The repulse in December of Hoth’s attempt to break through to Stalingrad enabled the Soviet command to reactivate one of the original elements of ‘Saturn’, the attempt to cut off the retreat of Army Group A from the Caucasus. The General Staff recommended that the Southern (formerly Stalingrad) Front, while directing its main effort towards Rostov-on-Don, should use some of its forces to take Tikhoretsk; by so doing it would cut off Army Group A from Rostov, and threaten the rear of its 1st Panzer Army. Simultaneously, the Black Sea group of the Transcaucasus Front was to thrust northwards to meet the Southern Front’s forces at Tikhoretsk, and expand towards Krasnodar and Novorossiysk, while its Northern Group was to keep the Germans too busily engaged to break away or manoeuvre.
Shtemenko says anxiety was caused by information that the Germans had learned of the preparations for the Novorossiysk operation, but ‘further investigation did not confirm that there had been a leak’. This is rather disingenuous; as mentioned earlier, that a major offensive was intended in Transcaucasus was among the information on four such operations (including ‘Mars’ but not ‘Uranus/Saturn’) mentioned earlier as deliberately ‘leaked’ in Agent Max’s 4 November 1942 message to Gehlen, composed in the General Staff and approved by Shtemenko himself. That the Germans knew what was coming is also indirectly confirmed by Shtemenko’s own statement that ‘the enemy did not wait for us to put our plans into practice. At the very moment when GHQ issued its directive concerning the attack on Tikhoretsk, the Nazi command began withdrawing its 1st Panzer Army from the Terek to the north-west’, though he attributes this to the realisation ‘that its rear was unavoidably threatened by Southern Front’, a dubious attribution, since on his own testimony the Directive to the Southern Front was not issued until 31 December, and by then Hitler had already authorised withdrawal from the Caucasus. The 1st Panzer Army withdrew across the Don and held the vital crossings at Rostov until 14 February, while the 17th Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler to pull the army back westwards, completing by 6 February its retreat to the ‘Gothic Line’ and Taman peninsula, from where further withdrawal into the Crimea could and would be made over the relatively narrow Kerch Straits. The withdrawals were skilfully conducted, as were those by Army Groups North and Centre from the Demyansk and Rzhev salients in the following few weeks, but, as Churchill said about Dunkirk, ‘wars are not won by withdrawals’.
However, a withdrawal on one sector can provide resources for an attack elsewhere, and that is precisely what happened. About seven divisions-worth of German units, freed in the early stages of abandonment of the Rzhev salient, were dispatched to the southern end of Army Group Centre’s line, to reinforce the 2nd Panzer Army. Five of them (two panzer and three infantry divisions) helped bring to a halt the poorly planned, inadequately supplied and over-ambitious offensives that Stalin insisted on the Western, Bryansk, Voronezh and Central (formerly Don) Fronts undertaking before the spring thaw in March–April.
Manstein’s counter-offensive took the form of a strong strike by Army Group South against the left wing of Vatutin’s South-West Front in the Donbass area, and was applied at full force on 19 February 1943. It achieved complete surprise; though Vatutin belatedly ordered his men on to the defensive, they were unable to hold their positions, and by the beginning of March had retreated to the line of the Seversky Donets river. This in turn exposed the left flank of Vatutin’s northern neighbour, the Voronezh Front, which had recaptured Kharkov on 16 February and was still attempting to advance. The Front Commander, Colonel-General F.I. Golikov, was even slower than Vatutin to react to the danger, and hastily ordered his forces to take up defensive positions only on 3 March. They had no time to do this in an organised way, because on the next morning the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf attacked from south-east of Kharkov, driving the Voronezh Front back to the north and north-east, with heavy casualties, partial loss of control and several instances of troops fleeing in panic, abandoning their guns and tanks. By 14 March the Germans had encircled Kharkov, and they retook it two days later.
