For all the advances made against the Germans in the west between D-Day on 6 June 1944 and the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945, postponed by the disaster at Arnhem in mid-September and the Ardennes counter-offensive in the winter, it was on the Eastern Front that the war against Germany was won. Between Operation Barbarossa and December 1944, the Germans lost 2.4 million men killed there, against 202,000 fighting the Western allies. The cost of inflicting such casualties was uneven: between D-Day and VE Day (Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945), the Russians suffered more than 2 million casualties, three times that of the British, Americans, Canadians and French fighting forces put together. It is worth considering whether democracies could ever have tolerated that level of sacrifice, or whether – as seems likely – it required the whole horrific apparatus of the NKVD and domestic terror to keep the Soviet Union in the war.
After the Wehrmacht’s convincing defeat at Stalingrad and the capture of Field Marshal Paulus’ Sixth Army in February 1943, and then the withdrawal with unacceptable losses – albeit fewer than the Russians suffered – at the battle of Kursk six months later the scene was set for a series of enormous Soviet offensives across the eastern part of the Eurasian land mass that were only to end with Germany’s surrender in Berlin in early May 1945, after Hitler’s suicide there on 30 April. In its 1943 summer offensive after the successful defence of Kursk, the Red Army recaptured Orel, Kharkov, Tagonrog and Smolensk, forcing the Germans back to the Dnieper river and cutting off the Seventeenth Army in the Crimean peninsula. Hitler came under pressure from Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and the Romanian dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu to evacuate the German and Romanian forces from the Crimea, which could have been used in the defence of Romania and Bulgaria, but his obstinate refusal to do so meant the fall of both countries in short order, and the eventual destruction of the army group there. Hitler had a scheme for the Crimea to become a solely Aryan colony from which all foreigners would be permanently banned, and he hung on to his dream for it long after military considerations dictated that they needed to be – at the very least – postponed.
Nicolaus von Below wrote of this period: ‘Hitler foresaw threatening developments on the Eastern Front earlier and with greater clarity than his military advisers, but he was determined with great obstinacy not to accede to the request of his army commanders to pull back fronts, or would do so exceptionally only at the last minute. The Crimea was to be held at whatever cost, and he refused to entertain Manstein’s arguments in the matter.’ A quarter of a million troops were therefore lost to the German line. It did not affect the outcome of the war, of course, and perhaps only meant, as one historian has argued, ‘that large numbers of German soldiers ended up in Soviet captivity instead of being killed in the fighting’. Nonetheless, according to its own lights it was a strategic error. Like the decision to leave German troops on the Kerch peninsula in order to try to recapture the Caucasus one day, it was actuated by Hitler’s hope for a new assault on the southern USSR, long after such an attack was rationally possible.
For the German soldiers on the ground, in their long, bitter withdrawal from their high-water mark at Kursk, survival took on greater meaning than any lingering hopes of victory. For the Russians, liberating their cities and towns involved discovering the horrors of the German occupation. At Orel, which was a typical example, half the buildings and all the bridges had been destroyed, and there were only 30,000 survivors from a pre-war population of 114,000, the rest having been sent to Germany as slave labour or shot, or having died of disease or starvation. For sheer ghoulishness, little could beat the discovery of eighty-two headless corpses and eighty-nine human heads in Danzig’s Anatomical Medical Institute, however, where soap and leather had been manufactured from Russian, Polish, Jewish and Uzbecki corpses. The nearby Stutthof concentration camp had little problem providing the bodies – 16,000 prisoners died of typhoid there in one six-week period, for example – and human soap was in production when the Institute received official visits from the Reich education and healthcare ministers. Small wonder that the Red Army hardened its already rock-like heart still further against the enemy, encouraging it to see them as subhuman, and instilling a determination to punish all Germans – civilians as well as military – now that the jackboot was on the other foot. The innocence or otherwise of individual Germans was immaterial, because it was not so much they who were being punished as their husbands, fathers and sons. Human pity was now beside the point.
