.216

[lxxxii] Ibid. Meyer. pp.181-182

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Lucas. p.95

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Lucas. p.95

[lxxxv] Ibid. Sydnor. p.277

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Manstein. p.434

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Sydnor. p.277

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.13

[lxxxix] Ibid. Manstein. p.435

[xc] Ibid. Clark. p.306

[xci] Ibid. Manstein. p.435

[xcii] Ibid. Sydnor. p.278

[xciii] Weingartner, James. J. Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler: A Military History, 1933-45. Battery Press, Nashville, TN.(no publication date listed)  p.75

[xciv] Ibid. Raus. pp.189-192

[xcv] Ibid. Messenger. p.114

[xcvi] See Glantz and House p.187 and Murray and Millett p.293

[xcvii] Ibid. Manstein. p.436

[xcviii] Ibid. Sydnor. p.278

[xcix] Ibid. Lucas. p.96

[c] Ibid. Carell. p.216

[ci] Ibid. Carell. p.219

[cii] Ibid. Manstein. p.436

[ciii] Ibid. Manstein. p.437

[civ] Ibid. Clark. p.303

[cv] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.143

[cvi] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.292

[cvii] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. p.254

[cviii] A comment by Von Mellenthin commenting on Manstein’s coolness in the conduct of his operations compares him to Robert E. Lee. “To find another example of defensive strategy of this caliber we must go back to Lee’s campaign in Virginia in the summer of 1864. (Von Mellenthin. p.245)

[cix] For some additional comments along these lines see vn Mellenthin who notes four points in regard to the counter stroke: 1. High level commanders did not restrict the moves of armored formations, but gave them long range tasks. 2. Armored formations had no worries about their flanks because the High Command had a moderate infantry force available for counterattacks. 3. All commanders of armored formations, including corps, conducted operations not from the rear, but from the front. 4. The attack came as a surprise regarding the time and place. (Von Mellenthin p.254)

[cx] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.293

[cxi] Despite his success Hitler was not happy with Manstein in regard to giving up ground for operational purposes and Manstein would lose much of the freedom that he enjoyed by March. Wray has a discussion of this.  See Wray. pp.162-163.  The Nazi hierarchy actively promoted the exploits of the SS Panzer Corps and its leaders, especially the commander of the Leibstandarte Sepp Dietrich. (see Weingartner pp. 76-77) The recognition of Hausser would be delayed, some speculate as a result of his disobedience in giving up Kharkov in February.

[cxii] Ibid. Clark. p.306

Bibliography

Butler, Rupert. SS Wiking: The History of the Fifth SS Division 1941-45. Casemate, Havertown, PA. 2002

Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth: The Russian German War 1943-1944. Translated by Ewald Osers, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, published in arrangement with Little-Brown and Company

Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45. Perennial, an Imprint of Harper Collins Books, New York, NY 2002. Originally published by William Morrow, New York, NY 1965

Glantz, David M and House, Jonathan. The Battle of Kursk.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1999

Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995

Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishing, New York, NY. 1979. Copyright 1948 by B.H. Liddell-Hart.

Liddell-Hart, B.H. History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, New York, NY.

Liddell-Hart. B.H. Strategy.  A Signet Book, the New American Library, New York, NY 1974, first published by Faber and Faber Ltd. London, 1954 and 1967

Lucas, James. Das Reich: The Military History of the 2nd SS Division. Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, UK, 1999. First published by Arms and Armour, 1991

Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories. Translated by Anthony G. Powell, Zenith Press, an imprint of MBI Publishing Company, St Paul, MN. 2004. First Published as Verlorene Siege Athenaum-Verlag, Bonn, GE 1955, English edition Methuen & Company Ltd. 1958

Messenger, Charles. Sepp Dietrich: Hitler’s Gladiator. Brassey’s Defence Publishers, London, 1988

Meyer, Kurt. Grenadiers. Translated by Michael Mende and Robert J. Edwards. J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Canada. 2001

Raus, Erhard. Panzer Operation: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945. Compiled and Translated by Steven H Newton. Da Capo Press a member of the Perseus Book Group, Cambridge, MA 2003

Sydnor, Charles W. Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death’s Head Division 1933-1945. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 1977

Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated by H. Betzler, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1971. Originally Published University of Oklahoma Press, 1956

Weingartner, James. J. Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler: A Military History, 1933-45. Battery Press, Nashville, TN.(no publication date listed)

Wray, Timothy A. Standing Fast: German Defensive Doctrine on the Russian Front in World War II, Prewar to March 1943. U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS. 1986

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Operation “Dachs” My First Foray into the Genre “Alternative History”

For a change of pace I have pulled up something that one of my professors allowed me to do in my Military History Masters Program.  This was my first foray into historical fiction, or as it is known sometimes as “Alternate History.”  This is actually a growing genre among military writers and others who have vivid imaginations as to what might have happened if….

