The First Soviet Summer Offensive
Troops and Tactics
As the war in the Soviet Union entered its third year the world watched, expecting summer to bring answers to two crucial questions. Could the German armies again shake off the effects of the winter battles and make a strong bid for victory? If not, could the Soviet Army prove itself master of the field without its old ally, "General Winter?" ZITADELLE provided an explicit answer to the first question. After ZITADELLE, in two and one-half months the Soviet Army erased the last lingering doubt inherent in the second.
The Main Effort in the South
In the spring of 1943 Soviet planning for the coming summer no doubt concentrated on two possibilities: a German offensive in the style of the previous two summers and, if that failed to materialize or could be stopped, a Soviet offensive similar in scale and conception to that of the last winter. Although they would have been the last to admit it, the Russians were already benefiting mightily from the Allied operations in the Mediterranean and the threats of invasions there and on the Atlantic coast. Had Hitler been able to count on another year's respite in the south and west he might have made far more ambitious plans for the coming summer in the USSR. As it was, the chances were that the Germans would not be able again to seize the complete initiative and prevent the Soviet forces from getting in substantial blows of their own before the summer ended.
The most vulnerable sector of the German front was still the southern flank. Below Kharkov the Army Group South front stretched east 150 miles along the Donets and then dropped off south along the Mius River to the Gulf of Taganrog. Soviet troops held several small bridgeheads on the south bank of the Donets, the most significant one in the sharp bend of the river south of Izyum. To defend more than 250 miles of front, Army Group South had two armies, First Panzer Army on the Donets and, in the Mius line, Sixth Army--the upgraded Armeeabteilung Hollidt, which resembled its powerful predecessor in name only. A Soviet advance of a little more than 100 miles along the line Kharkov-Dnepropetrovsk could cut off both armies, break open the southern flank of the German front, and isolate Army Group A in the Kuban and the Crimea. The past winter's experience had shown that German skill and Soviet lack of finesse often combined to prevent such maneuvers from achieving their full effect, but it had also demonstrated that even so the dividends could be substantial for the Russians. Knowing that those considerations could not have escaped the Soviet Command, the Eastern Intelligence Branch, OKH, predicted in May 1943 that the main effort of
the Soviet summer offensive would be on the southern flank, either at Kharkov or against Sixth Army, and that it would be preceded or accompanied by a secondary attack in the Army Group Center zone to tie down troops and eliminate the Orel salient as a threat to the flank of the offensive in the south.1
Even if the tactical advantages had been less obvious, the Stavka would still probably have given first priority to the southern flank in the summer of 1943. Of the shortages created by the German invasion, those still being most acutely felt were in coal, ferrous metals, and foodstuffs, particularly grain and animal products. All could be most quickly alleviated by recapturing the Ukraine. Between Stalino and the Mius lay the better half of the Donets Basin coal fields. Inside the great bend of the Dnepr were the Krivoi Rog iron mines, which before the war had supplied 40 percent of Soviet iron ore. And, in spite of efforts in the past two years to open up new lands east of the Urals, the black-earth region of the Ukraine was needed if the food shortage was to be overcome any time soon.
By the summer of 1943 the Germans had succeeded, for the time being at least, in stopping the Eastern Front's decline in strength which had aroused so much concern during the previous fall and winter. On 20 July the total troop strength in the East exclusive of the allies and the Twentieth Mountain Army stood at 3,064,000 men.2 This was only about a quarter-million men less than the peak strength of 1941 and 574,000 more than that of 1 September 1942. Italian Eighth Army had been recalled in the spring, but Rumania and Hungary still had between 150,000 and 200,000 men in the East. South of Leningrad the Spanish 250th "Blue" Division held a sector of the Army Group North front.
In considerable part the restoration of strength on the Eastern Front had been accomplished by shifting troops from the Air Force, the Waffen-SS, and the OKW theaters. Also, the three months' quiet at the front had meant that for the first time in more than a year the number of men returning to duty from the hospitals exceeded the casualty rate. The 1943 class of eighteen-year-olds and the screening of deferred workers had produced enough men to cover the winter's losses and leave a few hundred thousand to spare.3
On 20 July 1943 the Soviet strength, according to German estimates, had reached 5,755,000 men, a gain of a million and a half over September 1942 and about three times the German increase in the same period. The Russians had at the front an estimated 7,855 tanks and 21,050 antitank guns, the Germans 2,088 tanks and 8,063 antitank guns.4 Ordinarily, superiorities of
2:1 in troops, nearly 4:1 in tanks, and better than 2:1 in antitank guns could in themselves be regarded as enough to justify an offensive. On the German-Soviet front that was not necessarily the case. The Germans had been operating against preponderant Soviet forces since the start of the war. It would take something more than weight of numbers and equipment if the Russians were to beat the Germans at their own game, the summer offensive.
The State of Soviet Military Art
One consideration which must have weighed heavily in the Stavka's decision to undertake a summer offensive was the knowledge that the Soviet Army had passed beyond its apprenticeship. In two years Stalin's generals had learned much and, not content to be blind imitators, had adapted the German methods to suit their own capabilities and limitations. While they had not attained the facility of the Germans, they had, at least at the upper command levels, acquired the flexibility so conspicuously lacking earlier and had improved their large-scale offensive tactics. The latter they had successfully tested and refined during the 1942-43 winter offensive.
The German technique of blitzkrieg had been to deliver the decisive stroke with precision, speed, and economy of effort. Its distinguishing characteristics had been penetration and avoidance of broad frontal engagements. To the German staffs Schwerpunktbildung, concentration of force at the most advantageous point, was the very core of military art. The Russians, on the other hand, favored a broader lateral scope and more conservative execution. They adopted the breakthrough and penetration as basic tactical maneuvers but preferred to achieve the decisive effect by a few deep thrusts. They also accepted the breadth of the front rather than by one or a few deep thrusts. They also accepted the principle of the Schwerpunkt, but usually their concentration in the zone of the main effort was less pronounced than in the German practice, and almost always the main effort was built up gradually by successive thrusts.
Accordingly, although the Russians claimed that Stalingrad had supplanted Cannae as the classic encirclement battle, they did not employ the double envelopment as frequently as did the Germans. More often they were content with a single thrust or multiple thrusts, the objective being not so much to achieve a deep penetration along one line of advance as to force the opponent back on a broad front. Those tactics were particularly suited to southern USSR where the successive, roughly parrallel rivers afforded natural defense lines. Thrusts from one river line to the next could be depended on to bring back long stretches of the German front with them.
The first objective of German offensives, in theory at least, had been to annihilate the enemy main force quickly. The purpose was not to gain ground or merely alter the respective positions of the opposing forces but to produce a decision. The Russians, for their part, cared less for speed or the fatal stroke; they were content to wear the enemy down blow by blow. Contrary to the general conception that the Russians were relatively indifferent to geographical space, they were inclined to reckon their victories as much in terms of ground regained as in terms of damage to the enemy
or other tactical advantage. Their ultimate objective was to annihilate the enemy, but by the cumulative effect of repeated offensives, not by the single battle--by weight rather than by the skillful blow.
Probably no better historical example exists of offensive tactics successfully tailored to the shortcomings of an army than that afforded by the Soviet Army in World War II. Despite the smoke screen of high-flown theorizing which the Russians have thrown around the two basic elements, the single, or "salient," thrust and the broad front offensive, both can be most simply and, it appears, most logically explained in terms of Soviet shortcomings. As the most cursory reading of Stalin's speeches and orders of the day will show, the Russians regarded the encirclement as the most expeditious means of destroying large enemy forces; on the other hand, as a practical matter, they apparently regarded the double envelopment as an unreliable maneuver and adjusted their planning to the concept of the single thrust. To complete a double envelopment required co-ordination and a high degree of skill at all levels in the leadership. It required, in particular, troop commanders at the middle and lower levels who possessed the initiative and ability to meet and master unforeseen developments without disrupting the over-all plan. Those the Russians did not have, at least not in sufficient numbers. Further, the double envelopment required troops of a uniform high quality. Those they did not have either.
On the basis of conclusions drawn from the 1941 disasters, the Soviet Army had concentrated on developing its artillery and armor. In both arms the emphasis was on increased output of weapons and machines and on their organization for mass employment.
By mid-1943 the Soviet artillery was vastly expanded, equipped with reliable weapons, and, while not always accurate against pinpoint targets, was capable of laying down preparatory fires of an intensity comparable to those fired in the great battles of World War I. Eleventh Guards Army in the Orel offensive of July 1943, for example, had 3,000 guns and heavy mortars, almost double the standard issue to the armies in the Stalingrad operation and three times the complement of the armies in the 1941 counteroffensive at Moscow. At the end of 1942 the Soviet Army had 17 rocket launcher brigades and had begun organizing an initial increment of 30 self-propelled artillery regiments. In the spring of 1943 it began forming artillery brigades and antitank artillery regiments and in the second half of the year created 26 artillery divisions.5
The armored forces were well trained and to a large extent equipped with the Soviet-designed-and-built T34 tank. American and British lend-lease models were still used but were regarded as too light. The earlier practice of scattering the armor piecemeal among the infantry had been abandoned, and the brigades and corps had become the standard armored unit organizations. The tank armies, of which there were five by the end of summer 1943, each had two tank and one mechanized corps and were fully capable of executing independent tactical missions.6
By early summer 1943 the Russians had at least a 2.5:1 advantage over the Germans in the air. The Soviet air arm remained
subordinate to the Army and concentrated almost exclusively on close ground support, air defense, and tactical bombing. At the end of 1942 each front had been assigned an air army for support.7
In 1943 the infantry, particularly the guards units, received increased numbers of antitank weapons and began getting the Sudayev submachine gun and the new Goryunov machine gun to replace the 1910 Maxim.8 But the massive effort to develop the technical arms had resulted in persistent neglect of the infantry, which received the lowest grade recruits, least competent officers, and very little training. In 1943 the Germans observed that the quality of the Soviet infantry was lower than in 1941 and that the decline was continuing.9 In mass attacks the infantry could be crushingly effective, but it was not an instrument that could be maneuvered with tactical precision. On its own the infantry lacked staying power; without heavy tank and artillery support it lost momentum and its progress was often erratic.
