“Feste Plätze” Posen 1945
Map showing the location of the originally 29 “Feste Plätze” (fortified places), which were introduced by Adolf Hitler in March 1944 to stabilize the Eastern Front. The original line of “feste Plätze” in far western Ukraine was abandoned after hardly any resistance, as the Red Army broke through and raced for the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in late March. Only the garrison at Ternopol fought hard, until overwhelmed on April 14. Other “feste Plätze” were declared later, notably contributing to disaster during BAGRATION in Belorussia in July–August, 1944. Still more were announced along the extended and bitter line of retreat out of the western Soviet Union back into the Balkans, Central Europe, and Germany itself.
On 8 March, in Führer Order No. 11, he had already proclaimed a new strategy, that of the festen Plätze (fortified places). Festen Plätze, along with the Atlantic Wall, were intended finally to provide the defensive bulwark against which enemy attacks would shatter. According to Hitler’s directive, “fortified places” were to be established in key towns or cities controlling railroad and highway supply and communications. By retaining them, allowing themselves to be surrounded, and then “holding down the largest possible number of enemy forces,” the Germans could theoretically disrupt and eventually stall the momentum of the enemy advance. Taking or containing these fortresses, Hitler assumed, would cost the enemy more forces than were necessary for their defense, a crucial consideration in the face of critical German manpower shortages. In conception, these “fortified places” were to be a sort of “wave- breaker,” doing to the enemy what Hitler thought Stalin had done to the Wehrmacht in 1941 and 1942. Jodl, in a lecture to the Gauleiters on 7 November 1943, appropriated Clausewitz to provide the conceptual justification for this defensive strategy: “Every attack that does not lead to an armistice or peace, must of necessity end in defense.” As if anticipating skepticism, Jodl also used Clausewitz to quell any doubts about the Führer’s strategy: “The most perfect General Staff with the most correct views and principles does not in itself represent perfect leadership of an Army, if the soul of a great General is missing.” Although Goebbels understood the problem with such a defensive concept – “[It] contains only negative elements. A fortress can be besieged, and it is only a question of time when it falls” – it resulted largely from the recognition that Germany had been forced onto the defensive and had insufficient resources to defend all threatened areas.
To the Führer, a “hold” strategy seemed to make some sense, at least on paper – not the last time he would pursue an idea that seemed promising in theory but was devoid of contextual understanding – especially as the Germans had lost their advantage in mobility and in the air. Simply put, in view of their limited manpower and resources, the idea was to meet the enemy in prepared defenses, force him to squander his forces, and thus blunt his advance. As early as 1938, Hitler had stated that the purpose of a fortress was to sustain overall fighting strength, and not necessarily preserve that of the fortress garrison. The problem was that the Germans could offer no key strategic point of such importance that it would draw the Soviets in and force a bloody showdown, such as at Stalingrad. Since most of the designated “fortified places” were never particularly formidable or threatening, the Soviets always had the option of simply bypassing them and reducing the pockets at a later time. The German forces trapped there, though, were lost for any future defensive operations, thus further aggravating the force imbalance. In the new era of mechanization, especially in the wide open spaces of the east, holding key transportation junctions had lost some of its earlier value, as most could simply be bypassed without seriously jeopardizing the flow of supplies. The assumption that these festen Plätze would tie down large numbers of Soviet troops seldom proved true; even when they did force the enemy to attack them, they usually employed second- rate follow- up troops while the frontline units continued on. Any benefit to holding the fortresses thus tended to be outweighed by the loss of the units defending them.
Still, probably too much has been made of these “fortified places” as the key reason why Germany failed to hold the Red Army at bay. In early 1944 the strategy was primarily applied in four instances in Ukraine – Vitebsk, Cherkassy, Kovel, and Kamenets- Podolsky – where some enemy forces had been tied down and no great disaster resulted.
The force trapped at Tarnopol was much smaller than that at Cherkassy-Korsun, illustrates clearly the direction of Hitler’s thinking. On 8 March, in Führer Order No. 11, he declared a new policy of festen Plätze (fortified places), the object of which was to deny the enemy key cities and junctions, tie down his forces, and blunt the momentum of his offensive, but which in reality merely preordained encirclements. As at Kovel, on 10 March, Tarnopol was declared a “festen Platz that was to be held to the last man” even though it had no fortifications or airfield, not to mention insufficient troops and supplies to defend against an aggressive Soviet attack. Although the city was not surrounded until the twenty-third, the Germans made few preparations for its supply. Not until the twenty-fifth was a relief attack mounted to bring a convoy of supplies into the besieged city, and even this quickly degenerated into a farce. Despite the fact that the supply trucks never arrived from Lvov and the roughly forty-six hundred men inside the city had not been given permission to break out, the battle group was, nonetheless, ordered to launch its attack. It encountered heavily mined roads, fierce antitank defenses, flank attacks from Soviet tanks, and aerial assaults that forced the Germans to give up the attempt. Since Tarnopol had no airfield, the Luftwaffe tried supplying the pocket by air drops, with the result that most of the supplies fell into enemy hands. The next relief attempt was not made until 11 April, when the Ninth SS Panzer set out in a driving rain and deep mud. Hitler at first refused to allow the besieged men to break out, then relented the next day. By this time, however, the Kessel had been reduced to a few thousand yards, with the German defenders fighting desperately from room to room under massive Soviet artillery fire. Although the remaining troops, some fifteen hundred, attempted a breakout on the fifteenth, it was too late: only fifty-five men were able to make it successfully out of the pocket.
In the end, these proved to be merely tactical defeats, for, ironically, Hitler did allow strategic withdrawals. In view of the criticism of this concept, it is well to remember that it was applied to great effect at Monte Cassino, where the Italian topography and the nature of Italian villages, with their thick stone walls and labyrinthine streets, greatly aided the defender in stalling the Allied advance. A similar policy of festen Plätze would also be successful when used in Brittany and the Channel ports after the Normandy breakout. By denying the Allies the ports they desperately needed for logistic reasons, it aggravated supply difficulties and contributed to the slowing momentum of their autumn advance.
Any strategy, of course, requires both a coherent concept and the resources by which to carry it out. Hitler’s “wave- breaker” idea had a logic to it but faltered for lack of the means by which to make it successful. The only alternative, a tactical mobile defense, suffered from a similar problem. Since the Wehrmacht no longer had the strength for major operations or counterattacks, so the idea went, combined arms battle groups could be formed that maximized remaining mobility in order to blunt Soviet attacks, then withdraw at the last moment to defensive positions. By taking advantage of the firepower afforded by new arms such as the MG 42 machine gun, the Panzerfaust anti- tank weapon, and the StG-44 Sturmgewehr assault rife, as well as the Panthers and Tigers – now overcoming their initial problems – in combination with the formidable assault guns and tank destroyers, the enemy could be harassed and worn down. While successful enough to dissuade the Soviets from attempting ambitious offensives, at least until the summer of 1944, this scheme was really not much more feasible than its alternative, namely, Hitler’s halt policy. Given enemy aerial, mobility, and firepower superiority, it simply left exposed German forces vulnerable to relentless pressure. Germany’s real dilemma was its fundamental weakness: any defensive strategy in the east was problematical, since the Soviets could choose to launch attacks anywhere they desired. Although Hitler’s “halt doctrine” could offer little more than to delay the inevitable, it was probably no worse than Manstein’s notion of maneuver, which had been unable to deliver the time necessary to allow Germany to marshal its resources for a decisive effort in the west or the victories from which to negotiate a separate peace. In any case, the key decision about the future of the war would come in the west; if the Allied invasion succeeded, then Germany had no further cards to play.