Stalin judged the situation serious enough to order Zhukov and Vasilevsky to the Voronezh Front on the day Kharkov fell, because, as Shtemenko delicately put it, ‘it was impossible to compile an objective picture from Golikov’s reports’. They succeeded in ‘not only uncovering but partially rectifying major inadequacies in the directing of our forces’ and also studied the situation at another danger point further north, the junction between the Western and Central Fronts. There had previously been another army group, the Bryansk Front, between them, but in order to centralise control over the forces attempting to take Orel this had been abolished and its forces resubordinated to the two neighbouring Fronts. However, since it was at the extreme flanks of both, neither Sokolovsky at Western nor Rokossovsky at the Central Front ‘had been able to give it the necessary attention’. Zhukov and Vasilevsky recommended reconstituting the Bryansk Front, sending Golikov to command it and replacing him at the Voronezh Front with Vatutin, who had previously commanded it in 1942. In view of their criticisms of Golikov, their recommendation that he command the recreated Bryansk Front was surprising, and Stalin accepted it only as a temporary measure; by 31 March Golikov had been replaced by Vatutin, was in effect ‘kicked upstairs’ to head the Personnel Directorate of the General Staff, and was never again entrusted with a field command. Zhukov is unlikely to have shed any tears over that; during the 1937–38 purges Golikov, who at that time outranked him, had sought to have him investigated as a potential ‘enemy of the people’ (an episode described only in post-Soviet editions of his memoirs). By 25 March, after the Voronezh Front had retreated 100–150 kilometres (about 62–93 miles), its line was stabilised, and the onset of the spring thaw then enforced a pause on both sides.
Despite the setback in the south, the increases in Red Army manpower and equipment that had made the Stalingrad counter-offensive possible were continuing, and shifting the balance further against Germany. To economise on manpower and create reserves, Army Group North between 15 and 28 February abandoned the Demyansk salient, until then held by 12 divisions, and between 2 and 31 March Army Group Centre abandoned in stages its positions nearest to Moscow (about 112 miles from the Kremlin), in the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, which it had successfully defended for over a year against repeated Soviet attacks. The heavy cost to the Soviets of Operation ‘Mars’ in November–December 1942 (discussed previously) has to be assessed against the fact that the successful German defence of the Rzhev-Vyazma salient had required 30 divisions, at least three of which had already been packing to go south, and would have been joined by others if ‘Mars’ had not been mounted. Abandonment of the salient in March reduced the front line in that sector from 330 to 125 miles, releasing most of the divisions deployed there for Army Group Centre to use elsewhere or put into reserve; at least six of them subsequently fought in the battle of Kursk in July.
The evacuation of the two salients was presented to the Soviet public as the consequence of successful Red Army offensives. In fact both were well-organised and skilfully conducted withdrawals in stages behind strong rearguards, and the pursuing Soviet forces received at least as much damage as they inflicted. There was, nevertheless, an element of truth in the Soviet claims. Successful offensives had indeed prompted the evacuations, but they were those of Operations ‘Uranus’, ‘Little Saturn’ and ‘Ring’, where the destruction of 20 German divisions in the Stalingrad pocket, six more outside it, heavy losses in several others, and the virtual elimination of the Romanian 3rd and 4th, Hungarian 2nd and Italian 8th Armies had intensified the already manifest German manpower shortages. The strategic and psychological effects on both sides were also strong, in the obvious removal of any residual threat either salient might pose to Leningrad or Moscow, and the shortened line freed not only German but also Soviet forces for use elsewhere. At Leningrad the blockade would not be completely lifted for another year, but the effects of Operation ‘Iskra’ (‘Spark’) in January, achieving limited restoration of land links with the ‘mainland’, were also becoming tangible. Over two years the perilous ‘Road of Life’ over the frozen lake in winter, and ferries in the other seasons, had taken in 1.6 million tonnes of food, ammunition, fuel and equipment, and brought out 1.4 million evacuees, but now was no longer needed. In the far south the North-Caucasus Front ended its Krasnodar offensive on 16 March, after advances of up to 70 kilometres (44 miles), and on 28 March the Central (formerly Don) Front did the same, after advancing about 150 kilometres (93 miles). In these areas, as at Demyansk and Rzhev-Vyazma, much of the action presented to the Soviet public as resulting from victories in battle was really pursuit of a skilfully withdrawing enemy, but that the Germans found it necessary to withdraw at all was a moral victory additional to those gained on the Volga-Don battlefields.
