07/12/14

Grossdeutschland in Operation Zitadelle (Citadel)

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Although the front was now vastly extended and thinly held, Manstein’s new positions offered to the German High Command the opportunity of an attack on the Soviet salient centred on Kursk. Code-named Zitadelle, the ensuing plan projected converging strikes on the northern and southern flanks of the salient to achieve a double envelopment. However, pre-warned of the German intentions by intelligence sources, General Zhukov was able to fortify the salient heavily. Both sides continued to build up their strength through the late spring and early summer and by the eve of the German attack some 2 million men and over 6,000 tanks were ready to go into action.

Grossdeutschland was formally redesignated as a Panzergrenadier division a week prior to the attack, on 23 June, and became almost identical in organisation to one of the elite SS Panzer divisions. During 1942 all the Army’s infantry regiments had been renamed grenadier regiments and in 1943 the InfanterieDivisions (mot) became Panzer-Grenadier-Divisions. However, the term Panzergrenadier is something of a misnomer, for in fact they were not always ‘armoured’, and would be better described as ‘motorised infantry’.

Having been brought up to full strength for Zitadelle, the division began to the march to the staging area north of Tomarovka at the end of June 1943. The attack, launched on 4 July, saw the Ninth Army attack from the north and the Fourth Panzer Army from the south, across the base of the Soviet salient. GD attacked west of Strelazkoye with the 3rd and 11th Panzer Division, and initially made rapid advances. However, in the north the Ninth Army was stopped before a heavily fortified ridgeline on the 9th and the attack broke down, GD having advanced through the heavily defended Soviet lines as far as Kotschetovka.

On 12 July the Russians launched a strong counter-attack against the front north of Orel behind the Ninth Army. In the heavy fighting around Kalinovka, GD took heavy casualties, countering a series of Soviet armoured attacks in the second week of July. On the 17th, the division was relieved and transferred to Tamnoye to the south of the Kursk battlefield, by which point Hitler had been forced to concede defeat. Four days later GD moved again, by truck and rail, to the vicinity of Karachev, where it had fought the previous year, and was assigned to Army Group Centre.

Here it resisted the Russian advance from Bolkhov, until in early August a strong Russian attack in the south caused GD to be rushed south to join Army Group South at Akhtyrka on the Vorskla River, where the newly organised Tiger battalion joined the division. A fighting retreat along the central front continued through mid-August. The Russians had torn a 35-mile gap in the German line at Byelgorod, and through this they poured, heading south-west toward the Dnieper River. In their path, in positions to the east of Akhtyrka at Yankovka, Staraya Ryabina, Novaya Rabina and Yablotschnoye, Panzer-Grenadier-Division Grossdeutschland was slowly pushed back and by the 11th the men were fighting on the outskirts of Akhtyrka. At Akhtyrka, and positions to the south-east, GD battled hard, and for days with no rest, to counter the breakthrough.

Kharkov fell on 23 August, and in the last week of August the Army Group Centre front was penetrated in three places by Malinovsky’s forces and Tolbukhin’s Southern Front, threatening an envelopment of Army Group South. Against Hitler’s orders Manstein ordered Army Group South to withdraw to the Dnieper, and in so doing probably saved it.

Reassigned to the XLVIII Panzer Corps, GD was tasked in the first two weeks of September with reinforcing the weak points in the German line to the west of Kharkov and north of Poltava. As part of the general withdrawal, the division then began a skillful fighting retreat to Kremenchug, and the vital rail bridge there over the Dnieper. Fighting behind a progressively shorter line, the division had withdrawn into a pocket around the bridge by the 29th, and then began a general withdrawal over the river (among the last German troops to do so).

07/12/14

Spain 11th Century

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El Cid (Original) by Roger Payne

Of the kings of the North, Fernando I of Leon-Castile was one of the thirstiest. In 1043, for example, he helped to restore to power al- Ma’mun, the Muslim ruler of Toledo, who had been ousted by a rival, in return for annual tribute. When the tribute was not forthcoming, Fernando accordingly raided the countryside of the kingdom and put two of its towns under siege. Eventually the payments resumed. While he was at it (ca. 1060), he captured castles in the neighboring state of Zaragoza and forced tribute from them. Badajoz and Seville were obliged to be generous too. Fernando especially picked on Badajoz, seizing little towns like Lamego (in 1057), Viseu (in 1058), Coimbra (in 1064), and Coria (1065). He died in 1066 on campaign against the Muslim king of Valencia.

Just as the cultural efflorescence of the taifa period produced men like Ibn Hazm and Sa’id al-Andalusi, the political fluidity of the period had its representative figures too. Foremost among these is Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid. Born into a line of Castilian minor officials, Rodrigo served his king, Sancho II, and his somewhat suspect successor, Alfonso VI, as an official, a diplomat, and a highly successful general. However, he fell out of favor with his new lord and, after 1080, was forced into exile. His skills were valuable, so he sought service from a logical quarter: the Muslim king of Zaragoza, whom he served (along with his successor) for five years, capturing the count of Barcelona at one point and defeating the king of Aragon. In the 1090s we find him again in the field-astride a horse from Seville and wielding a blade from Cordoba, if the epics are to be believed-this time fighting on behalf of his once-estranged lord, Alfonso VI, but ultimately carving out his own independent principality, a personal taifa kingdom, around the city of Valencia, where he died in 1099.

