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Flying Tiger, Hidden Eagle
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Force at la Difensa
Sabotaging Hitler’s Heavy Water
Soviet Offensive in the Arctic
The Failure of Strategic Bombing
Dutch Harbor: Unraveling of Japan’s Pacific Strategy
Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Reg (Philippine Scouts)
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
Strategic Culture of the IJN
Battles of Luneville: September 1944
Visual Guide to US Fleet Subs Pt 1
Lodge Act Soldier
The Fate of the Kido Butai
Air Recon in WWII
Turning East: Hitler's only option
Resupply Operations to Malta, 1942
WWII Veteran Interview
Why Arnhem?
Hell Ship - From the Philippines to Japan
The Battleship USS Oregon
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45 to '48
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End of the Battle of the Java Sea
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Polish Cavalry: A Military Myth Dispelled
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Bushido: Valor of Deceit
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Sir Winston Churchill
American Stubbornness at Rimling
The OSS in Greece
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The Rape of Nanking
Small Battle: Big Implications
Harris Class APA's
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Why the Bulge Didn't Break
American Forces in WWII
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Adolf Eichmann
Interview of a WWII Veteran
Failure and Destruction
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Operation Rusty: The Gehlen-U.S. Army Connection
Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
Hitler, Germany's Worst General
Surface Actions of World War II
MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines
Japan's Monster Sub
Popski's Private Army
The Soviet Formula for Success
Japan's TA Operation
Hitler Youth: An Effective Organization
After Midway: The Fates of the Warships
Barbarossa: Strategic Miscalculation
The Story of a "Go Devil"
Long Range Desert Group
Island of Death
The Failure of Operation Barbarossa
The Liberation of Czechoslovakia 1945
Only the Admirals were Happy
Bicycle Blitzkrieg - Singapore
Good Grief Sir, We're in Trier!
Barbarossa
Thermopylae, Balaklava and Kokoda
How Hitler Could Have Won
The Battle of Midway
Waffen SS - Birth of the Elite
Nomonhan and Okinawa
Der Bund Deutscher Mädel
Rulers of the World: Hitler Youth
Breakout From the Hedgerows
Yalta
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Motivation of the Einsatzgruppen
Pearl Harbor and Midway
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The 9th SS Panzer Division
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Anzio: The Allies' Greatest Blunder
US Army in WWII
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Hitler's Ultra-Secret Adlerhorst
The Wilhelm Gustloff Disaster
The 88th Infantry in Italy

Larry Parker Articles
From Small Causes, Great Events Pt2
Nomonhan, 1939 book review
The Fate of the Kido Butai
From Small Causes, Great Events
Urban Warfare Series
  StuIG at Stalingrad
  "A Time of Testing": Battle for Hue
  Battle of Mogadishu
Only the Admirals were Happy
What if?
Thermopylae, Balaklava and Kokoda
For Want of a Nail
Nomonhan and Okinawa
Pearl Harbor and Midway
Amphibious Assaults in WWII
Sealion vs. Overlord

Recommended Reading


Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-1945


How Hitler Could Have Won World War II : The Fatal Errors That Led to Nazi Defeat


The German Generals Talk


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Only the Admirals were Happy 
Only the Admirals were Happy - An Evaluation of the Various Factors Affecting the Critical Campaigns on the Eastern Front 1941-1943
by Larry Parker

"Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread"
Thomas Jefferson

Introduction

That Germany lost World War II is no surprise. Given the relative populations, resources available and economic potential of the countries involved, that she came so very close to victory is. In June 1941 France, once considered the most powerful of the European nations, was a vassal state; England driven from the continent and in retreat in North Africa; the Balkans, Greece and Crete recently fallen to panzers and paratroops. Only Russia stood between Hitler's unbeaten armies and his dream of lebensraum. Not trusting Stalin (there were 2.7 million Soviet troops forward deployed on the Reich's Eastern border), Hitler decided to strike while the correlation of forces was in his favor. From 22 June 1941 until 08 May 1945 the Soviet Union absorbed an estimated seventy-five per cent of Germany's manpower and material. While taking nothing away from the campaigns in the West and the Mediterranean, the war in the East must be considered the critical front in the European Theater. Why were the Germans so successful initially even though the Soviet armed forces greatly outnumbered the Wehrmacht in all categories - men, tanks, aircraft and artillery - throughout the war? Overwhelming in Poland, Norway, France, the Balkans and Greece why did the Blitzkrieg fail in Russia? What events led to the Wehrmacht's decline? How did the Soviets survive their catastrophic losses of 1941? What events restored the Red Army enabling it to turn the tide and march to victory? Why did the war end in Berlin vice Moscow? Examination of the major battles during the decisive period 1941 – 1943 will reveal those factors, not least of which the personalities of Hitler and Stalin, that most profoundly influenced the final outcome of this titanic struggle.

Background: Barbarossa

0300 Hours 22 June 1941

Nearly four million Axis troops held their breath as heavy artillery shells screamed toward Soviet targets beyond the start line. Luftwaffe aircraft roared overhead seeking to destroy the Russian Air Force on the ground. The element of surprise was complete. Frantic Russian troops radioed Headquarters for instructions. In Berlin, an ecstatic Hitler eagerly awaited each new report from the front for the initial accounts were absolutely stunning. In Moscow, Stalin reacted with stubborn self-denial, and then began an eleven-day drunk, charitably recorded as a "nervous breakdown." Barbarossa had begun.

