Alternative Kursk I

Using hindsight, it is obvious that Operation Citadel should never have been launched, but even in mid-1943 after several delays many of the generals were against the operation. Von Manstein, Guderian, von Mellenthin, Kempf, Jodl and Heinrici are just a few. The aerial photos showed the massive defensive measures that were taking place in the salient. Hitler, Zeitzler and his staff should have known the Soviets were alerted and preparing and would be ready for the assault, but the dictator would not listen to his generals, believing his new panzers would overcome every obstacle. In addition to political considerations, he was obsessed with his heavy armor, despite the fact that the Panther had never been in battle and was already showing major mechanical problems or that the Ferdinand did not have a machine gun to protect itself from infantry and would be tremendously handicapped as the front runner in the assault.

Knowing his armies would be up against superior forces, Col General Kurt Zeitzler scraped together every possible man, gun and panzer from the rest of the Eastern Line, but it still was not nearly enough. It was not enough to take Prokhorovka in the south or Olkhovatka in the north, let alone have the two armies link up at Kursk and destroy the pocketed Soviets trapped in the salient as ordered. An over-reliance on the new panzers and an extreme underestimation of the Soviet defensive preparations and subsequent response were the two major reasons for German failure in this campaign. It can also be argued that the German strategic plan was flawed as well. They were abandoning the virtues of Blitzkrieg and using their armor as battering rams and General Hoth made the situation worse by deploying the Panther Brigade in the worst terrain sector possible for armor, placing his new panzers at a larger disadvantage. This difficult situation was made even worse when 2nd SS PzC was directed toward Prokhorovka, further weakening their primary axis of advance when 48th PzC was allowed to continue its trek toward Oboyan. While there was good reason to move toward Prokhorovka, Hoth should have abandoned his attack toward Oboyan, contracting 48th PzC sector to the east and allowed this corps to support 2nd SS PzC in its drive across the Psel River and through the corridor. Clearly 4th PzA did not have the resources to continue an assault on both Oboyan and Prokhorovka. To make matters worse, the 3rd PzC on the other flank had to launch from a start line further south than the other two panzers corps, cross the Donets River, head further east toward Korocha, enlarging their attack sector needlessly to catch up to the SS and do it with a deficiency of infantry and air support.

It is difficult for me to view the German perspective without the benefit of hindsight but it is clear that Hitler, and especially Hoth, had already forgotten the defensive stance the Soviets were capable of, as at Stalingrad, or the costs incurred by a bad strategic move. An objective became too difficult, too costly, too time consuming yet efforts continued to capture it, allowing the Soviets to wear down the German forces and affording them time to concentrate forces for a counter-attack such as that which resulted in the loss of 6th Army or the subsequent drubbing AGS received as they were pushed back to the Donets River. Even without hindsight, knowing large concentrations of Soviet forces were assembling in the Orel and south of Kharkov areas, as well as the fact that for this operation to be successful the two German armies would each have had to travel close to 70 miles to link up while maintaining flank protection on both sides of their assault spearhead, it seems over ambitious and an unreasonable risk at that stage of the war. Field Marshals von Manstein and Kluge knew their opponents, had gone up against Rokossovsky and Vatutin before and knew them as smart and aggressive commanders that would put up a difficult and costly defense. Ironically, it seems the Stavka has a short memory as well. Operation Uranus was so successful, why did not the Soviets attempt an encirclement of 4th PzA in a similar manner? With both Voronezh and Steppe Fronts properly deployed and attacking at the proper time, it seems highly likely that 4th PzA would have been destroyed or at least fatally wounded and with no German reserves available the Soviets had little to fear of a counter-attack on the scale that had occurred at Kharkov the previous two springs.

If you extend your thinking beyond actual events, it is probably a good thing 4th PzA did not get beyond Prokhorovka or 9th Army past Olkhovatka, for that would have extended their lines of communications and flanks thus weakening their defenses on both eastern and western flanks of the corridor that they were developing. When Operation Kutuzov launched, Lt General Walter Model would not have had as many panzer divisions to deploy to Orel and when Operation Rumyantsev launched in early August, Hoth probably would have been unable to fight his way south to Kharkov, let alone send forces south to 6th Army to defend against the major assault by Southwestern Front.

I would argue Col General Heinz Guderian was right when he strongly defended his position that the German Army should have stayed defensive during the summer of 1943 and waited for Stalin to make the first move. The Wehrmacht would not have gone up against such formidable defenses at Kursk which levied such a heavy toll, the bugs of the Panther and Ferdinand could have been worked out and new supplies of panzers could have helped restore the panzer divisions as well as give the infantry a little more time to refit and train.

Let us replace the pessimism and say Hoth and Model had a chance to succeed and the operation should have launched as planned, but when it got off to an unsatisfactory start for the two flanks, I submit, von Manstein and Hoth did not do enough to resolve the existing battlefield conditions. Going against von Manstein’s wishes, Hoth, favoring 48th PzC, allowed 3rd PzC to languish in the east. The original plan for Kempf to fight his way to Korocha to provide flank protection also seems unreasonable after seeing how the campaign started for General Kempf. For Hoth to continue to ignore this corps as the days passed and as the corps continued to fall behind, leaving a critical gap in the German line and the subsequent problems it caused for the 2nd SS PzC, was truly an error of judgement.

On the western flank, Col General Hoth could see 48th PzC struggling to reach the Psel River in the Oboyan sector, which was predominately caused by an over-extended front line when the 2nd SS PzC shifted to the northeast away from 48th PzC. The situation worsened when Hoth wanted 48th PzC to drive further west to control the Berezovka-Kruglik road. It was potentially an important road and one that should be kept from the Soviets (but less so with the shift toward Prokhorovka) but when you do not have enough forces to get the job done without interfering with your primary objective then you should back away. With the combined stiff resistance in the north as well as on the western flank General Hoth should have pulled his forces back to east of the Pena River line, but did not and this was another error of judgement.

Starting on the afternoon of 7/8, GD had to shift assets to the west to assist 3rd PzD in protecting and expanding the flank. By the next day, most of the division had been diverted from the northern assault and for the rest of the campaign GD had little to do with the northern advance. At this point, the chance for the 48th PzC to cross the Psel in force was unattainable and there were no clear alternative solutions to 4th PzA’s problems, but it could clearly be seen that 48th PzC had failed their mission as planned and remedial action needed to be taken immediately. With the far eastern flank also failing their mission, it is reasonable to consider a restriction of the flanks, to between the Pena River line in the west and the Lipovyi Donets River or Northern Donets River line in the east, as a plausible alternative. If these restrictions had been in place earlier, or better still from the beginning of the campaign, it would appear SSTK could have fought alongside LAH through much of the campaign, while allowing 3rd PzC to safeguard the flank with the help of the natural barrier of the Lipovyi Donets River. Here again, there are no guarantees and despite the increase in traffic congestion, my supposition is that it would have fostered greater results than the original way. I believe this narrower attack axis should have been part of the original plan, not an after thought. Having the entire SS Corps driving north and having the Panther Brigade as their backup, while the two other corps covered the flanks of a smaller area, the chances would have been good that the SS could have reached the Psel River and the Prokhorovka corridor before 5th GA and 5th GTA arrived. To avoid road congestion within the smaller attack zone, the 3rd PzC could have been phased into the battle along the Lipovyi Donets as the SS advanced northward. If battlefield conditions warranted it, once the SS reached Teterevino South or more likely the Kalinin line, the 3rd PzC could have shifted eastward beyond the Lipovyi and expanded their attack zone to the Invanovka-Zhilomostnoe axis or even to the western bank of the Northern Donets in preparation for the attack on Pravorot, Iamki and Prokhorovka. This expansion would reduce congestion and place an extra tactical burden on the Soviets while reducing the pressure on the SS as the 3rd PzC headed north, but under this scenario the German line between the two corps would be unified and the entire 2nd SS Corps would be advancing in step toward Prokhorovka, its corridor and the Psel River. If conditions were not conducive to expansion the 3rd PzC could stay behind the Lipovyi River line and protect the SS’s flank, as its been doing since the start of the campaign. Extending this scenario, if the 3rd PzC had advanced with the SS, it would have been even harder for the 5th GTA to launch an attack from where they did, causing 5th GTA to be more disadvantaged than they actually were. With all three divisions of the 2nd SS PzC advancing northward and allowing the 3rd PzC to handle the eastern flank from west of the river, advancement should have achieved a more dramatic pace, which would have given General Vatutin a whole new set of problems to contend with. With his plate already full, it would have been interesting to see how Vatutin handled this scenario; this extra burden with 4th PzA already across the Psel and into the corridor past Prokhorovka, probably as far as Kartashevka, without the aid of his two reserve armies could be traumatizing even for a man like Vatutin. Plus, how would 5th GA and 5th GTA have attacked the Germans from their new positions and how would Stavka have reacted to this situation? The possibilities are intriguing.

As an alternative to the Pena River to Lipovyi River attack zone, the Vorskla River to Ramzumnaia River or the Vorskla to Koren River attack zone could have been used. They had the disadvantage of having two rivers between the 2nd SS PzC and 3rd PzC but would have given the German forces more room to work while avoiding the worse parts of the original western attack zone. They would also have allowed the Panther Brigade, or at least half of it, to fight on favourable terrain east of the Donets. With the Panthers divided between the three panzer divisions, it would have allowed the Tiger Battalion, the sPzAbt 503, to stay intact. A spearhead of 45 Tigers could have been successful in clearing a path to Rzhavets. Both the Ramzumnaia River and Koren River run parallel to the Donets River. The Ramzumnaia is about seven miles east while the Koren is about 14 miles east of the Donets.

While there are pros and cons to a narrower attack zone, several advantages of a reduced attack zone come to mind. The reduced land area would mean fewer strongpoints would have to be fought over and that includes fewer mines to avoid and clear as well as fewer tank traps and dug-in Pak fronts to overcome. The men and weapons in those strongpoints would have to leave the relative safety of their defenses and advance on the Germans, giving the Germans greater parity. Also, with too few planes to support the ground assault, a smaller attack area would allow the available planes a better chance to cover the battlefield and when those Soviet forces left their prepared defenses to attack the German line, those planes could exploit the situation to the fullest. On the western front, strongpoints at Cherkasskoe, Korovino, Rakovo, Berezovka, Kruglik and a number of fortified hills could have been avoided. On the far eastern flank, strongpoints including Staryi Gorod, Iastrebovo, Blizhniaia Igumenka, Miasoedovo, Melikhovo, Shliakhovo, Kazache, Aleksandrovka and Rzhavets, to name a few, could have been avoided. The above battle sites cost the German forces dearly in time and many casualties of men and armor. When the garrisons of these sites were forced to leave their defenses and attack the enemy, it would have naturally cost the Germans time and casualties to defend themselves but most likely not as much as actual results and correspondingly would be more expensive to the Soviet side. By June the Germans had photographed the entire battlefield and should have known the areas of difficult terrain, useable road networks and of course the many difficult strongpoints to overcome and yet they made no appreciable changes to their existing attack plan, forging ahead to have Oboyan their primary axis of attack. The only practical way for 48th PzC to reach Oboyan en masse, especially with all the rain and subsequent muddy conditions, was by way of the Belgorod-Oboyan Road and General Vatutin had amassed so many reserves on this route that it would have been impossible for 48th PzC in its present condition to breakthrough, cross the Psel and enter the town. I find it hard to accept that with all the aerial reconnaissance Hoth received in addition to the stiff resistance of the enemy that he did not take major remedial actions concerning the Oboyan axis and 48th PzC’s deployment. The photos the German Command received clearly showed the 48th PzC sector had the worse terrain for armor and even with the extra punch of the Panther Brigade to compensate this was not the best axis to take. Add the fact that the corps would also have flank duties and one can clearly see this section should not have been the main axis of attack. In conjunction with the corps placement, the German strategy was not well thought out. Although I do not believe it was the case, let’s assume the attack axes of the three corps were well chosen for the beginning of the offensive. However, it does not appear the battle plans once past Oboyan and Prokhorovka were ever seriously considered. By the time the Germans crossed the Psel River line the salient that had been carved out had expanded greatly in both width and certainly in length; it makes you wonder what the Germans were thinking of when they chose this operation. When one adds in the difficulties of crossing the Psel and having two corps separated by the two Donets rivers besides giving the enemy months to prepare, the odds of success drastically plummeted. With the expanded line to defend plus the already considerable attrition and with no reserves what was Hoth planning to do? How could Hoth allow the two divisions of the SS attempt to fight their way into the corridor, even as far as only the Kartashevka road, with his two flanks completely stymied and fending off flank attacks, preventing any appreciable flank protection for the SS while in the corridor? Again, a battle plan based on a narrower front from the start had its advantages and probably would have given the 4th PzA a deeper penetration toward Kursk.

FM von Manstein wanted to continue the campaign on 7/13 when Adolf Hitler canceled it. In this circumstance, I would argue that Hitler was correct and von Manstein wrong. The chance to encircle the bulk of 48th RC, which had already fallen back, was practically gone and to attempt to chase it down afterwards with the remains of General Konev’s Steppe Front close enough to intercede if necessary, was too dangerous considering the condition and disposition of 2nd SS PzC and 3rd PzC at the time. It could also be argued that Hitler waited too long to cancel the operation. With the attrition, both German Armies suffered by 7/10 and the fact that Soviet resistance was still strong, it could clearly be seen that the original plan to meet at Kursk and destroy the trapped enemy was never going to happen. And though 69th Army had fallen back from their original defense line, the new defense line south of Prokhorovka was still strong enough to prevent Das Reich from providing strong support to LAH in its attempt to take the rail village on 7/12. As it turned out, the tank battles of 7/12 favored the Germans, but 4th PzA was at an offensive end by the end of 7/12 and cancelation of the operation was the right action. The worse results of 9th Army only fortifies the position that Operation Citadel should have been canceled earlier.