During the weeks of inactivity imposed by the spring thaw both sides began planning for the coming summer. In the interim, Zhukov secured Stalin’s agreement to reinforce the Voronezh and Central Fronts with three entire armies (1st Tank, 21st and 64th) from Stavka Reserve. Granted a Soviet ‘army’ was much smaller than a German one, the contrast manifested the changing balance of forces; while Germany was having to abandon long-held positions to save manpower, the Red Army was fielding substantial new forces. Furthermore, it was also out-producing Germany in the tanks, guns and aircraft needed to equip them. The early trickle of Lend-Lease supplies was now becoming a torrent, almost doubling from 2.45 million tons in 1942 to 4.8 million in 1943. Supplies of American trucks and jeeps (118,000 during 1942 alone, over three times as many as the 34,900 produced by Soviet plants) gave the Red Army’s infantry and artillery mobility on a scale Germany could not match, and enabled the Soviet vehicle industry to concentrate on producing tanks and self-propelled guns. American deliveries of transport aircraft similarly freed Soviet factories to produce fighters and bombers of new and improved types with which to take on the Luftwaffe.
When the situation stabilised, the Central Front was occupying the northern and Voronezh Front the southern face of an enormous salient, about 120 miles from north to south and over 60 miles from west to east, centred on Kursk, between two German salients, around Orel to the north and Kharkov to the south. The Kursk salient became the focal point of both sides’ planning for the summer campaigning season.
In German planning the rivalries between OKH, responsible for the Eastern Front except for the Finnish sector, and OKW, in charge of that sector and of all other theatres, soon showed themselves. In the spring of that year 187 (67.5 per cent) of Germany’s 277 divisions were on the Eastern Front, and demand for manpower was increased by Hitler’s insistence that OKW reinforce the North African theatre, to prevent or at least postpone collapse there, because if the Anglo-Americans were victorious, their next move would be a return to the European mainland.
Despite the reinforcements sent to North Africa, Axis resistance there collapsed in May, and the enhanced risk of an Anglo-American invasion prompted senior OKW officers such as Jodl and Warlimont to argue for divisions to be withdrawn from the East to strengthen the Western and Mediterranean theatres. However, their chief, Field-Marshal Keitel, gave them no support, deferring, as ever, to Hitler’s preferences. Guderian, recently restored to service as Inspector-General of Armoured Forces, strongly opposed mounting any major offensive at all in 1943. He saw such an undertaking as entailing the premature employment of the new Tiger heavy and Panther medium tanks, with their mechanical reliability yet untested, their crews not yet adequately trained or experienced to exploit their advantages and cope with any shortcomings, and their numbers too small to implement his maxim ‘klotzen, nicht kleckern’ (‘downpour, not drizzle’), all factors likely to prove important when the expected Anglo-American invasion added pressure in the West to the Wehrmacht’s increasingly heavy burdens in the East.
OKH, not surprisingly, saw things differently. Manstein later said in his memoirs that he had wanted to eliminate the Kursk salient at once, even before the spring thaw, but that proved impossible for lack of reserves. Hitler’s general instruction for the war in the East in 1943, Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March, stated:
It can be expected that after the end of winter and the spring thaw the Russians, after creating reserves of material resources and partially reinforcing their formations with men, will renew the offensive. Therefore our task consists of pre-empting them if possible in the offensive in different places, with the aim of imposing our will on them on even one sector of the front, as at the present time is taking place on the front line of Army Group South [i.e. Manstein’s offensive at Kharkov]. On the remaining sectors our task amounts to bleeding the attacking enemy. Here we must create a firm defence in good time.