The deficiencies which made the double envelopment unreliable also limited the effect of the single thrust. Aware of their own weaknesses and those of their troops, the Soviet commanders almost always displayed an excessive flank sensitivity. After the breakthrough--which could be guaranteed by the artillery and tanks--they were reluctant to concentrate on the forward advance and often began to strike out on all sides in an attempt to keep their flanks open, with the result that forward momentum dropped off. Even when the tanks were able to keep up a rapid pace, the infantry frequently fell behind; consequently, the deep thrusts took the form of tank raids which often ended in near disaster, as in the case of the Popov Group in February 1943.
The depth of the single thrust was further limited by considerations of control and supply. Since the offensive by nature made it difficult to plan for in detail beyond the first few days of fighting, more and more unforeseeable factors came into play as the advance proceeded, with the result that the burdens on the initiative and judgment of the field commander, and on the troops themselves, increased. Therefore, given the weaknesses of the Soviet Army, the chances of a single thrust's succeeding declined as the distance from the point of breakthrough to the objective increased.
Finally, the Soviet supply system, while it could on occasion perform near miracles of improvisation, was not equipped or organized to handle in a routine fashion the logistics of rapid advances over long distances. The Soviet soldier, who subsisted almost exclusively on what he could carry in the sack he customarily slung over his shoulder or tied to his belt, who preferred German boots, hand weapons, and other items of equipment to his own, and who was--out of necessity as much as by inclination--an expert scrounger, was one of the least demanding in the world. The armies were expected to forage and collect booty with utmost diligence. An example of what could be achieved along those lines was that of an army which in the winter of 1942, passing through an area the Germans had subjected to scorched-earth treatment, collected the following percentages
of its monthly requirements of staples: flour, 54 percent; vegetables, 97 percent; meat, 108 percent; hay, 140 percent; and oats, 68 percent.10 But modern armies could not live entirely off the land and rely exclusively on booty; Soviet armies were therefore generally--but not invariably--adequately provisioned and supplied with ammunition and motor fuel in advance of offensives, the rule of thumb being that each army should have stocks on hand for a 10-day operation and an advance of up to sixty or seventy miles. Beyond this range, and not too infrequently even short of it, inadequacies of transport and a lingering cavalier attitude toward the problems of supply in general placed checks on Soviet mobile operations. Before the July 1943 offensive in the Orel bulge, for instance, the infantry had been neglected in the supply build-up, and later, infantry ammunition had had to be flown in to keep the offensive going. That led to the following admonition--apparently not considered axiomatic--to the Soviet commands, "Experience . . . shows that it is necessary to arrange for supplies and ammunition for the infantry as well as for the artillery."11 Often enough, mobile forces also had supply troubles, as is evinced by the following warning, "Disregard of the necessary supply planning for the mobile group may lead to its extinction or, in the most favorable case, failure to achieve success."12
As the single thrust afforded an escape from the more onerous requirements of the double envelopment, so the concept of multiple thrusts on a broad front avoided the ultimate problems of the single thrust. The broad front possessed the great advantage of extending the offensive laterally, which enabled the Stavka to bring strength to bear on a number of points and eliminate the risks inherent in attempting to pursue one clearly defined line of advance. The offensive was relatively easy to control since success did not depend on maneuvering one or a few bodies of troops in motion but could be attained instead by a series of thrusts launched more or less at will from convenient lines of departure. The supply problems, if not eliminated, were significantly eased: the assembly could be carried out over a number of rail lines, and none of the thrusts needed to go so deep as to outrun its supplies. Of course, Soviet protests to the contrary notwithstanding, the broad front offensive was at best a modified linear method of warfare. It required massed troops, repeated frontal encounters, and an enemy willing--as Hitler was--to respond with a linear defense.
The Psychological Warfare Victory
In one sphere, psychological warfare, Operation ZITADELLE brought the Soviet Union a clear-cut and final victory. German psychological warfare and propaganda, always hobbled by Hitler's racial theories and his extreme war aims, had declined steadily in effectiveness since the winter of 1941-42, but as late as the spring of 1943 the Smolensk Manifesto had given the Soviet authorities some cause for worry and the SILBERSTREIF propaganda had shown latent promise even though it failed to achieve much in the way of practical results. After ZITADELLE German psychological warfare was completely on the defensive. The Soviet propagandists held the
initiative. They could exploit two years of accumulated German injustices and atrocities and an almost painful desire on the part of the Russian people to believe that things would be better once the Soviet Army returned. Above all, they could promise an early end to the war.
ZITADELLE and its aftermath also placed the Soviet propaganda directed to the Germans on a new and more substantial footing. In the late summer the Russians created the National Free Germany Committee and its subsidiary, the League of German Officers. The Free Germany Committee was composed mostly of emigrè Communists, but the League of German Officers was allegedly voluntary, noncommunist, and devoted exclusively to overthrowing Hitler and restoring the traditional social order in Germany. The league, headed by General Seydlitz, had an original membership of three other Stalingrad generals and 100 officers of lower ranks. It issued a newspaper which was dropped behind the German line, and Seydlitz from time to time addressed personal letters to army and army group commanders calling on them to join the Free Germany Movement.13
The Fourth Battle of Kharkov
Northwest of Belgorod on the right flank of Fourth Panzer Army, its own right tying in with the left flank of Armeeabteilung Kempf, stood the 167th Infantry Division. It was a good division, "good" meaning it was not greatly understrength and was battleworthy by the then current standards on the Eastern Front. On the morning of 3 August 1943 the massed artillery of Sixth Guards Army laid down a several hours' barrage on the division sector. When the artillery lifted its fire, 200 tanks roared into the German line, followed by waves of closely packed infantry. Before nightfall, the 167th Division had shrunk to a scattering of odds and ends. Its infantry regiments were completely smashed, and the survivors were dazed and shaken.
Near the center of the Fourth Panzer Army front a secondary attack hit the 332d Infantry Division, and by the end of the day its front too had begun to crumble. On the 4th two Soviet tank corps pushed south, elbowing aside the shattered 167th Infantry Division and the 6th Panzer Division, which had moved up in a vain attempt to close the breach. During the day the tanks opened a 7-mile gap between Fourth Panzer Army and Armeeabteilung Kempf and dragged the German line on the east back to the outskirts of Belgorod.14
An attack on the north flank of Army Group South aimed at recapturing Kharkov and breaking through to the Dnepr had been considered one of the most likely possibilities in all of the German forecasts for the summer of 1943. (Map 14) On 21 July Manstein had asked the OKH for a decision either to hold the Donets line, which would require more troops, or to prepare for a gradual withdrawal to the Dnepr in order to gain enough troops to prevent a breakthrough on his north flank. None was made.15 At the end of the month
The Fourth Battle of Kharkov
3-27 August 1943
Army Group South had a total of 822,000 troops opposing an estimated 1,713,000 Russians. The army group had 1,161 tanks, about half of them operational, and the Russians had 2,872 tanks.16
Against Fourth Panzer Army and Armeeabteilung Kempf, the Stavka had committed Voronezh Front and Steppe Front, both reinforced with armies held in reserve during ZITADELLE. In the last two weeks of July, Konev's Steppe Front had taken over Vatutin's left flank east and south of Belgorod, assuming command of the two armies there and bringing with it two armies from the reserve. The plan envisioned a kind of flying wedge of four armies--Fifth and Sixth Guards, Fifth Guards Tank and First Tank Armies--aimed southwest between Akhtyrka and Kharkov toward Poltava. While Vatutin thus split apart Fourth Panzer Army and Armeeabteilung Kempf, forcing Fourth Panzer Army away toward Akhtyrka, Konev was to bear down on Kharkov from the north. Fifty-seventh Army, Southwest Front's right flank army, was to close in on Kharkov from the east.17
On 1 August Manstein informed the OKH that he was expecting an attack on Kharkov as the inevitable next item on the Soviet agenda; nevertheless, when two days later an attack did come it achieved a degree of surprise and caught Fourth Panzer Army and Armeabteilung Kempf standing forward of their pre-ZITADELLE front. After ZITADELLE Manstein had concluded that the Army Group South offensive had upset the Soviet dispositions enough to force a several week's delay in their plans for a counteroffensive; and on 2 August, believing there was still time, he had decided "to wait for more definite signs of an impending offensive" before pulling back to the original line.18
On 5 August the Russians marched into Belgorod. That same day, in the Army Group Center zone, Bryansk Front captured Orel. To celebrate the twin victories Stalin ordered an artillery salute of twelve volleys from 120 guns. It was the first time in the war that such a salute had been fired, and in Moscow some of the citizens, thinking it was an air raid, took to their cellars. In the coming months the booming of victory cannon would become commonplace in the Soviet capital. As an added honor, the first divisions into Belgorod and Orel were authorized to include the names of the cities in their unit designations. In his order of the day Stalin stated, "In this way the legend of the Germans that Soviet troops are allegedly unable to wage a successful offensive in the summer has been dispelled."19 In that cry of relief and jubilation Stalin revealed that the Soviet Government had reached an optimistic assessment of its military prospects and had decided to commit itself publicly to a full-scale summer offensive.
