This was shown both by the enemy thrust toward Kovel at the southwestern edge of the Pripet Marshes and by a drive westward from Yampol at the boundary of the Fourth and First Panzer Armies. If successful, this latter thrust would not only shatter the northern wing of Army Group South but also cut the vital rail line running from Lvov to Odessa, thus opening the way through the Carpathians to Hungary and, most worrisome, the oil fields of Rumania. The continuous fighting over the previous months had left the Fourth Panzer Army in an extraordinarily critical situation. On 5 March 1944, after losing the units on its right flank to the First Panzer Army, it had a strength well below 100,000 men, with only thirty AFVs. Convinced that the Russians had to stop attacking eventually, Hitler refused any shortening of the line in order to gather sufficient forces to contest effectively the decisive points on the front. Contrary to the Führer’s expectations, however, the Soviets steadily pressed their advantage. The attack from Yampol on 4 March by the First Ukrainian Front had the immediate consequence of ripping a gap between the two panzer armies, although Manstein’s determined effort to hold the flanks kept the damage somewhat limited. Nonetheless, by the twenty-third, yet another German force had been encircled in a Kessel, this time at Tarnopol.
Although the force trapped at Tarnopol was much smaller than that at Cherkassy-Korsun, the episode 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.
Despite the human tragedy at Tarnopol, a larger drama was playing out at the same time just to the south, where the Soviet breakthrough at Yampol had left the First Panzer Army in a potentially disastrous position, threatened with encirclement and destruction. Even as elements of the Fourth Panzer Army were trapped at Tarnopol, the main Soviet thrust was directed against its neighbor to the south. Here, both the First and the Second Ukrainian Fronts aimed at nothing less than a double envelopment of the most powerful formation in Army Group South that, if successful, would shatter the entire southern wing of the eastern front. The Stavka had assembled overwhelming power to strike the decisive blow: 1.5 million men, over two thousand AFVs, and more than one thousand combat aircraft against a force a fraction of this size. Although Hube’s army had a preponderance of the armored strength of Army Group South, he could muster only ninety-six battle tanks and sixty-four assault guns to bolster his 211,000 troops. Nor could this smaller force respond more nimbly to an enemy attack, for the demotorization of the army meant that horses had to fill the role of trucks, effectively limiting its mobility.
Since the Eighth Army to the south was still reeling from the ordeal at Cherkassy-Korsun and had only 152,000 men and virtually no tanks, it could not be expected to provide its neighbor any help in an emergency. In any case, Konev’s offensive pushed it back through Uman to the Bug River, effectively eliminating the Eighth Army as an anchor for the First Panzer Army’s right wing. The chronic German lack of strength had by now reached alarming proportions, with the result that, even though a large proportion of the enemy infantry was composed of so-called booty Ukrainians, poorly trained recruits scooped up as the Red Army advanced westward, the sheer weight of numbers was too much for the overstrained German divisions. Manstein complained, to no avail, that, although his army group had lost over 405,000 men between July 1943 and January 1944, it had received barely more than half that number in replacements and that even these were primarily young, hastily trained boys rushed to the front. Given the growing reality of a multifront war, however, there was little Manstein could do but chafe as his replacements went increasingly to Western Europe while the Red Army was steadily bolstered with Lend-Lease deliveries from its Western allies. With the hand he was dealt, then, Manstein had little chance to prevent the enemy from encircling areas of its choosing.
