Model’s salvaging of the Hagen Position in August 1943 had bought some temporary respite north of the former Kursk salient. The German armies south of it, however, were soon in peril. If the third battle of Kharkov was arguably Field Marshal von Manstein’s greatest victory, the much larger battle of the Ukraine that now unfolded was undoubtedly his greatest defeat.
The fighting lasted from August 1943 through to April 1944. There were some inspired counterthrusts, courtesy most famously of General Balck’s XLVIII Panzer Corps. Indeed, the performance of Balck’s troops recalled the old-style manoeuvre warfare of the Panzer divisions at their best. ‘Almost all linear and stubbornly defended positions in World War Two were penetrated,’ Balck asserted after the war. ‘The defence, therefore, had to be conducted in a mobile and offensive manner, so that the two most precious weapons, initiative and surprise, remained in your own hands and not the enemy’s.’ Overall, however, Army Group South’s performance in the course of the Ukraine battles showed that the Germans could no longer delude themselves that their operational performance was superior to the Red Army’s. Manstein underestimated the Soviets’ cunning when he allowed his armour to be drawn to counter a Soviet offensive on the River Mius. Simultaneously, the Soviets launched an offensive to destroy German forces directly south of the Kursk salient. Manstein now realized he had been duped, and re-sent his Panzer divisions further south. The Germans eventually re-established a defensive line and checked the Red Army, but not without enduring further grievous losses of troops and territory.
Again, Hitler showed some strategic sense: he allowed Manstein to dissolve the now pointless Kuban bridgehead, retreat part way through the Ukraine and establish a new defensive line on the River Dnepr. However, with the Soviets committing five army groups to driving them out of the Ukraine entirely, the Germans could not hope to hold the Dnepr. ‘The devil has been let loose among us,’ wrote Lance Corporal Helmut P. of the 198th Infantry Division. ‘The Russian is trying with all means to set foot on the west bank. The ultimate material battle is in progress. I have much to do, for every day and night the wounded pour in. … Yes, this is the “quiet position” that we had looked forward to for so long!’ The Soviets were across the river by early October, and in Kiev little more than a month later.
The Red Army’s capture of Kiev, which saw General Hoth sacked from his command of the Fourth Panzer Army, exemplified how far the Red Army had come in mastering the operational art of the offensive. Rather than attack the well-defended sector just below Kiev, Red Army command reinforced a small foothold north of the city in swampy terrain that the Germans never considered a viable jumping-off point. It built up its forces in this foothold under the utmost secrecy. Then, on 1 November, the Red Army attacked below Kiev. The Germans, assuming this to be the main focus of its attack, sent mobile reserves to counter. Two days later, the Soviet 38th Army burst out of its swampy bridgehead to devastating effect against the much weaker German defences now facing it. As a feat of misdirection it rivalled Army Group B’s diversionary drive through the Low Countries in May 1940 in pursuit of Manstein’s Sickle Cut Plan. The field marshal had been shot with his own gun.
The 4th Mountain Division and the 198th Infantry Division, like many other formations, were devastated by the Ukraine battles. In November, the 4th Mountain Division described the chaotic spectacle of its retreat west of Melitopol: ‘The only usable road … is hopelessly blocked by fleeing motorized and horse-drawn baggage. To an extent the picture is one of the wildest panic and the greatest disorganization. … The main reason for this chaos is that marching next to the road is impossible, because it is flanked by quicksand. … If the enemy attacks strongly under these conditions, as before, the effect upon the already disorganized baggage will be catastrophic.’ Between 10 July and 30 September, the 198th Infantry Division lost nearly ten thousand men. In March 1944, while also facing the miseries of the spring thaw, it was virtually destroyed all over again. ‘We’ve had to fight the hardest battles that ever there were,’ wrote Helmut P. on 16 March. ‘Mud and filth were even bigger enemies. We went barefoot through the mud. Six days ago the division was completely shattered. I got out of it by a miracle; the whole headquarters with everything around it fell, including the colonel.’
Despite further German efforts, such as a costly breakout from the Cherkassy pocket, by April 1944, the Red Army had cleared the Germans from the Ukraine, including the Crimea. Developments in the Crimea were another occasion on which Hitler showed some flexibility, albeit at the very last minute, by ordering the peninsula evacuated. He also ordered down Colonel General Schörner from Army Group North with three corps to stabilize the situation. The Red Army’s forces now halted to replenish their strength and wait out the spring rasputitsa. They had already done their job: the Germans were out of the Ukraine and back on the Romanian frontier, and Army Group South had been cleaved in two.
