Operation Gallop (Skachok), 29 January–18 February 1943

Vatutin’s Southwest Front was still recovering from Operation Little Saturn and the advance to the Donets, when the Stavka directed it to begin planning for a follow-on operation to crush Heeresgruppe Don and liberate the Donbas region. Most of Vatutin’s units were at 50 per cent strength or less and his supply lines had not caught up with his forward combat units. Nevertheless, he believed that he still had enough strength to deal von Manstein a decisive defeat. Vatutin’s plan was characteristically bold, using the 6th Army and the 1st Guards Army to smash through a thin screen of German infantry divisions northwest of Voroshilovgrad and then pivot southward to seize a crossing over the Donets. Once these armies had secured a crossing over the Donets, an armoured group led by Popov would be committed to push south to seize Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, thereby cutting off Heeresgruppe Don. It was a vision of mobile warfare influenced by the pre-war concept of Deep Operations (glubokaya operatsiya), which had theorized armoured penetrations of up to 200km. Thus far in the Second World War, Deep Operations had only been attempted once before, during the armoured raids against the Tatsinskaya and Morozovskaya airfields in late December 1942, with mixed results.

Mobile Group Popov consisted of the 3rd, 10th and 18th Tank Corps and the 4th Guards Tank Corps, with a total of just 212 tanks. All these units were reduced to one-third of their authorized strength in tanks and manpower; for example, General-major Pavel P. Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps started Operation Gallop with just 40 tanks. Vatutin had transferred much of the assets of the 5th Tank Army into this ad hoc group, leaving the ‘tank army’ with just three rifle divisions and no tanks. This reconfiguration of his remaining armour was done in large part in an effort to deceive von Manstein about his intentions, since the rump 5 TA remained in place opposite Gruppe Hollidt on the lower Donets. However, the mobile group was an ad hoc formation that lacked the support units to conduct a protracted mobile operation. Vatutin expected Mobile Group Popov to traverse 270km in one lunge, whereas full-strength Soviet armour units in Operation Uranus and Little Saturn had only been able to advance 100–120km in one lunge, which corresponded with how far a T-34 could be expected to go cross-country on one load of fuel. Nor was the lacklustre Popov the man to lead a daring armoured advance deep behind German lines, and he had demonstrated an inability to defeat Gruppe Hollidt when he had far stronger resources.

Yet beyond the understrength units and questionable leadership, the greatest threat to the viability of Operation Gallop was the woeful state of the Southwest Front’s logistical support, which was still dependent upon railheads on the far side of the Don. Simply put, the Red Army at this point still lacked the support infrastructure to sustain mechanized Deep Operations. Vatutin’s front was extremely short of trucks and thus he had been unable to build up any forward logistic depots to support the offensive. Even with the trucks available, they had great difficulty moving on roads that were often covered with a metre of snow. There were limited numbers of ZIS-42 halftracks based upon the ZIS-5 truck, but their lack of front-wheel drive severely reduced their mobility in snow or mud. Nor could the VVS help much with transport aircraft – in stark contrast to the Luftwaffe’s Ju-52 transports that routinely provided aerial resupply – since the 17 VA supporting the Southwest Front had only a single transport regiment with 20 Li-2 transports (based upon the American-built DC-3). Furthermore, the VVS preferred to use its Li-2s as night bombers instead of bringing up fuel for tank units at the front. Thus, when Popov’s armour drove off into the white snowy wilderness beyond the Donets, they would essentially be out of supply for an extended period.

Nevertheless, Vatutin believed that Operation Gallop, with the Voronezh Front’s Operation Star occurring on its northern flank, would carry the day despite a host of problems. Indeed, Soviet operational planning was driven by post-Stalingrad hubris and an almost French-style attitude that they would muddle through somehow. In the process, any potential German responses were ignored. This style of planning, which omits terrain, weather, logistics and the enemy, begs for disaster.

On the morning of 29 January, General-leytenant Fedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army attacked on Vatutin’s right flank with four rifle divisions while General-major Vasiliy I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army (1 GA) attacked on the left flank with three rifle divisions. In this sector that was over 100km wide, von Manstein had Armee-Abteilung Lanz with the 298. and 320.Infanterie-Divisionen and the 19.Panzer-Division, which only had a small number of operational tanks. The Germans were hopelessly outnumbered in this sector and they elected to conduct a fighting withdrawal which upset Vatutin’s timetable. Vatutin relied on his rifle divisions to conduct the pursuit, enabling his armour to enjoy a few more days of rest, and committed only the 4th Guards Tank Corps to assist the infantry. Although mauled, both German infantry divisions eventually succeeded in retreating across the Donets at Izyum and Zmiyev. The 19.Panzer-Division pulled into a hedgehog north of the Middle Donets at Kremennaya and put up stiff resistance for two days before pulling back across the river. Consequently, the 4th Guards Rifle Corps (4 GRC) of Kuznetsov’s 1GA did not begin crossing the Donets until 1 February. The 6th Guards Rifle Corps, with the 18th Tank Corps in support, crossed the Donets further east near Lysychansk and mounted a fixing attack against the 19.Panzer-Division. Meanwhile, Kharitonov’s 6th Army slowly moved westward against light resistance, but did not capture Izyum until 5 February and did not reach Zmiyev until 10 February.

Ominously, the first elements of the SS-Panzerkorps were already beginning to arrive in the vicinity of Kharkov just as Operations Gallop and Star were commencing and had been detected on the Northern Donets by Soviet scouts. Yet more immediately serious was von Manstein’s successful effort to transfer the bulk of the 1.Panzerarmee from the Rostov area on his right flank to Slavyansk on his left flank, a move he described in chess terms as ‘castling’. Von Funck’s 7.Panzer-Division, with 35 tanks, was the first to arrive at Slavyansk, just as the 4GRC was crossing the Donets to the northwest. Generalleutnant Hermann Breith’s III. Panzerkorps headquarters also established itself in Artemovsk and selected positions for the 3. and 11.Panzer-Divisionen, which were still enroute. Vatutin waited until Kuznetsov’s infantry had moved three rifle divisions across the Middle Donets and established viable bridgeheads before committing Popov’s armour. Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps (4GTC), with 37 tanks, was the first across on 1 February and while 4GRC went to secure Slavyansk, 4GTC brushed past the city and went on to occupy Kramatorsk. However, by the time that the vanguard of 4GRC arrived outside Slavyansk, Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 7 was firmly established in the town, along with artillery.

Kuznetsov elected to mount a set-piece attack on the German defence in Slavyansk on the morning of 2 February, but only had the 195th Rifle Division nearby. Not only were the initial attacks by this division repelled by von Funck’s Panzergrenadiers, but the 7.Panzer-Division mounted a counter-attack with tanks on 3 February that threw the Soviet infantrymen out of the city suburbs. Kuznetsov thought he could pry the 7.Panzer-Division out of Slavyansk with a little extra firepower, so he requested Popov to bring up the 3rd Tank Corps while 1GA brought up the 57th Guards Rifle Division. Poluboyarov’s 4GTC formed a defensive hedgehog at Kramatorsk, but took no active role. By 5 February, von Funck’s 7.Panzer-Division was nearly encircled in Slavyansk and it looked grim for Heeresgruppe Don, since there was now a huge gap between Armee-Abteilung Lanz and Breith’s III. Panzerkorps. There was literally nothing to block the 6th Army or Popov’s armour from pushing west and south to sever von Manstein’s lines of communication. However, like the Chateau de Hougoumont at Waterloo in 1815, capturing Slavyansk became an object in itself and Vatutin, Kuznetsov and Popov lost sight of the real objective at a critical moment. Rather than simply bypassing Slavyansk, Vatutin decided to commit the bulk of Popov’s armour to reducing the German hedgehog in the city.

Popov was able to attack the 7.Panzer-Division’s hedgehog with three of his tank corps, along with the infantry of 4GRC, from three different directions and almost completely encircle the division, but the city did not fall and fighting went on for more than a week. Given the fact that Breith had relatively few tanks and only modest amounts of infantry and artillery, the stand at Slavyansk against the bulk of 1GA and Popov’s armour seems improbable. The answer lies in logistics – Vatutin’s frontline units were running out of fuel and ammunition and could not afford a protracted battle. German logistics were somewhat better, since Breith’s panzers were operating close to friendly rail lines. Furthermore, Breith was able to bring up the 3.Panzer-Division to the east of Slavyansk, which engaged the 10th Tank Corps from 3–11 February. The 11.Panzer-Division, with 16 tanks, was brought up from Rostov and sent against the 4GTC at Kramatorsk but was badly ambushed, losing 10 SPWs and many anti-tank guns. Popov sent the 3rd Tank Corps to Kramatorsk to reinforce Poluboyarov, which temporarily halted the German counter-attack. Once the Germans brought up the 333.Infanterie-Division and some artillery, the two Soviet tank corps began to suffer heavy losses. Unsupported tank units tend to perform poorly in an extended defence, particularly in an urban environment. By this point in Operation Gallop, Popov’s armour was not being used as an exploitation force for Deep Operations, nor was it massed against a single objective. Instead, Popov’s four tank corps were dispersed between Kramatorsk, Slavyansk and Lysychansk and half his armour had actually shifted to the defence.

In contrast, the German Panzer-Divisionen were depleted but well-coordinated. Many of the German Pz III, Pz IV tanks and StuG III assault guns involved in the counter-attack mounted winterketten (winter tracked extenders), which improved their mobility in snow. By the second winter of the War in the East, German tankers were somewhat better adapted to winter operations, compared to the first winter in which virtually all of their tanks became non-operational. Freezing cold weather still caused problems, particularly with routine maintenance; grease turned nearly solid at temperatures hovering near or below 0 degrees F and road wheels or support rollers without proper lubrication quickly burned out. Although operational readiness rates were poor during the winter battles, by early 1943 the Panzer-Divisionen had learned to keep a portion of their armour running even under the worst weather conditions. Indeed, the ability of the German Panzer-Divisionen to adapt and operate in winter weather conditions in 1943 enabled von Manstein’s mechanized units to slowly regain the initiative. Furthermore, the combined arms nature of the Panzer-Divisionen – in contrast to Soviet tank units – enabled them to substitute mobile Flak guns, Panzerjägers and Pioniers to make up for the shortage of tanks.

Amazingly, the biggest Soviet success in Operation Gallop was achieved by infantry, not tanks. While Popov’s armour and 1GA were tangled up trying to overcome III Panzerkorps’ defence, a handful of rifle divisions from 4GRC marched southwest toward the Dnepr. On 11 February, the 35th Guard Rifle Division captured the important rail junction at Lozovaya. The way to the Dnepr River was open. The 6th Army also had infantry near Zmiyev within 35km of Kharkov. Suddenly, Vatutin realized that a decisive victory was possible and that he needed to extract Popov’s armour from the useless slugfests at Kramatorsk-Slavyansk. He ordered Kuznetsov to shift his axis of attack westward, bypassing Slavyansk for now. Bypassing enemy armour units can be perilous since its leaves a mobile threat on one’s flanks, but Vatutin was buoyed by the Stavka’s overly-optimistic assessment that Heeresgruppe Don was withdrawing westward and the desperate stand at Slavyansk was merely a rearguard action.

