One of the first Panther committed to Kursk, July 1943.
In June Guderian had a meeting with Rommel in Munich, where they discussed the lessons of the North African campaign. By this time Tunis was lost and Rommel was coming to believe that the day of the Panzer was over. On 10 July the Allies landed in Sicily and on 25 July Mussolini was deposed and imprisoned. It seemed likely that the new Italian government would switch sides, leaving the German homeland vulnerable to attack from the south. But Germany was unable to turn their defences that way because, belatedly, the attack against the Kursk salient had gone ahead. Seven Panzer and two Panzergrenadier divisions had gone in from Orel to the north and ten Panzer and one Panzergrenadier divisions went in from Belgorod in the south. What followed was the largest tank battle in history, involving some 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft and 2,000,000 troops.
Guderian visited both fronts and was shocked at the inexperience of the raw recruits fighting there. The equipment was not performing well either. The 90 Porsche Tigers, which were with Model’s army to the north, ran short of ammunition. With no machine guns they could not suppress enemy infantry: if they reached the enemy artillery with no infantry support, they were defenceless. Casualties were huge and Model’s attack bogged down after 6 miles. In the south, the attack went better, but it did not succeed in closing off the salient or force the Russians to withdraw.
On 15 July, the Russians began a counter-attack and, on 4 August Orel, had to be evacuated. The same day Belgorod fell. The Russian advance continued and Kharkov was in Russian hands on 23 August.
The Battle of Kursk marked the end of the German offensive capability on the Eastern Front. Large numbers of men were lost, along with their equipment. All the reorganisation and re-equipment of the armoured forces undertaken by Guderian was wasted. It was now doubtful whether the Panzers had enough tanks to hold the Eastern Front, let alone take on the British and Americans if they landed in the west.
After his journey to the Russian Front, Guderian became ill. He was convalescing with his wife in Upper Austria when they heard that their house in Berlin had been bombed. Hitler then made good his promise of giving them a country home. They moved to Deipenhof in the Hohensalza district, where Guderian’s wife remained until the Russians arrived in 1945.
While Guderian was in Russia, an attempt was made to halt the production of Panzer IVs and turn the capacity over to building assault guns. The tank turrets, it was proposed, were to be used on pillboxes along the Atlantic Wall. Guderian then had a disagreement with Hitler over the production of anti-aircraft tanks. Guderian wanted them equipped with quadruple 20mm guns which were readily available; Hitler wanted twin 37mm guns which were not. This slowed production once more.
In October 1943, Hitler inspected a wooden model of the Tiger II, which the Allies called the King Tiger. This was even heavier than the Tiger I and, at 68 tonnes, the heaviest tank to go into service with the Wehrmacht. In action, it was highly successful; however, only 484 were ever made because that month saw the beginning of Allied bombing of the German tank factories. More tank production capacity was lost when, in December 1943, factories stopped making the Czech 38-tonne tank and switched production to tank destroyers – recoilless guns mounted on Czech tank chassis. Defensive weapons were now what were needed.
By the second half of October, the Russians were crossing the Dnieper and in early November they captured Kiev. Hitler launched a counter-offensive to retake Kiev, but it was a shambles. The 25th Panzer Division were called in from France.
The 25th Panzer Division had been formed the previous year in Norway under General von Schell. He had been a colleague of Guderian’s in the Defence Ministry between 1927 and 1930, working on the problems of transporting troops by motor vehicle. He then went to the US where he studied Ford’s production techniques. When he returned to Germany, Hitler made him Under-Secretary of State for Transport, but when he tried to persuade the motor industry to adopt new American methods of production he ran into opposition. This damaged Hitler’s confidence in him and he was sent to Norway. There he rallied the occupation troops and, with Guderian’s help, raised a Panzer division. This was then moved to France, but in October 1943 it was ordered to send 600 of its new vehicles to the 14th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front. As the plan was for the 25th Panzer Division to stay in France for some time, it could make do with inferior French tanks. Before the division had got used to these changes, or even been fully equipped, it was transferred to the Eastern Front. Before they went, Guderian inspected them and reported that their departure should to be delayed by at least four weeks so that the division could be re-equipped and complete its training. He was overruled.
