Army Group North’s Years of Hope and Frustration I

1941: Race to Moscow, German Army Group North, the leadership.

The German Push to Leningrad

The OKH issued the marshaling order—Aufmarschanweisung Ost (Deployment Directive East)—for the invasion of the Soviet Union on January 31, 1941. With respect to Army Group North, it called for an encirclement of major portions of enemy units west of the Dvina River. The main axis of advance would be from Dünaburg via Opocka to Leningrad. The town of Dünaburg is located on the Dvina River in the southeast corner of Latvia and the village of Opocka is located about 80 miles (130km) south of Pskov. This meant that the main effort was on the right. The missions assigned to Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North were:

1. Destroy the Soviet armies in the Baltic States.

2. Neutralize Kronstadt.

3. Capture Leningrad.

4. Link up with the Finnish Army.

The distance Army Group North had to travel was 500 miles (800km). Army Group North consisted of the Sixteenth Army with ten infantry divisions under the command of General Ernst Busch (1885–1945), and the Eighteenth Army with eight infantry divisions under General Georg von Küchler. Leeb planned to lead with the Fourth Panzer Group, under the command of General Erich Höpner (1886–1944). This Panzer Group was redesignated the Fourth Panzer Army in January 1942. On June 22, 1941, it consisted of XCI and LVI motorized corps with three Panzer, three motorized infantry, two infantry, and three security divisions.

When reaching Leningrad, Höpner was to continue north or northeast, depending on the situation. The Eighteenth Army’s mission was to clear the Baltic area and be ready to capture the islands off Estonia. The Sixteenth Army, on the right flank, was responsible for maintaining contact with Army Group Center and thus constituted a screen for the right flank of Army Group North.

Army Group North made rapid progress through the Baltic States mainly because, contrary to German planning assumptions, the Soviets did not intend to make a stand in those areas. General Fyodor I. Kuzuetsov (1898–1961), the commander of the Northwest Front, successfully withdrew his forces virtually intact and nothing came of the great encirclement the Germans had planned west of the Dvina River. The Soviet retreat allowed the Germans to overrun Lithuania and Latvia quickly and they entered Estonia on July 4, reaching the old Russian border on July 8. Soviet forces began to offer stiffer resistance when the Germans reached Rus sian soil, and the advance of Army Group North slowed to a crawl. Field Marshal Leeb began his final push from the area west of Lake Ilmen and Hitler reinforced him with an armored corps from Army Group Center. Such transfers were planned for in the Barbarossa directive, but only after the enemy in Belorussia had been routed.

The primary mission of the German Navy in the Baltic was the protection of the sea route from Sweden. Support of Barbarossa was accorded a lower priority. Recognizing their own inferiority to the Soviet Navy, the Finns and Germans had agreed before the war began to rely primarily on mine warfare to neutralize the enemy surface fleet. This fleet was substantial—2 battleships, 2 light cruisers, 19 destroyers, and 68 submarines. In addition there were over 700 naval aircraft. Belts of mines were laid in the Baltic and Gulf of Finland beginning shortly before the commencement of hostilities. The German/Finnish tactics proved very successful and the Soviets were unable to make use of their naval superiority. The fleet remained, for the most part, bottled up in Kronstadt.

Army Group North’s drive toward Leningrad resumed on August 10, 1941, and it was rapidly approaching Leningrad. The question about what to do with Leningrad now surfaced. In line with his twisted ideology, Hitler decided that Leningrad should not be occupied. Its population would be reduced through a process of starvation and bombardment. In the end, it was expected that the city would be leveled to the ground. Halder notes in his diary that the decision was announced by Hitler on July 12 and Moscow was to be destroyed in the same way when that city was reached. Halder refers to it as a “humanitarian tragedy” that would strike communists and non-communists alike. The Finns had already expressed a desire to have the Neva River as their southern border and Hitler agreed that the territory north of the river should be given to them.

A memorandum prepared by the German Navy clearly lays out what had been decided. It reads in part:

The Führer is determined to raze Petersburg [Leningrad] to the ground. There is no point in the continued existence of this vast settlement after the defeat of Soviet Russia. Finland, too, has announced that it has no interest in the continued existence of a large city so close to its new frontiers.

The original request by the Navy that the wharf, harbor, and other installations of naval importance should be spared … has to be refused in view of the basic policy in regard to Petersburg.

It is intended to surround the city and then raze it to the ground by a general artillery barrage and by continuous air bombardment. Individual surrenders are unacceptable, because we cannot and do not wish to deal with the problem of quartering and feeding the population. We, for our part, have no interest in preserving any section of the population in the course of this war for Germany’s survival.

The Finns Go Their Own Way

Army Group North was ordered to encircle Leningrad, but not to enter the city or accept surrender. To isolate Leningrad, Army Group North planned to cross the Neva River near Schlüsselburg. It would then establish contact with the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. It also intended to drive north to Volkhov and Tikhvin and link up with the Finnish Army of Karelia near the Svir River.

To assist in the accomplishment of its mission, Army Group North wanted the Finns to advance south on both the Karelian Isthmus and from the Svir River to meet the Germans moving north. These proposals were contained in a letter from Keitel to Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil von Mannerheim (1867–1951) on August 22, 1941. Keitel’s proposal elicited a refusal by Mannerheim based on gloomy and somewhat contrived reasoning. The real reason was that the Finnish leaders did not believe it was in Finland’s interests to cross the Svir River or launch an offensive against Leningrad. The failure of proper pre-war planning was now coming back to haunt the Germans. In the end the Finns moved their front south on the Karelian Isthmus a short distance, not to cooperate with the Germans but for occupying better defensive terrain.

The letter from Mannerheim to Keitel created dismay at OKW and OKH. It resulted in an immediate message to Army Group North from OKH ordering it to link up with the Finns as quickly as possible, even at the cost of delaying the encirclement of Leningrad. Leeb was not impressed when Keitel informed him on September 3, 1941, that the Finns were moving their front south a short distance on the Karelian Isthmus. Leeb observed that a kilometer or two of territory was of no importance. What was essential was to have the Finns undertake operations to tie down the maximum number of Soviet troops on their fronts. If they failed to do that the Soviets could create serious problems for the Germans by withdrawing substantial forces from the Finnish front for use against his army group.

Leeb was correct. The Soviets quickly realized that the Finnish offensive on the Karelian Isthmus had ended. They had six divisions and several separate battalions and regiments defending Leningrad from the north. They quickly withdrew two of these divisions on September 5 and threw them against the Germans. Army Group North’s arrival in the Leningrad area in September 1941 coincided with the Finns reaching the Svir River and the start of their drive into East Karelia.

Early September was a momentous period for the Germans and the course of the war. Despite signs of an early winter and the exhausted state of his troops, Hitler decided that the time was right to resume the German offensive against Moscow, notwithstanding the wording of the Barbarossa directive stating that the offensive against Moscow would resume only after the objectives in Army Group’s North’s area—the capture of Leningrad and the link-up with the Finns—had been achieved. Hitler’s decision to resume the offensive against Moscow involved removing Höpner’s Fourth Panzer Group from Army Group North and transferring it to Army Group Center. This left only one mechanized formation in Army Group North, the XXXIX Corps. This corps had belonged to General Hermann Hoth’s Third Panzer Group and had been sent north after Army Group North paused in the vicinity of Lake Ilmen.

Schlüsselburg fell to the Germans on September 8, 1941, and the Germans now had a foothold on Lake Ladoga, and the city of Leningrad was encircled. This was the moment when OKW had planned that Leeb should send the XXXIX Corps on an eastward drive to Volkhov and Tikhvin. Leeb objected on the grounds that the operation would dissipate his strength at a time when he needed to make the ring around Leningrad secure. He was successful in his appeal—for the time being. Instead, the OKH ordered him to cross the Neva River and link up with the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. However, he did not have the strength to cross the Neva.

The Soviets upset the German plans by launching heavy counterattacks against Schlüsselburg. Leeb pointed out to OKH on September 15, 1941, that the Soviets were withdrawing forces from the Finnish fronts and using them against the Germans. He urged that the Finns resume their offensive on the Karelian Isthmus and predicted that if they did, the battle for Leningrad could be decided within a few days. If they did not, he could not predict when he would be able to cross the Neva River.

There can be little doubt that Leeb was correct. The handful of mauled Soviet divisions north of Leningrad could have been brushed aside easily by the Finns, particularly if they had not transferred forces to East Karelia or if those transfers had been delayed until after the requested German operations on the Karelian Isthmus. Such operations would also have closed the one opening in the German encirclement—across the southern part of Lake Ladoga. The OKH answered Leeb on September 18, 1941. General Halder assured him that the Finns intended to resume their attacks both on the Karelian Isthmus and south of the Svir River. But there were conditions. The Finns told their brothers-in-arms that the offensive on the Karelian Isthmus would be undertaken as soon as the Germans had crossed the Neva River. The drive out of the Svir bridgehead would be pursued as soon as the effects of a German drive to the east became observable.

These conditions caused a conundrum for the Germans and doomed the hoped-for cooperation from the Finns, since the drive to the east had been cancelled temporarily and Leeb had just stated that he did not have the strength to cross the Neva River in force. It appears that the Finns were well informed on what was happening at OKH and used that information to their advantage.

The Tikhvin Thrust

OKW ordered Leeb to attack eastward on October 14, although there was no evidence that the Soviets had reduced their force levels in the Leningrad area to counter the offensive against Moscow. The plan was to drive eastward and envelop the Soviet forces south of Lake Ladoga. It was expected that XXXIX Corps would link up with the Finns in the area between Tikhvin and Lodeynoye Pole. It appears from this intention that the Germans still harbored hopes that the Finns would undertake operations south of the Svir River.

XXXIX Corps began its advance on October 16, 1941. The advance was slow due to strong Soviet resistance and the onset of rain that turned the roads and earth into mud. The mud and soft ground was so bad that the armored divisions were forced to leave their tanks behind after a few days. The situation became bleak enough for Hitler to want to cancel the operation, but OKH and Leeb persuaded him to continue.

By the first week in November, the Germans were still 6 miles (10km) from Tikhvin. They planned one final push on November 6. The attack succeeded and Tikhvin was captured on November 9, 1941. Thereupon, one division was turned north along the railroad toward Volkhov. However, the Russians were not giving up the fight for the town and began a counteroffensive against Army Group North with new forces. Some of these forces, according to General Waldemar Erfurth (1879–1971), chief of the German liaison detachment at Mannerheim’s headquarters, had been withdrawn from the Karelian Army front. The Soviet forces succeeded in virtually encircling the Germans and Leeb found it necessary to commit two additional divisions to hold the flanks of the Tikhvin salient. Any plans for linking up with the Finns in the Lodeynoye Pole area or of a continued advance to Volkhov were out of the question.

On December 3, 1941, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim (1889–1962), who commanded the German drive to Tikhvin, reported that he would not be able to hold that town. Leeb gave him a “be prepared” order to withdraw on December 7, but not to execute it until Hitler had given his permission. Hitler then issued Directive 39 on December 8, 1941, which stopped all offensive operations on the Eastern Front. Tikhvin was ordered held and XXXIX Corps was fighting desperately to hold on to the town in the middle of a blizzard with temperatures well below zero. Leeb notified OKW that he intended to withdraw XXXIX Corps and Hitler grudgingly agreed, provided that the railroad between Volkhov and Leningrad was held. Tikhvin was evacuated on December 9 and Leeb decided to withdraw behind the Volkhov River, despite Hitler’s insistence that he should establish his new front closer to the town of Volkhov. Hitler relented on December 15 after Leeb told him that a failure to withdraw behind the Volkhov River would lead to the destruction of XXXIX Corps. That corps was behind the river on Christmas Eve; it had sustained heavy losses in the fighting for Tikhvin and in the withdrawal.

The year 1941 had been full of disappointments for the Germans. They had not succeeded in convincing their co-belligerent to participate in the attack on Leningrad or even to take aggressive action to tie down Soviet forces north of Tikhvin and Leningrad. This doomed any hopes of capturing Leningrad. The Germans in Finland had not accomplished their objectives of severing the Murmansk railroad and/or capturing Murmansk. The support of the Finns became just a token gesture after the United States issued a virtual ultimatum with regard to the Murmansk railroad.

The Leningrad Front in 1942

The southern fronts in the Soviet Union were accorded the highest priority in the 1942 summer offensive, and Army Group North had its forces spread over an extensive area in a defensive posture. It was disposed in a very irregular frontline, a legacy of the previous year and the Soviet winter offensive. On the left, the Eighteenth Army held an arch around Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland. The front then bent eastward south of Leningrad, anchoring on Lake Ladoga at Schlüsselburg. From there, it bent sharply southeastward along the Volkhov River to the northern tip of Lake Ilmen.

The Sixteenth Army held a jagged line south of Lake Ilmen. The main feature of its front was a large salient jutting out from the main line in the direction of the Valday Hills, known as the Demyansk Salient, after the largest city in the area. From its easternmost point it curved sharply westward to Kholm and then southwestward to the northern boundary of Army Group Center, north of Velikiy Luki.