Col General Vatutin made some mistakes as well; he made enough mistakes that Stalin felt compelled to send Marshal Zhukov to Kursk to oversee the battle zone. He had built an impressive defense system that included Pak fronts, dug-in tanks, an effective maze of mutually defending trenches, many anti-tank trenches and huge minefields and yet he made numerous redeployments and numerous counter-attacks, forcing his tank brigades to launch offensives prematurely, before they were ready or coordinated with each other. The results on several occasions were costly. Vatutin forced General Rotmistrov’s 5th GTA to attack practically as soon as it arrived in sector from an area that was not well suited for an offensive against the strongest part of the German line. Considering where the German line was at the end of day of 7/11, I submit that if 5th GA and 5th GTA had had a defensive posture for the next few days, say to 7/14, to wear down the SS Corps even further after the Germans resumed their advance on 7/12, then the Germans could have been eventually pushed back enough to allow 5th GTA to gain a better launch point. This would have probably resulted in losing fewer tanks and valuable tank crews when Rotmistrov’s offensive was finally launched. I know that a passive defense was looked down on by Vatutin, Zhukov and Stalin but in this case, waiting a day or two before counter-attacking would have been beneficial. Vatutin felt compelled to attack as soon as possible to avoid allowing 3rd PzC to reach Das Reich and solidify the eastern line, but that threat was not as large as he thought. The entire Kempf detachment had less than 100 working panzers on 7/12 and these panzer groups were spread out over much of the sector. Elements of 69th Army and all of 7th GA were constantly resisting and in fact, in a few areas of the line, were nearing penetration. Though the 7th PzD, with about 35 working panzers, was Kempf’s strongest division by this time, it still could not concentrate enough strength to be able to reach and then assist the 2nd SS PzC in time to take Prokhorovka.

It could also be said that Vatutin’s use of his tank corps was ill-advised. From July 7th onwards these tank corps made repeated attacks to slow or stop the Germans from driving through the second defensive belt or reaching the third belt. By July 7th it was too late to stop the enemy from breaking through the second belt and to attack the leading Tigers companies on the flats leading to the third belt was foolhardy. By the 12th, these Soviet corps were, for the most part, at half strength. With the third defensive belt’s many advantages – the high northern banks of the Psel, numerous hills critically located plus the prepared defenses – these tank corps at or near full strength could have had a more destructive impact from behind these defenses when the Germans attacked on the morning of the 12th than going head to head in open ground. This is especially true in preventing SSTK in crossing the Psel and establishing a bridgehead on the northern banks of the river.

David Schranck

Alternative Kursk II

Proposed alternate offensive, Southern Salient, July 12th 1943.

Several other alternative attack plans that Vatutin could have tried, that probably would have worked better, resulting in fewer casualties for him and greater destruction of 4th PzA, seem feasible. Here is one crazy idea that might have worked: While the terrain in parts of the Belenikhino sector was rugged and not conducive for major tank offensives on the scale of 5th GTA, the terrain east of the Donets in the 7th GA sector was better. What if the 18th TC and 29th TC, along with adequate air cover, had struck 3rd PzC or even 11th IC on its eastern flank? The 5th GTA could probably have rolled Kempf’s forces fairly easily for they were spread out, exhausted and not prepared for a major flank/rear armor attack. By the end of 7/12, Kempf had his less than 100 working panzers and assault guns already engaged and having a difficult time in securing their objectives. It does not seem possible that General Breith could have created a new shock group while maintaining his current defenses to either reach Das Reich or combat this new attack spearhead. After reducing 3rd PzC, the tankers could have continued west, penetrated the 167th ID line and got behind the 2nd SS PzC, cutting off communications and crushing Hausser’s corps between itself, 7th GA, 69th Army and 5th GA. It may be a novel idea, but it was certainly feasible. I do not suggest that this flank assault would be easy. Though there were clear avenues of attack, there were not any major paved highways and there were several rivers to cross, but with the proper bridge equipment the assault could still have been effective. The 5th GMC would have been detached from 5th GTA and sent to the Kartashevka-Prokhorovka road area to stop SSTK from accomplishing their objectives. In fact, with the support of elements of the 32nd GRC and 33rd GRC of 5th GA, the three recently arrived corps had a good chance to prevent the SSTK’s bridgehead from reaching Kartashevka road in any meaningful way. In this scenario, when it was discovered that the 5th GTA had attacked and penetrated the 3rd PzC eastern and or northern line, the entire 4th PzA would have to go on the defensive, eliminating the chance for further gains to the north.

Another alternative attack plan also deals with the SSTK bridgehead but as the primary assault, not secondary. Instead of attacking LAH as they did on 7/12, the 5th GTA (18th TC, 29th TC) should have attacked SSTK in their northern bridgehead. The defenses of SSTK were not nearly as elaborate or as well defended as LAH’s, plus the Soviet tanks, though still having to cope with a ravine or two, had greater freedom of movement within the bend of the Psel River. When SSTK advanced northward from Hill 226.6 toward Hill 236.7 which straddled the Kartashevka road, the division was spread out and became vulnerable to a massive counter-attack. If General Rotmistrov, supported by a coordinated air attack and the many guns deployed along the river, had waited until SSTK was approaching Hill 236.7 before attacking, he had an excellent chance to isolate and destroy much of Priess’s division north of the river, which by this time was vulnerable. Much of 5th GA was already deployed in the area and the combined strength of the two armies against SSTK in its own mini-salient should have been overwhelming. With SSTK losing many men and panzers as well as their bridgehead in this offensive, it seems reasonable that the entire northern German line from Novoselovka to Prokhorovka would soon become untenable, as 5th GTA / 5th GA crossed the swollen Psel River, forcing 4th PzA to fall back within days to save itself. As a precautionary measure, the 5th GMC would have deployed near Hill 252.4 to make sure LAH did not advance too much or in case 69th Army needed help against Das Reich or 3rd PzC. Generals Vatutin and Rotmistrov had wanted to destroy the entire 2nd SS PzC in this single attack, but that battle plan had been too ambitious, especially from the improvised launch point. Vatutin had anticipated what SSTK was going to do on 7/12; Priess had to drive north to screen LAH’s left flank as it drove on Prokhorovka. General Vatutin should have seen the vulnerability of SSTK in the salient that they would develop and taken advantage of it, but he was over confident and impatient, wanting to destroy the entire 2nd SS PzC in one morning. He should have allowed the panzers of SSTK become extended north of the Psel and separated from their grenadiers before launching a major assault.

Generals Vatutin and Rotmistrov defended their actions by saying that perhaps the main objective of destroying the 2nd SS PzC had failed but at least the Germans were stopped from advancing further north. While there is some truth behind their defense, it is also true to say that a golden opportunity to destroy a good deal of 4th PzA was wasted by poor planning. It is no wonder Stalin was considering sacking both of his generals.

I saved my favorite scenario until last. It is similar to one of the above-mentioned alternatives, but it is on a larger scale which was probably necessary, as while the German force had taken many casualties by 7/12, it was still a force to be respected. Here is the last alternative:

It can also be argued that Stavka made a strategic mistake by waiting too long to launch Operation Rumyantsev. Ideally, if this counter offensive had started between 7/12 and 7/15, while 4th PzA was still deployed along the Novoselovka-Prokhorovka line, then there was a very good chance of pocketing much of the 4th PzA. As it was, Stavka waited another several weeks and by that time the 4th PzA was backing away from their vulnerability.

Let me suggest that the ideal offensive would have been a two-prong pincer attack, on the order of Operation Uranus, that would drive behind the German front line from the east and west, but that assault would have taken months to plan and deploy. It was not done, but an operation of lesser dimensions and complexity could have been put together in less time that could have resulted with a major upheaval against the Germans.

Briefly this multi-army attack could have come from the east not north, attacking the vulnerable east flank of 3rd PzC where 198th and 106th IDs were defending. If Steppe Front’s 47th and 53rd Armies, which also had attached the 4th GTC and 1st MC (400 tanks), had deployed and been ready to attack not far from the Koren River by 7/12 and if Vatutin had used the 18th TC and 29th TC of 5th GTA along with these other two armies, there would have been an excellent chance of penetrating the eastern line defended by the German infantry (11th IC and 198th ID) and overwhelming the 3rd PzC which by 7/12 had been widely deployed for the most part along the Donets River from Krivtsovo to Ryndinka and along the Rzhavets-Aleksandrovka-Kazache line. With the resources of the three new armies, plus the remains of 69th and 7th GA along with a massive artillery preparation and competent aerial support, the Soviets could have finished off 3rd PzC and then driven west into the Shishino-Petropavlovka-Khokhlovo area to take on the 168th ID and then the 167th ID. The southern flank of the advancing 5th GTA could have driven west between Staryi Gorod and Shishino. With 3rd PzC gone and 167th ID threatened, 4th PzA would have had to immediately react and probably fall back. With the 1st TA, 6th GA, 5th GA and the new 27th Army, which should have deployed just north of Prokhorovka-Kartashevtka road and northwest of Veselyi as well, driving south at the same time the 48th PzC and 2nd SS PzC would have been pressured to breaking point and in their desperation to fall back many men and heavy equipment would have been lost against the onrushing hordes of new armies that had just arrived in sector. One can extend this scenario to include the trouble the German line would have faced if the 4th PzA/3rd PzC suffered devastating losses and a gap of 30 to 50 miles had opened in the line but I’ll stop here for now. Admittedly, for this scenario to work, Stavka would have had to plan, prepare and deploy weeks in advance. I submit that this counter-offensive could have been more beneficial and with fewer casualties for Vatutin than the actual offensive, due to the extended position 4th PzA had carved out by 7/12. This counter-offensive could also have been fitting retribution, under similar circumstances, for Timoshenko’s loss at Kharkov (May 1942), where his initial gains were cut off and his forces isolated and destroyed by a dual pincer counter-attack by Col General Paulus’s 6th Army and FM Kleist’s 1st PzA.

Criticism can be levied in the north as well. Even though Model opened his campaign using nearly 300 panzers and assault guns, he should have used more. Rokossovsky was only truly vulnerable on the first day. He held back heavy reserves in second echelon to see where the main attacks would take place. He intended to see how the German assault unfolded and then quickly send reserves to the assault areas. The two biggest formations being held in reserve for Rokossovsky were the 17th GRC and 2nd TA, which both eventually played pivotal roles in stopping 9th Army. If Model had used the 2nd PzD, 9th PzD and 18th PzD with the opening assault in the 41st PzC and 46th PzC sectors and attacked toward Ponyri and Samodurovka respectively, there was an opportunity to reach and penetrate the second defensive belt before the 17th GRC and 2nd TA were called up. There was no guarantee this alternative action would have gotten 9th Army to Kursk, but it seems plausible that if Model could have controlled the high ground around Olkhovatka by the end of the first day, his chances for reaching Kursk would have greatly improved. At the very least it would have cost Rokossovsky many more men, tanks, ammunition and time to push 9th Army off the high ground and if the casualties had been great enough, it could have made a difference during Operation Kutuzov.

During the campaign, General Model made a practice of leaving his HQ for the whole day, visiting the front line. There were many instances where he would be out of touch with his staff and several events occurred that desperately needed his attention and he missed them. The biggest incident occurred when 4th PzD was attached to General Lemelsen’s 47th PzC. Lemelsen, on his own responsibility, decided to separate the panzer regiment from the rest of the division in order to fight the division in two separate sectors. Without proper armored support that first day, 4th PzD went into battle disadvantaged: the two infantry regiments suffered heavy casualties, including its division commander. If Model had been at his headquarters, he could have prevented this costly error and others that occurred during the campaign.

General Rokossovsky probably made fewer mistakes than the other three commanders but he was also up against an enemy with slightly fewer combat soldiers, panzers and aircraft as compared to the southern salient as well as a commander, though a master at defense, who was partially restricted with his order of battle by von Kluge, besides being a little too cautious. To his credit, Model’s handling of the Orel defense was superb and saved AGC from practical destruction. Continuing with Rokossovsky for a moment, I believe that there are several distinct reasons why Central Front did so much better in stopping 9th Army than Voronezh Front did in stopping 4th PzA. The first reason is battlefield defenses were more evolved, providing better coverage for man and machine. Rokossovsky had more guns than Vatutin and he made sure his gun crews used them, consuming many more tons of ammunition than the southern batteries. German survivors of 9th Army all complained of the horrendous wall of fire that they faced.

Mistakes were made at German Group level as well, and fall directly on von Manstein’s shoulders. During the campaign he questioned certain of Hoth’s decisions, mostly pertaining to the flanks. Hoth neglected air support and refused to send elements of the 167th ID to General Kempf as well ordering the 48th PzC to expand its western border beyond the Rakovo-Kruglik road at a time when the northern advance had stalled and 11th PzD and especially 3rd PzD were in trouble. Manstein discussed the issues with his subordinate but did not take any action to correct these issues when Hoth failed to respond. This reluctance to take corrective action seems unfathomable from such a noted strategist and commander and had a clear impact on the final outcome.

More importantly, errors were being made prior to the launch that would have a profound impact on the campaign, and consequently revisiting the German High Command one last time seems appropriate. While Hoth and von Manstein did not have complete freedom of command, they did have a lot of control over their destiny. They also had plenty of time before attacking to study the battlefield in order to make major changes or receive permission to make those changes. It should be emphatically stated that the German attack plan was flawed and Hoth and von Manstein should have seen it, especially when one takes into account the fact that Soviets had months to prepare, that the new panzers and assault guns were unreliable or flawed and that von Manstein had only three panzer corps to advance along mostly rugged terrain that sported five major rivers, few highways and only a few narrow off-road avenues for his armor. To make the situation worse the distance needed to travel to reach Kursk was relatively large, and the further north the army traveled the front would expand.

And if that was not bad enough, Hoth was asking the 48th PzC to advance along the primary axis and also deploy along the western flank which means the advance would be twice as hard. To confirm this theory is true, the 48th with the inclusion of the Panther Brigade and the GD division could not keep up or go as far as the 2nd SS PzC. Just from this aspect alone, its seems more logical to have the primary axis from the very start of the campaign to have been in the center, allowing the two outer corps provide the necessary flank protection.

As 48th PzC veered slightly to the northwest, the 2nd SS PzC was heading to the northeast and the 3rd PzC, which was starting the campaign as much as 20 miles further south of the other two corps, had to immediately cross the Donets, head east before pivoting to the north with at least two major rivers between itself and the SS. Having the weakest corps traveling the greatest distance while being separated from 4th PzA and having it advance northward and defend itself along both expanding flanks with inadequate air support was a recipe for failure. To provide that timely protection 3rd PzC needed at least half of the available Panthers to assist the Tigers attached to the 3rd PzC in penetrating the difficult defense located near the Belgorod sector.

