|Strategic Alternatives to Citadel
by Thomas Leckwold
The Battle of Kursk was launched on July 5, 1943 and was the last major Wehrmacht offensive in the East during World War II. The battle was also the first time that the Soviet Red Army was able to halt a major German offensive before it was able to achieve a breakout from the initial onslaught. The offensive led to the largest tank battle in history and ultimately resulted in a German strategic defeat. The operation, codenamed Citadel, was a source of contention among German generals and Hitler who never felt confident about launching the offensive in the first place. These misgivings were not unfounded and the Ostheer had other options other than launching Citadel, and these options would have taken better advantage of German operational strengths that still existed in 1943.
German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein made two significant proposals for the German strategy in the East after the catastrophic German losses at Stalingrad. Manstein was the commanding general of German Army Group South and had restored a defensive front after the retreat from Stalingrad and the Caucuses. His proposals were sobering alternatives of the reality that the Wehrmacht could no longer force a decisive victory in the East. These proposals had significant risk, but if successful they could force a stalemate in the East even with Germany's limited resources.
Manstein's first proposal, in the frame work of a strategic defensive, was to allow a Soviet offensive to be launched and then deliver a sharp blow to the Red Army at the first opportune moment. Manstein referred to this option as the "on the back hand" stroke. This proposal would require the Wehrmacht to conduct an elastic defense and give ground to create that opportunity to strike and inflict the most damage upon the Red Army .
The second proposal, referred to as "on the forehand" stroke, was to strike a limited blow with the limited objectives at the earliest possible moment after the rasputitsa ended and the armies could regain their mobility . The target of this offensive would have to be directed at an objective that could result in a heavy blow to the Red Army and disrupt any offensive they were planning.
Manstein's intent for both of these options was for the Wehrmacht to take advantage of the superior quality of their combat troops and command staff. The goal of both proposals would be to sap the strength of the Red Army through localized actions and inflicting decisive losses in prisoners and equipment . Manstein preferred the 'back hand' stroke but this required the surrendering of territory, which even temporarily, was not favored by Hitler .
This left the option of the 'forehand' stroke that needed to be launched at the soonest possible moment and before the Red Army was able to recover its losses of the winter. The obvious choice was the Soviet salient at Kursk between German Army Group Center and Army Group South. An early attack at Kursk would catch the Red Army unprepared and it would be forced to commit its armored reserves which would give the Wehrmacht an opportunity to batter them and prevent their use in a Soviet offensive .
This proposal was presented to the OKW the high command and received favor and was outlined in March and April under Operational Plan No. 5 and 6 . Manstein's plan was to launch the operation at Kursk in April as the effects of the rasputitsa ended and the Soviet's were still recovering . The offensive, if successful, would give the Wehrmacht the initiative in the East, though not a strategic victory, give Germany options of how to continue the war, and overcome defects in the German defensive line by shortening the line thus preventing a Red Army offensive that would take advantage of those defects .
An early operation would catch the exhausted Red Army in an unfavorable position, but it was not guaranteed that the Wehrmacht would succeed either. The Ostheer was also exhausted from its defeat from Stalingrad and was still rebuilding its reserves. However, the risk of an early offensive would take advantage of the Wehrmacht's ability to conduct operations on their initiative, maintain the element of surprise, and take full advantage of its combat formations to execute at a superior tempo than the Red Army was capable of in 1943.
In the end, the risk of an early offensive was too much for Hitler, Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, the commander of German Army Group Center, and the new Chief of the General Staff General Kurt Zeitzler to accept and the offensive was delayed until June, and later July. This was despite the misgivings of General Walter Model, commander of the German Ninth Army, and Field Marshal Manstein . The decision to delay meant that Germany would surrender the element of strategic surprise, and risk maintaining the initiative both of which were contrary to the strengths of German operational doctrine.
The likelihood of failure of Citadel was increased by the decision to delay thus giving up the advantages of the 'backhand' stroke this was despite the misgivings of some of the primary field commanders. The Wehrmacht by 1943 was no longer in the position to win the war in the East outright and needed to take risks for a victory. Strategic gambles of the 'forehand' and 'backhand' strokes took advantage of the principles of German operational doctrine but these were ignored. Despite their risk, they offered the best hope in 1943 of checking the Red Army. The German high command appeared risk adverse and followed a conservative line of thinking that virtually guaranteed that Citadel would fail before it ever started in July 1943.
Show Footnotes and
. Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories: The war memoirs of Hitler's most brilliant general, ed. and trans. Anthony G. Powell (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994), 445-446.
. Ibid, 446.
. Ibid. 443.
. Ibid. 446.
. Ibid. 446-447.
. David M. Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How The Red Army Stopped Hitler, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 157.
. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader, trans. Constantine Fitzgibbon (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 307.
. B.H. Liddell-Hart, History of the Second World War, (Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 1970), 485.
. Guderian, Panzer Leader, 307.
Glantz, David M. & Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How The Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence, KS:
University Press of Kansas, 1995.
Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. Translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.
Liddell-Hart, B.H. History of the Second World War. Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 1970.
Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories: The war memoirs of Hitler's most brilliant general. Translated and edited by
Anthony G. Powell. Novato, CA, 1994.
Copyright © 2012 Thomas Leckwold
Written by Thomas Leckwold. If you have questions or comments on this article,
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About the author:
Thomas Leckwold currently lives in northwest Georgia and served in the U.S. Army from 1985-1992.
He received his B.B.A. in Economics from Kennesaw State University and his M.A. in Military History from Norwich University.
He works at the corporate headquarters of a nationwide retailer in Atlanta as a Senior Inventory Analyst.
His interests include reading both military history, political commentary, and the occasional science fiction.
He also enjoys riding his motorcycle around in the scenic mountains that are in his area.
Published online: 01/01/2012.