Tigers at Kharkov.
The Soviet thrusts towards Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk. Manstein’s Army Group was threatened with encirclement.
In the south of Russia, Operation Little Saturn had forced Manstein to withdraw the First Panzer and Seventeenth Armies to the Kuban bridgehead in the north-western corner of the Caucasus, south of Rostov. Rokossovsky grumbled that the downgrading of the offensive, and the failure to advance to Rostov to cut the enemy off completely, had been a missed opportunity. But Stalin had once again suffered a rush of optimism just as he had a year before. Forgetting how quickly the German army recovered from a disaster, he wanted to liberate the eastern Ukraine in the Donbas and Kharkov operations with armies now freed by the surrender of the Sixth Army.
On 6 February Manstein met Hitler, who at first accepted responsibility for the defeat at Stalingrad, but then blamed Göring and others for the disaster. He complained bitterly about Paulus’s failure to commit suicide. Yet the Japanese were even more upset by the news. In Tokyo, Shigemitsu Mamoru, the new foreign minister, and an audience of about 150 Japanese generals and senior officials, watched a film of Stalingrad made by Russian cameramen. The scenes which showed Paulus and the other captured generals shocked them deeply. ‘Can this possibly be the case?’ they demanded in disbelief. ‘If it is true, why did Paulus not commit suicide like a real soldier?’ The Japanese leadership suddenly realized that the invincible Hitler was going to lose the war after all.
Manstein was now in a better position to demand flexibility of action. Hitler wanted a dogged defence of occupied territory, but the threat of a collapse in southern Russia paradoxically gave Manstein the opportunity to achieve one of the most startling counter-attacks in the whole war.
The Red Army, having crushed the Hungarian Second Army and encircled part of the German Second Army with the Voronezh Front, on Manstein’s left flank, then pushed on westward to seize what would become the Kursk Salient. ‘For the last week and a half,’ a soldier wrote to his wife on 10 February, ‘we’ve been marching on land that has just been liberated from the fascists. Yesterday our armoured vehicles broke into Belgorod. A lot of booty has been taken and many prisoners of war. While on the march we constantly encounter huge groups of captured Hungarians, Romanians, Italians and Germans. If only you could see, Shurochka, what a pitiful sight this famous gang of Hitler’s has become. They are wearing army boots, some in straw galoshes, summer uniforms, only a few wear greatcoats, and on top of all that they are wearing the overclothes that they’ve stolen, male or female. On their heads are fore and aft caps, and women’s shawls are wrapped around over them. Many of them have frostbite; they are dirty, with lice. It gives one a revolting feeling to think that this riff-raff had got so far into our country. We’ve already marched 270 kilometres in the provinces of Voronezh and Kursk. So many villages, towns, factories and bridges have been destroyed. Civilians are going back home as the Red Army arrives there. They are so happy!’
Another part of the Voronezh Front advanced on Kharkov. On 13 February, Hitler insisted that the city should be held by Gruppenführer Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzer Corps, with the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and the Das Reich Divisions. Hausser, on his own initiative, disobeyed orders and withdrew. At the same time, Manstein pulled back the First Panzer Army to the River Mius. The Soviet South-Western Front with four armies had thrust westwards. It was spearheaded by four tank corps (although no greater in strength than a single panzer corps) commanded by Lieutenant General M. M. Popov. The Stavka thought that a great victory was about to be achieved by exploiting the gap in the German front south of Kharkov, but their own supply lines were desperately over-extended.
On 17 February, furious that his orders were being ignored, Hitler flew to Zaporozhye for a showdown with Manstein. But Manstein had things well in hand. He moved Fourth Panzer Army headquarters to take control over the II SS Panzer Corps, now reinforced with the Totenkopf Division, and prepared the First Panzer Army to strike the Soviet attackers from below. Hitler felt obliged to fall in with his plans. Manstein’s double counter-attacks destroyed Popov’s armoured force and almost encircled the 1st Guards and the 6th Army. The troops of the 25th Tank Corps, by then out of fuel, had to abandon all their vehicles and make their way on foot back towards Soviet lines.