For their part, 1.Panzerarmee believed that Group Popov could not get around their open left flank south of Kramatorsk because of the numerous Balkas (ravines) filled with deep snow; the Germans regarded this area as impossible for their tanks. However, the Soviet tankers did not share this view. Late on the night of 10–11 February, Poluboyarov pulled his 4GTC out of Kramatorsk, bypassed the 11.Panzer-Division’s left flank and boldly conducted an 85km night march through the bleak and snowy wasteland. At 0900 hours the next morning, his tanks seized the rail junction at Krasnoarmeyskoye and cut Heeresgruppe Don’s primary line of communication. Although there was a secondary route to the south through the Zaporozhe to Mariupol line, the loss of Krasnoarmeyskoye was a serious threat to von Manstein’s forces because it immediately delayed the timely arrival of fuel and ammunition. In order to reinforce success, Vatutin sent Poluboyarov the 9th Guards Tank Brigade and ski troops and told him to hang on, employing 4GTC as a blocking force. Von Manstein reacted at once, ordering the III and XXXX Panzerkorps to launch immediate counter-attacks to defeat Popov’s enveloping manoeuvre. The SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Wiking, fresh from the Caucasus, was sent to destroy 4GTC, while the 7. and 11.Panzer-Divisionen went after the 10th Tank Corps, still near Slavyansk. Initially, the German attacks achieved little, due to the difficulty of manoeuvreing through deep snow and inadequate support. Poluboyarov had deployed anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns firing in direct fire mode to slow the German advance. On 12 February, one Kampfgruppe from Wiking fought its way into Krasnoarmeyskoye, but the action devolved into a week-long battle of attrition, rather than one of rapid manoeuvre. On 15 February, Gruppe Hollidt was finally forced to abandon Voroshilovgrad as part of the retreat to the Mius River and Slavyansk was ceded two days later, but the German defence along the Donets had wrecked Vatutin’s timetable for Gallop.

On 17 February, the stalwart 35th Guards Rifle Division captured the town of Pavlograd, only 55km from the Dnepr River. Shortly afterwards, Vatutin committed his last front reserves – General-major Petr P. Pavlov’s 25th Tank Corps and the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps – to reinforce the 6th Army’s push to the Dnepr. By 18 February, Pavlov’s tankers captured Sinel’nikovo, just 32km from the Dnepr. Apparently on the verge of a major victory, Vatutin did not realize that his offensive had already culminated and that the Germans were gaining the advantage. Popov’s four tank corps were all virtually immobilized, very low on fuel, food and ammunition, and no longer capable of offensive action.

As a tanker, running out of fuel is a traumatic event. I recall when winter weather played havoc with my battalion’s fuel supply and our tank company was forced to make an extended march without much fuel remaining. One after another, tanks began running out of fuel and we had to abandon them and their crews; I remember tossing a box of rations to my sergeant as we passed his immobilized tank, telling him to keep his men warm and that we would come back for them in a few days. Once the column was gone, his tankers chopped down small trees and made a fire, spending the next three days huddled under blankets near the fire. Their tank was frozen and silent inside and, later, proved most difficult to start again even when refuelled. The main gun breach was covered in frost and, had a round been placed in it, it would have become stuck. I imagine that Popov’s immobilized tankers did much the same, trying to stay warm and waiting for resupply, but in just a few days of this cold and hungry misery, their ability to fight must have been severely degraded.

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Operation Star (Zvezda), 1–16 February 1943

In late January, the Stavka began directing Golikov’s Voronezh Front to prepare for a follow-on offensive toward Kharkov as soon as it was across the Oskol River in force. Golikov’s forces were depleted after weeks of heavy combat, but he still had Rybalko’s relatively intact 3rd Tank Army (3TA), which the Stavka wanted to use to secure an important objective before the spring mud arrived. Marshal Zhukov inserted himself into the planning process for the offensive designated as Operation Star (Zvezda) and unilaterally decided that Golikov’s Front had the ability to capture Kursk and Belgorod as well. Consequently, rather than a focused offensive to seize Kharkov, from the outset the Stavka-dictated plan for Operation Star forced Golikov to disperse his forces against multiple objectives on diverging axes. Rybalko’s 3TA and General-leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 69th Army were expected to advance 200–250km and encircle Kharkov within five days – a very tall order. As with Vatutin’s Operation Gallop, Golikov’s supply situation at the start of the offensive was poor, his units were tired and well under strength and there were no significant reserves immediately available.

Opposing Golikov, Heeresgruppe B had managed to erect a thin screen line along the west side of the Oskol River, to cover the gap left by the destruction of the Hungarian 2nd Army. Armee-Abteilung Lanz blocked the southeastern approaches to Kharkov with two infantry divisions and had fortified Kupyansk. Generalkommando z.b.V. Cramer, another ad hoc formation, had received the Großdeutschland Division to protect the northern approaches to Kharkov and had deployed the 168.Infanterie-Division to protect Belgorod. After heavy fighting at Rzhev, the Großdeutschland Division was worn down, but this elite formation still had an under-strength Panzer-Abteilung with 14 operational tanks on 11 February (including three Pz III and six Pz IV) as well as a few assault guns. In the north, the battered 2.Armee protected the approaches to Kursk from the rest of Golikov’s armies. However, Heeresgruppe B did not have a continuous front east of Kharkov and significant gaps existed between blocking positions. The German covering forces were extremely weak and incapable of sustained defence; if faced with Soviet armour, the best that they could hope to achieve was delay.

Just before Operation Star began, the first elements of General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps arrived in Kharkov from the west. This powerful formation consisted of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Divisionen Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), Das Reich and Totenkopf. Except for Totenkopf, which had to be rebuilt after its protracted blood-letting at Demyansk, the other two Waffen-SS Divisionen had spent the bulk of 1942 in France and were well-rested and nearly fully re-equipped with the best weaponry Germany had to offer. Altogether, the SS-Panzerkorps had over 50,000 troops in its ranks, as well as six SS-Panzer-Abteilungen with 317 tanks (including 28 Tiger, 95 Pz IV Ausf G, 162 Pz III Ausf L, 10 Pz III Ausf J and 22 Pz II Ausf F), three Sturmgeschütz-Abteilungen with 63 StuG III Ausf F/8 assault guns and three Panzerjäger-Abteilungen with 45 Marder II/III tank destroyers. In addition, each division was provided with 7.5cm Pak 40 and 8.8cm Flak guns which significantly improved their anti-tank capabilities. However, this large formation with hundreds of AFVs took almost two weeks to arrive by rail and would require time to assemble. Hitler was adamant that the SS-Panzerkorps would not be committed into battle piecemeal and ordered that it would remain under OKH control until ready for battle. Nevertheless, von Weichs was able to make a case that some of the earliest arriving Waffen SS units would need to screen the assembly area in Kharkov since there were no other Heeresgruppe B combat units in the area that could accomplish this task. Once the OKH conceded on this point, Heeresgruppe B liberally interpreted this to dispatch the Das Reich’s SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland and a reinforced reconnaissance battalion (SS-Aufklärungs-Abteilung Das Reich) as a covering force forward of the Donets near Velikiy Burluk, while the rest of the SS-Panzerkorps assembled in Kharkov. By the afternoon of 31 January, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland had two battalions screening far to the east of the Donets.

Rybalko kicked off Operation Star on 1 February by moving his 3TA across the Oskol River. He started the offensive with 165 tanks in his 12th and 15th Tank Corps, but used his four attached rifle divisions and General-major Sergei V. Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps (6GCC) on 2 February to push back the German blocking detachments, rather than committing his armour too soon. Rybalko also wisely decided to bypass the German Stützpunkt at Kupyansk and make straight for the Donets River at Pechenegi, where he intended to cross. Kazakov’s infantry advance on Rybalko’s right flank, while the 6th Army from the Southwest Front covered his left flank. Outflanked by Rybalko’s 3TA, the German 298.Infanterie-Division was forced to abandon Kupyansk – demonstrating once again that it is best for armour to bypass enemy strongpoints rather than hit them head-on. The infantry division was forced to abandon much of its artillery in the retreat and fell back in columns toward the Donets, hounded by Rybalko’s tanks. However, Rybalko’s advance units quickly noted the presence of the Das Reich blocking units, which led him to believe that the SS-Panzerkorps could arrive in force to defend the Donets crossings at any moment. Based upon this assessment, Rybalko decided to commit both his tank corps into battle ahead of schedule on 3 February in order to accelerate the advance to the Donets. While Rybalko’s two tank corps made good progress toward the Donets, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland at Velikiy Burluk put up very stiff resistance, which halted some of Rybalko’s infantry and forced him to divert a brigade from General-major Vasiliy A. Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps to deal with his unexpected obstacle. Although the Waffen-SS troops eventually ceded the town of Velikiy Burluk, they maintained a salient that interfered with the advance of both Rybalko’s 3TA and Kazakov’s 69th Army. The Großdeutschland Division also put up very stiff resistance, which delayed Kazakov’s 69th Army for several critical days.

Nevertheless, the rest of Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps reached Pechenegi on 4 February and was shocked to find that elements of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) were already defending the heights on the far side of the Northern Donets. The LSSAH detachments were small, but included SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt Meyer’s reconnaissance battalion, some Panzerjägers and a few assault guns. The Germans emplaced a few 8.8cm Flak guns on the heights and they were able to engage Koptsov’s tanks at distances up to 6,000 meters and succeeded in setting nine tanks on fire. Afterward, Koptsov kept his tanks under cover in Balkas (ravines) and sent his infantry forward.

Rybalko’s attached infantry units made three separate attempts on 4–6 February to cross the river, which was less than 50 metres wide at this spot, but each attempt was repulsed by intense German fire. Nor were Waffen-SS junior leaders like Meyer content to fight a static defensive battle, and instead he crossed the Donets and ambushed a Soviet column, inflicting an estimated 250 casualties before returning to the German-held side of the river. Similarly, the Das Reich also opted for an active defence. Once the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Der Führer and the I./SS-Panzer-Regiment 2 arrived at the front, they were committed to a major counter-attack into the right flank of Rybalko’s 3TA on the morning of 5 February. The Luftwaffe even managed to provide a few Stuka sorties to support the attack. Just after dawn, a Kampfgruppe from Der Führer and at least two companies of tanks attacked southward into the Soviet 48th Guards Rifle Division near Velikiy Burluk and caught it by surprise, advancing 10km. Rybalko was forced to detach the 179th Tank Brigade to deal with this enemy action, which distracted him from crossing the Donets. A second SS-Kampfgruppe, supported by 2./SS-Panzer-Regiment 2, pushed eastward toward the village of Olkhovatka. Rottenführer Ernst Barkmann, commanding a Pz III tank, was involved in the attack. Here, the Das Reich’s lack of recent mechanized combat experience was evident in the lack of reconnaissance prior to contact with the enemy. The overconfident SS-tankers rolled toward the town in a frontal assault, straight into a well-prepared anti-tank defence that shot them to pieces; about 13–14 tanks were knocked out. Barkmann’s Pz III was one of three that made it into the village and they encountered close-quarter combat:

At full speed the Panzer raced toward the village. ‘Watch out! Molotov Cocktails! Bottles filled with gasoline burst on the nose of the Panzer. Burning gasoline ran downward…Then the commander saw the flash from a muzzle and recognized a Pak behind a house corner. Opposite, the enemy Pak commander spotted the Panzer, which had closed in to about 30 meters. He brought the Pak around to destroy it. Barkmann saw the blank ring of the muzzle swing toward him. They were still some ten meters apart. ‘Run over the Pak!’ The engine howled. At the moment when the Panzer rammed the gun and pushed its barrel down, the shot roared. Two seconds too late! The shell hit the ground below the Panzer without effect.

After securing the village, Barkmann’s Panzer was sent back to the assembly area to escort recovery vehicles to come and retrieve the damaged tanks, but was not able to return until after sunset. Driving back in the dark, through deep snow and with limited visibility, Barkmann’s Panzer became stuck in a drift. By the time that two FAMO recovery tracks found Barkmann’s tank at sunrise, Soviet infantrymen were closing in on his position and a 76.2mm anti-tank had been brought up to engage the immobilized tank. The Soviet anti-tank gunners were quite good, first destroying one FAMO and then shooting up Barkmann’s tank; he managed to escape on foot.

