Generaloberst Hermann Hoth (right) jokes with Generaloberst Heinz Guderian a day before Operation Barbarossa.
German generals Fedor von Bock, Hermann Hoth, Wolfram von Richthofen, and Walther von Hünsdorff (not in photo), Russia, 8 Jul 1941.
(12 April 1885 – 25 January 1971)
One of the most underestimated German generals and Panzer experts is Colonel-General Hermann Hoth, already a General of infantry when war broke out. He was to have the distinction, albeit a dubious one since the Germans were defeated, of commanding the largest force of German armour ever assembled on the Russian front, in the fierce tank battle of Kursk-Orel in 1943.
Hoth was steady rather than dashing, cool, a good strategist and tactician, unflappable, and well-liked by his troops and colleagues, to whom he became known as ‘Papa’ Hoth. He commanded the 18th Division at Liegnitz as a major-general and lieutenant-general from 1935 to 1938. On 1 January 1938 he stood fiftieth in seniority on the Army List. He was then given the XV Army Corps at Jena in 1939, which he took to Poland.
In France in 1940 he commanded the Hoth Panzer Group, having under him Höpner and Rudolf Schmidt, both armoured experts. (Von Kleist in his parallel Group had their equals in Guderian and Reinhardt.) Successful in France, he was rewarded with promotion to Colonel-General and command of the 3rd Panzer Group for the invasion of Russia in 1941.
By 26 June Hoth had reached Minsk; two days later he took it and on 10 July Vitebsk fell to his 20th Panzer Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Stumpff. By 15 July Hoth had isolated Smolensk, cutting its road and rail links with Moscow. He and Guderian had encircled half a million Russians in four Armies. Like Guderian he was all for pushing on to Moscow in August, but it was not to be.
When the assault on Moscow was begun too late, Hoth’s tanks linked up with Höpner’s at Vyazma on 7 October 1941, encircling hundreds of thousands of Russian troops. On 14 October Kalinin, ninety-three miles north-west of Moscow, fell to 1st Panzer Division under Lieutenant- General Rudolf Kirchner.
By November 1941 one of Hoth’s Corps commanders, General Reinhardt, had taken over 3rd Panzer Group, now promoted to 3rd Panzer Army, and Hoth was given command of 4th Panzer Army. In June 1942 he was sent with this Army to the Voronezh front, under von Weichs, where his tanks acted as the striking force. Hoth won a victory, but for the first time the Russians refused to get engaged in large numbers and retreated swiftly across the Don. In July, when Field-Marshal List’s Army Group ‘A’ was directed on the Caucasus, Hoth’s first objective was Voroshilovsk; however, not until the bulk of 4th Panzer Army had been switched north, at the very end of July, to come under von Weichs again in Army Group ‘B’ and strike at the Russians in the Kalach area before Stalingrad, did the town fall to Lieutenant-General Breith’s 3rd Panzer Division.
Hoth had to leave a Panzer Corps behind on the Caucasus front, and another with General Paulus’s 6th Army which was making the main attack on Kalach. He got his Corps back from Paulus after Kalach was taken on 8 August, but was still short of a Corps for his advance from the Kalmyk steppe to Tunutovo, thence to Voroponovo and Pitomnik, in late August and on 1 September. During this time Paulus was under fierce pressure in the Don bend opposite Stalingrad. Had he been able to link up quickly with Hoth they might have trapped two Soviet Armies, and Stalingrad would surely have fallen. As it was, Paulus could not disengage enough troops, and the Russians to his south escaped. When the infantry of General of Artillery Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s LI Corps finally linked up with Hoth’s advanced armour on 3 September, it was just two days too late. By disengaging his armour from the hilly country and changing his approach, Hoth had done all he could, and been successful. Paulus could not match his progress.
The German attack on Stalingrad was left to 6th Army, reinforced on 17 September by Lieutenant-General Ferdinand Heim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps from Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army. But it was a set-piece battle with tired troops. Paulus received no other new formations and lacked the strength to take the industrial area by storm. On 19 November, just as Paulus was launching another attack, the Rumanians to their north and south were heavily attacked by the Russians and broke completely. The Russians poured through the gap and headed for Kalach, covering some thirty miles to cut off and encircle 6th Army, and splitting Hoth’s Panzer Army.
Hoth had been let down by the Rumanians before. When they fled south of Stalingrad, he reported: ‘German commands which have Rumanian troops serving under them must reconcile themselves to the fact that moderate heavy fire, even without an enemy attack, will be enough to cause these troops to fall back, and that the reports they submit concerning their own situation are worthless since they never know where their own troops are and their estimates of enemy strength are vastly exaggerated.’ Later Hoth was to recommend that Rumanian divisions should be entrusted only with very narrow fronts, and that one German division should support every four Rumanian ones.
