The fighting spirit of the younger soldiers, those in their mid- to late twenties who made up the bulk of frontline combat troops, seems to have been sustained primarily through an intermingling of Nazi ideas with traditional nationalism, leavened by a good dose of primary group loyalty. As Christoph Rass has shown for the 253rd Infantry Division, findings that can be applied across the army, the institutional setting in which ordinary soldiers found themselves was surprisingly stable for most of the war. By forming divisions from common geographic regions, raising replacements from these same areas, returning convalescents to their old units, and mixing experienced troops with young recruits, the German army created a relatively cohesive and stable setting within which primary group loyalties and a strong sense of camaraderie could develop. The savage fighting and high losses of the war in Russia certainly damaged these bonds of loyalty, but Rass has shown convincingly that these disruptive effects were mitigated by a number of factors. Until late in the war, for example, units were rotated out of combat regularly and, thus, managed to retain a core group of comrades. While units were in reserve, recruits from the same region arrived and mingled with convalescents sent back to their old units, a fact that contributed to relatively homogenous regiments in which the men quickly bonded. Finally, the insistence, again until late in the war, that replacements be trained thoroughly before being thrown into battle, ensured a high level of combat effectiveness.
To this essentially primary group argument, however, Rass has added an intriguing mixture of ideology and nationalism. While most of the soldiers would likely have seen themselves as fighting for Germany, their conception of the nation had often been decisively altered by Nazi ideology and indoctrination. Depending on year of birth, anywhere from 60 to 85 percent of the men in combat units would have spent time in one or another (and some in all) of various Nazi organizations ranging from the Hitler Youth to the Reich Labor Service to the prewar army. In addition to the general dose of propaganda supplied by Goebbels’s mass media, the men would have been trained not just to be soldiers but more subtly (and effectively) to see themselves as a new kind of man, a racial comrade who fought to protect and, if necessary, was willing to sacrifice himself for the racial community. This emphasis on the Volksgemeinschaft, the racial and organic national community the Nazis had promoted with such emotion and fanfare in the 1930s, now appeared to many Landsers as not merely a superior new society in creation but an everyday reality affirmed by their staunch camaraderie and mutual support in adversity. In this sense, as Richard Evans has argued, it was not the destruction of such primary groups but their very persistence that led to the brutalization of war in the east as these tough cells, sustained by experienced veterans and Nazified young men, turned their aggressive sense of community outward against a Soviet population seen as racially inferior, indeed, as barely human.
To stiffen German morale even further, Keitel had, from the autumn of 1943, urged the intensification of National Socialist education for all German troops. They must understand, emphasized the head of the OKW, that in this ongoing “struggle of ideologies” the only option was “victory or ruin,” meaning that every soldier had to become “a political-ideological fighter” with a “fanatical devotion to the National Socialist idea.” Responding to Keitel’s initiative, Hitler in late December 1943 ordered the establishment of the National Socialist Leadership Corps, a Nazi equivalent of the political commissars in the Red Army. Through lectures, special courses, and the distribution of ideological leaflets, the men at the front were to be strengthened in their resolve by belief in the Nazi idea. In response, officers’ orders and actions became more overtly National Socialist in an attempt to infuse their men with an urgent will to resist. Although it is difficult to determine with any precision how many men were inspired to fanatic resistance, certainly a good many were fortified by this bracing mixture of ideology and sense of beleaguered front community.
In addition, Goebbels added to the ideological brew by seeking to change the perception of the war from one of conquest of Lebensraum to one of defense of European civilization against the onslaught of the Jewish-Bolshevik hordes. For many observers both inside and outside Germany, this depiction acquired a greater plausibility as the Wehrmacht was forced onto the defensive and the “Red danger” crept ever closer to Central Europe. In this new formulation, Germany was now the “protective power” working to mobilize “all the strength of the European continent against Jewish-Bolshevism,” a task that, if necessary, required the utmost ruthlessness. This barely concealed threat applied not only to the occupied areas but also to the Wehrmacht itself, whose members were now exposed to the harshest punishments. Increasingly in the last year and a half of the war, the men would be kept fighting, if necessary, through fear and terror. Any hint of a failure of will—from defeatist utterances to self-mutilation to desertion—now fell under the vague category of Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining the conduct of the war), the penalty for which often proved swift execution. Military courts-martial were used to impose discipline and the will to fight by showing Landsers the consequences if they flagged: some thirty thousand soldiers were sentenced to death, with perhaps twenty thousand of those executed, most in the last year or so of the war, as against forty-eight executed in all the German armed forces during World War I. If National Socialist ideas failed to inspire a will to resist, then Nazi terror would be used instead. For the average soldier, the war had become, in the most concrete sense, a battle for survival.