Frustrated by his inability to just push across the Northern Donets, on 7 February Rybalko sent Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps (6GCC), reinforced with the 201st Tank Brigade, to cross the Donets River further down at Andreyevka where the 6th Army had already secured a bridgehead and to sweep around to the south to cut the main German rail line heading into Kharkov. However, this cavalry raid was spotted and the Germans dispatched a Kampfgruppe from Das Reich that drove it off. Rybalko’s 3TA was effectively blocked and his timetable for taking Kharkov ruined. Instead, Rybalko began preparing for a deliberate assault crossing of the Donets and had to hope that Golikov’s other armies were doing better in their sectors. To the north, Kazakov’s 69th Army was slowly pushing back the Großdeutschland Division, but it was Moskalenko’s 40th Army, bearing down on Belgorod, that provided the means to unhinge the German defence on the Northern Donets. Although Moskalenko did not have a lot of tanks, he used them well, forming small mobile strike groups based upon the 116th and 192nd Tank Brigades. Korps z.b.V. Cramer only had the 168.Infanterie-Division defending Belgorod, which was easily bypassed by Moskalenko’s armour. Alarmed by the sudden appearance of Soviet armour near Belgorod, Cramer directed Großdeutschland to send its reconnaissance battalion and two motorized infantry battalions, along with five Pz IV tanks and two StuG IIIs, to reinforce the Belgorod sector, but it was too late. During the night of 7–8 February, Moskalenko’s troops fought their way into Belgorod, which threatened to envelop the entire German front north of Kharkov.

Combined with the loss of Belgorod, Kazakov’s 69th Army continued to push against Großdeutschland and Das Reich. On 8 February, Das Reich made another attack against Soviet forces near Velikiy Burluk, but once again failed to conduct adequate pre-battle reconnaissance and eight tanks were destroyed by anti-tank gun fire. For the first time, the Das Reich committed a few of its newly-arrived Tiger tanks, but the company commander SS-Hauptsturmführer Rolf Grader was killed in the opening action. After this, both Großdeutschland and Das Reich were obliged to withdraw across the Donets on 9 February.

By 10 February, the Großdeutschland was protecting the northern approaches to Kharkov, while Das Reich and LSSAH were defending the eastern approaches to the city. Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps was still incomplete, since Totenkopf had not yet arrived. On the night of 9–10 February, Rybalko’s 3TA began its deliberate crossing of the Donets with infantry seizing small bridgeheads. On the morning of 10 February, elements of Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps crossed and seized Pechenegi while General-major Mitrofan I. Zinkovich’s 12th Tank Corps did the same at Chuguyev. German resistance at the river’s edge was light, since the bulk of LSSAH had pulled back into a tighter perimeter closer to the city. The original concept for Operation Star was that Rybalko’s 3TA would envelop Kharkov by manoeuvre, rather than attempting to storm into the city with a frontal assault, but this was now abandoned. On 11 February, Rybalko’s two tank corps, supported by four rifle divisions, began attacking westward straight toward the city. Slow, grinding progress was achieved, but Rybalko’s tanks were being regularly picked off by Panzerjägers and StuG IIIs – this was not how a tank army was supposed to be employed. The Das Reich had established a strong defensive position at Rogan, east of the city, which could not easily be stormed without significant artillery preparation, but Rybalko’s tankers only had limited air and artillery support.

Meanwhile, Sokolov’s 6GCC continued to try and sweep around to the south of Kharkov and Hausser decided to conduct a major counter-attack to remove this threat to his line of communications. A covering force known as the Deckungsgruppe was left to hold off Rybalko, while an assault formation known as Angriffsgruppe Dietrich was assembled under the LSSAH’s commander SS-Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich consisting of three subordinate Kampfgruppen. Kampfgruppe Meyer had the LSSAH’s reconnaissance battalion, Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche’s I./SS-Pz Rgt. 1; Kampfgruppe Kumm consisted of two battalions from the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Der Führer and two companies from II./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1; Kampfgruppe Witt consisted of one infantry battalion from LSSAH, plus engineers, the Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung and artillery. In addition, LSSAH committed five of its Tigers to the operation. This was a very large force, including half of Hausser’s available armour and a good portion of his infantry and artillery, leaving the defence of Kharkov short-handed. However, Hausser figured that he would be able to crush Sokolov in a couple of days and then return his forces to defend Kharkov before Rybalko could overcome the blocking position at Rogan. In order to achieve decisive results in warfare one has to accept risk, but that decision has to be based upon sober analysis, which in this case was lacking. The Germans did not have a lot of respect for Soviet cavalry, which heretofore had not been equipped with heavy weapons. However, Sokolov’s 6GCC was quite well equipped, since Rybalko had dispatched it to serve as a mobile group and in addition to its three cavalry divisions, had Polkovnik Ivan T. Afinogenovich’s 201st Tank Brigade (equipped with 25–30 Matilda and Valentine tanks), a multiple rocket launcher battalion, an anti-tank regiment with 76.2mm ZiS-3 guns and an anti-tank battalion with 45mm guns.

At 0800 hours on 11 February, Angriffsgruppe Dietrich began its attack southward against Sokolov’s 6GCC from assembly areas near the rail station at Merefa. The German plan was ambitious, anticipating Kampfgruppe Meyer and Kampfgruppe Witt to conduct enveloping manoeuvres against Sokolov’s east and west flanks, while Kampfgruppe Kumm went up the middle. Straight up, the Waffen-SS found that off-road manoeuvre was practically impossible due to snow that was up to two metres deep; tanks that attempted to move through it would ‘belly out’ with snow compacted against their hull and tracks to the point that they just skidded in place. The Tigers proved particularly useless and one caught fire near Merefa and had to be abandoned. Consequently, the German attackers were road-bound and despite the support of some Ju-87 Stukas from StG 77, they could not conduct proper manoeuvre warfare. In the centre, Sturmbannführer Martin Groß led his II./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1 in an ill-advised frontal assault into the town of Birky, which was well-defended by anti-tank guns and the German Panzer attack was repulsed with heavy losses. Aside from this setback, the two German flanking movements went much slower than expected due to the snow and the lead elements were quickly running out of fuel. By the end of the second day of the counter-attack, the German pincers had still not closed around Sokolov and many of the villages were skillfully defended by Soviet rearguards which inflicted painful losses. Furthermore, the Soviet cavalry was not road-bound in the snow and easily slipped away from the slow-moving Panzer columns. Sokolov was soon alerted to the German pincer attack but, rather than withdraw, he fortified several towns included Okhoche, 50km south of Kharkov; he realized that the longer he could tie up the SS armour in these side-show actions would benefit Moskalenko’s and Rybalko’s assaults upon Kharkov.

On 14 February, the jaws of Angriffsgruppe Dietrich finally closed around the 6GCC at Okhoche. Wünsche’s I./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1 and a battalion of SS-Panzergrenadiers confidently attacked the village across an open field – again without proper reconnaissance – and ran into a hailstorm of tank, anti-tank and mortar fire. One infantry company was virtually annihilated and Wünsche lost a number of his tankers before falling back. Sokolov had skillfully deployed his anti-tank guns and concealed about 25 of Afinogenovich’s tanks inside or next to buildings. After skirmishing with the Germans for the rest of the day, Sokolov ordered his forces to withdraw southward to avoid encirclement. Later, the Germans found five abandoned tanks in Okhoche (probably Matildas), but the rest of the Soviet armour had escaped with Sokolov’s cavalry. At 1730 hours, Angriffsgruppe Dietrich received orders that it was to suspend its attack due to the deteriorating situation in Kharkov and return to Merefa. Although Sokolov’s 6GCC had suffered significant losses, it had not been encircle or destroyed and the diversion of so much of Hausser’s resources to this effort weakened the defence of Kharkov just as Moskalenko’s 40th Army was enveloping Kharkov from the northwest.

While Angriffsgruppe Dietrich was pushing southward away from Kharkov, Moskalenko’s 40th Army ran roughshod over Armee-Lanz and kept forcing Großdeutschland to pull back to protect its open flanks. By 12 February, Moskalenko was sweeping down behind Kharkov with four rifle divisions and it accelerated when he committed General-major Andrei G. Kravchenko’s 5th Guards Tank Corps into the battle. Supported by a fresh infantry unit, the 25th Guards Rifle Division, Kravchenko’s tanks smashed through Lanz’s blocking detachments, cleaved Generalkommando z.b.V. Raus in two and reached the northern outskirts of Kharkov by the evening of 13 February. Furthermore, the Deckungsgruppe left to keep Rybalko out of eastern Kharkov was attacked repeatedly and forced to yield the blocking position at Rogan on 12 February. The Soviet pincers were closing and only a narrow line of communications for the German units in Kharkov remained to the southwest. Suddenly, Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps was in serious trouble.

Moskalenko followed up Kravchenko’s bold advance by pushing infantry units into the northern part of Kharkov on 14 February. On the same day, Hitler gave von Manstein command over both the SS-Panzerkorps and Armee-Abteilung Lanz. The first elements of the Totenkopf Division were just arriving in Kharkov as Kravchenko’s tankers moved into the northern suburbs, but the division’s tanks and heavy weapons were still en route. Von Manstein directed Totenkopf to assemble in Poltava, west of Kharkov, since he recognized that the unit could not immediately contribute much to the defence of the city.

Hitler ordered that Kharkov was to be held at all costs, but Hausser did not see it that way. Both of his divisions were fixed in place holding off Rybalko’s constantly attacking 3TA and Großdeutschland was fending off the 69th Army’s attacks, but there were no significant reserves left to stop Moskalenko’s advance into the city. As the Soviets began to threaten to cut the German lines of communication into the city, by evening of 14 February Hausser requested permission to evacuate the city. Both von Manstein and Lanz refused this request. However, Hausser had no intention of dying in place and at 1645 hours he ordered his two divisions and the Großdeutschland to begin evacuating the city. At 1800 hours von Manstein ordered Hausser to stop the withdrawal, but Hausser refused to comply. Throughout 15 February the SS units disengaged his units and conducted a tactical withdrawal through the city and to the southwest through Merefa. Soviet artillery bombarded the city, but otherwise the Soviets did not make a major effort to interfere with the evacuation. The final rearguard consisted of Major Otto-Ernst Remer’s I./Grenadier-Regiment Großdeutschland (equipped with SPWs) and Hauptmann Peter Frantz’s Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung Großdeutschland. On 16 February, Rybalko’s tankers met up with Kravchenko’s tankers in the centre of the city, completing the liberation of Kharkov.

For a few days, Golikov’s forces were tied up in the congested streets of Kharkov, but on the morning of 18 February Rybalko sent Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps probing to the west and encountered Großdeutschland’s blocking positions. About 20 Soviet tanks, including T-34s, overran two German infantry companies, then knocked out two German tanks. At the same time, Zinkovich’s 12th Tank Corps attacked the 320.Infanterie-Division at Merefa and captured the town. Generalkommando z.b.V. Raus, which controlled these two divisions, was strained on 19–20 February to prevent Rybalko from attacking into the rear of the SS-Panzerkorps, which had pivoted to the southeast and was assembling for a counter-attack. Hausser was forced to detach both the SS-Schützen-Regiment Thule and the SS-Totenkopf-Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung to reinforce Raus’s faltering command. Nevertheless, Rybalko attacked again on 19 February and forced Großdeutschland and the SS-Regiment Thule to retreat.

