Germany Army in the East, Late 1942-Mid 1943 Part II

The Soviet victory at Moscow made a prolonged war inevitable, hence even more straining Finland’s limited resources, and this was further intensified after Stalingrad. On 3 February, the day after the last German units there surrendered, and four days after the end of Operation ‘Iskra’ at Leningrad, President Ryti took the prime minister and two other ministers to confer with Mannerheim about ‘the general situation’. They all agreed that Finland must seek a way out of the war, but that it could not do so immediately because of its economic dependence on Germany. On 9 February, at the defence minister’s request, Mannerheim’s Head of Intelligence, Colonel Paasonen, addressed a closed session of Parliament, ending his speech by advising the members to ‘get used to the possibility that we shall once again be obliged to sign a peace treaty with Moscow’. On the 15th the opposition Social-Democratic Party brought the issue into the open with a public statement that ‘Finland has the right to get out of the war at the moment it considers it desirable and possible’. An American offer of mediation was conveyed through the US embassy in Helsinki, and Foreign Minister Ramsay was sent to Berlin to tell the Germans of the American approach and try to extract a promise that German forces in Northern Finland would withdraw voluntarily if Finland requested their removal. No such promise was forthcoming; on the contrary, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop demanded that Finland not only reject the American approach, but also undertake to conclude neither truce nor armistice with Moscow without German consent. Ramsay conceded neither demand, so Ambassador Bluecher suggested applying pressure by restricting supplies of food and fuel, but for the time being Ribbentrop declined to go that far.

Hitler had already summoned the leaders of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to meetings to pull them into line, and Bluecher demanded that President Ryti, re-elected on 15 February 1943, make the same journey, but Ryti refused. Germany showed its displeasure by temporarily recalling Bluecher, then, from the beginning of June, stopping all deliveries of food to Finland and halving deliveries of fuel and lubricants. However, Germany could not risk antagonising its only ally with proven ability to fight the Red Army successfully (and with a record at that better in some respects than Germany’s own). So the restrictions were lifted at the end of June, even though Finland had still made no concessions.

Most Finnish political and military leaders resisted even the thought of a lost war until at least the end of 1942, but Mannerheim had recognised the possibility much earlier, and throughout the year the Finnish Army not only undertook no offensives of its own but also refused to participate in German ones, such as the attempt to cut the railway along which about a quarter of Allied Lend-Lease supplies were transported from Murmansk and Archangelsk to central Russia.

The Finnish government periodically sounded public opinion by surveys, the results of which were published only after the war. The differences in results of two surveys, one in September 1942, the other in January 1943, indicated how public opinion shifted in response to the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and, on Finland’s own doorstep, to the success of Operation ‘Iskra’ in partially lifting the blockade of Leningrad. The surveys asked simply ‘Do you believe Germany will win?’ The results, in percentages, were as follows:

Finland had been stressed by its war effort to the extent of calling up 45-year-olds, and continued throughout 1943 to explore, quietly, so as not to arouse German suspicions, the possibilities for negotiating a way out of the war. In July the Soviet embassy in Stockholm conveyed a message through the Belgian ambassador, indicating willingness to negotiate, provided the initiative came from the Finnish side, but that approach was not followed up. Unlike the UK, the USA had not yet declared war on Finland, so during the summer of 1943 the Finnish government made a desperate attempt to secure American rather than Soviet or German occupation by notifying the State Department, via the US embassy in Lisbon, that if American forces landed in northern Norway and invaded Finland from there, the Finnish army would not resist them. However, the United States military had no interest in such a diversion, so nothing came of this. Finland did not in fact leave the war until September 1944, but that its leaders began seeking a way out on the very day of the final surrender at Stalingrad was evidence of that event’s impact on Germany’s allies, even on one that had no forces involved in the disaster.

To add to the Germans’ problems, the outcome at Stalingrad had important effects on the population of German-occupied Soviet territory. The Wehrmacht’s inability to achieve the anticipated lightning victory, and the behaviour of German occupation forces, had already considerably cooled the enthusiasm with which many, particularly in the Baltic states, former Polish or Romanian territory and Ukraine, had initially greeted the invaders; support or at least acceptance of their presence was widespread as long as they appeared to be winning. However, the debacle at Stalingrad alerted the inhabitants of occupied areas, whether pro- or anti-Soviet, to the likelihood that ultimately Soviet rule would return, then those who had resisted the invaders would be rewarded, any who had not would be severely punished, and any who had actively assisted them could expect a rope or a bullet.