I hope you enjoy.  Peace, Steve+

This is an alternative history of how the Germans might have avoided the disaster at Kursk. It looks at what might have happened if an actual assassination attempt on Hitler had succeeded in March 1943 and how Manstein might have been able to execute the “backhand” strategy that he favored using a mobile defense.  This is predicated by Hitler’s death, based on Hitler’s actions and control of operational decisions Manstein would never have been allowed the freedom to conduct operations in this manner.  In eliminating Hitler I have also included personnel changes and the overall strategy for the German High Command, and the probable response of Stalin to Hitler’s death had it occurred in the spring of 1943. I have tried to be faithful to known historical opinions and actions of the participants and likely reactions to such a situation although one cannot predict precisely what people would have done.  Thus I have documented the article with footnotes as if it were an actual history. It would have been interesting to be able to lengthen this and included sections on tactical actions based on memoirs of German and Russian soldiers.

hitlers fw-200Hitler’s FW-200 Prior to his Ill-fated vist to Army Group Center

Background: The Strategic Situation Spring 1943

In April 1943 the German High Command faced a decision on which the fate of Nazi Germany would hinge, but for the first time in the war it was not under the thumb of Adolf Hitler. Following Manstein’s counter-stroke following the Stalingrad disaster there was considerable pressure to follow up with that success with a continued offensive. Manstein himself had proposed this but Field Marshal Von Kluge refused to agree to an immediate offensive because he felt his troops needed rest and refitting. On March 13th Hitler flew out to meet with Von Kluge at Army Group Center HQ at Smolensk.  On the flight back Hitler’s FW-200 was racked by an explosion crash landing near Minsk, taken down by a bomb planted on the plane by Colonel Henning Von Trescow of Kluge’s staff.[i] While Hitler survived, he remained in critical condition, barely alive at a SS hospital until his death on 20 April 1943, his 54th birthday. The crash landing was reported by the escorting ME-109s of JG-53, and a Alarm Company from a Security Division at Minsk rescued Hitler but were driven off the crash site by a large force of Soviet Partisans who destroyed the aircraft and any evidence to the cause which the escorting fighters attributed to mechanical problems.  There were no other survivors. Von Kluge, expecting to be implicated the Fuhrer’s death committed suicide after visiting troops on the front line, and was succeeded at Army Group Center by Field Marshal Model the commander of 9th Army. The other conspirators were frozen into inaction when Hitler survived the crash and made no attempt to take over the government, realizing that “our plans for seizing power in Berlin and other large cities were still not adequate to the task.”[ii] In the absence of Hitler Reichsmarschall Goering, Hitler’s designated successor, took action to secure his power and using contacts in the GESTAPO accused Himmler of treason for making contact with Neutral intermediaries in Sweden[iii] and replaced him with SS General Kurt Wolfe, and reappointed Rudolf Diels, the former head of the GESTAPO when it was still under his control[iv], to head it again.  Himmler attempted to flee and was caught near Luneburg when he committed suicide with a cyanide capsule before he could be interrogated. Other potential rivals were eliminated; Martin Bormann, who Goering hated, was arrested on charges of exceeding his authority, embezzlement, and harming the war effort and was executed.[v] Joseph Goebbels swore his loyalty to Goering even before Hitler’s death.  He and Albert Speer were directed to arrange the state funeral for the late Fuhrer. Berlin Radio announced the Fuhrer’s death on the 21 April, Hitler’s body was prepared and lay in state at the Chancellery.   A period of mourning was declared 21 April to 1 May on which the State Funeral took place. On 2 May Goering announced that Field Marshal Von Rundstedt was the new Chief of OKW and would coordinate strategy on all fronts. The next day Goering called together a meeting of the heads of OKH, OKW, the Inspector General of Panzer Troops, and the commanders of the Eastern Front Army Groups, Western Europe and Africa as well as Reichsfuhrer Karl Wolff, Admiral Donitz and Field Marshal Von Richthofen[vi] representing the Luftwaffe to decide on a course of action for the summer. It was the first time that all had been called together to discuss the overall situation since Barbarossa began in 1941, and the first true attempt to formulate a grand strategy during the war.

