Back from Stalingrad
Uranus opened first, under the direction of Colonel General Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky. On 19 November, the Soviets struck Romanian formations both north and south of Stalingrad. The front disintegrated, and the Russians encircled the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, threatening the entire Axis front north of the Caucasus.
Hitler placed Field Marshal Erich von Manstein in command of the newly formed Army Group Don. It was Manstein who had devised the German plan to defeat France in 1940 and who in the summer of 1942 had captured the Soviet Black Sea fortress of Sevastopol. Manstein’s tasks were two: stabilize the front in the south and relieve the German Sixth Army, which had been ordered by Hitler to stand fast in Stalingrad. But throughout November and December, the Soviets kept feeding fresh reserves into the offensive and expanding its front, especially to the north. In late December, the Germans broke off their relief drive toward the Sixth Army and retreated toward the Donets River in an effort to hold Rostov, which would allow the German armies to withdraw from the Caucasus.
Farther north, the Soviet attack against Army Group Center, under Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, failed. Operation Mars opened on 25 November, but the planned breakthroughs became break-ins in the face of concerted counterattacks. The determined Zhukov, who had directed unsuccessful offensives in the same area in July and August 1942, drove his forces relentlessly until late December, when Stalin ordered the end to the abortive offensive.
Stalin shifted the reserves intended to support Mars and Jupiter in the south to instead reinforce Vasilevsky’s success. The revised Soviet plan now envisioned the destruction of the entire Axis southern front east of the Dnepr River by means of vast encirclement operations. In early February 1943, as the approximately 190,000 men who formed the remnants of the German Sixth Army surrendered in Stalingrad, the Soviet offensive spread across the southern front from Voronezh to the Black Sea.
In Moscow, success seemed assured. Stalin, at Zhukov’s prompting, directed the movement of newly available reserves to the center with the intention of renewing the drive there and collapsing the entire German front. But this new scheme was as overambitious as it was daring. Along the central front, the Germans conducted a successful controlled withdrawal to shorten their lines and gain reserves. In the south, Manstein, reinforced with several fresh mechanized divisions, conducted a masterful counteroffensive against the overextended Soviets. The Germans retook Kharkov and regained most of the Donets line, except for a large salient around Kursk, before the spring thaw brought operations to a close.
Despite Manstein’s notable successes in February and March 1943, the second German campaign in Russia had ended in failure. Hitler had neither knocked the Russians out of the war nor secured the economic objectives he had set for the campaign. Between March and July 1943, both sides worked feverishly to prepare for the renewal of operations in the summer, but the prospects of a decisive Axis campaign in the east in the summer of 1943 were nil.
For the Soviet Union, despite the setbacks west of Moscow and the failure to gain a complete victory in the south, the campaign of 1942–1943 had been a major strategic success. Tactically, the Soviet army could not yet manage the Germans on even terms. But the Russians demonstrated marked improvements in the conduct of their operations, perhaps most apparent in the failure of the Germans to capture huge hauls of prisoners. At the strategic level, the analysis and planning evident in the preparation of Mars-Jupiter and Uranus-Saturn were far superior to German planning for Blau or Barbarossa. The Soviets did outnumber the Germans—that is, they possessed what they termed a favorable correlation of forces. But in 1941, numerical superiority had gained the Russians nothing except the loss of millions of lives. By 1943, the Russians had learned how to offset the Germans’ tactical advantages not only through superior numbers, but also through the development and execution of well-thought-out operational and strategic plans.
In early July 1943, the Germans launched their summer offensive at Kursk codenamed Zitadelle (“Citadel”). The Soviets repulsed the attacks against the haunches of the salient and launched a series of counteroffensives. When Zitadelle failed to produce the expected results, Hitler broke off the attack on 13 July so that the remaining reserves could be employed to meet the ever-expanding Soviet counteroffensives. For the first time since the start of the war in 1939, the Germans were on the defensive in the summer.
The Battle of Kursk
The true turning point of the war in the east was not Stalingrad, but the epic battle of Kursk—the largest tank engagement of the Second World War. Axis defeat at Kursk marked the end of Hitler’s dreams of victory over the Soviet Union.
When Manstein’s February-March 1943 counterstroke in the Ukraine stalled in the spring mud, a large Soviet salient jutted westward into the Axis front near the city of Kursk. This salient became an obvious target for a renewed German offensive, and planning began in April for such an eventuality. The Russians, too, saw the likelihood of such an attack, a surmise confirmed by intelligence sources. As a result, throughout the spring and into the early summer, both sides prepared for the third German summer offensive around Kursk.