With a total of fifteen divisions between them, only three of them panzer divisions, the Fourth Panzer Army and Armeeabteilung Kempf faced two Soviet fronts and part of a third. Together, the three fronts brought eleven armies to bear against the two German armies. Even taking into account
that Soviet units were generally smaller than German units of the same type, these were tremendous odds.
One of Hitler's first moves after the offensive began had been to order the Grossdeutschland Division back from Army Group Center and to return the 7th Panzer Division which was being held as the OKH reserve. On the second day he also decided to leave the SS Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions in the Army Group South zone. Since the Headquarters, II SS Panzer Corps, and the Adolf Hitler Division had already been transferred to Italy, Manstein placed the two SS panzer divisions under the Headquarters, III Corps, together with the 3d Panzer Division. These and the SS Wiking Division he ordered into the Armeeabteilung Kempf zone.
In the first six days of the fighting Army Group A sent one and Army Group Center three infantry divisions, but on 7 August Kluge reported to OKH that the battle of the Orel bulge was clearly approaching its climax and insisted that no more divisions could be withdrawn from Army Group Center without impairing the defense of the HAGEN position.20 Several days later Model submitted a similar report. The result was that in the critical early days of the battle Army Group South received only driblets of assistance from Army Group Center while the combined Second Panzer and Ninth Armies, the one great potential reservoir of reserves on the Eastern Front, fought a secondary battle in the Orel bulge with forty-five divisions.
In the breakthrough area the most Army Group South could do during the first days was to throw some obstacles in the way of the Soviet flood. To gain room to maneuver, Fourth Panzer Army stretched its boundary north, taking 40 miles of front and four weak divisions from Second Army. While three divisions, cut off in the first onslaught, fought their way out to the west, Hoth moved the newly arrived Grossdeutschland Division into a bridgehead east of Akhtyrka as an anchor for his right flank and to prevent the Russians' rolling up his line farther to the north and west. But he could do nothing about the gap to the Armeeabteilung Kempf flank, which by 8 August had opened to a width of 35 miles and, except for one infantry division ranged northwest of Poltava, gave the Russians a clear road to the Dnepr 100 miles to the southwest.21
On the right side of the gap Kempf struggled to avoid being encircled as Steppe Front forced his northern front down on Kharkov and, on the west, Voronezh Front's First Tank Army attempted to push south past the city. The SS divisions coming from the Army Group South right flank had to be thrown in to screen the Armeeabteilung rear west of Kharkov. Manstein had intended using them in a counterattack to close the gap, but they were tied down singly as soon as they reached the front. The most they could do was carry the line out parallel to the Merlya River on either side of Merefa, which only narrowed the gap slightly but did deflect the Russian advance southwestward and away from Kharkov.22
On 12 August Kempf, worried by his declining infantry strength, proposed to evacuate
SOVIET TROOPS NEARING OREL
Kharkov the next day and retreat to a shorter line south of the city. Manstein did not object, but Hitler promptly countered with an order that Kharkov be held under all circumstances, and demanded "the most severe measures" against any units that failed to execute their assigned missions. Kempf, who expected a breakthrough on the east at any moment (Fifty-seventh Army had already crossed the river and taken Chuguyev), predicted that the order to hold Kharkov would produce another Stalingrad. On the 14th Manstein relieved Kempf and appointed General der Infanterie Otto Woehler in his place. A few days later the Armeeabteilung was redesignated Eighth Army.23
Meanwhile, Manstein and the Chief of Staff, OKH, had tried again to persuade Hitler to adopt a coherent plan. On 8 August Zeitzler visited the Headquarters, Army Group South, where Manstein told him that the existence of the entire army group was at stake. The alternatives, he said, were either to give up the Donets front immediately, and so gain troops for the north flank, or provide twenty fresh divisions for the army group, ten for Fourth Army and the others to backstop the rest of the army group front.24
Hitler Decides To Build an East Wall
As he had on other occasions when confronted
with unpleasant choices, Hitler avoided the decision by taking an altogether different tack. He suddenly resurrected the idea of an East Wall which he had categorically rejected earlier in the year. On 12 August he ordered work started at once on the wall which was to begin in the south on the Kerch' Peninsula, continue on the mainland at Melitopol, run in an almost straight line to the Dnepr near Zaporozhye, swing eastward around Zaporozhye in a large bridgehead and follow the Dnepr northwest to Kiev with bridgeheads east of the major cities. North of Kiev it was to follow the Desna River to Chernigov and then run almost due north along a line somewhat east of the cities of Gomel, Orsha, Vitebsk, Nevel, and Pskov to the southern tip of Pskov Lake. From there it would continue north along the western shore of the lake and the Narva River to the Gulf of Finland.25 Since the term "East Wall," applied to a line which in its southern half might have to be occupied even before work on it could be begun, could prove psychologically dangerous, the OKH later in the month adopted two more innocuous code names: WOTAN position in the Army Groups South and A zones and PANTHER position in the Army Groups North and Center zones.
While, at first glance, it would appear that in the East Wall order Hitler accepted a general retreat on the Eastern Front as inevitable, the decisions which followed indicate that he actually wanted to establish an absolute barrier beyond which the armies could not retreat and, since no work of any kind had yet been done on the so-called East Wall, give himself an excuse for not retreating in the meantime. The one major withdrawal he tentatively approved after issuing the East Wall order, evacuation of the GOTENKOPF, he postponed on 14 August, claiming it would have unfavorable repercussions among Germany's allies and in neutral Turkey.26
While Hitler was attempting a diversion in the running dispute with his generals, the battle on the north flank of Army Group South raged on, acquiring toward the end of the second week of August a somewhat amorphous character, largely as a result of the Russians' indecisive operating methods. (Map 15) The way to Poltava remained open, but Vatutin hesitated to push through while the Germans flanking the gap held firm. Instead, he turned his left flank armies, the Fifth Guards and Fifth Guards Tank Armies, against the west front of Eighth Army (formerly Armeeabteilung Kempf) where the SS divisions fought to keep the front angled southwestward away from Kharkov. On the weaker Eighth Army east front Fifty-seventh Army cleared the right bank of the Donets between Chuguyev and Zmiyev, but the army command somehow could not quite bring itself to try for a full-scale breakthrough.
Manstein, although forced by Hitler's order to undertake the dangerous and, in the long run, futile exercise of holding Kharkov, concentrated his effort on the tactically decisive point, the gap between Fourth Panzer Army and Eighth Army. After the SS divisions became tied down on
The Soviet Advance to the Dnepr
18 August-2 October 1944
the Eighth Army west front, Manstein transferred responsibility for the counterattack to Fourth Panzer Army. On 18 August the Grossdeutschland Division and the 7th Panzer Division broke out of the Akhtyrka bridgehead. In two days they sliced across the gap and established contact with the SS Totenkopf Division, which succeeded in extending its left flank across the Merlya River. The counterattack eliminated the direct threat to Poltava, but, in the meantime, the Fourth Panzer Army front had broken open farther north.
On 18 August Vatutin, repeating the tactics he had employed in opening the offensive, brought the 57th Infantry Division, holding a sector midway between Akhtyrka and Sumy, under concentrated artillery, mortar, and tank fire. By midafternoon the division had lost all its lieutenants and most of its senior NCO's. It reported that the battalion commanders had yelled themselves hoarse but could not keep the troops from retreating. In the next two days the Russians tore open ten miles of the front, shouldering aside what was left of the 57th Division, which was redesignated a kampfgruppe, a term then beginning to be applied to units so drastically reduced in strength that to continue carrying them as divisions would be misleading if not downright ridiculous.27
On 20 August, the day the Grossdeutschland and Totenkopf Divisions joined hands to close the gap west of Kharkov, the Commanding General, Eighth Army, Woehler, asked permission to evacuate the city that night. After the first few days in his new command, Woehler was no more optimistic than Kempf had been. XI Corps, holding the front on the northern outskirts of Kharkov, had a strength of 4,000 infantrymen, one man for each ten yards of front. The artillery, which, as the infantry strength ebbed away, had been forced to carry the main burden of the fighting, was running out of ammunition. The army's supply depots in Kharkov had five trainloads of spare tank tracks left over from ZITADELLE but very little else. The high consumption of ammunition in the last month and a half had cut into supplies put aside for the last half of August and the first two weeks of September; until the turn of the month the army would have to get along with 50 percent of its average daily requirements in artillery and tank ammunition.