Options and Decision: The Zossen Conference 3 May 1943[vii]

HU010919Goering meeting Diplomats following Hitler’s State Funeral

Herman Goering looked up from the maps spread out on the conference table.  He looked surprisingly fit, somehow between the crash of Hitler’s aircraft and his death he had pulled himself together and out of his drug induced malaise.  It was as if he again had a purpose. Field Marshal Von Rundstedt now Chief of OKW following Goering’s relief of Field Marshal Keitel, and General Jodl had just finished briefing the situation in western and southern Europe, following briefings by Colonel General Zeitzler of OKH, the Inspector General of Armored Troops, General Guderian and Field Marshal Von Manstein of Army Group South.  Albert Speer briefed tank and aircraft production numbers while the Chief of the Army personnel office noted the requirement for 800,000 replacements “but even the most ruthless call-up was able to produce only 400,000.”[viii] Looking from the table he spoke: “Gentlemen, the situation is critical and I have to admit that I have thought so for a number of months but have been unable to speak out.   Our political situation is perilous, the Italians are ready to abandon our cause. Our forces in North Africa will soon be unable to hold out as our Italian friends have let us down again.[ix] I expect that if Jodl and Kesselring are right about Allied intentions that we will have our hands full in the west shortly.  Kesselring and Arnim, you need to evacuate as many German soldiers from Africa as possible,[x] use all air and naval forces that you can, I know it will be difficult, especially with the heavy losses we have taken in transport aircraft and the pathetic Italian Navy.”  Goering paused, his gaze passing around the room.  “In the west we need to assume that the Allies will invade and the ‘very real danger that the enemy may turn against Brittany and Normandy,’ Field Marshal Rommel will take command of OB West to build up the Atlantic Wall in these sectors.”[xi] “Zeitzler, Manstein, we need to shore up the eastern front.”

“Herr Reichsmarschall, the Fuhrer had approved the plan called ZITADELLE, to attack the Russians here in the Kursk salient.” responded Zeitzler.[xii] “We should be ready to begin the offensive this month.”  Goering raised his hand stopping Zeitzler.  “I know, but I have considered that plan and I cannot support it. Richthofen briefed me on it prior to the Fuhrer’s death and general, we must have another plan, and an attack on Kursk is so obvious the Russians will be ready to meet it.  I have considered what the General Guderian and Minister Speer said regarding tank production and the state of the Panzer arm.  I cannot approve Zitadelle, but we must find a way to deal the Russians a defeat without squandering our strength attacking such an obvious target. Model too is dubious of the prospects; he believes that the Russians know our intentions and has requested a delay to strengthen his forces.”[xiii] “Reichsmarshall.” chimed in Jodl. “You are correct, the premature commitment of central reserves in such an offensive will not help our cause, in fact only local success is what can be expected from Zitadelle.”[xiv]

“But Reichsmarshall, we must recapture the initiative in the east, we must take the offensive!” retorted Zeitzler. “Our new units of Panthers and Tigers will give us a decisive technical advantage.”[xv] Guderian now joined in. “But the Panthers still have many technical problems, it would be better to wait until they are worked out before we commit them to a major offensive, and besides, how many people do you think even know where Kursk is?”[xvi]

“Zeitzler, I appreciate your zeal.” Interrupted Goering, “But Jodl and Guderian are correct, even a successful attack at Kursk will not alter the strategic situation. We must work to stave off defeat.  Manstein has a plan that may help, there is some risk, but I see no other way. An offensive at Kursk would require tanks and aircraft that must be used to combat the Allied bombing of the Reich and to safeguard withdraw of our units from Africa, it would force us to commit everything with little gain.” Goering paused and said to Manstein, “Go ahead Manstein.”

“Reichsmarshall, Gentlemen.  Our situation in the east is not hopeless, in March I felt that an immediate offensive would succeed in pinching off the Kursk bulge, but I think now that the moment of opportunity has passed for such an attack.  Instead we should fight a defensive battle of maneuver as called for by Truppenführung that we have developed from the days of the Reichswehr.  We should build up our forces; give ground where we can, and when we have the chance strike the enemy on the backhand, as we did at Kharkov.”[xvii]

Zeitzler jumped in. “But how can we do that? If we don’t strike now while we have the opportunity the Russians will grow stronger, and how can we know where they will strike?”[xviii]

“General Zeitzler, the Russians are already building up heavy armored forces in the area of Kursk, and diverting forces from other sectors of the front to that area.  The south offers them the best opportunity to finish what they started in the winter.  They will come and it will be in the south, they will want Kharkov and they will again attempt to envelop our forces in the south. If they succeed they will follow up and rapidly move into the Balkans, Romania and Hungary will turn on us and it will be a disaster, we cannot afford that.”  Manstein looked up, Jodl nodded and Model said “Once that is done they will push to Kiev and Poland.” Goering interjected “Thank you Model, you are right, Field Marshal Manstein; please go on with your plan.”