In 1942 the Eighteenth German Army was primarily involved in preparations for an operation that Hitler hoped would bring about Finnish cooperation in the prosecution of the war. The Twentieth Mountain Army had reached agreement with the Finnish High Command to undertake a major operation against the Murmansk railroad—Operation Lachsfang (Salmon Catch). The Finns promised to make 11 divisions available for a drive to cut the southern part of the railroad, while two corps from the Twentieth Mountain Army directed their offensive against the railroad further north, at Kandalaksha. The Finns stated that the forces needed would come from the Karelian Isthmus and Svir fronts and would be assembled as soon as the Germans captured Leningrad and moved their front eastward to give cover for the Finnish front on the Svir River. The Finns considered this pre-condition necessary in order for them to have the requisite forces available.

To accommodate the Finnish wishes, Hitler ordered the preparation of an operation—Nordlicht—to capture Leningrad. The German plan was rather simple. After a preliminary softening of the enemy by the Luftwaffe and massed artillery, the Germans planned to advance across the Neva River above Leningrad, link up with the Finns if that were possible, and then capture the city. The Eighteenth Army, in the Leningrad sector, estimated the Soviet Forces confronting it at 13 divisions and three armored brigades. The Eighteenth Army had five divisions and it would have four more with the arrival of Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army which Hitler was moving from Sevastopol in southern Russia. The Eighteenth Army was still eight divisions short of what it believed was necessary for Operation Nordlicht.

Georg von Küchler (now a field marshal), the new commander of Army Group North after Leeb asked to be relieved in January 1942, briefed Hitler on Operation Nordlicht on August 8, 1942. He pointed out that the Germans were outnumbered two to one in the Leningrad area and requested additional divisions. Hitler answered that Küchler would have to do with what he had, since he could not give him divisions that he did not have. Küchler indicated that he would be ready to launch Nordlicht at the end of October. General Jodl objected and pointed out that it would have to be launched earlier because it was not an end in itself but a preparatory operation for Lachsfang. Hitler set September 10, 1942 as the date of the offensive.

No one was happy with either the outcome of the conference on August 8 or Jodl’s later recommendation and Hitler’s acceptance that the mission of taking Leningrad be given to Manstein’s Eleventh Army. Küchler protested that a switch in the command of Operation Nordlicht at this stage would only create confusion in view of all the plans and preparations made by Eighteenth Army. This argument did not change Hitler’s mind.

The Eleventh Army headquarters arrived on the Leningrad front on August 27, 1942, and its staff began to plan for an attack on Leningrad. It was agreed that the Eleventh Army would take over that part of the Eighteenth Army’s front which faced north, while the latter retained responsibility of the Eastern Front on the Volkhov River. The Eleventh Army, which was made directly subordinate to OKH, ended up holding three sectors: the Neva sector from Lake Ladoga to the southeast of Leningrad; the assault area south of Leningrad; and the sector blocking the Soviet forces in the Oranienbaum pocket.

Manstein had grave misgivings about the operation and stated in his first meeting with Küchler on August 28, 1942, that he did not believe artillery bombardment would break Soviet resistance. He concluded that Nordlicht would be difficult and that the main attack should be made from the Karelian Isthmus or from both directions. Manstein wrote that “it would naturally have been of tremendous assistance to us if the Finns … had participated in the offensive.”

The lack of forces continued to plague the operation. Despite these difficulties, preparations for Nordlicht proceeded well and it held out great promise if successful. However, fate decided otherwise. The Soviets launched an offensive from the east along the south shore of Lake Ladoga on August 27, 1942, against the front of the Eighteenth Army commanded by General of Cavalry Georg Heinrich Lindemann (1884–1963). This area was referred to as the “bottleneck” and was that part of Army Group North’s front which projected like a wedge from Schlüsselburg in a southwest direction. This wedge was vulnerable to attack from both the west and east and had grown very narrow, less than 6 miles (10km) across in certain locations. The objective of the Soviet offensive was to lift the siege of Leningrad by opening a land route through the wedge.

After the Soviets achieved local breakthroughs over a wide stretch of the slender Eighteenth Army’s front south of Lake Ladoga, Hitler telephoned Manstein on September 4 and placed him in command of the break through areas, since they threatened the German hold on Leningrad. The first concern now was to restore the front. As usual, there was a scramble to find forces to restore the situation. The 3rd Mountain Division, already at sea from Norway to Finland, was diverted to Army Group North’s front on August 31, 1942. Four divisions planned for use in Nordlicht also had to be moved to the bottleneck area.

The Eighteenth Army front was penetrated south of Lake Ladoga by strong Soviet forces; the army, however, was able to seal the penetration, which progressed some 8 miles (13km) to the vicinity of Mga. The attack against the base of the pocket was carried out by the Eleventh Army using three corps, and the German encirclement was completed on September 21. Despite desperate Soviet attacks from both within and outside this pocket, Manstein writes that the Soviets lost seven infantry divisions, six infantry brigades, and four armored brigades in ferocious fighting.

The front was not restored until October 15. OKW, which had to watch helplessly as its own offensive plans evaporated, announced on October 20 that Operation Nordlicht was indefinitely postponed. This also doomed plans for Operation Lachsfang. The heavy siege artillery brought north with Manstein’s army was to be used to support incremental advances in the front around Leningrad as long as that could be done without a great commitment of troops. After their experience the past winter, the Germans, including Hitler, were wary about any offensive which would extend into the winter season. Manstein and his Eleventh Army were shifted to the Velikiy Luki area between Army Group Center and Army Group North.

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

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.

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.

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

Another ground for suspicion of Lucy is that not one of Roessler’s alleged sources surfaced after the war ended. If they were really members of OKW or OKH, both defined by the victors as criminal organisations, their careers, incomes and prospects had been terminated by the Wehrmacht’s defeat and disbandment, and they faced the prospect of at least a denazification hearing or possibly even a trial as war criminals. Their reception by Moscow would have been problematical; on returning there both Rado and Leonid Trepper, the Red Orchestra’s ‘Big Chief’, were charged with having been German-controlled double agents, ‘rewarded’ with 10-year jail sentences, rehabilitated and freed only after Stalin’s death. However, American or British Intelligence services would surely have welcomed Lucy’s ‘sources’, and even have sought to recruit them as double-agents in the rapidly evolving Cold War, and that would have considerably improved their lives in devastated post-war Germany. Could it be that if Roessler had provided names, then the British, Americans or Soviets would have tried to contact them directly, and would then have found that they did not exist?

The contention that Lucy was a German-controlled double agent is inconsistent with the fact that it was German pressure that obliged the Swiss in October 1943 to locate Rado’s transmitters and shut his ring down. However, there are at least three possible explanations for that. First, that it was a genuine espionage ring, to which the Sicherheitsdienst or Gestapo failed to apply the preferred counter-espionage solution of turning at least some of its members, as they did with the Red Orchestra, and as the British did with all German agents sent to the UK, and the Soviets did with agents sent in to support Max. Secondly, it may have been felt to have outlived its utility as disinformation, and that the Soviets were no longer reacting as expected. Thirdly, it could even be, as is not uncommon in espionage, that the right hand, Gestapo or Sicherheitsdienst, did not know what the left hand, the Abwehr, was doing. That no arrests in OKW or OKH accompanied the shutdown suggests that if Roessler had sources there, they were extraordinarily good at covering their tracks, or were indeed participants in a ‘disinforming’ operation shut down because it had outlived its usefulness. Or it could be that the information was, as Sudoplatov claimed, ‘planted’ by the British, or came from Swiss Intelligence, and that the Swiss complied with the German demand because by October 1943 it was clear that Germany’s defeat, though not imminent, was inevitable. The ring was therefore no longer needed, and continuing risked exposing their own role, prompting a German blockade or even invasion. Evidence to establish the truth is not in the public domain, and probably never will be.

Advance Ultra information from Bletchley may have been among the factors influencing Stalin’s decision of 12 April, but was not definite enough to have been the only factor. Its main utility was that later messages provided useful information about German preparations to the Soviet General Staff planners of the defensive battle. The British official history noted the first signs of German preparations in the third week of March 1943, from decrypted Luftwaffe messages ‘about the movement of panzer divisions on the central sector of the eastern front, and are organisation of GAF [German Air Force] commands which brought Fliegerkorps VIII back to the Kharkov area for close support operations’. Then on 13 April another Luftwaffe message first used the codename ‘Zitadelle’ (‘Citadel’), and on the 19th another disclosed that Luftflotte (Air Fleet) IV ‘was sending forces allocated to Zitadelle to GAF Command East’. If the messages from the third week of March were passed quickly to Moscow, officially in paraphrased form or unofficially by one of the ‘resident’s’ agents, they could certainly have been taken into account in the Soviet decision-making, and may help account for what Stalin told Mikoyan on 27 March, but those of 13 and 19 April cannot have influenced the principal decision about how to fight the battle, because Stalin had already taken that on the 12th, when he endorsed the proposal Zhukov had made on the 8th.

The same reservation applies to the most comprehensive of the early indicators deciphered by Bletchley, a message from Field-Marshal von Weichs, commanding Army Group B, transmitted some time after 15 April and decrypted on the 25th. The gist of it may have been passed on officially to the Soviets, but according to two post-Soviet publications the State Defence Committee received a translation of the actual text from the NKVD ‘resident’ in London on 7 May; one of the accounts says it had been passed to him by Philby, who had received it from Cairncross. A post-Soviet account of Soviet Intelligence operations during 1941–45 devoted an entire chapter to Cairncross. It said that,

in his new job at Bletchley Cairncross received access to a whole range of deciphered German documents, which were immediately passed to Moscow. Philby also had access to a range of such documents – they were sent to him by the Chief of Intelligence. Blunt also sometimes managed to acquire some materials. But Cairncross had these documents in his own safe, and could use them as they arrived, i.e. without great delay. He passed on very important information about the offensive the Germans were preparing on the Kursk salient, indicated approximate dates for the offensive, the technical parameters of the new German ‘Tiger’ tank, and other information. By his self-sacrificing work he made a serious contribution to our victory at Kursk and on other fronts.

The same post-Soviet account credited the NKVD ‘resident’ in London with 14 agents altogether; since MI5’s post-war investigations did not, at least publicly, identify anything like that many, there may have been more than one still unidentified ‘mole’ passing on information. Certainly the Weichs message and anything else the ‘resident’ obtained about ‘Citadel’ would be very helpful to the General Staff planners, but Stalin had taken the crucial decision two weeks before Weichs’ message was deciphered, and four weeks before the State Defence Committee received its translated text. As for technical details of Tiger tanks, the Soviets did not need them; as noted below, they captured several between November 1942 and April 1943, and put them through comprehensive tests in April.

Although Ultra information from Bletchley cannot have been the sole or principal source of Zhukov’s and Stalin’s confidence as early as April about German intentions, information, particularly from Cairncross, about the methods employed in deciphering may nevertheless have played a role in the Soviet decision-making. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the British decided not to share the Ultra secret, believing Soviet security to be German-penetrated, and expecting the Red Army would be speedily defeated. After both assumptions proved wrong, they took to passing on important information from Ultra, paraphrased and without disclosing the source, beyond dropping vague hints about an agent in the German High Command. The Soviets pretended to believe them, but obviously knew exactly what the source was, on information from Cairncross, Philby, Blunt and maybe others among the alleged 14 agents. Perhaps even more important than any information they passed on would be the messages’ evidence that many Enigma-based systems (and, as with the Weichs message, even the more complex ‘Tunny’) had been broken, and that large numbers of messages were being deciphered daily, often within only a few hours of transmission, to the great benefit of the Anglo-American war effort. Even before the war the Soviet Union had had a large interception and decrypting organisation (Sudoplatov mentioned that they were deciphering messages to or from several foreign embassies, including those of Japan, Italy, Turkey and Bulgaria), and the discovery from their British agents that the German cipher systems were breakable would justify a large commitment of intellectual and material resources.

In that connection the account mentioned above goes on to say:

Along with material of a military-operational character, Cairncross passed on data about the machine-cipher Tunny, which was used by the British to decipher German radio messages. On the basis of these data an analogous example of this machine was designed…In the operational file there is a task set by the Centre to the London residency. In particular it is stated that the Germans have made some changes in the machine’s design, and that therefore additional data are required, data that maybe are known to the British and accessible by Cairncross. The data were received from the source and sent on to Moscow. There is no information in the file about the further fate of this deciphering machine.

Tunny was Bletchley’s codename for the German SZ40 (Schluesselzusatz, ‘key-adder’) cipher machine and its derivatives, several versions of SZ42, used for communication at the highest military levels, such as between OKW/OKH and the headquarters of army groups, and including the message from Weichs, mentioned above. It was first observed in use in mid-1941, and by January 1942 Bletchley ‘understood its design and method of operation’. It was far more sophisticated than Enigma, so decryption was ‘normally too laborious to be undertaken by hand, and the first stage of mechanisation was the provision of a decyphering machine, delivered early in June 1942’. As to the unknown ‘further fate’ of the machine, if the reference is to the British machine, it is quite wrong. The first machine-deciphering successes were achieved in early May 1943 by a machine codenamed ‘Robinson’, replaced in February 1944 by Colossus 1, the first programmable computer. The reference must be to an attempted Russian counterpart to ‘Robinson’, otherwise why would Moscow ask its London ‘resident’ for data that could be obtained only from someone actually working at Bletchley? The most likely reason why there is nothing further on file is simply that they could not make the Soviet machine work, but that they even tried suggests a high level of cryptanalytical effort.