Desert Generals II

Desert generals: From left: Winston Churchill, Eric Dorman-Smith, William Gott.

General Montgomery with his three Corps Commanders, left to right : Lieut. General Leese, G.O.C. 30 Corps. Lieut. General Lumsden, G.O.C. 10 Corps. General Montgomery. Lieut. General Horrocks, G.O.C. 13 Corps.

But first we may note that even at the relatively late stage following Rommel’s repulse at Alam el-Halfa, one member of the German Naval staff made an appreciation of the situation, dated 8 September, remarkable for its brevity and perspicacity:

In order to safeguard our position in the Mediterranean, to protect Italy, to prevent a planned British offensive, to frustrate the enemy’s plans for a defensive front and to create the prerequisites for a direct connection between Germany and Japan, the Naval Staff believes that the following requirements must be met:

1 North Africa must be held, if at all possible, from the Alamein position.

2 The Luftwaffe must be greatly reinforced.

3 Malta must be seized.

4 The plan of an offensive against Suez at a later date must be adhered to.

No one would have endorsed this proposal more ardently than Rommel himself, although he was all too well aware that while being required to fulfil the first and fourth requirements, there was little likelihood of OKW’s agreeing to provide the resources without which the second and third ones could not be met. Even so, while on leave Rommel tried once more to persuade Hitler during a meeting at the Berlin Chancellory on 1 October to provide at once powerful Luftwaffe forces and at least 30,000 tons of supplies each month if he were to conduct a successful defence against a forthcoming British attack on the Alamein position. Hitler made promises. Tiger tanks, self-propelled guns, rocket launchers and all the fuel the Panzerarmee would need. But no arrangements were made for the indispensable conditions of providing sufficiently powerful air and sea forces which would enable such reinforcements to get to North Africa.

The actual battle of El Alamein had five parts: the break-in on the night of 23–24 October; the so-called crumbling operations of 24 and 25 October, when Rommel returned to the desert, operations which did not clear the way for 10 Corps; Rommel’s counter-attacks and Montgomery’s change of plans from 26 to 28 October; Operation Supercharge on the night of 1–2 November which wore down the Panzerarmee to the point when it could no longer prevent a break-out; finally, the break-out itself, from 3 to 7 November. It is the third of these five parts which mainly concerns us here.

After the battle of El Alamein, Montgomery was fond of declaring that it had been fought exactly in accordance with his master plan. In saying this he did scant justice to 8th Army, Rommel’s Panzerarmee, his closest advisers and his own flair for managing a battlefield. Quite apart from von Moltke’s contention that no plan survives contact with the enemy – and this was notably true of El Alamein – by suggesting that he had to change nothing, Montgomery detracts from one of his strongest faculties as a commander, the trick of remaining ‘balanced’. What he might have said with more accuracy about his master plan is that the broad idea of it – feint in the south, breakthrough in the north – was adhered to, but that it succeeded by virtue of his having adequate reserves at the outset and creating more later, thus allowing him to adapt the master plan in detail and emphasis. This was what is meant by balance. You are then able to adjust your dispositions, concentrations and intentions without serious enemy interference, while ensuring that the enemy is himself constrained to respond to your movements and activities and cannot therefore develop his own influence on the course of the battle in the way he would like to. He dances to your tune. His plans are ‘cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in To saucy doubts and fears’. Yours are ‘Whole as the marble, founded as the rock, As broad and general as the casing air’.

Yet there came a point during the battle of El Alamein when it must have seemed to Montgomery that even his plans were subject to saucy doubts and fears. On 26 October he needed to practise his balancing act, for although 8th Army had driven a deep and wide wedge into the Axis defences, and crumbling was proceeding, there appeared to be no immediate prospect of getting right through these defences and finishing off the job. To do this would require a major rethink and a major redeployment. And the choice of place for the Schwerpunkt of this second attack would be critical. It is ironic that Rommel guessed correctly where Montgomery would be inclined to do it. If there had not been a change, the attack might have failed. As it was, counsels other than Montgomery’s prevailed.

One of the most priceless commodities which may be possessed by a general in charge of a battle is calm. Montgomery had it. He was able to shut himself off from the hurly-burly of a battle, to stand back and contemplate the next step without being unduly swayed by the happenings of the moment, to insulate himself from the heat of activity. He would withdraw to his caravan, trusting his subordinate commanders to conduct operations as he had directed, and quietly make up his mind what to do next. Realizing that the impetus of his offensive was waning, he decided to regroup his forces in order to create a reserve with which to restore momentum to the battle. What this amounted to was that 13th and 30th Corps would adjust their formations in such a way that he could draw into reserve the New Zealand Division, including 9th Armoured Brigade and two armoured divisions, the 7th and 10th. All this reorganization was to be completed by 28 October. Meanwhile Rommel, who judged that the British were ‘operating with astonishing hesitancy and caution’, mustered what reserves he could and began to launch a series of counter-attacks, which the British anti-tank defences and tanks were able to contain.

Rommel was not the only one to misjudge Montgomery’s pause for reorganization. Churchill too, on reading reports of withdrawals of troops from the front, concluded that the battle was petering out, and on the morning of 29 October levelled a storm of reproach at the CIGS, General Brooke. ‘What was my Monty doing now, allowing the battle to peter out?’ was the way Brooke later recorded Churchill’s complaints. Monty was always Brooke’s Monty when things were not going well. ‘Why had he told us he would be through in seven days if all he intended to do was to fight a half-hearted battle? Had we not got a single general who could even win one single battle?’ At a Chiefs of Staff meeting later that day Brooke, supported by Smuts, succeeded in persuading Churchill that the battle was proceeding satisfactorily. It might not have done so without the intervention of some of Montgomery’s advisers.

Having further strengthened his reserves by withdrawing 1st Armoured Division, Montgomery’s initial intention was that the final infantry attack would be made in the north by 30 Corps, while 10 Corps HQ would prepare to take charge of the subsequent break-out. The idea was for the 9th Australian Division to assault on the axis of the coast road and make way for the reinforced New Zealand Division to launch itself westward along the coast, making a hole for 10 Corps to break out. Rommel had guessed correctly where Montgomery wanted to make his final, decisive effort and had consequently reinforced the northern sector with 90th Light Division, part of 21st Panzer Division and the Italian Trieste Division. During the morning of 29 October, however, while the Australian attack was still under way, Montgomery was conferring with Richard Casey, Minister of State for the Middle East, accompanied by Alexander and his Chief of Staff, General McCreery. During their conference, some new battle information came in which prompted an instant review of the situation. This in turn led to a dramatic change of direction for the final offensive.

Up until then Montgomery had resisted suggestions from his staff that it was a mistake to persist in attacking the strongest part of the enemy defences. But now McCreery strongly recommended an alternative – to attack at the point where German and Italian forces joined up, just north of Kidney Ridge. Brigadier Williams, Montgomery’s chief of Intelligence, emphatically supported this view, and Montgomery allowed himself to be convinced, no doubt further influenced by the opinion of own Chief of Staff, de Guingand, who also backed McCreery’s insistent voice. Alexander, well aware of the contribution to victory made by his Chief of Staff, wrote later: ‘There is no doubt at all in my mind that this was the key decision of the Alamein battle.’ Even Montgomery himself, never lavish with praise for others, remarked that the change of thrust-line for Supercharge, as the operation was called, proved most fortunate. It is a view reinforced by many of those who did the actual fighting and achieved the actual break-out. One of them points out that when Dick McCreery was asked for his opinion as to where the attack should go in, and gave it, it was accepted reluctantly by Montgomery, ‘and was successful after severe fighting . . . I really believe that had we gone further north as Monty wanted, we should never have got out of the minefields. It was therefore Dick McCreery’s decision that won Alamein for Monty.’ Allowing always for hyperbole, there is a germ of truth in Nigel Nicolson’s observation on first meeting Lettice McCreery: ‘Of course, you do realize, don’t you, that it was your husband who won the battle of Alamein!’

Supercharge did succeed: Rommel withdrew and 8th Army followed. It was 4 November 1942. Four days later Anglo-American forces landed in French North Africa. While it was clear that El Alamein had been a great victory for the British, whether it was strategically desirable at that moment may be questioned, for we only have to imagine in what a precarious position Rommel and his Panzerarmee would have been if Rommel’s lines of communication had still stretched all the way to the Alamein defences at the time of the Anglo-American landings in Algeria and Morocco. This leads us in turn to a further strategic If. It was by chance that McCreery was at Montgomery’s HQ on the morning of 29 October. If he had not been, would the decision to change the thrust-line for Supercharge have been taken? And if Montgomery had persisted in his original choice of Schwerpunkt, what would the outcome have been?

Let us take two hypotheses, either of which might have had a profound effect on the battle for North Africa and the Mediterranean, and in order to be even-handed, one case will on the face of it be advantageous to the Axis, the other to the Allies. We must bear in mind that Churchill was insistent that the timing of Montgomery’s offensive at El Alamein should be such that its successful conclusion, that is, beating Rommel, would precede the planned Anglo-American landings in French North Africa, whose D-Day was to be 8 November. Montgomery’s second bite of the cherry, Supercharge, began on 2 November and two days later had succeeded in opening the door for British armoured regiments to break out. Thus Rommel became preoccupied with extraction of his forces and withdrawal to another defensive position. Now comes the first hypothesis. There is no change of thrust-line for Supercharge, Montgomery sticks to his original plan of attacking in the north, 8th Army does not get through the minefields, Rommel’s defences remain firm, there is once more stalemate. Moreover, this further loss of momentum while Montgomery has to think yet again, regroup yet again and plan a further attempt to break through all lasts for the best part of a week, that is, until after 8 November. The situation that Churchill hoped for – Rommel beaten and on the run – has not come about.

The second hypothesis presupposes a decision of strategic boldness relatively rare in Allied counsels but which nevertheless might have paid high dividends in one way while robbing the Allies of substantial gains in another. Operation Torch, the landings in French North Africa, was first discussed and agreed in principle when Churchill conferred with Roosevelt in December 1941 soon after America’s entry into the war. Although the American military men wanted a direct assault on Europe, it became clear after Roosevelt’s undertaking to Russia that a second front would be opened in 1942, that this could not be done in Europe. It was then that Churchill renewed his proposal about French North Africa, and despite opposition from General Marshall and General Eisenhower, who regarded the idea as a dissipation of resources away from the decisive area of Europe itself, Roosevelt overruled his generals and gave orders that Torch would take place in 1942. There were still disagreements between the Allied countries, first as to the strategic consequences of executing Torch, second as to the actual method of doing so. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, saw the operation as part of creating a defensive circle round Europe. The British saw it rather as a means both of securing the Middle East, its oil and the Mediterranean sea routes, and of closing the ring, not to stand defensively on it but by tightening it, to throttle the Third Reich. The second disagreement revealed that although the Americans were keen to get to grips with the German armies, they were thinking circumspectly and wanted to land only on the Atlantic coast of Africa, then move eastwards, whereas the British were aiming to capture Tunis and the straits there quickly, so proposed to land as far east as possible.

General Eisenhower’s appointment to command the operation was both timely and beneficial, as he proved a splendid coordinator, and once converted to Torch embraced it wholeheartedly. Like the British, he too wanted to land as far east as Bône. Churchill added his weight to the argument for landing as far east as possible. In signalling Roosevelt, he insisted that to land too far west would be to rob Torch of all its strategic promise, that Algeria must be occupied, that landings at both Oran and Algiers were essential, so that Bizerta and Tunis could swiftly be taken, even if the Allies had to fight the Germans for them. It would all be a necessary prelude to subsequent attacks on Italy. In the end it was agreed that there would be simultaneous landings at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers.