In the later planning stage, by the time the three German corps (assuming the 3rd could have caught up) reached the Psel River line, the front would have expanded approximately another ten miles or more from their start positions. Once past Prokhorovka the front might have been reduced a little but by the idea that by then the exhausted vanguard of five weakened corps would continue to carve out and maintain a corridor at least thirty miles wide all the way to Kursk seems a gross misjudgement, and this does not even take into account the need to reduce the pocketed Soviet 38th and 40th Armies in the south and the 60th and 65th Armies in the north that were deployed to the west of the corridor after Hoth reached Kursk. If AGS had three full strength panzer divisions, three infantry divisions in reserve plus greater air support (at a minimum) the plan might have worked initially but reserves were not realistically available and it was doomed to fail. Hitler demanded and Hoth complied with supplying daily casualty figures for armor and men. By the 10th or even earlier, it should have been patently obvious to Hoth and von Manstein, as it was to Model, that Citadel would fail to reach Kursk and that drastic remedial action was required.

If the 48th PzC had the good fortune to cross the Psel en masse while the 2nd SS PzC entered the Prokhorovka corridor while the 3rd PzC continued to struggle, lagging far behind the other two, then serious gaps would have formed which Vatutin would have exploited by bringing up reserves. With two corps north of the Psel River and the 3rd PzC east of the Lipovyi River, Kemp’s forces would have been dangerously isolated and in dire trouble. But realistically by the 10th, bearing in mind the troubles the 48th and 52nd Corps were actually having, it made no sense for Hoth to expand westward and continue to concentrate efforts on the Oboyan route. The open flanks on the 2nd SS PzC and 3rd PzC sectors were causing a greater long term disruption to success yet Hoth continued to obsess about the 48th PzC expanding its sector.

I have already suggested an ideal German disposition but the following scenario had a better chance for acceptance for it was closer to the original yet diverted the main focus away from 48th PzC. After studying the aerial photos plus situation reports from patrols, along with the experiences gained in 1941 and 1942 when the area was originally cleared and occupied, it could clearly be seen that the central and eastern sectors were best suited for armor and therefore should be used for the primary attack axis. The western sector, which had the shortest route to Kursk but the worse terrain, and was the most obvious sector to be protected by the Soviets, should have been reduced in scale and importance and used as flank protection for the 2nd SS PzC. The Panther brigade should have redeployed to the eastern sector to support 3rd PzC and Prokhorovka should have been the primary axis from the beginning. With all three divisions of 2nd PzC along with the 167th ID devoted to the northern front along with the reinforced 3rd PzC (includes the Panthers), it seems very plausible that the two corps could have cleared the ground between the Donets River and the Prokhorovka railroad forming a unified front within days of the launch.

It also seems plausible that these two corps would have captured Prokhorovka and the southern portion of the corridor before the arrival of 5th GA and 5th GTA and have done so suffering fewer casualties. The 3rd PzC along with the Panthers could have erected a defense that would have stopped the 5th GTA if it attacked from the east. If Rotmistrov had mannuvered his tanks to the north so that it defended the Seim River line, the full force of the SS Corps would have been in position to engage. That is not to say von Manstein would have successfully reached Kursk and liquidated the 38th and 40th Armies but I believe the 4th PzA could have had much better results that would have inflicted far more Soviet casualties and caused a definite disruption to the enemy’s plans.

It is hard to know for sure whether the Germans would have been better off staying on the defensive and preparing for the eventual Soviet offensive on the Orel salient – Operation Kutuzov. However, after studying the Belgorod-Kursk-Orel sector it seems plausible that the Germans would have been better off by never launching Operation Citadel. It seems obvious that when the Germans did not attack in July Stalin, who was anxious to attack in June, would have prepared to attack Orel in August or September to eliminate the last major bulge situated less than 350 miles south of Moscow. The Germans could have used this time to good use. In the interval, the Germans could have improved defenses, repaired the Panthers, trained their crews as well as installed machine guns on the Elefants. Having a month or two to work on the Panthers could have made an appreciable difference to their dependability. Deploying the new panzers in the Orel salient where the terrain was more suited to armor as compared to the muddy Pena River valley, the German defense could have been greatly enhanced, inflicting even greater casualties on the Soviets while suffering fewer casualties and delaying the inevitable. Routine maintenance on the other vehicles and rest for their exhausted men as well as restore logistics were also in order. With dilligent intelligence, the Germans should have been fairly prepared to take on the assaults when launched along the line.

After months of being on the defensive, the tactical victory at Kharkov earlier in the year was just a brief respite, not an indication or omen to Hitler that the German onward march had resumed. It would have taken a blunder by the Soviets of unimaginable scale for the Germans to scratch their way up to parity, but that would not happen in 1943. The Soviets had just about completed tranforming their war doctrine and organization and by July 1943 the massive aid delivered by the Western Allies would help to see that those improvements put in place would be efficiently carried out. Considering what the Stavka had planned for the last half of the year, especially in the south, the war of attrition would have continued unabated, keeping the Germans constantly off balance.

By carefully expanding one’s view to the entire front in the middle of 1943, after the huge losses at Stalingrad and North Africa and the loss of hundreds of miles of territory, a leader who less of a gambler than Hitler could see that Germany no longer had the capability to launch a major offensive that would have strategic significance. Without launching Operation Citadel, the German forces had just enough strength to defend the entire shortened line (after pulling back from Orel) and if their intelligence was dilligent they could slow their retreat. However, they did not have enough strength to gain ground in any meaningful way through an offensive and Operation Citadel’s poor results clearly proves that point. Despite having a winning ledger on destroying many more enemy tanks and inflicting many more casualties on the enemy, this campaign had knocked the Germans down another peg in this war of attrition that would force the Wehrmacht on the strategic defensive for the rest of the war.

David Schranck

Mikoyan MIG-23


The Soviet-designed fighters were agile. In an engagement, the enemy’s first turn would be eye-watering—unless, that is, the model in question was a MiG-23. Then, there typically was no turn at all. The MiG-23 would simply tear away so fast that it seemed like a Ferrari leaving Fords behind. A MiG-23, such had one chance to make a pass and run. Once the pilot tried to turn, he was done.

MiG-23 Floggers were the MiG-21’s replacement. Their swing-wing was patterned on that of the F-111, but unlike their US antecedent, the MiG-23s were small and light enough to serve as dogfighters. On the whole, the aircraft weren’t as capable as US models, say those who flew them. Their fit and finish were vastly inferior, characterized by such defects as protruding rivets. That does not mean they could be written off. Far from it. They performed very well for the state of technology they had.

The MiG-23 that was the maintainers’ nightmare. The Flogger was a compromised design, in the US view. Made light for speed, the airframe didn’t have sufficient strength. The wing box which carried the weight of the swing wings was particularly prone to cracks.

Performance tests

Many potential enemies of the USSR and its client states had a chance to evaluate the MiG-23’s performance. In the 1970s, after a political realignment by the Egyptian government, Egypt gave their MiG-23MS to the United States and the People’s Republic of China in exchange for military hardware. These MiG-23MS helped the Chinese to develop their Shenyang J-8II aircraft by borrowing some MiG-23 features, such as its ventral fin and air intakes, and incorporating them into the J-8II. In the US, these MiG-23MS and other variants acquired later from Germany were used as part of the evaluation program of Soviet military hardware. Dutch pilot Leon Van Maurer, who had more than 1200 hours flying F-16s, flew against MiG-23ML Flogger-Gs from air bases in Germany and the U.S. as part of NATO’s aerial mock combat training with Soviet equipment. He concluded the MiG-23ML was superior in the vertical to early F-16 variants, just slightly inferior to the F-16A in the horizontal, and has superior BVR capability.

The Israelis tested a MiG-23MLD that defected from Syria and found it had better acceleration than the F-16 and F/A-18.

Another MiG-23 evaluation finding in the US and Israel reports was that the MiG-23 has a Heads-Up Display (HUD) that doubles as a radarscope, allowing the pilot to keep his eyes focused at infinity and work with his radar. It also allowed the Soviets to dispense with the radarscope on the MiG-23. This feature was carried over into the MiG-29, though in that aircraft a cathode ray tube (CRT) was carried on the upper right corner to double as a radarscope. Western opinions about this “head-up radarscope” are mixed. The Israelis were impressed, but an American F-16 pilot criticizes it as “sticking a transparent map in front of the HUD” and not providing a three-dimensional presentation that will accurately cue a pilot’s eyes to look for a fighter as it appears in a particular direction.

Besides the Syrian defection, a Cuban pilot flew a MiG-23BN to the US in 1991 and a Libyan MiG-23 pilot also defected to Greece in 1981. In both cases, the aircraft were later returned to their countries.

The MiG-23 was the Soviet Air Force’s “Top Gun”-equivalent aggressor aircraft from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. It proved a difficult opponent for early MiG-29 variants flown by inexperienced pilots. Exercises showed when well-flown, a MiG-23MLD could achieve favorable kill ratios against the MiG-29 in mock combat by using hit-and-run tactics and not engaging the MiG-29s in dogfights. Usually the aggressor MiG-23MLDs had a shark mouth painted on the nose just aft of the radome, and many were piloted by Soviet-Afghan War veterans. In the late 1980s, these aggressor MiG-23s were replaced by MiG-29s, also featuring shark mouths.

NATO reporting names: Flogger-A, B, C, E, F, G, H and K

Country of origin: Russia

Type: Single-seat variable geometry air combat fighter and two-seat operational trainer.

Powerplant: MIG-23ML – One 83.8kN (18,850lb) dry and 127.5kN(28,660lb) with afterburning Tumansky (now Soyuz) R-35-300 turbojet.

Performance: MIG-23ML – Max speed with weapons Mach 2.35 or 2500km/h (1349kt).

Max initial rate of climb 47,250ft/min.

Service ceiling 59,055ft.

Combat radius with six AAMs 1150km (620nm), combat radius with 2000kg (4,410lb) of bombs 700km (378nm).

Weights: MIG-23ML – Empty 10,200kg (22,485lb), max takeoff 17,800kg (39,250lb).

Dimensions: MIG-23ML – Span wings spread 13.97m (45ft 10in), span wings swept 7.78m (25ft 6in), length overall exc probe 15.88m (52ft 1in), height 4.82m (15ft 10in). Wing area wings spread 37.3m2 (401.5sq ft), wing area wings swept 34.2m2 (368.1 sq ft).

Accommodation: Pilot only, or two in tandem MIG-23UM and UB.

Armament: One twin barrel 23mm GSh-23 cannon. Five external hardpoints (one centreline, two under fuselage and two underwing) can carry a max external load of 2000kg (4,410lb) on MIG-23ML. Typical air-to-air configuration of two R-60 (AA-8 ‘Aphid’) and two R-23 (AA-7 ‘Apex’) AAMs.

History: From the mid-1970s and into the 1980s the MiG-23 (NATO reporting name ‘Flogger’) was the Soviet Unions’ most capable tactical fighter.

The MiG-23 was developed to replace the MiG-21, with improvements in overall performance and in particular short field performance. Two Mikoyan designed prototypes were built, the swept wing 23-01 ‘Faithless’ and the swing wing 23-11. The 23-11 first flew on April 10, 1967 and was ordered into production as the MIG-23S, fitted with the MiG-21 S’ RP-22 radar. Fifty were built for evaluation.

The MIG-23M (‘Flogger-B’) was the first model to introduce the specially designed Sapfir-23 pulse doppler radar in a larger nose radome and also featured a more powerful engine and IRST and R-23 missile compatibility. The down spec export MIG-23MS (‘Flogger-E’) was similar, while the export and further down spec MIG-23MF (‘Flogger-B’) features the RP-22 radar and smaller nose.

Subsequent fighter MiG-23s were the lightened MIG-23ML (‘Flogger-G’) with less fuel and no dorsal fin extension, the MIG-23P interceptor that could be automatically guided to its target by ground controllers and the MIG-23MLD (‘Flogger-K’) with aerodynamic changes. The MIG-23UB (‘Flogger-C’) meanwhile is the two-seat conversion trainer.

Various MiG-23 models were also built specifically for ground attack. The first to appear was the MIG-23B with a pointy, radar-less nose and a Lyulka AL-21 turbojet. The improved MIG-23BN returned to the Tumansky turbojet. NATO called both the MIG-23B and MIG-23BN the ‘Flogger-F’. Further improved MiG-23 attack variants were the MIG-23BK and MIG-23BM, both of which borrowed nav attack systems from the MiG-27.


MiG-23-11 (`Flogger-A’): Prototype shown at Domodyedovo 9 July 1967. One Lyulka AL-7F-1 afterburning turbojet, rated at 98.1 kN (22,046 lb st).

MiG-23S (`Flogger-A’): Initial production version, with R-27-300 turbojet engine. Issued to complete fighter regiment in 1971 for development.

MiG-23SM (`Flogger-A’): As MIG-23S, but with four APU-13 pylons for external stores added under engine air intake ducts and fixed inboard wing panels.

MiG-23M (`Flogger-B’): Most produced production version; first flown June 1972; single-seat air combat fighter; first aircraft of former Soviet Union with demonstrated ability to track and engage targets flying below its own altitude; Soyuz/Khachaturov R-29-300 turbojet, rated at 122.5 kN (27,540 lb st) with afterburning; no wing leading-edge flaps initially (retrofitted later); Sapfir-23D-Sh J-band radar (NATO `High Lark’); Sirena-3 radar warning system; Doppler; TP-23 infra-red search/track pod under cockpit; standard in Soviet air forces from about 1975.

MiG-23MF (`Flogger-B’): Export version of MiG-23M, in service with non-Soviet Warsaw Pact air forces from 1978. MiG-23UB (`Flogger-C’): Tandem two-seat operational training/combat version; Tumansky R-27F2M-300 turbojet, rated at 98 kN (22,045 lb st) with afterburning; individual canopy over each seat; rear seat raised, with retractable periscopic sight; deepened dorsal spine fairing aft of rear canopy. First flown May 1969; in production 1970 to 1978.

MiG-23MS (`Flogger-E’): Export version of MiG-23M with R-27F2M-300 engine; equipped to lower standard; smaller radar (`Jay Bird’, search range 15 n miles; 29 km; 18 miles, tracking range 10 n miles; 19 km; 12 miles) in shorter nose radome; no infra-red sensor or Doppler; armed with R-3S (K-13T; NATO AA-2 `Atoll’) or R-60 (K-60; NATO AA-8 `Aphid’) air-to-air missiles and GSh-23 gun.

