As Chief of the Army General Staff (O.K.H), General Kurt Zeitzler was very much the prime mover of Zitadelle, being permitted by Hitler to draft the documentation and oversee its detailed planning. Although initially very much the vocal champion of the offensive, he was concerned about the continuing delays. By June, he began to express public doubts about continuing with Zitadelle.
Three days later, convinced that events in the East no longer required his presence, Hitler gave the order to close down Werewolf, his Russian headquarters at Vinnitsa in the western Ukraine, and return to Rastenburg. The flight to East Prussia was made via Smolensk and the headquarters of Army Group Centre, where Hitler, with Zeitzler in tow, arrived shortly after midday on 13 March, to confer with Field Marshal von Kluge. In expectation of gaining some insight into the Führer’s thinking on the expected wide-ranging summer offensive, von Kluge and his staff expressed surprise at the seeming modesty of his aspirations. When asked about his intentions for the coming campaign, Hitler revealed that there would be no offensive campaign in the summer of 1943. The Ostheer would hold the line and conduct merely limited operations in support of that objective.
The primary purpose of his visit however, was not to discuss strategy but to assess the progress of the step-by-step retreat of Colonel General Walter Model’s Ninth Army from the Rzhev salient. The retreat was reaching its climax and the Ninth Army’s availability for employment in the proposed early, limited summer offensive, was the key to its execution and success. Hitler, until little more than a month before, had been consistently stubborn in his refusal to abandon this most forward German position on the road to Moscow. Its retention continued to pose a symbolic, if not an actual threat to the Soviet capital, which lay just 112 miles to the east. As such, the Rzhev salient maintained the fiction that a future German assault on Moscow remained a possibility. Although the Red Army had been most vigorous in its attempts to destroy the salient throughout 1942, the very skilful German defence of the position had stood as a rock in the face of numerous bloody and abortive Soviet assaults. Despite the losses inflicted on the Red Army, the Rzhev salient nevertheless tied down very extensive German forces at a time when demands for manpower from other sectors dictated that it should be abandoned to allow the front line to be shortened, permitting those divisions deployed therein to be released and made available for employment elsewhere. Such had been the constant refrain of Zeitzler in the weeks following the encirclement of Sixth Army. Hitler, unsurprisingly, would have none of it, until in the days following von Paulus’ surrender at Stalingrad, events fortuitously conspired to permit Zeitzler to get his way, by putting to the Führer an offer that given the circumstances, he could hardly refuse.
With the beginning of the New Year and even before the end at Stalingrad, the Army Chief of Staff had privately concluded that the Ostheer would have little choice but to adopt a strategic defensive in the East in 1943. He also realised that the general weakness of the Wehrmacht precluded the adoption of a purely passive defence that would grant the ever-growing Red Army the luxury of assaulting the German line at any time and point. Whereas Hitler was prepared to ridicule and dismiss the increasingly pessimistic intelligence summaries of the Fremde Heer Ost, Zeitzler viewed the dispassionate reports of Colonel Gehlen’s department about the Red Army’s burgeoning military strength with growing alarm. It forecast that by the spring of 1943 Soviet manpower would total some 5.7 million combatants deployed in 62 armies, three tank armies and 28 armoured and mechanized corps. This in turn would translate into some 400 infantry divisions, 194 infantry brigades and 48 mechanised brigades. At this time it was estimated Soviet industry was producing about 1,500 tanks per month – once again an underestimate – to which would need to be added the growing numbers of armoured fighting vehicles being delivered by the Allies through the Lend-Lease programme.
Zeitzler concluded that the only solution lay in the execution of a limited offensive by the Ostheer, the purpose of which – through the destruction of large numbers of Soviet formations – would be to neutralise the Red Army sufficiently to stabilize the Eastern Front for the remainder of the summer. Mindful that OKW already had designs on ‘his’ mobile formations in the event of an Allied landing in Europe, it was imperative that such an operation be launched as early as possible before they were inevitably pulled out for service in the West. Already convinced in his own mind that only an offensive solution, albeit limited, could resolve the impasse in the East, Zeitzler was present at Rastenburg on 6 February when von Manstein obligingly volunteered his own tentative ‘forehand’ proposal for the same.
Given his daily proximity to Hitler, Zeitzler was party to the wider factors impinging on the Führer’s thinking in a way that the Field Marshal was not. Sensitive to Hitler’s own predilection for offensive solutions and mindful of the German leader’s continuing loss of confidence in the wake of Stalingrad, the Chief of Staff of the Army was prompted to exploit his own present high standing and seize the opportunity offered by these discussions to kill two birds with one stone.