It was a bold enterprise considering the risks being run: an amphibious operation with largely untried troops; a gauntlet of U-boats; the danger of enemy air attack; the uncertainty of French reaction – welcome or resistance? Yet the Axis was taken completely by surprise, so much so that there is a lot to be said for Admiral Cunningham’s subsequent comment to the effect that bold as the plan had been, it had not been bold enough, for had the Allies landed forces as far east as Bizerta and Tunis, with among other tasks that of capturing the airfields there, the Axis would have been forestalled and success complete. With the principal airfields and ports of Tunisia in Allied hands, together with powerful air and naval forces, no German and Italian divisions would have been transported there, the French would have swung completely to the side of the Allies, and Hitler would have been presented with a very different problem.

Given, then, the situation in the second week of November 1942 as we have now depicted it – the Allies established in Algeria and Tunis; Rommel and his Panzerarmee still defiantly hanging on at El Alamein – what would Hitler have done? There would have been two broad options – to continue to put up some sort of resistance in North Africa or to have abandoned it. Given the first of these, it would no doubt have been possible with a supreme effort to transport troops, weapons and supplies by sea and air via, say Tripoli, to reinforce Rommel and guard against a further Allied advance from Tunis eastwards. But to have done so would almost certainly have meant that such reinforcements would prove to be hostages to fortune in view of Allied air and naval superiority, together with their ability to win the race for which side could build up more quickly. Sooner or later Montgomery, assuming he did not get the sack from Churchill, would again have mustered sufficient reserves to mount yet another assault on Rommel’s defences, supported by overwhelming artillery and air power.

Yet what strategic advantage could Hitler have hoped to wrest from further resistance in North Africa, other than that of time? If he were to choose the second option and abandon the campaign there, and at the same time rescue Rommel and his army to fight again another day, it would involve another huge air and sea effort, with all the dangers of counter-action by the Allies, to embark and ferry the troops and their weapons back to Italy or Greece; it would moreover allow the Allies time to prepare for an earlier assault on what Churchill had described as ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’. We may perhaps judge Hitler’s likely action in these hypothetical circumstances by recalling his actual orders to Rommel when the Desert Fox had urged withdrawal from the Alamein position on 2 November 1942: ‘in your situation there can be no thought but of persevering, of yielding not one yard, and of hurling every gun and every fighting man into the battle’. After promises of air reinforcements and supplies, Hitler assured Rommel that the enemy must be at the end of his strength. It would not be the first time in history that the stronger will had triumphed over stronger battalions. ‘To your troops therefore you can offer no other path that than leading to Victory or Death.’ In the event Rommel conducted a skilful withdrawal, even though slowly but surely being pushed further west by 8th Army, and won one spectacular battle against the Americans at Kasserine in Tunisia in February 1943; but even he could not prevail against the combined Allied advances from east and west. He handed over command of Army Group Africa to von Arnim on 9 March 1943 and flew to Rome. The battle for Tunisia went on until May 1943 when the Axis forces capitulated with the loss of all their equipment and nearly a quarter of a million men, a number comparable with German losses at Stalingrad when von Paulus’s 6th Army – Hitler had vetoed his request for permission to break out before it was too late – surrendered to the Red Army. Hitler’s battles of conquest were over. Those of resistance were about to begin.

We may therefore conclude that of these two hypotheses, one – that of a further setback for Montgomery at El Alamein – would probably have made little difference in the end, whereas the other – a bolder Torch which rapidly took possession of Tunisia – would have had benefits for both sides: for the Allies because they would have obtained control over the whole of North Africa and the Mediterranean earlier; for the Axis because the reinforcements poured into Tunisia would have been available to contest the next Allied strategic move – the assault on Italy. Churchill had referred to Europe’s soft underbelly. When this belly was attacked, however, it turned out to be somewhat harder than expected.

3rd Ukrainian Front’s Tank Forces During the March 1945 Battles

On 16 March, the Soviets forces counterattacked in strength. The Germans were driven back to the positions they had held before Operation Spring Awakening began. The overwhelming numerical superiority of the Red Army made any defense impossible, yet Hitler somehow had believed victory was attainable.

On 22 March, the remnants of the 6th SS Panzer Army withdrew towards Vienna. By 30 March, the Soviet 3rd Ukrainian Front crossed from Hungary into Austria. By 4 April, the 6th SS Panzer Army was already in the Vienna area desperately setting up defensive lines against the anticipated Soviet Vienna Offensive. Approaching and encircling the Austrian capital were the Soviet 4th and 6th Guards Tank, 9th Guards, and 46th Armies.

The use of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s tank forces during the March battles is of interest. It had been planned beforehand to use the tanks and self-propelled guns in order to strengthen the defense on prepared lines, and with the start of the German offensive, the tank formations were moved up to these lines.

The tactics of strict defense were adopted by the tank and self-propelled guns – the armored vehicles were dug into the ground among the infantry’s combat positions, or else kept concealed in ambush. In order to facilitate a more responsive command arrangement over the tank formations, they transferred from subordination to the Front to the control of the army commanders.

The tank’s combat formations on the defensive depended on the situation and the assignment. For example, the 18th Tank Corps, having taken position among the combat positions of the infantry south of Seregélyes, assigned each tank brigade its own sector of defense, while the motorized rifle brigade was distributed by battalion among the tank brigades. The defense was organized around individual strongpoints, each of which had 2-5 tanks, a platoon of motorized infantry, and 2-3 guns.

The 18th Tank Corps was reinforced with the 207th Self-propelled Artillery Brigade of SU-100 tank destroyers, which took up positions by battery in the second echelon of defense. At the same time, the tank destroyers had prepared firing positions in the first echelon, to which they moved up during enemy tank attacks. All of this allowed the creation of a dense wall of anti-tank and antipersonnel fire in front of the 18th Tank Corps’ positions, and in the course of 10 days of savage fighting, the enemy was in fact unable to break through the defense in this sector.

Thus, on 7 and 8 March alone, units of the 18th Tank Corps knocked out or destroyed 33 German tanks and self-propelled guns. In return, their own losses amounted to a total of 16 tanks or assault guns, including 2 T-34, 2 ISU-122 and 3 SU-76 knocked out, and 6 T-34 and 3 ISU-122 burned out.

Part of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps occupied positions in the Heinrich Estate, Sárkeresztúr, Cece, Sárbogárd area. Here the defense was organized around company-sized strongpoints, each of which contained 5 to 8 tanks or self-propelled guns. The strongpoints had standard trenches, machine-gun nests, dug-in combat vehicles, and anti-tank gun positions. The anti-tank guns moved up into their positions only in order to conduct fire, but spent the rest of their time in shelters. The SU-100 tank destroyer batteries were positioned in the second echelon, and with sudden counterattacks they would destroy the enemy’s tanks and halftracks.

Tank ambushes were widely and successfully employed. For these, groups of tanks and selfpropelled guns would take concealment on the flanks of the anticipated axis of advance of enemy tanks, calculating to take shots at their side or rear facing. Artillery guns were usually positioned in order to protect the tanks that were waiting in ambush. Combat experience demonstrated that when organizing tank ambushes, it was useful to use decoy tanks, which by their actions were supposed to lure the enemy armor into the flanking fire of the tanks concealed in ambush.

The 18th Tank Regiment of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps, which was defending in the Sárkeresztúr area, adopted a rather curious tactic. When the regiment’s positions were attacked by up to a battalion of infantry, in order not to reveal the locations of the tank ambushes, the regiment commander Lieutenant Colonel Lysenko decided to counterattack the enemy with T-34 recovery tanks and armored halftracks. In this fashion, the tankers repelled two attacks by German infantry and took 35 Germans prisoner.

The SU-100 self-propelled artillery guns showed themselves to be quite effective in the March battles. In addition to the SU-100s of the 208th Self-propelled Artillery Brigade and of the two regiments in the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps, with which the 3rd Ukrainian Front started the battle, on 9 March the 207th (62 SU-100, 2 T-34, 3 SU-57) and 209th (56 SU-100, 2 T-34, 3 SU-57) Self-propelled Artillery Brigades arrived to join the Front. Upon their arrival, the 207th Brigade was sent to the 27th Army, and the 209th Brigade went to the 26th Army. Thus, by 10 March 1945, the total number of SU-100 tank destroyers in the area of Lake Balaton (after deducting the combat losses) amounted to 188.

These self-propelled guns were actively used on the defense in cooperation with the infantry in order to repel enemy tank attacks, as well as to cover the bridges across the Sárviz and Sió Canals. They proved quite effective in these tasks. For example, the 208th Self-propelled Artillery Brigade over the course of 8 March and 9 March knocked out 14 German tanks and self-propelled guns, as well as 33 enemy halftracks, while losing 8 SU-100 destroyed and 4 disabled.

In order to combat enemy tanks, the SU-100s primarily operated out of ambush positions. SU-100 batteries were deployed in covered positions, camouflaged in woods, or on the reverse slopes of hills and ridges. In front of them, at a distance of 100-200 meters, firing positions with good visibility and good fields of fire were prepared, and as a rule, they offered 360° of fire. In the positions or next to them, observation posts were set up, in which there would be an officer who had a communications link with the battery. Whenever German tanks appeared at a distance of 1,000 to 1,500 meters, the tank destroyers would move up into their firing positions, fire several rounds, and then use reverse drive to pull back into cover. Such a tactic justified itself when repelling enemy attacks in the areas of Sáregres and Simontornya. For example, on 11 March, a battery of the 209th Self-propelled Artillery Brigade’s 1953rd Self-propelled Artillery Regiment, having taken up an ambush position in a dense patch of woods west of Simontornya’s train station, repelled an attack of 14 German tanks, three of which were set on fire at a range of 1,500 meters.

The normal range for firing from the SU-100 at heavy German tanks was 1,000 to 1,300 meters, but out to 1,500 meters, and sometimes even longer, when firing at medium tanks and self-propelled guns. The SU-100s as a rule fired from fixed positions, but sometimes from short halts. From the indicated ranges, the SU-100 could inflict damage to all types of German armor, and as a rule, with the very first on-target shell.

Cooperation between the self-propelled guns and other units was implemented in the following fashion. The commander of the self-propelled regiment and the rifle regiment commander as a rule were located in the same observation post or had telephone contact with each other. The commanders of the rifle battalion and of a self-propelled gun battery would personally work out all questions of cooperation on the spot, and in case of need, also had telephone communications. The commander of the SU-100 brigade maintained constant radio contact with the commander of the rifle division to which his brigade was attached. This allowed the transmission of information regularly in the course of fighting and the reaching of necessary decisions.

Nevertheless, during the battle, a number of genuine miscalculations in the organization of cooperation with the SU-100s were revealed. For example, fire cover provided by the field artillery for the self-propelled guns was poorly organized, the infantry didn’t render assistance to the crews when attempting to pass through swampy areas of terrain, and several of the all-arms commanders tried to use the SU-100 in the role of infantry support tanks. For example, the commander of the 36th Guards Rifle Division ordered a battery of tank destroyers to lead an infantry attack. Because of the absence of infantry and artillery cover, the SU-100s came under the fire of German antitank guns, as a result of which three of the tank destroyers were left burning.

A substantial shortcoming of the SU-100, which was revealed in the course of fighting, was its absence of a machine gun. Because of this, the vehicle had no close range defense against infantry and proved defenseless against assaulting German infantry. As a temporary measure, it was proposed to give each crew a light machine gun, and to give 8-10 light machine guns to the company of submachine gunners in the SU-100 self-propelled artillery regiments.