With the Germans driven back across the Dnieper, the Red Army had attained the original goal of its summer offensive but now moved to exploit the fruits of its victory. Drawing on the local population for replacements—some eighty thousand men were drafted from the liberated areas and thrown into the battle—and concerned that, if given time, the Germans would take advantage of the river line to stalemate the war, the Soviets bounced the river in a number of places and established bridgeheads on the west bank as launching pads for future operations. Although the Dnieper, with its broad channel, high bluffs on the western side, and swampy eastern bank, afforded the strongest natural defensive line in western Russia, Hitler’s stubborn insistence on holding out east of the river had deprived the Germans of most of its advantages. Not only had their strength been sapped, but work on constructing defenses along the river had also lagged. Many Landsers, encouraged by the talk of an Ostwall, were dismayed to find on crossing the river that little had been built and they were left in the open. “We had expected,” wrote one, “to find the Ostwall behind the Dnieper. Not even trenches were there.”
This shock to the morale of the exhausted German forces was compounded by the awareness of the vast mismatch in strength between the opposing sides. Although on paper Manstein had sixty divisions at his disposal, in reality most had the strength only of a regiment and some not even of a Kampfgruppe (battle group). In early October, Army Group South had only about one thousand combat troops per division, fewer than three hundred operational tanks and assault guns, and not quite six hundred aircraft for itself and Army Group A to its south. Manstein himself admitted gloomily at the end of October that the combat strength of his troops, exhausted by ceaseless battle for months, had “sunk so low . . . that as a result of our insufficient manpower in the front lines the enemy can punch through anywhere he assembles sufficient forces.” Instead of organizing a defense along the river line, however, he had to try, with inadequate forces, to eliminate or contain the numerous Soviet bridgeheads, even as the enemy sought to exploit its vast numerical preponderance by launching several attacks simultaneously along the front.
Of these bridgeheads, the ones ultimately most dangerous were north of Kiev at Liutezh and Chernobyl. The Red Army had originally hoped, in a daring blow using massed armor and airborne troops, to burst out of the Bukrin bridgehead to the south of the Ukrainian capital in late September and seize the city in a sweeping move to the west and north. Although this had resulted in a fiasco, Vatutin skillfully moved his troops, under cover of effective camouflage measures, to the northern bridgeheads. Following a massive artillery barrage, Soviet forces on 3 November assaulted the thin German defenses at Liutezh, at the same time breaking out of the bridgehead near Chernobyl. Within two days, the Fourth Panzer Army front had been shattered, and, lacking reserves of any kind, it was helpless to slow the enemy advance. By the sixth, Kiev had fallen, and Soviet forces were pushing westward almost unhindered. Troops of the First Ukrainian Front, storming out of the Chernobyl bridgehead, raced toward the city of Korosten at the border of Army Groups Center and South, having blasted a sixty-mile-wide gap between the two army groups just south of the Pripet Marshes, a no-man’s-land that the Germans could cover only with reconnaissance troops and patrols. Although the giant swamps of the Pripet offered the Second Army to the north some flank protection, it was primarily controlled by partisan bands, which left the danger that the Soviets might be able to roll up the soft underbelly of the Second Army from the south. Fortunately for the Germans, the various Soviet, Ukrainian, and Polish partisans operating in the Pripet fought each other as much as the German occupier, so an immediate threat failed to materialize, but the situation remained unstable.
More pressing was the danger from Red Army troops driving out of Liutezh on the key railroad junction of Fastov, thirty miles southwest of Kiev, which controlled the lines supplying Army Group South’s central sector. Its fall on the seventh raised the possibility that the army group might be enveloped, especially since the southern wing of the front had been under assault since early October. With his efforts to repair the situation on the northern end of his sector frustrated by Hitler’s insistence on defending the great bend of the Dnieper to the south, Manstein flew to Führer Headquarters on the ninth to demand its evacuation, a move that would shorten the front considerably and free units for use in the north. To Manstein, there seemed little operational point to holding on to the Dnieper bend, especially since Zaporozhye and Dnepropetrovsk had already been lost in mid-October. In addition, Soviet troops had shattered the front of the Sixth Army (Army Group A) at Melitopol on 23 October and reached the Black Sea in early November, trapping the Seventeenth Army in the Crimea. As always, however, Hitler insisted that the manganese ore mines near Nikopol could not be given up without great harm to the armaments effort, nor could the Crimea be abandoned since it would provide the Soviets airfields from which to attack the vital Rumanian oil fields. Ironically, the Führer’s intransigence had been reinforced late in October by Manstein himself. In expectation of receiving five fresh panzer divisions from the west, the OKW having decided that the danger of an Allied invasion had passed, he proposed an attack, reminiscent of his Kharkov success, to cut off the exposed Soviet forces. By now, however, the urgent danger in the north had pushed aside all thoughts of such an operation, but neither the field marshal nor Gehlen, who warned of a “collapse of the eastern front,” proved able to change Hitler’s mind. It was, he said, a risk that would have to be taken, although he did allow Manstein to use some of the newly arrived panzer divisions in the area of the Fourth Panzer Army.