Bletchley could not acquire much Enigma traffic from German army units on the Eastern Front. Every division commander had an Enigma machine and radio transmitter in his command vehicle, but except when actually on the move most communication after December 1941 was via landlines, making use of radio too sporadic and the amount of traffic picked up by UK-operated intercept stations too small to decrypt on a regular basis. The best source of information about the Eastern Front remained the Luftwaffe general (‘Red’) cipher. ‘Fish’ messages, though taking longer to decrypt, were also valuable because the information they contained was more high-level, and consequently took longer to become outdated.

The Soviet situation was different. Landlines could be, and frequently were, tapped. During the Battle of Moscow for example, a German unit reported killing a Soviet officer who was doing so. General S.P. Ivanov, Vatutin’s Chief of Staff at Stalingrad, mentioned in his memoirs both receipt of a decrypted message that had been transmitted less than 36 hours previously, and a successful tapping operation against the Romanian 3rd Army. Line-tapping was also among the tasks set for partisans operating behind the German lines.

Radio interception of enemy traffic was frequently mentioned in Front commanders’ reports from late 1942 onwards, though in most cases the references were to voice communication, especially between German aircraft and ground controllers. It is also relevant that Bletchley found Luftwaffe cipher systems easier to break than those of the army or navy. German army operations depended heavily on air support, and in early 1943 about 60 per cent of the Luftwaffe was on the Eastern Front. Luftwaffe liaison officers (Fliegerverbindungsoffizieren, or ‘Flyvos’), each with an Enigma machine, were regularly attached to army units, and their messages frequently provided valuable clues about army operations.

The many secrets unveiled in the post-Soviet era have as yet included very little about the role of cryptanalysis in the Soviet–German war. That high-level Soviet communications were very secure is clear from the experience of Bletchley’s German counterpart, the B-Dienst; it found Soviet low-level tactical military ciphers easy to break, but had no success above that level. Front or higher-level Soviet commanders used Baudot machines and landlines, so messages could not be regularly intercepted, and Soviet diplomatic traffic used codebooks plus one-time pads of randomly generated figures; if these are properly used, messages can be deciphered only by those holding both book and pads. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Soviet expertise in codes and ciphers was of a high standard; the simplicity of tactical ciphers was mainly because low-level transmission resources were often primitive, originators and receivers of messages were not highly trained cryptographers, and any action proposed or requested in tactical-level messages would usually be taken before any third party could decipher or act on them.

In addition to a massive intellectual and technological effort, the British mounted substantial operations (e.g. a commando raid on the Lofoten Islands, seizure of German weather ships in the North Atlantic, recovery of machines and documents from captured U-boats) in order to secure single Enigma machines and associated documentation such as key tables. The surrender of the German 6th Army and part of the 4th Panzer Army at the end of January must have provided Soviet cryptanalysts with a number of Enigma machines and associated documentation far beyond what any British or American operation acquired. Each of the 20 division and 5 corps commanders had one such machine; the 6th Army headquarters had at least one, and may have had a ‘Fish’ machine as well. Some Flyvos probably escaped on returning supply flights, but by 17 January the Soviets had taken six of the seven local airfields, and made the seventh unusable by artillery fire and air attacks, so there were no landings or take-offs in the remaining days before the final surrender, and most Flyvos must still have been in the city. Even if only five were still there, that brings the total of Enigma machines in Stalingrad to 30. The troops were freezing and starving, ammunition, explosives and fuel were almost all gone, the ground was frozen too hard and the troops too weak to destroy or bury the machines. They could at most take a rifle-butt to them, and in some cases not even that – one last message ended with ‘the Russians are breaking in…’. It is also unlikely that key tables, operational documents and manuals were all destroyed, and it is entirely speculative, but not unreasonable to postulate that the haul of machines and documents at Stalingrad facilitated a ‘last heave’ by an already existing programme that had made progress, but not yet resolved all the problems.

This treasure-trove became available only in the first week of February, too late for much exploitation before Manstein’s offensive at Kharkov, but during March it may have become possible to decipher some Enigma traffic, including messages between divisions and armies concerning preparations for ‘Citadel’. Divisions on the move would sometimes have to resort to radio transmission – the order to observe radio silence applied to operator chatter and plain text messages, but not to enciphered traffic, because the Germans did not learn until 27 years after the war that the British had broken their ciphers. Interception of such transmissions could have been among the factors giving Zhukov the confidence about German intentions that prompted his message to Stalin on 8 April. Information from Front Intelligence and partisan observations of eastbound rail traffic would certainly also have been involved, but the most significant preliminary move, the German IX Army’s withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, took place by stages between 1 and 14 March. As noted above, this released up to 22 divisions to IX Army reserve, and hence to eventual availability for ‘Citadel’. However, with movement impeded by the spring thaw, and the need to employ several of these divisions to stop the attempted offensive by the Bryansk, Central and Voronezh Fronts, major redeployment into starting positions for ‘Citadel’ could not have been far enough advanced by the first week of April to account by itself for the confident tone of Zhukov’s message to Stalin.

Bletchley’s analytical effort naturally depended mainly on mathematicians, and although the relevance of chess-players is less obvious, work there did attract a number of them, including several of high international ranking. Russia was not short of mathematicians and chess champions, and given what it learned about Ultra from Cairncross and others, Soviet Intelligence must have devoted a large effort to Enigma-breaking. Intelligence failures up to mid-February 1943 suggest no or very limited success until then, but the least implausible explanation for the very marked improvement thereafter is successful exploitation of materials captured at Stalingrad.

No Russian account gives any details about where Stavka received the information that led it three times (on 2 and 20 May, and 2 July) to notify the two Front commanders in the salient that the German offensive would begin within a few days. In fact Hitler first set the date as 3 May, but changed his mind on 29 April, because he considered the numbers of the new tanks, assault and anti-tank self-propelled guns so far available to the attacking divisions insufficient. He then set a new date of 12 June, but ‘events in the Mediterranean’ (specifically the surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa on 12 May) forced another postponement, and even raised the possibility of abandonment. However, on 21 June he fixed the launching date for ‘Citadel’ as 3 July, then on the 25th changed it to 5 July. Stavka’s warning to the commanders on 2 May fits with Hitler’s original starting date of 3 May, and it is just possible that it was based on intercepted traffic. Hitler’s original order specified that Army Groups Centre and South must be able to launch ‘Citadel’ on five days’ notice. A launch on 3 May would therefore have to be ordered by, at the latest, 29 April, the date on which Hitler cancelled it. There is no information in the public domain to indicate whether any orders had been issued before the cancellation. The 20 May warning was simply wrong, but no Soviet or post-Soviet source has said on what it was based. The third warning, on 2 July, was absolutely correct, and its timing is interesting. It was only on 1 July that Hitler assembled at his Rastenburg headquarters the marshals and generals who would lead ‘Citadel’, Manstein, Kluge, Model, Hoth, Kempf and the commanders of the two air fleets, von Greim and Dessloch, and ordered them to start it on the 5th. The time of day of this meeting is not known, but since Hitler, like Churchill and Stalin, habitually worked into the small hours and then slept until at least mid-morning, it was unlikely to have taken place before 10 a.m. German summer time, which was 11 a.m. Moscow time. Stalin’s message warning the Front commanders that ‘Citadel’ was likely to be launched ‘during the period 3–6 July’ was transmitted at 2.10 a.m. Moscow time on the 2nd. That is 1.10 a.m. German time, at most only 15 hours after the meeting at which Hitler gave his generals their final orders.

This rapidity suggests two possibilities. One is that by then some Enigma traffic was being read. After the meeting, and before leaving headquarters, Manstein, Kluge, Model and Hoth, and probably also both air fleet commanders, would necessarily send orders to their own Chiefs of Staff to start alerting subordinate formations to prepare for battle, though without telling them the starting date. Messages from OKH to the headquarters of Army Groups Centre and South would probably use the more complex Fish machine cipher, and be sent by landline, but those from army headquarters to divisions or corps and to Luftwaffe units would be enciphered on Enigma machines, and some of them would be transmitted by radio, therefore vulnerable to interception.

The other, simpler, possibility is that the Soviets could intercept but not decipher Enigma messages, but concluded from traffic analysis that action was imminent because of the sudden large increase in traffic caused by the messages that Army Groups Centre and South and the army and air force HQs under them had to send, to alert their subordinate formations. Either possibility fits the speed of Stavka’s warning to the Fronts better than the idea of messages going from a source in OKW or OKH to Roessler in Switzerland, then through one of his intermediaries, Schneider or Duebendorfer, to Rado, who would then have to encipher it and contact one of his operators to have it transmitted to Moscow. Messages that Rado cited in his memoirs invariably took two or more days to be delivered.

Whatever the means that secured them, the improvements in Soviet Intelligence enabled Stavka’s planning for the summer to proceed more or less in parallel with the German. However, the planners were soon confronted by the disconcerting discovery that the new German Tiger I heavy tank was far superior to their prized KVs and T-34s because of its thicker armour, superior binocular sights and much longer-range and greater-calibre 88mm gun. Tempting fate, the Germans in late 1942 had sent a small pre-production batch of the new Henschel Tiger Is to the Leningrad front, where one became bogged in marshland and was captured. However, the Red Army’s tank and artillery specialists were preoccupied at that time with the situation around Stalingrad, so the encounter then attracted little attention. In December a battalion of Tigers was included in Hoth’s force that attempted to lift the siege of Stalin grad, then in early April 1943 some damaged Tigers were captured near Belgorod.

Tests conducted on 25–30 April, using various calibre anti-tank, field, tank and anti-aircraft guns, showed that armour-piercing shells from the 76.2mm F-34 gun then standard on the T-34-76 and KV-1 could not pierce even the side armour of a Tiger at more than 200 metres, while the Tiger’s 88mm shells could penetrate 110mm of armour at up to 2 kilo metres (1.25 miles). The thickest frontal armour on Soviet tanks was 100mm on the KV1 and 45–60mm on the T-34-76; therefore all would be vulnerable for the time it took them to get within killing distance of a Tiger. Even if they could cover the 1.8 kilometres (about 1.1 miles) at full speed, it would take them over two minutes; a Tiger could fire several rounds in that time, with a good prospect that one of them would score a direct hit.

Nor was the Tiger the only threat to Soviet tanks. The Ferdinand assault gun had an even more powerful 88mm gun than the Tiger, and thicker frontal armour, while the new medium Mark V Panther tank and newer examples of the older Mark IV mounted a long-barrelled 75mm gun, shells from which could penetrate the frontal armour of a KV at 1 kilometre (0.62 miles) and of a T-34 at 1.5 kilometres (0.93 miles). In addition the late G and H models of the Mark IV had been fitted with extra sheets of armour-plate at the front and over the tracks, and even many of the obsolescent Mk III tanks had been retrofitted with a long-barrelled 50mm gun, shells from which could also penetrate the armour of a T-34 at over a kilometre. Furthermore, the Zeiss binocular sights fitted in the new and up-gunned older tanks ensured more accurate fire than Soviet tank crews could achieve.

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

The Soviet position was further eroded by the fact that only their commanders’ tanks had radio transmitters. The rest had only receivers or nothing at all, so that if a commander’s tank was knocked out, his entire unit became leaderless. Their German counterparts mostly operated from ‘command tanks’ equipped with a wooden dummy gun, with the liberated space in the turret used to mount superior radio equipment; tank crews subordinate to them could receive and transmit, enabling the second-in-command to take over if the command tank was knocked out, and crews to inform their superiors quickly of any changes in the local situation. Soviet accounts noted that the Germans were well aware of the Soviet lack of transmitters, and tended to concentrate their fire on any tank seen to have a transmitting antenna.

Stalin had further muddied the waters; in an attempt to exploit the superior speed and manoeuvrability of the T-34 he had issued a directive on 19 September 1942 ordering tank units to begin engagements by a storm of fire from their main armament and machine guns while on the move, carrying additional shells and bullets for that purpose, and enhancing mobility by mounting extra fuel tanks on their rear decks. Tank gun stabilisers had not yet been invented, so firing on the move was inaccurate and wasteful, while the additional ammunition created storage problems in the cramped turret, and the unprotected fuel tanks were a serious fire hazard.