Hitler concentrated 3,350 tanks, 7,200 artillery pieces (guns and mortars 50MM or greater) and 2,770 aircraft organized in three Army Groups and three Air Fleets on the Russian border. Although opposed by the largest army and air force in the world (12,000,000 men including reserves; 22,600 tanks; 76,500 artillery pieces and 19,500 aircraft) for the next six months Germany and her Allies swept everything from their path. By the end of the year Leningrad was under siege, Moscow in danger and the Ukraine vulnerable. Soviet losses stood at an incredible 3 million killed or captured, 1.3 million wounded and 20,500 tanks, 63,100 artillery pieces and 17,900 aircraft either destroyed or captured. Yet the Soviet army not only remained in the field; it would shortly take the offensive. The inherent strengths of the Soviet army were becoming apparent. The inherent weaknesses of the Wehrmacht and Hitler's overly ambitious strategic plan lay exposed on the frozen fields outside Moscow.

During the late 20's and early 30's the Soviet Union led the world in tank design and military thought. The T-34 and KV-1 were far superior to anything else in service and would send shockwaves through the panzer forces when they met. She perfected the tactical concept of Deep Battle and the strategic concept of Deep Operations . A pioneer in airborne operations, the Soviet Union created a huge, but largely unused, parachute force. The purges of the late 30's removed the brains from the Red Army however, leaving it a lumbering giant. An estimated 42,000 veteran officers were executed, imprisoned or dismissed. Replaced with politically reliable but inexperienced, if not outright incompetent, cronies the results were devastating. To further shackle the army and ensure its loyalty to the state and the party a dual chain of command utilizing ‘political commissars' was implemented. In the face of disaster, Stalin's paranoia gave way to pragmatism. Seasoned officers were reinstated, rank structure reintroduced, appeals to the state replaced with appeals to the ‘motherland' and even religion, that anathema to Marxist ideology, tolerated. Timely reform, mobilization of hundreds of thousands of civilians to prepare defensive positions, the transfer of units from the Pacific, careful hoarding of reserves and the onset of an early and especially severe winter allowed the Soviets to stop, then push back the German invaders outside Moscow. Ruthless relocation of factories to the Urals and beyond allowed the Soviets to build 4,500 tanks, 3000 aircraft and 14,000 artillery pieces before May 1942 largely replacing her catastrophic losses in material. Manpower, as the Germans were discovering, was practically limitless.

On the Axis side of the lines astounding numbers of Russian troops were captured, huge amounts of war material destroyed and vast areas of territory occupied. Yet victory remained just beyond reach. The reasons for this fall into four categories – strategic, operational, logistic and administrative.

Strategic

Careful examination of the applicable Barbarossa Directives and Fuhrer Orders indicate Hitler was more concerned with political and economic goals than military objectives. His Fuhrer Orders of 21 August 41 best reveal his strategic concept, "Of primary importance before the outbreak of winter is not the capture of Moscow, but rather the occupation of the Crimea, of the industrial and coal mining areas of the Donets Basin, the cutting of the Russian supply routes from the Caucasian oilfields."[1] In one lightning campaign destroying the Russian Army in a series of encirclement battles he intended to:

  • Seize Leningrad. Thus allowing him to join his Finnish allies, depriving the Russian Baltic fleet of their base of operation and protecting the vital iron ore shipments from Sweden.
  • Capture the Ukraine, Caucasus and Crimea. Occupation of the Ukraine and Caucasus would give Germany access to wheat, coal, oil and other mineral resources, denying them to the Soviets. Capture of the Crimea would protect the Rumanian oil fields while denying the Black Sea Fleet of its base of operation.
  • Push toward Moscow. Capture of this political, industrial and communications center would be especially demoralizing to the Soviets, greatly weakening Stalin's hold upon the country. It is important to note however; this was a tertiary goal.[2]
  • Overall, create a vast buffer state to protect the Reich and its central interests. Communism would not necessarily be destroyed but rendered impotent and removed as a threat.
Operational

Superior training, effective coordination of air and ground forces and two years battle tested experience gave the Germans one tactical victory after another. Operationally they came up one month and a few miles short of total victory. Rather than concentrating his forces Hitler split them among three objectives. As a result none of the armies were sufficiently powerful to reach their goal. He remained focused upon Leningrad until mid July. Frustrated with the slow progress of Army Group South and ignoring the weather tables and his army commanders he diverted armored forces to assist in the capture of Kiev. Thanks to Stalin's ‘not one step back' order, 665,000 men and huge amounts of material were captured but irreplaceable time and good weather had been lost. Not until September did Hitler focus upon Moscow. Then he became obsessed with its capture. Driving his armies to the brink of disaster he gave Stalin the opportunity to counter attack. Only the professionalism of the German soldier and Stalin's insistence on pushing the counter attack too far saved the German army. Hitler's ‘stand fast' order succeeded because the Soviets attempted too much. Tragically, Hitler's imagined leadership and the success of the Luftwaffe in supplying isolated units would have deadly consequences in the years to follow.