MiG-23B (`Flogger-F’): Single-seat light attack aircraft based on MiG-23S interceptor airframe; forward fuselage redesigned; instead of ogival radome, nose sharply tapered in side elevation, housing PrNK Sokol-23S nav/attack system; twin-barrel 23 mm GSh-23L gun retained in bottom of centre-fuselage; armour on sides of cockpit; wider, low-pressure tyres; Lyulka AL-21F-300 turbojet, rated at 11.27 kN (25,350 lb st) with afterburning; fuel tanks designed to fill with neutral gas as fuel level drops, to prevent explosion after impact; active and passive ECM; six attachments under fuselage and wings for wide range of weapons; project started 1969; first flight 20 August 1970; 24 built; developed as MiG-23BN/BM/BK and MiG-27 series.

MiG-23BN (`Flogger-F’): As MiG-23B except for Soyuz/Khachaturov R-29B-300 turbojet, rated at 11.27 kN (25,350 lb st) with afterburning, and Sokol-23N nav/attack system. Version from which MiG-27 evolved, together with MiG-23BN and MiG-23BK.

MiG-23BM (`Flogger-F’): As MiG-23BN except for PrNK-23 nav/attack system slaved to a computer. MiG-23BK: Further equipment changes, NATO reporting name `Flogger-H’ identifies aircraft with small fairing for radar warning receiver each side of bottom fuselage, forward of nosewheel doors. Iraqi aircraft have Dassault-type fixed flight refuelling probe forward of windscreen.

MiG-23ML (`Flogger-G’): Much redesigned and lightened version (L of designation for logkiy: light) built in series 1976 to 1981; basically as MiG-23M, but Soyuz/Khachaturov R-35-300 turbojet; rear fuselage fuel tank deleted; much smaller dorsal fin; modified nosewheel leg; Sapfir-23ML lighter weight radar; new undernose pod for TP-23M IRST; new missiles. Detailed description applies to MiG-23ML.

MiG-23P (`Flogger-G’): Modified version of MiG-23ML; digital nav system computer guides aircraft under automatic control from the ground and informs pilot when to engage afterburning and to fire his missiles and gun.

MiG-23MLD (`Flogger-K’): Mid-life update of MiG-23ML (D of designation stands for dorabotannyy: modified); identified by dogtooth notch at junction of each wing glove leading-edge and intake trunk; system introduced to extend and retract leading-edge flaps automatically when wing sweep passes 33º (system disengaged and flaps retracted when speed exceeds 485 kt; 900 km/h; 560 mph and wings at 72º sweep); new IFF antenna forward of windscreen; R-73A (NATO AA-11 `Archer’) close-range air-to-air missiles on fuselage pylons two R-24R on wings and two R-73 on fuselage or two R-24R on wings and four R-60 on fuselage; pivoting pylons under outer wings; radar warning receivers and chaff/flare dispensers added; built-in simulation system enables pilot to train for weapon firing and air-to-surface missile guidance without use of gun or missiles.


Czech Republic: The Czech Air Force has evaluated Lockheed Martin (formerly Loral) AIM-9P-5 Sidewinder and Matra Magic 2 air-to-air missiles as possible armaments for its fleet of MiG-23ML/MF interceptor aircraft. No order placed yet.

Hungary: The Hungarian Air Force has retrofitted its MiG-23 aircraft with the same radio and IFF equipment as its MiG-21 aircraft. `MAPO’ MIG: MiG-23MLD `Flogger-K’ mid-life update of MiG-23ML. See Versions.

Phazatron: Actively promoting retrofitting the MiG-23 with its N019M topaz radar. This would facilitate integration of active radar including the RVV-AE (AA-12) in the search mode and the simultaneous engagement of two targets.

Syria: Requirement exists for a radar, computer and other upgrades although this would rely on funds becoming available.

Operators Versions of the MiG-23 are in service with the armed forces of the following countries: Algeria (30); Angola(20); Belarus (44); Bulgaria (76, of which 46 shortly to be withdrawn); Cuba (65); Ethiopia (24); India (115); Iraq (60); Kazakhstan (71); Korea, North (55); Libya (120); Romania (29); Russian Federation (420); Sudan(6); Syria (146); Ukraine (153); and Yemen (25).

Design Features

Shoulder-wing variable geometry configuration; sweep variable manually in flight or on ground to 16º, 45º or 72º (values given in manuals and on pilot’s panel; true values 18º 40′, 47º 40′ and 74º 40′ respectively); two hydraulic wingspeed motors driven separately by main and control booster systems; if one system fails, wing sweep system remains effective at 50 per cent normal angular velocity; rear fuselage detachable between wing and tailplane for engine servicing; lower portion of large ventral fin hinged to fold to starboard when landing gear extended, for ground clearance; leading-edge sweepback 72º on fixed-wing panels, 57º on horizontal tail surfaces, 65º on fin.

Flying Controls

Hydraulically actuated; full-span single-slotted trailing-edge flaps, each in three sections; outboard sections operable independently when wings fully swept; no ailerons; two-section upper surface spoilers/lift dumpers, forward of mid and inner flap sections each side, operate differentially in conjunction with horizontal tail surfaces (except when disengaged at 72º sweep), and collectively for improved runway adherence and braking after touchdown; leading-edge flap on outboard two-thirds of each main (variable geometry) panel, coupled to trailing-edge flaps; all-moving horizontal tail surfaces operated differentially and symmetrically for aileron and elevator function respectively; ground adjustable tab on each horizontal surface; rudder actuated by hydraulic booster with spring artificial feel; four door-type airbrakes, two on each side of rear fuselage, above and below horizontal tail surface.


All-metal; two main spars and auxiliary centre spar in each wing; extended chord (dogtooth) on outer panels visible when wings swept; fixed triangular inboard wing panels; welded steel pivot box carry-through structure; basically circular section semi-monocoque fuselage, flattened each side of cockpit; lateral air intake trunks blend into circular rear fuselage; splitter plate, with boundary layer bleeds, forms inboard face of each intake; two rectangular auxiliary intake doors in each trunk, under inboard wing leading-edge, are sucked open to increase intake area at take-off and low airspeeds; pressure relief vents under rear fuselage; fin and forward portion of horizontal surfaces conventional light-alloy structures; rudder and rear of horizontal surfaces have honeycomb core.

Landing Gear

Hydraulically retractable tricycle type; single wheel on each main unit and steerable twin-wheel nose unit; mainwheel tires size 830 x 300 mm; nosewheel tires size 520 x 125 mm; main units retract inward into rear of air intake trunks; main fairings to enclose these units attached to legs; small inboard fairing for each wheel bay hinged to fuselage belly. Nose unit, with mudguard over each wheel, retracts rearward. Mainwheel disc brakes and anti-skid units. Brake parachute, area 21 m2 (226 sq ft), in cylindrical fairing at base of rudder with split conic doors.

Power Plant

One Soyuz/Khachaturov R-35-300 turbojet, rated at up to 127.5 kN (28,660 lb st) with maximum afterburning. Three fuel tanks in fuselage, aft of cockpit, and six in wings; internal fuel capacity 4,250 litres (1,122 US gallons; 935 Imp gallons). Variable geometry air intakes and variable nozzle. Provision for jettisonable external fuel tank, capacity 800 litres (211 US gallons; 176 Imp gallons), on underfuselage centreline; two more under fixed-wing panels. Two additional external tanks of same capacity may be carried on non-swivelling pylons under outer wings for ferry flights, with wings in fully forward position. Attachment for assisted take-off rocket each side of fuselage aft of landing gear.

Accommodation Pilot only, on zero/130 ejection seat in air conditioned and pressurised cockpit, under small actuated rearward-hinged canopy. Bulletproof windscreen.


Modernised SAU-23AM automatic flight control system coupled to Polyot short-range navigation and flight system. Sapfir-23ML J-band multimode radar (NATO `High Lark 2′: search range 38 n miles; 70 km; 43 miles, tracking range 29 n miles; 55 km; 34 miles) behind dielectric nosecone; no radar scope; instead, picture is projected onto head-up display. RSBN-6S short-range radio nav system; ILS, with antennas (NATO `Swift Rod’) under radome and at tip of fin trailing-edge; suppressed UHF antennas form tip of fin and forward fixed portion of ventral fin; yaw vane above fuselage aft of radome; angle of attack sensor on port side. SRO-2 (NATO `Odd Rods’) IFF antenna immediately forward of windscreen. TP-23M undernose infra-red sensor rod, Sirena-3 radar warning system, and Doppler equipment standard on RFAS version. Sirena-3 antennas in horns at inboard leading-edge of each outer wing and below ILS antenna on fin.


ASP-17ML gunsight; small electrically heated rearview mirror on top of canopy; retractable landing/taxying light under each engine air intake.


One 23 mm GSh-23L twin-barrel gun in fuselage belly pack; large flash eliminator around muzzles; 200 rounds. Two pylons in tandem under centre-fuselage, one under each engine air intake duct, and one under each fixed inboard wing panel, for radar-guided R-23R (K-23R; NATO AA-7 `Apex’), infra-red R-23T(K-23T; AA-7 `Apex’) and/or infra-red R-60T (AA-8 `Aphid’) air-to-air missiles, B-8 pack of 20 80 mm S-8 air-to-surface rockets, UB-32-57 packs of 32 57 mm S-5 rockets, S-24 240 mm rockets, bombs, container weapons, UPK-23-250 pods containing a GSh-23L gun, various sensor and equipment pods or other external stores. Use of twin launchers under air intake ducts permits carriage of four R-60 missiles, plus two R-23 on underwing pylons.

ISU-122/152 Tank Destroyers

Developed on the basis of the IS tank. The ISU-152 was conceived as a replacement for the SU-152, which was based on the KV-1s chassis. A total of 4,635 vehicles were built from November 1943 through June 1945. The ISU-152 is well-known for its 152mm BL-10 gun. To the average observer the SU-152 and ISU- 152 were visually identical, but the ISU-152 mounted a more modern howitzer known as the ML-20S (with 20 rounds), technically a gun-howitzer and a very powerful weapon, especially at the assault ranges favoured by Red Army tactics. The weapon was protected by an armoured box made up from sloping plates of thick armour, with hand rails around the edge of the roof for use by ‘tank descent’ infantry who used the vehicles to carry them into action.

The success of the SU-152, coupled with the development of the IS (losef Stalin) heavy tank hull, led the NKTP to order design teams at Chelyabinsk, in cooperation the Mechanized Artillery Bureau (BAS) and General F. Petrov, to design two new heavy assault guns based on the IS-2 tank’s hull and chassis. The initial vehicle, designated Object 241, or ISU- 249, was similar to the SU-152, except for a higher superstructure and more rectangular with less sloped side armour.

Thicker frontal and side armour (90mm/3.54in compared to 60mm/2.36in on the SU-152) meant that the internal area of both vehicles was the same, with storage for only 20 rounds each for the 152mm (5.98in) ML-20 howitzer gun. The main difference between the SU-152 and ISU series of vehicles was a lower suspension and a new, heavy two-piece gun mantlet bolted onto the right-hand side of the hull. Re-classified as ISU-152, production began at the end of 1943.

Problems with the availability of the 152mm (5.98in) gun type because of a lack of available manufacturing capacity in Soviet artillery factories led to orders to the TsKB-2 team to explore the possibility of mounting the more abundant 122mm (4.8in) A-19 gun on the ISU hull. This proved a relatively easy task, because both calibres of gun had the same gun carriage, meaning that no radical re-design of the hull or vehicle interior was required. The new assault gun entered service in December 1943 as the ISU-122. In 1944 its firepower was improved with the introduction of the 122mm (4.8in) D-25S gun designed for the IS-2 tank. This modified design, termed ISU-122-2, also had an new gun mantlet and improved crew space. In external appearance both gun types were identical, except for the ISU-152 ‘s shorter gun barrel with a muzzle brake.

The appearance of the immensely powerful Panzerkampjwagen Vlb Royal Tiger in fighting south of Warsaw in August 1944 led to a number of plans to up-gun both types of ISU with the new 122mm (4.8in) BR-7 and 152mm (5.98in) BR-8 long-barrelled guns, but the realization that the Germans could not deploy the Royal Tiger in significant numbers caused production of these prototypes to be abandoned. Another reason was the conclusion of Soviet technicians, based on combat results, that the IS-2 tank could deal with this new threat.

Numerically the ISU-122 was less important than the ISU-152, but the 122-mm version was potentially the more powerful weapon as it fired a higher-velocity projectile than the heavier 152-mm weapon, which relied more upon shell weight for its effects.

Post-war changes were made to the final production run of ISU-152Ks by using the IS-2m chassis and the IS-3 engine deck. A total of 4075 ISU-152s were produced during the war, and a further 2450 manufactured between 1945 and 1955, when production ceased. Despite a brief break in manufacture between 1945 and 1947,3130 ISU-122s were produced up to 1952. The chassis of many of these vehicles were adapted for special purposes in the 1960s. The Oka was armed with a 406mm (15.98in) gun designed to fire tactical nuclear shells to break up NATO front-line and reserve units. The ISU mounted the first FROG medium-range missiles, armed with either conventional, chemical, or nuclear warheads. Outside of these special roles in the Warsaw Pact armed forces, the ISU-152 saw service in its original role with the Egyptian Army in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.

In Service

The ISU-122 and ISU-152 were used in Independent Heavy Self-Propelled Artillery Regiments, which were awarded the Guards honorific after December 1944. By the end of the war there were 56 such units. Generally attached to the tank corps, they were deployed in the second echelon of an assault, providing long-range direct, and on occasion indirect, fire support to tanks in the first echelon, targeting German strongpoints and armoured vehicles. They were also vital in providing defensive antitank and artillery support for infantry.

During 1944 and 1945 the ISU-152 and ISU-122 were in the vanguard of the Red Army advances through Germany towards Berlin. Some of the first Red Army units entering Berlin were ISU-152 units, which used their howitzers to blast away strongpoints at close ranges and clear the way to the remains of the city centre.

If the ISU weapons had a fault it was that they lacked internal ammunition stowage space. Thus they had to have a virtual constant supply of ammunition brought forward by armoured carriers, which was often a hazardous undertaking. But the massive weapon carried by the ISU vehicles was considered to be of great value in the direct support of Red Army tank and motorized infantry divisions, and both types went on to be used for some years after the war.