One of these was the newly raised Twenty-fifth Panzer Division, just arrived from France after a series of misadventures that had seen it originally sent to the right flank of the army group before being hurried north, with the result that its equipment was scattered over hundreds of miles. Although not trained for fighting on the eastern front, and lacking much of its heavy weapons—it was, as one author noted ironically, a panzer division without panzers—it was the only unit available to slow the Soviet advance at Fastov. Against Guderian’s vehement objections, the Twenty-fifth Panzer, with as much strength as it could muster, was thrown on the seventh into a counterattack at Fastov in an attempt to regain the rail juncture. By the time its full complement of armored vehicles arrived two days later, it had already suffered such losses that it was unable to retake the city, an outcome that sent Hitler into a rage. More importantly, in throwing into battle a unit clearly unready for combat, the German leadership had departed from its key principle. In contrast to the Soviets, who had squandered many newly formed divisions by throwing them prematurely into combat, the Germans had allowed units to train behind the front to gain experience before being sent into battle. Still, despite being sacrificed, the Twenty-fifth Panzer had performed a vital task: it had slowed the Soviet advance at Fastov and gave Manstein time to organize a counterattack.
Launched on 15 November, the counterstrike was carried out by General Hermann Balck’s Forty-eighth Panzer Corps, which had assembled almost three hundred armored vehicles. Typically at this stage, since the Germans had not yet completely abandoned the idea of regaining the initiative, it aimed at not just pinching off the Soviet advance but ultimately recapturing Kiev. By the twenty-third, Balck’s forces had retaken both Brusilov and Zhitomir, while, to the north, German troops had beaten off an enemy attack at Korosten, regaining the city on the twenty-seventh. Manstein now planned a strike directly east toward Kiev, but several days of steady rain turned the roads into muddy quagmires, forcing a halt to the operation. After the ground had frozen, the Germans renewed their assault on 6 December, with the two hundred armored vehicles of the Forty-eighth Panzer Corps assailing nine Soviet armies, among them two full tank armies and a tank corps. Amazingly, in view of the overwhelming enemy superiority, Balck’s men achieved a few local victories, recapturing Radomsyl on the sixteenth, and generally spreading anxiety and consternation in the Soviet rear. Still, these local triumphs only confirmed the larger German dilemma. Although they proved time and again tactically superior to the Soviets, the Germans could not convert these local victories into an operational breakthrough because at the crucial moment they lacked the necessary strength. Thus, although between August and December in all operations against Army Group South alone the Soviets suffered the staggering total of 417,323 permanent losses, as against 287,000 German dead on the entire eastern front, they were now so numerically superior that they could strike in all areas simultaneously, straining German resources to the breaking point. While, in many sectors, the Germans could not keep a front line completely manned, Manstein estimated that, with the forces available to it, the Red Army could at any time launch a full-scale winter offensive that would leave Army Group South helpless to resist.
Constant enemy pressure and the inability to concentrate meager resources meant that Army Group Center faced the same wearing-away process as its counterpart to the south. Although forced to transfer units to both its hard-pressed neighbors, Army Group Center was still the strongest German force on the eastern front. With the Schwerpunkt of the Soviet offensive clearly in the south, it had been able to withdraw in good order to the Panther position as well as maintain a large slice of land some 190 miles long and 30–40 miles wide east of the Dnieper. Stretching from Loyev (just north of Chernobyl) in the south to east of Orsha in the north, this extended bridgehead was seen by both sides as an opportunity. For Hitler, it represented a launching pad for a future offensive back into Ukraine, while the Soviets saw it as an ideal place from which to destroy much of Army Group Center and liberate Belorussia. Consequently, in the autumn of 1943, they conceived the ambitious plan of launching a pincer attack from Vitebsk in the north and Gomel in the south that would converge on Minsk, trapping sizable German forces in a huge pocket. Although Kluge had throughout October alerted Hitler to the danger from the army group’s exposed position, the Führer had brushed aside his warnings. Then, on the twenty-eighth, Kluge suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident and was replaced by Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch, who, although regarded as a capable commander, had little tactical frontline experience and, thus, tended to defer to Hitler’s judgment.
With little more than two hundred armored vehicles and 450,000 combat troops to defend a line that had swelled to six hundred miles against an enemy force of 1.6 million men and almost twelve hundred tanks and assault guns as well as an estimated 150,000 extremely active partisans operating in his rear, Busch faced a daunting task. Throughout November and December, Soviet forces hammered persistently at Army Group Center on both flanks, but, despite pushing German forces back across the Dnieper in the southern sector, they proved unable to capture the key city of Bobruisk. In the north, the Red Army had even less to show for its battering efforts. Dismissive of losses, the Soviets time and again threw waves of troops against the German defenses. “A Russian infantry attack was a terrifying spectacle,” acknowledged one German officer. “They tramped up in long gray lines emitting wild screams so that the defenders had to have nerves of steel.” “The Russians didn’t think much,” said another. “They were usually being driven by their officers.” A Red Army attack, with waves of men and tanks abreast, awed even the most hardened German soldiers. “You couldn’t believe the way they kept coming—their infantry simply charging . . . , running and shouting. Sometimes our infantry seemed paralyzed by the spectacle. One thought, ‘How can we ever stop such people?’ ” Still, despite surrounding Vitebsk, the gateway to the Baltic, and pounding away at German defenses well into February 1944, the Soviets nonetheless failed to take the city. Nor, in the center of the front at Orsha, in similar mass attacks on the key highway, or Rollbahn, leading to Minsk that lasted until the end of March 1944, was the enemy able to convert his massive numerical and material superiority into any sort of breakthrough.