‘A series of withdrawals by adequately large steps would have worn down the Russian strength, besides creating opportunities for counter-strokes,’ General Kurt von Tippelskirch stated of this immediate post-Kursk period. ‘The root cause of German defeat was the way her forces were wasted in fruitless efforts, and above all, fruitless resistance at the wrong time and place.’ Manstein did his best with a mobile defence across southern Russia – often at odds of seven to one – that seems to have been too subtle for Hitler, who constantly issued ‘Stand or die’ orders freezing the defensive lines, such as at Kharkov after the Soviets broke through on 3 August 1943.
It took no fewer than seven conversations – often face to face after long flights – for Manstein to get Hitler’s permission to retreat to the line of the Dnieper. Falling back there, Manstein ignored Hitler and allowed Kharkov to fall on 23 August, putting his loyalty to his troops and the German people higher than that to OKW and his Führer. This was felt further down the line of command: Major-General Frederick von Mellenthin, Chief of Staff of the 48th Panzer Division which was retreating to the Dnieper, complained bitterly of the way that ‘During the Second World War the German Supreme Command could never decide on a withdrawal when the going was good. It either made up its mind too late, or when a retreat had been forced upon our armies and was already in full swing.’
Given enough warning, the Wehrmacht was in fact excellent at strategic withdrawals. It made thorough preparations improving roads, bridges and river crossings; it camouflaged assembly areas and made precise calculations about what equipment could be moved and the amount of transport necessary, and about what needed to be destroyed; then command posts, headquarters, medical and veterinary posts were established to the rear before the withdrawal began; telephone lines were removed; supplies, rations and night-traffic control were organized; demolitions, roadblocks and mines were readied, and lines of resistance mapped out. (The problems were of course multiplied once the Wehrmacht was forced back on to German soil, because millions of panicky refugees wanted to escape the Red Army too.) The Wehrmacht was also expert in the policy of scorched earth, of which Army Group South’s retreat to the Dnieper between the end of August and October 1943 was the exemplar, and for which Manstein received an eighteen-year jail sentence in 1949. (He served only four years.) ‘The wide spaces of Russia favour well-organized withdrawals,’ recalled Mellenthin. ‘Indeed if the troops are properly disciplined and trained, a strategic withdrawal is an excellent means of catching the enemy off balance and regaining the initiative.’ Yet, for all its expertise, Hitler gave the Wehrmacht as little time as possible to organize such retreats, on those rare occasions when he authorized them at all.
The Kuban bridgehead on the Taman peninsula fell in October 1943, leaving the Caucasus safe for the Soviets and effectively turning the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake once more. ‘Towards the end of 1943 at the latest it had become unmistakably clear that the war had been lost,’ wrote General Halder. ‘Would it not have been possible even so to beat off the invasion and thus provide the basis for a tolerable peace? Had the “Fortress Germany” no hope of consuming the enemy’s strength on its walls? No! Let us once and for all have done with these fairy tales.’ He was right; having taken on four of the world’s six greatest powers, Germany was doomed. Yet it was to take a further eighteen months of unimaginable horror and slaughter before the war finally came to an end. The blame for this can largely be put down to the efficiency, determination and obedience of the Wehrmacht. Had Hitler passed over ultimate decision-making to a committee of its best brains, and appointed Manstein as supreme commander of the Eastern Front, all that it would have meant at that stage was that the defeat would have taken longer and cost many more German and Russian lives.