152 mm “beast killer”

ISU-122 [ISU = Iosef Stalin Ustanovka or Gun of Iosef Stalin]

Operation Mars I

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the audacity of Stavka’s grand strategic design in autumn 1942. The aim was not only substantial encirclements in the Rzhev-Viazma and Stalingrad areas but even more gigantic encirclements of both Army Group Center and Army Group South. As the planetary nomenclature suggested—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus—it was a breathtakingly cosmic strategic design. Stalin, Zhukov, and Vasilevsky intended not only to turn the tide of battle in autumn 1942 but to win the entire war. Such ambition was way beyond the capabilities of the Red Army at that time but the breadth of strategic vision was an augury of the massive offensives of 1943–1944 that were to drive the Wehrmacht out of the USSR and all the way back to Berlin.

Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Colonel-Generals N.N. Voronov, Head of Red Army Artillery, and A.A. Novikov, Head of Air Forces, arrived at the South-West Front on 30 October and spent a week there briefing and preparing the commanders down to division level for the counter-offensive. On 6 November they moved on to the Don Front, and on the 9th to the Stalingrad Front, returning to Moscow on the evening of the 12th and reporting to Stalin the next morning. They told him that delays in the arrival of troops, food, ammunition, fuel and anti-freeze at the Stalingrad Front, and in arranging air support for the Stalingrad and South-West Fronts, would necessitate postponing the offensive by a few days. Stalin raised no objections and ordered them both to fly back to Stalingrad to check once more that the forces and commanders were adequately prepared. On the 14th Zhukov was with Vatutin and Vasilevsky with Yeremenko, and on the 15th they received a message from Stalin authorising Zhukov to set the start date. After consulting Vasilevsky, he set it as 19 November for the South-West and Don Fronts and the 20th for the Stalingrad Front, then on the 17th he was summoned back to Stavka to finalise preparations for the offensive (Operation ‘Mars’) against Army Group Centre by the Kalinin and Western Fronts, which he was to direct.

Naturally the Soviet General Staff could not simply rely on the Germans failing to detect signs of imminent action at Stalingrad; steps must also be taken to mislead them by drawing their attention elsewhere. The most important, and most credible, of these diversions would be the mounting of an apparent third attempt to eliminate Army Group Centre’s potential threat to Moscow by expelling it from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient. The actions taken in this direction have spawned two controversies in post-Soviet times; first, whether the offensive against that salient in November–December 1942 (Operation ‘Mars’) was a diversion, to prevent Army Group Centre sending troops south to Stalingrad (Operation ‘Uranus’), as Zhukov’s and other Soviet-period accounts maintained, or whether, as David Glantz has claimed, it was meant to be the main assault of the winter campaign, or alternatively, as Aleksey Isayev contended, it was linked with and implicitly equal to ‘Uranus’, then, as both argue, was subsequently ignored or played down only because it was a disastrous failure.

Both claims rest largely on data showing the numbers of troops, tanks, guns and aircraft allocated to the Fronts (Kalinin and Western) engaged in ‘Mars’ as much exceeding those allocated to ‘Uranus’, on the paucity of mentions of ‘Mars’ in Soviet-era accounts, most of which ignore it completely, on the unfavourable descriptions of it in participants’ recollections, and, not least, on Zhukov’s extraordinary economy with the truth in the brief account in his memoirs of the date and circumstances of its origin.

Taking that last item first, Zhukov presented ‘Mars’ as almost a last-minute afterthought. He wrote that on the evening of 13 November 1942 he and Vasilevsky met Stalin, who confirmed their plan for the counter-offensive to be launched at Stalingrad in the next few days, and that they both then drew his attention to the likelihood that

as soon as a serious situation developed at Stalingrad and in the North Caucasus, the German high command will be forced to re deploy some of its forces from other areas, especially from the Vyazma area, to help the southern group. To prevent that happening, an offensive operation must be urgently prepared and conducted in the area north of Vyazma, in the first instance to smash the Germans in the area of the Rzhev salient. For this operation we proposed drawing on troops of Kalinin and Western Fronts.

‘That would be good,’ said Stalin. ‘But which of you will undertake this affair?’ Alexander Mikhailovich and I had agreed on our proposals about this beforehand, so I said, ‘The Stalingrad operation is already prepared in all respects. Vasilevsky can take coordination of actions of the forces in the Stalingrad area on himself, and I can take preparation of the offensive by Kalinin and Western Fronts on myself.’

Zhukov went on to cite an order to the Kalinin and Western Fronts, issued on 8 December over his and Stalin’s signatures, leaving the reader to assume, though without actually saying so, that it was the first order relating to ‘Mars’, whereas archival evidence shows conclusively that ‘Mars’ was originally intended to start in mid-October, i.e. to precede the counter-offensive in the south, so planning for it must have begun in September, at the same time as that for ‘Uranus’ and ‘Saturn’. The primary evidence is a Western Front Directive dated 1 October, containing very detailed instructions to the commanders of the 20th and 31st Armies ‘for destruction of the enemy Sychevka-Rzhev grouping’, ordering them to ‘submit plans for Operation “Mars” by 5 October’, and be ready to attack by the 12th. This completely demolishes Zhukov’s presentation of it as first proposed only on 13 November, and there is further confirmation in Stavka Directive no. 170651, issued at 3.50 a.m. on 13 October, which ordered the transfer of five divisions from three other Fronts to the 43rd Army of the Kalinin Front, stating specifically that this was ‘for the forthcoming Operation Mars’.

Zhukov’s economy with the truth and the ignoring of ‘Mars’ in most descriptions of the Stalingrad campaign certainly indicate that something went wrong. It is clear that more was expected of ‘Mars’ than it delivered, and Drs Glantz and Isayev have performed a service to scholarship in drawing attention to this. However, the difference in context between ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus/Saturn’, and five very important pieces of evidence of which neither of those authors was apparently aware, tend to contradict Glantz’s argument that ‘Mars’ was more important than ‘Uranus’, and Isayev’s contention that it was equally important, and point to its being, at least in Stalin’s mind, a ‘diversion’, and acknowledged by Zhukov as such, as support for ‘Uranus’, though he may covertly have hoped to make it an equal partner to that offensive.

Taking first the difference in context, absolutely vital to success at Stalingrad was the basic assumption that the non-German forces guarding the German flanks – for ‘Uranus’ the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies, for ‘Little Saturn’ the Italian 8th and Hungarian 2nd Armies – were all much weaker than the German elements of Army Group B. They were specifically targeted for that reason, and the assumption was proven correct from the very first day of ‘Uranus’. No such assumption could be made in respect of ‘Mars’, as Army Groups Centre and North had no vulnerable non-German forces for it to exploit; the Rzhev-Vyazma salient was manned by 30 experienced German divisions, which had been in position for well over a year and had already withstood two previous major offensives, in January–April and July–August, both conducted by Zhukov. The smaller Demyansk salient, a little further north, had been held by Army Group North for even longer, and contained 12 divisions. Thanks to air supply it had survived being cut off for several weeks in February–April 1942, and since then had withstood repeated attempts by the North-West Front to eliminate it. In both salients the Germans had made good use of their time to prepare strong defensive positions, whereas in contrast the 20 German divisions of the 4th Panzer and 6th Armies that would be encircled in the Stalingrad area, and the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies immediately protecting their rear, had been in position only since mid-August or, in the Romanian case, September, and had had no time or opportunity – nor was there a perceived need – to establish solid defensive lines before they faced an unexpected Soviet onslaught of a magnitude they had simply not thought possible. Hindsight is not needed for this judgement; Stalin, Zhukov, Vasilevsky and the General Staff planners of both ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus/Saturn’ knew all these facts beforehand, and it strains credibility to assume that they would have given priority to the immeasurably harder and far less promising of the two tasks they faced.

It is also relevant that Stalin thought the original concept of ‘Uranus/Saturn’ itself very ambitious. ‘Uranus’ was to involve encircling most of Army Group B, and ‘Saturn’ to cut off Army Group A in the Caucasus. Granted the means of achieving these results would be initially at the expense of Germany’s allies, it would then be necessary to take on two of the four German army groups; in the event that plan did prove too ambitious, and Army Group A was allowed to escape for the time being. If, in addition, ‘Mars’ was really meant to be the most important operation of the 1942/3 winter, then Stalin, his two chief military troubleshooters and the General Staff were aspiring to destroy three of the four army groups, including the strongest, Centre, in two overlapping and almost simultaneous operations. Stalin certainly displayed at times a tendency to underestimate the Germans and set over-ambitious tasks; he did so in early 1942 and would do so again in early 1943. However, both those episodes followed successful Soviet counter-offensives; in contrast, when planning for ‘Uranus/Saturn/Mars’ began in September, he had little cause for euphoria. All offensives attempted during the previous six months had failed, two of them (Barvenkovo and Crimea) disastrously, whereas the Germans had advanced to the Volga and Caucasus in less than two months, and were still being held only with difficulty. When on 12–13 September Zhukov and Vasilevsky put their proposal for the Stalingrad counter-offensive to him, his initial reaction was to suggest that it should be scaled down somewhat. That he could move within a few days not only to approving an operation he at first thought might be over-ambitious, but also to adding an even larger preceding and/or simultaneous offensive against Army Group Centre seems unlikely; the limited evidence about his state of mind in that period provides no support for such a conclusion.

Another extremely important difference in the context is that Army Groups North and Centre had (and did in fact soon exercise, in February–March 1943) the option of controlled withdrawal from the two salients, a recourse not available to the forces at Stalingrad, first because Hitler had categorically forbidden it, and secondly because the Soviet encirclement was quickly made too strong to be broken through.

Another extremely important difference in the context is that Army Groups North and Centre had (and did in fact soon exercise, in February–March 1943) the option of controlled withdrawal from the two salients, a recourse not available to the forces at Stalingrad, first because Hitler had categorically forbidden it, and secondly because the Soviet encirclement was quickly made too strong to be broken through. This is discussed below.

Of the five important pieces of additional evidence, the first and most significant is the memoirs of former NKVD General Pavel Sudoplatov, published in English in 1994 and in Russian in 1996. Sudoplatov provided detailed evidence that ‘Agent Max’, cited by Dr Glantz as giving the Germans advance warning of ‘Mars’ in a message of 4 November 1942, was a Soviet-controlled double agent, and, having been his controller from July 1941 through most of the war, gave a comprehensive account of him and his activities. ‘Max’ was Alexander Demyanov, and he and his wife were both long-standing NKVD agents (in his case since 1929), with pre-revolutionary aristocratic and current artistic connections that made it easy for them to establish contacts during the 1930s with foreign journalists and diplomats in Moscow, including in the German embassy. Just before the war the Abwehr recruited Demyanov, as the NKVD intended it should, and in July 1941 Sudoplatov’s superior, Beria, agreed to his being used in operations ‘Monastyr’ (Monastery) and ‘Prestol’ (Throne), both fake anti-Soviet underground organisations created by the NKVD to attract and uncover collaborationist or espionage networks. After receiving training, Demyanov was ordered to ‘defect’ in December 1941, and did so by skiing across to the German lines outside Moscow at night, posing as an emissary of ‘Prestol’. The Germans initially distrusted him, but eventually accepted and trained him, then in February 1942 parachuted him back into Soviet territory, tasked to reestablish himself in Moscow, use his connections to penetrate Red Army staffs, and also organise sabotage on the railways. A ‘safe house’ was established at his apartment, through active participation by his wife and her father, a German-educated noted medical specialist. Couriers sent there by the Abwehr were mostly ‘turned’, but some were arrested and jailed for credibility’s sake. The ‘legend’ constructed for Max was that he was a disgruntled ex-Tsarist officer, currently a signals officer on the General Staff, who had sources of information among other equally disgruntled ex-Tsarist officers serving under Marshal Shaposhnikov (himself a former Tsarist officer, as was Vasilevsky, who succeeded him in mid-1942). He also created a mythical group conducting sabotage on the railways, and to enhance his credibility Sudoplatov had some items about official concern at such sabotage planted in Soviet newspapers that the Germans could acquire in neutral Stockholm or Lisbon.

Sudoplatov wrote that ‘disinformation transmitted by “Heine-Max” was composed in the Operations Directorate of our General Staff, with one of its leaders, General Shtemenko, taking part, then vetted in the General Staff Intelligence Directorate and handed over to the NKVD, to ensure it was received in convincing circumstances’. He specifically mentions the 4 November message, in order to emphasise that disinformation sometimes had strategic significance. Thus on 4 November 1942 ‘Heine-Max’ reported that the Red Army would strike a blow at the Germans not at Stalingrad but in the North Caucasus and at Rzhev. The Germans expected the blow at Rzhev and repulsed it. But the encirclement of Paulus’s grouping at Stalingrad was a complete surprise for them. Not suspecting this ‘radio game’ Zhukov paid a high price – in the offensive at Rzhev thousands and thousands of our soldiers died under his command. In his memoirs he admits that this offensive operation’s outcome was unsatisfactory. But he never realised that the Germans had been forewarned of our offensive on the Rzhev axis, and that was why they threw such a quantity of forces into it.

How seriously Gehlen took Max’s reports, and how thoroughly he was misled, can be seen from his report of 6 November 1942, which was based on Max’s message of the 4th. It referred to a fictitious ‘War Council’ meeting chaired by Stalin on 4 November that decided to ‘carry out all planned offensive undertakings, if possible before 15 November, insofar as the weather permits. Mainly from Grozny; in the Don area at Voronezh; at Rzhev; south of Lake Ilmen, and Leningrad …’.

All these offensives duly took place, though mostly not until January 1943. But ‘Uranus’, to be launched on 19 November, was not mentioned, and Gehlen’s report of 6 November stated unequivocally that ‘the point of main effort of the coming operations looms with increasing distinctness in the area of Army Group Centre’, while ‘the enemy’s attack preparations in the south are not so far advanced that one need reckon with a major operation here in the near future simultaneously with the expected offensive against Army Group Centre’. In a further report on 12 November Gehlen slightly qualified that assertion by mentioning a possible offensive in the south, but assessed it as only a flank attack intended to induce a German withdrawal from the Stalingrad area. In his post-war memoirs he inflated that qualification into an advance warning of ‘Uranus’, claiming that it began ‘precisely where we had predicted’, but he clearly had no idea of its intended scale, nor that its purpose was not to force the Germans to withdraw, but to encircle and destroy them, nor of the existence of its southern pincer; nor, even writing 25 years after the war, had he realised that Max was Soviet-controlled. On the contrary, he wrote that ‘events over the next months showed that this report of 4 November must have been genuine’. In fact the references in Max’s message to Rzhev and ‘south of Lake Ilmen’ were specifically intended to focus German attention on the two salients (that centred on Demyansk was indeed just south of Lake Ilmen), and thereby distract it from the preparations in the south. Incidentally Shtemenko, whom Sudoplatov mentions as vetting Max’s messages, was one of the most senior officers in the Operations Directorate; in fact he became head of it in May 1943. However, not even he could authorise a leak on this scale; the idea may not have originated with Stalin, but could not have been implemented without his endorsement.

