|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
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.
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
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.
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." In one lightning
campaign destroying the Russian Army in a series of encirclement battles he
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
The Caucasus and Stalingrad
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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:
Manstein's observations on Hitler during this period are especially insightful
considering their excellent relationship previously. He noted that:
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.
Kursk: The Beginning of the End
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
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.
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
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
Overcoming the conflicting personalities, departmental overlap and haphazard
coordination that defined Germany's war production, 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
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.
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."
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.
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."
. Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian German Conflict, 1941-1945 (New
York: Quill, 1985), Appendices.
. 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.
. 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
. Bevin Alexander, How Hitler Could Have Won World War II (New
York: Crown Publishers, 2000), 204.
. B. H. Liddell Hart, The German Generals Talk (New York: Quill,
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,
Deighton, Len. Blood, Tears and Folly . Edison, NJ: Castle Books,
Edwards, Alexander. Panzer – A Revolution in Warfare, 1939 – 1945 .
London: Brockhampton Press, 1998.
Glantz, David M. Barbarossa . Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing, Inc.,
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.,
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,
Stolfi, R. H. S. Hitler’s Panzers East . Norman, OK: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Copyright © 2006 Larry Parker.
Written by Larry Parker. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Larry Parker at:
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.