Although the claim that the T-34 was the best tank of the war in any army has cascaded from one post-war publication to another, that claim is tenable after mid-1943 only partially (once its mechanical problems were resolved, the Panther became a strong contender for the title) and in respect of the later version, the T-34–85, which did not start to arrive in units till March 1944. Apart from the inadequacy of its gun against the Tiger, Panther, Ferdinand or upgunned Mks III and IV, the T-34–76 as first manufactured had a number of other shortcomings, to which Timoshenko, when People’s Commissar for Defence, had drawn attention well before the war. In a letter to Voroshilov (then Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars), dated 6 November 1940, he had recommended an increase in the crew from 4 to 5 to incorporate a gunner. The cramped nature of the turret meant the tank commander had also to be the gunlayer, and this distracted him from his command duties, creating serious problems, especially if he had to control other tanks beside his own (the Soviets did not follow the German use of ‘command tanks’ until well into 1944). Timoshenko also sought improvements to the view, especially from the turret, and to the communications system, and changes to the transmission and gearbox. Manufacture was temporarily suspended, while work began on a modified T-34M, due to begin deliveries on 1 January 1942, but the outbreak of war and the need to evacuate much of the production base and work force to the Urals or Central Asia delayed most of these improvements until they materialised in the shape of the T-34–85, seven months after Kursk, with an improved gun, a larger turret with room for an additional crew member, and frontal armour doubled in thickness.

Of all the shortcomings, the greatest in 1943 was the inadequacy of the 76.2mm gun, standard in the T-34-76 and KV-1, compared to those carried in the new and updated older German tanks. Clearly, all Soviet tanks would be completely outclassed unless more powerful guns could be provided. The most successful in the April tests was the 1939-pattern 52K 85mm anti-aircraft gun, shells from which penetrated the Tiger’s frontal armour at a distance of 1 kilometre, so Stalin ordered development of a new tank gun based on this (similar to the German experience – their 88mm tank gun was based on the 88mm anti-aircraft gun that had proved exceedingly effective against ground targets) and four design groups began work in May. There was, however, no possibility that any of them could do more than produce testable prototypes before the German summer offensive, which would inevitably be spearheaded by the new tanks. To counter those would need a combination of measures, and closer than hitherto co-ordination between infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft – in fact copying the German methods as closely as possible.

Stalin’s initial reaction to Zhukov’s proposal for a defensive battle at Kursk was to ask if he was sure that Soviet troops could withstand a German summer offensive – a reasonable question, since they had singularly failed to do so in the two previous summers. Zhukov assured him that they could, but he sought the views of the two Front commanders in the salient. Rokossovsky, commanding the Central Front on the north face, considered that the Germans would be unable to mount an offensive before the end of the spring thaw and floods, in the second half of May, and argued for a pre-emptive attack by the Central Front and the two Fronts north of it, Western and Bryansk, provided additional air and anti-tank regiments could be made available for support. Vatutin, commanding the Voronezh Front further south, where the thaw would be over somewhat earlier, expected the Germans would be ready for an offensive ‘not before 20 April, but most likely in the first days of May’, but unlike Rokossovsky, he did not express a clear preference between pre-emptive attack and premeditated defence. One post-Soviet source claims that both Vatutin and Malinovsky (commanding the Southern Front, due to mount a counter-offensive in August) favoured preemption; this, however, appears to have been not in April but in June, when the successive postponements of ‘Citadel’ raised doubts among some Soviet generals over whether it was going to happen at all. In his April report, Vatutin also suggested that the German options might include a northward push to outflank Moscow, reflecting his past experience as Deputy Chief of General Staff, where, as previously noted, Stalin’s preoccupation with possible threats to the capital persisted long after they had vanished from the German agenda. References in his report to identification by ‘radio intelligence’ of locations to which the headquarters of two divisions had moved, may have come from the de ciphering of messages, but were more likely based on direction-finding and intercepted operator chatter – orders to observe radio silence were easier to issue than to enforce. The references nevertheless show that interception of enemy radio traffic had now become an important tool of Soviet Intelligence, perhaps aided by the 35,000 radio transceivers and large quantities of cable supplied by the USA under Lend-Lease.

On the evening of 12 April, after receiving the views of Rokossovsky and Vatutin, and three days before Hitler issued the Order for Operation ‘Citadel’, Stalin held a meeting with Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Deputy Chief of General Staff Antonov. They agreed that ‘the most probable aim of a German summer offensive would be to encircle and destroy the main forces of Central and Voronezh Fronts in the Kursk salient’, but did not exclude the possibility that success in that area would be followed by thrusts in east and north-east directions, including towards Moscow. Shtemenko noted that ‘on this matter Stalin displayed particular uneasiness’. However, he accepted Zhukov’s plan, and ordered both Fronts to prepare solid defences. The troops were to dig themselves in; no fewer than eight defence lines, one behind the other, were to be constructed, and an entire army group (first entitled Reserve Front, then Steppe Military District, and finally Steppe Front), with seven armies and eight tank or mechanised corps, would be positioned behind the two Fronts in the salient, to be used in the counter-offensive if the defensive battle went well, or to block any German advance if it did not.

Intriguing evidence suggesting Stalin knew about German intentions even earlier than mid-April is provided in the memoirs of Anastas Mikoyan, who was as much Stalin’s ace troubleshooter on supplying the army as Zhukov was on using it to fight, and to whom he entrusted the establishment of this huge new force. When he sent for Mikoyan he told him ‘according to data from our Intelligence the Hitlerites are concentrating major forces in the area of the Kursk salient’, and ‘a strong Reserve Front must be established urgently, capable of being brought into combat at the most acute and decisive moment of the battle, and for further transition to the counter-offensive’. It was to be formed of units that had fought in recent battles and were now in reserve for making up to strength in manpower and equipment. ‘You…must take on the organising of this Reserve Front yourself, because all the material resources are concentrated in your hands. The General Staff will engage as usual in choosing the commanders, but everything else is up to you.’

The intriguing element in Stalin’s remarks is that Mikoyan says the meeting at which he made them took place at 2 a.m. on 27 March, and, unlike with some other memoirists’ recollections of dates of long-past events, there is substantial confirmation that Mikoyan’s were correct. The task involved concentrating, equipping and supplying the largest reserve force Russia or the Soviet Union had ever yet put into the field and he set to work at once. First, on 29 March he met Colonel-General Shchadenko, head of the General Staff Directorate responsible for forming and manning units, and secured his agreement to constituting the new Front from units based in Moscow Military District. In those days it covered a large part of the European USSR and the conscripts it provided, one-third of the USSR’s total, had mostly received good general or technical education, which made them especially suitable for service in the mechanised forces that would bulk large in the new Front. Then Mikoyan directed every armed service chief to submit plans for providing the armies of the new Front with all they would need, and timetables for delivering everything on time to eight principal locations. An example of the pace he imposed is that only six days after Stalin had first set him his task, he received the first report from an arm of service on 1 April, when Major-General Kalyagin, head of Engineer Troops, reported that three-quarters of the Reserve Front’s needs for engineer equipment could be met from central resources, and the rest issued after deployment, from stocks held locally in Front or army depots.

Mikoyan decreed that the reinforcement and supply of the new Front’s armies were to be completed between 15 April and 10 May. On 30 March he met the arm of service heads: Khrulyov (logistics), Karponosov (organisation), Yakovlev (artillery), Fedorenko (tank and mechanised forces), Peresypkin (signals), and Drachev (chief quartermaster). Transport presented particular problems, since much of the new Front’s deployment area had been occupied until recently by the Germans, who had destroyed as much as they could of the rail and road infrastructure before leaving. In consequence transport of troops and equipment on the hastily and sketchily restored railways was frequently interrupted, and road transport could not be substituted for it because of the state of the roads and shortages of vehicles. Mikoyan dealt with this by frequent telephone calls to People’s Commissar for Railways Kaganovich, the heads of the two most involved railways, local military commanders and Communist Party officials. Despite the difficulties the timetable was fulfilled; between 1 April and 24 May the railways shifted 2,640 trainloads, totalling 178,900 wagons, to the Kursk area, half of them carrying reinforcements and supplies for units of the Central and Voronezh Fronts already deployed in the salient, the other half bringing the new Reserve Front’s forces and equipment to their positions directly behind it.

While well-educated young Muscovites were being trained to operate complex equipment in the Reserve Front, the mainly peasant infantrymen and civilian populations within the Kursk salient were preoccupied with the simpler but no less important task of digging. This was a mammoth undertaking in itself. Realisation of the superiority of the German tanks, while for the time being ending disputes between tankers and gunners as to whether the best antidote to a tank is another tank or an anti-tank gun, and concluding both would be needed, had brought on an acute awareness that success in the oncoming conflict would need maximum coordination between tanks, aircraft, artillery, engineers and infantry, and best use of terrain, exploiting natural and creating artificial obstacles. The new tanks were the main threat, so anti-tank defence must be the focus of the entire system. This must use guns, mortars, tanks, obstacles artificial (ditches and minefields) and natural (gullies, ravines, rivers, hills), and air support, all linked by a fire control and communications system capable of switching guns and aircraft quickly between different sectors. Trenches must be deep enough for troops to move without being exposed to enemy machine-gunners or snipers, machine-gun and artillery positions camouflaged to prevent the enemy picking them off by aimed fire or bombing, and anti-tank ditches be dug so wide and deep that no tank falling into one could climb out under its own unaided power. The combination of defensive measures would include infantry in foxholes, armed with anti-tank rifles to fire at tank tracks, bottles of explosive mixture (‘Molotov cocktails’) to throw onto the rear deck over the engine compartment, and anti-tank mines to be pushed under immobilised tanks and set off by throwing hand grenades at them.

Nor were the ‘osobisty’ (Special Sections of SMERSH, ‘Death to Spies’, of the NKVD) idle. Although morale had been raised by the winter’s victories, it was still by no means unshakeable; desertion and defection to the German side were still problems. At the end of June, when battle was known to be imminent, orders were issued to remove all Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians from combat units and send them to the rear. A few days later similar orders were issued concerning soldiers who had been prisoners until liberated by the winter counter-offensive. They were regarded with suspicion; it was well known that large numbers of captured soldiers were willingly serving in German units, and all liberated ones were suspected of having been indoctrinated while in captivity to serve as saboteurs or at least to infect their comrades with defeatism. An example of the action taken was an order issued by the headquarters of the 5th Guards Army of the Steppe Front on 8 July. The men affected, in all, were awakened and removed during the night of 9/10 July, immediately before the 5th Guards Army began moving to the salient.

Head of Red Army Artillery Voronov insisted that the barrage of gunfire against oncoming tanks must start early and maintain high rates of fire, but his attempt to include tank guns in the barrage was vetoed, officially not only as wasting ammunition but because it would create excessive wear on the gun barrels, and hence reduce accuracy. The real reason was, of course, the discovery in April that the tanks’ guns could penetrate the armour of the new German tanks only at close range, but to tell the crews that was not likely to improve their morale.

As to how these lines were to be manned and held, future Marshal of Artillery Kazakov wrote that ‘one day’ Voronov ordered his staff to do some hard thinking. He told them that the four SS motorised infantry divisions (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking) were being converted into panzer divisions. Most Tigers were assigned to Heavy Tank Battalions that were attached to other units for support as needed.  There were 2 of these at Kursk, as well as 4 Companies that were permanently part of their Division, for a total of 146 Tigers, a very small proportion of overall German tank strength. The elite Grossdeutschland army division had also received a battalion of Tigers, and that all these formations, plus the 10th Panzer Brigade, equipped with Panthers, were being concentrated against the south face of the Kursk salient. The outcome of the deliberations was that the 6th Guards Army, on the expected main line of attack, was reinforced by 14 anti-tank artillery regiments, and reserves were deployed so as to be able to reinforce threatened sectors quickly to a density of at least 20 anti-tank guns per kilometre of front.

Guderian’s reservations about the premature use of the new tanks would be proved right as regards the Panther – some formations equipped with them did not get into action at all, because every one broke down en route. The mechanical faults would be corrected, making it one of the war’s best tanks, but that all took time, and the only time available in 1943 was the few weeks of postponement decreed by Hitler. However, Guderian’s strictures on the Ferdinand as ‘unsuitable for close combat’ because it did not have a machine gun and was therefore vulnerable to the Soviet infantry are not borne out by combat evidence. At Kursk Ferdinands were used only against the Central Front, and about 90 of them saw combat. Examination by Soviet artillery specialists on 15 July of 21 knocked-out Ferdinands showed 11 disabled by mines, 8 by gunfire, 1 by an aerial bomb, and only 1 by an infantry weapon – and that not an anti-tank rifle or grenade but a ‘Molotov cocktail’.

The Red Army used the weeks of postponement at least as well as the Germans, constructing defence systems that took advantage of the experience of two years’ fighting to combine the various arms of service more closely than before, behind minefields both larger and more densely sown with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines than previously possible. Increases in the two sides’ deployments between 10 April and 5 July were as shown below in the table of strength in men and weapons on both dates. The Soviet data are for the Central and Voronezh Fronts for both dates, and for 5 July also the Steppe Front. The German figures are Soviet estimates for Army Groups Centre and South.

German and Soviet build-ups for ‘Citadel’, 1 April–5 July 1943

As the table shows, the Soviets already outnumbered the Germans in all but aircraft before mid-April, then up to the launch date of Citadel their troop numbers more than doubled, guns and aircraft almost trebled, and tanks quadrupled. The German increases were far smaller, so that by the time ‘Citadel’ was launched the Soviets outnumbered the Germans by over 2 to 1 in manpower, 3 to 1 in guns, almost 2 to 1 in tanks, and 1.6 to 1 in aircraft. The disparities became even greater as the battle progressed; between 5 July and 23 August, i.e. in the period covering the defensive battle and the two counter-offensives (Operations ‘Kutuzov’ and ‘Rumyantsev’), additions from reserve totalled on the Soviet side 38 division-equivalents, with 658,000 troops, 18,200 guns, 3,300 tanks and 563 aircraft, while German reinforcements comprised only 2 panzer and 1 mechanised corps, totalling 55,000 men, 550 guns, about 200 tanks and 300 aircraft.