When the Russians took Kalach on 23 November, 6th Army found itself shut in a trap. By immediately abandoning any attempt to take Stalingrad, Paulus could have salvaged most of 6th Army, but Hitler ordered him to hold on and await air supply. When Hoth launched his relieving attack on 12 December his troops needed to cover sixty miles, which proved in the end too much for them; they only made good half the distance. 6th Army’s chance of survival was a break-out to meet him half way, but Paulus was so worried by the lack of petrol, and pressure from Hitler, that he stood fast.
Hoth fought many battles on the Eastern Front, and won many victories. One of his greatest was the third battle of Kharkov. In the last part of February and on 1 March 1943, between Dneipropetrovsk and Kharkov, the Soviet 6th Army and Popov’s Tank Corps were utterly crushed at Krasnoarmayskoye, Pavlograd and Barvenkovo by General Siegfried Heinrici’s XL Panzer Corps and General Otto von Knobelsdorfs XLVIII Panzer Corps. As a result the Russians lost 615 tanks, 400 guns, 600 anti-tank guns, 23,000 dead and 9,000 prisoners; and by mid-March Kharkov was in his hands.
In the great battle of Kursk which started on 4 July 1943, Hoth again served in von Manstein’s Army Group. With some 700 tanks in his 4th Panzer Army, he commanded the larger part of the Army Group’s more than 1,000 tanks. He had 3rd and 11th Panzer Divisions as well as the S.S. Panzer Divisions ‘Grossdeutschland’, ‘Liebstandarte’, ‘Das Reich’, and ‘Totenkopf, under Hausser. Some 300 tanks were mustered by General of Panzer Troops Werner Kempf, in Army Detachment Kempf, on Hoth’s right below Belgorod, in 6th, 7th, and 19th Panzer Divisions.
Guessing from air reconnaissance reports that if he obeyed O.K.H. orders to link up directly with Model at Oboyan the Russians would catch him on the flank with their main armoured force, Hoth decided to deal with them at Prokorovka before pushing on to Kursk. Kempfs forces were to push across the Donets, act as flank guard, but then join him to smash the Russian armour. Unfortunately for Hoth’s plan, Kempf’s forces to his right rear got bogged down against stiff Russian opposition so that the III Panzer Corps commander, the reliable Lieutenant-General H. Breith, could not make the necessary speed to link up on 9 July. On 11 July, his leading formations were still twelve miles from Prokorovka, though some of Hausser’s S.S. units had crossed the Psel River between Bogoroditskoye and Vesselyy and were pushing on towards Prokorovka between the Psel and the railway.
In the north, Model’s forces advancing from the direction of Orel were on the point of breaking through at Teploye between Orel and Kursk. On 12 July General Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Army, which Kempf had failed to intercept, crashed with 850 tanks (mostly T.34s) against Hausser’s 600 in a huge armoured battle. Kempf’s much-needed tanks were now only twelve miles away at Rzhavets on the Donets River, but Model’s forces in the north were drawing no closer, having been attacked in their rear.
On 13 July 6th Panzer was tied down near Alexsandrovka after capturing Rzharets in a night attack, but the tanks of 7th and 19th Panzer Divisions crossed the river and poured forward to help Hausser’s tanks at Prokorovka.
And now, when all was to play for, Hitler suddenly called off ‘Citadel’ as a result of the Allied landing in Sicily on 10 July. Field- Marshal Manstein was horrified; ‘Victory on the southern front of the Kursk salient is within reach. The enemy has thrown in nearly his entire strategic reserves and is badly mauled. Breaking off action now would be throwing away victory.’
But Hitler could not be persuaded to continue the offensive at full pitch. He did allow Manstein to continue the southern attack, but since this had relied partly upon Model’s pressures from the north, it could not hope to succeed. On 17 July Hitler ordered the immediate withdrawal of Hausser’s S.S. Panzer Corps from the battle, intending them to be sent to Italy. In the event, they remained in Russia for several months, but it meant the end of ‘Citadel’. Despite their major gains, Hoth and Kempf in the end had to admit failure.
In August the Russians exploited a dangerous gap of over thirty miles between Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf, and threatened to retake Kharkov and push on to the Dnieper.
In November 1943, after Hitler in October had vetoed a most promising armoured attack with which Hoth wanted to break up enemy concentrations in the Lyutezh area, the Russians attacked 4th Panzer Army heavily in the Kiev region. On 6 November Kiev fell to the Russians; and while the Germans succeeded in restoring the situation elsewhere, Kiev could not be retaken. In mid-November Hoth was sent on long leave, relinquishing command of 4th Panzer Army to General Haus, and in December 1943 was dismissed. The colonel-general who had proved himself in France in 1940, in the summer drive of 1941 in Russia, at Rostov and Kharkov, on the Don, the Dnieper, and the Donets, was made the scapegoat for Hitler’s mistakes and pushed aside without thanks. ‘A bird of ill omen’, Hitler called him; ‘an instigator of defeatism of the worst sort.’ He was never again given a command.
For the rest of the war Colonel-General Hermann Hoth lived quietly in retirement. He was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment at Nuremberg for war crimes on 27 October 1948. He was released in 1954 and spent his retirement writing. He died at Goslar, where he is buried.