Guderian sent them a Tiger battalion, though the battalion was not fully equipped and had no commander. Even so, the 25th had just 30 Panzer IVs and 15 Tigers in all. The anti-tank battalion was light one company of assault guns. The anti-aircraft battalion was missing a battery. The engineer battalion was missing a bridging column. The artillery regiment had just changed from captured Polish guns to German 100mm guns and light field howitzers, while one battalion moved off without their guns.
On 29 October, the 25th Panzer Division was loaded on to trains and taken east, but no one was sure where it was to disembark. The tracked vehicles and the wheeled gun tractors and armoured troop-carrying vehicles were unloaded at two separate unloading areas three days march apart. They then set off towards the assembly area without establishing wireless or telephone communications and commanders had to drive between them to deliver orders.
Before the 25th Panzer Division had been fully assembled at its assembly point, it was ordered into action at Fastov with a number of other units that had been hastily thrown together. Partisans had blown the bridges on the route they were told to take. They bumped into a retreating column of demoralised Luftwaffe personnel. Rain fell and the tracked vehicles got separated from the wheeled column. Before they reached Fastov, they heard from retreating troops that it had fallen. Then they bumped into Russian T-34s. The Panzergrenadier regiments quickly retreated, but one was halted and ordered to dig in. The Russians attacked and destroyed their transports during the night. Von Schell had to ride to the rescue and managed to break through the encircling enemy tanks.
Some elements of the 25th reached the headquarters of XLVII Panzer Corps at Biala Zerkov, 20 miles from Fastov. Others fought on, reaching the outskirts of Fastov itself. But they were unable to dislodge the heavy enemy forces there. Soon after, the 25th were ordered to hold a 25-mile front, where it was attacked and practically destroyed by an overwhelmingly superior force. The casualties were so high that Hitler and the High Command wanted to disband the division altogether. Later it was rebuilt from scratch. Such tactics do not win battles and soon the Russians were outside Vinnitsa.
As the Germans fell back on the Eastern Front, Hitler maintained a bridgehead across the Dnieper at Nikopol for economic reasons. He wanted to exploit the manganese found there. This bridgehead was extremely costly in terms of casualties. It would have made more operational sense, Guderian pointed out, to pull back and form the Panzer divisions up into a mobile reserve, but whenever Hitler heard the word ‘operational’ he lost his temper.
With the 25th Panzer Division sent to the east, Guderian set about creating a mobile defence force on the Western Front in case the Allies invaded. He moved all the demonstration units from the tank schools to France and formed them into the Panzer-Lehr (Panzer Teaching) Division. Its commander was General Fritz Bayerlein who had been Guderian’s first operations officer in Russia and had then gone on to distinguish himself in North Africa.
The heavy casualties suffered on the Eastern Front left the High Command with no coherent plan to build up forces in the west for the invasion they were sure would come in spring 1944. Guderian again took a hand, suggesting that Panzer divisions be withdrawn from the front. While they were being built up to strength again, they would be on hand to fight in the west if needs be. The proposal won the High Command’s approval but the orders they sent to the army groups were equivocal. They said that understrength Panzer divisions should be withdrawn ‘as soon as the battle situation made it possible’. Naturally, in the eyes of the army commanders, the intense fighting meant that the battle situation never made it possible. However, by D-Day – 6 June 1944 – Guderian had ten Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions ready in the west.
As the war dragged on, Guderian came to believe that the Panzers were wasted in the east. Mobile warfare now favoured the Russians. He believed that the reconstruction of a heavily fortified line of defence along the old frontier between the German and Russian sectors offered the best form of defence. He suggested this to Hitler one day over breakfast.
Believe me, I am the greatest builder of fortifications of all time. I built the West Wall; I built the Atlantic Wall. I know what building fortifications involves. On the Eastern Front, we are short of labour, materials and transport. Even now the railways cannot carry enough supplies to satisfy the demands of the front. So I cannot send trains to the east full of building supplies.