Logistics

Designed, supplied and equipped for Blitzkrieg campaigns of short duration and limited scope the vaunted Wehrmacht was wholly unprepared for prolonged conflict on such a vast scale. Germany was now attacking a state forty times the size of France. Including Finland, the front extended over 1600 miles. As they drove deeper into Russia the front extended well over 2000 miles. At the high-water mark Germany occupied over 900,000 square miles of Soviet territory. Logistic shortfalls included:
  • Insufficient locomotives, rolling stock, trucks, fuel, ammunition and other supplies for more than three or four months hard campaigning.
  • Panzer divisions doubled by cutting authorized tank strength in half and incorporating captured French and Czech equipment.
  • Shortage of trucks also addressed by utilizing captured equipment. In all a Quartermasters nightmare of 2000 models of artillery, tanks, trucks, cars, motorcycles, etc. rolled into Russia requiring over a million different spare parts.
  • Of the 154 German divisions committed to Barbarossa only 19 were armored and 15 motorized. The balance of the German forces went to war as their fathers had a generation before – on foot, their supplies and artillery drawn by no less than 600,000 horses.
  • By European standards, the vast spaces of Russia were inadequately served by railroads. In addition, Russia used a different gauge track. Captured lines required conversion before they were of service. With few hard surfaced roads, the highway system was primitive at best. This greatly hindered movement of supplies and increased fuel / fodder consumption. On numerous occasions, panzers were lost to battle, sitting idle for days, even weeks, awaiting repair parts and fuel.
  • Unbelievably, Hitler continued his ‘guns and butter' economy until 1943. Germany was one of the last combatants to fully mobilize her manpower and industry. The Soviet Union was one of the first to gear up for total war.
Administration

Many of the Soviet people hated Stalin and greeted the Germans as liberators. However, the frequently brutal, often incompetent, always exploitative methods used to govern the conquered territories turned these potential allies into partisans.

The Crimea and Sevastopol

Failing to achieve decisive victory in 1941 against a confused, disorganized and leaderless enemy, Germany lost her best chance to win World War II. This was not France. The Russian soldier did not and would not give up. The soldiers of the Red Army who survived the debacles of Minsk, Smolensk and Kiev were now battle wise veterans and worthy foes. Stalin could afford to trade space for time. Failing to defeat the Soviet Union in 1941, joining Japan against the United States, Germany now faced war on two fronts against implacable foes. Realistically, victory was now questionable. How she conducted the campaigns of 1942 and 1943 would mean the difference between survival and utter defeat.

One of the most effective campaigns conducted by the German army took place in the Crimea, culminating with the siege of Sevastopol. With Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev to occupy Hitler the German 11th Army under Manstein supported by the 3rd Rumanian Army under direct command of General Dumitrescu and overall command of Marshal Antonescu operated relatively free of interference, conducting fluid operations with unprecedented freedom of action. Initially eight infantry and four cavalry divisions opposed them. Their Soviet opponents enjoyed strong armor and air support and with control of the Black Sea, virtually unlimited reinforcement. It is important to note the Axis army received no tank or air support until late in the campaign. Superior tactics, training, artillery support and a clumsy defense by the Russians allowed them to overcome a numerically larger force with all the benefits of well prepared positions, armor support, air superiority and sea control.

The first obstacle facing 11th Army was the Isthmus of Perekop. Its flanks secured by the sea, the Isthmus was transformed into a formidable defensive position ten miles deep. After several days of intense combat the Germans nonetheless broke through. Part of the Russian force was driven into Sevastopol, the other toward the Straits of Kerch. Reinforced by the 8th Air Corps and the 22nd Panzer and 28th Light divisions, the Germans drove the Soviet counter attack at Feodosia into the sea, cordoned off Sevastopol, then turned to face strong Russian forces entrenched at Parpach. Feinting left into the Soviet line, the 22nd and 28th broke through on the right, trapping the Soviet 51st and 44th Armies. Besides inflicting 150,000 casualties upon the Soviets, capture of the straits rendered the Kuban vulnerable, further complicating the Russian defense. With the Crimea clear, 11th Army turned on Sevastopol. Resolved to succeed where the British and French had failed and to avoid unnecessary casualties Manstein determined to reduce the fortress with air power and heavy artillery. The 54th Artillery Corps was positioned north of the city, the 30th south. Heavy siege guns of 30.5, 35, 42, 60 and even 80 centimeters began to reduce the fortress. Bombers of the 8th Air Force added to the destruction and interdicted reinforcements by sea. Only then did the infantry go in. With the German 54th Corps staged in the north, the Rumanian Mountain Corps pushing from the east and the German 30th Corps positioned in the south 11th Army launched a series of concerted attacks, closing in on Sevastopol. Drawing the noose tighter and tighter, working through one defensive belt after another, Axis troops seized Inkerman and stormed the Zapun Gora line under very close and very effective artillery support. The Russian defense finally collapsed when, in a surprise maneuver, German troops crossed Severnaya Bay flanking the final defensive positions. Now cut off from the sea the fate of the remaining Russian defenders was sealed and another 100,000 prisoners marched into captivity. For his achievements Manstein was promoted to Field Marshall. A grateful Furher also authorized the Crimean Shield to commemorate the efforts of 11th Army. Manstein recommended 11th Army either cross the Straits of Kerch and push into the Kuban to aid in the capture of Rostov or be placed into Army Group South reserve. Instead part of 11th Army, along with the heavy siege train was transferred to Army Group North. Ordered to oversee Leningrad's reduction Manstein transferred with them. The remainder of 11th Army was parceled out to Army Group Center and Army Group South. This would prove disastrous in the coming year. Several items from the Crimean Campaign are noteworthy:

  • Russian soldiers were highly motivated, tenacious fighters but not well trained, inexperienced and very poorly led.
  • Russian armor was dispersed and therefore less effective.
  • Russian air / ground coordination was poor.
  • The Russians were willing to sacrifice any number of men and any amount of material to hold an objective they considered essential.
  • During the siege of Sevastopol ten batteries of artillery per mile was considered sufficient by the Germans. By 1945 the Russians were concentrating 400 guns per mile during break through engagements.
  • Rumanian troops, when properly utilized, were useful allies.
  • When allowed freedom of action, German troops, through superior training and tactics, could prevail against even strongly prepared positions.
The Caucasus and Stalingrad

Like Hitler, Stalin attempted too much and pushed his armies too far during the 41/42-winter/spring counter offensive. Exhausted, both combatants used the muddy season to regroup for the coming summer campaign. The Germans recovered first. Learning nothing from his mistakes in 1941, Hitler again split his armies between three objectives organized and tasked as follows:
  • Army Group A (List) consisting of 17th Army and 1st Panzer Army (Kleist). After taking Rostov, they would drive into the Caucasus capturing the oil fields at Maykop. This limited objective was expanded to encompass the entire Caucasus on a line from Batumi to Baku.
  • Army Group B (Bock) consisting of 2nd Army (Weichs), 4th Panzer Army (Hoth) and 6th Army (Paulus). 2nd Army was ordered to take Voronezh to anchor the Southern front. 6th Army was assigned to clear the Donets Corridor. 4th Panzer Army would clear the Don River driving on Stalingrad. Together they would form a blocking force along the Don anchored between Voronezh and Stalingrad. Under Hitler's grandiose revision their roles were reversed. 4th Panzer would clear the Donets Corridor while 6th Army followed the Don River with Stalingrad its goal.
  • Lastly, Hitler ordered Army Group North, reinforced by 11th Army and its huge siege train fresh from their triumph at Sevastopol, to complete the siege of Leningrad.
Leningrad, which could have been taken by coup de main in July 1941, endured 900 days of brutal privation and almost four million casualties but never fell. In the south, the Russian armies disintegrated before the German onslaught. The panzers rolled almost unopposed across the endless steppes. The infantry trudged behind in their dust. Hoth's 4th Panzer Army was rapidly approaching Morozovsk. Only the remnants of a few shattered units stood between 4th Panzer and the open country of Kalmyk Steppe. At this point Stalingrad was an open city. On 17 July, Hitler intervened. Repeating his mistake at Kiev, Hitler diverted Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, which could have taken Stalingrad on the run in late July or early August, to assist Kleist's 1st Panzer Army in crossing the Don River at Tsirilyansky. 6th Army continued to push toward Stalingrad but without 4th Panzer its progress was slow. With his soldiers within ninety miles of the Caspian Sea, the Soviet Trans-Caucasus Front near collapse, Hitler ordered 4th Panzer to resume its drive on the Volga. It would assist 6th Army by attacking Stalingrad from the South. In the interim the Soviets had regrouped and begun to organize its defense. Stalin determined his namesake should not fall. He might not survive such a blow to his prestige. Recognizing its political significance, Hitler became equally obsessed with its capture. Once again political and economic factors overruled military reason. Stalingrad must fall! Assigning Rumanian, Hungarian and Italian armies to guard the long flank along the Don River appeased concerns about Soviet counter strikes. Lacking training, experience and, most critically, effective anti-tank guns; this was an invitation to disaster.

As Army Group B converged on Stalingrad, Army Group A continued to push into the Caucasus. The oil fields of Maykop fell to the Germans but they gained not one liter of precious fuel. Production and storage equipment were destroyed by the retreating Soviets. Transportation routes exceeded 1500 miles in length. Harried Quartermasters resorted to using camels to transport fuel, rations, ammunition and parts. Supply lines stretched to the breaking point, the panzers literally ran out of gas well before Grozny. Batumi and Baku were out of the question, chimeras in Hitler's imagination. A single division maintained tenuous contact between the two widely separated Army Groups.

As 6th Army and 4th Panzer converged on Stalingrad they lost room for tactical maneuver. Flanking attacks became frontal assaults. Voluntarily surrendering their greatest asset, mobility, the Germans played into the Russians greatest strength, static defense. Completely outclassed in open warfare, the Soviet soldier would prove formidable in the ruins of Stalingrad. Repeated bombing by Luftflotte Four demolished the city. Where they had intended to strike fear however, they had sown resolve. The ruble created ready made defensive positions and tank traps. The Russian soldiers fought doggedly for every foot of ground, every room, every building. Progress, which had been measured in miles, was now measured in yards. Their commander, Chuikov, ordered his men to "hug the enemy" to negate his air and artillery superiority. By staying close the Stukas and 88's could not strike without killing their own as well. Even now, various options were still open to the Germans. They could cross the Volga north and south encircling the city or begin a siege. Frustrated, Hitler chose direct assault. Stalingrad became a battle of attrition. Attrition was a battle the Germans could not win.