For all the extraordinary bravery, or stoicism, of the average Russian soldier, the Soviets paid an enormous price for this persistent attempt to break through German defenses. In total, the battles at Gomel, Vitebsk, and Orsha cost the Soviets nearly a million casualties, a quarter of whom died, yet only in the south along the edge of the Pripet Marshes had they made any serious inroads. On 19 March, Soviet forces surrounded the road junction of Kovel, at the southwest end of the 240-mile-long swamp, the loss of which would expose Army Group Center to encirclement from the south. Even here, however, after Hitler had declared Kovel a “fortified city” that had to be held at all cost, some four thousand surrounded defenders, supplied from the air until a relief column punched through at the end of the month, managed to stabilize the situation until the spring rasputitsa ended all operations. In a mid-April 1944 report to Stalin, the Red Army command admitted the utter failure of these winter operations, ironically ascribing their lack of success to material deficiencies. Hitler, however, drew another, and equally unrealistic, lesson, albeit one with more serious long-term consequences. The meager gains bought at excessive cost confirmed the Führer in his low opinion of Soviet operational capabilities as well as furthering his belief that the enemy must be approaching the limit of his strength. As a result, he thought, a bit more determination and will, holding on to other key cities as “fortified places,” would stem the Red tide. Rather than recognize the exposed and dangerous position in which Army Group Center had been left by the winter battles, Hitler was more convinced than ever of the value of a static, stubborn, unyielding defense.
On the extreme left flank of the front, Army Group North of necessity had to follow Hitler’s preference for static defense. Since it had been in a relatively stable situation through 1942 and the first half of 1943, no formation had been more burdened by unit transfers than Field Marshal Küchler’s army group. In July 1943, it possessed barely 360,000 front troops, with a mere forty tanks and assault guns, a figure that was reduced on 15 September to only seven serviceable tanks. Luftflotte 1 was in an even more dire condition: on 20 July, it disposed of a mere six fighter aircraft to maintain the siege of Leningrad and cover up to five hundred miles of front. With a serious deficiency in motor vehicles and towing machines, Army Group North typified, in an extreme form, what had happened to the entire Ostheer: it had effectively been demotorized and reduced to the status of a World War I outfit, dependent on horses for whatever mobility it possessed. Unable any longer to outmaneuver the enemy, German units had little choice but to resist as long as possible in prepared positions since any retreat threatened to turn into a rout.
Compounding its difficulties, the withdrawal of Army Group Center to the Panther line in the autumn had not only left its neighbor to the north in an exposed position but also forced it to extend its line fifty miles to the south to encompass the important road and rail centers of Nevel and Novosokolniki. By late September, all indications pointed to an enemy offensive in the area of the boundary line between the two army groups. That partisan-infested area, crisscrossed with forests, lakes, swamps, and notoriously poor roads, had long been one of the weakest points on the eastern front; at the time, the Germans had only about twelve hundred men to defend an eleven-mile sector. When the Soviet attack came early on 6 October, it caught the defenders by surprise, largely because they had lost track of Russian troop movements owing to poor weather over the previous days. Before the Germans could react, Red Army forces had stormed into Nevel, seized the city, and punched a hole in the German line at the boundary between the two army groups. Although his forces were badly outmanned, Hitler nonetheless responded in typical fashion: he ordered the flanks of the break-in held and counterattacks to close the gap between the army groups. In addition, and in a gratuitous bit of condescension, he pointed out to his generals that, as was their habit, the Soviets had attacked at unit boundaries, implying that they were both ignorant of this fact and unwilling to cooperate to stop it. This rebuke was the more offensive since German commanders had long been aware of this unimaginative Soviet tactic but were unable effectively to combat it. Nor could much comfort be found in the fact that the Soviets succeeded less from their own skill and more because of the condition of the German forces. With their front lines undermanned and stretched thin, and with few reserves, German commanders were of necessity forced to wait to see which direction the Soviets would turn after a breakthrough before reacting. In this case, Hitler’s insistence on holding the flanks proved decisive, for, despite continual attacks until the end of the year, the Soviets failed, at very high cost, to exploit their initial breakthrough.