For the Soviets to outnumber the Germans in weaponry was no novelty, but it had previously proved no guarantee of success. As mentioned earlier, in 1941 they had had numerical superiority of 3 to 1 in tanks, 2 to 1 in combat aircraft and about 5 to 4 in guns and mortars, but nevertheless suffered a series of disasters on a scale unparallelled in the previous history of warfare. The difference in 1943 was that the weapons-users and the generals who directed them had learned from the defeats, and had begun to match or even outdo the Germans in how they used their assets. On the most important sectors the five main and three intermediate defence lines in the salient stretched back to 190 kilometres (almost 120 miles) behind the front. During April–June troops and local civilians in the Central Front’s area alone dug 5,000 kilometres (about 3,125 miles) of trenches, laid 400,000 mines and over 200 kilometres (125 miles) of barbed wire, a few kilometres of it even electrified. These extensive preparations could not be concealed from the Germans, but the General Staff and NKVD utilised Agent Max and operatives sent to him who had been captured and ‘turned’, to inform the Abwehr that the Red Army intended to fight only a defensive battle, and credibility was added by making day and night rail deliveries of large quantities of cement, barbed wire, wood and metal beams on open flat trucks, while weapons and ammunition were moved in only at night and in covered wagons.

Against the 55 German divisions deployed in ‘Citadel’, the Central and Voronezh Fronts had between them 77 infantry divisions, 9 tank or mechanised corps, 14 brigades and 3 ‘fortified zones’ (garrison troops in fixed defences), the corps and brigades raising the total to about 110 division-equivalents, with 1,272,700 combat troops. The Steppe Front, behind both, had one tank army (5th Guards), plus six tank and two mechanised corps, and six armies of infantry. It was meant as a reserve for the counter offensive, but when the Germans appeared on the verge of breaking through the Voronezh Front, Stavka representative Vasilevsky on 9 July commandeered two of its armies (5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank) and parts of three others, totalling 19 divisions and one brigade of infantry, five tank and one mechanised corps. Manpower figures for them are not given, but they amounted to at least 30 additional division-equivalents, bringing the total to about 140, and the total Soviet manpower in the defensive battle to over 1.5 million. Granted that Soviet formations were smaller than their German counterparts, and that many of them were under strength, the defenders outnumbered the attackers in manpower by about 1.7 to 1. In equipment, numbers favoured the Soviet side even more, by 1.8 to 1 in guns and mortars, 2.3 to 1 in combat aircraft, and 1.6 to 1 in tanks and self-propelled guns. Compared to the defensive campaign at Stalingrad (37 divisions, 3 tank corps, 22 brigades, 547,000 men), the manpower and resources defending the Kursk salient had considerably more than doubled. Germany’s manpower, on the other hand, had fallen, and the contribution from its allies had dropped almost to nothing. The winter campaign of 1942/43 had involved Romanian, Hungarian and Italian as well as German armies, but at Kursk only German units saw action, though a Soviet listing of forces present included the two Hungarian divisions. Clearly the strategic balance had tilted substantially away from Germany even in the few months since Manstein’s February counter-offensive. Whether the tilt was decisive was still to be seen.

Both Zhukov and Vasilevsky later wrote that they (correctly) regarded the threat posed to the Voronezh Front as greater than that facing the Central Front,294 but the distribution of forces suggests the opposite; the Central Front had 738,000 troops, versus the Voronezh Front’s 534,000. This meant that for each mile of front line on the sectors where the main German thrusts were expected, the Central Front had 7,200 men, 72 tanks and 166 guns, the Voronezh Front only 4,000 men, 67 tanks and 94 guns. The discrepancy was never explained; it was partly due to Rokossovsky’s being more successful in identifying the main German lines of attack and concentrating his forces there by stripping less threatened sectors, whereas Vatutin had to distribute them more evenly; but the principal reason for giving Rokossovsky substantially more resources in the first place must have been the continued preoccupation with possible threats to Moscow mentioned in Vatutin’s April report and the ‘particular uneasiness’ in respect of it that Shtemenko mentioned Stalin as displaying at the meeting on the 12th. If such a threat were posed, it would obviously be posed by Army Group Centre, after destroying the Central Front on the salient’s northern face, not by the much more distant Army Group South.

The scene was now set for the biggest trial of strength yet seen.

The Swedish Question I

Sweden’s role in World War II has evoked little interest outside of that country. Although we now know this nation would never enter the war, Hitler and Dönitz could not count on this. For Hitler Sweden represented a valuable source of raw materials and manufactured goods, as well as a possible threat to Germany’s position in Norway. To Dönitz this politically unreliable nation’s location potentially endangered the navy’s U-boat training areas in the Baltic. Particularly in the final stage of the war, both Hitler and Dönitz endeavored to ensure at all costs that Sweden remained neutral.

On several occasions Hitler claimed a political motive for retaining a foothold in the Baltic States. He feared that withdrawing from Estonia, and later from Courland, would adversely affect Sweden’s attitude. Hitler believed that the presence of German troops in the Baltic States deterred Sweden from cutting off ore imports. On 5 September 1944, when Army Group North wished to evacuate Estonia in the wake of Finland’s surrender, Hitler insisted that holding the current positions in that sector was politically important as a way of exerting influence on Sweden. Two days later Natzmer phoned OKH to check on the army group’s request to retreat; Berlin replied that Guderian had attempted to convince Hitler to give up the Baltic States but that Hitler had again brought up his concern for Sweden. In the winter and spring of 1945 Hitler returned to this theme, at times responding to Guderian’s demands to evacuate Courland by insisting that only the presence of the Courland armies prevented Sweden from declaring war on Germany. To understand why Hitler feared Swedish belligerence and whether the Swedes had given him cause for suspicion, a brief review of Sweden’s policy since 1939 is necessary.

Upon the outbreak of war Sweden declared its neutrality and continued to trade with both Britain and Germany. Sweden experienced few problems until the end of November 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. Sweden found itself in a precarious situation during the Winter War, as it had long maintained very close ties to Finland and traditionally feared Russia. The Swedish government was willing to assist the Finns in almost any way possible, short of war. Sweden provided Finland with substantial aid and sent large quantities of arms and ammunition, seriously depleting its own stocks. The Winter War also brought difficulty on the diplomatic front. Determined to prevent Swedish belligerency, Germany sent several thinly veiled threats demanding that Sweden remain neutral. Hitler feared that Sweden’s entry into the war would jeopardize the delivery of iron ore and that if Russia attacked Sweden, it would be difficult for the Swedes to refuse Allied offers to intervene in Scandinavia. The Germans warned the Swedish government that they would take swift action if Allied troops entered the country. Hitler’s anxiety in this matter was justified, because the British and French made repeated requests that Allied troops be allowed to pass through Sweden to aid Finland; Sweden refused them. The end of the Winter War in March 1940 did not lessen the danger to Sweden, for on 9 April Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark. Although a Swedish military attaché had alerted Defense Minister Per Edvin Sköld, this warning went unheeded.3 Sweden’s military position at this time was even worse than in autumn 1939. Southern Sweden was virtually defenseless, because the Swedes had concentrated their army in the north during the Winter War, and the delivery of arms and ammunition to Finland had deprived Sweden of a significant proportion of the supplies needed for its own defense.

Admiral Raeder provided Hitler with convincing naval arguments for the occupation of Norway, but Hitler’s interest in guaranteeing supplies of Swedish iron also played a role. The Winter War and the danger of Allied intervention in Scandinavia had revealed the threat to Germany’s ore imports. Swedish iron ore reached Germany by two main routes. The Swedes shipped some from ports in the Gulf of Bothnia, mainly Luleå, but most of these ports were closed nearly half the year due to ice. The preferred route was to send the ore to the Norwegian port of Narvik, ice free throughout the year, for transshipment to Germany. Yet with the outbreak of war the Narvik route proved vulnerable to British interference.

Churchill considered halting iron ore shipments to Germany decisive. The British predicted that without these imports German production would cease within months, if not weeks (an assessment that greatly exaggerated the importance of Swedish iron ore to Germany’s war economy). In April 1939 British trade envoys tactlessly warned the Swedes that in the event of war, Britain might have to destroy the iron mines. A major reason for Britain’s interest in assisting Finland during the Winter War was to occupy Sweden’s iron mines.6 In the end the British decided not to take military action against Sweden, but they did mine Norway’s coastal waters and planned to sabotage port facilities at Oxelösund, an ice-free port on Sweden’s southeastern coast from which Germany received ore. During the fighting in Norway in the spring of 1940 the British destroyed port installations at Narvik, significantly reducing its capacity for ore shipments.

Swedish iron ore was of a very high quality, having an iron content of nearly 60 percent, compared to 30 percent for German ores. Germany obtained most of its iron ore from the Reich and Nazi-occupied areas, but about 80 percent of the iron ore it did import came from Sweden. Another vital import was ball bearings. The Nazis received no more than 10 percent of their ball bearings from the Swedes, but these bearings were of the types Germany lacked later in the war due to Allied air raids. Germany also imported from Sweden high-grade steel, finished copper, sulfur, and timber.

After the occupation of Norway and Denmark, German pressure on Sweden increased. Eager to remain at peace, the Swedes granted more and more concessions to Germany. Churchill feared that the Swedes would purchase their neutrality by supplying Germany with all the ore it wanted.9 But in fact Sweden granted the Germans far more than raw materials; its government stretched neutrality past any recognized limits. Hitler had demanded strict neutrality from Sweden in April 1940, when such a policy benefited the Nazis, and the Swedes had agreed on the condition they be left in peace. After the conquest of Norway, Germany received permission for so-called transit traffic, the transport of supplies and soldiers on leave to northern Norway via Swedish rail lines. From June 1940 until November 1943 Sweden’s railroads carried over two million men on leave, more than 700,000 tons of military supplies, and 60,000 wounded (mainly from the front in Finland), many of the wounded on Swedish hospital trains. The Swedes justified these concessions by claiming that once Norway surrendered, these actions did not support or aid a belligerent.

In 1941 and 1942 foreign observers noted a decidedly pro-Nazi stance among many Swedish officials. In March 1941 the Swedish Defense Staff’s naval section prepared a study on a possible Russo-German war that mentioned the possibility of Germany transporting troops to Finland on Sweden’s railroads and hinted at Swedish forces fighting alongside Germans. In January 1942 Goebbels noted in his diary that Sweden had “done more for the German war effort than is generally assumed,” although a few months later he began to complain of the Swedes’ attitude. Sweden was, however, under Nazi pressure. In February 1941 its military attaché to Germany, Curt Juhlin-Dannfelt, spoke with the German Army chief of staff, Halder, about the possibility of granting transit rights to Allied troops if the Soviets attacked Finland again. Halder replied that if Sweden did so, Germany would reduce the nation to rubble. In the spring of 1941 the supreme commander of Sweden’s armed forces, Gen. Olof Thörnell, informed his government that Sweden could not withstand an attack and advised that war with Germany should be avoided if at all possible.

During the planning for the Russian campaign, the Germans hoped for Swedish assistance. The Skl (Seekriegsleitung or Skl (Maritime Warfare Command)) contemplated Sweden’s help in several matters, including laying minefields in its territorial waters to supplement those laid by the German Navy, allowing shipment of supplies for troops in Finland to southern Sweden, and protecting German merchant vessels in Swedish waters with Swedish warships. Hitler declared that he believed the Swedes would participate in the war in return for cession of the Åland Islands, and in early May OKW even considered how to use Sweden’s armed forces if they joined in the war with Russia.

Hitler had little reason to doubt Sweden’s good will in this period. Immediately after the invasion of the Soviet Union, its government allowed the Germans to transfer a fully equipped division through Sweden to Finland. This represented Sweden’s most flagrant breach of neutrality. The Swedes refused transit rights for a second division at the end of July 1941 but later permitted the transport of an SS battalion. In addition, the government doubled the normal allowed leave traffic. Swedes also provided a valuable service by repairing all types of vehicles from German units in northern Norway and Finland, saving the Nazis a great deal of time and transport space. Furthermore, Sweden allowed German merchant vessels to pass through its territorial waters, and on one occasion a German division sailed from Norway to Finland through Swedish waters. Despite the pro-German attitude of several prominent military and political leaders, however, Sweden’s press was virulently anti-German, frequently enraging Hitler and above all Goebbels. In the fall of 1940 the government confiscated several issues of the Göteborgs Handelstidning to placate the Germans and in June 1941 introduced a law curtailing freedom of the press.

Britain’s naval attaché in Sweden, Henry Denham, claimed that the Swedish Navy was especially pro-German. Denham also charged that the Swedish secret police worked very closely with German intelligence and kept track of his movements. Thörnell himself had a reputation for being very pro-German. In April 1941 he suggested to the government that Sweden participate in an anticipated war against the Soviets, and at the end of 1944 Thörnell reportedly was almost in tears over Germany’s defeats.