The consequence was a great increase during the first half of 1943 in the numbers joining partisan units behind the German lines – according to one account numbers doubled, so that by March there were up to 100,000 in 1,047 detachments, and by the opening of ‘Citadel’ the numbers had risen to 142,000. With so many men available, increasingly controlled and supplied by the regular Fronts, large-scale partisan operations became possible for the first time; on the night of 22/23 June, for example, the rail system in Bryansk province was attacked. It was claimed that 4,100 rails were blown up, but that is undoubtedly an exaggeration, as the same account described the main line along which German reinforcements and supplies came in as blocked only ‘for three whole days’. However, an indication of the extent of partisan activity is that these attacks took place only three weeks after the conclusion of a major anti-partisan operation, ‘Zigeunerbaron’ (‘Gypsy Baron’), in precisely that area.

Partisan activity, small-scale and sporadic in 1941, had grown until guerrilla raids became too large and frequent to be countered solely by Einsatzkommandos, police battalions and (mostly Ukrainian) auxiliaries. It became necessary to use army units as well, and this diverted large numbers of German and allied troops from their front-line duties. Operation ‘Zigeunerbaron’ was a classic example. While preparations for ‘Citadel’ were in full swing, the entire 18th Panzer Division and other units, including Hungarian troops and Soviet ‘volunteers’, had to spend two weeks ‘purging’ the forest areas south of Bryansk of partisan forces estimated at 3,000–3,500 strong. The 18th Panzer Division alone claimed to have destroyed 207 ‘camps’ and 2,930 ‘combat positions’, killed or captured 700 partisans, killed 1,584 unspecified ‘others’, taken 1,568 prisoners and received 869 Red Army deserters, evacuated 15,812 civilians and burned down all villages in the area, thereby seemingly denuding it both of partisans and of all sources of support for them. Yet the partisans were able to mount substantial and coordinated attacks on the rail system only three weeks after ‘Zigeunerbaron’ ended.

For ‘Citadel’ Army Group Centre had available three panzer (41st, 46th and 47th) and two infantry (20th, 23th) corps, totalling 6 panzer, 1 panzer-grenadier (motorised infantry) and 14 infantry divisions, with over 900 tanks, supported by 730 aircraft. At Army Group South Hoth had three corps (52nd, 48th Panzer, 2nd SS Panzer) and so had Kempf (3rd Panzer, 42nd and Corps Raus), totalling between them 6 panzer, 5 panzer-grenadier and 11 infantry divisions, with about 1,000 tanks and 150 assault guns, and 1,100 aircraft. In reserve Army Group Centre had two panzer and one panzer-grenadier divisions, Army Group South one of each. The seven infantry divisions of the 2nd Army, on the salient’s west face, were to form the west side of the encirclement that the mobile forces were expected to create, and until that happened were to do just enough to prevent the enemy moving troops to other sectors. The forces available for ‘Citadel’ therefore totalled 55 divisions (15 panzer, 8 panzergrenadier and 32 infantry). All 23 mobile and 15 of the infantry divisions were at or near full strength, and they totalled about 900,000 men.

Even after the Directive was issued, there was still disagreement among the generals about the form ‘Citadel’ should take. On 4 May Hitler held a meeting in Munich with Kluge, Manstein, Guderian and Zeitzler, at which a letter from Model was considered, raising objections to the operation as planned because he still contended the resources allocated to him were inadequate. Possible alternatives discussed included simply attacking the west face of the salient, or allowing the Soviets to attack first, weakening them in a defensive battle, and then mounting a counteroffensive; Hitler rejected the first as necessitating too complex redeployments, and the second as ‘too passive’.

Had Hitler but known it, the defensive option he then disdained was the very one that Stalin had already chosen three weeks earlier, on Zhukov’s recommendation. Apart from one day (25 March) in Moscow, Zhukov was with the Voronezh and Central Fronts from 17 March to 11 April, and Vasilevsky joined him on 1 April. On 8 April Zhukov sent a telegram to Stalin, in which he stated categorically that the Germans’ summer offensive would be against the Kursk salient, that there were two options, to disrupt their preparations by attacking first, or to wear them out in a defensive battle then launch a counter-offensive, and that he favoured the latter course. This meant temporarily surrendering the initiative, something generals normally prefer to avoid unless absolutely sure they know what the enemy intends to do. Yet Zhukov, an anything but ‘passive’ commander, proposed to build the entire Soviet strategy around what he expected the Germans to do, only a few weeks after February’s major Intelligence failure to foresee Manstein’s offensive, and a full week before Hitler even issued the Directive for ‘Citadel’. Why were he and Stalin so sure that they knew what the Germans would do?