By now, the crippling German deficiencies in manpower had become apparent to all, except perhaps the Führer. In September, for the first time in the war, army strength on the eastern front (not including Luftwaffe field units or the Waffen-SS) had fallen below 2.5 million, with permanent losses since the invasion of the Soviet Union totaling almost a million men. Moreover, it was proving difficult to dredge up new recruits, while the quality of many of the replacements at the front, as Kluge unsuccessfully tried to convince Hitler in October, was such that they could not withstand a determined enemy attack. The quality of many German infantry units had dropped so alarmingly, in fact, that in October Guderian, in his capacity as inspector-general of the army, proposed creating mobile tank reserves to backstop the infantry. His idea foundered as always on Hitler’s resistance to sacrificing any ground to free troops. That the situation was near catastrophic was shown by Army Group North, which, in the last six months of 1943 alone, lost 40 percent of its front divisions to other sectors of the front and now had to make do with a motley collection of understrength infantry units and Luftwaffe field divisions of dubious value, with no panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions of its own. Nor could the report of Foreign Armies East in late March 1944 provide much comfort. The Soviets, Gehlen’s unit calculated, had lost 1.2 million men (killed and taken prisoner) just in the last four months of 1943, as against 243,743 Germans, but the frontline and reserve strength of the Red Army had grown to 5.5 million troops. In addition, annual Soviet drafts produced three times more recruits than the Germans were able to, while the Soviet Union had gained (and Germany lost) some 600,000 men in the recovered territories. Finally, in an ominous sign of the growing interconnection of the various strategic fronts, Gehlen estimated that Germany had to divert at least 30 percent, and usually more, of its total strength to OKW theaters, while the Soviet Union diverted only 7 percent to its Far East sector.
Even as Army Group North accelerated preparations of its portion of the Panther line, running behind natural obstacles such as the Narva River, Lake Peipus, and Lake Pskov, Küchler was under no illusions. Like Manstein to the south, he was precariously holding one sector, around Leningrad, primarily for prestige reasons and another, near Nevel, to stave off possible disaster but unlikely in the event of a Soviet offensive to be able to hold either. Hitler, however, believed that the Soviets had lost so many men fighting in Ukraine that an attack in the north was unlikely until spring. Unable to secure Hitler’s permission to retire in good order behind the Panther line, Küchler could only wait uneasily for the blow to fall. By mid-January, even as he was forced to transfer two of his best divisions to Army Group South, Küchler faced an enemy force numbering 1.25 million men and sixteen hundred tanks with a front strength of barely 250,000 men. The blow, when it fell on 14 January, was designed by the Soviets to exploit this vast superiority with simultaneous assaults against the Eighteenth Army at Leningrad and Novgorod. Much to the surprise of the Germans, the Stavka’s aim was not merely to liberate Leningrad but to drive to the borders of the Baltic states. Despite their vast inferiority, the Germans were able to resist the enemy onslaught until the seventeenth, when Soviet forces achieved a breakthrough in the north between Krasnoe Selo and Pushkin.
On the eighteenth, with the front west of Leningrad collapsing and the Soviets beginning to encircle Novgorod, Army Group North faced a life-and-death crisis. Hitler, as usual, refused to authorize a withdrawal, but, with virtually no reserves to stabilize the situation, Küchler on his own authority ordered a retreat. By the nineteenth, Novgorod had been surrounded, and the Führer reluctantly allowed German troops to break out; the next day, the city fell to the Soviets. Under unrelenting pressure, German troops continued to fall back, with the result that, by 26 January, the Red Army was able to seize the main rail line to Moscow, effectively ending the siege of Leningrad after almost nine hundred days and the loss of between 1.6 and 2 million lives (an amount four to five times greater than all American deaths in World War II). The next day, with Küchler and the other army group and army commanders attending a National Socialist leadership conference at Königsberg, at which Hitler exhorted them on faith as the key to victory, the Soviets celebrated the capture of Leningrad with a powerful artillery salute.
Given the danger that Russian partisans might cut off his ability to withdraw to the Panther line, Küchler had already on 20 January requested permission to retire immediately to this position, a request Hitler rejected with a tirade against his generals. Army Group North, in particular, Hitler claimed, had grown flabby. “I am against all withdrawals,” he stressed. “We will have crises wherever we are. There is no guarantee we will not be broken through on the Panther line. . . . [The Russian] must bleed himself white on the way. The battle must be fought as far as possible from the German border.” The Führer also mustered his customary economic and strategic arguments in favor of holding fast. The Baltic coast, he emphasized, had to be held in order to guarantee vital iron ore deliveries from Sweden as well as to ensure control of the Baltic Sea for development and trials of new U-boats. By 27 January, however, with the Eighteenth Army having lost fifty-two thousand men, with its effective infantry strength down to seventeen thousand men, and faced with encirclement, even Hitler could no longer ignore the obvious. On 29 January, with the Eighteenth Army now splintered into three parts, Küchler again on his own authority ordered it to retreat in order to prevent its complete destruction. Although Hitler had little choice but to accept this decision, he nonetheless summoned Küchler to his HQ, where he summarily fired the field marshal on the thirty-first, replacing him with Model.