A similar freelancing career path can be discerned in the community of Christians living under Muslim rule. From this other side of the confessional divide in al-Andalus came Sisnando Davidiz, a less-storied contemporary of El Cid. Sisnando was born near Coimbra but was captured in Cordoba by the Muslim king of Seville, who employed him as an administrator and diplomat. He later left Seville and entered the service of Fernando I of Leon and played an active role in the king’s many campaigns against the Muslims of the southwest. Unlike El Cid, he served Fernando I’s son, Alfonso VI, quite dutifully, participating in campaigns against Granada and his former home of Seville, and was richly rewarded by his lord from his newly conquered lands. He died in 1091, after nearly two decades as the semi-independent ruler of Coimbra.

The fact that El Cid’s and Sisnando’s meandering paths would eventually cross in the palace of Alfonso VI is not an accident. Of all of Fernando I’s sons and heirs, Alfonso was the leading figure. He eventually came to rule the entirety of his father’s realm, including the expectations of tribute attached to it, and continued his father’s relentless pressure on the taifa kingdoms. As a result his realm was a suitable destination for culturally fluent warriors like these two. Alfonso’s successes and those of his peers were attractive to other sorts too, and in their campaigns against their Muslim neighbors Spanish ruling elites found themselves inadvertently assisted by Frankish warriors and churchmen who, drawn by news of the wealth and pious virtue to be won in Spain, now streamed across the Pyrenees, bringing with them radical new ideas about the power of the Church and the benefits of Christian holy war.

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When Toledo fell to Alfonso VI in 1085, the Almoravids were the major Muslim political power in the Maghrib, with a capital of sorts at Marrakesh, which they founded, and Berber tribes and territory subject to them from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Sahara. Their territory included the small towns and cities of the mountainous north as well as the desert of the south. The original raison d’etre of the Almoravids was to correct what they saw as injustices and improper conduct (in particular illegal taxes) among their Muslim coreligionists in Morocco and to lead them back to proper observance of the sunna- by force if necessary. And it usually was. But Morocco was a poor region compared, say, with al-Andalus. No one was more aware of this than the Almoravid ruler, Ibn Tashfin, who had been responsible for shepherding the Almoravids in their transition from a loose Islamic reform movement to a more settled conquest state. In 1085 Ibn Tashfin’s successes in consolidating Almoravid control over Morocco meant that, in his domains at least, a certain kind of peace finally prevailed. But something still had to be done about the armies.

Thus whereas Ibn Tashfin needed something to occupy the energies of his armies, the taifa kings of al-Andalus badly needed armies to come to their aid against the Franks. It was a marriage made in heaven. And so in 1086 the taifa lord of Seville arranged a meeting with his neighbors, the lord of Granada to the east and the lord of Badajoz to the west. They discussed how they might best deal with the threat of unclean Christians like Alfonso VI on their doorstep, and whether inviting so volatile a power as the Almoravids was really the best solution for al-Andalus. Would they be courting disaster, merely substituting one barbarian overlord for another? In the end the group of three decided to send a delegation across the Straits to propose an alliance with Ibn Tashfin. The Berbers were rough and fanatical, but at least they were Muslims. When confronted with his options, al-Mu. tamid, the lord of Seville, is said to have quipped, “Better to pasture camels than to herd swine.”

In July 1086, then, Ibn Tashfin sent an advance force to occupy Muslim Algeciras; soon thereafter the main force arrived, much to the joy of the populace, who viewed them and Ibn Tashfin as their saviors against the Frankish threat. The Almoravid army then marched on to Seville, and from there to Badajoz. On hearing of this alarming new challenge, Alfonso VI lifted his siege of Zaragoza in the northeast and marched toward Badajoz to confront the Muslim armies. On October 23 they met at Zallaqa (Sagrajas), not far from Badajoz, where Alfonso was overwhelmed by the Berber armies. Soundly defeated, he and his Christian army were forced to retreat to the safety of Toledo. It was just what the lords of al-Andalus had hoped for. Indeed the lord of Seville urged the Almoravids to pursue their enemies while they were in flight, but Ibn Tashfin was reluctant to range too far from home and the threats that might arise there, so he crossed back to Morocco, leaving a contingent of troops to assist in the further defense of his new Andalusi allies.

El Cid: Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, a Castilian nobleman and mercenary who made his fortune fighting for Christian and Muslim princes on the Iberian Peninsula. He ruled as Prince of Valencia from 1094 until his death in 1099.

Alfonso VI: King of Leon and Castile, reigned 1077-1109. Nicknamed El Bravo, “The Brave.” Conqueror of the Muslim city of Toledo in 1085, among many other places.