In the first days of the German offensive, even training units were used to reinforce the Front’s tank units. For example, on 8 March, the 22nd Tank Regiment, which was formed from a training regiment with the same numerical designation, arrived in the 26th Army. In a report it was noted that “in view of the fact that the tanks were from the table of equipment of a training tank battalion and were located on a training ground and in a tank park, and as well of the fact that it was 115 kilometers to its assigned place of assembly, the regiment was 11 hours late in arriving.” Altogether, the 22nd Tank Regiment had 11 T-34, 3 SU-76, 1 SU-85 and 1 KV-1s. This unit conducted combat operations right up to 16 March.

As concerns the replenishment of materiel, over the period between 6 and 16 March, the 3rd Ukrainian Front received only one batch of replacement tanks and self-propelled guns – on 10 March, 75 SU-76, 20 Sherman tanks and 20 T-34 arrived from the rear. The self-propelled guns were used to replenish the 1896th, 1891st and 1202 Self-propelled Regiments, the 18th Tank Corps, and the self-propelled gun battalions of the 4th Guards Army, while the Shermans went to the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps and the T-34s went to the 23rd Tank Corps. In addition, a certain number of tanks were put back into service by the Front’s 3rd Mobile Tank Repair Shop. For example, on 6 March the 18th Tank Corps received 20 repaired T-34s from it.

The final German offensive of the Second World War was planned on a grand scale. However, even at this time – spring 1945 was already around the corner – many German calculations were based on an underestimation of the enemy’s possibilities.

In a tactical respect, the German panzer divisions proved to be much weaker than they had been in preceding operations, for example, in the January 1945 Konrad operations. Soviet documents on this subject stated:

If in the preceding operation the enemy had employed broad maneuvers with his mechanized troops, then in the given operation, the maneuvering from one sector to another was insignificant. The enemy fought on one axis using only separate groups of tanks shifted from one sector to another within the boundaries of the formation’s operations.

 

The defensive battles at Lake Balaton in March 1945 are interesting by the fact that the main burden of the struggle with enemy tanks lay upon the artillery. Soviet tank units played a secondary role in the fighting.

Tactically, the Soviet anti-tank, divisional and self-propelled artillery stood out in the most favorable light. The techniques for conducting fire from close range at the most vulnerable locations on the German tanks and self-propelled guns – the flank and rear – were firmly confirmed. In the process, the most combat capable German panzer army at that time – the Sixth SS Panzer Army – suffered heavy losses:

In the period of the offensive, the German command undertook the commitment of tank groups consisting of 40 to 80 armored vehicles each simultaneously on several directions, with the aim of dispersing and breaking up our means of anti-tank defense. With such actions, the adversary obtained no success, and such a tactic led him to lose 80% of his tanks and self-propelled guns, which were destroyed by our anti-tank artillery, tanks, self-propelled guns and aircraft.

As concerns the losses in equipment, according to data of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, over the 10 days of fighting, 324 German tanks and self-propelled guns, as well as 120 armored halftracks, were left burned out on the battlefield; another 332 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 97 halftracks were knocked.

According to German data, however, as of 13 March the irrecoverable losses of the Sixth SS Panzer Army amounted to 42 tanks and 1 halftrack (!). True, another 396 tanks and self-propelled guns and 228 halftracks were in the repair shop for short-term or long-term repairs. If you consider, though, that according to German documents a short-term repair could last for a month (and sometimes even longer), while no deadline at all was given for the completion of long-term repairs, then it will be clear that the German count of its armor losses is quite far from the truth. In addition, it should be considered that long-term repair was related to those vehicles that had to be evacuated from the battlefield. In addition, the German armor vehicles could switch from one category to another: initially short-term repair, then long-term, and then it might be written off as an irrecoverable loss.

In sum, if we take the number of burned-out armor vehicles claimed by the 3rd Ukrainian Front, we won’t be far from the truth. The photos of the knocked-out or abandoned German armor in the Lake Balaton region, which were taken in the second half of March 1945 and are reproduced in this book, serve as confirmation for this. The author possesses photographs of 279 German tanks and self-propelled guns, which were marked with numbers by the Soviet trophy team, of which there are 70 Panthers, 40 Pz IV, 28 King Tigers, 3 Tiger I, 44 tank destroyers (Pz IV/70 and Hetzers), 22 assault guns, 17 Hungarian tanks and self-propelled guns, and a number of other vehicles. At the same time, the highest identification number that is visible in the photographs of the knocked out armor is 355. Considering that the photos depict 279 armor vehicles and just one halftrack, it can be assumed that the missing numbers all relate to German halftracks. Thus, one can confidently state that the irrecoverable German losses of tanks and self-propelled guns in the course of Operation Frühlingserwachen amount to no less than 250. As concerns Soviet losses, then over the 10 days of fighting they amounted to 165 tanks and self-propelled guns, of which T-34s comprised the largest number (84), followed by SU-100s (48).

On 16 March 1945, the units of the 3rd Ukrainian Front went on the offensive according to plans for the Vienna operation. The Sixth SS Panzer Army, after the heavy losses it had suffered in Operation Frühlingserwachen, was unable to offer serious resistance, and it was driven out of Hungary and into Austria literally within two weeks. Its remnants later surrendered in part to the Soviets, in part to the Americans, near Vienna in May 1945.

Hess and Goebbels Gun Batteries at Dieppe

19 August 1942

One of the most controversial raids of the Second World War was the raid on Dieppe, which took place on 19 August 1942. By the end of the day, thousands of Allies were dead, wounded or taken as prisoners of war. The Dieppe Raid has since been the subject of much debate, but within the overall operation there were countless acts of great bravery, including those of British commandos at two mighty gun batteries that simply had to be silenced.

The origins of the Dieppe raid were to ease the pressure on the Eastern Front and prevent Germany from committing more resources to the east. The Americans and Russians had both urged Britain to open a second front, but Britain, already heavily engaged in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Far East, did not have the resources to conduct and sustain a large-scale offensive in north-west Europe. Nonetheless, Winston Churchill had made it clear that he wanted to conduct a major operation during the summer of 1942. Senior military commanders agreed. If the Allies were to eventually carry out a full-scale invasion of mainland Europe, it was essential for a division-size operation to be carried out against a German-held port on the northern coastline of France. To do so would not only help gain a better understanding of large-scale amphibious landings, but would also determine whether the Allies were capable of maintaining forces ashore once a landing had taken place.

A number of ports were considered, but while most were rejected for one reason or another, Dieppe was accepted as a possible target. A coastal town built along a cliff overlooking the English Channel, it was a relatively short distance for raiding forces and so it was possible to make the crossing under the cover of night. Dieppe was also within range of RAF Fighter Command and so raiding forces could be given significant cover from the air.

In April 1942, Mountbatten gave the order for his staff at Combined Operations to commence planning for the raid, which was to be supported by a large array of naval and air assets. One option drawn up was to land a mix of tanks and infantry either side of Dieppe and to then capture the town using a pincer movement over the two headlands flanking the port. Another option was to land tanks and infantry directly onto the beach at Dieppe in a frontal assault, supported by landings on either side of the town. Two heavy artillery gun batteries protecting the approaches to Dieppe – the Hess Battery at Varengeville to the west and the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand to the east – would be captured by airborne troops landing ahead of the main attack.

After much discussion it was decided to proceed with the second option, the frontal assault, which would be preceded by a heavy aerial bombardment. Codenamed Operation Rutter, the attack was planned for early July when tidal conditions would be just right for the assault. It would test the feasibility of capturing a port in the face of opposition, understand the problems of operating the invasion fleet, and test the equipment and techniques of the assault.

The scale of the operation meant there were insufficient resources amongst the British Army’s commando units to carry out the raid. Therefore, regular army troops would need to be involved, and because there had been increasing pressure from the Canadian government for its troops to take part in operations, the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division was selected as the main attacking force.

Intelligence reports suggested that Dieppe was not heavily defended and the beaches were suitable for the landings. The plan was for two Canadian battalions to assault the main beach, supported by Canadian tanks and engineers, after two other Canadian battalions had landed earlier to attack German gun batteries overlooking the main beach. The British 1st Battalion of the Parachute Brigade were to be dropped to attack the two coastal batteries at Varengeville and Berneval-le-Grand, with a further Canadian battalion acting as a reserve to be committed when and where necessary.

The date for Rutter was narrowed down to the first week of July but, after weeks of training, the combination of unsettled weather and the fact the Germans had spotted and attacked the large gathering of ships required to transport the assault troops across the Channel, resulted in the operation being cancelled.

Although Rutter had been cancelled, its planning was not entirely wasted. The decision to remount the raid, this time called Operation Jubilee, meant plans were resurrected. The main objectives remained largely unchanged, with the only difference being that the large German coastal batteries would be attacked and captured by a seaborne assault, rather than from the air: 4 Commando was tasked to destroy the Hess Battery at Varengeville while 3 Commando was to destroy the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand.

Along stretches of the south coast of England the commandos began training for the raid. They would be required to assault the two coastal gun batteries at dawn while the main landings took place on five different beaches along a 10-mile stretch of the coast. A total of 5,000 Canadians and a further 1,000 British troops, including the army commandos and a unit of Royal Marine commandos, and 50 American Rangers were to be supported by more than 230 Royal Navy ships and landing craft and nearly 70 RAF squadrons. It would be the largest amphibious raid of the war.

Tasked with capturing and then destroying the Goebbels Battery, codenamed Operation Flodden, 3 Commando was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater, who had led his men in the raid at Vaagso the year before. His plan was for his force of just over four hundred men to land in two groups on two beaches, codenamed Yellow-One and Yellow-Two, either side of the battery and near the village of Berneval-le-Grand. The Goebbels Battery was known to house three 170mm and four 105mm guns and, situated half a mile inland, it was protected from the sea by steep cliffs. Durnford-Slater would lead the main element ashore on Yellow-One while his second-in-command, Major Peter Young, another veteran of Norway, would land with two troops plus a mortar section on Yellow-Two. The two groups would then carry out a co-ordinated pincer attack against the battery using gullies to conceal their position.

Meanwhile, 4 Commando, led by Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fraser, the fifteenth holder of the title Lord Lovat, who had also served in Norway, would be carrying out an assault on the Hess Battery under Operation Cauldron. The Hess Battery consisted of six 150mm guns in a concrete emplacement just over half a mile inland from the coastal cliffs. Intelligence reports had estimated there were around two hundred men at the battery, with a further two infantry companies in support nearby. The emplacement was surrounded by concrete defences, landmines, concealed defensive machine-gun posts and layers of barbed wire, and was also protected from air attack by an anti-aircraft gun emplacement.

With less than three hundred men, Lovat had a smaller force than Durnford-Slater but he also decided to land his force on two beaches. One group, consisting of C Troop and one section of A Troop, plus a mortar detachment, would be led by his second-in-command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, and land on the beach at Varengeville. The beach Mills-Roberts had been allocated, codenamed Orange-One, was overlooked by a cliff, but offered two gullies leading to the top, although these were known to be full of barbed wire and other obstructions. The commandos were to scale the cliff in front of the battery and take up a holding position in a wood, half a mile inland, ready to mount a continuous barrage of fire against the front of the battery while the second group, led by Lovat, carried out the assault on the battery. His group, consisting of B and F Troops, was to land on the beach at Quiberville, called Orange-Two. The beach was just over a mile to the west and at the mouth of the small River Saane. It was further away from the battery but the commandos were expected to move quickly inland along the river and then eastwards to the top of the cliffs, where they could attack the battery and its garrison from the rear, although this line of approach was known to be protected by machine-gun posts and barbed wire. The remaining section of A Troop was to be held as a mobile reserve between the two beaches and used as required. Once the battery had been destroyed, the commandos would withdraw using the landing craft at Orange-One.