Although regarded as a defensive specialist and brilliant improviser, Model faced a situation that taxed even his legendary energy and toughness. His first moves, in fact, were more psychological than tactical: decreeing not a single step back without his approval and forbidding any reference to the Panther line on the ground that it induced a withdrawal psychosis. More concretely, Model profited from the fact that Hitler tended to give new appointees, particularly his favorites, a bit more leeway as well as from a rather dilatory Soviet advance. Taking full advantage of a new brainchild of the Führer’s that allowed withdrawals as long as counterstrikes were planned to regain the lost ground, Model initiated controlled retreats to the Panther line to parry Soviet advances. That he ever intended to thrust was doubtful, for the field marshal was under no illusions about the reality of the situation. Still, the fact that the Germans were able to build a stable front had less to do with Model’s formidable skills than the Soviet failure to take advantage of the superior mobility accorded them by extensive American Lend-Lease deliveries of trucks and motor vehicles. Instead of bold encirclement operations, Soviet commanders now preferred methodical frontal assaults that ground the Germans down but failed to annihilate them. As a result, Model’s forces not only succeeded in retiring to the Panther line in relatively good order, but also, from mid-February, deflected all Soviet attempts to burst through the narrow neck of land between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland. By 1 March, German troops were behind the Panther line and able, despite continued costly Soviet attempts to take Narva and Pskov, to hold their positions.
The liberation of Leningrad after its long ordeal was greeted with understandable joy in the Soviet Union, but this success had been achieved at a very high price. From July 1943 to the end of the year, the Red Army in the north had lost over 260,000 men, among them 67,000 killed and missing. Then, despite a five-to-one manpower advantage and an incredible thirteen-to-one superiority in tanks and assault guns, the fighting between mid-January and 1 March cost the Soviets another 314,000 troops (77,000 dead and missing), with the attempt to breach the Panther line in March and April resulting in the further loss of 200,000 men. From July 1943 through April 1944, then, the Red Army suffered casualties of almost 775,000 men, a figure equivalent to the total strength of Army Group North. Despite inflicting savage losses on the enemy, Hitler’s determination to hold out in front of the Panther position rather than allow an orderly withdrawal to a more defensible line had cost German forces dearly as well. From 10 January to 1 March, Army Group North lost almost 100,000 men, of whom 29,000 were dead and missing, casualties that, given the Germans’ catastrophic manpower situation, they could not sustain. The apparent German success in stabilizing the front again allowed Hitler to continue in the illusion that his strategy of holding fast at all costs was working. The Führer, however, was no longer all that interested in the fate of Army Group North, for the situation in the south, the Schwerpunkt of Soviet operations, had once again grown critical.
As in the other sectors, the relentless Soviet attacks had reduced the strength of Army Group South to the point that Manstein could not adequately man the entire front. The problem was not just a lack of troops, or the fact that almost all his men were “apathetic . . . [and] completely indifferent whether they were shot dead by their own officers or the Russians,” but the very course of the front line itself. On its northern flank, German forces had been pressed back (where a dangerous gap of sixty miles separated Army Groups South and Center), while, in the south, as always, Hitler insisted on clinging to as much of the great bend of the Dnieper as possible (and refused to evacuate the Crimea). Since the Eighth Army still held a front of some twenty-five miles along the Dnieper in the center (which Hitler hoped to use as the launch pad for a new offensive), this meant that Soviet forces at Korosten in the north were already some three hundred miles to the west of the dangerously exposed German troops at Nikopol and, thus, in a position to strike south toward the Carpathian Mountains and Black Sea and completely envelop Army Group South. Manstein was fully aware of this peril and implored Hitler to allow a withdrawal in the Dnieper bend as well as the Crimea in order to free troops to stabilize the northern flank, but the dictator time and again refused this request.
Until now, the Germans had been lucky that Vatutin, the commander of the First Ukrainian Front, had not tried to exploit the gaps in their lines. Their luck ran out on 24 December, when the Soviets launched their strongest offensive to date in the direction of Zhitomir and Berdichev. Despite the pounding the Soviets had taken in reaching the Dnieper and the poor weather conditions that hampered all movement, Vatutin had assembled over 2 million men and two thousand tanks (supplemented by thousands more during the operation) for this assault. Given their marked superiority, the Soviets splintered German defenses and achieved a breakthrough in a very short period. In some sectors of the front, German forces were so thin that the men could not see their neighbor in the next foxhole, while the elite Grossdeutschland Division reported that in one area sixty-five men had to hold a position of almost one and a half miles. As Manstein also feared, Vatutin aimed to reach the Carpathians and block the line of retreat of the German forces to the south. After the first week, this appeared very likely since Soviet forces had driven sixty miles west, while, on 3 January 1944, they reached the prewar Polish border at Gorodnitsa, northwest of Zhitomir. German forces were now so depleted that, on 4 January, the Thirteenth Corps reported that its divisions had a frontline infantry strength of only 150–300 men and that the entire corps had the infantry strength of only one regiment.