Almost throughout this period the Germans inflicted higher casualties on the Russians than they received, but crucially never more than the Soviets could absorb. Attacks were undertaken by the Red Army generals without regard to the cost in lives, an approach which German generals could not adopt because of a lack of adequate reserves. ‘The Russians were five times superior to us poor but brave Germans, both in numbers and in the superiority of their equipment,’ complained Kleist from his Nuremberg cell in June 1946. ‘My immediate commander was Hitler himself. Unfortunately, Hitler’s advice in those critical periods was invariably lousy.’ In Hitler’s defence, Alan Clark has pointed out that from December 1943 the Führer had been aiming at breaking the Allied coalition through emphasizing ‘the apparent impossibility of its task and the incompatibility of its members’, and that seen in this context his defence of every inch of territory in the east was perfectly explicable. Yet ever since November 1941 Stalin had been making speeches about Hitler’s aim of using fear of Communism as a way of splitting the Grand Coalition against Germany. The Soviet Information Buro (Sovinform) had been issuing statements since June 1942 lauding Russia’s alliance with the Western Allies, and there is plenty of evidence for how fully this was reciprocated in Britain and America. If Hitler had had a better understanding of the true nature of the alliance against him, he would have realized that its desire to extirpate him and his New Order would always be greater than any mutual suspicions and antipathies within it. To believe anything else was mere desperation, for as he had written in Mein Kampf: ‘Any alliance whose purpose is not the intention to wage war is senseless and useless.’
For all Kleist’s other legitimate complaints about his supreme commander, it was untrue that German equipment was inferior, except in sheer numbers. Guderian, who wrote the 1936 work Achtung-Panzer!, believed that two different types of tank were necessary in any attack, one to deal with tanks and the other with infantry. The five-man Panzer Mark III, produced from 1936, was used against other tanks, but its 37mm gun was not powerful enough against the British Matilda tanks in Africa, so Rommel used 88mm anti-aircraft guns against them there instead. In 1940 Hitler ordered the production of a 50mm, 350hp Mark III, which the manufacturers watered down to a 47mm gun. These, as well as Sturmgeschütze (self-propelled assault guns), were used in Operation Barbarossa, along with the far less powerful Panzer Marks I and II. Up to 1944, around 6,000 Mark IIIs were produced by different manufacturers. Twelve thousand Mark IVs were built with 76mm guns, which the Soviets thought ‘good for bad European weather, not for bad Russian weather’. In 1942 the Germans started producing Mark VI (Tiger) and then in 1943 Mark V (Panther) tanks.
Although the Russian tanks and self-propelled guns used diesel, only one German tank (the enormous Maus) did so, all the others being petrol-fuelled. Petrol was far more costly, flammable and rapidly consumed, yet Germany – which had the technology as Messerschmitts flew on diesel – for some reason stuck to petrol for her tanks. The Panther was a bigger and heavier copy of the Russian T-34, with a sloped front that encouraged ricochets. It entered the front line in July 1943 at Kursk, but faced a number of problems, mainly electrical and hydraulic. Weighing 45.5 tonnes with a crew of five and top speed of 46mph, it had 110mm of front armour (it was also covered with zimmerit cladding to foil magnetic mines and grenades), a 75mm cannon 15 feet long and a Daimler-Benz copy of the T-34’s engine. Some 6,400 were produced; along with the Panzer VI, known as the Tiger I, of which the Henschel company made 1,355, these were formidable weapons indeed.
The Tiger I weighed 58.9 tonnes, had an 88mm gun, five crew and a cruising speed of 24mph. At the Museum of Tank Construction at Kubinka, 40 miles south of Moscow, one can see a Tiger tank that has been fired upon by a T-34 at around 300 yards’ range, which merely left a 2-inch dent in its frontal armour. Except at point-blank range, or firing at its side-tracks, or unless a lucky shot hit the area between the hull and turret, the Tiger tank was well placed to smash the T-34.
The heaviest tank deployed in combat during the Second World War, at 68 tonnes, was the Tiger II. This had a five-man crew, a maximum speed of 22mph, no less than 150mm of armour (180mm on the front) and an 88mm cannon. By January 1944 some 487 Panzer VIB Tiger II or King Tiger tanks had been produced, using the same chassis specifications as the Panther. Unfortunately for the Germans, these therefore inherited many of the problems of the Panther. The 88mm gun could be found on the Elefant or Ferdinand assault gun (named after Ferdinand Porsche), which had also been deployed for the first time at Kursk. Fortunately for the Russians, only ninety of these were ever built. In response to the Panthers and Tigers, the Soviets produced the very heavy KV-85, which was the same as a KV-1 except for having an 85mm cannon. This was enough to penetrate German middle-sized tanks such as the Panzers Mark III and IV, but could also destroy Tigers and Panthers.