Having left their temporary bases in Sussex and Dorset, the commandos were transported to their embarkation ports for crossing the Channel; 3 Commando at Newhaven and 4 Commando at Southampton. While 4 Commando’s crossing passed uneventfully, the same was not true for the men of 3 Commando. Shortly before 4.00 am, and still about an hour from the coast of France, their landing group was illuminated after being spotted by an armed German convoy in the Channel. The commandos immediately came under intense fire. Their landing craft quickly scattered as they came under attack by fast German S-boats that had been escorting a German tanker. Some of the landing craft were forced to turn back, while others were sunk, effectively halting 3 Commando’s main attacking force. They had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and had been unfortunate to have been spotted.

Remarkably, though, not all of the landing craft of this group had been sunk or had turned back. Six managed to regroup and continued towards their landing beach. Furthermore, the chance encounter mid-Channel seems to have gone unreported to the coastal defences. To the crews of the German patrol boats, they assumed they had come across a planned raid against their convoy and nothing more. The landing craft of Peter Young had also survived intact and completed the crossing on its own. Determined to press on with the attack, the commandos landed just to the west of Yellow-Two slightly before 6.00 am.

Making their way quickly across the beach, Young then located a gulley leading to the top of the cliffs. Undeterred by the barbed wire and other obstructions that filled the gulley, the commandos reached the top. The Goebbels Battery was already firing on the main landing force, now just a few miles away, but with only eighteen men there was little Young could do. The commandos managed to reach a position within 200 yards of the battery, but a full frontal assault was clearly out of the question; it would have meant certain death.

Young decided the best they could do was to harass the battery as much as possible and to prevent it from inflicting serious damage on the attacking forces. Splitting his men into three small groups, he directed his commandos to cut telephone wires to disrupt communications and continue to fire on the battery for several hours as a constant distraction to the gunners. This seemed to have some effect as no Allied forces were believed to have been lost to the battery. After a couple of hours and hopelessly outnumbered, as well as being all but out of ammunition, Young finally gave the order to withdraw; all his men would make it off the beach and safely back to England.

Meanwhile, the group of six other landing craft that had survived the encounter mid-Channel, a total of around a hundred men, including a handful of US Rangers, had landed on a beach to the east of Yellow-One and opposite Le Petit Berneval. But it was now 5.30 am and they were half an hour behind schedule. The delay of thirty minutes had made all the difference between darkness and first daylight, and the landing craft had been spotted by the German defences. As enemy rounds clattered against the landing craft, causing a number of casualties on board, the commandos were quick to get ashore and reach the safety of a nearby gulley. Having then scrambled to the top, Captain Geoff Osmond had contemplated making a limited assault on the battery as planned, but German reinforcements had already arrived in the area. With such a small force it would have been a suicidal attack but the commandos did manage to take out German defensive positions at Le Petit Berneval. However, as they made their way towards the battery the commandos came under a devastating attack and casualties started to mount.

The survivors of 3 Commando had now been ashore for just over an hour but any hope of continuing the attack was abandoned. The order was given to withdraw to the beach and re-embark. But that was impossible. The commandos were now pinned down. Although the landing craft had managed to return to the beach to pick up the survivors, none of the commandos arrived. Eventually, after waiting as long as they dared, the crews of the landing craft left. Unbeknown to them at the time, the commandos they had come to pick up were still pinned down. Those commandos that were still alive were unaware that there was now no chance of getting away. Although some did make a break across open ground in an attempt to reach the beach, many were cut down. Those that did reach the beach arrived to find their only chance of escape had gone; only burnt-out landing craft were there waiting for them. With no option, Osmond surrendered his men to the surrounding forces.

Although 3 Commando’s raid had been disastrous, their colleagues in 4 Commando had been more fortunate. They had set sail from Southampton in the landing ship HMS Prince Albert and although they had heard 3’s mid-Channel encounter a few miles to the east, their crossing had been uneventful. Having then transferred to their landing craft for the assault as planned, the first group of 4’s commandos, led by Mills-Roberts, landed unopposed on Orange-One at around 4.50 am and just before daybreak. They were then able to quickly scale the cliffs and take up their positions, where they were to wait until 6.15 am before commencing their barrage of fire against the battery from the front – the second group were to commence their main assault from the rear fifteen minutes later.

Meanwhile, Lovat’s second group had not been quite so lucky. Their landing was met by heavy machine-gun fire from two pillboxes overlooking the beach. Calling for support from the mobile reserve section of A Troop to deal with the enemy positions, Lovat quickly led his two troops off the beach and towards the rear of the battery, where they took up their positions ready for the assault. Behind him, the commandos of A Troop soon dealt with the pillboxes and quickly made their way towards the first group, where they were to join up with the rest of their troop.

For Mills-Roberts and the commandos of the first group, the peace and quiet of the early summer morning was suddenly shattered and the ground shook when the battery unexpectedly opened fire. The convoy carrying the main assaulting troops had been spotted a few miles away and the battery was now engaging the ships. Mills-Roberts decided to wait no longer. Although it was not yet time he decided to engage the battery immediately. Mortars, Brens and rifle fire – everything the commandos had – rained down on the battery; it was the first the Germans knew that the commandos were even there.

A short distance away, Lovat and his group heard the firing. They were making their way towards their assault positions but the going was tough across heavy ground. Leading F Troop was Captain Roger Pettiward. One of 4 Commandos’ true characters, Pettiward was a complete gentleman by nature. From a privileged background, and educated at Eton, he had been an adventurous and well-travelled artist before the war, achieving much fame as the cartoonist Paul Crum. Alongside him was his second-in-command, Lieutenant John MacDonald, and 24-year-old Major Pat Porteous, the son of an army brigadier and a former artillery officer, who was acting as the liaison officer between the two assault groups carrying out the attack.

As the commandos of F Troop moved quickly between cottages and an orchard towards their assault position, they were suddenly caught by a heavy burst of enemy machine-gun fire. Pettiward and MacDonald were both killed instantly. As Porteous continued the advance towards the guns he was hit, the bullet passing through his palm and entering his upper arm. Undaunted, he continued until he reached his assailant, disarming him and then killing him with his own bayonet; thereby saving the life of one of the sergeants on whom the German had now turned. With Pettiward and MacDonald dead, and the troop sergeant major wounded, Porteous took command. Without hesitation, and in the face of overwhelming enemy fire, he dashed across the open ground to take command of the remaining commandos of F Troop. Rallying them, he then led them to their forming-up position where they fixed bayonets ready for the assault.

A pre-planned strike by Allied fighters arrived exactly on time to strafe the battery. It was now 6.30 am and Lovat signalled the assault. The covering fire then ceased and the commandos of the second group attacked. While Captain Gordon Webb led B Troop towards their objective of the battery’s buildings, the wounded Porteous led F Troop’s charge towards the guns, now less than a hundred yards away. Porteous was immediately wounded for a second time, shot through the thigh, but despite his wounds he continued to lead the men straight to the guns. He was one of the first to reach their final objective, but he was then hit again and finally collapsed from the loss of blood just as the last of the guns was captured. His most gallant conduct, brilliant leadership and tenacious devotion to duty was supplementary to the role he had been given for the assault and was an inspiration to his unit. It was later announced that Pat Porteous was to be awarded the Victoria Cross, one of three VCs to be won during that day.

Demolitions experts then destroyed the six guns with explosive charges while the commandos of B Troop searched the battery buildings and gathered anything of interest for intelligence. The commandos had been ashore for two hours and it was now time to leave. Carrying their wounded, the commandos withdrew to Orange-One where they were evacuated from the beach by landing craft under the cover of a smokescreen. It was still only 8.30 am. Then, having crossed the Channel without incident, apart from some ineffective enemy fire on leaving the beach, the men of 4 Commando arrived at Newhaven shortly before 6.00 pm. It had been a very long day.

As for the main assault on Dieppe by the Canadians, it was a total failure. The naval bombardment had not supressed the enemy defences, the tanks were unable to advance over the shingle beach and the infantry had suffered heavy casualties. Of the main assault force of 6,000 men, over 1,000 were killed and more than 2,000 were captured and taken as prisoners of war (a total casualty figure of some 60 per cent of the attacking force). Naval losses were also severe, with more than 500 casualties, plus the loss of a destroyer and over 30 landing craft. Allied losses in the air were also significant, with around a hundred aircraft lost, more than on any other day of the war. Furthermore, none of the objectives had been met: the assault by 4 Commando on the Hess Battery at Varengeville had been the only success of the whole operation. Even so, 45 commandos had not returned, 17 of whom had been killed, although German casualties were estimated to be around 150.

The assault by 4 Commando was later described as ‘a classic example of the use of well-trained troops and a thoroughness in planning, training and execution.’ For his leadership of the raid, Lord Lovat was awarded the DSO and his second-in-command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, was awarded an MC, as was Captain Gordon Webb.

The men of 3 Commando had also fought with courage, aggression, resilience and dogged determination at Dieppe, but the fight had proved costly, with 140 killed, wounded or taken as prisoners of war; the majority of whom had been killed or captured trying to make it back to the beach. Amongst those killed was 22-year-old Lieutenant Edward Loustalot, a US Ranger attached to 3 Commando. He was the first American to be killed on European soil during the war and one of three rangers killed at Dieppe; Loustalot had been cut down by enemy crossfire while attacking a machine-gun post at the top of the cliff.

For his courage and leadership of the eighteen commandos of 3 Commando, who had landed in the single landing craft to the west of Yellow-Two and had then harassed the battery for some three hours before withdrawing safely back to England, Peter Young was awarded the DSO. His action was later described by Vice Admiral John Hughes-Hallett, the naval commander of Jubilee, as perhaps the most outstanding action of the whole operation.

Although the raid had ended up in a disastrous loss of life, the events at Dieppe would influence Allied planning for later landings in North Africa, Sicily and, ultimately, in Normandy on D-Day. The losses at Dieppe were claimed to be a necessary evil and Mountbatten later justified the raid by arguing that lessons learned were put to good use later in the war: stating that the success at Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe, and every life lost at Dieppe in 1942 spared at least ten more in Normandy in 1944. Churchill also claimed that the results of the Dieppe raid fully justified the heavy loss. To others, however, especially the Canadians, it was, and remains, a major disaster.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Report, July 1944

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, professional soldier, decorated veteran of the First World War, was well liked by the National Socialist leadership and for a time commanded Hitler’s headquarters military guard. In the Second World War he acquired fame as commander of 7th Panzer Division in the campaign in the west in 1940. From 1941 he was the best known general in the German forces fighting in North Africa, and he finally commanded Army Group B in France when Allied forces had landed there in 1944. By this time, he was a sworn enemy of Hitler and ready to collaborate with the conspirators who planned the uprising of 20 July 1944. The events of that day might have taken a different turn had Rommel not been severely wounded on 17 July 1944. When Rommel’s involvement in the conspiracy was revealed, Hitler gave him the choice of suicide, or a trial followed by kith-and-kin imprisonment of his family.

In the document printed below, Rommel confronted Hitler with an ultimatum. He did so through proper channels, that is to say, through his superior, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, Supreme Commander West. Kluge sent the ultimatum to Hitler and addressed to the Führer his own assessment of the situation, which fully supported and partially repeated that of Rommel.

COPY3

The Commander-in-Chief of Army Group B

H.Q., 15.7.44

Considerations of the Situation

The situation on the Normandy front grows more difficult daily and is approaching a severe crisis.