Neither Zhukov nor Vasilevsky ever explained the reasons for their certainty. Zhukov said only that ‘by agreement’ with Vasilevsky and the Front commanders a ‘careful reconnaissance’ of the enemy facing the Central, Voronezh and South-West Fronts was conducted in late March and early April, using Intelligence Directorate and partisan resources to establish ‘presence and deployment of enemy reserves in depth…the course of regrouping and concentration of forces redeployed from France, Germany and other countries’. The main problem with this statement is that in ‘late March and early April’ there were few ‘enemy reserves’ for Intelligence to find anywhere at all, let alone deployed in positions that could be positively equated with an intended future attack on the Kursk salient. As already mentioned, Manstein’s hopes of mounting an offensive against it in April had been thwarted by lack of reserves. Some would have become available after the abandonment of the Demyansk salient at the end of February. However, when Hitler issued Operations Order no. 5 his assignments of additional forces for ‘Citadel’ did not mention Demyansk at all, but specifically allocated troops from the 4th and 9th Armies that would become available by withdrawal from the much larger Rzhev-Vyazma salient. When he issued the Order, on 13 March, that withdrawal was still in progress. It was completed on the next day, reducing the length of the front line in that sector from 550 to 200 kilometres (from about 344 to 125 miles), and freeing 20 divisions, 15 of which were redeployed to block the offensive by the Bryansk and Central Fronts in the Orel area. However, by 8 April, the day Zhukov sent his message to Stalin, few of the units in question could yet have moved to locations identifiable by local Soviet reconnaissance as associated with anything beyond the local defensive battles in which they were engaged till the last days of March. In fact 27 March was the first day for several months on which the daily Sovinformburo bulletin announced ‘no significant changes’ in the front line.

As for ‘regrouping and concentration of forces redeployed from France, Germany and other countries’, movements involving more than routine replacement of casualties for units already on the Eastern Front would not be undertaken until that same Operations Order no. 5 was issued, so would not even begin until the second half of March, and only air force units could undertake them quickly (as mentioned below, Bletchley’s first indications of German intentions related to Kursk came from Luftwaffe messages decrypted during the third week of March).

Vasilevsky was scarcely more forthcoming, commenting,

although we didn’t know everything about the German plans we foresaw much, and deduced much, relying both on information from the Intelligence organs and on analysis of current events. Documents in our possession fully reveal the mechanism of the German army’s preparation for a new offensive…Despite all the contradictions and disputes, the German command’s plans amounted to decisively weakening the striking force of the offensive by Soviet troops that they expected in summer, after that develop a victorious offensive in the east, snatch the strategic initiative from the hands of the Soviet command and achieve a breakthrough in the war to their advantage.

This passage is remarkable for two things. First, his use of the present tense ‘reveal’ may be a ‘historic present’ (somewhat more common in Russian usage than in English), meaning that the General Staff had the documents before the battle, or it may mean that they came into ‘our possession’ only after it, at some unspecified time before he wrote his memoirs. Secondly, his summary of the German plans as comprising a defensive battle followed by a counter-offensive is completely wrong. As noted above, Hitler had rejected that as ‘too passive’. Furthermore, Vasilevsky contradicted himself in the very next paragraph, which correctly cited Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March as ‘setting the task of pre-empting the Soviet forces on various sectors of the front after the spring thaw’. But here too he did not say whether the Order’s contents were or were not known before the battle. So neither of the two main architects of the Soviet victory at Kursk shed much light on the question of where they got their information. There may therefore be some point in looking at possible sources that are known to have existed, but that neither would mention for security reasons.

The two principal Soviet Intelligence organisations, the GRU (Military) and NKVD (political), maintained large networks of agents abroad; before the invasion these had provided numerous warnings that it would happen, and some information about planning, but nothing precise enough to shake Stalin’s erroneous beliefs that Hitler would not invade at all, or if he did, that his main purpose would be to secure resources for a long war. Up to and including the Stalingrad campaign, gaps in Intelligence continued to create problems for Stavka. As previously mentioned, one in particular, the failure to discover that the capture of Moscow was no longer on the German agenda, led it into serious errors, when von Bock’s persistence in efforts to take Voronezh during July 1942 was misread as portending a subsequent northward drive to outflank Moscow, leading to retention in its vicinity of large reserves that, if sent south earlier, could have helped prevent the Germans reaching the Volga, Stalingrad and the Caucasus. It will be seen below that a persistent belief in the long-discarded German aspirations to capture Moscow continued to affect Soviet planning up to and including that for the defensive battle of Kursk in July, even though the Germans had abandoned the likeliest launching point for it, the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, during March.