The second important source is the memoirs, published in 1973, of Colonel-General K.N. Galitskiy, who in November 1942 was in command of the Kalinin Front’s 3rd Shock Army, tasked with taking the rail and road centres of Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki, on a sector of the front line between the two salients, in an operation to be conducted simultaneously with ‘Mars’. On 19 November Zhukov arrived at his headquarters, and Galitskiy outlined his plan for taking both centres in an operation lasting 10 to 12 days. To everyone’s surprise, Zhukov flatly rejected it, saying,

an army’s combat operations are organically linked to the operations of the Front’s forces and those of our armed forces as a whole. One plan, even if profoundly thought out, is in no position to change the situation suddenly and radically. Therefore the main thing in an army’s operations is its role and significance on the operational and strategic scales. All these blows, interacting among themselves, are securing the counter-offensive by Soviet forces at Stalingrad that has begun today; they are tying down the enemy’s reserves. That is also 3rd Shock Army’s basic role in the forthcoming fighting on the Velikiye Luki axis.

He went on: ‘To draw enemy forces onto itself is 3rd Shock Army’s main task. Whether or not you take Novosokolniki, we shall nevertheless consider the task fulfilled if you draw the enemy’s forces on to yourself and he is unable to take them away from your sector for transfer to the south … That is 3rd Shock Army’s main task.’

The context of Zhukov’s point was well enough known to Galitskiy not to need elaborating, but it is important to note. The 3rd Shock Army’s sector lay between the two salients, which were manned by 42 seasoned German divisions. The capture of Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki would deprive the Germans of an important lateral rail connection between Army Groups North and Centre, and would also lodge Soviet forces between the two salients, well placed for attacking either or both. Zhukov had only to look at a map of the front line to see that abandoning the salients would greatly shorten it, and thereby free up substantial German forces for deployment elsewhere; aware from prisoner interrogations, and from the entrusting of the long front along the Don to Romanian, Italian and Hungarian formations, that the Germans had serious manpower shortages, it would be reasonable for him to conclude that once Velikiye Luki fell, they might abandon one or both salients, and would send some or all of the ‘freed’ divisions to the south. If Galitskiy’s original plan worked, it would be completed by 4–6 December, and that might lead the Germans to cut their losses early. They would then have a number of divisions available for dispatch to the south soon enough to create problems for Operation ‘Uranus’, which had begun on the very day of Zhukov’s visit; so in effect he ordered Galitskiy to ‘win more slowly’.

Unfortunately Zhukov’s memoirs contain no discussion of his plans for ‘Mars’, other than the misleading statement about its origins mentioned above, and no precedent has so far been found in Soviet archives for his departure, mentioned by Galitskiy, from Stavka’s (and his own) normal requirement to have offensives conducted as strongly and quickly as possible. However, proof that Zhukov had yet again correctly foreseen a German course of action would soon be forthcoming. Galitskiy reduced the size and intensity of his attacks. Velikiye Luki held out until 17 January, and the operation was concluded on the 21st. Zhukov’s reasoning was then proved totally correct; Zeitzler, Chief of Staff at OKH since September, had already unsuccessfully sought Hitler’s consent to abandon the Demyansk salient in early December, but as soon as Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki fell, he renewed and increased pressure for abandonment of both salients, receiving Hitler’s permission for Rzhev-Vyazma on 25 January and for Demyansk on the 31st. The formal order for both withdrawals was issued on 6 February, four days after the final surrender at Stalingrad, and they were completed by 28 February (Demyansk) and 14 March (Rzhev-Vyazma). The consequent shortening of Army Group North’s line freed at least six divisions, some of which were immediately employed against Operation ‘Polar Star’, an attempt to follow up the January success of Operation ‘Iskra’ (Spark) in restoring Leningrad’s land connection to the ‘mainland’ by encircling a large part of Army Group North. ‘Polar Star’ used forces of three Fronts (from south to north North-West, Leningrad and Volkhov), Zhukov was again in charge, and perhaps it qualifies better than ‘Mars’ for the title of his ‘greatest defeat’. The weather was partly responsible; the spring thaw came early, and Zhukov, reporting to Stalin early in March, noted:

in the last 15 days, because of rain and thaws, the roads are becoming impassable. The marshes where the troops now have to function are beginning to show themselves, to flood and be completely covered with water. The forecast predicts warm weather from 15.3.43. I very much fear that we will be sitting with our groupings in the marshes here and in terrain hard to traverse, without achieving our aims under ‘Polar Star’.

He concluded by advising Stalin simply to set more modest limits of advance, and prepare the starting area for a spring offensive; Stalin accepted his advice, and ‘Polar Star’ was terminated on 17 March.

However, even granted the unfavourable weather conditions, the main reason for the operation’s failure was the North-West Front’s inability to break through the German defences; four successive attempts along the line of the River Lovat, on 28 February, 4, 6 and 11 March, were beaten off by German divisions that had just been withdrawn from the Demyansk salient and had taken up their positions along the river only on the day before the first Soviet attack. The Front’s commander, Marshal Timoshenko, ordered his troops onto the defensive on 18 March, and the front line in that sector remained practically unchanged for nine more months, until the siege of Leningrad was fully lifted in January 1944.

Zhukov’s reasoning in respect of Galitskiy’s operation applied even more strongly to ‘Mars’ proper; if the Germans assessed the early stages of it as too strong for successful resistance, it would be open to them to avoid a potential disaster by withdrawing from the 540-kilometre (340 mile) front in the salient to a line about 175 kilometres (110 miles) long across its neck, which could be defended by eight divisions, leaving up to 22 others free for use elsewhere, including in the south. That Zhukov was sensitive to the dangers of too-early success is shown not merely by his comments to Galitskiy but by the fact that only one-third of the Kalinin and Western Fronts’ forces were committed to ‘Mars’, whereas in the south at least half the available forces were committed initially, then further reinforced by two later-arriving armies (2nd Guards and 5th Shock) from Stavka Reserve. Intriguingly, the 43rd Army, to which the mid-October Stavka Directive cited above ordered five divisions sent specifically for use in ‘Mars’, did not in fact take part in it. That also tends to support Galitskiy’s account of Zhukov’s rejection of his original plan for a quick victory; the Germans must be pressed so generally that they could not disengage, but not so hard that they abandoned the salients.

Like Max’s message of 4 November, when interpreted in the light of Sudoplatov’s disclosures, Zhukov’s instructions to Galitskiy contradict the contention that ‘Mars’ was more important than ‘Uranus’. However, Zhukov’s references to ‘interaction’ between blows could perhaps be taken to imply linkage between ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus’ as equally important partners, as Isayev argued; but that interpretation too is contradicted by his explaining his decision exclusively in terms of the contribution the 3rd Shock Army’s efforts would make to ‘Uranus’, and not even mentioning ‘Mars’, which he himself would launch just six days later.

There is also a question whether stated aims are always to be taken literally. To ensure that the troops fought hard enough to convince the enemy, they would not be told that they were engaged in a ‘diversion’. Nor was such information withheld only from Soviet junior ranks. Two such instances, one from ‘Mars’, the other from Kursk, can serve to illustrate this. The first is in the memoirs of Marshal of Armoured Forces Babadzhanyan, who participated in ‘Mars’ as a colonel commanding the 3rd Mechanised Brigade of 3rd Mechanised Corps under General M.E. Katukov. At the end of October the corps began to redeploy from Kalinin (now Tver) to positions about 200 miles away, between Rzhev and Velikiye Luki. The move coincided with the autumn rains, the roads became almost impassable, vehicles, when not bogged down, moved at a maximum 10kph, and the corps arrived at its destination in sore need of time to overhaul and repair its equipment. ‘However, they hurried us – not much time had been allocated to prepare for an offensive.’ Babadzhanyan was taken to the commander of the 22nd Army, Lieutenant-General Yushkevich, whose infantry his brigade was to support, and briefed that ‘we are conducting an extremely serious operation – the enemy’s Rzhev salient must be liquidated. The defence must be broken through whatever happens.’ Babadzhanyan went on: ‘Only considerably later did we learn why they rushed us so, not letting us recover our wits after such a difficult march; in the south, at Stalingrad, our forces had gone over to the counter-offensive, and there must be no letting enemy forces be redeployed to the Stalingrad area. There was only one way to pin down enemy forces here – attack.’ Here too action in ‘Mars’ is defended as a contribution to the success of ‘Uranus’, but only as something Babadzhanyan learned after the event; Yushkevich’s briefing of him defined the operation in far more apocalyptic terms.

The implication is that even a brigade commander had no ‘need to know’ what the true objective was, and this interpretation finds support in the third piece of evidence, the memoirs of his corps commander in ‘Mars’, the future Marshal of Armoured Forces M.E. Katukov, promoted after ‘Mars’ to command the 1st Tank Army, which fought at Kursk in July 1943. Katukov wrote that in ordering a counter-attack during the defensive battle there, Vatutin told him ‘advance a kilometre then another, and that’s alright. The main thing is to tie up German forces.’ Katukov continued:

But in setting the task to Corps Commanders, Generals Kravchenko and Burkov, we didn’t confine their attacks to just those 2 kilo metres. On the contrary, we pointed them towards a deeper penetration of the fascist defence. We did this deliberately, taking account of purely psychological factors. If you tell people they are being sent into battle with very limited aims, just to attract the enemy’s attention to themselves, they won’t act as energetically as when it’s up to them to breach the enemy defence with the intention of smashing right through its entire depth.

Here even the two corps commanders who would have to carry out the assignment were deemed to have no ‘need to know’ its true objective, and, like Babadzhanyan, were told that it was more far-reaching than was actually the case.

Operation Mars II

The fourth item of evidence is in the memoirs of Army General A.I. Gribkov, who as a captain on the General Staff took part in ‘Mars’. The corps he was attached to (Solomatin’s) fought for several days in encirclement, and after the remnants of it had managed to break through to the Soviet lines on 15 December, he and the corps commander were immediately taken to Zhukov, who conceded that the corps had suffered heavy losses, but said it had ‘fulfilled its task. The Germans did not venture to remove the tank divisions from your front and send them to Stalingrad.’ Here Zhukov may have been making the best of a bad job, but the view he expressed then is consistent both with what he had told Galitskiy before ‘Mars’ began, and, of course, with what actually happened.

The fifth item relates again to the differing contexts of ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus’. It occurs in the preface Isayev provided to the Russian translation of Dr Glantz’s book, published in 2007. While not taking issue with the main theme of the book, he cites criticisms of ‘Mars’ in the memoirs of General A.I. Radzievsky, who served in it as Chief of Staff of the 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, and who wrote:

The concept of ‘Mars’ consisted of fragmenting the defence in the Rzhev salient area by eight blows of Western and four blows of Kalinin Front, destroying the forces defending it, then emerging into the Smolensk area. Simultaneously Kalinin Front undertook an offensive at Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki with the forces of 3rd Shock Army. Because overall thirteen shock groupings were created, most of them … were small, three–four divisions with a mechanised or tank corps. The multiplicity of blows, more than half of which were for pinning-down, led to dispersion of firepower. Although the artillery density of some groupings reached 70–85 or even 100 guns and mortars per kilometre on the breakthrough-sector, half of them were mortars, which could fire only on the forward positions.

Isayev went on to support Radzievsky’s criticism, noting that the strongest blow at Stalingrad was dealt by a group of mobile forces comprising two tank corps and a cavalry corps, supported by 632 field guns, 297 anti-tank guns and 1,609 mortars, whereas the assault force of the 20th Army in ‘Mars’ comprised only one tank and one cavalry corps, supported by 525 field guns, 175 anti-tank guns and 1,546 mortars. The two points made here are, first there were many blows but none was very strong, and secondly that despite the availability of larger forces the strongest attack mounted in ‘Mars’ was not nearly as strong as its counter part at Stalingrad. Both Radzievsky and Isayev implicitly assume that this resulted from bad planning; apparently neither asked himself why Zhukov and Vasilevsky, who conceived both operations, and who directed their detailed planning, and Stalin, whose approval they received for both, devised such different plans for two operations to be conducted within the same time frame. They opted for ‘Uranus’ to open with three very heavy blows and to seek very quick results. For the first phase five tank corps (1st, 4th and 26th from the north, 4th and 13th from the south) were employed to achieve the encirclement, while elements of six armies (from north to south the 21st, 65th, 24th, 66th, 62nd and 64th) maintained pressure along the existing front line to prevent the Germans disengaging. Encirclement was achieved in four days and extended westwards for another seven, so that by 30 November the new German front line was at minimum about 65 and at maximum 110 kilometres (42–70 miles) from the trapped forces. These major results were achieved in a mere twelve days, but when Galitskiy put forward a plan to achieve a much more modest result in a similar time-period, Zhukov flatly rejected it, and told Galitskiy his main task was not to capture the objective but to pin down enemy forces so that they could not be sent south.