Grudgingly, Hitler gave Manstein permission to evacuate Kharkov but asked that the city be held if at all possible. He claimed the loss would damage German prestige, particularly in Turkey. In the spring the Turkish commander in chief had inspected the "impregnable" defenses of the city as a guest of Armeeabteilung Kempf.
On the 20th Manstein still thought he might be able to hold Kharkov and ordered the SS Das Reich Division shifted north to support XI Corps. The next day he changed his mind and gave Woehler permission to pull back "if necessary." The following morning the SS Das Reich Division launched a counterattack in the XI Corps zone, but Woehler informed Manstein that he intended to give up the city anyway. His artillery situation was catastrophic. The artillerymen, after firing their last rounds, were abandoning their guns to fight as infantry. Manstein replied that twenty-four trainloads of ammunition were on the way from Germany but had to
agree that they would hardly come in time. In the afternoon Hitler, characteristically, requested that if the counterattack by the Das Reich Division improved things "somewhat" Kharkov not be given up. Woehler and Manstein agreed that this was no longer possible. During the night the city changed hands for the fourth and final time.28
While Eighth Army withdrew south of Kharkov, massive Soviet efforts to expand the breakthrough in the Fourth Panzer Army zone and reopen the route to Poltava forced Hoth to fall back south of Akhtyrka on either side of the Vorskla River. By 25 August he had regained sufficient equilibrium to be able to spare two divisions for a counterattack into the gap. It was successful, and by the 27th the Fourth Panzer and Eighth Armies held a continuous line on a rough arc bending southwestward between Sumy and Zmiyev.29
The Front in Flames
By re-establishing a continuous front on the Army Group South left flank the Fourth Panzer and Eighth Armies had for the moment blunted a deadly thrust, but to the north and south fresh blows had already been dealt or were in the making. Employing the peculiar rippling effect that marked their offensives, the Russians, thwarted in one place, had shifted to others, adding weight to the offensive laterally. For the first time in the war they had the full strategic initiative, and they grasped it jealously without regard for economy of effort, tactical sophistication, or the danger of overreaching themselves. The Stavka, apparently worried that the Germans would try for a stalemate, aimed at keeping the enemy off balance and not letting him establish a stable front anywhere in the Army Group Center and Army Group South sectors.30 Vasilevskiy co-ordinated the fronts on the south flank and Zhukov those opposite the Army Group Center right flank and the left flank of Army Group South.
Only the outer flanks of the Eastern Front remained quiet. In the zone of Army Group North, on 23 August, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts finally abandoned a costly and unpromising drive they had begun four weeks earlier against the Mga bottleneck south of Lake Ladoga. The Germans never were much worried since the offensive was a fairly ramshackle affair from the start. They guessed that its main purpose was to prevent the shifting of reserves to the south. In the last two weeks it had degenerated into a series of random assaults by units of divisional size or smaller.31 In the south, the greatest concern of Army Group A was to secure a decision to get out of the GOTENKOPF before the fall rains set in. Hitler insisted on first talking it over with Antonescu. At the end of August Zeitzler on his own responsibility told Army Group A to go ahead and get ready to evacuate, since such a decision was inevitable.32
SOVIET TROOPS STORM A BURNING TOWN
Army Group Center
Beginning on 20 August, the pressure on Army Group Center subsided for a week. The Bryansk and Central Fronts closed to the HAGEN position, and the Stavka had directed Voronov to abandon the Roslavl thrust and regroup for an attack via Yel'nya toward Smolensk.33 The OKH took advantage of the pause to transfer five more divisions from Ninth Army to Army Group South.
When the last of those divisions left on 23 August, Kluge informed the OKH that he could no longer guarantee prevention of a breakthrough on his front. He offered as alternatives either giving the army group a large contingent of replacements and quantities of new matériel or allowing it to draw back forty-five miles to the SDB position, a recently surveyed but not yet constructed line roughly following the courses of the Seym, Desna, and Bolva Rivers. He had reason for concern. All the signs indicated that the Russians would shift the weight of their effort away from Ninth Army to the armies on its flanks. Fourth Army, on the left, had just barely been able to hold its line earlier in the month, and Second Army, on the right, although its front had been quiet thus far, was the victim of considerable neglect. It had been thoroughly mauled during the winter battles and later slighted because its front on the western
rim of the Kursk bulge was expected to be eliminated by ZITADELLE. Second Army's strength was 7 divisions and 2 kampfgruppen, that of Fourth Army, 11 divisions and 7 kampfgruppen. Ninth Army still had some 26 divisions, 6 kampfgruppen, and miscellaneous smaller units, but Kluge could not count on drawing on them to bolster the other two armies. As one of Hitler's favorites, Model could operate with much more independence than the average army commander, and he was known to be something less than generous in weakening his own front for the sake of other sectors. That tendency, it may be said, had not disturbed Kluge earlier when the question was one of giving up divisions to Army Group South.34
On 26 August Central Front resumed the offensive against Army Group Center, striking at the Ninth Army right flank east of Karachev and near Second Army's center at Sevsk and east of Klintsy. During the day it took Sevsk and scored a deep penetration east of Klintsy. Army Group Center and Second Army, assuming that Rokossovskiy was going to turn north and strike in the rear of Ninth Army, decided to deal first with the threat at Sevsk. That decision was no doubt correct, even though it helped raise an equal danger elsewhere. At that time Rokossovskiy had two tank armies standing in reserve behind his right flank, and he probably intended to commit them at Sevsk.35 Kluge had shifted one panzer and two infantry divisions south from Ninth Army several days earlier. Those he put into a counterattack northwest of Sevsk on 29 August.
Although only a moderate success, the counterattack, together with a sudden jump Sixtieth Army made that day to Yesman' on his left flank, was enough to persuade Rokossovskiy to change his plan. He began regrouping Second Tank and Thirteenth Armies from the right to the left flank.36 No matter which direction the Russians took, Second Army was in trouble. At Yesman' Sixtieth Army was twenty-five miles behind Second Army's south flank, and there a counterattack was out of the question.
Kluge allowed the army to bend XIII Corps back southwest of Yesman' and warned the OKH that Second Army would soon have to retreat farther and thereby also affect the north flank of Army Group South. Enough reinforcements to regain control were not to be had. The most Kluge could do was transfer two more divisions from Ninth Army, which was having troubles of its own. On 28 August two of West Front's armies, West Front's Tenth Guards and Twenty-first, had attacked at the Ninth Army-Fourth Army boundary. In two days they drove a 20-mile-deep wedge through to Yel'nya, forcing the German armies to bend their flanks back to keep contact.37
On 29 August Kluge asked to take the Ninth and Second Armies into the SDB position. Second Army was split in two, and it seemed at the moment that with a little determination West Front would quickly push past Yel'nya to Smolensk, the eastern gateway to the Dvina-Dnepr gap.38
Kalinin Front had failed to break open the Third Panzer and Fourth Armies' flanks, but it was building up to another attempt. Hitler countered by asking for an opinion on another stand-and-fight order similar to the one which had been issued in the winter of 1941-42. Kluge replied that such an order would be futile: the troops would not carry it out, and the Soviet capabilities were much greater than they had been then.39 Finally, Hitler agreed to a half measure allowing Army Groups Center and South to swing their adjacent flanks back as far west as Krolevets.
Two days later, on 2 September, after Model had reported that Ninth Army could not establish a permanent front east of the Desna, Kluge issued preliminary instructions for a general withdrawal to the SDB position. In the Second Army zone it was already too late. XIII Corps, told to fall back to the west and maintain contact with Army Group South, allowed itself instead to be pushed south across the Seym River into the Fourth Panzer Army sector, thereby opening a 20-mile gap between the flanks of the army groups.40 Ignoring this fresh crisis, Hitler canceled the Army Group Center withdrawal orders.41 On 3 September, in a mood of near desperation, Kluge and Manstein went to Fuehrer headquarters to argue with Hitler in person.
First Panzer Army and Sixth Army
During the last week of August, in spite of a momentary improvement on the north flank, the situation of Army Group South had also taken an alarming turn. On 13 and 18 August Southwest and South Fronts extended the offensive into the zones of the First Panzer and Sixth Armies and struck south of Izyum and east of Golodayevka, exactly the same spots where their breakthrough attempts had failed in July.
For the second time, the First Panzer Army line held, even though the artillery and mortar fire, described as the heaviest yet seen in the war, produced so many casualties that the army was forced to call for replacements after the first forty-eight hours. Sixth Army had worse luck. Instead of following the usual Soviet practice of bringing up fresh divisions before an offensive General Polkovnik F. I. Tolbukhin, commanding South Front, had fleshed out the units in the line; consequently, the German intelligence officers, watching for what they regarded as an infallible sign of coming trouble, were misled by the absence of changes in the Second Guards and Fifth Shock Armies' orders of battle. When the attack came on 18 August it repeated the pattern of overwhelming concentration, particularly of artillery, on a narrow front. Before the end of the day Fifth Shock Army spearheads had penetrated three and a half miles behind the front through a mile-and a-half-wide gap. During the night, in the light of a full moon, they spread out north and south behind the German front.