Yet the Swedes made most concessions during the years of German victory. The declaration of war on the United States, the Allied landings in North Africa, and the Soviet victory at Stalingrad caused Sweden to reassess its relations with Germany. During the second half of 1943, once Sweden had built up its armed forces to a respectable level, the Swedes began to restrict concessions previously granted. In August the Swedish government informed the Germans that it would halt the transit traffic to northern Norway and that it would no longer allow German vessels in Swedish territorial waters. Once the Swedes began to steer away from Germany, they came under increasingly heavy pressure from the Anglo-Americans to reduce exports to Germany, especially ball bearings.

Hitler viewed Sweden’s increased independence with growing mistrust. At the end of 1941 he feared the British might invade Norway to exert pressure on Sweden, and only a month later he began to suspect Swedish hostility, claiming that the Swedes would support a British landing in Scandinavia. Hitler declared that Allied domination of Sweden would deprive Germany of freedom of movement in the Baltic. In April of 1942 he notified Mussolini that Sweden would defect if the British invaded Norway. Explaining that a link between Britain and Sweden would be dangerous for Germany, he informed his Italian ally that he had reinforced Norway with seventy thousand men and deployed an armored division near Oslo to threaten Sweden. The Germans received reports that the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 had made a profound impression in Sweden. To this Hitler declared that Scandinavia’s protection was more important than a major offensive in Russia for the coming year, and he accordingly ordered the armored division in Norway reinforced. Hitler’s reaction to Sweden’s announcement ending the transit traffic to Norway, however, was surprisingly calm. By the fall of 1943 Jodl too was convinced that a successful Allied landing in Norway would bring Sweden into the war, leading to the collapse of the entire Scandinavian front and endangering the Baltic.

Swedish intelligence rendered an invaluable service to its government by cracking Germany’s codes at a relatively early date. In April 1940 the German military rented telephone and telegraph lines between Narvik and Oslo, and Trondheim and Oslo, which passed through Swedish territory. The Swedes promptly tapped these lines, as well as German lines from Berlin, Oslo, and Helsinki to Stockholm. Although in the beginning the Swedes read only military traffic, a direct line from Berlin to the German legation in Stockholm at the end of 1940 yielded diplomatic messages. A mathematics professor at Uppsala University, Arne Beurling, succeeded in forcing the machine code (Geheimschreiber) used by the Germans for communications with Norway, and he built a deciphering machine of his own. In this way the Swedes learned of Hitler’s preparations to invade Russia by the spring of 1941. Swedish intelligence also provided the government with advance warning of German intentions in diplomatic and economic negotiations. In mid-1942, however, the Finns alerted the Germans to Swedish code-breaking activity, and the Nazis tightened their communications security. The Germans transferred many of their communication wires to underwater cables and introduced more sophisticated code machines, so that after the end of 1942 Swedish intelligence rarely could decrypt German messages. The Swedes assumed that by this time the greatest danger had passed, because Germany had been forced on the defensive, but they were dangerously mistaken. The Swedes lost the ability to read German messages just as Hitler was seriously considering invading the country.

Nazi Germany contemplated attacking Sweden on several occasions throughout the war. In planning for the invasion of Norway at the end of February 1940, one of Warlimont’s subordinates in OKW submitted a proposal to occupy parts of Denmark and Sweden. Interest in Sweden’s iron ore was evident in this plan, which called for the seizure of Luleå and the rail line Luleå–Narvik. Warlimont altered the plan to envision the occupation of all of Denmark, leaving the Swedes alone, because on 1 March Hitler had ordered that no moves be made against Sweden. German suspicion of Sweden’s unreliability, however, increased. In January 1943 OKW noted that reports from Stockholm and Helsinki indicated the Swedes would suspend transit traffic if the Allies invaded Norway, concluding for that reason that German troops in northern Norway and northern Finland required additional supplies. In March, Hitler ordered German forces in Norway to prepare a study for operations in Scandinavia in the event of a change in the military or political situation. He also commanded OKW not to issue this order in writing but to impart its contents orally to staff officers from Norway and Finland who would soon be coming to Führer Headquarters. A few days later Hitler’s mistrust of Sweden had grown even deeper. He commanded Jodl to reinforce German troops in Norway and to provide the armored division there with the heaviest offensive weapons, against which the Swedes had no defense.

The plan to invade Sweden envisioned an assault by a half-dozen divisions. In the north one division was to cross the border east of Trondheim toward Östersund and then thrust to the Gulf of Bothnia, supported by an armored division advancing somewhat farther south. In the south two to three divisions were to storm the frontier and drive on Stockholm, while one to two divisions dealt with Swedish troops near Lake Vänern. In addition, the Germans planned several small-scale amphibious and airborne landings on Sweden’s southwest coast and north of Stockholm to tie down Swedish reserves. At the beginning of 1943 the Germans had twelve divisions in Norway, including one armored division, and from April through June OKW sent further reinforcements. Yet in August, following the reverses Germany suffered in the summer of 1943, Hitler ordered the armored division to the continent, and the following month OKW transferred a division from Norway to the Balkans. This stripped German forces in Norway of operational reserves and ended the serious threat of invasion.

Swedish war plans during World War II reveal a surprising, perhaps overoptimistic, confidence and aggressiveness after 1940. In the early interwar years Swedish planning had focused on two potential enemies, the Soviets and an unnamed western power, presumably Britain. In view of the international situation in the late 1930s, in 1939 the Swedes revised their plans to include war with Germany. When Germany occupied of Norway and Denmark, Sweden suddenly faced a hostile power along its 1,200-kilometer-long western border, as well as to the south in Denmark. Sweden’s 1940 plans were entirely defensive and called for concentrating most of its army in the southern and central part of the country. Swedish plans in early 1941 again emphasized defense against a possible German attack from Norway, but now the Swedes began to show signs of greater confidence. They assumed that with Germany’s depleted naval forces heavily engaged against Britain, the anticipated German attack on the Soviet Union would make Sweden’s fleet an important factor in the Baltic and that their army could seriously threaten Germany’s position in Norway. Nonetheless, this plan proposed a benevolent attitude toward Germany, since it was in Sweden’s interest to see the Soviets defeated. Plans from the autumn of that year provided for minor offensive action across the border into Norway—for example, to cut the rail link to Trondheim. By early 1942 the Swedes felt capable of an offensive to seize a Norwegian port to establish a link to Britain. The Swedes showed, however, a particular fear of airborne assault, against which they had no defense. In 1943 Sweden’s army planned, after repulsing a German invasion, for an attack toward Oslo as well as a thrust to capture the port Mo i Rana, approximately midway between Narvik and Trondheim. The 1943 plans remained essentially unchanged until the end of the war. Beginning in 1944, however, the Swedes began to pay closer attention to a possible threat from the Soviets.

The Swedish Navy’s primary task was coastal defense. Since the army would concentrate its forces on the southern coast and along the Norwegian border, the burden of protecting Sweden’s long eastern shore fell to the navy. On the whole, the navy viewed its mission as defensive. By the spring of 1942 the Swedish Navy’s plans included provisions for limited offensive operations. If Germany controlled the Åland Islands the navy planned to attack supply routes to the islands. If the islands remained unoccupied, the navy intended attacks on German lines of communication in the Gulf of Bothnia, as well as on German bases in the Reval–Libau area. Surprisingly, the navy’s plans at the end of 1942 were much more pessimistic than in earlier years. The Swedes now realized that the Germans might invade not only from Norway, Denmark, or northern Germany but from Finland or the Baltic States as well. Swedish planners envisioned German landings almost everywhere. Plans in later years were not quite so gloomy, though they remained generally defensive.

If by the fall of 1943 the German Army rarely considered attacking Sweden, the navy still eyed Sweden with suspicion. The Swedish Navy was probably the most pro-German of all branches of its armed forces, but the Skl was dissatisfied. In April 1941 Raeder had complained to the Swedish naval attaché, Anders Forshell, about Sweden’s attitude. The Swedish Navy, however, proved extremely accommodating on several occasions. In the spring of 1940 Sweden’s naval vessels assisted the Germans in laying an antisubmarine net in the Sound between Denmark and Sweden (Öresund). In June 1941 the Swedish Navy laid mines in its territorial waters to supplement German mine barrages that blocked the Baltic from Swedish waters to the coast of the Baltic States. In addition, in the fall of that year Swedish warships repeatedly escorted German vessels carrying supplies to Finland.

The Swedish Question II

Dönitz was even more wary of Sweden than Raeder. When he assumed command of the navy in January 1943 Hitler wanted him to scrap the surface fleet, but Dönitz pointed out that powerful German naval forces in the Baltic would help influence Sweden’s attitude. A major irritant to Dönitz was the activity of Swedish aircraft in the Baltic. On several occasions German warships reported being “buzzed” by Swedish planes. In July 1943 the Skl ordered German vessels to open fire if approached by Swedish aircraft, maintaining that the Swedes repeatedly had been requested through diplomatic channels to halt this activity. The next month, following another incident of this type when Swedish aircraft shadowed a German convoy, Schmundt (Naval High Command, Baltic) complained that the Swedes would certainly pass any information on to Germany’s enemies. Schmundt regarded the Swedes with great mistrust; in fact, he counted them as already in the enemy camp. In August 1943 he warned the Skl that Swedish shipping represented a sizeable reserve for the Anglo-Americans. Noting Sweden’s increasingly hostile stance, he insisted that Germany must prevent the enemy’s use of these vessels. Schmundt proposed sending commandos to destroy ships in Swedish ports. Apparently the Skl considered this suggestion too far-fetched and an invitation for trouble.

The navy’s problems with Sweden persisted. Swedish fishing boats on at least two occasions entered a forbidden area and sabotaged lights on German buoys. In retaliation the Germans sank two Swedish fishing boats in the area in August 1943. Following this altercation the Foreign Ministry instructed the Skl to avoid further incidents with Sweden. Yet cases of “buzzing” and violations of German airspace continued, until events came to a head on 14 May 1944, when a German fighter shot down a Swedish plane near Libau. At first Kummetz (Schmundt’s successor) assumed that it had been a Soviet plane with Swedish markings, but he suspiciously added that if it were Swedish, it was spying on German U-boat training areas for Britain or Russia. Kummetz soon received a report that three Swedish air-men had been picked up in a dinghy, and early the next day the Germans shot down a second Swedish plane near Windau. Kummetz declared that Sweden and Germany’s enemies alike recognized the importance of air reconnaissance over this part of the Baltic and that the extraordinary search and rescue operation the Swedes had mounted when their plane had been downed revealed the importance of this information.

Kummetz’s problems with the Swedes were not yet over. At the beginning of July a German patrol boat spotted a Swedish destroyer. Swedish aircraft had not reappeared over the coast of the Baltic States, but, Kummetz argued, now destroyers had taken their place. Within a month the Germans sighted Swedish warships near the Irben Straits on three occasions. A German patrol boat near Moen fired on a Swedish plane after it approached to a distance of nine hundred meters. To the Germans’ utter surprise, the aircraft returned fire! Perplexed, Kummetz remarked that this was the first instance of Swedish aircraft fighting back. Finally, less than a week after that incident a U-boat training flotilla reported encountering a Swedish destroyer eighteen nautical miles north-northwest of Libau. Stunned, Kummetz exclaimed, “The Swedes are in the middle of our U-boat training area!”

Although regarded with great suspicion by the Germans, especially Schmundt and Kummetz, Swedish air and naval reconnaissance in the Baltic had been carried out for defensive purposes. The Swedes periodically worried about a German attack, either because the government was about to announce a measure displeasing to the Germans or because intelligence warned of an imminent German invasion. For example, on 28 July 1943, a few days before Sweden canceled the transit agreement, the Swedes began to carry out secret reconnaissance flights from the Kalmar Sound to the area near the island of Bornholm. As a further precaution, naval vessels laid mines along Sweden’s southeastern coast. In the first week of August the Swedes supplemented their air reconnaissance with patrols by destroyers near the island of Gotland and off the southeastern coast. Another invasion scare occurred at the end of March 1944, as a result of deteriorating relations between Finland and Germany. Sweden attempted to arrange peace talks between the Soviets and the Finns, angering Germany. The Swedes stepped up their air reconnaissance, and on 14 May a plane failed to return. The following day a minesweeper hailed a Latvian fishing boat and learned that the plane had been shot down. On 16 May Sweden’s Naval Staff ordered reconnaissance in this area halted. The Swedish airplane had been sent to search for transports at sea or around ports in the Baltic States, an area where the Swedes’ intelligence was poor. It had merely been a case of mutual suspicion.