Realizing the Germans were reaching the end of their tether and sensing an opportunity to strike back STAVKA kept reinforcement of Stalingrad to a minimum, barely replacing casualties. 6th Army, at Hitler's insistence, was drawn further and further into a trap. Meanwhile, 27 infantry divisions and 19 armored brigades were assembled north and south of the city totaling one million men, 13,500 artillery pieces 900 tanks and 1100 aircraft. Code-named Operation Uranus, its goal was nothing less than the destruction of 6th Army followed by the destruction of Army Group South and the collapse of the southern front.

In their rush down the Donets Basin numerous Russian bridgeheads had been left on the west bank of the Don River. The Axis Allies ordered to hold 6th Army's flank were not strong enough to seal, much less eliminate, these breaches in the line. Believing the Russians were on the verge of total collapse, repeated warnings by the Rumanians regarding a Soviet buildup were ignored. 0n 19 November the Russians poured through these points. The Rumanians, lacking effective anti-tank guns were brushed aside. On 20 November the Soviets broke through south of Stalingrad. Three days later the two wings met at Kalach. 6th Army and parts of 4th Panzer were trapped. An immediate break out was called for. Predictably, Hitler ordered his men to stand fast. General Paulus, lacking the moral courage to disobey the Fuhrer, complied. From 19 November until the surrender of 6th Army on 02 February 1943, these two mortal enemies engaged in arguably the most brutal, most savage battle, fought under the most appalling conditions, ever recorded. Always seeking personal glory, Goering recklessly promised 6th Army 300 tons of supplies per day by air. On its best day the Luftwaffe delivered 180 tons. It averaged 60 tons per day. As 6th Army slowly starved, the Russian soldiers took their revenge. After enduring the summer and fall months under German guns they took cruel, but understandable, delight in driving the enemy out of his prepared positions into the open. With temperatures reaching well below zero, the ground frozen solid and no way to dig in, it was a death sentence.

Recalled from Leningrad, Field Marshal Manstein was given Army Group Don and ordered to open a supply corridor and relieve 6th Army. With the Allied landings in North Africa on 08 November however, reserves were scarce. Promised reinforcements were delayed or diverted. Manstein assembled what forces he could and on 12 December launched ‘Winter Storm' against now fully prepared and reinforced Soviet forces. Against incredible odds, Panzer troops fought to within twenty miles of the beleaguered 6th Army. Paulus refused to disobey his Fuehrer and break out. In its weakened condition it is debatable whether 6th Army could have done so. On 23 December, Manstein broke off his rescue attempt. Smashing through the Italian army the Soviets had launched Operation Saturn on 16 December. If they were to reach Rostov, not only 6th Army but also the remainder of Army Group B as well as Army Group A would be lost. Indeed, collapse of the entire Southern Front threatened. The lessons from this campaign are as follows:
  • The Germans grossly underestimated the Soviet capacity for replacement of men and material.
  • Paulus knew of the threat to his flanks but maintained no mobile reserve.
  • On the operational level Soviets generals were becoming more adept. Effective operational plans were drawn up an executed.
  • On the tactical level, Soviet units were no match for the Germans in open, mobile warfare. On the defensive however, they were holding their own.
  • Whereas the Wehrmacht frequently operated on a shoestring, the Soviets were patient, holding back until overwhelming reserves were accumulated.
  • Hitler, on the other hand, had allowed an ambitious plan to grow into a grandiose plan with inadequate forces and no reserve.
  • Hitler neglected several basic principles of warfare:

    • Concentration of force
    • Correlation of time, distance and numbers
    • Surrendered German strength, mobility, to Soviet strength, static defense
    • Attainment of political and economic objectives depends upon decisively defeating the enemy forces. Hitler reversed this dictum.
    • On no account become involved in fighting inside a major city.
  • Missed Stalingrad by diverting forces to Caucasus. Then forfeited the Caucasus in a belated effort to capture Stalingrad.
Manstein's Miracle

With Soviet forces approximately forty miles from Rostov, Army Group A, four hundred miles from Rostov, was in grave danger. Manstein broke off "Winter Storm" to meet this new threat. Ultimately, 6th Army was sacrificed to save the remainder of Army Group B and the whole of Army Group A. With all hope gone, they held out until 02 February 1943, tying down Soviet Armies needed for the push on Rostov. When they finally surrendered 90,000 men, out of the 200 – 270,000 initially surrounded, marched off into captivity. Few would ever see their homeland again. Fourteen infantry, three Panzer and three motorized divisions plus Headquarters, artillery and engineer support elements were lost to the German order of battle. In addition, the Axis armies were shattered. The Rumanians sustained 250,000 casualties, the Hungarians 140,000 casualties, and Italians 185,000 casualties. Total German casualties during the winter / spring 42 / 43 Soviet offensive are estimated at 500,000.