Bild 101I-209-0086-12Erich Von Manstein at the Front

Motioning to the map Manstein continued. “We will concentrate the majority of our Panzer forces here, just west of Kharkov and another group here west of Orel.  We will also build fall back positions for our infantry forces here along the Dnieper.  We should be ready to withdraw from the Crimea should the need arise, we cannot afford another encirclement.  When the Russians attack we will give ground, even Kharkov if needed. Our infantry divisions will fight a delaying action supported by Jagdpanzer and Sturmgeschutzen, the Luftwaffe will need to give us good close air support from Stukas and as the Russians outrun their supply depots and their offensive loses momentum we will attack, like a badger defending itself.  Our Panzers will cut off their spearheads west of Kharkov while we bleed them dry in the north; we will then roll them up, stabilize the line and prepare for the winter.”  Manstein sounded confident; those in the room began to sense that his plan could work.  Rundstedt spoke up: “That will give us the chance to transfer forces to other fronts and, maybe, since Hitler is dead there might be a chance for Reichsmarschall to negotiate a settlement,[xix] otherwise gentlemen the Allies will destroy our cities from the air and grind our armies down until we have no recourse but surrender.”

“Right” added Goering, making eye contact with each man in the room. “We must have success in the defense, we must buy time and we must work to end this war before Germany is destroyed. ‘We will have reason to be glad if Germany can keep the boundaries of 1933 after the war.”[xx] He paused and said “General Zeitzler, you are relieved of your duties at OKH, General Guderian, you are now the Chief of OKH.[xxi] Manstein, you will command the East, General Hoth will take your Army Group. You will work with Guderian and Model to flesh out this plan.  We must get the Panther, Tiger and Ferdinand units operational as soon as possible.  I believe that the Russians will attack by June. Richthofen, I need you to look to the Luftwaffe. We have not had a good year and we have to succeed in defending the Reich from Allied bombers and provide support to the ground forces. Of course flak needs to be built up. The Luftwaffe Field Divisions with the exception of the Fallschirmjaeger and Herman Goering Panzer Division need to be transferred to Army control.”  He looked at Speer: “Herr Speer, the Fuhrer entrusted you with our war production program, you must increase production of tanks and aircraft. Speed the production of the ME-262 and cancel all programs that take away from the panzers, fighters and ground support aircraft that we need now.” He put his hands on his hips and took a deep breathe. He looked at Wolfe, Himmler’s successor.  Wolff, the Reich needs the Waffen SS, the Panzer troops are exceptional, but I want all Waffen SS Formations, with including the Panzers turned over to Army control, we cannot keep dividing our resources. With the personnel from the Luftwaffe Field Divisions we should be able to provide the Army with excellent troops to rebuild experienced formations.”  Goering looked around the room; “Are there any questions Gentlemen?” Putting his arm across Manstein’s soldier and said: “I think that Badger is a fitting name for your plan. Our little Dachs will tear them to pieces.”   Later, Goering met with Foreign Ministry officials emphasizing the need to strengthen German Allies and seek peace with the west. He “admitted that he was worried about the future. ‘It’s not quite clear to me how we are going to end this war.’”[xxii] Those present could not believe how Goering had conducted himself, and all left the meeting thinking that it might be possible to stave off defeat.  It was an incredible performance. After Hitler’s crash he had secretly undergone a “systematic withdraw cure which had ended his drug addiction.”[xxiii] The change was marked.

STAVKA Headquarters Moscow: 7 May 1943

Josef Stalin was ecstatic.  His agents reported that Hitler was dead even before the announcement from Berlin.  Partisans had confirmed that it was Hitler’s aircraft that they found and recovered some of Hitler’s personal belongings, including his cap, which they presented to Stalin.  Intelligence reported that Goering had taken power, and Stalin was sure that his position was weak and many believed that Goering, was not up to the task, and that a renewed offensive could bring down the Nazi regime.  Now was the time to bring the Nazi terror to an end and Stalin called his key leaders together.  While Stalin wanted an immediate offensive his generals wanted to wait just in case the Germans attacked Kursk.  “Zhukov, Vasilevsky, and various General Staff officers urged caution and recommended that the Red Army remain on the defensive until the Germans expended their offensive strength.”[xxiv] Stalin supported by commanders, like Vatutin, “argued for a resumption of offensive action in early summer to preempt German action and regain the momentum lost in March 1943.”[xxv] In the end a compromise was reached and despite the temporary defensive stand “Russian strategic planning in the summer of 1943 was inherently offensive in nature.”[xxvi] The new offensive would be launched on 15 June if the Germans had not attacked before.  It would be named Operation Kutuzov[xxvii] and be aimed at the Orel salient and Kharkov.  The northern prong under Rokossovsky’s Central Front would destroy the Germans around Orel and drive west while Vatutin’s Voronezh and Konev’s Steppe Front would take Kharkov and drive toward the Dnieper.[xxviii] The Southwest Front and South Fronts would attack and destroy the German forces along the Mius, the goal: “collapse of the German defenses and an advance to the line of the Dnieper River from Smolensk in the north southward to the Black Sea.”[xxix]