As the gap in the north along the Pripet Marshes between the army groups grew even wider and the situation developed in a very precarious fashion, Manstein saw the only solution in giving up his positions on the lower Dnieper in order to free troops for a counterattack. His plan, similar to the one that had achieved such success a year earlier at Kharkov, was to blunt the enemy advance by striking him in the flanks and destroying a considerable portion of his exposed forces. Manstein’s first mention of this idea, in late December, provoked only a furious outburst in Hitler, who claimed that the field marshal had lost his nerve and wanted only to run away. On 4 January, Manstein flew to Hitler’s headquarters to make a personal attempt to persuade the Führer to sanction a withdrawal in the south. Although Hitler likely understood the need for thoroughgoing measures, he again refused even to consider, allegedly for economic and political reasons, giving up the Dnieper bend. Moreover, he now invoked the threat of an Allied invasion in the west to resist any transfer of troops to the east, effectively leaving Manstein to his own resources to deal with the situation. Since by 9 January the Soviet breakthrough in the north had reached truly alarming proportions, with advance units within twenty miles of Uman and threatening his former headquarters at Vinnitsa, Manstein did just that, acting decisively to deal with the crisis. Having already ordered the First Panzer Army to disengage at Nikopol and move north, with its positions to be covered by the newly obtained Sixth Army (from Army Group A), he now resolved to conduct the defensive battle in the north by offensive means. Striking into its flanks and rear, his forces were able to destroy a good portion of the Soviet Fortieth Army, on 15 January even managing at Zvenigorodka and Uman to sever its connections to the rear. Only the lack of infantry prevented a complete exploitation of this triumph. To the north, another counterattack launched on the twenty-fourth led, four days later, to the destruction of further enemy forces at Oratov. In all, some seven hundred Soviet tanks had been destroyed or captured, but, to Manstein’s great frustration, the lack of German strength meant that these operations served only to avert catastrophe, not as a springboard for a new offensive.
This basic dilemma was illustrated with great clarity in the center of his front where, on the twenty-fourth, despite the German success in stemming the enemy breakthrough just to the north, Soviet forces launched an attack aimed at cutting off the German salient on the Dnieper at its base. By the twenty-eighth, enemy troops had closed the encirclement, ironically at Zvenigorodka, trapping two German corps, some fifty-six thousand men plus five thousand Soviet Hiwi’s, in a pocket roughly forty miles wide and 150 miles in circumference. In all, six weak divisions had been surrounded, the strongest of which was the Fifth SS Viking Division. Manstein’s concern now was whether the Soviets would strike deeply into the German rear, as the Wehrmacht had done in 1941, or content themselves with destroying German troops in the Kessel. Perhaps mindful of their ongoing difficulties just to the north as well as Manstein’s habit of pulling off painful surprises, the Soviets chose the latter option. In opting for caution, the Red Army leadership seems also to have vastly overestimated German strength in the pocket, claiming that over 130,000 men and 230 armored vehicles were trapped when, in reality, the Germans had less than half that number of men and only twenty-six operational tanks and fourteen assault guns. The weather might also have played a role in the Soviet decision since the unusually warm winter and frequent downpours of rain had turned all roads into muddy quagmires, ensuring that the Germans could not react swiftly, but also slowing Russian advances.
Hitler reacted to this development in typical fashion. Not only did he refuse to allow a breakout, declaring the Cherkassy-Korsun pocket a “fortress on the Dnieper” that had to be held at all cost; he also ordered a wide-ranging operation that went far beyond the relief of the troops in the pocket. Instead, he hoped first, in an attack from the south, to encircle the encirclers and then to exploit the momentum of this presumed success with a further attack in the direction of Kiev to trap enemy forces west of the Dnieper, thus reversing, with this one bold stroke, his fortunes in the east. Manstein protested against this “utopian” plan from the lost world of 1941 but himself conceived a relief operation that was too clever and ambitious. While the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps of the Eighth Army would spearhead a relief assault from the southeast to make contact with the Kessel, the Third Panzer Corps of the First Panzer Army had the task of driving north through Medvin before turning east to the pocket, thus encircling a portion of the enemy force to the south. Because of Soviet pressure elsewhere that tied down German units earmarked for the relief attack, when it began on 1 February the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps could spare only two units, the Eleventh and Thirteenth Panzer Divisions, which between them could muster only thirty-six operational AFVs. In the following days, the Third and Fourteenth Panzer Divisions, with a mere twenty-two AFVs, joined the assault but made little progress against enemy resistance and the unpredictable weather, with its bouts of freezing, thawing, rain, and snow that turned the countryside into a vast mud bog. The hopes placed in the powerful Twenty-fourth Panzer Division, which had been sent north from Nikopol, also came to naught, for en route it had been ordered by Hitler back to its old positions because of a Soviet attack on the lower Dnieper. Because of the miserable weather and mud, however, it arrived back in the Nikopol region too late to participate in the battle there, with the result that one of the strongest units in Army Group South had been of no use anywhere.