In the first week of March, Fourth Panzer Army advanced back on Kharkov, and Hausser eventually retook the city on 14 March after an unnecessarily costly battle. Heavy spring rains soon brought further operations to a halt. Soviet prisoners of war were to put to work burying the dead. Most were so famished that they searched the bodies for scraps of food in pockets, but this was deemed to be looting the dead. Usually they were just shot, but the odd sadist would take it further. One tied three Soviet prisoners accused of theft to a gate together. ‘When his victims had been secured,’ wrote another soldier, ‘he stuck a grenade into the pocket of one of their coats, pulled the pin, and ran for shelter. The three Russians, whose guts were blown out, screamed for mercy until the last moment.’
Hitler had his eye on the immense Kursk Salient for a summer offensive to restore German superiority on the eastern front. Yet the German army in the Soviet Union had been disastrously weakened. Apart from the loss of the Sixth Army and those of its allies, there had been heavy casualties in the withdrawal from the Caucasus, to say nothing of the fighting around Leningrad and the Red Army’s Rzhev Offensive against the Ninth Army. Many vehicles had been abandoned in the retreat when they ran out of fuel, and were finished off with a grenade in the engine. Panzers were often reduced to towing several trucks filled with wounded.
The Wehrmacht’s strength on the eastern front had also been reduced by the transfer of troops to Tunisia, and to France in case of an Allied invasion. Operations in the Mediterranean continued to inflict heavy losses on the Luftwaffe, as did the strategic bombing campaign against German cities and aircraft factories. And the need to protect the Reich had led to the withdrawal of fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft batteries, giving air superiority to the Soviets for the first time. By the spring of 1943, German strength stood at just over 2,700,000 men, while the Red Army mustered just under 5,800,000, with four and half times as many tanks, and three times as many guns and heavy mortars. The Red Army also possessed greater mobility, thanks to the flow of Jeeps and trucks provided by American Lend–Lease.
A part of the increase in the Red Army’s strength came with the recruitment of young women to a maximum strength of 800,000. Although many had served from early in the war, and well over 20,000 had done so in the Battle of Stalingrad alone, the greatest intake began in 1943. Their military roles now extended well beyond their previous ones of doctor, medic, nurse, telephone operator, signaller, pilot, air observer and anti-aircraft guncrew. The bravery and competence shown by women, especially during the Battle of Stalingrad, encouraged the Soviet authorities to recruit more, and there were more women serving in the Red Army than in any other regular army during the war. Although there had been a number of women snipers who became famous for their deadly skills, the main influx came with the establishment of a woman’s sniper school in 1943. Women were considered to resist cold better than men and to have a steadier hand.
These intrepid young women, however, also had to cope with the attentions of male comrades and especially superiors. ‘These girls evoked memories of school-leaving dances, of first love,’ wrote Ilya Ehrenburg. ‘Almost all those I met at the front had come straight from school. They often winced nervously: there were too many men around with hungry eyes.’ A number found themselves forced to become a senior officer’s ‘campaign wife’–known as a ‘PPZh’ (short for pokhodno-polevaya zhena) because it sounded like PPSh, the Red Army’s standard sub-machine gun.
Coercion was often crudely applied. A soldier recounted how an officer ordered a young woman in their signals platoon to accompany a fighting patrol, simply because she had refused to sleep with him. ‘Many were sent back to the rear because they were pregnant,’ he wrote. ‘Most soldiers did not think badly of them. This was life. Every day we spent facing death at the front line, so people wanted to get some pleasures.’ But very few of the men acknowledged any responsibility and took every means to avoid their tearful victims before they left. Ehrenburg’s friend and colleague Vasily Grossman was appalled by the flagrant exploitation of rank to achieve sexual favours. He regarded the ‘campaign wife’ as the Red Army’s ‘great sin’. ‘Yet all around them,’ he added, ‘thousands of girls in military uniform are working hard and with dignity.’