The powerful Soviet attack on 4 March thus succeeded in opening a gap between the beleaguered First and Fourth Panzer Armies that, despite their frantic efforts, could merely be contained, not closed. The dam finally broke on the twenty-first, when the three tank armies of Zhukov’s First Ukrainian Front burst through the left flank of the First Panzer Army and began racing to the south, pushing the remnants of the German line in front of them. By the twenty-fourth, they had crossed the Dniester into Rumania and five days later reached Cernovicy (Chernovtsy) on the Prut. In the meantime, the Soviet Fourth Tank Army turned eastward and, on the twenty-seventh, met spearheads of the Thirty-eighth Army at Kamenets-Podolsky, thus closing the pincers around the First Panzer Army at Kamenets-Podolsky. Soviet losses had been noticeably high—the Third Guards Tank Army lost 70 percent of its tanks, while the Fourth Tank Army had only sixty remaining—but, despite their skill at shooting up enemy tanks, the Germans could not prevent their own encirclement. On the last day of the month, the situation grew even grimmer as units from both the First and the Second Ukrainian Fronts, the latter having shattered the Eighth Army’s defenses, joined at Chotin. The First Panzer Army and elements of the Fourth Panzer Army (Group Mauss, consisting of the Seventh Panzer Division, the First SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, and the Sixty-eighth Infantry Division) were now enveloped both north and south of the Dniester. Worse, within this double envelopment, Hube’s forces were initially split into at least three separate pockets. In all, the Soviets had bagged 220,000 troops, lacking artillery, munitions, and fuel, and possessing fewer than one hundred AFVs. In preparation for a breakout, Hube directed his troops to begin destroying nonessential vehicles and requisitioning every panje wagon they could seize. As always, however, Hitler’s initial instinct ran in a different direction: he was determined to hold fast and, despite the lessons of Stalingrad and Cherkassy-Korsun, supply the Kessel from the air.
Manstein, realizing a catastrophe that would eclipse even Stalingrad was facing his army group, resolved on decisive action. Already on the twenty-third, even before the First Panzer Army had been fully encircled, he had demanded permission to order a breakout. In addition, he proposed that powerful forces be transferred from the west to plug the gap between the First and the Fourth Panzer Armies. At noon the next day, he went a step further, effectively presenting Hitler with an ultimatum: unless instructed otherwise, he would give the order to break out at 3:00 P.M. The answer from Führer Headquarters was both cryptic and cynical. Manstein received permission to allow the First Panzer Army to fight its way westward but was told that it was also to hold its present position. How to do this, given its lack of strength, was left unclear.
On the twenty-fifth, Manstein was summoned to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden, although before he left the field marshal gave orders to prepare plans for a breakout. That afternoon at the Berghof, Hitler and Manstein engaged in a stormy discussion. Challenging Hitler directly, the field marshal insisted that the First Panzer Army had to break out immediately and demanded that he be given fresh troops to open a path from the west. Hitler brusquely rejected any idea of retreat while ridiculing notions of operational maneuver as merely a ruse for withdrawal. Manstein, he said, had squandered all the troops he had been given and wanted always to go back but never hold anywhere. For his part, Manstein then openly confronted the Führer with a litany of his failed decisions over the previous weeks, which caused a furious Hitler abruptly to break off the discussion. Disgusted, Manstein demanded that Hitler’s adjutant, Schmundt, tell the Führer that he saw no purpose to continuing to lead the army group if Hitler did not approve his demands. Much to his surprise, however, when discussions resumed at the evening conference, not only was Manstein treated with outward friendliness by Hitler, but he was also given permission for a breakout. More astonishing, the Führer also agreed that the Second SS Panzer Corps was to be transferred immediately from France, along with two infantry divisions from Hungary. This latter decision must have been especially painful for Hitler since it not only flew in the face of Führer Directive No. 51 to give priority to the west but also jeopardized this strategy just when the Anglo-American invasion appeared imminent. Manstein, apparently, had triumphed across the board, but at a personal price that would soon be apparent.
