Through the winter Army Group Center stood as the bulwark of the Eastern Front, but its underpinnings were weak. Its front, projecting eastward—once a giant spearhead aimed at Moscow—was, under the influence of the second Soviet winter offensive, becoming badly eroded and an invitation to disaster. On the north flank, around the bulge west of Toropets, the army group had not had a secure line since December 1941. After mid-January 1943, the Soviet armies gouged deeply into the south flank, forcing it back west of Kursk.
On 20 January, to shore up what was then the weakest spot in his front, Kluge moved Headquarters, Third Panzer Army, into the sector on the western rim of the Toropets bulge. The attempt to relieve Velikiye Luki had failed five days earlier. After his first look at the front, the Commanding General, Third Panzer Army, Generaloberst Hans Reinhardt, reported that the sector was in “appalling condition.” Gruppe von der Chevallerie had thrown every unit it could lay hands on into the thrust toward Velikiye Luki. In the army rear area an estimated 20,000 partisans roamed the countryside at will. The army’s first task would be to gain enough troops to establish some sort of defensible line by pulling back and sorting out the jumbled units west of Velikiye Luki.
In the first week of February, having set up a line of strongpoints, Third Panzer Army turned to the partisan menace. Throughout the zones of Army Groups North and Center, partisan activity had flared up dangerously since the beginning of winter. As in the previous year, the Soviet commands employed the partisans as an adjunct to the winter offensive. Again the conditions were favorable. Hard-pressed to man the front, the Germans could only commit second- and third-rate troops in the rear areas. The Soviet victories raised the partisans’ morale and made the civilians in the occupied territory amenable to Soviet and partisan influences.
Hitler, as he had since the start of the war, called for the utmost severity. In January 1943 he decreed that soldiers could not be brought to trial for atrocities committed while fighting partisans. The Geneva Convention and the rules of chivalry, he declared, had no place in anti-partisan warfare. The generals, on the other hand, were fully aware that they lacked the strength to master the partisan movement by Draconian methods and would, if they tried, only succeed in totally alienating the civilian population. Consequently, most of them attempted, for humanitarian and practical reasons, to avoid interpreting Hitler’s decree literally. The Commanding General, Second Panzer Army, General der Panzertruppen Rudolf Schmidt, for instance, directed that it would apply only to acts committed in the heat of battle and would, under no circumstances, be considered a license to kill and plunder wantonly.
In late February Third Panzer Army conducted an operation (KUGELBLITZ) against the partisan center in the Surazh Rayon northeast of Vitebsk. Although it had little effect on the course of the war, the operation is worth examining for two reasons: it is representative of dozens of similar anti-partisan operations the Germans conducted in the years 1942-44, and it gives an unusually clear-cut picture of partisan and anti-partisan warfare. The area concerned, the Surazh Rayon, lay directly behind the Third Panzer Army front. It had been partisan-infested for more than a year and had won acclaim on the Soviet side for the so-called Vitebsk Corridor, where in the late winter of 1941-42 the partisans and the Red Army had maintained truck and horse-drawn supply traffic through the large gaps in the German line. By February 1943 the front had not greatly changed. The sector north of Surazh, a thin line of strongpoints spaced two to three miles apart, was held by German Air Force field divisions. In the gaps and in the extensive forests and swamps behind the front the Germans had been forced by lack of troops to permit the partisans virtually free rein. The partisans, numbering an estimated four to five thousand, were organized into brigades. They had built permanent, fortified encampments, and operated their own airfields.
To execute the anti-partisan operation, Reinhardt detailed two security divisions. The first step, completed on 21 February, was to draw a skirmish line around the partisan area, which encompassed most of the Surazh Rayon. When that had been done, the troops began to advance inward, drawing the ring tighter and driving the partisans ahead of them toward the center. Contact was difficult to maintain, and the troops, pushing across rough terrain and through forests deep in snow, soon tired. The partisans, for their part, evaded pitched battles and, whenever they could, hid or slipped through the encirclement. When the operation ended, on 8 March, the army claimed 3,700 partisans killed, but it had no way of telling with certainty how many of the casualties were actually partisans and how many non-combatant civilians. As soon as the German units withdrew, the partisans reorganized and within a few months they had nearly regained their former strength.
Although the Army Group Center zone was quiet in the early winter of 1942-43 except for partisan activity, its front in the long run, clearly was untenable. The army group had no reserves. Its left flank was weak and, after the collapse of Second Army, its right flank was left dangling in a void. When Army Group North secured permission to evacuate the Demyansk pocket, the great eastward projection of Army Group Center ceased to serve any, even remotely, useful purpose. To pinch off the Toropets salient was no longer possible, and no one was thinking seriously any more of an advance to Moscow. On 26 January Kluge recommended to Hitler a large-scale withdrawal that would shorten the front and eliminate the danger of the Ninth and Fourth Armies’ being encircled. As was to be expected, Hitler resisted bitterly, but finally, on 6 February, he yielded to Zeitzler’s and Kluge’s arguments.
During the rest of the month the army group readied itself for the withdrawal, which was given the code name BÜFFEL. The chief task was to build a fortified line in the rear between Velizh and Kirov. At midmonth the armies began combing the towns and the countryside for able-bodied men and others who might be useful to the Russians if left behind. Long columns of evacuees, whom one army commander described as presenting pictures of absolute misery, were marched off to the west through the dead, late winter cold. Fourth Army alone reported evacuating 45,000 persons.
On 1 March Ninth Army began drawing back its front north and west of Rzhev. In twenty-three days Operation BÜFFEL was completed. The units that originally stood farthest east had covered a distance of 90 miles. The length of the front in the BÜFFEL area was reduced from 340 miles to 110 miles.
On his south flank, after 14 February, Kluge faced the problem of finding enough troops to halt Second Army’s retreat and to man the lengthening line of Second Panzer Army, its neighbor on the north. As the Russians advanced west past Kursk, the army group front began to bulge dangerously east of Orel. On 20 February Kluge proposed pulling back the Panzer and Second Armies to the line of the Desna River, but Hitler was through retreating. He was already at work on other plans, and before many months had passed, the names of two provincial Russian towns, Kursk and Orel, would gain renown on the Eastern Front.