In the North Caucasus Army Group A was simply to hold its positions on the River Kuban and ‘free forces for other fronts’. Army Group North was to prepare for another strike at Leningrad, while Army Groups Centre and South were to plan to destroy the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient. To achieve this Army Group South must ‘strike northwards from the Kharkov region in cooperation with an assault group of 2nd Army, to destroy the enemy forces operating before 2nd Army’s front’, and Army Group Centre was to create ‘an assault group to be used for an offensive in cooperation with forces of the northern wing of Army Group South. Forces for this are to be freed by the withdrawal of troops of 4th and 9th Armies from the Vyazma area to a shortened line…’. While Field-Marshal Kluge was arranging this, Manstein was to undertake ‘formation of an adequately combat-capable panzer army, concentration of which must be finished by mid-April, so that it can go over to the offensive at the end of the spring thaw’.
So the general concept of the German offensive at Kursk had been decided by mid-March. However, the proposal to launch it before the end of April, immediately after the thaw, proved totally unrealistic; neither troops nor equipment, especially adequate numbers of the new tanks, could be made available so soon. Delays in tank production, and also the time taken to satisfy Model’s needs for making up to strength divisions worn down in Operation ‘Mars’, prompted Hitler to postpone the offensive several times, eventually to ten weeks later than originally intended; and, as will be seen, the Soviet forces in, around and behind the salient made good use of the time gained by the successive delays.
Hitler issued Operations Order no. 6, for the offensive, codenamed Operation ‘Zitadelle’ (‘Citadel’), on 15 April. Army Group Centre’s 9th Army (Colonel-General Walter Model), with forces made available by its withdrawal during February–March from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, and the 2nd Panzer Army (General Rudolf Schmidt, soon replaced by General Erhard Raus) were to attack the Central Front at the northern neck of the salient, while the 4th Panzer Army (Colonel-General Herman Hoth) and Army Detachment Kempf of Army Group South attacked the Voronezh Front at the southern neck. Their aim was to break through and advance to link up near Kursk, then, in cooperation with the 2nd Army’s foot soldiers on the salient’s west face, to destroy the encircled Soviet forces. Success in ‘Citadel’ was to be followed by the transfer of the 2nd Army and units from High Command Reserve to Army Group South, for an immediate south-eastward offensive (Operation ‘Panther’) ‘to exploit the confusion in the enemy ranks’, and to retake those parts of the Donbass industrial and mining area not regained by Manstein’s March offensive or ceded by line-shortening tactical withdrawals.
Forces of both army groups were to be concentrated in rear areas well away from their start-lines, and to be ready any time after 28 April to start the offensive six days after receiving orders to do so, 5 May being set as the earliest possible date. In the meantime Army Group South was ordered to mislead the enemy by conducting ostentatious preparations for Operation ‘Panther’, including ‘demonstrative air reconnaissance, movement of tanks, assembly of pontoons, radio conversations, agent activity, spreading of rumours, air strikes, etc.’ Army Group Centre was not required to play such elaborate tricks, but should deceive by devices such as moving forces to the rear, making fake redeployments, sending transport columns back and forth in daylight hours, and spreading false information dating the offensive to not earlier than June. All real movements were to be by night, and all units newly arriving must maintain radio silence.
Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad and the evident imminence of a strategically comparable debacle in North Africa was causing some urgent rethinking among her allies. Italy had not stood to gain any territory or much economic benefit from Germany’s war with the Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s main reason for committing the Italian 8th Army to that war was the hope of ensuring that Hitler would respond in kind, after the expected rapid crushing of the Red Army, by making major forces available to help achieve the Duce’s primary ambition, victory over the British in the campaign to dominate the Mediterranean basin and North Africa. A quarter of a million Italians served on the Eastern Front; about 80,000 of them died in battle or captivity, and over 43,000 suffered wounds or frostbite; the survivors cursed the Duce for sending them to Russia, and their German ‘brothers in arms’ for their arrogance and uncooperativeness. Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler to make peace with Stalin so as to concentrate Axis forces against the anticipated Anglo-American invasions, first of Italy and eventually of the rest of German-occupied Western Europe. An indication of senior Italian military opinion was that General Ambrosio, the Army Chief of Staff, who had been insisting since November that all remaining Italian troops in Russia must be brought home, was promoted on 1 February 1943 to head the Commando Supremo, and before the end of May all the surviving members of the 8th Army had arrived back in Italy. With the surrender in the middle of that month of all German and Italian forces in North Africa, the Berlin–Rome ‘Axis’ effectively became a dead letter, with Mussolini’s dictatorship under threat and Italy beginning to seek a way out of the war.
Equally strong effects on other sufferers from the Stalingrad debacle, Romania and Hungary, would soon become apparent. By the opening of the battle of Kursk all Romanian forces had been withdrawn from Soviet territory, except from Moldova and Transdnistria, adjacent to and claimed by Romania, and only two divisions of the Hungarian 2nd Army remained with Army Group South, which employed them on occupation and anti-partisan duties, not as front-line troops.
The ‘Conducator’ of Romania, Marshal Antonescu, and the ‘Regent’ of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, had both begun covertly seeking contact with the British and Americans, in hopes of making peace with the West while continuing to fight against the approach of Communism from the East. Mussolini, on the other hand, continued to advocate coming to terms with the Soviet Union in order to concentrate forces against the expected Anglo-American invasion of Italy, and again wrote to Hitler to that effect on 17 March. But his grip on power and Fascism’s hold on Italy were already loosening; on 25 July he was deposed and arrested.
At the other extremity of the Eastern front, Finland hitherto had been Germany’s militarily most competent and reliable ally, but maintained that its war, unlike Germany’s, was defensive, a continuation of the ‘winter war’ of 1939–40, aiming not to destroy the Soviet Union but merely to recover the territories lost by that war. Marshal Mannerheim, who had been a lieutenant-general in the pre-revolutionary Russian Army, was well aware of the dangers of over-provoking Finland’s giant neighbour, and had agreed to resume the post of Commander-in-Chief only on condition that Finnish forces would on no account take part in any attempt to capture Leningrad. As early as August 1941 President Ryti, on Mannerheim’s insistence, had twice rejected requests from Keitel for the Finnish Army to advance north and east of Lake Ladoga, to link up with German forces advancing along its south shore, and thereby isolate Leningrad. To exercise more pressure Keitel sent his deputy, Jodl, to Finland on 4 September 1941, but Mannerheim remained firmly uncooperative, so exasperating Jodl that he burst out, ‘Well, do something, to show goodwill!’ To get rid of him, and not pre judice Finland’s negotiations with Germany for 15,000 tonnes of wheat, Mannerheim agreed to arrange a small diversionary offensive, but in the event did not make even that limited gesture.
The main constraint on Finland’s independent posture was its dependence on Germany for food and fuel. This dependence became even greater after the United Kingdom, an important pre-war trading partner, bowed to Soviet pressure and declared war on Finland on 6 December 1941, a day ironically significant in two ways: first, it was Finnish Independence Day, and secondly, it was the day that Mannerheim ordered the Finnish Army to go on to the defensive on all sectors immediately after capturing Medvezhegorsk, which it was about to do. He had already begun demobilising older soldiers at the end of November, and by the spring of 1942 had released 180,000 of them. Coincidentally, Zhukov launched the counter-offensive at Moscow on the day before Mannerheim ordered his army to cease attacking, and the day after he did so, Japan brought the United States into the war.