T-34/85 Model 1943, early production vehicle from a Red Guards battalion, Leningrad sector, February 1944.
Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg trenchantly describes the twelve months from the end of Kursk to the Red Army’ s summer offensive of 1944 as “the forgotten year.” That period featured continuous fighting from Leningrad to the Black Sea, on scales surpassing those of 1941-42 and with losses far larger, especially on the Soviet side. The story of the panzers becomes correspondingly difficult to reconstruct as the divisions bloodied at Kursk were scattered to bolster resistance in a dozen sectors.
The German retreat from Leningrad and the successful, albeit temporary, stabilization of the northern front in the Baltic states owed little yet much to the army’s panzers. They were stretched too thin elsewhere to provide major assistance to the hard-pressed Landser. But the Red Army in the north was still learning its craft. Three Tigers by themselves played a vital role in holding a reestablished defense line around Narva, Estonia. A panzer division that arrived with only three dozen tanks was the spearhead of a counterattack that plugged a critical gap between two German armies. And the buccaneering assault gunners kept appearing where they were most needed, shifting from sector to sector and division to division to shore up infantrymen as outgunned as they were outnumbered. By October one battalion recorded a thousand official kills.
Part of the panzer gap was filled by the Waffen SS. By the end of 1942 the army had essentially decided the small units of foreigners it had managed to raise were more trouble than they were worth. Heinrich Himmler, always on the lookout to enhance the scope of his ramshackle empire within an empire, took them in. In early 1943 he activated III (Germanic) Panzer Corps, to include the Vikings and a new division eventually designated the 11th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division (Northland).
Had Hitler not intervened its honorific might have been “Varan gian,” a reference to the Scandinavian guard troops of the medieval Byzantine empire and a reflection of Himmler’s desire to base the division on Aryan volunteers. In fact Northland absorbed most of the remaining foreign legions—including, for a while, a 50-man British detachment—and made up its strength with “ethnic Germans” from outside the expanded state and “Reich Germans” from territories annexed during the war. Northland saw its first action and made its first bones in the no-quarter partisan fighting in Yugoslavia. In November the division and III SS Panzer Corps were sent to the Leningrad sector. When it proved impossible to withdraw Viking from the fighting in the south, the corps was fleshed out by the ostensibly Dutch SS Volunteer PanzerGrenadier Brigade Nederland. Despite having only a single tank battalion plus some assault guns, it played an important role in the successful defense of Narva over the winter of 1943-44.
The III SS Panzer Corps is best understood in the context of the far more numerous unmechanized Waffen SS formations also thrown into what Reich propagandists described as “the battle of the European SS.” Some were Belgian, with Flemings and Walloons carefully separated. Others were local: Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. Interpreted by postwar apologists as participants in a crusade against Bolshevism, they wore SS runes but saw themselves fighting against Russia and for their homelands.
In the war’s final months the Waffen SS would incorporate Bos nian Muslims, Croats, Italians, Frenchmen, and plain criminals into grandiosely styled “brigades” and “divisions” whose only German elements, in the words of one contemptuous Landser, were a few German shepherd watchdogs. Another thing these ragtag formations had in common was that they only saw German tanks by accident. The Waffen SS, in short, was subdividing into an elite fighting core, according to many accounts disproportionately favored in personnel and equipment; and a fringe of increasingly desperate men who, as they felt the ropes tighten around their necks, took little account of their behavior to prisoners and civilians.
Army Group Center’s post-Kursk circumstances were arguably even more perilous than those of Army Group North. When the general Russian offensives began in that sector, 3rd Panzer Army on the far left had not a single armored vehicle under command. Its neighbor, 4th Army, began the battle with 66 assault guns against almost 1,500 Soviet AFVs. The Germans nevertheless executed a fighting retreat into White Russia despite the Red Army’s desperate efforts. Companies were commanded by sergeants; local reserves were nonexistent, and replacements were a forlorn hope. As early as September 8, one army commander reported the total combat strength of his infantry was fewer than 7,000 men. A month later Kluge contacted Hitler directly and pulled no punches informing him that no general could command without men, weapons, and reserves. The Russians had all three.
Things might have become far worse had the Red Army in this sector not regressed to tactics making the Somme and Passchendaele appear sophisticated by comparison. Massed infantry, massed armor, and massed artillery hammered at the same points time after time, until nothing and no one remained to send forward or the Germans gave way.
The German plight was compounded by a well- coordinated partisan uprising in their rear. The army group had been preoccupied with holding its front since 1942. Now it faced an exponentially increasing number of strikes against communications systems and railroads. Security forces responded with large-scale, near-random executions and, as the front receded, scorched earth—when anything remained to scorch. This was no mere torching of villages and looting of houses. It involved the systematic destruction of militarily useful installations. In total war that meant anything. What was not burned was blown up. Thousands of civilians were “evacuated,” a euphemism for being driven west with what they could carry, with the alternative of risking execution as partisans or being shot at random. Files named “Protests” and “Refusals” are conspicuously absent from otherwise well- kept German records. What was important to senior officers was that the devastation be carried out in order and under command. German soldiers were not mere brigands.
The fight of Army Group Center was largely a foot soldier’s affair—with the by-now usual and welcome support of the near-ubiquitous assault guns. At the beginning of October the army group’s order of battle included a single panzer division itself reduced to battle group strength, and two panzer grenadier divisions in no better shape. Those figures remained typical. Yet ironically the panzers’ major contribution to the retreat played a large role in setting the scene for future debacle in the sector.
It began in March 1944 when the Red Army enveloped the city of Gomel and its patchwork garrison of 4,000 men. Gomel was a regional road and rail hub, as much as such existed in White Russia. Hitler declared it a fortress; the High Command supplied it from the air and ordered its immediate relief.
Initial efforts were thwarted by soft ground and the spring thaw. But after 10 days a battle group of SS Viking fought its way into the city. It required 18 hours and cost over 50 percent casualties. The lieutenant commanding received the Knight’s Cross. The hundred-odd surviving panzer grenadiers were welcome. The half-dozen Panthers were vital in holding off Soviet armor while LXVI Panzer Corps put together a relief force from an already worn-down 4th Panzer Division and a battle group built around what remained of Viking’s Panthers. The combination broke the siege on April 5, though it was two weeks before the link to the main front was fully reestablished.
The defense of Gomel solidified Hitler’s conviction that he had found a force multiplier. Gomel was on a small scale. But if larger “fortresses” could be established and garrisoned, under orders to hold to the last, the Soviets would be drawn into siege operations that would dissipate their offensive strength while the panzers and the Luftwaffe assembled enough strength to relieve the position. Army Group Center considered the idea good enough to be the best available alternative. The operational consequences of shifting to this fixed-defense approach would be demonstrated within months.