Guderian disagreed. He said that the only railway bottleneck was at Brest-Litovsk. In Poland there were plenty of materials and labour. But Hitler’s real concern was that, if he built an East Wall, his commanders at the front would retreat to it. He was still determined that not an inch of ground should be given up.
‘I can’t understand why everything has gone wrong for the past two years,’ he often said to Guderian.
‘Change your methods,’ said Guderian. He was ignored.
Even Rommel had changed his mind about tactics. Meeting Bayerlein at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia in July 1943, he said that Germany had lost the initiative.
He told Bayerlein:
We have just learnt in Russia that dash and over-optimism are not enough. There can be no question of taking the offensive for the next few years, either in the west or the east, so we must try to make the most of the advantages that normally accrue to the defence. The main defence against the tank is the anti-tank gun. In the air we must build more fighters and give up all idea of bombing. I no longer see things as black as I did in Africa, but total victory is now, of course, hardly a possibility.
All this was before the Battle of Kursk had ended in disaster.
Bayerlein asked how Rommel saw defence in practical terms. Like Guderian, Rommel thought that they should withdraw to a prepared defensive line. If they could prevent the Western Allies creating a second front, then he thought the Russians could be defeated.
If we can only keep the Americans and the British off for two more years to enable us to build up centres of gravity in the east again, then our time will come. We’ll be able to start drawing blood from the Russians once more, until they allow the initiative to pass once more back to us. Then we’ll be able to get a tolerable peace.
Hitler had told Rommel that Germany would be producing 7,000 aircraft and 2,000 tanks a month by the beginning of 1944. But the key to victory, he thought, lay with the anti-tank gun.
‘Remember, how difficult we found it to attack the British anti-tank screens in Africa,’ he told Bayerlein. ‘It needed first-class, highly trained troops to achieve anything at all against them.’
Rommel had made a careful study of the position in Russia and concluded that the Russian soldier was stubborn and inflexible.
He will never be able to develop the well-thought-out, guileful method with which the Englishman fights his battles. The Russian attacks head on, with enormous expenditure of material, and tries to smash his way through by sheer weight of numbers. If we can give the German infantry divisions first fifty, then a hundred, then two hundred 75mm anti-tank guns and install them in carefully prepared positions, covered by large minefields, we shall be able to halt the Russians. The anti-tank guns can be quite simple; all that is necessary is that they should be able to penetrate any Russian tank up to a reasonable range and at the same time be usable as an infantry gun.
While there was no chance that Germany could keep pace with the Russian output of tanks, they could compete in anti-tank guns. Rommel figured that it would be possible to turn out as many as ten anti-tank guns for every tank. He envisaged the Russians attacking a heavily mined sector where there was an anti-tank screen some 6 miles deep. ‘For all their mass of materiel,’ he said, ‘they would bog down in the first few days and, from then have to gnaw their way through slowly.’
In the meantime, the Germans would deploy more anti-tank guns behind their screen.
‘If the enemy makes 3 miles’ progress a day, we’ll build 6 miles of anti-tank screen and let him run himself to a standstill,’ Rommel said. ‘We’ll be fighting in the cover of our positions; he’ll be attacking in the open.’
And while the Germans would be losing anti-tank guns, the Russians would be losing tanks, which were far more costly to replace.
‘To move the guns we can use Russian horses or any anything else we can lay our hands on. That’s what the Russians do and we must adopt their methods. Once it becomes clear to the troops that they can hold their ground, morale will go up again… Our last chance in the East lies in equipping the army thoroughly for unyielding defence.’
But no one was listening.
The year 1944 started with fresh attacks by the Russians who could now deploy T-34s in overwhelming numbers. In the Ukraine the Germans faced 63 tank formations backed by 101 rifle formations. Two attacks in January and a third at the beginning of March pushed the Germans back across the Bug. In April the Crimea, with the exception of Sebastopol, found itself in Russian hands. Sebastopol fell in August.
To the north, the situation was not quite so dire. But the siege of Leningrad was finally lifted on 27 January 1944, after 900 days.