As Radzievsky noted, ‘Mars’ opened with thirteen blows smaller than any in ‘Uranus’, and Isayev confirmed this. However, neither they nor Glantz considered why the same three men who masterminded and controlled both operations planned them so differently. In Isayev’s foreword to Glantz’s book he compared ‘Mars’ with Brusilov’s offensive of 1916, which achieved initial success by ignoring convention and attacking everywhere, then stated that ‘what worked in a limited way against the Austrians in 1916 was completely ineffective against the German Army of 1942; the difference was that the German reserves at Rzhev were motorised or received vehicular transport for transfers from one sector of the front to another…’183 Isayev then argued that ‘Zhukov strongly overestimated the possibilities of the Kalinin and Western fronts’ forces in proposing to carry out after ‘Mars’ a large-scale encirclement of Army Group Centre.’ Two points arise here. First, there is no evidence that any such follow-up to ‘Mars’ ever existed. Secondly, overestimating one’s own forces involves underestimating those of the enemy. Zhukov, preparing his third offensive against the Rzhev salient in eleven months, would hardly be likely to underestimate an enemy against whom both his previous offensives had achieved only limited and costly success. Is it not more likely, especially given what he told Galitskiy, that the conduct of ‘Mars’ as thirteen limited-strength operations was precisely calculated to keep the Germans too busy everywhere to disengage and thereby free forces for the south, but not so overwhelmed anywhere as to compel them to consider abandoning the salient – as noted above, they eventually did so, but too late to affect the situation at Stalingrad. That Soviet casualties in ‘Mars’ were so heavy was mainly due to the deliberate advance warning conveyed via Agent Max, about which Zhukov was not told. Sudoplatov did not say who authorised such an important leak, but in military matters the only higher authority than Zhukov was Stalin himself. Isayev mentions Max not at all, Glantz only briefly, and neither appears to have seen Sudoplatov’s disclosures about Max’s double-agent role and the purpose served by his 4 November message.

Isayev’s comparison of ‘Mars’ with Brusilov’s offensive of 1916 seems strained. There is nothing to suggest that Soviet planning was influenced by it, and if any lesson was drawn from it, it would surely be that too-early success can lead to disaster. Brusilov’s initial successes, achieved in June–August 1916, tempted Romania into declaring war on 27 August and seizing Transylvania from Austria-Hungary. That brought about an instant German riposte, which saw Romania defeated and almost totally occupied by the end of the year, and Russia’s strategic position far worse after than before Brusilov’s successes.

However, Isayev does give some attention to what might have happened if ‘Mars’ had not taken place. He noted that Manstein’s relief attempt was spearheaded by three panzer divisions, the full-strength 6th, transferred from France, and the much under-strength 17th and 23rd. If not ‘tied up’ by ‘Mars’, three more panzer divisions, the 12th, 19th and 20th, could have been added, and with six panzer divisions instead of three, the relief force might have got through. He also noted that postponement of Operation ‘Citadel’ from May to July (usually ascribed mainly to Hitler’s desire to have as many as possible of the new Tiger and Panther tanks) was also due to the time Model needed to restore the combat strength of divisions that had fought in ‘Mars’, and that not all of them could be restored by then. For example, the 1st Panzer Division did not return to the line until the autumn of 1943, the 20th Panzer Division had a combat strength of only 2,837 men on 4 July, the 6th Infantry Division only 3,121 on 2 July,184 both less than half the acceptable minimum for divisions about to fight a major battle.

A few other points in the argument about ‘Mars’ versus ‘Uranus’ merit attention. One is that during the 69 days between Zhukov’s and Vasilevsky’s first formulation of the Stalingrad counter-offensive plan on 12 September and its launching on 19 November, Zhukov spent 43 days in the Stalingrad area, versus only 18 days in Moscow (12–13 September, 3–6, 12–20, 26 and 29–30 October), eight (21–25 and 27–29 October) at the Kalinin Front,185 one of the two allocated to ‘Mars’, and none at all specifically at the other, the Western Front. As noted above, its HQ was close enough to visit from Moscow, but even if he spent half his Moscow days there, the total of 17 ‘Mars’-associated versus 52 ‘Uranus’-associated days still points to ‘Uranus’ as the more important of the two.

Because losses in ‘Mars’ were heavy and the stated objectives not achieved, most Soviet-era accounts, like Zhukov’s own, said little or nothing about it, and the study Grif Sekretnosti Snyat (‘Secret Stamp Removed’, hereafter GSS), an otherwise comprehensive listing of most major Soviet operations, defensive or offensive, with numbers of troops engaged and details of the losses incurred, did not even mention it. Generals who took part in ‘Mars’, such as Getman and Solomatin, truthfully described their difficulties and failures in their memoirs, but, as Dr Glantz rightly pointed out, Soviet-era censorship prevented the full story being told. However, Sudoplatov’s disclosure that the Germans were warned of ‘Mars’ in advance surely means the ‘full story’ would have been withheld even if the operation had been a complete success, for fear of incidentally disclosing the fact that the many thousands killed in it had been deliberately sacrificed to ensure the success of ‘Uranus’. Zhukov’s counterfactual references probably reflected his chagrin at its relative failure, contrasted with the successes achieved by his lower-profile colleague Vasilevsky and his former superior Rokossovsky at Stalingrad. However, none of this justifies contending either that ‘Mars’ was the winter’s main operation, or that it was of equal status with ‘Uranus’, or that this was subsequently concealed merely because ‘Uranus’ succeeded and ‘Mars’ did not.

The argument also rests on some other factors susceptible to explanations different from those offered. It is true that the 1.89 million troops, 3,375 tanks and huge numbers of guns and aircraft of the Kalinin and Western Fronts were much more than the 1.14 million men and 1,463 tanks available to the three Fronts (Don, Stalingrad and South-West) conducting ‘Uranus’, but it would surely be surprising if it were not so. Behind the Kalinin and Western Fronts was Moscow, the most important target in the country, and in front of them was Army Group Centre, the most powerful of the invading forces. The totals cited also included the manpower and weapons of the Moscow Defence Zone, which took no part in ‘Mars’, and suffered only 376 combat deaths in the whole of 1942.

Though the German offensive plan for 1942 did not even mention Moscow, the Soviet General Staff’s assessment of tasks for that summer (presumably influenced by the German deception campaign) defined four axes as under threat, and defence of the Moscow axis as the most important task. So if Zhukov believed the key to victory must be the destruction of Army Group Centre, he was not alone. Deception campaigns by both sides also played their part. In 1942 the Germans for long prevented Soviet reserves from being sent south by conducting Operation ‘Kremlin’, suggesting Moscow was their real target, and the Soviets, through Max, leaked information on ‘Mars’, including the fact that Zhukov would be in command. The German defeats at his hands at Leningrad and Moscow, the narrow margin by which they had survived his second offensive at Rzhev, in July–August 1942, and Stalin’s appointment of him as Deputy Supreme Commander in August would all naturally induce them to view, as the Soviet planners meant them to, any operation he headed as more important than one conducted by the far less prominent Vasilevsky.

It would also seem axiomatic that when a disinformation campaign mentions four out of five planned offensives, the one it does not mention must be the most important. There are also three problems with Glantz’s table that allocates 56 infantry divisions to ‘Mars’ and the hypothetical follow-up operation, ‘Jupiter’, versus 52 to ‘Uranus/Saturn’. The first problem is that since ‘Saturn’ (modified as ‘Little Saturn’) took place but ‘Jupiter’ did not (there is no positive evidence that it even existed, as Dr Glantz admitted),188 the 19 divisions and 5 tank corps claimed as allocated to it should be deducted, leaving the total involved in ‘Mars’ at 37 divisions and 6 tank corps – not much more than the 30 German divisions manning the Rzhev salient. The second problem is that although the 66th and 2nd Guards Armies are mentioned as supporting ‘Uranus’, they are not included in the totals of forces allocated to it. Each had six divisions, and the 66th Army was in action from the very first day of ‘Uranus’, while the 2nd Guards was sent from reserve in early December and dispatched to the Myshkova river to repel Manstein’s attempt to relieve Stalingrad. It is hard to see why twelve divisions that saw a great deal of action in ‘Uranus/Saturn’ are excluded from the totals for it, while nineteen divisions that saw no action at all are included in those for ‘Mars/Jupiter’. The third problem is that Grif Sekretnosti Snyat189 lists the Stalingrad offensive operation as involving not 52 divisions but 74, far more than the 56 allegedly allocated to ‘Mars and Jupiter’, and double the 37 listed as specifically allotted to ‘Mars’.

Dr Glantz also assessed Soviet casualties in ‘Mars’ as about 335,000 (100,000 killed, captured or missing, 235,000 wounded). However, to his credit he also included figures given by General Krivosheyev, the chief editor of Grif Sekretnosti Snyat, in a letter to a western publisher, of 215,674 casualties (70,374 dead/missing, 145,300 wounded). Even these lower figures confirm that ‘Mars’ was extremely costly; of the 43 major Soviet operations tabulated in Grif Sekretnosti Snyat, only eight had higher daily average losses than ‘Mars’, and its average of 8,295 compares badly with the 6,392 a day of the highly successful offensives at Stalingrad. However, operations there lasted 76 days, three times as long as ‘Mars’, so actual losses, 485,777 (154,885 dead/missing, 330,892 wounded) were over double those of ‘Mars’. The figures also indirectly confirm Isayev’s contention that the sacrifices in ‘Mars’ did contribute to the success of ‘Uranus’ and ‘Little Saturn’. If Hitler had yielded to Zeitzler’s urging at the beginning of December instead of the end of January, a large proportion of the 22 divisions freed by abandoning the Rzhev salient could have been sent south, some to reinforce Manstein’s relief attempt, others to ‘corset’ the Italians and Hungarians against ‘Little Saturn’.

Army General Mahmut Gareyev, in 1942 a junior officer in ‘Mars’, wrote that throughout the operation he and his colleagues cursed the Supreme Command for the disparity between the objectives set and the resources provided. Many unit diaries and reports cited in studies of ‘Mars’ confirm this complaint by mentioning shortages or complete lack of ammunition, food, fuel and forage. Also the postulation of the existence of Operation ‘Jupiter’ is based solely on reports of a major build-up of forces in the Soviet 5th and 33rd Army sectors during October – November. If ‘Mars’ was really the main offensive, it would seem logical for Zhukov to have committed some or all of those forces when it was seen to be faltering, as he had done at Leningrad and Moscow in the previous year. There are only two possible explanations for his abstention: either that he wanted to use them but Stalin overruled him, or that he never intended to use them. Neither is consistent with the argument that ‘Mars’ was the main or equal-main operation and ‘Jupiter’ meant to follow it, and that he never intended to use them seems more likely from a passage in his memoirs. He wrote that when the Western Front’s attacks failed to achieve their objectives, Stalin sent him to Konev’s headquarters, and there he concluded ‘to repeat the operation was pointless. The enemy had guessed our intention and was able to bring substantial forces into the area from other sectors.’ That supports Sudoplatov’s statement that Zhukov was never told of the deliberate leaks that had been made through Max.

‘Mars’ was terminated on 20 December, either because it was a costly failure, or because it was no longer needed, or a combination of both. All three cases are tenable, but on balance the last seems most justifiable. Manstein’s attempt to have Hoth break through to Stalingrad, begun on 12 December, was stalled for three days at Verkhne-Kumsky, and when it reached the Myshkova river, the 2nd Guards Army was already taking up blocking positions on the north bank. Further west Operation ‘Little Saturn’, launched on 16 December, had ripped through the Italian 8th Army in two days. By the 19th Soviet forces had captured the main bases and supply dumps at Kantemirovka, and were about to take the airfields at Tatsinskaya and Morozovskaya, the western termini of the air supply route to Stalingrad. By then Soviet Intelligence must have worked out, from the observed frequency of flights and known maximum payloads of the aircraft, that the airlift was proving totally inadequate to meet even the minimal requirements of 22 divisions and that the need to use airfields further west would reduce its capacity even more. ‘Mars’ could be called off because by 20 December it was proving both costly and unnecessary. That equates to partial, but by no means total, failure.

A further point concerns objectives. Certainly German losses in ‘Mars’ were far fewer than the Soviets’, but Germany was much less able to replace them. Galitskiy’s capture of Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki in late January created a new threat to the Demyansk and Rzhev salients that Army Groups North and Centre obviously lacked the resources to eliminate. As noted above, during February–March 1943 they abandoned both salients, thereby shortening the front line by at least 250 miles. This reduced Stavka’s and Stalin’s concern about threats to Moscow and Leningrad, and also shortened the Soviet front line by the same amount, enabling some divisions to be moved to reinforce weak sectors and others to be withdrawn to recuperate, replace battle losses and train for the summer offensive. The Red Army may even have benefited as much from the move as the Germans did. Incidentally, when in the previous year the two army group commanders-in-chief had sought permission to abandon both salients, Hitler had refused on the grounds that the withdrawals would also shorten the Soviets’ front line and release reserves. So if ‘Mars’ was a diversion, it was a success, though an expensive one; if in tended as more, it was a partial failure, but the balance of evidence does not support the view that it was meant to be either equal to or more important than ‘Uranus’. Marginal to the argument, but perhaps a pointer to Stalin’s assessment of success and failure, is that on 18 January 1943 he promoted Zhukov to (5-star) marshal, and Vasilevsky to (4-star) army general. Then in March, after the Germans completed their withdrawal from the salients, he had the rank of marshal conferred on himself. This was purely symbolic; he already had all the power he needed, as head of the Party and government and Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but the timing was significant, marking the final removal of the most direct potential threat to Moscow, though not of residual fear for its safety, which, as will be seen, even affected planning for Kursk, and identifying himself with the success achieved by the hitherto distrusted military professionals.

There remains, of course, a possibility that Zhukov covertly hoped to make ‘Mars’ more than a diversion, and that his cavalier and misleading treatment of it in his memoirs reflects his chagrin at its outcome.

It is unlikely that Zhukov would readily play second-fiddle to Vasilevsky, whatever the official status of ‘Mars’ relative to ‘Uranus’. It was in his nature to drive at and for maximum intensity. However, that makes his remarks to Galitskiy, and his organisation of ‘Mars’ as a large number of small blows rather than a small number of large ones, out of character, and explainable only, as suggested above, by his perceiving a need to avoid, at least in the early stages, pressing the Germans to the point where they would abandon either or both salients. That Stalin did not consider Zhukov’s conduct of ‘Mars’ a failure was evident not only from his promoting him, but from where he sent him after it was called off. From 2 to 9 January Zhukov was at Voronezh Front, then on 10 January he was sent to Leningrad, and stayed there until the 24th, overseeing Operation ‘Iskra’ (‘Spark’), which restored the city’s connection to the ‘mainland’ along the south shore of Lake Ladoga. After two weeks in Moscow his next assignment was to the North-West Front, from 6 February to 16 March, overseeing the unsuccessful ‘Polar Star’ and the liquidation of the Demyansk salient, before Stalin sent him to solve the problems Manstein’s successful offensive had created for the Voronezh Front. So for almost all the first three months of 1943 he was busy overseeing operations against Army Groups North and South. These activities are not consistent with Dr Glantz’s contention that throughout January and February Zhukov was arguing about the decisive importance of beating Army Group Centre.