The field marshal now hurried back to his headquarters to prepare an operation that would not only save the First Panzer Army but also deal his old adversary, Zhukov, one final surprise. Believing that the fate of the First Panzer Army had already been decided, the Stavka on 22 March had changed its operational plans, ordering the bulk of the Second Ukrainian Front to turn southeast in order to destroy Army Group A north of the Black Sea. At the same time, Zhukov, assuming that German forces would attempt to break out to the south, had placed the bulk of his forces in that direction. Manstein, however, realized that any breakout to the south would have to cross a double line of enemy forces and, even if successful, would result in the First Panzer Army being pushed to the south against the Carpathians, thus opening a gigantic breach between itself and the Fourth Panzer Army. Instead, the field marshal proposed a breakout to the west that would be the shortest route to the German front, cut across enemy supply lines, and, perhaps most importantly, take the Russians completely by surprise. Against Hube’s vehement opposition, but armed with intelligence information that confirmed his suspicions about enemy dispositions, Manstein ordered the breakout to the west to begin on 28 March. As the operation began that morning in a blinding snowstorm that provided cover, it soon became apparent that the Germans had achieved complete surprise. Not only were enemy positions quickly overrun, but the next day Zhukov also continued dispatching units to the south, evidently unaware of Manstein’s intention. Not until 1 April did he recognize his mistake, but by then it was too late. On the second, as he belatedly tried to turn his units around and send them north, his frustration showed in a futile attempt to persuade the escaping Germans to surrender by threatening all who did not with death. That his offer was rejected was no surprise. The true shock that day, the announcement that Manstein was relinquishing his command, was the result of a decision hundreds of miles to the west.
On the thirtieth, Manstein, along with Kleist, the commander of Army Group A, who had also requested permission for his forces to pull back from the Black Sea to the Bug, had once more been summoned to the Berghof. Having on a number of occasions since January openly challenged Hitler’s military leadership in front of too many people, the field marshal had few doubts as to what was likely to transpire. Hitler had been fuming since the twenty-third, stung by Manstein’s criticisms, and resentful that concessions had been wrung from him. On his arrival, Manstein was told by Zeitzler that Goering, Himmler, and Keitel had been conspiring against him and that Zeitzler’s own offer to resign had been rejected. That evening, having indicated his desire to go in another direction, the Führer relieved Manstein and Kleist of their commands, replacing them with Model and Schörner, both tough generals and favorites of Hitler’s known for their tenacity and defensive prowess. They were not desk-bound leaders, what Goebbels scornfully termed “hemorrhoid generals,” but men who led from the front. Just as importantly, both were politically loyal. The time of operations, which he contemptuously regarded as a euphemism for retreat, Hitler clearly indicated, had come to an end. It was now time for rigorous measures to be taken and for the National Socialist fighting spirit to be instilled in the troops. More than just a change in operational styles was evident, for Hitler had never lost his aversion to the old military aristocracy, of whom Manstein and Kleist were prominent representatives. By contrast, Schörner, a convinced Nazi since the early 1930s, and Model, “a man with a National Socialist heart,” both had middle-class roots and were attuned to Nazi ideals. They, at least, could be trusted to do the Führer’s will, thus overcoming the crisis in confidence between Hitler and his army group commanders. The dismissal of Manstein and Kleist thus illustrated Hitler’s continuing makeover of the army into a National Socialist instrument.