Similarly, the main relief force belonging to the Third Panzer Corps, the heavy Panzer Regiment Bäke, with thirty-four Tiger and forty-six Panther tanks, also found itself helpless in the face of the unseasonably warm weather. On the night of 1–2 February, warm air and rain left a mucky morass that caused the heavy tanks to sink in the mud, consuming enormous quantities of fuel as they tried to churn forward. Even as civilians were commandeered as porters to move fuel and supplies forward, low-flying Ju-52s dropped gas canisters to the tanks below. To add further misery, in the following nights the temperatures again plunged below freezing, with the result that the entombed tanks now had to be hacked out of the frozen ground. The infantry also struggled forward through knee-deep mud, in soaked uniforms, with little food or water, tired, dirty, and hungry. By 4 February, when the attack finally commenced, only the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Panzer Divisions as well as a portion of Panzer Regiment Bäke, with eighty-five total AFVs, were available. Although it achieved an initial breakthrough, the attack bogged down over the next few days as a result of mud and furious Soviet counterattacks. Although the Germans destroyed a large number of enemy tanks, the Russians achieved their goal of delaying the attack.
By now, Manstein realized that his overly ambitious plan had failed and, thus, resolved on a straightforward relief operation from the southwest over Lisjanka. The units for this, however, could not be assembled before 11 February, and, in the meantime, the forces within the pocket, which were never particularly strong to begin with, had been progressively weakened by steady Soviet attacks. Despite the example of Stalingrad, Hitler still clung to the belief that pockets could be supplied from the air, but, given the weather conditions and the enemy defenses, this had never been likely. The Kessel needed 150 tons of supplies daily but received an average of only half that. Unable at times to use the nonasphalted runway at Korsun, the Luftwaffe resorted to dropping supplies, with many lost to the enemy. Having wasted seven days on a fruitless attempt to mitigate defeat, Manstein also recognized that it was now pointless to try to defend the Kessel and, thus, prepared plans for a breakout of the trapped troops.
By 15 February, German troops had fought their way into Lisjanka, slowed as much by the weather as the enemy, but because of a lack of fuel could not take Hill 239, a key enemy position barely more than a mile from the pocket. Ironically, Stalin’s impatience at Zhukov’s failure to reduce the Kessel quickly enough now offered the Germans an opportunity for escape. Angry that Zhukov had not properly planned joint action between Vatutin and Konev, on 12 February Stalin had given overall command of the encirclement to Konev. This resulted not only in a distinct humiliation for Zhukov but also a redisposition of Soviet forces that left a gap precisely at Lisjanka. Manstein now ordered the remaining forty-six thousand Germans in the pocket to break out on the night of 16–17 February. Commencing at 11:00 P.M. without an artillery barrage, the attack achieved initial surprise, but the first troops out had to pass by Hill 239, which was still in Russian hands. A bloodbath ensued, with many Germans machine-gunned to death or trampled into the ground by Soviet tanks.
The second wave followed ten minutes later, then, at a slower pace, the tanks, assault guns, prime movers, and horse-drawn wagons. As they piled up against the ridges flanking Hill 239 or simply got stuck in the mud, a huge traffic jam ensued that slowed the breakout. Further compounding the confusion, General Stemmermann, the commander in the pocket, was killed at 4:00 A.M. on the seventeenth. All semblance of order now disappeared as the Germans desperately sought to break out while the Russians, finally recognizing what was up, brought them under withering artillery, mortar, and tank attack. Because of the heavy fire from Hill 239, the fleeing Germans passed to its south, which led them to the swampy bottomland and icy cold waters of the Gniloy Tikich River, swollen to more than fifty feet by the recent rain. Even as Germans on the opposite shore watched, many of their comrades perished in the attempt to swim to safety. By midmorning of the seventeenth, however, Bäke’s tanks, now supplied with fuel, seized Hill 239, and later units had a relatively undramatic escape from the pocket.
By the eighteenth, with the last units extracted, an estimated thirty-six thousand men had been brought out, which, combined with the over four thousand wounded flown out earlier, meant that some forty thousand troops had been rescued, a figure that Manstein regarded with some satisfaction (although Hitler grumbled at the loss of equipment). The psychological state of those saved, however, was shocking. The relatively good physical condition of those coming out of the pocket surprised the troops of the heavy tank regiment, themselves in constant combat and without a hot meal for a week, but the latter were appalled that those rescued refused to stay and help their lagging comrades. On the seventeenth, fearing for their “inner substance,” Manstein decided to send all the survivors back to Poland to rest and recuperate. This was to be no “Stalingrad on the Dnieper,” but the Germans nonetheless suffered sizable losses of AFVs: 156 tanks and assault guns, with most disabled by mines and unable to be towed to safety. Similarly, Panzer Regiment Bäke lost twenty-three Panthers and seven Tigers, although only four of the former and one of the latter to enemy fire. Although Stalin celebrated a great triumph and claimed much higher German losses than there were in actuality, the Red Army had again lost disproportionate numbers of men and equipment, with over 80,000 casualties, of whom over 24,000 were killed or missing, and 728 tanks and assault guns destroyed. By contrast, total German casualties numbered less than 20,000, of whom roughly 14,000 could be counted permanent losses. Though heartened by their ability to rescue the majority of those trapped, the German commanders nevertheless faced the sobering realization that this should not have happened in the first place and that the Soviets were now in a position to fight an encirclement battle in addition to keeping pressure on in other areas of the front.