Losing the Ukraine brought Field Marshal von Manstein’s time to an end. Hitler had already run out of patience with him by late 1943, remarking after Manstein had proposed another strategic withdrawal and counterattack that the field marshal ‘should not speak of a counter-operation but call it by the right name: running away’. Manstein had only lasted as long as he had because the crisis in the east was so desperately urgent, but Hitler finally sacked him in March. Manstein’s doctrine of flexible defence might work locally, if executed by a reasonably resourced formation such as General Balck’s XLVIII Panzer Corps. But strategically, it was bankrupt. The withdrawals Manstein had advocated would only have meant something if they had bought the Germans time to marshal forces for the kind of effort that might postpone the Reich’s defeat indefinitely. Strain their sinews as they might, however, neither German industry nor the Wehrmacht itself could achieve such a decisive effort.
Realistically, Hitler’s focus on rigid defence could do no more than delay the inevitable, either. That said, it was not so doctrinaire or deranged as some generals’ postwar memoirs claimed. For one thing, Hitler did not always adhere to it strictly. Further, it had a logic that, though unrealistic, was at least straightforward – by holding on to territory, Hitler believed, the Germans would not only stave off defeat, but also retain a launch pad for future offensives. And it was no worse a solution to Germany’s strategic ills than what Manstein and the ‘manoeuvre generals’ had been proposing.
Nor, however, was it any better. It had worked, temporarily, before Moscow during the winter of 1941–42, but that was before the Soviets outnumbered the Germans by at least five to one in certain sectors of the front. As Manstein himself rightly observed after the war: ‘we confronted a hydra: for every head cut off, two new ones appeared to grow’. Furthermore, Hitler based his doctrine of rigid defence on the idea that the German soldier was still better trained and better led than his Red Army opponent. That was a contentious statement at best by late 1943, and even if it were true, the gap was closing rapidly. The ultimate bankruptcy of rigid defence was exposed when the Germans had to abandon ten Ukrainian towns and cities that Hitler had designated ‘fortified places’.
That said, the Germans defended the eastern front’s central and northern sectors more successfully than they did its southern sector. Kiev’s fall and a Soviet breakthrough at Nevel shook Army Group Centre’s southern flank, but its formations were able to fall back cohesively and establish a firm defensive position further west, centred on Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev and Bobruisk, with the swamps of Polesja covering its southern flank. It was pinned down and unable to aid its comrades further, but at least held its new line until June 1944. Army Group North, however, was hard-pressed, still more so when it was forced to relinquish many of its troops to the more southerly army groups. In January 1944, the Soviets relieved Leningrad and simultaneously attacked the Eighteenth Army before Field Marshal von Küchler could organize an orderly withdrawal to a new defensive line, the Panther Position. Hitler initially refused to allow Küchler to withdraw, sacked him, and replaced him temporarily with Model. In March 1944, Model assumed command of Army Group North Ukraine, and was replaced in turn as commander of Army Group North by Colonel General Georg Lindemann. But after Soviet partisan forces joined the attack, and the Germans lost a vital railway junction, Hitler suddenly decided that withdrawing to the Panther Position made sense after all. Army Group North resisted fiercely along the Panther Line, and the early spring thaw and the region’s swampy, forested terrain made it easier to defend.
By the spring of 1944, Army Group South had been split into Model’s Army Group North Ukraine and Schörner’s Army Group South Ukraine. Both men were hard-bitten commanders, well versed in resilient defence. Schörner in particular combined a fanatical National Socialist faith with a brutal determination to terrorize his men into fighting on. The latter characteristic would become increasingly clear over time. His real capabilities in defensive warfare were already apparent, as an order of 29 May 1944 shows. Schörner issued the order following an ignominious collapse by the 91st Mountain Regiment against a Soviet breakthrough, during which the troops had abandoned several villages, according to Schörner, ‘in cowardly flight’. As well as railing against the senior commanders whom he held responsible, Schörner outlines what he believed went wrong and the practical measures he believes could have remedied the situation. He expresses his undying faith in the superiority of the German soldier. Moreover, though he acknowledges the fighting qualities of the Red Army, his racial contempt for it is clear. The order offers a good insight into the German army’s approach to defensive warfare during the long retreat in the east, and is thus worth citing at some length:
How the Bolshevik digs himself into the ground, how he digs himself in the shortest time a deep defence system with countless blocking positions! Whenever he takes a village, he holds it and we have to take it back with the harshest fighting.
… What was going on with the attacking reserve in the area north of Corjewa? Nothing had been prepared. And no one among the responsible commanders got a grip to try and control the chaos that was reigning, bring all the demoralized men together and get them standing again. And I stand by this: there is no desperate situation, just desperate men, and to that group belongs no decent German soldier!
… Quiet fronts are dangerous fronts. … Some seem to forget that calm can be deceptive and is only a pause in a bitter war that the Bolshevik is preparing with all his might. … The greatest Soviet flood has yet to break forth – and already the enemy has broken through with complete surprise in one place!. . . Only enthusiasm in work and fanaticism in the fight guarantees us victory, which in the words of the Führer ‘will belong to those who put into the battle the purest will, the most steadfast belief, and the most fanatical resolve’