Since Model’s arrival at Army Group South headquarters in Lvov was delayed by a snowstorm, the actual handover of power did not take place until 2 April. By then, Zhukov had responded with furious assaults in a futile attempt to stop the “wandering pocket” from moving westward toward German lines. His action, however, was too late. On the third, the Germans had thrown back the Soviet attacks, and, on the night of the fourth, ammunition and gasoline had been flown into the pocket, fortifying Hube’s forces. The next morning, the Ninth and Tenth SS Panzer Divisions of the Second SS Panzer Corps, which had been hurriedly dispatched from France, launched a powerful attack, supported by the two infantry divisions sent from Hungary, that resulted, the next day, in a linkup with the Sixth Panzer Division, the spearhead of the First Panzer Army. Not only was the enemy encirclement broken, but the First Panzer Army had also been able to bring out virtually all its tanks, artillery, heavy equipment, and wounded. Just as surprising, despite the hard fighting, its losses were not particularly high, with fewer than six thousand reported dead or missing. More importantly, it remained intact as an operational fighting formation. Indeed, in contrast with the units that emerged from the Cherkassy-Korsun pocket, the men of the First Panzer Army were sent immediately after their rescue back into the attack
Although Hitler had issued an operational order that same 2 April hopefully declaring that the Russian offensive was spent and that the front would soon be stabilized, the reality was different as fighting continued through April into early May. Hitler’s determination to hold the Crimea had also yielded to reality. On 10 April, Odessa, the great port on the Black Sea vital to supplying the Crimea, had fallen, with the entire peninsula lost by early May. Although furious at events in the Crimea and threatening courts-martial of the “defeatist” generals involved, Hitler was, nevertheless, forced, in another painful humiliation, to authorize the evacuation of Sevastopol by sea on the night of 8–9 May. The brilliant triumphs of two years earlier were now nothing but a distant memory. By the time the Soviet offensive against Army Group South—the longest and bloodiest of the war, lasting from late December 1943 to early May 1944—had come to an end, the Germans had been pushed back, in places, some six hundred miles, with the physical and materiel strength of the troops exhausted. Soviet success, however, had been bought at an astounding price. Over half the 2,230,000 Soviet troops thrown into the offensive, some 1,192,900, had been lost as casualties, of whom 288,600 were dead or missing. The actual toll was almost certainly higher, however, since, as it moved through Ukraine, the Red Army typically pressed men of the liberated areas into immediate service. Hastily trained, and regarded as little more than cannon fodder, these unfortunate men died in great numbers without being reported. Soviet materiel losses were also extraordinarily heavy, with 4,666 AFVs and 676 aircraft lost. By contrast, German losses were relatively light, with “only” 250,956 men reported as casualties (of whom 41,907 were reported dead and 51,161 missing). Given the virtually complete lack of German reserves, however, these losses were crippling, a situation obvious to all but the Führer, who even now, with the eastern front finally restored to some semblance of stability, was again planning new offensives after the repelling of the Allied invasion of France.
For the Germans, the grim test of an all-out two-front war had been inevitable since their failure at Stalingrad, a threat that increasingly influenced all major decisions. Indeed, the second front existed before it became a reality, for the very threat of an assault somewhere along the broad coast of Fortress Europe had compelled the Germans to split their forces, perhaps more severely than necessary, and divide their command to await an invasion that seemingly never came. The strain had taken its toll within the higher levels of the military and political command. Hitler increasingly demanded absolute loyalty from his generals, while a mood of resignation and nervous exhaustion had set in at the OKH. Speer thought that a shakeup in the command structure was necessary to revitalize the military leadership, while Guderian, convinced that, if used properly, his tanks could still turn the situation around, characterized Zeitzler and the OKH as a bunch of defeatists. By the spring of 1944, the tensions between the OKH and the OKW over the division of the armed forces had boiled over. “Fifty-three percent of the Army is fighting in Russia for the existence of the German people,” claimed one bitter witticism making the rounds at the OKH, “and the other forty-seven percent is sitting in Western Europe waiting for an invasion that doesn’t come.” Even more subversive, with its comparison to 1918, was the suggestion of decisive resources squandered, that “Germany had lost World War I because of the Navy in being and will lose this one because of the Army in being.” The sniping between the OKH and OKW reached such levels, in fact, that Hitler ordered Jodl to do a strategic survey to justify the dispositions based on the overall German situation.
The assessment, when completed, generally supported the OKW’s position, noting that, of the 341 operational units of the army and Waffen-SS, only 131 (or just 38 percent) were deployed outside the east or the home front. Of these, just forty-one divisions had the arms and equipment suitable for employment on the eastern front, but thirty-two of them were already engaged in fighting (in Italy, in Finland, or against the partisans) or were defending the most-threatened coastal areas (Normandy). With specific reference to infantry and armored divisions, the distribution was even more favorable to the Ostfront, with only 46 of 162 of the former (28 percent) and 11 of 34 of the latter (32 percent) not detailed to the east. Moreover, Jodl warned, an Allied landing in the west that was not immediately defeated would, because of the lack of available reserves, result in the rapid loss of the war.