At a meeting with General von Thoma on 23 December 1940, Halder was told that the OKH had ‘Scanty information on Russian tanks’, which nonetheless were felt to be ‘Inferior to ours in armour and speed. Maximum thickness of armour 30mm. The 4.4cm Ehrhard gun penetrates our tanks at range of 300 metres: effective range 500 metres; safe at over 800 metres. Optical sights very bad; dim, limited range of vision. Radio control equipment bad.’ Yet none of that was true of the new T-34 tank. Just as the Spitfire and Hurricane can be said to have saved Britain in 1940, so the T-34 tank saved Russia at Kursk and thereafter. First coming off the production line in 1938, the T-34/76 was easy to produce because the designer had created a welding tool for its armour sheets that women and children could also use. Its 6,000 parts were also reduced to 4,500 over the coming years. Before 1943, the T-34/76, the standard Soviet medium tank, had to get within 250 yards of a German tank with its 76mm gun and hit it from the side, whereas a German Tiger tank could destroy T-34s at a range of over a mile. (The T stands, rather unimaginatively, for Tank. Today, the Russians are up to the T-90.)
After Kursk, however, where the Russians took heavy losses before they were able to close with the enemy, they changed the calibre of the T-34’s 76mm gun to 85mm, which made a considerable difference because the 76mm gun could penetrate only 50mm thickness of enemy armour at 600 yards, whereas the 85mm could penetrate 90mm at that range. Keeping the same chassis, and thus the same powerful 500hp engine and most of the same spare parts, the T-34/85 also had five rubber wheels on each side rather than two, and, crucially, an enlarged turret that allowed the crew to be increased to five. This permitted the commander to direct operations, without having to double as a loader as in the T-34/76. This allowed the T-34/85 to fire from six to eight times per minute. The length and height of the two T-34 models were much the same, but every T-34/85 had a radio, whereas only the command tanks of the original version had been equipped with one. Although the 45mm armour thickness on its sides and 90mm on the front made the T-34/85, at 32 tonnes, 3½ tonnes heavier than the earlier model, its powerful engine meant that it could reach a top speed of 20mph, not much slower than the 21.4mph of the T-34/76. The later model also had two 7.62mm machine guns, and could drive 235 miles on a full tank of 690 litres of diesel (including the barrels attached to its outside). It carried seventy-four shells, 2,500 bullets and ten grenades inside, only marginally fewer than the ninety-two shells that fitted into the T-34/76’s magazine. When it was produced in enough numbers, therefore, Stalin finally had a campaign-winning weapon for 1944.
The lack of armour on the top of tanks – even Tigers had only 26mm – made them highly vulnerable to air attack and in built-up areas where they could be attacked from rooftops, as the Germans discovered in Stalingrad and the Russians in Berlin in 1945 (and fifty years later in Grozny). The 20mm SHAK-20 cannon on Soviet fighter planes could penetrate tank roofs, although the planes needed to attack almost vertically downwards in order to do so. With the Luftwaffe swept from the skies of Belorussia in the latter part of 1943, the German tanks there were immensely vulnerable. Tank for tank, however, they were still the best in the world. Had Hitler started the war much later, in 1943 or 1944, and if tank– and aircraft-production factories had been better protected and dispersed in a way that the Allies found harder to destroy, especially with Me-262 jet fighters protecting them from the Allies’ Combined Bomber Offensive, the Wehrmacht would have stood a far better chance of winning the war.
