On the extreme left flank of the front, Army Group North of necessity had to follow Hitler’s preference for static defense. Since it had been in a relatively stable situation through 1942 and the first half of 1943, no formation had been more burdened by unit transfers than Field Marshal Küchler’s army group. In July 1943, it possessed barely 360,000 front troops, with a mere forty tanks and assault guns, a figure that was reduced on 15 September to only seven serviceable tanks. Luftflotte 1 was in an even more dire condition: on 20 July, it disposed of a mere six fighter aircraft to maintain the siege of Leningrad and cover up to five hundred miles of front. With a serious deficiency in motor vehicles and towing machines, Army Group North typified, in an extreme form, what had happened to the entire Ostheer: it had effectively been demotorized and reduced to the status of a World War I outfit, dependent on horses for whatever mobility it possessed. Unable any longer to outmaneuver the enemy, German units had little choice but to resist as long as possible in prepared positions since any retreat threatened to turn into a rout.
Compounding its difficulties, the withdrawal of Army Group Center to the Panther line in the autumn had not only left its neighbor to the north in an exposed position but also forced it to extend its line fifty miles to the south to encompass the important road and rail centers of Nevel and Novosokolniki. By late September, all indications pointed to an enemy offensive in the area of the boundary line between the two army groups. That partisan-infested area, crisscrossed with forests, lakes, swamps, and notoriously poor roads, had long been one of the weakest points on the eastern front; at the time, the Germans had only about twelve hundred men to defend an eleven-mile sector. When the Soviet attack came early on 6 October, it caught the defenders by surprise, largely because they had lost track of Russian troop movements owing to poor weather over the previous days. Before the Germans could react, Red Army forces had stormed into Nevel, seized the city, and punched a hole in the German line at the boundary between the two army groups. Although his forces were badly outmanned, Hitler nonetheless responded in typical fashion: he ordered the flanks of the break-in held and counterattacks to close the gap between the army groups. In addition, and in a gratuitous bit of condescension, he pointed out to his generals that, as was their habit, the Soviets had attacked at unit boundaries, implying that they were both ignorant of this fact and unwilling to cooperate to stop it. This rebuke was the more offensive since German commanders had long been aware of this unimaginative Soviet tactic but were unable effectively to combat it. Nor could much comfort be found in the fact that the Soviets succeeded less from their own skill and more because of the condition of the German forces. With their front lines undermanned and stretched thin, and with few reserves, German commanders were of necessity forced to wait to see which direction the Soviets would turn after a breakthrough before reacting. In this case, Hitler’s insistence on holding the flanks proved decisive, for, despite continual attacks until the end of the year, the Soviets failed, at very high cost, to exploit their initial breakthrough.
By now, the crippling German deficiencies in manpower had become apparent to all, except perhaps the Führer. In September, for the first time in the war, army strength on the eastern front (not including Luftwaffe field units or the Waffen-SS) had fallen below 2.5 million, with permanent losses since the invasion of the Soviet Union totaling almost a million men. Moreover, it was proving difficult to dredge up new recruits, while the quality of many of the replacements at the front, as Kluge unsuccessfully tried to convince Hitler in October, was such that they could not withstand a determined enemy attack. The quality of many German infantry units had dropped so alarmingly, in fact, that in October Guderian, in his capacity as inspector-general of the army, proposed creating mobile tank reserves to backstop the infantry. His idea foundered as always on Hitler’s resistance to sacrificing any ground to free troops. That the situation was near catastrophic was shown by Army Group North, which, in the last six months of 1943 alone, lost 40 percent of its front divisions to other sectors of the front and now had to make do with a motley collection of understrength infantry units and Luftwaffe field divisions of dubious value, with no panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions of its own. Nor could the report of Foreign Armies East in late March 1944 provide much comfort. The Soviets, Gehlen’s unit calculated, had lost 1.2 million men (killed and taken prisoner) just in the last four months of 1943, as against 243,743 Germans, but the frontline and reserve strength of the Red Army had grown to 5.5 million troops. In addition, annual Soviet drafts produced three times more recruits than the Germans were able to, while the Soviet Union had gained (and Germany lost) some 600,000 men in the recovered territories. Finally, in an ominous sign of the growing interconnection of the various strategic fronts, Gehlen estimated that Germany had to divert at least 30 percent, and usually more, of its total strength to OKW theaters, while the Soviet Union diverted only 7 percent to its Far East sector.
Even as Army Group North accelerated preparations of its portion of the Panther line, running behind natural obstacles such as the Narva River, Lake Peipus, and Lake Pskov, Küchler was under no illusions. Like Manstein to the south, he was precariously holding one sector, around Leningrad, primarily for prestige reasons and another, near Nevel, to stave off possible disaster but unlikely in the event of a Soviet offensive to be able to hold either. Hitler, however, believed that the Soviets had lost so many men fighting in Ukraine that an attack in the north was unlikely until spring. Unable to secure Hitler’s permission to retire in good order behind the Panther line, Küchler could only wait uneasily for the blow to fall. By mid-January, even as he was forced to transfer two of his best divisions to Army Group South, Küchler faced an enemy force numbering 1.25 million men and sixteen hundred tanks with a front strength of barely 250,000 men. The blow, when it fell on 14 January, was designed by the Soviets to exploit this vast superiority with simultaneous assaults against the Eighteenth Army at Leningrad and Novgorod. Much to the surprise of the Germans, the Stavka’s aim was not merely to liberate Leningrad but to drive to the borders of the Baltic states. Despite their vast inferiority, the Germans were able to resist the enemy onslaught until the seventeenth, when Soviet forces achieved a breakthrough in the north between Krasnoe Selo and Pushkin.