Hollidt, commanding Sixth Army, decided against attempting to seal off the breakthrough and to try instead to close the gap in the front. That was the sort of bold decision which formerly had brought handsome rewards for comparatively little effort, but under present circumstances it had more the character of an all-or-nothing
GERMAN SELF-PROPELLED ASSAULT GUN
gamble. The army could spare very little infantry, and it had not a single tank. On 20 August the attack began from both sides of the gap. It made fair progress and by nightfall the two forces had almost joined hands, but during the night the IV Guards Mechanized Corps realized what was happening and, turning around, attacked from the west the next morning. The Soviet superiority was too great. By nightfall the gap had reopened to a width of nearly five miles.
By 20 August, Manstein had secured the 13th Panzer Division from Army Group A, but when it arrived at Sixth Army it was found to consist of only one regiment plus three companies. Moreover, Soviet espionage was working so well that the Russians knew about the division almost as soon as Sixth Army did. On 23 August, 13th Panzer Division attacked from the north side of the gap, which by then had widened to seven miles. For it to have closed the gap would have been a miracle. As it was, the three miles the division gained before being stopped by two mechanized corps constituted a startling success. Meanwhile, Tolbukhin, even though he operated cautiously, worried by the threat in his rear, had expanded the breakthrough to the
point where Sixth Army could no longer muster the resources for an attempt to contain it.42
By 23 August First Panzer Army was also in trouble. It reported that the corps south of Izyum was reduced to a combat strength of 5,800 men, not enough to maintain a continuous line.43 All Manstein could do was issue an unconvincing prediction that the battle was approaching its climax, and the victory would go to him whose strength lasts "one minute longer than his opponent's."44
On 25 August the operations officers of First Panzer Army and Sixth Army flew to army group headquarters with a joint proposal for a withdrawal. There they learned that Manstein had told Hitler that if five fresh divisions, at least two of them panzer, could not be supplied, a retreat and, eventually, evacuation of the Donets Basin would be necessary. Manstein did not believe Hitler would accept that estimate, but gave the armies permission to start getting ready to go back to the general line of the Kalmius River, just east of Stalino.45
Two days later, at Hitler's headquarters near Vinnitsa, Manstein presented the alternatives again, this time asking for twelve divisions. Hitler promised "all the divisions that could possibly be spared" by Army Groups North and Center. Both army groups promptly protested that they could not give up as much as a single division.46
While Hitler was at Vinnitsa on 27 August more trouble developed for Sixth Army. II Guards Mechanized Corps turned south out of the breakthrough area and began a dash to the coast behind the XXIX Corps on the army right flank. Sixth Army was virtually helpless. It had 35,000 front-line troops and 7 tanks against 130,000 Russians with 160 to 170 tanks. Reluctantly, Manstein gave Hollidt two weak divisions, one infantry and one panzer, recently arrived from Army Group Center, and a panzer division, also weak, from First Panzer Army. Those, organized into a corps, Hollidt used to draw some of the pressure off XXIX Corps. On 29 August the Russians reached the coast west of Taganrog, driving XXIX Corps back into a pocket at the mouth of the Mius River.
The next day, coming from the west, 13th Panzer Division opened a narrow gap in the Russian line while XXIX Corps assembled its 9,000 troops in three columns headed by its few undamaged self-propelled assault guns. The Russians were misled by the heavy cloud of dust the German assembly raised. Believing that a strong tank attack was in the making, they gave way after the assault guns fired their first rounds, and, during the night, the German columns marched out to the west with hardly any losses.
On 31 August Manstein authorized Sixth Army, and First Panzer Army to fall back to the Kalmius River.47 That night Hitler approved "if the withdrawal was absolutely necessary and no other course was open."48
Manstein and Kluge Confront Hitler
When Manstein and Kluge presented themselves at Fuehrer headquarters on 3 September they believed the time had come for radical measures. They wanted to convince Hitler that the situation demanded nothing less than a major overhaul of German strategy and a unified, militarily competent, command at the top level. During August, Manstein had several times called for the creation of a strategic main effort. He had proposed stripping the OKW theaters--the West, Italy, and the Balkans--and throwing the full weight of the German Army against the Russians.
The OKW had given some thousands of men to the Eastern Front in the form of replacement battalions, but it resisted giving up whole divisions, insisting that its theaters were underdefended as it was. In late August, perhaps influenced by Stalin's incessant demands for a second front, the Operations Branch, OKW, professed to see a danger of an Allied invasion on the Atlantic coast in the coming fall. On 2 September the Deputy Chief, Operations Branch, OKW, prepared a memorandum in which he maintained that attacks were to be expected on the Atlantic coast, in Italy, and in the Balkans. In contrast to the East, he pointed out, where there was still ample room for maneuver, these attacks would directly threaten the borders of the Reich. He concluded, therefore, that the OKW theaters could not spare any more troops for the East. The Chief, Operations Branch, OKW, Jodl, at first did not concur entirely, but in the next few days he worked out estimates of his own in which he reached essentially the same conclusion.49
In the conference on 3 September, Manstein and Kluge asked Hitler to abolish the dualism between the OKH and OKW theaters and make the Chief of Staff, OKH, responsible for all theaters.50 Kluge had reported to Hitler several days before that he saw as the main source of the present troubles the lack of a single military adviser responsible to the supreme commander (Hitler) for all theaters.51
The idea of a single chief of staff was militarily unexceptionable. Unfortunately, as the two field marshals must have known, it could not be presented in any form Hitler would accept. In the first place, conducting operations in all theaters through the OKH would automatically enhance the power of the Chief of Staff, OKH. At the same time, it would weaken Hitler's personal control by nullifying the claim that he alone could form a complete strategic picture and by depriving him of the device, which he had used often, of playing the OKW and OKH off against each other. Finally, it could result in his losing his grip on the Eastern Front. A more powerful Chief of Staff, OKH, might bring actual over-all control in the East into the hands of the Army General Staff and end the compartmentalization Hitler used to maintain himself as supreme arbiter over the four army groups and the OKH. That Hitler would reject any such abridgments of his personal authority was a foregone conclusion. In the end, he chose to consider the problem a purely technical one of co-ordinating troop transfers between the
OKH and OKW theaters and ordered that henceforth all decisions by the OKH or the OKW affecting each other's strengths would be communicated to him personally in the presence of both the Chief, OKW, and the Chief of Staff, OKH.52
Having demonstrated that, whatever the state of the war, he was and would remain the master in Germany, Hitler turned to the situation at the front. To Manstein he conceded nothing, rejecting his pleas for large-scale reinforcement of Army Group South from other theaters.53 He gave Kluge permission to take Second Army and the right flank of Ninth Army behind the Desna River.54 On the afternoon of 3 September, after conferring with Antonescu, he ordered Army Group A to start evacuating the GOTENKOPF. All civilians were to be evacuated to the Crimea, and the Russians were to be left "an uninhabitable desert."55
Hitler Approves a Withdrawal "In Principle"
After 3 September the offensive against Army Group Center subsided briefly. West of Yel'nya the Ninth and Fourth Armies re-established a continuous front. On the southern flank, Rokossovskiy shifted his attack to the left flank of Fourth Panzer Army, and, as a consequence, Second Army's withdrawal to the Desna proved fairly easy. Fourth Panzer Army took over XIII Corps and, after replacing the commanding general, used it to screen its lengthening north flank.
The drive against Army Group Center had obviously gone somewhat awry, although it had perhaps accomplished as much as was needed for the time being. The Stavka had probably realized that though substantial, its superiority was not enough equally to sustain simultaneous advances into Belorussia and the Ukraine. On 4 September it committed itself definitely to a main effort in the Ukraine against the Army Group South left flank. On that day Voronezh Front, reinforced by Third Guards Tank Army (transferred from the Central Front), Fifty-second Army, and several tank and mechanized corps, launched a powerful attack on a broad front between the Psel and Vorskla Rivers that threatened to break open the Fourth Panzer Army right flank and leave the army with both flanks hanging in the air.56
On the night of 4 September Sixth Army and First Panzer Army went into the Kalmius line, and the Sixth Army commander, Hollidt, declared there would be no more withdrawals, the front would absolutely be held. He could not have been more wrong. As long as it had the protection of the Donets River along nearly all of its front, First Panzer Army presented at least an appearance of strength, but after it had bent its right corps back from the river even that was lost. The army, severely strained by battles of attrition since July, had asked for nine or ten days to move into its new line but was given only three. Southwest Front, after following close on its heels all the way, opened a slashing attack on the morning of 6 September. In a few hours
I Guards Mechanized Corps and nine rifle divisions rammed through north of the First Panzer Army-Sixth Army boundary. That night von Mackensen told the army group chief of staff that all that was left to do was to retreat to the Dnepr, since neither his army nor Sixth Army had strength enough to restore the front. The next day XXIII Tank Corps slipped through the gap and joined I Guards Mechanized Corps. Leaving the infantry behind, the two armored corps broke away to the west. By 8 September their reconnaissance detachments were approaching Pavlograd and Sinel'nikovo, a hundred miles behind the front and about thirty miles east of the Dnepr.57
Early on the morning of the 8th Hitler's plane carrying him and Zeitzler landed at Zaporozhye, Manstein's headquarters. Some sort of reasonably thoroughgoing decision could no longer be avoided. During the day's conferences Manstein argued that Army Group Center should be pulled back to the PANTHER position to shorten its front by about one-third and free a commensurate number of divisions for Army Group South. Hitler objected that such a withdrawal would take too long. Instead, he ordered Kleist, who was present, to speed up evacuation of the GOTENKOPF, a move expected to yield three divisions.