Several aspects of German planning attest to the Germans’ declining fortunes. In 1941, the Germans had struck on 22 June along the entire front from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In 1942, the Germans struck on 28 June, a week later, and limited their offensive to the southern sector of the front. In 1943, the Germans did not attack until 5 July and then only along a limited portion of the front around Kursk.
Nor were the Germans of one mind as they planned their offensive. There was a consensus that Kursk was the best place to strike. To pinch off the salient would shorten the German line and produce a haul of prisoners. But there were divisions between those generals who wished to strike as soon as possible and others, with Hitler’s support, who wished to delay the offensive until more units could be outfitted with new heavy and medium armored vehicles, most notably the Panther tanks. As delays mounted, some generals became more and more pessimistic about the prospects of success. Nevertheless, recent scholarship in Soviet archives suggests that the debate was moot. The strength of the Soviet forces in the rear of the exposed salient in May and June 1943 was far greater than the Germans knew.
The Axis plan was simple: to strike at the haunches of the salient from both the north and the south. The Ninth Army would strike from the north, from its positions south of Orel. Army Group South’s Fourth Panzer Army would strike from the area near Belgorod along a northern axis. Originally scheduled for 4 May, the offensive was repeatedly postponed because of rains, a desire to wait for more tanks, and the need to send reinforcements to Italy after the Axis collapse in Tunisia.
Soviet plans for Kursk were innovative. Even Stalin had learned the lessons of 1942 and accepted the fact that it was best to allow the Germans to strike first rather than to preempt them before their forces had been weakened. In that sense, the buildup around Kursk suited Soviet strategy. Having resolved to accept a defensive posture, they developed a defense in depth to meet the German attack and planned an ambitious series of follow-on offensives meant to crush the German front in the center and the north.
Tactically and operationally, the Soviet army of 1943 was vastly superior to the forces that took the field in 1941 and 1942. Moreover, the Soviets achieved their successes in 1943 and 1944 when they no longer possessed the technological superiority they had held in 1941 and 1942, when their T-34 tank was the best armored fighting vehicle on the eastern front. By 1943, the T-34 was in many ways inferior to the newer German medium tanks—the up-gunned medium Pz Kw IVs, Panthers, and heavy Tigers—and would remain so for the rest of the war. But the Soviets had developed superior tactical proficiency and ability to employ combined-arms tactics on the battlefield.
Soviet preparations to meet the expected German blitzkrieg were well thought out. The Russians arrayed their defense in layers to a depth of forty miles. They dug in troops, tanks, guns, and communication lines. Antitank guns and minefields dominated likely approaches. The Soviet high command positioned mechanized reserves to respond to crises that might develop along any axis. Even the Soviet air force prepared to challenge the Germans for local air superiority from the first day of the operation. Moreover, as the battle developed, the Soviet plan envisioned the use of reserves offensively to disrupt the Axis offensive. Gradually, these local counterattacks would expand until they became a counteroffensive that would wrest the initiative from the Germans.
In execution, the battle of Kursk followed Russian and not German expectations. In the north, the German Ninth Army made disappointing progress, suffered heavy casualties, and within four days had ground to a virtual halt. Two days later, the Soviets began assaulting the left flank of the offensive, forcing Army Group Center to shift its reserves and ending all hopes of a continued drive by the Ninth Army. The Germans made better progress in the south. Despite hard going, the Germans nearly drove through the defensive belts. But if Manstein’s troops broke in, they could not break out. In their weakened state, they had to contend with the fresh Soviet mechanized reserves. Moreover, as the mobile battle began, Allied troops landed in Sicily. Hitler now had to contend with a threat to Italy, and the necessary reserves could only come from the eastern front.
The climatic fighting centered on the town of Prokhorovka. For several July days, the SS Panzer Corps and the Soviet Fifth Tank Army traded blows in a bloody battle of attrition. But attrition was Stalin’s game. On 13 July, Hitler decided to end the offensive and shift troops to Italy. Manstein wished to keep attacking, not in the expectation of a victory, but as a means to exhaust Soviet tank reserves. Hitler agreed to allow limited offensive action for this purpose, but basically Zitadelle had ended, and the Germans had lost.
For decades after the war, many historians argued that Hitler lost a great opportunity by prematurely closing down his Kursk offensive. More recent studies using available Soviet documents suggest that Hitler was wise to bring the operation to an end. Manstein was not exhausting Soviet reserves; he was exhausting his own, just as the Soviets hoped that he would before they unleashed their own offensives. On 17 July, when the Russians went over to the offensive on Manstein’s right flank, it became apparent that there was no point in continuing the German effort.