Both the counter-offensives at Stalingrad (Operations ‘Uranus’ and ‘Saturn’) had to be extensively modified during their execution because of gaps in Intelligence information. The forces encircled proved over three times as large as expected, necessitating the temporary suspension of ‘Uranus’ and the modification of ‘Saturn’ into ‘Little Saturn’, keeping far more forces than originally planned in the Stalingrad area, and hence so much reducing those intended to cut off Army Group A in the Caucasus that that objective had to be abandoned. Another gap was closed only by chance. A German relief attempt was expected, but Intelligence could not discover where it would start. The answer was found only on 28 November when reconnaissance patrols of the 4th Cavalry Corps found the 6th Panzer Division, just transferred from France, detraining at Kotelnikovo, one of the two likely starting points that Zhukov had identified in the assessment he sent to Stalin at that time. Then in February 1943 Soviet Intelligence completely failed to detect the build-up for Manstein’s counter-offensive that recaptured Kharkov, and forced the Voronezh, South-West and Bryansk Fronts to retreat to the Seversky Donets river, abandoning most of the just-reconquered Donbass.

Vasilevsky attributed this last failure to ‘incorrect assessment of the strategic situation’ by the three Front commands, especially a misreading of Manstein’s regrouping of his forces in early February. These involved westward movements from the Kharkov area, to Krasnograd by the SS Panzer Corps and to Krasnoarmeiskoe by the 40th and 48th Panzer Corps, and these were wishfully misinterpreted as the first moves in a major retreat to the Dnepr river line. Vasilevsky also admitted that Stavka and the General Staff compounded the error by setting over-ambitious tasks in pursuit of an enemy whom they wrongly believed so thoroughly beaten as to be incapable of mounting a counter offensive. His explanation of his and Zhukov’s confidence about German intentions at Kursk mentioned no sources of information higher than those available to the ‘Fronts’, i.e. prisoners, documentation at divisional or lower level, or reports of unit movements detected by partisans, cavalry patrols or reconnaissance aircraft. Otherwise he mentioned only unspecified ‘information from the Intelligence organs’, and ‘analysis of current events’, without specifying what information, or what ‘current events’ indicative of future German intentions could have been available as early as the first week of April.

An account provided by Anastas Mikoyan indicates that Stalin’s mind was made up even before the end of March. When the dictator summoned him to a meeting, at 2 a.m. on 27 March, he told him that Intelligence information indicated the Germans were concentrating large forces for an offensive in the Kursk salient area: ‘Seemingly they are trying to gain the strategic initiative having a long-range aim at Moscow.’ He was wrong on that latter point, and on the first there cannot have been very large movements by 27 March. Withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient had been completed only on 14 March, and not many of the units from there intended for the ‘Citadel’ offensive were likely to have moved in only 13 days, especially since the spring thaw was in full spate. It could be that Soviet Intelligence had gained some information about Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March, but no source so far has disclosed if or how they obtained it; and even if they had, it does not mention Moscow, so Stalin’s reference to it must have derived simply from his reluctance to shed the belief that it must inevitably be the Germans’ prime target.

On 8 April, a mere seven weeks after the complete Intelligence failure over Manstein’s counter-offensive, Zhukov sought and obtained Stalin’s approval for a plan based entirely on what the Germans were expected to do. Granted the salient stuck out as an obvious place to attack, but victory in war frequently rests on an ability to avoid the obvious, and German generals had often displayed considerable talent in that direction. Besides, a case could be made for other objectives. Operation ‘Don’, carried out by the Transcaucasus, North Caucasus and South Fronts from 1 January to 4 February, had forced Army Group A to withdraw to the Taman peninsula but had not evicted it from the Caucasus, and a German attempt to use the peninsula as a launch-point for a renewed attempt to retake the nearest oilfields, at Maikop, was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Nor was another assault at Leningrad, at least to close off the narrow corridor between the city and the rest of the country.