Nazi preparations to seize the Åland Islands, “Tanne West,” began in the spring of 1944 and brought Sweden under even closer scrutiny. In July Kummetz warned of the possibility that Sweden might seize the islands itself. When the Germans sent heavy warships to aid Finland in the summer of 1944, the Skl instructed them to remain beyond the previously envisioned time, due to the unfavorable situation in the Gulf of Finland and also in consideration of Sweden. Although an announcement informing Sweden of Germany’s reasons for seizing the Åland Islands had been prepared, Hitler decided to cancel the operation out of regard for Sweden. In early 1944, as Sweden arranged peace talks between the Soviets and the Finns, concern for a German invasion of the Åland Islands, and possibly of Sweden itself, became acute, and the Swedes considered occupying the islands themselves. From the end of March until mid-April Swedish preparations for war steadily increased. After the Soviet summer offensive in Karelia the Swedes again briefly fretted about a German attempt to seize the Åland Islands. When word of the Germans’ unsuccessful attempt to seize Hogland arrived, the Swedes stepped up their reconnaissance near the Åland Islands but ordered no overall change in defensive readiness.

The string of Allied victories in the summer of 1944 convinced the Swedes that Hitler would lose the war and that it would be advisable for Sweden to distance itself from Germany. In the second half of that year the Swedes dealt the Germans a series of economic blows. In August, Sweden’s government announced that it would no longer insure shipping to German ports, in effect forbidding its vessels to sail to Germany. The government halted the last transit through its territory on 9 September. On 27 September, fearful that Soviet submarines would soon reach the Baltic, Sweden closed its Baltic ports and territorial waters to all foreign shipping. Finally, on 12 October the Swedes ended the export of ball bearings to Germany. All of these measures were serious, but the withdrawal of Swedish shipping was most damaging, because from 1941 to 1944 Swedish vessels had brought an average of at least 40 percent of the iron ore to Germany, and Finnish vessels nearly 10 percent. With Finland out of the war and Swedish shipping to Germany halted, the Nazis faced the loss of half of the vessels engaged in transporting ore to the Reich. The closure of Sweden’s ports also meant that iron ore, even if Germany could scrape together ships to transport it, had to travel the long, dangerous route from Narvik. These events sobered the Skl, which on 29 September issued a directive to avoid all violations of Swedish territorial waters. In view of the current political tension with Sweden, that nation could be given no excuses for going over to the enemy side.

Yet the German Navy was furious over these measures. The Skl viewed Sweden’s actions as proof that it had submitted to Allied demands to halt ore deliveries to the Reich. Dönitz declared that the Swedes had taken these steps because of “fear and dependence on international Jewish capital.” He added that Germany could still fight without Swedish ore and that the Swedes had best beware. On several occasions in the latter part of 1944 the Skl insisted that it must retain its heavy surface vessels not only to engage the Soviet fleet but with regard to Sweden as well. At the beginning of October the navy proposed the erection of launchers for Germany’s unmanned rockets to threaten cities in southern Sweden, but on 15 October Keitel announced that it was in Germany’s interest to avoid incidents with Sweden.

At the beginning of October 1944, Soviet submarines entered the Baltic. In response to this the Skl wanted to declare the entire eastern Baltic, including the Gulf of Bothnia, an operational zone. Kummetz was clearly still angry about Swedish incursions in the area during the summer. He claimed that militarily it was unnecessary to include the Gulf of Bothnia and Åland Sea but that the declaration of the eastern Baltic as an operational zone made it possible to sink all merchant ships without regard to their nationality, and Swedish warships and aircraft in the area would be fair game. Kummetz also pointed out that mines would be effective in disrupting shipping between Sweden and Finland. Dönitz replied that the navy had no interest in traffic between Finland and Sweden. After the official declaration of the eastern Baltic as a war zone as of 11 November, the Skl repeatedly instructed U-boats to fire only if they were certain the target was not a Swedish vessel.

At the beginning of 1945, OKW considered a report from the military attaché in Stockholm that warned of Sweden’s entering the war, and it returned to the proposal of erecting launching pads for V-1 and V-2 rockets pointing toward Stockholm. The Germans believed that this would dampen any enthusiasm for war in Sweden. But a few days later Hitler decided that Sweden’s entry into the war was unlikely and that no preparatory measures for Swedish belligerence should be taken. In mid-February OKW noted that relations with Sweden had further deteriorated, citing a report from the German military attaché in Sweden, Bruno von Uthmann, describing Sweden’s attitude as “unsettling.” Hitler too viewed Sweden with increased suspicion. In March he refused a proposal to evacuate northern Norway because he feared it would provide an incentive for Sweden to enter the war if the Anglo-Americans seized Narvik and established a link with Sweden. The presence of Norwegian “police troops” in Sweden was another cause of concern.

The German Navy also drew up plans for an invasion of Sweden and reviewed them regularly. The navy first examined a landing operation on Sweden’s coast around the turn of the year 1939–40. This study, however, was only theoretical and does not appear to have been linked with plans to invade Norway and Denmark then under consideration. In the spring of 1943 the navy again analyzed the possibility of attacking Sweden. In this study the Skl asserted that the seizure of Sweden’s fleet would considerably strengthen Germany’s navy. The Skl also declared that Sweden’s navy represented a “considerable threat,” due to the lack of German escort vessels and the decisive importance of the Baltic for Germany. Indicating that it could not destroy the Swedish Navy, the Skl explained that the elimination of Sweden’s fleet required the German Army to capture its ports by land, which it should do as quickly as possible. But the Skl expressed grave reservations about the entire scheme. War with Sweden would reduce, if not paralyze, U-boat training in the Baltic; disrupt supply shipments to Finland, the Baltic States, and Norway, as well as the delivery of ore imports; and end the transit traffic to Norway. If Sweden and its ports could be occupied within days or even a few weeks, the navy considered the operation worthwhile. But if the Swedes continued longer to hold parts of their country, it could invite disaster. This would serve as an invitation for the Allies to invade Scandinavia and base aircraft in Sweden, which would endanger the Baltic—and loss of the U-boat training areas in the Baltic signified the death of the U-boat war. The Skl concluded that action against Sweden without a compelling reason was justifiable only if the success of the operation within a very short time was guaranteed. In view of Germany’s current situation, this was quite unlikely.

The navy, therefore, did not recommend the invasion of Sweden. The reason was that at the end of March 1943 the Skl had considered the repercussions of an Allied invasion in northern Norway. Although the Skl feared an undesirable effect upon the attitude of both Finland and Sweden, it regarded an Allied presence in Sweden as the greatest danger. In the Skl’s eyes Sweden would serve as a bridge to the Baltic, whereas the continuation of the U-boat war required Germany’s absolute control of the Baltic. In October 1943 the question of war with Sweden again surfaced. Meisel claimed that political developments, presumably Sweden’s halt to the transit traffic, raised the possibility of Sweden’s declaring war on Germany. He ordered a reexamination of the May study, based on the assumption of Swedish belligerence due to an Allied landing in Norway, Jutland, or western Sweden. Schmundt looked into this matter, but his assessment was no brighter than the previous one. He warned that the greatest danger from war with Sweden would be the Allies’ immediate use of Sweden as an air base. This would necessitate a vast increase in air defense for all ports and important bases in the central and eastern Baltic, as well as the Gulf of Riga and Gulf of Finland. Furthermore, the mere threat of Swedish submarine activity would require the formation of antisubmarine flotillas and the gathering of escorts for supply transports to Finland, the Baltic States, and Norway. Ending on a most discouraging note, Schmundt pointed out that one could draw parallels to the situation in the Mediterranean, especially the struggle to retain North Africa. Another report on this subject from Naval High Command, Norway, reached similar conclusions.

Following the numerous steps the Swedish government took to throttle trade with Germany in the fall of 1944, the possibility of Sweden’s belligerence arose once more in mid-October. Meisel requested Wagner and the Skl’s operations section jointly to examine the consequences of war with Sweden. An Skl report from the same day noted that several problems raised in the 1943 study, such as supply of Finland and loss of imports from Sweden, no longer had any bearing on the situation. The loss of U-boat bases on France’s Atlantic coast, however, had increased the importance of control of the Baltic entrances and sea routes to Norway. The greatest problem facing Germany in the execution of such an operation was that there simply were no ground or air forces available to fight Sweden. For this reason, Germany had endeavored to keep Sweden neutral and avoid incidents. On 29 October this latest study, bearing Wagner’s signature, was completed. In it he claimed that the most effective way to eliminate the dangers resulting from Sweden’s belligerence would be to conquer and occupy the country, at least its southern half, either as a preventive measure or immediately after Sweden declared war. Wagner, however, realized that there was no chance of obtaining forces to attack Sweden. If Sweden entered the war it would almost certainly coordinate an attack of its own on Norway, probably toward the Oslo–Bergen area or Trondheim, with an Allied landing. One of Wagner’s greatest concerns was that Germany’s sea routes and U-boat training areas lay open between the German and Swedish coast. Wagner did not present a particularly optimistic assessment either.

At the beginning of December Dönitz stressed that the question of whether or not Sweden entered the war was of the utmost importance. He insisted that the disadvantages would be so serious as to outweigh any possible gains. Dönitz explained that he had informed Keitel and Ribbentrop of his views on this subject. On 9 February 1945, at the Skl’s request, Jodl issued instructions to Germany’s armed forces that Sweden’s entry into the war was unlikely and that Hitler wished no directives for war with Sweden issued.

Sweden’s reaction to Germany’s defense of Courland was not quite what Hitler claimed. Instead of becoming alarmed, Sweden’s military paid scarcely any attention to the German troops in Courland. In early September the Swedes ordered defenses on the island of Gotland strengthened due to the situation in the Baltic States. Otherwise, they did not display much concern. In fact, at the very time Schörner’s supposedly threatening forces went over to the defense in Courland, the Swedish Defense Staff ordered a decrease in readiness Although Swedish military leaders considered an Allied invasion of Norway or Denmark still possible, the threat from Courland seems to have escaped them. In general, the Swedes believed Germany was so tied down in defensive fighting that by the end of 1943 they considered an invasion of Sweden remote indeed. Actually, the Defense Staff’s naval section expressed more concern about a possible threat to the Åland Islands from the Soviet Union once it captured the Baltic States. The Swedes were probably quite content to have German troops in Courland.

Dönitz’s attitude toward Sweden reveals an interesting mixture of fear and contempt. He probably would have liked nothing better than to see Sweden brought to its knees by Nazi armies, because Sweden’s conquest and occupation would have removed a potential threat to the Baltic. But by mid-1943, when Germany seriously began to consider invading Sweden, it was too late. Dönitz had realized that he could not afford any disruption to U-boat training. If Sweden survived the initial onslaught, Allied air and possibly naval forces would arrive and gain direct access to the Baltic. Dönitz realized all too well what that would mean. As Churchill later wrote, “Without command of the Baltic we could not ask for a Swedish harbour. Without a Swedish harbour we could not have command of the Baltic.” Although Dönitz was more than willing to threaten Sweden, as the navy’s proposal to aim V-1 and A-4 rockets at Stockholm demonstrates, his intention was never to provoke the Swedes but to cow them into maintaining the course they had followed since September 1939.



For the watching Bernard Freyberg the barrage for Operation Supercharge was disappointing. He had envisaged something more spectacular than Lightfoot. The anti-climax was almost certainly because, despite the barrage’s use of 192 field guns with 168 further guns employed on other tasks like counter-battery fire, the attack front was considerably narrower than before. Consequently, the artillery flashes were much more concentrated.1 It was rather different for the attacking infantry, as Private Jackson Browne of 8th DLI observed:

‘Get your kit on’. And then when the time comes, everybody’s just waiting. Half a dozen guns opened up – pop, pop, pop, pop ssshhhhhwwww!! Then all of a sudden you hear – Bugger! The earth starts to shake. Well, you looked back and saw that lot. God Almighty! Hell!

It was well organized. On each flank – on the battalion flanks – they had Bofors guns firing tracer every two or three minutes so that you could keep on line. The barrage was going now for about two minutes then they’d drop two or three smoke bombs – they were a bloody nuisance… But when they dropped you knew the barrage was lifting. You just moved in.

Never before had British infantry received such artillery support in the Desert War. The tried and trusted techniques from the Great War (as during Lightfoot) were again applicable, as Captain Ian English described:

We realized that [the barrage] in fact was our armour. That was our protection. The barrage stood on the opening line for twenty minutes while we closed up. This was the first attack behind a barrage we’d done and it was emphasized that one should always be within a hundred yards of it so one can arrive on the enemy position within a few moments of the barrage passing over.

Among 9th DLI, it was Lieutenant Wilfred White’s first action:

The noise was terrific, gunfire, shell bursts, mortars, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, the skirl of the bagpipes, the shouts of our charging infantry all combining in an incredible and unbelievable cacophony of sound. And above this noise we could hear from time to time the call of our Company Commander’s hunting horn. It made us feel rather special and somehow comforted us.

Major Teddy Worrall’s hunting horn – another example of the eccentricities of British officers in combat throughout the Second World War.

The barrage rolled forwards, battering a path, until pausing at 0220hrs on the first objective. Both infantry brigades advanced to time behind it, as English recalled:

Promptly at 0105hrs we crossed the start line in formation with bayonets fixed. At that time it was a pretty dark night because the moon was well past full and ten minutes later the barrage started. We had been expecting a lot of noise. We heard the guns behind us and the flashes we could see and the whistle of the shells going over our heads and then an enormous crash and clouds of dust in front of them.