If the Germans did make a mistake, it was to attack at all, or to attack into an area where they knew the Russians had prepared defenses. But Hitler and his generals shared the same misplaced confidence in the operational and tactical superiority of their forces. Few Germans seem to have considered it possible that the Russians could stop a German summer blitzkrieg dead in its tracks.
The ability of Stalin’s army to do just that was more than a defeat: it marked the eclipse of a tactical doctrine the Germans had thus far applied with success. The Russians had not only turned the tide of the war in the east, but they had also demonstrated that a well-prepared blitzkrieg could be defeated. As the follow-on Soviet offensives opened, the Soviets also confirmed that they had developed improved offensive tactics of their own. Soviet infantry and artillery led the assault, and only then did tank and mechanized formations exploit the holes. By mid-1943, not only the strategic, but also the operational and tactical assumptions upon which the Germans had gone to war in 1939 were no longer viable.
The excuse for Hitler’s cancellation of Zitadelle was the Anglo-American landing in Sicily. The Allies expected Husky, as the operation was codenamed, to keep the pressure on the Germans the Mediterranean theater, to secure maritime transportation routes in the Middle Sea, to strike another blow against Mussolini’s regime on its home soil, and to secure a base for further operations against Italy proper.
Husky began on 10 July. The Italian defenders showed little fight, although the German units near the landing beaches counterattacked, unsuccessfully. By 17 August, the U.S. Seventh Army, commanded by Patton, and the Commonwealth Eighth Army, commanded by Montgomery, had cleared the island of its defenders.
On 3 September, the Italians signed a secret armistice, and that same day, elements of Montgomery’s army crossed the Strait of Messina and landed in Italy. Operation Avalanche had begun. Six days later, the Allies’ main force landed at Salerno, south of Naples. The Germans rushed troops to occupy northern and central Italy, while farther south spirited counterattacks threatened the Allies’ landing in its initial stage, although the Allies held on and the Germans retreated. Fortunately for the Axis, the weather and the rugged Italian terrain negated Allied advantages of mobility and air power. The Anglo-American offensive ground to a halt along the lines of the Garigliano and Sangro rivers.
The Allies continued to slog their way north during the fall and winter, in fighting that had more in common with the trench warfare of the Great War than with blitzkrieg. In January, the British and Americans launched an amphibious assault at Anzio, south of Rome and well behind the German front, in an effort to break the stalemate. But the Allies failed to exploit their element of surprise, and the Germans sealed off the beachhead. Farther south, the Allied offensive stalled along the Volturno River line, the key position of which was a mountain peak near Cassino that was crowned by a Bendictine monastery. By March, the British and Americans had given up on their efforts to break out and began to prepare for new offensives in the spring and summer.
The Soviet summer offensives likewise ran out of steam when the autumn rains came to the Ukraine. But the Russians made substantive progress nonetheless. After the failure of the German offensive at Kursk, the Soviets expanded their offensive operations along the entire line in the south and then into the central sector of the eastern front. The largest gains came in the Ukraine, where the Soviets reached the Dnepr River and seized several important bridgeheads. While the Soviets failed to destroy the Axis armies east of the Dnepr, they did trap the German Seventeenth Army in the Crimea.
When winter froze the ground, the Russian advance resumed along the entire front. In the north, the Soviets relieved Leningrad after an epic thousand-day siege. Assaults against the German Army Group Center gained little ground, but in the south, the Russians shattered the German lines, temporarily encircled an entire panzer army, and drove toward the Carpathians, threatening to split the Axis front. But Manstein, and the spring thaw, stabilized the front, though not before the Russians had destroyed the German Seventeenth Army.
In the spring of 1944, the Germans stood on the defensive everywhere. In Russia, Italy, and Great Britain, Allied forces prepared for their offensives. Anglo-American strategic air forces assaulted the Reich in a coordinated, round-the-clock bombing campaign (see “Strategic Bombing”). In the Atlantic, the U-Waffe (submarine force) no longer posed a threat to the Allied shipping.
The Germans’ options were few. They stood no chance to regain the initiative in the east. Italian terrain, while conducive to defensive operations, offered little prospect for an offensive. The Germans had only a single hope—one chance that might allow them to negotiate something less than the unconditional surrender the Allies had demanded at the January 1943 Casablanca Conference. Hitler expected the Allies to launch their long-awaited cross-channel invasion of France in the spring. If the Germans could destroy the landing, that victory might force the Allies to reconsider their policy, or at the minimum, delay full-scale ground operations in the west and allow Hitler to concentrate his forces against the Russians in the east.