German Preparations

sturmgeschutzSturmgechuten and SdKfw 251 APCs moving into position

Manstein met with Model, Hoth and Guderian to develop DACHS. They had  to play for time and deceive the Russians as to their true intent so they could build up their forces.  Deception operations were mounted on both sides of the Kursk bulge to give the impression of attack preparations.  1st Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf  were to launch a diversion called Operations HABICHT and PANTHER southeast of Kursk  “designed to push the Soviets back from the industrial area of the Donets River.”[xxx] The defensive plan called for the infantry supported by tank destroyers, assault guns the heavy Ferdinands as well as mobile Pioneer units to conduct a withdraw to delay and disrupt the Russian attack.  Bridges were prepared for demolition, defensive positions constructed at choke points which would be defended and then abandoned when no longer defensible, and minefields laid to slow the Russian advance.  This was critical for 9th Army now commanded by General Henrici in the Orel salient north of Kursk.  Henrici, a defensive master constructed a series of defensive belts to allow his army to withdraw from the bulge without being cut off and inflict heavy casualties on the Russians through skillful deployment of anti-tank weapons, especially self propelled guns.[xxxi] In the south 4th Panzer Army, now commanded by SS General Paul Hausser[xxxii] and Army detachment Kempf made preparations to allow the Russians to advance past Kharkov using the same defend and delay tactics and then counterattack. As the armies prepared, Speer and Guderian’s efforts to rebuild the Panzer force were bearing fruit.  By 15 May the first brigade of Panther tanks was activated and began training west of Kharkov.[xxxiii] Two battalions of Ferdinands, one for 9th Army and one for 4th Panzer Army were activated.[xxxiv] Sturmgeschutz battalions were assigned to each infantry corps. Panzer divisions built up so that all had an average of 130 tanks, with the SS Divisions and Gross Deutschland receiving more.  Tiger battalions were assigned to each Panzer Corps.

The Summer Campaign

On 1 June Operations PANTHER and HABICHT hit the unfortunate Soviet 6th Army, which had been victimized by Manstein’s counter-stroke in March.  III Panzer Corps of Army Detachment Kempf supported by Corps Raus (IX Corps) linked up with 1st Panzer Army at Kupiansk on 3 June.  The Russian counterattacked with 8th Guards Army and the 2nd and 23rd Tank Corps. The battle of Kupiansk resulted in the destruction of 6th Army and the 23rd Tank Corps which was surprised by the 503rd Panzer Detachment’s Tigers. 2nd Tank Corps received a similar mauling at the hands of the 6th Panzer Division.  On 9 June the Germans returned to their start positions.

Kursk_T34_and_Fieldgun-px800Soviet Tanks and AT Guns at Kupiansk

The attack at Kupiansk surprised STAVKA which had been deceived by the build up of Panzers around the Kursk salient.  Stalin continued to hound his generals to begin Kutuzov on time, but the generals were “chastened” by the defeat at Kupiansk and “earlier experiences”[xxxv] and wanted to delay. Stalin forced them to begin Kutuzov on 22 June, the 2nd Anniversary of Barbarossa.  Manstein and his Eastern Front commanders held their breath.  Teams of Brandenburger commandos operating in the Soviet rear and Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft reported Russian units moving to advanced positions to the north and south of Kursk.  Vatutin commanding the Voronezh Front was ambushed and killed by a Brandenburger detachment supporting Ukrainian irregulars[xxxvi] as he returned from visiting 69th Army near Prokhorovka station on 19 June and was replaced by Lieutenant General Katukov of 1st Tank Army.  Katukov “was one of the Red Army’s most accomplished and experienced armor officers.”[xxxvii]