Although these observations were true enough, they certainly must have been of scant comfort to those on the eastern front who, since Stalingrad, had been fighting a noticeably lopsided battle of men and materiel. A mere recitation of numbers of divisions did little to convey the reality facing the fought-out, understrength units of the Ostheer, whose thinning ranks led to a growing disparity with their Soviet counterparts. By late May 1944, German strength stood at nearly 2,243,000 men, while the Red Army numbered almost 6,100,000, meaning that the Soviet surplus of 3,857,000 troops was 1.7 times greater than the total number of Germans. Despite the threat of a second front, in the spring of 1944 the eastern front remained the most important European theater of war. While the Soviets deployed 383 large units in the east (not including reserves), the Western allies had a total of only 120 divisions, over 70 percent of which were either in England (54), in Iceland (2), or in Africa and the Middle East (30) and, thus, not involved in active fighting. Only the introduction of the Panther and Tiger tanks, with their superior striking power, had allowed the Germans to stabilize the front, although their impact was not as great as had been hoped since only about 30 percent were operational at any one time.
Still, with the apparent stabilization of the southern sector of the eastern front, ramshackle though it was, German leaders could breathe a bit more easily. Their forces in the center and north appeared to be holding fast, while the Red Army, at the closest, was almost six hundred miles from Berlin. Moreover, the Soviets themselves gave no indication of further imminent action, evidently contenting themselves with consolidating their gains and preparing their next step. As a result, despite the near disaster of the previous months, in the spring of 1944 the Ostfront lay in the shadow of anticipated events in the west. The invasion would come, Hitler expected, in May or June, but the atmosphere at the Berghof betrayed a deceptive calm, indeed, at times almost a strange euphoria. Hitler seemed fully confident that the invasion would be repulsed and anticipated with eagerness a mass assault on London with his new V-1 pilotless flying bombs, an onslaught that he believed would finish the English plutocracy. Even Rommel had, evidently, overcome his early doubts and professed his assurances. Not a few of Hitler’s military advisers asserted that, with the defeat of the invasion, the war would be won, while Goebbels talked confidently of a “second Dunkirk.” Even the German public, perhaps influenced by the propaganda minister’s latest efforts, invested great expectations in the impending invasion, seeing in it, not merely the resolution of a period of tension and uncertainty, but the possibility for a “quick decision of the war.”
For Hitler, as well, a defeat of the invasion was the great chance, the last opportunity to achieve a decisive turning point in the war. Germany, he believed (given the example of World War I), had no hope if it remained on the defensive. In order to win time and break the “unnatural alliance” of his enemies, itself an uneasy association of capitalists and Communists, Germany needed to break out of this “unfruitful defensive” and regain the initiative. This, above all, was a matter of fanatic will. Germany, Hitler asserted, needed to achieve a great victory in order to demonstrate to its enemies that they could not win the war. Just as the iron will of Stalin had saved Russia from collapse in the autumn of 1941, he argued, so now his will would transform the bleak situation. It was, he thought, reminiscent of the period of struggle in the 1920s, when a few determined individuals with a powerful belief in an idea created a movement with its own revolutionary dynamic that accomplished the seemingly impossible. Just as the street agitator had swept to power and achieved undreamed-of triumphs, so now, in the spring of 1944, a few key victories would tip the balance and unleash an unstoppable momentum. The Germans had lost World War I, Hitler believed, because the imperial leadership had given up too soon, a mistake he would not repeat. Always willing to stake everything on an all-or-nothing gamble, he conjured visions of a new “miracle of 1940,” of a decisive triumph in the west that would free Germany from the nightmare of a two-front war.