Through its sacrifice, 6th Army saved its comrades. After the disastrous spring campaigns of 1942 Zhukov was cautious. He was not going to repeat those mistakes in 1943. Until 6th Army was eliminated he was content to disrupt any relief efforts and did not push hard on Rostov. When Stalingrad fell Zukov was prepared and acted swiftly. The Trans-Caucasus Front redoubled its efforts against Army Group A. The Bryansk Front, Voronezh Front, South-West Front and South Front (formed from the Soviet armies previously engaged at Stalingrad) launched massive attacks on Army Group Don and Army Group B driving for Rostov and Kharkov. Rostov fell on 14 February. 1st Panzer just slipped through. 17th Army was driven back into the Kuban. At Novorossiysk they dug in repulsing all further attacks. Kharkov fell early in February to troops of the Russian 40th Army and 3rd Tank Army. Where others saw disaster Manstein saw great opportunity. He begged Hitler to authorize a general withdrawal. Drawing the Soviets forward until they over committed, he planned to accumulate forces on their northern flank. Slashing through their supply lines, mobile units would dive to the Sea of Azov trapping the Soviets as they had almost trapped Army Group A. The destruction of three Soviet Fronts would balance the scales for the loss of 6th Army. Hitler could not see the possibility, would not take the risk and was loath to give up conquered territory, even temporarily. In a more limited offensive, Manstein drove north from Zaporozhye with 1st and 4th Panzer Armies and south from Poltava with 2nd SS Panzer Corps, crushing the Soviets between them. Against odds of seven to one he retook Kharkov in March, brought the Russian offensive to a standstill and reestablished a defensible line along the Mius and Donets Rivers. It was a brilliant counter stroke leaving only the bulge at Kursk unaccounted for. Located at the juncture of Army Group Center and Army Group South, this dangerous salient in the German lines would have a fatal attraction later in 1943. The spring thaw or Rasputitsa (muddy season) ended all movement on both sides. This stalemate would last until July.

Most noteworthy lessons from this campaign are as follows:
  • While the panzers took high casualties, the losses in infantry during the campaigns of 1942 were especially heavy. Most divisions were at 50 – 65 per cent of their 1941 strength.
  • 1941 had been hard on the Luftwaffe. 1942 even worse. The attempt to supply 6th Army at Stalingrad devastated the transport arm. Aircraft strengths stood at 50 per cent of their 1941 levels.
  • Allowed to retreat when in danger Soviet losses due to encirclement were not as great as in 1941.
  • Although rapidly improving with experience, the Soviets were still no match for the Germans in open, mobile warfare. STAVKA overestimated the Red Army's strength and underestimated Manstein.
  • Never the less, their victory at Stalingrad was a crushing blow to the Wehrmacht and a tremendous boost to Soviet morale.
Manstein's observations on Hitler during this period are especially insightful considering their excellent relationship previously. He noted that: 
  • While politically bold, Hitler recoiled at military risk.
  • He refused even temporary surrender of conquered territory.
  • Was afraid to pull troops out of secondary fronts in order to gain a decisive advantage at the critical front.
  • While Hitler had some tactical and operational flair he lacked sound training in strategy and tactics. His insights were based on intuition rather than military ability and judgement tempered by experience. For example – did not truly understand mobile operations.
  • Was impervious to reason. When presented with unpleasant facts, simply refused to listen.
  • In a crisis, when every moment counted, tended to procrastinate.
  • Had no regard for the enemy's resources and intentions. His will was supreme.
  • Had no appreciation for logistics.
  • Replacements were always too few and too late.
Kursk: The Beginning of the End

If ever there was a time for the Wehrmacht to fall back and regroup, it was the spring of 1943. The strategic, operational and tactical situations were radically changed from 1941.

Strategically, England was fully recovered and back in the war. America, bloodied in North Africa, had recovered and was a growing threat. Russia was obviously not a rotten structure ready to collapse after all. By herself, the Soviet Union greatly out produced Nazi Germany. Taken with America and England the economic picture for Hitler was grim. The nightmare of a second front was only question of when and where?

Operationally, the loss of 250,000 German and Italian soldiers in North Africa in May, coupled with the losses at Stalingrad, plus the losses during the winter / spring battles dictated a defensive posture until reserves could be rebuilt.

Tactically, all arms were exhausted, in dire need of rest and refit. Instead, twenty-two Luftwaffe field divisions were created from 170,000 ground support personnel held in excess, greatly expanding Goering's empire. New Waffen SS divisions were established, expanding Himler's empire. Only the current SS divisions were completely refitted, taking the best in men and material. Wehrmacht divisions were reorganized at two-thirds or one-half their original authorization. This policy made good propaganda, ‘the ever-expanding German army.' It also ensured two things. One, Wehrmacht divisions were always fought under strength, increasing their casualties. Luftwaffe and new SS divisions endured a steep and bloody learning curve gaining combat experience.

Recently appointed Inspector General of Armored Forces, assigned the enormous task of rebuilding the Panzer divisions, Heinz Guderian made his case to Hitler. Looking forward to the inevitable English and American initiatives, he urged withdrawal to a shorter, more defensible line; limited operations during 1943; rebuilding of mobile reserves; with no return to the offensive until 1944. Along similar lines, Manstein recommended strategic withdrawals to create the kind of fluid conditions that had worked so well when he retook Kharkov. By going to the strategic defensive, setting up mobile reserves, he was certain he could ‘strike the Russians on the backhand' and bleed them white. Given the vast buffer spaces Germany still occupied an elastic defense was the rational military policy to adopt.