kursk_tanksMk IV Panzers

In the north Rokossovsky’s Central Front and Popov’s Bryansk Front supported by 11th Guards Army[xxxviii] began concentric attacks on the German 9th and 2nd Panzer Armies and ran into Henrici’s labyrinth on 22 June.  They hit the first line they found it empty, the Germans having repaired to secondary positions,[xxxix] German 88’s and self propelled guns took a heavy toll on the tanks of 2nd Tank Army.  The 3rd Tank Army under General Rybalko’s army committed after the initial assault “attempted a fresh penetration instead of exploiting the earlier efforts of the 3rd and 63rd Armies… Rybalko’s force included 698 serviceable tanks…but lacked the artillery and engineers for such a deliberate assault.”[xl] Popov telephoned Stalin at noon on 25 June “to report that Rybalko was practically stalled and suffering heavy losses in tanks.”[xli] The Germans committed the 5th and 8th Panzer divisions[xlii] against 3rd Tank Army. The fresh Panzers inflicted painful losses on Rybalko.  On 27 June Stalin called to complain about the handling of the army, demanding a direct assault.[xliii] The battle turned into a “grinding battle of armored attrition.”[xliv] After “a few bloody days bereft of any success, Rybalko’s tank formations had to be pulled out of the line into reserve.”[xlv] The “battle for the Orel salient ended three weeks later with a German defensive victory, as Army Group Center extricated its two armies from the box prepared for them while inflicting heavy casualties on three Soviet Fronts.”[xlvi] The Soviets lost over 629,000 men and 3,500 tanks.[xlvii] In comparison German losses were light and by falling back they shortened their line freeing units for other operations.  Stalin had Orel but failed to destroy the Germans and lost heavily in the attempt.

In the south Konev’s Steppe and Katukov’s Voronezh Fronts prepared their assault on Kharkov.  They attempted to deceive the Germans by simulating the massing of a “notional tank and combined-arms army” in the western side of the Kursk bulge.[xlviii] The deception was unsuccessful as reconnaissance by Luftwaffe aircraft and Brandenburgers failed to uncover any troop concentrations and Russian deserters, talked of a strike at Kharkov. The offensive “Rumiantsev” was opened by the 5th and 6th Guards armies supported by 53rd and 69th Armies on 21 June; a day later 7th Guards Army jumped off, two additional armies supported the west flank of the offensive.[xlix] The Russians in the two fronts began the operation with 980,000 men and 2,500 tanks.[l] Opposing them were 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf’s 350,000 men and 1,750 tanks and assault guns including 100 Tigers and 192 Panthers.[li]

Sovietic_T34_battle_of_kurskT-34 towing disabled T-34 near Orel

STAVKA “chose to strike the strongest portion of Hoth’s defense head-on, to engage and defeat the German force and avoid the problems of flank threats.”[lii] Unfortunately they complicated the attack by focusing it at “precisely the boundary between the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts, causing increased coordination problems from the start of the operation.”[liii] The Germans used Ferdinands, Jagdpanzers and Sturmgeschutz in a mobile defensive role, as infantry fought delaying actions as they withdrew to successive defensive lines, inflicting brutal losses on the Russians.  Aided by massive artillery preparation the Russians broke through the weakened Army Detachment Kempf near Belgorad[liv] taking the city on 24 June.  Corps Raus’ 167th Infantry Division was taken on its exposed left flank forcing Raus to “fight a delaying action…until the withdraw reached Kharkov.” [lv] The Germans reacted to the threat by committing the “veteran 5th SS Panzer Grenadier Division Wiking” to reinforce Army Detachment Kempf.[lvi] Despite the success “the German defenses proved so tenacious that the leading brigades of the two tank armies had to enter the fray.”[lvii]

As the Russians advanced the German fell back.  Hoth directed Hausser to wait before counterattacking with XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps.  Katukov pushed the 1st and 5th Tank Armies into the hole in the German lines and moved toward Kharkov which was liberated by the 89th and 183rd Guards Divisions[lviii] on 2 July.  The liberation of Kharkov and Belgorad while exhilarating had cost Katukov over 250,000 casualties.  Skillful employment of mobile defense and local counterattacks by mixed Panzer battlegroups, such as one by Grossdeutschland on the flank of 5th Tank Army caused panic and some units withdrew “leaving behind masses of equipment of every description.”[lix] The tank armies had lost upwards of 50 percent of their tanks, infantry divisions were now down to half strength, some down to 3000 men.[lx] Yet the Soviets attempted to drive south to trap the Germans.  They were hit by XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps, both of which had seen little action thanks to Hoth’s conservation of strength. XLVIII Panzer Corps hit the 1st Tank Army at the “key road junction of Bogodukhov, 30 kilometers northwest” of Kharkov “severely mauling the leading three brigades”[lxi] forcing 1st Tank Army to withdraw towards Kursk. 5th Tank army moved to support but was taken in the flank by II SS Panzer Corps.  The SS Corps encircled the remainder of 5th Tank Army. Hunted by the SS on the open steppe the survivors slipped through gaps in the encirclement but both armies were ravaged.  By 15 June 1st Tank Army was down to 120 tanks and 5th Tank Army had “50 of its original 503 tanks and self-propelled guns serviceable.”[lxii] XLVII Panzer Corps took Kharkov on 18 July.