As far as the right flank of Army Group South was concerned, to patch the line on the Kalmius River was clearly out of the question; therefore, Hitler approved "in principle" the withdrawal of First Panzer and Sixth Armies to the WOTAN position between Melitopol and the Dnepr north of Zaporozhye. For the north flank of the army group he promised reinforcements, four infantry divisions for the Dnepr crossings and a corps headquarters with two infantry and two panzer divisions from Army Group Center to close the gap between the Second Army and Fourth Panzer Army flanks. Manstein immediately told the First Panzer and Sixth Armies to go over to "a mobile defense." With that the retreat to the Dnepr was on.58
To the Dnepr
As usual, Hitler's main concern in the conferences on 8 September had been to avoid any decision that was not already inevitable. Finding himself forced to give up the Donets Basin, he was doubly reluctant to concede the necessity for a similar decision with respect to the Fourth Panzer and Eighth Armies. Instead, he took refuge in dubious promises, one of which evaporated the next day when he learned that of the four divisions designated for the Dnepr crossings only one would be available and it would have to come all the way from Army Group North. The other he gave somewhat more substance before leaving Zaporozhye by issuing specific orders to Army Group Center concerning transfer of the corps headquarters and four divisions that were to come under Army Group South control as soon as they crossed the Desna.59 But three of the divisions were to come from Second Army, which in its weakened state could hardly spare the divisions on 8 September, and on the 9th, after Rokossovskiy's troops crossed the Desna south of Novgorod-Severskiy and at Otsekin, could not
spare them at all. The 8th Panzer Division, the one division Second Army did release, it used to protect its own flank south of the Desna.
First Panzer Army and Sixth Army Retreat
In the south the First Panzer and Sixth Armies lost no time starting their march to the Dnepr. In two days their inner flanks covered seventy miles, about half the distance, and on 12 September panzer units of First Panzer Army pushing south re-established contact with the left flank of Sixth Army. As the gap between the armies narrowed, I Guards Mechanized Corps and XXIII Tank Corps, operating toward Pavlograd and Sinel'nikovo, slowed down. On the night of the 12th the Headquarters, Southwest Front, ordered the two corps to turn back and escape to the east. During the next two days First Panzer Army beat off several breakout attempts. On the night of 14 September remnants of the corps slipped through an accidental gap in the Sixth Army line.60
The experience of I Guards Mechanized Corps demonstrated once more the Russians' difficulties in fully exploiting their armor. After the breakthrough at Golodayevka, Tolbukhin had been criticized for using his tank units too cautiously and dissipating their strength in numerous small skirmishes.61 Malinovskiy, apparently determined not to make the same mistake, had unleashed I Guards Mechanized Corps and XXIII Tank Corps. Their dash toward the Dnepr, though spectacular, had been tactically unproductive. It had pointed up the already obvious weakness of the two German armies, but this could probably have been done with greater effect by keeping the corps in contact with the front. As soon as their supply lines were cut, the corps had lost momentum, and when the front closed behind them they had had to fall back precipitously, taking a thorough drubbing on the way.
After 12 September First Panzer Army and Sixth Army set a more deliberate pace. Behind Sixth Army, which, to protect the land routes into the Crimea, would have to hold a line whose only natural advantage was the small Molochnaya River, Army Group A began moving in troops and artillery. Worried that Manstein might later be tempted to siphon these off to other sectors of Army Group South, Kleist asked for command of Sixth Army when it reached the WOTAN position. At midmonth Hitler agreed that Army Group A would take over Headquarters, Sixth Army, and its two southern corps, the third corps going to First Panzer Army.62
Fourth Panzer Army and Eighth Army Weaken
On its north flank the Army Group South front was becoming tauter and more brittle by the hour. Eighth Army reported shortly after the turn of the month that it could no longer hold a continuous line. It had established a system of strongpoints with connecting trenches for patrols. Its rear echelon troops consisted exclusively of "sole surviving sons" and "fathers of large families,"
two categories that were still, by Hitler's order, exempt from front-line duty, all the rest having been sent to the front. Even so, one infantry division was reduced to a strength of six officers and 300 men. Exhaustion and apathy had set in, and the "most severe measures" no longer helped to stiffen the troops' resistance.63
Fourth Panzer Army was in worse straits. On the 30-mile stretch of front between the Vorskla and the Psel, its front sagged under the weight of six tank and mechanized corps and an estimated nineteen rifle divisions. In the gap off its left flank the most it could do was to try to create an island of resistance around Nezhin, the last obstacle in Central Front's way on the road to Kiev.64 There the slow arrival of the promised divisions from Army Group Center so exasperated Hoth that, finally, on 12 September, he claimed command of all units south of the Desna, in accordance with Hitler's order, and took the 8th Panzer Division off the Second Army flank.
Kluge Begins the Retreat to the PANTHER Position
Kluge made a conscientious, though hardly heroic, effort to get the four divisions promised Army Group South. On 10 September, when he asked the Commanding General, Second Army, General der Infanterie Walter Weiss, to reconsider whether he could not somehow spare two more divisions, Weiss replied that his army was down to an average combat strength of 1,000 men per division. The next day, after Weiss reported that the Russians had increased the number of their bridgeheads across the Desna to six, Kluge decided to take the two divisions from Fourth Army instead. At the same time he told the OKH, "The door to Smolensk now stands open."
On the 12th he informed the OKH that the army group could not supply a fourth division. The pause in the offensive against Army Group Center had ended. The Russians were expanding their bridgeheads on the Desna; a cavalry corps, attacking south of Kirov, had sliced through behind the center of Ninth Army; and an offensive toward Smolensk was to be expected any day against Fourth Army.
By the 12th, Army Group Center, in fact, was in serious trouble; the Stavka was obviously determined not to let the army group come to rest. The cavalry corps that had penetrated the Ninth Army left flank, thrusting deep to the southwest, took Zhukovka on the Bryansk-Roslavl' railroad. Model set about closing his front, but the effort merely emphasized the futility of Ninth Army's continuing to hold a rigid line when it was obvious that the armies on its flanks would give way before the next onslaught. The build-up opposite Fourth Army had gone so far that the army would not dare meet the impending attack head on. Second Army's front on the Desna was riddled with bridgeheads, and to man its lengthening right flank it had committed two security divisions and a Hungarian division, none of them equipped or trained for front-line fighting.
On 13 September Kluge issued the warning order for a withdrawal to the PANTHER position. In a meeting at army group headquarters, the chief of staff gave the officers present an idea of the magnitude of such an
operation. It would mean, he stated, relinquishing half, qualitatively the better half, of the territory the army group still held in the Soviet Union. Work on the PANTHER position would require 400,000 civilian laborers. Between 2.5 and 3 million persons would have to be evacuated to the west--this as compared to some 190,000 evacuated from the Orel bulge. Six hundred thousand cattle would have to be herded to the rear, and the army group would have to shift all of its rear area installations. For instance, new hospital facilities for 36,000 beds would have to be built.
The next morning West Front renewed the thrust toward Smolensk. In the afternoon the Chief of Operations, OKH, called the army group headquarters to inform Kluge that Manstein intended ordering Fourth Panzer Army to withdraw behind the Dnepr. The Chief of Operations believed the time had come for Army Group Center to start its pullback to the PANTHER position.
He wanted to know whether Kluge considered that he, Kluge, had the authority to issue such an order. Kluge replied that he did not: an order would have to come from Hitler through the OKH. Certain that the order would come within a matter of hours, Kluge that night directed Model to start taking the center of the Ninth Army line behind the Desna and gave Weiss permission to begin falling back west of the Desna.65
Hitler and Kluge Go Slow
In the Army Group South zone on 14 September, Fourth Panzer Army wavered on the brink of collapse. On its left Central Front troops were pushing into Nezhin, and in the center Voronezh Front had broken through, splitting the army into three parts. Hoth reported that the Russians could march to Kiev unhindered. The situation, he stated, was similar to that the army had faced south of Rostov during the winter, the difference being that then it had some battleworthy units with which to maneuver. The greatest danger was that the army would be pushed south parallel to the Dnepr and leave a long stretch of the river on either side of Kiev completely exposed.
Manstein instructed Hoth to break contact with Eighth Army and swing his right flank west, orienting his front on a north-south axis to cover Kiev. He ordered Woehler to take Eighth Army back as quickly as he could without impairing the troops' fitness for combat and so release enough troops to screen the gap that would open between the two armies. In his report to Hitler, Manstein stated that on 15 September he was going to order Fourth Panzer Army to retreat behind the Dnepr, otherwise the army would soon be destroyed. Since he would have to take divisions from the Eighth and First Panzer Armies for Fourth Panzer Army, he saw no chance of holding any ground forward of the river. On the night of the 14th Hitler told Manstein and Kluge to report in person the next day.66
Meanwhile, the loss of Nezhin early on the 15th touched off a near panic at Fuehrer headquarters. The OKH urged
Army Group Center to speed up the withdrawals already under way in order to free units for Army Group South. After Manstein and Kluge arrived, Hitler told Kluge to transfer four divisions to Army Group South and agreed to a general retreat to the WOTAN (Dnepr) and PANTHER positions. By the end of the day, however, he began to have second thoughts, and before Kluge left Fuehrer headquarters he instructed him to execute the Army Group Center withdrawal by phases, avoiding "excessive speed." He was not interested, he said, in executing the operation quickly. Every major step back would require his prior concurrence.67
For Army Group South the decision to go behind the Dnepr, welcome though it was, posed problems that would test the skill and stamina of the leadership and troops as severely as anything they had yet undertaken. The first of these was to disengage the scattered pieces of Fourth Panzer Army, a move accomplished on the nights of 16 and 17 September in what Hoth described as "two great leaps backward"--through which the army regained some freedom of maneuver and restored contact between its units.68 Next came the more difficult and dangerous task of getting the Fourth Panzer, Eighth, and First Panzer Armies across the river. The three armies, occupying a front nearly 400 miles in breadth, had at their disposal only five crossings--Kiev, Kanev, Cherkassy, Kremenchug, and Dnepropetrovsk--which meant splitting their forces, establishing bridgeheads that could be held until the troops were funneled across, and then fanning out behind the river before the Russians could get bridgeheads of their own in the undefended areas on the west bank.