To dismiss Hitler’s vision as irrational or unrealistic would miss the mark. Typically, it was a curious mixture of clear-sighted realism and gross self-delusion, of a cogent understanding of Germany’s predicament and little sense of its limitations. In truth, at least for a flickering moment, the prospects for victory in the west, after all, appeared not unfavorable. Industrial output was rising, which meant that enough tanks and weapons were being produced to equip new divisions for the west and replace some of the losses in the east. Synthetic oil production had peaked, with stocks of aviation fuel at their highest since 1941. Under Speer’s guidance, fighter plane production rose spectacularly, with the result that the Luftwaffe strength in January 1944 of 5,585 planes was over 1,600 more than the year before. Moreover, in the autumn and winter of 1943–1944, the American strategic bombing campaign had been suspended as a result of unacceptable losses. Under Rommel’s energetic guidance, defensive preparations in the west along the Normandy coast had also accelerated. Hitler had high hopes for the technologically advanced V weapons as well as a new type of submarine that would enable the American supply line to Great Britain to be cut. In addition, Soviet manpower reserves were not inexhaustible, and the May pause seemed to indicate that the Red Army had passed its culmination point. Finally, the Allied invasion of France was a complicated operation that required months of preparation. If defeated, as Jodl noted, it could not simply be repeated any time soon, and a failure, Hitler anticipated, would result in a severe political crisis in Great Britain and provide Germany an opportunity again to seize the initiative.
These hopes, however, proved illusory. As far back as the autumn of 1943, Hitler had planned to stabilize the eastern front in order to transfer troops west to defeat the Allied invasion of France. Then, once that had been accomplished, he would transfer units back to the east in order to reconquer the vital Ukraine. With Führer Directive No. 51 of November 1943, he had even attempted to enact the first part of this scenario, which was, perhaps, the only strategic option he had left. The Soviets, however, had refused to cooperate and play their assigned role. Instead of sitting passively through the winter, the Red Army had launched a series of continuous offensives that had drained German resources and brought the Ostheer to the breaking point. Although the Second SS Panzer Corps, reluctantly dispatched from France back to the east, had finally brought a halt to the Soviet offensive, its absence in June was to play a key role in the success of the Normandy landing, a circumstance that Hitler complained of bitterly after the fact. Just as crucially, the provision of long-range fighter support allowed a resumption of the American strategic bombing campaign, with devastating consequences. As Allied bombers targeted oil production and synthetic fuel facilities, aircraft engine plants, and key rail yards, any hope the Nazis had of winning the aerial war over Germany was crushed. By mid-May, Speer later conceded, “a new era in the air war” had begun, one that meant “the end of German armaments production.” The technological war had been decided; new miracle weapons could no longer save Germany.
In any case, Hitler himself bore considerable responsibility for the failure of his strategy. In his unwillingness to sacrifice land for time, to allow his armies in the east to retreat to more defensible positions and preserve manpower, he had lost the former and gained none of the latter. Worse, in anticipating the decisive blow in the west, he had stripped the Ostheer of its reserves, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to Soviet attack. It would, its commanders realized, have to bear the brunt of the Red storm alone while hoping for a quick decision in the west that would free forces to be sent back to the Ostfront. Manstein’s feat in extricating the First Panzer Army and stabilizing the eastern front had averted catastrophe, but the bleak reality of a multifront war now awaited. Within two months, all Hitler’s remaining illusions would be shattered and Germany plunged into the abyss. His strategy of striking in the west and holding in the east would fail for the simple reason that the Ostheer was too weak to hold the line. From June 1944 to the end of the war, however, some 3 million Germans would lose their lives, while Germany would suffer its worst devastation since the Thirty Years’ War. Hitler’s determination not to preside over another November 1918 would, in fact, result in the very thing he had warned was the goal of the Jewish conspiracy: the extinction of Germany.