To discard all possible alternatives and identify the Kursk salient as the sole target for the German summer offensive of 1943 required more than inspired guesswork; so did the decision to fight a defensive battle rather than disrupt the German preparations by attacking first. Granted, the three previous major victories conducted or masterminded by Zhukov, in Mongolia, at Moscow and Stalingrad, had all involved a defensive battle followed by a counter-offensive, but in all three that sequence had been dictated by enemy offensives, whereas his proposal to follow the same pattern at Kursk was entirely voluntary. Completely reliable information about German intentions would have to be involved, and it is therefore reasonable to consider where he could have acquired it.

All the members of the ‘Red Orchestra’ networks of Soviet agents in Germany and occupied Europe had been executed, imprisoned or ‘turned’ to work for the Abwehr between August 1942 and January 1943, so none of them could have provided any advance information about plans for a future German offensive against a salient that came into existence only in March 1943.

Another possible source would be ‘Lucy’ in Switzerland, the codename of Rudolf Roessler, a German exile apparently with sources in the High Command. Moscow initially treated him with suspicion because he refused to disclose his sources (he never did), though it eventually came to regard him as highly reliable. Contrary to the fanciful account by Accoce and Quet, who claim Roessler was providing information to the Soviets from the spring of 1941, including the complete text of the ‘Barbarossa’ plan, and that he met his Soviet controller, the Hungarian Communist Sandor Rado, at that time, all Soviet accounts agree that the details of ‘Barbarossa’ were not known in advance (if they had been, Stalin would not have made the erroneous assumption that the main assault would come south of the Pripyat marshes), and Rado wrote in his memoirs that he acquired Roessler only in November 1942.

Messages from Lucy from the first half of 1943, cited in Rado’s memoirs or other sources, included nothing as high-level as plans for a major German offensive. Besides, the changes in Soviet plans necessitated by gaps in Intelligence between mid-November 1942 and mid-February 1943 suggest that Lucy did not provide especially valuable information in that period either. Even if he then began to produce much better-quality Intelligence, Stalin and Zhukov were hardly likely to have come to trust him so unconditionally by early April as to base their entire strategic plan on messages from him. Furthermore, the former NKVD/KGB general Sudoplatov pointed out that many of Lucy’s reports were similar or even identical to paraphrased Ultra material passed on officially by the British, and therefore concluded that he was a British ‘plant’. The British had indeed succeeded in planting an agent in Rado’s group, so Sudoplatov’s claim is credible, but it is probably not the full story, especially as the most authoritative account of British Intelligence in the Second World War does not mention Operations Order no. 5 among the messages Bletchley decrypted during March.

Roessler also worked for Swiss Intelligence; Switzerland, then entirely surrounded by German or German-occupied territory, necessarily kept a very close eye on the Wehrmacht, and a tight rein over disclosing its findings. Roessler cannot have been its only source of information, and since Switzerland’s interests were better served by a Nazi defeat than a Nazi victory, it may well have passed information to Roessler, fully intending it to reach the British or any other of Germany’s enemies. As noted in the previous chapter, Paul Carell’s view was that Swiss Intelligence was the actual source of messages received from Roessler’s sub-source ‘Werther’. He noted that all messages received from Werther after 11 February 1942 gave misleading information that Manstein’s forces were withdrawing rather than concentrating for his March counter-offensive, but claims this was because Manstein did not inform OKH or OKW, so officers there, including Werther, drew the same erroneous conclusion as the Soviets. It took a visit to Manstein’s headquarters to dispel Hitler’s misgivings on this issue, so Carell has a point; but an alternative possibility is that the source was a double-agent and the February messages were intended to disinform.

One Russian author has in fact suggested that Lucy was a German disinformation agent, basing his arguments mainly on manifest inaccuracies in some messages cited by Rado. For example, a Kursk-related message of April 1943, allegedly listing the divisions in the 4th Panzer Army of Army Group South, included five that were there and six that were not – the false identifications included one each then in Norway, Germany and with Army Group Centre, and three that did not exist then or ever. If the purpose of the message was indeed to disinform, such an exaggeration of Army Group South’s strength would aim at deterring the Soviets from attempting an offensive immediately after the spring thaw, but if it was not so intended, then Roessler’s sources were clearly nowhere near as good as Accoce and Quet or Rado claimed.

Two other Lucy messages received in June also appear calculated to deceive. The first, on 17 June, said that the Germans considered an offensive at Kursk too risky in view of the Soviet strength, and the second, on the 21st, stated that Army Group South was regrouping so as to threaten the flank of an expected Red Army offensive. Both could only be attempts to dissuade the enemy from expecting an attack that in reality was only two weeks from launching.