Very little had been done to improve the crossings. Regarding Cherkassy, swiftly being congested with evacuated cattle and piles of goods, Headquarters, Army Group South, and Eighth Army argued over who would furnish engineers and bridging equipment.69 At the last minute Hitler added another complication by insisting that First Panzer Army strengthen the bridgehead east of Zaporozhye to protect the nearby Nikopol manganese mines.70 Hitler's tendency to place economic objectives above tactics was once more to have baneful effects, for in following orders Manstein had to shift nearly all of the few units he could spare, and would otherwise have used to shore up the army group's weak left flank, to the tactically worthless Zaporozhye bridgehead.
At the 15 September conference, Manstein had insisted that Army Group Center transfer the newly promised four divisions to Army Group South at top speed. Before the end of the day marching orders came through for two of the divisions; but by the time Kluge left Fuehrer headquarters Hitler had given him two mutually contradictory missions: to release the divisions for Army Group South quickly--but to conduct the withdrawal to the PANTHER position at a deliberate pace. The latter coincided with Kluge's own thinking; consequently, he was in no hurry to get the general withdrawal under way and waited three days before issuing a basic order. In that order he emphasized that the armies would stay forward
of the PANTHER position at least until 10 October.71 As a result, the army group remained tied down in heavy fighting at the front, and the transfer of two of the four divisions promised Army Group South was first postponed and finally canceled.
Tactically, Kluge's decision to go slow gave the Stavka an opportunity to continue developing its two currently most dangerous offensive thrusts, the one toward Smolensk and the other toward the Dnepr between the flanks of Army Groups Center and South. While West Front forced the Fourth Army right flank back southeast of Smolensk, Kalinin Front, under Yeremenko, bore down north of the city on both sides of the Third Panzer-Fourth Army boundary. South of the Desna, off the Second Army right flank, on 16 and 18 September Central Front moved in a fresh guards mechanized corps; during the next two days, without slackening the advance toward the Dnepr, it aimed a two-pronged thrust northward across the Desna on either side of Chernigov. The Second Army flank collapsed under the first wave of the attack. The army group recorded that on 19 September the Hungarian division stationed east of Chernigov "dissolved completely."
Between 20 and 23 September disastrous developments on both flanks forced Kluge to abandon his plan for a leisurely withdrawal. North of Smolensk, Kalinin Front broke through the Third Panzer Army right flank, taking Demidov and threatening the PANTHER position. Southeast of Smolensk, the Fourth Army line was beginning to crack. In the Second Army zone, east of Chernigov, Central Front carried its advance north behind the army flank toward Gomel, the most important road and railroad junction on the southern half of the Army Group Center front.72
Army Group South Goes Behind the River
During the last week of the month the Army Group South's retreat degenerated into a race with the Russians for possession of the right bank of the Dnepr. At the confluence of the Pripyat and the Dnepr some of Rokossovskiy's troops had crossed as early as 19 September, and before the end of the month they had a bridgehead reaching 15 miles west along both sides of the Pripyat to Chernobyl.
Anxious to keep the Germans from digging in on the Dnepr and thereby possibly effecting a stalemate, the Stavka had directed the fronts and armies to cross the river on the run. To the officers and soldiers who distinguished themselves in river crossings, it offered the highest Soviet military decoration, Hero of the Soviet Union, which meant a life pension and public recognition--a life-sized bust of the recipient was to be displayed in his home town. The technique of the crossings was the same everywhere, crude, but conducted on so large a scale and with such great persistence that it was overwhelmingly effective. For instance, near Bukrin, forty-eight miles southeast of Kiev, four soldiers of a guards submachine gun company crossed the Dnepr in a rowboat after dark on 22 September. They waded ashore, climbed the bank, at this point steep and several hundred feet high, and from the gullies near the top drew fire from the German outposts.
Other small parties followed. By daylight the whole company had crossed and taken a foothold at the top of the bank. Then, in an antlike procession, the whole Third Guards Tank Army began to cross, the infantry using anything that would float--timbers, gasoline drums, wooden doors, even straw wrapped in ponchos--while the engineers built causeways for the heavy equipment, and other troops set up artillery on the east bank to deliver covering fire. The four submachine gunners became Heroes of the Soviet Union. Up and down the river, the Stavka, to keep the armies moving and as if intent on paving the crossings with medals, awarded 2,000 Hero of the Soviet Union decorations and ten thousand lesser ones.73
On the 26th, Voronezh Front took a bridgehead in the bend of the Dnepr below Pereyaslav, and Steppe Front made three smaller crossings between Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk. These it expanded in the next few days to form a single bridgehead thirty miles wide and at one point ten miles deep.74 Lying, as they did, almost exactly midway between the Germans' own crossing points, the bridgeheads were each established in places the Germans would have trouble reaching.
Hitler worried most about the bridgehead at the mouth of the Pripyat. On 25 September he ordered Army Groups Center and South to eliminate it immediately, but that was not easily done. While the two army groups sent the few, nearly exhausted, divisions they could spare probing into the swamps that fringed the rivers, the Russians, determined not to be dislodged, moved in fresh well-rested troops.75
By the end of the month Army Group South had taken the last of its troops across the river and was struggling to establish a front. Sixth Army, having gone into the WOTAN position below Zaporozhye on 20 September, was already straining to beat off an armored offensive at the center of its front--a certain sign that the Stavka would not relax the pressure, at least as long as the good weather lasted. On 2 October the last units of Army Group Center moved into the PANTHER position, which followed the general line of the Sozh and Pronya Rivers about thirty miles east of the Dnepr. In the south Army Group A completed its withdrawal from the GOTENKOPF on 29 September. It still held a small bridgehead on the Taman Peninsula but evacuated it during the next ten days.
In two and one-half months Army Groups Center and South had been forced back an average distance of 150 miles on a front 650 miles long. Economically, the Germans lost the most valuable territory they had taken in the Soviet Union. In an effort at least to deny the Soviet Union the fruits of these rich areas Hitler had initiated a scorched-earth policy, but, in the end, even that satisfaction was denied him. At the end of September Army Group Center reported that it had succeeded in evacuating no more than 20 to 30 percent of the economic goods in its rear area.76
In the Army Group South zone the failure was, if anything, greater. The economic staffs did not have the personnel to accomplish total destruction, and they lacked the
SOVIET TROOPS BOARDING A RAFT ON A BRANCH OF THE DNEPR
equipment to remove more than a part of the useable goods. Large numbers of factories, power plants, railroads, and bridges were in fact destroyed, but many of them had never been fully restored after the Soviet retreat in 1941. The people, influenced by Soviet propaganda promising that there would be no reprisals, sabotaged the evacuation to save their own possessions and to establish alibis that would be useful after the Germans departed. The only willing evacuees were the outright collaborators, those from some of the districts along the Donets who had had a taste of a Soviet "liberation" during the last winter, and those who resided in the few areas completely laid waste. The armies and economic staffs organized caravans of civilians numbering all together about 600,000 persons, or one-tenth of the population. They estimated later that about 280,000 of these eventually reached and crossed the Dnepr. In addition to 268,000 tons of grain and 488,000 cattle and horses taken across the river, the Germans destroyed 941,000 tons of grain and 13,000 cattle; but they left behind 1,656,233 tons of grain, much of it standing in the fields ready to be harvested, and 2,987,699 cattle and horses.
The Russians lost no time in exploiting the fruits of victory. As they pursued the right flank of Army Group South across the southern Ukraine they drew on the local population for replacements. Sixth Army estimated that about 80,000 men were drafted in the reoccupied towns and cities,
UKRAINIAN EVACUEES AT A RIVER CROSSING
given a uniform jacket or pants and a rifle, and thrown into the front line.77
On reaching the Dnepr River the Soviet Army attained the original objectives of its summer offensive. The shortening of the German front, the defensive advantages of the river, the lengthening Soviet lines of communications, and the attrition of Soviet forces should have brought the two sides into balance temporarily. In early October the Germans still believed they had a chance of achieving some sort of a balance, but their own mistakes and the Soviet numerical superiority were working against them. By trying to hold out east of the Dnepr, Hitler had sacrificed too much of the strength of Army Groups South and Center; consequently, the so-called East Wall could not be properly manned or fortified and in the end was breached in several places while the front was still in motion. The Russians' manpower advantage, on the other hand, had enabled them to rest and refit their units in shifts. As a result, they reached the Dnepr with their offensive capability largely intact, and before the last German troops crossed the river the battle for the Dnepr line had begun.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (VII) * Next Chapter (IX)
1. OKH, GenStdH, FHO (IIa) Nr. 1126/43, Zusammenfassende Beurteilung der Feindabsichten vor der deutschen Ostfront im grossen, 21.5.43, H 3/185 file.
