By early March 1943 it was evident that Germany would be able to salvage two significant assets from the wreckage of the winter. Manstein’s advance to the Donets would throw the Russians temporarily off balance in the zone of their main effort, and as a dividend of Operation BÜFFEL and the retreat in southern USSR, a fairly strong operational reserve would be created. These were enough to afford Hitler, at least to a limited degree, a free hand in planning.
Strategic Plans—Operations Order 5
On 13 March the plan was ready, embodied in Operations Order 5. After the end of the winter and the spring muddy season, it stated, the Russians would return to the offensive. The German armies would have to strike first in several places and, as Army Group South was currently doing, definitely seize the initiative in at least one. The spot Hitler chose was the Kursk bulge. By mid-April Army Group South was to assemble a strong panzer army for an attack north toward Kursk from the Kharkov area. On the northern rim of the bulge Army Group Center was to create an offensive force in the Second Panzer Army zone, using divisions released by BÜFFEL. The offensive would begin as soon as the muddy season ended and before the Russians had a chance to launch an attack of their own. Army Group A would reduce the size of the GOTENKOPF, and its primary mission would be to release troops for transfer to Army Group South.
Although the Kursk offensive, given the code name ZITADELLE, subsequently acquired the character of a desperate and tragic gamble, it was conceived as part of a coherent and not unpromising strategy that envisioned a series of limited offensives to consolidate the German defenses. A victory in the Kursk bulge would straighten the German front and could be expected to keep the Russians off balance a while longer. In his order Hitler instructed Army Group North to be ready to follow up ZITADELLE with an operation against Leningrad. By taking Leningrad he intended to tighten his hold on the Baltic Sea and northern Europe, where growing hostility on the part of Sweden and war weariness in Finland were adding to his long-standing concern over the vulnerable Norwegian coast.
During the winter he had several times talked about strengthening the forces in Norway, and in February the Army of Norway had begun work on a defense plan which included the occupation of Sweden. On 13 March, the day Operations Order 5 was issued, he told Jodl that he intended to shift a mountain division plus six battalions to Norway and planned to equip the panzer division then forming in Norway “with the heaviest assault weapons, ones against which Sweden possesses no means of defense.”
The timing was crucial. If ZITADELLE succeeded in the spring, the operation against Leningrad, using troops from ZITADELLE, could start in early summer; and once Leningrad was safely in hand, Finnish interest in the war could be expected to revive, Sweden could be dealt with at will, and Norway would become a much less attractive target for the Western Allies. If ZITADELLE were completed promptly, there would also be time and troops enough to strengthen the Mediterranean front. On the other hand, the cost of failure would run high. The two armies intended for ZITADELLE comprised the entire German strategic reserve. They were working capital which, lost or tied down in a fruitless enterprise, could not be quickly replaced.
At the time Hitler issued Operations Order 5, the front in the Army Group Center and South zones was still fluid. As so often happened, Hitler’s planning was based in important particulars on conditions which did not yet exist and which might not come into being exactly as he anticipated. Army Group Center was in the midst of Operation BÜFFEL. Second Army and Second Panzer Army were struggling to stop the Russians in the bulge west and northwest of Kursk. The striking force of Army Group South, Fourth Panzer Army, was adding the finishing touches to its victory at Kharkov, but it had been on the move without pause for nearly a month, and its troops were nearly exhausted. Both army groups needed time to rest and refit before embarking on an offensive. Army Group South was already feeling the effects of the spring thaw. Farther north, in the Army Group Center zone, the thaw would set in during the next few weeks and last through April. To get ready for ZITADELLE by mid-April would be difficult, maybe impossible.
HABICHT and PANTHER
After Fourth Panzer Army, in the third week of March, cleared the right bank of the Donets north to Belgorod, Hitler temporarily left ZITADELLE in abeyance and turned his attention to the Donets line southeast of Kharkov. There, it appeared, the opportunity for a quick, relatively easy victory was beckoning. Frantic enemy activity east of the river showed the Russians were worried. From the German point of view a thrust across the Donets had tactical advantages. It would straighten and shorten the front southeast of Kharkov and, by pushing it farther east, might discourage the Russians from again attempting to cut off the Army Group South right flank by striking at Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye. It would also facilitate the execution of ZITADELLE by eliminating the danger of a counterthrust from the south into the rear of the ZITADELLE advance.
On 22 March Hitler issued an order for Operation HABICHT, an offensive thrust across the Donets, to be undertaken as soon as the river receded enough to permit a crossing. He assigned responsibility for HABICHT to First Panzer Army and Armeeabteilung Kempf. Armeeabteilung Kempf was to put one assault force across the Donets in the vicinity of Chuguyev and strike southward behind the Russian line on the river. A second force was to cross farther north and advance east to Kupyansk. First Panzer Army was to tie down the Russians around Izyum and send a force north along the west bank of the Oskol River to Kupyansk.
Two days later Hitler directed Army Group South also to begin planning a more ambitious operation, code-named PANTHER, to be executed by the First and Fourth Panzer Armies, which would force the Russians away from the Donets and back to the line Volchansk-Kupyansk-Svatovo-Krasnaya River. Neither of the new operations aroused enthusiasm at the headquarters of the armies concerned. The First Panzer Army and Armeeabteilung Kempf chiefs of staff worried that Hitler would fall into his old habit of driving the armies on from victory to victory without rest until, as in previous years, they again became hopelessly overextended.
At the end of the month, with three operations in planning, Hitler faced the problem—which to execute and when. HABICHT was comparatively minor and would hardly be worthwhile unless it could be a prelude to ZITADELLE. PANTHER, larger and tactically more profitable, would require much more time and would necessitate an indefinite postponement of ZITADELLE. One thing was certain, every week’s delay reduced the chances of success no matter what the choice. The advantages on the German side were slight enough as it was. On the Armeeabteilung Kempf front alone the Russians had an estimated 1,000-1,500 tanks, more than twice the number Army Group South could muster in its entire zone. To achieve genuine surprise with any of the three proposed operations was already out of the question. Everything hinged on being ready to exploit the first onset of good weather in the hope of catching the enemy momentarily off guard and not solidly dug in.
On 2 April Hitler issued his “decision.” HABICHT would be made ready so that it could begin on four days’ notice any time after 13 April. By placing HABICHT first on the list he had virtually eliminated it. The Donets was expected to reach the flood stage in the second half of April, and Manstein had said that Army Group South could not be ready to resume the offensive by mid-April because the panzer units would have to be allowed to complete their rest and refitting “at least to a certain degree.” Aware of those difficulties, Hitler ordered that if HABICHT could not start by 17 April, it would be superseded by PANTHER, which would then have to be ready by 1 May; if neither HABICHT nor PANTHER could be executed, he added, Army Groups Center and South would go over to ZITADELLE. Three days later Manstein told his subordinate commanders the final choice would probably be ZITADELLE.