Between 22 and 30 October 1943, Russian forces crossed the River Dnieper in several places along a 300-mile stretch from the Pripet Marshes to Zaporozhe, and when Kiev fell on 6 November the northern flank of Army Group South’s defence of the river’s great bend was threatened too. On 27 and 28 December Manstein begged Hitler that the bend be given up, thereby shortening his line by over 125 miles, but he was refused permission to do so. ‘I am worrying myself sick for having given permission for retreats in the past,’ Hitler replied. By 2 January 1944, the Russians had advanced north of Kiev and were about to cross the pre-war borders of Poland.
Up in the north of the country, the Red Army launched a major offensive to relieve Leningrad south of the city on 15 January 1944, when General L. A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front and General Kirill A. Meretzkov’s Volkhov Front took advantage of the freezing weather to cross the Gulf of Finland and the iced-up lakes and swamps to attack the German Eighteenth Army on both flanks. After the bloodiest siege in human history, lasting 900 days, during which 150,000 shells and 100,000 bombs had fallen on the city and more than 1.1 million people had died, Leningrad was finally liberated on Monday, 17 January 1944. Novgorod fell two days later as the Germans recoiled rapidly. When General Georg von Kuchler withdrew Army Group North from its forward positions, Hitler replaced him with Model, who managed to persuade the Führer that a Schild und Schwert (shield and sword) strategy should allow minor withdrawals as part of a larger, planned counter-offensive. Nevertheless, by 1 March the Red Army had reached a line from Narva to Pskov to Polotsk. (Govorov attacked Finland in June, which came to terms in September, promising no longer to aid the hard-pressed German war economy.)
Model was able to persuade Hitler of things, such as the withdrawal, that other generals could not because the Führer admired him and was utterly convinced of his loyalty. He argued with Hitler to his face, but only on matters of military policy, and would not allow any criticism of Hitler at his HQ. Because he led from the front, constantly being seen in the front line, Model was popular with the troops in the way that a number of other German château-generals were not.
In January 1944 Hitler set a problem for OKH planners which threw light on the severe manpower problems that Germany was facing by then. Between the outbreak of war and late 1943 the standard German infantry division had consisted of three regiments totalling nine rifle battalions. Each regiment had twelve rifle and heavy-weapons companies, and a howitzer and anti-tank company, and the division itself also had a separate anti-tank and reconnaissance battalion too, which brought the average division size up to 17,000 men. In October 1943, however, divisions were reorganized to comprise three regiments of only two battalions each, bringing the average size down to 13,656 men. Yet only three months later Hitler was forced to ask OKH how divisions could be cut back to 11,000 men each, without its affecting firepower and overall combat strengths. The planners recognized that this was impossible, and put forward a compromise solution of divisions of 12,769 in size. This ‘1944-type’ infantry division had a higher proportion of combat to service troops – at anything up to 80 per cent – but the swingeing reductions in supply personnel and others were sorely felt. With Germany simply running out of soldiers by January 1944, while divisions still had to hold their sections of many miles of crumbling fronts, such demoralizing reorganizations were a potent foretaste of her coming disaster.
Manstein was attacked on the Dnieper on 29 January 1944 by the 1st Ukrainian Front under Zhukov and the 2nd Ukrainian Front under Konev, perhaps the best two Russian generals since Vatutin had been assassinated by Ukrainian nationalist partisans. A fierce struggle developed, called the battle of Korsun but scarcely heard of in the West; it lasted three weeks, during which two German army corps were cut off in a salient and were extricated by Manstein only at the cost of 100,000 casualties. The Russians then just moved on ahead, crossing the Bug and Dniester rivers. Such was its vast preponderance in both men and matériel that the Red Army could afford to engage the entire German force along a line, and then wait to see where the gaps appeared before striking again and again. Yet throughout this losing battle the Germans’ camaraderie and esprit de corps allowed them to continue to make withering counter-attacks, which any less resilient soldiers than the Russians could probably not have withstood. If Russian troops had broken and run in the way that Western troops sometimes did, for example in the opening stages of the battle of the Bulge, they would have been shot by the NKVD. ‘Who but us could have taken on the Germans?’ asked Konstantin Mamerdov, a Soviet soldier at this time. It was meant rhetorically, because the answer was: probably no one.