At worst Zhukov can be said to have pushed ‘Mars’ harder and longer than a diversion required, and incurred larger than necessary losses partly because he did so, but, more importantly, because, unknown to him, the Germans had been deliberately forewarned. Stalin set the limits to what Zhukov could achieve, deciding not only where to send him, but also what reserves and reinforcements to give him, and Stalin decided the fate of ‘Mars’ well before it was mounted, basically on the grounds that more Germans killing Soviet troops at Rzhev meant fewer killing them at Stalingrad. That cold-blooded pragmatic judgement was soon to be confirmed by events.

As a result of the Stalingrad debacle the Germans and their Axis allies lost fifty divisions and suffered 1.5 million casualties. By early 1943 the Wehrmacht had been driven back to the positions they had started from when they launched Operation Blau in June 1942. The Red Army’s losses were even higher, with 2.5 million casualties sustained during the course of the Stalingrad campaign. As a follow-up to Stalingrad, Stavka attempted another full-scale winter offensive. Voronezh was recaptured in January 1943 and Kharkov in February, but the Red Army was unable to hold the latter when the Germans counterattacked. By this time Soviet operations along the front were grinding to a halt as the spring Rasputitsa set in.

Zveno Aircraft and Developments

The complete sequence of Zveno developments (not all were tried).

In 1930 Vakhmistrov suggested that a cheap glider might be used as an aerial gunnery target, and he quickly perfected a way of carrying such a glider above the upper wing of an R-l reconnaissance aircraft and releasing it in flight. This gave Vakhmistrov the idea of using a large aircraft to carry a small one on long-range flights over hostile territory. The small aircraft could either be fighters to protect a large bomber, or bomb-carrying attack aircraft or camera-carrying fast reconnaissance aircraft which could make a pass over a target while the parent aircraft stood off at a safe distance. In each case the difficult part was hooking on again for the long flight home. After presenting the WS and LII management with calculations Vakhmistrov received permission to try out his idea. This led to a succession of Zveno (link) combinations:

Z-1 This featured a twin-engined Tupolev TB-1 bomber carrying a Tupolev I-4 fighter above each wing. The fighters were of the I-4Z version, three of which were converted for these experiments with short stub lower wings and attachment locks on the landing gear and under the rear fuselage. The bomber was provided with attachments for the Zveno aircraft above each wing: two small pyramids for the landing gear and a large tripod for the rearfuselage attachment.

The first flight took place from Monino on 3rd December 1931. The TB-1 was flown by AI Zalevskii and A R Sharapov, with Vakhmistrov as observer. The fighters, with ski landing gears, were flown by V P Chkalov and A S Anisimov. The take-off was made with the fighter engines at full power. The TB-1 co-pilot forgot the release sequence and released Chkalov’s axle before releasing the aft attachment, but Chkalov reacted instantly and released the rear lock as the fighter reared nose-up. The second fighter was released correctly. For a few seconds the TB-1 flew with no tendency to roll with an I-4Z on one wing.

Z-1a First flown in September 1933, this comprised the TB-1 carrying two Polikarpov I-5 fighters. The latter were fitted with a reinforcing plate under the rear fuselage carrying the rear holddown, but had no special designation. The pilots were P M Stefanovskii (TB-1) and I F Grodz’ and V K Kokkinaki (I-5).

Z-2 This was the first of the more ambitious hookups using a TB-3 as parent aircraft. The bomber was an early TB-3/4 M-l 7, and it was given attachments for an I-5 above each wing and a third above the fuselage with its wheels on a special flat platform. On the first test in August 1934 the TB-3 was flown by Zalevskii and the fighters by T P Suzi, S P Suprun and T T Al’tnov.

Z-3 This combination would have hung a Grigorovich I-Z monoplane fighter under each wing of the TB-3. It was not flown.

Z-4 No information.

Z-5 This was the first attempt to hook back on. The parent aircraft was again the TB-3/4 M-l 7, and the fighter was an I-Z fitted with a large suspension superstructure of steel tubes, plus a curved upper guide rail terminating in a sprung hook releasable by the pilot (almost identical to the arrangement used on the airship- borne US Navy F9C Sparrowhawks). This was designed to hook on a large steel-tube trapeze under the bomber, which was folded up for take-off and landing. V A Stepanchyonok flew the I-Z on several tests with the bomber flown as straight and level as possible by Stefanovskii. The first hook-on took place on 23rd March 1935; this was a world first.

Z-6 The final combination of the original series was the mating of two I-16 monoplane fighters hung under the wings of the TB-3. The fighters were provided with local reinforcement above the wings to enable them to be hung from sliding horizontal spigots on large tripod links of streamlined light-alloy tube pin-jointed to the bomber’s wing structure. Bracing struts linked the bomber to a latch above the fighter’s rear fuselage, and one of the fighters (M-25A-engined No 0440) was photographed with a lightweight pylon above the forward fuselage to pick up under the bomber’s wing. The first test took place in August 1935; Stefanovskii flew the TB-3 and the fighter pilots were K K Budakov and AI Nikashin.


Named ‘mother aircraft’, this amazing test, not part of the original plan, took place in November 1935. The TB-3/4M-17 took off from Monino with an I-5 above each wing and an I-16 below each wing. At altitude it folded down the under-fuselage trapeze and Stepanchenok hooked on the I-Z, making a combination of six aircraft of four types all locked together. After several passes all the fighters released simultaneously. By this time Vakhmistrov had schemes for up to eight fighters of later types all to be carried by large aircraft such as the full-scale VS-2 tailless bomber projected by Kalinin. Instead Stalin’s ‘terror’ caused the whole effort to wither, but there were still to be further developments.

SPB (Russian initials for fast dive bomber) This was a special version of the Polikarpov I-16 equipped with a rack to carry an FAB-250 (bomb of 250kg, 551 Ib) under each wing. Such an aircraft could not have safely taken off from the ground. In 1937 a later TB-3/4AM- 34RN was made available, and two SPB aircraft were hung under its wings. The first test took place on 12th July 1937, the TB-3 being flown by Stefanovskii and the dive bombers by A S Nikolayev and IA Taborovskii.

Z-7 In November 1939 one final combination was flown: the TB-3/4AM-34RN took off with an I- 16 under each wing and a third hooked under the fuselage in flight (with severe difficulty). The I-16 pilots were Stefanovskii, Nyukhtikov and Suprun. In early 1940 the WS decided to form a Zveno combat unit. Based at Yevpatoriya, this was equipped with six modified TB-3/4AM- 34RN and 12 SPB dive bombers. During the Great Patriotic War a famous mission was flown on 25th August 1941 which destroyed the Danube Bridge at Chernovody in Romania, on the main rail link to Constanta. Surviving SPBs flew missions in the Crimea.


The MS-1 (Maliy Soprovozhdyeniya-Pierviy: First Small Support Vehicle) or T-18 had its origins in a three-year plan drawn up in 1926 to produce a number of tanks to provide close support to infantry whilst breaking through enemy defences. A number of foreign designs were considered by the Red Army in order to speed design and production. Initial studies favoured the adoption of the Italian FIAT-3000 over the French Renault FT, or its Soviet modified variant the KS-1, because of its lower weight and relatively high speed. The accuracy and weight of the FTKS tanks was considered inadequate, and so too was the overall poor quality of the workmanship.

The first prototype was built by the Bolshevik Factory and was ready for trials in March 1927. Designated T-16, it performed adequately, but a number of improvements were recommended, including the addition of another road wheel and alterations to the transmission. Final tests on the new model were conducted in mid-1927, with the vehicle re-designated as Small Support Tank Model 1927, or T-18. Lack of a gun led to concentration on road tests, during which the T-18 was judged to have performed effectively and it was afterwards recommended for service. The Red Army ordered 108 vehicles to be built between 1928 and 1929, and the first 30 were available to take place in the 7 November 1929 Moscow and Leningrad parades celebrating the revolution.

However, production of the tanks had been difficult because of lack of facilities at the Bolshevik Factory to manufacture certain components, such as ball-bearings and carburettors. Eventually the required parts had to be imported, but even then the tanks delivered to the army were plagued with technical difficulties. Later field tests in 1929 revealed that the T-18 had problems in crossing trenches. This was rectified when the commander of the Leningrad Region Armoured Force ordered the fitting of a second tail at the front. The appearance of the tank with its iron struts at the front earned it the nickname Nosorog (Rhinoceros).

Although the T-18 remained in production until the end of 1931, as early as July 1927 the Revolutionary Military Council had stated that it was unsuitable for the conditions of modern combat, and consequently it was to remain in service only until a successor was available. In line with this, several modifications were undertaken to the T-18 as a stopgap. There was some discussion about replacing the copied French Hotchkiss 37mm (1.46in) gun with a new, high-velocity version, but nothing was done. The turret was extensively re-designed in order to create space for a radio, although not all tanks received radio.

The most important changes involved measures to increase the T-18 ‘s speed and mobility. The engine’s power was increased to 29kW (40bhp) and a new gearbox and cast wheel drive were introduced. However, these measures failed to significantly increase the tank’s overall performance, and later programmes to update theT-18’s running gear in 1933 and in 1938 also failed to achieve any improvement in performance.


Despite the unfavourable opinion expressed about the T-18 soon after its acceptance by the Red Army, over 989 were produced between 1928 and 1931, and they saw successful, if limited, combat service, fulfilling their role of direct support to the infantry. In 1929, nine T-18 tanks saw action in the Far East in border clashes with Chinese forces. In one engagement, eight T-18s supported the attack of the 106th and 108th rifle regiments against Chinese forces dug in around Dzhalaynor Station. In one attack, the infantry advanced behind the cover of the T-18s against Chinese positions. The tank crews operated with skill, providing fire support with their guns as well. A later attack was less successful because the tanks initially couldn’t cross an antitank ditch. Later several vehicles managed to get into the enemy lines, sweeping them with concentrated fire.

By the time of the outbreak of war with Germany in June 1941, few T-18s were left in running order. In 1938 over 700 were ordered to be re-armed and used as mobile firing points in the fortified regions along the borders with Poland and Romania. Some T-18s did see action during the opening days of the war with IX Mechanized Corps during the large tank battle in the Rovno-Broda-Lutsk area. However, these had been deployed almost randomly in a desperate attempt to replace the massive losses suffered amongst the corps’ more modern BT and T-26 tanks during the previous weeks’ fighting.

The formation of the GUVP.

During 1923 the problems associated with the design and construction of tanks were now studied by the GUVP (Glavno Upravleniy Voermoy Promishlennosti- the Main Department of War Industry). This department laid down the following programme:

a. To carry out all systematic trials possible in the economically undeveloped Soviet Union.

b. To produce equipment for training tank personnel.

c. To study tank technology.

d. To design and test new experimental tank models.

In undertaking this programme, the GUVP was also responsible for organizing the necessary equipment for the industries concerned, as well as the training of personnel for tank units. Within the framework of the GUVP, on 6 May 1924, a tank-technical bureau was set up to carry out an analysis of the tank warfare employed during World War I.

GUVP design investigations.

Throughout this period, the GUVP had undertaken a project for a new tank based on the analysis of World War I experiences. By May 1925 an 80 ton tank was in the process of construction at AMO (in the Tank and Armoured Car Department). This vehicle had overall tracks similar to the British Mk V `Ricardo’, but with a large turret and no sponsons. The tank was to carry 10 men and to be armed with two 75 mm guns and four machine-guns. The armour varied between 12 and 40 mm. Bibergan wrote:

The basic design was orientated around the `Ricardo’ engine, which was fairly cheap and available abroad. This engine was fitted in all Mk V tanks. However, it made the vehicle configuration too high. Added to this, it did not satisfy the basic requirement- power, for example, of 1 hp for every 12 kg. The profile of the tracks resembled an ellipse. Not entirely adequate was the comfort of the crew. The authorities seemed to have been carried away by foreign technical trends. … A cupola stroboscope was evaluated, with vertical slits in the sides. This cupola was rotated by a special motor, allowing constant vision. Experience, however, showed it. to be inadequate. In building this tank we were primarily concerned with the problems of decreasing noise.

Being based upon the Great War tank designs, this vehicle was suited purely for the trench-war concept, and therefore did not coincide with the new Soviet strategic role for cavalry. It was abandoned before completion. Another similar tank project was under consideration and a prototype is believed to have been completed. Designated TG-5 (T-42), the tank was basically a mobile fortress and is stated to have weighed 100 tons. It was armed with either a 105 mm or a 6 inch howitzer, two 37 mm guns, and several machine-guns (including two for anti-aircraft use). With an armour basis of nearly 3 inches, it was manned by a crew of from 8 to 10 men and could achieve a speed of 25 mph. Due to a decision to halt the development of tank types used during the World War no further work on superheavy tank types was undertaken.

The GUVP tank programme. The exact policy adopted by the Technical Bureau of the GUVP was laid down during the session of the bureau at the beginning of 1925

i. Note, that the tank provides a powerful means of supporting infantry and of obtaining a breakthrough, with the necessary support of artillery, and also that, in addition to its firepower, it provides a means of destruction, laying a road in the path of its advance. It is vital then, to fill the gap immediately and provide our army with this means of combat.

ii. The tank represents a special combat machine, and so the organization of tank design and construction should be undertaken as an independent task.

iii. The next consideration, for the system of manufacture, appears to be the design, construction and testing of the principal components in modern tank technology, such as: engines, armament, suspension, armour, and methods of gas protection.

iv. In order to carry out these tasks the GUVP should form a `Tank-Staff’ Group. . . .

v. In parallel with the study of the design of basic components, there should be undertaken a special study of supervision, liaison and command. On these bases should be considered: the necessity for the GUVP to speed up development work and the organization of tank design . . . with the selection of a permanent tank-staff group within the construction bureau and the scientific-technical council of the GUVP, for continuing the design and development of tank technology and ensuring subsequent production . . . all investigations and solutions being carried out in this country.

Bibergan wrote:

Such was the policy which guided our home tank industry during 1924-5. Owing to incorrect assumptions, and the abundance of tank projects, our tank development was delayed for a long time. Up until 1929, our basic tank was one designed in 1920- the `Russkiy Renault’. Only in 1929, when we began to carry out the First Five-Year Plan and our industry matured- not by days, but by hours-did we have a basic home tank industry. The leader of the nation, Comrade Stalin, became personally involved in the problems of tank design and put us on the right road. . .