2. OKH, GenStdH, Org. Abt. Nr. 1105/43; Kraeftegegenueberstellung, Stand 20.4.43, H 1/527 file.
3. OKH, GenStdH, Org. Abt., Anlageheft zum Band VI, 2. Teil des K.T.B., v. Seite 389-445, 9 Sep 43, OCMH files.
4. The German estimates could have been somewhat low. According to Soviet postwar figures, the Soviet tank strength at the front, for instance, was 8,500 tanks, and the Stavka was holding another 400 in reserve. OKH, GenStdH, Org. Abt. Nr. 1105/43, Kraeftegegenueberstellung, Stand 20.7.43, H 2/527 file; IVOV (R), III, 214.
5. IVOV (R), III, 211-14, 277.
6. Ibid., p. 215.
7. Ibid., p. 217.
8. Ibid., p. 211.
9. OKH, GenStdH, FHO (Ia) Nr. 80, Bisherige Entwicklung des deutschsowjetrussischen Kraefteverhaeltnisses seit Kriegsbeginn und seine moegliche Weiterentwicklung bis Ende 1943, 17.10.43, H 3/185 file.
10. Sbornik Nomer 9.
13. OKH, GenStdH, HPA, Taetigkeitsbericht des Chefs des Heerespersonalamts, 14.9.43, H 4/12 file.
14. Pz. AOK 4, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 1, 3 and 4 Aug 43, Pz. AOK 4 41631/1 file.
15. Manstein, Verlorene Siege, p. 512.
16. OKH, GenStdH, Org. Abt. Nr. 1105/43, Kraeftegegenueberstellung, Stand 20.7.43, H 1/527 file.
17. IVOV (R), III, 286.
18. Pz. AOK 4, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 1, 2 Aug 43, Pz. AOK 4 41631/1 file.
19. New York Times, August 6, 1943.
20. MS # P-114b, Der Feldzug gegen die Sowjetunion im Mittelabschnitt der Ostfront (General der Infanterie a. D. Rudolf Hofmann), Fuenfter Teil, pp. 48-49.
21. OKH, GenStdH, Op. Abt. IIIb Pruef Nr. 38663, Lage Ost, Stand 8.8.43 abds.
22. AOK 8, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 2, Band 2, 7-11 Aug 43, AOK 8 44701/2 file.
23. Ibid., 12-14, 16 Aug 43.
24. Manstein, Verlorene Siege, p. 519.
25. OKH, GenStdH, Op. Abt. Nr. 430513/43, Fuehrerbefehl Nr. 10, 12.8.43, H 1/527 file.
26. OKW, Stellvertretende Chef des Wehrmachtfuehrungsstabes, Kriegstagebuch vom 1.7-30.9.43, 14 Aug 43, IMT Doc 1792-PS.
27. Pz. AOK 4, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 1, 13-20 Aug 43, Pz. AOK 41631/1 file.
28. AOK 8, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 2, Band 2, 8, 18-22 Aug 43, AOK 8 44701/2 file.
29. Pz. AOK 4, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 1, 22-28 Aug 43, Pz. AOK 41631/1 file.
30. IVOV (R), III, 307.
31. H. Gr. Nord, Ia Nr. 13000/44, Der Feldzug gegen die Sowjet-Union der Heeresgruppe Nord, Kriegsjahr 1943, 24.12.44, H. Gr. Nord 75884/1 file. H. Gr. Nord, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 1.8-31.8.43, 3 Aug 43, H. Gr. Nord 15128/25 file.
32. H. Gr. A, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 2, Teil 8, 16, 23, 30 Aug 43, H. Gr. A 75126/14 file.
33. IVOV (R), III, 365.
34. MS # P-114b (Hofmann), Teil V, pp. 69-70.
35. IVOV (R), III, map 12.
36. Ibid., p. 308.
37. MS # P-114b (Hofmann), Teil V, pp. 70-74.
38. Ibid., p. 75; AOK 4, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Nr. 18, 30 Aug 43, AOK 4 50315 file; AOK 2, Kriegstagebuch Russland, Teil 13, 29 Aug 43, AOK 2 48318/1 file.
39. MS # P-114b (Hofmann), Teil V, p. 75, and Anhang 34.
40. MS # P-114b (Hofmann), Teil V, pp. 76-77.
41. AOK 9, Fuehrungsabteilung, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 9, 2 Sep 43, AOK 9 52535/1 file.
42. AOK 6, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 6, 18-23 Aug 43, AOK 6 38986/1 file.
43. Pz. AOK 1, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 11, 23 Aug 43, Pz. AOK 1 44652/1 file.
44. AOK 6, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 6, 23 Aug 43, AOK 6 38986/1 file.
45. Pz. AOK 1, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 11, 25 Aug 43, Pz. AOK 1 44652/1 file.
46. Manstein, Verlorene Siege, pp. 522-23.
47. AOK 6, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 6, 27-31 Aug 43, AOK 6 38986/1 file.
48. Manstein, Verlorene Siege, p. 522.
49. OKW, Stellvertretende Chef des Wehrmachtfuehrungsstabes, Kriegstagebuch vom 1.7-30.9.43, 2, 8, 17 Sep 43, IMT Doc 1792-PS.
50. Manstein, Verlorene Siege, p. 524.
51. MS # P-114b (Hofmann), Teil V, Anhang 34.
52. OKW, Stellvertretende Chef des Wehrmachtfuehrungsstabes, Kriegstagebuch vom 1.7.-30.9.43, 11 Sep 43, Doc 1792-PS.
53. Manstein, Verlorene Siege, p. 525.
54. MS # P-114b (Hofmann), Teil V, p. 78.
55. H. Gr. A, A, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 2, Teil 9a, 3, 5 Sep 43, H. Gr. A 75126/15 file.
56. IVOV (R), III, 312; Pz. AOK 4, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 1, 4 Sep 43, Pz. AOK 4 41631/1 file.
57. Pz. AOK 1, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 12, 6-8 Sep 43, Pz. AOK 1 45393/1 file.
58. Manstein, Verlorene Siege, pp. 526-27; H. Gr. A, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 2, Teil 9a, 8 Sep 43, H. Gr. A 75126/15 file.
59. H. Gr. Sued, Ia, Nr. 0676/43, an Pz. AOK 4, 8.9.43, Pz. AOK 4 41631/9 file.
60. Pz. AOK 1, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 12, 8-14 Sep 43, Pz. AOK 1 45393/1 file.
61. Pavel A. Zhilin, ed., Vazhneyshiye Operatsii Velikoy 0techestvennoy Voyny (Moscow, 1956) (hereafter cited as Vazhneyshiye Operatsii Otechestvennoy Voyny), p. 240.
62. H. Gr. A, Kriegstagebuch, Band 2, Teil 9a, 13-17 Sep 43, Pz. AOK 2 75126/15 file.
63. AOK 8, Ia. Kriegstagebuch Nr. 2, Band 3, 2 Sep 43, AOK 8 44701/3 file.
64. OKH, GenStdH, Op. Abt. IIIb Pruef-Nr. 44323, Lage Ost, Stand 9.9.43, abds.
65. H. Gr. Mitte, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 1.-30.9.43, 10-14 Sep 43, OCMH files.
66. Pz. AOK 4, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, Band 1, 14 Sep 43, Pz. AOK 4 41631/1 file; AOK 8, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 2, Band 3, 14 Sep 43, AOK 8 44701/3 file; OKH, GenStdH, Op. Abt., Kriegstagebuch, 14 Sep 43.
67. H. Gr. Mitte, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 1.-30.9.43, 15 Sep 43, OCMH files.
68. Pz. AOK 4, Ia Kriegstagebuch Band 1, 15-17 Sep 43, Pz. AOK 4 41631/1 file.
69. AOK 8, Ia, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 2, Band 3, 15 Sep 43, AOK 8 44701/3 file.
70. Pz. AOK 1, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 12, 19 Sep 43, Pz. AOK 1 45393/1 file.
71. H. Gr. Mitte, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 1.-30.9.43, 18 Sep 43, OCMH files.
72. Ibid., 16-23 Sep 43.
73. IVOV (R), III, 327-33.
74. AOK 8, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 2, Band 3, 25-28 Sep 43, AOK 8 44701/3 file; Pz. AOK 1, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 12, 26 Sep 43, Pz. AOK 1 45393/1 file.
75. H. Gr. Mitte, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 1.-30.9.43, 25, 26 Sep 43, OCMH files.
76. H. Gr. Mitte, Ia, Kriegstagebuch, 1.-30.9.43, 27 Sep 43, OCMH files.
77. AOK 6, Kriegstagebuch, Band 6, Int. XXIII, AOK 6 38986/1 file; Wi In Sued, Nr. 434/43, Die wirtschaftliche Raeumung des Donez-Gebietes, 5 Nov 43, Wi/ID 2.104 file.