On the eighteenth, with the front west of Leningrad collapsing and the Soviets beginning to encircle Novgorod, Army Group North faced a life-and-death crisis. Hitler, as usual, refused to authorize a withdrawal, but, with virtually no reserves to stabilize the situation, Küchler on his own authority ordered a retreat. By the nineteenth, Novgorod had been surrounded, and the Führer reluctantly allowed German troops to break out; the next day, the city fell to the Soviets. Under unrelenting pressure, German troops continued to fall back, with the result that, by 26 January, the Red Army was able to seize the main rail line to Moscow, effectively ending the siege of Leningrad after almost nine hundred days and the loss of between 1.6 and 2 million lives (an amount four to five times greater than all American deaths in World War II). The next day, with Küchler and the other army group and army commanders attending a National Socialist leadership conference at Königsberg, at which Hitler exhorted them on faith as the key to victory, the Soviets celebrated the capture of Leningrad with a powerful artillery salute.
Given the danger that Russian partisans might cut off his ability to withdraw to the Panther line, Küchler had already on 20 January requested permission to retire immediately to this position, a request Hitler rejected with a tirade against his generals. Army Group North, in particular, Hitler claimed, had grown flabby. “I am against all withdrawals,” he stressed. “We will have crises wherever we are. There is no guarantee we will not be broken through on the Panther line. . . . [The Russian] must bleed himself white on the way. The battle must be fought as far as possible from the German border.” The Führer also mustered his customary economic and strategic arguments in favor of holding fast. The Baltic coast, he emphasized, had to be held in order to guarantee vital iron ore deliveries from Sweden as well as to ensure control of the Baltic Sea for development and trials of new U-boats. By 27 January, however, with the Eighteenth Army having lost fifty-two thousand men, with its effective infantry strength down to seventeen thousand men, and faced with encirclement, even Hitler could no longer ignore the obvious. On 29 January, with the Eighteenth Army now splintered into three parts, Küchler again on his own authority ordered it to retreat in order to prevent its complete destruction. Although Hitler had little choice but to accept this decision, he nonetheless summoned Küchler to his HQ, where he summarily fired the field marshal on the thirty-first, replacing him with Model.
Although regarded as a defensive specialist and brilliant improviser, Model faced a situation that taxed even his legendary energy and toughness. His first moves, in fact, were more psychological than tactical: decreeing not a single step back without his approval and forbidding any reference to the Panther line on the ground that it induced a withdrawal psychosis. More concretely, Model profited from the fact that Hitler tended to give new appointees, particularly his favorites, a bit more leeway as well as from a rather dilatory Soviet advance. Taking full advantage of a new brainchild of the Führer’s that allowed withdrawals as long as counterstrikes were planned to regain the lost ground, Model initiated controlled retreats to the Panther line to parry Soviet advances. That he ever intended to thrust was doubtful, for the field marshal was under no illusions about the reality of the situation. Still, the fact that the Germans were able to build a stable front had less to do with Model’s formidable skills than the Soviet failure to take advantage of the superior mobility accorded them by extensive American Lend-Lease deliveries of trucks and motor vehicles. Instead of bold encirclement operations, Soviet commanders now preferred methodical frontal assaults that ground the Germans down but failed to annihilate them. As a result, Model’s forces not only succeeded in retiring to the Panther line in relatively good order, but also, from mid-February, deflected all Soviet attempts to burst through the narrow neck of land between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland. By 1 March, German troops were behind the Panther line and able, despite continued costly Soviet attempts to take Narva and Pskov, to hold their positions.
The liberation of Leningrad after its long ordeal was greeted with understandable joy in the Soviet Union, but this success had been achieved at a very high price. From July 1943 to the end of the year, the Red Army in the north had lost over 260,000 men, among them 67,000 killed and missing. Then, despite a five-to-one manpower advantage and an incredible thirteen-to-one superiority in tanks and assault guns, the fighting between mid-January and 1 March cost the Soviets another 314,000 troops (77,000 dead and missing), with the attempt to breach the Panther line in March and April resulting in the further loss of 200,000 men. From July 1943 through April 1944, then, the Red Army suffered casualties of almost 775,000 men, a figure equivalent to the total strength of Army Group North. Despite inflicting savage losses on the enemy, Hitler’s determination to hold out in front of the Panther position rather than allow an orderly withdrawal to a more defensible line had cost German forces dearly as well. From 10 January to 1 March, Army Group North lost almost 100,000 men, of whom 29,000 were dead and missing, casualties that, given the Germans’ catastrophic manpower situation, they could not sustain. The apparent German success in stabilizing the front again allowed Hitler to continue in the illusion that his strategy of holding fast at all costs was working. The Führer, however, was no longer all that interested in the fate of Army Group North, for the situation in the south, the Schwerpunkt of Soviet operations, had once again grown critical.