Due to the severity of the fighting, the enemy’s enormous use of material, above all artillery and tanks, and the effect of the enemy’s unrestricted command of the air over the battle area, our own casualties are so high that the fighting strength of the divisions is rapidly diminishing. Replacements from home come only very sparingly and, with the difficult transport situation, take weeks to reach the front. As against casualties of around 97,000 men (including 2,360 officers) – that is, on average 2,500 to 3,000 men per day – replacements to date number 10,000 (of which around 6,000 have actually arrived).

Material losses the deployed troops have incurred are also uncommonly large and could be replaced up to now on only a very small scale, for example, so far 17 tanks as against losses of 225.

The newly arrived infantry divisions are raw, unused to battle, and – with their small establishment of artillery, armour-piercing guns, and close-combat anti-tank guns – not in a state, after hours of barrage and heavy bombing, to successfully repulse major enemy offensives for any length of time. As the fighting has shown, with this use of material by the enemy, even the bravest troops will be smashed piece by piece, losing men, arms, and territory.

Through the destruction of the railway system and the threat of the enemy air force to roads and tracks up to 150 km behind the front, supply conditions are so difficult that only the barest essentials can be brought up, and it is necessary to exercise the greatest economy in everything, above all in artillery and mortar ammunition. These conditions are not likely to improve, as enemy action is steadily reducing available transport capacities, and enemy activity in the air is likely to become more effective as the many airfields in the bridgehead area are taken into use.

No new forces of any consequence can be brought into the Normandy front without weakening the front of the 15th Army [on the Channel] or the Mediterranean front in southern France. The front of the 7th Army alone urgently needs 2 fresh divisions, since the troops there are exhausted.

On the enemy’s side, fresh forces and quantities of war materiel flow to the front every day. The enemy supplies are undisturbed by our air force. Enemy pressure is becoming steadily stronger.

In these circumstances, we must expect that the enemy in the foreseeable future will succeed in breaking through our thin front, especially that of the 7th Army, and thrust deep into France. I may refer to the enclosed reports of the 7th Army and the 2nd Paratrooper Corps. Apart from the Panzer Group West’s sector reserves, which for the time being are tied down by the fighting on their own front and, due to the enemy’s command in the air, can only move by night, no mobile reserves are available at 7th Army for defence against such a break-through. Action by our air force will have, as before, very little effect.

The troops are everywhere fighting heroically, but the uneven struggle is nearing its end. In my opinion, it is necessary to draw conclusions from this situation. As Army Group Commander-in-Chief I feel myself in duty bound to speak plainly on this point.

[F.d.R.d.A.]

signed Rommel

General Field Marshal.

Unternehmen Sonnenwende[Operation Solstice]and its Impact on the Soviet Command

Numbers of Soviet tanks and antitank guns were destroyed by German Tiger II heavy tanks of 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion, but the German heavy tanks also took losses.

Soviet IS-2 in Stargard, 19 March 1945

The Vistula-Oder campaign had ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. As Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front hurtled toward the Oder, they encountered stiffening resistance on their flanks. For Konev, the threat came from his left (southern) flank, from German forces in Silesia; for Zhukov, it came from Pomerania on his right (northern) flank. In the first weeks of February, German garrisons were resisting Zhukov’s advance stubbornly inside a number of older fortresses like Thorn (Toruń), Schneidemühl (Pila), Deutsch Krone (Wałcz), and Arnswalde (Choszczno). As always, Soviet fronts attempting to fight deep battle weakened a bit more each day, as each forward bound took them farther from their base of supply. Konev, too, found the going much slower the more deeply he advanced into the urban and industrial districts of Silesia.

Moreover, a new German army group appeared on Zhukov’s maps: Army Group Vistula, assembled in Pomerania on January 24. The new formation was a typical late-war creation, made up of broken units from the Vistula Front (remnants of General Busse’s 9th Army), as well as from East Prussia (the 2nd Army of General Walther Weiss), along with a newly formed 11th SS Panzer Army under SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. All these formations were thrown together hastily and were vastly understrength, and the entire army group barely possessed the fighting strength of a corps. Guderian and Hitler wrangled over the commander, with Guderian recommending Field Marshal Maximilian Weichs. The Wehrmacht currently had two army group staffs in the Balkans (Weichs’s Army Group F and General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E), and Weichs seemed the logical choice—a man with “soldierly” qualities who was “clever, upright, and brave,” as Guderian put it. “If anyone could master the situation, Weichs could.” Being soldierly was the last thing Hitler cared about by this point in the war, and he instead proposed Himmler, then commanding Army Group Upper Rhine in the wind-down phase of Operation Nordwind. Weichs, the Führer said, “made a tired impression” and “didn’t appear up to the mission,” which was how he felt about the entire officer corps by now. Himmler was hopeless as a commander, but just as in Alsace, he was able to terrorize enough officials and civilians to fill the ranks and to scrounge up scarce supplies, even if he hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with either one.

At any rate, Soviet reconnaissance patrols detected increasing activity out of Pomerania, and Zhukov had to detach troops from his forward drive to protect his northern flank. That task had originally been the mission of his neighbor to the right, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front. Tough fighting in East Prussia had diverted Rokossovsky to the north, however, leaving Zhukov’s long flank open and vulnerable. On February 15, 1st SS Panzer Army actually launched a counteroffensive south from the Stargard region. Operation Sonnenwende (“Solstice”) looked impressive enough on the map—a three-pronged advance with every division and mechanized formation that the Germans could scrounge. The quality was mixed, including the 281st Infantry Division, a converted security formation just evacuated from Courland, and the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division, which despite its name had almost no heavy weapons. Much of the army’s fighting strength lay with the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps under General Martin Unrein. The corps consisted of three non-German volunteer divisions of the Waffen-SS, recruited from nationalities that were acceptably “Aryan,” according to National Socialism’s bogus racial theories:

11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland—Norwegian and Danish

23rd SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nederland—Dutch

27th SS Volunteer Division Langemarck—Flemish

Another of the participating formations, XXXIX Panzer Corps, contained a foreign volunteer division, the 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien, consisting of French-speaking Belgians, or Walloons. Commanded by the Belgian Rexiste leader Léon Degrelle, this “division” was never larger than a brigade and perhaps less than that in Sonnenwende.

Despite the disparate nature of the manpower, the planning was solid enough. Guderian had won a point with Hitler in the prebattle planning stage, urging the Führer to appoint Himmler’s chief of staff, General Walther Wenck, as the actual field commander (Feldkommando) for the offensive. Where Himmler was uncertain and indolent, Wenck was energetic and capable and, at forty-four years old, the youngest general in the German army. He launched the attack on a 30-mile front, with XXXIX Panzer on the right, III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps in the center, and the ad hoc Korpsgruppe named for General Oskar Munzel providing flank protection on the left. The timing and precise location of the attack caught forward units of the Soviet 61st Army by surprise. With its assortment of Danes, Norwegians, and Flemings in the lead, Sonnenwende drove south seven miles and actually managed to relieve the besieged German garrison of Arnswalde. But this relatively impressive opening soon petered out into tough positional fighting over the next two days—the last thing the Wehrmacht could afford. The infantry component—German and non-German alike—was half-trained, and the precious Panzers suffered heavy and irreplaceable losses to Soviet antitank guns, mines, and artillery. Bad luck also played a role. After briefing Hitler personally on February 17, Wenck was driving back to headquarters. His exhausted driver had been on duty for two days straight, so Wenck took over, promptly fell asleep at the wheel, and slammed into a bridge. He spent the next few weeks convalescing in a hospital, and Sonnenwende never did get restarted. Whether Wenck’s presence would have made difference is an open question, but losing a good commander days into an operation is rarely a positive.

Failure or not, the counterstroke had an impact. Sonnenwende gave both Zhukov and the Stavka a case of the nerves. Final victory was in sight, so this was no time to be courting senseless risk. With a major river (the Oder) in front of Zhukov and unknown troubles brewing on his flanks, the time had come to halt. Konev’s front, as well, was going to be needed for the drive on Berlin, and he could hardly fight in Berlin and Silesia at the same time. Put simply, before the two Soviet fronts could strike at Berlin they had housecleaning duties to tend to on their flanks. Zhukov, along with Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front, spent the next two months squashing the remains of German resistance in eastern Pomerania (Hinterpommern—“Pomerania east of the Oder”). The campaign featured a tricky degree of interfront cooperation, with Zhukov’s right wing and Rokossovsky’s left wing doing most of the fighting. At first, the two fronts drove straight north, heading toward Kolberg and Köslin. After reaching the Baltic coast and splitting the province in two, Zhukov wheeled left toward Stettin and the mouth of the Oder, while Rokossovsky wheeled right toward Danzig and the Gotenhafen fortifications. By now, the German civilian population in this region was on the move, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes, desperate to evade rampaging Soviet tank columns. All the German military formations in Pomerania took in immense masses of civilians. Indeed, helping civilians flee to the west became the army’s unofficial raison d’être for continuing the war to the bitter end.

While Zhukov reduced Pomerania, Konev fought a bitter campaign to reduce German resistance in Silesia. On February 8, 1st Ukrainian Front launched a vast, two-pronged operation out of the Steinau and Ohlau bridgeheads (the Lower Silesian Operation). Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner of Army Group Center had two understrength “armies” under his command in Silesia: 17th Army standing opposite the Ohlau bridgehead and 4th Panzer Army guarding Steinau. Both were the remnants of German forces smashed on the Vistula, however, and Schörner had “only about as many field divisions as Konev had armies,” in the words of one analyst. Both German forces gave way within hours, and Konev’s tank armies were motoring 40 miles past their starting line by the end of the first day. Rather than push west toward Germany, however, Konev decided first to encircle Breslau, diverting 1st Guards Tank Army from its original westward axis, wheeling it 180 degrees to the east, and looping it around Breslau from the south. Breslau was encircled (and would withstand a siege and assault for three full months, until May 6—outliving even Hitler himself). But Konev’s decision gave the Germans just enough time for elements of 4th Panzer Army to firm up their defenses along the Neisse River (Lausitzer Neisse, or “Lusatian Neisse”). Konev’s attempts to establish bridgeheads over the Neisse led to fierce fighting against the six German divisions on the western bank and resulted in a bare sliver of a lodgment between Forst in the south and Guben in the north.

Konev now faced a German army immediately to his west (4th Panzer) and a second immediately to his south (17th) and was, for the moment, “contained inside a right angle of German forces.” He had pushed up to the Neisse on a 60-mile front and encircled Breslau, but German forces were still in the field and still active, launching a pair of small but vigorous counterattacks at Lauban (March 2) and at Striegau (March 9) that, although failing to achieve lasting success, served notice to Konev that the front was still active. Moreover, activity on his deep-left flank seemed threatening. Here lay Armeegruppe Heinrici (later, 1st Panzer Army), and once again Konev couldn’t concentrate on the Berlin axis far to the west when a threat lay this deep on his opposite flank. He now decided to redeploy 4th Tank Army from the Neisse front and insert it into battle 100 miles to the southeast in Upper Silesia. On March 15, he launched another massive offensive (the Upper Silesian Operation), both sides battling away in the mountains and industrial districts north of Mährisch-Ostrau (Moravska Ostrava). The initial breakthroughs managed to encircle the German LVI Panzer Corps southwest of Oppeln. The corps managed to break out of the ring—just in time for 4th Ukrainian Front to join the offensive on March 22—launching an attack on 1st Panzer Army from the east. Heinrici parried both thrusts, and the Soviets called off their offensive on March 31. They had pushed back, but not destroyed, 1st Panzer Army, and that may be all they wanted to do in the first place. Konev had neutralized the threat from Silesia, but it had taken him nearly two months, almost exactly the time Zhukov needed to overrun Pomerania.

Operation Solstice [OoB]