The terrain, seemingly flat, did little to assist the advance. English described the scene:

It wasn’t flat, but it was extremely open. There were little bits of scrub. When you got down on the ground you could see in fact there were undulations and little crests. If you took a quick look at it, standing on your feet, you’d say they weren’t there at all. But in fact these little crests and pieces of dead ground were extremely useful.

Dead ground, however, could conceal Italian and German defenders whilst the absence of any features, except the line of telegraph poles marking the Rahman track, made it especially hard for any officer or sergeant with compass and map ‘trying to walk a straight course through the inferno for more than two miles to an objective which was only a pencil line on a map’.8 Jackson Browne remembered:

The company commander had a bloke – his batman. He had to pace this out all the way. He had a hell of a job. He had to count the paces. Somewhere along the line – it was about 5–6,000 yards we had to do – I think when we got to about three and a half thousand yards we had to stop for consolidation. Find out what was happening.

Despite assistance from 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, which was to deal with a strongpoint on the right flank, it was the three DLI battalions who encountered the greatest problems. Initially, however, their advance met little opposition, as Jackson Browne recalled:

The first thing I knew was some of the Germans were coming out hysterical. What a bloody state they were in. God Almighty! There was dozens of them coming out. Some of them was cradling and crying and one thing and another. It must’ve been bad then right under that barrage. But his machine-gunners were still having a go – the diehards, y’know. Odd mortars and that coming over.

The Māori battalion had a tough fight in fulfilling its task and suffered almost 100 casualties, including its inspirational commander, Fred Baker, who was seriously wounded. The attack was conducted wholly in the spirit of its warrior heritage, as one of its officers, Major Charles Moihi Te Arawaka Bennett, made clear:

We had to fight almost every inch of the way. We were never far behind the barrage which gave us good protection and did some damage too… At one spot we were opposed by a wall of enemy firing at us with all they had. We all broke into the haka ‘Ka mate! ka mate!’ and charged straight in with the bayonet… It was the most spirited attack that I myself had taken part in.

The advance of 151st Brigade was led by 8th and 9th DLI. Ernie Kerans was with the latter’s Headquarters Company when they first met determined resistance:

The barrage was literally raising the dust and through it I could see the single explosions of shells and grenades and multiples from scores of Spandaus and other machine-guns. My Alamein was in full swing. I realised I still had my rifle slung. Bullets were now plucking at our clothes in large numbers. The bullets and bits of shrapnel came like a shower of deadly hailstones and we had to throw ourselves down to live. On the right a vehicle burst into flames and by the light I could see A Company men trying to advance. We were ahead of them but some of them were still on their feet, others were falling or had done. There were tracers amongst them and explosions all around them. Over the sounds of the barrage and the small-arms could be heard curses and the cries of the wounded. Someone in a pitiful voice was crying for his mother.

Kerans, surrounded by the terrifying sights and sounds of battle, did what the ‘poor bloody infantry’ always did in such circumstances: buried his nose in the dirt and hoped not to get hit:

From everywhere ‘Stretcher Bearer, Stretcher BEARER!’ Whatever had been on fire went out and we were just left with noise. Sight had gone but the screams and curses mixed with the chatter of the machine-guns and explosions of shells continued. We hugged the ground and bullets skimmed our heads. Ken took a bullet in his shoulder.

Similar resistance was met by 8th DLI. Men were helpless as they saw mates killed by their side.

Private John Drew’s memories were bitter:

Though we had to keep apart Joe and I kept in touch with one another till we were held down by machine-gun fire… Things here looked pretty grim and it was only the audacity of an NCO that got us out of it and which cost him an arm. By this time Joe and I had got our Gun going again and we began to advance with the section. The next thing I knew was a tremendous crash behind us. As I fell forward I caught a glimpse of Joe going down. Picking myself up, I discovered that, except for a few scratches, I was OK. I then walked over to Joe and found much to my regret that there was nothing I could do for him. Looking round I found what had been the cause of it all, one of the Jerrys had feigned dead. I then picked up the Gun. I must admit I was pretty mad by this time and let him have a full magazine. I am pretty certain he never lived to tell the tale.

As the attack fragmented, control by officers and NCOs became difficult to exercise. Lieutenant Jamie Kennedy of 9th DLI, describing his experiences in the third person, admitted his helplessness:

The company came to tanks, some dug into the ground, and here the fear of the power of the tanks seemed to make Jamie’s men crazed; he realised that they were beyond accepting any orders other than his finger pointing out targets. If a German tried to get out of his tank no one waited to see if he was surrendering; two men jumped on the tank, pushed the German back in, dropped a grenade in and closed the lid.

From a variety of motivations, men in this extreme environment of savage violence and fear committed acts that defied justification by rational explanations of revenge, orders or conditioning. The most basic instinct of survival – kill or be killed – overwhelmed them. Clear concepts of ‘combat’ and ‘atrocity’ were lost, as is evident from Jackson Browne’s account:

Quite a few went back as prisoners but there was a hell of a lot got their come-uppance. You see that list of Montgomery’s – the last list we got, the final one about what he was going to do – he said the watchword is ‘Kill Germans’. So that’s what they did. They were shooting the buggers down like they was flies. Blokes who’d never shot any bugger before were having a go. They certainly were. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It was good from our point of view!

Browne witnessed further callous and brutal actions, some committed in cold blood:

We were having casualties what with one thing and another but we had no problems with mines or anything like that. We found two blokes – one was dead with the barrage and the other was typical German with his blond hair and that. They had a tin box. I think they’d been going to lay booby traps and they’d been caught in the barrage. So, he’s lying there and Phil Thompson from Bishop Auckland shot the bugger. He said: ‘_____ !’ (Bad Language – you know). ‘Laying so-and-so booby traps!’

Distasteful as it may be to citizens of the modern democracies, such acts were committed in the defeat of fascism, giving the lie to the myth of ‘Krieg Ohne Hass’. Moreover, these actions were exceptional neither in the desert nor in the war in general.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Watson’s 6th DLI followed the lead battalions. The necessity of adequate ‘mopping up’ of resistance after the first advance (another Great War principle that was still applicable) was brought painfully home to Watson:

The tragedy was that in our enthusiasm we must have walked over some of these Italians – single chaps or ones or twos – who lay ‘doggo’ as we passed. Undoubtedly one of them killed my RSM, [Arthur] Page, killed my doctor who was tending [the wounded] and also Sergeant Fairley, who … played cricket for Crook and for the battalion down in Dorset. They all three were killed together and it was a great blow. I also think young Vickers, who had just come to the battalion, who was a splendid junior officer from a well-known Durham family and whose father farmed and was an auctioneer and valuer, he too was killed.

Watson, a true County Durham man, felt these losses of his ‘neighbours’ keenly. His men sought out the line of dug-in Italian armour marking the point at which they swung to form a north-facing flank for the bridgehead:

Sure enough, we came across this group of dug-in tanks. It was almost too good to be true that we should find them there. Practically every one of the crews was still inside and I remember walking up to one and the corporal shouting ‘Stand back, sir, stand back!’ after planting a limpet mine that sticks onto the armour plating. It just blew inwards and killed the crew. I saw A Company having great fun trying to set one alight. But we did the turn and we got into these positions. The positions that we held were absolutely in the right place. Then the guns opened up again for the 8th and 9th Battalions to continue their advance.

When the advance resumed, it was inexorable, as Browne described:

The barrage had stopped for that time and then, when it started, it was time to start moving forwards. You weren’t charging forward. I mean, you weren’t more than a bloody stroll, y’know. There were dugouts and such as that and, whether there was anybody in or not, you either fired a burst in or threw a grenade in. A lot of these Germans, they didn’t know how to give themselves up they were in such a bad state and blokes were just shooting the lot of them down.

Private Corley, Ian English’s batman, still paced out the distance:

After we’d gone about 35 minutes from the first objective, Corley said that by his reckoning we were just about on the objective. So I said ‘Right, we’ll go on about another 200 yards to make certain we are there.’ We realized we must be because the barrage had halted and we came up to it and started to consolidate the position. This was at 0340hrs and the barrage went on till 4 o’clock. The silence when it stopped was absolutely amazing. One thought one had almost got used to this deafening noise. Then it stopped and you could see the stars and the moon and it was a different world.

On their objective, perhaps even a little beyond it, the Durhams attempted to dig in. Their survival until the tanks’ arrival depended upon it.

The advance of 152nd Brigade met less opposition. The men, dressed (unlike the Durhams) in full battledress and each wearing a St Andrew’s Cross made from strips of ‘four-by-two’* on their backs for recognition purposes, went forwards to the sound of bagpipes. Douglas Wimberley recounted:

It was not an easy attack, and George Murray and his Brigade did splendidly. Casualties were by no means light. For instance, 5 Seaforth, whose first attack it was, as they had held the whole start line on the night of the 23rd, lost 12 officers and 165 men. The whole Brigade reached its objective up to time on the instant and began to dig in on the hard ground.

In its wake, two squadrons of armoured cars from the Royal Dragoons succeeded in breaking out to the west to attack supply lines and installations. With 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade also completing its task on the left of the attack and with heavy losses inflicted on Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 and 65o Reggimento Fanteria Motorizzata, the infantry awaited 9th Armoured Brigade’s ‘Balaclava charge’. 9th DLI’s Jamie Kennedy wrote:

The armoured might of Brigadier John Currie’s three regiments was something of a façade. Montgomery had ordered on 29 October that it be brought up to full strength, but this was accomplished by supplying repaired and reconditioned tanks as imagined by Guingand. The process had been too rushed and many had mechanical faults. Of seventy-nine Shermans and Grants and fifty-three Crusaders, only a total of ninety-four tanks reached the start line.

The eccentric use of fox hunting terminology was again in evidence, with the brigade assembly and advance referred to as ‘The Meeting of the Grafton Hounds’.26 The tanks encountered various problems in ‘attending the meet’. For one regiment, the approach march was ‘painful’ as ‘the track was narrow and the dust appalling’.27 At 0500hrs Currie requested a half-hour postponement of the attack and supporting barrage because the Warwickshire Yeomanry’s passage of a minefield was delayed. Nevertheless, this regiment, like the Wiltshire Yeomanry and 3rd Hussars, was ready at the original ‘Zero’. However, the revised artillery arrangements meant the attack started at 0615hrs. Len Flanakin, with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, met a horrific sight:

We were in the vanguard of the armour and as we came out of the minefields we fanned out to form a line. I had just witnessed the most gruesome sight I had ever seen in my life. Where the infantry had passed by they had left a tangle of bodies from both sides but the most pathetic sight was that of a Pipe Major in kilt and bagpipes hanging on the barbed wire. We had lost a few tanks in the mines but the remainder of us reached the start line and waited for the signal to advance.

The three regiments used Crusader tanks in front of Grants and Shermans but on the right 3rd Hussars had only three still running. They and the Wiltshires, in the centre, met only slight opposition initially but the Warwickshire Yeomanry, whose path of advance diverged from the other regiments, was engaged early, as Flanakin recounted:

We charged in with dawn not too far off and were soon in action against dug-in tanks and anti-tank guns including the nasty sort, the dreaded 88s. All the tanks by now were fighting their own individual battles and I was too busy to notice anything. The turret was filled full of acrid smoke each time the 75mm ejected a spent cartridge case and another shell had to be pushed in.

Since the battle opened, Lance-Corporal Mick Collins and his team of ‘flying fitters’ had worked flat out to give the Wiltshire Yeomanry tank crews every conceivable combat advantage. Collins described how:

We were doing our damnedest to keep the old Crusaders mobile and in fighting condition. When the crews asked us if we could give them a bit more pep for their engines we were only too glad to oblige. The Nuffield Liberty engine on the Crusaders was fuelled through a ‘Solex’ carburettor that was sealed to limit the speed and revolutions. To appease the tank drivers we broke the seals and adjusted the carburettors to allow maximum revs and the speed increased noticeably. After all, we agreed with the drivers that a good turn of speed is vitally essential when you know there is a distinct possibility of an 88mm shell chasing you with the sole intention of blowing you and your tank apart.

Now the value of applying learning from previous combat experience was revealed:

Our Squadron of Crusaders were able to travel quite smartly when conditions permitted and it was becoming fashionable with some of the lads to indulge in what was termed ‘beetle crushing’. If a Jerry 88mm was being troublesome and was within range the Crusader was driven straight at the gun emplacement and straight over it, thereby inflicting considerable damage to the gun and its crew. This manoeuvre depended entirely on getting in quick before Jerry could loose one off at the Crusader. Now you can appreciate why the drivers wished to have the governors removed from their carburettors. The six-pounders on the Crusaders were a definite improvement on the two-pounder on their previous tanks but even so it is a pity they were not fitted with 75s as on the Shermans.

In fact, some Crusaders in the attack were armed only with the 2-pounder gun. More significantly for their crews’ chances of survival, the artillery barrage, advancing at 100 yards every three minutes, was too slow for these tanks, which depended on speed and manoeuvrability in the absence of thicker armour.32 Those from the Wiltshires, therefore, drove rapidly through the barrage to get onto the Rahman track ahead of the heavy squadrons.