With von Manstein’s departure, Zeitzler pointed out to Hitler the twin advantages that would accrue from withdrawing the Ninth Army from the Rzhev salient. Not only would it shorten the front line, thereby making the new one more economical to defend, but in addition, the one army command, five general commands and twenty-one divisions, including three panzer and two motorised infantry thus released would form an operational reserve. This could be drawn upon for employment in the limited offensive ‘forehand’ option outlined by the Field Marshal, to be directed at some as yet unspecified sector of the Soviet front, in the late spring/early summer. This was a horse trade Hitler could both understand, and to which he could assent. So taken was he with the possibilities opened up by Zeitzler’s proposal that the order for the withdrawal of Ninth Army and elements of Fourth Army from the Rzhev salient was sanctioned by him that very night, but on the strict proviso that the forces released be retained as an operational reserve for future offensive employment.
Enacting long prepared plans to address such an order, the systematic withdrawal of the 250,000 men of the Ninth Army thus began in conditions of the greatest secrecy on 1 March. When Hitler arrived at Zaporozhye to confer with von Manstein on the 10th, Operation Buffel was still underway and moving towards a successful conclusion. In the meantime, it had also become apparent that halting the Soviet Central Front in its westward advance along the Sumy-Rylsk line at the end of February had served to generate a huge Soviet salient projecting deeply into Army Group Centre’s position. This provided the Red Army with a superb jumping-off point for future offensive operations. It was not lost on either Hitler or Zeitzler that the numerous Soviet forces now deeply echeloned within the position and being reinforced by other units flowing into the salient on a daily basis, was creating the optimum target for the limited and early offensive they wished to launch against the Red Army. Furthermore, the formations of Ninth Army – which by the 25 March would include fifteen infantry, three panzer and two motorized infantry divisions – along with the SS Cavalry division, redeploying into the sector of 2nd Panzer Army and earmarked for the planned ‘forehand’ operation, was now ideally placed to provide the strike force against the northern neck of this salient.
Thus, by 10 March, Hitler and Zeitzler had already agreed in principle to the destruction of the Kursk salient as being the primary focus of early German offensive action once the dry weather returned and the mobile formations had been rested and refitted. On this occasion, Hitler took an uncharacteristic back seat in the actual planning of the operation, devolving oversight of it and the drawing up of the necessary directives to Zeitzler. The continuing loss of nerve he had suffered in consequence of the Stalingrad débâcle had resulted in his willingness to defer to the advice of the professional military, and Zeitzler was more than happy to embrace the opportunity. So the primary force behind the planning for the operation was the Army Chief of Staff. General Warlimont of the OKW was later to observe how Zeitzler certainly viewed Zitadelle – at least in this early period – as very much his offensive.
In addition to those other factors that prompted Zeitzler to embrace the ‘forehand option’, he was all too aware that there were many in the senior ranks of the army who still regarded him as a relative parvenu. Many believed that he was promoted above his station, and held none of the advantages of seniority, experience or authority of his highly-regarded predecessor, General Franz Halder. There was a strong sense following his appointment on 24 September 1942 that Zietzler was very much Hitler’s man, having been selected because he would be a willing and pliable instrument in executing the latter’s will with respect to the conduct of the war in the East. Certainly his initial address to his staff officers at OKH – where he demanded that they must ‘believe in the Führer and in his method of command’ – seemed to bear out this perception. In his first year of office it was apparent that ‘he enjoyed Hitler’s confidence, but not necessarily that of his own general staff subordinates or of the army groups in the East, for he tended to be a mouthpiece and telephonic link between them and the Führer’. That being said, he was no mere poodle, as there is ample documentary evidence to show that when push came to shove he could, and did stand up to Hitler, thereby gaining his respect. It is against this backdrop that we should understand his advocacy for Zitadelle. Its successful execution would clearly do much to enhance his credibility in the eyes of those senior army commanders in the East who at present still nursed doubts about his capacity to exercise the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army.
This is not to say that Hitler was divorced from the planning process, as has been implied elsewhere. It is clear that both men were in frequent discussions between 6 February and 13 March, and that Operational Order No.5, presented by Zeitzler to Hitler for his signature on his return to Rastenburg – while produced by Zeitzler and thus reflective of his own agenda – was nevertheless thoroughly in accord with Hitler’s own wishes and desires.