Unfortunately for the army and the nation, after Stalingrad Hitler was a changed man. Back bent, left hand trembling, eyes protruding, he was more excitable and more apt to lose composure. Prone to ill-considered decisions and angry outbursts when presented with contradictory facts or opinions, he was less inclined to listen to his advisors, yet more indecisive. Such was his state of mind and state of health when he responded to Guderian, among others, that for political reasons, Germany could not sit idle in 1943. Nor would there be any withdrawal. For economic reasons, Germany must hold the Donets Basin. Doubled over his increasingly detailed map tables, Hitler's gaze fixed upon Kursk.

Overcoming the conflicting personalities, departmental overlap and haphazard coordination that defined Germany's war production[3], Guderian orchestrated a renaissance in the Panzer forces. Production nearly doubled. The PzKpfw Mark IV, mainstay of the Panzer division, was up armored and up gunned. New models, incorporating the wide tracks and sloping armor of the T-34 and the devastating firepower of the high velocity 75MM (Panther) and proven tank killing ability of the 88MM (Tiger) were entering test and evaluation. Believing German technical superiority would overcome Russian numerical superiority; Hitler decreed these forces would seize the initiative at KURSK.

Had the Germans struck in March, as originally recommended by Manstein, they might have succeeded. Instead, Hitler gave the Soviets four months to prepare. The Red Army used the time well. In eight belts, up to 110 miles deep, 300,000 civilians prepared 3,100 miles of earthworks within the Kursk salient. 20,000 guns and 920 rocket batteries were emplaced and calibrated on pre-selected targets. 40,000 mines were carefully laid to funnel German armor into tank traps. 6000 antitank guns, organized in mutually supporting ‘Pakfronts' were positioned and sited. Concealed machine gun nests and rifle pits protected the antitank gunners from German infantry. In all, over one million men, 3,500 tanks and 2000 aircraft awaited the German onslaught. Another 500,000 men and 1500 tanks were held in reserve.

To pinch off the Kursk bulge, capture the forces within, destroy the Soviet reserves and reverse their fortunes on the Eastern Front, the Germans assembled 31 infantry divisions and 19 Panzer divisions with a complement of 2,700 tanks. The Luftwaffe mustered 2000 aircraft in support. 9th Army, under Colonel-General Model would strike from the north. Army Detachment Kempf, under General Kempf and 4th Panzer Army under Colonel-General Hoth would strike from the south.

Against the better judgment of nearly all his staff, certainly the officers at the front and his own instinct, Operation Citadel began 05 July. In one week, 9th Army drove six miles. In those same seven days, Army Detachment Kempf and 4th Panzer Army pushed twenty-five miles. If Stalingrad is compared to Verdun, then Kursk was a replay of Gallipoli – for political reasons, a tremendous effort, in a secondary theatre, ending in disaster. As Guderian had predicted, on 13 July the allies invaded Sicily threatening the Reich's feeble partner on the southern flank. Hitler cancelled the stalled attack at Kursk, transferring many units to the Balkans, southern France and Italy. Soviet losses were enormous. German losses, though considerably less, were catastrophic. Unlike the Russians, the cream of their air and armored forces had been devastated and they had no strategic reserves. Local counter attacks hurled the Germans back. Russian victory at Kursk signaled a general counter offensive from the Kalinin Front to the North Caucasus Front. This Soviet drive did not stop until Red Army units breached the River Dnieper and retook Kiev.

Aftermath

With their armored forces destroyed, infantry divisions mustering one-third or one-fourth of authorized strength, the Luftwaffe drawn off to protect Germany from the British and American bombing campaign, Germany would never again hold the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. Nor would the army be allowed to conduct the type of fluid defensive battles that might have stopped the Soviet juggernaut. After Kursk, Hitler vowed he would never trust his general staff again. To the detriment of the German army and German nation, it was one of the few promises he kept. Increasingly, he reverted to the trench warfare mentality of World War I that spawned him, giving his commanders in the field no freedom of action, no choice but to stand fast. Those who defied him were replaced. Hitler squandered Germany's last opportunity in the East at Kursk. General Friedrich – Wilhelm van Mellenthin best describes the climatic battle, "The German supreme command could think of nothing better than to fling our magnificent Panzer divisions against Kursk, which had now become the strongest fortress in the world."[4]

Unlike Hitler, Stalin had listened to his advisors. Absorbing the German blow at Kursk, the Russian army now held the upper hand. Those Soviet soldiers who survived the debacles of 1941 – 1942 were now well educated in the art of war. Strict standardization of equipment in the Soviet factories gave them a preponderance of tanks, artillery and aircraft. 400,000 American lend-lease trucks gave them a mobility the Germans never enjoyed. After Kursk the Red Army would stop only to re-supply.

The German army has been likened to a rapier. If so, it was now dull and blunted. If the analogy is carried to the Soviets, the Red Army had become a cudgel, not as sophisticated a weapon but just as deadly.