Totenkopf-Kursk-01SS Panzer Troops and Tigers prepping for battle

The victory paid dividends for the Germans. The Front held and the Russians had taken nearly a million casualties and lost almost 6000 tanks and self-propelled guns.  Three Tank Armies had been smashed, 5th Tank Army would not be fit for field duty for two months.[lxiii] 3rd Tank Army earned a Guards designation but was withdrawn from combat.[lxiv] 6th Army, victimized by PANTHER was destroyed while the 5th, 6th and 7th Guards Armies were shattered. Additionally, the Germans decimated two independent tank corps.  Stalin reacted by halting operations, cancelling follow on offensives and rebuilding the Red Army’s tank armies and mechanized forces.  He realized that his Generals had been right in not wanting to undertake offensive operations until the Germans had been weakened, but the German insistence on not going on the offensive caused him to ignore their arguments. He decided to wait until winter to launch his next offensive, but that offensive would never be launched as by the time he was ready the war was over.

Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-206-34German Tank Commader as Panzers mop up

The elimination of the Russian threat enabled Italy to be reinforced as well as the reinforcement of the Atlantic Wall.  The Salerno landings were a disaster, the Allies driven into the sea by Panzer Divisions released from the Eastern Front.  The disasters at Salerno and the Russian debacle brought overwhelming domestic political pressure on Roosevelt and Churchill to end the war. Clandestine talks began in Switzerland between Avery Dulles and Karl Wolff[lxv] while Walter Schellenberg met with Count Bernadotte.[lxvi] Despite the previous demand for unconditional surrender the Allies decided to negotiate with the new German leadership might end the war in Europe.  Goering surrendered power to General Beck and gave himself and other accused war criminals up to the Allies. Beck took power, withdrew to 1939 borders, dismantled the death camps and disbanded the Nazi Party, and its police apparatus.[lxvii] Peace came to Europe on 9 November 1943, 25 years after Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdicated his throne.

HU048801Goering Surrenders himself


[i] Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian German Conflict, 1941-45. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY 1965. Pp.307-311. There was an attempt on Hitler’s life on his return from Kluge’s headquarters.  Only the bomb did not go off, all components had worked but the detonator did not fire.  Clark notes that “the Devil’s hand had protected Hitler.” (p.311)

[ii] Galante, Pierre. Operation Valkyrie: The German Generals’ Plot Against Hitler. Translated by Mark Howson and Cary Ryan. Harper and Row Publishers, New York, NY 1981. Originally published as Hitler est il Mort? Librairie Plon-Paris-Match, France. 1981. p.167 

[iii] Padfield, Peter. Himmler. MJF Books, New York. 1990. p.474.  Himmler had a number of contacts and intermediaries who he used to attempt contact with the Allies as early as 1943.

[iv] Höhne, Heinze. The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. Translated by Richard Barry. Penguin Books, New York and London, 2000. First English edition published by Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd. London 1969. Originally published as Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf, Verlag Der Spiegel, Hamburg 1966.  Diels remained an ally of Goering even marrying his sister in 1943.

[v] Von Lang, Jochen. The Secretary: Martin Bormann: The Man Who Manipulated Hitler. Translated by Christa Armstrong and Peter White. Random House Inc. 1979. Originally published as Der Secretär. Deutsche-Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart. 1977 p.9.  At his trial Goering remarked to other defendants. “If Hitler had died sooner, I as his successor would not have had to worry about Bormann. He would have been killed by his own staff even before I could have given the order to bump him off.”

[vi] Irving, David. Göring: A Biography. William Morrow and Company, New York, NY 1989. Richthofen had succeeded Jeschonnek in March when Goering relieved him. Goering believed that Jeschonnek “was too pliable at the Wolf’s Lair.” Goering had actually considered this a number of times but postponed it several times. p.388

[vii] Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. (abridged) Translated from the German by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Ballantine Books, New York 1957. pp.244  Hitler conducted a similar conference involving many of the same people in Munich.

[viii] Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth: The Russian German War 1943-1944. Translated by Ewald Osers, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, published in arrangement with Little-Brown and Company. p. 336

[ix] Ibid. Irving. pp. 377-379.

[x] Ibid. Guderian. p.243

[xi] Ibid. Irving. p.378

[xii] Glantz, David M and House, Jonathan. The Battle of Kursk.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1999. pp.21-25.  Operations order 5 had been approved by Hitler on and issued by OKH on 13 March. It was followed by Operations Order 6 on 15 April.

[xiii] Ibid. Clark. p.324.

[xiv] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45. Translated by R.H. Berry, Presido Press, Novato CA, 1964. p.334 These objections of Jodl were from June, but indicate the feeling of Jodl for the Zitadelle as planned and when would have likely been his response in such a situation.

[xv]Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995. p.157 Zeitzler had been a consistent advocate for Zitadelle since he heard Manstein’s initial proposal in March.

[xvi]Macksey, Kenneth. Guderian: Creator of the Blitzkrieg. Stein and Day Publishing, New York, NY 1975 p.206

[xvii] Ibid. Clark. p.322

[xviii] Ibid. Clark. p.323.  Zeitzler made this argument with Jodl during a briefing in April 1943.

[xix] Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1981, Copyright 1959 and 1960. p.1115.  Hitler had told Keitel and Jodl that “When it comes to negotiating [for peace]…Goering can do much better than I. Goering is much better at those things.”

[xx] Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Collier Books, a Division of MacMillan Publishers, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.245.  From a conversation with Speer in late 1942.

[xxi] Ibid. Glantz and House. Clash of Titans. pp. 216-217. Hitler would replace Zeitzler with Guderian in June 1944.

[xxii] Ibid. Irving. p.379 From a conversation with State Secretary Ernst von Weizäcker 11 February 1943.

[xxiii] Ibid. Speer.  p.512. The ending of the addiction took place at Nurnberg and Goering surprised many of his co-defendants with his “remarkable energy.”

[xxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.28

[xxv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.28.

[xxvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.264

[xxvii] Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945. Penguin Books, New York NY and London, 1997. pp.211

[xxviii] Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin. Cassel Military Paperbacks, London, 2003. First Published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983. p.76

[xxix] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.265

[xxx] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.23.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishing, New York, NY. 1979. Copyright 1948 by B.H. Liddell-Hart. p.215  Henrici describes the methods that he used in 1944 as Commander of 1st Panzer Army and as Commander of Army Group Vistula during the defense of Berlin.

[xxxii] Hausser would actually command 7th Army in Normandy in 1944.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Glantz and House Kursk. p.53 This was the 10th Panzer Brigade assigned to XLVIII Panzer Corps.  Additionally Clark notes production figures for Panthers from Speer that indicate that 324 Panthers would be available by 31 May. (Clark. p.325)

[xxxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.52.  At Kursk the two Ferdinand detachments were both assigned to 9th Army.

[xxxv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.28.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Carell. p.510.  Vatutin was killed by Ukrainian irregulars in April 1944.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.62

[xxxviii] Newton, Steven H. Hitler’s Commander: Field Marshal Walter Model, Hitler’s Favorite General. DeCapo Press, Cambridge MA 2005. p. 256

[xxxix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.215.

[xl] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.236

[xli] Ibid. Erickson. p.113. At Kursk the call took place on 20 July when Rybalko was in this situation.

[xlii] Ibid. Newton. p.256

[xliii] Ibid. Erickson. p.114

[xliv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.236

[xlv] Ibid. Erickson. p.114

[xlvi] Ibid. Newton. p.256

[xlvii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.345. The actual losses were 429,000 men and 2,500 tanks against a German force significantly weakened by Zitadelle.  Had the Russians attacked the Germans rather than receiving the German attack first their losses in men and machines would have been far higher.  I have reflected that in the alternative numbers.

[xlviii] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.168  The Soviets did try this in their counter offensive following Zitadelle.

[xlix] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.169

[l] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.344. Actual figures for beginning of offensive.

[li] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.338.  Figures from beginning of Zitadelle.

[lii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.244 The actual text reads “Manstein’s defense” not Hoth’s.

[liii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.244

[liv] Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated by H. Betzler, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1971. Originally Published University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. p.286

[lv] Raus, Erhard. Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945. Compiled and Translated by Steven H Newton. Da Capo Press a member of the Perseus Book Group, Cambridge, MA 2003. p.214

[lvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.247

[lvii] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.169

[lviii] Ibid. Erickson. p.121  These were the actual divisions that liberated Kharkov.

[lix] Ibid.  Von Mellenthin . p.287

[lx] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.252

[lxi] Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed. p.170

[lxii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.252

[lxiii] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.252

[lxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. Kursk. p.237

[lxv] Ibid. Hohne. p.572

[lxvi] Ibid.  Hohne. p.570

[lxvii] Ibid. Galante. pp 69 and 207

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth: The Russian German War 1943-1944. Translated by Ewald Osers, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, published in arrangement with Little-Brown and Company

Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian German Conflict, 1941-45. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY 1965

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