Conclusion

As long as the German army remained faithful to its strengths - superior doctrine, tactics and training - it was successful. As the various factors examined, most notably Hitler's interference, took their toll, the odds against it became overwhelming. Failing to achieve a decisive victory in 1941, failing to use their limited resources wisely in 1942 and 1943 Germany was doomed. In a prolonged war of attrition, Germany could not prevail.

Surviving the disasters of 1941, given greater freedom of action after 1942, the Red Army rediscovered its doctrines of Deep Battle and Deep Operation and began to dominate tactically and strategically. Although never an instrument of finesse, the Soviet army became a decisive instrument.

During the period examined, 1941 – 1943, Hitler and Stalin underwent an interesting role reversal. Consequently, their armed forces were also transformed. I do not believe that Stalin ever really trusted anyone but he did become more inclined to take the recommendations of those who had proven themselves on the battlefield. Hitler, on the other hand, became less and less inclined to listen to his advisors, taking on more personal responsibility and directly intervening at lower and lower levels. Stalin loosened the grip of the party on the army, reducing the power of the political commissars and eliminated the dual chain of command whereas Hitler intensified efforts to inculcate the army with Nazi ideology and complicated the chain of command with the OKH / OKW structure. Whereas Stalin sacked incompetent officers, promoting proven performers, Hitler sacked anyone who disagreed with him however competent, replacing them with politically correct officers however capable. As they learned from experience and became more competent, Soviet officers enjoyed more freedom of action. During the same period their counterparts were placed under greater restrictions. Consequently, as the Wehrmacht declined the Soviet Army became more effective. As General Gunther von Blumentritt succinctly observed, "Only the Admirals had a happy time in this war – as Hitler knew nothing about the sea, whereas he felt he knew all about land warfare."[5]

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Footnotes

[1]. Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian German Conflict, 1941-1945 (New York: Quill, 1985), Appendices.

[2]. If Hitler had concentrated his Panzer and Motorized forces in Army Group Center in accordance with the original plan submitted by Generaloberst Halder / Generalmajor Marcks and remained focused exclusively on Moscow there is every possibility Germany would have won WWII in August or September 1941. Once Moscow, center of communications, government, industry and rail nexus, fell the Soviet armies of the Baltic and Ukraine would have two choices - retreat or capture. In either case, the territory in question was forfeit. Assuming the Soviet government did not collapse, it would find itself in the same position as France after Dunkirk – holding an extended line with gravely weakened, demoralized armies. Dividing his forces and focus was Hitler's first mistake on the Eastern front. For Germany, 1941 was the decisive year in terms of victory. 1942 – 1943 were the critical years in terms of survival. Even so, a victorious Germany probably would not have survived the power struggle upon Hitler's eventual death. Certainly, in time, it would have fallen victim to its own internal contradictions as the Soviet Union did.

[3]. Nazi Germany was a feudal system of fiefdoms superimposed upon an otherwise modern, industrialized state. Rivalry among subordinates ensured none could challenge Hitler's authority. While beneficial to maintenance of power, this system was Byzantine administratively and grossly inefficient economically.

[4]. Bevin Alexander, How Hitler Could Have Won World War II (New York: Crown Publishers, 2000), 204.

[5]. B. H. Liddell Hart, The German Generals Talk (New York: Quill, 1979), 193.

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Sources

Alexander, Bevin. How Hitler Could Have Won World War II . New York: Crown Publishers, 2000.

Beevor, Anthony. Stalingrad . New York: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Clark, Alan. Barbarossa . New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1965.

Deighton, Len. Blood, Tears and Folly . Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1999.

Edwards, Alexander. Panzer – A Revolution in Warfare, 1939 – 1945 . London: Brockhampton Press, 1998.

Glantz, David M. Barbarossa . Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing, Inc., 1988.

Glantz, David M. When Titans Clashed . Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Hart, B. H. Liddell. The German Generals Talk . New York: William Morrow and Company, 1979.

Hart, B. H. Liddell. Strategy . New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1964.

Healy, Mark. Kursk 1943 . Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1993.

Keegan, John. The Second World War . New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.

Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories . Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994.

Stolfi, R. H. S. Hitler’s Panzers East . Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

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Copyright © 2006 Larry Parker.

Written by Larry Parker. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Larry Parker at:
lknpark2004@yahoo.com.

About the Author:
Lieutenant Commander Larry Parker, United States Navy, served as a Surface Warfare Officer, with afloat tours onboard USS De Wert (FFG-45) as Ordnance & Fire Control Officer, USS Portland (LSD-37) as First Lieutenant, and USS Butte (AE-27) as Operations Officer. Rotations ashore included Navy Reserve Center Cheyenne, Navy & Marine Corps Reserve Center Denver and Navy Reserve Readiness Command Region 16 Minneapolis. He retired in July 2000 and taught Navy Junior ROTC until June 2011. LCDR Parker holds a Bachelor's degree in English and History from the University of Kansas and a Master's degree in Military Studies - Land Warfare from American Military University. In his free time LCDR Parker pursues a lifelong passion for military history. His articles are the result of extensive research and personal experience in surface warfare, fleet logistics and amphibious operations.

Published online: 04/04/2006.
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